Good Morning, Vietnam!
Trip Start Sep 07, 2007
8Trip End Sep 23, 2007
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Let me back up a day first here and catch you up first. Last we heard our heroes were fighting deadly mosquito viruses in the dense jungles of rural Cambodia and ready to battle river pirates, disillusioned corrupt soldiers and the criminal underworld that is the journey to and within Phnom Phen, the capital of Cambodia. Well, after taking a needed day of rest because now I've developed a nasty cough and tropical cold we decided to hit up a tour of the floating villages at the north end of Lake Tonle Sap. These villages are set up on floating barges so that when the lake recedes in the dry season (it does so for several miles) they can maintain their livelihood...fishing, naturally!
We pulled up to the edge of the lake, children chasing the moto down the dirt road, and boarded a longboat that we ended up getting all to ourselves with a driver and a local guide, Bru. As we pulled away and towards the village Bru explained all the barges along the way...the school barge, the hospital barge, the police station barge, the machine shop barge, the Catholic church barge...they pretty much had it all. We even stopped at what must have been the Kragen barge to pick up an engine belt. What we really saw here was a way of life that really didn't center around tourism but rather a sustenance economy. People would be rowing smaller boats up to larger ones to do business, people lying in hammocks and kids playing in the water and daily life moving along before our eyes, It was pleasant, despite the poverty; peaceful, despite the occasional tourboat racing by. The people didn't seem to mind that we were watching them as if in some aquatic zoo...actually they seemed to enjoy the attention.
As we moved out further out on the lake Bru asks us "You want to drive?" The next thing you know John is trying to fit behind a steering wheel yoinked from a honda (logo still intact) and get his foot or the wire that is the throttle. I decide to ride out on the bow and enjoy the sun and fresh lake air. We eventually got to the point where the mangroves subsided and open water prevailed. I could see as far as the horizon and it was flat as Florida...just muddy water and huge fluffy white clouds are far as the eye could see. It seemed like the quietest spot in the entire country. As we headed back Bru suggests "You go for swim." I look at the light brown, opaque water that reminds me of only a giant 70-mile puddle. In Khmer Tonle means lake and Sap means fresh. Though technically correct, maybe their idea of fresh is a bit different than mine. I wonder what the Khmer word for mudbath is? I politely decline. "No thanks, I'm just fine here" is what I said. "No thanks, I don't need hepatitis" is what I thought.
We had drinks on an old riverboat and watched part of "The Killing Fields" that happened to be on broadcast TV ironically enough at the time. At one point there was a scene where some Cambodian prisoners were shot and as it happened Bru (who is only 19) laughed out loud at the sight. "Do you know this movie?" John asked. "No, I don't know." Apparently the significance of the film was lost upon him. We only looked at each other in silent disbelief at the intense irony. From there we say a fish farm and a crocodile farm. "You get in there and I take picture!" "No thanks Bru. Maybe next time." I got to drive as well through the village, but had to stop just short of the village center. "You stop now or you get ticket for no license." Some things are simply universal.
This is the point in the story that we had the airline ticket tax fiasco. In a last minute decision we bought tickets aboard Vietnam Air leaving Siem Reap for Hanoi at 8:20...4 hours. I spend the next two hours tidying up all my affairs here. As we left the guesthouse we stopped by a book cart that was manned by a man who had BOTH of his hands amputated. I had watched him for the past week from the restaurant in amazement as he would pull out a cigarette and actually light it for a smoke. I ended up buying a book on Angkor that I had already talked a vendor down to $6 for and still walked away from. Today I paid $8. I didn't even try to negotiate. It was my good deed for the day. He was very pleased and thanked us graciously. It was a good experience to end this leg of the journey on.
As we motoed through some of the craziest traffic I've seen since we arrived here we got one last look at this faraway, exotic, chaotic land. We were glad to be moving on, and even more so to no longer feel trapped there. We pull up to the airport an hour and a half before our flight, say our goodbyes and wellwishes to Thaery and head on in to the small jungle outpost airstrip. Upon checking in we had an hour before the flight, plenty of time to get dinner, right? Wrong. I hear faintly over the intercom system in a heavy broken accent "VN844 passenger Bendon Oose please repot to gate 2." I barely heard it and John completely missed it. I run over and they tell me their boarding now...40 minutes before the flight is scheduled to leave! We rush out the gate and onto the tarmac, up the ladder and into the plane, the last ones to arrive. Just as we sat down the plane started taxiing down the runway. "They're leaving over a half-hour early!" John exclaims. I look at him and say "Would you expect anything less from a communist airline that still uses paper tickets 70's style and holds it's planes together with duct tape?" He gives me a questioning look as I point to the ceiling above his head to the strips of tape there. To think they have the best safety rating in the region!
We finally are circling over Hanoi and the pilot gets on the comlink and tells us that he is unable to land. There is an intense tropical storm that we're also circling sitting right over the airport. While the site is stunning with it's lightning bolts high in the clouds it is still our adversary, making us very late. "Good thing the plane left early!" I quip. After 40 minutes of circling the comlink comes on again..."We are unable to land in Hanoi due to the storm outside. We are now going to land at Danang airport." "Danang! That's halfway to Saigon!" God Danang! After landing in Danang and expecting disembarkment and a free room we end up sitting on the tarmac for refueling. After another 20 minutes on the ground another voice on the comlink says "Flight VN844 from Danang to Hanoi is now taking off. "What?" Apparently they reevaluated the charter to save face...convenient. We finally arrive over Hanoi with the storm now south of us and finally land at 1am! In John's words of wisdom 'I'll never question a safety decision, especially with these airlines." You had to wonder if the plane crash in Phuket just 3 days ago was heavy on the pilot's mind.
We breezed through the airport (it was 1am...who was there?) and grab a cab to a random hotel I found in my guidebook. The hotels in Hanoi are many, but frequently full. Worse yet, the town pretty much shuts down by 11pm, so may places would be locked. On the advice of our driver (conveniently named Nam) we tried a hotel that he said was nicer and newer than the one I suggested in the Old Quarter. We finally pull up and he gets out to check. Full. The hotel staff suggested another place around the corner, which thankfully was empty. John gets out to check the room and it turns out to be golden, and very cheap! They rush us in with clandestine urgency. They take our passports (expected here), shove us in the elevator, separate us and take us to our rooms. I was surprised they didn't lock me in the way the porter's demeanor was. Don't get me wrong, they were very kind, service oriented and very helpful, just kinda control freaks. I actually snuck out of my room to confirm plans for tomorrow with J. (The room was awesome though!)
The next morning I woke up to a constant barrage of beeping horns and moto engines revving. I looked out the window and didn't even recognize the street I saw last night. Hundreds of bikes, motos, a few cars even passing thru the intersection per light, all weaving around each other in what seems like total anarchy. People walking through the middle, women carrying counterweighted baskets on their shoulders and everyone going about their business. I couldn't even tell you what side of the road they drive on because you can't tell by looking. I was in Vietnam!
We got our free breakfast in the morning, and as it turned out the hotel is full tonight so we had to move. John got right on this one and checked out the Viet Hotel, the one that was full last night. Fortunately they had vacancy. The Viet is a private run business, whereas our first hotel was a government run business (which all makes sense now!) The Viet has free internet (which I am on right now) and the rooms are even nicer. The hotel helped us book our Halong Bay cruise, which I'm leaving for in 4 hours, and Johns trek to Sapa, the mountain village that I will have to miss. The staff here was so friendly that you couldn't help to love everyone. In fact, despite what we have read about people trying to overcharge tourists for their services, we have not run across it. People are very open and honest here. It is very metropolitan, though with a colonial asian flair to it and much more modernized than I expected...perhaps as much so as Bangkok.
We took a walk around town, visited the lake here in the middle of the quarter, ate a snack at a rooftop cafe overlooking the lake and bartered for fashionable menswear that didn't come in my size. Most of all we braved traffic every step of the way since what few sidewalks there are all had merchant booths set up on them. Crossing the street was literally the human equivalent of Frogger! After lookin' around town we had the local faire for dinner...fried chaca fish and ended up in the only jazz club in town drinking $2 martinis. Vietnam is awesome!