Hello all. Sorry its taken me so long to write this blog, the countries are coming up so fast now I really havnt even had an hour to myself in a few weeks. How to describe my time in ‘nam. I’m not going to sugar coat my time here, I’m going to tell you exactly how I feel about it. It’s not all positive.
Day 1: We docked in Ho Chi Minh city in the morning and, looking out at the port, I had mixed feelings. The city had an air all to itself. It was large, but old. Many of the buildings had fallen into disrepair and the pollution rose off the highway in visible clouds. However, it seemed to have a nice charm to it as well. The architecture was an interesting mix of Asian and Western circa 1985 and the people were all chatting and hanging out together in the streets. I didn’t know what to expect. Skipper and I disembarked with no idea of what to do first. One of the easiest and cheapest ways of traveling in Vietnam is to hire a motorcycle taxi where you just sit on the back. This seemed like a fun idea so we grabbed two motorcycle guys (one of which thankfully spoke pretty good English) and asked them to take us to a good restaurant. When I think “nice restaurant” I think sit down, indoors, waiters. These dudes brought us to some sketchy side ally and led us through some winding streets and into a passageway that led to a back room with metal tables and chairs. The room was crowded and smelled amazing, the food that everyone was eating looked unbelievable. The taxi guy grabbed us some menus and translated them. Skipper ordered chicken and I ordered beef but when it came it was literally half of an entire chicken and a huge steak, all for under $10. The food was incredible and while we pigged out the taxi guy showed us pictures of sights in the area that he could take us to. We noticed one picture of a beautiful beach and decided it would be worth the trip. The taxi guy told us it would take an hour to get there and that it would be very cheap by motorcycle. It was already 2 PM since the ship had docked later than usual, and we had dinner plans at 7. But, we decided it would be worth it just to go for a few hours. So, we get on the motorcycles with these guys and begin driving. The scenery on the way was beautiful. We passed rice paddies as far as the eye could see with little Asian women wearing the pointy straw hats harvesting their crops. We saw big fat white ducks waddling around in little ponds, catching fish and yelling at each other. We passed some beautiful Buddhist temples and stunning mountains. It was such a gorgeous ride that we kind of lost track of time. A while later our guys pulled over at some really bizarre place that I can only describe as a milk amusement park. They couldn’t seem to describe it, but repeated “milk” over and over again. The guys got a glass of milk and left us to explore on our own. The place was huge and deserted, filled with weird plastic cow statues and stores selling all sorts of weird milk products. There were rides and cow statues that spoke in Vietnamese and literally no one there besides us and the store owners. After a while of complete confusion, the taxi guys found us and we resumed our drive. The highway started getting really gross and polluted and the guys insisted we buy these cloth masks that cover your nose and mouth. There were road side stands for these things like every five minutes. With the masks on, we couldn’t really breathe but everything smelled much nicer. Just as I was beginning to wonder what time it was and if we would be there soon, it began to pour. The guys pulled over and we saw them taking out rain ponchos. I got all excited for about a second until they donned the ponchos themselves and motioned for us to get back on the motorcycles without anything. Then, they unceremoniously threw the backs of their ponchos over our heads and resumed driving. It was wet and hot and miserable and splashes of icy water sprayed my legs and feet for miles. Finally, the rain stopped and we took off the sticky ponchos. At this point, I knew it had been well over an hour and I started getting anxious. But, we just kept driving. The rest of the drive was long and (besides getting lost once or twice) uneventful. When we reached the beach, it was already 5 PM and the sun was setting. We both got really upset because the drive had taken three hours, not one, and we would have to cancel our dinner plans. Also, Skipper had a trip planned for the next morning so we wouldn’t even be able to spend the night, we would have to go right back. Then, to top it all off the taxi drivers tried to charge us $100 US even though they knew we had only wanted to go an hour away. When we refused to pay that much their excuse was, “Being on the back of a motorcycle for three hours is very tiring.” We were like, WE KNOW. So, basically, we walked off after only paying them half of what they were asking (even though we really shouldn’t have even paid them that much). We went to dinner at a beautiful resort overlooking the beach and it was really really nice. But, then we just had to turn around and go all the way back, a complete bummer. This time we hired a metered car taxi which was much more comfortable, only took two hours, and was much less expensive (even though the motorcycle guys had earlier persuaded us to go by bike because they claimed it was both faster and cheaper). On our way home, Moriah texted us that she coincidentally was in the same taxi as the guy who had driven us three hours away. She said he had taken a picture of us and was showing it to all of the SAS kids back in Ho Chi Minh city trying to get our phone numbers so that they could call and yell at us. It was totally weird. Oh, and then when we got back, we could clearly see the meter and knew how much we owed. But as soon as we pulled up to the ship, the second bike guy recognized us and got in the front seat of our taxi and tried to get the new taxi driver to charge us more because he said we hadn’t paid him. We had to yell at him to leave, pay the driver the original amount, and then got back on the ship totally pissed off and exhausted. Not a great start to Vietnam.
Day 2: I woke up, sore from sitting on that stupid motorcycle for three stupid hours, and began getting dressed for my trip. I had signed up for a really cool looking trip called the “Mekong Delta Trip” a few months earlier and could not remember what it was. But, I remembered it had sounded cool so I got ready and boarded the bus at 945 AM. The bus took us about an hour away to an area called the Mekong River Delta which is a really beautiful area right on a huge bustling river. We grabbed a snack at the lotus gardens and then boarded a boat that would take us down the river. The views were really incredible. The river was full of floating fish farms. The fishermen built floating houses on the river and extended nets down below them inside which they raised the fish. We pulled up to one of them and saw the fishermen loading enormous bags of fish into a canoe, off to the market. The river itself was huge, but full of little inlets and passageways and islands. It was beautiful. Next, we docked on an island and trekked a little through the natural vegetation. Huge clumps of sweet smelling lemongrass and stubby little pineapple plants sprung up under tropical trees and our guide stopped occasionally to point out a cool flower or bug. It was hot outside, and terribly muggy and humid. Most of the others on my trip had brought little portable fans or hats, and I was super jealous. We emerged from the jungle on a small dirt road with one shop as far as the eye could see. There, our guide explained, we would wait to be picked up. We all crowded into the small patch of shade and waited. And waited. The guide frantically called people on his cell but no one showed up to meet us for about twenty minutes. It was super hot. Finally, from the distance, we heard the clip clop of little hooves and a few wagons appeared around the bend. The “horses” were really just little ponies with silly feather hats on. We all loaded into the wagons and I felt so bad for the little guys pulling us around in the heat. It looked like they had been doing it all day. They pulled us for a few miles and dropped us off in front of a stunning graveyard. The graves were huge and portraits of the deceased stared at me seriously. Just a tad creepy. The guide arrived and we followed him down another path that led to a small restaurant where we were served tea and got to sample some fresh tropical fruits. Also, there was a guy holding a huge boa constrictor and we all got to hold him too, which was a great photo opp. There was a shop attached to the restaurant and after I had downed some yummy fruit, I went and looked around. The guide had been talking a lot about how important coconuts were and all of the different types of coconuts (yes, there are apparently different types. Including the “water coconut” that grows underwater and looks literally nothing like a palm coconut). The store was filled with stuff made from the wood of the coconut trees and it was all really gorgeous. They also sold the traditional favorite drink of Vietnam called “snake wine”. I kid you not, this stuff was actually a sealed bottle of wine containing a dead pickled snake positioned with a scorpion in its mouth. They were really really creepy. And people actually drink this stuff. Its supposed to be an aphrodisiac, but I got nauseous just looking at the stuff so somehow I don’t believe it works. The guide opened a bottle of the wine and let people sample it, but I refused to even smell the stuff. There was a dead snake in there! Come on! Next, we boarded small canoes that fit only a few people each and we paddled down a small river for about a mile. We passed many women in canoes fishing, wearing the iconic Vietnamese straw hats. A tall bamboo forest towered over us on either side and occasionally we passed water coconuts bobbing around. We docked on a rickety bamboo pier on another small island, this one containing a famous coconut candy factory. We got to watch how the ladies boiled down the coconuts and mixed the paste with sugar and malt and formed them into bars with the consistency of very sticky toffee. Then, they mixed them with fruits and chocolate and wrapped them in edible rice paper. We got to sample some of the different flavors, but to be honest they we so sticky I didn’t really like them. It was cool to watch though. We also got to taste their candied coconut which was really fabulous (if you’re reading this dad, I got you a bag and gave it to the Childers to give to you. Enjoy!). Next, the canoes took us to yet another tiny island, this one containing one restaurant. We sat down and almost immediately the waitress plopped down an enormous fish on our table. The fish was an Elephant Ear fish, and it was actually about that size. It was fried up and placed on a stand, where it kind of glared at me and its sharp little teeth poked out of its mean looking mouth. I tried some, but it looking at me made me feel weird so I didn’t eat much. No one really did. At that point, our trip was over and we boarded the boat which took us back to the bus which took us back to our ship. I had an absolutely wonderful day and, for me, it totally redeemed the experience I had on my first day in Vietnam.
Day 3: After the stresses of my first day and the full day trip on my second, I was ready to have a relaxing day on the third. Devy and I left the ship and decided simply to wander around the city. We got a taxi to city center and walked around by ourselves for about three hours just exploring. In the middle of the city is a huge green park with massive old trees and little cobblestone pathways. It is really beautiful. Also, I noticed that the center of the park is full of free exercise equipment like treadmills and pull up bars. People wandered in and out of the park in their gym clothes to use the machines for an hour or so and then go about their day. It was a free outdoor gym. We wandered in and out of markets and shops. There are tons of restaurants all over the city with every different type of food. The famous food in Vietnam is called Pho which is a delicious soup that usually has noodles or fish in it. At one point we found ourselves in the vegetable market. Ladies in straw hats perched on plastic stools hovered over mounds of fresh veggies laid out on bright cloths on the ground. The women running the stands would often wander to another stand to gossip with that owner or settle down to play some cards together. As it got dark, Devy and I found a Japanese Shabu-Shabu restaurant and I insisted we eat there. For those of you who don’t know, Shabu-shabu is basically where they give you a huge pot of boiling broth and a plate full of raw meat that you cook yourself in the broth. I tried it for the first time when I was in Japan a few years ago and its been one of the things I’ve been looking forward to the most about visiting Japan. But, for obvious reasons, we are not going to Japan anymore and I still needed to have my shabu-shabu. I was worried that nothing would come close to the restaurant I had been to in Japan, but this was delicious. Along with the meat they brought us raw veggies of every kind and bunch of different varieties of dumplings to be boiled up. We dumped them all in together and it was some of the most amazing food I have ever eaten. After, we met up with some friends and went out. Night life in Vietnam was actually really busy, not at all what I was expecting. Funny side note: one of the most famous bars in the city is called Apocalypse Now.
Day 4: The next day I woke up not feeling well. Either I hadn’t cooked some of the meat right at the shabu-shabu place or had eaten something else that disagreed with me, but I felt nauseas all morning and couldn’t get out of bed. So, I stayed in for a while and felt sorry for myself. But then after a few hours I started perking up in time for Moriah and Skipper to come to my room and wake me up. We went and grabbed a late lunch and did some sight seeing in the city, including the Vietnam War museum. They had an exhibit on Agent Orange that was so graphic that some of the other SASers we were with literally had to run to the bathrooms and throw up. I wont go into details here, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Then, when it got dark, the girls and I went to dinner. We had read about a particular street in the guidebook that was famous for really fun nightlife so we headed over and picked a place to eat. The restaurant was right on the intersection of two busy streets and we ate outside so we were right in the middle of the action. Even though it was fun to be there, it was also a little sketchy. Private security guards from the restaurant patrolled our table and were watching us like hawks. At first I thought it was because they were suspicious of us, but I soon realized it was because they knew we would be targets for street crime. Soon, little kids selling things approached our table trying to get us to buy little souvenirs and stuff. One little boy tried to sell one of my friends a box of twizlers for $10. Then, when she finally bargained him down to a reasonable price and he left, she realized that the package was open and three of them were missing. Pissed off, she called over one of the security guards who examined the package as if he were conducting an official investigation. Some time later, he returned with the boy who slammed another pack of twizzlers down on the table and glared at us as if him having to do what was right was the gravest injustice. Only a few minutes later, a cute little girl approached us trying to sell balloons. When we didn’t buy any, she pointed her fingers at skipper as if she were holding a gun and said “bang bang”, laughing. It was pretty creepy. Then, the bar we were at tried to pretend like we hadn’t paid our bill like 8 times, even though we certainly had, and started freaking out at us. It was insane. We ended up just walking out. The rest of the night was fun until Skipper and I were getting into a taxi and a guy on a motorcycle zoomed by. I heard Skipper yelp and realized that as the guy passed, he had grabbed her purse and it had snapped off her wrist. So, we spent a while getting in touch with her mom and cancelling her credit cards, which was aggravating and annoying. Soon after, my friend Jaime was walking down the street and the same exact thing happened to her. Except, her purse strap was thicker and instead of snapping she just got dragged down the street, literally about 10 feet. When she got up (still holding her purse, thankfully) her arms were bloody and raw. That was terrible, but she took it like a champ. The night went on, and as me and Moriah were riding home together piled onto one motorcycle, I felt a sudden jerk and the strap of my little coach purse snapped right off my wrist as my wallet was ripped away from me and the guy took off. I never even saw his face. Luckily, all my cash and my cell were in my pockets, and the only thing of any value that I lost was my camera. It still had all of the pictures from Vietnam on it, so unfortunately I cant show you guys any of them. It was not a great last night. I was able to call my dad and cancel my credit cards instantly, so the guy didn’t get any money from me. It was just really aggravating. Especially because when it happened I was on the back of a moving motorcycle. If my purse hadn’t been so flimsy and snapped instantly, I would have been pulled from the motorcycle and probably seriously hurt. But I wasn’t, so I guess everything turned out okay.
Day 5: Skipper came and woke me up in the morning and we grabbed a taxi to the central market. The market was inside of a huge building and was just row after row of stalls with everything from fresh produce to knock off bags. And, yes, I did get myself a little Gucci to make up for the night before. Bargaining was the name of the game and skipper and I stood at stands for literally 20 minutes, fake walking away multiple times, and ended up getting great deals. Someone later told me that when you buy something from those stands the owners give you a plastic bag the color of which depends on how good of a bargainer you are. This way the other stand owners know what price to quote you. I thought that was pretty cool. We shopped around and got frozen yoghurt and I lamented about my situation, consoled a little by my new Gucci. Then, we were able to find an internet café and skyped with some people, which was a nice end to the port. We were both exhausted from the night before so we headed back to the ship a few hours early and napped before dinner. Moriah’s parents had met her in Vietnam and taken her to Cambodia, and they arrived on the ship to have dinner with us. It was actually really nice to talk to people from home. I kind of keep forgetting that life is going on outside of this trip and my ports. Anyways, dinner was really nice and I was able to give the Childers some things to bring home for you all, so that was good. Understandably, I went to sleep early.
Well, I guess that post was a little less negative than I thought it would be. It wasn’t that I had a bad time or that Vietnam is not a cool country. Its really cool and beautiful, I enjoyed being able to see it. I guess I just had some bad experiences. I mean, people have tried to scam me in every country. But usually, when you catch them doing it they admit it and apologize. But here, its like the people get super offended to be accused and then get mad at you for even suggesting such a thing. And here, more than any other country, I felt like the locals looked at me like a dollar sign and not a real person. It’s a bit aggravating when you’re trying to get to know someone and learn about the culture. I’m not trying to make any generalizations, like all Vietnamese people are meanies. I had some great guides and such. I just had a couple of bad times that I had not yet experienced in any other country. SAS kids have been robbed everywhere we’ve been. I don’t know. I guess in the short time I was there, I kind of just got a bad impression.