Those of you following me already already know that I’m not only based in Viet Nam, but have a tendency to get up on the proverbial soapbox, roll up a paper cone, and squawk about the benefits of travel and experience every chance I get.
This won’t be all that different.
After nearing the three-month mark of time spent here in this country, most of that being within the confines of Sài Gòn , I’ve had a variety of adventures. Such things primarily involved experiencing culture and meeting new people. On one occasion, we left the outer-rim of Sài Gòn to visit a most excellent temple atop a mountain. The place was crowded beyond belief, and since no one was hurt at the end of the day, it’s easy to say I had a great time.
What made that day awesome was not only the location, but the company. In fact, the fun I have where I go is multiplied by the quality of people with whom I go; this ought to come as no surprise to even the most socially inept of us, but is worth mentioning anyway.
I once took a day-trip to the Mekong Delta, though not for tourist reasons and certainly not to any of the famous sights to be seen; rather, I went for the express purpose of keeping a friend company as she sought out the expertise of a famous practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Having taken a 3-hour bus ride east and out of Sài Gòn, and being nowhere near popular tourist destinations (closer to the coast), I found myself – not for the first and certainly not for the last time – stared at by locals as though I were from another planet.
That has been an oft-repeated phrase in my mind. From another planet, and it was not I who first suggested this, but how apt the phrase has become. Because of the choices I make and the life I have chosen to lead, more often than not I find myself in the company of people who not only cannot speak English, but have never even met a foreigner/westerner. To many Vietnamese outside Sài Gòn, or any of the tourist hotspots as found in the Mekong Delta, or the port city of Vũng Tàu, or the beach resort of Mũi Né, I may as well have been a settler disembarking from an explorer’s ship weighing anchor off the coast four hundred years ago.
The simple experience of setting foot into the Chinese Medicine place – I’m not sure what else to call it – was, alone, quite the experience. I watched my friend have her pulse checked, describe their symptoms, then be prescribed a giant bag of (assuredly plant-based) white powder to be consumed over the course of a month. My companion was also advised to avoid “hot foods,” (in other words, foods with too much Yang energy), such as chicken and seafood.
To this day I don’t know what lay within the dozens of shelves that lined the wall there, but I saw dried vegetables, fruits, and (presumably) animal parts that may or may not be illegal. I recognized a sack of goji berries, though, and the ‘doctor’ (I don’t know what else to call the lady), allowed us each to eat a handful of the things.
Random, safe, and usually fun experiences like this happen in my life from time to time, but recently I got back from a planned trip.
Aboard the “sleep bus,” I went with a friend to the aforementioned resort town of Mũi Né about five-hours east of Sài Gòn and along the coast.
We arrived after dark, and being the Low Season in terms of tourists, we found ourselves to mostly be the only people there.
I can best describe how to pronounce Mũi Né like this: “Moo-ooie [nay?].”
There’s a glottal stop at the hyphen [like what happens when you say “Uh-oh!”)
and the “nay” is pronounced with a rising inflection, like a question.]]
It was awesome having noone else around.
But, interestingly, the relative quietude and silence of the town rang of a familiar tune; I grew up in small, rural, depressingly poor community, and the small towns nearby (though they were technically hamlets, as they were too small to be considered towns) often relied on tourism – or simply had no economy at all. There was a strange sense of familiarity as I was reminded of hot summers in the sparsely populated towns of my childhood, or working with my father tending to the summer homes of rich people who visited the Catskills once or twice a year. That peculiar sense of hot, desolate, dry air, where people really had no business being around except to cater to visitors.
Arriving at night, Mũi Né main street had dozens of hotels, hostels, guesthouses and restaurants, and dozens more shops (most of which were closed), it was easy to see that the town was mostly not happening, but there were a few other folks walking about. The following day was spent mostly atop a rented motorbike, which allowed us to get to see some of the local sights.
Mũi Né, at the risk of repeating myself too often, is a beach city. Catering to tourists, the place is of course a bit ritzy by Vietnamese standards, with prices akin to Bui Vien street in inner Sài Gòn , and as we traveled closer toward the sights, things appeared more busy a few kilometers away from the hotel. The beaches of Mũi Né are long, white and gorgeous, though it is difficult to find a wide patch of sand bereft of plastic bottles or Styrofoam cups.
As a former local of upstate New York, my notion of a “beach” is that along the likes of North Lake (that is to say, about an arrow’s flight across). My notions of “warm water” are that of what is felt only in a bathtub or a cup of hot cocoa. I’d been to beaches along the ocean in the past, but often at an age too young to really appreciate what I was seeing, and even then the water was freaking cold.
There is something existential about watching the waves continually crash on the sand. When war erupted following the death of Franz Ferdinand, the waves were rolling. When Matthew Perry blew open the gates of Japan, the waves were rolling. When the Roman Empire fell, the waves were rolling. When people penned the first draft of the Torah, the waves rolled. When our ancestors fell out of the trees and learned to eat mushrooms in the wake of wildebeest herds, the waves still rolled. When thunder lizards breathed the same (though different) air of our planet, the waves had been rolling for quite a while already.
I started to realize why some people are in fact drawn to the sea.
And yet, the most profound experience I felt in Mũi Né was when we discovered the famed Red Sand Dunes. Oh yes.
Among the last things I expected to discover in this tropical country were environs that I could, in my head full of fantasy, best describe as something to emerge from the brain of Frank Herbert. It was a veritable desert, and felt as though I had in fact set foot into my favorite novel.
Walking along the red sand (okay fine, it’s orange, whatever), I felt the need for a stillsuit. My feet sizzled beneath me, and climbing a hill we made our way to the cover of a lone pine tree. I ventured on upward alone, discovering the dunes to stretch further than I previously expected.
My surroundings here in Viet Nam, on a daily basis, feel surreal as it is, but up there atop a dune of red sand, I felt as a man walking on Mars. Or Arrakis. I wanted to walk to the other side of the expanse, but having left my companion behind in the safety of the pine tree, and having not possessed a bottle of water on my person, I was pretty convinced, in that moment, that I would’ve died in the attempt.
Frank Herbert’s descriptions of the deserts of Dune were, I believe, very good descriptions (the man was an ecologist before he was an author of one of the greatest Science Fiction stories of all time). I can remember being made extremely thirsty while first reading it. But standing out there in the hot sand, with a hot sun beating down on my back, and hot air bereft of moisture or wind, well, I feel as though I can truly begin to appreciate what not only Herbert was trying to replicate in his writing, but what real people in the real world deal with when crossing, living in, or otherwise understand. Stuff I had no experience with was laid bare to me, and I caught a glimpse of life — on another planet or otherwise — that is vastly superior to books or television in terms of sensory input.
I’ve always been interested in deserts, and this experience was the closest thing besides the wide abandoned shale pits and bluestone quarries of upstate New York that I had known. The ocean has always been something of an enigma to me as well, for both of these types of environments remain a stark contrast to the evergreen mountaintops and sprawling deciduous forests of my homeland.
I will be feeding off these memories for years, and have no doubt the things I see, hear and even smell will translate to enriching my writing.
That is why travel is good for the writer.