May in Vietnam
Vietnam — Student VolunteeringUniterra
It’s midnight and I’m sitting on the rooftop of my little yellow apartment complex in Saigon that still feels like a treat every time I climb up. I can hear an automated voice on loop in the distance that has become standard in my everyday Saigon background soundtrack, but which I’ve only recently figured out what it is. Most times it’s a little recorded advertising loop that plays out of an unknown spot somewhere out of the passing bike carts selling baking or food, usually driven by a stern faced Vietnamese woman. It really is bizarre to process this whole scene the first time: you hear someone yelling, then you look and realize it’s some lady selling something out of a bike, your eyes go to her lips and realize that the monotone voice listing the items for sale isn’t coming from her at all but instead some bizarre, assertive recorded voice. This is Saigon, lots of straight faces but simultaneously, somehow, still lots of yelling.
It’s been about a month in Vietnam, and being here doesn’t feel how I expected it to feel. I’ve become familiar enough with travelling as well as my own idealistic-dreamy tendencies enough that I expected it not to feel how I expected it to feel. That’s one of the things that brings me to travelling. The spectrum of planning and imagining a trip is a trip in itself. It begins with a little excited feeling in the gut that’s almost sickening in its hyperactivity, something that is bouncing off the walls of your stomach so obnoxiously that you need to make solid plans to satisfy it. It settles down in to a gentle buzz once you show it things like plane tickets and hotel pictures. But the thing about travelling is that no matter how many differently angled pictures you’ve been pouring over of the coffeeshop near your new job on Google, it never is what you expect it to be. The streets will always look different than you imagined. You can’t predict the way the air is going to feel on your skin no matter how closely you’ve been monitoring the temperature online in the weeks ahead. And that may sound disappointing, but if you embrace it, it actually feels nice.
The place you plan to visit and the place you actually visit will never be the same, but they’ll both be wonderful, and if you’re lucky the latter will be better. I like travelling because I can’t control it, I can’t obsessively plan what I’ll get out of it, but it always ends up right. Going somewhere else always does something for me that I couldn’t do for myself. So I throw myself in buses and planes as much as I can because I have learned to have a sense of faith in the nature of it. This time I also knew I was throwing myself in to something where I’d hopefully be somehow doing small amounts of good each day, towards some ultimate greater collective impact with WUSC/Uniterra. Being here and working with a nonprofit has illuminated how (sometimes painfully) slow and small progress is when you’re trying to make tangible change. But the calm attitudes of patience and perseverance that the people I work with maintain despite the most challenging circumstances really inspire me to keep exerting little pushes towards the ultimate goal of international development in my own way.
Living in Vietnam has been a sensory experience. The wet heat weighs down on you in a
way that makes it so that you’re a little bit asleep at all times, but you’re kept awake by these little involuntary sensory jolts. Walking anywhere includes dodging motorbikes, hanging wires, vulgar looking meats, sometimes cockroaches, sometimes empty pho bowls, often catcalls in Vietnamese, all while trying not to trip on the mishmashed “sidewalks” (if you’re lucky to have a sidewalk at all). You can’t really be too caught up in your own head in Vietnam, which is a bit hard for me, but so far I’m all in one piece. I don’t really know how to explain it in a way that does it justice, but I have a few little snippets to string together so far.
- A never ending sea of graphic t-shirts with creatively translated English that just makes ya think, i.e. “Life begins when selfie ends”
- Lots of elderly ladies clucking at me and grabbing my arm, helping me cross the street, doing my laundry, picking out fruit at the market, etc. (and never knowing how to properly thank them)
- Cute things going by on motorcycles: A girl braiding her friend’s hair, a puppy butt hanging off someone’s lap
- At the supermarket: every lotion, deodorant, body wash, face wash or mask, basically anything that comes in to contact with skin tacks on “pearly white”, “extra white”, “brilliantly whitening”
- Buddhist temples or christian churches with brilliantly flashing neon fixtures that stun you at night, which may feel inappropriate at first but soon become appropriate and even beautiful
- Riding on a motorcycle in the pouring rain while the street floods beneath me and sometimes up to my knees
- The guy at the coffeeshop instantly smiling, “black coffeeeeee!!! takeaway!!!
- Hearing pitchy, bellowing, very sincere karaoke through apartment walls late at night
- Chili sauce on the table of every restaurant without having to ask
- Being unknowingly set up with everyone’s son, cousin, nephew
- The first ultimate Vietnam realization, which is when you realize you could buy 6 bowls of pho for the price of one back home
I love it in a way that I couldn’t predict.