Archives for posts with tag: Vietnam

Jack, Tobi and I make our way by train to Hue. I was here on my last trip but missed out seeing the Citadel, so we’re here for a day to see it. I’ll let the pictures do the talking….

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I arrived by bus from Hoi An and set out to find the guesthouse my friend Garth had recommended to me. Bit of a mess as my moto taxi driver didn’t know where it was and it took us forever to find but find it we did, eventually. Hoa’s Guesthouse, about 4kms outside of Danang, sits about 30 meters up a dirt road from China Beach (famous for having been a R n’ R spot for GI’s during the war), and about a 10 minute walk from the Marble Mountains. It’s a beautiful beach, super wide, mostly clean and virtually empty. Hoa’s is a blast. I meet a few lovely people and we formed a very nice group. I’d planned to spend only a couple days in Danang but it ended up being about 10 and could have been much longer.

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One of these lovely people that I met was named Jack, a (then) 18 year old from England and who celebrated his 19th birthday just a few days after I met him. That bakery I found in Hoi An came in handy as we drove the half hour (by motorbike) into Hoi An and picked him up 5 pieces of cake, each one different, and surprised him with them. Pretty happy kid.

My friend Garth took me out on a tour by moto one day, we visited the beautiful “Lady Buddha” that is so big she can be seen from all around Danang. I call her the “Lady Buddha” because I think she is just so stunning but perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps she’s a he?

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He also took me deep into a jungle trail to a shrine which had been built around a really old tree. I don’t know what these trees are called but they grow slowly and intertwine with each other and take over anything that surrounds them, making it a part of themselves. Smaller trees grow up from the ground around and join with the main tree, creating an almost veil like effect. There was a feeling around this tree that is indescribable, an aura of calm, an oasis….

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Four of our group went to Hue on motorbikes for an overnight visit, Jack and I stayed behind as both of planned to head that way anyways, eventually, when we could tear ourselves away from Danang. But we arranged to meet up with the gang at a National Park. We rented a motorbike and had a blast getting lost and then eventually finding our way there, we met some cute little oinkers at a restaurant high in the hills,

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We did actually manage to meet up with the others, had a hike and found a sweet swimming spot to cool us down and clean the road dust and sweat off. Made it back in one piece to Danang and I finally decided it was time for me learn to ride my own motorbike, I was tired of having to get people to double me. So the next day I rented a bike and took a Jack and Roger into Hoi An for the day. I was so nervous at first, but I did it and it’s so much better then being on the back of one, my thanks to the boys for coaching me along!

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Eventually you have leave and keep moving, Jack and I both wanted to head into Laos soon but we had a couple more stops in Vietnam first and a German guy named Tobi was going to join us for those.

Hoa….after a few beers.

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Marble Mountains is located in Danang, Vietnam. They are land karsts (not sure if that is the correct term), they look like big lumps rising up up out the flat land that is Danang. I visited them twice during my stay in Danang. The first time I went I joined up with a few people I had met at the guesthouse and we walked up the many steps to an upper viewpoint with a pagoda on it. Fantastic views and lots of templely stuff to look at. We found one cave and it was neat but nothing spectacular if you’ve been to other caves and I have. At the time that I visited there was a gigantic glass elevator shaft being constructed right next the mountain, an incongruous sight to say the least. Needless to say I wasn’t overly impressed, I had expected more as it’s one of the only reasons listed in Lonely Planet to go to Danang.

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Once back at the guesthouse we talked to a guy who had been staying there a while and he told us we had missed the best part, we’d have to go back, so a few day later I did, with a different group this time. We walked past the stairs my group had gone up the first time and entered a large cave. Inside was massive with a row of statues, a set of scales and a central figure with a wheel behind it, I realized that this was supposed to represent purgatory, the space between heaven and hell, and these figures represented the people? angels?  who were going to sit in judgement of your soul to figure out which direction you would be sent. We found a passageway that lead downwards into a maze of tunnels and nooks and crannies with all sorts of bizarre statues showing various tortured souls, demons and monsters, it was surprisingly disturbing and graphic. The “hell” passageways eventually led up back up into purgatory and from there we found another pathway, this time leading upwards to “heaven” filled with hundreds of Buddhas, dragons, lotus flowers and more, all in white marble. A massive stairway lead upwards with all these images carved into relief on the walls. At the top we climbed through a small opening into daylight and there was a simple Buddha shrine.

“Purgatory”

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“Hell”

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“Heaven”

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Definitely a worthwhile second visit!

After 2 months in Mui Ne, I’m done my contract and ready to get a move on. I’ve been restless and ready for a while so the same day that I teach my last class I book a night bus to Saigon. I don’t have a plan yet and figured I’d go to a big city so as to take advantage of greater options.

I spend a single day in Saigon and then get on a bus for Hoi An. It was supposed to be a direct bus but instead it drops me off in Nha Trang, not my favorite city and I have to wait 3 hours until my connecting bus shows up. Pretty displeased about that. The bus I ends up on takes about 12 hours to get to Hoi An (instead of the 6 they told me) and wanting to drop me off at the side of highway in the middle of the night about 5 kms outside of town. I refuse to get off the bus until they call me a taxi and pay for it to take me into town. This doesn’t make me very popular but I am sick of being shuffled around and lied to by this company, I’ve also been on buses for about 24 hours at this point, without proper food or a clean bathroom.They get me a cab, it’s paid for and takes me into town where I find a hotel and get some much needed sleep. I’m in a pretty bad mood to be honest so the mental oblivion of sleep in a comfy bed is fantastic, as well as the shower. I wake up the next (late) morning feeling revived.

I spend about 5 days in Hoi An, I get some clothes made, copies of things I have with me, see some sights, go to a nearby beach, meet some lovely people and take a Vietnamese cooking class with one of them. We learn how to make a soup with shrimp dumplings in it, fresh spring rolls, green mango salad, 12 spice bbq, and my favorite, Vietnamese pancakes (Bahn Xeo). I also find a great bakery which will come in handy in about a week.

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Next step, Danang. It’s not actually that far away but I never made it there on my last trip through and I have a friend that I haven’t seen in ages who has been living there for a couple years teaching English.

I did get away from Mui Ne for a long weekend in Dalat right in the middle of my stay there. Dalat is up in the central mountains and I’d missed it on my first trip through Vietnam so I thought it would be a great place to pay a visit to. This is one of the major agricultural centers for Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region, supplying, fruit, flowers, tea and coffee. It’s also home to many large waterfalls, Buddhist temples and an extensive night market. Dalat used to be a resort town for the French Colonists looking to escape the heat so there would be some lovely old buildings, as well, it’s also home to an architectural marvel/nightmare known as Crazy House, therefore a must see for me. I figured all of this would make it a town worth checking out. I hired a motorcycle tour guide from Easy Riders and he took me to all the places I wanted to see and also provided some interesting insights into Vietnam .Final impression, it was a very touristy place but interesting in terms of architecture, history and the natural settings were very lovely as well though often made less so by cluttered/cheesy decorations and statues in places of natural beauty that really should have just been left to their own devices.But this is a common problem in a country where plastic flowers are often seen as being better then fresh ones.

I arrived in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) on January 26, 2011. I gave myself a couple days to get up to Mui Ne and get myself settled into a home before I was due to start work on Feb. 1. I re-introduced myself to Lex (the studio owner) and he got me set up with a great room and a beater bicycle that I could use to get around which I promptly decorated with yellow plastic flowers and happy face stickers. My schedule was easy, I would be teaching one class a day, either yoga or pilates or a yoga/pilates mix and then have the rest of the day to myself, 6 days a week. I spent the remainder of my days  either relaxing on the beach or exploring surrounding areas, places like the nearest town, Phan Thiet or the sand dunes which you can slide down on plastic sheet toboggans ( a gritty, sweaty affair that is actually quite fun).

About  6 weeks into my stay I got the email I was dreading, my mom wrote to tell me the cancer was back, it was bad, and she was undergoing radiation to shrink the tumours that had moved into her spine. But she insisted she didn’t want to me to come back yet, she had support in the form of a friend who would live with her and help her as needed. So I spent my two months here but by the middle of it I was pretty restless. Mui Ne is a small town, I was ready to move on. Also I figured I would have to go home fairly soon, I wanted to be with my mom.

I arrived back home the day before Christmas Eve, and enjoyed Christmas with the family, all my gifts came from my travels, custom made clothes from Hoi An, Vietnam and various other assorted bits and pieces. It was nice to be back in the bosom of my family again. My mom had been doing really well but she was having some back problems and working with her chiropractor to figure them out. She had made an appointment to go get a scan to check if the cancer had re-occurred but we that wouldn’t happen until early February and we wouldn’t see any results from that until late February.

Also, I purchased a new camera, the Canon G12, hopefully perfect for traveling and I would soon get to test it out. Check out the photos from this trip.

In early January 2011 my mom and I headed off on a road trip to Seattle, her belated birthday gift to me for my 39th birthday. We drove down and checked into a lovely hotel with amazing views as we were on the umpteenth floor.

That afternoon we headed over to the Seattle Public library, I know that doesn’t sound exciting but it’s actually an incredibly interesting building architecturally, if you like that kind of thing and my mom  and I do! We both took tons of pictures and I got vertigo at one point, no straight lines!

After the library we took a quick walk around and then went back to the hotel to clean up for dinner out at Purple Wine Bar. We both had an amazing meal and I drank the Argentinian red wine sampler, yum!

The next morning my mom wasn’t feeling well, her back was hurting her a lot. With her blessing and a plan to meet up later on I went out for a stroll through the Pike Pace market, so many picture taking opportunities and nooks and crannies to explore. It’s so incredibly clean and organized when I compare it to market I have seen in SE Asia! Smells a lot better too.

Mom and I met up for lunch and then headed off to the Seattle Art Museum to tour the Picasso exhibit. I’m not so big on Picasso actually so I didn’t find it that inspiring but some of the other artwork was just incredible.

After the gallery we went back up to the hotel to pack up the car for the ride home but first a quick stop outside architect Frank Gehry’s The Music Experience for some jaw dropping visuals and wonderment, how on earth did he come up with these ideas and more importantly how an earth were they actually executed into reality? Wow.

On the ride home my mom and I discussed the job offer I’d received when I was in Vietnam. She wanted me to do it, but I was nervous about leaving her when it seemed like her health was starting to become a problem again. Finally after eliciting a very solemn promise from her that she would let me know the moment she wanted me home I agreed I would go. Also helping me to make the decision I was able to speak to the owner of the studio in Vietnam and he assured me that if I needed leave before my 2 month contract was up so as to come be with my mom he would have no problem with that at all, very understanding. All these agreements in place I decided I would go for it. I was on a plane before the month was up, a one way ticket into Vietnam.

Originally published on facebook – January 10, 2011 at 11:59pm ·

Ok, ok, so I am home, but I never posted all this, it’s exists only in my journal so I’m sharing now. There is yet still more to come after this, read or not at your pleasure….

Vietnam (Chau Doc) to Cambodia (Phnom Phen) – Day 54

I’m crossing into Cambodia today, Phnom Phen via a long slow boat ride along the Mekong River. It should take about 8 hours including a little break at the border for lunch and to get our passports stamped. The journey is pretty uneventful, I see lots more of what life is like for people who live along the Mekong River. The river is used as a bath, a kitchen sink, a garbage can and, appallingly, as a bathroom. I can’t image it’s very healthy to be washing your dishes (or yourself) 3 meters away from someone going to the bathroom, but it is what it is. Kids swim and play in the water, duck farms with hundreds of then packed into a very small area, water buffalo bathing. I’m tired from my lack of sleep last night (the rainy bed, the morning socialist shout out over the loudspeaker) and am hoping to nap but no such luck, in the first boat the seats are just hard chairs not even attached to the floor. At the border where we break for lunch I make friends with Julie and Martin from Denmark and Christian from Italy. We realize we’re all planning to stay at the same guesthouse in Phnom Phen and start to hit it off.

After the border we’re on a different boat, this one has two slatted wooden benches running along the sides, even more uncomfortable then the first boat, if that was possible, I bear it for half an hour or so and then make my way towards the back of the boat where the engine cover (and my backpack) is. It’s noisy but I lay down on my bag and promptly pass out for a couple hours. You know that feeling when you wake up really suddenly, startling yourself? I do that, catching myself just before falling off my bag. It’s around 4pm by now and I keep thinking we must almost be there but no, it’s another 3 hours before we get off the boat. Along the way we watch river life, it’s around the time of day when everyone comes down to the river to bathe. I see a very old woman, naked from the waist up she stares right back at us, not shy. I see a young probably newly married couple, he’s in shorts and she’s in a sarong, they’re both wet from their bath and are sitting cross legged, knees to knees, staring into each others eyes, looking very much in love. Sweet. Lots of kids and adults too, waving and shouting hello, it never gets tired.

Off the boat we get into a minibus for an hours drive into Phnom Phen city. Delivered directly to our guesthouse I opt for a “prison cell” room, no windows. It’s pitch black all night and very quiet, I expect to sleep well and do, yay.

Phnom Phen – day 55

I sleep in, enjoying the darkness of my “cell”. Explore a bit of the city, seeing the Vietnam-Cambodia friendship monument the Independence Monument and a Wat with lots of stupas. I want to head to the Silver Palace & Royal Pagoda complex but run into Julie, Martin and Christian from the day before and they (easily) talk me into going to the Russian Market with them. We spend a few hours there and I introduce Martin to the joys of the Vietnamese pancake (different name here but same same). The market is incredible, clothes, antiques, jewelery, food, paper, opium pipes, Buddha statues, paintings, lamps, etc, etc. We all buy something and then head back to the hotel.

We shower and have dinner and then head to a bar that Christian met the owner of somewhere. It’s more a pub really, with drink specials, so we play pool and imbibe. A guy that the Denmarkians had met in Vietnam (Marcus) joins us and we end up at a club on the riverfront. Not a place I would usually go but hey, it was there. Unfortunately it’s filled with “pros” and Martin (who is quite shy) attracts a hanger on. He tells her I’m his girlfriend, which doesn’t seem to make a difference to her at all and he’s really uncomfortable so I decide to help him out a bit and drag him onto the dance floor. Mistake. For my trouble I end up getting shoved a couple times from behind and my hair gets pulled. I’m not pleased but she has quite a few friends and I’m a peaceful type so I ignore it and pray I am not about to be knifed. I make it out alive thank goodness, not even a bald spot.

Phnom Phen – day 56

In the morning we met a guy named Julien from France, we all liked him right away and invited him to come with us to the Killing Fields for the day. We rent 3 motorbikes, Martin and Marcus share one, Julie and Christian on another and Julien and I share the third. Martin and Christian get a map and directions, Julien and I figure to follow them so we don’t pay much attention. It’s a pity really because we lose them within the first block. Do we do the smart thing and backtrack, no, we keep going. We end up having a lovely tour of the countryside and drive (circuitously) about 70 kms to get to the Fields. Once there we run into everyone else and shockingly seem to have arrived about 5 minutes after them, they went about 20 kms in the same time it took us to do 70. I’m not sure how that works.

At the Fields (Choeung Ek) we check out the small museum first and watch a short video, it’s really informative, almost 9,000 bodies were discovered in just this one area and not even all the mass graves were unearthed. There are other Killing Fields scattered all over the country, millions died. It’s terrifying. In Buddhist cultures a stupa is a sacred structure that contains the remains of the deceased, especially the remains of greatly revered individuals. The construction of a stupa is a significant activity that produces merit for the living and encourages the remembrance of the dead. In 1989 the Stupa at Choeung Ek was completed to house the over 8,000 skulls and many other bones and clothing remnants found at this site. Prior to 1989 the bones were stored on open wooden shelves, the stupa seems a more fitting memorial. Most of these bones were found in mass graves within the first couple of years after the Khmer Regime ended. During heavy rain bones and clothing pieces still rise up to the surface today, there are many bodies still buried here. The field that holds the graves that have been dug up looks like a wavy sea, grass grows in the holes, yet it is still obvious what was there. They are however much smaller then I imagined, and so I am uncomfortably reminded how closely packed in the average grave of  200 or so people were. In one mass grave every single body found was headless and wearing a uniform (army fatigues), in another it was only women and children. Right next to this grave was a large tree, apparently the tree was used to smash children’s heads against to kill them before tossing them into the neighboring open grave all in the interest of conserving ammunition. It was actually common for adults to be killed by other methods then bullets as well. Ammunition was rare and expensive, people were bludgeoned with axes, picks, rocks, canes etc and stabbed with bamboo stakes or whatever else may have been available and common and lethal.

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This was an incredibly somber visit however I didn’t feel the same heaviness that I have felt at other memorial sites, I can’t put my finger on why. Don’t get me wrong it was very affecting but, I don’t know…perhaps I thought it would actually be worse then it was? I certainly thought the graves and the site would be larger, cover more territory then it did. That sounds terrible, like I didn’t feel, I did believe me just not as harshly as I anticipated I might.

The next place we headed to changed all that, S-21 Prison aka: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. To workers assigned by the Khmer Rouge to the Tuol Sleng neighborhood, S-21 was known simply as “konlaenh choul min dael chenh” – “the place where people go in but never come out.” Tuol Sleng’s reputation was brutally accurate: the sole purpose of S-21 was to extract confessions from political prisoners before they were taken away for execution outside of the capital near the farming village of Choeung Ek. Nearly 20,000 people are known to have entered Tuol Sleng; of these only six are known to have survived.

S-21 was originally a school, there are still monkey bars in the courtyard, right next to a wooden structure that was constructed as a gallows for the hanging and torture of prisoners. From the moment you arrived as a prisoner at S-21, your rights and responsibilities were made painfully clear by a large sign showing a set of ten standing orders. These rules dictated how you acted, how you responded to questioning, and how you had no choice but to accept the fact that you were a traitor and would be treated as such.

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As we head towards the first building (A) there is an area in the courtyard with 14 tombs. These tombs hold the bodies of the last 14 people (one of whom is a woman) who were killed by the Khmer Rouge just moments before they fled from the prison. Building A has large rooms with yellowish walls and black and white checkered floors. Most of the rooms still contain a single metal bed frame, sometimes there is a metal box on the bed-springs, it looks like the type of rectangular box that would hold ammunition, in fact it was used as a toilet and is labeled “case for excrement”. In other rooms there are old metal implements, tools like a pick or axe or shovel, on the bed. These are the actual tools that were used to kill and torture people here. Each room looks exactly the same except for these small differences, with one exception, on one wall there is a large black and white photo of a dead prisoner, each photo, each death, is different, unique, bloody, horrific and appalling.

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Each of the four buildings is of the same exterior design, 3 levels with open covered porch/walkways lining the front, along which doors lead into the various rooms. Building B is covered in barbed wire, so that prisoners could not jump from the balconies to escape the confinement, torture and painful death that awaited them inside. These rooms have been re-purposed into small cells made of either brick or wood. Each cell is about 3′ wide and 5 or 6′ long. There are no beds, there are many “cases for excrement”. Because the building wasn’t originally constructed as a jail there are big windows (now covered in bars) I suppose if you were “lucky” you got a cell with natural light, if you were in a corner cell you must have been in pitch blackness 24/7.

Building C is dedicated to showing some of the implements and devices of torture .Also to many, many photographs of the thousands of people who were housed here. This is incredibly difficult, there are pictures of men and women, but impossibly also of children. Children who were killed solely so that they could not come seeking revenge for the deaths of their parents and/or other family members. Some of the photos look like mugshots, some are much more explicit, showing cuts, bruises, black-eyes, ropes tied around necks and worse. This is the hardest for me, the mass quantity of images is overwhelming, I feel very affected and stricken numb or dumb. The faces show the terror, fear, shock and helplessness that these people must have felt. Actually how they must have felt is unknowable for me, I have nothing even remotely close in my personal experience to relate to this, I can only imagine and empathize, empathy in this case is painful, I feel indescribable, I’m shut down, I can’t look anymore, my heart and mind has overloaded. I can only look and experience the smallest portion of what these people must have gone through. There is still one more building to see and I can barely face it.

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Building D, there are more photos of prisoners. Some skulls are on display, you can see the bullet holes. A small Buddhist shrine has been set up to offer prayers and remembrance and perhaps some sort of personal solace. There is a photograph on one wall of a map of Cambodia, made up of human skulls, a chilling and powerful image. In following rooms there are stories of people who worked (or were assigned) at the prison. Many of these people were coerced in some way into complying and I want to read but I am exhausted emotionally and cannot focus my eyes or brain, I’m done. I head outside into the sunshine (which feels good yet incongruous) and sit on a bench in the courtyard to wait for the others.  It’s been a day of harsh experience, I sit back, close my eyes and breathe. reflecting on what I’ve seen today I’m glad to have done it and felt the feelings I felt, but I don’t want to dwell here, feeling all heavy and shitty. If there is something I have learned from this country and its people is that they don’t wallow in self pity and feelings of victimization, they get on with life, so that’s what I do. I am joined by the others and we all feel similarly, we talk about it and come to much the same conclusions, we experienced it, and it was really heavy and harsh but it’s time to let that go and enjoy life in the present.

Back on the bikes we are making our way to the guesthouse when we are stopped by the cops. They demand $10 from each of us for some imagined traffic infraction. They tell us that if we don’t pay it now we must come to the station where the fine will be $100. I’m all for trying to talk the price down but everyone else is all nervous and they pay up so I am forced to do the same. This is a super common scam, I’ve heard of it before and since and it IS actually possible to talk them down to $1 or $2, but you have to try! My hands were tied, I went along with the group, one of the pitfalls of traveling as part of a crowd.

Phnom Phen – Day 57

I spend the day checking out some of the Water Festival activities. This is a big deal here, it celebrates a major natural occurrence: the reversing flow between the Tonle Sap and the Mekong River. For most of the year, the Tonle Sap empties into the Mekong River. However, when the rainy season arrives in June, the Mekong rises, reversing the flow to dump water into the lake, increasing its size ten-fold. When the rainy season ends in November, the Mekong drops once more, allowing the current to reverse again, emptying the excess waters of Tonle Sap back into the Mekong. This natural occurrence is celebrated in Cambodia with three days of festivals, parades, boat races, fireworks, and general merriment. Actually there’s not much to see. The boat races along the river are confusing, I can’t really make heads or tails of whats going on and while there are a TON of people watching, nobody seems very excited, not cheering, encouraging or even booing the teams, strange. We don’t a see any actual parades, I miss the fireworks because I heard they were at a different time then they actually were. And the “general merriment” ended up basically being very large crowds wandering the streets randomly, many many food and snack stalls, and some concerts. Still, interesting to see how this event is celebrated by the Cambodians.

That night we head out to celebrate my birthday, it’s a little weird for me to not have my friends and family around, instead I’m hanging out with people I’ve only know a few days, it’s not bad and I have a great time (maybe too great) but I miss everyone at home. We stay out dancing until almost dawn and finally tuk tuk back to the guesthouse and fall (literally) into bed.

Phnom Phen – Day 58

Let’s call this day a write off and leave it at that, except for these words of advice….. 39 year olds should exercise caution when partying with young 20-somethings, ouch.

One other thing….I read today that Confucius wrote that lucidity begins at 40, I can’t wait.

Phnom Phen – Day 59

I sleep late, possibly still recovering. I head to the Soraya mall, it’s a modern mall, with 6 tiers of escalators. On the top floor is an indoor rollerblading/skating rink, lots of teens in skinny jeans and big hair. Cambodian hipsters. The escalators must be a new-ish thing here in Cambodia, it appears that some people have never used them before and view them somewhat distrustfully, though many people are entirely comfortable of course. Perhaps it’s people from rural areas who have come into town for the festivities who are new to escalators, I don’t know, but it’s funny. Gripping one side of the railing with both hands before stepping gingerly onto the step, and keeping their hands there throughout the entire journey, I can see the mental preparation on faces as they near the bottom and realize they are going to have to step off this thing.The shoulders tense, the eyes focus, the hands grip a smidgen tighter and finally the step and the relief that they’ve made it. Only have 5 more to go to get to the ground floor. One kids freaks right out at the top, blocks the entrance and refuses to get on, his mother bustles him off to walk down the many flights of stairs instead.

After the mall I walk to the nearby Central Market. It’s a cool art deco style domed building built in 1937. Apparently it just underwent a renovation so perhaps it wasn’t up to full steam yet because it seemed low key to me, compared to the many other markets I’ve experienced. Maybe it needs a bit more time to get filled to the rafters again. In any case it houses an impressive number of jewelry counters in the central domed area and the wings are jammed with clothing, and art stalls. More interesting are the many stalls under the eaves on the outside of the building, various local crafts, fabrics etc. echoing with the familiar calls of “buy from me”, “hey madam” and my favorite “special best price just for you”. Uh huh.

From the market I take a tuk tuk to Wat Phnom, or “Hill Temple” it’s built on Phnom Phen’s only hill, an apparently artificial one about 100′ high and is the tallest religious structure in the city. Built by a wealthy widow (Daun Chi Penh) after a great flood washed statues of Buddhas downstream it is here that the city of Phnom Penh (“Penh’s Hill”) was founded in 1373. Shrines and other buildings have been put up and restored several times since then, the last major restoration taking place in 1926. Today it’s super crowded due to the water festival, everyone in the country appears to be on holiday, music is blasting from a temporary stage set up on the lower grounds. Didn’t really expect that, kind of thought I might find an oasis of calm amongst the crowds here but no such luck, oh well, go with it. Families camped out on blankets and bamboo mats, unsupervised kids everywhere, food stalls, balloon vendors, beggars, monks, you name it, packed. In the temple money is tucked into every possible crevice of the many Buddha statues, he’s hauling it in today. I explore the entire hill and then sit and people watch for a while, free entertainment.

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I meet up with the others later at the hotel and we head out for a dinner of street food and then just wander around aimlessly with all the crowds, We can’t figure out where everyone is headed to, there aren’t any events going on as far as we can figure. we head back to the hotel for an early night, we are heading to Sihanoukville tomorrow.

Overnight the bridge tragedy occurs, see the link.

http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2010/1122/Cambodia-Water-Festival-turns-tragic-with-deadly-stampede

We read about it in the morning English language papers and are stunned, over 340 people died, many more were wounded. It’s appalling to see the footage on local television, the information we get is unclear, various different stories about what caused it, details are vague,, theories abound. What is clear is that hundreds of people died not five minutes away from where we were safely sleeping in bed. Unsettling.

Originally published on facebook –  December 26, 2010 at 2:46pm

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Saigon to My Tho (Mekong Delta) – Day 40

I’m public busing it again, even though all the touts have told me it’s “not possible”, c’mon, of course it is, how on earth would the Vietnamese get around otherwise? They really like to do that here, get you to buy the packaged tour. It obviously has to do with making money but I think on some level it’s about making a guest comfortable as well. Also, why would you want to take a small, ugly, smelly, cramped bus with a guy yelling out your destination every 30 seconds, that stops everywhere and anywhere people want to get on or off, when you could ride along in supreme isolated air-conditioned (read freezing) comfort? Which one sounds like fun to you? I choose the public bus, much more entertaining although also a much longer journey.

I’m headed to My Tho, known as the Gateway to the Mekong Delta. I am delivered, after using a taxi, a public bus and a minibus so far, on the side of a highway outside of My Tho, I have to take a motobike taxi into town. I find cheap lodging near the river. It’s late afternoon already so I wander round the area. It’s pretty quiet. A gentleman named Truc approaches me and asks if I want to go on a tour, I tell him yes and ask him how much and what I would see. He tells me and I let him know I will think about it but want to check on some other places/tours first. I do this but he sticks in my mind so I find him again and we make arrangements to meet the next morning. At dusk i wander through the local market, lots of food, weird smells etc, the usual scene. I stumble upon a Bahn Xeo (Vietnamese Pancake) place and (as it’s one of my favorites and they look really, really good) I order from the lady who is making them in woks, right on the street. It’s comes with a massive platter of salad (fresh herbs and lettuces), fish sauce with chili and it’s really complete when I order a bia (beer) to go with it. Amazing meal.

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My Tho – Day 41

Up early had street breakfast (love that egg baguette and iced coffee) and meet Truc by the river at 7am. I am his only guest, excellent. We cross the Mekong and head towards the Ben Tre side. We cruise up a small river, surrounded by water coconut palms on all sides. Water coconuts are about the size of a soccer ball, or a bit smaller, and are kind of spiky looking. Truc tries to find one that is good too eat, neither too young or too old, no luck though he had me drink some of the juice out of a young one and it was tasty, just like regular coconut juice but maybe a bit more bitter. We go up the small river quite a ways and then stop and get off the boat at a bridge. A short walk takes us to a small market, see fruit, fish, a pigs foot and leg, etc. Truc buys us a treat, purple sticky rice with coconut and sugar all wrapped up in a palm leaf, it’s pretty good and surprisingly filling.

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Back to the boat we head back down the river. Coming back out onto the wide open area of the Mekong we duck up different small river to a tourist stop where they feed us fruit and Vietnamese Tea which Truc makes for me in a small glass with lots of honey and some lime, it’s really sweet but nice. He also makes me hold a python and took some pictures of me doing it. I really didn’t want to and you can see that in the photos but by the end of it I’d started to feel more comfortable.Image

Back to the boat again we head back down the river and to an island that is in between My Tho and Ben Tre Province. We take a walk along the shore of it, about 1000 people live here, farming and fishing. It looks pretty prosperous, some very large, proper houses with barely a tin roofed (or sided) shack to be seen. We’re followed or “greeted” by a lot of barking dogs, it’s almost constant and while they are not vicious they aren’t friendly either, Truc carries a stick, just in case he tells me. Awesome. As we walk he tries hard to teach me some Vietnamese. He points out different fruits and trees, I remember their English names but mostly get the Vietnamese ones mixed up. but he’s very informative and I appreciate the effort. next we head on the boat to a coconut candy factory, this is a very popular sweet in Vietnam and they are good, with flavors like, durien fruit, peanut (which is good) and classic coconut (which is my favorite). I get to see how it is made from the raw coconut to the ladies individually wrapping each candy by hand, pretty cool actually. We leave just as 2 big groups are arriving, I’m so pleased I did this tour on my own as we are on different schedule then all the other boats so often have these sights just to ourselves, nice.

Next up is another island where the “Coconut Monk” used to live and had his temple, he’s dead now. He sounds like a pretty kooky guy, started as a Buddhist and then founded his own faith which was never officially recognized though he did end up with quite a few followers, including a couple of Americans. He tried to run for President of Vietnam once and claimed he would only need 7 days as President to fix all the problems that existed whereupon he would resign and come back to the island to resume his “quiet” life. Needless to say he didn’t win. His temple is almost ridiculous, reminding me of a small, somewhat seedy Disneyland. There is a big fake mountain with a shrine set up in front. In front of the mountain is a concrete courtyard with 10 pillars. Each pillar has a dragon wrapped around it. These pillars are meant to represent him and his 9 wives. His dragon is white and in the center of the 9 surrounding ones in a square formation which have yellow dragons, his wives. Nearby is a tower, looks a lot like a cellphone tower, with a very small room at the top which he apparently spent a lot of time in. About halfway up the side of the tower is a large globe and above that is an over-scale Apollo Rocket-ship. I don’t have any idea what this has to do with anything but it’s there, I promise you. We walk through the rest of the grounds and find a large concrete pen with many crocodiles in it, once again I have no idea what (if anything) this is supposed to mean, I’m just glad that the pen is 10 feet deep with concrete walls and they are below me with no obvious means of escaping, they look mean…and hungry.

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It’s time to head back to My Tho, I have a bus to catch. I pack up my bags and meet up with Truc again, he has kindly offered to take me to the bus stop outside of town. We grab a bite to eat and head out. He waits for half an hour with me at the bus stop to make sure I get the right bus, above and beyond the call of duty this guy, a lucky find. I adore him and pay him extra well for taking such good care of me.

I’m headed to Can Tho, another riverside town, bigger then My Tho. On the bus I mostly nap and listen to the guy behind me throw up in a plastic bag, I miss my ipod a lot. I arrive in Can Tho in the late afternoon and figure to go on a little walk along the riverfront. I am inundated by people who want me to buy a boat tour from them and it quickly gets me irritated, all I wanted was to have a peaceful walk and eat and an ice cream, instead I’m practically having to beat them off with a stick. The tour is to go see 2 different floating markets, a rice paper making factory, monkey bridges and a walk through the countryside. One guy in particular is quite persistent. His first offer is $15, I say I’ll think about it, all I really want to see is the floating markets and I know it is possible to do it on my own much cheaper. I keep walking through town and am being harassed so much I start to consider just skipping it all and leaving town asap. The same guy finds me again and offers me the trip for $10, I walk away from him and continue to try to find some peace. No luck, he find me again, I feel like I am being stalked, and so I decide to talk to him. I tell him I want to do it on my own, that I don’t care about any of it except the markets and I can do it on my own. He asks me how much I would pay and to get rid of him I say $5. To my surprise he agrees to it so I sign on. He makes me swear I won’t tell anyone how much I paid though.

Can Tho – Day 42

I am up too early for my liking,  5:30am. I meet my 2 tour mates, American girls Lindsey and Erin, traveling separately. Right away Lindsey is kind of annoying, she’s high maintenance kind of girl and I’m surprised to learn throughout the day that she is fairly well traveled. She seems unable to practice acceptance is full of complaints and loud in that way that people assume all American tourists are, speaking louder when they are not understood instead of trying a different way of saying something. I try and just let it slide and keep my mouth shut. It’s not too hard as it’s so early in the morning and we watch the sunrise as we travel up the river towards the first market. It’s a motorized market called Cai Rang, lots of large boats. Lindsey and Erin are chatting so much that they kind of miss it, they didn’t realize that we were in it until the driver said ok, now we go to the other one. They’re surprised but I’d been paying a bit more attention and got some pictures of the market and of early morning life along the river.

We take a detour on the way further up the river to the rice paper making factory. I snap a couple photos and we all use the wc but spend most of the time there playing with the cutest little puppy, I’m such a sucker.

Once we are back on the boat we cruise for quite a while, snapping the odd photo of life on the river, people doing the washing, brushing teeth, eating, etc. Image

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Eventually we reach the second market, Phong Dien. This one is not motorized and a little more what we were hoping for. It’s all small boats, crowded together. Everything is being sold, from fruit to meat to rice to cloth to cold drinks, and coffee. Live ducks which are sold by weight and then handed over to their new owners by the neck (dinner, yum). we love it, lots of pictures taken, surrounded on all sides by boats bumping into each other, standing up trying to get different perspectives without falling in, fun.

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And then there is this woman, in the middle of it all…

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Next we head a little ways back towards Can Tho then turn up a small river. We are dropped off so we can walk and self guide ourselves for at least an hour. Anytime we hit a crossroads our boat is waiting to tell us which way to turn and then he motors on ahead. We all realize we need to pee and ask at a small store for a toilet. We are led to a little hut that sits over a small stream. I have to walk along a log that is about 5″ wide and step over a low doorway. Once inside the log splits into a “Y” shape and I balance on this and squat to pee. Incidentally there is only about 18″ of screen for privacy, not quite enough to be able to pull ones pants down or up without flashing the countryside. Novel experience, we all have a giggle.

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We walk more and finally meet up with the driver who takes us to eat at a very touristic (therefore overpriced) place but we have no other options and are hungry so we eat. Back on the big river for the ride back our guide makes us windmills out of palm fronds. We arrive in Can Tho around 1:30pm, I pack up and check out. Motorbike to the bus station, am headed to Rach Gia.

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After a 4 hour bus ride, which I thought would take 2, I arrive in Rach Gia. As the bus pulled in I see a pack of moto drivers running after us, it’s so comical, and typical, it makes me laugh out loud. I choose a guy who speaks English passably and tell him I’m trying to get to Phu Quoc Island and need to get a ticket for first thing the next morning. He takes me to the ticket place, no luck for the early ferry but I can get on the afternoon boat, ok done. Found a place for dinner with seafood specialties and beer. An older Vietnamese guy chats me up, he’s a salesman and here with 2 of his co-workers, he’s also very drunk which is somewhat entertaining. Invites me to a “private party” I gently decline and he soon leaves with his friends who come back about 15 minutes later without him, I think they’ve dumped him somewhere to sleep it off.

Rach Gia to Phu Quoc – Day 43

In the morning while I’m hanging round waiting for the ferry I meet Marco and Gianni, brothers from Italy, they are headed to Phu Quoc as well. We catch the ferry together and when we arrive on the island there is a pack of minibuses waiting for us. I talk the price down and we hop on, they will take us to guesthouses until we find one we’re happy with so it beats hauling our packs around as we search. Once on the bus the boys are LOUD, but hilarious, full of jokes, enthusiasm and outrageous comments, the whole bus is laughing with them quickly. Quickly I learn their favorite word (bee-you-tee-fullll!) and everything is beautiful according to them. I can’t help it and take to speaking with my hands a lot and in an Italian accent. For the next few days I try to teach them other possible descriptive words, eg: amazing, gorgeous, fantastic, lovely, etc. but finally it all comes back to beautiful. They and I join forces and find bungalows side by side on Long Beach (west side of the island). First things first, we drop our bags and head to the beach for a swim before we lose the sun, it’s glorious until we notice that we are all being stung. We decide it’s invisible mini jellyfish because it keeps stinging even once you’re out of the water, bummer. This beach is deceiving, from a distance it looks stunning, golden sand beach edged by coconut trees and small houses are nestled in behind. On closer inspection there is litter everywhere and the houses are half ruins, half scrap material, pieced together. The people living in them are living a pretty rough, tough existence. There are a few touts trying to sell us fishing or diving tours etc. Losing the sun we head back to get cleaned up for dinner and what ends up being a late and fun night.

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Phu Quoc – Day 44

Beach day, reading in the sunshine, lovely. Go with the boys to the night market in Duong Dong town (about 5km up the road) for amazing bbq seafood dinner. The scallops were extra good and we ended up having 3 servings of them, just because.

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Phu Quoc – Day 45

We rent 2 motorbikes for the day to explore some of the island, Marco is my driver, Gianni is on his own. We head off to find Trahn Stream Waterfalls, after a little backtracking we do find it and have to pay for the privilege of entering the area. We walk beside the stream for about 10 minutes and find the waterfall. It’s pretty unspectacular, only about 10 feet high and the pool at the base is pretty small as well (I guess I’ve been spoiled by the fantastic waterfalls I’ve seen in Central America), however small, it is still beautiful and fresh water so we jump in and explore around. We hang out for about an hour and then get back to the bikes to try to find Sao Beach (on the lower east side of the island). It turns out to be lovely, white sand and clear water but more jellyfish, darn it! I do some yoga and the boys play, like boys do. We head back as it gets dark, bugs hitting our faces while we ride. Shower and dinner play some pool and meet a group of people who decide to join us for another bike excursion the next day.

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Phu Quoc – Day 46

I sleep in and meet up with the folks we met last night, Aaron (England), Chris (England), Claudia (Denmark) and Ashley (America). We’re all on the bikes around noon and head up towards the northern part of the island along the west coast. I’m the navigator, so no pressure. We drive through Duong Dong town (biggest town on the island) and over a bridge. After the bridge we hit the local market, full of typical food stuffs, love it even though I’ve seen so many of them. We want to take the coastal road and try it but it rained last night and is super muddy and we are in danger of getting stuck so we turn around and find an inland road instead. We go through a couple small towns and in one of them (Cua Can) we go over a river, we stop on the bridge and the boys all decide they want to jump in. It’s not very deep but they go for it anyways. Back on the bikes we keep going, we’re trying to find Dai Beach. When we do find it, it’s perfect. Still littered with junk but the sand is white, the water is crystal and best of all, no jellyfish. I’m so happy I stay in the water pretty much the whole time we are there. Marco finds tons of beautiful shells in the water and gives me a couple, I hope they make it all the way home with me.

Once again we get on the bikes, heading north, our plan is to loop round the top of the island and head back down the middle. We hit another big mud puddle and Marco (with me on the back) zooms right through it splattering us both with the red mud up to our knees. The girls don’t want to go any further so they turn back but the boys and I keep going. We’re hungry. We’re passing alongside a long stretch of beach on one side and small houses on the other. We spy a place that might have food and stop. There are 2 low tables and some hammocks strung up. They make us coffee and tea and we lounge in hammocks, play with little kids and take photos until the soup they are making us is ready. Seafood Pho for me (though I strongly suspect pork has been involved in the broth) but it’s really good.

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Aaron and Chirs need gas so they buy a liter and share it between them, I think they will need more and say so but they don’t listen. It’s time to start heading back, navigation isn’t easy because there is not much signage and the map I have is fairly crap, no details. We’re trying to get home by a different route then the one we came up on. Cutting through the jungle, forest on each side, we go at least 15kms without seeing another soul and we are not sure we’re going the right way. Aaron and Chris start getting worried about gas again (no comment from me) but finally we see a road sign and figure out we’re heading the proper direction. There are a few houses scattered around this area which is fortunate as Aaron runs out of gas. There is no actual gas station but it’s common to be able to buy gas in liter bottles, we just have to find it which we do eventually. With enough gas (we hope) and dark rapidly approaching we’re back on the road. Marco pulls out a Halloween monster mask and puts it on to stop the bugs from hitting his face, I just hide behind him so they don’t get me too bad, it stings when they do. We get a few double takes and funny responses when people pass us, fun but he finds it hard to breathe and soon takes it off. Finally we make it to the big road down the center of the island, we had hoped it would be paved but in fact it turns out to be the worst road we’ve encountered all day. It’s dark now, no street lights and this road is muddy, rutted and hugely bumpy. I have to hang onto the back of the bike pretty hard and am half standing on my foot pedals much of the time to keep my bum from becoming one big bruise and my spine uncompressed – hard work. Navigating the road is tricky, slippery and slow, Marco is a champ getting us through it safely. We do make it back eventually, covered in mud and salt water and dirt, the shower feels amazing.

We all meet up for dinner later, the girls decide to have an early night but the boys and I buy a bottle of local rum and drink it on the beach with ipod music and stars in the sky. We head to a beach bar once the bottle is done for a few more, eventually home and bed.

Phu Quoc – Day 47

Am hurting a bit today, shocking really after bottles last night. At breakfast I meet a guy named Harm (pronounced Har-um) whose friend Martin is sick. I spend the day on the beach and meet up with the Italian boys and Harm later, we go for pizza. Harm tells us about his journey through Mongolia, it’s half super cool and half stupid crazy. He bought a horse to haul his stuff and with just a map and gps he spent a month walking by himself around the country. Camping, boiling water from streams etc. He once went 6 days without even seeing another person. He said he thought he would die at one point, he was out of water and couldn’t find a stream that was supposed to be there, obviously he found it eventually but he said it scared him.

The boys are leaving the island tomorrow, I plan to stay for one more day so big hugs and goodbyes and we’ll hopefully meet up again as our plans are similar.

Phu Quoc – Day 48

I hang out with Harm and his friend Martin who is feeling better, spend the day on the beach chatting and getting to know them, nice guys. We go for dinner and a few drinks later on, mellow night, good conversations.

Phu Quoc – Day 49

Harm gets sick and is in bed all day and I don’t feel that hot either but at least I make it outside, I spend the day reading on the beach, subdued.

Phu Quoc – Day 50, 51, 52.

Day 50 & 51 – Am sick, have diarrhea and stomach pains. I spend day 50 in bed and 51 in my hammock, need to be near the toilet. I start taking Ciprofloxicin, something that my travel doctors have prescribed for just such an occasion  before all my trips so I happen to have a fair bit of it on hand, thank goodness, it works.

Day 52 – Going stir crazy, want off the island. Book my ferry ticket off for the next morning, I’m still a bit shaky but feeling so much better then before. Relax and regain strength on the beach.

Phu Quoc to Chau Doc – Day 53

Take my ferry in the early morning to Ha Tien and then a minibus to Chau Doc, this will be my last stop in Vietnam before crossing over into Cambodia. I arrive in the early afternoon and choose a hotel that Lonely Planet says is “great”, it’s not but I am to tired to argue. I can’t even talk the price or the room down, I think that is a first for me in Vietnam. My room does not have windows, just some slits high up in the concrete walls. I’m almost asleep when it starts to storm, rain is coming through the slots, onto me and my bed, I’m actually cold. I end up finding the only dry spot, head where my feet should be and curled up in a ball right at the edge away from all the walls, 3/4 of the bed is wet. I do manage to get to sleep though, that tired….

Chau Doc – Day 54 (early morning)

I am woken at 5am by a loudspeaker outside blaring out something in Vietnamese, it sounds like exhortations to exercise, chanting what I suspect is a succession of numbers, repetitions of whatever exercise has been suggested. Also music is playing in the background, from classical that I half recognize to something that sounds obviously martial and like a communist soundtrack in a spy movie. It’s comical in a way yet not because I’m up an hour earlier then I need to be and I have a long day a head of me…

Originally published on facebook – November 11, 2010 at 7:22am ·

Mui Ne to Saigon – day 36

Early morning bus to Saigon which I almost miss as it arrives early and I’m still sitting in the restaurant next to my guesthouse eating breakfast. They wait for me as I run for my bags, out of breath and sweaty as I get on the bus. The bus breaks down about 5km out of Mui Ne in a little town called Phan Thiet. We sit in the middle of the road, traffic on all sides of us without any air or air conditioning for about 20 minutes while the guys work on whatever is wrong with the bus. They get it fixed somehow and we are back on the way. I run into Owen  (a guy I’d met in Mui Ne) on the bus and he comes with me as I find a hotel to stay in in Saigon, it’s small and pretty crap but for $8 it’s the cheapest I find so I take it. I drop off my bags and we go for a little wander to the Ben Thanh Market. It’s packed full of people and a prime place to get pick-pocketed so I keep my bag close in front of me, full of tourists and locals it’s a place where I could buy all sorts of souvenir stuff, tea, coffee, food, cheap (read ugly) clothes and more. I’m not really in the mood to shop as I don’t want to ship anything else home and would otherwise have to carry whatever I buy around until I get home so it’s best if I avoid these types of places right now. We get out quickly, wander a little bit more and then head to a bar near my guesthouse and play some pool and have some beer until Tiger shows up, he took the later bus from Mui Ne. We meet up with some people he kinda knows and go for sushi (go figure), it’s quite good actually but expensive compared to the price of the street food I have been mostly eating. Nice treat.

Saigon – day 37

F.Y.I. Saigon is actually officially known as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), but everyone still calls it Saigon.

I slept in which was great and found a camera cable so I can upload pictures again. I walked and found Vietnam’s version of the Notre Dam Cathedral, much smaller then the one I saw years ago in France and the alter is blocked off way in back behind all the pews so not really much to see and not great picture taking. I continue to walk, wandering a bit, enjoying being in a big city again, relearning how to cross the streets,  the traffic is crazy just like Hanoi but it doesn’t seem as loud which is nice, maybe because the streets are much wider here so the sound isn’t as trapped.

I visit the War Remnants Museum, this is a heavy place. It specializes in researching, collecting, preserving and exhibiting the proofs of Vietnam War Crimes and their consequences. Through this the museums stated intention is to promote peace and world solidarity. The museum shows numerous remnant proofs in 7 different exhibitions, mostly shown through photographs. Pictures don’t lie and pictures can say a thousand words and boy do they. There is a section on “Historical Truths” showing photos of acts of violence committed by American GI’s that contradict Geneva Conventions etc and are officially recognized as war crimes. A section on “Aggressive War Crimes” covers the My Lai massacre and is particularly hard for me to see, I was surprised by how hard it hit me and had to take myself outside for a few minutes of fresh air to get my tears under control. Tough stuff. Back inside the museum I peruse another section which is a collection of documentary photos by 2 Japanese photographers (Bunyo Ishikawa and Nakamura Goro), some very beautiful, horrific and haunting imagery. Another display which was quite emotional for me was a requiem for journalists killed during the war. 134 journalists from 11 different nationalities were killed. Many of the photos displayed are from their very last rolls of film, some even taken mere minutes or hours before they themselves died. Others are pictures that you might recognize, having been on the covers of magazines at the time, or just having become iconic over time. There was another display documenting what imprisonment conditions were like for Vietnamese during the war, fairly similar to what I saw at the “Hanoi Hilton”. Another showed in photos, letters and banners from people all over the world, the types of protests held against the war in Vietnam. Some of you fabulous people are old enough to remember and even to have participated in some of these actions, kudos to you. It was a very moving and educational experience, tough but worth it.

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I head back to my guesthouse to get ready for Halloween night, wasn’t able to find anything costumey and felt a bit subdued but went out anyways. I met up with Owen and Tiger and some of the kids we’d had dinner with the night before. We went to the party but it got closed down quickly as it was in a residential neighborhood and was way overcrowded and loud. We decided to head for a bar, everybody was really drunk and I just wasn’t feeling it. It turned out to be a “discotheque” not my scene, I tried for a bit but wasn’t digging it, headed home by 1am, pleased to escape the inanity of drunk 20 year olds.

Saigon – day 38

Since I may be the only westerner in Saigon today without a hangover I decide to create my own walking tour. Picked out a few places in Lonely Planet that sounded interesting and headed out. After a good breakfast to give me energy I walked about 7km to the Jade Emperor Pagoda. Well it sounded like it was going to be spectacular but when I got there it was smaller then I anticipated and not in very good repair. It is quite old though, built in 1909, and is jam packed with colourful statues of heroes and divinities.  Outside in the temple grounds a very large turtle was being kept in a concrete pen no larger then 3′ x 5′, not ok with that personally but I think it’s meant to bring prosperity to the temple. To me it just seems cruel and I don’t understand how this cruelty is reconciled with Buddhism, it just doesn’t sit right with me, so deep breath, practice acceptance and tolerance for ideas I don’t understand and turn around quickly. I take lots of photos inside the pagoda of statues and some of the many altars, it’s pretty cool when you look past all the crap and (literally) garbage crammed into the place.

My next stop is Giac Lam Pagoda, about 10km away and I take a taxi there to help save some time, there is lots I want to do today. It dates from 1744 and is believed to be the oldest in the city. The architecture and ornamentation have not changed since 1900. It is a fairly large compound with a garden area and the largest seated Buddha I have seen so far. He’s at least 30 or 40 feet tall, pure white and beatifically beautiful. I watched 2 men walk circles around him for about 5 minutes, they showed no sign of stopping anytime soon. I assume they were praying for something, as each time the passed in front of him they would bring their hands in prayer to their foreheads and bow their heads 3 times, still walking the whole time. One building was wholly dedicated to ancestor shrines. Glassed in cubbyholes, rows and rows of them with urns, pictures of the deceased and offerings to them of fruit (plastic), money (fake) and candles (electric).

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From Giac Lam I thought I could walk another 2-3 km to the Giac Vien Pagoda, it’s supposed to be situated by a lake and there are apparently hundreds, if not thousands of Buddha statues. Unfortunately my Lonely Planet map fails me utterly, not supplying enough street names or details for me to figure it out, I could have taken a taxi but was stubborn and wanted to find it myself so I wasted an hour or more with no luck and gave it up. Had a great time being stared at a lot, obviously I was in an area that not many tourists walk around in, safe though, no worries. I needed to get to a bus station to find out about buses for the next leg of my journey and wanted to make it early enough in case it closed. Hopped on a motorbike taxi and got taken to the station, found out my info, all good. I knew there was another temple quite nearby I was interested in seeing so once again I started walking. Once again L.P. maps failed me miserably. From what I eventually figured out, the name of the street I was looking for changed about 3 years ago, somebody forgot to tell the editors. I wander up and down streets that seem to be specifically for motorcycle maintenance and hence a wee bit sketchy, and dirty as hell. I do find the Pagoda eventually but it has closed, maybe about 10 minutes previously, no one is around, bummer too because it looked quite lovely from outside.

It’s around 5:30pm and getting dark soon so I want to head back to the backpacker district. It’s about 8 km away so I find a motorbike taxi and negotiate a pretty good price. I go to get on the bike and ask the driver for a helmet, he shakes his head no, huh…ok. I go for it anyways and soon wish I hadn’t as I can smell the alcohol coming off of him in waves, oh shit. Traffic is crazy and he’s even crazier and as soon as we get to an area I recognize I ask him to stop and get off the bike, I’m happy to walk from here. I take myself out for dinner and have an early night, big morning the next day, I’m headed to the Cu Chi Tunnels with a tour group to try and give underground another shot, maybe I can kick this claustrophobia thing.

Saigon – day 39

I’m not sleeping very well in Saigon, waking up every hour or 2, maybe because of the noise, maybe because I’m being bitten, I think this bed has bedbugs, joy.

View from my window…..

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Up early for the tunnel tour I grab a Bahn Mi Opla (egg & baguette sandwich) and iced coffee from a street stall, my favorite breakfast over here. I eat it watching the world go by as I wait for the rest of my tour group to join me. I’ve signed up for this tour because of my previous experience with claustrophobia (a phobia I didn’t know I had) at the Vinh Moc tunnels. I want to try again and maybe get past this fear. I’m hoping being with a group of people and a guide might help. I am herded onto a bus with about 15 other people. Our guide introduces himself,  tells us about our itinerary for the day and shares with us that he fought with the South Vietnamese (alongside the Americans) during the war. Our first stop was a surprise for all of us since the tour touts hadn’t mentioned a word of it to anybody, we are visiting a factory where handicapped people are making variety of “tourist” crafts (think lacquer bowls, eggshell paintings etc.) I don’t even go and look, I know it’s a cash grab. Instead I wander around what appears to be a complex of factories all producing different things. I stumble into an area where cigarettes are being put into packages by an automated machine. I video it because it’s kinda cool watching it go step by step and nobody says boo to me, even when I am standing inches away from rapidly moving machinery. Ah, the lawlessness, the freedom, the lack of safety concerns, I love Vietnam.

Back on the bus we drive for a bit and I nap as usual so miss the scenery. I do however, wake up in time to see rows and rows of trees on either side of me. each tree has a spiral carved through the bark of the trunk that leads to a small coconut bowl which is attached to the tree. Turns out these are rubber trees, one of Vietnam’s largest exports apparently. We’re close to the tunnels now so I manage to stay awake until we get there.

We disembark from the bus and pay our entrance fees. First we are led to a movie viewing room where we learn about the history of the Cu Chi area. The movie is in black and white using what are probably actual videos of the time, it’s grainy and quite heavy on the idealized communistic state that Vietnam was, so much so that at times it’s almost funny, but horrible too. It begins with how peaceful and lovely the area was, farmland and a popular day-trip destination for picnickers from Saigon. Quickly it moves onto scenes of the devastation caused by the “evil” American GI’s. After the movie we do a walking tour of the area, we are shown what used to be a trench, now grown over with trees and other vegetation, and a crater from a bomb dropped by a B52 bomber is just a 4 or 5 foot indentation in the ground now. We gather around a small wooden lid that is on the ground, partially covered by leaves. It’s actually a hidey hole, used by the Vietnamese if they were caught away from a tunnel and needed to hide. It’s a pretty small hole in the ground and our guide tells us that only people about my size (he used me as an example) can fit in it. We are invited to try it out if we want and are encouraged to take pictures, I decline to enter, no way, it’s about 3-4 feet deep and maybe 2.5-3 feet wide, not going to happen.  But some people do it. We are also shown a tunnel entrance that is still in it’s original form, unlike all the others in the area this one has not been enlarged for western bodies to fit into. It’s stupid small, maybe 2.5 feet high and 2 feet narrow. The Viet Cong had to crouch down into a squat, bum almost touching the ground and then duck walk along to traverse these tunnels. Some of them are 8km long or more, when they needed to rest, they laid down flat. Wow. The tunnels are built small so the Americans couldn’t get into them, not having the incredible flexibility and small stature of the Vietnamese. Genius really. The subterranean web of hospitals, kitchens, living quarters and armories once stretched from Saigon almost to the Cambodia border. In the district of Cu Chi alone there were around 200km of tunnels.

Next we are shown a series of traps the Viet Cong used to use to hunt animals with but then translated this knowledge to hunting Gi’s. They’re brutal, the clipping armpit trap, the folding chair, the fish trap, rolling leg trap and more. I won’t describe them here but imagine lots of metal spikes and you get the picture. In case we couldn’t visualize it there were paintings of Gi’s falling into these traps above each one.

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Finally it’s time to go into the caves, they are enlarged slightly so it’s bigger then the earlier one we saw, maybe 3.5 feet high and only about 40 meters long. I go first, right behind the guide, I want to get this over with. First we enter a chamber, it’s quite large actually and I’m fine here. It has benches cut out of the stone that line the walls all around the perimeter of the chamber. I’m not sure if this is just for us or a feature that was used by the Vietnamese.In one corner there is a hole in the floor, 3 steps lead down into the tunnel. It’s pitch black and very warm. We stumble along a little way, the guide has a flashlight but he doesn’t turn it on! Why???? I can’t see anything and am not liking it, the guide stops and I almost lose it, I ask him to please turn the light on and keep moving, I guess he hears the panic in my voice because he does. I manage somehow to take a quick picture of him in front of me so you guys can all see what it was like (you’re welcome).

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I want out, badly. Up ahead I see daylight, it’s a side exit and I’m out it in a flash, standing at the bottom of a metal ladder my knees are super weak, my heart is racing and my hands are visibly shaking. I take a few deep breaths and actually consider going back in but just can’t face it, I’ve done enough. I breathe some more trying to get my knees steady enough to get up the ladder when another girl pops out of the tunnel behind me, she’d had enough as well. She’s rapidly followed by a few more people and I’m happy I’m not the only one, though I seem to be shaking the most. At the top of the ladder I am pleased with myself, that I actually managed to go back down into the tunnels after my first experience was a good feeling, even if it did shake me up a lot, still…good enough, I did it. After the tunnel we are herded over to a refreshment area where we are given tea and a snack of tapioca root. It’s kind of mealy or pasty tasting and is palatable by dipping it into a mixture of peanuts, chili and sugar. We head back to the bus, back to Saigon.

Arriving back in Saigon mid-afternoon I have some lunch and then decide to go for a massage. There is a school nearby where blind people are taught the art of traditional Vietnamese massage. I’m excited and looking forward to it after my tunnel experience. I pay the $2 fee and am lead by a blind person to a room with tables and dividers between them. It’s a bit of a bumble as she first leads me to a table someone is already on so I take her elbow and have to peep between curtains until I find an empty table. She hands me a small towel and leaves the room, I suppose I a supposed to get naked now, so I do, what the hell she can’t see anything, the towel is too small to hide much anyways. I’m lying on a table right underneath an a/c unit set to arctic levels, ok not so relaxing so far, just go with it Laila. She comes back and it begins….worst massage ever. I actually considered getting up and leaving mid-way but didn’t want to hurt the poor girls feelings. But it was just so lame, just sort of a fast stroking, then hitting me with the sides of her hands or a cupped palm. Maybe the odd poke here or there, no reason to it whatsoever. The worst part was when she came to do my face and keep trying to smooth my brow, I couldn’t help squeezing my eyebrows towards each other as I struggled to stick it out. Couldn’t wait for it to end, oh well.

After my “massage” I definitely needed something to relax me so I went to a bar near my hotel and got a beer. Actually a few beers. Saw a guy sitting on his own so invited him to play some pool with me. Ended up staying at the bar for 5 hours, quite a few beers and countless games of pool. Met a guy from Italy, 3 guys from Duncan BC, an English guy and 2 Vietnamese women who were excellent players, sharks really. But they played with me for fun, not money and it was a good time. Later we were joined by some Vietnamese guys who were phenomenally good and super nice as well. Lovely last night in Saigon, I left the bar a little drunk and went to sleep one last time with the bedbugs.