Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Great Escape Part 3: Vietnam

Same Same… but Different.

(t-shirt and popular English expression in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand)

I spent the lion’s share of my vacation (9 days!) in Vietnam. It was great- a real adventure. Armed only with a Lonely Planet, a vague idea of where we were going, and a bootleg photocopy of a Vietnamese phrasebook (purchased at a little shop a few doors down from our hotel), we set out to explore the land that about thirty-five years ago was the last place on earth most American men aged 18-25 would willingly go. Vietnam is still rebounding from what they call the American War, and everywhere you go you can see its effects. Bombed-out houses, rubble in the streets, homeless, legless, armless people staring out from every corner- and yet the populace is so happy that we’re there that it’s at times overwhelming.

Let me tell you a story- this story is not mine. A man I met in a bar in Hoi An (we’ll get to how I ended up in Hoi An later) was traveling up north, in the highlands. Let’s call him Bob- I can’t remember his name. A guy on the street called out to Bob, asked him where he was from. Bob’s from Colorado, USA. He tells the guy on the street, and the guy smiles real big and shakes his hand. The man slaps his leg, and exclaims to Bob “American!” Bob is understandably confused. The man pulled his trouser leg up a bit, and said again “American!” The man was wearing a prosthetic leg. He explained haltingly that his village was bombed during the war by American B-52’s. This is not a source of anger or frustration for him- quite the opposite- the man is happy because he and Bob have something in common- they have a bond. Bob took a picture with the guy, and it is clear in the picture (digital cameras are great, you can pass them around in bars in Hoi An) that the gentleman in question has no foot, and is standing on a large round peg instead.

This is Vietnam.

The first day we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, we arrived to a press of people all shouting, asking us if we wanted a taxi, a motorbike, a cyclo (curious carriage instruments that in other countries are called pedicabs or tuktuks), a pack of cigarettes, some books- all standing in a semicircle beyond the arrival gates. We negotiated with a woman behind the tourist counter for a fixed-rate taxi (five dollars), and pushed through the crowd and into the cab. A note on Vietnamese currency: The official Vietnamese unit of currency is called the Dong. One US dollar will get you thirteen thousand dong. This means that when we changed out money at the airport, we ended up immediate multimillionaires. We will, for the simple fact that this blog is a family show, resist the urge to make sophomoric comments about dong. Resist.

Ho Chi Minh City is divided into numbered districts. District 1 bears the original name of the city- the prewar name: Saigon. After Reunification Day, the name of the city was changed to reinforce the sentiment that the populace had changed after the soldiers had left. Anyone who fought for the South Vietnamese Army was, at this time, in a great deal of trouble with the Law. Even now, these men and the families of these men cannot get normal jobs. They are the men who drive the cyclos, speaking the perfect English that they learned working alongside American servicemen during the war. They are the motorbike taxi drivers, vagrants, and beggars. The State blocks them from employment, and as a result there is no shortage of impromptu tour guides who are more than happy to show you around the city, the country, wherever.

The traffic here is also something else. Lights are suggestions, and your place on the priorities list is directly proportional to the size of your vehicle. Pedestrians, being so small in the road hierarchy as to be naught but a nuisance, walk with impudence through the traffic as motorbikes swerve ahead and behind. Even they, however, fear the bus and the truck, as they are giant-kings.

The taxi, interestingly is really the only actual car I see on the road. Every so often someone will have a personal automobile, but it’s pretty rare. Everyone has a motorbike. As such, our taxi driver cut through the mass of bikes at a pretty good pace, pausing only for those piloting a beast larger than his own, and got us to our hotel in about twenty minutes. The Peace Hotel, located firmly in the backpacker ghetto of Saigon, was home for the next few days.

After checking in and getting our stuff up to the room, we went forth in search of food. This being night 1, we weren’t so adventurous as to hit up the roadside food stall right away- I saved that for later- so Richelle and I found a restaurant less than a block away and ordered up some Pho- the quintessential Vietnamese noodle dish. A hearty, eat-like-kings multi-course dinner for two: About three dollars. Vietnam is awesome.

After dinner, Richelle was feeling tired, and went back to the room. I went forth in search of adventure, wandering the back alleys of our little backpacker district. Turns out we were only a few blocks from the Ben Thanh Market, a giant indoor marketplace that we’d visit the next day. For now, however, I found all this:

Ho Chi Minh By Night!

A concert in the park! Note the awesome propaganda backdrop.

This is that rotunda I showed you earlier- the one with me wading through traffic. It is just as busy at ten at night as it is at ten in the morning.

This is a closeup of the statue- I’m not entirely sure what it’s a statue OF, but it’s a statue.

After a good amount of nighttime wandering, and a bit of work endearing myself to the local street-child population (who wander around much like I did, except they do it with cases of cigarettes to sell, packs of gum, books, counterfeit sunglasses and cheap costume jewelry) I returned to the hotel and collapsed.

The next day, I woke up really early and decided to go out for another walk. The locals exercise really early in the morning and really late at night to avoid the heat, which already was so hot as to encourage midday siestas in air conditioned rooms. So when I went down to the park, I found:

People getting ready for some early-morning martial arts practice- the local art seems to revolve around hitting things with sticks.

Badminton is incredibly, inscrutably popular in Vietnam. Everyone plays it. Those that don’t play it play a variant that involves kicking a modified shuttlecock around a circle like a hackysack. Everyone in this picture is swinging at once in their two-person badminton pairs. There are no nets- they just hit the shuttlecock back and forth.

On the way back to the hotel, I was accosted by a pack of three beggar kids. I didn’t buy the act- it was fairly weak, and just asking for money doesn’t get you too far- but I saw a unique opportunity. I herded them up, walked them down to the closest Pho stand, and bought them each a breakfast. In return, I grilled them about their names, ages, whether they go to school (yep, they do) and why they were out begging (parents make them). I insisted they earn their meals by teaching me some Vietnamese- it’s a tonal language, so the pronunciation doesn’t make sense without a model or a teacher, despite the tonal notation that they append to the roman alphabet. I felt pretty good about the transaction: Feed a hungry child, learn some new stuff, and there’s no chance of them taking the pho back to parents who use it to buy booze.

Having taken care of my nagging Samaritan urges, I returned to the hotel to pick up Richelle, and we decided to go out and try to follow the walking tour of Saigon listed in the Lonely Planet. So we started at the Ben Thanh Market.

The market sells everything you would ever want to buy, at flexible prices inflated grossly for bargaining purposes. Everyone wants you to purchase from them- the aggressive sell is the only sales tactic that anyone in this country seems to know, from the moto drivers to the little cigarette saleskids to the merchants in the market- and everyone is willing to drop the price as far as 50% off the pittance they’re charging in the first place.

It’s crowded, and dark, and loud, and crazy, and I loved it. They were selling food (ready-to-eat and/or in giant bags; spices, coffee, meat, everything 1000 dong/1kilo or some ridiculous price) , clothes, gifts, jewelry, cloth, gold, children’s toys, whatever your little heart desires, it’s somewhere in the market. I found a place selling kitchen appliances, right next to a booth hawking shoes that looked like they had fallen off the back of a truck bound for a designer boutique.

After the market, we worked our way up through another market; a little street market that sold mostly drugstore-type stuff, but was interesting to meander through. We then tacked north, towards the old theatre and the People’s Communist Party Headquarters.Communist HQ is to the left of this picture, down about a block. This is the old Theatre Building, important for something but I’m not quite sure what. More interesting? The propaganda posters we found on the way!

Richelle finds that X marks the POWER OF COMMUNIST ATOMIC FUSION!

Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh himself, ladies and gentlemen) says Hello!

Richelle and I stand admiringly under the gaze of good old Uncle Ho!

Because Communist Republics with Anti-Free Speech Laws invite mockery.

As we rounded the corner to head towards the Reunification Palace and the War History Museum, we were taken by surprise! Seems someone had heard about our lampooning Uncle Ho!


So the Communists weren’t really after us, it was just a tank sitting (why? Who knows?) in a courtyard. Turns out this courtyard was fully stocked against incursion- it was the War History Museum, in a place entirely opposite of where our guidebook indicated it would be.

So there’s a tank.

There are also fighter jets.

And, in case everything goes wrong and the Americans attack again, there’s…

A wedding. At the War History Museum. This speaks for itself.

So, moving on, we saw a big cool university-type place. I like buildings that aren’t afraid to clash orange and blue. It bespeaks confidence.

We saw the palace and Notre Dame, but they were both closed for lunch.

So we hitched a ride with a couple of motorbike drivers and had them take us out to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, the last stop on the walking tour.

Temples in Vietnam are MUCH MORE COLORFUL than temples in Japan. They don’t invoke the same quiet reverence, but they definitely make me want to sing.

Storeroom in the temple- thought it was a cool picture.

Chillin’ on the roof.

Holy turtles in a dirty fountain.

So we left the Jade Emperor Pagoda, got some lunch, and returned to the Reunification Palace. The Palace used to be called Independence Palace- everyone’s seen the tank busting through the gates and heard the famous quote from the South Vietnamese president to the North Vietnamese soldier who crashed his door: “I have been waiting here since morning to give power over to you.” “There is no question of you giving power. You cannot give what you do not have.”

So here are the pictures THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO SEE:


The Presidential Casino! Poker table up front, blackjack in back, mahjongg to our left… and to the right, definitive proof that the South Vietnamese President was cooler than any other presidents I can think of (‘cept maybe Clinton):

Ladies and gentlemen, Jim Morrison. How can you forcibly extract a man from office who proudly displays Jim Morrison in his gambling den?

And what’s more, he’s got a Presidential Dance Floor.

Note Richelle breaking out "The Lawn Sprinkler"; a North American favorite.

In case he has to flee his hordes of screaming fans entranced by the emotive power of his dancing, or if the cops show up to bust his party, his helicopter is but a stone’s throw away.

After the top floor dance-floor, we were led into the basement, which made for some disturbing pictures:

The Radio Room (why put it in the basement? Reception’s gotta be lousy),

The Bomb Shelter (duck ‘n cover like you learned in grade school)

And the Kitchen (I have nothing funny to say about this.)

The Reunification Palace finished, we went for a hike to visit the Post Office. Uncle Ho, as always, presides over this beautiful old building.

After that, back to Notre Dame.

I think this says everything that needs to be said about Notre Dame in Ho Chi Minh City.

Well, that, and this:

Note: All those little plaques are purchased by church supporters, asking Mary for mercy or grace in French, the langue d’eglise around here. In the religions that have taken hold more strongly in Vietnam than Catholicism (notably Confucianism and Buddhism) buying indulgences is perfectly fine- you want a car, buy a biiiig stick of incense from the temple and burn it, and your prayers will be heard. These plaques seem like the same kind of indirect simony- somehow, it just doesn’t seem to be just donations.

With Notre Dame off the list, our walking tour was complete. So we skipped back towards the hotel, got some dinner, and again I was alone to wander. I ended up going to “Apocalypse Now” a longtime fixture of the Saigon nightlife scene. I wanted to know what it was like. I give you this review: Dark, expensive, but the music was funny. Anytime I can hear the 4 Non Blondes followed by that popular-for-no-reason “Dragonestea din Tei” (better known as the Myla HIIII, myla HAAA song), we’re at the right level of campy, stupid music for a decent night. All the same, I skipped out early, and learned a very important lesson.

After dark, everyone in Saigon becomes a pimp. Every motorbike driver offered not a ride home, but a “massage” and then, even more disgustingly, “boom-boom.” People came out of locked, dark storefronts to offer me this “boom-boom”. I ended up just walking home to the hotel. OLD LADIES offered up boom-boom! OLD MEN! Young guys on motorbikes WITH GIRLS ON THE BIKE BEHIND THEM! Hounded, I escaped to the hotel and resolved to leave Saigon for awhile- get out to the country, find out what Vietnam’s really like- beyond the traffic, the noise, the boom-boom peddlers.

So the next morning we got on a plane and flew north to Danang, with the intention of renting a motorbike and riding south to Hoi An. We couldn’t find a bike- Danang is a big city, but the airport’s a few kilometers from the city center, and we had to make do and take a taxi down.

Hoi An is a tailor’s village- a small town on the bank of a big river filled to bursting with shops selling custom-made clothing and shoes. They turn out work here that would cost thousands of dollars elsewhere and sell it for pennies. They can copy or fake up anything you bring them- and they’ll do it in a day. I myself bought new shirts, pants, shoes and a coat here- and am kicking myself for not dropping the twenty dollars on a suit. Yep, 20 bucks, tailored, custom-made suit. I am a fool.

But besides from being a shopper’s paradise, Hoi An also sports an impressive collection of French colonial-era architecture.

Once here, we rented a motorbike to get around (no sense in getting taxis everywhere, with the distances we wanted to cover) and set about exploring the countryside.

There were a few bikes, over the next few days. We couldn’t keep any given one for more than 1 day, and they rented out at $5 USD a day. So we just swapped them out for new ones- just as well, as some were kind of suspect in the quality department.

Gas around here comes either from petrol stations (in the cities) or at these roadside hand-pump petrol stands. Even the price of gas is something you can (and should) bargain for- they routinely mark up the price for foreigners.

The first day, on the green bike in picture 1, we went to My Son. My Son is an archaeological site, a temple complex of the ancient Cham civilization. It looks, honestly, like a movie set.

Stuff like this doesn’t exist in real life.

So we wandered the ruins for awhile, found some cool spots to take pictures, learned all about the ancient Chams and their craaaaazy brickworking skills (evidently, there is no mortar in any of these photographs- the bricks were somehow fused together). Interesting finds:

Decapitated statuary,

Recapitated statuary,

Cool bridges,

Daring escapes from Vietnamese prisons…

Long walks,

and little kids. In fact, on the walk into the ruins we were befriended by a middle school class of thirty, who talked with us all three kilometers in. Their English was excellent- they evidently practice with all the tourists.

After bumbling around the ruins for an hour or two, we hopped back on the bike, rode the 40 kilometers back into town, and just kept right on going North into the Marble Mountains.

Everybody likes a bit of a free climb.

These mountains are, as the name suggests, made entirely of natural marble. They aren’t particularly tall (by mountain standards), but the fact that they're sheer lumps of marble that look as if they've been dropped from the pockets of distracted giants more than makes up for their lack of ohmygodthat'sbig-itude.

Inside the mountains, there are huge natural caves in which the locals have built temples.

In fact, the whole mountain is a temple complex- there are temples inside, temples outside, temples on top… everywhere.

The place felt holy- it was quiet, there were hardly any other tourists around, and the immensity of the caves gave the same feeling as being in the great hall of a church. As we wound our way up and around the mountain, we came across places where so many hands and feet had rubbed before that the marble was polished smooth- there was a narrow chimney of rock rising out of a cave full of natural handholds- some rockslide a long time ago had left something approximating a ladder of jutting rocks- and each new little handhold or foothold was waxy-smooth marble.

When we climbed back down, exhausted and sunburned, we hopped back on the bike and rode back to Hoi An. Even out here in the country, we managed to barely avoid hitting or being hit by:

  1. Trucks
  2. Buses
  3. Taxis
  4. Chickens
  5. Cows
  6. Weird Rube-Goldberg Motorcycle/Wagons
  7. Schoolkids
  8. Schoolkids ON BIKES

We dropped off the bike, and spent the evening clothes shopping.

Well, clothes shopping, looking at boats on the river, and having some food down in the restaurant district. Can’t shop all the time.

We spent another day in Hoi An, and I just wandered the city while Richelle went shopping. Walked out past where the city ends and into the village surrounding, and found, in the space of any one block, a thatched hut and a modern mansion sitting side-by-side.

Wandered across a rice paddy with an old woman out working- had to take a picture.

Not quite sure what’s going on here, but it looked cool.

The next day was our last day in Hoi An, and so we picked up our clothes from the tailor’s and went to the beach. The beach was beautiful, but I (like a fool) took no pictures DESPITE having my camera with me. Met some Israelis on vacation just after finishing their mandatory Army service, ate some squid fresh from the ocean, swam, and generally relaxed. It is my vacation, I am occasionally allowed to just blow a day at the beach.

That evening, we went back to Danang only to find that our flight had been delayed FOUR HOURS- supposed to leave at 7, in fact were scheduled to leave at 11. So we waited, and while we waited, I tried Mystery Item 3 on my Weird Stuff I Ate This Trip list.

There is a special kind of coffee that they only drink in Vietnam. All Vietnamese coffee is delicious- I couldn’t get enough of the stuff- but this is supposed to be particularly good. They select the finest crop of the year, and feed the beans to a certain species of weasel. When the weasel has digested the beans and is, well, done with them, they go in and extract the beans from the excrement. These beans, fermented by the weasel’s stomach, make the crème de la crème of Vietnamese coffee. So I bought some, and tried it.

It was a complex, layered flavor. I, despite myself, enjoyed it greatly. I just have one nagging question:

WHO THOUGHT OF THIS? Who dove into a pile of weasel excrement and said “Hey! Let’s brew this! I bet this would taste absolutely delicious!”

Whoever it is, I’m in their debt. That was some delicious coffee, and it made the stupidly long wait go by that much faster.

By the time we finally got back to our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, it was 1:30 in the morning.

The next day, it was back on the bike. We wanted to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels, but we missed the tourbus (slept in) and didn’t want to contract a private driver (so much money!)… so we took our lives into our hands, and motorbiked Saigon. Armed with a map and a bike (a bike with a broken speedometer, but a bike), we set out to do battle with the swarm of crazy traffic that I had earlier described. It took us two hours to get out to the tunnels. At one point, we were so lost that we stopped at this little roadside café, and paid the owner’s son two dollars to show us, on his motorbike, how to get back to the main road. My limited Vietnamese vocab was stretched to the absolute limit, and we managed somehow to make it to the Cu Chi Tunnel system.

The tunnels are what the Viet Cong used to move undetected around the countryside. It’s a spider’s web of paths and houses that used every innovation they could think of- venting systems, enclosed ovens that could store up smoke to be released at night (when it wouldn’t tip off spotters), tricks, traps, the whole deal. When we arrived, we were first shown around the Cu Chi Resistance Village, which was set up kind of like a Disney Vietnam Funland.

You could mill grain, just like a member of the village resistance!

Stand by an American APC! I’m not sure if you can see it even if you blow up the picture, but the reason I’m standing here is to indicate the writing on the side; it says “Oh Carol”, which I wasn’t quite prepared to decipher. Anybody out there in TV Land know?

You could also have your picture taken with the Cu Chi Guerilla mannequins, but that seemed a touch too much. Similarly, there was a shooting range at the end of the tour where you could fire any number of Vietnam-era weaponry- M-16s, AK-47s, the whole works. After Hiroshima and what I’d already seen in Vietnam, I was perfectly happy living my life without firing an assault rifle- this stuff does quite well at taking your taste for wanton violence. (That, and they wanted a dollar a bullet, minimum 10! Come on, now!)

Next on the tour came the Propaganda Room.

They sat us down here, again under the watchful eyes of Uncle Ho, to view a video about the Cu Chi Guerillas. It was, in short, atrocious. I quote: “This is Lu Li. She is short- too short to see out of the trenches- but her hatred for Americans lifts her into the sky! She was awarded the title American Killer Hero.” It was narrated by some French guy- his accent was wonderfully atrocious- and it was the most slanted, hateful reporting I’ve seen since Bill O’Reilly. There was, by chance, an American with us when we were watching the film and touring the tunnels. Turns out he was a Vietnam vet, and we both laughed about the crazy, hyperbolic “American Killer Hero” stuff after the film was over. It was so angry it was silly.

Funny thing? The tour guide/guard and the veteran proceeded to chat about the site and the war like old friends, all through the tour of the tunnels. These tunnels are REALLY small, despite being expanded a touch for tourists- it’s strictly hands-and-knees suck-in-your-gut business. We were served tea and tapioca in one of the chambers- not tapioca pudding, but chunks of the tapioca plant. Not bad. Not too good, if that’s all you could eat, but not bad as a late afternoon snack.

On the way back, Richelle caught a ride with the American war vet and his wife, and I rode the bike back alone. This is just as well- it was rush hour. If someone asks you to drive a motorbike through Saigon rush hour, you would be wise to decline. Going too fast places you in mortal danger. Too slow? Mortal danger again. Lots of fun, though. Just not fun I’d like to have twice.

That evening, my traveling companion, Richelle, returned to Japan and left me to spend my last three days in Vietnam alone. I signed up for a two-day tour of the Mekong Delta, and planned to spend the last day catching up on things I had missed in HCMC.

That evening, I went for a walk out to get some dinner along the Saigon River. I was accosted mid-walk by a little girl wanting me to buy some gum. I had long ago given up on ignoring these kids, and decided instead to amuse them until they gave up. So I danced with her, she play-fought with me, we ran around and acted like big idiots until a member of her family (not her mom- her mother was watching all this) came up and asked me if I lived in Vietnam. She took my email address, asked me out to coffee. She wasn’t too happy to hear that I was leaving in a few days. I gave the kid a five-yen coin, by way of a gift (kids usually love coins from other countries, and the trick has worked on SO MANY of these kids thus far this trip- they forget what they’re selling and just become kids again) but she laughed, dropped it into my shirt pocket and said “No, Vietnamese.” She then sat on my foot and held onto my leg, staying there for half a block as I walked away. Cute kid.

Next morning, I hopped on the bus to go to the Mekong Delta. I was on there with about twenty other foreigners- my new 20 best friends for the next two days. Everybody was pretty cool- some Americans, a few British, a few Aussies, some Canadians, a pair of Israelis, and two Spaniards. Took awhile for people to open up and start talking, but this is the way of any group of people dropped into a bus with little to no introduction. The bus ride was about three hours, followed by a boat ride of about 45 minutes before we stopped for lunch.

Some houses on the Mekong.

We stopped in a small village to visit the fruit market.

Tell me he doesn’t look guilty- like he shouldn’t be doing whatever he’s doing.

As we traveled the river, every so often we’d come across these floating houses. The people who live on the water like this use a system of cages in the foundation of their houses to catch fish and supplement their food supply.

Cute kid in a boat!

Mekong Swimmer!


We visited a native village where they make coconut candy, honeybee tea and banana wine. Coconut candy is delicious- just coconut oil, honey, and water, stirred and boiled ‘till it hardens. Honeybee tea is also pretty good, but the method of manufacture is a little scary…

Yep. Bees.

Banana wine is more accurately termed banana whiskey- or just plain paint thinner. It’s the kind of drink big, strapping lads claim will put hair on your chest.

While we were enjoying our bee tea and coconut candies, a group of folk musicians came by and rocked out for us. The Vietnamese guitar is a funny thing- they scoop out the area between each fret until it’s a deep, concave cup- makes the string ring differently, evidently, and lends a really twangy, tinny sound to the guitar.

We made our way back to the boat, and then onto a ferry to take us to the next piece of the delta, where we would stay the night.

Spanish people! On the ferry!

(They, incidentally, were cool folks. Musicians and wanderers- Vietnam’s the latest in their “part-time-jobs to travel the world” scheme.)

Sunset on the delta.

That night, as I was walking to dinner with a few new friends, we passed a man on the sidewalk giving a peculiar kind of massage. He was taking cups- glass cups- and passing a lit brand underneath them for a second before pressing them against the back of his customer/victim. We stood and watched for a moment, and he grinned. The man motioned for me to sit down, and pulled my sleeve up, and stuck a cup to my shoulder. Seems that when the flame passes under the cup, it burns away the oxygen and creates a vacuum. This creates a great deal of suction when the cup is applied to the skin, which evidently pulls the blood to the surface and cleans away toxins.

So we think “wow, that was interesting” and go to dinner. For dinner, I order a Delta specialty: snake satay. The whole time, I’ve got a spot the size of a coke can on my shoulder. On the way back, he was still at it, but one of the reed mats was empty. After some quick bargaining. I took my shirt off and laid down. WARNING: THE FOLLOWING IS NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART.

So here I am, relatively unmarked.

Just the one. Man, I’m a skinny whiteboy.

All right, so then…

And then…

Look at how far the skin is drawn up inside the cups. This is… terrifying, now that I see it myself.

Then he reapplies the cups in ANOTHER place! In this shot, you can see him sticking the brand underneath to burn out the oxygen.

Then he put them on my chest! Ack!

Final result: Polka dots. They’re STILL ON ME- four days later. I’ll keep you posted as to how this ends up- or, if they’re still around the next time I see you (whoever “you” are), I’ll just show you. *UPDATE* The marks faded after about a week and a half. They didn't hurt until the very end, where there was nothing left but weird bruises.

So the next day, we went to the floating market. We didn’t get out of the boat and try and barter- what were we going to do with fifty kilos of watermelons? It was not a retail floating market. Some guy did try to sell us Coca-Cola, boat to boat…

After the floating market, we went to a rice paper workshop. Ever wonder how they make rice paper? All right, here ya go.

Step 1: Grind rice flour. Add water to make a sticky soup. Spread soup onto a piece of wet cloth stretched out over a hot fire.



Pick up mixture with your special rice-paper-wiffle-bat.

Picking up…

And away!

Spread onto reed mats to bake in the sun.

After the rice paper workshop (they then use the rice paper to make spring rolls, candy wrappers, what have you) we went to a little village whose sole purpose in existence was to house the coffee shop that paid our tour company money to bring us by there. Literally, that was it. That and a metal shop. Oh, and a cute kid.

With that, it was back on the bus and back to Ho Chi Minh City.

So five hours later, it was time to grab some food, hang out in the park, talk with some local people and generally have a good low-key evening. The next day was my last, so I really had to have one last good day.

Biker boys- two young guys in front of the local moto repair shop

So I went to HCMC’s Chinatown- Cholon. There are all sorts of interesting historical notes tied to this part of town- like the fact that it is only now being repopulated with Chinese people, as they all fled when the American War ended (this is what they call the Vietnam War. Wouldn’t make much sense to call it Vietnam, from their perspective) and are now brave enough to come back and reclaim the family business.

I got to Chinatown in a cyclo (xich lo in Vietnamese)- that strange pedicab number. It’s a bicycle in back, baby carriage in front. I never want to travel that way again. It makes me feel too colonial somehow, in a way that a taxi does not.

It did give me a good chance to snap some non-busy HCMC traffic, though. This is at a dead time- just before the lunch rush.

Here’s the shoe section of the Chinatown covered market. Nothing for sale in this picture is not a shoe.

Market courtyard.

It’s a big Chinese lion, but I don’t know why it’s got a ball in it’s mouth. Maybe this celestial lion plays fetch.

I spent the rest of the day touring temples- there are two particularly old ones in Cholon.

Here’s one…

And here’s the other. The spirals hanging from the ceiling are incense- they are hung (like the guy on lower right is doing) with the name of the purchaser and their prayer attached.

The signcarver’s hallway.

The last temple I visited was a Catholic church. Strange thing, though- the priests all spoke French. No English at all. Nice guys, though.

Just before I left Vietnam, I came across these guys, playing Chinese Chess in the street. I had seen various pairs of men playing the whole trip, but this is a pretty spectator-heavy game. Everyone was offering advice and placing bets while the two men tried to concentrate- pretty funny.

After this, and a little light dinner, I wandered past a circus (wow!) and a bunch of kids playing soccer with a half-deflated ball. Of course, when they asked, I joined in. More people this past week called out to me, talked to me, and generally badgered me than in my ENTIRE stay in Japan- Vietnam’s definitely friendlier than I thought it would be.

Six hours and one overnight flight later, it’s back to Japanese soil, people who speak a language I comprehend (well, more than Vietnamese, anyways) and life returns to … normal in Japan. Which is pretty out there, anywhere else.

Past few weeks have been insanely busy- family came and went, we're on our way to Kyushu this weekend, and there will be many more "Andrew-gets-lost-in-foreign-country" stories to come. Oh, and I teach sometimes.