Diary of Some Mad Travelers

Trip Start Feb 17, 2013
Trip End Mar 21, 2013

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Friday, March 8, 2013

We were up early this morning for our expedition to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. We are fresh and ready to go!  But, by the end of the day self-immolation may have been a better option.

7:30 --  Right on schedule, we are off from the bus station.  The station is pretty much like a US one, no one speaks English, well used building on its last leg, disinterested employees.  All the comforts of home.  But, the bus driver must have been using a stop watch to slam the door because we were off right on time.  Giant Ibis, our last bus, was outstanding, this one is Mekong Express.  It's a notch down but still nice.  The bus is older but everything functions -- so far. Hopefully, we won't have to test out the crapper.

7:45 -- The steward has ended his multi-language introduction.  Somewhere in there we are sure there was English but we are still thinking about it.  We got our free snack and nice big bottle of water.  Our seats are near the front, affording a nice view. There is a nice old couple just to the rear of us, so I may have to borrow some of his nitroglycerin tablets if I spend too much time watching out the front window. 

Later --  Like all good cross country buses, we have a TV hanging from the ceiling.  Shortly after take-off it was ready to engross the masses.  We started off with karaoke.  Now we know there is something worse than American karaoke -- Cambodian karaoke!  I was warned on Trip Advisor but you have to see it to believe it.  Fortunately, this is broken up frequently by clips of the Japanese version of "Bloopers. . . ."   It makes looking at poor people out the side window a good option. The sign says, "Free Wi Fi."  We'll see.  I have to pause now as I see Dayna is searching for gasoline and a Zippo lighter.

While Dayna and I are traveling with the upper crust of society let me explain how the locals travel between the metropolises.  First, picture one of those Ford Econovans that seat about 12 people.  Now, picture 15 - 20 little people jammed in.  After everyone is seated, picture adding a ton of junk on the roof.  Then, through some local engineering miracle, the rear doors are thrown open, ropes attached and another ton or two of bags, boxes, chicken coops, and such are somehow roped on using the rear doors (open) as the tie-downs.  The springs and shocks flattened, down the road they go.  We pass them on the road, some stopped on the side of the road.  Men on one side of the road, women on the other -- potty break!  I will try to get pictures.  This country is one Kodak moment after another.

Our mid-morning stop was one of those moments.  A combination of restaurant with clean restrooms (!) and open air market. They had a nice selection of roasted bugs for sale as well as some packaged products that, in reality, probably had less nutritional value than the bugs.  Then, there it was!  A bag of Lays potato chips, cleverly disguised in a foreign language.  Like a rose amongst the thorns!  We salivated all the way back to the bus until we could get the bag opened.  Ambrosia!  We'll have to try the bugs at the next stop.

Phnom Penh -- Right on schedule!  What country are we in?!  About 30 minutes in a nice clean bus station with "WC 's" that are equally clean.  God is Great!  A little bowl of reconstituted Pho (like Cup-of-Soup) and we feel like a million bucks.

Again, the bus left more or less on time, apparently leaving a connecting bus to fend for itself.  The bus was sold out we were told, but we are missing about half the inmates.  A quick shift as soon as the door closed and we each have a seat to ourselves. Now we hope that the other bus doesn't catch up.  I'm a little unsure how the system works, but we get closer to HCMC as someone else tries to figure it out.  We know we are on the right bus and our bags are stowed below.

This bus must be the queen of the fleet as it is nearly new by my observation.  We have been blessed with American music, soft rock I would call it.  Snacks and water handed out.  Passports to the "flight attendant."  This is an international trip!  She will be disappointed that she won't be able to collect $25 dollars from us for the $20 Vietnam visa.  We already have multi-entry visas!  Ha Ha!

Crossing the Mekong River --  Our scheduled bus goes to the front of the bus line as opposed to waiting in the local unwashed masses line with the mini-buses, trucks. and the few cars.  Once the big vehicles are loaded onto the ferry, then the motor bikes are allowed to fill in the holes.  Viewing a ferry coming the other direction, the only rule seems to be that your bike must mostly fit onto the ferry as it pulls away from the banks.  While you are crossing the Mekong the hawkers are beating on the bus window trying to sell you drinks or toasted cockroaches that do so much to promote a healthy colon.  There are, also, the little beggar kids that have made a cottage industry out of getting bus passengers to give them their snacks provided by the bus company.  They may be poor but they aren't dumb.  Bilking us out of our petrified fish paste injected croissant is hardly a challenge for them -- nor a loss for us.  I note that they weren't begging for a barbecued grasshopper from the little lady selling them!  And, she had an excellent selection of different kinds of garden pests to choose from.  Our next stop is the border crossing.

Maybe.  There is a horn screaming at the driver's seat.  We are now stopped. Barry, where are you when we need some mechanical help?  I am on vacation so I will hold my vast bus fixing experience in reserve as a last resort.  A few Euros go out to suck a weed.

We are off again after about 5 minutes.  The problem is fixed or the alarm buzzer has been disabled.  Either way, we are up to speed and the horn works so the driver is happy.  It is hard to believe that we are actually counting the kilometers until we are back to civilization -- Vietnam!  

5:30 -- The sun is beginning to set over the delta.   And, this really is delta land. Flat, flat, flat.  The highest point in all directions is this road grade.  The families are starting to gather under their houses, the hammocks strung between the stilts.  It appears that the ladies are getting some kind of dinner going.  Most of the shacks down here seem more prosperous, most having wood walls rather than palm frond walls.  The kids have returned from a busy day of begging.  There are schools in the towns that we pass through, but we are informed by those in the know that school attendance in the rural areas is spotty at best. Schools are supposed to be free but really aren't, and the dollar doesn't stretch to education if your goal in life is to eat.  As we pass through the small roadside villages the ladies that have the stands are grouping up as ladies will do worldwide -- discussing kids or the price of watercress.  The men gather, as they do in cities, around the watering hole to share tea or something stronger.  Probably discussing women or March  Madness teams -- I know guys!  The fields are fallow now so the backbreaking labor of farm work is still a few months away when the rains come.

Sunsets worldwide are beautiful but in dust filled parts of the world like here and Africa, they are special.  In Africa, we had sundowner parties where we would go out from camp to drink and watch the sun go down in the bush.  To the locals, it is just a time to remember where you put out the candles or the flashlights.  

The border crossing -- This will be the major excitement of the day, or so we thought.  The Cambodians seemed much more interested in our departure than they did in our arrival.  We had our picture taken and fingerprints from all ten fingers.  Then, we were off on the bus for another couple of hundred yards to the Vietnam side of the border.  That was reasonably quick since our recent visa was already in our passports.  A baggage scan -- no nuclear weapons found, and off we went. 

Arrival in Saigon -- And, here we are.  The bus station turned out to be a side street next to a park in District 1.  Simply put, we were lost.  But, a taxi driver quickly found us and offered a ride to our hotel.  He kept asking us if we had reservations.  I'm sure he intended to take us to one he knew of that would pay him a commission to drop us off.  I was aware of that scam and we really did have reservations.

We are at the Dinh Phat Hotel, or some such name.  It seems too much trouble to check and make sure this late at night.  We are in #803, interesting because the elevator only goes up to the 7th floor.  So we get to hike the last one.  This room is a one night stand and will do just fine since we have to be out the door by 6:00 a.m. to catch a flight to Hanoi.  It is impeccably clean and sort of roomy.

So that was our day.

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