Diary of The Travelling Seanchai.
2006-12-06 to 2006-12-20
When I got to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) initially I went out and had a few beers (to get over the jet lag!) with a lad from Leeds (21, has a `girlfriend` in Laos whose entire family are professional lady boys but despite the fact that he has never been with her, he is convinced that `she` is not because she has the normal insecurities that all women have!!?!! Oh the wisdom of the young and naive!) and a strange fella from Finland. He works as a fork lift operator for a few months a year and then comes over here to SE Asia for a few months every year. All I could hear was “I’m the leader, I’m the leader, I’m the leader of the gang, yeahhh!!” Gary Glitter any one?!!
There are about 5 million in this city and it seems there are about half of them on the street at any given time driving all sorts of vehicles. There are no official places to cross the street so you have to, get this, walk across the road in a very slow, nonchalant way, eyeing every one of them so that they avoid you!! If you run or move quickly they may hit you!! Hahaha! I have to say that I think a blind driver in a humvee in two hours on the roads of HCM City and he`d be the second most prolific killer in these parts since Napalm!
I swear I cross the road every chance I get, it`s actually a rush to see over a 100 motor bikes rushing at you and then just avoiding you at the last minute as you stare them down feigning absolute Hollywood Action Hero calm!!
This won`t surprise you but I was singing on the first Saturday night I was in this country in Sheridan`s Irish Bar!! It went well considering myself and the all Asian folk band had never played with each other!! Well they weren`t all Asian, there was a lead singer from Bretagne in France, it was funny to hear his accent across the Irish ballads!
I was playing pool then against a pool pimp! Seriously, his `madam` kept getting us to play him for $30-$40 a pop (Aussie) and I lost three times. I was gutted because I had several shots on the black in each game but I was twisted to be fair. They have some pretty funny rules over here too but I think that there might be some money to be made for me around the place if he`s supposed to be good, assuming I can keep off the beer (pint of Tiger is $2, ouch!)
I had a couple of interesting days in Saigon, I went to this place called Dam Sen Park which would have been the culmination of a brain storming session of some 5 year olds and the Mardi Gras Gay Pride Parade Organisation! The place was so camp it was unreal!! Huge dinosaurs, dodgem cars, ice sculptures, monkey cages, egyptian pyramids, plate sculptures and dragons, dragons everywhere!! The funny thing was that obviously they didn`t realise just how gay the place was! There was even piped music over the park like someone had pushed the demo button on a casio keyboard! Surreal!
The lonely planet suggested you go to the blind institute and help them out by getting a massage from one of their masseurs. I did my part for charity (my guy was truly blind because he walked straight into the side of the door that I think I was supposed to be holding open for him!) and the little fella got his revenge by thumping the bejaysus out of me! Every now and again he would say with this psycho evil grin, “Everything ok!” and when he punched me straight on bicep I nearly made a go for him! I`d like to have seen him duck! I had the last laugh as I gave him a bottle cap instead of a tip…….nah, just kidding!
Yesterday I went to the Cu Chi Tunnels which is this network of tunnels the Viet Cong used to attack the Yanks. Unreal… Firstly they started with a Communist Propaganda Film from 1967! It was all grainy and in black and white and I had to stifle back some laughter as I kept hearing in my head, “Hi Comrades, I`m Troy McClure, you might remember me from other Communist Propaganda films such as `Cuba, the real American Dream” and “Vodka; from Russia with love”. The video pointed out how the simple, poor and peaceful Vietnamese farmers and villages all turned into fighting, killing machines, many of them winning the highest award of, get this, American Killer Hero!
Then we saw some of the traps that they laid for the Yanks, it puts chills up you. One was called the souvenir trap because you couldn`t get your leg out of it without cutting it off. Then the Viets would send them back to the American bases after they had collected them, as `souvenirs`! And who says there isn`t humour in war… I bought and got to shoot live rounds in an AK47, so loud and powerful. I asked them if I needed the sound mufflers, when they didn`t answer I thought it must be ok and nearly deafened myself! I realised that they didn`t answer me because they probably had gone deaf years before, nutters… The guns (they had M16`s and others) were screwed down with two tiny screws, I`d say a big man could have ripped it out of the socket and it would be Rambo all over again…
But the worst thing was the tunnel. There was a 100m under ground tunnel and we were encouraged to shuffle through it in the dark to see how they lived. I never knew I was claustrophobic until I was in this thing. It was like being in an oven, with about two inches about your head and to the sides and that was you squatting down. At one point I was on all fours trying to crawl through it. Thankfully there were off shoots that people could get out because there was no way we could have turned around in that space. It was so tiring and I was not right for about a half an hour after it! There`s a picture of me in there with a smile on my face, I don`t know who I was kidding, I was bricking it!
I went to Nha Trang which is one of the countries main beaches but it had just suffered another typhoon and the beach had debris all over it… I was taken by a Mr. Chang, guide supreme on his motorbike to see a number of Buddhas, an old fort and then the mud baths! I have never been one to indulge in such extravagances, particularly when it comes to my appearance but I thought I would see what all the locals were raving about.
After some preparatory showers, you immersed yourself into a mud bath. I was put in with a family of locals who laughed at my comparatively gangly size and pallid skin colour. They were cleaning the mud out of their eyes and when I did the same they told me that I should drink it. Not being one to cause an international diplomatic situation, I took a sip and it was warm and tasted not unlike it came from a hot water bottle. Hey, they got a laugh out of it.
Feeling more embarrassed than invigorated Hannah, my new mate from our guest house, headed out. We went to Crazy Kim`s bar, named after its owner who was a Vietnamese boat person who moved to Canada but has come back, opened a bar and the profits go to helping kids avoid the massive paedophile industry here. We agreed to help out with the school the following morning and we were there at 9:30am for two hours helping these street kids with their English. This will help them sell more of their products (wallets, postcards etc) and they won`t need to subject themselves to the sickos that will pay them whatever they are short every week for an hour in a hotel room.
I went out and bought the school 50 copies and pens which would see them through the year just because the kids had been amazing and a few dollars from us makes such a difference. At least this way I was absolutely sure that my money was going to the charity of my choice.
I went to Hoi An then which was an ancient and cool town but I had US $400 stolen from my room (I have travel insurance so I will get it back eventually) which was a pity so I left there and went to Danang via the Marble mountains which were amazing with stunning views! Danang is a kip and I said enough of the bloody over night trains and buses so I flew to Hanoi. I was introduced to Bia Hoi here, a local fresh beer that they serve up on the street, we had as a group 53 of them which came to less than $10 Aus!! Two of the lads who had met up and decided to travel together were Stijn from Belgium and Frank from Holland, it was only when I was introducing them to another guy that it occured to me that they were “Frank and Stijn”!!
This is a great town, I`ve met so many people, and such a mix of people, some of them are seriously certifiable.
To prove this point I met this Aussie chick and to cut a long story short, this cab driver was screwing us over and I was telling him he wasn`t going to get paid and then she back handed me across the face for arguing with the little fella! I was like, `excuse me, when did we get married`?!! She was all pally then, started laughing and apologising about it and then I thought she was ok but then when we got back to the pub we were in she went schizo again and stormed out of the bar. I asked if she was ok and she said that she didn`t want to have a nervous breakdown in front of strangers!! Is there such a thing as TRI-polar?!! To be fair though she did mail me next day to apologise!
But I have seen some great sights too it has to be said from beaches to mountains, caves to ancient towns, pagodas and temples and like I said such an array of people.
One girl, from Omagh in Ireland was talking to me the other night and it transpired that she was cousins of our next door neighbours and that when herself and her sister used to come and visit, myself and the brothers in Limerick used to chase them and terrorise them and she remembered vividly often crying over what we`d said and done! Talk about your past coming back to haunt you!
Vietnam is great, don`t get me wrong, but the people here want to surgically extract the money from you rather than entice it out of you. They are a bit too full on for me especially since by all accounts the people in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia are all so much nicer. As an example I met two Yanks the other day and we were going to a hotel when another guy told us to come to his place instead for the same amount and a much better hotel, so we went with him and the next thing we saw rooms that were nothing like the ones in his pamphlet. When we questioned him on it he said that we should only believe 50% what we see in pamphlets and 100% what we see with our eyes. The Yank guy said he was a liar and the Viet guy lost it! He kept shouting `You fu*king Americans` and I started laughing so hard because all I could hear was Kim Jong Il from Team America over and over again!!
It`s like the Vietnamese people are just used to tourist and are unsure of how long the cash cow will last so they are always on the grift but you can`t really blame them either. It`s hard to understand what it`s like to see someone who has so much money (a traveller) and not to take the opportunity to make their lives easier by getting a share. It`s all part of the culture and something that you have to accept and even appreciate or else the trip will drive you crazy.
I went to a place called Sapa (in Northern Vietnam which is the mountainous regions) on an overnight train and spent a few days there, and to be honest the people from the hill tribes were incredibly nice, completely different. It was freezing up there, really cold which kind of reminded me of home at Christmas which was cool. I did a lot of trekking which has been the highlight of my trip. A friend of mine and I recklessly took a trek into the mountains and everyone else had guides and they couldn`t understand how we thought we were going to get back to Sapa without one.
But we were intrepid explorers (and worse than that males!) so we said we`d be fine! Some of the hill tribes young girls were out selling some craftwork and when they saw we had no guide they offered to guide us! We thought that would be funny and Ma, 9 and Jo, 15 guided us through the paddy rice fields, through hillside villages, across rivers and up the mountain back to Sapa, and all the time with a cheeky smile as they bounced along like billy goats and my friend and I were seriously struggling but refusing to lose touch (or face) with the young girls! (To be honest, the mountain region is such a criss cross of paths that we understood the concern of the other guides as to why we hadn`t one!)
I also assisted a worker and asked if I could carry his load about 60 metres uphill. OH MY GOD! I thought my chest was going to explode, I don`t know how he did it, I will never complain about a job again!!
But what an experience, we`d have stayed on the `paths` but we really got a unique view of how they live from the way that the girls took us. They took great delight on standing on the next level above us and with hands on hips, laughingly entice us to keep up!! I have some amazing pictures. When they left us (so we could quietly have a coronary) I was immediately upset about the lack of opportunities that they would have but just as fast, as I watched them hand in hand, walk back to their village, I was jealous of the simple happiness that they had in their lives. It was definitely the highlight of my trip so far!
Back to Hanoi then for a day which was very enjoyably spent in the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel talking to backpackers from all over the world. On this trip so far I have met many Aussies, Germans, Yanks and Israelis in particular with a smattering from England and Canada and surprisingly few Irish.
Laos for Christmas, never thought I`d ever be writing that!