More Musings on Vietnam – Part One

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, World Traveler

12 November 2018

Some more of the fascinating things I’ve discovered here.


Since Vietnamese people are mostly my height, or shorter (yay!) I find it quite amusing that trains don’t have luggage racks on the ground. Nope, they’re only overhead, and so high up that it’s impossible to reach them without standing on a seat, which they do. The train offers comfortable seats, however, they’re very loud from the high volume of the TV blasting a Vietnamese comedy show that repeats, and repeats, and repeats.

Putting luggage on the train.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2018

Buses and Peeing

The sleeper bus is quite an experience. There are different kinds of sleeper bus – I like the one with two columns of reclining bed/seats. I am not in love with the 3-column bunk-bed style layout. However, I had to take a top bunk for a 15-hour bus ride. Despite being pretty uncomfortable and the driver frequently honking at motorcycles on the road, I had a blanket and a pillow (probably both unwashed) and slept soundly all night! While in the US I would usually only want to carry a wad of singles to go to a strip club (not that I do…) in Vietnam I need a wad of singles to go to the bathroom. Every rest stop, and many cultural sites, require 2,000 – 3,000 dong to use the toilet. And that’s just for the right of tearing off a few squares of toilet paper. Speaking of peeing, I’ve seen many Vietnamese men peeing openly on the street, but more shocking are the Vietnamese women I’ve seen squatting down, even on a public street. You know what? I’m glad because why shouldn’t women be able to pee in public, too?

“Carrying singles is necessary to get toilet paper at roadside stopovers.”

Driving and Motorbikes

The driving here is, unexceptionally, crazy. Many people text and drive no matter whether they are driving a motorbike, a car, or a bus. I don’t even want to think about whether pilots text while flying. Everyone has a motorbike and the pattern of traffic is bewildering. It’s a big mush of traffic and somehow, they avoid hitting each other. Small children are sandwiched on motorbikes in huge amounts of traffic. I’ve even seen mothers carrying an infant in their arms in the back seat of a motorbike. I am obsessed with taking photos of the speeding bikes because I feel like I catch a slice of life as they go by. One person is texting, another has a bike so full of merchandise I can’t believe they got the bike to move without tipping over, and someone else is eating a snack, all while driving.  I ended up daring to accept a ride on the back of someone’s bike. They didn’t have a helmet for me so I was double terrified – as a kid I almost had an accident on a moped. So, I decided to challenge my fear and do it. I was scared, but yet, I tried to trust the driver knew the rules of the road, and the bike felt solid in his control. He adeptly navigated narrow passages and got me safely to my destination.

View from the top bunk in a sleeper bus – crazy lights and all.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2018

Navigating Traffic

Trying to walk in crowded cities like Hanoi, and even worse, Ho Chi Minh, feels like you’re being extremely stupid with your life. The jaywalking culture of New York is a definite asset, but you just don’t really know what traffic will do, and you have to trust that somehow it will work it’s way around you. I laugh at myself when I see a crosswalk. I stand there waiting for the traffic to slow down to let me cross, as I’m conditioned to do (oooh, conditioning again!) and then I snap out of it and realize the traffic is waiting for me to boldly walk in front of it. In Ho Chi Minh the streets are huge and there are masses of bikes. For one street I use a Vietnamese woman with groceries as a shield and follow her lead to cross, then smile at her once on the other side. On another, even bigger street with two-way traffic, a Vietnamese man on a bike, trying to cross against the traffic, signals me to walk with him as a shield. I swear, I’d still be standing on that corner if not for him. I thank him, he nods, and rides off. My savior on a motorbike hero stallion. (I wonder if girls in Vietnam grow up seeing a prince charming riding a white motorbike instead of a stallion?)

Pollution and Garbage

A lot of Vietnamese people wear face masks to prevent them from inhaling too much pollution. Before, I only noticed Asians wearing masks on planes, and I thought they were sick, or trying to avoid getting sick. Now I understand it’s part of the culture and necessary. I also notice that there are almost no garbage cans on city streets. Sometimes a pile of garbage presents itself someplace, other times it’s just randomly strewed on the streets.

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