From famine to feast! I've been pretty busy this past week so I may as well get right into it. As hard as it was to leave my friends in Sihanoukville, my visa was running out and it was time to see something new anyways. I did have one last trick up my sleeve though as I had told everybody that I was taking the night bus out on St Patrick's day, but I decided to delay the trip one last day and surprise everybody by coming out for the celebrations. I'm told I had a good time.
Finally, on the 18th, I left Cambodia. I rode the night bus to Ho Chi Minh City and got there around 10 the following morning. My first day there was mostly spent recovering from the long and cramped bus ride, but I did manage to finally get out in the evening and have some dinner (pho, of course). I met a fellow traveller and together we explored the streets a bit, checking out the night market and swapping travel stories.
I really didn't like Saigon at first. It's so damn big and dirty and busy. After two weeks of chilling on the beach, it was a shock to the system. The buildings here are all compacted togther. They're all really skinny, but tall. It's not uncommon to have to scale at least 4 flights of stairs to eat at a restaurant or get to your hotel room. Also, the traffic is nuts. I thought Phnom Penh was bad, but this is 10 times worse. There are 9 million people who live here and something like 4 million motor bikes alone. Crossing the street requires full concentration, some skillful dodging, and a change of underwear. I must admit though, after a couple days the city has grown on me.
When I returned to my room that first night I had an email from my partner in crime and good friend Carin that I had met a few weeks previous in Sihanoukville. She happened to be in Saigon as well, so we agreed to meet up the following day. After some lunch (pho, of course), we headed over to the War Remnants Museum, which documents the Vietnam war (or as they call it, the American war – makes sense since every war they've fought is technically the Vietnam war, and vise versa). This museum had a lot of interesting exhibits and displays, but I couldn't help but be overwhelmed by how one-sided it was. Obviously the Vietnamese aren't going to have a lot of nice things to say about the American army, but from reading their pictures and texts, you wouldn't even know the Vietnamese soldiers carried guns. The most affective display was that of the victims of agent orange. Its effects are still being felt today by kids born in the areas that were sprayed with the chemicals. I've seen plenty of people with severe disfigurements in the streets that were caused by it, and it is heartbreaking. I also picked up my first souvenir of my entire trip at the museum. I bought a zippo that (so they told me) at one time belonged to a Marine fighting in Khe San. Most of them had inscriptions on the back, with quotes about peace or victory, etc. I decided to pick the one with the most eloquent poem:
ONE THOUSAND MARINES
WILL SHIT TODAY
AND WIPE THEIR ASS
WITH GREEN BERET
The following day Carin and I did a walking tour of the city based on her lonely planet book. This was a great time. We walked to a giant indoor market, the museum of art (closed when we showed up), an outdoor market where I picked up some much needed soap and zippo fluid, stopped for a coffee in a cafe, walked along the fancy commercial district, checked out the opera house, went into the Ho Chi Minh city museum and sat in a park where we saw a woman squat at a tree 100 metres from us and relieve herself. There were a few more things on the tour that the book recommended, but by that point we were wiped. I was soaked in sweat due to the oppressive humidity and ready to call it quits, so we headed back for some late lunch.
The next day I did a tour of the Cao Dai temple and the Cu Chi tunnels. The temple was beautiful and we were allowed in to watch their prayer ceremony which was quiet but impressive. After this we headed to the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong would hide out during the war. There were close to 1000 km of these tunnels in the network during the war. These tunnels are tiny. The guerrillas would engage the Americans in a battle, and then when they would get close, they would disappear into the tunnels that were nearly impossible to penetrate. They expanded one small section of the tunnels so that tourists could go through them. The average sized person has to crouch and hunch in order to fit inside them. I had to crawl, and even then I barely fit. This, combined with my mild claustrophobia meant that I took the first exit possible, only 15 metres or so from the entrance. It felt like a mile. When I got out, I was breathing heavy and very near a panic attack. I walked to the end to wait for the rest of the group to exit. My ego took a bit of a bruising when the third person to come out was a 7 year old girl eating an ice cream cone. One awkward moment occurred on the bus ride home. There was a German hippie couple that kept going on about the “American imperialists” and every time our tour guide said anything about how the American forces treated the Vietnamese, they'd nod and say something about how this reflected their superiority complex or whatever. Now, I'm by no means an American-apologist (despite this being the second time in one post), but I just got so fed up with them implying that all Americans were automatically bad that I finally said “yeah, it must be great coming from a country with no recent history of war crimes”. Needless to say our conversations were limited after that. That night it poured rain and the street we were having dinner on flooded. We had to wade through nearly a foot of water to cross the street, all the while dodging more motorbikes.
On Thursday Carin and I did a 3 day tour of the Mekong Delta. Our first stop was on an island where the locals specialize in making honey related products, so we sat and had some traditional honey tea and honey-based snacks. We also got to pose for photos with a python for no apparent reason. After that, we walked through the island for a while and then stopped to have some fresh fruit where we were serenaded with traditional Vietnamese songs by the local women. After that we got in a canoe and were taken down a canal until we stopped at another island where we saw how local coconut candy was made and were given lots of free samples. Next stop was lunch and then it was back in the boat. After some more boating and busing, it was time to stop for the night. We had the option of staying at a hotel or a homestay with a Vietnamese family. Carin and I, along with an Aussie man opted for the homestay. I'm glad we did because it was a good experience and our host, Thuy, was great. Thuy showed up on his motorbike and said his friend was on his way with another one to take us to the boat. The aussie and Carin both kinda bluntly refused to ride the motorbike, so we ended up waiting around for a taxi. When we got dropped off at the boat, Thuy even apologetically tried to pay for the cab, but we eventually persuaded him to allow us to pay. Then it was another 20 minutes by boat in the dark, which was pretty cool. They provided us with a local meal that was more or less fresh fish spring rolls that we assembled ourselves. Dinner was great, and afterwords we got into the drinks. Colin, the aussie, had picked up some coconut whiskey earlier in the day so he was sharing shots of that. Our host, wanting to return the favour gave his 10 year old daughter some cash and she returned 10 minutes later with a big bottle of rice whiskey. Where else in the world can a 10 year old run out and buy booze? I knew the night was going to go downhill, I just had no idea how quickly or how far down. Carin was smart and went to bed early, knowing we had to be up very early the next morning. I wasn't in the particular mood to make it a full night, but who am I to turn down free local drinks? It's a cultural experience! I just couldn't believe how often they kept pouring the shots. So every 10 minutes or so, it was moh hai bah, yo! Which over here is one two three cheers. Thuy had lots of interesting stuff to say and Colin was alright at first, but as the night went on, he became more obnoxious. For whatever reason, he felt he needed to talk like a caveman instead of using regular English, even when he was just talking to me. For example, instead of saying “I like this rice whiskey”, he would say “me like” and point. Uh...dude, I speak English too. Finally when the whiskey was running low, Thuy's mom started yelling at him for making so much noise, so we decided to call it a night. Well I decided to. Colin decided to make an ass out of himself. First, he stepped up to relieve himself in the river. He lost his footing, tumbled down the hill and fell into the river. I've inherited a certain family member's predisposition for laughing at somebody falling, so I couldn't keep from bursting out. When I finally regained my composure, I went into my room and heard another crash. Turns out he face planted outside of his room, and apparently he fell a third time that night too. He had a cut above his eye in the morning. I also found out the next day that he had tried to pull his door open, when it turns out he needed to push it. Hence the door sitting off its hinges next to his room when I woke up. I felt pretty bad about this since he didn't seem to care that he had damaged this poor guy's property. Carin also said he sat outside of his room (which was next to hers but mercifully out of earshot of mine) talking to himself for at least an hour. Carin's not exactly one to disguise her displeasure, so there wasn't a whole lot of talking between the two of them for the rest of the day.
After a light but early breakfast (luckily Thuy wasn't bullshitting when he said rice whiskey doesn't give you a hangover, because I definitely should have had one), we took off in his boat and met up with the bigger tour boat that had all the people who stayed in the hotel. We said our goodbyes to Thuy and climbed on board the boat. The boat took us to the floating market where the locals trade from their boats. You can buy anything from meat to fruit to coffee and cigarettes. After this we went to a rice paper factory and blah blah blah it was boring as hell. Ditto for the rice husking mill we visited afterwards. No offence to people in the rice industry, it just wasn't that interesting. After that we had some lunch which turned out to be a fun experience. I was sitting with 3 nice New Zealanders and they got great service, and I got terrible service. They got their beers right away, but I had to ask for my coke 3 different times. When they finally brought it, it was diet coke, so I ended up waiting for just my drink for a thirsty 20 minutes when they already had their meals. And then when my food was finally brought out, it wasn't what I ordered, but we had to get going, so I just ate it. We were all laughing and trying to figure out what I did to deserve it. After that we made our long journey down the Mekong to our next hotel. It turns out we were staying at a floating hotel which is basically a big permanently docked boat. Everybody else we were with had paid extra to stay at the floating hotel, when we not only didn't pay, we weren't even told this was an option. Bonus I guess. We walked into town for some dinner and it's clear this part of Vietnam doesn't get as many tourists because I was getting gawked at from every direction. It's like big hairy white guys aren't common here or something. Finally I stopped at a delicious and cheap place for dinner (pho, of course). Afterwards I called it an early evening and put a good dent in my book, which I ended up finishing on the way home the next day. If you haven't read the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson (girl with the dragon tattoo, etc), I strongly suggest you pick the first one up. I've read all three in the last few weeks, and they're some of the best novels I've read in a long time.
The following morning we got up early again and took another boat to a fish farm. This is basically a houseboat with a giant net underneath it where they raise bass and red snapper. I gotta admit, this wasn't exactly thrilling either. Then we went to a small island village and visited their Islamic temple. Afterwards we had some free time to wander around the village which was nice to see. Every single child we passed seemed to know the drill, yelling hello at us as we went by. After this we got back on the boat and made our way down the river back to our bus and took the long journey back to Saigon. If you're wondering why I keep switching between calling it Saigon and Ho Chi Minh, it's because it's called both here. It's officially HCMC, but because it was named after the communist leader back during the war, most inhabitants still call it Saigon. The communist Vietnamese call it HCMC, and the non-communists call it Saigon. All in all I enjoyed trip since it was nice to spend a few days cruising down the river, even if most of the attractions were a little lame.
When I got back to Saigon where I once again had internet connection, I was surprised to learn that Canada's got another election coming up. Also, when I first arrived in Saigon I was a little taken aback when I learned the government here blocks facebook. There are certain ways around it if you know what you're doing on a computer, but it's still weird to be confronted with that kind of censorship when you're used to the freedoms that come with a democratic country like Canada.
Tomorrow I'll finally be leaving the big city and heading to Da Lat, a smaller mountain several hours north of here. I'm looking forward to getting away from the hustle and bustle.
I'd like to end by giving a couple shout outs to two important parties I've missed in this past week. The first is the birthday party with Matt and J. Sorry I couldn't celebrate with you guys this year, but that just means we'll have to go big to make up for it when I get back. Happy birthday to both of you!
The second is my dad's surprise retirement party. It's already happened, so don't worry – I'm not ruining the surprise. I've told him this already but missing this hurt more than missing Christmas. In order to make up for it, I recorded a video message which was apparently well received, so I'm glad for that at least. It's kinda sappy so I won't post it here. Dad, congrats once more. You've more than earned it, and I'm so proud of you. You'll have to take up golf or something to pass the time. We will also have to celebrate upon my return to make up for it. Also, big thanks Vicki for recording dad watching the video!