Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) – Part 2: “Daylight”

I wouldn’t mind crushing this damn computer into a million pieces today. It’s been too long since I updated this blog, so I’ve set aside a few hours to do just that on this blazing hot day in Chiang Mai, but I can’t find any inspiration at all. I am worried that the words that will follow may be a flaccid attempt to document something that happened way too long ago to accurately recall. I am too far behind and too distracted by everything around me: the heat, the strange people, the flies, the mellow music that is just making me angry, the feeling that I should be doing more than sitting in some cafe writing this tainted recollection. Some days this is easy and surprisingly enjoyable, but today it’s a chore. It feels I neglected my dishes for so long that they’ve started to mold in the sink, but I have no choice but stick my hands into the mess I’ve made and scrape away the scum that’s crusted semi-permanently on the on every surface. The worst part is that I will spend hours grinding away on this, and in the end, I will still have piles crap left to be cleaned… but I owe it to everyone who has been reading this and supporting me to continue. Most importantly, I owe it to myself to finish what I started for once in my life. I won’t let this become another half read book on my shelf. I apologize in advance if this entry is not the most entertaining or well written thing I have ever created.

Here goes nothing.

After comparing our daily routine to most of the other tourists we met along the way, it seemed like we were going about our days a little differently than most. I usually had very little activity that I could reference off hand when asked what I saw or did. Most people could list off about three or four museums, temples, tours, cooking classes etc. We didn’t do much of this in Saigon, but I still had the feeling that every day was always full of activity even though I usually had very little to brag about at the end of it. Most days were spent drinking liters of fruit shakes and coffee while we continued the never ending hunt for delicious food and illusive trash cans.

There was one main tourist attraction that I actually had some genuine interest in seeing: The War Remnants Museum. We arrived early one afternoon and had time to see most of the first two floors before they closed for a lunch break.

The first floor was pretty much dedicated to conveying the worldwide protest of the Vietnam/American war. It showed a pretty non-biased account of the demonstrations that were held in most major cities around the globe. Considering the kind of information that was to be presented to us further on in the museum, I was glad to see that they did a good job of showing the strong opposition that the American public had to the war at the time. There was a good section on the American martyrs that covered themselves in gasoline on the steps of congress, lit a match and burned to death in the most radical form of protest I’ve ever heard of. It was no surprise for me to see photos of outrage from around the world during the late sixties and early seventies. I realized that this floor was simply breaking people in gently before it presented inevitable and horrific imagery and statistics.

Before we walked up the stairs to the second floor, I knew that I was going to start feeling guilty for being an American by the time the day was over. At least I was with someone that would understand the way I was feeling. Juli, being from Germany, was no stranger to nationalistic guilt. Though both of our countries had a pretty shameful past, at least Germany seems to have finally learned it’s lesson many decades ago and shows no sign of repeating the mistakes it made. America, however, is still, to this day, the bastard bully of the world in many ways despite our aggressive and violent history.

The first room on the second floor wasted no time before jolting you with photos rich with shock value. We had a bit of time to walk around and feel pity for the people of Vietnam before the bell rang and we had to leave until it re-opened in a couple hours.

As we walked to lunch, we discussed all sorts of pleasant things like war, revenge, hatred and general disgust with the human race. Luckily, it took us well over an hour to find the specific food stall that we had decided to go looking for, so the the topic of conversation had time to change and we were able to walk more than necessary to facilitate a strong appetite. The Lunch Lady was her name, and also the name on her food cart. She was located on some road that was just barely not on our map of the city. In the end, the adventure that we had to take to find it was absolutely worth it.

Back at the museum, I had a very difficult time holding it together when it came time to enter the Agent Orange section on the third floor. I shouldn’t have to say too much on the effects that this nasty chemical has had on the population of Vietnam. Even to this day, there are people being born totally deformed from the experimental chemical warfare that American troops used on the population. It’s initial purpose was to kill off the crops and starve out the Vietcong, which is malicious enough, but obviously the effects were much more widespread than that. It’s incredibly disheartening to think that human kind is capable of justifying the manufacture of a chemical that will rip you apart at a molecular level. And who was one of the main corporations hired by the US government for developmental research of such a thing? You guessed it: Monsanto. I hope we are enjoying the sales at the supermarket!

On the whole, the museum was quite informative and factually sound as far as I could tell. The one thing that I can criticize is that it was pretty biased in the sense that it had no information whatsoever on the injustices done by the Northern Vietnamese during the war. I guess you can’t be too surprised by this.

Okay, let’s move on. On a slightly brighter note, we had the good fortune of running into the nice Dutch couple from earlier in our trip. Juli and I had met Peter and Daphne at Ha Long bay on the same cruise that we had met each other. Though our time with them was brief, they had left a lasting impression on me as being some of the few that I would have liked to spend more time with, and now I had the opportunity. Peter’s enchanting smile and Daphne’s contagious laugh were reasons enough to spend the next day drinking and playing pool with them. After proving to one another that we could, in fact, have fun together, we decided to book a tour as a group to the Mekong Delta the next day along with a German girl named Sandra that we had also run into after meeting earlier in our trip as well.

The tour was… well, it was a fucking tour. The Mekong region is definitely beautiful when your not being distracted by some embarrassing activity like having an old man paddle you down the river or riding some broken bicycle through a town of slightly irritated villagers. We learned nothing, but still had fun since we were among friends. Good people almost always guarantees a good day. It was here that we had met the Singaporean and Australia that assimilated into our drinking group later that night.

The last story worth sharing on Vietnam is the one about the afternoon decided to get a massage while Juli went to get her nails done. No, I was not looking for anything more than a massage. It actually took a little effort to find a place that didn’t seem shady enough to probably offer me something that I didn’t feel comfortable paying for. Once inside a seemingly legitimate and affordable massage parlor, I was given the list of different massages that they offered by a cute little Vietnamese girl. I decided to go all out and get the hour long full body. She told me remove my clothes and left the room. Once in my underwear, I lied on one of the four massage tables and waited for her to return. To my utter dismay, she did not come back. Instead a small, feminine Vietnamese man entered with a bottle of oil in hand.

“Actually, I’ll just take a back massage.” I stressed.

“Okay, okay.” He didn’t understand a word of what I said.

I was stuck. After a minute of him working on my shoulders, a large tattooed man came in with the girl that misled me a little earlier and proceeded to get a massage of his own on the table next to me.. The next hour seemed to drag on forever, especially when he got to my, uh… upper thigh area. The three of them seemed to having quite a good laugh. I’m not sure what they were talking about, but my imagination speculated that it had something to do with this tiny little gay man massaging my hairy white ass.

Repulsed and far from relaxed, I met back up with Juli and told her the story as she regaled in laughter.

“So…Did you get a happy ending?”

“Very funny.”

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Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) – Part 1, “Nightlife”

Will and Claire had been planning to leave the previous morning just as Juli and I had been, but thanks to a bit of apathy and poor planning, we ended up on the same bus for our five hour journey to Saigon. Claire read her classic female authored English literature, while I read the same damn book I showed up with. Will listened to his broken i-pod and Juli slept soundly in an upright position. One quick stop, half a bag of dried fish and several hours of urban sprawl later, we arrived to a typical greeting of hotel hawkers as we located our bags in the accumulated mass of luggage left on the sidewalk from the baggage compartment.

The bus had conveniently left us near District 1 and the majority of the affordable hotels. We made the mistake of following one of the hotel pushers working on commission. After looking at several over priced hotels with our heavy bags, having Will claimed that they “smelled like dog”, we decided to ditch the man showing us squats that were out of our tiny budget and split from Will and Claire in process. Looking at a few more hotels we had no success until we ran into “Miss Chu”, who offered us a cheap room down a tiny alley with all the amenities the other places were missing.

Miss Chu seemed to me to be a typical middle aged Vietnamese woman hardened by years of Saigon inner city living and most likely the occupation of my country’s military decades prior. The first thing that appeared a bit odd about her was the multitude of photos she had of herself adorning her guest house, but all the rest of her characteristics seemed trustworthy and uniquely charming on first impression. She told us that we could find her at her office around the corner if we needed anything and left us alone in the hotel. The room was basic but seemed secure and even came with breakfast, hot water, AC, Internet and a picture of Jessica Alba in her panties plastered to the bathroom wall. I had no complaints.

Juli had always done an excellent job of organizing our days and evenings. Flipping through the our books and web pages for recommendations on food, we would both pick several things that we wanted to partake in, see or eat then she would jot down the information in our little notebook, mentally situate the locations of said activities on our map, then we would be off. I have to admit that having her around made things just a little too easy for me. So now we had a room and I had my foreign tour guide of sorts, so we hit the streets to see what this world famous city had to offer us.

My favorite way to acclimate to a new place is aimless wandering, or more specifically, wandering with a travel partner who takes interest in studying the map while I do my best not to get hit by oncoming traffic and wearing a stern “no face” while encountering anyone who wants to sell me anything. And so we walked.

The traffic is notoriously bad in Saigon, as many people probably already know. To cross most streets in this city, you might as well just close your eyes and walk steadily into oncoming traffic. Though there is no enforcement of traffic laws (unless you break your leg when a motor bike comes crashing into you on the sidewalk, then the police will surely show up to make sure you reimburse the maniac for the headlight that you so carelessly let smash into your femur) but the drivers do their best to avoid pedestrians in the streets even though they all maintain outright refusal to yield to any of them. Oddly, this chaos that makes the streets of Hanoi look like a coldesack in the Wisconsin suburbs is one of the most fascinating and attractive features of Saigon to outsiders. You can see this evident on postcard stands. At least twenty percent of all the postcards sold there sport pictures of the insanity of rush hour traffic that you can purchase and send home to your friends and family so they can laugh and enjoy the quirks of one of your many destinations without having to inhale the overwhelming amount of exhaust or deal with the enraging stress that comes with actually being there.

We survived until dinner and ate at a restaurant far away from the tourists strips renowned for its pho and clean atmosphere. Sure enough, the food was fantastic. I remember walking back to the hotel and stopping at some German bakery on the way (that was Juli’s idea) and the next five days becomes sort of a consistent blur of consistent drinking, sight seeing and pleasure seeking mixed with a bit of reality all crashing down on me as well. While omitting worthless details, I will do my best to highlight certain parts of my experience by outwardly shining an internal light of personal interest on key features of this city that I experienced over the next five days, though I can guarantee things to be chronologically inconsistent.

Any tourist in Saigon will undoubtedly see a large lit up sign sporting a buffalo at the end of the main tourist drag. This place should viewed by anyone that knows better as a means of orientation and nothing else. Advertising bullshit happy hours that start at midnight and pushing out Western food with prices that will insult your pride and will to live, this shitty excuse for a material occupation of space and time will probably give you diarrhea quicker than injecting a diaper full of rotten cockroach guts directly into your colon. I’m proud to say that I completely avoided eating here, but did get dragged into buying a cocktail with Will and Claire one night while they contemplated their mildly drunk decision to get involved with this well regarded scam during an isolated lapse of judgement that was not typical with their usual wariness of such things.

Anywho, the next two blocks that line up with a view of the “Obese White Buffalo”, or whatever the fuck it’s called, had several bars with sidewalk seating that shucked out thousands of cocktails and large bottles of Bia Saigon for next to nothing. Two or three US dollars was usually enough to get you drunk enough to talk to lady boys. The bar we visited on a nightly basis was always the same simply becasue it was the best of the four on the block and friends from the night before would always know where to find us. The “bartenders” were almost all middle aged Viet women in iridescent pajamas who scanned the crowd looking for orders and were the organizers of night long game of musical chairs. Often when we showed up, Juli would attempt to sit in one tiny plastic chair only to be directed to another that had the same characteristics of comfort and orientation. We never found out the reason for this. When more people approached looking for a seat and some cheap drinks, they would apply the mechanics of a singularity, rotating a mass of drunk tourists towards the more crowded center until everyone that wanted to be seated was accommodated.

There came a point in every night that no more bodies could be stacked on the sidewalk, so the frowning old ladies would grudgingly start to let the crowds with their tiny tables and chairs pour into the street. Every night a police wagon would come racing down middle of the street looking for bars that let their customers sit in the gutter. When this happened, the proprietors would do there best to make anyone who was sitting in the street go stand on the sidewalk temporarily while the police drove past. If they failed to remove all the chairs from the road in time, the punishment was meant to be financially Pavlovian as they would take away any remaining chairs, put them in the back of the truck and drive off with their property. Though the cops usually never managed to snag more than one or two of them at a time from that particular bar, these women were working hard for pennies and left everyone feeling a bit pissed off at the police. One drunk traveller was mad enough to lose his chair one night that he grabbed it out the back of the truck as it pulled away. He was met by applause from the bar and looks of horrified rage from one of our servers. Luckily for the drunk man and the bar owners, the cops saw nothing.

Though the location remained the same night after night, the characters changed. One night Juli and I were invited into a group by an American and a Canadian that I slept next to in the back of a sleeper bus earlier on the trip. Though they were kind enough to invite us into their sleepy group of unmemorable faces, they had as little interest in talking with us as we did them, so I began talking to a balding American man in his early thirties. At first he stunk of boredom and douchey infidelity. It took a whole ten minutes before I was able to figure out why. If my memory serves correct, he lived in Indonesia. Aside from adding shit to septic tanks, he spent his days working for a large American medical insurance company, outsourcing office jobs to the poorest people qualified to work this drudgery in a country that probably didn’t fully understand the implications of their work. This void of character and morality incarnated into chunks of wasted flesh that resembled a human was not just taking jobs out of the US, but maximizing profits for a taboo industry that capitalizes on the wages from the lower and middle classes of both the country he lived in and the country he was from. When I confronted him with the most polite disagreement of his lifestyle that I could muster, he regurgitated some bullshit about the “inevitability” of societies downfall and something even more retarded about getting a “paycheck”. By the time I was literally shaking with rage, Juli spotted some of our friends that we had agreed to meet with earlier in the night and pulled me away from this piece of trash. I took a relieving strafe away from the first man I pondered slaughtering in public in a good long while and felt good to be in the company of decent people.

Of course, most people were not as bad as this. In fact, he was really the only one that I had met in Saigon that left me with a truly negative impression. Of the good people, there were two cousins from Argentina that we spent a couple nights with who I was quite fond of. Both were charming, though stereotypically obsessed with sex and women. One of the two told me he was on an “invictus”. Apparently, he had slept with six different women over the past six days, barely taking time to revel in any of them before moving on to the next. When he met Juli, I told him to go ahead and have a try. After the first night of minimal effort, he described her as “being like a wall” and promised me that he would never try with another German again for as long as he lived. Obviously, he was not used to failure in this arena. The other memorable characters were as follows: Two dutch, a Singaporean, another German girl, an Australian, a few English, a bold Frenchman, and an endangered Icelander, just to name a few. We were definitely in backpacker central.

Every night drew to a close slowly. With the exception of my final evening in town, I spent almost every night staggering back with late night intoxication at the same time as Juli. Seeing to how we only had one key, it was quite the ordeal to leave separately, though one night I did decide to come back out when she got tired before I felt the night was over. Walking the streets of Saigon with a girl that almost every person assumes is either your wife or girlfriend definitely proved to be more advantageous than problematic as I found out the one evening as I made the walk back to the hotel alone. Drunk, white and alone is a good combination of attributes to make a single man look to prostitutes like a fresh stalk of corn must look to locusts; enough said.

Okay more on Saigon next time.

Mui Ne (part 3)

The next morning I actually had a sizable hangover. The only remedy that I knew that would typically cure my self inflicted disposition was a serving of eggs, a lot of water and a couple cups of coffee. For whatever reason, my mood did not seem to be improving after my consumption. Instead, it took a lot of alone time and some slow sipped beers in front of the crashing waves at our resort. This would not be a day for me to socialize or go sight seeing. While Juli sunbathed and listened to music at the pool behind me, I wrote something more important than any boring blog entry.

It took me almost all day to complete two pages of organized lyrical ramblings, most of which I will most likely deem to be complete trite in a couple months anyhow, but I felt relieved. This was one of the main reasons that I had come here. I wanted to see the sights, eat the food, immerse in culture and mostly meet the people, but the one thing I had that most others didn’t was a strong desire to create while I was out and about in the world. Most people can’t be bothered while on vacation, but this was not my vacation. My vacation happens at home where my work is easy and the lack of my own creativity is only accompanied by a manageable portion of guilt. Out here, I have my down time just like anywhere else, and when there is no comfortable couch to go home to, my lack of self-discipline doesn’t stand a chance against an alert mind and a strong will to do more with it.

When the writing grew tiring and I needed some fuel for inspiration, I turned to music, not just simply for the feeling of it, but for the way that it has been recently tending to ignite my imagination in a way that no other art can. The personal imagery that flashes over the back of my brain has never meant more to me than it did on this day. I understood why beats break and why certain songs climax. I understood what made an artist easy to appreciate compared to those who simply create something to be noticed. The authenticity of any form of expression can only be understood by those who seek it out and this why no one seems to have ever heard of many artist’s favorite artist. Whatever happened in the space between my headphones and my brain was something that I struggle to describe or even remember accurately, but it was magnificent.

Refreshed and back to earth with my laptop battery low, we finally got dressed and went to dinner. Sharing a small bottle of liquor accompanied by a coconut after our meal, we did our best to ascertain our separate ideas of what it takes to make “real” art, which can always keep two mildly intelligent people entertained for a good long while. Before it was too late, we returned back to our room to watch a movie on my computer. Thirty minutes in, the sunshine and whiskey caught up with Juli and she was fast asleep. I only made it another half hour myself until I succumbed to the inevitable drip of my not-so-well-earned melatonin.

The next day, it was clear that we were going to have to actually do something with ourselves. Simply biding time to avoid overexposure to the chaos that was promised to us in Saigon was not a good enough excuse in itself to book another night in Mui Ne, so we rented another motor bike for the day. First we stopped at the market to see what it had to offer. We purchased the maximum amount of fruit and dried fish that we could cram under the seat of our bike and began our adventure for the day. As we drove past the red dunes, I flipped the bird to a little kid standing next to a pile of plastic slides. I have to admit that it was not the most appropriate way for me to react, but it sure seemed like it in the moment.

It was a shame that it wasn’t until our final day that we finally found the place for cheap seafood via the Swiss-Viet girl’s recommendation. It took less than an hour to drive ourselves off the main tourist drag of Mui Ne and find some beaches littered with old Vietnamese women selling live seafood out of the bucket for roughly one fifth what it would have cost us near our hotel. We had two lobsters, about two dozen clams, six small squids, and some strange, transparent, gelatinous dough surrounding a dried shrimp, all for about eight dollars each. All of this was weighed out and cooked up right in front of us on the beach. I ate most of my meal in a small plastic chair that was continually sinking lower into the sand with every wave that rose up from under me with the rising tide.

Back on the motor bike, we drove further down the road than most people in town usually cared to venture. The destination we had in mind was the “Red Canyon”. We didn’t really know how far outside of town it was, we just knew that our map made it out to be easily attainable by motor bike. Roughly half an hour of bumpy and moderately cautious road navigation had passed and it dawned on me that I was already having all the fun that I had hoped for without really even needing to find this the canyon we were seeking. It was no Harley, but our little scooter that whizzed down the road left me feeling appropriately empowered with my situation. My only real responsibilities in this moment were to keep us alive by means of intuitive balance and shove a small amount of effort into finding some inconsequential location. In that moment, I had attained a frame of mind that was independent from purpose and location. I thought this feeling would be ever present immediately upon my departure from SFO, but it wasn’t up until this point that I had really found, what I thought, would be an unavoidable when you made exploration and adventure your number one vocation.

We passed a sign for the red canyon and continued further, expecting a massive natural expanse of red rock and ravines to come jutting out of the landscape at any moment. When this didn’t happen, we grabbed a bit more fuel from a pump in front a small familiy’s house in some single road village, then decided to head back to the sign seeing if we were capable of deciphering a rough location of this landmark. Oddly enough, the sign grabbed our attention again and as we stared at the Vietnamese lettering, expecting some miracle of ignorant translation to occur, we noticed the canyon sitting adjacent to the roadside. It was funny how this battered old sign managed to make more of an impression on us than the natural landmark it was referencing. Nevertheless, we parked the bike at some abandoned lot and took a walk through the small, empty crevasse.

Trash… and a lot of graffiti, mostly in Russian, being carved into the walls awaiting the next rainstorm to capitalize on its futility. Mostly, it’s just piles of discarded waste carried there by rainstorms of the past that are my most prominent memories of this spot. We felt it our duty to move forward through this junkyard now labeled on maps as a destination for tourists that didn’t care to spend another day at their resort eating seafood and sunbathing, but thanks to our effervescent good nature, we enjoyed our time there as much as any person could who had spent half a day finding it. Like I said before, it was never about finding this stupid place. The ride there and the company of the closest friend I had made in years was more than enough to keep me from complaining about the hopeless future of the spot that was, at some point, probably geological muse for photographers and anyone craving natural beauty in any form.

The rest of the day drew to a close without incident and we were finally ready to catch our bus to Saigon the next morning.

Mui Ne (Part 2)

Mixing low quality alcohol until the wee hours of the morning is usually a guarnteed way to ruin the first half of your next day, but between the heat and activity that comes with any given day on this trip, I have managed to sweat away all the physical handicaps typically associated with binge drinking. Alert and unagitated, I figured that it would be a perfect day to rent a motorbike and check out the sights outlaying Mui Ne. Getting the bike was easy, but finding a place for coffee and food proved to be a challenge.

This was the first time that I had really noticed the off season’s effect. After about an hour of driving up and down the one available road, we were having no luck finding any sort of restaurant to cater to our hunger. While making the rounds, we did, however, find the upbeat young English couple that we had met earlier in our trip.

Will and Claire seemed fully saturated in good vibes and an attractive sense of humor the first time that we met, so I was visibly pleased to have run into them at random again. With differing day plans, we picked a time and a location to meet at later that evening, then sped off on our motor bike in a direction opposite their trajectory.

After a stupid amount of searching, we finally found some food. The only open restaurant that we encountered was an eclectic mix of Southern Indian and Vietnamese seafood. Sharing an awning, both restaurant operators seemed unaffiliated in every other way. I ordered curry and naan while Juli stuck to the Vietnamese cuisine and ordered up some frogs and rice. With our bellies full, we head in the direction of the Red Sand Dunes just outside of town.

At first, we passed the dunes, wondering if they were in fact the tourist destination we had been searching for. By the time that we were on some long abandoned highway well past the dunes that we were seeking, we decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to let Juli get a feel for the scooter. All the experience that she had at home added up to be the same as mine: absolutely none at all. Her apprehension was understandable. Nonetheless, she was more than open to the idea of learning the basics.

I showed her the location of the turn signal and headlights. After about fifteen seconds of explanation, I realized how absurdly easy riding an automatic scooter actually should be and assured her that she would have no problems whatsoever. I grabbed the accelerator and the hand brakes and attempted to show her how to start the thing. As if my clumsiness had be waiting for days for the perfect opportunity to pounce, my right foot and confidence became its prey as I watched the bike begin to fly away from me during the abrupt end of my failed lesson. I still had not grasped the concept of hand based acceleration enough to know how to let go of the handle once the bike jerked out of my hands. This blunder left with me with some minor road rash on one of my small toes.

“Are you okay?” She did a damn good job at not laughing.

“Oh yeah, totally fine. I have absolutely no idea how that happened. No worries though!” I picked up fallen motor bike from the middle of the road and moved it back the side and asked: “You ready to try it?”

She looked concerned. Her inexperienced mentor had failed to show off such a simple thing as getting it started.

“It’s easier when you’re sitting on it.” I assured her.

A little disenchanted but still confident enough in her own abilities, Juli grabbed hold of the bike and darted up and down the dusty road while I walked off the entirely manageable pain that I had inflicted upon myself.

She rode back up a few minutes later baring a specific type of smile that can only ever be accompanied by the feeling of success that one earns by them self. I hopped on back to see how she would handle my organic payload. It was only then that she lost the will to continue driving, as balancing another person not only comes with double the weight, but double the responsibility as well (all depending on the person, of course). I took hold of the wheel once again and we went back to the dunes.

We parked our bike across from the sand in front a shop littered with small children. Before my helmet was off, about five little boys approached us, pushing plastic slides in my face. They were utterly persistent in persuading us to follow them and slide down the hills with them for a nominal fee. I thought this was a pretty pointless way to pass the time in a place that was already holding so much promise of being a diverse and desolate landscape in a country filled with jungles and beaches, but these little dudes have a way with you. I shrugged my shoulders and we both agreed that there couldn’t be much harm in it. I bartered them down to just a couple dollars for an hour or so of “really fun sliding” and we began our hike in the midday heat up the scolding hot dunes.

At first, there were two. Then three… then five, seven or maybe even eight of these little kids accompanying us. Sliding down the these dunes proved to a pretty large waste of time, detracting from the landscape and taking a toll and my well maintained lazy man physique; we were constantly at the bottom of these sand pits and had to climb out again only to repeat the adrenaline numbing process over and over. After only a short while, I was waiting to be able to call it quits on the whole ordeal.

At one point, my wallet apparently fell out of my pocket, which I found a bit odd, but it was returned with a smile by one of the older boys in the group. After a good long while of faking smiles and doing my best to communicate with these dirty little kids, we eventually came to the conclusion that we had had enough and wanted to return back to our transportation so we could go home and wash off the ridiculous amount of sand that was plastered to our skin with sweat and sunscreen.

“Tip! Tip!” they kept repeating. Why not? A couple dollars to us might have been a nice little fortune to them, so I reached for my wallet.

The demand for a tip was one mistake I’m sure they will eventually learn not to repeat. Once my wallet was opened, I noticed a good amount money still in order where I had left it, but my 500,000 note (about twenty five dollars) had gone missing. Juli checked her cash stock and noticed that about three times that was missing. How could we have been so careless? Why didn’t I check my wallet early on and why did we let them carry her bag? The explanation turns out to pretty simple: Vietnam had proved thus far to be a nation filled with relatively honest people. We may have been charged more than locals for a bottle of water or a taxi ride, but never had we seen anyone blatantly attempt to steal from us. Our faces sank and I foresaw a problem.

“No, you tip US. Where is my money, eh? You stole from the both of us and now you’re going to give it back.” I had no desire to play nice simply due to their age.

Predictably, these little bastards denied everything and began to turn their pockets inside out. I saw their little game unfold before me. Once they had all been searched, we realized that they were not inexperienced enough to keep the money in a place where we would find it. After about ten minutes of well rehearsed, outright denial and hopes that I possessed some invisible conscience towards poor children that would lead me to give up and cut my losses, I remained adamant that there would be no escape from us until our money was returned. Suckers? Without a doubt we were, but not your typical ones. Finally the leader of the group agreed to take us back to my money.

I was significantly dehydrated and the two of us were beyond irritable on the long walk back through the desert. Several times, a number of the kids attempted to leave the group only to have me chase after them and physically drag them back to the party. Two of the younger and more clever boys managed to escape our grasp, but by the time we reached the place where my money stowed away, most of the kids remained with us.

They had placed one of the slides in the sand to indicate where they had buried my cash. After digging several holes, they procured my 500,000 note.

“Good start. Now where did you put HER money?” They responded to me with looks of exhaustion and unwillingness to co-operate any further.

“I don’t know! Little guy took it! I don’t know where is it!” the eldest thief responded.

Juli had lost her patience. “Then you are going to take us to him right now.” she said. Of course, it was one of the boys that we managed to lose track of that had the money.

Juli went back to get the scooter as I trekked back across the desert and felt my head begin to thump. The last of our water had been consumed long ago. Though the smallest of the aspiring con-artists had escaped, the ones that remained began to realize that they had bitten off a bit more than they could chew. They checked all the typical hiding spots on the way back, digging more holes and reaching far into spiky bushes, only to show up empty handed by the time we reached the furthest end of this now disgusting waste of space. We found one of the two tiny ones wandering alone. Apparently, the other one had been picked up by “the boss”. I dragged the kids down to the sidewalk to wait for Juli and give them all an unorthodox lecture. I had no intent of conspiring guilt in this manipulated mass of third world orphans, but rather instill some fear in them as I waited for my ride home… and a bottle of water. I was a bit angry at this point to say the least.

“Listen up. Do you know who I am? Do you know where I’m from? I am from America, and I am a member of the mafia.” The old one began to translate, wide eyed, “Do you know where I got these tattoos? Any idea?” the crowd remained silent, “I got these tattoos in prison… from killing people. You guys are too young for me to kill, but let me tell you this. I am coming back tomorrow and one of you is going to either have our money or you are going to take me to your boss, and I am going to kill him instead. You understand these words that I’m saying? I want the name of your boss.”

Obviously, I have never killed anyone, nor did I have any intention of even coming back, much less killing some Vietnamese gangster outside some shanty over eighty euros. My tattoos represented nothing more than attempts to remind me of the free spirited artist that I aspire to be, but they didn’t know the difference. Either way, I felt that my approach would have at least made more of an impression than the lecture the typical tourists must have laid on deaf ears in the past about “ethics” and “humanity”. Shortly after having some fake name written down on tattered parchment, Juli pulled up, angry as all hell, and dismounted our transport. Once I explained the hopeless situation, I saw her own demons get released.

“I’m going to kick your asses, you little assholes!” the typically collected and well behaved girl exclaimed as she stomped toward the shy crowd. I couldn’t have understood her frustration more. After a minute or two, we accepted our losses grudgingly and drove back to our hotel to wash away the stench of dirt and defeat.

It only took a few hours to get over it. I demanded to split the losses with her seeing to how the whole thing happened due to mutual negligence. After a nice meal, we were already laughing it off over drinks with our friends on the beach later that evening.

Will and Claire showed up with all their charisma and an American couple that they had been traveling with on and off for the past few months. We drank and drank until I was wading in the sea with my jeans on. Marc and Molly were from New York, both were well read and seemingly impervious to unhappiness when in good company. We were all drunk within a couple hours, but more than that, we knew exactly where we were. Vietnam… It wasn’t I heard of the partial solar eclipse that we missed that morning, that was really only visible from the geographical location in which we were temporarily residing, that I found myself appreciating the gravity of the moment that could only live in for as long as anyone chose to remember it.

One bottle of vodka, a few Jager shots, and one impossibly low quality joint later, conversation between myself and the other two Americans spiraled out of control in the best possible way. Juli’s lethargy eventually gave us both an excuse enough to leave. It was too bad that we would not see Marc and Molly again, but Will and Claire had unknowingly interwoven their itinerary enough with ours that the inevitability of our future interactions would not be ignored. Weaving down the sidewalk and avoiding the falling coconuts, we finally made it back to the beds that, for another night or two, we could call home.

Mui Ne (Part 1)

I was expecting more development of my back mussels by this point in my trip. During my previous travels around Europe and New Zealand, I’d usually be walking considerable distances between bus stations, train stations and good hitching spots, but South East is very different in this regard. In a way, this trip has been the easiest one yet. With all buses I take, I tend to book them through my hotel for little or no extra cost then what you would pay at the station. The bus picks me up at my hotel and drops me close enough to the next one that I have rarely found myself walking with my heavy backpack on for more than half an hour every couple of days.

Leaving Da Lat was no exception. We were picked up only a few minutes late from our hotel and began the windy decent to our next destination. Our initial plan was to head directly to Saigon from Da Lat, but we figured that the ten days we had left before our flight would be a bit too long to spend in the large city and the outlaying Mekong Delta region, so we chose the beach town of Mui Ne as an appealing alternative.

The only other tourists on our bus were a disgruntled looking, anti-social Russian couple and a Swiss/Vietnamese girl. We didn’t talk to either of them, finding no interest in the old, stone faced Russians and being completely unaware of the other girl’s backpacker status until the very end of our bus ride.

When we pulled into the one road town, we were shocked at the amount of signs written in Russian. It seemed as though we had stumbled across Russia’s favorite resort town in Vietnam. The Swiss girl told us that there were plenty of different districts catering to a variety of nationalities; she had been here before. But when we got off our bus, we didn’t seem capable of finding any area that wasn’t specifically catering to any non-Russian speaking tourists, but one more language barrier didn’t make that big of a difference.

As I said before, Mui Ne has one main drag, which makes navigation a joke and orientation immediate. It seemed that we had passed all the hotels and resorts that were out of our price range. We were in a more practical and affordable area of town by the time we started our price comparison fueled by teamwork. Juli checked one resort for price and quality, I checked the other. I found that we only had to skip the first few before the price dropped from twenty dollars to fifteen. After eight or so comparisons, we found a nice twin bed room with a balcony and a pool situated on beach front property for about seven dollars each a night. The only thing that seemed to be wrong with the room was the air conditioner, leaking roughly a liter of water an hour down the wall and onto the floor, until we came to the realization that the window was open for our first twenty four hours of occupation. In short, there was really nothing wrong with the place.

Our first night we scored some sashimi at a restaurant opposite the beach. The food was good, but seemed a bit overpriced. After dinner, we found a stone table at one of the many seafood restaurants that all displayed multiple tanks of live fish in front of them. Having just eaten, we stuck to ordering alcohol instead. As I studied the menu, there was one item in the drinks section that peaked my attention. Some sort of local rum was only about 80,000 VND, about four dollars, for a bottle. How could this be? My curiosity lead me to order the damn thing, expecting a well priced flask. What we ended up with was 750 ml of watered down ethanol and sugar cane. We drank this poison straight. Shot after shot with minimal effect, it seemed time to head back to the hotel.

“One drink.” I made the argument back in our room. “I know the bar looks dumb, but one drink and either of us will have the freedom to leave.”

“One drink,” Juli said “then you can stay if you like, but I’ll probably be coming home.”

We went directly to “Sports Bar” across the street. Two drinks later we had found it difficult to meet anyone. Oddly, the first white bartenders that I had encountered on this trip spoke English as poorly as most Vietnamese. What sort of strange place was this? It wasn’t until we were in the reclining area that we noticed that none of the funky looking white people seemed to speak any English at all; we were clearly the only Westerners in an Russian only club. After a bit of trial and error and some serious happenstance, we managed to find one darling young Russian girl with impeccable English and a desire to use it.

Svetlana was critical of the scene, especially of the Russian rap battles taking place at the head of the dance floor with microphones that would eventually be turned down to inaudible levels. I spat out the typical backpacker conversation as quickly as I could race through it, stating the locations I’d been and the major details of stories that I had accumulated. She had never heard of Ha Long Bay, Hoi An or taken a sleeper bus. She had never done any of the typical things that any backpacker I had been encountering had done at all. Come to think of it, I had never met any Russians on this trip whatsoever, but here they were by the dozen in one isolated bar in Southern Vietnam. I learned later that the reason for this seemed to be the mass amounts of direct flights from Moscow to Nha Trang. I was in the equivalent of Russia’s Hawaii, somewhat budget for us and just below standard for their middle class.

Three more drinks later, and I had made a new friend for the evening. During a couple of my bathroom breaks, I found myself intoxicated enough to grab the microphone away from a slurring Russians butchering cliche beats and spit some of my own words to organized rhythm. My attempts left me with a feeling of success even though neither of the pretty girls in my company laid witness to these attempts… maybe in retrospect this could have been beneficial to my reputation.

Conversation continued and the night progressed. Two more drinks. For those keeping track, our one drink had multiplied like bunny rabbits even after Juli and I consumed the majority of our nail polish remover from the previous bar. There was nothing boring left to talk about. Our became absurd and irrational, even by travelers standards. At this point Juli exited the scene. Svetlana became more a bit more friendly with me shortly after, and for reasons beyond my control at the time I decided that it would be in my best interests to return to the hotel with impeccably inappropriate timing. This later became my first major regret of my trip thus far.

Back to my dark and quiet hotel room, Juli had fallen asleep, and I bit my fist as I fell into a sleep laden with a strange mixture of remorse, belonging and righteousness.

Da Lat, Vietnam

We got a pretty decent price on a speedboat back from the young man who owned the restaurant that we had been eating at. All in all, it only ended up costing us an extra dollar each and promised to save us two hours of our time. The ride was quick and we were pretty much the only two who chose to sit up front to feel the bounce over the crashing waves. Our inexpensive investment in speed to be paying off until we noticed the boat make a sharp turn away from the port that we were expecting to be dropped off at. We were not within walking distance of central Hoi An, so we had no choice but to pay a cab to take us back to a spot where we could buy a bus ticket to get out. In the end, we saved enough time to indulge in our own separate vices to help us cope with the long “sleeper” bus ride ahead of us. Juli had her passion fruit mousse cake and I grabbed my packet of Valium from the pharmacy, and in all honesty, I’d say that she is considerably more hooked on passion fruit and chocolate than I am on drugs that make you feel all warm and fuzzy, which is saying a lot.

Everyone waiting for our bus in front of the hotel was driven via motor taxi to the station we were to depart from. I popped a couple of my pills to avoid any absorbing any of my immediate neighborly stress and hopped on the bus before the majority of the crowd in hopes of avoiding a crowded seat in the back. Of course, my technique proved to be more harmful than helpful as I was pushed (literally) to the back of the bus once again. At least I was able to square off a seat where my feet could hang off the end and Juli was kind enough to cram in the corner next to me so I could avoid being sandwiched between two strangers who would undeniably be upset with the girth of my shoulders or something as equally involuntary.

Once Juli had fallen asleep, I began to wonder why I was not dosed into a coma, so I took a couple more of these suspect pills. Whether the pills seemed to be working or not became pretty irrelevant once we arrived at our destination after an impossibly bumpy ride through blackened landscapes of unsleepable hell. I do know that I felt absolutely terrible upon arrival, and a double dose of overly sweet Vietnamese coffee didn’t seem to help… and we were still several hours from reaching our allotted location.

Nha Trang is a popular tourist destination, same with all the other places we had been as of late, and having spent enough to on the beaches of Cham Island, we figured it was best to have a quick walk through town and catch a local bus towards the mountain town of Da Lat instead of settling for densely populated beaches that Lonely Planet recommended just a little too much for our tastes. “Lonely Planet” might as well be called “Overcrowded Tourist Resort”, because there is obviously no secret that can be kept once it’s been published in a guide that ninety percent of travelers refer to. That being said, Da Lat is simply a smaller chapter in our guide, so we were not planning to find ourselves completely off the beaten track by any means.

The bus was full, as always, and I felt a little of hope roll through me as I found that we were the only tourists occupying seats as we zig-zagged through the poorly maintained mountain roads. Elevation rose and temperature dropped before we were let off close to the center of town. The map in our guides left our intuition blind as we assumed accuracy on street names and where they would lead us. Once again, our over rated book pertaining to our situation failed us and we were left to our own methods of systematic questioning and rigorous judgement of the answers we received to find our affordable and high rated hotel. Of course, we found it eventually and checked in.

While I napped off the shitty Valium for a few hours, Juli found herself ecstatic with the realization that Da Lat was Vietnam’s main source of fresh, relatively unpasteurized milk. She finally had something to accompany her chocolate cookies. Eventually I was awoken by a “Jaredjaredjared, are you still sleeping?” and realised that it was time for me to get off my ass and explore my surroundings.

Da Lat was not filled with tourists, but definitely not void of them. At the local market, I found there to be a strange amount of people losing their face with us. This town did not seem to have the kind of kindness towards outsiders that I had anticipated. The street food still proved rewarding and the change of climate even more so, but there was something in the air here that I sure wasn’t going to find myself capable of pinpointing in the brief visit that I was making to it. After eating our street food on a staircase overlooking the market we bought our dinner at, the rest of the night became a sort of post nap blur. I remember a sandwich in bed, but I have to admit that nothing else really came of the night that contained much significance; not that I remember anyways.

Breakfast the next morning was a spread worth reckoning. There is little about the food that I miss from home, but a proper fatty breakfast filled with egg yolk and bacon grease is something that I was more than willing to indulge in, especially when I saw our day plan take form through recommendations at our communal table filled with travelers. We wanted to take a hike. Practically free and filled with promise, we figured that a hike through the local mountains would end up being the best plan that we could construct with our day and lack of planning. Fifty cents and a half hour later, we began our trek towards a view of epic proportions. The first third was a concrete road and the rest was a soggy jog through a steep jungle. On the way, we ran across the two German girls that had sent us that direction in the first place. We passed them slowly with minimal conversation as we were dedicated to reach the summit.

Once there, we were greeted by a departing couple I can barely recollect and a large pile of trash. It always amazed me how the poor countries of the world manage to spread their trash into every isolated corner of their country in such a despairingly organized way. It rarely seems to be a lone bottle or cigarette butt detracting from the feel of a landscape, but rather large piles of organized rubbish set into every corner of your well earned escape from bustling streets of exhaust and inwardly reflected disgust. The top of this peak was no different. Enjoying the breeze and ignoring the pestilent insects, we didn’t have a seating option far enough away from the reminder of our own inevitable contributions to this degrading landscape. The view was amazing, the conversation always better. Juli had a way of inadvertently reminding me of the main reason why I continued this strafe away from my home with such ease. It was never the waterfalls or sun soaked beaches that made any of this worth it. It was always the people that I met along the way, and now it was weeks surrounded by her constant company, and I was still found myself sucked into more joy from her legitimate contact than any landscape or bizarre culture could provide me with to date. I don’t remember exactly what it was we conversed about, or whether or not it was even that important in the grand development of my psyche, but I do remember it making more of an impact than the one hundred square mile view of Vietnamese landscape laid before me. I love my time alone, as anyone who’s ever known me has come to learn about my character, but the value of shared experience in comparison to my isolation cannot be put into words. Sharing an endeavor tends to tromp on the very experience itself.

We made our way back down, encouraging the few people we saw sweating their way up the same path, and caught our bus back to Da Lat. We found ourselves at a cheap-ish bar within a short while. I have to admit, I had not been the best at conversing with some of the older gentlemen I had been running across on this trip, but one smile and a handful of harmless words later, we were getting a trip recommendation from a wordy Australian, who, in the end, gave us nothing of value, but at the time seemed to me to transcribing words and maps made of gold in our little travel journal. Faking my interest for a bit too long, he got up and left soon enough.

I got a little tipsy that night and the conversation that Juli and I had turned a bit depressing. I was not a good drunk this night, and it showed when we returned to the room. We finally ended up pissing each other off for a moment due to some mildly offensive misunderstanding. At least we proved capable of disarming an uncomfortable situation with relative ease, and I was surprised that it had taken this long to happen in the first place. We slept soundly that night like grown ups should.

Cham Island, Vietnam

Though hidden white sand beaches lined with coconut trees and crystal clear waters are not synonymous with a foreigner’s imagery of Vietnam, they are not really all that hard to find here. If you want to avoid paying too much for a speedboat filled with Australians on holiday, apply a modicum of effort. Juli did a bit of research the day before and was pretty convinced that we would be able to get a cheap boat from a specific dock not far from the hotel the next morning, but by the time we got there, it seemed that she had been lied to. Instead of finding local boats eager to depart with us as their passengers, all we found was one disgruntled old lady quoting stupidly large prices for a boat that wasn’t there and a persistent motor taxi driver telling us to cross, or more specifically, use his services to cross, a bridge less than one hundred meters away. While we persistently denied his attempts, we met two Belgian backpackers in the same predicament, and eventually found the boat by ourselves.

We saved a couple of dollars each by taking the two hour boat ride to the largest, yet entirely small, village on Cham Island instead of cramming on a twenty minute speed boat ride packed with tourists. Once on the island, the Belgians took to slamming down a few beers while Juli and I found a home-stay in town for a meager six dollars a night. After dropping our luggage, we conquered our two kilometer trek to a beach that we located thanks to hand drawn map that our two new friends had obtained in town. As always, we found ourselves slithering in sweat during the hottest portion of the day until we quickly found ourselves cleansing our bodies in turquoise waters surrounded by coral and palm trees. Sweat, swim and repeat. A close by tourist retreat provided us with a few unnecessary beers and a much needed meal during our day filled with sun bathing and pioneered snorkeling. We had found a paradise, and though many tourists had paid a hefty fee to commandeer the hammocks and umbrella shade on the other side of the beach, we still felt very much alone. We knew the secret that none of pasty white vacationers did: the less you pay, the more you share, the better you feel. We were winning a game that we weren’t even playing.

Before the sun set, our friends had to return back to town to catch a train north. There were few friends we had enjoyed as much as these, but to our dismay, they were headed the opposite direction and we would probably never meet again.

We stayed and enjoyed the beach alone until the sky began to grow dark. Once back in town, there seemed to be hardly any options for food, but we did find a nice young married couple at an empty restaurant that seemed to have no problem running to the market to grab the ingredients to make us dinner. The place was littered with frogs, rats, dogs and chickens wandering about the dimly lit yard that accompanied a minimalist kitchen. An old man did his best to practice his extremely limited English with us until our food was prepared, then left us in solitude to enjoy our meal.

After dinner, I drank a couple warm beers as my well behaved partner slowly sipped a glass of pressed sugar cane on the main road near the town’s beach. Before it was too late, we retired to our bed and conversed until my eyelids grew heavy. Our room had no AC, of course, just a fan that would cease to function at eleven when the power was shut off, but I was in heaven. Compared to the tourist cluttered streets of Hoi An, we had found ourselves successful being the only white people in town and loving it. We were in such a state of comfort and relaxation that we slept for nearly eleven hours that night.

The next day was filled with much of the same, but instead of eating and lazing on the beach spoiled by day trippers, we found one all to ourselves. It was the first day that we felt no need to speak for the majority of it, and not because we had run out of things to say; we just had no need to say them. Instead of finding an overpriced lunch on the beach, we mostly ate dried squid from the local fish market. A routine formed in two days, and we ended up at the same restaurant and sugar cane stand as the night before due to a destitute lack of options. We were not accompanied by the slightest twitch of boredom or guilt that is usually associated with repetition. One more night on our rigid, yet comfortable, bed and we returned to Hoi An the next morning for a temporary visit before making our way inland.