It's no secret that I prefer to travel without a plan. I don't use guidebooks and I rarely research places in advance. I mostly go on the recommendations of locals and travelers that I meet, or wherever a sign that says "anywhere" while hitchhiking takes me. It happens often that I'm on a boat and I see another traveler and strike up a conversation; they mention they've just come from where I'm headed and instantly volunteer some advice, usually some places I shouldn't miss. I likewise do the same.
Unlike everywhere else I've been on this trip, other travelers didn't seem to want to volunteer information on Vietnam and when they did it was usually the same: the motorbike scene is crazy, the food gets old quickly and the people try to scam you worse than anywhere else. When I'd press for recommendations the same few towns were mentioned. Given all of that I was a bit apprehensive and anxious to go into Vietnam.
As much as I try to avoid it, sometimes I have a looming deadline or destination like being in Thailand for the frisbee tournaments or leaving Indonesia because my visa was running out. After the King's funeral in Cambodia I had decided to go to Vietnam for Tet, their celebration of the lunar new year. During the lunar new year everyone goes back to their home town to see their family so transportation can be expensive and tough to come by and everything is closed for a couple days. Knowing this I decided I needed to find a local family to spend the holiday with and after a couple weeks of searching I finally found one. A nice girl named T on CouchSurfing invited me to central Vietnam to spend Tet with her family.
To make it overland from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Quang Ngai, Vietnam in time for Tet meant I really had to hustle. On one of my 12+ hour bus rides T sent me a text asking if it was the longest trip I'd taken. I responded "no". Then I got to thinking, perhaps this 39 hour voyage with only a 3 hour break in the middle was the longest trip I've taken so far.
The Cambodia-Vietnam border crossing was unnecessarily chaotic and unlike anything I'd previously experienced. A 3hr layover in Saigon afforded me just enough time to use an ATM, buy a SIM card, find a bus headed north and grab some delicious food. Hitchhiking is my preferred method of transport and that's how I was expecting to get from Saigon to Quang Ngai but I arrived in Saigon in the middle of town just before dusk and thought better of making an attempt to hitchhike as I knew those factors would make it exceedingly difficult. Also, hitchhiking isn't the best when you have to be somewhere at some time.
I was disappointed to be taking the bus instead of hitchhiking but it turned out to be a very interesting and educational cultural experience. All the direct buses from Saigon to Quang Ngai or further were already full so I had to take a local bus half way and hope to find another bus the rest of the way once I got there. "Local" bus refers to a bus that's usually pretty run down—the one next to the one I boarded in Saigon appeared to be held together in the middle by clear packaging tape—has bench seats and no air conditioning and is usually overcrowded. Both of my local buses broke down at least once and required some fiddling under the hood—which in one case was under my feet—to fix.
Local buses tend to be run by a crew of several men; in the case of my last bus there were five guys at the front doing a variety of tasks. There were two bus drivers who took turns on the long journey. It seems as though the only requirement to drive a bus here is that you're also a mechanic. The man who was driving the bus when I first boarded was the type of guy you wouldn't let into a convenience store in America: no shoes, no shirt and a shady demeanor. He yelled at me in Vietnamese for a while after I boarded and we engaged in a non-verbal conversation but audible soliloquy, something I'd be doing a lot of very soon. Two of the other men at the front took turns standing at the entrance of the bus hanging off of the door that didn't close and yelling at motorbikes that didn't get out of our way quick enough and catcalling women we rode past.
Being the largest vehicles on the road it seems buses here can do whatever they want and they often do, including but not limited to passing people in oncoming traffic and running motorbikes off the road. The only apparent traffic law here is that you can do whatever you want so long as you're honking while you do it. I've experienced crazy driving like this before in Laos and Bolivia but it's been a while and took a bit of getting used to. The fifth man on the bus was in charge of taking people's money and bribing the cops, something we had to do 3 times on one trip—we were stopped 4 times at roadside checkpoints but I think the last time the guy said that we'd already bribed the previous three and they let us go. The act of bribery involved putting what appeared to be the equivalent of $5 in the paperwork for the bus and having the one guy hop off and hand it to the official while the bus idled by and in under a minute the man would hop back on with a slightly lighter copy of the paperwork and we'd be off. Only once did they make our bus stop moving so they could poke their head in quickly at which point they saw me, exchanged some words with the bus driver and let us go.
An interesting aside is that the traffic lights here seem to be more advanced than anywhere I've ever been, with countdown timers on both the green and yellow lights—which makes an awful lot of sense if you think about it—but yet no one outside of the small cities uses them.
Finding a bus heading further north from my middle drop off point proved to be quite a challenge and confirmed that people here do indeed try to rip you off worse than elsewhere. I had one motorbike taxi take me to the wrong bus station—even though we'd both looked at a map and agreed on where it was—and then try to overcharge me. I ended up just leaving his helmet and 1/4th the agreed on price on the ground and walking away. Being unable to find a bus I made a sign and took a taxi to the junction at the edge of town in hopes of hitching a ride. As soon as the taxi let me out he flagged down a local bus and they all but forced me to get on it. As the rest of the bus was already over packed, with people sleeping on the floor in the isle, I got to ride up front with the 5 guys running the bus, one of whom seemed to like me, one who didn't seem to like me, one who seemed to like me too much and the other two seemed indifferent toward me. At one point the guy who didn't seem to like me picked up my Quang Ngai sign and gesturing to see if I still wanted it—which I did in case I needed to use the back later—promptly threw it out the window without waiting for a response.
I was left at a gas station at the edge of Quang Ngai around midnight with my cellphone running on fumes. After a motorbike taxi tried to charge me 20 times the standard rate to get to T's house, T and her father came to pick me up. From that point forward, everything got better. T and her entire family are super nice and inviting and showed me tremendous hospitality. T and her two younger siblings both speak English quite well but her parents don't seem to know too many phrases—though I learned her father knew many ways to say "finish your drink" in both English and Vietnamese.
The next few days I was in for a real treat, both literally and figuratively. Unfortunately T's grandfather had passed away 49 days before the lunar new year, but in Vietnamese tradition that is the number of days you wait before having the final and most important ceremony?—other ceremonies are carried out every week for the 7 preceding weeks. In two days I learned more about Vietnamese culture than I probably would have done living here by myself for a year. T explained everything she knew about all the traditions I observed and her whole family was super welcoming and included me in most activities. During all the communal meals I was very privileged to sit at the adult male table which seemed to differ from the kids table and the adult female table only in that copious amounts of alcohol were consumed. Vietnamese culture is one where you never drink alcohol alone so you must always toast someone, or the whole group, before drinking and I was always included in the cheers and usually prompted to finish my drink.
The food I ate over the next couple days was nothing short of spectacular. Not overly complex but bursting with flavor. On my first night here T's uncle asked me out of all the countries I've been to on this trip, which had the best food. At the time I wasn't sure what to say but now I'm confident it's Vietnam. I plan to write a full article about it soon—I'm heading to the food capital of Vietnam in a about a week—but for now I'll just say that most of their food is very delicious and crisp using fresh ingredients and strong flavors.
On the actual day of Tet we woke up early and began a rapid round-robin of celebration, eating and drinking at each member of the family's house in succession and then going to the cemetery to pray for their ancestors. Each house, like the entire city of Quang Ngai was adorned with at least one bonsai'd mai tree and usually a couple root over rock bonsais. We visited somewhere between 7 and 10 houses in just a couple hours where I was in a constant state of acceptance of both food and drink—first cabernet sauvignon, then Johnnie Walker Black, then Heineken, then Jim Beam, then Remy Martin V.S.O.P champagne cognac, then homemade rice wine and finally some shiraz cabernet. As T couldn't join me at the adult male table we had to communicate with body language and the very few phrases we knew in each other's tongue. T's entire family made me feel super included and appreciated and I think they enjoyed having me there as much as I enjoyed being there. Having missed all the family holidays back home it was very nice to spend a large holiday with a family over here. They really made me feel like part of the family, they even gave me lucky money on the morning of Tet.
I'm glad I made the journey here for Tet and I'm super happy that I found such a wonderful family to spend the holiday with. The ocean of motorbikes and omnipresence of the food pho aren't as bad as other travelers made them out to be, but the scamming part does seem to be true. T even told me that they scam each other here as much as they do tourists and that didn't really make me feel any better. Since I've been with T I don't think anyone has tried to scam me and people have been nothing but warm and welcoming. I'm really looking forward to spending more time in Vietnam and exploring more of the wonderful cuisine.
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