For the first time in nearly a year, I am relaxing. Funny stuff, huh? I realized yesterday that even though I had a place in Beijing, I never really got the opportunity to relax. I was working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week and Sundays were usually just to recover. And with 6 months of that, it was time to get back on the road – a tremendously energy consuming task. And so now, in Saigon, I sit around waiting for my mom, stepdad and aunt to arrive and it is so nice doing absolutely nothing. I don’t have the energy for much of anything anyway. So now, I’m trying to recover. In all honesty, I’m not so far all that impressed by Vietnam (I’ll explain why) and so you need to be careful not to burn yourself out when you’re lacking intrigue and energy. We’ll see how this all plays out.
So how about Vietnam? Well, Hanoi was an interesting place. Lots of little lakes and rivers, interesting people doing interesting things everywhere you looked. The streets were chaotic, but not nearly as chaotic as Saigon. And there are tourists EVERYWHERE. You see, backpackers like to consider themselves as better than tourists. We like to think that we are intrepid explorers venturing into virgin territory. And when we see lots of other travelers, especially old people, we are confronted by the fact that what were doing is neither dangerous nor challenging and our egos get bruised. But that’s not what really gets me about the two cities I’ve been to here in Vietnam just yet. What is most disheartening is the fact that it seems that nearly everything and everyone here is someone getting the tourist buck. You can’t trust advice because someone is getting a cut. For example, your hotel will probably tell you that you can’t get a train ticket for that night because they want an extra night’s stay. When people talk to you on the street, they want money for their services like taking you for a tour of the city on “Motoby” (motorbike) or something like that. You just walk around with the thousands of other tourists walking around feeling like a piece of meat surrounded by a bunch of amiable lions. And they are good. Really good. If you didn’t know any better, you would think everyone was your best friend.
But that’s life. Everyone wants something. I haven’t made any sort of discovery and I’m not that naïve. But here’s the kicker. EVERYTHING here revolves around you. It’s almost as if no one here has their own life. All the stores are for you (with exceptions, mind you) but it’s like a big crappy city here in Saigon with nothing (it seems) for locals. I take that back. There are restaurants and key copiers and stuff like that, but it has a completely different feel to it than South America. I actually can’t put it into words but I feel like Vietnam is devoid of any visible culture other than transporting unimaginably large and random objects on motorcycles. Now, I’m sure that’s a pretty ignorant thing to say. How could I get to know the culture after a few days passing through? I can’t, but you absorb the culture in other countries. You see it everywhere you look. People go about their lives and you just kind of hitch-hike along. Here, people go about your life. You can’t walk 5 feet without someone sitting on the street offering to take you for a ride on their motorbike or cyclo (a bike taxi). Or old ladies in those crazy pointy hats trying to sell you bananas. Or guys selling you naked lady Zippos or fake Ray Ban sunglasses from a huge box strapped to his neck. And of course, beggars (most of them, surprisingly, are crippled).
How can this be? I’m not a random naïve traveler just off the plane. I’ve actually seen quite a few countries. I know this is something different. I don’t know if all parts of Vietnam are like this, or the rest of Southeast Asia for that matter. But it’s sad. Vietnam has been occupied by China, France and America. They have been bombed to shreds and fought many wars. They have been washed and scrubbed and told what was “civilized”. And they are poor. They need money somehow, eh? A guy on the street told me that he can make 300 bucks a month selling fake sunglasses. Considering the fact that you can eat for 20 cents a meal and my HOTEL is 3 bucks a night, that’s pretty good living here. So anyways, how do you get to know the “real” Vietnam, then?
I take this question seriously, because I really want to know. This is a challenge. So I take to the streets. I walk around and I talk to people. Yesterday, I met a motorbike driver that showed me that he also had a job making furniture for an Australian guy. I had him give me a ride to a noodle place for lunch, bought him coffee and we chatted for an hour about Vietnam. Before the war, after the war, how it was now. What he does.
What life is like. Things like that. When we were done, I paid him some money for the ride and continued on. Most of the motorbike drivers have nothing better to do so they will chat with you (for free!) and are very friendly. So are the cyclo drivers. I’ve met quite a few and keep running into them over and over as I revisit parts of town.
I went to the clothing market and decided that I wanted to find out if they could make me a shirt that said “DON’T WANT MOTORBIKE OR CYCLO!” so that I could make a few tourists laugh when they read it (seriously, it gets very annoying and it’s hard to keep politely saying “no, thank you” with a smile). So I chatted with some girls at a stall and joked around with them. They said I had to make 10 shirts, not just one. And it would be close to 50 bucks. No way. I visited some others. Now they were pretty bored to and I was the center of attention. I had to draw things, explain things, find translators. No one else would even entertain the idea. I explained how well shirts like this would sell here in Vietnam. They could make 10, sell me one and the others would sell like hotcakes. They would have nothing of that. I left the clothing market with still determination in my heart. I walked down the street and asked motorbike drivers. I asked store owners that looked like they might know. I was really bored, as you can gather. And then I finally found one. He would make me three for about 3 bucks each. I just had to supply the blank t-shirts (which is a bigger challenge than one would think in Vietnam). I eventually wrangled those up after another 45 minutes of searching and went back to the printer. His daughter translated for me. We all had a great time and I was so getting my shirts made! I picked them up today and they are incredible. Beautiful.
I think this is how you have to do it here. You just have to walk around and talk with people. You have to laugh and smile and appeal to people’s humanity and you can get past the tourist dollar varaciousness. Almost. They are of course still hungry.
So here I am left with nothing to do in Saigon. I bought a hammock and hung it up on the balcony (my roommates love it). Don’t worry about me. I’ll survive.
You are stranded in a sea of motorcycles surrounding you completely. Everyone revs their engines with anticipation – motorbikes slowly rock back in fourth as everyone inches forward and then rocks back to keep their engines from stalling. 500 eyes focus on the single red streetlight.
The light turns green and a blast of warm and suffocatingly moist exhaust engulfs your face from the lumbering bus ahead of you as it awakes from its slumber. The roar of the motorbikes rises with crescendo and everyone slowly lurches forward, weaving and waving, with nervously calm expressions darting in every direction. People swerve. People veer. People flow. And with that the dam is broken and the river of cycles gushes into the intersection and melts into the motorbikes still in the intersection (who paid no attention to their own red light). You simply go with the stream and pay attention to your motorbike and about a foot around it in all directions simultaneously. You brake and swerve, you take advantage of holes, you accelerate and snub your nose at cars careening toward you with confidence. You survive.
Until you arrive at your next red light and it starts all over again.
Let me tell you. Renting a motorbike in Saigon is quite an experience. Even more so, it seems, than Hanoi. Everything seems a little more chaotic here in the south. No one pays attention to lights, people drive on any side of the road and in any direction. Yet no one has any accidents. It’s crazy.
So what have I been up to (besides NOT being in any of the countries hit by the tsunami)? Quite a bit actually. The last time I wrote, I was getting ready to go on a trip to Ha Long Bay on the coast of Vietnam. That morning, I woke up and took the tour with my buddy Mike (French Canadian) there. We met a lawyer couple from Hawaii traveling with their son and a few Germans and after two hours we eventually arrived at the bay. We hopped on our boat and after sitting around for a while we were off. We spent the next day and night checking out the sites of Ha Long Bay (which is really nice, but nothing spectacular) and the “Surprise Cave” which is named “Surprise Cave” because some guy found it in 1990 and was “surprised”. Anyways, we had Christmas on the boat and we all sat around and chatted. I, of course, steered the conversation towards the international economy, the European Union, the WTO and a variety of other things. I got roped into debating American hegemony (which I’m getting quite good at) and we all sipped whiskey that one of the lawyer guys bought on the boat. The Vietnamese crew made balloons for us and the plastic Christmas tree flickered with lights. One of the ladies (who was a lawyer) pulled out a bag of pot that she bought somewhere and rolled a joint (WHERE are you from, again??) and passed it around. Mike and I passed on the weed but enjoyed watching everyone get stoned. At least they laughed more!
So the next day we headed back to dry land and eventually back to Hanoi. Mike and I spent another day on the motorcycles and the evening flirting with a beautiful girl working at the hostel and then went our separate ways. Mike to Sapa (in the mountains) and me to Saigon. Don’t worry though. The train was only 33 hours.
I was taken to the train station with my huge backpack and all on the back of a little moped and upon arrival, I found my car and introduced myself to my Vietnamese carmates – which basically entailed me saying “hello!” and offering them some candy. The next 33 hours were spent sleeping, listening to music, nearly vomiting from the food, watching the woman below me pick at the scabs she had all over her body from some sort of skin disease and admiring the Vietnamese countryside roll by. It was pretty cool. Except for the food and the scab picking.
So I finally arrived to Saigon at 4:00AM and bargained with a guy to take me to a hotel in my book for 2 bucks on the back of a motorbike. It’s strange here. Everything is given to you in dollars and then they convert it to Dong – the currency here. They try to get you on the exchange rate. But it gets pretty annoying after a while. So at 4:00AM there is nothing open. Some woman was washing carpet on the street in the front of a hotel. I pointed at it and she shook her head “no”. I put my hands up and said “where should I go?” She smiled and shrugged. So I walked through the streets of Saigon, perhaps following the footsteps of my father stumbling back to the base after a night out and ended up in a 24 hour internet café.
When the hotels finally opened, I headed to one and had to wait while they cleaned up the dorm room. I had breakfast and chatted with a Korean woman about the war in Korea (You will notice very quickly after talking with me that I get into some pretty deep conversations – but not attackingly so, just listening. Of course, I’ve perfected the art of backing off when appropriate, but at the same time maintaining maximum extraction of perspective, opinion, and information). From there, I headed to my room and took a shower before heading downstairs to rent a motorcycle for the day. I ended up running into Marie – from RIVERSIDE, of all places!
It’s funny because no one knows anything about Riverside. When people ask where you are from, you say California. When they say what part, you say LA. Only if they are from LA can you actually say Riverside. And even then I might not mention that I’m actually from Moreno Valley (Moreno what?). So I went through this process with Marie and it turns out we are both from not 10 miles away from each other. Crazzzzziness, eh? So anyways, her parents are from Vietnam so she speaks Vietnamese. We putted around with each other the whole day checking out Saigon where I checked out the hotel my mom and stepdad will be staying at in a few days. There’s no airport shuttle so I will meet them at the airport when they arrive.
Then I went back to my dorm room and took a nap. I got up just before dark and just drove around Saigon on my motorcycle – getting lost in the madness. I drove around the river, through the city, and down alleyways. Somehow, I magically arrived back at my hostel without a map. It’s a crazy city – about which I’ll write more maybe tomorrow. That evening, Marie and I got some Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) and I headed back to my hotel where I had some beer and chatted with some locals at a little store on the side of the road across from the hotel. Their 25 year old beautiful daughter (incredibly so) looked about 18 and spoke excellent English, and we chatted about Vietnam. I asked all sorts of questions and learned quite a bit. She learned English from MTV and wrestling on TV in addition to school and having an American boyfriend in the past. Her parents hung out around us and smiled. They firmly patted my shoulder as we talked with a smile as though to say, “You can date our daughter if you want.” It was a really strange feeling.
I can remember having a discussion with a Chinese guy on the subway in Beijing about how westerners can get their pick of any girl they want in China, just for being western. It’s cool and trendy.
He was a bit frustrated. As I travel around poorer countries, especially in Asia for some reason, I get that same feeling. I can have a beautiful wife if I want. Drop dead beautiful. But of course beauty isn’t the only qualifier for a successful relationship. You would have to date and get to know a person. Which would entail staying in the country for a while. But you meet people for a day and you can’t stay for every cool person you meet. And I wonder, is it just my confidence that has changed which is why this feeling has hit me so far into the trip? Why didn’t I feel this way in South America? I don’t know. But soon enough, however, I’m going to go back to America and we’ll find out. When I get back, will I be just another average guy with an average life, or will two years around the world have added an edge to me that people take notice of? I thought that I wouldn’t change on this trip, but I have. I’m still a goofy and funny guy, and I don’t quite know what is different, but something has changed in me. I’ve got about 8 more months to think about this so I’m not jumping to any conclusions. But…my god…what a beautiful girl.
Well, the crazy adventures have begun once again! Let’s recap on the past few days…
So after a relatively stressful final few days in Beijing packing, selling off my old stuff, saying goodbye to friends, sending stuff home, buying onward tickets and stuff like that, I ended up taking off (by plane) to a southern Chinese city called Nanning. I opted for the plane instead of the train because it was only $60 bucks instead of $100 for the train and it was a lot quicker. On top of that I would be taking the train back through China, so I’m happy with my decision. I woke up early in the morning (after a fun filled night out with Brad and Maurizio) and Brad escorted me to the bus stop where I caught the airport shuttle. There, I hopped on the plane, and arrived at Nan Ning. I was the only white guy on the plane and I met a Chinese guy from Mission Viejo who was named KZ (which sounds a lot like Casey) and we chatted for a while. When we landed, he was greeted by the news station because he is some Olympic coach and so I got introduced. Then when I got on the bus to town, I met a girl name Hai Yin who ended up inviting me to stay with her and her family in town. It was cool. We went out that night and she showed me all around the town. We went to the elementary school she used to teach at and I met all the teachers and sat in on an English class. I got to be famous for a day and had all the kids run up to me and talk with me and ask me to sign my name. It was pretty crazy. After that, I went to Hai Yin’s friend’s family’s house for some traditional Chinese holiday and I basically sat around and entertained everyone with my horrible Chinese for the night. We all had dinner together, I practiced English with thier 9 year old daughter (with whom I got into an ugly calling contest..”ni chou! niiiii chou! bu niiii chou!!!” which means, “you’rrre ugggle. No you’rrrre ugly!!!”) and drank with the guys while speaking Chinese. It actually surprises me how much I can speak now. I can only say basic things but it’s actually pretty cool to be able to do all that I can do with almost no effort.
So then we headed back to Hai Yin’s house and I hung out with her and her family and then crashed (innn my verrry owwwwn Chinese room!) and then in the morning headed off via train for the Border town of Ping Xiang.
It was a several hour train ride and I was really happy when we finally arrived. It was one of those trains where you have to sit in a chair directly facing another guy and it is really difficult to not stare straight at him the whole time. Even though everyone was staring straight at me!
So then we arrived and I met the only 5 other westerners on the train. We grouped together and negotiated a good price (70 cents) via motortaxi (basically a motorcycle with a metal box welded on the back big enough for 3 people) and were off on a wild and crazy motortaxi for a 20KM trip via a dirt road through the back roads on China/Vietnam to the border crossing. Once there, we got stamped out of China and walked over to Vietnam where we bargained with one of the 20 ladies for a good rate of exchange for yuan to dollars and then got stamped in after 45 minutes of waiting at the visa stamping building (and paying a 50 cent “medical” checkup – which entailed absolutely nothing). We haggled with the taxi guys to take us to the nearest Vietnamese town and there forced the driver to take us to the real bus station (instead of his buddy charging outrageous prices to take us to Hanoi via his bus). There we negotiated a good price for a bus to Hanoi (3 dollars each, instead of the 7 he wanted) and then were off on a two hour bus ride to Hanoi. If this seems like a convoluted way of getting to Hanoi, try actually doing it. It’s much more complex than this story! So anyways, on the bus, no one seemed to speak English until I noticed that a girl said some Chinese words and I was able to talk with her about how long the trip would take and where she lived and good hotels and make some jokes and stuff. She is someone who lives right on the border and so she knows both languages.
We finally arrived in Hanoi and checked into our hotel ($3 a night each). Mike (one of the guys on my train) and I ended up finding an incredible place to eat ($3 bucks for a huge meal at a nice place and a big bottle of beer) then heading back to the hotel, chatting with some people and heading to bed.
What a day…
So tomorrow we head off to Ha Long Bay for a two day tour of some islands there. I took some malaria medication today so I should start being okay in a week for going to malaria infected places and all that stuff. Today, Mike and I rented a moped ($6 a day) and drove all around Hanoi visiting temples, museums, parks and stuff. Man, it’s bloody crazy here on a moped! There are millions on the streets everywhere and I swear, it’s a miracle that we didn’t run into anyone the whole day. People are driving in every direction without helmets and sometimes without even looking and somehow, no one gets hurt. It is mind boggling.
It is quite interesting to see the Chinese influence here. Lots of people know a little bit of Chinese, old men play Chinese chess in the streets and all the museum signs have Chinese. They also have French. Everything is in French here and quite a few people can speak it. Mike and I met a street kid today selling gum and he could speak English and French in addition to Vietnamese. Crazy, eh?
So it’s back to the fast paced life again. Traveling with very little time to relax. Every day is something new and exciting and the pace of it makes your brain tired.
Which is why my brain is so tired right now. This malaria medication is supposed to give you wickedly vivid dreams (or nightmares), but it’s also supposed to give you stomach problems which I haven’t had. So maybe I wont have any bad reactions to this tonight.
Stay tuned for how my trip to Ha Long Bay was in a few days. I’ll write all about it then.
It almost doesn’t seem real. Packing up again and getting ready to get back on the road. I’ve made a whole new life here in Beijing. I’ve got a good paying job, friends, stuff, an apartment. And now it’s time to continue on.
Images dance around in my head. Unbelievably cute little kids with rosy cheeks wrapped up in huge jackets walking up to me and asking for money while eating a sweet potato (half of which is smeared all over their faces). Taxi drivers giving me Chinese lessons on the way to my next class. Bracing myself mentally for my first English class. The insane heat of Summer and the bitter cold of Winter. Literally running away from old women trying to sell me socks (5 for 60! 5 for 60!). Hopping into the back of a car with the windows covered to change yuan to dollars.
Haha, oh, I didn’t tell you about that? Well, China is funny. You can change dollars to Yuan, but you can’t change Yuan to dollars. So all the money you make here is supposed to be spent here ¨officially”. The only problem is that English teachers make way more than they would ever spend and so I am sending some cash back home. I couldn’t go to the bank though because “that’s not allowed”. So how to do it, then?
When my buddy Simon was in town, he got a lead on a fake newspaper stand that was actually a black market money changing place. I went to the general area and tried to find it. After asking lots of random people who couldn’t speak English if they could change money, I gave up. Then I got another lead. My old roommate had the number of someone who could help, but she didn’t know anything more. She gave me a note with some Chinese on it. I showed that to the taxi driver and we were off. In the snow. Yes, it finally started snowing today! Although it melted within a few hours. We drove around Beijing until we arrived at the place on the paper. I hopped out and showed a guy the note. He walked to a group of guys not too far away and they all yelled at me “Change money!!” and pointed at a car next to the building.
I got inside.
The windows had curtains over them so no one could see in and as I sat down, a woman in the front seat turned around and stared at me.
“25,000 yuan,” I wrote on a paper.
She pulled out her calculator, showed me the rate of 8.26 (the official rate is 8.27, so that’s not too bad) and I handed over a FAT stack of Chinese 100 notes, all rubber banded. She counted it, then sent her “associate” to the bank. He eventually returned with more money than most Chinese earn in a year, handed it to the woman, who counted it and gave it to me. I showed each 100 note up to the light, checked for the watermark, the little strip inside, and texture. Everything was good and I hopped out. That was that.
Ahhhh, life in China!
So anyways, my money is changed, so now it’s just a matter of wiring it back home. We’ll see how that adventure goes. In other news, I’m just getting over a pretty bad stomach bug. I had to go home from work Saturday because I felt so bad and I’ve been spending the past week or so trying to recover. Only today am I able to stay awake past 8PM and walk around with the feeling that I’m not going to vomit. I still have a splitting headache and have no appetite, but tomorrow will probably be better. Today was my day off of work (my last day is in two days) and I spent the day changing money, picking up my visa, turning in my taxi receipts to Berlitz, picking up some scarves for my mom (I don’t know anything about scarves so I hope she likes them), getting a gift for my roommate, Brad, and coming home to size up what exactly I’ll be keeping and what I’ll be throwing away.
The problem is that I need to figure out where I’m going to go next. I have until the 1st to get to Saigon in Vietnam to meet up with my mom, stepdad and aunt, and I’m not sure where I’m going before that. I have decided that I want to take a train there so I can see the countryside, but the whole train ride will only take maybe 4 days total, so that leaves me with another 6 days to kill somewhere else. Where do I want to spend Christmas?
This is tricky because it will be my first solo Christmas. Last Christmas (you may remember) was spent with Erika and her family in Argentina (my god, it’s been a year already!). I am a firm believer that things are only as important as you make them, so Christmas shouldn’t be too bad alone, but then again, you never know exactly how you will react to it. More than anything, I want to do it as an experiment to see just how I handle it. We’ll see how it goes.
So now I’m pondering what I want to send home. It’s funny because I really don’t have much to send. Just a few gifts from students and maybe some clothes and my pictures. My apartment was furnished and I’m selling my computer. I haven’t bought much else. I have honestly learned how to live on next to nothing and it’s a great feeling.
Ahhh, China, so many memories. I’ll be back though after Southeast Asia to check out Southern China. You can’t get a feeling about the whole place just from one city.
This whole trip up until now has been a surreal experience. I can’t believe all that I have done and I can’t believe that it’s only a little over halfway complete. I will try to put a better summary on my Beijing experience in a future post (when I can get some perspective). Stay tuned.