Vietnam Pt.II

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Before heading back to Saigon, we decided that we would stop off in the city of Cần Thơ for 2 nights so that we would be able to see their morning floating markets. My stomach was already feeling strange, but I managed to keep any urges to go to the toilet at bay (thanks to a handful of Imodiums). Anya on the other hand, felt absolutely fine.

We hoped on a ferry and were quickly back on the mainland. From there, we needed to get a bus, so we got onto the bus that we were directed to and boarded with our bags. This bus however was not a coach, but an old local bus that surprisingly still functioned. It was hot, cramped and disgusting, but at least we had some seats to sit on, as our journey was going to be about 5 or 6 hours long. We were the only westerners on this bus, with the rest of the passengers consisting of Vietnamese locals. The bus began to depart when one of the old women began shouting at the driver at the top of her lungs, while consistently shooting glances back at us during her intervals. We had no idea what she was saying, but it clearly involved us.

The bus driver ignored her, but she became even more insistent, forcing him to stop. She began pointing at us, but we did not know what to do. We did not understand a word of what she said, and she did not understand a word of what we said. Eventually, she took matters into her own hands and walked up to our bags and tried to drag them off the bus. Tensions were rising quickly. This woman had some kind of problem with us but we didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t long before someone ran off the bus to fetch someone who could translate, and it was only then that we found that this woman did not have an issue with us at all. In fact, she was trying to help us.

It turned out that we were put onto the wrong bus with neither of us had the faintest idea that this was the case. To this day we have no idea where that bus was destined to go, but when that old woman saw two westerners on the bus, she just knew that the destination of that bus is not where we wanted to go. If she hadn’t intervened, who knows where we would have ended up? We owe a debt to this mysterious old Vietnamese woman.

Madman on wheels

We were then taken to the correct bus, but alas, it was still a dingy and small local bus. However this time, as we were one of the later people to board, the bus was already full. But if there is one thing we have learnt from our journeys in Asia, it is that you can always make more room. A kind man let Anya take his seat on the bus while I was told to sit on the step at the back of the bus and lean back on the legs of the man sitting behind me. Tiny sitting stools were then pulled out so that the people who got onto the bus after us could sit in the aisle between the rows of seats. When this option was exhausted, more locals tried to board, so they were told to either stand where they could fit, or sit on the interior engine bay cover at the front of the bus next to the driver. The bus was now truly full.

The journey was sweltering and confined, my knees were in agony, and our driver was a mad man. Speed was his priority, and his sudden jerky movements would throw the people on the bus from one side to another. There was a mother with her baby in her arms standing near the front, but the driver paid no heed to this. Eventually, the recklessness of his driving culminated in a moment when he suddenly performed an emergency stop. The mother and her baby flew forward into the group of people sitting on the engine bay. The baby began to wail and everyone around them quickly checked to see if they were okay. Luckily, neither the mother nor the youngling were harmed so everyone began to look out of the window to see why the bus driver had stopped so suddenly. A man lay on the road next to his moped beside the bus. People from the nearby petrol station were running over to see if the man was okay. Our bus driver had not stopped fast enough and had collided with this man on his bike. The man was conscious, so the bus driver took this as enough and drove off. His priority was still making it to the destination as hastily as possible.

Next stop, the bathroom

During the journey, I could feel my stomach still churning away. I was beginning to fear that the Imodiums that I was taking would fail me soon enough, but fortune was on my side, for once, and I managed to make it to Cần Thơ with no undesired events transpiring. We checked in to a hotel as there were very little hostel options available in the city and I quickly occupied the bathroom in our room so that I was finally able to relieve myself. Following this, I was in and out of the bathroom thoughout the entire evening while Anya still felt completely normal. We only had two nights booked in Cần Thơ however, meaning that we need to check out the morning floating market the following day. I reluctantly booked a tour with Anya down at reception and just hoped that I would feel better by the next day. With that, we decided to have an early night, as we would have to be up before 5am to see the markets. However, neither of us got a lot of sleep that night.

I myself was not up too often throughout the night, but whatever we had eaten back in Phú Quốc had finally struck Anya down. She was in and out of the bathroom every 15 minutes to vomit, and the time for us to be getting up was quickly dawning upon us. There was no way that we could be able to bounce back fast enough before the tour was due to start, so I went downstairs to reception to see if it was possible to reschedule for the next day. The only person I was able to find was a sleeping security guard who had been awoken as I entered the lobby. I tried to explain the situation to him but he did not seem to understand me, so he called a number on the phone and handed it to me. It was the receptionist that we had booked the tour with earlier, and it was quite clear that she had just been awoken. I felt so guilty for waking her up and bothering her while she was at home, so while I explained the situation to her, I apologised repeatedly. She told us it would not be a problem to delay our tour by a day, so I returned to bed for some much needed sleep.

We were extremely glad that we had been in a hotel when this happened, and not in a dorm of a hostel where everyone would have to constantly be awoken with our trips to the bathroom. Therefore, upon waking again in the late morning, we extended our stay by another night and decided to devote the day to recovery. Neither of us were running in or out of the bathroom much anymore, but we were both exhausted. Anya was more so than I, so spent the entire day in bed, but as I was starting to feel better, I quickly became bored so decided to use the opportunity to explore the city and find myself a new laptop.

As I explored the streets, I began to feel somewhat like a celebrity. Any person that I passed would stare at me with either amazement or shock. At first I did not understand why, but eventually people began coming up to me just to shake my hand or to take a picture with me and it became increasingly obvious that were astounded to see a white man. I was flabbergasted at this, because with Cần Thơ being a city, I imagined white tourists were nothing new to them. But as I paid more attention, I began to realise that were no other white tourists around in the city that I could see. Regardless of this, I was still astonished, and when I finally found an electronics store with the laptop that I wanted, the staff treated me like a first class customer. They tried to make me feel as comfortable as possible, and every time I finished a glass of water, it was instantly and automatically replaced with another. They provided me with a series of free gifts to compliment the laptop, and when the transaction was completed and the new laptop was set up, they asked if I could take a group photo with the all of the staff that were in the store at the time. I was happy to oblige, I just wish that I had asked for a copy of that photo for myself.

After returning to the hotel with my laptop (which cost millions of Vietnamese Dong thanks to their extremely inflated currency), I told my tale to Anya and she began to tell me of similar experiences that she had when she left the hotel in search of food. She too could not help but notice all of the people who were surprised by her presence. She went on to say that the cashier who served her at the supermarket physically gasped and was taken back by her pale white skin.

On the mend

The next morning, we were up before the sunrise to meet our tour guide. He led us to the docks where we met our boat driver. We quickly boarded the boat and were on our way down river to see the floating river market. The markets began at the crack of dawn and were already dying down by 7 or 8 a.m. We eventually reached the market to see exactly what I had envisioned: a huge conglomeration of large boats overloaded with locally produced supplies. Smaller boats full of buyers moved amongst the larger ones in search of the best deals.

Our boat docked with another boat that was serving phở as breakfast to all of the locals, and it turned out that we would be getting some as part of our tour. As delicious as it was, our fragile stomachs were not ready for the onslaught of Vietnamese food, so we hardly were able to make a dent into our bowlfuls of phở. After breakfast, we continued on with our tour of the markets. It was incredible to see that people lived their lives this way, spending most of their lives on or around this river. Many of these people’s homes were their boats, and if it wasn’t the boat that they slept in, they had rudimentary shacks built on the edges of the river, leaning over the water.

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How they can eat phở so early in the morning is beyond us.

After seeing the market, we were taken to a place where rice noodles were made, and after being shown the process involved in making them, we were allowed to have a go ourselves. We then were taken to a fruit farm where we were allowed to relax with a cup of tea as we learnt about the farm and the worker’s way of life. We then, very randomly, watched a female entertainer sing for a Vietnamese family that were on holiday from the North.

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Part of the rice noodle making process.

When we arrived back at the boat, so that we could head back to our hotel, our boat driver gave us gifts that she had weaved for us out of reed while we were gone:

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Just two of the gifts that we received. Anya also got a bracelet and ring with roses on them, and I also got a bracelet with two grasshoppers on it.

I had been wondering on what she was working on, because for the majority of that morning our boat driver had been multitasking between driving our boat and working on some form of handicraft. I had assumed that the handicrafts were some sort of second job she had that she would later sell at a market, but I never considered that they were for us. I was so amazed by them, that I had them sent home in the leftovers of my laptop box for safe keeping.

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It turns out that I took a photo of her weaving our gifts and I had not even realised.

Backtracking & surprise

We used the rest of the day to sleep and recuperate further before heading back to Saigon the following day. We would end up spending a whole another week there, waiting for Anya’s replacement travel card to arrive after she lost hers in Bali. We had no idea what day it would arrive, so we would have to extend our stay day-by-day while also finding ways to entertain ourselves. This mainly compromised of going out in the evenings and dealing with a hangover the following morning, but we did also treat ourselves with a trip to the cinema to see Dr. Strange.

One evening however, after joining the hostel’s bar crawl yet again, Anya and I were outside of the first bar on the crawl enjoying ourselves when Anya suddenly turned around and noticed someone standing only a few feet away from us. It was the Columbian who we had met in our very first hostel in Indonesia. The same Columbian who then appeared in our dorm room again 2 weeks later in Kuta through no planning whatsoever. Needless to say, we were stunned. We kept crossing paths with this man through nothing more than chance. We were thrilled, and spent the rest of the evening with him and his friends.

After nearly a week had passed, finally, the replacement card arrived. We would only need to spend one last night in Saigon, but we had to move to another hostel due to a lack of beds available. At our new hostel, we met an English fellow who had gone to the same university as us but had been in the year above. It had also turned out that he was heading to Mũi Né the next day just as we were, and even staying at the same place as us there. At this point we had no idea that we would travel with this man all the way up to the north of Vietnam…

Vietnam Pt.I

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Upon our arrival at Hồ Chí Minh City, previously known as Saigon, we quickly boarded a bus that would stop just outside our intended hostel. This was the first city we had experienced on our travels and it certainly was a new experience for us. The chaos of the city’s streets beggared belief. There was no order, only chaos, and more scooters than any one man could count. Every driver, be it on their moped or inside the safety of their car, repeatedly suffered from a near miss with another vehicle with every minute they remained on the over-congested roads. They took no notice of it however, as this was a normal day to all of them.

None of the city looked like it was well maintained, with one building, road or pavement just being built half-heartedly over another. Not even the powerlines that towered over us had any order to them. Hundreds of cables were tangled into an unsolvable mess. If one of those cables failed, it would take an engineer days to find the correct one. Despite the wide, multi-lane roads, the city still felt small and compact with all of the people that it contained. This impression was further exacerbated by the market stalls and local street vendors that took up all of the free space on the pavements (that had not already been occupied by parked mopeds!).

Personally, I was a bit taken back by what I had seen so far, but it had nothing to do with the organised chaos or the sense of uncleanliness, but with all the capitalist ventures in the country. My parents had grown up in the Soviet bloc under communist rule. They were raised on next to no money and ration coupons as the communists had decimated their country and left all of their stores with empty shelves. That is why Vietnam had surprised me so. I hadn’t pictured a communist nation to be immersed in capitalism, especially on the scale that we had witnessed.

When we finally got off of the bus, we checked into the hostel and went straight to bed. We needed to recover from our hellish sleeps in Kuala Lumpur. Upon awaking, we explored our surroundings after some lunch. The clustered roads were not something we were used to. There were never any breaks in the traffic to use as opportunities to cross the road, so we ended up standing at the side of the road for the best part of 10 minutes trying to figure out how to tackle the challenge ahead of us. Only when a local came to the side of the road had we finally work out the secret. We just had to walk out, and force our way into the road, lane by lane. It was the only option, so following as closely to the local as we could, we finally made it across. We kept using this tactic of following the locals until we finally plucked up the courage to do it ourselves. By the end of our stay in Saigon, this means of crossing the road had become second nature to us.

With our exploration of the surroundings concluded, we returned to our hostel and quickly discovered that it hosted daily bar crawls in the evening. Our evening plans were sorted. We got ourselves ready, had some dinner, and then joined the bar crawl.

Nightmare the Sixth

As is typical in these blogs, whenever I mention going out in the evenings, the information is followed by the mentions of a hangover, of some sorts, the next day. This was certainly no exception, as the effects of cheap Asian alcohol on the body can be most cruel. Typically on our hangover days, we like to delve into some home comforts by watching the brilliance that is F.R.I.E.N.D.S whilst we try to recover. However, on this particular hangover day, I opened my laptop and turned it on only to discover that the screen was not working. I kept turning my laptop on and off but to no avail. I could tell straight away that a part of the motherboard had burned out, so I asked the staff at reception about where I could find a computer repair shop and they pointed me in the right direction.

I eventually managed to find the shop, only to discover that the two men who worked there could not speak a word of English. The older of the two gave me a note pad and a pen and told him to write down what I needed. I wrote down:

“Laptop Repair?”

To this, the man nodded. I got out my laptop and he pointed to the younger man, so I walked over to him and showed him that when I turned it on, the screen remained off. They started to talk among themselves as they tried to work out the issue. I knew what the problem was, but I had no idea if they would understand it if I wrote it down, so I watched as they eventually came to the same conclusion. The older man then wrote down:

“The motherboard is broken. It will take me 3 days to repair.”

I was astonished. His written English was perfect, and I had not expected it after not being able to speak a word to me. I then wrote down that I only had 2 more nights before I left, to which he then wrote down a response about how he could get it done on time. He then wrote down how much it would cost and what time to return the day after next to collect it. I still found it hard to believe that this man could read and write in perfect English and yet not speak a word of it, but I agreed and then headed back to the hostel.

Anya and I had decided at this point to have an early night, meaning that we could spend an entire day learning about the city and the war that had infamously put the country on the map. We had signed onto a free walking tour early the next morning, followed by the War Remnants Museum and the Củ Chi tunnels. Unfortunately, neither of us ended up getting very much sleep, and it was all because of…

The drunken idiot

Now Anya and I may have ended up trying to have an early night, but that doesn’t mean that everyone in our dorm did. This is completely normal when travelling, and we were already used to it by this point. Drunken people would stagger in at various points during the evening. Some would be polite and try to be as quiet as possible about it, while others were not. It is the reason why both of us used eye masks and ear plugs. One particular guy came back late and made a fair bit of noise, but not enough to wake me up personally. This changed when he started talking as loud as anyone could possibly talk without shouting. I was livid, as were many other people in the room. At first I thought he was talking to his friend that had come back at the same time as him, but he was not talking to anyone. He was sleep talking.

Eventually he stopped, and I fell back to sleep. Only to be awoken again to the sound of running water and people shouting at him. I sat up to see the same man standing in the corner of the room peeing on the floor … right next to my bag. Everyone was awake now, and were taking turns to vent their frustration at the man’s act during his drunken stupor. Everyone was only met with further frustration though, as the man began to deny he had done it, saying that he did not even need to go to the toilet. He was conscious, but clearly not fully awake. We all told him that the reason that he did not need to go to the toilet was because he already had in the room. His denials never stopped, even though there were multiple witnesses who had no problem telling him that they had seen it. A staff member was called into the room to clean up the mess, but the intoxicated man stood his ground and denied everything. Eventually everyone gave up trying and went to bed. I moved my bag to the other side of the room and went to bed. The drunken man did as well.

None of us were asleep for long, before being awoken by a one of the people in the room shouting at the drunken man to stop trying to get into his bed and go back to his own. The drunken man had peed again, but this time on the other side of the room … the same corner of the room to which I had moved my bag to. This time, some of his urine had hit my bag, but only a small amount. This was because he had not been aiming at the bag, he had been aiming at someone else’s motorcycle helmet. He probably thought the helmet was the toilet bowl in his drunken haze and his aim had hit true, for the most part. It was the bed of the owner of that helmet that the wasted and befuddled man then tried to get into, prompting everyone to wake up. The same thing happened after this: denial was followed by more denial. Everyone was infuriated to say the least, and tried to get the man kicked out, but the staff said there was nothing they could do but clean up the mess.

After this, the drunken man returned to his bed. I moved my bag onto my bed on the top bunk and everyone else went to bed too. No one truly slept after that. As soon as the drunken man made the slightest movement or murmur, everyone shot up in their beds to see if he was up again. He did not get up again, but the sense of alert never waned. This left Anya and I exhausted when we finally had to get up. Anya was not sure if she could do it, but I told her to at least try to get out of bed and eat something before making a decision. My suggestion worked, and we both felt a bit better with food and coffee in our bellies, letting us proceed with our day as planned.

History Day

We proceeded to the market to meet our guides only to be surprised that the two of them were younger than us. It turned out that the man and woman were students studying tourism at university, and partaking in the free walking tour as guides was part of their obligation to finishing their course. With that, the tour around the older districts of the city began. It was interesting for us to talk to young Vietnamese students and learn more about their lives and attitudes towards us, but as it turns out, they seemed even more interested in what our lives were like. They were not afraid to ask personal and direct questions about topics such as our love lives. At first we were a bit taken back about the forwardness of what they were asking, but they were not trying to be rude, they just really wanted to know how different our lives were to theirs.

Our conservations quickly became amusing and interesting, with all of us learning plenty about each other as we walked the streets of the city. We checked out some of the local sights and also stopped off at a café to try some Vietnamese iced coffees (which are great by the way). Our tour eventually ended outside the War Remnants Museum, so after thanking them for their time and generosity, we parted ways with them and proceeded to enter the museum to learn more about the dreaded Vietnam War.

The museum covered the war in its entirety, but it mainly focused on the horrors and tragedies that occurred during it. We could tell that the information that was given to us was one-sided, with a strong bias against the Americans, and an even stronger hatred towards them, but there was no one that could deny the horrible things that they did in the war. The constant bombing, the endless massacres and the horrific decision to use ‘Agent Orange’ decimated the Vietnamese people and their country, leaving it in ruins. The effects of the decisions that the Americans made still ring out in Vietnam to this day, with many people still being born with extreme deformities and depilating genetic diseases as a result of the mutagenic effects of ‘Agent Orange’. Neither of us knew very much about the war beforehand, so all of this information was a major shock to us, leaving us in sunken moods when we finally left the museum in search of lunch.

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America funneled insane amounts of money into the conflict.

After lunch, we headed back to the hostel so that we could go on the afternoon tour to the tunnels, and when we were finally boarded on the bus we were asked to watch a short video on the history of the tunnels. This video helped solidify our suspicions that the information relayed to us was one-sided. Their descriptions of the Americans painted them as cruel and evil barbarians, so we had to take in all of the information with a pinch of salt.

At the tunnels, we were told about the lives of the Vietnamese during the war and we were shown the means that they used to resist the Americans. The Vietnamese had dug miles upon miles of tunnel networks to hide in and spring their traps. Spiked pitfalls, makeshift mines and swinging maces were among the brutal traps that we were shown. It was difficult not to try and imagine the pain that befell any soldier that sprung the traps, but there was no way that our imaginations could successfully recreate the pain and fear of those unfortunate soldiers. We were told more about how the Vietnamese would scavenge what they could. They would risk their lives trying to take apart unexploded bombs for their explosive materials. After the traps, we were taken to the tunnels so that we could go through a small section of it. I could not believe how small they were. We had to crawl through the tight darkness to fit. After only about a minute, my knees were in pain. How they managed to live in such conditions astonishes me.

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An example of one of the spiked pitfalls with a trap door.

South before north

The next day after a well needed rest, following the previous night’s antics with the drunken idiot, we checked out of our hostel and waited around for our bus in the evening. It was going to be our first night bus in Vietnam, and we were curious to see what they were like. But first, I collected my laptop, and was thrilled to see it working again. I thanked the man repeatedly. Once again, this was all done via written communication.

We had decided to go even further south down to the island of Phú Quốc before heading north as most people do after landing in Saigon. Anya was going to have her replacement travel card sent to the hostel we stayed at in Saigon, but it would not arrive for another week or two, so to kill time, we would go down to the island and check it out. I had read up about it online and heard that it is lovely to see in season, but we were not going in season. South Vietnam was currently in its rainy season, meaning that throughout our stay so far, the city was hit very often by huge downpours of rain. There was no exception when it had finally got to the evening and we had boarded our bus. The rain came crashing down in colossal and unrelinquishing quantities. From our seats we could see that the city was quickly flooding. We had made it out just in time, and we hoped the island would not be as bad.

The night bus we had boarded was not something we had experienced before. The bus did not have ordinary seats as one might expect on a coach, instead, the interior of bus consisted of three front-to-back rows of two tiered reclining seats separated by aisles. It turns out that the night buses of Vietnam were designed to fit their given name accordingly, the two tiered recliner seats acted as bunk beds. Now one would assume that based on this design, it would actually be possible to get a decent night’s rest during the journey, but they would be wrong in that assumption. Wrong because the relined seats were not designed to accommodate westerners. The seats were designed for smaller Vietnamese people, leaving any tourists on board horribly uncomfortable and cramped for hours on end during the journey. It certainly did not help that the driver was blaring out some horrifically-sounding Asian pop music throughout the entire duration of the journey. Sleep was minimal.

After our first night bus journey had concluded, we boarded a ferry and eventually found ourselves on the island of Phú Quốc. After we had successfully made our way to our hostel, we checked in and promptly went to bed for some much needed sleep. Upon waking again, we realised that we were some of the only people in the hostel. It was nearly empty. It was a beautiful, and also very large, hostel built in a traditional Chinese style. The top floor even boasted a rooftop bar, a pool table, karaoke booths and a hot tub. As it turned out, the hostel was brand new, and had been open for less than a month. Some of the only people in the entire hostel were in the same dorm room as us. This included a Dutch girl, an Irish girl and a Vietnamese student. But what the hostel lacked in population, was certainly made up for with the hostel’s hospitality.

The manager who was running the hostel was running it on behalf of his parents. He wanted to make sure that we all felt welcome so invited us all up to the bar in the evening for drinks. The night quickly had a change in pace. Before we all knew it, we were all drunk and singing in the Karaoke room to our heart’s content. The manager was as drunk as us and was even buying us all rounds of shots. It was not long before the other two managers had joined in as well.

As can be expected, the next day left us all in various states of dehydration and nausea, but none so as much as Anya, who had even managed to lock herself out of the room in the middle of the night. No one awoke to her knocks on the dorm room in their drunken slumbers, so Anya was forced to wander the corridors and halls of the then deserted hostel until she managed to find a spare key to let herself back in the room.

These hangovers left us with little motivation that day, so the following day: the Dutch girl, the Irish girl, Anya and I had a taxi take us to see the local Suối Tranh Waterfall. After a nice swim in its cool and refreshing water, we then had the taxi take us to the beach so we could relax and have some lunch before returning to the hostel.

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Anya at Suối Tranh Waterfall.

That evening led to another night of drinks with the staff. The Irish woman and I even managed to narrowly win a game of “Battleshots” against two of the managers, meaning that they had to pay for all of the shots that we had drunken. These shots were some strong locally made rice wine … they were potent. As one can imagine, another good night came of it, but no one ended up locked outside of their room this time.

Our final day was once again a recovery day, and it was then I realised that my laptop was once again broken. It was clear that laptop had reached the end of its days, but for now this laptop was not going to be a pressing issue for me, because something that we ate that day meant that we were about to be hit with very upset stomachs…