Day 262: Learning about Vietnam

When I arrived at my hotel lobby, I intended to grab a quick breakfast, but my tour guide showed up early. The hotel staff, being concerned about my breakfast, made me an omelet to-go. As I walked to the van with my tour guide, Trung, he said, “Vietnamese don’t like empty stomachs.”

The tour would take us a few hours northeast to Ha Long Bay for the day. I sat next to Trung while we picked up the others. He appeared to be in his late 40s and was talkative. He told me that his father was a photographer for the communist government and he hoped that Trung would take over and save the world. Trung told me, “I don’t want to be friends with the computer. I’d rather be friends with you guys.”

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Trung was from Hanoi and he loved the city. He explained that families live together and keep adding floors to the house when the family expands. He said, “If one family member goes to Ho Chi Minh City, it’s very sad because they’ll have nobody. They’ll be on their own.” Trung didn’t seem to like Ho Chi Minh City in the south. He said Hanoi in the north takes care of homeless people, but the south doesn’t, so they have a lot of homelessness.

Once we picked up all of our passengers, Trung continued to talk to the group about Vietnam. He told us that HIV is a huge problem for the country, with 50 new cases each day. He pointed out their red-light district, where sex workers charge for services by the hour. Trung said that because people live with lots of family members, they don’t have a lot of privacy, so many go to the red-light district for prostitution and drugs. He warned us to watch out for needles on the street because they could be infected.

We passed Samsung City, which is a compound developed and owned by Samsung. There are 130,000 people living and working there. It’s so big that they have their own schools and hospitals, and they have to take a bus to get to other buildings. Trung told us that it’s mostly run and operated by the Koreans. There are half a million Koreans in Hanoi.

Trung told us that Vietnam and Singapore are the most expensive places to buy a car. Vietnam tries to control the number of cars sold, so there is a 250% tax on cars. If everyone owned a car, the streets would all be in gridlock. The country has 97 million people and more than 60 million motorbikes. Trung told us, “You could bring your car from the U.S. that you paid $10,000 USD for and sell it here for $30,000 USD.”

Vietnam has a large population considering the size of their land. Four million Vietnamese live outside of Vietnam, with the majority in the U.S, France, and Australia. Trung told us about the corruption with the police in Vietnam. He said, “The cops here are rich. They are not rich in the U.S.” He explained that the cops will pull you over and you will be forced to pay them to stay out of jail. They have a term called “umbrella,” which is when you know someone in the government who can get you off. In return, you’ll need to give them the most expensive lobster and whatever items you sell or make.

Trung pointed out the relatively safety of Vietnam and the fact that they don’t have bombings or terrorists; however, he said they have problems with China, Laos, and Cambodia (their surrounding countries).

In China, they have a shortage of women, so men go across the border to remote towns in the north of Vietnam and tell women they will marry them, give them children, a job, and a good life. These women are so isolated that they believe them. When they get to China, they’re sold into prostitution and work for free. If someone is caught trafficking five or more women, it’s a death sentence. Trung told us that they used to shoot people for $.50 each, but since 2015, they instituted lethal injection. It now costs $10,000 each. Trung said, “I prefer the bullet. Save the money for the people.”

The problem with Laos is the drugs that come from the Golden Triangle (borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar). Technically the law states that if you have more than six grams, it’s a death sentence, but people with money can buy their way out. This has allowed a lot of drugs to get into Vietnam.

The problem with Cambodia is the gambling. There is gambling in Vietnam, but only foreigners are allowed to partake. Trung said that Vietnamese people love to gamble, so they go across the border to Cambodia. They end up losing a lot of money and borrowing from the casino. Eventually, they lose enough that they have to sell their kidney for $5,000. Then rich Chinese come and buy it for $40,000. Trung told us that there are five million kidneys for sale there.

I was thoroughly enjoying learning about Vietnam, but then we stopped at a pearl palace. We had some time to browse and buy jewelry. They have a huge pearl industry there and I bought a pair of earrings. Shortly after the pearl store, we arrived at the boat that would take us through HaLong Bay. We were seated at tables for lunch. We joined another group, but there was still only about 30 people on our tour.

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I was seated with Joanne and her parents. They were from Singapore and welcomed me into their family. Joanne appeared to be in her 30s and was very pretty. She worked in hotel sales and had been working for a Thai company for the last eight months, but planned to start a new job when she returned from holiday. The Thai company was too “old school” and once the top boss said yes, there was no arguing. Joanne’s parents have been to the U.S. and enjoyed their visit, but it was close to 30 years ago.

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The boat cruised through Ha Long Bay, which was incredible! Large rock formations were spread out all over the place. There are thousands of rock islands that vary in size. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is nothing built on the rock islands, most likely because they are steep cliffs.

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We were served various fish dishes to share. I had a hard time eating some of them, like octopus. We arrived at a rock island, climbed a lot of stairs, and looked around inside a cave. The cave had a very large main room and it was just our group there. During the war, they used it as a make-shift hospital. Hospitals were often targets, so this allowed them to treat patients without the threat of bombs. Trung told us that during their rainy season, tourists have to take their shoes off because the cave starts to fill with water.

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We took the boat to another area that had a large pontoon platform to get into smaller boats. The smaller boats would take people through an archway, into a circular area, and then back to the pontoon. There were a lot of boats that had dropped off large groups of people. It was maddening to watch the chaos as people tried to line up to get on various small boats. Most of the tourists were from China. They tend to travel in very large groups and they don’t follow lines when waiting for something, so Trung was frustrated. He told us, “We welcome westerners and all the Chinese show up. We don’t welcome them, they just come. If we stop welcoming westerners, the Chinese will stop coming.”

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We got into small boats and a local rowed us through the archway and into the circular area. It was a short boat ride, but it was fun. We got back to our boat and were served fruit and coffee on the top deck. It would take about an hour to get back to the port and the boat weaved its way through the islands as the sun started to set.

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I talked with Joanne while enjoying some fruit. She was really sweet and we shared our contact information because I had a 24-hour layover in Singapore on my way to Australia and we hoped to meet up. Joanne planned to do some volunteer work in Fiji for several months. She had a very empathetic heart.

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The views of Ha Long Bay were beautiful and I was happy that I had the chance to visit. Joanne and I had to say goodbye once the boat docked because we were in separate vans.

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On the way back, Trung asked me if I had a man at home and was traveling without him, or if he was at the hotel. I said, “I’m divorced. I’m traveling alone.” Trung excitedly said, “Oh! You’re forever free?!” I responded, “Yup.” Trung was married for 13 years and had two kids, but he and his wife ended up getting a divorce. He told me that after ten years, you just get so bored of seeing the same person over and over. Early on in their relationship, they partied and had fun, but not anymore. They had an amicable split in the end.

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Trung dropped me off at my hotel and I walked down the street to eat Bun Cha. It was my favorite dish on the food tour, but this restaurant wasn’t very good. Next to me was a young couple smacking on their food so loud that it was driving me crazy. It seemed that many people in Vietnam were on a mission to eat as loud as possible. I ate as quickly as I could and went back to my hotel. After working on my blog, I was off to bed. The next day I would be leaving for a motorbike tour in the northern mountains for four days and I couldn’t wait.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 22-24: Summary of Portland, Oregon

I spent that Sunday writing for my blog and hanging out at the hostel. The day after that I went to The Grotto. It’s a Catholic place for peace, prayer, and reflection. Being a Monday, the place was mostly empty. There is an elevator on the side of the steep mountain that takes you to the top. I wandered the property, admired the grounds, and sat in silence and said some prayers to God.

After the Grotto, I met my friend Justin again at the hostel. We walked down to a restaurant and sat on the rooftop patio. The entire week that I was in Portland it was blazing hot. It reached 100 degrees one day. The patio was nice, but there wasn’t a breeze so I started to sweat. We had a couple of beers and some pizza. We had a great time talking about politics and life. Justin’s girlfriend got off work and joined us later but we had already finished eating. We stuck around a little while longer so she could also eat some food. They told me about their recent camping experience and showed me the battle wounds from the mosquitos that attacked them.

After dinner, Justin walked back with me to the hostel so he could get his bike that he left there. We talked about the new movie that was in theaters, Leave No Trace. The movie is based in Forest Park (where I hiked a few days before) and it was filmed there. I decided to go see the movie at a local artsy theatre near the hostel.

I bought my ticket at the window outside and the guy selling the ticket was really friendly and we chatted briefly. I went to the concession stand and ordered some milk duds and a cider.

The guy behind the counter said, “You want to pull out your cavities huh?”

I laughed, “They force me to eat slowly.”

He said, “I like your necklace. It goes really well with your shirt.”

I responded, “Why, thank you. This is the shirt I always wear it with.”

Every single time I wear that shirt and necklace together, I get a compliment about the necklace, mostly from men. Those small interactions made me feel so good. I sat in the theater waiting for the movie to start and thought to myself, “I’m back. This is the Christy that I know – the Christy that has friendly conversation with strangers.” It had been a rocky few weeks as I tried to find my place in my new world of traveling. Something kept being off. I didn’t feel like myself most of the time. This made me feel like me. I felt happy to hang out with a friend, happy to see a movie, and my energy was positive – inviting others to talk to me.

Around noon the next day, I headed to my car, which was parked across the street from the hostel, in hopes of doing more sightseeing. When I closed my door, I felt a draft. I turned around and discovered that my rear passenger window was smashed! I got out and looked around and the glass was shattered inside the car and on the pavement. I’d never had my car broken into before and it felt horrible. I was worried about what was taken because I still had some bags, including my checkbook, in the trunk that was only covered with the trunk cover.

Thankfully, it appeared everything was still there. I was so furious because the hostel warned me about car break-ins in the area. It’s a nice area, but the homeless problem is bad in Portland and so are car break-ins. The hostel employees recommended that I empty my car so I had taken out almost everything. I figured the stuff in my trunk was covered. In the back seat, I only had a case of water bottles, and a bag full of books. I put a black picnic blanket over the books that sat on the floor behind the driver’s seat because the blanket blended in with my upholstery.

Unfortunately, that made it look like I was hiding something. It appears the criminal lifted up the blanket, saw it was books, and took off (likely disappointed). I’m assuming my alarm scared them off as well.

I had no idea how long the window had been broken and it felt like such a violation. I’m super diligent about locking my doors and not leaving valuables in my car or in plain sight. I go out of my way to try to make sure this doesn’t happen.

I called the police but was on hold for over 15 minutes. While I waited, I saw there was a form you can fill out online so I started to complete it. When a guy finally answered, he said he could send an officer out but it would take about an hour. I asked if there was a difference in filling out the report online and the guy said no but if there is video footage, the officer would review the footage with me to see if I could identify the person. Considering I don’t live in Portland, I knew I wouldn’t be able to identify anyone, and there likely wasn’t any footage.

I filled out the report online even though I know the police were not actually going to look for the criminal. It’s not a top priority for them. I still filed a report because I wanted their crime stats to reflect the terrible amount of break-ins.

I called my car insurance company and they put me on a three-way call with a local glass repair shop. The cost to replace the window was $255 and my deductible was $500 so I decided not to go through insurance. Thankfully, the local repair shop ordered my window in the last-minute for a same-day repair. I ate lunch and an hour later, took my car to the shop.

There was a middle-aged guy getting his window repaired from an attempted break-in. He travels between Portland and Seattle a lot for work and said this is the second time this has happened to him in three years in Portland. This time his car was parked in a parking garage. I figured the window repair shops must make a killing there because of all of the break-ins. However, the woman at the shop said business hadn’t been as good this year. I wondered, “What if window repair shops are the ones breaking windows, or hiring people to break windows? That’s how they get all their customers.” I know, I’m a conspiracy theorist. But it is unfortunate that when crime is high, their business is doing well.

While we waited for our cars to be repaired, the guy told me about Portland and Seattle. He said in Seattle, the homelessness problem has gotten so bad that the city spends 50 million dollars a year to combat the problem. Recently, the city asked for another 50 million from taxpayers. The citizens pushed back and asked how the city was spending the money. They finally put together some data and said they helped 5,000 people. But the guy in the shop told me that’s too much money to help only 5,000 people. Plus, the city didn’t say how many of those 5,000 people relapsed back into homelessness. The problem is that their programs require that people stay off drugs and alcohol. If people don’t abide by that, they go back on the streets.

It was frustrating to hear that car break-ins are the norm in Portland. It felt like the police don’t care and just accept that it’s going to happen. I got my window repaired but the fear that my car would get broken into has made me paranoid since. I also started to notice shattered glass on the side of the street and on sidewalks. That’s how often it happens.

Since my day was ruined for sightseeing, I decided to take care of errands. I went to the post office to mail a book back to a friend, and went to Chase to see what sort of options they have available for investing. I met a banker named Michelle. She is in her late 20s to early 30s. She was beautiful with long black hair that had big curls, her nails were done, and she was nicely dressed. After quickly discussing my options (which were really to find somewhere else to invest) we talked about life. I told her about my travels and selling my house. She told me that she was divorced and has a little girl around five years old. Her daughter told her recently that she was boring. We laughed at the bluntness of children. After that comment, Michelle started doing little trips with her daughter and going on adventures.

Michelle and I also talked about dating. She had been dating a guy and she was afraid he’ll want to move in. She said, “I’m perfectly happy living apart. I realized it’s so much easier to clean up after just me and my daughter. Not having a messy husband to clean up after is nice.” We talked about how we’d both prefer not to be married again. She very much enjoys having a partner, but also having her own space. It was nice talking to her and having some “girl talk”.

That evening I decided to try ice cream from Salt and Straw. I tried to go a few days prior but the line was too long. I got lucky and the line was only about 15 people long this time. On the walk there, I passed a homeless man. He was thin with a white beard, sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk. He had lots of change sitting in front of him, sorted in stacks (pennies together, nickels together, etc). He asked for change and I said I didn’t have any.

I kept thinking about that man as I waited in the ice cream line. How he valued every penny he had, all sorted and stacked in front of him. I couldn’t get him out of my head. I’m always torn when it comes to giving to homeless people but if I’m feeling like I should give, then I do. I think it’s God’s nudge to help the person. I decided that since I broke a $10 bill for the ice cream, I’d give him $3. I saw a video recently about homeless people and most of them said they just want to be seen – to be noticed as a human being. Someone looking them in the eye was a big deal. I walked back by the man, looked him in the eye, and gave him the $3. He looked up at me with sweet, kind, and surprised eyes. He said “Thank you” and I kept on walking.

The following day I had to check out of the hostel but I drove to the arboretum before leaving town. I had wanted to see all the trees there but the day before was ruined. Since I had checked out of the hostel, my car was full of all of my stuff, including my expensive electronics. When I parked my car, there was a sign warning me about leaving valuables in the car. I only walked around the arboretum for about 20 minutes and I couldn’t enjoy it. All I could think about was what if someone broke into my car, my brand new, very expensive laptop and all my electronics (like my camcorder) were on the backseat because my trunk was full. If someone broke the window again, they could easily get those items. I went back to the car and decided the arboretum would have wait until another day.

I made one final stop on the way out of Portland, the Pittock Mansion. Again, there was a sign about taking valuable out of your car.

Thankfully, I found a parking spot near the front entrance and felt that if I hurried through, I could see the outside of the mansion quickly and get back to my car. I was lucky and the guy working there let me see the inside of the ground keeper’s quarters, even though I didn’t have a ticket. I saw an amazing view of the city and then headed back to my car.

All was safe and sound and I decided to hit the road and head to Whidbey Island, WA. I really enjoyed my time in Portland but it was time to keep heading north.

Post Edited by: Misty Kosek