(NB: This begins a series of posts about Vietnam. I’m hopping into a narrative DeLorean, though: after leaving New Zealand, I spent two months in Australia. My parents visited, I traveled with and then ditched a travel partner, I stayed at a rural hostel occupied entirely by 21 year old girls, I escaped a cyclone, I blew a tire on a rural road…I’ll get to these. Patience. Since I’m back in Australia (Melbourne, currently), I’ll lump those March-May posts into a single Australia series.)
My dad is prone to making ridiculous statements. Generally they’re in support of a questionable opinion or factoid. For example: if a restaurant’s food doesn’t meet his exacting standards, he claims it is “bucket food,” which is, ostensibly, food delivered in and then served from buckets. I’ve never seen food delivered and/or served in buckets. Not saying it doesn’t happen, but the frequency with which he asserts this is far out of proportion with my experience. Bucket food doesn’t, per se, make for an inferior culinary experience, but it’s a pall, the verbal equivalent of seeing a cockroach run across your table. My family’s non-bucket-purveying members—mother, sister, me—keep my dad away from establishments we are especially keen on. His superhuman bucket-sighting-skills pose too much threat because, and I’m not sure how, being told a place serves bucket food depresses our affection for it.
This is a microcosmic example.
My dad is in that shuttle generation of parents, so when my or my sister’s safety is of concern, he suffers from vicious parental worry, the ridiculous statements get amplified, and I end up just not sharing with my dad information that he would view through a negative lens. I didn’t tell him I was going to Turkey until I was in the departure terminal. For Colombia I might have been in Bogota already by the time I passed the news.
I did not do that for Vietnam.
My dad was with me in Sydney when I told him. He attempted to dissuade me, I know it, but the attempts weren’t direct as such. Never did he say, “Don’t go,” because he knows what tricks to utilize: he’s a Ph.D. in psychology, so working a person’s mind is as simple as opening a refrigerator door. Plus, I think he wants that cool guise of parental laxity, being able to say he’s never forced his children to a decision. Thus, the attempts involved some subterfuge. The earnestness of these attempts was constant, grinding even, and 100% devoid of subtly. He’d be sitting across from me at the dining table, scrolling through antiquated State Department warnings: “Oh, look here…Apparently the North Vietnamese Army just launched an offensive into the DMZ.” He asked—twelve times—whether I possessed the necessary vaccinations. I told him—twelve times—I talked to other people who visited, none of whom obtained additional, unique-to-Vietnam vaccinations, and were fine, and I showed him the CDC’s health information for Vietnam, which didn’t recommend any vaccine I did not already have. “Alright,” he’d say, with the type of false sincerity that belongs in the category of a girlfriend’s ‘I’m fine’ shrug, “It’s your health.”
Then, if it wasn’t health, it was driving (“They don’t have road rules over there,”) or potential chicanery (“They might try to frame you for drug possession and the government will put you to death”), or remnant war artifacts (“If you walk in the jungle you may step on a mine and get maimed.”)
This did diminish my excitement to the point I began to actually worry. Worrying about anything, especially if that anything has a strong Internet presence, becomes self-actualizing.
Negative press on Vietnam is abundant. (Out of curiosity, I wrote that line and Googled, “Vietnam tourist.” The top story was: “Australian tourist overcharged by $40000 for Vietnam meal.”) A popular travel blogger wrote the viral post, “Why I’ll Never Return to Vietnam.” The blogger’s gripes were earnest, almost apologetic, but he said, “…no one ever wants to return to a place where they felt they were treated poorly. When I was in Vietnam, I was constantly hassled, overcharged, ripped off, and treated badly by the locals.” Hardly anyone, he said, had a good story about Vietnam, which explains why 95% of tourists don’t return. (I didn’t bother double checking the statistic because its veracity is besides the point). Other blogs and Facebook posts contained similar sentiments: anecdotes about being overcharged (usually in the range of a few cents to a few dollars (USD)), reckless drivers, aggressive saleswomen, etc. Positive voices were just as numerous, just as vociferous, but this was a case where the profusion of upset and passionate voices bent down to silence the happy few.
Before my dad dropped his bucket-food type negativity on me, my main worry had been whether I’d be able to safely cross the street. I’d never been to southeast Asia, and I told people Vietnam would be “my first Asian experience” (met by eye-rolls. Stopped). I geared up for culture shock, but what had been run of the mill, natural, and innocuous wondering, turned nefarious and morbid. Again, the Internet fed into the worry. A Facebook group had a particularly disturbing post about a dead backpacker left on the side of the road in Saigon.
I was certain I’d experience a particularly slow, agonizing, and embarrassing death from Vietnam’s vast array of options: sick with typhoid, I’d be in a bus bathroom as the bus careens off a cliff, goes topsy-turvy, and then lands on a trio of mines and other unexploded ordinance. I even looked up the State Department’s statistics on American deaths abroad.
Once my dad left Australia though, and I had a week to myself, the nearer my flight came, the more my worry subsided. By the time the Jetstar flight was descending into the ink blank of Asiatic airspace and the aircraft PA was filled with customs announcements, I was feeling giddy. Giddy for traffic, for pho, for Vietnam. For my first Asian experience.