Another set of successive holidays, another trip to take and this time around the daunting task of travelling with 5 others was upon me. I was pretty skeptical going into the trip since numbers rarely play into the ease of travel. Too many people make for too many conflicting ideas, and a lot a of stagnant transitions between them. That was all present as expected, but it didn’t do too much to handicap the fun of my adventure.
To kick off my first trip to Southeast Asia, my friends and I made our way to the Osaka airport after work for an 11pm departure. Though compromising our sleep might seem questionable so early in the trip, the prospect of arriving at 10am on Saturday more than justified it. Jon, Gary and I arrived early in Kuala Lumpur where we had to wait around for the connecting flight and also begin our appreciation and consumption of cheap Southeast Asian foodstuffs and goods. When we arrived in Ho Chi Minh, we were all excited to hit the ground running in this new world.
The three of us hopped into an airport cab and set out towards our backpacker, roach & rodent ridden hostel district. When we arrived, there were indeed a large number of foreigners walking the streets but I was surprised at how little it did to drive the locals away. Aside from the likely touts offering sunglasses and shoe shines, a simple walk down the alley to our lodging had us happening across plenty of locals performing their day to day duties. At the Saigon Youth Hostel friends Ryan and Arran were already waiting for us; they had opted to fly in on an earlier flight. They were also with one other guy they had met named Ben who went on to spend a number of days with us. After checking in, showering, and getting settled we made our way out into the foreign lands. The first stop we made was a restaurant that specialized in barbecued meats and also offered a number of local beers. This was an especially good chance to exchange initial observations and also appreciate beers costing about 50 cents.
Saigon Red was particularly nice.
The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring some museums and monuments before the impending storm set in. The first stop was the Reunification Palace which once served as South Vietnam’s Presidential Palace and American Embassy. It was at this building where a northern tank plowed through the front gate to effectively end the Vietnam War. The building itself seemed to house nothing but large chair filled discussion rooms, but they were all very ornate and each decorated in a different style. We were in and out of this place relatively quickly, though it was certainly a very important part of the American occupation and the Vietnam War as a whole.
The next stop was the Vietnam War Remnants museum which was one of the most historically interesting things from the entire trip. The Vietnam War was one that I didn’t really know much about, only that it wasn’t one of America’s proudest moments. Before going into the building, there were plenty of American tanks and planes on display. A highlight was the recreating of where the political prisoners were held. The conditions that were detailed were inhumane and the torture methods described in detail just plain gruesome. After a good amount of time taking in just how amazing prisoner survival would have been, we made our way in. There were a number of different exhibits that did a great job of capturing different aspects of the war. Spending time learning about the millions of liters of Agent Orange and Napalm we blanketed the country with and everyone who suffered as a result for example was especially insightful. An exhibit dedicated to the genetic mutation caused by these chemicals was especially moving. The severity of the disfigurement shown in various photos was not of this world – the contortions of limbs and the places from which they protruded was mind-boggling. There was another photo exhibit comprised of the works of famous photojournalists from the era. These were all very powerful pictures each with their own story to tell. They were selected, arranged and explained in such a way to really bring about an understanding of what it would have been like.
Some were gruesome and others insightful, but all very significant to better understanding this war.
I know that Vietnam is a socialist country, but I didn’t feel as if the information was presented with any amount of bias (and certainly nothing like North Korea’s wild account of that war…) My friends were made to wait as I perused until the last possible minute. As I said, this war was not something I really knew much about, and though unlike Hiroshima which offered a single unfathomable event in which to put emotions behind, the 20 years of death and destruction and the millions who died left a different sort of emotional mark.
After meeting my friends out front, we sought the shelter of a taxi and got back to our hostel. For dinner we enjoyed some bowls of Pho, which is a bowl of rice noodles and broth, along with some meats and spices. I eat a lot of noodles in Japan as well, but the new palate of flavors and peppers that actually packed a kick made it a treat. The restaurant was called ‘Pho For The President’ and had a number of photos of Bill Clinton posing with the staff and enjoying this signature Vietnamese delicacy.
Pho (pronounced like the ‘fu’ of funny).
Adjacent to the restaurant was a street market where we all did a bit of shopping. Of course everything was fake, but I got some well priced polos and a few other necessities that will save me money somewhere down the line. The absolute highlight from that stop was a 8 year old girl sell folding fans. Her sales pitch, said to me as I stood in my purple shirt: ”Hey Ladyboy!”. This caught me off guard but I rewarded her with a much deserved sale. She hung around us for a few minutes spewing her confidence and sales tactics and fired off a few great lines. She had to run away at one point to hide from a police officer as these unauthorized sources of income are technically a no no in Communism. Fortunately Ben had the camera rolling.
After that treat, we reconvened at the hostel before gearing up for a night out. Of course it being our first night in a new country had us excited to enjoy the finer sides of travel. We started our night at one of many curbside establishments. These were technically illegal, but the police tend to look a blind eye. Somehow all the workers knew at once that the police would be sweeping though, and rushed to clear all the plastic chairs and customers that had overflowed into the street. The flurry of activity subsided and it was back to our 50 cent beers and chatter. The people here were mostly other travelers, so it made for a nice international environment. The peddlers of books, cigs, and anything else that roamed the area got pretty annoying in no time at all. Amusing though were the men riding bikes around and jingling a bell. Hmmm. From there, it was off to a club called Lush. This was a pretty decent place with a healthy amount of people and good music. The goal for all of us was simply to have some fun dancing & chatting with the locals, while avoiding those employed to other devices. By the time the place was closing down, we were all pretty happy with how the night had played out. Considering the poor night of sleep the night before, getting back to our bunks was magical.
The next morning we dragged ourselves out of bed and awaited the arrival of Thomas. Once at full strength, the plan of attack was the Cu Chi Tunnels. These burrows were used by the North Vietnamese guerrillas as a source of safety, and also a means to move supplies undetected. These tunnels were used all over Vietnam, but this region’s 75 miles worth made it particularly remarkable. We booked ourselves a private van and set off on the 2 hour drive. The excursion was really nice for getting out of the big city commotion to where we could see locals planting rice or just living out their lives in a traditional fashion. One interesting thing that caught our eyes were the graveyards. It seemed that people were buried above ground in large stone tombs. Rather odd compared to many other Asian countries which primarily cremate their dead.
When we arrived, we had to pay a few dollars and were then ushered to an informational video den. Soon thereafter, we were directed by a very un-enthused guide who took around the area to see various features. He would point out certain geographical remains such as bomb craters and trenches, and also explained how and why the people were forced to live within the tunnels. It was dangerous to be above ground during the day, so that was when they slept. During raids they could spend days at a time down there in this labyrinth. Campaigns by the American against the tunnels were pretty much futile, as the North Vietnamese soldiers could use the network to pop out of the ground and ambush their assailants at every turn. Finally as the highlight of the tour, we were invited to go through the tunnels ourselves. Down into the depths we went to experience the widened-for-fatso-foreigners-but-still-uncomfortably-tight tunnels. Not only was it really narrow and dark, but it was also extremely hot. It was already pushing 100 degrees that day, so to be dragging oneself through a subterranean hot box had the sweat gushing forth in no time. The tunnel was only about 100 meters in length, but the squatted stance necessary to traverse them burned my thighs and made it seem like much more. Needless to say, it was good to get back on the surface. The rest of the tour included an opportunity to shoot some guns (we didn’t), and also an explanation of the booby traps that were placed for the Americans. These were mostly the trapdoor pits direct from the cartoons but armed with lethally spiked bottoms or other piercing mechanisms. In all cases, to stumble into a trap would certainly be game over for the sad sack. As a final bonus, we ate the same tapioca root meal that the Vietnamese would have lived on while in the tunnels.
On the 2 hour drive back to Ho Chi Minh, we got on the topic of food. Dinner was decided to be Pizza Hut as it was not something we choose to afford in Japan. It may not have been Vietnamese, but it was exactly what we all wanted and only less than half the price of Japanese pizza. Once we entered the restaurant, we were amazed by the number of stares we were getting. Despite being an American establishment, there was not a single other foreigner in the whole place. We didn’t realize it, but there was a branch closer to the foreigner district that our taxi had decided against taking us to. As such, they were not equipped with people proficient in English, but we were able to manage. We still got our fantastic, meat laden pizzas and did some serious damage to them. Most of the conversation was questioning Ben about what goes on in the medical world. About halfway through his anesthesiology residency he decided to take a year off and travel through Vietnam. Beyond being an interesting guy, he was an absolute wealth of information. Having any questions about about such things as injuries, medicine & drugs and the development of experimental surgeries dissected by a real doctor was fascinating. Following Pizza Hut, we returned to the night market and did a bit more shopping. Thomas who had only arrived that day was in the same mood we were when we arrived and wanted to go party. I and a couple other guys could not be asked to redo the previous night’s mayhem so we just returned home to bed. That was a wise decision. On the way back we saw a number of locals playing a sport that involved kicking a spring loaded shuttlecock over a net. These people were very skilled and seemed to have no problem making contact. Soon, a coach approached us and spoke about the sport and also sold us some of the equipment. I’ve already had a great time playing with my students.
Our receipt from Pizza Hut. Pretty fair price on the ‘Non Local customers’.
The next morning I awoke grateful to the ‘night me’ who had opted to show some restraint and sleep, though I was able to catch some interesting stories from the guys who did go out. The plan that day was just to take in the city and evening fireworks in celebration of their independence day. It was a really slow starting day, and getting everyone mobilized was quite a chore. Once out and about, we just walked the streets and took in the environment. We did stop by a brightly colored temple so as to check off the ‘religion’ box. On old buildings such as that, the Chinese characters that were once used in Vietnam can still be seen. Also, as a man who as seen a lot of Buddhist temples, this one had a distinctly different flavor to it. We continued our walk and eventually returned to the hostel to get ready for the evening.
On our way to the fireworks, we stopped at some stage that had been set up at centrally located park. They was a large gathering of people taking in some singers and dancers’ performance. It was a lively, cultural event and was certainly nice to enjoy with the locals. After a few numbers we pressed on towards the river where the fireworks would be taking place. The majority of people arrived by the motorcycle upon which they also sat. You can not fathom just how many of these bikes there were. Surprisingly there were no other foreigners to enjoy the show, but I suppose that Independence Day isn’t something worth planning your trip around. The pyrotechnics were alright, not up to the American standard, but certainly better than Japan. After the show we scarfed down some street side pho and contemplated another night out at the clubs. It happened. We hopped around a few places until winding up back at Lush again. Despite it being a weekday we were able to have a pretty good time.
This night sort of melded into the next day due to the 6am flight we had booked to the central region of Vietnam. It took until about noon before I stopped asking myself why I thought the previous night would be a good worth it. So for this leg of the trip, we were heading to the cities of Hue and Da Nang. The former was home to the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty until about the 1950’s and as such was host to a plethora of noteworthy structures. Part of getting there however was taking a 2 hour taxi from the airport through rural Vietnam. I was exhausted and every sort of uncomfortable, plus falling asleep with arm out the window made for a healthy dose of crimson cancer. Towards the end of the journey I managed to rise above my groggy state and start to take in the beauty of the Vietnamese countryside. We were surrounded by rice paddies and the day to day life of locals as we cruised down a road along the ocean. We arrived at another hostel, checked in, and quickly realized that we were going to be sharing some small beds with each other. Some how I was the odd guy out and got my own, but the frustration the others exchanged over their hot sweaty bodies was pretty amusing.
In Hue, we really only had the day to do as much as possible, but unfortunately some of the group members were on the brink of death. The first thing we did was walk way too far to the Forbidden Purple City, which is where the emperors lived. It was aligned on an axis like the Forbidden City in Beijing, but this was smaller and also took a lot of damage from American bombing campaigns. The merits of the place were more or less lost in the distance it took to walk there. In retrospect, a taxi would have been the right call. A highlight was Arran roasting his shoulders in the 105 degree sun, because a tank top is always a great idea for any fair skinned fellow. After the walk back to the hostel, we abandoned the unwilling and then set off [by taxi] to a couple more monuments.
The first location was the Tu Duc Tombs, which is a large complex owed to some wives of an emperor. The grounds were quite nice and had some old structures that made for good film food. We spent a pretty nice amount of time roaming the paths and soaking in the beauty of the area.
One of the tombs, I think.
We tried to go back by taxi, but any waiting there was already hired for someone who had gone in. We had no choice but to return by riding the back of some locals’ motorcycles. It was a little frustrating, since they were smothering us as we were thinking and discussing, but this is standard practice in the developing world. Finally, after a bit of haggling we went off to the Thien Mu Pagoda. This is situated on an active temple complex along the bank of the Perfume River. The pagoda itself was build in 1601 and is one of the oldest religious structures in Vietnam. Based on some reading I did, the seven tiers represent the steps towards reaching enlightenment. Of course we had the motorcycle ladies hovering over us the whole time to ensure they had us booked for the return trip.
Thien Mu Pagoda.
When we did return, we collected the rest of the freshly revitalized crew and walked down the park for some street food. At about that time the thunder started clapping and we opted for a proper restaurant closer to the hostel to avoid getting soaked. After working through the most prolific menu of all time, we ordered to our heart’s content. I don’t think that anyone was overjoyed with the quality of the food, but indeed food it was. The night was pretty nonexistent as all but yours truly turned in early. I stayed up for a while to keep up on my Japanese flash cards and especially to Skype with Kanako. As long as I remained sitting and motionless, the muggy night air wasn’t too much a nuisance.
The next morning after breakfast we taxied back to Da Nang to enjoy the beach. Someone in the party had undoubtedly read that the beaches here were world class and that we just had to go. We stayed in a decent hotel just off the beach which at 10 dollars a night was our most expensive accommodation of the trip. Once checked in at around 1pm, we went on to waste a good amount of time in the hotel room. Then when we were ready to hit the beach, we managed to blow another hour+ at some restaurant. We didn’t really get out to the water’s until about dinner time due to people milling about, disappearing, and group indecisiveness. The one highlight of the beach was pulling out the shuttlecock toy we bought and just having lots of random Vietnamese people join in. It was basically impossible to play barefoot and on sand, but interacting with the locals like this was great, even with no form of verbal communication. The swimming involved little more than wading into the warm ocean water and being stared at by everyone. After a short while we left in pursuit of some more food and maybe some fun at night. We selected a nicer restaurant on the beach which seemed pretty pricey, but was in reality on par with a normal western restaurant in the western world. We had some drinks over dinner and found ourselves looking to continue the night, but every club we went to afterwards was set up as a table with girls paid to keep us company, all while we drank their vastly overpriced drinks. After a few failed attempts we called it and just returned home to a night of sleep. This was just fine since we had another early flight the next morning. This day in Da Nang was probably the low point of the trip for me: culturally we accomplished nothing, the ‘heavenly beaches’ were barely on par with Lake Michigan’s, and I had to miss out on one of the best motorcycle rides in the country due to people’s peevishness towards the bikes and reluctance to do anything at all. This I suppose this was my day of compromise.
The next morning it was another drowsy trip to the airport. As a highlight, there was a Burger King of which I partook of with glee. There are no McDonald’s in the country so finding a BK instead was a surprise. When we arrived back at Ho Chi Minh, we returned to the Saigon Youth Hostel and waited for those who had booked a separate flight. At the hostel we saw our friend Ben one last time before he moved on to Cambodia. That day was spent milling about, getting our fill of kebabs and smoothies from our favorite stores, and then eventually having a small party at night. Jon had invited a Vietnamese guy to join us for some drinks, and then eventually we found ourselves at some club called Apocalypse Now.
The next morning was plagued with yet another early sendoff, but this time via bus south towards the delta. If we were focusing our time in southern Vietnam, I figured it was absolutely essential that we hit this region. I had a mini scare that involved me putting my wallet somewhere apart than usual, but Crisis averted and off we were to the delta. After a couple hours on the bus, we arrived near the river and boarded a slender boat to start our cruise the Mekong River. The tour consisted of stops at a couple islands where we could take in numerous aspects of delta life.
Here we go…
For the first stop we got off our riverboat and learned about how there are a number of bee farms in the area. We were able to try a local tea and they also encouraged us to buy some different honey products. This was followed by a walk through the jungle to where we eventually boarded some smaller canoe-like vessels driven by ladies down a small river. This didn’t really have any purpose, as we just went back to the slightly larger boat we were on before, but I suppose it saved us the walk. After that, we made a quick stop at a coconut candy making factory. Here, we learned about the cooking process, watched them wrap by hand, and then soon moved on. From there it was off to another island for lunch. This was pretty average too, but we were able to try some river fish. Despite looking scary, it was good stuff. Highlight came from some girl at our table who suddenly realized that ants were swarming in front of her and on her pants. The ensuing reaction was shocking, but then of course hilarious to all parties not involved. The final stop of the day was a tropical fruit sampling while listening to traditional delta music. The music was alright, but the jack-fruit really stole my heart. The real takeaway though was learning that dragon fruit grows on cacti!
From there, we went back towards our bus and drove deeper into the delta to a city called Can Tho. We checked into a slightly ransack hotel, fully equipped with roaches, and then hit the streets for some food. We settled on some roadside stall which served chicken and rice with some wonderful sauce. We were all sated by scrumptious food for a dollar. We walked around a bit in a park near the river, but then just headed back to the hotel. We were joined by a girl from Holland (the country) who was also on the tour. She was less then impressed with my knowledge of Dutch (husternucka, zoekyafunbalung, moi, boinkyas, etc), to the extent that she understood none of it. I’m thinking that grandma just made those words up… At night we played some cards in the room until bedtime.
The following morning it was back on the bus to hit up just a couple more locations. Once aboard our river boat, we cruised down to a floating market. This was easily one of the coolest things I saw in all of Vietnam, just because there was so much culture and tradition wrapped up into it; I don’t know how many hundreds of years this has been going on. The boats anchored on the Mekong here and in other places sell their produce to the locals. They advertise by way of bamboo poles that hoist their wares for all to see. Interestingly, if the pole only has leaves as the top, it is the boat itself on the market.
We floated through the market and pick up some pineapples, but we were mostly just there to observe an entirely foreign world in action. After a good chunk of time bobbing and soaking in the spectacle, it was off to a rice paper factory. There, we could see them take a white rice slurry, spread out and then cooked into a paper thin disk which was transferred to bamboo stretchers to dry. Once dry, they finally shred into noodles. It was rather interesting to watch, but chances are quite high that this operation would not meet any sort of extant health standards.
Me having a go at laying them out. A bit harder than it looks.
The last stop of the day was a rice processing factory. This was interesting because our tour guide was able to recount the hardships and even dangers of planting rice (4x a year, vs. Japan’s 1) and how the work he did as a youth convinced him to get an education. One other fact, the yearly volume of rice grown in the delta region eclipses the total amount produced in both Korea and Japan combined! The last thing we did was eat some lunch, which included my first ever serving of snake. The meat was a little rubbery, but the flavor of the sauce was fantastic. Once we finished up here, it was back on the bus to make our 4 hour return to Ho Chi Minh.
“They were talking, then started arguing, one blew the other one away. He said his name was snakes.”
Back in the capital, we had only to burn a few hours before our 1am flight. After getting one last smoothie and kebab, we decided to see ‘The Avengers’ at the movie theater, and that guy Jon had met was kind enough to treat us to the tickets. Because we needed to go direct to the airport, we looked pretty dumb with all of our luggage in the lobby. We were debating whether or not it would be necessary, but the movie went longer then expected, causing us to bail before the credits. Plowing past everyone with all our bulky baggage 15 minutes before the conclusion had to look ridiculous. We made it to the airport just fine, but for once we opted for responsibility. The flights home were uneventful, transfers, and everything just fine. As always, the sensation of being back home where I can communicate with and understand the world around me was more than welcome. While hectic, I did manage a fantastic holiday with some good friends. It wasn’t always how I would have done things, but I did certainly continue my exploration of Asia and learn a lot more about another culture and it’s people. Vietnam is absolutely a country I would like to return to, as the whole northern region remains a mystery. If I make a return to Southeast Asia, I would make an effort to kick it off in Hanoi.
This was the entire crew. Arran, Ryan, Thomas, myself, Jon, and Gary all enjoying some smoothies. By my 15th, I started getting chatty with the shop workers.
As usual, here is a compilation video of clips from my time spent in the country. I had a bit of fun with the slow mo function on my new camera…