I’ve only been away from Thailand for a month now, but I miss it more than Atlanta. No shade to the A because thats my home, but Thailand has left a pad thai-sized hole in my heart that may never be filled by any other place. If you’ve been there you know why: the country’s culture there is seasoned perfectly with western comforts, breathtaking scenery, cheap flights to neighboring countries, sensational food, an awesome (but small) community of Black expats, inexpensive and efficient hospital care, great locals, a (generally) at least basic understanding of English. I could go on forever. Living in such a utopia for six months gave me an unrealistic expectation of how the rest of Southeast Asia would be. While I didn’t expect Laos and Vietnam to be exactly the same, I did look at them through Chiang Mai-colored glasses.
What I thought:
Surely these neighboring countries would have a similar charm about them. Of course I don’t need to speak the native tongue, because they’ll know at least a modicum of English. The food is going to be great! I just know these other countries will have at least a portion of the western comforts I was afforded in Thailand! People are wrong about SE Asia; it can’t be as underdeveloped as the media makes it out to be.
I was wrong on nearly every level.
In all fairness Luang Prabang, Laos was really cool. Great restaurant selections, gorgeous scenery, small town feel, welcoming toward tourists, modern(ish) facilities, everything you could want in a backpacker and tourist laden Asian town. The rooms were a bit overpriced and slightly outdated, but I didn’t complain. I didn’t take to it as I did in Chiang Mai but I wasn’t tripping until it was time to hit Vietnam.
The bus ride from Luang Prabang to Hanoi was one for the record books. We spent 26 hours on a sleeper bus with no bathroom and had live chickens in a box strapped to the roof. There was the faint smell of cheap Laos whiskey wafting from the cup that the driver kept delicately sipping, which may have explained him swerving through traffic so much that I couldn’t even sleep with the help of sleeping pills. The last people to board the bus who didn’t get a seat and had to sleep on the floor had it worse though. I won’t bore you with the story of how we had to walk across the Laos/Vietnam border from one immigration office to the other (about a mile) in the rain with our luggage. Just know I got a real taste of Asia that Thailand didn’t prepare me for. This was nothing like the luxurious buses that took us from Chiang Mai to Bangkok so many times before. Every experience abroad thus far has either been a good time or a good story to tell, and this was definitely the latter. The same goes for Hanoi and Dong Ha.
I tried my best to find good food in Hanoi, but the local cuisine just didn’t do it for me. The saving grace was the Popeye’s we found though. Fried chicken never tasted so good.
I enjoyed the scenery and historical destinations that I visited, but the cold weather and rain showers put a damper on some of the plans. And it was amusing how much the people gawked at us while we were out in the city. It’s par for the course at this point so I’m used to it. I was told that Black people are rare in northern Vietnam which explained their curiosity. They would walk up on us and use us to practice their English skills which was cool. Interacting with locals is always interesting.
Instead of taking the usual route from Hanoi to Hoi An, we decided to take the sleeper train to Dong Ha, a less touristy town that had a major role in the Vietnam (or as they call it the American) War. Shortly after we arrived there is when things got weird.
The casual looks and whispers we experienced in Hanoi turned into outright stopping and staring in Dong Ha. I really think we are the first Black people the residents have ever seen, we literally stopped traffic. I felt like a combination of a celebrity and an alien. People took pictures of us like zoo animals, which was different from other places where people asked to take pictures with us. Add to that the fact that it was so rural and boring, and you’ll see why we’ve hightailed it out of there three days before our scheduled departure. My people in Thailand would have never treated me like this. Maybe they would have if I would have gone outside the expat-friendly cities into the rural countryside, but that’s not the point! Vietnam is no Thailand.