Thursday, August 21, 2008

Vietnam Voyages Part 2: The South

So now it was Friday the 8th, and Neal and I headed off on a tour of the Mekong Delta River, about 3 hours by bus out of town. Laura left like I said to see Da Lat and all of us were starting to feel the pinch of our biggest enemy: Time. As it was, Neal and I had to choose between the river tour and a tunnel tour, where you could see how the Viet Cong lived underground and you could shoot AK47s and other weapons for cheap. After talking to others who did the tour, it sounds like we were right to pick the river.

I got a cheesy hat for $1 and we headed out on a little rickety old boat down the brown, brown river. We saw ferries, fishing boats, houses and other neat things the locals used to carve their livings; like netted and wooden fish traps. Our first stop was the “unicorn” island (one of the 4 sacred animals [turtle, dragon and… phoenix maybe were the other 3]) Here, they showed how they made coconut candy which was kind of interesting, but we hung around too long I felt, as they waited for us to shop for a long time. We had lunch, which included some strange and wonderful new fruits. My new favourite is now “dragonfruit”. It’s green and purple on the outside, really sweet and soft on the inside. Great stuff.

Our boat went down smaller river channels and it felt like something straight out of a Rambo movie with tall (reeds?) and coconut trees surrounding this dark brown river. We passed locals and houses along the river and it was really surreal. They took us into a nearby town where we rode really small ponies on these carts for a bit, and the houses were something else to see as well. Old rickety woodsheds mixed in with elaborate marble structures and fruit trees surrounded us. I saw bananas growing/developing from little shoots and I saw an electric box that would give us Engineers nightmares (a birds nest for sure) among other cool things. During a walk, we heard a large thump, so strong the ground almost rumbled. I spent a lot of the remaining trip looking up at the coconuts above me, ready to brain me…

We got on boats that were smaller yet for another little paddle, but I had to wait a bit alone for my ride to show up. While I was waiting some local children showed up with a bucket and makeshift fishing rods. They were strips of bamboo, with string tied to it about 1 meter long. With them, they fished for the lizard/gecko looking things crawling around in the mud. It was so cool seeing them have so much fun with what a lot of people back home would consider to be ‘so little’. They said hello and ran of, laughing and playing to find the next muddy bank to catch more lizards.

When my boat picked me up, a young boy and maybe a grandmother paddled it. In front of me was a nice Japanese man who knew over 6 languages and has traveled many times. You can’t help but meet many interesting people when you’re traveling. We had snacks later and listened to live Vietnamese music sung for us. After we were given the option of wearing a live snake. Since I love new things, I gave it a try. Those things are creepy… with their whole body being muscles and moving around on you… I got my pictures and got rid of it ^_^

After the tour we went back to town to spend our last night in Saigon. After my unsuccessful attempt for dancing (and much to Neal’s amusement again), we opted to try for a club. Neal wanted to see the hostess bar I was at the previous night, but I convinced him he wasn’t missing much; so we went to another place called “metallic” which had live bands doing hard rock cover songs. When we were there it was a mix of Bon Jovi, Metallica, and Britney Spears; sung in a pleasant Vietnamese accent. My definite highlight though, was when I entered the bar and sat down.

On the other side of the bar, staring at me with big beautiful eyes and a huge smile on her face was a lovely lady named Trang. I couldn’t help but stare and smile back. When she finally broke out of her trance she came up real close (it was a loud place) and said in my ear “you are handsome.” If this was still crazy town, I don’t want to be sane anymore.

It was almost a good thing the place was so loud, as I knew zero Vietnamese and her English was very limited. We spent a lot of time just staring and smiling at each other from 2 feet away across the counter. She would dance a bit to the music for me, and her co-workers picked up the pace a bit pouring drinks to cover her being preoccupied with me. It’s not every day you have an angel fall in love with you at first site, right?

Because verbal communication was impossible, (all I made out was “you are handsome” over and over, then maybe some Vietnamese) I got out paper and started writing down some English. (In Japan anyways, written is usually better understood than spoken) It was a little more successful, and I invited her out for our destination tomorrow: Mui Ne Beach, about 4 hours away. We shook hands on meeting, and both eagerly looked forward to tomorrow, us meeting up again for fun on the beach, and me calling her at noon on her cell.

I wanted to stay longer, but she was working, communication was hindered not only by the language barrier but loud background noises and a crappy pen, and I was broke because we couldn’t exchange more Dong this late at night (I did a fair amount of shopping at this point; I have a proper backpack now for travel!) The next day we were on our 4-hour bus ride that ended up being a 6-hour ride because it was a tourist trap like device; stopping at commissioned stops for overpriced garbage regularly. It would be better maybe if they had real food at the stops instead of potato chips and pop. Either way, I was now over an hour late for making my phone call, and Neal was now teasing me about blogging the drama that is my love life, and he wanted to start calling me ‘Butters’, after a South Park character that also fell for a hostess at a restaurant.

We stopped at a restaurant first and got some food. There I asked the nice lady (I can’t believe I forgot her name after how much she helped us) to make my call and, well, speak in Vietnamese. Before I left Saigon that morning I bought a tiny Vietnamese translation guide not unlike what my sister Patty got me for Japanese. Since I shouldn’t drudge too much of my personal life I guess I should end Trang’s story here. The nice lady calling and I met several times over the next couple days trying to work out how I could meet up with Trang again. She couldn’t take time off work (It was the weekend and she works at the bar, and Vietnamese people work too hard) and even if I went back to Saigon she had school during the day and work at night. I only had 11 days left in Vietnam or so. A lot more happened, and a lot more was said… but you don’t need to hear it. I have no real way of contacting her now.

Through the heartbreak in Vietnam though, I learnt more about the wonderful people. The nice lady at the shop genuinely cared how things went and tried really hard to get something to work out between us. I bought her some chocolate and ate at her restaurant to say thank you a couple times. There are amazing people in Vietnam, and they have great senses of humor. Neal wanted to buy a book somewhere later, and the lady said “one million Dong” with a straight face. After the look of shock hit Neal’s face she broke out laughing. They aren’t shy about touching you either in Vietnam, giving you a rub on the shoulder or brushing your arm when you’re talking. One girl slapped my butt when I was being indecisive/difficult on what to buy.

Anyways, back to Mui Ne beach. This place is amazing. 12 kilometers or so of white sand, all unspoiled beach. There were resorts lined all the way down the beach. You could stay in a beautiful cabin, 5 meters from the beach: AC, hot water, everything for $45 a night. (everything in Vietnam is real cheap if you haven’t gathered that yet) And that was the most expensive one we found. I will never look at a capsule hotel in Tokyo the same way again. Sleeping in a cube vs. in your own hut by an amazing beach for the same price. We ended up staying in slightly less impressive place for $6 a night each; but the place still blew my mind.

This was an amazing beach, but it was clearly dripping with romance. Although Neal and I were smiling and thoroughly enjoying every minute; if you looked at us with the right eyes you could probably see little clouds following us around. Although we’re good friends, we both understood that either of us would lose the other in an instance if it meant spending time with a more fitting partner. Both of us are planning our more fitting returns already someday.

After checking in and changing out, it was time to lose my virginity as Neal said. It was time for me to swim in one of Earth’s Oceans. The water was warm, kinda clear, and salty! I never had so much fun swimming in my life before. We never really swam as much as we sat there and felt wave after wave of warm water slam into our bodies. I was literally giggling like a schoolgirl for hours. If I wasn’t giggling, I was trying in vain to spit the salty sensation off my lips. I can’t believe I had so much fun, doing so little. We lazily floated around, letting the current drift us a kilometer or two down the beach; a pattern we repeated several times during our stay.

We were only going to stay a couple days, but vacation shouldn’t be about running your ass off right? I’ve made that mistake too many times in the past and I’ve grown a lot as a traveler; having discovered things like researching your destination or having information guides on hand. We ended up staying for 4 days (I was still trying hard with Trang, so the extra time was nice). During this time we ate amazing food every day (1kg of fresh lobster for $25? How about a fresh French bread sandwich?), swam in beautiful weather, walked through the small town (one road really, going along the beach) and unwound like I’ve never unwound before. There were kite surfing lessons, ski-dos, that other surfing thing with the sail on your board and other great things to watch.

Those days were a blur of bliss; there were hardly any people so it was easy to feel like the beach was all yours. The few people we did see were pretty cool (topless sunbathers anyone?) and some restaurants had interesting mixes of Russian, German, and other stuff I didn’t recognize. Italian food seems pretty big in Vietnam. Either way signs and menus have a lot of charm in Vietnam, as it seems people learnt English orally; spelling mistakes peppered everything.

If you got up early enough you could see beautiful sun rises, and fishermen out on their cup-shaped boats dragging nets. As with all new things though, I was a bit paranoid of the unknown like Jelly Fish and things I might be stepping on. Neal freaked me out one time saying a Jelly was chasing me… One time as I was floating about, something got caught between my big toe and wiggled like crazy! It might have been a clam or something, but I panicked anyways and stood on one foot for the next half hour.

I got a bad sunburn the one day, even after applying 50 spf screen twice, but there are lots of cheap massage places around. Neal and I (my first time again) got manicures and pedicures for $12 total. By the way, how do people spend big money on those? What a waste; the dead skin on my nails were back in 12 hours and I can cut my nails better than that. Later I got a sunburn Aloe Vera massage for the same price. They covered me with goop and then gave a massage later. Maybe it helped? Either way I got lots of color on this trip; the farmer tan lines are becoming more blurred. I got a cool burn on my back too, where you could tell I couldn’t reach.

Alas Tuesday the 12th rolled around and half our trip was over. As much as we talked about quitting our jobs and living at the beach for the rest of the year on 1 month’s salary, there was still a lot of country to trek. Before we left Mui Ne though, we wanted to do a day tour of surrounding sights which included white sand dunes, red sand dunes, a red ‘canyon’ (turned out to be a hole in the ground), fairy springs (miniature grand canyon) and a fishing village.

We had to get up early for the ride and to catch the sunrise over the white sand dunes. The sand things were interesting I guess; you could rent crazy carpets to slide down the hills if you were feeling ambitious enough. At the red dunes, Neal attracted a lot of attention from some kids; and then sent them after me. I really didn’t want to, but the kids were too cute to say no.

Me: “but I’m scared of heights”
Kids: “then I’ll ride with you”
Me: “it’ll be too hard to climb back up”
Kids: “I’ll carry you”

And so on. It was so adorable. After my ride though, it wasn’t very adorable anymore when they stopped smiling and tried to get a ridiculous amount of money out of me. I left a couple thousand dong and walked off; they never did ride down with me :( Again: always agree on a price first.

We went to the fishing village next, which was the most interesting part of the tour I felt. There were so many boats and so many people. A couple of the sheds had 2 TVs, where many people sat around in a makeshift community center outdoors in the shade to watch… whatever was on. The one looked like a martial arts fighting something.

I don’t know why, but fishing communities get it so bad in Asian countries. They are some of the hardest workers and they get treated the worst it seems. It was such an incredible contrast after seeing the fish market in Tokyo. I saw similar production lines set up, but it was like 50 years behind in terms of setup, hygiene and all that. It was really interesting just walking around and seeing all there was; it was a real eye opener.

The last stop of the tour was the Fairy springs, which was rather disappointing. Some kids that were skipping school followed us even though we didn’t want them to, and when they were done they tried to get money out of us again. It was a really long day at that point and we were at our limit for people asking for handouts; we already spent money on the tour and the ‘tour guide’ just hung out by the jeep waiting for us to finish at each place. It was still nice walking through the shallow stream though, that was rather enjoyable even if the rocks weren’t too fascinating to me at that point.

We got back around noon, had food, relaxed and said goodbye to the beautiful beach and then hopped on an over-night bus to Hoi An; an ‘ancient’ city near central Vietnam.

"An enemy takes up more space in our head than a friend in our heart." -Anonymous


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