GOOOOOD MORNING VIETNAM! (Is it too corny to say that? Oh well. I think I just did.)
We arrived in Vietnam last Wednesday morning. I decided that the previous Tuesday just simply did not exist. We skipped right over it. We beat time. I think I am a day younger than everyone else.
A bit on the groggy side, we waddled out of the airport prepared to haggle for the price of a taxi. Set price of $15. Haggling would have to wait.
Thrilled to be on the ground, we took a look at our surroundings. To be honest, my first thought was just this:
My God, What have I done?
I really had very few expectations of what Vietnam would be like. I hadn’t envisioned anything I was about to see. The plane rides had passed by without any epiphany of purpose or any realization of just how far away our destination was from home. Then suddenly in the taxi I found myself surrounded by hundreds, thousands of Vietnamese motorists, bicyclists, and rickshaw drivers, all going down the road in what initially seemed to be a rule-less road of chaos. We all felt the need to close our eyes at times because a bus full of children would merge no more than two feet in front of our cab. The architecture along the sides of the road was unlike anything I had ever seen: A combination of french colonial and Chinese pagodas painted in Caribbean colors. Where there were no buildings, there were only rice fields: giant, watery squares stretching outwards for miles, interrupted only by billboards advertising coca cola or displaying Communist propaganda. Every once in a while we could spot women working in the fields, hunched over and wearing straw, conical hats.
As we got closer to Hanoi, the buildings became more frequent and the motorcycles more numerous. As we watched the drivers, the madness did seem to have a method to it: a kind of ebb and flow of a tide, or perhaps like a crowded ski slope where the skiers in front have right of way. When on the slopes, you yell out to the folks in front of you to alert them that you are passing by. It seemed to be the same on the Vietnamese street, but instead of yelling, everyone tooted their horns. It is very odd to be in a place where using your car horn is the polite thing to do. The city rings night and day with horns of all kinds. I suppose one could call it musical…then again, not really.
Crossing the street is another matter entirely. It’s all about confidence. I would recommend not dwelling for too long on this activity’s resemblance to Frogger. Do your best to make eye contact with the vehicles, and maintain a steady pace as you cross. Use your peripheral vision to guard yourself from oncoming peril. If it would make you feel better, hold somebody’s hand.
I am coming to a new understanding of the word, ‘foreign.’ Previous to this trip, my most exotic traveling experience was still in the West, and usually included a language I spoke. The streets of Hanoi introduced new images in my head of how different lifestyles can be. All around the city, there were new noises, new smells, new scenes of daily life, none of which I had ever imagined. Walking around the old part of the city fascinated, and in some cases startled, the senses. Almost everyone spent their days in the street or cooped up on sidewalks sitting on chairs so small I would rather expect to see a six-year-old using them to host her stuffed animals in a tea party. Everyone cooked on the ground and ate right on the sidewalk. Some people burned their garbage while others slept on mats in their storefront. Everywhere women walked carrying heavy loads. Frequently, they balanced two baskets dangling from the ends of a long stick across their shoulders. They offered to sell you a chance to hold this contraption for a photo-op. Everywhere men follow you offering a motorbike ride.
It is easy to dismiss Hanoi as dirty, noisy, and overall unpleasant, and most certainly no place to take your Grandma. But somehow I remembered that despite the cultural differences that cause immediate discomfort, God works through the differences. He created diversity on purpose, and to travel and see the range of differences can be an illuminating form of worship. Though I recognized so little, I knew that because God knows no bounds, He must be at home everywhere.