Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Are We Safe Here? Travels in Communist Vietnam

      While planning this trip across the world I was, of course, conscious of safety. My friend and I would be traveling alone; that is, no men would be with us. Just two 20 something American females. I worried about being a target. What would people think of us and how would they respond? Would we be targets for theft? We were white and women- meaning there was no getting around it, we stood out. I bought one of those money holders that you stash inside your bra to keep large bill close to you. I vowed to hold my purse tight, to not look like a tourist (as much as possible), to be smart, to look like I  knew where I was, where I was going and what I was doing. Most of all, I vowed to follow my instinct, my intuition, my gut, call it what you will- I was going to follow it. The only way to be safe from sketchy situations was to trust myself.
      I researched the safety of the countries we were visiting and the only real threat seemed to be the possibility of monetary theft. Lindsay's parents were concerned about the safety of North Vietnam, which was natural seeing as how they grew up during the war. I assured her I had done some research and it seemed to be safe, but to be doubly sure I did more research and came across an article listing the top 10 safest countries for women who were traveling alone. Vietnam ranked #5, with good old home sweet home (sadly) ranking 10.
       We were as prepared as we could be. We had registered with the embassies and had multiple copies of our passports- and copies of each other's passports. It's a good thing, too. Having a copy of my passport was a small comfort in Vietnam, where it is common for the hotel staff to take your passport upon arrival and "keep" it overnight. The first time we were asked for our passports and then told we could get them the next day was in Sapa. I was quickly defensive. "You need to keep our passports?" I asked incredulously. Who did this guy think he was? Did I look stupid? It was something they did regularly- everyone did it, it would be okay, the hotel guy tried to reassure me.  "No, no, I don't think so" I said, eyeing Lindsay to get her take on it. Then the hotel guy says it will probably be back by 9. "Back? You mean it is leaving the hotel?" I ask, really worried now. What the hell was going on here? Yes, the hotel man said. They would just take the passports over there for a little check at the local government and then bring them back here. "oh, no, I don't like this" I say. At this point I am told it is required to stay in the town. The hotel man is holding our passports in his hand and I am afraid to have them leave my sight, although he seems like an okay guy, I'm pretty sure I've read you should not hand your passport over to a strange foreigner in a foreigner country- or any country for that matter and even if I had not read it, it seemed like common sense to me. I turn to Lindsay, who seems slightly less concerned. She goes out the french doors to the terra cotta porch covered with potted plants to finds our Vietnamese guide, who is sitting hunched on the steps smoking a cigaret.
       I could picture myself standing at the US Embassy telling them my story; I was stuck and couldn't get home because I gave my passport to some dude at the hotel. The embassy agent questions me; What guy? Did you know him? Do you know his name? They chuckle as I answer no to every question. So some guy you don't know just asks you for your passport, tells you he's going to keep it and you just hand it over?
     I really don't like this and reason out what other information one could gain access to about my life by simply having my passport. Lindsay comes in with our guide, Nam, and I explain to him what is happening. "Yes" he says to me and looks at the hotel man who is smiling awkwardly. The early morning sunlight filters through the glass doors and to the back of the otherwise windowless lobby. The passport man has a key in his hand. I am still confused. Nam speaks to the hotel man in Vietnamese. The hotel man smiles and laughs. Nam tells me it is okay, everyone must do this and promises I will get it back. I have one small condition before I allow our passports to be locked in a drawer behind the desk and that is that Nam must bring me to the embassy and provide all translation needed to get me a new one if I never get it back. He laughs at me "Is oakaay." He reassures me. I decide to trust, not so much our guide himself, but the face that he works for a worldwide agency that I know I can contact in case he proves to be wrong. My hidden copy is a huge comfort. I am suddenly grateful I hail from a land full of xerox machines.
      We did get out passports back and a lesson on certain Vietnamese situations in the car the next day on our way to the Bac Ha market. Apparently the border towns take tourist passports because they are worried about people coming to speak to the Hmong and incite them to rebel against the government. The Hmong have millions of tribe members living across the boarder in China. During our talk, which was conducted in a "safe" place, away from the tourist police, we learned about the delicacy of speaking in public- a lesson us Americans have never had to have (and hopefully never will). The tourist police, you see, are not there to help tourists, as one might assume, but to monitor those people who work in tourism. If a tourist police officer heard a guide speaking in a manner which he or she deemed unfavorable, that guide would be arrested and have his license taken away. It was best to not ask any questions about the government in public. All questions from tourists to their guide about the government would be answered with "Oh, it is best to not discuss this now."
      Suddenly I felt a little trapped. Here I was feeling free traveling around the world yet I was in a country where I or, anyone, could be arrested at the drop of a hat. Good thing I crossed the street when that government official waved me away from taking a picture of the government house in Hanoi! Good call on foregoing the photo op! I had really wanted to photograph the men and their government building. Then my mild feeling of being trapped escalated a little when I realized I had been posting blogs about my trip on computers all over Vietnam.  Shit! What was I thinking? Were they already watching me? Then again, I hadn't written anything bad- but who knew what was considered bad? As an American I had the comfort of the first amendment- even if our government has been becoming bigger and bigger and increasingly controlling.
      It was no problem, Nam said. All the tourist hotels used American servers. This is why I was able to use Facebook while there. Apparently all the tech savvy people did this, so it was no problem. Anyway it was not me who would get in trouble, it is the Vietnamese citizen who had to worry.  
      The irony of the situation was not lost on me. The whole conversation occurred while driving through the lush green rice paddies of the mountains bordering China. There was nothing but mother nature to be seen for miles and miles. I could step outside the van and never be seen again- I could simply disappear into the trees. It was nothing but land up here. Lush, rolling, effervescent vegetation covering the mammoth mountains which seemed insurmountable to any human and most animals. Yes, I was free, really, despite what anyone else might say or do- I was free because I still had my will. Free will- no one can take that away. Not even the hotel's front desk man.

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