16 days in Vietnam30-Aug-02
16 Days in Vietnam was enough. But more on that shortly.
Since I last wrote I've been all over the place. I spent two very enjoyable weeks on the great island of Koh Chang in Thailand with Nancy... then headed back to Laos for a few weeks to take COOKING LESSONS, yes, I took three half-day lessons learning how to cook traditional and fusion Lao food. Yummy! Can't wait to practise when I get home. Along the way in Laos I had yet more adventures and met some new friends.
One evening I discovered an entire ant colony had climbed into my courier bag! I found the massive Queen Ant stuck to one of the straps outside, 50x bigger than the rest... and I had been wondering why I was getting bitten by so many tiny ants on my arms, down my back, in my hair and even in my ears... yuck! I don't know why it happened, perhaps I just sat in the wrong place, late at night against a tree near the river, in the company of friends.
Everywhere in Laos takes at minimum of 10-hours to get from point A to point B. On such bumpy roads my butt gets very sore! After a few 10-hour trips, I encountered yet more Lao mud!! No Russian Army trucks this time, it was a landslide along a major route and it took more than 36 hours to get to the capital city of Vientiane. And this was after letting my wallet do the talking. We had arrived at the scene in the afternoon, and most people watched the sunset as one man with a shovel dug away, hundreds of others looking on. People walked around all night, slept on the crowded bus, watched the sunrise, high-noon came and the heat of the afternoon the next day and still the bus didn't move. I know this only because I met up with some of the people on the bus later on. :-) They paid $$ to get out of there too, but wasted a day while they lived in crowded dreamland.
But on to Vietnam...
Why? I'd met some really nice locals, but also lots more unfriendly and dishonest Vietnamese people. After nine months of travel through India and Southeast Asia it was really disappointing. The worst I've seen. Much of the time I felt like a walking money belt, which is not a new experience but never has it been this obvious. They want your money, they want U.S. Dollars and they think it grows on trees for foreigners. Otherwise they don't really want you there at all (or so it seems).
For me one of the highlights of Vietnam was all the other foreigners I met along the way. Great people from around the world who I kept seeing and running into. In Vietnam there is just two ways to travel: north-to-south, or south-to-north. It's a skinny country. You see the same people all the time.
When you go off the beaten track, just asking for an English menu in a restaurant means you'll pay at least double what the locals pay, sometimes more. Foreigners pay more for everything -- ripping us off has become part of their laws and government policy. I've never experienced more racial discrimination anywhere than in Vietnam. It's tolerable but it just pisses me off. You learn to accept it and find ways enjoy yourself anyway. At least it's a beautiful country to see, and there are many fun things to do.
Just don't argue with your hotel owners, or they'll kick you out in the middle of the night, even after they've taken much of your money in "service fees" for something you didn't even want to buy. I witnessed it happen to some of my friends, who ended up very upset and frustrated. And the amazing part is that it was the second time it happened to them. First in Saigon and then in Hanoi! Eek.
But I can say these nice things about Vietnam: you can get very cheep beer in the streets. Only $0.15 a glass! And about the people, when they're nice they're really nice. I had a great tour of a small village in Hoi An, where we had tea with many locals and shared some beers at an impromtu party they invited us to. It was a great day, another highlight for me (picture attached). Also, along the way I had some shirts tailor-made, they do an amazing job with fabrics, and I even had some shoes custom-made for me (though I managed to forget them on the bus the very next day). Nice beaches, good snorkeling, good food (my favorite), and very snazzy hotels for the price.
Okay, just a bit more to say. We all know the Vietnamese people have had a difficult past: I went to the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and saw some of the most hideous pictures ever: terrible Agent Orange victims, still-born babies in glass gars and fermeldahide, and a picture of an American solder holding up a decapitated head and hanging body parts, smiling and laughing. It was too much and I had to leave. What a sad way to start out my trip through Vietnam.
So my feelings on Vietnam are mixed. Take the good with the bad. It *looks* much like India: crazy traffic, crappy roads, dusty towns and lots of pollution. But somehow it lacks India's charm, for me...
I took a flight from Hanoi to Calcutta, and I'm back in India now (!!). Call me crazy but I just want to sit near a friendly beach and finish writing my book. No more sightseeing, I've got work to do!
That's it for now. Enjoy the pics. The second one is of me inside one of the civilian tunnels near the DMZ between north/south Vietnam, where people lived during the war. It was amazing for me to visit this because I write about a group of people who live underground, and yet I had never been through tunnels like this before!
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