Hong Kong and Vietnam
Hong Kong // Macau // Lantau Island // Ho Chi Minh City // Vinh Long // Hanoi // Sapa // Ta Van Village // Ha Long Bay // Cat Ba Island // Can Guoc // Chau Doc // My Tho // Ho Chi Minh City // Dalat // Nha Trang
Day 1: Hong Kong Island
After watching Bad News Bears twice and the first 8 minutes of The Corpse Bride several times, I arrived…two Economy Class meals, a cup of noodle, and 14 hours later to Hong Kong. Hardly anyone was there, so getting my stuff and going through customs took 5 minutes. A few minutes later after getting my money changed at a rip-off 7.175 HK$/US$, I met up with an old buddy from Australia, Liam. To make up for the exchange rate, he bought me a child’s train ticket to get to Central, Hong Kong. 15 minutes in the country and I’ve broken my first law. My first meal in Hong Kong was Yoshinoya, which despite being a fast food joint and dirt cheap, happened to look and smell much better than the Yoshinoya’s at home. Hong Kong is pretty nice. The MTR subway system is really clean and they have these cool ads along the walls that act like a flipbook as you speed across a series of images. The place is pretty crowded and everyone seems to be in a hurry heading somewhere purposely.
I can’t say that it’s too different from a big city, like say New York, except it smells a lot better and the taxis are green.
Day 1 (Continued): Know where to poop and sleep in Hong Kong
After one day in Hong Kong, I discovered a truth and an advice which I will share with you. Upon arrival, immediately ask around and find out where the clean toilets are. This will be your rendezvous point when you need to go number 2. The Lane Crawford department store at the IFC Mall is one such location. I’ve used it twice already.
Aside from this advice, I’ve found that you get what you pay for when it comes to accommodations. The Sun Kong hostel offers a private room with shared restrooms for HK$200. I guess you get a discount on account of the smell of day-old piss and the closet size room. Don’t stay here. Stay at the YMCA on Kowloon. It’s right next to the 5 star Peninsula hotel and costs about the same as the Sun Kong while offering a whole lot more.
Based on my first full day, I’ve come to describe Hong Kong as made up of three distinct smells: Deep-fried fishballs, burning incense, and tiger-balm. I spent the rest of my first day wandering around Central and then took a bus down to Stanley. Apparently every shop pretty much sells the same thing. There were also boats.
Day 2: Sheung Wan District
Day 2 started off with a breakfast of fried fishballs on a stick and dim-sum. I tried to ask for tea in Cantonese, but apparently, me asking for “cha” prompted the waitress to give me a confused look and ask someone else to speak to me in Mandarin. I said “cha” again. She looked excited, then said, “coca”. Yes, I guess I will have a coke to go with my fried fish balls. Prior to meeting up with my friend Liam, I explored the corners and alleys near Sheung Wan. Despite being such a metropolitan city, with luxuries and modern buildings to match any city in the world, you still get a taste of how some residents still carry on in their own ways.
What I found a bit sad was that in a society full of Confucian and Buddhist values of filial piety and respects for your elders, such a sight can still exist as seen below. This was but one of many such sights I encountered as I walked around Western Hong Kong.
Day 2 (Continued): Mongkok Bargains
So the way you do it is this. Go through the shops with someone who speaks chinese. When you spot an item you like, he will ask for the prices in chinese, “li ko cay tho?”. They will say, for example, HK$120. He will repeat it to you. Without looking at the vendor, you tell him HK$40. It might help to look like you’re ready to go to the next shop. He tells the vendor HK$40. She gets angry for about 1 second and then says, “liang jai, HK$100″. Rough translation: $100 dollars, handsome boy. Continue looking away and tell your friend to say “no, HK$40″. She will say HK$80. Then you tell him to say, “khoi om yiu, om coi”, which indicates you are leaving. She will say something along the lines of “ayya mah fan, liang jai” and give it to you for HK$40. Congratulations you just bought a pair of Pumas for 5 US Dollars.
This works perfectly because your friend is merely a messenger and you never have to look at the vendor for her to run her game on you. Oh, watch you pockets.
Day 3: Macau
Macau, the one place around Hong Kong where gambling is legal. Ironically, I was trying to quit gambling so scratch that activity off my list. This former Portugese trading port still retains much of the architecture and influence as you wander in and about many of the small “rua” and alleys. At the same time, wherever you go, it’ll still look like Hong Kong.
Sunday was an interesting day to visit the island, as you travel with all the Chinese mainlanders and Hong Kong islanders looking to get away for a day. At the same time, the place is very bustling. After I figured out the bus system, I made my way to some of the major tourist sites. The streets of Senada are beautifully laid out with black and white cobblestones that runs all along the different shops.
Lots of cobblestones and motorbikes.
I also stopped off at the A Ma Temple. Wasn’t anything exciting.
After the bus system decided to stop working for me, I started walking the rest of the way around the perimeter of the island landing me in the casino area. This gave me nice few of the harbour and a few of the landmarks of the island.
On Traveling Alone
Traveling alone has its benefits of meeting random and often very interesting people as well as the freedom to do whatever you like when you like. Of course it sucks when you find yourself walking through some dark random street at night praying you’re heading in the right direction back to your room.
Day 4: Lantau Island
After crashing at a friend’s place to watch the Superbowl at 7 am HK time, I headed down to the the mall downstairs from apartment (Yes, the mall is part of the Belchors tower) for my first dim-sum in Asia. This was the real thing. The skin on the pork was just crispy enough and the har kow was so much better than I remembered in the states. The next big food surprise came in the form of those little egg custard pies and deep-fried octopus on a stick. I would never have imagined that the best egg custard pie I’d ever taste would come from a KFC and cost only HK$5.5. I took the next ferry to Mui Wo with my trusty guide Liam to visit the Po Lin Monastery, where the Tin Tan Buddha sat atop the peak of the hill on Lantau Island’s mountainous interior. the bronze Buddha itself is over 100 feet and 275 tons.
Apparently, they had to close down all the roads leading up the mountain to the Monastery and remove all the lampposts for 3 days in order to move individual pieces of the Buddha to where it currently sits. After returning to Kowloon, I moved into the Salisbury YMCA, which happens to be a 4 star hotel that offers dormitory style rooms for about $HK200. By far, one of the most impressive and clean “hostels” I’ve slept in. There I met my sole roommate, Greg, from Sydney whose family happens to own the 2nd largest slot machine manufacturers in the world. I also learned his grandfather was inducted in the Las Vegas Hall of Fame the same night as Steve Wynn. Instead of chilling on the Aussie beaches for his summer break, he opted to backpack and work in Macau. Very cool.
Day 5: Tsim Sha Tsui to Mongkok
The next morning, we went to get a Chinese breakfast, but ended being served eggs over easy with toast and pork chops.
Afterwards, I headed down Nathan Road from Tsim Sha Tsui to Mongkok stopping by Chungking Mansion, which smelled like a rotten 3-legged cat that got peed on at various points and where lots of Indians try to sell you tailored suits and fake Rolexes. I got out of there as soon as I was no longer able to hold my breath. When I got to Yau Ma Tei and wandered around Temple Street, I may have stumbled onto a bit of a daytime red light districts as about 30 women in their late 20′s and early 30′s stood, each holding a purse, eyed me as I walked down a backstreet. Even more so than the rest of Hong Kong, much of Kowloon is plastered with ads popping out everywhere.
I spent the rest of the day VCD shopping in Mongkok, which ended with me buying about 25 movies more than half of which included the HK pop duo TWINS or Cecilia Cheung.
Day 6: Victoria Peak
Since the Salisbury had a reputably impressive breakfast buffet according to Jon, a very chill and funny guy I met through Liam, we all woke up at about 8 am to go. Having filled our stomachs and Liam’s backpack with 20 yogurts, we parted. Jon, having a few extra hours, took me and Greg around Mongkok and Sham Shui Po for cheap electronics and more VCDs. This time, I opted more for good recommended HK movies over ones that starred the TWINS, and not coincidentally, they are for the most part mutually exclusive. After Jon split, I decided this trip would not be complete unless I climbed up some bamboo scaffoldings.
Having done that, I headed up to Victoria Peak to a spectacular night time view of Hong Kong from high above.
After unknowingly slipping past the ticket collector (though I did buy a return ticket), I headed back down to the city and met up with Liam and Jon for dinner in Lan Kwai Fong where all the white people in Hong Kong gather after 8 pm. Afterwards, I decided to crash at Jon’s place when he offered to drive me to the airport in the morning. At about 4 am, and going on a second wind of energy, I see my friends name pop up on Jon’s MSN. A call to the states and a shocked Wei Bin later, I find out that Jon happened to be my friend from Penn, Wei’s friend from Hong Kong. Wei, of course I met coincidenally by iming my friend who happened to be Wei’s sister and then offering him curry since he couldn’t get out of the building and back in at 3 am. Jon, Wei’s friends, I met randomly through another friend I lived with in Australia who happened to be my guide for my week in Hong Kong. 2 dollars if you followed that. Small world. At 5 am, we headed to get my stuff and had Dim Sum at the airport. A few hours later I was on my way to Vietnam for the next month.
Day 7-8: Go Vap and Ho Chi Minh City
Once I had my stuff and stepped through customs and out of the arrivals gate, I felt surprisingly at home, even though I had only been here once before. I jumped on the back of my uncle’s Honda scooter and we cruised down the chaotic streets of Vietnam with the cool dusty wind blowing in my face. Arriving at my Grandmother’s house, I unpacked and immediately crashed for the next 9 hours on a hammock. Later on, I went out for dinner and drinks on a rooftop cafe which highlighted some of the modern changes and development that have taken place in Saigon’s surrounding districts since I was last here 2 years ago.
The next morning I found out that I was heading about 200km down to Vinh Long to a fishing village, where my cousin would be introducing the family to his fiance. This was pretty surprisingly both because he is younger than me and because their relationship consisted of his 3 visits to Vinh Long. The girl’s entire family was there to greet us and to discuss the possibility of marriage. The last time I was here, I was a tourist on a boat riding by these homes built along the Mekong Delta. Now, I was sitting in one of these houses having a Coke.
Even in a country where the economic disparity between the rich and the poor is present and ever growing, seeing what these people lived on and the wage they worked, US$50/month for a college graduate working for the government, was something completely new. But, the truth is they still get by. They have their food, their entertainment, and their education. Makes me wonder whether we need everything we have and why many people can’t appreciate some of the luxuries that we overlook everything in life.
Things Found on the Sidewalks in Vietnam
Cheers to the woman who put the block of ice on the ground, broke it into many pieces and served me an ice cold beer.
Day 13: Westernized Vietnam
I’ve had my younger cousin take me around on her motorbike for the past week, and I enjoy nothing more than just riding around on one of these bikes, getting my daily set of “spa” services, and eating at a cheap and questionable food stall. Still, the closer to Saigon you get, the more you see how much as Vietnam is catering to the rest of the not so adventurous traveler. With ease, you can find a KFC pretty easily, a bowl of Pho that costs 10 times as much as it should, or an American/European style spa that charges more than a local’s month salary to enjoy. Even without the language, one can easily travel to a nearby district where nearly all non-Vietnamese foreigners are non-existent. Point to the dishes and I’m sure you can get a plate of “com” and assorted grilled meats and vegetables for less than $1. As for getting a back rub or your hair washed at one of the local places, I’m pretty sure you’ll get ripped off, but paying an extra dollar or two for an hour’s worth of stress-melting and heat-busting facial, ear-picking, and massage is definitely getting value for your money.
I’ve spent the last couple of nights sitting outside with my uncles, when most of the shops are closed, just having a few cold beers and munching on a variety of dried or jerky products and grilled seafood on a stick while people try to sell me lottery tickets.
Day 14: Northern Vietnam
I arrived today in Hanoi, the northern capital of Vietnam. A slight change of plan and now I’m heading out to Sapa tomorrow. It’s supposed to be a beautiful mountain town. It is immediately noticeable that the traffic is much less congested in Hanoi than in Saigon. I spent the afternoon being driven around on a cyclo for about 80,000 dongs, which is about 5 dollars for 2 hours of hired service. That includes the tip.
I’ve since learned that it is quite scary when you are heading in the same direction as an incoming car that is honking madly and your driver reeks of rice wine. A couple of hours later I was on an overnight sleeper train to Sapa with plenty of time to catch up on my reading, which happened to be Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress, a book I got for 60,000 dongs. Pretty good deal until I opened it and found that I was looking at photocopies of the real pages. Everything has to be pirated in Asia, even my Teva sandals which I got for 30,000 dongs. Why am I giving the prices for everything. It’s because at an exchange rate of 15,800 dongs to 1 US, I’ve almost quit the art of bargaining, since it’d just be for pennies.
Day 15: Sapa Trekking
The 10 hour trip from Hanoi to Sapa was surprisingly really comfortable. I met this retired German couple who would be part of my tour group in Sapa. We were supposed to be in a 4 bunk soft-sleeper cabin on the train, but when we opened the door, we found 3 Vietnamese people already sitting on one of the bottom bunk. Long story short, I ended up switching cabins and shared it with 3 mainland China old men. I woke up the next morning to a Vietnamese announcement on a radio and then the singing of the Chinese men. I looked outside and found out we were at at Lao Cai, which would be my stop. I grabbed my stuff and headed out cargo pants over my pajamas. I found my minibus to Sapa and jumped on where I met a bunch of Australians. The ride up the winding mountains took little under an hour and we arrived at our hotel. There, I met a Korean guy in my tour group who was going to volunteer in Hanoi. We had breakfast with the German couple and got ready to head out for our 12 km trek up and down the hills, valleys and rice patties of Sapa and its surrounding minority villages. Our first stop was at the markets, where we would have to buy food to cook dinner and breakfast at Ta Van village, our homestay for the night. The trek up and down the terrain was absolutely incredible, and I was pretty surprised some of the more elderly guests were able to go through with it. Along the way, we were swarmed every few minutes by women and children from the local villages trying to sell us their handmade goods. Apparently, they picked up enough English and often times, French, Korean and Spanish to try to get us to buy their goods. Even guilt us when we didn’t want to pay their prices. “5000 and I for sure die”. I ended up buying about 6 bracelets and a pouch by the end of the half the trek. I was able to communicate with some of the kids who knew Vietnamese, but a number of the people spoke their own village dialect, which oddly sounded like jumbled chinese. Along the way, we got to know our guide, Chai, pretty well and found out that she learned her excellent English just from talking to the tourists. She even knew and understand our sarcasm. Along the way, we stopped off at the Lau Chai village where the Hmong people lived. I can’t wait to post of some of the pictures from this portion of the trip, since I think they will the centerpiece of my travel portfolio. National Geographics, here I come. After half our group got on a jeep and headed back for the Sapa and their nice, warm hotel room, we continued trekking on to Ta Van, where we would spend the night in one of the village homes. To say that Sapa and its villages is different from Saigon and Hanoi, is a vast understatement. They only similarity they shared was that oddly enough, many of the houses had a satellite dish sticking out the bamboo walls that linked to their Sony Triniton flat panel TV.
The house I stayed in had 3 separate rooms and a set of steps leading to a hole to the second floor where about 10 mattresses and mossie nets were set out for guests. Again, surprisingly, I would sleep very well for such accommodations. After just chilling on the front “porch” and chatting with the village children (who were still trying to sell us things) and the other traveler, we got the sign for dinner when they brought out crinkled cut garlic fries. It was amazing. That would soon be followed by two tables full of really well cooked Vietnamese food, which amongst the 10 plus traveler, we were unable to finish. Our view by this time was completely blocked out the mist or clouds that covered probably the entire valley. Afterwards, they invited us in to sit around the fire in the kitchen and to join them for shots of rice wine. Although it was only 8 pm, everyone felt like it was 1 am. Finally, drunk enough, I head off to bed for a good 11 hours of sleep.
Day 16: Best 4000 dongs ever spent
After sleeping 11 hours in my cozy little spot in the village house, I have breakfast and head off with my guide and my Korean friend, Joonhyun to hike to the next village and then to our rendez-vous point to be picked up by a jeep back to Sapa. The next few hours would thrill and scare the shit out of me as the three of us manuevered slowly up, down and through the mountains in very slippery mud. The rain from the night before combined with the density of the bamboos along the “trail” kept our passage very wet and dangerous. It seems like nothing now, sitting here writing about it, but I worried with each step whether I would slip and fall to my death. The only time I felt any bit of security was when the fall would have been only 1-3 meters. Without my bamboo walking stick, which I bought for 4000 dongs, I think I would have fallen at least twice as many times. Parts of the trail had a wet sloping path that would have dropped me at least 100 meters down to the closet rice paddies or straight down a 75 degree incline lined with rocks and protruding stalks of bamboo. Maybe I would be knocked unconscious before I actually fell to my death. My favorite part of this 2 hour long obstacle course was moving across a long slope using short bamboo stalks as footing and grabbing on to the next bamboo stalk to move across. I’m surprised my camera lasted through all this having broke my fall a number of times. The only thing embarassing about all this was that the women from the villages wearing their huge basket of handicraft were walking along the same trail with relative ease and even asked me to buy a handbag as I was clinging on to a bamboo for life. “You want buy from me?”. Yes, I’ll take a pair of real hiking shoes to replace my worn out pair of Diesels.
After we got back to Sapa, I checked into my very nice room and headed out for lunch. Me and Joonhyun then rented motorbikes and just rode around Sapa for the next hour when the cold overtook us. The most incredible thing about Sapa is that during most of my stay, it was literally a city in the clouds, as fog and mist covered everything giving you about 10 meters worth of any real visibility. This made me a little dangerous to ride on motorbikes, given this was the first time I’d really done it alone. Afterwards, we warmed up with a nice hairwash and face massage. Yes, I have to get it even when during the rougher bits of my travel. At night, we wandered around this town, which would have made a perfect set as it was for a horror movie with the dark figures moving as silhouettes through the mist lit overhead by glowing yellow lights. Deciding the town was dead, me and Joonhyun bought a few Tiger beers, Choco-Pie and headed back to chill before bed. To top off the beers and Choco-Pie, there was a TWINS movie on the the tele. Beer, Choco-Pie and TWINS.
Day 17: Bac Ha Markets
I woke up this morning at 6 am and packed to head out to Bac Ha markets, a three-hour trip from Sapa where some of the local minority tribes gather bimonthly on Sundays to buy and barter their goods. When we left, Sapa was still completed covered in mist which made driving down the windy mountain roads like a game of blind til the last second chicken with whatever vehicle was heading in the opposite direction. This part of the trip was the most unexciting, as we just walked around the markets for an hour and then heading to a nearby village for another 15 minutes, before we were told we had to go back because the driver did not have time. Everyone in the group wanted to head up further, so we had to go back and argue with the driver. By go back and argue, I mean, I had to argue in Vietnamese with the driver since our guide only spoke English and a local dialect. I gave up after a fervant display of standing up for our group and we headed back with the intention of getting our money back for a tour that did not live up to its itinerary. Back in the car, we all wondered whether the angry driver would drive even faster and more wild than he did on the way down to the village. Now, I’m sitting an internet cafe, where the lady changed her price from 4000 dongs/hour to 10000 dongs/hour when she saw a German couple walk in with me to use the computers. My obvious display of annoyance forced her to back down to 5000 dongs. A few more hours in Lao Cai and I’m heading back on the train for a 10 hour ride back to Hanoi, where I’ll rest for 2 hours and head right back on the road to Ha Long bay for 3 days at 7 am.
Day 18: Ha Long Bay
The 5 hours I had at Lao Cai went by pretty quickly talking with the German couple and two Aussie girls I had met earlier in Sapa. On the train, I had a beer with Joonhyun and a round of Choco-Pies with the other people in my cabin. Afterwards, I pushed to finish the last 275 pages of Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress, but with 100 pages left I gave up and went to bed. At 5:45 am, the train arrived back in Hanoi. At this point, I split from the German couple and Joonhyun, and went to the Tamarind Bar, a really swanky tourist cafe that opened at 6 am for breakfast. Saying goodbye to them, I walked back to the Sinh Cafe office and waited for the bus to come and pick me up for Ha Long Bay at 7:30 am. That ride took 3 hours during which I saw my first fatality on the side of the road as a man layed limp just like you see on tv. At the rest stop, I ran into the three Swiss-German girls I had at the Ta Van village homestay. We had tea. Along the away, the tour guide, like every Vietnamese person I talk to, expressed the same amazement that I spoke Vietnamese the way I did without being born or growing up in Vietnam.
At Ha Long city, we boarded a pretty nice junker. In the bay, there are 400 junkers, each costing $100,000, ready to take visitors around the bay which is home to thousands of little rocky islands. Our boat, Phuong Tin 12, had a nice upper deck, a central cabin with 6 tables and cushy couches, and a lower deck with 8 rooms, each with its own bathroom and shower. Right after departing, I had a nice seafood lunch with an English couple and two English schoolteachers, teaching for a year or so at a time in a different country. Our first stop was at the Sung Sot caves. Transalated, it is the Surprising Cave because when the French first discovered the caves, they were surprised. Creativity, as most people know, is one of the French’s strong points. The caves were pretty nice, but I felt the colored illuminations was very cheesy and took away from the natural beauty of the cave which one could easily have explored with torches and a headlamp. We then headed to Ti Top Island, named after a Russian hero by Ho Chi Minh to strengthen the Russia-Vietnam ties back in the days. I did some kayaking and a quick jog up the hundreds of steps leading to the top of the mountain. We head back on the boat and anchor for the night at some spot. Having nothing to do, me and 3 other guys decided, it would be fun to jump off the top of the boat into the freezing water, while everyone say inside the cable with sweaters on sipping on tea and coffee. Though I could not breathe for the first 5 seconds in the water, the blood in my body immediately began circulating at breakneck speeds which wamred me up to the point where hot water from the showers felt cold on my skin. As with many nights traveling, you sometimes have lots of free time on you hand, especially if you on a boat and its only 6 pm. I saw with the same people I had lunch with and taught them how to play Big 2. Then we played Bullshit and I swear this old English couple bullshit on almost every turn. They were very interesting, having travelled all over the world and spending months at a time roughing it despite being in their 50′s. At about 10 pm, about a hour after my usual backpacking bedtime, I called it a night and headed to my cabin.
Day 19: Cat Ba Island
Day 19 was pretty uninteresting. We had a weak breakfast of bread and jam and then cruised out to Cat Ba Island. At the dock, I ran into the Swiss German girls again. Our group then headed to Cat Ba National Park where we did a quick trek to the top of the mountain there. Afterwards we just headed to the hotel for Lunch. I spent the afternoon kayaking to a nearby island where I was greeted by angry monkeys. Along the way, we stopped by floating villages which were small groups of houses on the waters in and around the bay. At the hotel, I ran into the German couple again. It’s amazing how you keep running into the same people over and over again despite having different itinerary. We had dinner together and then I got a massage right at my table where the guy cracked so many bones in my body I didn’t know could even be cracked. Seriously, have you tried cracking your ears? At 8 pm, when I was supposed to go out for drinks, I passed out in my room. The only real interesting thing of the day was hearing some cute Vietnamese girls saying some nice things about me in Vietnamese since they assumed I was a non-Vietnamese speaking tourist. Then they said, “You want massage?” I was tempted.
Day 20: Hanoi and Saigon in 2 hours
On the last day of my Northern adventure, I jumped back on the bus after breakfast at 7:30 am and headed back to boat which would take me back to Ha Long city. I forgot to mention that the lone girl working on the boat was very cute. She happened to be from the Northern countryside which, according to my family, is infamous for having devious fiery-tempered women. Surprisingly, that characteristic about them actually turned me on. I saw her getting really angry at a fat German man who said he only had 16 beers from the cooler and not 18 and refused to pay the extra 2 dollars. Yes, work that attitude. The rest of the day journey back was really uninteresting. Just me trying to sleep. When we returned to Hanoi, it was raining. I grabbed a grilled pork sandwich on the street and just wandered around the city before my flight in 2 hours. On the way, I saw this really small shop where this old man was doing a portrait. It was unbelievable how good he was. He was 75 and still working. Above that, he’s been recognized by some British Society as an Intellect of the Year. I got his card and told him I would be commissioning him one day soon. He said, it’d better be within 5 years cause he’s retiring at 80.
At the airport, I sat it the VIP lounge which cost me 80 cents for tea. On the plane, I had dinner and tried to learn some Vietnamese but was distracted constantly by the fat crying children that sat across from me with their fat dad, who after eating his and his son’s dinner, asked the flight attendant if they had any more noodles and beef. He then pulled down his son’s pants in the aisleway and told him to pee in the cup. Being only half full, he turned to his other kid and told him to also pee in the same cup. Disturbing. The only highlight was that even on short-haul 2 hour trips, the Vietnamese airlines served a full meal.
Day 24: Can Guoc
My Aunt from Chicago arrived two days ago to spend 6 weeks in Vietnam. She’s one of the family’s favorite visitors since she 1) brings lots of gifts and 2) organizes a lot of traveling, which she pays for. After settling in, our first destination was Can Guoc, a small fishing village not mentioned in any guidebooks because it’s small and there’s nothing to do there. This was a visit to her husband’s grandmother’s house. The good thing about a fishing village of course is the abundance of seafood and there was no shortage of that during our 6 hours of eating and drinking. We came in time for lunch and that literally dragged on til dinner. After having 3 different types of crabs and a few 333 beers for lunch, I take a nap on one of the hammocks then wake up and take a boat to the local fish markets for more crabs to take home. By the time I got back, my uncles were still drinking and they brought out dinner. At this point, I’m starting to notice that I’ve put on some weight in Vietnam. When I’m at “home” in Vietnam, I just eat, sleep, and get my hair washed. When I travel on long van rides with my family, I eat, read and sleep. That night, we got back, after my 2 hour nap on the car and have more crabs and drinks. Since I was still hungry, I took a motorbike and drove myself out to the local night market and had dinner. At this point, I decided that exercise and dieting will on the top of my things to do once I return home.
Day 25: Chau Doc
The next morning, I get up at 8 am and jump on our 18 passenger “van” headed for Chau Doc. This is a town near the border of Cambodia and home to the Lady Xu Pagoda, which is known to attracts loads of believers from all over Vietnam and tenfolds the amount during a 3 day festival in the 4th lunar month. The Pagoda is supposed to be very sacred and the Lady is known to grant many wishes. Whenever I am in a temple or pagoda, I am very drawn to the rituals and mysticism behind it. Here, I was praying among other things, that I’d get to meet Ngo Thanh Van before I leave Vietnam. This absolutely stunning and “biteable” model/actress/singer represents the apex of Vietnamese beauty, but since she apparently sleeps around to advance her disappointing singing career, no one in Vietnam likes her. No one except me. In fact, that she sleeps around, gives me more hopes that she can find some way to use and abuse me. So what if she only decides she only needs me for 2 months.
After a visit to the Pagoda, a yearly tradition for my family in Vietnam, I sit around at a local “bar” outdoors and have more beers and dried seafood products with my uncles and the driver. I don’t really like drinking every day, but that’s one of the biggest night time activities with my uncle. So I can have 8 beers a night or I can be called a girl. By the end of the night, I had about 80 mosquito bites and lucky for me, none in my private regions since the restrooms with its bucket of water was filled with mosquitoes. The dark alley I decided to use as my restroom later in the night was no better.
Day 27: Tennis in Vietnam
In a country where gambling is illegal, you are bound to find those willing to evade the laws to do it or at least gamble where the law would never suspect. Enter the two local tennis clubs. Here, every game is a melange of odds and handicaps and a heavy dose of testerone. Here, there is always a way to place a bet. The first game I saw was a 3 on 2 matchup with guys ranging from 30 to 75. On one side were two guys, one using a wooden paddle and the other a stool. On the other, one guy was using the wooden side of a really small box, one guy a Pepsi bottle plastic container, and the last actually using a tennis racket. 30 minutes in, the score is only 2 games to 1. You’ll find that no matter how good you are, when you are gambling in tennis, almost every hit with be a defensive lob hoping the other side would screw up instead of you. This can go longer enough that you’ll need to get a neck massage afterwards just from watching, which they actually offer at the tennis court. Since these guys pay good money to pay here and often stay for the entire day as its their “day” job, the tennis court also serves food and does your errands for you. The rest of the folks not gambling on tennis are either wagering money on cards, dices, or a vietnamese game called Co Ca Ngua similar to our game of Trouble. The last time I was here, I saw a $100 dollar bet that a guy could not flick a card across an imaginary line 3 meters away and that a 60 year old man could beat a 40 year old man in a 30 meter footrace within a 1 second headstart.
Day 28: My Tho
Today was another visit to a fishing village. This time, My Tho. Having finished all of Dan Brown’s pageturners, I started on Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Again, on a long car ride, this book would also be my pillow propped against the side of the windowsill in the van. My habit of eating, sleep and pooping has grown out of control. I sleep anytime I’m in transit or near a hammock. After breakfast, which is usually 2 or 3 of whatever everyone else is ordering, I ease into my sleeping spot in the van and pass out. When I wake up, its either to pee or to eat whatever else my aunt has bought from the vendors along the side of the road. Only after 2 hours, we get to our destination and the host immediately sets the floor for lunch. I have 3 bowls of rice in addition to all they food they bring out. This is en route to what I have to guess is 10 bowls of rice a day, not including any noodle-based meals I have in between or in place of. Eating this much, means I average 2.5 poops a day, which I have to plan ahead of time to avoiding having to crap in a hole in the ground. During my homestay visit, I prayed desperately that I could hold off pooping until morning since going after dinner meant, walking in the dark, further blinding, if possible, by the mist covering the village and finding the outhouse somehwere about 20 meters away from the house. Then, praying I’m lucky enough to not step in the hole which I’m supposed to squat over and shit in. Then, cleaning myself up and praying I don’t step in my own shit on the way out. I’m sure I’ll return to a healthier pattern once I’m home and not eating myself fat.
After lunch, we went for a boat ride across the river and bought touristy things. If you’re lucky enough, I may have bought you a snake stuffed in a little vial filled with wine. Although a tourist gift, happened to exactly what I had for dinner. Snake porridge, snake eggs, grilled ground snake with peanuts and snake blood. After “dinner”, I passed out on the hammock with the Life of Pi on my face. On the way home, we get into a minor car accident, which meant one of two things in Vietnam, a fight or a payoff. Immediately, I thought bulking up in Vietnam would come in handle as I took off my shirt and got off the car with my uncles and the driver. If they were to start a fight, it would have been 8 to 4 in our favor. Unfortunately, the driver knew it was his fault completely so he gave them 100,000 US dongs, 7 US dollars to fix the dented right mirror and told me to put my shirt back on.
Day 29: My night out
I sat through 2 hours of Vietnamese Karaoke, then got pulled over my cops, then sped through the small streets still full of trucks and bikes on a motorbike going at 80 kph, driven by a 200 pound drunk guy who thinks the scooter we’re on is a racerbike and takes the damn thing at a 45 degree angle whenever we turn. My kneecaps were nearly taken off by three different trucks in a span of 1 minute.
On Chicken During the Bird Flu Epidemic
Day 34: Surprises galore
Though the day was absolutely uneventful, my night was full of surprises. The first being a new sensation of fear, where driven by fat sober guy, I felt my outer calves comes skin-tingling close to being scraped off by the tires of other motorbikes as he sped past at unbelievable speeds. I thought about asking him to slow down, but I felt it best to not distract him at all. Next, I tried on a preliminary cut of my tailored suits and they fit beautifully, seriously. So much, I put in an order for 3 new pair of slacks. Immediately after this, I went to a Vietnamese wedding. Based on video evidence, I thought such an event would be rather low-budget, rowdy, and lacking of taste or class. First thing I noticed was the 60 0r so tables layed out beautifully surrounding a beautiful and well-lit stage that displayed the bride and groom’s name. The individual tables were serviced by at least 3 to 4 people ready to fill your glass with beer and ice the moment you take a sip. Before the first course came out, and what a set menu it was, an entourage of 6 maitre’d waltz out each hoisting a cake in their right hand right down to the stage accompanied by, whats the best word, triumphant music. Each cake held a dry-ice centerpiece that spewed vapor as they placed it on rising platforms to the right of the bridge and groom on stage. Aftewards, since it would be Vietnam’s Ladies Day tomorrow, 5 pair of Vietnamese girls walked down the stage in gorgeous gold and black sequined ao dai with matching gold headdresses. Each of them carried a tray of “gold bar” gifts for all the ladies in the room. Despite this extravagant display, I apparently missed the show-stopped which happened to be the introduction of the bride to the restaurant. Too bad. On to the food, it started with a crab and shark fin soup, followed by a honey-suckled baby pig with steamed buns. If I thought the skin was the pork in Hong Kong’s dim-sum was crispy, this would easily trump it. This dish is followed by a delightful fried fish that to my surprise, once more, was free of bones, making so much easier to devour. The next dish was a sliced veal platter cooked in whole black peppers. To fill us up, we finished with a Thai hotpot full of flavorful seafood. Final verdict, it was still rowdy, but was definitely very tasteful.
At this point, you should be most surprised, as I am, by the fact that I am able to recall my night in such detail. This is due, in part, to my next distination, the Gossip club in Saigon, where along with my uncles and some strangers, I had about 5 Remy VSOP and coke and 2 glass of Hennessy XO and Club Soda, definitely more emphasis on the XO. I offered to drive my uncle home, but he insisted I had a long life ahead of me and decided to pass on and wait for his friend to come pick him up.
If only surprises where to end there, just as I was having a drink and a midnight snack with my family downstairs, a tanker truck ran into the center divider at the intersection in front of us and dragged the metal bar and signs all the way down to the front of our house. Immediately, fat drunk guy, pushes me and tells me to jump into the house, which I instinctively agree to do, just as the trunk halts to a stop. Liquid starts to come from the car, so I prepare myself for an explosion, but it turns out it was just water. Before the cops came, I managed to sneak in a few photos, which I’ll post later. Nothing really spectacular, but that’s just the photojournalist in me.
Day 35: Dalat
My backpacking adventure begins once more and this time, hopefully with even more spontaneity. I booked an open bus ticket from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat to Nha Trang to Mui Ne and then back to Ho Chi Minh City. Though I’m limited on time, I’m intent on finding a place to sleep only once I get to a location and not pay double the cost to have Sinh Cafe book it for me. At Nha Trang, I’m hoping to meet up with my family who plans to go straight there by train.
I woke up this morning without a hangover despite only 2 hours of sleep. My uncles takes me to the bus location, but halfway decides he’s too sleepy and hires a xe om, motorbike taxi, to take me the rest of the way. On the bus, I get interrupted sleep and at 3:30, I arrive in Dalat. Too tired to wander around looking for a hotel, I stay at hotel I’m dropped of at. Regardless, booking a room myself cost me less than half what I would have paid to stay in the same hotel booked in advance. Score 1 for Kien.
I grab my guidebook and start walking around the city, but after an hour decide I need a head massage/wash, so I stop in a random shop and got one. Dalat is supposed to be one of the most beautiful cities in Vietnam, but based on its central area, I have yet to come to the same conclusion. Hopefully a tour of the countryside tomorrow will change that. Again, traveling alone gets quite, well, lonely. Save for the option of reading, sleeping or listening to music, there is not much else to do on the long bus rides, when there’s no one else interesting to talk to. Again, maybe that’ll change tomorrow. I’m about to grab dinner and head back to my hotel. The hair wash lady gave me the number for someone to give me a massage in my room. Though its legit, my room explicitly says, “No prostitutes in the room”, so I might have to go through the trouble of explaining why a beautiful girl is coming to my room at night.
Day 37: Nha Trang
Woke up at 6 but didn’t leave my room for the bus til 6:50 am, so I skipped breakfast. Since I was already starving when I went to bed at 2 am, the hunger was unrelenting during the incredibly bumpy ride up to Nha Trang. Luckily, I was able to order an instant noodles with eggs at our rest stop. I finished Life of Pi yesterday, and that book really picked up and ended spectacularly. I’m now on page 112 of my new book, The Autograph Man, buy Zadie Smith. I’m not quite sure what it’s about except there’s a half Chinese Jewish autograph dealer who’s into drugs. That book and my country music eased me through the rest of the ride to Nha Trang. After finding myself a room, I went to visit Long Thanh, a famous black and white photographer in Vietnam. He’s one of the few professional photographers, if not the only one, in Vietnam who’s not based in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Though he looked like one of the guys I see playing tennis with my uncle cursing and smoking, he turned out to be really cordial and invited me to just sit and talk photography with me. Some of his images are really breath-taking and he even cared to reveal his secret, which I of course won’t reveal. He gave me advice on where to search for some of my shots, so I’m going to be up bright and early at 5 am tomorrow to try to capture some of those shots. This means I gotta go buy myself a pair of swimming trunks for my island trip tomorrow and then catch some shut eye for tomorrow morning’s shoot.
Day 45: Home