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More Than A War - The Traveling Alphabet
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More Than A War

Vietnam is more than a war. Ask any American what comes to mind when they hear “Vietnam” and I would bet most would say “war” or something synonymous. I too fell into that majority. But, while the “American War”, as it is referred here, is so much a part of the history, there is much more to this country. The people welcomed us, the food enticed us, and the landscapes captured us.

We arrived here exactly 30 years to the day in which Vietnam gained its independence marked by the Fall of Saigon. Confused as to independence from whom since we knew France had given up control in 1954 dividing this country into the North and South, we realized it was independence from the USA. As we arrived in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in the south, we wondered if there would be any backlash against Americans. To the contrary. The people were welcoming and friendly. And, the hospitality continued as we moved north.

This is the first place we felt the language barrier. After bribing the Vietnamese border guard, our first stop was in a small, non-touristy town with few English speakers. Our previously unopened ‘Point-It’ picture book came in handy. Without it, we’d be forced to play a long game of Charades. On the eight-hour local bus ride north to Saigon, we were befriended by several locals who guided us to our hotel like seeing-eye dogs. Although we only knew a few words of Vietnamese and found English speakers as we traveled throughout, we still found ourselves lost at times or eating unrecognizable food. Good preparation as we go to China tomorrow.

While most people are overwhelmingly warm and hospitable, the more densely populated tourist destinations are plagued with unscrupulous guides who will lighten your wallet while you’re swimming or out kayaking. Even the hotel rooms aren’t safe as it’s not uncommon for the hotel staff to let themselves into your room and take a few dollars while you’re away on an excursion. They only take a few dollars, but from many people, so you won’t notice. Hearing the stories, we took precautions. My years watching James Bond movies and the Discovery Channel taught me several counter tactical measures to foible their plans and even determine if our hotel room was compromised. It wasn’t.

The food too has been wonderful and some of the best we’ve encountered – ever. Our most expensive meal, a Prix Fixe menu in Hoi An served us four courses and was comparable to most restaurants in San Francisco. The bill came to $11 dollars…for both. We were surprised however, while dining in a popular restaurant in Hanoi when the waitress approached us and said they’d run out of rice and would we mind substituting a baguette. The baguette wasn’t such a surprise as there is a heavy French influence here because Vietnam was occupied by France prior to 1954. But, a Vietnamese restaurant with out rice. That’s like a bank without money, Starbucks without coffee, or Home Depot without nails. Seeing our shocked looks, she said they’d have some in 20 minutes if we could wait. Of course we waited.

Surprised by the people and the food, the scenery also captured us. The greenery of the rice fields went on forever. And the limestone rock formations of Halong Bay rising out of the water were everything the brochures promised, and more. To escape the sweltering humid air, we headed to the mountainous town of Sapa. And for the first time since New Zealand, we felt cooled. Our relaxing weekend involved reading and eating while overlooking the beautiful scenery of rice fields terraced up the mountainside. Splendid.

While the landscapes have been exquisite, just watching the traffic go by has been most entertaining. The World Health Organization claims Vietnam to have one of the highest traffic accident rates and it’s easy to see why. In Saigon there are 3 million motorbikes for 8 million people. Stop lights are scarce fortunately, or traffic would halt. Instead, motorists from all four sides simultaneously enter the intersection with horns blaring. Many never even look left or right but just barge ahead. Because of this recklessness, accidents are frequent. We’ve seen seven. And the last one, the driver sadly entered his last intersection. I’m surprised we haven’t seen more.

Traveling in the Third World gives you an opportunity to negotiate for everything — an aspect of travel I’ve always enjoyed. We’d never haggle over the cost of a box of cookies or a haircut at home, but here everything is negotiable. Audrey went to the local hair salon for a haircut and was told the price would be 32,000 Dong equivalent to $2. (That’s Vietnamese Dong which is their currency for those of you who just turned red.) Being a Born-Again Negotiator from our days in Bali, Audrey took the price down to 20,000 Dong or $1.30. You may think this is ridiculous but it is part of the game and expected by the locals. I do the same.

On a temple excursion, my water intake exceeded my outtake levels. Most toilets at tourist traps charge between 500 – 1,000 Dong (3 – 6 cents) for a little relief. So when I was quoted 2,000 Dong (12 cents), I was flabbergasted at the extortion and offered her 1,000. She said no so I started to walk away betting that she’d break before I did. The “Walk Away” is a very effective tactic as we’ve tested many times. It worked and I went on with my business. At times it seems odd to be negotiating over a few dollars when the average worker may make $1,000 a month so we try to learn “the market” for the products and make sure both parties are happy. We also realize that tourists are quoted prices many times that of locals.

This skill was essential in Hoi An where we had clothes and shoes custom made because the prices are beyond belief. Custom dress shirts for $7 and leather shoes for $18. As we were waiting for a jacket to be made, the lady informed us that she works 7 days a week, 13 hours a day. When asked when she takes time off, she said, “When I’m sick.” If you are thinking you need a vacation, remember that Americans have more disposable income and free time than those in the Third World.

I was once again reminded of the fortunate lifestyle I have. While many locals we talk to have never traveled outside their home province, let alone their country, I am fortunate to have a passport with more stamps in it than a Post Office. But it wasn’t for free. Several people reading this email fought here in an effort to slow the spread of communism and give me this freedom. While war is not pretty, especially this one, and I will likely never have firsthand experience of it, I do have a renewed respect for those who risked their lives for such an unselfish act. You know who you are, so thank you.

Bryan and Audrey

Bryan Gillette

Bryan Gillette is the founder and principal consultant for Summiting Group focusing on Leadership and Organizational Development. He has traveled extensively for both work and personal reasons visiting almost 60 countries and 40 United States. He is an avid runner and cyclist and ran 200 miles around Lake Tahoe in 76 hours as well as cycled across the United States. He recently spent one year traveling the world with his family.

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