Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

You have not lived until you have sped through the streets of Vietnam on the back of a motorbike.

The flow of traffic is almost organic. As the bikes roll down the streets, they seem to push and pull each other without actually touching. A bike or pedestrian in the wrong place simply acts as a boulder in a stream; the bikes simply flow around and keep moving. A larger obstacle such as a bus or car is sometimes like the protector of the pack, other times like a slow moving elder on the streets of New York. Traffic is not regulated or stifled as in America. Cars in America are constrained by lanes, signs, and lights. Traffic in America is sterile, boring, a latte and a phone call in the air-con. The whine of tires on the highway, horsepower, and blaring stereos is replaced by the purr of Honda motors and the necessary and almost constant sound of the horn. The horn is a gentle warning that I am coming and you should not deviate from your path as I pass by. Crossing the street is much easier here, if you do not fear injury or death, if you trust in the organic traffic to behave as the stream. To cross the street you simply wade right in, trusting that the bikes will flow around you as you work your way across, step by step, as if carefully stepping from stone to stone in a deep stream. This also works to cross traffic on a bike, or make a left turn….. impressive to say the least.

Staying with the family of a young man named Son . Son is a classmate and friend of Nhien. Nhien is cousin to my friend Jane. So here I am. Son and his sister have studied English, so I am good practice for them.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Went on drive-about today, went to the main Catholic Church, two Buddhist Pagodas, the Independence Palace, and the War Artifacts Museum. It is strange to read about the Vietnam War from the enemy’s perspective. We (the ‘American aggressors’) were apparently interfering with the ‘simple reunification’ of the Vietnamese people. Tour guide for the day was Son’s friend Nam’s other friend Nam. Nam is a very common name in Vietnam. It literally translates to ‘man.’

Friday, 4 April 2008

Got up early to meet Son’s friend Nguyen at the bus station for Nha Trang, which is one of Vietnam’s top resort destinations. (Side note: I am in Vietnam watching boxing that was filmed in St. Louis, Missouri- with Devon Alexander, a STL native, he wears red shorts with an arch on them, and a cardinals hat.) Back to task, Nha Trang is a mere 10 hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh. At least the bus had air-con. Son had a busy schedule so Nguyen would be my tour guide for the weekend. Luckily her uncle lives in Nha Trang, so we had local knowledge awaiting us when we arrived.

About the bus ride. The differences between city traffic and country traffic are serious. First of all, in the city, you really never go fast enough to die. Sure, you could have a bus or dump truck drive over your head, but speed won’t kill you in the city. In the country, I am afraid there are many ways to die. Speed, oncoming traffic, etc. In the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh, the road resembles mayhem. Two lanes and a shoulder each way, luckily with a concrete divider. The scooters generally stay on the shoulder, but often they are in the middle of a traffic lane. This is where I saw my first dead person. Sure, I’ve seen dead folks at funerals. I’m talking, soul floating over its body, seeing the white light kind of crap, fresh dead. It’s not that someone said, “that person is dead”, but when a fourth of your grey matter is chunked out on the pavement, you don’t have to be a doctor to know the prognosis. Any fool on a passing bus can figure that one out. Maybe the other girl survived the scooter accident, she was being carried away. (Hopefully she did not have spinal injuries, because if she did, they got worse from being carried.) Somber start to the bus trip.

If the divided road was mayhem, the two lane country road would be AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. Why they bothered with a center line, I will never know. I did not see any wrecks or dead people on this stretch, but lets just say the bus driver probably violated every traffic law that exists in the US. Not only would he be in jail, but the bus company would be sued out of existence for reckless endangerment. Oncoming car when you want to pass- no problem- we’re a bus: bigger, we win, car gets out the way. It becomes a toss up with other buses, and semi trucks rule the hierarchy. But we made it alive…..and took the airplane back to Ho Chi Minh on Sunday. ( I think it was $75 US per person instead of $10 for the bus.)

After the steering wheel, the horn is apparently the most important feature of the bus. They play Vietemese TV really loud on the bus to drown out the sound of the horn. The road rules seem to be this: (a) the bigger you are, the more right of way you have. (b) see rule (a). The lines painted on the roads were really just a waste of paint. I could see no use for them at all.

Anyway, we arrived around 7:30 at night, caught two motorcycle taxis to Nguyen’s Uncle’s place, and were set. After a wonderful dinner, we loaded up with her cousins Kein and Nam, and went on a scooter tour of Nha Trang and had some coffee on the bay front. I stayed at the hotel next to Uncle Y’s house. Nguyen stayed with her family. The hotel was $10 per night. It had AC. It kicked ass.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Woke up at 5am for a swim with the cousins. Apparently they all overslept, since I did yoga on the sidewalk for 30 minutes while I waited for them. I gave up and went back to bed for a while. I did get some strange looks from the locals as they passed by at 5:15 in the morning to see this white guy stretching on the sidewalk. Anyhow, the plans for the day were (a) boat tour and (b) amusement island tour. Nam, Nguyen, and I took a tour boat to 3 different islands. The first island was a quick tour to feed the ostrich and deer, and look at the beach. The second island warranted a longer stay. They had the elephant show and the bear show. Also a flower garden, some sculptures, and canopy things where you could rest along the beach and relax. We had lunch on the island, talked to a dude from Calgary. You could also jet ski or para-sail on this island, but $10 per 10 minutes for the jet ski was too much for me, and I did not have a swim suit.

Also on the second Island, I rode an Ostrich. $1.25 US. Awesome.

Third island had monkeys. Lots of monkeys. A dude chases them away from the concession stand with a sling shot. Otherwise they steal food. It also had go-karts. As the locals do not drive many things with 4 wheels, I’ll just say my lap times impressed the crowd.

After the boat tour, we caught the a cab to the cable car, sky lift to Vinpearl Island. It is an island with a small amusement park and arcade. The ride over is very cool. Got a few good photos, played some arcade games. Kicked ass at air hockey, Korean dudes were in line to play a few shots against the American guy. With her air hockey skills, Redmond-Neal would be a superstar at this place. Unbeatable.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Had breakfast and some coffee on the sidewalk. Went to the main Pagoda in town. Very impressive structure. Many people there. Hit the market for some gift buying. Took the plane back to Ho Chi Minh. It was Nguyen’s first flight.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Son’s Father was my tour guide for the day. We communicate with basically no language. Eye contact, expressions, and body language. We took the scooter out of town on a highway that was divided to separate scooters from trucks, cars, and buses. That was a good thing. We stopped at his Uncle’s crocodile and snake farm for a quick look and a quick glass of water. Final destination was the Chu Chi Tunnel Complex. It was created during the war. Basically entire villages moved underground. They had something like 250 km of tunnels, dug by hand. Trap doors, booby traps, fighting trenches, underground kitchens, this place had it all. Shell of an M-41 US tank, bomb craters, etc. A lot of people died on the ground we walked. Vietnamese and American. It is very hard to see displays of booby traps that were set against our troops.

Then back to Ho Chi Minh for Son’s volleyball match. His University team played for the city championship against the other universities, and they won. It was some good volleyball.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Everyone was busy today, so I did walk-about in the city centre of Ho Chi Minh. Hit the Saigon River, the city museum- it had some more war stuff. It is really difficult to read about North Vietnams triumph in attacking Americans. What is amazing is the friendliness and openness of the Vietnamese people. The people I met harbored no adversity or hard feelings toward Americans. It demonstrates a challenge for all of us… to be tolerant and to forgive. On the same note though, it is interesting to spot “irregularities” in war facts presented by the Communist Government. They report our casualties to be almost twice what they actually were. The Government controls all media outlets. No Freedom of Speech here….

Said farewell to my new friends and caught the 8:05 plane to Bangkok. Airbus A340… big plane, but I was unimpressed with the build. It was noisy.


Blogger Matt Clipper said...

Great stories, Larry. Now I've gotta go back and look at the pictures. Yes, the A340 is a big plane (comparable to the B767), both of which I helped engineer the evacuation slides for. Let me know if you get a chance to fly on an A380 (and be sure to take some pictures of it for me). I worked on the Door 4 slide for the main deck of that plane. - Matt

April 9, 2008 3:13 PM  

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