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Vietnam – Part 3 (Driving to Saigon) December 5, 2011

Posted by jorkat in Ho Chi Min, Hoi An, Nha Trang.

One aspect of traveling in this part of the world that I was dreading prior to our departure was the notion of having to spend a couple hours every week in some dirty Laundromat watching our clothes get butchered by dated washers and dryers. I normally don’t mind doing laundry at home and even enjoy the act of folding laundry, but when you’re trying to see and do so much in such a relatively short period of time, doing laundry seems like a gigantic waste of time.

On the flip side, I was relishing the idea of never preparing our own food and never having to do dishes in any capacity. The extent of my responsibilities at meal time now include, ordering food, pouring my own beer in some restaurants (blasphemy!) and leaving money behind when we leave. It’s a dream come true even if some of the food is less than stellar sometimes.

As for the laundry issue, it hasn’t been a problem. So far, everywhere we’ve gone (Thailand, Laos & Vietnam) have offered a plethora of laundry services from some interesting characters. They all charge by the kilo and up until now we’ve never paid more than $8 combined to have all of laundry done in less than 24 hours. Sure, we’ll probably end up throwing out most of these clothes when we get home but we didn’t bring any of our nice stuff anyway. Without a doubt, this unexpected service has definitely been the most underrated perk of our trip.

Please allow me to regale you with an example to prove my point. While we were in Hoi An, less than 10 seconds after emerging from our hotel one morning with our laundry bags slung over our shoulder, a woman came running over to us shouting “Laundry! Laundry!” We were determined to find a service in the area but didn’t expect it to find us so quickly. She quoted us a fair price, pulled out a scale and measured it on the spot, and informed us that it would be ready by 5pm. After exchanging a quick “why the hell not?” glance with Katie, we turned over the better part of our wardrobes to a complete stranger who’s only discernible skill set appeared to be shouting “Laundry!” and operating a scale.

Sure enough, after a full day of shopping and wandering about the city, we picked up our clean, nicely folded garments just after 5 pm. Total time spent doing laundry that day: 2 minutes. Then we rented bicycles from the same lady for a dollar. You have to admire her entrepreneurial spirit. God, I love this place.

I also love Vietnam and Laos in particular because their respective currencies don’t appear to have any coins, at least none that I was ever given (Note: I was given coins in Vietnam on our last day but I’m going to pretend it didn’t happen). I’m a pocket minimalist which means that I try to avoid having anything in my pockets with the exception of cash, debit and credit cards. I don’t even carry a wallet anymore. It’s glorious. Part of me is actually not looking forward to having a blackberry again as that will take up valuable pocket space, but I think I can make an exception. The idea of carrying around loonies and toonies (how do you spell Toonies? Twonies? Toony’s?) again when we get home is going to be paramount to hell on Earth.

Speaking of currency, forget about the US Dollar, Heineken has become my new benchmark for measuring different currencies against one another. It also serves as an indication of the overall expected cost and quality of a particular establishment. Since many restaurants post their menus outside, it’s often the first item I look for. “30,000 dong (less than $2) for a Heineken, that’s outrageous! Let’s find another place.” We’ll then walk another 5-10 feet and sample another menu. “18,000 dong (less than $1), now that’s more like it. This place sounds delicious!”

Don’t worry though, I’m sampling plenty of the local beers as well. My expanding waist line can attest to that.

Now back to your regularly schedule blog post.

The two previous marathon bus rides we’ve taken so far had occurred at night. So we were looking forward to taking one during the day and seeing the impressive coast line but still dismayed at the prospects of spending 10 hours on a bus. For those of you who aren’t aware, we started our trip in Hanoi which is the largest major city in the North. We purchased a 5-stop bus ticket for the paltry sum of $45 each which included several overnight sleeper buses and the ability to disembark whenever we pleased. As described in previous posts, we decided to check out Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Muine and finish in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). This final leg of the trip would take us from Nha Trang to Saigon as we opted not to stop in Muine for the sake of time. Despite no AC it was a rather enjoyable experience as we still had a sleeper bus and the seats were the longest ones so far, meaning I could stretch out completely and enjoy the scenery while listening to my iPod. Katie may disagree with my previous statement as she’s a major detractor of not having AC when you’re told you would and it is 45 degrees outside. No bathroom either – WOOHOO! Here are some pictures taken along the way.

Bus Ride to Saigon Video

This is the third Asian country we’ve visited in the past year that has recovered from the ravages of an international conflict during the last 75 years that culminated in significant casualties and major damage to the infrastructure and a nation’s psyche. We lived in Korea, visited Japan and Hiroshima in particular and now the most recent, Vietnam.

One of our first tours was to the Cu Chi Tunnels which is a popular tourist experience that allows visitors to walk through the same jungle that lay claim to some of the bloodiest battles of this lengthy conflict. An elaborate series of tunnels built underground by the Vietnamese to live in and ambush the allied forces during the war is one of the most popular features along with other traps and weaponry on display. It was impressive in one sense and a somber reminder of the horrors that humanity inflicts on one another. These tunnels stretched for hundreds of kilometers and were built using nothing but a small hand held back-ho and a basket for the dirt. They also built several levels and had different rooms for various functions. It was a full blown underground society that gave them a distinct home field advantage in an unconventional war. The Vietnamese didn’t have access to the same type of weapons and firepower as the Americans and their allies but they made up for it using a series of simple unsophisticated weaponry and traps.

Seeing some of these weapons and traps and walking through the jungle where they were implemented just 35 years ago was surreal. Throw in the occasional round of fire from AK-47’s and M16’s at the nearby shooting range and it would make just about anyone feel uneasy. One of the older gentlemen in our group was actually a former GI who served for the US in Vietnam and was visiting for the first time since the bloody conflict. I can only imagine the range of emotions that he was experiencing as he walked the grounds and listened to the minor remnants of anti-American propaganda.

The real hero on this day though was my beautiful wife Katie. When it came time to lower yourself down into one of the actual tunnels used by the Vietnamese, she finally volunteered after I persisted for a number of minutes. The look on her face as she slowly slipped into the small rectangle in the ground says it all.

Once you got down into the dark tunnel, it was only a big enough space to crawl on your hands and knees.  It was dark and there were several directions to choose from. Katie became a little unsettled when the guys in front of her expressed some uncertainty over where to go. Throw some bats into the mix and a small section which forced her to crawl through on her stomach and you can understand why Katie was a little flustered after emerging from the 15 meter trek underground. I really really wanted to go but someone had to take pictures and the tour had to continue (Note from Katie: my husband is a pussy).

There was another tunnel later in the tour that had been made bigger for the larger tourists that came through every day. It was 100 meters from the start until a series of rooms, but you had the option to use a side exit about 15 meters in which we happily took advantage of. Our tour group was rather large and wasn’t moving very fast through the tunnel so the idea of being in such a small confined space with people in front and behind you and nowhere to go in virtual darkness was less than appealing.

I don’t know how they managed to live this way for such an extended period of time, not to mention the actual construction and logistics of building such a complicated network of tunnels under the scepter of war going on all around you. People spent days, weeks , months underground digging non-stop and would crawl for kilometers to reach certain destinations. Our tour guide informed us that if we continued on in the tunnel we were in for 7km, that it would reach the Saigon River. 15 meters was enough for me.

Some of the more memorable aspects of this experience that will forever stay with me included the pride and resourcefulness that the Vietnamese displayed then and now. They recovered undetonated bombs and leftover arms and artillery from the Americans and turned them into weapons of their own; the measures and countermeasures that each side took to defeat the enemy, such as the Americans bombing the Vietnamese rice paddies with fast-growing fertilizer to compromise their food production. Even today, you can see the green grass all around which the Vietnamese refer to “American grass”; and finally the notion that this conflict took place only 35 years ago and the progress that has been made between all parties involved. Americans are free to visit and travel throughout the country despite being hailed as imperialist forces not long ago. It gives me hope that other conflicts around the world will eventually enjoy similar outcomes.

Here’s some other pictures from some of the other “highlights” from the tour, including the room that we watched a 20 minute propaganda movie from 1967 that didn’t paint the Americans in a very nice light.

I’ve already written about the hectic traffic and incessant honking that can be overwhelming upon arrival. But after having spent over 10 days here now traveling across the country and seeing various cities and towns, I’ve noticed some subtle nuances to their perceived unorthodox driving etiquette. Honking actually seems proactive which seems counterintuitive since there’s so much of it going on around us. When you honk back home, people notice immediately and almost always take it personally. It’s an effective tool to quickly get someone’s attention but people often take it as an insult or a challenge of their driving ability. It doesn’t exactly work like that here. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Honking almost seems like a courtesy that people use to warn those around them of their presence. It’s also used when a larger vehicle is coming through thick traffic consisting of nothing but scooters to warn them to get out of the way, to which they usually oblige. I often laugh at people who honk in traffic out of frustration as if the sound of their horn will magically part the sea of bumper-to-bumper traffic ahead, but here people will respond to the horn as best they can and move accordingly to allow the flow of traffic to continue. You’d think that people would grow immune to the never ending honking and would render it ineffective, but that isn’t the case. It’s seems loud, chaotic and dangerous, which it is, but it works as long as everyone abides by the same set of unofficial rules. It works so well, that Katie and I don’t even bat an eye when we need to get somewhere and the most efficient and affordable means is by scooter.

The Reunification palace ticket office was closing in less than 15 minutes and we needed to get there as soon as possible. $2 and 10 minutes later and we were inside the palace gates with time to spare.

Scooter Ride in Saigon Video

The honking and traffic volume in these videos don’t do it justice, especially during rush hour, but it at least gives you an idea.

After a full and efficient day spent touring some of Saigon’s famous sights, we were tired an eager to spend a relaxing evening over a nice dinner on our final night in Vietnam. Our entire trip from north to south has gone extremely smoothly without any major inconveniences or hassles and we’ve both acknowledged that it’s one of our favourite countries thus far. With only a few dong (vietnamese currency) left in my pocket, I went to an ATM at a large HSBC branch right next to this church, the Notre-Dame Cathedral (Note: it was Easter Sunday).

My debit card has been a little uncooperative at times on the trip. Back in Laos I was given my cash and the screen went back to the main menu so I walked away after a brief pause as something didn’t seem right. That’s because every other ATM I’ve ever used dispenses the card and receipt prior to giving up the cash. The next morning I realized that I never got my card back and Katie went back to the machine with slim hopes that the card would somehow still be there (note: I decided to shower). By some crazy coincidence the company that services the machine just happened to show up and Katie was able to get the card back without incident. My shower was warm and refreshing so everyone was happy. This time we weren’t so lucky.

After following the usual procedure the screen froze when I input the amount and remained that way despite repeatedly pushing the cancel button. After a few minutes the screen eventually went blank and the machine indicated that it was temporarily out-of-service. Awesome. There was a security guard present but he didn’t work directly for the bank and didn’t have access to the machines. He was able to put me in contact with customer service who informed me that it was Sunday and he couldn’t dispatch anyone that day and I could pick up my card later that week at a different branch. I had the equivalent of about $10 in my pocket and we were supposed to board a bus en route to Cambodia at 8am the next day. There’s nothing quite like that helpless feeling of being in a foreign place with no access to money and no control of a particular situation. Yes, I could have taken a cash advance on my credit card, but that would have been too easy and I wasn’t about to give RBC the benefit of service fees and high interest charges because their crappy debit card screwed me.

Fortunately we were able to postpone our bus ticket until 1pm. We had a cheap dinner and retired to our rooms early and I was at the branch by 8am to process the necessary paperwork to retrieve my card. I wish this story sounded cooler and that we had to sell a stolen scooter or rob a street vendor or something, but I got my card back by 8:30am and was back at the hotel by 9. The moral of the story is that Vietnam sucks and we’re never coming back here ever again.

That is until I want some more cheap suits, cheap Heineken and psychotic scooter rides. Fare the well Vietnam. You were everything we could have asked for, and more.