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.
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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.

dscn2799 Nina In New York: A Short List Of Things Nina Learned In 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.

dscn2807 Nina In New York: A Short List Of Things Nina Learned In 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.

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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.

Comments

One Comment

  1. Coop says:

    You could definitely see your expertise within the work you write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. Always follow your heart.

  2. casino says:

    You actually make it appear really easy with your presentation however I find this matter to be really something that I believe I’d by no means understand. It kind of feels too complex and extremely wide for me. I’m looking ahead to your next post, I’ll attempt to get the dangle of it!

  3. the wayfarer says:

    note to nina in ny and mary ann whose daughter went there too:
    you both make me want to go and check it out. i’d love to hear the people’s stories and see the star-filled sky. the fish sauce factory sounds like something i’d rather read about though.

  4. Mary Ann says:

    Really disappointmented in this column. My daughter went to Vietnam when she was only 18 and came back with amazing stories of the people there, the children, lifestyles. She learned so much about the Vietnam War from an old soldier’s side. She really didnt touch upon the stupid bugs. If this is all you get when you go to another Country like this, maybe you should just stop wasting your money.

    1. in perspective says:

      in all fairness, there are about 800 words in this column and maybe 3 mentions of bugs. god help us if this was about the vietnam war, i can only imagine the rascist weirdos that would come out of the woodwork.

  5. GinaR says:

    Wow! An awful lot of bigoted hate-mongering jealousy out here this morning. If you all don’t care so much, WTF are you doing reading it?

    1. John G Head says:

      I’m not going to lie, when I see another of her articles, I just have to read! They’re atrocious, and actually a small part of everything that went wrong with “big bad NYC” in the past 20 years. It’s that “ever so cute and clever” attitude by people who THINK they “know” NYC life, when actually they are clueless. Especially since they’re supposed to be writing for the masses!
      “Jealousy”? As much as you’d like to think otherwise, I think not. How could ANYONE be jealous of this?
      Yet I’ll admit they do have me coming back for more (bad writing)!!

      1. GinaR says:

        The comments left were just nasty comments you wouldn’t direct at another human being. People who say things like that usually harbor some envy.

      2. TELLIN IT LIKE IT IS says:

        YOU MY FRIEND HAVE PUT INTO WORDS SO TRUE. I TOO GET A KICK OUT OF THIS WHINY YENTA,JUST THE TYPE OF PERSON WHO HAS RUINED THIS CITY.WHO AT CBS THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA FOR A DAILY COLUMN SHOULD BE FIRED.

        1. so then tell it says:

          what would you cover in a daily column? you complain but offer no alternatives. leave a productive comment or go find somewhere else to troll.

          1. John G Head says:

            Perhaps using the SAME TOPIC as NEW YORK CITY, where there are thousands of stories to be told, and NOT make it about your pathetic disconnected views of what she so boldly states as “everyday life in New York City”!! It comes off as arrogant, terribly misinformed and NOT actually “life in NYC!”.
            Seriously? It’s THAT hard for you to see? Now, I don’t agree with the racist comments. I don’t see why that has to come up. But time and time again we are seeing articles on what are supposed to be legitimate news sites that are actually nothing but “cute” journal entries!
            It’s uneducated, it’s flippant, and it caters to those people who THINK they are educated and above all the “little people”, yet fail to realize how little they are themselves!
            Perhaps instead of making fun of people by calling everyone “crazy”, “psycho” or “insane” how about some articles on how hard it is to be homeless in the city? No? Not “cute” enough? Or how about delving into WHY a person may act a certain way on the subway. Anything there? No? Oh yeah, NOT cute at all huh?
            Give me a break!
            Bottom line, she really writes drivel, and has a condescending way of doing it too!
            YOU are NOT NYC girl! YOU are what others THINK NYC is….

            1. TELLIN IT IS LIKE IT IS says:

              BRILLIANT JOHN G HEAD JUST PLAIN BRILLIANT……..I NOMINATE JOHN G HEAD TO TAKE OVER FOR NINA…..AT LEAST IT WILL BE A GOOD READ…….NOT LIKE THE TRASH THAT THAT GIRL WRITES ABOUT.

    2. Mary Ann says:

      A friend of hers?????

      1. GinaR says:

        No – just see no need for nasty racist comments.

  6. the bandid says:

    THAT DON’T SOUND LIKE THE VIETNAM I KNEW 42 YEARS AGO. EXCEPT FOR BEEN HOT AND DUSTY, EVERYTHING SINCE TO BE DIFFERENT, I GUESS TIME CHANGES EVERYTHING

Comments are closed.

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