Friend or Pho? - Travels in South Vietnam

Trip Start Jul 26, 2004
Trip End May 31, 2005

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Friday, January 28, 2005

Over the course of the last 5 months we have read a tremendous deal on Vietnam and about the Vietnamese war. Now we were finally able to see the places we had heard so much about and soak up the history and atmosphere first-hand.

Upon arrival in Ho Chi Minh city, or Saigon, we were instantly assailed by the touts ("No your hotel doesn't exist anymore, I'll show you a place"), posters of Ho Chi Minh, crowds and motorbikes. Everything you've heard about crossing the street in Vietnam is true. It is a more extreme sport than anything available in New Zealand. The key is to just step out into the street, despite the 100 motorbikes driving straight AT YOU, or AROUND YOU (you hope), or BESIDE YOU and just walk. DO NOT change your speed of pace, DO NOT look the drivers in the eye, and most of all, pray you make it to the other side. Kiss the ground when you do, and prepare yourself for your next road crossing. Why did the chicken cross the road in Saigon? He didn' can't be chicken, you have to be brave!

We managed to cross the road quite a few times and make it to several sites in the city. Yes, we did our requisite tour of the market, but did not buy anything, although the exotic beverages did entice us. Popular Vietnamese drinks include wine with cobras, or scorpions, or cobras eating scorpions. The medicinal effects of said beverage include cures for rheumatism, and heightened virility, but we didn't need to improve either. The coffee in Vietnam, with its faint hint of Chocolate, is amongst the best in the world, although the finest quality is literally from a rat's ass. The rodents ingest the coffee bean, and can figure out the rest.

Anyway...We also visited the War Remnants Museum, a very one-sided depiction of the atrocities of the Vietnam War, and the Reunification Hall that hasn't had its furniture changed since the country reunified in 1975. Our final day in Saigon we hopped aboard a boat and cruised along the Mekong Delta. We stopped at a candy factory, a snakewine shop and a brick factory among other places. Chris regaled the Vietnamese brick workers with his famous 'brick joke'. They loved it- it must be a cultural thing, or maybe it's funny when you don't understand English.

We had enough of big city life, which involved risking our lives regularly, so we headed north to the beautiful beach community of Mui Ne, best known for the beach, the sun and the wind. Many peeps from all over the world come here for kite surfing. Never heard of it before? Picture this: you take a parachute and a wake board and fly along the top of the water at 12+ knots (not Don Knots). When the wind catches you, you take off into the air doing all sorts of flips and turns like you were catching air off a half pipe or like you were a part of the Matrix. Although we didn't engage in that particular sport we did take our turn at sand sledding. Think snow sledding, just on very large sand dunes in the blazing sun and heat. Mui Ne is closely situated to dunes of windswept red, white and yellow sand. We awoke at 4:30 am to meet our driver who took us out to the dunes for sunrise. The sleds were brought to us by children at the dunes who showed us the proper Vietnamese sledding technique. We also visited a fishing village and walked through a canyon of red rock. It was spectacular.

It was a tough life there, spending our days on the beach entertained by the kite surfers, but we had to move on, so we made our way to the laid back town of Hoi An. A 3 hour bus ride, which turned out to be 5 (maybe it's the exchange: 3 Canadian hours is 5 Vietnamese hours), took us to the train station for an overnight train. We expected to be put in a sleeper car with a family of 10, the kids fighting, the parents smoking, and us cowering in the corner crying. Instead, we were placed with another nice Canadian couple. We think it was segregation, which we took advantage of to discuss Canadian things (the lack of Hockey and maple syrup). Nevertheless, we made it in one piece, with a couple hours of sleep, and a new Canadian travel posse.

Hoi An is a beautiful town in the middle of Vietnam. The pace is quite laid back there, with the exception of the constant sound of shopkeepers inviting you into their stores. " Lady, Mister- you buy from me?" The town has over 200 tailors who hand make clothes for you within 24 hours. We felt a little drunk with power and dong (Vietnamese cash), and subsequently bought enough to fill 2 boxes for shipping home. You cannot believe what it feels like to wear clothes made of wonderful fabrics, tailored for your specific dimensions. This was the first place Lara went where she could actually fit into the clothes. The Vietnamese people feel quite akin to her because of her size, and often hug her in the streets, or point and laugh at her. Not that different from home really.

Hoi An also boasts some beautiful old buildings and fantastic food. The town has the distinction of having not been bombed to smithereens or defoliated during the American War. We often spent our days with Hong, our tailor and new best buddy, in her shop and then we'd wander the historic streets looking at some of quaint old buildings that reflected some of its Japanese and Chinese roots. Evenings consisted of meeting Eric and Michele for the New Canadian Supper Club, where we chowed down on the finest local foods, including white rose, fried wantons and the noodle dish Cao lao. One evening we even treated ourselves (shopping and sight seeing can be SO taxing) to a spectacular 5 course, 5-star meal, with the local personality Mr. Kim (former cook for the South Vietnamese army, world renown chef, tennis pro, personal friend of Michael Caine, artist -quite a modest man)...all for $6.50 per person. Our mouths are watering now just thinking about it!

While Chris lay by the pool, Lara even went so far as to take a cooking course in Hoi An. Honest. After a couple of hours in the market, where they taught her how to pick fresh produce and showed her pigs freshly slaughtered (terrific for a vegetarian), they whisked her away by boat to a cooking school on the banks of the river. She, Eric and Michele spent the next few hours learning the fine art of Vietnamese cooking. She loved it, and plans to cook when we return. Ha, ha- just kidding. She does plan on calling out for good Vietnamese takeout however.

A little frazzled from all of our retail therapy, we decided that we could not live on clothing and fine Vietnamese food alone (says who?) and made our way to Northern Vietnam via the most terrifying bus trip we've taken so far. More about that next time.

Finally, we would like to conclude with some observations we've made on life in Vietnam, and how it differs from home. For example, it's not everyday you see a guy pull bills out of his ass to pay for his gas. No, not a back pocket, actually pulling them from underneath his pants. Other observations:

1. It is not unusual, nor that unsanitary apparently, to be eating dinner and have cockroaches or rats wander past your table.

2. When using the toilet in a Vietnamese retsuarant to find the bathroom, you often need to walk through the kitchen (best not to look if you ever want to eat again), by someone sleeping on a bed or on the floor, sewing machines, animals, kids playing, you name it, then when you finally find the bathroom, all the while watching your step, being carefull not to step on fish guts on the ground, or big bugs, the toilet is sometimes a gross hole in the ground with no toilet paper...(Thanks Michele T.)

3. We've told you about the driving in Saigon, well the transportation on the highways isn't much better. Road rules are: Bigger vehicles have right of way over smaller- which caused a bit of a problem when one tourist bus was trying to pass a transport truck and our tourist bus was coming head-on for it; it doesn't matter which side of the road you're on; speed limits are merely recommendations - a vehicle can drive way under the limit or way over. If you have any questions about these rules solve them by laying on your horn, everything will work itself out. And it does!

4. Pajamas are not just for sleeping anymore. It is considered fashionable, or at the very least acceptable, for people to wear their pajamas all day long as they head about town and do their business.

5. Bicycles or motorbikes are regularly packed with TONS of stuff. Sometimes it is a family of 4, or 4 pigs ( dead or alive), a bunch of chickens or geese (again, dead or alive), or an entire living room set.
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