I often travel slower than I intended but this may be a new record. I’ve spent two weeks in the bustling town of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC or Saigon depending on how you’re feeling). I took care of some pressing passport business as I was running out of visa pages. Although July 4th was weeks ago and I passed it rather unnoticeably and quietly, here I had a continued run in with Americanism.
My experiences with American representation in the city was going well. The museums on this side of the country still ignored any Vietnamese wrongdoing but at least had stopped calling the French and Americans incompetent in every way they could muster. The American consulate, on the land of the former embassy, was more efficient and friendly than any federal passport visit I’ve ever had in America. Every member of the staff smiled, looked un-annoyed, and were rather helpful. The cashier even cheerfully handed me a $2 bill for my change, considered particularly lucky in this country. I guess that’s why I haven’t seen any in America, they’ve all been hoarded by Vietnamese people here! Granted I’m still rather ticked off to pay $84 just to add some extra visa pages to my passport. Fun pro tip: you can request extra pages for free when you get a passport.
I met a cantankerous major who fought in the Vietnamese war. I’d always been curious to meet someone who’d been here for that and would return. Now I know, and I am not much enriched by the experience. I do not doubt his courageous dedication as a lifetime soldier, however I draw the line when he became a caricature of bad American expat/traveler stereotypes. He interjected himself into a conversation I was having with a friend by telling me “Vietnamese women are not too thin”. This would be less ridiculous if he were not an obese retiree shoving expensive cake and iced coffee down with a Northern Vietnamese wife waiting for him at home. The man spouted on about how everyone should own and use guns. He then proceeded to berate my Vietnamese friend telling him gems like “you didn’t win the war, we decided to leave. Do you understand that?” He ended by loudly talking about how awful the government was, the one he chose to live in, and how talking badly about it would get Vietnamese people in trouble, like the one he kept yelling at. It made me feel like his Vietnamese wife must not have it easy.
Undeterred by my overweight fellow countryman, I was antsing for some American style desserts. Alas this sugary homesickness was mostly met with disappointment. Although everything here is so overly sweet for me, I could not find a dense chocolate cake or a buttercream that didn’t feel like it belonged in a supermarket anywhere. Even sundaes, a generally hard to screw up dessert, were sad. The ice cream parlors were American, yet instead of being in the classic 50’s parlor style they all looked like clones of modern Coldstones.
This is a city where I met the most locals that could hold the deepest conversations i’ve had with locals in a while. I’ve also met a few expats living here who were the friendliest people. It is nice to not have to explain every little bit of your culture all the time and to have an easy conversation. I’ll write again tomorrow about all the great experiences I’ve had with those who are from here.