mountains and sea

I’ve been stuck in Hoi An for four days. I arrived on Friday afternoon on a bus from Kon Tum, and the first bus/train I could get back out was today, Tuesday. Yes, it’s full-on summer holiday madness in Vietnam – especially on the weekends, when the locals go for weekend trips with their out-of-school kids.

Then again, Hoi An isn’t such a bad place to be stuck. It’s on the central coast of Vietnam, part of the main tourist corridor between Saigon and Hanoi. The town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so the old town is well-preserved, if a bit over-authenticized, or rather, overdone (think paper lanterns *everywhere*). It is *the* place to buy custom-tailored clothing. I was deeply tempted by a wool jacket with a hood and silk lining, which the shop could have made for me in an afternoon for $30 (and I’m sure I could have bargained that down to about $20-25). I’m sure someday I’ll kick myself for not doing it, but hey – I’ve only got so much room in my pack, and a wool jacket takes up a shitload of space.

There are also a few nice beaches nearby, which comes in handy in the searing heat of mid-day. I have to admit I overindulged a bit here – my butt has been Barbie pink for two days. So much for evening out my tan.

As for Kon Tum, I spent a lovely couple of days there. The first day I rented a bike from my hotel and toured the nearby hill-tribe villages and veggie farms on my own. The next day I hired a guide with a motorbike to take me further afield, and to explain things to me. Like my guides Nzhia in Saigon and Mr. Hung in Dalat, Jean Ho in Kon Tum is in his late-50’s. A former army captain for the South Vietnamese, he worked closely with the Americans in the Central Highlands during the war. Since many of his men were from local hill tribes, he speaks most of the dialects. Now he’s a bookish English teacher who supplements his income working as a guide during the summer holidays. He’s got an extraordinarily sophisticated vocabulary but terrible conversational English and pronunciation. If I didn’t understand what he was saying he would spell out the words, and I would often do a double-take at his word choice: “r-e-t-i-c-e-n-c-e,” he’d spell, or “c-o-r-o-l-l-a-r-y.”

With less schtick than Nzhia and less tourism-bull finesse than Mr. Hung, he’s been my favorite guide so far on a personal level. But as a guide he’s got a bit to learn. Yes, he made sure I got a full day of his time (we started at 8 am and ended around 6 pm), but a good portion of that time was me sitting around while he chit-chatted with the locals. And like Robin, my hill-tribe guide in Burma a few years ago, he was obsessed with asking the local women how old they are and how many children they had: 45 with 10, 38 with 6, 30 with 6, 40 with 9, etc.

He would also point out how “dirty” they were – kids without shoes, covered in dirt. Remember how I said I had yet to see real poverty in Vietnam? Well, here it is. The hill-tribe families subsist on their farming – rice, corn, manioc, sometimes other veggies or even rubber trees. The homes we visited were stripped of any sort of decoration. Often the house was just four brick walls with a concrete floor and no furnishings – not even the old calendars and bamboo mats I saw in the hill tribe village homes in Burma. They drink water from gourds, carry firewood or their harvest in bamboo backpacks, and often have only rice to eat, once a day.

They are also fiercely independent. “They are like the Americans and French,” says Jean. “They like their freedom, and do what they want.” He said so bitterly, unhappy that the minorities don’t have to pay for farmland and tribal land, unlike ethnic Vietnamese. But I’d bet he wouldn’t trade places with a single one of the families.

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Brrrrr

I’m actually cold – cold! – for the first time in about a year. And I love it. I’m in Dalat, the honeymoon and kitsch capital of Vietnam. I decided to skip the well-traveled coastal road and go north via the Central Highlands. Which explains the cool weather: we’re about 1500 meters above sea level.

Most people travel the highlands by hiring an Easy Rider – a loose collection of Vietnamese tour guides who sling you onto the back of their motorbikes and drive you wherever you want to go. Many people do 4-6 day trips with these guys. I opted for just a one-day tour around Dalat, for two reasons. First, I don’t have the time – I want to save enough time to explore Sapa, northwest of Hanoi. Second, the going rate is around $50-100 per day – pretty reasonable, if you consider that you get a personal tour guide, transport, meals, accommodation, etc. But I wanna save that money for Sapa.

The first thing I noticed about Dalat is that people smile a lot more here than they do in Saigon. I suppose that’s a big city/town thing, but I suspect it’s also the weather. I did the Dalat tour with Mr. Hung (I kid you not), a charming 50-something Dalat native who’s been an Easy Rider for about 5 years. It’s hard to see much of interest around Dalat in just one day, but just the ride along winding roads through the pine-forested hills made the $25 for the day worth it. A perfect, sunny day.

So, Vietnam. I have to be honest – I thought I’d hate it here. I heard people are rude and money-grubbing in the same way that I experienced the Chinese in China, but for the most part it’s been surprisingly pleasant. Traces of the Vietnam war are everywhere, from the museums, to the trinkets sold by hawkers, to conversations, to the still-denuded countryside. There are Vietnamese flags everywhere, as well as banners with a gold-on-red hammer and sickle. And of course, the likeness of Ho Chi Minh is omnipresent, on patriotic banners and as statues in town squares.

It’s hard to get past all that, to the new Vietnam. I guess it’s all about making money…this is what I read in the guidebooks and online. And just like in China, I’m having a hard time finding any funk or soul. The hastily built homes are utilitarian and boring, except for the grand mansions of government officials and police, which are faux-opulent and tacky. The shop signs and billboards use more text than pictures, and so far I haven’t seen many ads with sexy young chicks holding up product. Maybe sex doesn’t sell here? Even the motorbikes and helmets – everyone’s got one – aren’t tricked out, like you’d expect. There’s just no personality.

The south Vietnamese – the only ones I’ve met so far – talk openly about how they hate the corrupt government. As a corollary, they mistrust the north Vietnamese, who were resettled here after the war, purportedly as an attempt at reunification but really to lock in control of the whole country. It’s the same tactic the Chinese government is using with Han Chinese and ethnic minority areas, and similar, I suppose, to carpetbaggers heading south after the US Civil War. I’ve also been told again and again how poor most Vietnamese are, but so far I haven’t seen poverty in as stark a form as I’ve seen elsewhere in SE Asia. I suppose it’s early yet, and I haven’t seen much.

To my ears, all this talk of corruption, suppression of civil liberties, poverty and ethnic division sounds like counter-propaganda. I suspect the south Vietnamese are telling western tourists what they think we want to hear. [As an aside, this is an affliction throughout SE Asia: if you don’t know the answer, or even if you do, tell the tourist what you think she wants to hear. It’s some weird attempt to make us happy, but ends up frustrating us.]

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I didn’t post this yesterday, as I didn’t have the chance. Today spent 11 hours on a bus to Kon Tum, a little-touristed town between Dalat and my next destination, Hoi An. I’m hoping to do a two-day trek/motorbike trip around the hill-tribe villages in the area. Stay tuned!

The bottom line is, so far I don’t hate Vietnam. But I don’t love it, either.

Nothing to see here. Move on.

Today I booked a tour to the Chu Chi tunnels, part of the vast network of tunnels built and used by the Viet Cong during The War. I arranged the tour through Sang, the owner-operator of Hanh Cafe tour office, situated in an alley off Bui Vien St. I give the details (email hongsnag40@yahoo.com; phone 08-392-06211) in case anyone is in the area and wants to book tickets, a tour, or whatever…because Sang is the coolest tour operator I’ve met since Anton, my buddy in Irkutsk.

Most standard tours to Chu Chi include a stop at a pagoda as well. When I asked Sang if the temple was worth it, he smiled and said, “Well, if you’ve seen a few temples around Asia, it’s not really any different.” In other words, he gave me his honest opinion instead of trying to squeeze a few more bucks from me. As a result, I’m now going to buy a 2-day trip to the Mekong Delta, plus a hop on/off bus service (very popular and cheap way to travel in Vietnam – sort of like the Eurail) from him.

Plus, he’s hilarious and will sit and tell you stories in an Aussie-tinged Vietnamese accent all afternoon if you let him. He’s the eldest son of a man who has fathered 22 (!) children with about 10 women in such far-flung places as Australia, Japan, the US and Korea. His father served as a fighter pilot for South Vietnam in the war, flying sorties over northern Vietnam. Referring to his father’s vigorous and far-flung seed, Sang says, “My father is a bomber!”

He also told stories of a Vietnamese guy he knows who is *the* marijuana kingpin in Canada, which those who smoke say produces some of the best weed in the world. Sang’s friend is now a multi-millionaire. Once, when the drug king came back to Vietnam for a visit, Sang went out with him for the night. “The man throws money around like it’s nothing. Two girls, bottles of champagne. We went to a bar and there were girls. Tall ones, young, old, whatever you want. ‘You like this one, take her!’ said his friend to Sang. ‘I don’t have the money to pay,’ he answered. ‘No problem! Take one! You want two? Take what you want, it’s no problem.'” Sang continues: “The guy spends $10,000 in one night, no problem. It’s nothing to him.”

He carried on talking, about the slang used on the phone to make drug deals. Which got him talking about gambling: “We bet on every single football match. There is a guy who owns a gold and jewelry shop around the corner. He had been losing heavily on bets during the World Cup. Then he put all his money on Brazil to beat Holland. When Holland won, he lost everything. $1.2 million. He killed himself.”

Sang could go on for hours. He talks about politics, the difference between South and North Vietnamese (who, he claims, don’t like and still suspect each other), the real name of his city (he agrees with me), corruption, visits by his father’s many children, and on and on. I’d break my hand trying to write everything down.

Instead, as I said, tomorrow I’m going to the Chu Chi tunnels. The next day I’ll do a 2-day trip to the Mekong Delta, including a homestay. Then, depending on how I feel, I’ll start making my way north. Sang, despite his clear prejudice towards south Vietnam, says there’s more to see in the north than the south. He points to an area just north of Danang, where the hop on/off buses don’t stop. “There’s nothing to see! Just rice fields. You see the same thing everywhere. Go to Hanoi. Go to Sapa. Go to Halong Bay. There, there are things to see!”

Back to socialism

Oh, how I missed those golden stars on red badges fastened to army-green uniforms! It’s been quite a few months since my adventures in socialist China, the single country of the dozens I’ve visited that I never ever intend to visit again, at least not on my own dime. So here I am, in another notoriously rude, ruthlessly money-grubbing socialist Asian country with an infamously high rate of theft (not violent theft – mugging and so on – but simple stuff like purse-snatching, stealing your wallet and camera while you’re asleep on the bus, and so on).

Hello Saigon! Or…Ho Chi Minh City, as it’s now called. (An aside: I understand the need to name stuff after national heroes. In fact, on the flight here I just thinking about the absurd number of American airports named for recent American presidents: Reagan International and JFK and (for god’s sake!) Bush International. But no Jefferson, no Lincoln, no Roosevelt (Teddy or Frankie). It’s like the sports stadium-naming virus has spread.)

As I was saying, I get it. But name a soccer (erm) football stadium after him. The airport. A highway. But to name a city after him – especially with a name that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, like Washington, combined with needed clarity lent by the word “City” at the end…it’s a mess. Ho Chi Minh City. Jeezis. No wonder people write HCMC, and still call it Saigon. This city clearly needs a brand manager.

Speaking of airports, the HCMC airport (code: SGN) is shiny and new and covered with advertising billboards that all say “Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City. For advertising, please call…” Like any sensible airport, there are duty-free shops in the international arrivals hall…but they were all closed at 6 pm when I landed. They’re trying with this whole capitalism thing, but they don’t quite have it right.

I grabbed my bag and went in search of the bus into the city, but evidently the buses stop running at 6 pm as well. Not wanting to shell out the cash for a taxi into the city, I walked up to the first white person I saw, a late-30s-ish guy, and asked if he wanted to share. His name is Martin, a native Londoner now working as an investment banker in (you guessed it) Hong Kong. He was on his way to meet his British-born Chinese wife, who was in HCMC for business, at the Sofitel (“we’ve got slightly different budgets,” I laughed).

As it turned out, he wasn’t as boring as a Hong Kong investment banker should be. He’s a former TV journalist, he’s got the first book of a series of teenage detective novels at various agents in New York and elsewhere, and he’s funny as hell. It was the most fun I’ve had in a cab since Pat Guiney, with whom I was in a drunken and oddly vicious argument on the way home from the Stoned Crow, called me a c**t. (He apologized the next day, after PC reminded him of the incident.)

After I dropped Martin in the flush part of town, I instructed our oddly belligerent taxi driver to take me to Bui Vien, the Khao San Road of Saigon. (Saigon, dammit!) It took about 5 minutes to find a $6 dorm bed in the Remember Inn, a friendly place in a side alley, attached to a BBQ joint. The dorm is situated on the first floor, which is like the 13th floor from the film “Being John Malkovich,” or maybe a scene from Alice in Wonderland, in that I have to stoop through the door and carry on stooping as I walk through half the 20ftx20ft room to my bed. By the door the ceiling is about 5.5 feet from the floor, then rises to about 6 feet off the floor – which means I can stand on the side of my room where the bed is, but I can’t have sunglasses on my head because they scrape the ceiling. There are 5 beds in the room, each about 8-12 inches from each other. Thank god there’s only one other tenant – a Korean college student who sleeps all day and picks at his nails a lot.

On my first full day in the city, I was charmed into agreeing to a tour of the city aboard a cyclo – basically a seat on wheels in front of a bike, in this case pedaled by a 50ish Vietnamese man named Nzhia (“Nia”). He had been driving a cyclo for 18 years, he said, since job prospects for those who are not communist party members are scarce. Not that he’s a physicist or engineer or something: he’s a rice farmer who learned English from American GIs during the war, and continues to study at his home, a village about 12 km from Saigon. He tells horrible war stories of violence, including how he got nicked above the right eye by a stray bullet, with an incongruous twinkle in his eye and smile on his face.

He also told me more modern horror stories – of how the top 7 generals just received 7 brand-new Rolls Royces, in a sign of communist corruption; how those who want to go to church can’t, for fear of the ubiquitous midnight knock on the door; of how the communists are stealing valuable forests from the poor and selling the timber off to the Chinese; etc.

But a lot of this is spiel that he clearly has been refining for 18 years. His tour is a series of epigrams that he repeats throughout the day. Describing corruption: “Small officer, small money. Big officer, big money.” Pointing out what the different goods sold on the street we just turned onto: “Different street, different thing.” On free speech in modern Vietnam: “People have mouths for eating, not mouths for speaking.” He showed me the hotel where Bill Clinton stayed when he visited after leaving office (the New World Hotel). He showed me the three different hotels where the officers, journalists and GIs stayed during the war (“then at night the lieutenant would go to a bar and shoot the soldier in the foot. ‘That girl mine. This girl yours!’ Ha ha.”

The tour was nice and all – actually, I recommend it – but the best part was crossing the street. In Saigon, as Nzhia said, “there are 8 million people and 8 million motorbikes.” And as we would make a turn or cross an intersection, at least 4 million of those bikes would be tearing down the road at us, full speed, as we gently pedaled across. I couldn’t look – for the first 30 minutes or so I was certain we would die, but then I figured, he’s been doing this for 18 years and isn’t dead. So go with it.

So yes, I like Saigon. It’s not terribly cosmopolitan, the only good food I can find (luckily!) is the cheap food-stall stuff, Saigon brand beer gives me an instant hangover headache – before I’ve even finished the bottle, and all westerners are constantly harassed to buy trinkets (“you buy something!” demand the pre-adolescent girls who wave cheap hand fans in your face as you try to drink your morning coffee). But I like it.

Enemy territory and the no-fly list

I’m in Ubud, Bali – deep in enemy territory.

On the surface it’s pleasant enough – rice fields, jungle, good eats, friendly Balinese. But it’s also the scene of the final, most sickening section of my nemesis: Eat Pray Love. And evidently, according to the Lonely Planet, since the publication of “that damned book” hordes of “women of a certain age” have been flocking here, hanging around in the local cafes, opening their chakras at the dozens of yoga classes on offer, picking through (from what I’ve seen so far) shockingly awful Balinese “art,” seeking the services of various “healers,” and generally hoping to meet their own rich, sexy Brazilian who will fuck them silly for a month and then marry them. Jeezis.

Ironically, as I write this I’m waiting for Miro, a rather cute German guy I met yesterday, to pick me up. We’re going to yoga together this morning at the Intuitive Flow yoga studio, situated on a hill overlooking rice paddies. I wanted to do some yoga anyway – all those days of sitting around doing nothing with Mike have taken their toll – but Miro says that this particular class is taught by a Balinese shaman. So of course I have to go. It’s research!

Adding to my EPL reenactment, Miro is currently studying cranio sacrotherapy – a new-agey, sort of energy-based healing technique that sounds like reiki to me. Ominously, he couldn’t really explain exactly what it is and how it works. I’m going to Google it later. In any event, I’m all set to have a mystical couple of days in his company.

But let’s go back to last week, when I was hundreds of kilometers to the east, diving Komodo aboard the Jaya. I had heard about the trip because my friend and ex-SJ mate Jeremy works as “cruise director” and primary dive guide on every second Jaya trip, which all leave from Gili T. So on June 21, at sunset, one Dutch and three Swiss women, an American guy, a young Russian couple, a totally New Yo-wak couple in their late 50’s, and I settled onto the deck of the Jaya, carefully guiding spoonfuls of vegetable soup into our mouths. The sea that first night was rough – we were all staggering around like, well, drunken sailors.

Despite the rough seas, that night and every night of the trip all of us slept on pleather mattresses on the covered deck. The cabins were hot, stuffy, cramped, noisy (mine was right next to the engine room) and smelly from exhaust fumes. Truly horrible. But sleeping on deck was as amazing as it sounds: moonlight reflected on open-sea waves, the sky painted with stars after moonfall, salty air (and occasional spray), and then waking up to the sun peering over the horizon.

I won’t talk much about the diving, since most of you don’t dive. I’ll just say that while it was indeed beautiful – the variety of healthy coral, the giant schools of fish – I was expecting more. I wanted to see something I hadn’t seen before (other than a pygmy seahorse, which I fully expected to and did see plenty of thanks to Jeremy’s pygmy obsession). I think Mabul/Sipadan has spoiled me. (To be fair, the current wasn’t as ripping as it should have been, given that the trip happened during a full moon. And no current means not as many sharks, not as much action. But still. No mantas for me either time we did the manta dive, on which the last trip saw *30* (though I did see one from afar at another dive site), no hunting sharks, no dolphins (OK, I wasn’t really expecting that), and not even many insane, rip-you-off-the-reef-or-plunge-you-to-100-meters currents that Komodo is famous for.) Heh heh. So much for not talking about diving.

Eff all that. Let’s go back to the deck of the Jaya. It’s the end of day 5 – the day I saw a manta at Batu Balong. After watching the boat boys, Harry and Dunker, wakeboard behind the dinghy at sunset, we ate a dinner of rice, veggies and fish. Ryan the American plugs his iPod into travel speakers, because the Swiss girls want to hear Tom Petty. We’ve all had a few arak-and-Sprites, or other intoxicants of choice. We’re moored for the night in the calm bay of some sparsely inhabited island in the Flores Sea, off the north coast of the Indonesian archipelago. In the moonlight I watch a half-dozen wild goats pick their way down a steep rocky slope to the cover of some scrub pines near the beach.

Where else would I ever want to be?

A few mornings earlier we visited Rinca, an island near Komodo where ironically it’s easier to see more Komodo dragons than on Komodo itself. And we did see plenty of these split-tongued reptilian creatures as they warmed themselves in the morning sun. Komodo dragons are dangerous. They will hunt animals many times their own 1/5-2 meter size, including wild buffalo. They are hunt-and-ambush predators with poisonous bites. The venom slowly kills the prey over a few days, during which the dragon follows the dying creature until it succumbs. The dragons then eat every part of the animal except the skull, including all other bones.

Our protection from these beasts were two adolescent boys from the park service carrying long sticks with a forked end, presumably to hold back a dragon should it attack one of us. And despite their age they took their job quite seriously, reprimanding us when we strayed from the path or got too close to a dragon in pursuit of the perfect picture.

Other land-based adventures included a Big Night Out pizza night in Labuan Bajo, the main town on the island of Flores; a visit to a lake with one of the simplest ecosystems on the planet, consisting of one species of fish which eats the one species of snail which eats the one kind of algae which lives off the decomposing bodies of dead fish and snails; and an impromptu visit to a more-remote village on another island.

The last was my favorite, as I somehow became the group guinea pig. During our 30-minute visit I was compelled to chew betel nut in various forms, sprinkle my tongue with some sort of white powder that I feared was cocaine but ended up tasting like baking powder, and stick a giant wad of chewing tobacco under my top lip. I was also asked if I wanted to buy a chicken. The woman who had offered me all these treats then invited me to sit next to her, laughed at my big butt and slapped my hips in delight, stole my sunglasses, and insisted on having her picture taken with me…while the village grandma stuck her hand into my shorts pocket to try to get at my mobile phone. Good times.

At the end of the trip, as Gili T came into view, we all said how weird it would be to come “back to reality.” Which got me thinking about levels of reality. We had just spent 8 days stuck with the same people on a not-giant boat, doing the same thing every day. It was like reality tv. The so-called reality we returned to was Gili T, a tropical party island with OK diving, no cars or motorbikes, and plenty of people willing to sell you weed or “fucking fresh magic mushrooms that will send you to the moon.” Not exactly mundane reality. The next day I would be going to Bali – a larger island with more people leading normal lives, but still connoting a holiday paradise. And then I booked my ticket to New York, for so long my reality but where the contours of a real life never solidified for me.

Not that I want to go, but can someone please tell me where reality is, and how to get there?

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Oh – didn’t I mention that I’m coming to New York? Heh heh. For those who have not yet heard, I arrive in NYC on the evening of Sept 25, a day before my bro’s birthday. Never fear, fans of therangelife – I’m just coming for a visit, to meet my new niece or nephew (any day now!) and Sydney’s new brother, to drink martinis with the Guineys and wine with the grrrlz, to watch some effing Red Sox baseball with the Sue’s and their spouses…and to witness my eclipse-watching buddy and NASA astronaut Al Drew as he hurtles into space aboard the second-to-last Space Shuttle mission. Wow!

I’ll stay in the US for about two months. Then either to Central Asia (unless the region devolves into sectarian wars) or Central/South America. TBD.

In the meantime, on Monday I fly from Bali to Bangkok, where I’ll stay long enough to secure a visa to Vietnam. Then it’s Vietnam/Laos/maybe Cambodia for about three months. Then back to Bangkok to catch my flight on Kuwait Airways (should be interesting) to New York via Kuwait City and London. (I was thinking today that I booked a one-way ticket on Kuwait Airways. TSA no-fly watch list, here I come!)