Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Vietnam Voyages Part 1: Saigon

The day started early, such is life when migrating from the mountains to an international airport for me. Necessity had me awaken at 3 a.m. so that I may walk a ½ hour to catch my bus that left at 4. Being up this early gives me actual physical pains, but luckily (or not) I was only taking with me my SaskTel tote bag for my 2-week adventure, so I wasn’t carrying much. While I was waiting for the bus I was strangely uncomfortable and some people were giggling when I walked by. I then noticed for the last hour my button shirt was on backwards and I walked through town and even bought breakfast dressed as such. Oh well :)

After watching a couple movies on the plane and taking pictures of clouds and stuff we arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC) about 6 hours after departure, including the transfer in Taipei. Along for the trip was my good friend Neal, and my now new friend Laura. She teaches an additional hour south of me. There was to be a 4th with us, but she did her own thing and I didn’t see her at all. No love lost, as we got in alright, and had lots of tips from friends that had made the voyage to Vietnam already. Golden tips like “if you spend more than $6 on the cab, you’re getting ripped off” while the vultures tried to get $30 or $40 from you. My biggest hate for airports lay in those taxi vultures; I still feel the sting of my $120 trip in Korea.

Anyways, the ride was a great way to safely gawk at the wave of culture shock that hit us. There were motorbikes, construction, honking horns and thousands of people everywhere you looked. It was pure unadulterated chaos, but it worked. It worked so well, now I wish we had more of this everywhere as traffic moved so fast. The more we watched and the more we gasped at the crazy close calls we saw, the more comfortable we got. Motorcycles (They called them Cyclos) everywhere you looked, and many other crazy sites on them. We saw mothers crowded with up to 4 of her kids on one bike, men balancing large live pigs, flat screen TVs, sleeping passengers, fragile clay/porcelain, and other crazy things.

We got to the backpacker’s area and the place screamed of tourist trap with high prices and peddlers. Many people were trying to get your attention and trying to get you to buy their stuff. Our first supper took a long time to eat because we had to turn away people trying to sell us pirated books and other useless things. It was more heart wrenching to see the children out there begging, but you knew there was a ‘pimp’ somewhere nearby, putting them up to it and the kid wouldn’t see any of the money you would give him anyways. So ya, we found a wonderful place ($7 a person per night) courtesy of our friend’s recommendation, and we were eating when I saw my first gecko/lizard thing.

It dashed out from behind a painting, easily scaling the wall and up near the light it went. They are only about the size of your finger and they were everywhere I soon found out. After the initial shock, I wish we had more of those as well. I prefer them much more than spiders, as they do the same thing. They mostly hung out near the lights eating any bugs that came near (as a result there weren’t many bugs around in Vietnam), and no crappy spider webs to walk into and get in my mouth… it happens so much in Japan.

I think we had an early night and changed money in the morning. We didn’t know how much to start with, so we exchanged only $200 at first. It worked out to us getting 3.6 million Dongs back and fat wallets. It was awesome being millionaires, and we cracked Dong jokes for the whole trip. (I got a lot of Dong in my pocket; Neal loves millions of Dongs, etc) We went to the reunification palace for our first sightseeing adventure, where the Americans evacuated from the rooftop and where the South’s former president’s headquarters were. The Vietnam War is known as “The American War” in Vietnam, and it was interesting to see the other side of the story, even if it was biased at times. The palace was interesting and all with the d├ęcor and history, but we needed a break after from the heat and walking so we went for a movie in the afternoon.

After we went for more sightseeing, which included a large cathedral, a large train station and other sites. We talked to some of the many cyclos that were hassling us and ended up getting a ride around town. It was an amazing ride, and I quickly relaxed on the bike, which was nice, as I didn’t like bear hugging the large driver. We all took pictures while we were riding around and saw some cool sites like twisted military wreckage, pagodas, and a Buddhist funeral home among other things. We went to Vietnam during rainy season, so we were really lucky with the amazing weather we had. Saigon was mostly overcast during our stay, but while on the bikes it down poured for about 5-10 minutes.

Undeterred, we motored on; and in time realized the drivers were taking us for another kind of ride. They stopped taking us to places we wanted to go and they would frequently lose track of each other. We had agreed on paying for an hour, but it had been 90 minutes now. An unfortunate thing we read on wikitravel (amazing site if you still havn’t gone) and our guidebooks were the lengthy warnings about scams and the sort. These guys were killing time to get more money so we ended the ride ‘early’. Then they tried to argue on what price was agreed on.

After a couple of unpleasant minutes of stunted arguing with a language barrier, we gave our side of the bargain (still a great deal for them) and walked. This was our first encounter with bad business and it certainly wasn’t our last. The most important thing I can tell you, is to agree on a total price before going anywhere, unless you’re lucky and get an honest person I guess. They aren’t rare at all, but it’s really annoying to get one that isn’t. ($2 will get you pretty much anywhere in the city by taxi even though they’ll try and charge you $10 or more) Ah the life of haggling.

We walked around more, saw a pushy market where they had trouble hearing ‘no’ and saw other interesting things like shops making and selling paintings and large replica renaissance era ships. Laura caught a bus out of town to do biking and elephant riding in the mountains, so it was just Neal and I for the next little while.

So now it’s Thursday, August 7th. Neal and I went to the war museum in the morning. Inside there were disturbing pictures from the war, actual weapons used, pickled fetuses of agent orange miscarriages, and pictures children made showing their view of the war and their wish for peace. Outside the entrance, children ironically played games around the fighter jets, helicopters and the replica bombs that decorated the front entrance.

To escape the heat and to take the advice of our friends again, we went for body massages. It was $12 (I think) for an hour and it was really cool. This was my first real body massage, as I don’t count that painful awkward experience I had in China when they matted your clothes into your body. Either way I was with a really cute girl and we started talking. I haven’t mentioned much about the girls yet, but they are absolutely amazing in Vietnam. They dress sharp and wear cute clothes, are super friendly and forward, and they ride motorcycles usually with cute helmets. In not very much time at all she started asking me more personal questions like my age and single status. She was massage my arm and looking into my eyes when she started holding my hand and said how we were both single, so we should be boyfriend and girlfriend.

I was so shocked and wanted to say yes, but I knew I was leaving in a couple days and didn’t want a long distance relationship again like I had while in China, so the boyfriend word must have thrown me off. Either way I fumbled pretty bad, and anything I tried after that was dead in the water; the window was closed. Neal was in the stall beside me and was chuckling to himself, listening to me try hard, only to have it strike a language barrier and do nothing.

Feeling good from the massage but a little depressed for striking out, we explored more. We ate at a wonderful lunch place, visited a monstrous flea market and a neat shopping center. For supper we had do-it-yourself Korean style BBQ on the rooftop where a bunch of Budweiser girls were trying to do a promotion. We didn’t want to drink that crap though and bought local beer instead. The food was amazing, and so was the ice cream shop on the floor below us. I believe this was the first of the many large-scale pirated DVDs area we found; I have a show or two to watch now like “The Office”.

Neal was bushed and so was I after another big day of walking, but heck, this was now my 3rd night in a large city and I haven’t seen the nightlife yet! Feeling adventurous, I said goodnight to Neal, grabbed some paper that had the addresses of night hot spots, and set off outside our hotel. What awaited me was a completely different scene.

I hadn’t walked across the street yet when I was hit by the first of many. A super attractive girl scoots up to me on her bike and I swear it was a scene exactly of out Full Metal Jacket. Things have changed since then, as instead of “5 dollars” she said “10 dollars” and instead of “sucky sucky” she said “boon boon”. (There was no “love you long time though”) Confused and suddenly disorientated in this different feeling city, I asked what the heck ‘boon boon’ was. She made the sex motions with her hands and it was pretty clear.

Turning down the polite, and beautiful young lady’s offer, I trudged on. This scene repeated itself 3 or 4 times by different and all equally hot ladies riding motorcycles before I even reached the end of the block. It was so unreal really, I mean there were so many people all around me; this was quite the bustling tourist area. I guess a man out walking alone has one thing on his mind maybe? Luckily my first destination wasn’t too far away and I was sitting at a table indoors with a cold one. I would realize later, that this was something of a ‘snack bar’, or at least my perception of one minus the paying ridiculous prices for someone’s company, oh and the ladies were all really hot again.

My ‘company’ during my beer was a rather interesting one. She (I don’t remember her name) gave me some insights (or tales to woo tips?) into the difficult life of the locals. She, for example, works 12 hours every day, only getting 1 day off last month. Later another girl suggested I buy my company a drink and she had juice so I didn’t mind; as long as they don’t pull a Japanese snack bar scam on me; besides she was really interesting and we had a good talk.

I can only sit and talk for so long though, as I’m an antsy sort of fellow. Let’s get some music pumping through the veins eh? I got directions from her to find a nearby dance club. I guess you go out, turn left twice and go straight. Not even 5 minutes away. Easy right? She didn’t mention that ‘go straight part’ was down a less-lit area than the others.

If the ladies of the night were forward before, they were aggressive now. Hoping to get them to stop throwing their bodies at me, I tried to change the subject by asking where the dance club was (straight ahead if the directions were right, I wasn’t lost). She offered to drive me there and I figured ‘hey sweet, a free ride out of this area’.

A couple minutes on the bike, many turns and stopping at a hotel somewhere later, I was pretty sure something wasn’t right.

I’m not quite sure what she was trying to say, as the vocabulary didn’t go too far past prices and… techniques? What I gathered was she wanted to boon boon and then go dancing with me. Deterred from having anything crazier happen, I took a taxi home and called it a night. That was enough crazy town for one day. I never did get to see that dance club :(

"It is by acts and not by ideas that people live.” -Anatole France


1 comment:

Patricia said...

lol- that is the most funiest story I have read, ever! I've spent the last five minutes laughing :)
I can just picture you being completely innocent, and all these girls trying so hard. haha
Too bad you didn't get to the dance club!