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.


Manila, March 21-24

Due to my failure to really think about travel times and blind faith in my travel agent, I arrived in Manila at 04:30. That’s 4:30 am. For a small charge, I got to check into my hotel early. This was after a three hour flight that had the most uncomfortable seats ever… so I didn’t sleep a wink. A wise man once told me that a stripper is designed for one purpose- “to extract money from your wallet”. The same applies to the Manila Diamond Hotel. I thought it would be a good idea to stay 5-star in Manila, problem became that all the taxes, service charges, and other crap that is not included, you basically double your cost. I guess the idea is that if you can afford to stay five-star you should be able to afford paying luxury American prices for food and beverage…. Painful on the budget….. Painful. The Lonely Planet said this was the best of the best along the bay; if this was the best Manila has to offer, I won’t plan to go back. The staff was very friendly, it just seemed they were drowned in procedures and rules. The pool bar was under construction…the top story lounge and restaurant were closed for the holiday weekend.

I only did a one day walk-about in Manila, which was enough. Once you step across the street from that hotel, all bets are off. I walked about 6 kilometers, passing folks fishing and swimming in the bay, the American Embassy, a park, and some pretty run down looking buildings. Most of the buildings in Manila look run down… probably because they are. I wonder what was different after World War II- Japan was leveled but they bounced back to an economic powerhouse…… on the other hand, Manila was also leveled, but at least everyone is happy. I’m sure there are other parts of Manila that are very nice, I just didn’t see them.

Went to an area called Intramuros, which is the remains of an old Spanish fort and city within a wall. It was where all the wealthy folks lived back in the colonial days. The whole area was basically leveled when the Americans kicked the Japanese out at the end of WWII. Basically the only thing left of Manila was a church and some of the walls around Intramuros.

Fort Santiago was on the north end of Intramuros. It was first build in 1571. It was also basically destroyed in WWII. They rebuilt it in the 50’s. Some of the walls that survived still have potmarks from bullets and shrapnel. My first WWII battleground visit. Also included was a mass grave for about 600 people the Japanese starved and suffocated at the end of the war. Very somber experience. For those that ask why the US spends so much on its military- this is the answer- to prevent crap like that from happening….. Except our hands are always tied by the United Nations….but enough politics. Over 150,000 civilians were killed in the crossfire when we defeated the Japanese in 1945.

Boracay Island, March 24-April 2

I escaped Manila and headed south to a small island that Lonely Planet says is the “grand dame” of Philippine beach resorts. It is as close to paradise as I have found. Beautiful beach, palm trees, delicious food, and plentiful scuba diving. I took two PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) certification courses while on the island- Open Water and Advanced Open Water.

SCUBA Diving
This was the highlight, so it’s first. I have now spent something like 6.5 hours of this trip underwater. On two separate dives we went to 30 meters (100 feet) deep. I completed 10 dives, varying in length from about 25 minutes to 45 minutes. Most of the dives were in the 12-18 meter (36-54’) range. (Dive Photos) Open Water consisted of 4 dives + training sessions in the shallow water off of the beach. This class is where you learn to do things to be relaxed and not die underwater. Underwater examples:
(a) take off mask, put it back on, and get the water out of it,
(b) breath from a free flowing regulator (you ‘sip’ the air),
(c) take out your regulator underwater, switch to a spare,
(d) try to imitate your instructor and move without ever using your arms,
(e) How to ascend properly without making your lungs explode. (lung over-expansion injury)
(f) How to descend properly without having your eardrums implode from water pressure.
(g) Negative entry is the coolest… roll off the boat backwards ,with no air in your vest, exhale as you enter, and you sink. (Negative Buoyancy)
(h) Floating, zen like, at a constant depth by controlling how you breath.
You also get to see mass quantities of fish and coral

Advanced Open Water is where the really cool stuff starts:
#1 Underwater photography at Crocodile Island. Borrow the dive shops camera and take pictures under water. This dive site was primarily an underwater bluff, top around 12 meters and bottom around 20 meters. It was near vertical on one end and the slope got flatter towards the other end. The whole area was covered in coral.

#2 Navigation at Coral Garden. Limited amounts of coral to see, but that’s not why we were there. You use the compass to navigate a few courses underwater, determine your swimming ‘pace’ for navigation purposes… much like using your step pace above water, and amazingly accurate. Oh, and find your way back to the dive boat.

#3 Underwater Naturalist at Friday’s Reef. You take the underwater fish book and try to identify fish. Amazing variety of life underwater.

#4 Wreck Dive. They sunk an old freighter about 4 years ago just for diving purposes. It is about 100’ long and in about 95’ of water. To dive down and see this mass of steel appear as you swim closer, was possibly the coolest thing I’ve ever done… top 20 anyway….. You can swim through the bridge, look into the engine room, and swim in one cargo hold and out another. Very, very cool.

#5 Deep Dive. Dive to 100’ and learn how not to die. Oh and you look at fish and stuff also. But mainly you “enhance your calm” so you don’t die. I didn’t die- class passed.

#6 Dive for fun. Back to coral garden. New classmate, John from Dublin, was doing navigation, so I swam around and looked at things.


You fly to the town of Caticlan on a prop plane; about 14 rows of seats, two seats on each side of the aisle. The runway seems barely long enough for a turboprop, I don’t think a jet would have a chance here. Then you take a tricycle- mototorbike with a covered, very comfortable sidecar- to the dock. ($1). Then pump boat to the island ($1.75) Then a tricycle to the beach area ($2.50). Then you can walk the beach looking for “vacant room” signs, and you’re set. You could do this on your own, however, friendly “tourist assistants” are waiting at the small airport arrival area. You fill out a visitor registration card, and if you don’t have a place to stay (I didn’t) they go into action. Tessa whisked me through the above process bypassing lines everywhere, delivered me to the beach and helping me find a hotel in half the time it would have taken me otherwise. Which was cool, because it was freaking hot. Turns out Tessa and her fellow assistants are “commissionaires”- that is they get a commission off your hotel price. So, in effect, you pay extra for the convenience. The commissionaires also prowl the beach to sell you anything; scuba, jet ski, glass bottom boat, etc. Also, the vendors will try to sell you sunglasses even while you are wearing a pair already…. And watches- many times I passed on the deal of a lifetime on a new Rolex.

Other Irritations:
The first sign of trouble in paradise, came the first evening, when my eyes dried out and I got a sore throat from someone burning trash. It was quite a contrast; beautiful sunset, palm trees, and burning trash haze. I am from the country- I know what trash burning smells like. Luckily it was not a daily occurrence, the 24th must have been burn day.

Occasionally you find yourself downwind of the sewage treatment plant. They smell worse here than back home. Also, the bathroom in the hotel room had no trap in the floor drains, so the bathroom always reeked of sewer gas. Hmmmm.. methane, maybe I should have tried to blow it up. Anyhow, it took me a few days to figure this out and keep the bathroom door closed so the whole room did not smell of sewer. (and no, due to the configuration I could not cap or cover them both.)

Apparently the island is ‘overbuilt’ and the water supply can’t keep up. Typically I could only shower late at night, at other times in the day, there was either no water or not enough flow to let the wall mounted heater operate. Brian the dive instructor hasn’t had water to his house in months. Not enough pressure in the system to get water to my 2nd floor room or to his house on the hill.

Social Values:
Only irritating if it upsets you and you look for it or can’t ignore it. However, it is hard not to notice a 50 year old white dude walking down the beach with a 22 year old Filipino girl. Technically, prostitution is illegal in the Philippines, but it is basically overlooked. I guess the world’s oldest profession will always be around. If you’re curious, apparently the going rate is around 2000 pesos ($50USD) per night. You can also get ‘special massage’ for 300 – 400 per hour. To put it in perspective, minimum wage is about 196 pesos per 8 hours. (about $.63/hr). If ,as a single white guy, you sit at a bar, late at night, by yourself and don’t enter into conversation with other folks at the bar, it is almost guaranteed a working girl will approach you and start a conversation. They are always polite and easy to send away when you explain that you ‘don’t buy girl friends’. And apparently Eckroth is right- some of the girls are boys. Detection methods, per a local: (a) From distance- body shape, especially hip area; (b) interaction: voice, facial features, and (c) if all else fails, grab their balls. Fun to try and spot them on the beach. Applying the identification methods (a) and (b) above, we determined that a chick that had talked to me one night was actually a dude… weird stuff. Cute on first glance, but in reality, a dude. Dive instructor Brian has employed method (c) on occasion also.

Enough about the bad though, the good stuff

The primary beach area consists of about 40’ of white sand beach, 20’ to 30’ of palm trees, a sand walkway, and then storefronts, resorts, restaurants, etc. The walkway is about 8’ to 12’ wide and usually packed with people. Most of the restaurants set up tables under the palm trees so you can have a nice breeze and view of the beach. About 400’ away from the beach is the main paved road. It has no centerline; it is probably 12 or 14’ wide total. Between said road and the beach is a varying array of stuff. One area, called D*Mall, has various shops, restaurants, and even a small ferris wheel. Other areas are large resorts, bamboo shacks, brick houses with bamboo roofs, just an assortment of buildings. This part of the beach is probably a mile long. My hotel, which was really just a 3 story building with maybe 8 rooms, was on an alley perpendicular to the beach, about 50’ from the walkway. There was a convenience store where the alley interested the walkway- water, coke, beer, sunscreen, etc. Turn left out of the alley and the dive shop was about 45’ down the beach. Super convenient.

Food and drink:
Known as one of the priciest spots in the Philippines. Most meals were about what you would pay back home, unless you really shopped around. Filipino food tended to be slightly cheaper. An “American Breakfast” –eggs, toast, bacon, maybe potatoes, was around $5-$6. Throw in a mango shake for $2 and you’re set for most of the day until you have to eat again. Local beers ranged from about $.60 at the “convenience shop” next to the dive shop to $3 at some of the fancy bars. Imported beers and liquors were pricier than back home. The best spot to drink was in front of the dive shop. After diving, we’d pull out the plastic chairs from the shop, buy beers from next door, and watch the people walk by.

....or watch dudes cut down a palm tree with a machete. They used a machete to chop down about a 10” diameter tree. And then they cut it into pieces so they could carry it off. I saw a lot of manual labor. About the only power tool I saw or heard was a welder. A lot of chieseling and hand sawing going on.

Had some great Filipino food, I won’t even try to name it all.

Met people from New York, Minnesota, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Philippines. A lot of dudes from NZ and AUS came on holiday and stayed. Unfortunately, not a lot of single American girls traveling alone on Boracay. Even fewer cute ones. Then, on my last night, with a flight in 5 hours and packing still to do, I noticed her noticing me- the ever elusive, highly attractive blonde girl. Nothing to do but share a smile and that brief moment of prolonged eye contact, and keep walking. Had to pack for Vietnam…..

When I was packing, I briefly thought about staying. I thought about staying when the alarm was going off at 4:51am. ….maybe I’ll go back and be a dive instructor.