I’ve fallen in love with Vietnam. The Mekong Delta was incredible. I finally found the innocence that I knew was there and I can put into to words what I felt in Saigon and Hanoi. I can remember trying to explain to my mom, stepdad and aunt how odd Saigon and Hanoi felt which I attributed to the tourism industry (and still do). How people overcharge and put on a face to get your dollar. They said they didn’t mind and thought it was normal. After all, it is helping the Vietnamese economy and they are just making do with what they have. And I wholeheartedly agree. But I think this comes at the cost of one’s soul as a country, to a certain extent. I can’t explain the feeling you get when you experience a country from the perspective of an observer – where people let (and welcome you) to simply observe. They give a smile and a wave and continue upon their lives. But it just all feels so fake when you know they are only smiling and waving because they want you to buy something. That’s capitalism, I understand. And as was argued, they are just trying to survive. But my point is merely that it feels really different. And it really shocked me. Vietnam was the first place I ever experienced that and if you are only on vacation, that’s all well and good. It certainly makes travel a lot easier. But I look at tourism (knowing full well that I am partaking in it) as a kind of prostitution of the country. Although it provides capital, it also detracts from the quality of the experience – which is why less touristy places are so much more appealing.
So anyways, I found this in the Mekong Delta. It was incredible. People say that the southern Vietnamese are friendlier than the northern due to the fact that food was never very scarce in the wetlands of the Mekong and people were able to share much more with strangers. They say that in the north, due to the scarcity of the food in the past, that the people are only friendly to those in their family unit. I don’t know if this still applies, but the people in the Mekong were incredible.
So I booked a three day tour of the Mekong from Saigon. It cost $22 bucks (hotel, transport, guide, boat trips included) and took off the following morning. Your only option here is to book a tour, unless you have lots of cash. A boat rental is nearly $45 bucks by itself and if you wanted to do all this solo, not only would you have to talk to a lot of people (who spoke English) to find out what to visit and where to go. You would have to pay a lot for boats and buses and guides and stuff like that. And it wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Although there were lots of tourists (well, not lots, but plenty), tourism is very immature here – and you can tell. For one, all the places you visit get paid by the tour operator for each tourist so you don’t worry about them pushing trinkets onto you with each visit. The people just go about their business and you go about yours. It was great.
So day one was spent on the Mekong River. We saw little villages on the river banks, visited a coconut candy factory, and then took a row boat through the little inlets barely narrow enough for our boat past houses made of sticks and straw and people washing their clothes or fishing in the river. We then visited a garden in MyTho where they had all these monkeys and a little pond. One of the baby monkeys was able to escape from his cage and entertain us by standing on some peoples heads while he ate a banana.
The next day was spent visiting a floating market which basically consists of a bunch of boats selling everything you can imagine in the river. They stick whatever food they sell on a big stick and put it high up in the air so everyone can see what they see and people take their row boats over to buy food. We then visited a rice noodle factory (which is really quite interesting) and a crocodile farm and we eventually ended up at the base of a mountain which had many Buddist temples built into it on the Cambodian border. We hiked to the top of the mountain and watched an incredible sunset (which I was able to enjoy alone at a secret spot halfway up the mountain that I found). It was interesting because the whole town had loudspeakers broadcasting Vietnamese everywhere. You could hear it echoing everywhere as you climbed the mountain. Then at sunset some music played everywhere. It was really strange. Propaganda?
So anyways, we climbed back down the mountain (which had steps so it’s more like we stepped down the mountain) and went to the hotel to take showers before dinner. The guide conned us into taking a bunch of cyclos to the restaurant saying that the driver had to fix the AC (but everyone knew he was full of it) which we of course had to pay for and I got a kick out of toying with the tour guide.
“So he’s fixing the AC, huh?”
“So it should be nice and strong tomorrow, eh?”
“Well…he says he’ll try to fix it. I can’t make any promises. This is a good price for a cyclo, though!”
Sometimes you know you are getting conned but you just sit back and take it. After all, these guys needed the 60 cents a lot more than I did and if all it took was a bit of a lie to get us all to fork out the money, that’s all right. This was a bit altruistic of the company, I think. It was just to spread a bit of money around the town and I honestly don’t think they were getting a cut. That’s not too bad. Had we not been lied to, we would have insisted on taking the bus because it should be free and no one would get the money.
After dinner, the guide took me to the office to pay for my boat ticket to Cambodia (where I am now) and then we took the cyclo back together. I chatted with him about his life. His wife died of cancer a few years back. He told me that he learned about a new cure for cancer that he wished he would have known before he agreed to let them treat his wife. You just need to cut off the tail of a cobra, put it in a yellow coconut (not a white one, mind you) and drink it. It kills the cancer, simple as that, unlike western medicine which makes all your hair fall out and makes you sick. If only he would have known. So anyways, his son got in a motorcycle accident a few months before and he had to take care of him. His head got cracked open and apparently he has some brain damage. He was also a fighter for the VC in the war. He fought in Cu Chi (which is where those tunnels are) and had a huge section of his shoulder and a few toes missing from machine gun fire.
He told me all this matter of factly after I asked about each thing. He didn’t ask for money and he didn’t seem sad. He didn’t make it a sob story like lots of people do. When we got back to the hotel, he said goodnight and headed in to take a shower.
I spent the rest of the evening chatting with the owner of the hotel (who was my age and whose dad actually owned the hotel). We chatted about music, English, and Vietnam. We talked about how much it costs to run the hotel and how much he pays for beer and the like. It was really informative.
The next day was spent visiting a fish farm village which is a house with a huge tank below it where they breed fish and then a Muslim minority village with some really cute kids and then headed towards the Cambodian border. We putzed along in our little boat and kids on the shore waved at us from their houses or their parents’ boats. We saw people fishing and washing clothes. People fixing and cleaning boats. People laying in hammocks relaxing. It was great. About an hour into the trip, a motorboat sped by and picked me up and then we rocketed to the border.
And from that point on is a post in itself so I’ll continue it later.
I’ve recovered from my exhaustion. I’m ready to keep traveling and seeing new stuff. I am of course still sick of the cheesy traveler chat everywhere but that comes with the game. There’s not much else for complete strangers to talk about.
Cambodia (where I am now) is cool. Interesting fact: They eat spiders!
My view of Vietnam has changed quite a bit since my first two posts and I will write a bit more about it when I make it to Cambodia and have a bit more to compare it with. I’ll say this, at least: It really does help to sit around and do a whole lot of nothing if you want to get an honest feel for the country and the people.
So what have I been up to? Well, as I mentioned, my mom and step dad arrived a few days ago and we headed for a little beach city called Vung Tao where we met up with Rick’s (my stepfather) friend, Terry. He’s an American vet who decided to settle down in Vietnam of all places. So we spent a few days riding around the town on our rented motorcycles and catching up. As always ends up happening, we debated a lot about a lot of things. After 6 months of weekly Economist readings, though, my stepfather has lost his ability to school me on Economic theory and usually considers the argument won when he gets frustrated and tells me that I’m wrong because 1) I just don’t know anything, although he can’t explain why, 2) I’m too young or have no life experience and therefore can’t comment, or 3) the argument is pointless anyway and doesn’t warrant talking about further because it won’t change anything. It’s funny stuff. I wonder if one day he will admit that I’m right about something.
So we waited around a few days and eventually headed back to Ho Chi Mihn to pick up Cherrie (my aunt). We spent a day in Ho Chi Mihn and then headed back to Vung Tao where we relaxed for a day before renting a van and heading to the area my grandfather was killed in Vietnam. He was in the same battalion as Terry (Rick’s friend) and Terry was able to get the story of his death (for which he received a purple heart) from the commander and actually found a woman who lived nearby who saw the whole thing go down. My grandfather and his squad were going out to make a delivery one day and no one except him took their guns. They ended up getting ambushed and he fended off the VC while the others escaped in a ditch and made it back to camp. By the time reinforcements arrived, he was shot dead. They were able to hunt down the VC later that night and kill them.
We walked down the road he was killed on – indeed, past the very spot. It was strangely peaceful and you can’t help but notice the fact that the “jungles” of Vietnam are nothing more than dense forest. The scent of burning Eucalyptus fills the air and the occasional dog barks at you from behind the safety of a dilapidated wood fence. Old women sat in their doorless houses and watched us as we walked by. Terry filled the silence with stories about what my grandfather would have been doing from day to day, how many people were on the base, where the VC was and what they did. In a place so peaceful, it’s not inconceivable that his squad would have left their guns behind that day. I suppose you get a bit complacent after a while with nothing happening and especially being so close to a huge military base. Had he not been smart enough to have taken his gun that day, however, four other families (and not just my mother’s) would have grown up without fathers.
I split up from the family yesterday and headed back to Ho Chi Mihn. They were spending a whole lot of time doing nothing more than sitting around (after all, they were on vacation) and I decided to head back to town and continue on with my trip. When I got back, I ran into Sam, an Australian I met before I left for Vung Tau and he had just returned from a trip to the Mekong Delta. We chatted for a while, found a place to stay and grabbed some dinner.
From there, my friend Leiu gave me a ride on her motorbike to my mom’s hotel so I could get some stuff I had stored in her bag that she had left behind and we went out and had coffee at a really nice bar with live Spanish music. I didn’t get much sleep and was up pretty early as I was planning on heading to the Cu Chi Tunnels – a series of tunnels that the VC had dug in the forest and were able to hide and transport arms from Cambodia within. It was a 2 hour bus trip there (during which time I ended up debating US foreign policy with a Dutch couple…ahhh, gotta love the Dutch…) and then exploring the intricacies of the Cu Chi complex with my tour group.
After watching a propaganda video (“The US Bombers came into the peaceful town of Cu Chi and dropped their deadly bombs. They killed the joyful people of Cu Chi. They killed the children. They killed the chickens and the ducks. The dropped their bombs on the pots and pans, the beautiful streams. Why??”), we headed down into the caves. What an experience…we squatted through caves sometimes even requiring us to crawl through passage ways and into underground rooms. Bats hung over our heads and flapped us in the face. Spiders crawled on our shirts. One girl said a rat hit her hand as she was crawling. At one point, I felt and intense stinging on my leg. I could have sworn it was a bat sucking my blood but it turned out to be a live wire just sticking out from a wall. I touched it and it sent another 110 volts surging through my body. It was insulated so I’m sure that’s what prevented me from frying. Seeing as it is nearly impossible to pass through without hitting it, I would imagine that someone should probably look into fixing that. Anyway, the guide hauled ass through the tunnels and left us in the dark, trying to decide where to go. We were drenched in sweat and people started freaking out. A girl behind me was nearly hysterical and her husband tried to calm her down. The guy in front of me yelled at the people ahead to keep moving and not stop.
But wouldn’t you know it? We eventually emerged on the other side, alive and well – although with muddy knees and soaked shirt. I had 6 or 7 tiny spiders clinging to my shirt which left dark green smear marks on me as I tried to brush them off but instead squished them.
Then we headed to the shooting range where people fired AK-47’s and M-16’s for 10 bucks for ten rounds. I watched and covered my ears. They had lots of random animals in cages around too, like a monkey and a 350 pound snake. We eventually all piled back into the bus and headed home.
And so here I am. I head to the Mekong Delta tomorrow and I will eventually head to Cambodia within a few days. Let’s hope everything goes well.
So I’ve been thinking. When something doesn’t set quite right with me, I do that. And Vietnam doesn’t set quite right with me. It’s time to set the record straight and finally put into words how I feel.
I said before that I thought Vietnam had nothing for the locals. That it was lack of culture (which I took back and made exceptions for as soon as I had said it). That everyone was after my money. And I said that it had a completely different feel than any other place I had been to.
So let’s try to figure out why. Vietnam is a country that has fought off imperialism for thousands of years. First it was China, then the French, then Japan, then the French again, then America and the Soviet Union. How does this affect a country, a culture and a people? How does this affect Vietnam’s place in the world order?
I first compare this with China. When you go through China, you see temples, palaces, statues, monuments to people, restaurants and cultural icons – a fair proportion of which are sometimes hundreds of years old. Sometimes even thousands. They have books from Confucious (Cong Zi in Chinese) and a unique writing system.
And in China, they will bargain. When they give you an exhorbitant price, you give an equally rediculous price on the low end and you meet them somewhere below half. If you grind on them and they wont budge, you have found their bottom line. Here in Vietnam, they give you a price and if you aren’t happy they will walk away calling you a bad person about 80% of the time. And that’s only if you are smiling and joking. If you are serious, that number jumps up to 95%.
So how does all this fit into what and how Vietnam is?
When you drive around Vietnam, you see beautiful French architecture. You see a western-like alphabet system. You see pictures of Ho Chi Mihn and the communist flag everywhere you go. Nothing here seems to be more than 100 years old. There are no cultural icons here (from my superficial viewpoint) other than Ho Chi Mihn (again, this is from the past 100 years) and it’s almost like everything started over after it became communist. That’s my theory. People just keep coming along and resetting Vietnam. China occupied this place and there were constant squirmishes. You see Japanese bunkers in the hillsides here in Vung Tao (where I’m staying with my mom and stepdad right now). This place was bombed until it looked like the moon not 30 years ago. And it’s poor and all its government is corrupt.
So as you walk around, of course it feels different. It’s one of the strangest things you’ve ever seen. About 10 years ago I saw this Oprah episode where she was talking with these kids that had this disease that caused them to look about 60 years old when they were really only 7. Here it’s the opposite. You walk around saying, “Where’s all the old stuff?” It seems like everyone is after you because they really have no other options. They are trying to make some money. I’m sure that if a person could find something much more intellectually stimulating than sitting around and asking people if they want to sit on the back of his motorbike so that he can take them down the street, they would. A woman charged my mom 3 bucks to use the bathroom at the boat terminal. I’m sure that made her day but you would never have that happen to you in New Zealand. The person wouldn’t be able to live with herself. Socrates once said that it is nearly impossible for a poor man to be a completely honest one. What if you needed to steal bread for food so as not to starve to death?
The effect is that you walk around Vietnam feeling like the culture has been muted. Instead of the loud and resonating culture you see everywhere in China, you instead feel like someone is screaming at you from beneath a pillow, which is muffling their voice.
Compound this with a poor education to begin with and you have a bunch of people in poverty without the means to escape it. I talked to a man at my hostel who said the place across the street charged him 7000 dong for a 7-up and the place down the road charged him only 4000. “I will never go back to that guy again. Doesn’t he realize that???” No, he doesn’t. Hungry and ignorant people don’t look that far ahead. It’s all about the here and now and day by day. Only once one is secure can he afford to even consider looking ahead.
But I still don’t get the no-bargaining policy. I wanted to get weighed on this electronic scale people cart around here and the guy wanted 5000 dong. It should only be 2000 and so I offered him 1000. He said no and wouldn’t budge on the price: 5000 dong for me. So I walked away. We were both left with nothing. Why not just give me the local’s price? Something tells me this guy isn’t driving home in a BMW. People tell me (and believe me, I’ve asked a lot of people) that maybe he just didn’t need the money. I find that highly doubtful. And if that is indeed the case, then I speculate that he will remain poor for the rest of his life. In China, they would come after you saying “okay okay okay! 2000!” when they saw that you were leaving. Let’s keep in mind that in 100 years, we will probably all be speaking Chinese.
Visible aspects of Vietnam’s culture have long since been bombed away. I’m sure the people aspects still remain and of course, have all been influenced by abroad – but it’s important to keep in mind the fact that this is true for any culture. Even the respectively culturally devoid America (itself only 300 years old). Everyone is influenced by everyone and with the prevelance of the Internet and satellite TV, this propagation of (especially American) culture happens at break-neck speed.
Food for thought, eh?
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.