Sunday, July 08, 2007

Miss Saigon

Hmm. Well, it's been a few days, now. Since our little shopping fling in Hoi An, we've traveled the length of Vietnam all the way down to the little Burg of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly and still commonly known as Saigon. I am submitting this posting from a riverside internet cafe in Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia. More on Cambodia later. First things first.

The bus ride to Saigon took about 26 hours. One would think that this would be extremely uncomfortable, and yet it wasn't too bad, as the weather was pleasantly cool and rainy, and the bus was relatively empty. Both Tonya and I each got two whole seats to ourselves, so we could put our feet up and sort of sleep through the night. I woke up every hour or so when my legs and feet would cramp. Tonya zipped herself up in my sleeping bag, and I don't think she made a peep all night long. The following day we stopped briefly at a beautiful beach resort for lunch. We might've been tempted to stay there and enjoy the warm tropical breezes, but destiny in the form of a big loud city called. I made a homemade Risk game, at which Tonya effectively demolished me. She proved equally adept at making short work of my navy in a similarly notebook-paper-contrived game of Battleship, so I spent the remainder of the trip in sullen silence. It was all extraordinarily bad luck. My strategery was impeccable.

So we arrived in Saigon and were forced to pay the extortion-level rate of $7 per night for our rooms. The next day we took a little bus ride out to the village of Cu Chi where Viet Cong guerrilla soldiers fought the Americans during the Vietnam War. We started off by watching a little 70's-era patriotic video championing the brave soldiers of Cu Chi and how their most faithful ones won the glorious American Killer Medal honor. I somehow felt a little uneasy. We then took a little tour of the town and saw how the people literally lived underground for a period of several years. They used an elaborate tunnel system to sleep, cook food, and quickly move around the jungle to places where they could appear out of the ground at any given time and make life generally miserable for the American Invaders. The tunnels were intentionally built to be claustrophobically small so that the larger Americans couldn't fit in them (when they could even find the entrances). Additionally, they were booby trapped on the interior with all sorts of unpleasantries so as to discourage intrusions. We were shown a homemade weapons and trap area where all sorts of meat-grinding-type weapons were displayed that would be camouflaged on the jungle floor. American soldiers who fell into them would be maimed in the most inventive ways (even our tour guide - a former Vietnamese soldier - just shook his head as he described them, saying terrible, terrible). They were intentionally built so that the injured soldiers would stay alive long enough to be able to scream to their comrades for help, who would be promptly mowed down as they tried to drag the injured from the pits. Of course, the Vietcong had their own nightmares to deal with, as they lived in constant fear of carpet bombings if even a wisp of smoke escaped from their cooking rooms in the tunnels. And they could rarely spend more than a few minutes above ground. Pretty much a hellish nightmare from hell (I don't think I'm being redundant) for everyone involved.

So on the following day (last Friday), we determined to combine a Mekong River Delta tour with an exit to Cambodia's Phnom Penh. The tour description painted a picture involving a trip to a native coconut candy making village, a bee-keeping farm, tropical fruit tasting and folk music performances, followed by a horse and cart ride and a hike to the top of a scenic mountain. All this would be followed by a short boat ride to Phnom Penh. What fun. Well, the day began ominously as the rain started falling before we had even arrived at the harbor. We purchased glorified garbage sacks to use as rain ponchos for about 33 cents (a rip-off). Tonya tore hers in half as she was putting it on. She's been working out. We then went motoring around the Mekong River Delta to various islands. We spent a few minutes at a place where our tour guide showed us a metal grinder, and told us that it is utilized for the production of coconut candy. How quaint. I bought like 4 kilos of candy, so that at least wasn't a waste. We then went to another island. Tonya and I got to hug a python (or rather it hugged us), and as we were walking out, the tour guide pointed to a box while informing us that some of them hold bees. At this point, we realized that we were witnessing a genuine mail-in performance from the tour guide. We determined that he didn't really like westerners, as he would abandon us and find some locals to chat with for the few minutes when we stopped at the islands. It also occurred to us that we had never seen a horse and cart in all of Vietnam, so we couldn't figure out where the legendary horse and cart ride would come in. But whatever. We were wet, riding boats (some of them long oar-driven ones) through dense narrow jungle rivers, and imagining what it was like to be soldiers doing the same thing 30 years ago, but waiting for the plants on the shore to explode into machine gun fire. It was a good time. When we got back to Saigon, we waited almost two hours for a van that we thought would take us to our boat ride to Cambodia. When it finally arrived, our tour guide tossed us on the bus, and as he was closing the door, yelled that the van (packed to the gills with locals) would take us 5 hours to the border, where we would spend the night. This was certainly not quite what we bargained for... a free overland bus ride over semi-finished roads was included with our tour! We missed out on the horse and cart and mountain climb, but this was truly special. I actually mentioned to Tonya as we were pulling away that it would have been better perhaps to just take a bus to Cambodia, but it was too late. No one on the van spoke English accept for an Irish touristing couple who had been similarly duped. They were, to say the least, frustrated, and we spent a little bit of time cajoling them and convincing them that we were going to have way more fun with unexpected adventures on our unanticipated bus ride than we would've on another.... bus ride. Anyway, they settled down after I gave them a cliff bar.

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn in a little town on the Vietnam-Cambodia border. We were treated to a tour of a local minority village (Muslims who trade in woven silk... Tonya got the chance to work on a silk loom and nearly break it), as well as a fish farm. We then hopped on another boat which would ostensibly take us 3 hours to the border. First we had to give up our passports and visa application fees ($22) to a little Vietnamese girl who promised to reappear at the border with our visas nicely processed. We smilingly relinquished our only proof of identification and hopped on a shifty water craft with several other tourists, and off we went! Thankfully, our little Vietnamese friend reappeared as promised at the border with our passports. We hopped through customs, and sat our little selves down on another boat that would take us up the Mekong all the way to Phnom Penh. I need to add here that our tour brochure promised a speed boat and a 3-hour ride to Phnom Penh. Perhaps the speed part of the boat was an extra added fee, or maybe they expected us to get out and kick to hurry things along. Anyway, since we sprung for neither of those options, we ended up spending roughly 10 hours on a boat. But we had a great time. Tonya was sunburned on one arm due to her lounging under the tropical solar rays. I choked on outboard motor fumes, as I was sitting on the inside (she had the window - ur, I mean hole - ... as usual).

But we got to Phom Penh safe 'n sound. We met one of Tonya's colleagues from last year who took us to the airport to meet Tonya's cousin, Whitney, who flew out to join us for my final week here. Now I've got two females to keep an eye on. I'm actually bigger than just about all the men out here (it's true! I'm not lying) - so I should be able to still pound anyone who messes with them. (Pardon me while I pound my chest and shout out a few feral yells and wails).

I should take a minute to just mention the guy who picked us up. He is a Cambodian who fought with the Khmer Rouge back in the late 70's and early 80's. When he was wounded, he escaped from their hospital to Thailand and lived in a refugee camp so that he wouldn't have to rejoin the Cambodian army. He lost contact with his entire family, whom he hasn't seen since. He studied dentistry at the Cambodian camp and returned to Phnom Penh after the war. He now works as a dentist in an orphanage. I told him that he needs to write down his story. He agrees that this is very important. I volunteered to help, and told him that my Father is a professional writer. He smilingly agreed, and promised to keep in touch. So there you go, Dad. I've enlisted you as an involuntary participant in a personal biography. As we drove out of the airport, I paid for our exit fee from the parking lot. I gave him approximately 50 cents extra. When he protested, I just reassured him that he can pay me back from his future book proceeds.


Anonymous said...

Your experiences in 'Nam seem to be much more positive than mine. Also, you seem to have much less intestinal-sickness-that-makes-you-want-to-die than I did. Probably because you haven't eaten the chicken (which, by the way, was still very tasty!).

The modes of transportation were one of my favorite things about the country. It always made me think of schools of fish that instinctively move with the flow and separate to accommodate incoming sea creatures.

So, how many people have offered to sell you postcards, chicklets or sunglasses?

The Cu Chi caves were possibly one of the most horrifying things I have seen in my life! Ignorance is bliss!

Also, Tonya's blog is a lot better than your blog because it has pictures.

Dave P.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with Dave P. I think your blog is great Jeremy! I love all the detail. Tonya's pictures are good, but we need to look at both blog sights to get the whole picture of what you are experiencing. They both compliment each other. Keep them coming.
Tonya's Mom