Back in Nam

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

   While in Chiang Mai, Mike and I met up with two other teachers from Surat (Blake and Mike R) who planned to join along in our adventure to Laos and Vietnam.  To get to Vietnam, you need to pre-apply for a Visa, which takes about 5 days.  The Visa costs about $50 and enables you to stay in Vietnam for 30 days.  We planned around this by stopping in Laos for a bit.  We had two options to get to Laos.  Our first option was a 30 hour bus ride, which we quickly ruled out after spending 25 hours on buses from Surat to Chiang Mai.  The second option, which was also cheaper, was to take a 2 day boat ride down the Mekong River.  This appealed to all of us and was a no-brainer decision.

            After about 3 hours sitting on the wooden floor of a crowded boat with a numb butt, I started to second guess my decision.  The scenery was OK, but after the first hour it all looked the same to us.  Occasionally we would pass something interesting like a heard of water buffalo, a fisherman, or a small village.  Finally after 10 hours on the river we got to the village we were going to stay in for the night.  Upon arrival, we were greeted by numerous peddlers offering everything from food to drugs.  These peddlers didn't even wait for us to get off the boat; they jumped onto the boat and harassed the hell out of us, pulling on us from every direction.  For a second I thought my limbs were going to be ripped from my body.  We finally got the hell out of there and headed up the hill to look for a place to stay. 

            Eventually we found a hotel that offered a beautiful river view for about $3USD a night.  We settled in and headed out to find something to eat.  Laos is by far the cheapest place in SE Asia.  That night for dinner, I had a steak, potatoes, and a beer for the equivalent of $2USD. Not to mention Beer Laos (there national beer) is amongst the best beers in the world.  We made our way through the countless peddlers to the only bar in town.  Being the only bar in the entire town, we expected at least a little bit of a crowd, which was not the case.  After a couple beers, we all decided to call it a night.

            The next morning, we took off for Lamprabong, Laos.  This time we got a boat with seats.  This was an upgrade to sitting on a wooden floor, but at the same time, it was comparable to sitting on an airplane for 12 hours.  Alas, we made it to Lamprabong.  The first thing I noticed about the city was the French influence.  The city had a look similar to that of the colonial south.  After exploring the city for a while we settled into our hotel to prepare for a night out on the town.  We quickly found out that Laos has a curfew of midnight, so we ended up calling it a night fairly early.  There wasn’t a lot to do in Lamprabang.  We explored a few of the temples, and rode bikes around the city for a day.   After about 3 days, we got on a sleeper bus to Hanoi, in northern Vietnam.

            For all of us, the highlight of the entire trip was going to be Vietnam.  We had all heard countless stories about Vietnam being a place of endless adventure and extreme cultural differences, something which we were all seeking.  The bus ride to Hanoi felt like it lasted a week (It actually took 30 hours).  I slept a bit and spent a lot of time contemplating life choices.  Mike and I were crammed into two sleeper "beds" that probably couldn’t even fit two midgets comfortably.  I had cramps in my ass and legs for two weeks after that trip. 

            The first thing that caught my attention about Hanoi was the crazy traffic.  There were no rules; people just drove wherever and whenever they pleased.  This was not a comforting idea given that I was about to buy a motorcycle here and drive down the coast to Saigon.  After spending 30 hours on a crammed bus, we all agreed that a drink was in order.  Similar to Laos, Vietnam has a midnight curfew, but there are ways around this.  Certain bars and clubs pay off the police and are allowed to stay open a bit later.  The night started as any other night at a bar would.  We bought a round of drinks and were minding our own business.  At the end of the night, we asked for our bill, and noticed that we were overcharged by a substantial amount.  We gave them a certain amount (which was well above what we actually spent) and left to get in a taxi. 

            Before we could get in the taxi, we were swarmed by a group of angry Vietnamese men.  One of the men reached into my pocket (I assume to grab my wallet) and ended up grabbing my room key.  We quickly got into the taxi and headed back to the hotel.  Once we arrived at the hotel, we realized that the men had followed us.  We were all pretty concerned at this point. Luckily, the hotel owner was there to quickly unlock the door to let us in and hurriedly lock out the angry mob.  I can clearly recall the terrified look on the hotel owner’s face when he saw the mob following us.  To our relief, the mob eventually left.  The hotel owner explained to us that we were being pursued by Vietnamese mafia, and could have easily been killed.  That’s when it dawned on me that they had my room key.  Once in my room, I moved a dresser in front of the door (like that would stop an angry mob) and went to sleep.  The next morning I awoke to banging on the door.  I quickly looked around the room for a window to jump out of, or some sort of escape route.  Eventually we worked up the courage to move the dresser out of the way and answer the door.  It was Mike telling us we needed to check out because management didn’t feel it was safe for us to stay there anymore…some start to Vietnam huh?

            The next morning we decided to explore Hanoi.  The city itself is really beautiful, situated on a big lake.  After walking around for a few hours, we found a busy street corner which happened to have a little shop offering 20 cent beers.  We spent the remainder of the day drinking Bia Hanoi (Vietnamese beer), people watching, and reminiscing on our crazy experience from the night before.  After a few beers, we went to look for a place to have dinner.  While searching for a place to eat, we stumbled across a Minsk dealership.  The owner seemed to be genuine and informed us that he could sell us 3 Minsk motorcycles for $333 each.  We agreed and forked over the cash.  We had planned to buy Minsk’s and tour the coast before arriving in Vietnam, so this was not entirely a compulsive decision. 

            The shop owner informed us that it would take 3 days to prepare the motorcycles, so it gave us some extra time to explore the city.  The following day, we went to the prison that housed John McCain during the Vietnam War.  I expected there to be a lot of hostility towards Americans, but this was not the case at all.  The Vietnamese people seem to have a lot more resentment towards the French (from whom they gained there independence), which came as a bit of a surprise to me.  The museum itself was depressing as expected. It displayed replicas of prisoners chained up in dark cells and torture devices.  The museum also displayed McCain’s parachute and the bed he stayed in, which was the highlight of the 30 minute tour.  After about an hour, we had seen enough and headed off to get some lunch and look into tours. 

            While scanning the hotel wall posters for activity ideas, we came across an advertisement for a snake farm.  I had been to a snake show in Bangkok, but this was very different.  The tour included a 5 course meal, all of which came from different parts of a snake which you get to chose out of a cage, similar to picking your own lobster at any high class seafood restaurant.  The Vietnamese believe that eating a snake’s heart is good for your health in some way, so this was something that they encouraged us to try. 

            We got to the restaurant, which was situated on a small pond.  The place looked like any other high class restaurant, with one exception.  In the back were two cages full of about 50 different snakes.  They all looked the same, green and brown in color, and about 3 feet long.  Let me tell you, I HATE snakes, and the idea of holding a pissed off snake did not appeal to me…I did it anyways.  After we each took turns holding our dinner, the waiter brought the snake over to the table.  On the floor, next to the table was a mat and a tray (mom, you might want to skip to the next paragraph).  The waiter asked who wanted to go first, and my buddy Mike R stepped up to the plate.  The man stretched out the snake and handed Mike a knife.  He made a small incision in the snake’s underbelly revealing its beating heart.  He then dove head first into the snake, ripping the beating heart from its body, blood dripping down his face. 

With the exception of a French girl, everyone participated.  When my turn came, the heart did not go down so easily, and I almost lost my cookies.  It had a fishy taste, but I suppose the idea of swallowing a live beating heart was the hardest part to stomach so to speak.  After eating the hearts, the chef prepared the snake meal, using every part, including the bones.  Before we started eating, we were presented with two shots.  The first was the snake’s blood, which tasted no worse then a shot of Seagram’s Whiskey.  The second shot consisted of snake bile, which did not go down as easy.  The meal itself was decent.  The hardest part for me was the idea that I was eating the slimy creature that I had found revolting since I was a kid.    

           

Possibly the biggest tourist attraction in Vietnam in Halong Bay.  Halong Bay is a national marine park consisting of countless limestone cliffs and beautiful panoramic scenery.  This was a must do on our itinerary, so we booked a 3 day 2 night Halong excursion.  For about $15USD, the tour promised 1 night on a boat, 1 night in a hotel, and free meals.  The tour itself couldn’t have been much worse.  The food was awful and the tour guide didn’t explain anything.  However, it is almost impossible to be dissatisfied while visiting Halong Bay.  The cliffs and rock formations were some of the most stunning landscapes I had ever seen in my life. 

The first day of the tour was the best, as we visited a cave and relaxed while sailing around the park.  We spent the night drinking beers on the roof of an old Japanese fishing boat, chatting with an array of people from all around the world.  The next day, we set sail for Kat Man Island.  On Kat Man Island, we spent about an hour hiking up a mountain that promised one of the greatest views in Halong.  The hike itself wasn’t very difficult, but the majority of the older crowd called it quits half way up the mountain.  When we finally got to the top, we noticed a sketchy tower.  It looked to be about a hundred years old, and about to collapse at any moment.  Having hiked an hour straight up a mountain, there was no way we were going to pass on the main attraction, so we headed up the rickety tower.  At the top, was a great panoramic view of Halong Bay, well worth the hike.

            That night we stayed in a hotel on Kat Man Island.  The hotel itself was nice; clean and comfortable.  I have never been a big connoisseur on service, but this was some of the worse I have ever had in my life.  The lady at the front desk greeted me as if I had just smacked her mother across the face.  “Give me your passport” she demanded. Thailand is known as the land of smiles, and is notorious for great service.  Maybe I have been spoiled with this for the last few months, but this was bad.

            That night we decided to check out the nightlife.  We saw a fair amount of younger tourists around during the day, so we were certain we would find something to do that night.  After about an hour of walking around hopelessly trying to find a bar hosting more then a bartender and a cat, we settled on a local Vietnamese club.  We walked in and noticed that the club was divided. Two groups, each separated by about 10 tables.  We walked up to the bar and got a round of drinks and posted up at a table somewhere in the middle of the two groups.  This is where things got interesting.

            “Did someone just throw ice at me”, Blake said.  The next think we knew, the music cut out, the lights came on, and the bar turned into a full on war zone.  The waitresses ran and took cover behind the bar as an assortment of beer bottles went whizzing by my head.  We quickly ran for the doors to get the hell out, but there was a blockage of Vietnamese all trying to exit at the same time.  Scared for my life, I bulled over a small Vietnamese man, knocking him down and running up his back.  There were trails of blood in the street as the two gangs chased each other looking to continue the fight.  At this point I was thinking “I know American have a bad reputation in some parts of the world, but my God”.  At some point, one of the men came running out and turned to me, offering an apology.  I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything at all.  In the end, Mike R ended up getting hit with a bar stole, resulting in a bruised arm.  We decided that was enough for the night, and headed back to the hotel.  

    The next day, we headed back to Hanoi to pick up our motorcycles and start our journey down the coast.  It has been a hell of a start to the Vietnam trip, and I'm not sure it is possible to top what has already happened.

           
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