(t-shirt and popular English expression in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand)
I spent the lion’s share of my vacation (9 days!) in
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
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.
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
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.
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:
Badminton is incredibly, inscrutably popular in
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
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
Richelle finds that X marks the POWER OF COMMUNIST ATOMIC FUSION!
Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh himself, ladies and gentlemen) says Hello!
As we rounded the corner to head towards the
OH GOD A TANK!
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
So there’s a tank.
And, in case everything goes wrong and the Americans attack again, there’s…
A wedding. At the
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.
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
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):
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.)
After that, back to Notre Dame.
I think this says everything that needs to be said about Notre Dame in
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
After dark, everyone in
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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:
- Weird Rube-Goldberg Motorcycle/Wagons
- Schoolkids ON BIKES
We dropped off the bike, and spent the evening clothes shopping.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
That evening, my traveling companion, Richelle, returned to
That evening, I went for a walk out to get some dinner along the
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.
We stopped in a small village to visit the fruit market.
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.
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…
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-
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…
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.
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
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
I got to
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
I spent the rest of the day touring temples- there are two particularly old ones in Cholon.
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
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
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.