I felt the grinding sound of the landing gear lowering below my feet. That hydraulic rumble that reminds me you’re most of the way through your descent and about to return to terra firma. The palms of my hands were starting to sweat and I felt a rock in my stomach. Despite previous trips, my last foray into a wildly different culture had been a couple years previous and done with family. This time, I was alone and couldn’t help by second guess my decision.
As the ground raced up to greet me, I looked out over Ho Chi Minh’s skyline. It was strange…dry….brown…it almost looked familiar. In fact, it reminded me of landing in Mexico. The buildings, their angularity, their coloration and the semi-organized chaos.
Then with a bump, we made contact. The fear and second guessing subsided, replaced by excitement and acceptance. No matter if I’d made a good choice or not, what would follow would be roughly 19 days of exploration, wandering, and discover.
Though elements of Ho Chi Minh continued to remind me of parts of Mexico – in no small part due to the mixture of humidity, heat, and oft-present sun – Vietnam quickly differentiated itself. In this post I’ll share a few random observations that stuck out for me as I made my way through the trip, tasting Vietnam, skipping through Cambodia, and swimming just off the beaches of Southern Thailand.
Quite frankly, I expected all three countries to smell. I expected them to stink of humanity, of waste, of sewage, and of strange foods. As someone with a strong sense of smell, a city and its people’s scent has a hefty impact. To my delight, the vast majority of smells were pleasant. There was rarely the fetid stench of filth or bio-decay. There was often the light scent of fumes from cars and more likely mopeds and as I think back on it, the pungent and prolific reek of body odor was either rare or largely tolerable. There were a few exceptions – areas along the Mekong where a fish had died, or something of the sort had transpired – but these common scents and no less or no more prolific and overpowering than normal.
What smells do stand out in my memory were largely pleasant. The smell of foods, rich, fantastic aromas from street food vendors, shops, large flower stands, and open markets selling wonderfully fresh produce were enchanting, enticing, and quite common. And oh, the smell of street food – of all of the aromas to flavor a city with, remains one of the best.
The one exception I ran into was the smell of Mothballs. That pungent scent that much of the world views as clean, enjoyable and refreshing bombards and overloads my senses. It assaults my nose puckering my tongue and evoking the desire to gag. Unfortunately, unlike in the west where it is often only relegated to use discouraging and poisoning moths, it is relatively common in Southeast Asia.
I spent my first few days living with friend’s extended family, their friends and roommates. It was a wonderful experience and their hospitality was both inspiring and deeply wonderful. From it, I learned something that is, perhaps, common knowledge but which I found utterly surprising.
Throughout the countries I visited western beds were a novelty and relegated to western properties. Hotels and some residential properties included them, but just as often and as common people opt for either a thin mat on the floor or just the floor with a blanket and pillow. In other instances it was a raised metal frame with a sturdy bamboo mat suspended across it.
While somewhat challenging for me to adjust to, it was an interesting insight and wake-up call. Of the many things I know I take for granted as common place and mostly global – the standard western bed had never even registered. Of course, it makes sense as I think about it. For years I’d seen and heard about it as it was depicted and recounted during friend’s visits to Japan.
Also, as population density scales and entire families live collectivistically it also makes sense. It’s also something I suppose I had also associated with some relative level of wealth. Perceiving it as something you might forgo in cases of significant poverty. But, the trip quickly washed away this pre-conceptions. Especially when talking to friends who viewed the flat firmness of the ground or a light pad to be ultimately more comfortable and better for their health.
This is not to say there was a shortage of western beds – all of the hotels I stayed at had them and had I not spent the time I did with several locals, I very likely never would have realized the difference. Never the less, it was a fun and surprising takeaway.
As with Africa, one of my persistent fears was squat toilets, toilet protocol – the works. You’ll find other posts where I elaborate further about the various concerns, surprises, and battles I’ve had with the world’s varied restroom practices. In this instance however, my fears about being forced to use squat toilets or dingy bathrooms proved to be utterly unfounded. Western toilets were common and throughout the entirety of my 19 day trip I was never forced to use anything to the contrary. As with the region’s aroma, the general status and hygiene of the toilets was also quite decent.
This is not to say that they don’t exist and that there are not abysmal pits…especially as you wander from the tourist trail or if you’re forced to make a pit stop at a road-side truck stop. But, with a little planning and good luck the restroom situation is anything but the horrible dread-fest I’d been led to believe.
Asian Cough & Asian Gold
There were two particularly frustrating protocol differences I noticed quite regularly. They were, in general, something that was quite off-putting and disgusting. The first was the harsh open mouth cough. These coughs are made without any effort to stifle the cough or to cover one’s mouth. It’s particularly frustrating when on public transit or somewhere with close confines and generally quite disgusting.
The other is a somewhat prolific and common place gold-mining endeavor. Like an army of gold miners many of the people I encountered on public transit had no qualms or hesitation about delving deeply and openly into their nasal passages, securing small nuggets of gold, and then generally discarding said nuggets onto the nearby street or ground.
Unfortunately, these two were perhaps the most widespread sanitary violations and also the most unsettling from a street food standpoint. Ordinarily the two didn’t pop up around food or food vendors, but when they’re fairly widespread in general, it leaves you wondering if, when, and to what extent those behaviors cross over during food preparation.
It’s impossible to see footage or photos from Southeast Asia without quickly realizing that mopeds and moped traffic is an essential part of daily life. Though I expected moped traffic to be widespread, complex, and fascinating, it was impossible to truly appreciate it until I was fully immersed in it. In Ho Chi Minh in particular, where I had the opportunity to hop on the back of a friend’s scooter, the complexity of the traffic and its sheer scope was stunning.
The local friend I’d been introduced to offered up basic advice – no matter what, when crossing the street or driving your moped – you proceed forward or stop. Never step backwards, never reverse. This and a number of other subtle rules come together to allow the locals to stitch a fascinating tapestry with crisscrossing threads of traffic that come within inches of each other while still managing to, for the most part, avoid collisions or incident.
There were people sleeping on their parked mopeds, serving food from them, carrying loads consisting of every conceivable combination of size, dimension, and objects all immersed in traffic, particularly the roundabouts and intersections, that would give most westerners a panic attack.
It was also amazing to see entire families squeezed onto small mopeds. While I sat clinging on to my friend, taking up the vast majority of the space, we were passed by entire families of four or five artfully squeezed onto smaller mopeds. It was impressive and an absolute hoot to see. Especially as you speed along in a pack of mopeds, all so close you could reach out and hug the people next to you. Which means that often, as you move along, you make eye contact with the little kids, squeezed between adults or balancing delicately on the back of one of the mopeds. Utterly comfortable, stable, and with time to look around enjoying the view.
Earlier in this post I mentioned that I expected the fetid stench of dead animals to be fairly common. It’s a scent I came to associate with under-developed areas during yearly trips to rural parts of Mexico. I also expected the level of brutality directed at animals to be quite high. As a bit of a softie, this was something I was deeply concerned about and something that contributed to my resistance to visit SEA.
There’s no doubt that in some areas and with some species there are still major issues. However, overall, I was shocked at how well cared for most of the cats and dogs I saw were. These were not abused animals, subsisting on scraps, treated like rats, or fodder for a cooking pot. These were pets, well cared for, respected and treated well.
Even in Cambodia, where the well being and health of the animals was the most miserable, it was nowhere near the scale I had expected. Yes, there were a few dogs that had long-healed injuries or who had lost most of their hair from scratching flees. But even these animals received some level of care and sympathy from the locals.
All-in-all, there seems to have been a cultural shift, perhaps perpetuated by media or tourism, which has changed the way many animals, especially cats and dogs, are viewed and treated. While there’s still a long way to go, it was nowhere near the traumatic and haunting experience I anticipated and had been told to fear.
There were shockingly few assholes. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a special smoldering place in hell for Bangkok’s Tuk-Tuk and Taxi Drivers, and a few vendors in some of the largest and most touristed markets. But, beyond that, I was completely surprised at how incredibly wonderful all of the people I met were. The stories of aggressive sales people and rude street vendors or beggars were utterly over-stated and almost completely confined to only the most egregious tourist spots. This experience matched and re-affirmed what I found upon visiting Turkey where the experience was much the same.
It also illustrates and highlights just how many people limit themselves and spend the lion’s share of their visit within the extremely narrow confines of a few roads, squares, or markets. The difference between the obnoxious and the friendly, polite, or apathetic was often no more than a 5 minute walk.
It’s a silly thing to have anticipated, but at some level I expected the quality and nature of the food to be largely uniform. It was anything but. While Vietnam won the culinary battle, by a landslide, Thai food was good and lived up to the hype, though I did find that tracking down good Thai food was far more challenging than discovering great Vietnamese. Cambodian cuisine on the other hand was utterly unremarkable.
What made Vietnamese food so amazing? The freshness, diversity, and range of flavors. While there were some dishes that were excessively pungent for my taste – mostly fish that tasted of muddy Mekong water, or sun-dried fish eggs that left my stomach churning and nostrils in utter rebellion – the majority of dishes were spectacular. The ingredients and their freshness brought a wonderful combination of tastes, while the depth, breads and range of Vietnamese dishes shocked me. Though I expected to copious amounts of Pho, my local hosts insisted on taking me down alleyways to great corner shops and plying me with an endless stream of sauces, flavors and eats.
Thailand on the other hand had some great seafood and a lot of great dishes. One thing I look forward to next time I return is exploring more local dives while also trying more street food. During my time on Koh Lanta, I found some spectacular seafood, but mostly was met by lovely fresh pieces of fish or shrimp which had been mauled on the grill without any sauce, spice or flavoring to bring it to life. This contrasted with the alleyway stalls, noodle shops, and hole-in-the-wall dives I ate at in Bangkok which is why, in general, Bangkok’s main redeeming feature for me was its food.
The Cambodian food was bland. It lacked diversity. It also tended to be far less hygienic. That’s not to say there were not still some good dishes, as there definitely were, but these were far less compelling and often contained far more bugs and grit, than cuisine from the neighboring countries.
Having said that, and despite a few run ins with bug-filled soup, or a rate or two, the overall level of food quality, freshness and hygiene in all three countries was surprisingly good. Over my 19 days, I ate at some fantastically minimalistic shops – one in particular stands out as they emptied their wok into a 5-gallon bucket, which then would get dumped into the street gutter. I ate bugs. I ate local fish. You name it. And through it all, I never got sick. While part of this was no doubt due to the probiotics I was taking and a bit of luck, I also suspect that it was because I almost entirely ate local food instead of ordering western dishes in semi-touristic restaurants. It’s pure speculation, but I suspect that the greatest sources of food poisoning are often western dishes like hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken tenders and types of pizza which lack freshness and beg-poor handling.
I avoided Southeast Asia for more than decade, assuming it would be a challenging ordeal to get around, to eat, and that I’d be bombarded by constantly unpleasantness. The reality, as happens oh so often, was the utter opposite. The trip was spectacular. The people were wonderful. The food was incredible. As is the case with many of the best trips, I arrived with a head full of falsehoods and misconceptions and left with those rectified and replaced with a fondness and deep appreciation.
As I click publish on this post I’m looking at airfare and considering a return. There’s so much more to see and I can’t wait to dive in.