Adventures on a Vietnamese Bus

Trip Start Jan 10, 2005
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Trip End May 10, 2005


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Monday, January 31, 2005

Although warned that bus travel is not for anyone who is faint of heart or has a tendency to get car-sick (the drivers can be crazy and the roads have lots of hairpin turns), we purchased an "open" bus ticket. These tickets are very inexpensive (restaurants and hotels where you stop along the way subsidize the cost because of the business they get) and the dates are open. Basically you book the route ahead of time and select dates to travel as you go. At least we were travelling in air-conditioned comfort.

Our bus driver en route to Hoi An started out by living up to the reputation of Vietnamese bus drivers. We were glad we weren't at the back of the bus as every time we'd take a curve all the people and luggage in the rear would shift from side to side. The driver got quite a kick out of the expletives that came out of passengers' mouths. On one corner, a door of the luggage compartment flew open and all of us had to get out and check to make sure our bags were still there. While we were standing on the road peering into the luggage hold, a mini-van, stuffed with luggage and tourists, passed by. The passengers were hunkered down in there seats looking hot and miserable; vomit streamed down one side of the bus. I think it was wise to take a big bus . . . .

The bus bullied its way along the road, snaking by motorcyclists and smaller vehicles, sometimes forcing oncoming motorcycles into the ditch. I noted that even Martin held his breath on a couple of occasions when we went to pass and another vehicle was coming straight at us. It amazes me how nonchalant people are here about having a bus breathing down their backs - and they don't even jump when the horn bellows.

Fortunately, most of the hotels where the buses stop are quite good. You can get a clean double room with a fan, private shower and cable TV (there's usually something in English) for $8 USD per night. That's one of the reasons why budget travel is possible here. Meals generally run in the $2-$4 USD range. It's always interesting that you pay a premium for a room with a balcony. Generally these are along the front of the hotel and you're guaranteed to be woken early by traffic.

Hoi An (population 80,000) was much more to our liking than crazy cities like Hanoi. Yes, there's some horn honking and you still have to watch out for motorbikes, but it all seems much more civilized. No wonder westerners get to Hoi An, breathe a sigh of relief, and kick back for a few days. We spent three days there.

Hoi An, like Hue, is also a Unesco World Heritage Site. There are a number of historic buildings to explore in Hoi An Old Town. It's also a great place to get clothes and shoes custom-made. You won't be in Hoi An an hour before a local woman will be tugging on your arm to visit her tailor ("cloth") shop. The huge "cloth" market in the market area is incredible - stalls and stalls of cloth, women and sewing machines all under one roof. The prices are very reasonable and the quality is excellent. Martin and I both had three-piece suits made, four pairs of shoes between the two of us, plus numerous other clothing items for well under $500 CDN. I particularly appreciated the custom-made shoes since my feet are so hard to fit! We had to purchase an extra bag for everything we bought. I don't trust the postal service enough to send it home, so guess we're stuck lugging it around until we get to Bangkok or Singapore.

Vendors here have it down to a science (or is selling an art?) here. Firstly, they get you into the cloth shops, then the shoe shops, then the beautician gets ahold of you for a massage while the kids pester you to buy tiger balm. On it goes . . . .

What does the fashionably dressed Vietnamese woman wear? We have seen few women dressed in the traditional "oa dai", an ankle-length long-sleeved tunic with a mandarin collar slit from the ankle to the waist on both sides, worn over pants. (More women wear them here, however, than in the larger centres we've been in.) In Hanoi, most stylish women wore a pantsuit or pants with a long-sleeved sweater/jacket and a "Gilligan-style" hat (but not as goofy-looking, of course!). If she is driving a motorbike, her outfit is often repleat with long gloves (regardless of how hot it is.) Her hair is worn long and she may have it tied back in a ponytail. She may wear a scarf or mask over her mouth and nose to protect her lungs from the pollution. She is petite and willowy thin.

You'd have to be very enterprising and tenacious to make a living selling on the streets in Vietnam. Everyone's selling the same things. In Hoi An, children came into the restaurants to try and sell you cheap jewellry, tiger balm, postcards or newspapers. (And we discovered that the restaurant owner gets a cut if you buy anything.) There are souvenir shops and tailor shops everywhere. The competition is absolutely fierce. One little girl pursued Martin all three times we went for fittings at a particular cloth shop. She was so persistent that, in the end, he bought necklaces and several different types of tiger balm when he had no intention of buying anything at all.

There are "heaps" of Australians travelling in Vietnam as it's not that far away, plus it's currently their summer vacation. There's also quite a number of Europeans. At supper one night we met a couple of Vancouver who were taking three weeks of holidays to do some travelling with their two young daughters, ages 11 and 13. She was working in Numea, New Caledonia (a French Protectorate off the east coast of Australia) as a research librarian for the "Secretariat of the Pacific Community". She was involved in educational and development projects in New Caledonia and Suva, Fiji and had served 19 months of a three-year contract. She spoke English, Italian and, for course, French. Both their girls were enrolled in school in a Numean School. He was born in Regina and was a lawyer, though was not practicing on NC. It sounded like a wonderful experience for them. It must take a lot of courage to uproot your family and move to a strange place and a completely different culture, if only for a few years.

The menus here are incredibly diverse. One particular restaurant that we visit several times because the food is good no matter what you order has a menu about 20 pages long! The speciality foods in Hoi An are wontons and "white rose" (a wonton filled with shrimp). You can find most types of food here - we've had wonderful Italian-style (thin crust) pizza here, as well as great Indian food. It isn't always possible to order chicken, however, because of the bird flu.

There was news coverage re: the tsunami on BBC again today. Today the focus was on the post-tramatic stress syndrome that survivors are living with. One cab driver in Phuket kept seeing the ghosts of tourists waiting to hail his cab. He would stop to let them in and then they would disappear.
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