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Feeling lonely in Southern Vietnam

VIETNAM | Wednesday, 2 July 2008 | Views [1464]

My previous two attempts to update my journal have been scuppered by power outages. As a result I am nearly a month behind!!! Ahhhhh...

So here's a summary of my time in Southern Vietnam...

I made it across the border on the second attempt, this time travelling to Saigon (also now known as Ho Chi Minh City). Coming from Cambodia, Saigon in the evening rush hour was a real shock to the system. Sensory overload in every respect. The streets and alleyways were lined with hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes, knick-knack shops and clothing shops of all kinds - from boutique expensive genuine luxury shops at one end of the spectrum to small cheap imitation luxury at the other. Each shop, big and small, vie for presence with their dazzling neon shop signs. The Saigonese certainly know how to live a good life - the priority is to spend, not save.

More overwhelming maybe was the motorcycle traffic. Motorcycle is, here, the predominant form of transportation. The writer, Andrew X Pham, of the book I am currently reading, Catfish and Mandala, puts my first experience of Saigon traffic better than I possibly could (so please excuse the extended quote):

"Around sunset, Viet decides it would be funny to give me a tour of the city at rush hour, when the streets are legally open for trucks and every sort of traffic...Viet laughs when I ask him for a helmet. "People can't even afford eyeglasses. Prescription glasses! And you're talking about a helmet? A helmet costs sixty American dollars -- that's twice as much as a teacher makes a month. Nobody wears them anyway. It's too hot here, and people think you're scared if you wear a helmet."

"With that, he guns the Kawasaki down the alley, narrowly missing the kids playing soccer with a tennis ball. The roads are so people-thick I can reach out and touch four other motorists at any moment. Viet works the horn, the brakes, and the gas constantly. The whole time, all I can say is, Oh, shit. Oh, God. Look out! to which his reply is a published fact: head injuries resulting from traffic accidents are the number-one cause of accidental deaths in Saigon. I see no helmets and extremely few eyeglasses.

"Nobody gives way to anybody. Everyone just angles, points, dives directly toward his desitnation, pretending it is an all-or-nothing gamble. People glare at one another and fight for maneuvering space. All parties are equally determined to get the right-of-way -- insist on it. They swerve away at the last possible moment, giving scant inches to spare. The victor goes forward, no time for a victory grin, already engaging in another contest of will. Saigon traffic is Vietnamese life, a continuoous charade of posturing, bluffing, fast moves, tenacity, and surrenders...

"I don't trust him and prepare to abandon ship at the first sign of an imminent hit. Twice motorbikes graze my legs. Within fifteen minutes, we see three accidents, one of which is serious, involving a cyclo and a motorcycle.

"The air becomes toxic, unbreathable as all of Saigon struggles to get home from schools, market, and work, and all the commerce from the rest of the country pours into the crazed streets...

"The intersections are the worst, particularly for those who need to make a left. Traffic lights are rare. Where there is one, there is never a turn signal. When Viet wants to make a turn, he simply does it, plunges in ahead of the coming traffic, hoping that his timing is right so they don't run us over. He goes into it, blasting his horn, dodging moving obstacles as aggressively as everyone else.

"At the free-for-all junctions, Viet waits until enough traffic going in our direction accumulates -- this never takes more than ten or fifteen seconds -- and moves forward with the flow when our team inches into the intersection. With such a large contingent, the cross traffic screeches to a halt to prevent collision. But close calls and accidents -- if one can call them that -- are common, so Viet instinctively worms into the center of the pack to minimize our chances of being hammered on either flank. Do it the Vietnamese way, he hollers at me. Let others take the risk. Travel on their lee and let them take the hits. It is more difficult than it sounds because everyone else uses the same principles. No one wants to get hit, but there's always a hothead who happily leads the effort."

Overwhelmed with sensory overload, I decide to spend my first evening in Saigon exploring the city and getting my orientation. I wander over to the east side of the city, which lives up to its reputation of being more affluent. I spend my evening at the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel reading my book with a glass of wine and in the background - cheesy Vietnamese-accented 80's pop music being sung by a band.

My next day is spent visiting the key museums and sights in Saigon: Ho Chi Minh Museum, History Museum, Lam Son Square, Notre Dame Cathedral, Post Office (out of architectural interest). I was quite surprised in the evening to find a message on my wall on Facebook from Sarah and Nic saying that they came to Saigon early. So I make plans to meet them (and the two guys who we travelled with on a boat) the following evening.

The next day, I try to extend the 15-day visa that I was given at my guesthouse in Cambodia, only to find out that the visa cannot be extended and that I will have to apply for ANOTHER NEW VISA at a cost of $44 USD. I verify that this is true at a number of places. I cannot believe it. I have to apply for a THIRD visa at the same cost of $44. Moreover, it will take a week before the visa will be ready for collection at the Saigon office (which is longer than I had planned to stay in Saigon).

That evening, I meet Sarah, Nic, Kieran and Thomas, for dinner. They are all staying at a hotel near to me. We go out for dinner and have a catch-up about our days apart. We arrange to go to the Cu Chi tunnels on a day trip together the following morning.

The Cu Chi tunnels were created by the Viet Minh in 1948 during their struggle against French colonialism, and later expanded by the Viet Cong during the Second Indonchina War (known as the Vietnam War in the west, and the American War here). The complexity of the tunnels is truly unbelievable. 200km of tunnels were built by the Viet Cong which were used as sleeping quarters, kitchens, hospitals, schools, storage and refuge. The tunnels were multi-tiered, and cleverly designed to encourage movement of air whilst remaining hidden. We had a go crawling through some of the original tunnels, which was quite a claustrophobic experience. I cannot imagine being down there for extended periods of time. The original tunnels were only only 80cm high and the width of the tunnel entry at ground level was about 25cm. The tunnels were too narrow for some to fit in, but with a squeeze most of the group managed.

I also had a go on the shooting range - 10 rounds on an AK47, and 10 rounds on M16 - at an expensive $1.25 per bullet. Just the sound of the shooting range was an intimidating experience. Our ears were ringing with each shot fired. They say that the lingering buzzing sound in your ears is the swansong of certain cells in your ear dying and, as a result, that frequency of sound is lost from your hearing.

The evening was spent introducing Sarah and Nic to Japanese cuisine - namely, sushi, sashimi, sake, etc. An enjoyable meal, which was followed by a drink at the rooftop of the Sheraton Hotel, which has 360 degree views of Saigon.

I decided to spend the following days, while waiting for my passport/visa, in Nha Trang (9hr bus ride north up the coast of Vietnam) for a few days, then moving back southwards along the coast to Mui Ne, then finally back in Saigon to collect my visa.

Nha Trang is quite different from the rest of Vietnam. It is apparent that the whole town has been built to cater for the tourist industry. There is a beautiful long, golden, palm and casuarina-fringed beach. At the time of my arrival, the town was hyped up about the Miss Universe Competition 2008, which was being held here. In fact, I (and the rest of the town) even got an opportunity to see the beauties doing their cheesy waves wearing short-shorts and ridiculously tight tops during a parade down the main coastal road.

Aside from that momentary excitement, I spent about 4 days here doing, well, not much really. I think I was just in the mood to do nothing for a while - travelling really takes it out of you, and sometimes I think these breaks are necessary to absorb what has happened since the last opportunity to reflect.

As I recall, I was also feeling quite lonely by this stage and had my first bout of being home-sick. I had been unable to meet any other solo travellers, and it appeared to me that the majority, if not all, of the other tourists in Nha Trang were families or couples. My feeling of home-sickness started during the trip to the Cu Chi tunnels when I was in a bus with a large group. In front of me were Nic and Sarah, who knew each other from home. On another pair of seats were Kieran and Thomas, who also knew each other from their home. And I was just sitting by myself - a 5th wheel - with no one to talk to except another stranger to my right with whom I could start another superficial conversation (just like many of the conversations that are repeated over and over again during solo travels). I was missing familiarity. I was missing having people surrounding me who knew me, and who I knew.

Anyway, I moved on to Mui Ne, a small fishing village which is quickly turning into a beach town. The layout of the town is strange, in that it is the town is stretched along a single long road, lined with expensive resorts, that follows the coastline. Soon after arriving and finding a cheap hotel, I went for a walk down the beach. On my return trip, I was invited to a play in a game of 3-aside football with the locals. Boy, was it tiring. I haven't played football in about 5 years...I needn't say more.

After talking to one of the locals for a while, whose nickname was River, it turned out that he was an easyrider - an informal label that is used by motorbike tour operators. As I was thinking about doing a tour in the central highlands, I made an arrangement with River to meet me at Dalat (a town in the Central Highlands) after I had collected my visa in Saigon.

I woke up early on the second day in Mui Ne to do a day trip (which started at 5.00am). I went with two others (an untalkative middle-aged couple) to the sand dunes to catch sunrise. Unfortunately, sunrise had just passed by the time we got there, by the sun was still very low in the sky to make the early-start worthwhile. I went sandsurfing a few times - which is sliding down the sand dunes on a plastic board. I was exhausted by the end - it's easy going down, it's coming back up that's the hard part.

Then we went to see the local fishing village (literally a stop on the side of the road), some more sand dunes (just a different colour), and then finally the Fairy Spring. I loved walking through the Fair Spring. We had 3 children as aour guides, who just appeared from nowhere, and took us for a 1hr walk through the spring. The sand formations were striking. I even walked into quick-sand (and managed to extract myself with some help). After the trip, I took a bus to Saigon.

Back in Saigon again, I collected my passport with the new visa. I spent one more day in Saigon visiting the War Remnants Museum and a few other places that I had previously missed out, before leaving for Dalat in the Central Highlands for my easyrider tour.

Our final dinner together - sushi!

Our final dinner together - sushi!

Tags: ho chi minh, mui ne, nha trang, saigon, shooting range


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