The warm air of the night was countered by the wind that billowed against my t-shirt, as we sped down the highway on a motorbike. All around us were the chirps and toots from the traffic, horns and indicators blaring out into the night. There was the odd car or bus, but the majority of vehicles on the road were other motorcycles. In Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as its known to the locals, motorcycles rein supreme. They fill the streets, they clutter the sidewalks, and you can’t walk fifty metres without an old man waving his hands lividly in the air at you, screaming “Motorbike! Motorbike!” in an attempt to attract your patronage so they can drive you to your destination for a fee. It really was a strange moment for me, whose mother has such a vehement opposition to motorcycles that I’d probably get cut off from the family should I ever attempt purchase my own, to see hordes of them flooding the streets in a way that just seems so normal and commonplace.
“You want to ride the motorbike?” my driver had shouted to me over the roar of the wind in my ears. I let out a short, sarcastic “Ha!” at the very idea.
“Come on, it’s easy,” he tried persuading me again. Driving a motorbike was one thing, but the traffic in this city was just as reckless as the streets of Bangkok – in the “You have to know the city extremely well to avoid certain death” kind of way – and I don’t think even the most expensive insurance premium would cover the driving of someone like me in a place like this. So I just laughed again, a little more genuinely this time, and shook my head.
My first 24 hours in Vietnam would prove to be a ‘rinse and repeat’ in the culture shock process, but to explain it properly, I have to take it back to the beginning…
After landing in Ho Chi Minh City airport and dealing with the various visa and customs issues, I exited the airport into a heat that closely rivalled Thailand, and made my way to the bus terminal. My stay in Vietnam was to mark another of my many ‘firsts’ on this adventure – my first experience of being a Couchsurfer. For those not in the know, Couchsurfing is an online community that connects travellers from all over the world with people in cities all over the world that are able to host them, and provide a place for the travellers to stay while they’re in their city. The philosophy behind it is cheap accommodation when seeing the world, and at the same time creating global connections and friendships. Vietnam was to be the first country I was staying in where I didn’t have any contacts at all, let alone friends to stay with, so I figured it might be a good opportunity to take part in the Couchsurfing phenomenon that is taking on the travelling world. While I was in Bangkok I’d put a message into a subgroup created specifically for queer Couchsurfers – because sometimes it’s just nice to be around fellow friends of Dorothy – and after a few days I had a reply from a 22-year-old Vietnamese guy living in Ho Chi Minh City. We discussed the issue some, and he offered me a place on his couch.
However, he wasn’t able to meet me at the airport, and so gave me instructions on which bus to catch, and a time and place for us to meet. This involved me catching a public bus – something I was yet to do in South East Asia. As the bus rattled out of the airport and towards the city, I noticed a group of three girls sitting across the aisle of the bus from me, looking at me and whispering among themselves. Well… I assume they were talking, but I couldn’t see their mouths since they were covered by face masks. They’re the kind that doctors and medical professionals wear during operations, or that people in the street wear when they’re afraid of bird or swine flu – and suddenly I thought I may have missed some vital health information. I was later told there wasn’t too much to worry about, and that a lot of girls were just shy and wore them to hide their faces… Okay then.
I didn’t think much of it, until one of the girls reached out and passed me her phone. It was an iPhone opened to compose a new message, and in the typing section she had written ‘Where you from?, I smiled, passed the phone back and said I was from Australia. After a few moments she passed it back ‘What you do?’. I smiled again, amused by the exchange, and replied “I’m travelling.” The girl looked at me, perplexed, then back at her friends. Then back to me. Then back to her friends. Maybe I had overestimated their English? I took the phone from her and wrote ‘travelling’. She took the phone back, and I noticed the girls regrouping around another phone, perhaps for translation purposes. This exchange continued for the remainder of the trip, where they asked me where I was going, if I was alone, what I studied back home, and finally: ‘do you play facebook?’. I said I did, and gave them my Facebook name. ‘See you in facebook!’ was the last message I read. I hopped off the bus at the final stop, equal parts amused and confused.
The place where I was meeting my host was close by and I found it easily enough, and soon we were getting to know each other and chatting away. My host had previously spent time studying in Sydney – at the same university that I attended, as it would happen – and so we had a surprisingly large amount of common ground to cover. Then it came time to travel to my hosts house – knowing I had a large bag, he hadn’t brought his motorbike, so we caught another bus. Where I had stayed while I was in Bangkok was rather close to the major parts of the city, but after 45 minutes on this bus, watching the city scenery pass and eventually dwindle into the suburbs, I realised that my location in Ho Chi Minh City wouldn’t be quite so central. As we descended into the outer suburbs, out of the tourists areas and into the domain of the locals, it became clear I was going to get a very authentic Vietnamese experience.
I didn’t really have any definite expectations, but it was certainly a bit of a shock when we alighted from the bus. The city was well and truly gone, and all around us were either stretching roads full of buses and bikes, or narrow roads that forked off in twisting alleys and concrete walkways. We travelled through the dingy labyrinth until we got to my hosts house, where I made a few other unexpected discoveries: my host still lived with his parents, so I was staying with a family, and the ‘couch’ was actually a mattress, which I would be sharing with my host, in a room he told me he shared with his brother. The bedroom didn’t have a door, something that my host told me his parents did not allow. As we got chatting about it more, I learnt a whole heap of other things about Asian culture that were considered quite strange by my standards, but were completely normal for him. Though he had been to Australia before and understood the common practices and standards of living there, so I think he understood some of my confusion. They were quite middle-class living conditions for Vietnam, but that’s still very different from middle-class Sydney.
After I’d settled in, my host took me around the city on his motorbike, pointing out various attractions in the city centre, showing me his university where he studied, and took me to some truly local places to eat – the menus were entirely in Vietnamese, and had I come alone, I would not have had the faintest idea what anything on the menu was (besides ‘soda’, ‘Coke’ and ‘Sprite’). It was a great way to see the city from a locals point of view, and I am truly thankful for the experience and for the generosity of my host. However, the living arrangements weren’t exactly ideal. Sharing a bed is tough for me at the best of times, and the distance to and from the city meant it wouldn’t exactly be easy for me to get around without relying on someone else and their motorbike (I was not going to accept the offer to ride it by myself). So in the morning I headed off into the city, with a hand drawn map by my host, and found a hostel in the backpacker district to stay at for the remainder of my time in Saigon.
The rest of my afternoon was to be taken up by a highly recommended and fairly popular tourist attraction – the War Remnants Museum. My knowledge of the Vietnam War basically comprised of pop culture references and the part of the Australian History syllabus that addressed the topic and Australia’s involvement in it. I knew about the stigma attached to the soldiers and the war crimes they were accused of committing, but as a 15-year-old reading a slide from an overhead projector, the true meanings behind all of this never really sunk in.
So I wasn’t expecting my trip to the museum to be so mentally and emotionally exhausting. The exhibit that particularly broke my heart was the galley titled ‘Victims of Agent Orange’. Agent Orange was a powerful dioxin that was used by the USA in biochemical warfare during the Vietnam War. It poisoned millions of Vietnamese people, but some of the most devastating impacts come from second-hand contamination – babies born with all sorts of horrific birth defects as a result of their parents being infected by Agent Orange. Seeing these images and reading their stories was such an intense experience – it took everything I had to blink back tears and not have a moment in the middle of the museum. The fact that many of these people do their best to live ordinary lives despite their crippling deformities just makes their stories even more amazing and inspiring. I thought about taking some photos of these powerful images, but I decided my poor photography would not do them justice to the incredible way that they affected me. But I urge anyone who visits Ho Chi Minh City to take the time to see this museum – it gave me a thorough schooling on what it’s like to feel compassion and empathy, and to be thankful for what you have. After viewing more galleries about war crimes, historical truths, and a photographic history of the Vietnam War, I left the museum feeling a little overwhelmed. I’ve long considered myself a pacifist, and seeing such shocking displays of the horrors of what seemed to be such a pointless war firmly re-cemented my position.
My first 24 hours really forced me to reevaluate some of the priorities in my life, both past and present – my future is just a big messy ball of ‘unknown’ that I’m not prepared to tackle right now. But I feel a little bad about the way I reacted to the Couchsurfing experience, simply because it hadn’t been what I had expected or of a standard I was used to. People make do with a lot less, and here I am complaining about not having my own room and/or bed. And to think that I ever felt that my life back in Australia was lacking or incomplete in any sort of way just seems completely laughable now. You really don’t realise that kind of thing until you step outside of your comfort zone and experience something that you would have otherwise never come into contact with. I know that no ones life is ever “perfect” or “complete”, and that you can always strive to do better, but this kind of experience really highlights how pointless and deconstructive complaining about it can be.
I don’t want to get all preachy or anything though, so I’ll just settle for saying that each and every day of this adventure is opening my eyes wider and wider to the incredible, immense, diverse and ever-changing world world around me.