04.24.2010 - 04.30.2010 99 °F
After a final few days in Saigon we finally knew it was time to move on. We spent the days mostly with our friends Glenn and Julia, experimenting all levels of gastronomical treats, sweating through the overcrowded markets, and renewing the never ending search for the cheapest and coldest beer. We had dinner one night at an insanely local restaurant, in fact we were the only foreigners, and with no English menu, and no prices, I was assisted by the only English speaker in the house, a small eight year old girl who took me across a bustling street, to where the kitchen is, and through animal noises and pointing, I whittled down a menu of greasy, but oh so good dishes for us. Watching the server weave through moto-chaos to get the food to our table was half the fun! All in all we loved Saigon, in fact we still love it, and it will now be the basis to which all big cities in SE Asia, and maybe even Europe will be measured, although the combination of unending fun, ridiculously cheap food, and the feel and smell of life will take a lot to match up to.
Once we left town and boarded our night bus, the struggle to get a good deal began again. I’ve taken many overnight buses before, but these buses are strictly built for Vietnamese people, and I simply laughed when the hostess pointed to the back of the empty bus, expecting me to squeeze into the wall-less coffin that was five across the back of the bus, with only enough head room to half sit up before hitting the row of seats above. I argued vehemently to get our seats changed, employing the begging method, the refusal to sit method, the fine, we’ll just take these ones method, before the “Take me back to the hotel and give me a refund” method finally gave her the heart to give us seats that would allow us air and a bit of room. I have really kind of given up on the kindness idea when dealing with business here, it is apparent that you need to make a firm stance before step one or they will run over you and leave you wondering how you lost that easiest of debates.
After a good, errr nearly decent, night of sleep we arrived in Nha Trang, and sauntered down the beach with our backpacks on just after the early morning sunrise to avoid the annoying swarm of moto-taxis that greet you the second you hit the bottom step on the way out of the bus after a wretched night of bouncing, tossing and turning, and frequent stops to pick up people who sleep in the aisles of the bus. We found a hotel with a cheap room and ac and crashed, then explored the beach nearby. It was nice to be back on the beach, although the constant “you wan buy sunglass”, or “hello, you buy mango” does get annoying after a few hours. Fortunately for me, a game on a nearby beach soccer field allowed me to run around and get a bit of exercise, something I have definitely been neglecting due to the beer, heat, and a bit of laziness. After the game I sat with some other travelers and watched the “pros” play while Flavia read nearby and swatted away the constant bombardment of salespeople. After two days, we’d had enough, and shipped north on a terrible bus ride in which neither of us slept more than a few hours until they dropped us just outside the city of Hoi An.
Hoi An is wonderful, although today’s heat makes it a little less enjoyable than yesterdays cool river breeze. This town was spared the bombardment of the “American War”, as it’s known here, and the historical town has a beautiful ancient Chinese feel, with red lanterns on every building, contrasting beautifully with the light yellow paint and dark stained woodwork of the buildings. The narrow streets are thankfully closed to traffic, and although the normal salespeople chirp at every corner, it’s easy and beautiful to walk around, especially at night. Another thing that Hoi An is known for is it’s clothes. Here, you can get a cotton or wool suit custom made from a picture, tailored to your liking, and delivered overnight to your hotel for under $100, although the idea of buying a suit for me is like having a hot bath under the Vietnam sun at midday. Instead I got a pair of tailored shorts, and Flavia happily picked out a dress and a skirt, perfect for traveling. I have noticed that in SE Asia, travelers are cleaner and better dressed than they were in South America, and that’s due to the predominance of shops selling $2 tank tops, $4 dresses, and just the cheapest clothes you can find anywhere. Last night we had maybe the best meal we’ve had so far on our trip, eating at a gourmet street food fusion restaurant, enjoying the local delicacy Cao Loa, a soup that’s made with local well water, thick homemade noodles, a few pieces of pork, and just the right amount of fresh herbs and spices, and results in a true delight for the mouth, nose and tummy. Flavia ordered a roasted duck thigh, sliced and served with a salad of 1000 textures and flavors, and I haven’t seen her enjoy a meal like that for a long time. My broiled pork leg with red rice risotto and pickled veggies was wonderful, although a bottle of Oregon Pinot would have made me the happiest man in Vietnam. To top it off for dessert, we had a warm, fresh, fluffy cinnamon waffle with a scoop of melting homemade ice cream, and if that meal doesn’t get your mouth watering, just think that we splurged and got a bill of $17 for the whole thing!
Watching Flavia’s transition throughout this trip has been truly delightful. I have seen her become accustomed to the unknown and her newly found ability to really not worry about situations that would have been alarming to her just a few months ago shows me that this trip has so far been truly worth it. From happily enjoying chili laden street food to using the squat toilet at the dirtiest of dirty bus stops (I went behind a truck), to crossing the busiest street in Saigon, to throwing a dirty shirt on, because it’s just gonna get dirty again when you step outside, she has really grown into a traveler and the perfect companion (not that she wasn’t that before). The rest of this trip can only enhance her mental fortitude and persona, and I can’t wait to see what’s next, perhaps still beating cobra heart of some of those tasty street bugs!
Unfortunately for us we spent too much time in the south, and now we are rushing a bit, with a 17 hour bus ride looming tomorrow, and just a few days to spend in Hanoi and Ha Long bay before we skip the 24 hour hell bus ride to Laos and splurge on the one hour flight. I know what you are thinking, that I’ve changed since my Bolivia 38 hour bus ride days, but I don’t really care! Tonight should be an interesting celebration as Vietnam celebrates the 35th anniversary of their “National liberation, their defeat of the Americans and ‘puppet regime’ of the south, and victory of the ‘American War’”. Although I feel absolutely no anti-Americanism here, in fact, quite the opposite, I know that this is important for the communist government and the people as an end to a terrible period of their history, and a reunification that seems to have healed all wounds, both internally and internationally.