E-mail From Vietnam
December 20, 2007
Is it really the holiday season? Yes, there are decorations in many of the cities I have been to. But it
still doesn’t seem real that Christmas is just days away. I have been listening to my ‘Christmas playlist’
on my itunes every night before going to bed lately. That helps a bit.
But this email isn’t about being slightly bummed out about my not feeling the holiday season – it’s to
relay my latest adventures in Vietnam and Laos.
This time I started in the south and worked my way up north – the opposite of how I did it last time.
(And if anyone is ever considering doing a Vietnam trip, I just want to put it out there that I preferred
going from north to south. But that’s just my personal preference – nobody needs to listen. )
I flew into Saigon and met up with some friends out there – Cindy and Elisa came out from San
Francisco while Yura and Rose came out from Hong Kong. During the week that the five of us hung out
together, I felt like I was on a semi-luxury holiday in Vietnam versus ‘traveling’ through the country.
While it was nice doing the posh thing, I have to admit that I missed a bit of the adventure that comes
along with ‘traveling’. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t take advantage of the pool and the subsequent
fruit skewers that were passed around everyday. And I had a bubble bath and lounged around in
bathrobes – the things 5-star hotels are made of. I guess it made it easy to do these things since I did
all of the sightseeing things last year. While the girls went out to see the Cu Chi Tunnels and the
museum, I slept in and made full use of everything the hotel offered. After all, hotels like this are few
and far between for me during this trip. (Just want to point out that I did get out to the Ben Thanh
market to eat side-by-side with locals in the local stalls – nothing like rice flour dumplings filled with
shrimp and doused in fish sauce.)
This time around we got out to the Mekong Delta. I would have liked to have done at least two days out
there but the rest of the girls were on a much tighter schedule than I was. So we settled on a one-day
trip. It was nice to get out there and go on the small boat rides through the narrow canal-like
waterways…but it’s still a stretch to say it was truly experiencing it. Oh well – I see it as I will be back
to Saigon at some point so this saves something for me to do in the future.
From Saigon we went to the place I wanted to go so badly last year but didn’t have the time to – Mui
The thing that drew me in was seeing pictures of this place that showed massive white sand dunes set
against bright blue water. What sand-dune-loving girl wouldn’t be taken in by an image like this? While
my friends spent time at the beach and at the spa, I hopped on a motorbike with a friendly Vietnamese
guy who took me around the area for four hours. The sand dunes were actually better than I imagined
– and it turned out the body of water was a lake and not the ocean (like I thought it was). It was great
– even enduring the extreme wind (which was causing the fine sand to sting against my legs) wasn’t a
big deal because I was so happy to be out there.
The next morning we all went around sunrise to the fishing village to watch the fisherman come back to
shore in their oh-so-picturesque round fishing boats. Almost better was sitting back and watching the
kite surfers flying in the air from our beachside chairs. Talk about an intimidating sport!
In any case, I would go back to Mui Ne. I really would.
This would be the point in the trip where we would part ways. Elisa would come along with me for
another week and the rest of the girls would head back to their respective homes.
I’m going to state it right now – I already miss traveling with Elisa. While it doesn’t take much to take
to Hoi An and all that it offers (and for Elisa, that would be ten new tailor-made shirts and three tailor-
made coats/jackets), it does take a bit to give into my suggestion/request to take a bus to Laos instead
of a flight.
Did I mention that the bus ride was a 26-hour one?
One hour into the trip, we had a one-hour delay while a flat tire got repaired. Elisa was getting the true
experience now. But there was no time for jokes – I feared she was going to hate me somewhere along
the way so I was trying to say as little as possible. I attempted to do a ‘We’re ¼ of the way there!’
cheer during our dinner stop in the DMZ but she pointed out that I should wait until we were ½ way
there to do the cheer.
I still love one of the little stories from this stop. Elisa came back from the bathroom kind of chuckling
but kind of weirded-out. I had no idea what she was talking about. She asked what bathroom I used. I
told her the first one. She told me she used the second and she had a look on her face. I asked her what
happened…if it was really bad. Then she told me “It was a hole.” What a proud moment – Elisa’s first
squatter toilet. Little did she know that only 48-hours later, this would be the norm rather than the
exception. After all, life in this region of the world isn’t all Park Hyatts and beach resorts.
When we were on the bus, Elisa opened her Lonely Planet book to check out stuff about border crossing
and visas. This was the point when I thought ‘Crap. I didn’t even think about asking about this stuff
when deciding on the cost-effective bus option.’ Things weren’t looking up when she looked at the
border that she thought we were crossing and next to Laos, it said ‘N’ (I don’t care if you speak Italian,
English, Spanish or French – ‘N’ means the same thing everywhere). Uh oh. But then we realized it was
a different border. Phew. This one had a ‘maybe’ next to it. Definitely more encouraging than an ‘N’.
We had three hours to sleep at the border while we waited for it to open. We watched the government
workers do their morning exercises under the command of the Head Guy and then we just hoped that
everything would go our way.
And it did. Immediately upon crossing the border we were experiencing how sweet the people were
and how beautiful the scenery was. When we got to the capital city of Vientiane, we were blown away
by how spic-and-span clean it was and how absolutely quiet the roads were. Yes, there were cars on
the streets. But there was no honking. Unheard of after being in Vietnam.
We spent a bit of time in the town of Vang Vieng with its backdrop of massive limestone karsts. We
even woke up early in the morning to watch the monks walking down the street to receive their
morning alms from a local woman. Wonderful to watch such a thing.
And then we arrived in Luang Prabang. What a wonderful town. All I can say is, first and foremost, how
incredible the people of this country are. I have heard many others say it in the past and I thought
there might be some exaggeration. But there wasn’t. They are so soft and sweet and polite. And then
there is the country’s landscape – all so gorgeous. We saw waterfalls and rode elephants (we even got
to sit on their heads and trade places with the actual guys who direct them). We had incredible Laotian
cuisine which was unique to anything else I had ever had. And we had a perfect sunset boat ride on the
Mekong on our last night in the country. Oh – and we had lots of shopping opportunities at the night
I could have spent more time there – and I almost had to. It turned out when we went to check into
the airport for our Hanoi flight that the ticket agent said I didn’t have a Vietnam visa. I told him I did
and I showed it to him. He said it was only a single-entry visa and that it was used. Huh??? An hour
and a half before you are to leave for a country is a pretty bad time to find this out. I had always
assumed that I had a multiple one. Doh! But here’s yet another example of how amazing the people in
Laos are – the ticket agent told me not to worry. He called someone from Vietnam Airlines over and I
went to his office. One form and $85 US later, my visa papers were faxed to the consulate and he had
my passport tuk-tuked over to the consulate. In the meantime, I hung with him in his office. About 30
minutes later it was tuk-tuked back. I was ready to go. Except that they typed the wrong passport
number on the visa. I wasn’t about to take this chance with the Vietnamese officials. Now my passport
was getting tuk-tuked back to the consulate. This time the ticket agent told me that they would hold
the flight if my passport wasn’t back in time. How amazing are they? All of this for my stupidity of not
checking to make sure I had a multiple-entry visa! But it came back in time in an almost relay-like
fashion. My passport was like the baton getting passed from the driver to the Vietnam Airlines guy to
Elisa and I arrived in Hanoi only to have a run-in with our taxi driver. I wish I could say it was
minor…but it was not. I had a hunch something was up when there were two guys – one driving and
one in the passenger seat. But I wasn’t going to be paranoid about as I have had that before. But it
turned out to be a ‘good cop, bad cop’ situation. The passenger was as sweet as could be but there were
many triggers that we were on our way to getting screwed. To spare all of the details, the driver was
then holding our bags hostage in his trunk until we paid him the almost $30 that he was demanding
when we had agreed upon an $8 rate at the airport. At this point, we also had a ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’.
I’m sure you can guess which one I was. If I was solo, there would have been nothing I could have
done. But I had Elisa with me so I had her hold down the fort while I went to the hotel and grabbed a
worker who could speak Vietnamese. Eventually the trunk opened and I grabbed the bags out. I got to
the hotel and there was no Elisa. I went back and he wouldn’t give her the bags. Jen Nathan was sooooo
not having this. Elisa saw a side of me most people have never, ever seen. I think I used the f-bomb as
a noun, verb and adjective all in the same sentence with regards to him and what he could do with the
money. At this point, I would gladly take being the ugly American over being the stupid American. It
was only after this that I heard story after story of others being thrown in the same situations. One
person I talked to was having the driver demand 1,000,000 dongs (over $60 US). For anyone planning
to go in the future: Definitely arrange for a pick-up from the airport by your hotel. It would have been
so worth the extra $5 had I known what these guys are capable of.
We made the most of Elisa’s only night in Hanoi – had one of our best meals of the trip at Restaurant
Bobby Chinn (and after seeing his picture, Elisa is ready to find a half-Chinese, half-Egyptian of her
very own) and then the water puppet show. The next morning we hit some stores for her to pick up the
last of her lacquerware before it was time to give her a hug good-bye. I wasn’t ready to see her go. But
once her taxi headed off, I hopped on a motorbike – this time complete with a helmet as a new law was
implemented within the time we were in Laos – to go see Ho Chi Minh’s body.
That night I headed on a night train up to Sapa. I met Christine, a Canadian, right off the bat and we
would spend our entire time up in this area together. We were both disappointed by Sapa – not by our
wonderful motorbike ride around the area and villages and rice terraces (all wonderful!) – but by the
town itself. Turns out many others shared our sentiments. The touts and villagers alike take ‘annoying’
to the nth degree. It’s really a shame. There was no way to walk or have a beer in peace. We ended up
heading to a small remote village called Bac Ha. Beautiful scenery and incredibly genuine people –
adults and kids alike. There was just one glitch – that would be when we were almost ready to go to
bed and Christine let out an ‘Oh my God.’ I asked what was wrong. She said ‘That is the biggest spider.’
I was on my bed and this spider was next to my headboard. I know people might think I am
exaggerating, but this thing was massive. It made me say to myself ‘At what point does a spider cross
the line and become a tarantula?’ (I have included a picture in this email so you don’t think I am being
a total ‘girl’ about this.) Neither of us freaked out – I just knew I couldn’t go back in the room until our
little friend was tended to. I got the owner of the guesthouse and he sandwiched the thing in between
the curtain and the window and then he was dead (Lori – I pictured you appealing for the spider’s life. I
was just happy you weren’t the one traveling with me!). I would have loved to have moved to another
place to sleep – but it was pitch-black and beyond remote. There wasn’t even a place to get tea after
dinner – there surely wasn’t another place opened to call home for the night. Our mosquito nets now
became our spider nets. I got a horrible sleep – I kept thinking the spider left behind a mistress – but
at least we made it through the night so we could get the heck out of there.
So this is how my time in Vietnam ended – in local buses filled with villagers, porcelain squatters, a
motorbike and squawking chickens. Sleeping in the room that was the scene of an arachnid homicide.
Eating at hole-in-the-walls where we were being handed the owners’ babies to hold and play with.
Chatting it up with a child from a village on my train back to Hanoi who said to the Singaporean girl
next to me…and I quote… “You love him long time?” referring to the girl’s boyfriend (maybe this isn’t
as funny in writing – imagine hearing it with the accent, okay?).
And considering my last taxi ride would be solo in the pitch-black at 5am, I did what any person
wanting to arrive safely at the airport in Hanoi would do when asked where I was from…
I said I was Canadian…