Saturday, January 27, 2007

January 11th was an agro day for me. I should look back and see if it was in my horoscope. I didn't wake up angry in our decent hotel room nor was there a cloud over me on our search for morning noodles, but I really flipped out when I realized that I had been foolish and gotten ripped off for the bus trip from Rach Gia to Chau Doc. The taxi dropped us off at the ticket booth but before we had even gotten out of the car a woman in a ratty leaf hat and mismatched pajamas started shouting "Chau Doc? Chau Doc?" Then when we got out of the car she grabbed my arm and brusquely lead me to a run down bus here she asked for 300,000 Dong (just over $20) to take us and our bags. Caught up n the feigned urgency I complied and thought her intensity was due to the bus' imminent departure. After we were sitting there for 15 mins it finally dawned on me that I was being taken for a ride in more ways than one. I left the bus to go see the actual price of the trip and I was accosted by other woman affiliated with the bus. She was trying to push me away from the ticket booth and trying to physically get me back on the bus. But I had already seen the price posted at 45,000 Dong and I was livid for being both over charged and (wo)manhandled. I slapped the woman's hands away but she kept pulling at me and so I stuck a pointed finger in her face (surely this has to be a universal gesture) and pointed at the price, berating her for ripping me off because I am a foreigner and warning her not to touch me. I am sure she understood none of this really but at least she relented. At my leisure I walked back to the bus finding it running and Jono leaning out hoping that they wouldn't leave without me. I was further aggravated when the bus went only for another minute or so before stopping to try to solicit more passengers to fill all the seats. We were also held up because the woman I had had the stand off with got into a non-serious motorcycle accident across the street and everyone on the bus wanted to gawk.
Really I should have known better than to get upset about any of this because they are all just par for the course taking the non-tourist bus in Vietnam. Finally when all but the 5 seats Jono and I were taking up (and thereby getting our moneys worth) were full we got bumping and honking down the road, all the windows open for lack of aircon and hawkers getting on and off at every stop. Their wares included tofu/processed meat sausage wrapped in palm leaves, iced coffee in baggies, various puffed items, huge sesame seed crackers and lotto tickets.
The drive seemed like we were passing through a huge small town as one spread into the next. It was quite different from the trip between Tra Vinh and HCMC, which was sprinkled with rice fields and cows grazing in ditches. I was a little confused when we arrived in Can Tho province and we were shuffled onto a smaller minivan bus, but atleast it had shocks and proper seats so the rest of our journey was more comfortable. By then I had gotten over my grumpiness and the trip ended up being much shorter than I had anticipated. I think it was only about 4 hours between Rach Gia and Chau Doc.
When we arrived I let Jono take the lead and he refused to be rushed off by the hoard of xe om and cyclo drivers that met us at the bus station. We had a coffee at a nearby stand to decide our next move and the drivers just came and joined us at the table, eager to shuttle us off somewhere. After listening to us talk about what hotel we would go to and watching us flipping through the Lonely Planet, one driver spoke to us very eloquently of his hotel and of arranging the boat trip the next day to Phnom Penh. I was inclined to like him but I am alway skeptical of obvious touts. We ended up in a cyclo fashioned out of an old bike with a wooden cart on the back that we somehow managed to fit into with our bags. This slower pace was quite nice but I couldn't help but feel for this skinny old guy pulling us along. We stopped in front of a hotel but noticed immediately that it was not the one we had asked for. Then we see the tout pulling up beside us smilingly on his motorbike. After we refused his offer to have a look the cyclo guy took us to the intended hotel but the tout followed us the whole way and then as we were getting out he said sweetly "if you don't like this one, you come to my hotel". Then he looked like he was going to wait for us and this was all getting a little too much. Indeed we did not like that hotel but we looked at the map and made another plan before going outside and luckily this persistant fellow had given up. The other hotel was just across the street and was newly renovated, clean and well decorated and I could not have asked for more. We spent the rest of the day exploring around Chau Doc, especially the market and the riverside where we saw these tiny kids practicing some brutal-looking martial art with expertise beyond their years. After weighing all the options we booked our selves on the slow boat to Cambodia for the next morning, and that experience deserves a posting all to itself.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Ok another installment in this post-travelogue. I told Lauren that this writing was slow going and she thought it was a good thing and maybe I could use it to extend the experience to the remainder of my time here. It was such a great trip I do want to savour it, so let's get on with it.

Jono arriving on New Year's Eve was fantastic. It was a celebration without having to do more than have a picnic in the hotel room. At midnight we were hanging out on the balcony drinking in the city's night sights and sounds as only a few "whoops" went up above the usual Ho Chi Minh bustle. It was pretty romantic, although I am not sure that I am conveying it well here.

For the next few days we checked out the city and the market with all of it's visual and olfactory intensity and fake everythings. I took Jonathan to some of my favorite places in District 1--the totally non-Starbucks wannabe Trung Nguyen cafe (where guys play checkers and watch soccer and I have never seen another foreigner even though it is in tourist ground zero), Go2 in the backpacker zone, the boulevard park on Le Lai. I was so happy that he liked these spots as much as I do, because I had spent so much time in August and September wandering the city and looking forward to sharing it. HCMC was all done up in lights for Christmas (much more so than KL) and there was a definite holiday feel to the place, which made it even nicer than when I was there last.

On January 3 we flew to Phu Quoc island and it was exactly the tropical island experience I was looking for. The people on the whole of the island were great (even in the non-touristy places) but this was especially true of the folks at Beach Club (kind of a cheesy name for a very uncheesy place) where we stayed the first five nights we were there. The staff were so warm and sweet we got a good feeling as soon as we met Kum at the airport; he was so genuine and smiley. One of the first things we did when we got to BC was walk down the perfect light brown sandy beach and go for a swim in the warm and salty water. There were some significant waves that day but I didn't mind being thrown around a bit. I felt like that was the moment I had been living for for the last 1/2 year. Swimming with Jono at my side I could let all the stress of my internship drift away into the ocean.

The next days at Beach Club were made up of a lot of laying in hammocks, swimming, eating good food, reading and watching the other guests and trying to figure out their stories. The weather off-shore was apparently very bad and the ferry (that we planning to take) wasn't running for most of the time we were on PQ. We stressed a bit about not being able to get off the island, but there are certainly worse places to be marooned.

We tried to leave on the 8th but there were no ferries running and all flights were booked up for a week. We tried to go standby but we were not even given a speck of hope of getting on. As we left the airport dejectedly we were approached by several guys offering to take us to a fishing boat that was taking people across. We'd heard horror stories about people getting off of the small wooden boats surprised that they survived the trip. We decided to wait it out a few days get on a wait list for a flight and consider the fishing boat as an emergency option I hoped we didn't have to take.
Our last two days on Phu Quoc were two of the most memorable, mainly because we rented a motorbike and explored the island in the late afternoon. PQ is famous for its sunset and it did no disappoint. The first day we rode down a red dirt road through a couple of small villages where the people looked like they were living in a traditional way, fishing and farming. I should say that although Phu Quoc has a number of guest houses and a couple of bigger hotels, it is far from built up and once you get out of the beach-tourist area you are really in the southern Vietnamese country-side as if you were not on a beach resort island. Phu Quoc's other industry is producing it's famous fish sauce and that evening we passed what initally looked like a prison, but on closer inspection was probably a fish sauce factory. I tought maybe it was a combination of the two as the very pungent odor of "aging" fish should be enough to make penance for any crime. On the second day we checked out the village of Ham Ninh and we met a couple of very friendly and rambunctious boys, whose pictures I am sure Jono will include when he posts. They got a really good belly-laugh out of seeing their pics on the camera display.
On January 9th we decided to treat ourselves to this buffet barbeque on the beach. It was 15 USD per person, which is insanely expensive compared to what you can generally eat for, but we went for it. Tasting some of Jonathan's food I got a bad feeling but I didn't say anything about it and proceeded to help myself to unlimited desserts. I wish I had said something then because in the middle of the night Jono was violently ill. I will spare you (and him) the details, but when we heard that the ferry was finally running again the next day I was prepared to let it go because I was sure he wouldn't be able to make it. I also was not feeling 100% but we medicated ourselves and took what could have been our only safe option for getting off Phu Quoc. Some how we managed to drag ourselves all the way through the trip which included a bumpy bus ride, rising and thumping waves on the boat and finally a motorcycle to get to a hotel. When we arrived we collapsed for the rest of the day. The town the ferry took us to is called Rach Gia and it is kind of a rough but prosperous port town that Lonely Planet says is known for smuggling. Given our state we only marginally explored it, but at least we were now on the mainland and would not, as I feared, miss getting to Angkor Wat.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

After what feels like much longer than three weeks I am now back to my college dorm-reminiscent flat in this crazy city of Kuala Lumpur. It feels better to be back here than I had feared. I really felt like I should be going back home with Jono yesterday instead of coming back here. It was so hard to say goodbye on the street in HCMC with taxi drivers watching in amusement.
I flew today from HCMC to Singapore and then caught a bus to KL. I was surprised that the guard almost didn't let me in at the Malaysian border, usually they have said nary a word. All the while he was questioning me about what I was doing in the country and how long I was staying I was praying that he wouldn't admit me so that I have an excuse not to return. It was probably the nonchalance that came with not caring that made him trust my story. But, like I said now that I am back at my apartment and I chatted with my sweet roommates I feel better about the situation.
I want to make some kind of record of this amazing trip, Jono has all the photos and will post some on flickr, but there should be a narrative as well.
I start with the reverse of the trip I made today.
Going from KL to Sinagpore was intended to be an adventure free of stress, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. Taking the overnight train - a quaint idea- was a little more trouble than it was worth. Setting off was fine and we rattled, rolled and chug-chug-chugged our way through Malaysia all night and at about 7AM we arrived in Johor Baru (at the border), only 45 mins behind schedule the cheery attendant told us. I had allowed a four hour window to get from the train station to the airport--surely enough for an island that only takes 40 mins to drive across? In Johor we were told that there was a train coming to opposite direction and that we needed to wait a few minutes to let it pass. An hour and a half later we got rolling again and the worst part was the we had waited so long only to travel for about 5 mins to reach the Singapore border! After getting through immigration it was about 11AM and my flight was at noon. I was freaking out imagining how horrible it would be if I didn't get to HCMC by the next morning to meet Jono at the airport. In my anxiety I asked for advice from a fellow passenger who told me to bail from getting back on the train and catch a taxi instead. Thankfully from here on luck was on my side and I had just enough money for the taxi and I arrived at the airport with 5 minutes left to check in. I was overwhelmed with gratitude to the universe the whole flight.
Arriving in HCMC I was elated to be in Vietnam, riding motorbike taxis, eating pho and taking everything in again in District 1. I was so nervous to meet Jono the next day I woke up way too early and had a long wait at the airport. It was an incredible moment when our eyes met as I think both of us were worried that we wouldn't find each other in the throngs of people crowded around the international arrivals door. As we got in a taxi I was in disbelief that it all worked out and Jonathan was actually there in the flesh and Jono got his first look at this country that has taught me so much.