My experience in Vietnam was unlike anything in my life to this day. As I walked into the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, I realized, strangely, that I was on the other side of the world. The traffic was absolutely insane and is often described as "organized chaos." There was probably the same number of cars in each street as in New York City, plus fifteen motorcycles or scooters for every car. Drivers typically ignored street lights and honked excessively, for no apparent reason. Often cars would drive on sidewalks or cruise through the opposite lanes. Unlike American drivers, Vietnamese drivers focus on driving and are not distracted by conversation, music, cell phones, or food in the car.
Losing concentration for longer than a second might result in a rear-end collision with the car in front of them or hiting a bicycle or motorcycle that was crossing. Each vehicle had only centimeters between itself and the next car. It was one of the most nerve-racking things I'd ever seen. I kept closing my eyes and saying to myself, "They do this every day." and "We aren't going to crash. Probably." And I was glad that I wasn't the one driving. One thing for sure is that an American driver would not survive in the streets of Vietnam. On the flipside, a Vietnamese driver in America could be even worse, driving on sidewalks and honking ten times a minute.
HCMC was interesting, yet occasionally bizarre. I ate stuff I couldn't have imagined eating before. The typical menu displayed entrees including crab, chicken, fried cockroaches, squid pancakes, dragon fruit, and shrimp paste. At the world-renowned Ben Thanh Market, we saw hundreds of stands with vendors selling everything from snake's blood to scorpion souvenirs. My mom and my aunt (who flew down halfway through my trip) made several visits back to HCMC to shop and haggle at this market. Once, we were grabbed and pulled in conflicting directions by vendors from competing shops.
We made it out alive, with bags so full that we had to buy a new suitcase by the end of the trip. We were in HCMC for a couple of days. We then left for Vung Tau, Vietnam on a hydrofoil, a sort of fast motor ferry, a trip of about an hour and a half. Vung Tau is more of a resort beach town than HCMC, and the streets are not quite as crazy. The Dic Star hotel was great, and provided three easy meals daily, consisting of good food which I was familiar with. By the end of the two weeks, I vowed I wouldn't eat rice again for a month.
I got more comfortable after I found people we recognized, and befriended other American participants in this 2008 World Youth Chess Championship. I hung out a lot with Dan Ludwig, Sam Shankland, and Karsten McVay, who are all around my age. Sam had an incredible tournament, scoring eight out of eleven points and tying for first place, returning home with a bronze medal. Sharing this experience with people who spoke English fluently made the whole trip a lot more fun. Getting around town with cab drivers who spoke little English was often difficult and stressful. Yet I was amazed at the number of people from the tournament, both Vietnamese and foreign participants, who spoke some English. I had several good conversations with my opponents after our games, and I exchanged emails with players from Russia and Slovenia.
On our rest day, Dan Ludwig and I ran up the mountain to the statue of Christ after an hour of shopping at the stores in the art market. On our walk back we encountered several old ladies hawking straw hats. A guy on a scooter tailed slowly behind us for a half mile, trying to convince us to rent a motorcycle from him. This trip exposed me to things that I could never have seen anywhere else.
I must address the topic of my less than optimal tournament performance. While my five out of eleven score was adequate, I could have finished with at least six or even seven, had fate been kinder. The tournament began well for me. After upsetting a 2450 FIDE FM in round two, I got my chance at the top seed, GM David Howell (2593 FIDE) in the third. Somehow I found myself with the same score after round 5. It was tough to handle because my fourth and fifth round games also could have easily gone either way. My 9th and 11th round games were both completely winning for me, but I lost both. It seemed like all my victories were won without too much trouble, while four out of my six losses were hard-fought and could have gone either way. Anyway, that's a part of chess and life. But I don't have any regrets, as I played as hard as I could to represent my country.
Our three-man team in the U18 boys section consisted of Sam, Dan, and me. We missed winning a team bronze medal by only half a point. Dan, who is extremely strong, played a great tournament along with Sam, scoring 6½ out of 11, losing only two games, one in the fourth round to GM-elect Ivan Saric, who won gold, along with a well-played draw against top-seeded David Howell. In the end, my play matched my expected performance, and Dan, and especially Sam, (with his amazing win over GM Liem Le Quang in the final round) did quite well. The US team won one other medal; a bronze from FM Darwin Yang in the U12 boys section.
The coolest thing for me was fraternizing with those amazing world-class players. At local events in Rochester, NY, I am used to being one of the stronger players. However, entering that playing hall, I saw many of the best young players in the world sitting in one room. Walking past boards 1 through 10, I see sixteen and seventeen year olds with nameplates that say "GM", "IM", or "FM." During my game with Howell (GM), it was intimidating to sit across from such a famous figure in chess. The experience of playing the top young players from England, Russia and Ukraine is something I'll always treasure.
There were some complaints from parents about playing conditions, but the Vietnamese organizers obviously put a lot of time and effort into the event, and I was pleased at how it played out. I especially thank those who participated in the fundraising tournament the Rochester Chess Center, whose support and generous donations further motivated me. Though I was hoping for a better result, my trip to Vietnam and my participation in the 2008 World Youth Chess Championship was a memorable, once in a lifetime experience.