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Nina In New York: A Short List Of Things Nina Learned In Vietnam

A young professional's take on the trials and tribulations of everyday life in New York City.

By Nina Pajak

Xin chào! Or, as the children of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam say, hello!

They ran out in their undershirts to the ends of their dusty driveways, beside dense clusters of exotic palm trees, trailed by crowing roosters and wary, heat-sleepy mutts as we bumped past their homes on our one-speed bicycles.

"Hello!" they'd yell repeatedly as each of us rode by, waving and grinning. When we returned the greeting, they'd all squeal and giggle and say it again.

Then I'd fall off my bike in an attempt to take a turn and nearly stumble into the creek. I do that sometimes.

Nina Goes To Vietnam
(credit: Nina Pajak)

Everything about Vietnam is like nothing I've seen. We flew into Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) with our friends, Nickles and H. (one of those is a real name), with whom we'd been staying in Hong Kong for a few days. As we were making our way through the quiet airport, we exchanged warnings with one another about all the common taxi scams:

Make sure they say they know your hotel, make sure the meter is running, otherwise they're liable to take you to some other hotel which gives them a kickback, and quote you some insane cost for the ride. Within two minutes of exiting the terminal, an aggressive cab driver had grabbed H. by the elbow and whisked us into his car, started the engine, and promptly demanded payment up front.

After one night in the urban jungle, we were ready for the real jungle.

Our time in the Mekong Delta and then over on Phu Quoc, a relatively undeveloped island off the coasts of Vietnam and Cambodia, were incredible and eye-opening.

We boated past the floating markets of the Mekong River, where people live on vessels that look like old pirate ships and sell things like watermelons and mangoes to shoppers in dinghies that pull up alongside. We explored markets where we saw all sorts of exotic produce and dismembered cow's feet. We ate a lot. We drove hours through tiny, riverside villages.

We ate seafood. We hoofed it through a hectic and slightly down-and-out port city in which we were undoubtedly the only tourists for miles.

Nina Goes To Vietnam
(credit: Nina Pajak)

We took rattletrap ferries back and forth across the Mekong on our bicycles, surrounded by people on motorcycles and teenagers on scooters coming home from school. I got a sunburn. It's possible Nickles was bitten by a flea. We figured out how to communicate in restaurants where no one spoke a word of English and the risk of accidentally ordering snake was high.

Here's a quick and randomized list of some of the lessons I learned:

    • Everything tastes better dipped in (or doused with) chili sauce.
    • A fish sauce factory is essentially a room in which fish parts ferment in giant vats, and it smells worse than anything you can possibly imagine. Annnnyyyyything. It's possible that smell will never vacate my nose for as long as I live.
    • While a 60-minute Vietnamese massage on a Vietnamese beach for $20 USD sounds like a great idea, a few cultural differences in techniques must be known in advance. Prepare yourself for a kneecap massage and several extremely uncomfortable minutes of vigorous earlobe-tugging and toe-knuckle cracking.
    • There are 47 species of reptiles on the island of Phu Quoc. And no matter how many of them are darting around on the ceiling above your head, the chances that one will fall into your drink are still very low.
    • Fresh spring rolls taste better when you make them yourself. They look better when someone else makes them, however.
    • Geckos chirp!
    • Cockfighting is extremely commonplace. Nearly every home we passed had a rooster under a bamboo dome. We were sad to learn the reason for that.
    • Sleeping under a mosquito net feels surprisingly luxurious and I am considering installing one in my home.
    • Montezuma gets all the glory, but I feel there should be a special place in the travel books for Ho Chi Minh's revenge.
    • Did you know that peppercorns grow on tiny vines? I sure didn't.
    • Vietnamese mosquitoes don't like me. In related news, I don't have Dengue Fever.
    • For every chair you see in the Mekong Delta, there are at least two hammocks nearby. In tiny villages, there will be multiple establishments that seem to serve a little light food but mostly give people a place to take a hammock nap on a hot afternoon.
    • I could bathe myself in Vietnamese papaya salad with fresh seafood, and I could swan dive into a pool of their stir-fried seafood noodles. That would be totally gross though.
    • Citronella is a plant. Who knew? I thought it was just a chemical they put in candles with which I surround myself when I'm in the suburbs, because New York mosquitoes do like me.
    • The sky is actually filled with stars! Lots of 'em. And they're bright and twinkly and everything, just like they say.


Dear Readers: While I am rarely at a loss for words, I'm always grateful for column ideas. Please feel free to e-mail me your suggestions.

Nina Pajak is a writer and publishing professional living with her husband on the Upper West Side.

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