VIETNAM BY BICYCLE
by Nikki Ellman
Most of us became ESL teachers as a logical offshoot of international traveling or out of an interest in other cultures, and I'm sure that many of you, like myself, have become very interested in visiting the countries from which your students come. This is why I decided to go to Vietnam. I wanted to see how the country had been affected by the war and to meet the people we had fought along side with as well as against.
My friend Craig and I chose to see Vietnam by bicycle because that was how we did most of our international traveling. Not only is it excellent exercise, but there is nothing separating you from the people and your surroundings. This lack of a protective layer, such as a car or bus window, has its advantages and disadvantages. You can see and experience a lot more, but you are also constantly exposed, so much so that we nicknamed our trip "Vietnam: An Assault on the Senses".
We undertook our trip during the Christmas break, which only gave us three weeks, too short a time to see as much of the country as we wanted to. Going in the summer would have given us more time, but Vietnam in the summer is extremely hot, humid and rainy - not conducive to long-distance cycling. Because of this time limit, we were not able to bicycle the entire length of the country; Vietnam is about 1000 miles long. To shorten the trip, we flew to Hanoi and took a train to Hue, the old imperial capital of Vietnam, just south of the DMZ. From Hue we rode our bikes around 625 miles to Bao Loc, about 100 miles from Saigon. From there we took a bus to Saigon.
"National Highway 1" is a euphemistic term at best. The main north-south artery, on which everyone travels on seemingly every possible mode of transportation, is equivalent to a poorly maintained tertiary road in the United States. With some exceptions, it is rutted, potholed, and bone-jarring on a bicycle. But if you want to see Vietnam, it's the place to be because everybody in the country is on it. There are very few passenger cars in Vietnam; most people travel by motorbike or bicycles of the one-speed Communist bloc variety. These travel along the side of the road, the middle being reserved for the many buses and trucks which come barreling along with great frequency, spewing exhaust fumes and honking their horns. This disturbs the tranquility you might otherwise expect to find on a rural road surrounded by small villages, rice paddies and verdant hills. In addition to these vehicles, Vietnam is on the move in horse-drawn carts, wagons pulled by oxen, xichlos (bicycle-powered rickshaws) and makeshift wheelchairs.
Just as you might expect, the Vietnamese are extremely friendly people. They're still not used to seeing lots of foreigners away from the tourist centers, and everyone wants to practice their English. All day every day we were greeted by a constant stream of "Hellos" shouted to us by people along the road, from senior citizens to pre-schoolers. Schoolchildren on bikes were especially keen on practicing their English, and would follow along with us, sometimes for miles, trying out the phrases they were learning in school with native speakers. There were some isolated instances of hostility (rock-throwing, pushing me on my bike), but I think this was more from xenophobia rather than any hostility towards Americans, and the perpetrators were mostly teenage boys.
The most rewarding experiences for us were encounters with veterans who had fought in both the North and South Vietnamese armies, and with people in restaurants and markets along the road. The North Vietnamese veterans, without exception, were incredibly open and friendly, seeming to bear no ill will towards us, as Americans. Craig, a Vietnam Era veteran who escaped being sent there, had a particularly touching interaction with a retired career soldier from the North, all conducted in French. French was not widely spoken, except by older, educated people. Nor was English spoken much outside of the tourist centers, except by some hotel employees and children. We picked up enough pidgin Vietnamese to deal with shopping, eating, and hotels, which was greatly appreciated but always greeted with gales of laughter because of our unfamiliarity with tones. Who knows what we were really saying when we thought we were asking for the price or ordering a bowl of noodle soup? But it's amazing the complex conversations you can have and what you can learn about people using sign language, drawings and pidgin English and Vietnamese. The most common questions asked us were how many children we had, why we didn't have any, if we were married, and how much we made per month. A teacher there makes thirty dollars per month, so I refrained from telling them I made more than that per hour.
Many of our Vietnamese students here talk about the family members they have left behind and the long, protracted waits for visas to be approved so they can be reunited. Some relatives can never come here because they are not closely enough related, or don't qualify for refugee status. It was heart-breaking to see the other side of the coin. Almost everyone we talked to at length had relatives living in the States, many of them in California, and in other countries as well. The impact of the Vietnamese diaspora really hit home while I was on this trip: so many families split by the war, relatives perished while trying to escape by boat, others repatriated after languishing in refugee camps in Thailand or the Philippines for years, others waiting years to be reunited with parents or spouses.
Because diplomatic relationships have been so recently reestablished between the United States and Vietnam, it's still relatively rare for Vietnamese to meet Americans, other than veterans, who have been to their country. The fact that I've been there is helping to form a bond with my students that didn't exist before. I now have a better understanding of what they left behind and the difficulties they face adjusting to life here, and I'm familiar with some of the places they come from. And on a lighter note, I'm also more familiar with the culinary specialties that Vietnam has to offer. If you think Vietnamese food is good here, you should try the banh xeo in the market in the central highlands city of Dalat. It's to die for!