Better Than Sex

I have finally discovered why travelers who come to Vietnam eventually return. It’s not the amazing water culture of the Mekong Delta, the allure of big city thrills in Ho Chi Minh City, or the peaceful lakes in Ha Noi. Nor is it the lighthearted nature of the locals or the rich modern history that has threaded itself into this nation’s fiber over the last century. I am now convinced that the real reason we come back to Vietnam is due to our crippling addiction to ca phe sua da.

You may call it Vietnamese coffee, iced coffee milk, or simply liquid cocaine. I’ll settle for referring to the Vietnamese staple as my siren, and for seven thousand Vietnam Dong per morning, my love affair with the sweet, powerful drink has taken on an entirely new meaning in Can Tho.

There is a woman who does business just a moment’s walk away from my new home. She offers to deliver by bicycle drinks of all sorts to my doorstep, but the only thing that I have had my mind on this week has been the rich aroma of her ca phe sua da and the complimentary tea that comes with every glass.

She makes it thicker than they make it in Ho Chi Minh City. I can almost swear that she uses one half of a can of condensed milk as the base for each of my drinks, but part of me refuses to look at the woman completely as she prepares my guilty pleasure. After all, ignorance is bliss, and on the terrace of my new sanctuary, where I enjoy my ca phe sua da every morning, there is only enough room for my body and the rich, intoxicating smell of Vietnamese coffee.

This evening my coffee lady asked me how long I would stay in Can Tho. Although I will be here longer, I told her that my stay would last another six months. She could barely contain her joy and I don’t blame her for it; I would also be psyched if the goods I peddle made women and men alike weak at the knees.

I truly wish that this entire story as it relates to my love for ca phe sua da was over-embellished, but alas, it is not. If apple pie is as American as red, white, and blue, then consider my newest addiction to ca phe sua da as Vietnamese as I will ever be.

Padlocks in Cần Thơ

“It’s not like you’re going through culture shock.”

“I know, I know. So let’s call it habit shock.”

The last twenty-four hours have been a complete whirlwind. I have suffered through the trek from Ho Chi Minh City to Can Tho, reunited with my home stay family from two thousand five, and moved into an absolutely beautiful three story, three bedroom home. The photos that chi Huyen sent to me several months ago in a push to get me to move to Can Tho, instead of the big city, barely do the house justice. I’m glad that I’m here but at the same time realize that my perspective in Can Tho has changed.

Whereas three years ago I paid little attention to the measures that home owners go through to protect their belongings in Vietnam, I am now beginning to notice just how many bars and padlocks there are in this country. Upon arriving in Can Tho yesterday evening, I was given a set of keys by my sister. One key is for the large lock that adorns the front of my new home. Another key is for the main door. And another is for the door that leads to the rooftop of my abode.

My best friend in Vietnam came to visit me last night. After dismounting her motorbike, she reprimanded me for not helping her roll the vehicle inside of my home’s greeting area. She was only stopping by for a moment, and when I questioned her need to roll the motorbike inside, she told me that Vietnamese people work hard for their belongings and want to protect them. Even in the dreadfully quiet alleyway in which my home is situated, padlocks and metal bars abound, and even the cars are protected by steel cages.

I have only been in Can Tho for a day and I am not yet used to the attention to detail that my stay here will require. In America, even in the shadiest neighborhoods, I had no issue at all with leaving my car doors unlocked to fill up at gas stations or to stop by friends’ homes. Then again, maybe I was just one of the lucky souls back home.

Padlocks aside, I’m excited about the world of possibilities that await me in Can Tho and in my new home. I now have enough room for an office, a sleeping room, and a guest room for when family members and friends sleep over. And, who knows. I might now be able to buy a few paintings to hang on the walls of my new sanctuary.

Street Sellers

Every single morning in the narrow 283 Pham Ngu Lao alleyway, countless numbers of tourists and locals alike are greeted by sellers of all stripes. Some hawk sunglasses and novelty lighters while others slowly peddle up and down the street with a variety of wares strapped to the backs of their bicycles. On any given day I have at my fingertips many kinds of tropical fruits, house plants, and ice cream.

I rarely engage Vietnamese street sellers in negotiation. I learned a long time ago that the best way to find the cheapest price for any item in Vietnam is to either have a local purchase it for me or to find it at a modern grocery store where prices are listed on all products. While I’ve all but retired from the name your price game here, I absolutely love observing how other travelers play it.

When approached by a persistent seller in Vietnam, the method that I usually employ is to simply look in another direction or to keep walking. In America I consider this fairly rude behavior; after all, my parents taught me to at the very least say “No, Thank You”. But in Vietnam the rules are different, where merely blurting out a “Thanks, but no. Thanks.” is a wide open invitation for a street seller to hook you in.

I was invited to breakfast by another traveler several weeks ago and could not help but find myself amused by the nonverbal stories that she would attempt to tell sellers in order to stave them off. She would open her wallet to show the sellers that she had no more money or wave her sunglasses in the air as if to say “I already have a pair!”.

To the food sellers my companion would rub her stomach and feign pain as if to indicate that eating a bar of ice cream off the back of a bicycle might not be the greatest idea. And to the Vietnamese phrasebook sellers she would with all of her might say “xin chao!” as if to say that she had already learned all that she would need for her brief stay in Vietnam.

These small exchanges between local Vietnamese business people and foreigners usually end in smiles. It need not be spoken that most of the items for sell are not necessities, which makes the game even that much funner.

Indeed, bickering over small chocolate snacks or knock off shades seems a lot more harmless than finding oneself subject to the mercy of little knowledge of the Vietnamese language coupled with the need for, say, medicine. In any event, this is one of the staples of Vietnam that I truly enjoy watching.

On any given day in this nation there will be those who return home frustrated and feeling like they were taken advantage of by unreasonable prices. And for the others, they will have a story to tell about how they talked a Vietnamese seller down to a great price on a faux Gucci.

Seven Hundred & Thirty Days

Not long ago, I made a silent promise to myself that no matter how lonely I become in Vietnam and no matter how difficult sticking out like a sore thumb is, I will not leave.  It has now been over a month since my third arrival to this beautiful nation, and I absolutely know that I made the right decision to come back.

In the last thirty one days I have reconnected with old friends, developed new relationships, and ended those that were merely hanging on by a thread.  I have lost weight, experienced my first string of peaceful sleep filled nights in years, and learned new Vietnamese words.  This is exactly why I came here—for the love of language, new culture, and the other.

But my insecurities in Vietnam have resurfaced.  I notice my size in Vietnam much more than I notice it in America, and the new beard that I sport only adds to the freakshow.  The confidence I once held with regard to my Vietnamese has been shattered again and again, and sometimes I really do question whether or not I have what it takes to grind past the learning plateau that I have landed upon.

That said, I am at peace in Vietnam.  I have developed new methods by which to stay at ease in my surroundings, like pounding my brains in with the sounds of hip-hop and chillout music and working out until I’m too tired to care about being different.  And unhealthy as it may be, I occasionally smoke when the nerves become too much to handle.  After all, it is said that every great man has his vice, and while I am not yet great, I will indulge the belief that I am and embrace my vices.

I’m a businessman now and to the Vietnamese, I am rich.  My reality here stands in stark contrast to my reality in America.  Back home, I am a black twenty-something year old freelancer who belongs to the lower middle class.  Indeed, there is little about me back home that would stop traffic.  In Vietnam, I am neither of those things.  Here, I am a rich, young American web developer who laughs a lot and eats entirely too much pizza for his own good.

I live a thin line here, and it will only become thinner as the days continue to pass.  At times I feel at one with this nation and on other occasions I believe that I will never be a part of Vietnam.  I’m too exotic to have normal romantic relationships, too rich to joke about being broke, and too priviledged to pretend to understand what it is like to work twelve hours a day for one hundred dollars a month.  I’ve lived through welfare back home, but it will never compare to poverty in Vietnam.

I love Vietnam, but part of me is changing for the worse.  I’m now more judgemental of other Western travelers, often questioning their intentions when inviting Vietnamese females out to dinner or to their hotels.  My trust for locals no longer comes easily and the emotional barriers that I have put up make it difficult to develop new friendships with Vietnamese youth.  In short, a small part of me is becoming what I despise—a judgemental person who stereotypes other travelers.

It’s difficult not to become jaded about my own existence when traveling alone to Vietnam, but I’m confident that I have made the right decision.  Three years ago I was a coward and returned to the United States when living in Can Tho got the best of me.  This time around, even with all of the negative forces pulling at my mind, I have resolved to seek joy in all of its forms and use loneliness as an opportunity to find myself within the noise.

Tomorrow I will be arriving to my new home in Can Tho, and I could not be a happier man.  In Can Tho lives a family who loves me as its own and that is what I need in this country.  As long as I know that I will be taken care of when the times become tough, living in Vietnam will be a positive experience.

Boarding my Singapore Airlines flight from Houston to Ho Chi Minh City last month, I had no clue that I would feel so happy at this exact moment in Vietnam.  Right now, I am writing my legend and preparing the pages of my future children’s bedtime stories.  In Vietnam, I am at once observing the drop of oil in the spoon while taking notice of every single beautiful painting on the wall.  And that alone makes the next seven hundred days in Vietnam seem like nothing more than a ripple.

Dogs in Vietnam

“Here, we can sell one for two hundred thousand dong.”

“Wow.  In America some sell for five hundred dollars.”

“Yes, but you live with them.  Here, people eat them.”

As I snuck back to my Pham Ngu Lao mini-hotel late last night, I was greeted by the barking of an alleyway guard dog.  This sort of thing is normal in America, but in Ho Chi Minh City, the emerging presence of dogs over the last several years has been astounding.

I immediately noticed the change in scenery upon landing at Tan Son Nhat airport last month.  The dogs were more abundant, more varied, and a lot fatter than I had last remembered them.  I wasn’t sure if they were an indicator of the rapid development that had taken place since my last visit or if eating them had become more taboo.

If it can be said that dogs in America are in most cases treated with reverence, then dogs in Vietnam are in most cases treated as utilities.  They act as guard dogs or food, and rarely as part of a family.  The reason locals seem to fear having their dogs stolen is because a lost dog means lost profit.

A ten kilogram dog is sold at twenty thousand VND per kilo.  Take into consideration that two hundred thousand Vietnam dong is easily one fifth of a month’s average salary, and it is no wonder that dogs are important here.  But, again, the importance lies not in the emotional but in the financial realm of daily life.

Over a plate of watermelon and Vietnamese coffee, my friend Chanh told me today that dogs who howl too often are killed here.  It is thought that dogs who make too many odd sounds bring bad luck to their homes, and in a nation that still weds itself to the value of superstition with regard to income, it is believed to be worth it to rid one’s surroundings of any potential evil.

Given the complete lack of dogs as family members in Vietnam, I can’t help but wonder if canines are nothing more than emotional accessories back home.  Some of us in America treat our own dogs with more respect and love than our fellow man, and others go so far as to indulge our pets with toys, trendy outfits, and near-spa treatment.

Premium cuts of American meat usually consumed by humans are often chopped into small bits and fed to dogs, while here in Vietnam the notion of feeding an animal gourmet style meat is quite blasphemous.  And while it is absolutley moot to even attempt to place value judgements on which way of life is more appropriate, I do question whether or not animal rights groups back home are a creation of the elite.

In any event, it is at the very least quite jarring to grow up in a culture that values dogs as much as we do in America and then move to a country that enjoys dogs with salt and pepper.  You won’t find dog meat near my plate any time soon, but I would be telling a flat out lie if I said that I am not just a little bit curious.