Vietnam Pt.I


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…