A Tourist in Vietnam

I have a limited time left in Vietnam. Two weeks ago, I decided it was time to be a better tourist. I had seen the main outdoor attractions in Saigon already. And so, last Sunday week, I got up early in the morning and went to see the sites. I saw the beautiful old French buildings, including the Central Post Office, designed by Mr Eiffel himself. They’re all lovely, but I am entertained by the idea of all these Europeans (me included) coming to Vietnam and spending their time photographing big French buildings.

I also went to the so-called Reunification Palace. It was the residence of the President of South Vietnam, back when there was a South Vietnam. Imagine a large grim grey modernist concrete building that you love to hate. A multi-storey car park perhaps, or the Arts Block in Trinity College, or the Science Building in UCC maybe. Now imagine that this building is the home of an eccentric billionaire. It’s amazing. It’s all ugly concrete and funny angles and deep rich carpets and massive chandeliers and dining tables that can seat 100 people polished to perfection. I want to buy it.

I also saw the Vietnam War Museum. I had read it was one-sided in guidebooks and had shrugged that off. Of course it was one-sided, I thought. But I didn’t realise just how one-sided. It’s a very well-laid out museum. Every photo of a North Vietnamese soldier is labelled a “patriot”, every photo of an American is labelled an “invader” at best and sometimes a “murderer”, South Vietnamese soldiers are labelled “traitors” and there are large signs of thanks to the true friends of the Vietnamese people in the USSR, China, Yugoslavia, Cuba and Bulgaria. I couldn’t go into all the rooms in the museum. There are only so many photos of dead bodies and victims of warfare you can look at in one day.

Saigon has some lovely parks, including a small one around the Reunification Palace. As I was leaving the park, I was approached by a coconut seller. Coconut sellers are notorious for their sales techniques. I knew this and was on my guard, but when he asked me where I was from, I didn’t just walk away, like you’re supposed to do. I told him. And he had me. Within thirty seconds, I was holding a coconut for him while he got something. I could feel myself losing control of the situation. As it turns out, what he was getting was a knife and a straw. Before I could say anything, he had sliced the top off the coconut I was holding “for him” had stuck a straw into it and was asking me for fifty thousand dong. I gave it to him, dazed at the speed of his knife-wielding and disgusted at myself for my gullibility. Never hold another man’s coconut for him. I don’t even like fresh coconut water. If you’re curious, it tastes like sour milk and dirt.

The fascination of the Vietnamese with my size continues. Another street seller came up to me and greeted me with the words “Wow! You maybe 200 kilos! Ha ha ha!” Needless to say, I didn’t buy anything from him.  And when I was going home, I sat into a taxi and greeted the driver, telling him my address. He started laughing and talking to me in Vietnamese. I made it clear I didn’t understand. He started gesturing to his waist. I thought he might be telling me to put my seat belt on and I gestured to him that I had my belt on. He shook his head, pointing to his belly, then mine and made big round movements with his hands around his stomach, laughing all the time. Eventually, I patted my belly, smiled, tamped down my hatred and said “Yes! Fat!” Once I had acknowledged my obesity for him, he started the car.

On Wednesday, I went to the theatre. The Saigon Opera House was built by the French and is beautiful, in the way that old European theatres are. I didn’t bother taking any photos. I’ve been in European theatres before. The show is one that is done more or less especially for tourists and is called the A O Show, as in “you will say Ah and Oh in wonder when you watch this”, which is just adorable. It was an incredibly homoerotic piece of performance art. A group of young Vietnamese dancers and gymnasts, mainly men with no shirts, lots of abs, and copious amounts of baby oil do somersaults, jump into each others arms, wave large bamboo sticks at each other, stroke each other’s large bamboo sticks and dance like it’s 1987. I loved every minute of it.

Also on Wednesday, I went to Saigon Railway’s Central Ticket Office. The train station is out in District 3, so the railway company operate a ticket office in District 1. I went in and bought a ticket for my weekend away. I was told to wait, and the man behind the counter got his helmet. The central ticket office is owned by the railway company, but only the station can print tickets, so when you buy a ticket at the ticket office, you have to wait for 45 minutes while one of the ticket clerks drives his motorbike to the station, collects the ticket and comes back. There’s got to be a better way.

I was going to spend a weekend at Mui Ne, one of the more well-known of South Vietnam’s beach towns. On Friday, I was telling the administrative assistant in my office about my trip. He has worked with five previous Westerners who held my job, as well as countless freelance tutors, all of whom were Western, and he said “I can’t understand why you all always travel.” He could understand taking a child to the beach, because they like that, but a man who is weirdly unmarried like myself; what possible motivation is there for someone like me to go away for the weekend? Mui Ne doesn’t have anything that Saigon doesn’t. Of course, this made me feel like an awful frivolous Westerner. He works because he needs money. I work here because I want to travel. And I travel for the experience itself, because I’m a ridiculous rich person from a pampered background who goes around the world for fun and complains, even though my salary is six times higher than this man’s, and he’s been at the company for ten years and gets almost no holidays. I like him a lot, but he really does struggle to understand me. There’s not just all this frivolous travelling. There’s choosing to live alone. There’s ordering my lunch for delivery. There’s not being married and not having children, even though I have enough money to have as many children as I could possibly want, and later that same day, we had a discussion about religion. I told him I didn’t have a religion, which he had no problem with. There are plenty of non-religious people in Vietnam. He started telling me about being a Catholic, and I told him that I knew what that was like because my family were Catholic. This made no sense to him. I used to go to church but I stopped? Why would anyone do that? Of course, people might change religion for their wife, but I don’t have one of them. What kind of lunatic am I?

The Vietnamese are early-morning people. My train to Mui Ne was at 6:00 on Saturday morning, and as I left my flat at 5:15, plenty of people were up and about, the cocks were all crowing and the motorbikes were all beeping and speeding as they always do. The building’s cleaning woman (or someone else) had been in action. The rubbish chute room in my corridor had been purged of cockroaches. A line of FOURTEEN dead giant cockroaches lay strewn across the hallway as I made my way to the lift. I suppose I was grateful, but a cockroach apocalypse isn’t necessarily my favourite sight at dawn. In the lift, I met the cleaning lady. I said hello to her and she squeezed my belly. Because that’s how it is here.

I caught a taxi without much of a problem and was left at the train station. The station doesn’t have an electronic display anywhere and it wasn’t clear where my train would leave from. I looked around and decided, on a whim, to follow a sign that said “don khách”. It looked vaguely like a misspelling of the Irish for “for everyone”. The sign led me straight to the right train. I think reading Vietnamese as if it’s poorly spelled Gaelic is a policy that can only end well.

Vietnamese trains are lovely. The seats are comfy, the carriages are air-conditioned and every passenger gets a free bottle of water and moist towelette. And as the train approaches Mui Ne, you chug through miles and miles of dragonfruit plantations. I didn’t even know what dragonfruit was six months ago. Now I can tell you what a dragonfruit plantation looks like, and it’s pretty awesome. I’ve known what peaches were all my life and I still have no idea if they grow on trees or bushes or out of the ground or what.

Mui Ne is lovely. It’s beach resort. But it’s not Marbella. It’s more like Tramore. Or Bray. But in Asia. It’s all families of Germans, elderly Russian couples and unfairly beautiful drunk young Australians. But not many. It’s quiet. There is an effort to make it seem like a party town. There was a bar with a man with a very loud electric guitar playing “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Angels” but I don’t think anyone paid any attention. There was an open-top jeep that drove through the town at one stage with beautiful Vietnamese girls waving Heineken flags trying to lure us into a club, but the elderly Russian lady and I, who were the only people on the street at the time, weren’t interested. And there’s only one street.

It was blissfully relaxing. I love the noise of city life, but part of what I love in cities is convenience. And there’s nothing convenient about life in Saigon. I have to get a taxi to find somewhere to buy a can of Diet Coke. Everything is on the same street on Mui Ne and there was a 24-hour supermarket right next to the hotel where I was staying. And the restaurants had Western-style furniture. I didn’t have to squat. It was like being let out of prison for the day. I made a home for myself in a little French restaurant/bar, with no walls, where four middle-aged French men and their four young Vietnamese wives, all sat around chatting, smoking and serving me in turn, while I looked out at the South China Sea.

Tropical beaches are everything they’re cracked up to be. Everything. The water is phenomenally beautiful. The palm trees. The little straw-roofed cabins. The lapping of the waves. The cleanliness. The peace. Amazing.

There was an outdoor swimming pool in my hotel, which I was excited to use. I waited till after dark. Swimming pools are places for thin people, just like gyms, night clubs, photographs, parks in the summer time and clothes shops. I know that you’ve read about me going to naturist resorts and nude saunas, and the Countess Markievicz Swimming Pool in Dublin and I was a regular gym-goer twice in my life, for well over a year each time. But those spaces will never be my spaces. Every time I go into a nightclub, or a swimming pool, or a clothes shop, or a sauna, I take a deep breath. Every time, you’re invading the thin people’s world. And they might want to take it back. Among the thoughts I had as I walked to the swimming pool were: “What if the hotel manager asks me to leave the pool because the sight of me is disturbing the other guests?” Of course, on most levels, I know the manager won’t ask me that, but on some levels, it’s true for me. Other gay people will know that feeling of constant coming out – you have to reveal your homosexuality to countless people, countless times in your life. And every time, there’s a split second of terror. This person might take it the wrong way. This person might be the one to bash me. Or simply, this person might reject me. And being fat is the same. Every new situation, every new person, you say to yourself: this person might be disgusted by me; this person might call me names; this person might ask me to leave. And it’s worse than being gay, because fat people have a choice to be thin. It’s their fault they’re disgusting. These are only thoughts. And most people are decent and they don’t reject you. And they don’t say “thin people only” and they don’t throw you out of the Abercrombie shop, or the night club, or the swimming pool. But part of you thinks that someday it will happen. All you can do is keep on keeping on. Keep on going to the beach and the park and the clothes shop and the gym. (And of course, keep on trying to be thinner. Keep on trying.)

Anyway, once I was in the pool, as always, I loved it. I really do love water. I think I might be a mermaid trapped in a human’s body. And two of the Vietnamese staff came over to look, squatting beside the pool. Thankfully, they tried not to be obvious, but any time I looked in their direction, I could see them staring at me, trying to pretend they weren’t and when I left the pool, so did they.

I was sorry to leave Mui Ne. It felt supercharged and if I’d had longer there, I think I could have taken over the world.

When I got back to my apartment building, a gang of building residents and the building security guards were all gathered outside. At the sight of me, they started laughing. Eventually, using mime and really loud Vietnamese, they explained to me that the lifts were both broken and I would have to walk up to my flat. The idea of me, the fat Westerner walking up all those stairs was hilarious to them, and some of them did an imitation of a fat person walking upstairs, while the others all laughed. I started trudging up to my twelfth floor flat, passing the cleaning woman, who also laughed at the sight of me on the stairs.

As I walked up, I saw that every rubbish chute room on every floor had been cleared of its cockroaches. On all twelve floors, a forest of dead cockroaches led across the corridor from the rubbish chute room. I think it’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in a building I have to live in. At every stage along the journey through the cockroach chernobyl. (Thankfully, they have since been cleared. And one of the lifts is now kind of working again.) I kept on walking. I wasn’t going to stop.

Vietnam is a beautiful country, Vietnamese people are friendly, this is an incredible experience and I’m looking forward to seeing more on my future adventures and travels through Vietnam in the next ten weeks, but I am glad I’m not staying here for a whole year.

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