Vietnam from south to north

I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first visit to Vietnam in 2006 but may have been even less prepared for what I found on my second visit in 2012.  On my first visit, I was only able to see a snapshot of the country from the far south in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh city to the northern city of Hanoi.  I was there to do volunteer work in a dental clinic but we were certainly not denied the opportunity to explore the people, the cities, and the culture. On my second visit, I was there for business in Ho Chi Minh city and I was amazed at the transformation only six years later – more buildings reaching to the sky, more tourists to crowd the streets and markets, and more “westernization” with smart phones and Wifi.

Back to the first visit, when I volunteered with Global Dental Relief.  They conduct dental clinics in Asia, Africa, and Central America and I’ve been on four trips with them.  In Vietnam, the dental clinic was located between Danang and Hoi An.  We based ourselves in Hoi An, one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever visited – very close to beaches but with an artistic focus and just brimming with collectibles, crafts, and original art.  And there were the tailors for quick custom-made clothing.  Our entire group indulged, boosting the local economy as we commissioned shirts, pants, skirts, dresses, and even robes.

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Patients, dental clinic

The conditions were rustic in American terms.  It was November but there is no winter in Vietnam.  It was extremely hot and humid, reminiscent of August in Miami or New Orleans.  I couldn’t imagine soldiers fighting in the same conditions during the war in the 60’s and 70’s.  Generators provided our power but there were drops from time to time as I assisted a pediatric dentist.  Suddenly the drill would stop.  We’d yell, “No power!”, tinkering would ensue outside and then the magic of the drill would start again.  Masks covered our faces, goggles protected our eyes, and the sweat ran down our backs like nervous insects but we were focused on treating as many children as possible.  We were only in the clinic for one week.  At the end of the Thanksgiving week, our clinic had treated several hundred children.  I discovered what a “cankle” was as I watched my lower legs transform with the combination of heat, humidity, the cramped position chairside and the salty diet.  It didn’t matter.  The outhouse Asian toilets and the extreme heat chased around the hot room by a few fans didn’t matter either.  Nothing really mattered except seeing as many children as possible.

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Generator power, dental clinic

When the clinic concluded, we had the chance to put our feet up and let our fluids redistribute as our cankles disappeared.  While we relaxed in chairs by the beach, too tired to even run into the waves, we watched some young Vietnamese girls enjoying the water.  Cultural norms dictated a different approach to a swim in the ocean.

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Beach outside of Hoi An

But soon it was time to move on to Hue, even hotter than Hoi An.  And like most places in Vietnam, the streets were full of scooters and masked natives shielding themselves from the sun and pollution.

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Street scene, Hue

Our small group of volunteers now had time to enjoy the sights.  Boarding a dragon boat, we sailed down the Perfume river to explore the Thien Mu pagoda.

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Dragon boats, Vietnam

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Thien Mu Pagoda outside of Hue

A few days in Hue and then on a plane to visit Hanoi.  We landed in the gray skies of the Vietnam version of winter, where temperatures in the 60’s prompted most Vietnamese to wrap themselves in winter coats.  We toured the Hanoi Hilton, the famous prison where they subjected their victims to various forms of torture.  Gracious mannequins depicted some of the treatments to offer the full effect.


Hanoi Hilton

We also took in a local cultural attraction, the Museum of Ethnology, which included some rather interesting sculptures.

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Sculpture from the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi

My only regret is that I didn’t have more time to enjoy the country and the people. I’m sure I’ll make it back – so many countries, so much to see!

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Travel Sines (or Signs?)

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Sign in shop in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

This is one of the most hilarious signs I’ve seen anywhere and to see it hanging on a door in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, made it even more hysterical.  Maybe this is the Vietnamese version of shaming a deadbeat landlord.

I love words and I love to see what people do with them when translating or communicating in another country.  The English language can be tricky – think of all the words that sound alike but are spelled differently, such as sine and sign.  These homonyms must be a constant source of frustration for the English learner – the devil is in the details.

Some signs are fun and humorous in their depiction, such as this “Beware of Dog” sign in France.  Yikes!!  Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words and possibly a deferred medical bill.  Notice the absence of underwear.

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“Beware of Dog” in France

And here is another sign you don’t see every day.  Kind of made me want to jump on the ramparts, but I had to ask my friend, “What EXACTLY are ramparts?”  And would I incite the fury of the French police if I tiptoed across one?  I’m sure the French version of jail with bread and water might actually mean Perrier and croissants.  Unless it’s really as grim as in Les Misérables.  I settled for the photo.

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Sign at a castle in central France

I found this sign to be so politely perfect while walking through one of the temples at Angkor Wat, that I couldn’t even be upset that they had blocked a section to tourists.

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Angkor Wat apology sign

There is the occasional best attempt to translate into English and it is generally not a bad effort, if only off by one letter. I let it go, with a chuckle.  I can’t even pretend to translate into Cambodian. My sign would probably end up saying, “Vice Shop and Drug Shop.”  And then I would wonder why I had such a shady clientele.

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Shop in Siem Reap, Cambodia

And sometimes the concept is communicated…. well, almost.  I get it. This is not a hat.

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Road sign in Cambodia

And then I found this especially interesting.  I had turned on the TV in a small hotel in Sittwe, Myanmar and found the movie “Tremors” playing.  But what really surprised me was the notices that kept popping up every time one of the actors lit a cigarette!  “Smoking causes Cancer. Smoking Kills.”  And this was in a hotel where I actually had to move rooms because the stench of smoke in the hallway was so horrendous.  Go figure.

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Smoking Warning, Myanmar TV

I’ve decided I could make an entire career by translating various signs all over the world.  I’ve visited amazing places like the Shanghai Museum, knowing they’ve made a huge effort to translate exhibit descriptions into the internationally recognized language of English, and then I see a small misstep that always seems to catch my attention.  I know I’m not perfect either so I just smile and keep reading.  The intent is genuine and that is most important.

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