March 15, 2010

Chào bạn, Vietnam!

[Note: The blogs about my trip to Vietnam are not in the usual blog-type style. My entries are merely to document the events of my travels there, rather than focus on one specific aspect of the country or its people. These writings are more for me than anyone, so I apologize in advance for the lengthiness.]

After trucking through two transfers via Hong Kong and Bangkok, I finally arrived in Ho Chi Minh, the city formally known as Saigon. I had been looking forward to this vacation for weeks now and the time had finally come for me to begin my exploration into the mysterious land of Vietnam. I didn't know what to expect on this trip, because unlike my trip to Thailand, I had done little to no planning and quite honestly knew squat about the country's past or present. I had watched Anthony Bordain's two episodes on his travels there, in which he painted a beautiful illustration of the land and people, but I still felt rather clueless. All I knew is that it is the favorite travel experience of all that are fortunate enough to go there, so I wanted to see the reasoning for that for myself. On the plane over, I tried to gain a bit of insight by consulting my Lonely Planet. I did feel a bit more prepared and aware of the nation's tragic struggle for independence, but hoped that experiencing it firsthand would lead to a better comprehension.

I was happy to be greeted by my Korean friend, Saemi, at the Tan Son Nhat airport. As much as I do like to travel by myself, seeing a familiar face in a foreign place gives a reassuring feeling of comfort. Her family had just moved to Vietnam a week previous to my arrival hoping to start up a business there. We hired a taxi and began to catch up as we headed toward her new home. I couldn't help but be distracted by the full moon that hovered over the city- the first full moon of the lunar new year. It cast a warming glow on the others it had drawn out into the streets- people laughing, dancing, eating, enjoying life- and automatically I felt a sense of community permeating throughout the busy neighborhoods of Saigon.

We made it to her district and right away met her parents for a bowl of Vietnam's quintessential dish- pho. We dragged my luggage up the stairs of a restaurant's patio, draped with twinkle lights. Her parents were as cute as they could be and despite their lack of English, I immediately felt welcomed. We chatted about my experiences in Korea over a cold glass of fresh coconut juice just before our meal arrived. I didn't dare tell them I had already had four meals that day, nor could I deny myself a first taste of Vietnamese cuisine in such an ideal atmosphere. Our steaming hot soup arrived and I recognized rice noodles and seafood mixed together and topped with bean sprouts. Flavors of basil and lime offered a clean taste; other herbs were brought as a side to add to taste, as they are often served with most Vietnamese dishes. As I inhaled the deliciousness, Saemi mentioned there was a massage parlor nearby and suggested that I might want to unwind after a long day of traveling. It was nearing 11PM but I was game.

Of the many fantastic things I enjoyed about Vietnam, the cheapness of services and goods ranked near the top. I enjoyed meals for under a dollar and stayed in hotel rooms cheaper than a cup of coffee at Starbucks, but the best deal I got was definitely the massage in Saigon. I was skeptical as we entered the somewhat shady looking building, but felt relieved when I was greeted by the warm smiles of the girls working there. They came up to me, excitedly rubbing my arms and saying things to me in a language I didn't understand. Little did I know that this would not be the last time I'd experience such touchy-feelyness in this country. Saemi and I were led to a room where we changed into a pajama like attire. Buckets of warm water were brought in for soaking our feet and freshly peeled cucumbers were laid across our faces. Then, the 40 minute foot massage began incorporating reflexology, a method of using pressure on various points of the foot to relax other parts of the body. This was followed by acupressure, a full body oil and Swiss massage, hot stone placement on the back and shoulders, a facial, and a finale of being stretched into various positions, the foundation of Thai massage. This process lasted about 2 hours and after enjoying some hot jasmine tea, we payed our grand total of $7.

The massage proved to be a great way to end my first night in Vietnam. I hadn't seen much, but I already had a feeling that I was going to like this place.

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