Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Vac-Asian, Part 5: The Thrilling Conclusion

The next morning we woke up jonesing for coffee. When Trung met us in the lobby of our hotel, we told him as much. We were thinking maybe a Coffee Bean, or a Gloria Jean’s (both of which you can find in Saigon). That wasn’t what Trung had in mind.

He took us to a local coffee joint so smoke-filled we had to part it like curtains as we entered the front door. In my mind, everyone had an eyepatch and a cigarette holder clenched in their back teeth, but that’s not really true. It was actually full of Vietnamese families just hanging out in a dark room full of mirrors, ignoring a b-rate American action movie with Vietnamese subtitles. Something like The Delta Force with Chuck Norris, but not quite that awesome.

So it was here that Trung introduced us to Vietnamese coffee. Apparently coffee was introduced to Vietnam by the French in the late 19th century, and Vietnam has since become one of the world’s biggest coffee exporters. By the taste of things, they've definitely gotten the hang of it. We came home with about fifty pounds of Vietnamese coffee grounds.

There aren’t a whole lot of Vietnamese in New York. Nor are there many in Chicago. Apparently, most Vietnamese émigrés ended up in Louisiana. On our second day in Saigon, we understood why.

We had a big trip scheduled to take a private boat up the Mekong Delta, where we’d stop off at a few locales along the way, grab a little lunch, and head back. Originally, we were scheduled to shove off from a dock that was a four-hour drive from the hotel, a plan that we immediately squashed. Since, as you remember, loyal reader…highway driving + Vietnam = horrorshow.

Still, we had to drive a couple hours to the dock, where we stopped off at The Happy Place (Trung’s term for the bathroom), and hopped on a little tourboat that coughed brown smoke with every putt-putt of the motor, and had a colorful set of monster eyes painted on the bow to scare off crocodiles. Our skipper steered the rudder with his foot.

The Mekong Delta looks a lot like what I imagine the Mississippi Delta to look like. Sediment-filled water, fishing boats everywhere, and a landscape flecked with both rampant industrialization, and rural, dilapidated settlements. Our first stop was a little mile-wide clump of vegetation called Turtle Island.

We hopped off the boat, walked up a long, jagged dock, and into what seemed like an uninhabitable wall of jungle. The fist thing we noticed was a decomposing boar carcass. Just when we were starting to question if Trung was planning on selling us into slavery, the foliage opened up into a bamboo encampment with people lazing around in hammocks, smoking cigarettes. Still not convinced we weren’t being sold into slavery, Trung sat us down at a wooden picnic table under a bamboo roof, and told us we’d be sampling freshly picked fruit from the island. We were suddenly incredibly grateful to have gotten all of our shots.

Just as we began to sample the sweetest, freshest fruit I’ve ever tasted in my life (pineapple, dragonfruit, mini bananas, some grape-like fruit, and the only sweet grapefruit I’ve ever tasted) the entertainment stepped up to the table in the form of a 5-member band sporting ratty, acoustic instruments. They were introduced by Trung as a group of musicians specializing in the traditional music from the Mekong Delta.

As soon as they began to play, I got the distinct feeling that this was the Vietnamese equivalent to the Delta Blues. Trung told us what each song was about after they were finished playing, and each one sounded like he was reading the Cliff’s Notes to Muddy Waters lyrics. “His woman leave him, he sad.” “The man he cheat on the woman.” “He born on seventh day, he hoochie coochie man.” If Trung had translated the lyrics, I’d bet my life that every song began with “I don’t know, but I’ve been told.”

After our little snack, we took a quick tour through the lifeblood of the island: a coconut candy plant (I use the term “plant” loosely) called Que Dua, where they gut fresh coconuts, melt them in a stone oven, shape the cooled liquid into strips, cut them with machetes, and wrap each individual piece by hand. I left thinking two things. A. “I never realized how much I like coconut,” and B. “My job isn’t so bad after all.”

Our next stop might as well have been Louisiana. We hopped off the little boat, and staggered into a little clearing where a young Vietnamese man was bridling a scarily gaunt horse. Before we knew what was going on, we were being ushered into a lopsided carriage for a ride down a bumpy dirt path, while locals went about their business, which is to say, standing and staring at us.

The carriage dropped us off at another little clearing, where we literally walked through people’s backyards until we reached another small bamboo hut, full of screaming Japanese tourists. Just as we were about to ask what all the commotion was about, Trung pulled one of three massive boa constrictors out of a huge cage, and gently placed it around my neck.

The verdict on having a boa constrictor around your neck? A little creepy. The verdict on having a boa constrictor around your neck while surrounded by screaming Japanese tourists in the middle of the jungle? Goddamn terrifying. I forced out a waxy smile for about 30 seconds before saying, “Alright Trung, get this thing off me.”

Next up was a tea sampling, enjoyed with honey so fresh the bees were still pissed about having forfeited it, as evidenced by their swarm attacks while we sipped. We both forced rictal smiles before mumbling, “Alright Trung, let’s get the hell out of here.”

The last stop on the tour was a ride on a Sanpan, which is sort of like Vietnam’s version of a gondola ride in Venice, except your ass is deep, deep in the jungle, instead of listening to a costumed Italiano sing fruity love cantos. (No offense, Venice). This was the one and only time on the trip Crissy and I wore the traditional Vietnamese conical hats, and based on the pictures, it will be the last.

We ended the Mekong tour with a ride back to the dock on our trusty crocodile-proof boat, sipping fresh coconut juice straight out of a straw, and breathing sighs of relief that we made it though all of our crazy adventures alive. We temporarily forgot that we still had several hours of highway driving to go.

Around halfway home, we hit some seriously heavy traffic. Since all the highways are two-lane strips of concrete jutting straight through the countryside, if there’s any kind of hold-up, you’re not going anywhere. It seemed like we were inching along for hours, when suddenly, Trung turned in his seat and said, “Don’t look, don’t look.”

Crissy didn’t question Trung for a second. She immediately covered her face with the magazine she was reading. I, being the idiot that I am, did exactly the opposite of what I was being instructed to do.

The first thing I saw was a crowd of about thirty farmers about 10 feet from our car, all staring at the ground. Nobody moved a muscle. As we slowly creeped by, my eyes tried to make sense of an unrecognizable, jagged clump of black steel and two tires. Just as it dawned on me that I was looking at the mangled remains of a scooter, I saw the body.

Through the tinted glass of our van, the blood looked like tomato soup, pooled and splattered all over the side of the road. It looked like he’d been hit by a semi. The man’s crushed limbs were splayed in a way that only a short-circuited central nervous system would allow, and the only words to come out of my mouth were, “Jesus Christ. That guy’s dead.”

We drove in silence for the next couple hours, at one point looking up as an utterly futile ambulance raced in the opposite direction. By the time we finally reached the hotel, the disturbing image I’d witnessed had had plenty of time to marinate, and I found myself strangely pissed off about the whole thing.

Here’s the deal. When you go to Vietnam, everyone chuckles about the driving, “It’s controlled chaos! They know what they’re doing.” To be honest, I saw plenty of chaos, and very little control. In the cities, where there are scrapes, dents, and near misses by the minute, it’s hard to gather up enough speed to do any real damage. But the highways are a different story.

Everybody drives two inches from the bumper of the car in front of them, and attempts to pass every possible second. In a system where everyone is relying on the other guy not to make sudden, jerky, unpredictable maneuvers, EVERYone is making sudden, jerky, unpredictable maneuvers. It’s frustrating, and scary, and on the highways, deadly.

Now I don’t want to suggest that our trip was ruined by this one incident, because it wasn’t. Far from it. We had an incredible experience in Vietnnam from start to finish, and we’d go back in a heartbeat. I’m just saying…next time, we’re renting a tank.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Saigon, part 1

As soon as we arrived in Saigon, we couldn’t help comparing our new tour guide, Trung, to our beloved Huy. Just the day before, Huy had walked us to our gate in the Hanoi airport where we said our goodbyes as the music swelled. Crissy was doing a bad job of pretending not to be upset. I offered one too many extra-manly handshakes.

So it wasn’t Trung’s fault, really. He was just upstaged by the opening act.

First of all, he instantly seemed younger than Huy. Smiley and soft-spoken, he had a chronic neck tick that caused his moppy bowl cut to whip around his head like a hair hula-hoop.

Here’s another thing: generally speaking, you have to be a pretty funny guy to make someone laugh in a language other than your own. Trung wasn’t one of those guys. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

“You like dog?”
“Oh sure! We have a dog at home named Franny!”
“Vietnamese eat dog. Heh heh.”
“Yes...........yes we know.”

Anyway, by the time we got to Saigon we started noticing something interesting. Everyone wears those masks in Vietnam. You know, those surgeon masks you see old people and tourists wearing while riding public transportation? The ones that say the air you animals breathe is beneath me? Yeah, those. Those are everywhere in Vietnam. But here’s the good news. The people who wear them aren’t all snobs. Some of them just don’t want to look like poor people.

Hm. It doesn’t sound that good when I put it in writing. The point is, we learned something. Apparently, Vietnamese women go to great lengths to keep from getting a tan, for fear that they’ll be confused for peasants. Which means they ALL wear those masks (yes, they make designer versions) and long-sleeved shirts with extra fabric stitched in to cover their fingers, to keep their hands from tanning while they ride scooters all day long.

And in the interest of full disclosure, yes, we wore the masks. But only on the airplanes, to protect ourselves from the air those animals breathe. Look, when you’re on a 2-week trip through Asia that includes 5 planes full of hot, recycled bird/swine/donkey flu breath, you start taking extreme measures. For what it’s worth, we’re not proud of it.

The first thing we noticed about Saigon is that it’s big. Way bigger than Hanoi. I mean, it’s got a KFC, for god’s sake. That’s how you know you’ve made it as a city, by the way. When you go out and get yourself a KFC.

Huy had told us that the traffic in Hanoi was nothing compared to that of Saigon. To be honest, it seemed far more manageable thanks to the breadth of the streets, and the fact that some people (not all) obeyed the traffic signals. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was still batshit crazy. Just slightly less so.

So it was in said traffic that Trung and our driver took us out to the Cu Chi Tunnels the following morning, which is a massive system of underground tunnels that the Vietcong used to whip our asses during the war.

Most of the site is meant to celebrate Vietnamese ingenuity and determination during the war, which was, admittedly, mind-boggling. First they showed us a vast array of booby traps used by the Vietcong to kill and maim US servicemen. To be honest, the nonchalance with which they were described was a little unsettling. “This chop face, this slice head, this stab stomach.” We hustled past that portion of the tour.

Then they showed us the tunnels themselves. Let me start by saying this. The Vietnamese had a system of tunnels that spanned 150 miles. One hundred and fifty freaking miles. That’s like digging your way from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin.

Of course, you can actually crawl down into the tunnels just to test your levels of claustrophobia, which, on a scale of 1-10 (1=David Blaine, 10=peeing with the door open), I’m about a 4. Crissy is about a 9. She opted out of the experience.

Trung told us that they had expanded the tunnels to accommodate Western tourists’ frames. Unless he was talking about West African Pygmies, I’m not sure how these things could’ve been any smaller. You can crawl through about 150 yards of tunnels if you like. I made it about 20 feet behind a young, Vietnamese guide before scrambling for the first exit, sweating and sputtering. The tunnel itself is dug out of a claylike soil that’s very densely packed, causing what little air there is to be incredibly thick and clammy. If I had the choice between living down there for 3 years like the Vietnamese, or surrendering to the Yanks, I’d have been whistling Dixie all the way to the firing lines.

I think I can officially say that this part of the trip was Crissy’s least favorite. It was by far the most chilling reminder of the war, not to mention a little annoyingly touristy for such a solemn subject. Particularly considering the next stop on the tour was the gift shop/coffee shop/AK-47 firing range.

This sounded like a great idea when we read it in the brochure. So great, in fact, that Crissy contemplated firing off a couple rounds herself. That is, until she got within 50 yards of the noise.

Here’s the deal with an AK-47. It's not a big gun, but it's absurdly loud. Like, unnecessarily, obnoxiously, maddeningly loud. You get the distinct feeling that they could have built these things to be quieter, but they decided against it as a scare tactic. It sounds exactly like a jackhammer pressed against your cheek. Every round makes your teeth rattle in your skull. I have no idea where my bullets went. I was just trying to keep from getting punched in the face by the gun’s considerable kick back. I shot 10 rounds. By the end, I was happy not to have shot myself.

By the end of day one, we were pretty warred out, so Trung took us shopping around Saigon. We checked out the Chinatown section of the city, which is apparently where every company on earth buys their crap in bulk. Shoes, hats, scooter helmets, purses, sunglasses. We’ve never seen so much crap packed into such a small space in our lives, nor have we ever seen such a perfect breeding ground for bird/swine/donkey flu. We staggered around for an hour or so, spent millions of dong, and headed back to hotel for some much needed r & r.

That night, we bounced around to a couple bars in town, eventually capping the night off with an aborted mission to Saigon, Saigon, our hotel’s rooftop bar (whose tagline, It’s really simply the best, is blatant false advertising), and crashed hard, ready for whatever adventures Trung had in store for us the next day.


I won't insult you with a lame excuse.