"Plan, what plan? We don't need no stinking plan. Just do it man."
Vietnam (week 1):
Highlights include - stranded on the side of the road in the Mekong delta, lossing my shorts in Siagon, and being sent to the crazy house in Dalat.
But first, some may be wondering at the number of undates lately compared to months that went by earlier. It is a combination of things. One I have stopped writting in my journal so these trip reports will be all I have to spike my memory in a few years. Second, I can get internet access here for 100 dong a minute or 4000 dong an hour. The dong trades at 15000 to the dollar, so an hour is less than 30 cents. This incourages internet time. Lastely, it is doing nothing but rain here in Dalat the last 3 days so I have nothing else to do :)
The boat ride from the border to Chao Doc was uneventful, although a large storm was just south of Chao Doc threatening to send a squal. All I actually got was a lightning storm and fresh breeze. The river was much more populated than on the Cambodian side, with more houses, businesses, and boats running on the river. Vietnam reached 77.8 million in 1999, making it the 13th most populous country in the world. It is also one of the poorest countries in Asia with an estimated per capita income of less than US$300 per year, and hard currency debts of US$1.4 billion. Unable to repay these loans Vietnam has been unofficially bankrupt since the 1980's. Enough with the facts already you say!
Like always the boat guide took us walking across town to the hotel giving him commission that day. In Phenom Penh they were advertizing 2 and 3 day delta tours, the 2 day was only 15$ and included the nights accomodation in Chau Doc as well as transport to Saigon. So I was intending to do this, but upon arrival I was told the 2 day option was cancelled. All I could do was the 3 day for 25$. In addition to the money, I didn't want to spend this much time at the mercy of the tour operators and their crazy stops. So I decided I would spend the afternoon/evening seeing Chao Doc and take a 11pm night bus to Saigon. The hotel wantted 5$ and wouldn't deal so I grabbed my bags and started walking around town, eventually winding up with a bus for 50,000 dong. Left my bags at the Relax bar, run by a fellow from Australia who is a good source for local info and went walking around town. Had some dinner, and checked out the local night market and a monestary in town. Meet two English guys Tim and Rupert also going on the bus. Watched a barber shave Ruperts head, much to his distress, while the kids kept having conversations with me (undisturbed that I didn't seem to understand their Vietnamesse). They loved seeing their picures on the back of my camera, but were so excited to have the picture took and see the result that they couldn't stay still enough for an unblurred result :)
The bus started out well enough until some stops were made to collect boxes to freight to chinatown, which they tried to shove under our feet. We tried to tell them to just put the boxes in the isle, but this was unexceptable until we just moved over seats and one of the bus employees was left sitting where we were. At which point when we wouldn't move back to our seats, he moved the boxes into the isle so he had legroom. While they did overcrowd the bus it wasn't nearly as bad as the small minibusses the guesthouses put you in. Which are not only overpacked but drive like maniacs. The accident figures are appalling. Anyway, in the middle of the night we have a flat, which none of the drivers seem to know how to fix. After about 1.5 hours they get some type of patch on the original tire (the spare was also flat). About 30 minutes down the road the patch blew and that was that for this bus. Everyone bails and there I am standing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere with oddly a ferris wheel in a field across the road. The Vietnamesse pile into the first couple of vehicles flagged down overcrowding them. I (along with Tim and Rupert) eventually get into a old broken down looking local bus that was heading to Saigon with stops every few miles to pile live chickens onto the roof. Unlike the original driver who was told to let us off near district 1 by Jim (the australian) this driver just headed on into chinatown. So the map Jim had made for us to follow to the hostels was useless. After some hassling with local scooter drivers the three of us with backpacks hanging off were whizzing through morning traffic trying to keep each other in sight. Yeah, we're in Saigon!
The Pham Ngu Lao area is the heart of the budget-traveller haven and is very similar to Khaosan road in Bangkok or a smaller version of Thammel in Kathmandu. Although rooms don't get quite as cheap with 4 or 5 dollars seeming to be the going price unless you upscale to airconditioning. Lots of moto guys trying to give you a ride, or sell you dope, or anything else. Little girls walk around with gum and postcards for you to buy, with the older ladies carring stacks of books (mostly photocopies of travel books). They will roam through the cafes and restaurants asking if you want to buy, which does get old after a while. Watched some more soccer (US beats Mexico 2-0). Walked around the city after sketching a walking tour to all the sights onto a map. Took a tour out to the tunnels at Chi Cu, famous for their part in the VC resistance during the American War. Got some history from the other point of view, but since I didn't remember our sides version I will just bury it in the past. I will tell you not to volunteer to be a tunnel rat in any future war! Walking and crawling through those small tunnels convinced me to tell the next party of adventurers that decides to go wipe out the kobolds in their tunnels simply "you go in, you don't come out. With a painful period in between you were too big to do anything about" :)
All joking aside, lots of horror stories about the affect of agent orange and other chemicals used in the war and the effects on fetuses. Some of which are displayed in jars in the War Remnants Meuseum. Thank me for skipping pictures of those.
Went out to some of the bars/discos that stay up late, but while populated with the rich and beautiful it was hard to pick out the non-working girls. Prostitution is becoming a big problem similar to thailand and white means rich. Didn't incounter any of the crime you are warned about in Ho Chi Min City.
On the 20th I took a very nice bus for 6 hours up into the central highlands to the city of Dalat. Established in 1912 and it quickly became popular with Europeans as a cool retreat from the sweltering heat of the coastal plains and the Mekong Delta. In the local Lat language, Da Lat means 'River of the Lat Tribe'. During the American War Dalat was, by the tacit agreement of all parties concerned, largely spared the ravages of war. Indeed, it seems that while South Vietnamese army officers were being trained at the city's Militart Academy and affluent officials of the Saigon regime were relaxing n their villas, Viet Cong cadres were doing the same thing not far away in their villas. Dalat fell to North Vietnamese forces without a fight on 3 April 1975. There is no problem with leftover mines and ordnance in the Dalat area. Cool weather, and beautiful forested mountains make for some great trekking and mountainbiking, unfortunatly as I aluded to earlier it did nothing but rain since I got here. :( This is a very popular destination for Vietnamese and this is high season, so everwhere is very crowded. Our bus took us to several of "its" hotels, but all were full so we were left to look for our own accomodation. The first night I split a expensive double (15$) with a aussie on the same bus. The next day I was able to get into a cheaper guesthouse 6$ for a single near the middle of town. In addition to email and watching the world cup which has lost its appeal now that the US is out, I did take a walk around the lake one day. Won every game of pool at the only non Kareoki bar in town one night. And hired a motorcycle to drive me around the mountains one afternoon when the rain paused. Saw some lakes, waterfalls, pagodas and other local tourist sights. The most interesting of which was the "Crazy House". Hang Nga Guesthouse and Art gallery nicknamed "the crazy house" by locals, has architecture like something straight out of Alice in Wonderland. There are caves, giant spider webs made of wire, concrete 'tree trunks', a concrete giraffe (with a tearoom built inside) and so on. This might sound tacky, but it's not. Most vietnamese are afraid of the place, but busloads of tourists come to take pictures. Mrs Dang Viet Nga is the designer and is from Hanoi, but lived in Moscow for 14 years where she earned a PhD in architecture. She has designed many other building in the Dalat area some of which have been torn down by the People's Committee for looking 'anti-socialist'. However, there is little chance the Hang Nga will have any trouble with the authorities - her father, Truong Chinh, was Ho Chi Minh's successor. He served as Vietnam's second president from 1981 until his death in 1988.
Anyway, I took a lot of pictures and can best describe the whole place as a hobbit hole built above ground with some elfish thrown in. I will list this house as my sight to see for Vietnam so far!
Not much else to say about Dalat, because of the rain I haven't been hiking so I plan to leave for the coast and hopefully better weather in Nha Trang first thing in the morning. And hopefully less time to write such longwinded updates.
Vietnam update (part 2):
Well here I am writting again too soon. My excuse this time is not rain but sun. Have spent the last week here in Nha Trang soaking up the rays. Very hot on the beach and the internet place is one of the few that are air-conditioned so decided to hang out here for a bit.
Haven't done much of the traditional sights here, just lay on the beach and get sunburned. Eat hamburgers and drink cokes. Found I have lost interest in seeing more pagodas, or temples, or even waterfalls. Did go diving one day, but was not memorable. Staying at Kim Thoa guesthouse, no air-conditioning, but a fan and a nice balcony. The owner is very nice - pro american - fellow that fought with us in the war. He tells all the north vietnamese that he is full if they come looking for a room. What the place lacks in comforts his family makes up for by taking guests for rides on the motorbikes to places, letting you borrow a bike for free, and inviting everyone to dinner with the family. Unfortunately for me it was a full moon and for two days each lunar cycle they don't eat meat. So dinner was vegitables and tofu. I have a train leaving tonight for Hanoi at 7:30, a 32 hour ride, but a good chance to see the countryside I am hoping and more fun than a bus.
After 5 months on the road I find my interest (at least for these 3rd world countries) wanning. I entered with my brother Joe a world building contest with the makers of D&D, extreme long shot, but if I get the job it would be a kick ass way to spend a few months. Also good excuse to head back to the states for a while. I am looking at all of my fellow travellers and starting to feel old. Heard Jeff Durning applied for the CMP section head job in Micron's new 300mm Virgina plant which makes me wonder what might have happened if I had stayed at work. Have to keep in mind I was leaving one step ahead of the axe. :)
Later - 6/28/02
Vietnam final update:
Well the train ride was OK, but not as much scenery as I hoped for. Got some hills and beaches here and there, but for the most part just rice fields with people planting or plowing with oxen. The way they shovel water from canals to fields with a scoop tied to a couple lengths of rope is fun to watch. The bunks were air conditioned and ok for sleeping, of course the vietnamese figure if one of them paid for a aircon bunk all the rest of their family back in the hot hard seats should just squeeze on into the good bunks. Luckily I was on a top bunk and so missed most of the additional company. 32 hours later I arrived in Hanoi at 3:30 in the morning during the rain. Since nobody would be open yet, I decided to just walk around trying to find the Manh Dung guesthouse. I wasn't sure where I had gotten off, since it wasn't on my map, but decided to walk in the direction I thought was NE and hope to find something I recognized on my map. Streets were dark and rainy with almost no-one out and about. Streets turned quite a bit, and checking my REI compass at one point found I was headed SW :) After a 180 I shortly found myself on my map finally. Sure enough the guesthouse was still shut up for the night so I returned to a main street to sit and watch the town wake up.
Spent the next 12 days in and about Hanoi with a fellow american Susan from Minasota who now teaches 2nd grade in Bangkok. Staying in the old quarter was much nicer I thought than Saigon. There is a small lake a few blocks from where I stayed where old people come out to exercise in the morning. Mostly calestesnics, but also a fair amount of Tai chi. Saw one group of old ladies at 5:30am who did some empty hand Tai-chi, then sword and then iron fan forms. There are 32 streets in the old quarter named for the merchants who sold on them. I stayed on bamboo street mostly although I did spend a couple nights on sheet metal street. There is also shoe street, silk street, and even counterfeit street where they sell fake money to be burned in offerings to Budda. This would be a great town for shoppers, especially clothes, but since I now impose strict limits on my luggage (two small day bags/carry-ons) I don't have room for any purchases.
While in Hanoi, Susan and I took three side trips. A one day trip to the perfume pagoda, a big cave at the top of a hill/small mountain filled with Budda statues. Best thing about the trip was the small boat ride paddling through a lily covered river into the mountains. We also took a three day trip to Haplong Bay, an area on the north east coast with thousands of small craigs/islands jutting out of the water. Formerly a good hangout for pirates, it has some nice caves we explored and beaches to swim at. Spent the first night on the boat, sleeping up on deck and the second night on Cat Ba island. Third trip was on an overnight train up to Sapa. Spent first day hiking through muddy trails and bamboo forests up Fansipan the highest mountain in southeast asia (3143m). Spent night by a stream. Heard from some climbers coming down that a girl had fallen and broken her arm the previous day. The next day was spent climbing to the top and then back down to camp. It rained almost constantly except for a brief pause while we were at the top which let us take a few pictures. Deffinately one of the harder climbs I have been on. The trail we followed was basically just a runoff stream that because of the rain often had us slogging through running water and shin deep mud. Several hours of the trail were so steep that the climb resembled climbing a tree where we went hand over hand from roots to branches. All of us were soaking wet, I was freezing cold. The way down was even worse trying not to slip and fall. The bamboo forest was good in that you had stuff to hold onto, but constantly dumped more water on you and by the time we were down all of us had multiple small cuts on our hands. James and Mark in particular looked like attempted suicide victims. Susan latter admitted to almost quitting on the way up when we had to use a rope to scale a small section with no handholds, but she perservered and other than the exhaustion the final day is happy to have done it. Food at camp was great, with special note going to the banana pancakes with chocolate at breakfast. Third day was spent again going downhill. No rain, but a treaturous slick clay trail that everyone kept slipping on with several sketchy downclimbs. Nice swim in the river at the bottom to clean up. Back in Sapa, we decided to spend an extra night so we could clean up before taking the night train back to hanoi the following night.
Anyway, back in Hanoi on the 11th I got a flight on Lao Airways to Bangkok with a stop in Vientiene that I could extend for free if I wanted to see Laos for a bit. As I sat in the airport in Hanoi the morning of the 12th, with a couple of girls from Australia that were both headed to Laos I was still undecided if I wanted to stop off for a week or just go straight on to Thailand. In any case, Vietnam is done.
Tune in next week to find out: Did John go to Laos with the Aussie chicks?
Why did John leave Hanoi several days before his visa expired?
What is next?
-from Hanoi, 7/12/02