Our Man in Asia Comes Home

Second thoughts on Vietnam while counting the hotel hair products booty.

By Steve Burgess 18 Mar 2005 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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[Editor's note: This is the last in Steve Burgess' nine-part series of dispatches sent while traveling through Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.]

I hate it when shampoo goes on sale. It diminishes my hard-won savings. I now have two-and-a-half water bottles full of hotel shampoo, collected over six weeks around Asia and mixed together in kaleidoscopic swirls. As long as prices stay high, the whole trip was a bargain.

I'm back home now. Some journeys, the return is more eagerly anticipated than others. Six weeks is a long stretch; longer when you calculate the time spent kneeling in the bathroom, which counts double. Food poisoning—the great vacation extender.

A trip like this always offers more experience than can be readily processed. Incidents pile up and pass by almost forgotten, only to re-appear like pop-up windows in the succeeding weeks and months. Writing about it helps. But there's a downside to that, too. The written account can set in the brain as the official version—the writer begins to believe his own spin and forget the actual experience.

The quieted Canadian

My troubled three-week stretch in Vietnam has already become more textured in memory. I am remembering (and sometimes receiving e-mails from) people I encountered there, often in my favorite cafes where I drank that great Vietnamese brew over ice. I confess that I hope my new friends don't read my often-dyspeptic accounts of Vietnamese travel. They might be hurt.

But any travelogue must find a thread. Six weeks into 9,000 words does not go— a narrative must be dredged up from the accumulated sludge of daily experience. Once the dominant theme is chosen the rest can fall away, like passages of a long novel adapted for the screen.

This time out, the chosen narrative was the defeat of my romantic travel notions. Just because Vanilla Ice wanted street cred didn't mean he could have it; just because I had a mind to drift around Vietnam like one of the gang didn't mean they'd let me. Down at street level freelance Vietnamese capitalists live by their wits—they don't live by letting rich Western tourists pass unnoticed. The kind of disappearing act possible with a little judicious costuming in Paris, Milan, Hong Kong, and sometimes even Bangkok, was not achievable in Hanoi. This is where capitalism and existentialism meet— a tourist changes the equation just by being there. First World and Third are twain that cannot meet. Visitation rights only.

A country addicted to change

Vietnam is clearly a country on the move. One Hanoi writer who had returned to the city after 15 years in Europe told me today's Vietnamese are addicted to change—seeing new economic possibilities, they are hooked on the idea of upward mobility. It's hard to judge on a single visit, but today's Vietnam strikes me as a land caught up in hopeful but awkward transition. Interesting local goods were sometimes available, but most market places in Hanoi and Saigon were overflowing with bargain-store crap and processed snack food. Those who visited only a few years ago talked about a different place. Hanoi was described to me as "quiet." As I noted in an earlier Tyee post, readers of the smash bestseller "Steve Burgess' Top 200 Adjectives for Hanoi," will not find "quiet" listed anywhere in the index.

The TV in my Saigon hotel room offered BBC World Service—but dubbed in Japanese. So it was no surprise when a Japanese friend recently told me Vietnam is a popular destination for Japanese tourists. After all, opposites attract. Vietnam may be the anti-Japan—messy, chaotic, and straightforward. Asking the average Japanese person to be brutally honest is like asking Donald Trump to identify his own shortcomings. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, tend to be frankness incarnate. One German ex-pat who married a Vietnamese woman told me it's not uncommon for a local to exclaim, "You're so fat!" or, if you've had too much sun, "Wow, you're really tanned—you look very ugly!" As someone who has never been much at picking up hints, I appreciate that quality. Especially when aimed at others.

One final observation—I used to think Starbucks ruled the globe. Wrong. It's KFC. No Starbucks in Vietnam, but KFC was there. Bird flu is no match for the Colonel.

It's nice to be home. I'm going to watch TV now.

Steve Burgess usually reviews the screen, small and large, for The Tyee, but basically he writes about whatever he wants.

Previous postcards:

Holiday in Cambodia

Escape from Vietnam

Vietnamese Driving Lessons Burgess and the Red Dragon Burgess and the Big Night Out Walkabout with Hanoi Steve Burgess in Bangkok Dispatch from Hong Kong   [Tyee]

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