Sunday, November 15, 2009

Chapter 3: Good morning Vietnam

We left the peaceful tranquility of Shianoukville via the service of the Mekong Express Bus Service. We opted for one of the (slightly) more expensive buses to ensure we had aircon and a toilet. Unfortunately our planning back fired somewhat as neither of us used the toilet on the Bus and after spending about eleven hours on a heavilly airconditioned bus, I finally got off the bus having a hard time breathing, and as I'd already had a cold and a blocked ear (plus the sunburn) I was feeling quite miserable by the end of the day. The bus was nice and comfortable, we even got served free water, breakfast and cake-ish things, but not being able to close the vents for the aircon and having only warm weather clothes made it a very long trip, although we were treated to a viewing of the movie "Taken" which was broadcast with the english soundtrack and very ammusing Engrish subtitles.

The bus trip took about four hours from Shianoukville to Phnom Pehn where we had a three hour stop over. We went back to the Foreing Correspondents Club (FCC) again for lunch, and it still remains the nicest place we've eaten on our trip, although it does feel like we are out of place when sitting on the balcony at the FCC, as you feel it is a members only type of club even though it isn't. From Phnom Pehn we had a seven hour trip across the border into Vietnam to reach Ho Chi Mihn City. The border crossing was made smooth by the bus company who took our passports to be proccessed at each point, and gave them back to us as we needed to be presented.

Crossing the border from Cambodia into Vietnam was the reverse effect of our crossing at Poipet two weeks earlier, the roads widened and became smoother, the streets had gutters and street lights, and there was a noticable lack of rubbish strewn around. Not that we could see all that much as it was night time as we arrived, but almost the whole way from the border to the center of Ho Chi Mihn City (HCMC) was urban, with shops and houses fronting the highway, broken up only occasionaly by a rice field.

We alighted the bus in the centre of HCMC's tourist precinct. A hub of cafes, restaurants and tall narrow hotels all with flashing lights and hosts standing on the stoop waving us inside. I suppose it is obvious when you walk down a street with gigantic backpackes strapped to your back at 10pm at night that you are looking for somewhere to stay. Almost everyone on the street tries to guide you, the pedal taxis and moto-taxis ask if you need a ride, the hoteliers come out on the street and try to chauffer you inside and the local barstaff wave brochures advertising their happy hours. I suppose I should also mention that the streets are also full of people who want to sell shit to you, and it is "shit". Usually cheap sunglasses or knock-off zippo lighters, but occasionaly random people walk up to you with a handfull of chewing gum or some other random peice of crap you don't need, but they're are pretty sure that you want it and your dissmisal is just an elite form of haggling.

The hardest thing to ignore is the beggars, they have been everywhere on our travels so far, we even have them at home obviously. The beggars here come in different forms, mostly people who are obviously poor looking will stand next to you untill you look at them then make a prayer sign with their hands and put on their saddest looking face. These ones can be easliy ignored as they are only about level 2 novice beggars. The next step up are the child beggars, usually around level 5 apprentice, the lower leveled child beggars will mimick the prayer/sad face combination where as the higher level child beggars will grab your leg and say "dollar" over and over until it wears you down. Child beggars can sometimes work in pairs, where an older sibbling will torment the younger sibling in its arms until it cries, then get your attention for a bonus multiplier of sadness and "Awww".

The real heart string pullers are the victims beggars, these guys can range anywhere from a level 10 Journey man with a missing leg or arm who is usually the victims of a land mine and go up the a level 20 Battle Mage the shortest straw drawn victims of the terrible atrocities of this country and the use of Agent Orange. I guess it seem a bit heartless to see all of this with a sense of humour, but there is no way that we could make it through our travels if we allow ourselves to be affected by every single beggar, the weight of the emotions would be heavier than our backpacks, and the toll on our wallet would drastically shorten our adventures. So we smile back and say "hello" and hope that the NGOs continue their good work to help these people so they they stop relying on the emotional tourist dollar.

Our first morning in HCMC (Still known as Saigon to everyone but the officials) we woke to the local soundtrack a cacauphony of scooter exhausts and horns. The streets are a chaotic mess off traffic, it is the most amazing thing to watch as about a billion scooters flanked by a handful of busses, trucks and cars travel in every single direction, interweaving with absoulutely no sense of formal road rules, yet the absoulute chaos of everything work perfectly with a harmonious fluidity. We join the traffic on the front of a cyclo, a chair mounted to the front of a bicycle. Our first stop was the Reunification Palace, the palace occupied by the South Vietnamese goverment during the war years and was where the liberation army drove their tanks through the front gates. We were lucky enough to arrive just as the last English propaganda filled tour was leaving for the day as the "Palace" was being used for official purposes later in the day.

Our next stop was the War Remnants Museum, a museum dedicated to the memory of the attrocities commited during the war years, we went expecting to find it very heavily weighted with propaganda supporting the North Vietnamese and luckily we weren't dissapointed. After passing through the front garden full of Tanks, jets, artillery and a Cessna with rocket launchers... We walked in to the museum filled with photos of some of the tragedies of the war years. The photos show the truths of the war, with photos taken from both sides of the fence and a large section setup by an American that documents the timeline of the war through powerful imagery and personal stories. It is somewhere along this point that I realised that I didn't know much about the Vietnam war other than what I had seen in American films, what I know now has profoundly changed my outlook. I guess the North Vietnamese propaganda worked as I am trully disgusted at the United States and found myself a little ashamed that we as Australians had some part in the war.

After a long day of deppressing war shit, we headed home via the local markets. The market was a massive building housing hundreds of tightly packed stalls selling everything from local souvenirs to clothes, shoes, and very smelly spices. Walking through the clothes stalls the vendors would grab your arm and physically pulll you into their stores to view their goods. A fantastic place to shop although again we had the sad realisation that we couldn't buy anything unless we wanted to carry it with us for a long, long time. We did buy a few more clothes items and I was most dissapointed to get home and find the Versace shirt I bought didn't fit.

After a night out for dinner in the nearby restaurant we organised our second day to do a tour down to the Mekong Delta region. Although our one day tour only reached the tip of the region we crossed the mighty Mekong river by boat, then changed to a few smaller boats to travel down the small canals that traverse the tropical islands. Our tour was the most "tour like" tour we have been on so far. After a rest break 45mins into the bus ride we were already calling it a souvenir tour as most places we stopped were tourist traps that probably paid the tour companies some type of commision for bringing the punters.

Netherless we learn't about the many uses for coconuts and were shown how coconut candy was made, even bought some for later. We paddled down one of the canals in a row boat, which would've been fantastic if it wern't for the fact that every row boat we passed in the opposite direction held out money and pointed to our row boat steerer saying "tip, tip". Then we listened to local music, sampled strange tropical fruits, honey tea and banana whiskey. I even tried a bit of the Snake infused whiskey, just a minute or so after holding one of the large pythons that would inevitably end up as the whiskey. We headed back to Saigon and ate dinner in a restaurant where the hosts cooks a BBQ in the middle of your table while drinking uber cheap beer at two for one prices.

Today we decided to chill out in the morning, before we head out to explore a bit more of Saigon and organise our train tickets for tomorrow, we are hoping to head for Na Trang or Dalat. Saigon is an amazingly intense city, with action packed traffic, lively bars and nightclubs and a general hustle and bustle we haven't really felt since leaving Bangkok. Although though Vietnamese people are quite nice, we are looking forward to moving on as our first impressions of Vietnam have been a little underwhelming when compared to the warm hospitality of Cambodia or the fun loving Thailand...