Friday, March 23, 2012

In which I am the funniest thing on earth

I have often thought of myself as a funny person. I engage in the occasional witticism, and even bandy about a few puns now and then. Wordplay is, as it were, my forte. But I have never had so many people point and laugh, grabbing their friends' arms to pull their heads around so they can point and laugh, as I have in Vietnam. You know why? My hair.

Pink hair is just about the funniest thing everybody has seen, ever. Babies, grandmothers, indigenous people, schoolboys riding dinky on the back of other schoolboys' bicycles...I have sent each of them into paroxysms of laughter, just by existing. It's nice to be the fountain of such joy.

This is a civet that coffee beans get passed through in order to make what the Vietnamese call "weasel coffee". Nancy and I have decided that "Poop Weasel" will be our next band name.

These people on boats also thought my hair was funny.
 Since last I wrote, I've been on a 5-day motorcycle tour of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, moving from small town to small town across the slowly-being-decimated jungle-y mountains. Nancy's poor botanist heart was breaking at every hairpin turn that revealed more of the canopy cut down for agriculture: tapioca, corn, rice, everything.

Just to be different, this section of canopy was also on fire.

This agriculture is perpetuated mostly by tiny, wiry women wearing traditional hats and as many other clothes as they can possibly manage, in an effort to avoid getting dark skin. Dark skin, as in most cultures that are naturally prone to it, is considered hideous, and only pale skin will do -- to this end, Vietnamese women wear hats, scarves, dust masks, hoodies, long-sleeved shirts, pants, gloves, and boots or flip-flops with "flesh" toned socks underneath them. Sometimes I see a lady on a scooter next to me with armpit-length white gloves, filthy with grime from the air, and wonder what she actually looks like under there. My guess? Paler than me.

She is probably laughing at me under all those clothes.
  The quiet and green of the hills was only rivalled by the insane tootling of buses bearing down on our little motorcycles at about nine million miles an hour, on whatever side of the road they felt like. Vietnamese driving is...creative. Nancy calls it "no rules driving", but there are rules: they're just really basic. Rule number 1: drive wherever you feel like it, whether there is a green light or not. Rule number 2: honk vigorously while doing so, to warn other vehicles of your approach. Ta-da!

Other vehicles on the road include ox-carts.
Fortunately, most of the other vehicles are motorcycles or little 125cc scooter jobbies, which weave in and out between the potholes and bicycles and water buffalo with ease. This ease is remarkable given how much stuff they usually have strapped on the back of their motorcycles. I know it's a bit of a stereotype to be all "ha, ha, Asian people can fit a lot of stuff on a motorcycle", but I've never seen such impressive toting skills. In the time since I last posted, I've seen people carrying baskets of chickens and ducklings, an inlaid wooden wardrobe, a car radiator, a pane of glass, 8 piglets, 5 50-kg bags of tapioca, three small children, and an entire other motorcycle. I don't know how the engines don't just gasp once and die.

These shoes were in a very, very poor M'Nong village.

You could also be traveling by impoverished houseboat flotilla.
Having settled temporarily (for a week) in Hue, a coastal town with an intellectual reputation, we are spending a lot of our time cycling around looking at things ("Hey, look, a pagoda!") and wondering what things are ("Hey, look, is that a bicycle repair shop or a hairdresser's? Oh wait, it's both."). We have found a favorite coffee shop (called, straightforwardly, "Coffee"), and we know where the bank is that will let us take out more than $100 at a time -- Vietnamese ATMs like to to charge exorbitant fees for their services, and they like to do it frequently. Consider it your little foreigner tax. Along with getting separate prices on your English menus.

"Hey, is that a glowing LED swastika behind that Buddha?"
Most of the backpackers we're seeing are European or Australian; on speculating last night, Nancy and I wondered if the American economy is still so bad from the GFC that nobody can afford to travel. The only reason I can afford to travel is because I've been working in Australia at exorbitant pay rates.

How could the hotel be bad when it has an air-conditioner remote-holder that looks like this?

So far, our hotels have been universally nice, some with bathrooms the size of Manhattan apartments. I did yoga in the bathroom a few mornings ago, it was that big. No bedbugs or lice or anything other than the occasional pervasive smell of mold and honking outside our window at about 6:30am. It's good that Nancy and I are such big nannas that we go to bed at 10 and wake up at 6 like the Vietnamese do, because otherwise, the cacophony of roosters, motorcycles, Vietnamese pop crooning, and construction work would definitely wake us up. It's like everyone says, "Surely people can't still be asleep at 7am. I will start my jackhammer!" There is an excellent blog I recently discovered, called The City That Never Sleeps In, about an Australian ex-pat in Hanoi, and it is incredibly hilarious if you've been in Vietnam for a little bit. Although perhaps those are hysterical laughs on my part.

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