Vietnam: The Arrival

It’s really easy to get caught up in visions of international travel that are more fit for cinema than real life. You know what I mean. You might see yourself on the bow of a ship, the wind whipping through your hair as waves splash the hull – and there’s a crescendo of music before cutting away to a view from above, of that same ship crossing emerald blue waters that border some dramatic cliffs or mountains of ice. Sure. Sometimes it’s like that.

But what we tend to forget is that in order to have those magic moments, we basically have to traverse a modern-day version of Dante’s hell. The hours of sitting in a tiny space where your knees get crushed when the person in front of you decides to recline their chair. The attempts to feel human by brushing your teeth in that tiny airplane bathroom, then wondering why there’s so much water on the floor. The bruised shins, twisted shoulders and smashed finger tips you get from trying to haul all your baggage around – and when you’re going to live and actually work in another country for several months, there can be a lot of baggage! Seriously, I wouldn’t pack a blazer for an international trip if I didn’t have to.

Because I didn’t take too many photos on my 30-hour journey, I thought I’d share a glimpse of Ho Chi Minh City at night. The city center has a lot of old buildings, a lot of new buildings, and a lot of traffic.

And then, once you arrive, there’s the passport control line (after the line for the women’s bathroom), the hunt for your luggage – which involves circling the baggage claim like a crazy person because it took so long to get through passport control that the arrivals board no longer shows which carousel you can find your luggage on, and there’s no information booth – or any person, really, who looks like they can help you. I circled the baggage claim hall for about 30 minutes until I suddenly found my two bags, standing together, alone, far from any carousel, in the middle of the baggage claim hall. Somehow these things just work out. I recently saw a meme about how strict security is everywhere in an airport – until you get to baggage claim – where you could pretty much walk out with any bag you wanted to. No one ever checks to make sure you have the right one.

Then, once you exit the arrivals hall, in a lot of countries, you’re greeted by a sea of faces – sometimes thousands of people. All of whom get to see you at your worst: red-faced, with tousled hair, and bags under your eyes the size of grapefruits.

The grapefruit-sized bags under my eyes made this a bad day for selfies. So, instead, I’ll share this photo of the Saigon Center – the big shopping mall near my hotel – all decked out for Tet (the Lunar New Year, which begins in a couple of weeks, is the biggest holiday of the year).

I arrived in Vietnam late last night after about 30 hours of travel – about 24 of those hours were actually spent on airplanes, and the rest was spent in airports or getting too and from airports. Because I’m cautious (and one of my flights was on a Japanese airline which won’t let you fly without a mask), I wore an N95 that entire time (except when I was allocated my mid-flight food rations). The mask marks across my nose might be permanent.

I exited the airport at 11:30 pm, and there were literally thousands of people waiting for other people at that airport. There were so many people, that security had to create a pathway for those of us pushing carts of luggage to be able to navigate our way to curbside transportation. It really felt like I was walking the red carpet at the Oscars…or a like I was a rock star heading to the stage…while pushing 75 pounds of luggage on a cart with a wonky wheel.

View of the Bitexco Financial Tower from my hotel room.

So my first day in Vietnam is about trying to gather my wits, rehydrate, find an ATM, and puttering around my hotel room because I’m too tired to go exploring. Turns out, my hotel is centrally located, and I can see a lot right from my little balcony, like the Saigon Center, the fancy high-end shopping mall where you can get your Gucci bag while sipping on a Starbuck’s frappuccino. I also have a great view of the Bitexco Financial Tower. Maybe I’ll feel good enough in a day or two to go ride up to the top of it.

I also tried jackfruit for the first time. It showed up in the hotel’s morning buffet. I didn’t know what I was eating. I thought it was some kind of flower petal. But apparently, this fruit can grow to weigh up to 40 pounds, and the smell has been described as something similar to bananas, or pineapple, or bubble gum, or rotting onions. I guess it depends on how ripe it is. The jackfruit I ate reminded me of orange blossoms. I think that if it had smelled like rotting onions, I would have been permanently turned off to it.

To my delight, my hotel mini-bar has a bag of dried jackfruit available for purchase. I usually ignore the minibar and get what I need from a convenience store, but I was too wiped out to go looking for snacks this afternoon, so I dug into that dried jackfruit. It might become a regular snack food over the next few months. Apparently, it’s high in protein for a fruit.

I also have this in my hotel room:

I hadn’t initially intended to have the iPhone in the photo, but it makes a nice contrast.

When was the last time you saw one of these? For you younger folks reading this, these were the types of phones we used when I was a kid. In fact, I’m going to hazard a guess that this phone is older than I am. (We had a phone just like it when I was a kid, but it was the color of split pea soup.) And in case you’re wondering, it has a dial tone, but with a lot of static, so I’m guessing it might be challenging to use for a phone call. But you might be able to reach the hotel desk.

I do a lot of research about where to stay, and I chose my hotel based on all the rave reviews on Trip Advisor. It’s a small, family-run boutique hotel in the heart of Saigon, only a block from all the really fancy hotels (we will have our Fulbright orientation meeting at one of those next week). My hotel actually sits right in the middle of a city block. I mean, in the heart of the block. You have to walk down a narrow alleyway lined with vendors to get to the hotel. This means that it’s a bit sheltered from the endless cacophony of honking traffic and steady hum of motorbikes.

Thousands of people gather along one of Ho Chi Minh’s largest boulevards to cheer on their team. A lot of people never get off their bikes.

Except when there’s a soccer game. This afternoon, four massive screens were placed in the middle of the large boulevard near my hotel. As I write this, there are thousands of people out in the street cheering on their team. I’m too tired to join them…but we can imagine what that would be like (cue video montage of me engaging in the local culture: learning to cross a street where the motorbikes never stop; tasting the cornucopia of street food; cheering in the streets with everyone else and singing along with them to Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life (yep, they’re doing that)….No, not happening tonight. Remember, I’ve just passed through Dante’s 21st century hell. But soon.

And I can be grateful that all the cheering and loud music on the street will keep me from falling asleep too early. I wouldn’t have stayed awake long enough to finish this post without it.

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