That’s right. I’ve been in Vietnam for a little over a month. I’ve debated what to share here. There has been a lot to process. But I don’t feel I’m ready to tell a coherent story of my time here yet. I feel like this country is revealing itself me in tiny pieces. Layer upon layer. Not understanding really any of the language means that things tend to be mysterious in a way I haven’t experienced in a long time – not since my first trip to Germany. But even then, the rhythm and intonation of German felt familiar to me, and I picked it up quickly.
Here, I feel like a child. Everything I do requires some level of deciphering, some level of conscious effort for activities that come automatically at home, from learning to use the ATM, or my phone, to crossing the street on my own. Food can be especially confusing. I’m starting to realize that the same foods are sold just about everywhere in the city. But I still don’t know what they are. Gà is chicken. Lẩu is some kind of hotpot (but far be it for me to order one on my own – seems like something you do with a group.) Oh – and when I type lau into Google Translate, it tells me that this word means ‘wipe’ or ‘bathe’. Of course, the little symbols above the a make it an entirely different word. You see why I get confused? Or why the staff at a restaurant might look at me funny if I ask for lau gà? Am I really asking for ‘bath chicken’? I don’t know. So, while Google Translate is my friend, it can also lead me down dark alleys.
Not unlike Google Maps. This app has not really led me down a dark alley yet, but it has led me right into a greenhouse, suggesting that there should be a road where I found a field of marigolds.
One of my favorite travel writers is Frances Mayes, who writes in such vivid detail about the Tuscan countryside, that it actually drew me to visit there in real life. She talks about taking time when you arrive in a place to find the rhythm of life. I imagine her sitting at some Italian cafe with a cappuccino and a biscotti and her notebook. And I like to imagine I’m doing something similar. Noting, for example, the group of young men on the small red and blue plastic stools, gathered around a street side cafe stall, sipping their coffee in tiny glasses while playing games on their cell phones. Are they the same young men I saw the last time I passed this way?
I’m writing this on a Monday afternoon, from the third floor of a cafe in central Dalat where there is a a large co-working space. I’m the only person in the room. There’s good internet here and I don’t have to decipher what’s on the menu. One More Cafe, owned and run by an Australian lady, is a bit of an expat and digital nomad hang-out, but there aren’t many expats or digital nomads in Vietnam right now because of the challenges of getting visas to stay here. There are some tourists eating lunch downstairs. There are big French windows that open out over a busy intersection, and there is the steady hum of motorcycles and cars, and beeping that happens at fairly regular intervals as drivers warn others to ‘get out of the way, I’m coming through’. Just below the cafe window is a massive tangle of phone cables that you see on every street corner, on every post, in the city.
I’m here because the internet conked out in my studio apartment this morning. My apartment manager told me that there are problems nationwide today, with certain internet providers. There are also wifi problems on campus, so I can’t work there. But somehow, the wifi in this cafe is brilliant: speedy and strong. It’s so strong that my iPhone uploaded all my photos even while connected to the VPN server I use. (Virtual Private Network, for those of you not in-the-know. This is basically a way of encrypting my data transmissions to keep it safe – a good idea whenever I’m on public or low-security wifi. But it can slow things down.)
I guess I’m beginning to find a rhythm to life here, just as we all do at the start of the new semester, or a new job, or living in a new place. I moved into a studio apartment on a quiet street near campus last week. It’s a spacious studio with a really comfy bed, a Western-style shower (we Westerners are actually a bit peculiar and fussy in our showering habits – more on that later), and a great sunset view from the balcony. I’m trying to figure out how to cook some of the things I know how to cook with a limited range of ingredients, and no oven. Ovens are not common here (although, there are bakeries, but people don’t seem to bake much at home). I’m taking notes for a blog post on new dishes I invent while trying to cook in my tiny studio kitchen with a portable electric stovetop, and without my usual palette of spices on hand. As a teaser, I’ll just say: Vietnamese tacos.
While I am sometimes prone to feeling a bit nostalgic for home, and even homesick, while traveling, I haven’t been feeling that lately. The work that I’m doing here is ramping up and I am really excited by the challenge of developing a climate change course for students here. I’m also excited to offer workshops for my colleagues here as I get to know the challenges they face in teaching. There are invitations coming to visit some other places as well, so there’s lots to keep me going.
The other thing that probably keeps me from falling into the well of nostalgia for home is a growing sense of community with my university colleagues (especially as we plan our activities for my time here), with my fellow Fulbrighters, and with other people I’ve been meeting in the community, such as my AirBnB hosts, and cafe owners or wait staff at the places I visited repeatedly. It’s easy to meet people here. I walked into an arts and crafts shop full of handmade books last week and had a great conversation with the owner – we’re looking forward to talking again and sharing ideas. (For those of you who don’t know, handmade books are kind of my thing. In my ‘spare’ time, I make books.)
I’ve also made inquiries with a local chef about a cooking class (because, let’s face it, I need help when it comes to cooking Vietnamese food in a tiny kitchen). And also inquiries with a local trekking company about guided hikes in the mountains around here. As a single person, it’s hard to sign up for a tour or a class, though. I need to wait for a group that’s ready to go somewhere on a weekend – or wants to take a cooking lesson – so that I can join in. That’s ok. I have time.
For now, it feels good to settle. And, I admit, it feels really good to be out in the world and feel normal about it after nearly three years of pandemic living.
I’ve had a chance to do a little sightseeing in town. My Fulbrighter friend, Susan De La Paz, visited for a couple of days over Tet, and we took lots of long walks through the city and explored pagodas and temples. I enjoyed seeing the carefully tended gardens at the temples, the detailed architecture, and the relative quiet you feel when you walk around in or near a pagoda, even as motorbikes are roaring by outside the walls. We enjoyed attaching prayer flags to a tree in one of the pagodas. We also visited the Dalat train station, which achieves its fame from French colonial architecture, and the old steam engine on site. The only train you can take from the station these days goes to yet another pagoda on the outskirts of town. We didn’t go, as the train only runs a few times a day – you have to know the schedule, or wait around.
Thanks to the university student who has been helping me with pretty much everything since I arrived in Dalat, I have also had a chance to see a bit of the city outskirts (I won’t mention her name here yet, as I don’t want to put her on the spot, but she is awesome). She invited me to spend a day with her and her family during Tet. They fed me amazing food and made me feel like part of the family – then took me up to Tuyen Lam Lake, just south of the city. There, we took a roller coaster ride to a waterfall where you could have your photo taken with King Kong. (Yes, I know how strange that must sound!) We also took an evening boat ride out on Tuyen Lam and had barbecue dinner at a lakeside restaurant and watched as the sky, and the water below, turned shades of peach, then lavender, in the sunset. It was one of my best days here so far.
I look forward to sharing more with you all – probably in the form of much more focused writing – later. Today, I just wanted to paint you a picture, start peeling back the layers, and give you to have a chance to absorb a little bit of Vietnam, the way I have been absorbing, learning, and moving through this new place, one day at a time.
3 thoughts on “Vietnam: One Month In”
Love traveling through you. Thanks.
Thanks so much for following along, Judy!
Thanks for all of the beautiful photos and the lovely prose. I love the idea of being near a flower park, especially since our current views all include snow!