Ukraine on the Mekong: Finding Home in Vietnam
It wasn’t the fragrant bowls of pho on the sidewalk, the friendly locals, or the surprisingly clean streets of Saigon that made me feel at home in Vietnam. These things did not exist in Ukraine in the early nineties. It wasn’t clean, nobody said hello on the street, and there was no pho. In this strange country on the other side of the world, I felt at peace.
The owner of our homestay looked pleased that we wanted to extend for five nights. She squared her shoulders and smiled with a glint in her eye. “You want to stay five extra nights? That will be 18 dollars a night.” It had been 12 dollars the week before, and all of the other rooms were free.
Eighteen dollars is enough to get a room in luxury hotel in Vietnam. This place was not a luxury hotel. We argued, explaining that we would only extend for the original price but her mind was made up. She knew we wanted the room and saw an opportunity. I had seen this dance before, almost twenty years ago.
After communism fell and Ukraine had gotten over the shock of not having a government, people began to look to the future. There was money to be made, a better life to live if you played your cards right. Foreigners from the U.S., Africa, and other parts of the world poured into Kiev and Odessa. These people were strange and new. They were not to be trusted.
After decades of getting the short end of the stick, there was little faith in anybody. Money was the new king. Tomorrow might bring another revolution, so one had to be selfish. Hustle or be hustled. All of this came flooding back in the white marble lobby of the homestay.
In town, the tailors and shoemakers hawked their wares. An old French colonial town, Hoi An’s architecture preserved much of its charm. Now, it was famous for the nightly floating lanterns and dressmaking. This is where tourists came to have custom-made clothes for cheap. Mannequins lined the main streets as if they were a runway. Silk, chiffon, and taffeta gowns adorning their thin frames in fiery reds, midnight blues, and regal purples.
To get here, we took a train from Saigon. An overnight ride on a steel behemoth that rocked back and forth so violently, it seemed ready to tip over. The thin mattresses held up by chains, the dusty windows, and the stale smell of dust was familiar. I had been here before, except back then the destination was Yerevan, not Da Nang.
If Vietnam were high school, Hoi An would be the beauty queen but Da Nang would be the ugly duckling poised to surpass her. Gleaming skyscrapers rose on both sides of the river as an enormous Lady Buddha watched from the hills. The locals waved hello as you walked by and invited you to sit down in the sidewalk cafes. Construction was everywhere. Coffee shops made for Instagram were popping up on tree-lined streets. Next door, a Bahn Mi stand sold sandwiches for .70 cents a piece.
This was a familiar sight. In the mid 90’s something remarkable happened in Odessa. Restaurants and sidewalk cafes began to pop up all over town. It was finally legal to own a business. African businessmen in Panama hats sat drinking pitchers of beer on Deribasovskaya Street. Korean families came in droves. The fathers dressed in smart suits and the girls in delicate pink and blue dresses. It was as if the whole world got the message – there's promise in this new Ukrainian air.
It seems now, Vietnam is putting out a similar message – seek your fortune. This place is not paradise but it is a place where right now, anything is possible.