The Meanderthals

Aliens in Vietnam

“How do you say thank you in Vietnamese?

The border guard stared blankly at me, mumbled something (which wasn’t “thank you”) and gestured me toward the baggage scanner before we reboarded the bus from Phnom Penh to Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City).

I asked the same question of the officer who stamped my passport but he just gave me back my document and gestured me to move on.

It suddenly struck us on the six-hour bus journey from country to country that neither Skip nor I knew a single word of Vietnamese. Not “hello”, not “thank you”, not even “where’s the bathroom” or “how much?“. We suddenly felt very uncomfortable and alien and surrounded by a sea of language in which we could not swim.

As we disembarked from our journey in the middle of the city, we realized something else which made us feel alien. We hadn’t changed our dollars into dong and were, therefore, penniless in Vietnam. And our mobile phones did not work across the border so we were also without communication.

We knew we could find a money exchange pretty quickly and ask someone about a few basic words but for a short while understood the feeling of being a complete outsider.

As we stood on the street pondering how to find our hotel, a man approached us with a business card. Do we want a hotel? Since we already had one, we smiled and waved him on. But he persevered. “Where are you staying?”. Hmm…perhaps he’s trying to sell us something? Convince us to ride with him? Or to change our hotel? But no. He just wanted to tell us how to get there and that it was only two blocks away and easily walkable.

So was our first encounter with Vietnam as we arrived here for a week of exploring a new country and culture. And, with only 12 hours of experience so far, we love it. We’d been prepared for aggressive people, loud traffic, overwhelming noise and congestion. But perhaps after being in Phnom Penh for three months we are a little more immune to traffic and congestion, as we’ve found the city of Saigon to be exciting, stimulating and every corner filled with surprises.

Our first day consisted of visiting the Ben Thanh market which is similar to the Russian Market in Phonm Penh — stuffed with a plethora of inexpensive clothing, silk fabrics, buddha statues, ornaments, food and much more — and then discovering “Tous Les Jours”, an amazing French bakery cafe with more sumptuous croissants, pastries and cakes than I could possibly dream about.

While browsing in some of the roadside stores, Skip was approached by a woman with an offer we couldn’t refuse. “You want a massage?” Those are always magic words to us so we followed her into her salon and were given a seat in a hairdresser shop with people getting their hair cut and coloured. After a moment, she ushered us into the back room where they had four beds covered in towels and urged us to lie down — even though I only wanted a foot massage. For Skip, no need to remove clothes for a full body massage.

It sounded a little strange and felt even more so as we both lay down and giggled at our circumstances, listening to the babbling of the Vietnamese stylists who could have been saying “do you like your haircut?” or “can I offer you a martini?” as far as we could understand.

A one-hour foot massage and body massage, respectively, turned into a half hour leg and shoulder rub. So, with the extra time we’d allotted, Skip opted for a haircut. Big mistake. His $3 investment turned into the worst and shortest haircut he’d ever received. And my massage “therapist” continued to give me the same treatment all over again with megadoses of oil to turn the half hour into a full hour experience.

As with most of our adventures, this one has been filled with colour, even in the first 12 hours in this amazing city.

While walking along the street, an American man caught my eye. “Amazing, isn’t it?” he said, as we observed the sights and sounds of the biggest and wildest electronics store we’d ever seen. He stopped to chat and told us his story. He’d been in the U.S. army for 20 years and was one of the soldiers involved in the attack on Vietnam. His eyes teared up as he talked about his memories of invading villages, watching as napalm was dropped on innocent people and seeing photos in the pockets of slaughtered Vietnamese of their wives and children.

He burned with a passion about coming back to the same country he’d participated in devastating many years ago. Told us how he’d discovered his country had lied to him and that he felt like no more than a terrorist. Wanted to make right the wrongs he had done.

“When I stepped off the plane in Vietnam, ” he said. “I knew I’d come home. I don’t think I’ll be leaving.”

And as we continued along the street, surrounded by an incredible tumult of sound, cars, motorbikes, people, music and smells, we learned how to say thank you. Cam on.

It’s a word we plan to use a lot this week.


  • fbk

    Wow again. But listen: we need to see this dog of a haircut! Send photos! And tell more about how the newer parts of the city look. Is it a big metropolis now? Do you any sense of how Americans are thought of there now? You suggest that they are the same generous and eager people that you find in PP ….. yes?fbk

  • Meghan Coleman

    Why am I not surprised that the two of you are having another exciting and memorable adventure? Thanks for sharing your experiences in such a vivid way – it is like I am there with you! I would love to know your reflections on the Cu Chi tunnels and the "American War Crimes Against Humanity" museum.

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