Helping to Push the World Around - This Time Tomorrow - CycleBlaze

November 5, 2016

Helping to Push the World Around

Interaction in Bac Son

Helping to Push the World Around

Our three days in the town of Bac Son, waiting for the sun to burn through the clouds, gave us the opportunity to explore a new culture. Wherever we walked I felt like the townspeople had never had much contact, if any, with foreigners. No one we interacted with spoke a word of English. We didn’t see any other tourists and there were no tourist hotels or places to eat other than where the locals eat. There was no written English anywhere.

When I feel like I am one of the first foreigners to visit a truly unique little corner of the world seemingly untouched, as yet, by tourists, I get excited. For me it’s the most interesting and exciting travel there is. Maybe it’s more natural for me to enjoy this type of travel because this was the only kind of travel there was when I began my explorations of S.E. Asia in the 1970’s.

When I’m in such a situation I constantly remind myself to act appropriately. I feel like I am a little ambassador not only for my country but also for future tourists to the area. I feel I need to set a good example and try to show the local people that tourists are not scary or bad, that we are as curious as they and we just want to have a nice time and learn about their culture. To show respect is important and it can start by doing something as simple as wearing long pants instead of shorts or eating bun cha with gusto.

Of course this off-the-beaten-path type of travel is made even more difficult without being able to communicate. It has never been easy. But maybe that is starting to change.

Just before our trip began I splurged and bought a new iPhone and while we were in Bac Son I downloaded Google Translate. I can set it for the language I want translated and then I type in a word or sentence and voila, it is translated. It’s not a perfect translation but it’s a start.

I tried it out in Bac Son on the woman who made us banh mi. I typed, “This is the best banh mi I’ve ever eaten.” She responded with a translation on her phone which read, “Welcome you like our not grilled meat burgers.” Obviously the translation is rough at times but the point comes across. The bigger point is that we are actually communicating and that’s huge. Bringing the world closer together is always a good thing.

Andrea and I were exploring the Bac Son market one day. Everyone was incredibly curious about us. They noticed everything about us: the way we dressed, the way we walked, the things we photographed, the fruit we bought, what we smiled or laughed at, my hair, the things for sale that we looked at, how we pronounced “hello” - EVERYTHING. I felt that if I had dropped my pants their interest in what type of underwear I wore would have trumped the fact that I had dropped my pants. We were under a microscope but as long as everyone was happily dissecting us we were happy as well.

We entered the darker inside of the market where we found stall after stall of women boiling big vats of pho (soup) and other things, but mostly pho. Long tables encircled the stalls. We were hungry so we sat down on one of the wood benches. Immediately everyone in the place (and it was huge) was excited and honored that we were going to eat their food. I could feel their pride. All eyes were on us.

Then we endured everyone analyzing what we added to our bowls of pho, how adventurous we were as far as hot chilis went, how we held chopsticks or the spoon, what technique we used to get a bunch of noodles into our mouths and ultimately the expressions of pleasure or disapproval on our faces. They observed everything.

Then a large, solid man wearing a dapper wool trench coat sat down across from us. The coat was definitely a military coat. At first it seemed like he might leave us alone and just have his pho but soon he couldn’t take his eyes off of us and it was obvious his curiosity was taking over. He asked us something. We figured he must be asking where we were from and we knew how to say America in Vietnamese even though most times we use the wrong tone and then who knows what we are saying. But he eventually understood with some help from two women.

The man motioned, rifle-like, that he had fought in the war. I nodded and then knew what I had to do. I fumbled finding my phone and then typed out in Google Translate, “I am sorry my country fought you.” I stood up and went over to him. I held up the phone for him to read. He squinted. I held my breath hoping he could still see well enough and that Google Translate hadn’t garbled the sentence too badly and that he understood what I was trying to say.

As I expected, he motioned that all of that war business was in the past and should be forgotten. I knew he would act this way but I still think it’s important to let someone like him hear some sort of apology. He may have never been so close to an American since the war and maybe he had never communicated anything with an American ever.

He stood up. In a very dignified manner he looked me in the eyes and then shook my hand.

And that was that.

Now we go on with our lives but I know that neither of us will ever forget that interaction. We go on with our lives a little more accepting of each other.

Little ambassadors are what we are when we travel - opportunity to make a difference. I’m glad I was able to do my tiny part to help push the world around. There in a dark market in Bac Son, Vietnam two guys, the same age by the way, came away feeling a little bit better about things.

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