Getting Around in Vietnam

Posted in Mixed Nuts on January 3rd, 2009 by MadDog
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In Hanoi, I was following Lonely Planet’s guide carefully. The atmosphere when I was there several years ago was slightly intimidating. There were cops or military looking people on every street corner. I was careful where I pointed my camera. I was also uncertain about travel methods. Nobody could tell me anything. I stayed away from cyclos and motorbikes. Therefore, getting around in Hanoi consisted mostly of walking if it wasn’t too far or taking a taxi if it was.

When I left Hanoi, I decided to take a train to Hoi An. I’ve always preferred train travel to anything else. It’s usually cheaper, you get to see more, and it’s not so tiring. I’d take two days on a train to ten hours on a plane anytime.

The train from Hanoi to Hoi An was an overnight run. Foreigners could not travel by coach, but had to take a compartment. I thought this was a good deal until I realized, upon boarding, that I shared the compartment with three other people, none of whom spoke English.

Fortunately, there was plenty of interesting scenery out the window to keep me amused:

Shooting through the window - a train tunnel on the way from Hanoi to Hoi An

At each little station, there were vendors selling all sorts of snack items. I tried a few, but was disappointed. Since I couldn’t read anything, each package contained a little surprise. I was unable to even recognise most of the items. Even some items that looked like candy tasted like dead fish. If fact, after a while, everything tasted like fish:

Lots of goodies at the train stations, but if you can't read, the packets are full of surprises

By morning, I was pretty hungry. A little old woman came down the isle with a big trolley carrying a giant cauldron of vegetable soup. It was delicious; I motioned for more. She gave me a frown, but ladled it out anyway.

I noticed a guy in uniform walking up and down the isle in the dining/bar carriage who seemed to be eyeing me with suspicion. He stopped and sat down in front of me and gave me that blank look that says, “I’m waiting for you to explain yourself.”

The engineer of the train from Hanoi to Hoi An, Vietnam

I did what any cagey old hippy would do. I handed him a cigar (you can see him asserting possession of it). As it turned out, he was the engineer of the train. He was taking a break and checking for suspicious persons. I guess I was a standout.

He turned out to be quite friendly. He even suggested that I might return to the locomotive with him and snap some photos. We talked for a while and then he got up to leave. I started to follow him. He said, “Where are you going?” When I said I was following him to the front of the train, he said, “NO! That is forbidden!” Go figure.

After my stay in Hoi An, I decided that the train wasn’t for me. I was running out of time anyway. Taking a plane would give me an extra day in Saigon.

As I waited in the airport lounge, I took a shot at some American women travelling together. A little conversation wouldn’t hurt, I thought. I realized that I hadn’t had a genuine conversation in English for over a week. I think I frightened them, because they absolutely refused to talk to me:

The airport lounge at Hoi An

I continued to gather my courage to get on a Vietnamese airliner. I had no idea what to expect. When I walked out on the tarmac and saw the plane, I thought, “That doesn’t look so bad.”

Vietnam Airlines - "We're Not As Scary As We Sound"

It got me safely to Saigon.

After a couple of days walking around and taking taxis again, I was tired. I must have walked a hundred miles already in Hanoi. I noticed this one cyclo driver who stuck around the entrance of my hotel. Unlike others, he never hassled me for business. I stood close by him for a few minutes and finally said something stupid like, “Nice cyclo, man.” He introduced himself and pulled out a packet of endorsements, photos, emails, and letters from probably twenty former clients. I was so impressed (and tired) that I decided to give him a try:Quang, the cyclo driver - Saigon

His name is Quang. It was the best decision I made while travelling in Vietnam. He took me anywhere that I wanted to go, day or night – at least the places he said were safe. He got me good deals on things that I bought. I know he went back for his cut later, but the prices were still better than I could haggle. He found some guys that were selling Cuban cigars for a decent price. He said that he was happy to have me for a client because I didn’t ask him to take me to prostitutes. I guess he gets a lot of that.

After the trial day, I had about four days left. I made a deal with Quang to haul me around for the next four days and paid him twice what he asked. We were both very happy with the arrangement.

Quang was one of the millions that were forced to leave the city completely deserted after the “American War” had been won. By the way, don’t bother to see it any other way while you’re in Vietnam. You’ll be all alone. He was not allowed to come back to the city for five years.

Here you can see my somewhat-less-tired feet , My Lonely Planet guide, and imagine Quang peddaling like crazy behind me:

Travelling in style in Saigon

I’d love to get back to Vietnam again someday. There’s so much that I missed.

When I’m in Saigon, I’m going to find Quang.

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Hoi An – Remember China Beach?

Posted in Mixed Nuts on December 24th, 2008 by MadDog
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Nobody could live through the 60’s and early 70’s without hearing about a lot of exotic Southeast Asian places. As a primary school student, I remember first hearing of American soldiers dying in “Indochina.”

In 1950, thirty-five US soldiers arrived in South Vietnam as part of a training program operated by the US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). Their mission was ostensibly to instruct Vietnamese troops how to blast their wicked communist brothers to bloody smithereens with the shiny new US weapons that they were receiving.

Twenty-five years later . . .

Well, we all know what happened. I remember watching the last Americans escaping in disarray from the top of the US Embassy while thousands of doomed supporters desperately scaled the fence to try to hitch a ride to . . . anywhere but there. They had been magically transformed from “allies” to “collaborators” with the stroke of a pen – probably a very expensive one.

It was called “Peace With Honour.”

I wonder how many Americans realize that the “Vietnam War”, which the Vietnamese, of course, call “The American War”, lasted 25 years.

By the way, the area we call Vietnam today has been overrun at one time or another by just about everybody capable of mounting an invasion. (The Chinese first invaded in 200 BC.) Apparently, it’s prime real-estate. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese have eventually kicked out every invader. Remember Dien Bien Phu? The Vietnamese have had to fight for their identity and independence since day one.

Okay, enough of that.

Hoi An sits sleepily about 35 kilometres south of Da Nang, a place about which Americans have heard far too much. During the 17th to the 19th centuries, Hoi An was a major international seaport. Today, it’s primarily a tourist destination. If you crave exotic scenery, it’s hard to beat. The Hoi An footbridge over the Bun River is an appealing example:

Footbridge over the Bun River in Hoi An Vietnam

The riverside is wall-to-wall humanity. Small motorboats crowd the shoreline:

River boat in Hoi An Vietnam

The red flags with the yellow star sprouted like poppies. I’d arrived during a major national holiday. Political announcements and slogan banners were everywhere – the usual “Workers Unite!” stuff, I suppose:

Banner in Hoi An Vietnam

Affluence isn’t much in evidence around Hoi An. As near as I could determine, this is an “average” domestic situation:

An average domestic situation in Hoi An Vietnam

Not posh, by most standards, but liveable.

I’d arrived by train (more about that another day). I took a taxi to my hotel. Wouldn’t you know it; the poor driver suffered a puncture on the way. Fortunately, it was only a tire:

A punctured tire in Hoi An Vietnam

Not so very long ago an entirely different kind of puncture would have been common.

I don’t remember the name of the hotel at which I rested for a couple of days. I do however remember that we had our very own elephant:

My very own elephant - Hoi An Vietnam

One thing that I noticed about that particular elephant was that it always seemed to be in a hurry. I thought that elephants mostly ambled. This one sprinted.

A last war note:

Hoi An is not far from China Beach. Americans will remember the place for two reasons. First, it was an in-country rest and recreation base operated by the military. It was terribly convenient. I’ve been told that you could get a picnic lunch at the beach and then hop on a Huey and head right back into combat.

The second reason that Americans might remember China Beach is from the horrible, simpering sitcom/drama bearing the same name that appeared on American TV from 1988 to 1991. I remember the few episodes that I watched as being nearly unbearable.

The war was bad enough – even from a distance.

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