A lot of the days in Binh Hoa blur together with very little highlights. Most of the time is spent playing Wii, PvZ and Marble Mixer, going out for coffee and tea, and laying around in the heat drinking fresh fruit juice. This is how most of the time was spent between arriving in Binh Hoa and the morning of June 9th. That morning we woke up at 3:45 to catch a bus to Saigon to spend a few days working on immigration stuff.
I am not a morning person, and sleeping on buses is not fun, but somehow I manage to do it when I’m really tired. I managed to sleep for a few hours in the bus before we stopped for breakfast. Just after breakfast I realized that I had lost my iPhone. As I had been miserably trying to sleep I wasn’t really paying attention to what was in my pocket, and had no good idea of when I could’ve lost it. We searched the floor and seats in the bus, and in my pockets, and it was clear that I’d lost it. Tien switched to Vietnamese mode and began chatting away with the guys in the front seat, then she made some phone calls and when she turned back to English mode she’d located my phone and it was safely at the bus station in Long Xuyen. I’d lost it in what a car that belonged to the bus service that had taken us from a meeting point to the bus station. The driver found it and turned it in. That was mighty nice of him, though he couldn’t do anything with it since it was locked and armed to wipe the data after 10 failed attempts. I had actually given it up for loss, accepting that I’d simply have to buy an iPhone 4 when I got back to America, but it would be useful to have. Honestly, my iPhone is more useful than the iPad is because it fits in my pocket. I’d take my iPhone over my iPad any day.
Once we were in Saigon we headed straight to the visa service that Tien was working with to handle the final details of the process. We spent the morning there doing paperwork. Actually I mostly played Freecell on my iPhone while Tien did paperwork, but I ended up having to dig up some financial records off my laptop and the internet. I did get a little worried when I plugged my USB containing PDF files with all of my financial data and it was immediately attacked by a virus. I don’t know all that happened, but I spent a few minutes back on my Mac doing some CLI-fu to delete all the .exe files that were now scattered around my USB drive.
Over lunch I explained to Tien exactly why a service than handles the personal details of immigrants, including all personal details, should take extra care to keep their computers free of viruses. I explained that how an infected computer is “owned”, meaning the people controlling the virus have more control of your computer than you do, and thus have access to all of your data. I explained that it was possible that the virus had taken my personal financial information that was all neatly contained in two PDF files, one from Ameriprise Financial and one from the IRS, and sent them off to another computer where somebody could use them to do anything I could do with my finances, like open new lines of credit or transfer funds to other bank accounts. Her expression was something of a horrified wonder, and she said she had no idea it could be so complex. I told her that a lot of people don’t understand that, like the people at the visa service, which is why online crime is so easy. I didn’t tell her about the millions of dollars I’d made… er… nevermind… *ahem*
Since we’d be spending more time near the consulate we found a hotel nearby there and relaxed for the rest of the evening. Our room had two twin beds, a comical feature to us both.
June 10th was spent mostly at hospitals. Tien had to get some blood work, shots, x-ray’s and some other medical tests for her immigration. We both spent most of the day waiting in the lobby. I watched all the people going here and there doing their exams, and found it funny when one girl took off her high heels shoes when she got weighed, but put them back on before they measured her height.
That night we went to a nice restaurant on the 12th floor of a hotel with a view out over district 1 and had a nice dinner. The food was good, as was the wine, and we were the only people there so it was nice and quiet, a rare experience in Saigon. The waiter spoke in an interesting accent, and it almost sounded more Chinese than Vietnamese. I wished more Vietnamese people spoke that way because it was easier for me to hear the structure of the language. Tien said that it was the polite way to talk to people you don’t know as opposed to the friendly banter where linguistic rules and elocution are tossed aside.
Because our flight had been changed and was no leaving that night, we had another day to kill, so we took no care to wake up early on June 2nd. Tien was craving bao cake so we went and got that for breakfast, and of course coffee. While we were lounging around wasting the morning that we had hoped to be traveling, I got another disappointing e-mail, this time from the Consulate in Saigon. It said they were raising the prices of the visa application from $131 to $350 taking effect 8 business days before Tien’s interview. At least it wasn’t worse, saying they were no longer taking interviews or something like that.
We checked out, walked around and hired a bus to take us to the airport later, then went back to the ol’ Quintessence of Hanoian. It was a nice, cool day, perfect weather. Overcast enough to keep the temperature cool, but still bright enough that it wasn’t gloomy, with a cool breeze to keep the air fresh. Perfect weather to while away a spare day drinking coffee by the historic lake that Tien used to dream about as a girl. Unfortunately we had too much time, and that cafe had no wireless, so we went to find another place to stay. We found ourselves at the best ice cream shop I’ve ever been to. Fanny Ice Cream. If you’re ever in Hanoi, go there. It’s amazing. They don’t have food though, but somehow Tien and I managed to stay there for hours surfing the net, eating ice cream and drinking fruit juice. The food part as a poor decision because we ended up not being able to get food before it was time to leave for the airport.
Traffic on the way to the airport was typical Hanoi traffic, too many cars on narrow roads. There was an accident with a car and a moto, and one with a bus and a cow. I actually enjoy sitting in Hanoi traffic though because looking at the scenery is fun. The architecture is great, and for some reason the whole city is just eye catching to me. If Tien and I ever have to move there for work or something, I will not be disappointed.
We finally got a chance to eat after checking into our flight, then we went inside the secure area to wait for our plane. I decided to stand since I’d been sitting most of the day, and it was interesting to see what everybody was up to. I saw a man with a bright duffel bag full of souvenirs, and it suddenly dawned on me that the tourist people on my first trip to Hanoi who had given me a bag intended for me to use it to fill with souvenirs. My progressive minimalist mindset hadn’t even considered that fact. I wouldn’t have bought anything even if I’d realized it, but it was amazing that a year later it suddenly made sense.
On the plane I read the first digital version of Wired on my iPad. Magazines just seem so disorganized, but I like the way they’re going with this. If they make it easier to navigate and somehow make order of the smaller articles it’ll be very appealing, but otherwise I’m still happy with RSS. I also played a lot of Plants vs Zombies. I finally made it back to about the point I was at before Tien’s nieces unwittingly deleted my user, not understanding the word “delete” in the menu.
We arrived in Saigon at about 10pm, but our bus didn’t leave until midnight, so we again took the slow approach to travel. We went outside the airport and sat down to have a drink and some snacks. The air down here was also nice and cool with a slight breeze, and I wished the weather in VN could more often be like that. Tien and I talked about America and what we’d do when we got there.
Our taxi to the bus station had a car stereo with built in karaoke features, though we didn’t use them.
Our bus to Binh Hoa left at midnight and we arrived home at about 4:30am, just before sunrise.
Since we had bought our tickets for June 2nd, June 1st was an open day to do anything. We spent the morning being lazy but eventually made it out to enjoy the city. We found no shortage of camera shops, which was great because a lot of them had vintage gear that was neat to see. I stopped into one and priced an SD card to help me hack the Wii, and ended up going back for it later when I found out it was the best deal.
We strolled down to the cafe by the lake that we’d eaten at last time we were in Hanoi. Its “The Quintessence of Hanoian”, though I can’t remember the name. The cafe is nice but there’s no internet, which kinda sucks, especially when there’s an e-mail waiting in your inbox that tells you that your flight on the next morning has been canceled and you’ve been put on a flight later that evening. I got that e-mail when we eventually found internet elsewhere, but it was too late to check out of our hotel that day even if we could get on a flight that evening, so we stayed. We did call them on the phone to plea with them to reconsider, but the best they could do was put us on a flight at 8pm, not 9pm. So much for arriving home at a decent hour.
That evening we decided to check out a western restaurant. I had seen it while we were walking around and decided to check it out to get away from the continual asian selections we were surviving on. This night I got pizza, nachos, and sangria, and Tien got honey chicken. None of it was the best I’d had, but it was delicious and welcome to my taste buds.
After dinner we went down to the lake to watch the sun set. We missed the most beautiful parts of it, but it was still nice and we sat down there for a while taking photos and just watching the world. Just before we left, power flickered on and off in a large part of the city, and when we got back to our neighborhood the power was out on the entire block. Tien didn’t want to go into the hotel because it was dark and scary and probably too hot, but I wanted to make it to our air conditioned room. Sure the power was out, but it hadn’t been all night, and the room was probably nice and cool. In fact, the room was nice and cool, and the power came on just after we found our way up the candle lit stairwell and into the room.
May 30th was another rainy morning on Cat Ba Island. My hair was getting longer than I liked so I decided to shave my head, but when I went to use my electric razor the battery was practically dead. To top it off, I soon found out I had killed the charger by plugging it into a 220v outlet that it was not made for. So long, electric device, another casualty of world travel.
Tien and I decided to go after the only geocache on the Island which was located somewhere in the center of the island. I tried to find a good map of the island but couldn’t, and the topo maps available via the Geocaching iPhone app were pretty poor. This sucked because the iPhone’s assisted (aka, retarded) GPS doesn’t work unless you have cell reception, which I do not since my phone is locked to AT&T’s network. With that in mind I read all of the hints and logs, and found out that the geocache was located at the bottom of the very tower I had joked about climbing to the top of, on top of Ngu Lam Peak.
We mounted our moto and headed out for the park where the trailhead was. Unfortunately I was thinking like a n00b and totally forgot to bring food and water. On top of that, we ended up on the wrong trail, one that went up and down steep rocks through deep jungle. There were a lot of butterflies and some animals in the forest making some crazy sounds like a digeridoo. Eventually we ran into some folks who were coming the other way down the trail and when Tien asked them if we were headed towards the tower they said no. They told us where the right trail was, we hadn’t taken the right exit off the main road. We turned around and headed back to the bike, hiking about half the way with the other party.
Once we got back to the main road, where we were in clear view of our destination, we turned towards home and immediately passed a huge gate with people selling food and refreshments. It was the gateway to the right trail. I made a joke about going to climb it, not really being serious because our energy had been pretty spent on the wrong trail and we still hadn’t eaten anything. Tien said she was up for the hike though, and with several verifications that she was serious we parked our bike and got some refreshments. The sun had just come out, having been hidden behind a nice layer of low clouds all morning, so we walked for a short while in the sun before disappearing back into the jungle and up a steep incline of steps.
A little ways up the trail was a sign that was pretty confusing, but we figured out that it basically said “left is the shorter hard way, right is the longer easy way.” We went left into what was hardly recognizable as a trail. Muddy rocks, frogs, butterflies, crazy vines and deep jungle going up steep, jagged rocks. We encountered two girls who were coming down and talked to them a little bit about what was up ahead. They said it was a lot of the same, and since it was manageable we continued. It soon became much less steep and merged back with the easy trail.
I found a blue gorilla pod that was placed on a rock on display, probably put there by the girls to be easy to spot by whoever lost it. I figured this was a bad idea so I took it and hung it from my backpack, expecting better chances of running into the owner along the trail, but never found them.
One thing that was odd was that there were crabs running around on the rocks. I had seen a few on the previous trail too and thought it was odd, I’d never seen crabs anywhere away from the ocean, and this was far, far from the ocean.
We ascended a few metal ladders that were bolted onto some steep rocks and peeked out of the forest to see a grand view of the island and its many steep hill tops. I recalled that the cache hints had said it was near that spot, so I consulted them and we doubled back to look for it. It was easy to find once we were in the right spot. There was a travel bug inside of it that had been there for two months, so even though I had nothing to leave, I took the TB to remove it from its exile. It wanted to visit zoos, so I made the plan to take it to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, almost on the exact opposite side of the planet.
With our objective complete, Tien and I continued the short distance to the top of the hill where the tower was. It was a rusty metal tower from the war in the 60′s. It hadn’t been noticeably repaired, and there was a sign indicating that it wasn’t safe for more than 4 people. While Tien and I were at the cache a european couple passed us, and now they were up on the tower, so that made four of us.
Tien and I started up the stairs that circled around the core of the tower, but her acrophobia kicked in and she got pretty scared and by the second landing she said she was too scared to continue. I was certainly not going to force her to climb this scary spectacle, but I myself was not about to back down, so I left her there knowing she could make it back down on her own as I continued to the top. When I got to the top the european couple was up there admiring the scenery, which was incredible. It looked like an unrealistic landscape that some novice would make in Bryce 3d. I exchanged photo taking duties with the couple, and right as they were finishing taking my photo Tien appeared on the stairs, she had overcome her fears and made it to the top. They took some photos of the two of us, and I took some panorama and HDR sets, admired the view with my own eyes, and then we started down. Just as we were starting down, the european man remarked about how he was a structural engineer and seeing the state of the rusty metal made him want to get off the tower as quickly as possible because it was not safe. It was at that brittle stage of rusty, where you can break off parts of the metal. They went quicker down the stairs than Tien and I did, and I let Tien go ahead of me so we weren’t all on the same stairwell, spacing out our weight so as to not overbear this artifact.
When Tien and I got to the bottom we were all alone again. We had some snacks from the gateway at the bottom, so we took a break to eat bananas, drink a coke, and clean out the potato chips that had spilled in our bag. Everything that was in the bag now smelled like imitation crab. Who ever heard of crab flavored pringles?
While we were eating, Tien and I talked about adventuring. She said this was the first time she had ever done this sort of thing, and I was proud of her. Not only did she do it, she did it after having taken the wrong trail where we had no food, farther from her home than she’d ever been before on and island with steep rocky terrain through a dense jungle crawling with crabs.
Just as we started down we ran into a group of young adventurers who had come up the easy way. We checked with them how to get there, and once we found it it ended up not being too much easier than the hard way. Sure it wasn’t as steep, but it had rusty metal handrails that had broken apart and become javelins waiting to impale you if you slipped on the muddy rocks. Tien did slip, and thankfully she did not impale herself, but she broke the band of her engagement ring in half when she caught it on a sharp rock. I was glad she hadn’t cut herself open in the process, but we were definitely going to have to get it fixed. The rest of the way down was easier than I expected, given the terrain, and at the bottom was a man with a shop and a deep well where he drew buckets of cold fresh water for us. We bought ice cream, water and beer and relaxed before plodding back to our motorbike.
On the way back was Hospital Cave, a cave that had been converted into a secret hospital for troops during the war. I really wanted to see what it was like, but after two trails we were dead tired so we skipped it.
Back at the hotel I took a shower to wash off the buckets of sweat and caked mud on my legs, then we headed back to Cat Co 2 for a swim to cool down our muscles. The water was a bit chilly, but worse than that, it was really dirty. There was trash of plastic and organic kinds floating in the water all along the beach. I thought about the clear, warm water of Phu Quoc and wished we were back at Bai Sao. We took some photos and left, this Cat Co thing was not our idea of fun. Instead we went back to Bamboo and had dinner while most of the island was without power. It was funny to see the mainland all dark while the floating restaurants and hotels in the bay were all lit up, powered by their boat motors.
There was a boy riding a child-size cyclo up and down the street giving other kids rides.
A few kids came riding by on bikes emblazoned with the word “exercise.”
Back at the hotel we went upstairs, realized we’d forgotten the key at the front desk, and on my way down to get it I slipped and fell on the stone stairwell, bruising both of my forearms.
The silence and whir of the fan told us how the power flickered on and off all night long
On the morning of May 28th our alarm failed to go off, or at least we didn’t hear it, but I somehow managed to wake up about 15 minutes before our bus arrived. We hurriedly packed and got downstairs with just a few minutes to spare. Tien tried to find us some breakfast but the neighborhood we were in was mostly construction type shops so she only managed to find some snacks before the bus came and took us away.
There were many europeans on the bus, it was almost entirely full of white folks. The narrow streets of Hanoi were already full of life and packed with motorbikes. We passed by the lake where a street was closed off for a festival that was just beginning. We stopped at a few hotels to pick up other folks, and then stopped at the cathedral to wait for somebody. It was at that time that Tien realized she’d forgotten her bag at the hotel. The bag that had the iPad in it. In her typical stressed out mode, she forgot all english and began blabbing away in Vietnamese with the bus driver and some other folks, and didn’t really say anything to me or answer any questions. She told me to wait, and went to hail a moto taxi. I chatted with a girl from The Netherlands for about 10 minutes before Tien came back, relieved to have her bag in hand.
At 9am we headed out for Ha Long City. Traffic was heavy on the way out of Hanoi, and I noticed again how the number of cars just seemed to mess up the flow of traffic. Tien and I drank water and ate Oreo cookies for breakfast.
We passed the charred frame of a motorbike that stood up in its own ashes as if it had immolated itself at the side of the highway, probably protesting the rise of the cars.
We passed factories for Canon and Foxconn in the countryside.
We pulled off at a travel stop for 20 minutes. Tien and I got some pomelo and bananas. I was hoping to find a better breakfast, but they don’t know how to make breakfast sandwiches yet in Vietnam. I could make millions selling them… Millions of Dong.
We passed a few auto accidents along the way to Ha Long, one involving a motorbike and one where a car had driven up the side embankment and crashed into a pole, finishing sideways, squished between the pole and the hillside. It was a remarkable sight, I’m not sure if anybody died, but it looked like they should have but didn’t.
Soon after the car crash we arrived at the outskirts of Ha Long City where the bus dropped us off at the docks. Tien and I were the only two folks on the bus left who weren’t going on the cruise, and it felt kinda nice to be sitting there with just the two of us, ready to do whatever we felt like, far away from obligation. The tour guide from the group came over and asked us if we wanted to go on their boat to Cat Ba Island, which is precisely where Tien and I were headed, so we agreed to take their tour for 250k each. It was expensive for a boat ride, but included the Ha Long Bay tour, dinner and a cave tour, so it was a pretty good deal.
The boat we boarded was a typical asian junk. Ours had three levels: rooms downstairs, a dining room in the middle and an upper deck. Dinner was served shortly after taking off. Tien and I sat and chatted with some other travelers and it was good to be back in the company of english speaking, active people. Only one of them was from America, the rest were brits, french and other countries that I never learned. Tien was the only Vietnamese person on the tour that wasn’t working. She mostly listened while I blabbed away with the brits about traveling, culture, food, work, and destinations. One of them, a man named Paul who we’d run into many times on the island, was traveling from London to Australia to work. He’d been traveling for a few months and had a few weeks left. Most other folks were just traveling for fun, some for weeks, some for months.
After dinner most of us went up on the deck to take in the sights as we approached the islands of Ha Long Bay. The boat pulled into a bay and docked with a bunch of other junks and we all got off to explore Thien Cung cave. It was a cool cave, but there really isn’t much to see inside most caves. There was an opportunity to go to another cave, but Tien and I declined and instead went to take some photos and relax.
Everybody returned to the boat and we traveled onwards, through the islands and into a market area where there were many floating houses that were used as a fish market and other business related things. There were girls floating around on boats with their fruit all laid out for sale. They paddled up next to us and shouted out, sounding like retarded people with a heavy lisp, saying “eck-u me, pine-appo” and things like that. It was cute, and their boats were beautiful with the colored fruit, but Tien and I already had some fruits we’d bought earlier so we didn’t buy anything. Instead, we decided to go with a small group on a little tour of an enclosed part of the bay, completely surrounded by cliffs, almost like a lake except it was salt water. We took a small local boat in and a few of us swam around for a while before returning through another natural tunnel.
A short rest on the boat later we were pulling up to Cat Ba Island, which looked like a pretty treacherous place, and seemed like it would be more than one island. Indeed it would be if the water were deeper, the landscape rose and fell just like the islands sticking out of the water, but came down to land at the bottom.
Anybody who wasn’t sleeping on the boat was dropped off on the island. We were, once again, dropped on the completely opposite side of the island from the town. Tien managed to negotiate some kind of bus ride, still with the tour, and after sitting for 10 minutes or so a group of us got in and headed over the crazy terrain.
There was one sign at the front of the bus, and it was written in Korean. I’m sure nobody on the bus knew what it said. The ride took 30 minutes and we passed by many, many beautiful views. The steep hills fell down to flat fields where different foods were grown, some ponds and rivers, and countless steep hills. On top of one of the hills was a tower standing tall, and I made a joke about climbing up it. A lot of other people were blabbing away in their native languages, and a group behind us was chatting in english about their travels.
As we pulled into town, Paul and some of the folks he was talking to were trying to find a hotel in the guide book. We all got out right at the main intersection of the town, and after looking at one hotel that had no vacancy I decided Tien and I would probably be better off walking around trying to find a hotel. We went one block and found a place where we negotiated with a slimy guy who I didn’t like much. Tien said she also didn’t like him much because of some things he did or said that showed he looked down on her. The hotel room actually kinda sucked too, no AC, no internet, and a bed wrapped in plastic with a tiny blanket.
We took a short rest and then went out for dinner. There were a lot of people riding tandem bicycles around and we thought about getting one, but decided to do it another day. Instead we returned home and fell asleep. Some time during the night, Tien got up and found some towels to use as blankets. The next morning we woke up and the power was out. It was a dreary morning. We decided to find a new hotel.
Finding a hotel has become much easier now that I know to use my iPhone to do it. I don’t look it up online, that’s pretty tough over here where there are no centralized review sites like yelp. Instead, I go into the network settings and look for wifi hotspots with hotel names, then I go to that hotel. Any hotel who has wifi that my iPhone can find from the street has got to be good. The only downside to this is that sometimes these hotels are expensive, but at least it helps weed out the crummy places.
We walked out to the end of the pier that stuck into the bay where dozens of boats were docked. Some were fishing boats, some were floating hotels, some were restaurants. It was a good way to get a view of the shops that went along the waterfront.
We had a disappointing breakfast in a restaurant that seemed like it was closed. I was getting tired of fake coffee. One great thing though was we invented a new food. It’s the stir fried beef and noodle egg breakfast sandwich. Tien orders stir fried beef and noodles, I order egg with bread. I put the egg in the bread with some soy sauce, and she puts some beef and noodles in with it. It is *so* delicious, I’ve been eating it frequently ever since.
We went back to a place we saw the previous night while walking around looking for dinner. It was a hotel that was built into the rock cliff. There was a big room with two beds available for not much money, and we took it. We didn’t need the second bed, but it’s nice to lay things out on when you’re organizing, and for lazing around on like a couch. So, we spent the mid day heat being lazy at our hotel room.
We went to rent a tandem bicycle, but the prices were like 20k for 1 hour. A motorbike was as low as 60k a day. We had already paid the girl before we knew it was per hour, and I finally decided to let her keep the damn bike and the money because we didn’t need a bike for an hour. She finally gave my money back as I was walking away. Instead of a bike, we decided to get a moto from our hotel though, for 100k a day.
We cruised some local beaches and then headed northwest on the island into territory we hadn’t seen yet. We found a place where they were filling in a bay with mud to build a golf course. Beyond that there were beautiful, natural places, some caves, farming villages, roaming goats, and eventually a beautiful pink sunset. We stopped a lot along the way and took photos, and at sunset we decided to speed back to the town to go swimming at the Cat Co 2 beach. Unfortunately, by the time we got there the water was off limits, so we sat and had some drinks on the beach instead. I dipped my feet in the water and was suddenly not disappointed that I couldn’t go in, the water was cold. Too cold to enjoy a swim in, that’s for sure. It was a huge difference from the beautiful, clear, warm waters of Phu Quoc. Instead of sticking around, we headed back to town to get dinner at an awesome spot on the water front called Bamboo. It was recommended in the guidebook, but also looked appealing. The staff was nice and the food was great, and it was a very satisfying end to the day.
On May 24th Tien and I woke up with a plan to head to Saigon. We booked a bus for 3pm and spent the morning playing more Wii and PvZ. We played PvZ all the way until the bus to Saigon was right outside Thu’s house honking its horn waiting for us to get onboard. We got on and headed straight away, getting across the My Thuan Bridge in only 2 hours and 15 minutes.
As we were crossing the bridge the Kid Koala remix of Moon River came on, and I began to miss 4211 Moraga. I first saw the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s when I was living there, and I remember thinking that it was the most accurate example of how the parties at 4211 would go. Full house, people dressed up, climbing in and out of windows onto the fire escape, etc.. I really loved living there, I think we had something that not many people find in their life, and it was great. This week, a year after everybody else moved off the block, Lauren is finally moving away.
We stopped for a snack and then drove on towards Saigon. Night fell and I put on The Kleptones 24 Hours album. I looked out the window and found it hard to tell that I was in Vietnam. Between the mashup music and samples transporting my mind to somewhere in the Western pop culture ethos, the landscape was also changing. We found ourselves on a highway like no other highway I’d been on in Vietnam. It was raised up on a berm with a view out over the dark trees and neighborhoods. There were even green markers with white numbers ticking away the km. It was a smooth highway, and there were no motorbikes allowed here. It felt like we were in the midwest of the USA.
It was also an extremely efficient way to get to Saigon, as we got there in about 4.5 hours, which is less than any other trip we’d taken. We ended up at the same bus station on some back road of District 5 as when I had left Vietnam last November. It’s essentially a garage on a dirty side road off a main street. I think we even took the same van to get to the hotel that we took last November to the airport. We checked into a room on the 7th floor of the Bui Phan Hotel and went next door to Viva Coffee for dinner, then retired. We had an early morning at the consulate to look forward to.
We got up early on May 25, got breakfast and tried to find a motorbike to rent. Nobody would rent us one though since we didn’t have our passports since they were at the hotel front desk. We had planned to take a motorbike to the consulate, but ended up settling on a taxi since we ran out of time before finding a moto.
We first went to a service that Tien’s sister had hired for her to help handle the consulate procedures. I sat and played Angry Birds on my iPhone and waited there while Tien went to get a letter from the consulate that would tell her when her interview date was. This was a significant piece of information, a huge puzzle piece in the nebulous, infinite maze of US immigration procedures.
And of course they didn’t give it to her. It can never be easy with immigration.
They apparently needed her to have a different address. Why on earth it makes such a big deal which address they have on file, I will never know. It is probably the same illogical reasons that banks use when they require you to have a physical address on file instead of a PO box, even when you don’t have a permanent physical address. They’d rather have inaccurate info that fits within their broken rules than accurate information that doesn’t apply to hoi polloi.
So, I went down to the consulate and stood in line. While I was waiting a security guard walked directly over to me and asked me if he could help me with anything. I don’t know why he picked me out of the whole crowd, maybe he didn’t like my looks or maybe I was unknowingly giving him a threatening look. I told him my business and he walked away.
When I got to the window where you can ask information and asked them for the date of Tien’s interview they said they would not give it to me. They needed updated address information for her file. It’s just so fucking important that they know where you *say* you live even if you don’t spend most of your time there. So, so, so fucking important. And that got me really fucking frustrated. Dealing with immigration is the most painful, frustrating thing I’ve had to deal with in I can’t remember how long, perhaps my whole life. It makes me livid.
We went back to the service, Tien talked to them while I sat there and steamed, we got a piece of fucking paper with some words on it, walked down to the consulate and they gave us the info just like that. I should’ve been really happy, but actually I was just really fucking pissed off at how asinine this whole damn situation is. They *really* needed her address updated that badly? It’s not like they know how to send letters anyway, none of the shit they sent us ever arrived at her cousin’s house when she was living there. What makes us think that if they can’t successfully send mail across the fucking city that a letter will ever arrive in a tiny farming village in another province near the Cambodian border? WTF ever, they got their info and we got ours. It was an intel hostage exchange that we had successfully negotiated by complying with the perpetrators every demands.
Tien would have her interview on June 16th, and if she passed it she would get her visa to go to America to marry me on the 17th. This meant we could be back in America by the end of June. I thought about this and tried to focus on the happy things in the taxi back to the hotel.
We took a nap during the mid day heat, then went downstairs and rented a moto from our hotel. This was an idea that we hadn’t really thought of before, but I remembered our ease in renting a bike in Da Lat and got the idea from that. We cruised down to Highlands Coffee for lunch, then went back to the consulate to get the official letter that should’ve arrived at Tien’s cousin’s house however long ago they sent it.
After that we just cruised the city, at first because we got lost and then after we found our way we just wanted to keep cruising and see some sights. It was the first time we’d had a bike in Saigon. Tien had one while she was living here, but never while I was around. Before returning to the hotel we went and bought some plane tickets to Hanoi, some doughnuts and some sugar cane juice. We took them back to the hotel and watched Avatar on my laptop.
We lazed away the morning of May 26, spending a lot of time online in our air conditioned hotel room. My brother was online and he told me that my dad had almost died while choking on a chicken bone. He had passed out and gashed his head on the way to the floor, home all alone. He woke up covered in blood and called for help. My mom was with him at the hospital and he was doing decent, alive and stable and probably not permanently damaged. My brother and I decided to buy him a helmet since he seems to be making a habit of this kind of thing, having done something similar last Christmas.
Tien and I caught a taxi to the airport. That taxi hit a motorbike on the way there. Just gently though, and the driver bitched loudly as he rode off with his passenger. I wondered how Saigon would handle the influx of cars that would undoubtedly come with its current business expansions.
At the airport there were two girls talking in castilian spanish sitting behind us in the waiting area. The Jetstar flight to Hanoi was unremarkable, other than the fact that it was Tien’s third time flying. She did well.
I got an aisle seat in the bus from the airport to downtown, and aisle seats always suck. My shoulders are too broad and everybody hits them with their hips as they walk by.
This was Tien’s first time in Hanoi and I wondered what she thought of it as I recalled my last trip and took in the differences between the north and south. Things are more ornate up here. There is more dirt and more rocks. Most highways are raised up on berms or on bridges, and there are significantly more cars. The traffic didn’t flow nearly as well as it did in Saigon, and it was because of the higher number of cars. One car could be stopped and it would back up the whole flow, whereas in Saigon the motos just go around. Another thing I noticed was that people would drive their cars like motorbikes, driving into oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the street, as if they could just slip by oncoming traffic as easily as they could on a motorbike. Traffic here would prove to be much more frustrating and less fluid than that in Saigon.
At the bus stop a man with a taxi offered to take us to his hotel. It was nearby where we wanted to stay so we went. We agreed to stay there, but the more I looked at things the more I realized we’d checked into a pretty crummy hotel. Not only that but after walking around our neighborhood we realized that it kinda sucked. Those two factors made Hanoi much less fun than I was hoping.
We went out for dinner and found something just as mediocre as our hotel, ate, then retired for the night.
On May 22, Tien’s uncle rented a bus and a bunch of us drove over to where Tien’s cousin has just built a house. Many members of Tien’s family were gathering to remember the anniversary of the death of Tien’s grandmother. We grabbed breakfast in LX on the way and everybody was chatting away while I ate. It was strange to be surrounded by such lively and continual conversation of which I didn’t understand a word, and it made me remember that I was foreign.
Just before we got to her cousin’s house we got pulled over by the cops and had to stay there for 20 minutes or so while the police checked papers and things I don’t know. I was a tad worried that I’d need my passport, which I didn’t have on me, but they didn’t ask for it and we were allowed to go on with no trouble.
The new house was nearly complete, but still in a state of final construction. Many new trees of various kinds had supports to hold them up, and there were miscellaneous construction materials laying in the yard. There were a bunch of folks already there, some that I recognized and many that I did not. There were a bunch of older men sitting at a table drinking tea and talking on and on, laughing and looking into the distance. They invited me to sit and drink tea with them, and Tien said they wished that they could speak with me natively.
After a while, incense was lit and put into vases at little shrines, and everybody stood and sang a chanting song in honor of Tien’s grandmother who had died several years ago. Some people approached a photo and bowed to pray and give offerings in memory. Afterwards we all had a meal and there was a lot more conversation that I didn’t understand, but smiles and gestures go a long way on good spirits.
After lunch the family hung around and talked for a long time. I played with the kids a lot, since games don’t really need language. They were playing with a chicken that was tethered by its leg to a tree in the yard. It somehow managed to climb up the tree and over a branch and ended up hanging by its one leg from the tree itself. I shooed the kids away and untangled the string from the tree, but the chicken just lay nearly lifeless on the ground. I wasn’t sure if its leg was broken, but it certainly had no more will to flee the threat of man.
On the way home I slept, since I had a whole bench seat in the van to me and Tien. We went shopping at the mall in LX and I managed to find a helmet that just barely fit me. I also found WiFi on my iPhone, and got online for the first time in a while to respond to some friends and see what people elsewhere are up to. More and more I find that Facebook isn’t really good for keeping up on what people are up to so much as it is a place to waste time with other people who want to waste time. Twitter is even worse. Direct messages are almost the only ways I can really communicate and keep up with people, unless I happen to catch a piece of useful info in the noisy stream of jokes, links and statements of boredom.
On the way home from LX we turned up some dance music and had a fun, rowdy time in the car. I saw a banner for KFC and wondered if there would actually be one in LX soon… this place doesn’t seem like a good target market for that corporation.
Back at home we got back to feeding our addiction to Super Mario Wii. This can be really fun, but there is an extra level of frustration to that game when you can’t talk to your team mates. “Get on the @#(&*$#@ square or it won’t start moving!” “We have to fly up into that pipe up there!” “Everybody ground pound on three!” “Please don’t live inside the bubble, I might actually need to use it.” Then there are the things like gathering as many power-ups as they can, even when they don’t need them and you do, or pressing the power button on the Wiimote when somebody walks away, ending your game just before you get that third big coin by the end of the castle.
Yeah, communication is a key component of that game. We love it though, and we played it all the next day, along with iPad games. I bought Plans vs Zombies for the iPad, which was a hit. We’d also been playing a lot of Marble Mixer, Flight Control, Air Harp, Diner Dash and Magic Piano. The iPad isn’t good at a lot of things, but it’s sure great for gaming and entertainment.
On May 20 Tien and I woke up on the island of Phu Quoc, went downstairs for breakfast and then took the moto out to have a look around the town. We bought a proper swimsuit for her, some sunscreen, and tried to find me a helmet, which is a continual failure.
Right as we were coming around the corner to one of the shops a puppy got run over by a motorbike that broke it’s leg. The dog lay in the street yelping for a few minutes as we all looked in with pity before a little girl came and helped the dog back to her shop. Tien and I went to the shop to buy stuff and the poor puppy looked so sad, yelping and crying and looking around scared. Poor thing. At least he was alive though, and not being eaten.
Back at the hotel Tien and I prepared to go back down to the beach to go swimming, but as we were leaving the hotel staff asked us why we weren’t going to bai sao, the prettiest beach on the island. It was 45 minutes away by moto, down the road we had taken the previous night. We decided to head there instead, which was a fantastic change of plans.
Once we got past the construction and actually by the coast it was absolutely beautiful. I couldn’t believe how vivid the colors were. The ocean was emerald and blue all the way to a crisp horizon. The water was calm and reflected the large billowing clouds in the true blue sky. Our motorbike was pretty good and had the larger tires so it handled well on the dirt roads. There were some rough places though, like a bridge with huge gaps between the metal plates that covered the construction going on below.
We found our way to a little resort by the beach where we ran into the man who rented us our motorbike. He gave me a keychain, which I thought was strange before Tien told me it was the same guy. We also ran into a girl from Tiens village who was working at the resort. She sometimes shopped at Tiens family’s store, and now we were buying beach towels from her.
The resort was a tropic paradise with clear waters on white sand, slow rolling waves over shallow waters that extended beyond a hundred meters. The water was warm, and later got hot enough that we had to swim way out to find the cool patches.
We rented two beach chairs and go. A menu. A little puppy came wandering up and we played with it a little before leaving it at the waters edge where it was scared of the waves.
We swam in the shallows, most of the time less than a meter deep. I swam way out to find some deep water but ended up just getting stung on my foot four times while checking if I could feel the bottom. Even where it was six feet deep I wore my sunglasses because the water was clear and calm enough that I was t worried about losing them.
We grabbed the cameras and waded out to take photos, not scared of submerging them in the shallows, then went back to the shore for ice cream and cold beer. After a few hours we decided to get a real meal elsewhere, and as we were leaving I saw a sick man throwing up. I was glad not to know whether it was the food.
Tien and I headed to a stream that was supposed to be beautiful, but when we got there it was all dried up. With that we decided to just grab lunch a the hotel and ended up napping the rest of the day away.
May 21 we woke up to rainy weather and ended up staying inside sorting through photos as we waited to leave. On the boat back to the mainland we played ipad games, listened to music while it rained and sometimes thundered out on the distant ocean. We also passed an island with a big white statue that looked like a saint next to what looked like temple gates.
The scattered rain kept up as we caught moto taxis to a bus station. I’m always glad the rain in SE Asia is warm.
We ate and had coffee while waiting for the bus. A woman let her child stand up on the motorbike to pick frui. From a tree. A girl came by wearing a shirt that said “Product Bros.”
The bus we caught was a big badass that everybody moved over for. Inside was a movie about children doing Kung Fu. Movies where kids do adult things like fight biker gangs and seduce bikini clad babes drive me crazy.
I noticed a stream of liquid running down the center of the bus and looked back expecting to see a toppled bottle, but
Kid peenstead I saw a man picking a toddler up from her squatted position in the aisle and putting her back on his lap. A bus employee got a newspaper and tried to clean up the urine.
We switched buses in LX and were dropped off right in front of Tiens parents house, then retired to thus house where we had dinner and slept in our familiar bed.
The morning of May 18 we woke up with no power and again made plans again to go to Ha Tien beach. We went to LX to have lunch and surf the net and check out the bus station schedule.
We passed a white man with a white trimmed beard and thick nerdy glasses riding a bicycle through the back streets of LX.
We decided to go to Phu Quoc instead of Ha Tien, and decided to go the next morning. We’d hoped that somebody from tiens family would come but everybody had reasons to stay so it was just us two.
Early on May 19 we woke up to catch our bus. There were men outside of thus house digging a ditch for a pipe of some sort. They were chiseling right through the tile on thus front patio, and not one of them was wearing protective eye gear.
Even though it was early I didn’t feel tired like I had for the previous few days and I remembered that my body adjusts it’s energy level for the pending activities. Now that we had plans I was wide awake and ready to rock.
As we headed out I got a feeling that I setimes get on motorbikes… The naked feeling that I should buckle in somehow, as if I’m in a car. Of course there are no seatbelts on motorbikes, and in VN there aren’t often seatbelts in cars or buses either. If they’re there they don’t get used.
On the ride to the bus station I saw a woman go to adjust the mirror on her motorbike and have it break clean off.
We left the station at 8:10 and before long we found ourselves driving on the wrong side of the road with a man hanging out of the open bus door yelling. We sped past two trucks on our right as a tinny voice blared out of a loudspeaker to our left and the sound of an alarm could be heard from somewhere ahead. Just another typical day of travel in Vietnam.
We stopped at a cafe where there was a sign with some Japanese fantasy character on it. The word “internet” was followed by some Chinese characters and then the words “Final Step 3.0″… oh squaresoft, look what you’ve done. Same to you, internet buzzword machine.
The bus continued it loud caper down the highway which parralleled a river all the way to the coast. There was a shrine on the dashboard and a spare incense holder affixed to the frame of the passenger side window.
We got off at Rach Soi and took motorbike taxis about 12 km to the superdong ferry in Rach Gia. The ferry only left twice daily and we were early, so we ate some food and waited. I noticed them loading motorbikes on and off of other boats and had tien get th price of what it would cost to take a motorbike. At 170k it wouldve been a much cheaper alternative. Next time.
The boat ride was pretty smooth and we passed many small islands. The seats were pretty small though and I was glad when we finally arrived. The boat hadn’t let us off where I thought it would. I thought it was dropping us off in the city and so we hadn’t bought a bus ticket to te town. We ended up getting a taxi for not too much more who took us to a decent hotel where we got a room and rented a motorbike.
We were hoping to go swimming and so we headed off in the bike to cruise the coast in search of a nice beach, but it was too dark and the road was under heavy construction which made it hard for us to navigate. We ended up going back to the hotel and taking a quick dip in warm, dark water with rapidly breaking waves. The swimming conditions weren’t good so we headed back to the hotel, grabbed the bike and heade to the night market for dinner. The night market was small and didn’t have anything interesting, so we had our food and retired.
Over dinner I thought back to one year ago when I was preparing for my first trip to VN. it was strang e to think that in one year, trawling internationally, staying at random hotels in random places and discovering new areas has become normal. It wa strange to think back to a time when my comfort zone was so small that each night I wanted to be in my own bed. Now I don’t even own a bed, much less care where I sleep.
On May 12 Tien and I got an early breakfast and decided to walk down to the river. It looked nicer on the map than it actually was, due to construction and heavy traffic, but it was nice all the same. We ran into an Australian couple and asked them to take our picture, then chatted about traveling Vietnam for a while. They said they were staying at the foot of a very large, impressive skyscraper that was being built nearby that I’d been talking about with Tien earlier. It’s a financial tower, and I was talking about how its presence will definitely change the surrounding areas, which were already showing a heavy western influence.
We found a cafe and sat for a while, watching Hero, drinking smoothies and playing with the iPad. The walk back to the hotel was longer than I’d remembered, and by the time we got there it was time for lunch. We went back to the restaurant we’d eaten lunch at the day before and this time I took time to scrutinize the menu a bit more. It had some very interesting things, to say the least… Sauted [sic] noodle w. 3 special objects, Cow marrow ommelette [sic], Sauted [sic] ox pennis [sic] w. Satay, Grilled bloody clam w. fat & green onion, and Grilled crocodile file [sic] w. fish sauce were some of the highlights.
We watched a movie, then went out for doughnuts. They gave us a receipt.
On the way back I saw a lingerie store with two half naked mannequins in the front window. A sign read “50% off.” Indeed.
As we entered the hotel the man at the front desk lowered his cell phone, which he was holding facing the door, and greeted us. It was interesting because I’d seen him do that before and thought he might be taking our picture. Also of note was that nobody at the hotel was familiar. Tien had gotten to know the staff before and they recognized us every time, but this time nobody knew us, and here was some guy doing something potentially creepy. It weirded me out and I mentioned it to Tien in the elevator.
On May 13 we headed to our usual breakfast spot and sat upstairs looking down on the intersection. I watched all the different people passing by and thought about all the different ways of life in Saigon, and the world in general. I wondered which of my friends would enjoy coming to Saigon and which would have a hard time adjusting. Tien and I talked a lot about cultural differences and how hard it is to give people insight into what a foreign place is actually like, and I said I couldn’t really think of much to show her what American culture would be like.
The original plan was for us to take off to Vung Tau, Mui Ne or Nha Trang for a while, but we decided to go back to her hometown and then go off to Ha Tien beach instead, so we booked a bus home and headed out. The bus driver was really fast and we expected the trip to only last 4.5 hours. The music was loud and there was an intermittent sound of one of those really irritating alarm clocks. We also passed the scene of a motorbike wreck that had just happened. Fluids were still flowing across the highway from the mangled wreckage and a bleeding man was in the arms of another man on the back of a motorbike that was just taking off down the highway.
When we came upon the wreck, Tien had been in the middle of telling me a joke, which she told like this…
“There was a blue and a red monkey sitting in a tree. The blue monkey jumped into the river, which one was left?”
“The blue one.”
“No, that would be too easy.”
“WTF, is that the joke?”
“People here think it’s funny!”
“I think it’s retarded, that’s not remotely funny. So that’s the punchline? ‘No, that would be too easy’?”
“Then how does it go??”
“There’s a blue monkey and a red monkey sitting in a tree. The red one jumped into the river, which one is left?”
“The blue one…”
“Nope, the right one.”
“WTF, that doesn’t make any sense.”
“No, it’s the opposite!”
“The opposite of what…? Left? Wrong?”
“No, of wet.”
“Right is not the opposite of wet. Dry is.”
“Oh, yeah, the dry one.”
It took us 2 hours to get to the other side of the big bridge in Tan Hoa, something I’d never timed before but wanted to do because it always seems to take forever to get from there to Saigon. There was a cute little kid sitting ahead of us that I’d been playing with from time to time. He was really shy, but he warmed up to me and began playing little games with me. Then he began spitting, and all the sudden he wasn’t cute at all anymore. He was just a rude little bastard that I wanted to smack. I didn’t though, and eventually his mom did so for me and made him behave.
Right as we left Long Xuyen heading for Binh Hoa it began to rain heavily. We passed two people on a motorbike and sprayed them with water, and to top it off, one of the employees on the bus opened his window, pointed at them and laughed at their misfortune. I found this doubly hilarious.
I started adjusting my things to get ready to get off the bus, when I noticed that my wallet was missing all of the US dollars that had been in it. When they were in it, I don’t remember, but they were missing then. All that I knew was that my wallet had been in my pocket since we left the hotel, and that meant that somebody at the Ruby Star had been the one who took it. Maybe that creep with the cell phone, maybe the cleaning staff, I’ll probably never find out. I’ll probably never go back to the Ruby Star either.
It was right as soon as I settled on that when we realized the bus had missed the stop in Binh Hoa and was crossing over the bridge into the neighborhood on the other side of the river. Tien argued a little with the bus folks and they ended up dropping us off on the other side of the bridge where rain water was flooding a business at the side of the road. We crossed to a cafe on the drier side of the road and got some coffee. Tien’s sister was busy fighting a leak in the roof of her new house and said she’d come get us when the rain stopped.
Tien and I sat and talked a while with the family who owned the shop. They wanted to talk to me and asked a lot of questions about where I was from, how we knew each other, and said I was handsome. This tends to be the standard set of interaction between Tien, me and interested strangers. She thinks it’s remarkable how everybody says I’m handsome, but I think it’s probably just custom.
There was also a family next door to the coffee shop who knew Tiens family, so we went over there and visited for a few minutes before Tien’s brother and sister showed up on two motorbikes to take us back to the village.
We arrived at Thu’s house, which I had never seen before, and relaxed with the family, finally home. We ate some doughnuts that we’d bought in Saigon, and some chocolate I had brought from America, and tried to find batteries for a remote controlled helicopter that I’d brought as a joking gift for Tien that stemmed from a conversation we’d had online about flying over the puddles. The helicopter ended up being a lot of fun though and I’m glad I brought it. It wasn’t nearly as entertaining as the Wii that I brought though. Tien said she doesn’t know anybody in Vietnam who has a Wii, and had never seen one before I showed it to her online a few weeks back.
On the flight to Saigon I sat next to a nice Vietnamese man from Canada who was going home to visit family. We didn’t talk a whole lot, but he did mention that Saigon is different every time he goes back, always expanding and always building. He’d grown up in Saigon but had been living in Canada for over 20 years, which means he’d seen quite a lot changes.
The flight had the standard in-flight entertainment systems on the back of each chair, and I watched people trying to touch the screens as if they were interactive. Then, miraculously they were interactive. They were so slow to respond it was hardly usable, and you couldn’t do gestures like so many people were trying, but you could in fact touch things. This made up for some of my gripes about this system from my travels last year.
When we landed and gathered our things, waiting for those ahead of us to deplane, the man next to me laughed, opened up a plastic bag he was carrying and pulled out a whopper hamburger. He said he had 9 more in the bag that he brought for his family.
I had arranged for a landing visa when my landlord Brando from my place on Telegraph Hill had suggested it to me. He said it was quicker and cheaper. It was cheaper, and significantly easier, but because there were so many other people waiting for them it didn’t necessarily end up being quicker. It wasn’t the longest I’d had to wait to enter a country though, so I certainly couldn’t complain.
After about 45 minutes of waiting I finally made it into the country, fetched my box of gifts and passed through customs without a hitch. I saw Tien before I even made it outside. She was standing in a crowd beyond a glass wall looking beautiful in a black skirt with a bouquet of roses. She spotted me and waved, motioned and ran off through the crowd to get to the fenced area where arrivals are greeted by their loved ones. I set my things down and picked her up in a huge embrace, happy to be back together after more than five months apart. Mai was also there waiting with her, and the three of us caught a taxi back to the Ruby Star. We relaxed for a while and ate some chocolate that I’d brought, then went out for lunch at a place a few doors down that Tien and I had seen but never eaten.
Mai headed home after lunch, and Tien and I spent the rest of the afternoon catching up with lost time and napping. We had dinner and went for a walk through the heart of Pham Ngu Lao. We heard mexican music playing in the park where some people were dancing, and a few other live bands playing english songs, which could’ve been awesome if I’d been gone longer.
Friday, May 7th was my last day working my contract at GWOS. I had thought my contract ended a week earlier, and had bought a plane ticket for that timeframe. That detail was an oversight on my part, and it cost me nearly the price of a plane ticket just to get it switched. Honestly though I was happy to work the extra week because projects were coming together and I got a lot of work done that week. My boss Dr. Dave Blunt was on vacation in New Zealand, so on Friday I trained a temp guy to pick up some of the slack while another co-worker, Thomas Stocking, was going to be handling the bulk of the IT duties. A few of my co-workers invited me into Thomas’s office for a glass of fine scotch to finish the work day off.
After work I got in my car and headed to REI to pick up a hat and a light colored, long sleeved shirt, two things that are priceless in SE Asia. I didn’t immediately notice that the hat, like my backpack I’d bought for my first trip, was made in Vietnam.
For dinner I grabbed sushi with Blake and Lily on Castro St, and after that I drove down to Lila’s house to stay with her family for a while. I spent a lot of time there playing on the iPad with Maks and trying to find the best way to pack some gifts for my trip. The best way ended up being to keep my expensive and fragile things in my backpack while putting heavy and liquid things into a cardboard box for check-in at the airport.
The How Weird Street Faire was on Mother’s day, which was Sunday, and I had planned to go but ended up not being able to make it. That’s my favorite SF electronica festival, but it just wasn’t going to fit into my schedule and it wasn’t high enough priority for me to really make it happen. Getting packed for my trip and making sure I had everything I needed was my main focus the last few days. Late Sunday night Lila and Maks dropped me off at SFO. Check in was easy, but the last bar closed at 11pm and I was just a few minutes too late to get any service, so I ended up waiting at the gate, tired but trying to stay awake for the last few hours.
Just after 1am on May 10th, China Airlines flight 3 from SFO to Taipei boarded, and it would be the most uncomfortable international flight I’d ever taken. The plane was shoddy, the seat was uncomfortable, the food was bad, there were crying babies, there was what seemed like a VHS tape hooked to a 1990′s projection style TV for us to watch a movie on, and no personal entertainment systems on each chair (which was fine by me anyway, those things all suck.) On top of that, I had an aisle seat so people kept running by and brushing my arm or leaning against me to let other people pass.
I slept for most of the flight. I thought about watching a movie on my iPad, or listening in on the in-flight movie, but remembered that it is disconnecting and weird to lose myself in a fictitious plot when I’ve got my own new story going.
I remembered that I’d forgotten to pick up a travel bug to take to Asia. Oh well. Next time.
One good thing I’ll say is that the coffee was good. I think I like Asian coffee more than what we usually get in America. I’d have traded the better than average coffee for a comfortable seat though.
The in-flight GPS display came up on the big screen and showed that we had just flown over almost all of Japan. It then switched to a display of “breathing exercises for relaxation” where a girl was sitting calmly on a chair at the end of a dock on a mirror lake with what looked like Mt. Fuji in the background, though I suspect it was some Chinese mountain. The video had just begun to explain to us how to relax when the girl was torn from her serene location by static and color glitches commonly seen when you pause a VHS tape. The captain had an announcement.
We landed in an overcast Taipei that was mostly unremarkable. What I could see of the airport outside was foreign and neat, but beyond it was just familiar green vegetation and grey skies. I spent no more than 45 minutes there before being seated on flight CI0781 to Saigon. Maybe I’ll go back for a longer visit some day…
Right now I’m on the L-Taraval on my way to the sunset. Rob is in new York looking for a place to live and I’m crashing at his place while he’s gone.
I just finished a crazy, long day at work with network config, server upgrades, Linux active directory authentication problems relating to a windows server meltdown that also caused DNS and VPN meltowns. This infrastructure is not exactly high availability. It started at 6am and here at 10pm it’s almost over… On top of that I managed to work out the details of a landing visa for my trip to saigon next week and line up a small crew for how weird this Sunday.
It’s such a foreign world here in SF compared to the remote Mekong farm village where Tien grew up and is staying these days. I love technology, and I need to make money, but I have to find a balance.
I need immigration to approve Tiens visa. It’s been over five months since I last saw Tien, which is a long time to go without seeing anybody, let alone your fiancé. Too long.
Last weekend I went to San Jose for Sadeks birthday and caught up with a ton of folks I hadn’t seen in a long time. I’ve managed to fit in quite a few good visits in my last few weeks here, though unfortunately a few have not come through.
It’s strange to consider the levels of anticipation between my trips. The first time I left I was burned out on work, going into the unknown ready for whatever. The second time I was lovestruck and impatient for things to move on freely. This time I seem exhausted and underwhelmed. I’ve been so focused on projects at work and dealing with the details that I feel like I’ve lost touch with the joys that I’m pursuing. When I stop to think about the situation I am either emotionally swelled with missing Tien or incredibly frustrated and nearly broken over this ridiculous US immigration saga.
I need a vacation, that’s for sure. Maybe I’ll go back to Nha Trang…
It’s weird to think back to a time when I cared where I slept at night.
Much has happened since last time I wrote. I’m currently living at 425 Green Street on Telegraph Hill, but will be returning to Vietnam to be with Tien in two weeks. Before I get into the present and future, I should probably dive into what’s been going on since I got back to America.
When I got back from Vietnam in Nov , I spent a few days here in America, had Thanksgiving with my friends Rob and Nicki, then drove to Colorado. The drive was tough because I was of weather and because I was pretty tired. I even slept for several hours in my car at the side of the road, but that didn’t help much. I finally arrived in Silverthorne Colorado where my sister was spending the holiday weekend with her husband’s side of the family. We went sledding and ate leftovers and I got to talk to a lot of people I had never met or hadn’t seen in a long time, like Tom Tonelli, Tom Burns, and Holly. I spent the night there and left the next afternoon to continue on to Colorado Springs.
I got pulled over for speeding by the police in South Park. The officer was really nice and let me go even though my California plates were expired and I had no proof of insurance. This was an extra nice gesture since most police were on edge this day due to an event that had happened earlier where a man walked into a coffee shop in Washington State and opened fire on some police officers.
I spent the next month in Colorado with friends and family. I caught up with Jake and Rachel, who had just bought a new house, my brother, who was now back from Iraq and out of the Army, Aimee Rich, who I hadn’t seen almost since high school, and a whole bunch of other folks from Colorado Springs. I spent several days in Littleton with my sister and nieces, which was great because it seems like I don’t often spend long periods of time staying with them. While I was in Littleton I finally met up Bridgepix, a fantastic photographer and master of HDR.
I went to Aurora and stayed with Dan and Cass at their place for a few days. They took me out to a nice dinner and then to a The Clocktower Cabaret burlesque show that was really entertaining and fun. They also had a little get together and my good buddy Nathan showed up and we all played the new Super Mario Wii game, which is highly addicting. After that I met up with an old friend Helen who is a fellow world traveler and another person who I hadn’t seen in years.
On December 2nd my dad called from the hospital and said he had a tiny accident. Actually, he had had a pretty big accident involving ice, a stairwell with no handrail, a rock shaped like a pyramid and his head. It ended up with 100 stitches and him high as a kite on pain killers. I went to get Jeff in my car to pick up my dad’s truck from where he left it before being carted off in an ambulance, but on my way to pick up Jeff my car window rolled down and wouldn’t roll back up. Cold weather and stupid cars be damned. Luckily Jeff Foster’s room mate Jeff Chamberlain is a car mechanic and was available for an hour or so to whip my window back into somewhat working shape.
On December 15th my brother and I got his car stuck in the snow by The Crags and had to shovel snow with the police for like 8 hours, well into the night.
On the 19th Jeff and Chelise hosted a Christmas party at their house. I met some new folks and caught up with some old friends there.
Since my family usually celebrates Christmas late because it’s easier to schedule, my brother and I have a tradition of going hiking on Christmas day. We continued this tradition, meeting up with Gerald and his girlfriend Loridna and her dog Misty.
I actually had way too much free time on my trip. The weather was terrible and I had continual schedule conflicts with people. I worked on some projects like the christmas light wine bottle lamps for gifts and some whitebox product style photography. Christmas was fun. Tien joined my family over Skype from Vietnam since she was still in Vietnam.
On the 28th I headed out of town for that long drive back to San Francisco. It’s funny how the details of such a long drive can disappear completely. I do remember sleeping in my car in the middle of a snow storm in the middle of nowhere. I also remember getting to Donner Pass and being refused passage because I had no snow tires or chains, so I had to wait for a few hours for the weather to get better.
When I got back to San Francisco I headed to BLT’s place and met up with Donna, who happened to be in town. I spent the next month and a half there, subletting a room from Brianna who was trying to save money. Blake’s buddy Scotty was in from Denver and we hung out for most of New Years Eve, but I ended up retiring early this year.
I spent most of January trying to figure out how to get my photography rolling on a serious, profitable path. I did some marketing work for Tara at GroundWork, but other than that it was all charity work and portfolio building with Terresina.
For the second half of Feb Lila and Wil let me stay with them, which is always wonderful. I was running short on cash and needed to make some money quickly. I hadn’t had a steady job in 9 months. On top of that, I had some car repairs that needed to be done. My mechanics was right next to Julian and Sadek’s place, so I took the opportunity to stay with them for a few days and catch up. It was good times like when we all used to work together.
At the beginning of March Tara referred me to an IT position at her company. It fit my schedule perfectly, and I managed to land that and get my current sublet on Telegraph Hill for the same amount of time within a day of each other, so for the past month and a half I’ve been back to the daily grind of 9-5 IT work, catching up on finances and patiently waiting for immigration to contact Tien about when she will get her K-1 visa interview.
I’ve had some good social times in there, but no traveling. In fact, I don’t even drive my car anymore except to move it from one street cleaning zone to another every week or so. My friend Dan Lopez hired me to photograph him for some media stuff he had coming up with Linux.com. I finally met up with Hanik, a local house DJ that my friend Jonathan knows. SugarCon was this week, so I caught up with some old friends there, and also happened to run into Chris Nojima on Market Street.
A few days ago my good friend Rob got hired on at Boxee and will be moving to New York, so that will surely be a trip I will be taking in the next year.
I bought an iPad after a lot of back and forth and waiting a few weeks from its release. I’ve always loved the tech, and always wanted a tablet, but aside from that I think it will be very useful on my trip. It fits my travel needs, which are pretty lightweight compared to what I do with my laptop, and I can probably sell it in Vietnam for a profit since they aren’t for sale there yet.
At the beginning of the month I had called USCIS about the status of Tien’s visa, and they referred me to the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. I contacted them via e-mail, their preferred method, but never heard back. I called them after a week and a half, but they said they couldn’t answer questions over the phone. Luckily Tien is living in Saigon now, so a few days ago she went down there and discovered that they had sent her interview letter in February, but it just hadn’t arrived. This was both good and bad. It sucks that we’ve wasted two months, but also in that time I’ve been able to make some money and some good business contacts.
Today I began shifting back into traveler mode, focusing on what technology I need to bring on my trip, how to go about packing my day-to-day things back up, and things of that nature. I have exactly two weeks to finish my job and move out of my apartment.
My plan is to travel to Vietnam and see my fiancé who I haven’t touched in 144 days. We’ll travel north to Hanoi and Ha Long, and hopefully hit Danang and Hue on the way back south, then return to her home town to see her family. I’m thinking we may go to Ha Tien beach, and maybe to the island of Phu Quoc that we had considered going to last time.
That being said, now that we’re back in touch with NVC things could change, especially if Tien gets her visa interview soon. Either way, I’m planning to return to my where my girl is and live happily ever after with her by my side, not 8,000 miles away in a country on the other side of the planet.
On Nov 22nd we woke up in the familiar Ruby Star, pretty much a third home by this time. My stomach was a little bit upset, probably from the meds, but it was better than the alternative.
The last time we were in town I had seen a building I wanted to check out that looked like a great vantage point to take photographs from. We went out after breakfast and wandered around the streets looking for it. We never ended up finding it though. I had really wanted to take some tilt/shift photos from the top of it, which looked like it might be a restaurant.
That afternoon we caught a bus back to Binh Hoa and managed to score the front seat for once. I enjoyed the ride and the change of perspective from the typical bus rides we get where we have to sit in the back. I thought back to my first bus trip to Binh Hoa which was in the middle of the night. The roads were winding and bumpy with lots of short uphills and downhills. I had thought this was us driving through mountains, but this time I could clearly see in the daylight that it was just bridges over rivers and there were no mountains in sight.
That evening I felt like I may be having some unreasonable side effects from the medicine and so I decided to go off of them. This was a great opportunity for me to finish some wine that Tien’s family wouldn’t be able to, and that put me into a deep deep sleep that night.
The next day was a lazy day spent in Tien’s village. That evening we went out and cruised around the city with her sisters while they were shopping for some stuff. Tien and I spent a lot of time waiting for them to finish what they were doing. We occupied ourselves by looking for cool things to photograph and ended up down by the river. A little while later we met up with her sisters and we all went to eat dinner by the river. I got eaten alive by mosquitoes and the food was only OK. I was in a funk from that, the general mood of the evening and the fact that I’d be leaving the next day. I wished that something would be different, that we wouldn’t be spending the last evening waiting and riding around Long Xuyen on a scooter killing idle time. That’s how it was though, and after dinner we went home to Binh Hoa for my last night in the Mekong on this trip.
Nov 24th was my last day in Vietnam in 2009. My stomach was a little upset, probably from some meds I was still taking for my lingering strep throat, which echoed from my last trip home to the USA.
Tien’s sisters had prepared some gifts for my family and it was a puzzle trying to fit everything into my backpack. We managed to get everything fit in, though in less of a modular fashion that I would’ve liked. I try to leave my laptop and camera easily accessible right at the top of my bag, but that wasn’t possible this time because of some very odd shapes. We settled with that though and then took a nap, trying to get a head start on rest since my flight left Saigon at 6am which meant we had to travel all night.
It’s always interesting trying to find ways to kill that last unknown bit of time before the bus shows up, and this time around I loaded up Tien’s netbook with snes9x and all the ROMs I had. Tien’s nieces had never played SNES before, but they also didn’t read english. i tried to show them how to work the emulator but hand gestures were again exhausted and I’m sure they didn’t get everything I was trying to show them. I made a note to bring them back some USB controllers so they could play together without having to share the keyboard.
The drive to saigon was the same as always except our driver was notable bad. We arrived in Saigon at 2am, practically asleep. In fact, we did sleep for a while on a bench in some garage at some transit stop where the bus had ended up. I wasn’t sure what exactly the place was, but it didn’t look like a travel agency. A man offered to give us a ride to the airport, which was nice, but he dropped us off right outside the airport instead of taking us inside so we had to catch another taxi the last 1km.
It was 3:15am when we finally got to the airport. I left Tien with my bag outside and went inside to check into my flight, which took less than 5 minutes. Tien, Thu and I sat around outside visiting for the last bit of my trip, taking photos and trying to stay awake.
When it came time for me to go, Tien and I embraced one last time and she melted into my arms. I tried to be strong and positive, but nothing prepares me for that sense of disconnection when I let go of her hand and walked away, realizing that I was then separated by a growing time and distance. It only lasted a minute though, because I had to be ready to navigate immigration and the security checkpoints.
Security was easy this time around, but required a mandatory bag inspection at the gate. This was so inconvenient after the puzzle of packing that stuff into my bag, but I managed to the contents back in with little fuss. My flight left on time, and after sleeping most of the flight away I had a beautiful and clear view of Japan on our descent into Narita. Japan is an absolutely beautiful country and I really want to go explore it some day.
I got online for a while in Narita and chatted with some folks back home. I would be arriving in San Francisco only a few hours date-wise after my departure from Saigon because of the time difference, meaning I flew out at 6am and would be landing at 8am. Kyung asked me to pick him up some Japanese kit-kat’s, and I got some mochi for Lila. I also jumped on skype and re-activated my AT&T cell phone so I would have mobile internet as soon as I landed in the USA.
On the plane to America I was seated next to a scholarly looking Japanese girl. She was studying law of some sort and asked me to keep the window shut because she was allergic to sunlight. I had ever intent of sleeping the majority of the flight away and had no qualms keeping the window closed. Usually, in fact, the flight attendants ask you to do so. I soon fell asleep listening to Kaskade, and the sleep was welcome to my confused body that probably was ready to sleep at any time of the day or night.
When I woke up I started listening to an Audiobook I had picked up, The Forever War. It wasn’t really gripping me though and I found myself struggling to follow the story rather than let my own imagination wander away. I wondered why they didn’t have audiobooks as one of the features of on-plane entertainment, and for that matter why they didn’t have podcasts. This was the terrible entertainment system from my previous flight overseas though, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the whole thing broke down to colored bars.
I put some music back on and began to wake up more, thinking about what I’d do in America. I became inspired to get my shit back on track, to do great things, to return to work and resume making money. I had taken so much time off in the last few months and was feeling an insatiable desire to get back to creative construction of art and technology. I decided to hit life hard.
Blake came and picked me up at SFO and took me down to Cupertino where Lila had my car. We went to Sugar and found my key on Lila’s desk, but she wasn’t there, so the two of us headed down to Barefoot Coffee to pacify my craving for western coffee. Barefoot is the best place to do this, by the way, because it’s probably the best coffee shop I’ve been to in the world. After western coffee the next order of business was to get a proper mexican lunch, which is another thing I can’t seem to find outside of North America. Kyung and Chris met us at Tres Potrillos in Sunnyvale and we all caught up on travels, technological bs, life and whatnot. It was great to be back with my friends in Silicon Valley.
We all went our separate ways and I headed up to Lila’s house to pick up some things I’d left there. Every time I get to her house I don’t want to leave because it’s so peaceful and beautiful, but somehow it seems that almost every time I get to her house I’m in a hurry to go somewhere else.
The drive to SF was nice, as always, and obviously very familiar since I’d done it hundreds of times before. It never gets old though, 280 between Cupertino and San Francisco is one of the most beautiful highways in America. When I got to SF my storage unit was closed, which sucked but wasn’t really a big deal. I also checked my post office box and retrieved my month’s worth of mail which did not include the receipt for Tien’s visa petition, known in the immigration community as NOA1. Later I would call them on the phone and find out that they had in fact sent it and everything was rolling along fine.
I headed a few blocks down to Crossroads Cafe where I had met the SF Flickr Social crew before my trip. It’s a quiet spot with cheap drinks and good parking. There’s no internet though, so I was happy that I’d hacked my iPhone and gotten tethering to work. Lily called me and then came down to meet me. I packed up and we went a few blocks over to Nova to get some drinks.
On our walk from the car we saw a man whose motorcycle had fallen and knocked two other motorcycles over.
It was good to see her and she caught me up to speed on a lot of the things going on in SF and in her life. She was actually on her way out of town so after a drink and a conversation I dropped her off at the BART station and headed over to the coast.
I sat there at the beach for a while, thinking about my position. No job, no home, nowhere in particular to be. This was freedom, but sometimes freedom comes with emptiness. Freedom longs for aspiration because without it stagnation pools. I didn’t want to be stagnant, but I was so exhausted I wasn’t exactly inspired either. Honestly I just wanted to chill out and relax for a while.
I called Rob and then rolled over to his house. He had just got a pizza and was ready to watch Inglorious Basterds in 1080p, and that was exactly the kind of night I was looking for. American cinema, beer and pizza with my amigo. The movie was beautiful, though a bit drawn out, but all in all it was a great time.
I headed back to the BLT’s house and nobody was home. That night I slept for 14 hours.
Friday, Nov 20th, I woke early to a very rainy and stormy morning. Having less than a week left I decided to go ahead and figure out my plan for when I arrived back in America. Some of my friends were online since it was evening in the USA, and I figured out that I’d spend a few days in SF and then drive to CO just after Thanksgiving to spend some time with my family.
Tien was sleeping while I figured all of this out, and I was touched with a magic that so many other people in history have been touched with, that of being simply alive and doing normal activities while their love slept next to them, peaceful and in their own little dream world. It is a great joy being able to unobtrusively observe a peace that is completely independent from yourself. It’s almost like a third person perspective on your own joy, because that person is such a part of the happy parts of your own life but at that moment they are detached from the waking realities, such as being ill while on a stormy weathered vacation.
I did some research online and figured that I probably had strep throat, or a number of other more terrible things. The medicines I had been taking were mostly ineffective, but not entirely. At least I had been taking the recommended pain reliever, tylenol.
We had pho for breakfast at our dark alley pho place, which wasn’t so dark during daylight, and decided to go ahead and go to the Vinpearl since we wanted to do something wonderful on this otherwise ruined trip to Nha Trang. We went back to the hotel to pack up some things to take and instead of going we fell asleep. When I woke up I had a fever of probably about 102, which was just a guess compared to a measurement we would take after getting a thermometer.
I got online and told my bother about my sickness. Tien and I had managed to take a decent photograph of my throat and I sent it to him. Having been a medic in the Army stationed in Iraq he had seen plenty of sore throats. He took one look at the photo and recommended penicillin saying it was probably strep throat. The diagnosis was inconclusive without a lab test, but he said that no matter what I was diagnosed with they would put me on penicillin, so it didn’t really matter what I had.
I sent Tien down to the local pharmacy to get some meds and she managed to score some penicillin, which apparently is not a prescription drug in Vietnam. She also got some of other recommended medicine and a thermometer that we used to verify my fever. Needless to say we did not go to the Vinpearl and instead spent the evening inside with Tien quiet and worrying about me. I kept trying to make jokes and talk while she was caring for me but she thought I was delirious from my fever and just worried even more.
Eventually we both went to sleep, but having slept most of the day I was unable to sleep the whole night. I woke up at 2:45 and couldn’t sleep. I took some more meds and found my temperature to be 100. I stayed up for about an hour playing on my computer before I managed to become tired enough to get back to sleep. Tien later told me that she had drifted into consciousness and had seen me playing on the computer, but thought it was a dream and went back to sleep.
When I woke up the next morning it was 8am and I had no fever. After breakfast we figured out our travel plans to return to Saigon and spent the rest of the morning waiting for the train in our hotel room watching Terminator. Tien had never seen it before and she was pretty intrigued by it. I didn’t go into the fact that the robot who had traveled back in time to kill this woman was also the person who was running the state of California where she would be living within a year.
When we were checking out of our hotel the woman at the front desk chatted with us a bit and asked me to bring a man back from America for her. I chuckled, half out of politeness and half out of amusement that so many people in Vietnam say things like that.
We took a taxi to the train station and found that the train was delayed over an hour. There wasn’t much to do or eat at the train station so we wandered down the street carrying our bags and found a restaurant that looked good but ended up being pretty awful. I longed for yelp.vn so I could write a bad review of the place.
We returned to the train station and waited some more. I went to use the bathroom and the mens room was unavailable. The women’s room had no light and there was a lot of liquid on the floor, and who knows what else since it was dark.
When we finally got on the train the first thing I noticed was that it was pretty dirty. The seats were also pretty run down and rickety, but were actually pretty comfortable. Once we started rolling it was great though, so much more enjoyable than the bus. We didn’t get many great vistas, but we did pass a lot of beautiful landscape that I would love to photograph. Some of the landscape looked like jungle, but there were also mountains with rocks that reminded me of Colorado and Wyoming.
We played cards for a long time and listened to music. There was also the standard television entertainment. I saw an ad for a slim TV that was only like 18″ thick and was amused. A few weeks later I would go to a best buy with Dan Fava and find a television that was less than 2″ thick.
We rolled slowly into Saigon that night and got a new view of city life from the window of that train passing behind buildings, looking into bars and apartments and restaurants that we hadn’t seen before. I wished I had a camera that was better at photographing in darkness because there were some really awesome scenes visible from that window.
Tired from our travels, we did the usual routine of finding a taxi to drop us off at the Ruby Star.
On the morning of November 19th I was just as sick as I had been the previous day, and my throat hurt just a little bit worse. We spent the morning laying around surfing the internet and being generally lazy. The weather was still a little stormy too, pretty much exactly as it had been the previous day. We had pho for breakfast at the same place we’d gone the previous night, and would continue eating there almost exclusively for the remainder of our stay in Nha Trang.
After breakfast we decided to take a walk down the beach to get some fresh air and some sun. Tien was trying to convince me that mid-day sunlight was terrible for you whereas morning and evening sunlight was good for you. I tried to explain that sunlight is both good and bad for you, depending on how much of it you get. I’m not really an authority in that area though, so I suppose I could’ve been wrong, but I’d never heard anything leading me to conclude that mid-
day sun was worse.
We walked down the beach the opposite direction and found a bunch of wooden beach chairs under little wooden huts. We sat at one but were quickly told that it cost 100k for a day to rent one, so we kept walking. It began to rain lightly but with heavy wind, so we retreated to a nearby gazebo where other people were doing the same. We sat there for a while and the weather didn’t relent, but luckily a woman came wandering by trying to sell fruits. We somehow managed to get into an argument about what fruits we were going to buy, I guess she thought we could eat a whole pineapple along with 3 mangoes and countless other fruits. Sometime I’m amazed at how easy it is for Vietnamese people to make each other feel guilty for breaking agreements that were never even made. In the end we got a good selection of fruit for a decent price, if only because I had the money and I wasn’t going to buy shit if she kept trying to sell me fruit I didn’t want.
As we were sitting in the gazebo eating our fruit, another woman came by trying to sell us cigarettes and all sorts of other things we didn’t want. She was persistent and stayed there a while. All of the sudden a huge terrible breaking sound came from behind us. We turned around to see a large coconut rolling across the grass away from large pieces of broken tile. I would later learn that coconut injuries are more common in Vietnam than auto injuries.
I was beginning to get fatigued again, and really irritated that I had gotten sick in Nha Trang since we’d been waiting so long to get there. We headed back to the hotel and laid around all day as I gobbled up medicine and we both geeked out on the ever frustrating and intermittent wifi we leeched from the hotel next door.
Having read a few articles in The Onion about National Awareness Month and an article making fun of a man for defending what he believed the constitution to be, I realized that I was pretty ignorant of what the constitution really said and really a lot of other things that I’d grown up believing that I had yet to verify. Generally I felt a lot like the ignorant, misinformed people that irked me in political and religious arguments. With nothing to do in the middle of the night, I decided to go ahead and read the constitution. I didn’t get very far into it because I kept getting side-tracked reading context and related information, but I must say that I did learn a lot and it was incredibly eye-opening.
We got some dinner and slept away the night, and I was still frustrated about being sick, hoping I’d be well the next day so Tien and I could enjoy our vacation.
The winds howled through the cracks of the door and windows of our hotel room all night and the next morning was very breezy. I spent a large portion of the morning catching up on all the internet stuff I’d missed during my offline stay in Mui Ne. Most notably, a 3D mandelbrot set had been discovered and rendered into some impressive images. I also noticed that I had exactly one week left in Vietnam.
I was feeling significantly more I’ll that morning, but I thought I might only have a sinus cold or something lame and trivial so I didn’t pay much attention to it, expecting that it would go away in a few days
The cold water In our bathroom was broken so that only boiling hot water came out of the shower until there was no more, then it went to only cold water. This behavior would continue throughout our stay there, requiring us to take cold shower baths.
We got breakfast late that morning at the place directly next door to The Manchester that I wouldn’t recommend. Over breakfast Tien and I talked a lot about humor and jokes. Even though there seem to be a lot of differences between Vietnamese and American humor, there also seem to be some global constants to humor. I tried to explain things like Knock Knock jokes, one-liners, and other types of humor. Most jokes in Vietnamese are longer jokes with a lot of context. This goes hand-in-hand with their love for comedy theater.
After breakfast we took a walk down the beach where it was incredibly windy. It was nice though to be out in the sun. The wind wasn’t cold either and that was nice. The weather looked stormy though, the waves were huge and the water was really rough, so I wasn’t too hopeful about getting to swim.
We found our way back onto the sidewalk by the main road and passed an area where there were about 50 large dragonflies hanging out. I thought about photographing them, but didn’t because I didn’t have anything that would make it easy to get a good shot. We also found many shops that were selling seahorses, both alive and dead and in various containers. Some were floating in liquid, some were dried and ready to be eaten whole, and some were in fish tanks with nothing more than water. Tien said that seahorses are supposed to have amazing medicinal functions, just like eating live lizards. Lore is always a little humorous to me.
The destination on our walk was a place called the Vinpearl, and it was amazingly difficult to walk there. We actually had to walk beyond it over a hill and then come around back to it, winding in the roads of its campus that had no sidewalks. Clearly this place was made to be traveled to and from by motor vehicle.
The Vinpearl is actually a huge island theme park with a lot of attractions. We didn’t know this when we set out to go there, but discovered it when we arrived at the mainland side of a gondola that takes people to and from the island. There were also boats of various size that would ferry people back and forth. I was feeling pretty tired from my illness and the walk and didn’t feel like I had the energy for a theme park, so we opted to go back another day and instead spend our day on the mainland. We intended to visit an aquarium, but when we got into the taxi and told him to take us there he said it was on the Vinpearl island. This was another mistake of not doing research and not using the guidebook. I’m never going anywhere without the guidebook again.
Instead of going to the aquarium we went to a place called Ponagar Tower that was an ancient stone temple. It was a bit like something you’d find at Angkor Wat. It was a small temple but Tien enjoyed it much. There was an older Japanese man doing tricks with tops, swords and yo-yo’s on the upper landing of the complex. He was pretty funny, partly because he kept messing up. He would say everything in Japanese and there was a translator and a few drum players beating on tribal drums for dramatic effect as he did things like accidentally throwing a top larger than my head, nearly hitting a bystander.
I was feeling increasingly ill and tired so we headed back to The Manchester for a nap. I was developing some flu like symptoms like fever and sore throat, so I assumed that’s what it was. We went for dinner and found an absolutely delicious pho place at the end of a dark alley and conveniently near a pharmacist. We had our dinner and picked up a cocktail of medication for my symptoms.
Tuesday morning we woke up with the intent to go to some white sand dunes that were about 20km north. We got breakfast at a place just up the road on our way. There was a modeling show on TV and I was watching it to see what gear the photographers were using. They were interviewing the models a lot and I wondered what they were talking about. I guessed that the show was in English, but the sound was down and drown out by really loud Vietnamese music.
Over breakfast we talked about our plans and decided to go straight to Nha Trang instead of stopping along the way at some temples. Tien wasn’t excited about our bad luck finding things to do in Mui Ne, and since the second place we had planned to go was pretty remote she expected it to be much of the same.
Back on the road, we headed off into unexplored territory that looked not much like what I’d seen in Vietnam before. I caught the scent of a Colorado summer in the air. We saw a lot of farm animals, including geese that were hanging out with cows and goats and water buffalo. We passed by a lot of sand and the landscape turned into rolling hills with trees scattered around it, much like the high Colorado prairies.The road turned into dirt and sand mixed together and the motorbike became a bit wobbly because of the sand shifting under the bald tires. We could see the white sands in the distance on the far side of a lake by a small forest.
We eventually made it to a spot where a few motorbikes and jeeps were valeted at a little shack, so we did the same and began walking through some trees next to the lake that was at the foot of the white sands, through some shops, past some other tourists and up towards the sand dunes. A kid followed us much like the two from the night before, asking us to rent his sled and pointing things out to us.
We walked around a bit, but sand is sand so there wasn’t really much to see. We took some photos and the kid kept asking if we wanted him to take our picture. Eventually I conceded, thinking he might charge us for it. He took two, then had us stand somewhere else and took two more. When I looked at them I was very pleasantly surprised at his composition, each pose taking one wide and one close shot. I tipped him a few thousand dong and we headed back to our bike. He trailed behind and complained endlessly in Vietnamese that the money I gave him wasn’t clean enough and he wouldn’t be able to use it to buy cake.
Tien had driven on the way out so I got to drive on the way home. This was my first time in like 12 years riding a motorcycle on dirt. We quickly sank our rear tire in a spot where I had gotten off to walk before. We both laughed and Tien got off so I could wobble my way up out of the sand and across to where the dirt was solid again.
As we headed back the way we came, over the rolling hills and through a pretty countryside I thought again about buying a motorcycle one of these days so we could just cruise the countryside at our own pace, not having to rely on buses. I also changed my mind about Mui Ne being a lame place to go, it’s pretty nice outside of town in the countryside.
There was a herd of cattle that had been grazing in a field where there were many graves marked with swastikas, a symbol of power and not of Nazi affiliation, and now these cattle were taking up the whole road. I squeezed by and then stopped and watched a big truck make its way by, something I wasn’t sure would be easy for it to do.
When we arrived back at the hotel we returned the bike, packed and checked out, but our bus wasn’t coming for two hours. There was a warm breeze coming in through large open windows and blowing around the chandeliers in the lobby where the Internet was still broken. Tien and I decided to go wait by the beach. There were no hammocks, which was a disappointment, but we found a little table to sit at and enjoy some drinks while playing cards with the ocean waves breaking about 50 feet away. Tien kicked my ass at the game I had taught her, I only won twice.
We got one last meal in Mui Ne, then went upstairs to wait for the bus. I explained photographic composition and exposure to Tien while we were waiting, but had to finish the discussion on the bus.
After exhausting the topic of photography I realized I forgot my headphones in my backpack which was stored in the cargo area. This was a pretty bad thing to do since I was then forced to endure the most epic movie I’d ever seen and then hours of loud Vietnamese theatrical comedy.
The bus had headed north beyond the white sand dunes, introducing us to even more beautiful countryside and coastline. The bus was comfortable too so it was an enjoyable ride. We even stopped for 15 minutes at the first rest stop I’d seen that had Internet access. My iPhone GPS worked too, which kinda made sense because we were near Da Lat and it had worked there. It continued to work as we headed north and I wondered if the norh of Vietnam had the mobile infrastructure to accommodate the retarded assisted GPS in the iPhone. After all, my phone hadn’t been unlocked when I was in Hanoi, so I wasn’t sure it didn’t work there.
It began to rain right at dusk. I also began to feel sick in my throat. I had been feeling a few symptoms once in a while for the past day or so, but this was the first real evidence that I was coming down with something.
When we got to Nha Trang it was still raining lightly. As I was getting into a hotel shuttle I noticed a motorbike stashed in the cargo area of a bus, a brilliant idea that I wouldn’t have expected to be permitted.
We checked into a hotel that I’d seen reviewed somewhere online, The Manchester. Our room was on the sixth floor with an ocean view and deplorable wifi access.
On our walk to find dinner, just when I thought we’d gone the wrong way from restaurants we came across an authentic Italian restaurant where two men were talking loudly in Italian. After sitting down an older Italian man, the cook, came out to introduce the specials and show us the list of Italian wines. I got the chefs special and as I sipped my wine I pulled out my iPhone and found an Actiontec wireless network. It almost felt like we were sitting in Sunnyvale.
I dreamed about Sarah Palin doing art projects for President Obama while he was busy running all over Washington DC trying to escape the secret service because they were holding him back from doing the things he wanted to do. I woke up with Doe-A-Dear stuck in my head.
I went to take a shower, and upon increasing the “heat” dial on the electric hot water heater that was attached to the shower, the light in the bathroom flickered and went out. In the pitch black with my hand still on the dial, I decreased the temp and the light flickered back on.
After showering I got dressed I poked my head out the front door of our room and some mysteries from the previous night were unraveled. Beyond some local fishermen taking their nets out of the circular boats and emptying them there were many boats anchored not far out in the ocean. Two guys on a motorbike rode down the beach and parked near the fishermen. I wanted to ride a motorcycle on the beach.
Tien and I went to get breakfast, which was supposed to be included in the price of our hotel. On the way we passed some older Vietnamese men with a lot of missing teeth who were drinking beer and eating crabs for their breakfast. We also saw some chained up monkeys, a golden lizard that I was not familiar with, and a dozen small dogs. We found our way to the large dining area of the hotel restaurant. It was an open walled lodge type of building with a tall peaked roof and only one of the 50 or so tables was occupied.
The owner of the resort interrupted our conversation to sit with us while we were waiting for breakfast. He had much the same character as the sleazy guy on the bus the previous night and the guy we stayed with in Binh Duong. Later Tien and I would talk about how many of the Vietnamese men who go to America and come back have this very haughty attitude, and she would express her hopes of not becoming like that.
The bread was stale, the food was bland, and the price was not included with our room. Bien Nam was probably the worst deal I’ve ever gotten on a room, and I do not recommend it to anybody who is going to Mui Ne. With that in mind we went for a walk on the beach which we now saw was home to many other hotels. We walked along the beach, stopping at each to inquire about vacancy, price, wifi and to see a room. There were varying qualities of hotels and we settled on one that had wifi in the lobby, a friendly staff, a much cleaner room, a halfway decent view of the ocean, and for 25% less per night.
As we were walking along the beach there were numerous jet ski’s parked on the shore. I hadn’t seen a jet ski in Asia except on the river in Thailand, and wondered why because they’re so speedy and nimble, the aquatic equivalent of the ubiquitous motorbike. Here they were on the Pacific Ocean being used for entertainment.
We checked out of our old hotel without so much as a word from the owner asking us why we were leaving or asking us to stay and I thought that he was probably used to having one-night guests. We checked into our new hotel and took a nap. Tien was sleepy, but I was not, so after a few minutes of restless napping I got up and shaved my face and head.
When Tien finally got up we were both pretty hungry, so we decided to go to town. We stopped by the lobby to return our key and I played on their wifi just enough to discover that they had a wireless with no connection to the internet.
We went out front to try to wave down somebody to give us a ride into town. Not many people were passing by, and most already had passengers, so I thought we might as well walk down the road while trying to hitch a ride. It was remarkable though that I had been asked innumerable times before if I needed a motorbike when I did not, and here I was without one in sight. It wasn’t like Malaysia either where a taxi mysteriously appeared from behind a building just when we needed it.
We walked for a while and found some guys sitting in front of a hotel with some motorbikes there. Tien talked to one of them and he said he could find another person so we could both ride into town for 25k each. Just after he left to go find another motorbike rider willing to give us a ride, the valet told Tien that we could probably rent a motorbike for the day for not much more than 50k. A second man on a motorbike came by, then the first man came back with a third guy on a motorbike and what ensued was a long bickering argument about how we needed to rent from the guys we first spoke to even though they were not going to allow me to ride their bike, which was something we wanted. In the end I said “fuck it” and we left the three stubborn motorcyclists there and started walking down the road again.
We walked for a while and it was actually pretty nice to use my body, something I’m so used to doing in the USA but don’t get much chance to here in Asia. There were beautiful trees with flowering leaves, and the ocean was visible through a thin line of trees between the road and the beach. Eventually the second motorcyclist from the argument came up to us on the road, talked to Tien for a while and we agreed to rent his bike for a day for 180k. I’d never driven a manual without a clutch though, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do so without first watching Tien. As soon as she took off down the road I realized that it was just like riding an auto except you could kick a pedal to change gears without worrying about the clutch.
Renting the bike was a great idea. We were now cruising down Highway 1 of Vietnam right by the ocean with warm air on our face on our way to find food for our hungry bellies. We passed a herd of water buffalo and a bunch of people who were drying fish on screens and then found ourselves at a dead end. We were lost again.
We wandered around some coastal villages, finding several dead ends, and were just about to make some progress on finding our way to town when we got a flat tire. Obviously this was incredibly lame since I was hungry and it wasn’t our bike anyway, but at least there was a moto shop right there where we had it repaired within 30 minutes. We had to buy a new tube and kept the old one as well as the contact information of the shop who did the work. I also took some photographs, but mainly because that’s what I do.
With our new tire and some instructions on how to get to town, we headed off still in search of food for our bellies. I honestly was beyond the point of hungry and didn’t care much anymore, though I knew I should eat. We rode and rode and rode. We saw a lot of cool things, like the harbor where most of the boats anchor, some cool buildings, forests, animals, but amazingly we couldn’t find a restaurant. We passed all the way through town and out to where the sizzler was, though we never did find that, and all we saw along the way were cafes with snacks, but no real food.
We found a sign for The Mui Ne Easy Riders that said “I’ll show things the lonely planet did not.” I thought that was awesome, and it was accompanied with pictures of vietnamese bikers on proper motorcycles geared up with luggage and white people on the back.
We went all the way back through town and found ourselves lost at the first dead end we had found, which was a kite surfing camp.
Finally we gave up and went to get some gasoline and as dumb luck would have it, we found a restaurant. Too tired and frustrated to show our joy, we pulled over, ordered some food and drinks, and were promptly attacked by about 50 flies. I’d never seen a place with so many flies. I ordered a beer and the man went and pulled the bottle out of a crate of empty bottles, a hat, a helmet and other miscellaneous things. When I was done with my beer I set the glass down there were like 15 flies crawling all over it within 30 seconds. It was probably due to all the dead fish, since we were in a fishing village. We got our food to go because the flies were too much.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped to get a hot dog, which is not the same as it is in America. In Vietnam a hot dog is some kind of triangular crepe thing with no meat in it. We took a different route home and found ourselves riding along a big field of sand and trees where kids were jumping into the sand the same way I did when I was their age. We found our way up the big roads and vacant round-a-bout from the night before and were soon cruising that beautiful section of the coast again. The day was beautiful, the ocean was beautiful, I had my fiancé with me, I had hot food to put in my belly, and we weren’t lost. I was happy. So happy I had Tien stop so I could take her photo. As I was composing my shot a used trash bag blew up against my leg.
Back at the hotel we sat on our bed and watched the ocean beyond the tin roof cabana where nobody was sitting. Since it was so late, just about sunset, the heat had worn off, so we decided to go back to the sand dune park nearby and have a look around.
Children greeted us with sleds for rent to slide down the sand dunes. We valeted the bike and started hiking up the dunes. Two kids followed us trying to rent us a sled for 30k, which we were not interested in. There were a lot of other people there watching the sunset, even many white people. I always try to smile and nod a greeting to other travelers as I pass them if it’s appropriate, and it always amazes me how white people don’t want to talk to each other or acknowledge each other’s existence.
Before heading home we got some snacks and a deck of cards. Back at the hotel the internet was still down and they didn’t know why. I knew why though. It was misconfigured and was getting no responses to its DHCP queries. It probably needed PPPoE, but those settings were not remembered in the firmware, which means it may have been hard reset as a last ditch attempt to fix what is probably an unreliable DSL connection. I hate DSL.
Back in the hotel room Tien washed our clothes and we hung them to dry on a rope that I brought to use for just such an occasion, then I taught her how to play a card game that I know but don’t know what it’s called.
Sunday morning when I woke up I noticed a recurring morning phenomenon; stiff ankles. I thought about how I should probably stay more active to avoid that displeasure.
Right after waking up Tien called a bus service and found a bus going to Saigon at 9:30. Thu got us some hot breakfast from the market while we packed. We ate and headed off by bus. We were still unsure about the train schedule and availability and decided just to head to a travel agency in Pham Ngu Lao and see what we could find.
As we were leaving Binh Hoa I saw a scooter stacked 4 boxes high that had fallen over while parked and the driver was trying to pick it back up. A peloton of cyclists passed by. Real cyclists, not just school kids on their way. We did pass a school though and I noticed that all schools in Vietnam look the same. Tan buildings with big fences and blue signs with white text.
As we got to Saigon I noticed some large text written with plants on a wall. As we passed I looked back at it and saw it was a billboard wall made with an array of pot holders so you could use pots containing different colored plants to make patterns. Potted plant pixels.
The clouds were dark and it began to rain. I feared bad weather or worse, really bad weather.
I noticed a police checkpoint set up at the side of the road. I had also seen one as we were entering Long Xuyen and I would see another as we were leaving Saigon. I never found out what the story was.
Just after getting into a taxi I saw a guy on a motorbike with no helmet and a styled Asian hairdo with the addition of a mullet.
I saw two young girls on a scooter collide with a woman carrying baskets on each side of her handlebars in busy Saigon traffic.
I saw a guy on a motorbike sharing headphones with his passenger the way Tien and I do. I’d never seen anybody else wearing headphones while riding.
Our taxi turned down Nguyen Trai street, home of the Ruby Star, and we drove for many, many blocks. There were tons of stores full of awesome girl clothes and I thought about how if I was a girl I’d go nuts in a place like that. For a man of my style and stature there is neither the inclination nor the option for such an occurrence.
After arriving at the same travel agency where the two motorbike taxis had dropped us off at last time, Tien and I quickly figured out our travel situation, bought bus tickets and went to find coffee. We only had to go next door to Highland Coffee. We had eaten lunch here before, it was the cafe where the French club owner was negotiating with the local DJs. The food was good here but we just wanted coffee. It had western prices but with them, western flavor, which was very welcome. I had savored a cappuccino.
We stayed there for an hour while I caught up on some internet stuff and charged my phone whose battery had been depleted while playing Fieldrunners on the bus, then went outside and boarded our bus to Mui Ne.
There were very few people on the bus and about half of us were white, though not all speaking English. Most were a group of three girls and one guy who I thought were Ukrainian.
As we headed north there was a variety show on the TV with guy and girl hosts who I recognized. Tien said the man’s name was Nguyen Ngoc Ngan, which may not sound like you think but is still pretty hard to pronounce.
There were a lot of songs sung between guys and girls reaching dramatically out into the air and gazing at each other during the harmonies and looking away during the solos. I asked Tien why so many Vietnamese people like this kind of thing and she just laughed and said it was romantic. I asked why Vietnamese people like romance so much and she didn’t know. It seemed odd for a conservative culture to be so enamored with romance. I thought that as far as video media is concerned, romance was to Vietnamese people what action is to Americans.
A bit later two Vietnamese people got on, one guy and one girl, and immediately struck up a conversation in English with the Europeans. They both spoke english very comfortably and phrases such as “you know, like” made it clear they had lived in America for a while. The man said he was engaged, though not to the girl he was with, then continued to flirt with the Norwegian girls, a detail I garnished from unwilling eavesdropping. He talked on about money and living in America, and it even seemed like his girl friend was being his wingman. For a while I thought he might just be the guy we stayed with in Binh Duong. He was certainly just as sleazy with all the same lines.
One of the bus employees came by asking where to drop us off, but we really didn’t know because we hadn’t planned that far ahead. The man in front of us said he could recommend a cheap hotel to us.
I put my headphones back on and we lost ourselves in a variety of music that I picked while scanning the songs. Debussy, The Thompson Twins, Oscar Peterson, Simply Red, Zero 7, Above and Beyond. We settled on classical and I drifted off for a few songs.
When I woke up we were slowing down next to the ocean to let the Norwegians off. There was a sizzler restaurant and a wind surfing and scuba diving tour place. We rode a little farther and got off where the man who was recommending our hotel got off. A guy on a motorbike was waiting for a fare, and he flagged down another passing motorbike to take us to a hotel. As we were riding Tien’s driver talked on and on and on in Vietnamese. We left town and headed inland a bit, which wasn’t encouraging because I wanted to be in the city or at least by the water. We took some big roads, passed an empty round-about by some big sand dunes, and eventually popped back out onto a highway that paralleled a beautiful beach. I could see the caps of breaking waves in the darkness. The air was warm, and it was magical riding along the coast through that warm night air on a motorbike next to Tien.
Tien’s driver led us to a dark resort hotel with trees scattered between various buildings. Tien later told me that he had skipped the hotel that the man had recommended because it was apparently too loud and was a dirty place. I honestly couldn’t imagine what a hotel was that was dirtier than the place he took us to. It had water stains on the wall, chipped plaster, it smelled funky, there was a board covering the window in the bathroom, and it looked pretty much like it wasn’t kept up very well.
We checked in and agreed to pay 400k a night, which was clearly too much for what we were getting. We had come so far out of town and hadn’t passed anywhere that was definitely open that I figured the price to take the motorbikes elsewhere would’ve been more than the difference, so I decided to go ahead and take it.
Right after checking in we went 50 feet down to the beach where there were lots of red and blue lights bobbing in the dark ocean. We couldn’t tell what they were, though it was clear some of them were boats because a few times somebody turned on a flashlight and shined it around the boat they were standing on.
There were also some circular boats that looked like baskets sitting on the shore. Somebody was busy filling one of them up with some kind of supplies as if they were about to go out into the water.
The sand was coarse and the water seemed a little dirty, so with that and the fact that I was tired we decided against swimming or even staying at the beach and returned to our room for the night.
We woke up at 6am on Friday to get a head start on the floating market which only lasts the morning. When we fetched our motorbike from the valet there was a tiny blob of bird crap on my seat. Only after trying to flick it off and getting it on my fingernails did I consider bird flu.
We gassed up the motorbike on the way to breakfast. All of the gas station in Vietnam are full service, but this was the first time I noticed that their pumps are configured to turn off at 20k dong and every 10k afterwards, making it easy for them to count without looking as they fill numerous bikes.
We cruised through the city and through more construction. Bridges are the most common project after new buildings. I wished that I had a compass so I could better know where I was. I wished I had an iPhone 3gs and considered the idea of leaving my 3g with Tien. I thought maybe it wouldn’t be good to force her into an Apple world where Apple had such little penetration and thought about other smart phones, like the Droid, and contiuned down a line of thinking that many technologists have gone down where they end up damning the circularly innovating companies like Nokia and Motorola who have been busy doing nothing remarkable until Apple lit a fire under their ass by releasing the iPhone. Now everybody is releasing new platforms for smart phones that sync data (omg what an idea), have real browsers and email, and have standard platforms for app development (no thanks to Sun and Java here either.) I then continued by damning every carrier who locked their customers into contracts with a particular network and no way to get a device outside that network. iPhone, droid, pre… Three new smart phones, all locked to their providers. I silently thanked the hackers for breaking through this asinine misbehavior and allowing us to actually use the devices we have paid for. I still had no compass.
At breakfast I ordered eggs with bread and iced coffee and proceeded to burn myself on the platter my eggs were served in, then ate the peppers that were in the pan with my eggs. This day was not off to a good start.
I thought a lot about Colorado. I had decided to go back to Colorado for December to see my family and stay with my brother now that he’s out of the army and back in America and was really excited about it. It had been a long time since I’d spent a good chunk of time there, and I hadn’t spent much time with my brother in years. Hiking and video gaming, here we come.
We scooted on over to the market and found ourselves on a road running parallel to the river. We stopped so I could take some photos of the floating market and a guy who was loading watermelon into a boat offered to ride us around the market for 100k. I thought that might be a little steep, especially since he was on his way out anyways. Tien didn’t want to go with him because he didn’t have any life jackets. Even after I pointed out that he was an experienced captain and that there was a whole river full of boats that people were busy not falling out of she still didn’t agree so we went back to the corner market, valeted the bike and hired a boat with life jackets for 100k. These life jackets sat untouched and barely noticed at the front of the boat for the duration of our voyage.
It was just Tien and I with the captain as we cruised up and back down the river through innumerable boats exchanging fruits and vegetables. There were a few common styles of boats, most being the big junkers that were anchored to each other and the riverbed. Most people in junkers would sit with some of their goods on top of the cabin waiting for somebody to come by. They had bamboo poles sticking up off of their boat with example fruits tied to them so people could spot what was available at a glance while passing by. Some people were cruising around in smaller ferrying goods from here to there.
Sometimes we would be right next to the other boats and sometimes we would be far away. I kept switching between my 10-20mm lens and my 50mm, wishing I had an 18-55mm or a second body.
There were many other tourists, some in large tour groups and some with privately rented boats like ours. I saw a slightly heavy slightly balding white guy with an SLR on the back of a boat taking a lot of photos and thought I probably looked just like that. I watched my other self for a while and didn’t care much for how I looked.
As we were pulling back into port our captain gently and accidentally ran the boat into a brick wall sticking out from the steps leading I to the water. He looked back and laughed then corrected his parking job.
Back at the market we found a place to get some drinks. I got a fresh sugar cane drink that was delicious. We sat and enjoyed the drinks for a while and I thought again about smart phones and realized that the iPhone doesn’t have a Vietnamese keyboard layout.
We didn’t stay at the market long and opted instead to cruise the city. After having been the driver in Da Lat and the fact that my ass hurt so bad sitting on that seat, I really disliked being a passenger. I was missing the five contact points of a bicycle, having really only one since the motorbike was too small for the foot pegs to do me much good. I tried to enjoy the ride while looking at the river, some parks and all the local daily things, but I was honestly really happy to return to the hotel for a rest before starting the journey home.
We grabbed lunch at the restaurant that we had intended to visit the night before and then began our long and painful ride north under the mid day sun.
I saw a John Deere sign and wondered how much business they got in the Mekong where so much of the work was done by hand.
A steam roller came driving down the road going the opposite direction. Apparently in Vietnam they redo the roads while still letting people drive on them.
The billowing clouds in the sky reminded me of that song “little fluffy clouds”, which I first heard incorrectly as being by Orbital, and I decided to put them on my iPod.
After one and a half orbital albums we stopped to take a break. We looked in vain for a place with wifi and decided to settle for hammocks instead. Laying there with an ice cold drink, staring up at the ceiling of our wooden hut, tien asked me if I knew about those kinds of houses. She told me that the roof was made of coconut leaves and said that when she was a little girl her family lived in a house made that way. That was amazing for me to think about, having come from living in a house made from bamboo and coconut leaves to now, and the unknown future.
As I paid for our drinks I realized that Ho Chi Minh was on all the bills in Vietnam. I wondered why it was that only this one man was so important and how that had steered the Vietnamese culture.
Thursday I woke up in pain from the events of the previous day. My foot was definitely bruised in a few places and the cut was dry. My sandals are pretty soft though and did a great job of easing the pain.
Back at the market for breakfast Tien and I discussed plans to go to Can Tho, a city located a few hours south by motorbike and home to a famous floating market on the river, and to Nha Trang. We decided to go to Can Tho that evening and Nha Trang that weekend or so.
Thu came around with some mangos and a durian. The durian looked like some kind of organ inside, an alien brain dreamed up by H R Giger. They made me try the durian, otherwise known around the western world as “stinky fruit.” it was very strange with several successive flavors and a distinct after taste that unfortunately lasts for hours even when chased with a fresh mango.
That afternoon I rained on and off, sometimes very hard, and Mai suggested that we not go to Can Tho that night. We did though, waiting for what looked like clear skies and a bit later than we wanted.
The roads were worse than I expected. Tien had said it would take three hours when I said it would probably take two. She was right though, of course, because she lived there briefly while taking classes at the local college. The sunset was gorgeous with big billowing clouds in the far distance. Darkness set in about halfway there, but it didn’t rain.
We passed through a lot of construction, of course. There was a large building that looked finished with a balcony on the second floor that stuck out over the entryway. The third floor stuck out above the inside of the balcony, shading it from the elements and there were no doors between the balcony and the inside. Vietnam is the kind of place where it’s never so cold you have to turn on a heater. The floors are made from tile and withstand the elements and human abuse, so you don’t always need windows.
The ride seemed to stretch on forever and my ass began to hurt badly. Later I would discover bruises back there on the bones and tissue, and would then decide never to take a long trip on Tien’s motorbike ever again.
As we got to Can Tho I noticed two things that set it apart from other places we’d been. First, there were numerous Christian churches, which is very rare in Vietnam. Usually there will be one church and buddhist shrines and temples everywhere. This was probably the first time I’d seen several in a row and it was reminiscent of the USA and it’s competitive divisions of Christianity. The other thing I noticed was more progressive fashion that seemed to have a purpose or theme outside the normal engrish phrases. There was a sense of brand style in some of the shops rather than the free for all found most of the other places I’ve been. The only other place I’d really seen this in Vietnam was the westernized shops in Saigon that were sometimes even owned by the brand, like Dr. Marten’s.
We rode down main street and turned off a few side roads searching for a hotel. By this time Tien was doing most of the searching and I was busy trying to find an unbruised part of my back side to sit on. Eventually we found a hotel for $15 and took it. We went upstairs with the intention of resting for a while before heading back out to a place Tien used to eat, but we didn’t make it back out until the next morning.
We planned to go hiking on Mt. Cam on Wednesday. It’s a long way to get there, so we had planned to wake up at 5am. I rarely sleep well before having to wake up early, and this was no different. I wasn’t watching the clock though, since that doesn’t help you sleep, and so we overslept a little.
When we were all up I packed my camera and water into a backpack. I wore zip-off synthetic pants that dry quickly, the perfect thing for long exposure to sun but still good for swimming and hiking. I was the only one who was really dressed for hiking though… Tien, Thu and Mai looked more like they were going shopping, and I wondered if we would actually do any hiking at all.
We got breakfast at a stall in the market on our way out. I got to watch the woman make the hu tieu, which is just pho with different noodles. That was kinda neat, I always wondered how that process worked. The magic is the soup in a huge pot. There were flies everywhere at the stall, landing on the meat and vegetables. When the woman sitting next to me paid she got her change returned to her right on the noodles that were going to be used to make people’s food. I’ve never worked in a restaurant, but I’m pretty sure flies on the meat and dirty money on the ingredients wouldn’t fly in America.
Tien and I headed off on her bike with her sisters following. I had the headphone splitter connected to my iPod so Tien and I both got two earbuds to listen to the new Late Night Alumni album that had come out the previous day or so. We took a dirt back road out of her village, one that we’d passed but hadn’t taken before. It was neat to see what was back there.
A waterway ran between two dirt roads on each shore that were almost big enough for a car. There were people fishing on little canoes and rickety wooden docks. A man squatted next to the river smoking a cigarette. People with bicycle powered stands for bread and yogurt pedaled by on their way to the main streets of the village.
We turned onto the main road that buses and big trucks used to transport big loads between Chau Doc and Long Xuyen. A little naked boy was playing with a stick on a brick wall a few feet from the road.
I noticed that many of the motorbikes only had a hand brake on the right handle and wondered why this was. I thought at first they only had a front brake, but saw that they did have a back brake. I thought that maybe the one handle operated both brakes, which is uncommon in America but might have been more common in a place where motorbikes were as plentiful as cars in America. It certainly allowed people to have a free left hand for talking on cell phones, which they did. I later realized that I had thrown out the idea of a foot brake when thinking about automatic transmission scooters, and that the rear brake was where it should be, on the right foot.
I saw a man with his canoe dry docked at the side of the road as he repaired leaks in the bottom of it. I wondered how common it was for them to sink.
After Late Night Alumni was done I put on Squirrel Nut Zippers and the song Good Enough for Granddad came on. It was probably my first time hearing it and it made me happy thinking about how my grandfather, who I never knew, traveled all over the world and was a happy man, and here I was traveling and happy too.
We stopped at a village market to buy some things to take up Mt. Cam to a friend of Tien’s family. A man came by selling lottery tickets holding a small boy with no legs. At first I was sad that the boy had no legs, but then I thought about the NOFX song Nubs and thought that disabled people are just like every other person. Everybody has their problems and everybody can be happy. Disability isn’t something to rejoice in, but it’s not something to wallow in either.
As we approached Mt. Cam we passed several temples that looked like something you’d see in Thailand or Cambodia. There was writing in an alphabet that was like Thai or Khmer, which I can’t really distinguish, especially when they’re written ornately.
We stopped at the foot of the mountain after paying to enter the park and rested for a bit. I was wondering where we’d start hiking from, and then I began to wonder if we’d hike at all. Just like last time, guys on motorcycles were following us around talking and talking and talking. We ended up hiring them to take us to the top of the mountain and then we would walk back down, an idea I wasn’t completely happy with. As long as I got to hike though I’d be happy.
I got on the back of a bike with squeaky brakes and a broken speedometer and we headed up the steep incline that cuts across the side of Mt. Cam. Looking back, the green fields that stretched to the horizon last time I was here were replaced by endless pools of water cut into lines by rows of trees, as if the whole country was flooded. The country wasn’t flooded though. It’s always under water like this, you just can’t see it below the blades of rice leaves.
At the top, we went to the temple. Two boys met us and sold us some incense and began walking with us. Tien and Thu went inside to pray and I wanted in the bottom of the pagoda with Mai. When Tien and Thu returned we went onto the lawn by the pagoda, spread out a rain jacket and had a little picnic lunch. They had brought beer, 7up, bread, meat, soy sauce, fruits, chop sticks and sliced vegetables. We sat there and ate our lunch, throwing scraps of meat to the temple dogs that came wandering by. The two boys hung around, climbing on the handrail of the pagoda and chasing the bigger dogs away. Thu gave them some money and told them to get us some ice and cups for our drinks, and when they returned she gave them each an apple. I showed them some juggling with some rambutans and contact juggled their apples. They were happy boys that talked a lot. They had dark skin, probably from being outside all the time. Tien said that they would show us the way to a waterfall where we could swim.
After lunch we took off walking and the motorbike brigade swarmed around us again. Tien asked if we should take the motorbikes or hike, and since I was set on hiking I said we should hike and continued doing so. The girls straggled as the boy and I walked ahead, and eventually Tien decided to get the motorbikes to take us to the trailhead.
I thought we would lose the boy in the motorcycle exchange, but he managed to get on one of the bikes and was there at the trailhead leading the way down into the forest. He and I continued to set the pace down the trail while the girls walked behind us. The trail was a well traveled trail, maintained with steps leading down and trash everywhere. It ended up being more like a sidewalk through a stretched out village with stores scattered along the trail and people living in houses by the stores, just like any other Vietnamese village. People were rebuilding their stores, redoing the cement on the sidewalk, napping in hammocks, watching TV, and there were even a few old beggars singing songs at the side of the trail.
I was happy to be hiking. I could sometimes hear the creek in the forest to our right. The boy kept on talking as if I understood him. Tien said he was talking to me, saying things like “keep going, sir” and “just this way, sir.” Eventually he led us to a cascading waterfall with large rocks where people had built homes and stores next to. There were statues of rabbits and other animals, and a little heart at the edge of a rock. There was also a steep waterfall at the bottom and a few wires that you could use to attempt to save your own life with should you slip and slide towards your demise. We went away from that part to a higher area where there were two pools separated by a waterfall going down the side of a large rock.
As I was the only one dressed for hiking, so was I the only one dressed for swimming, but nonetheless Tien rolled up her pants unnecessarily and waded into the water up to her waist. We spent a long while playing in the water, taking pictures and having fun. I fell down the waterfall bruising my foot and palm and gashing a hole in my left heel, but I didn’t care much. I just had the boy fetch me a beer and drank it while sitting in the pool of water.
After we were rested and cooled off we headed down the trail once again. There were lots of dogs along the way, and lots of puppies. I saw a rooster eating off the counter in an open kitchen. We soon stopped again where some men were reclining in hammocks watching football. When I say “football” I mean what Americans call soccer. America seems to be the only country that doesn’t call it football.
We sat at a table and a happy woman brought me iced coffee. Tien asked her for some bandaids for my barely bleeding foot. I migrated to a hammock for a while and everybody thought I would break it. A while later the woman invited us into her home. We went with her to the back where her house met the waterfalls and sat on the rocks eating grapefruit and looking out over the tree tops at the infinite pool of water stretching beyond the mountain to the horizon. It was a nice home, and her family was nice. Her son was a monk from the temple on top of the mountain.
After a while of sitting and eating we bid them farewell and headed off down the trail again. There were still more dogs, many of them pregnant. I wondered what kind of predators lived in the woods that were above these dogs on the food chain.
A while later I saw a motorbike on the trail and knew we were back at the bottom. Our guide boy stayed near us until we left, and I felt a little pained leaving the boy behind even though that was his home.
The ride home was mostly vocal trance and sunset seen from the back of a motorbike. Water was everywhere, and school children were on their way home. I saw some of them gathered at the side of the road waiting for a small ferry that was pulling up to the shore getting ready to lower a walkway for them to board.
Back at home we sat and rested and Tien nursed my bruises and bug bites with a solve-all ointment that they always have handy. That night we sleep soundly.