Saturday, September 02, 2006

Vietnam's National Day

My father and I left Hanoi for the States a year ago today, after a full month touring southeast Asia. Coincidentally, September 2 is also Vietnam's National Day. We had managed to miss the Queen's Birthday in Thailand by a day, Malaysia's National Day by a few weeks, and Singapore's National Day by two days. But for Vietnam's National Day, we were in the capital, trying to get out, and staying within near spitting distance of the Vietnamese equivalent of the Esplanade on the Fourth of July. Both of us were in a horrendous mood; my father's wallet and glasses had been stolen as we squeezed through half a mile of ass-to-stomach thick crowd the night before, and I didn't know whether I more wanted American food or to walk down a hassle-free Walmart aisle.

Our flight out was shortly before midnight, so we took our last dinner at the cozy backpacker's place we had already frequented on a number of occasions. While my dad was shooting off a final email to my mother, I had a few drinks and made a final purchase of a 750mL bottle of Da Lat red wine. I hadn't actually had any on the trip, and we hadn't actually made it to Da Lat, which is in the mountains north of Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon). Next time I'm in Vietnam, I'll definitely try to get there; we simply didn't have time on this trip.

We trudged back to the hotel, going well out of our way to this time avoid the burgeoning masses of people around the lake, getting back around 7:30 or so. The roads around our hotel were completely blocked off, and it only took about ten minutes to realize that "we ordered a taxi for you" really meant "I have no idea what you said, but I don't want you mad at me." So we walked away from the commotion for a few blocks, looking for someone to give us a ride to the airport.

Now, for those of you who haven't had the distinct pleasure of travelling somewhere where they can tell you're a foreigner by the color of your skin (please note that this is not an issue in the U. S. of A.) and where everyone knows that you can take advantage of a foreigner because they are endless fountains of money, let me explain something. One of the main reasons I was so ready for this slightly-too long trip to be over was that I had begun to cultivate an intense desire to be able to walk down the street without every other person yelling at me, Hey lady, want a taxi? Considering this, there is a strong level of irony to the fact that we had a hell of a hard time finding someone willing to give us a ride to somewhere else for the exchange of a few colorful pieces of paper.

We eventually found two guys on motorcycles, and realizing this was the best we were going to get, decided on a slightly too high price, and set off. There had been a bit of discussion over the word "airport," and then some arguing between the two of them as to, presumably, the best way to get there, but it was good to be on our way.

We arrived only about twenty minutes later. At the (closed) Vietnam Airlines head office. I honestly do not think that either of these gentlemen really knew what an airplane or an airport is. But they wanted their money. And explaining to them that they hadn't taken us where they told us they would didn't really work. And we really really needed to get to the airport.

At this point, the streets were completely packed, we were out a decent bit of cash (wallet stolen and all, we had a finite amount, see), and now no earthly clue as to our location, except that there probably wasn't a plane headed to Seoul within a mile.

One advantage to the street being at a standstill is it wasn't too difficult to find a cab. We agreed on a definitely too high price, and climbed in. And just sat there. And moved a little bit. And then sat there some more. Sometime between getting off of the motorcycles and into the cab and the cab not really going anywhere, the fireworks had started. Now, in the U.S., if you're in a car, and you're on the road, even if it is July 4th, if fireworks start going off, ... you keep driving, right? Right? You don't stop the car, get out, and watch the fireworks, even if you're in the middle of making a left-hand turn. This is probably because most people in the United States have actually seen fireworks before... as one kind woman about my age explained to us as we were trying to get the Red Traffic Sea to part, "But it's our National Day! Everyone is so excited!"

The only car that made any perceptible progress for the next half hour was the taxi (originally) next to us, with six people in it, most of whom were hanging out of the windows yelling and motioning at everyone else in the traffic jam. I think they were everso calmly explaining, "We've got a lady giving birth in the back seat, so please move over so we can get through."

Once the (rather brief, even if you are worried about missing an international flight) fireworks display was over, and we were definitively on our way, I recognized a familiar tune in the instrumental music on the radio. It was a forty-five minute ride out to the airport, we didn't miss the flight, and I was only mildly scolded by the immigration agent because my visa expired on the first of September. As I was moving shortly after returning, I even had the joy of going to Walmart almost daily for a week.

And now I've been here for almost a year. When my parents visited a couple of weeks ago, I marinated some steaks for them, and my dad opened up the bottle of Da Lat wine I had been saving for a special occasion. We toasted and sipped. Only one sip each. It was... earthy, in that thick muddy black dirt under your toenails kind of way. At least it'll make for good cooking wine...

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