Travel Tales: Xin Chao Vietnam

It’s raining leaving me stranded at a little roadside kiosk in the outskirts of Da Nang city, Vietnam. I cycled here to see the pagoda but I’m not interested enough to brave the rain and go the extra kilometer to get there. It’s quite nice just sitting here waiting for the rain to pass. A good time to write something. There is vapor swirling and drifting along the surface of the road, it looks pretty cool. I can see a giant, white, lady buddha statue up ahead poking out of the trees. Probably all I’ll  see of the Pagoda.

the-statue-of-lady-buddha

I have been couchsurfing for the last couple of weeks in Saigon and now Da Nang. It’s such a great way to make new friends, find out more about the culture, and of course to save money. In Saigon I spent the majority of the time in cafes drawing. I have learned a couple of things in that time. Firstly, young Vietnamese people love the shittiest of western pop music. I learned of one band, and I believe there are more, that are too shit for the west and are exported straight to Vietnam where they gobble it up. Apologies for any tones of superiority here. I actually really like Cambodian pop music and some Vietnamese music. I wish they would play more of that stuff. I don’t know why they persist with the western pop trash. It is in some ways similar to the many t-shirts with slogans written in english that asian people wear, oblivious to the meaning. One 19-year-old girl I met had been given a shirt by her mother reading: ‘sex=fun’. Other honorable mentions are ‘Anal’, and ‘Black chicks rock’. The second thing I learned, just when my mind was at melting point from pop-trash playlists, is that Vietnamese have no problem inflicting upon customers one song, played back to back on repeat for up to an hour possibly longer. I made a potential faux pas by asking the waitress to change the music in the confident manner of one who had realised the error before she had, only to realise my own error, in horror, as she changed it to a different, arguably worse song, which then stayed on repeat. What I thought was pointing out that’ your repeat button is accidentally on’, actually probably came across as ‘I dont like your choice of music in your own cafe, can you change it’.

As I flew into Da Nang on VietJet, I was subject to this phenomenon again when they played the familiar tones of ‘Hello Vietnam’ by Quyhn Anh. Familiar because I have been on a couple of flights with my sisters and Gus where we marvelled at the shameless repetition of this song. It all made sense now. In this case however, we all grew to quite like the song as it was drilled into us.

On my way from the airport to my host’s place, I was walking laden with bags and guitar, and I was called over by some local guys having lunch and drinking whiskey. They couldn’t speak english and I could barely understand any of their Vietnamese but nonetheless they fed me a tonne of lunch and some whiskey, which was great because I was starving. It struck me in that moment that if I was an unbending vegetarian or non-drinker I would’ve denied them and myself this very pleasant interaction. After lunch I cracked out the guitar and played them a few unpracticed songs. I feel like they humored me with applause but it was all good fun. Then I continued on my way with a full belly and an ever bright view of the Vietnamese people. About a Kilometer down the road I was called over by another group of street diners but I just said a friendly ‘xin chào’ and continued on my way.

I arrived at my host’s place which is a kind of language-exchange focussed cafe. A brand new business run by a group of bright young Vietnamese graduates, which had just opened that day. Very shortly my host, Ngọc, and I had a little guitar sing along. Later in the night I was summoned to practice english with a group of young locals and I played them some songs and they sang some songs back. In Saigon I had also been staying at an english school and was in high demand as an english practicing partner. I have experienced in both locations something akin to minor celebrity status, where random people will see me walking, or already chatting to vietnamese people, and they’ll approach, enquire and join in for a short time or for the day in one case. They’ll all add me to facebook, sometimes announcing our new acquaintance online to their friends, sometimes offering to buy me things. A feeling of being in high-demand is the way to describe it.

I spent the last two days sitting in the language exchange cafe, name of Sky Harbour, painting a couple of portraits. One of a Cambodian student of mine and one of a girl who sort of roped me into it. She was prepared to pay but as a Vietnamese student all she could offer was a negligible amount and I would rather just do it as a gift or as a trade in skills, a vietnamese lesson and lunch in return for the portrait. In fact I used it as an opportunity to practice a faster, simpler style of painting and I really enjoyed the process and the result.

I have been thinking of a way in which to monetize this sort of art. I thoroughly enjoy doing it and so I have some ideas milling about in my head. Perhaps I will write a separate post about this.

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