Foreign travel often has a tendency to explode our assumptions and turn everything we take for granted upside down. What follows is a brief glimpse into our journey to Vietnam, which did exactly that.
The airport in Ho Chi Minh City, still known as Saigon to most, is intimidating for even the most seasoned traveler. Our first harassment is the irritating ‘I’ve-got-you-by-the-gonads-and-don’t-like-foreigners’ persona of the emotionally distant uniforms working the Department of Immigration. Biting our tongues, we suppress an urge to explain to these condescending bureaucrats, far too fascinated with their own importance, how to combine parts of their anatomy which have never before been introduced!
Once vindicated by a passport stamp, we struggle through a sea of touts swarming us like buzzards on a carcass. They see us as ‘walking wallets’ and are so aggressive I’m not even sure they could be deterred with a can of bear spray! Escaping the frenzy, we head for the backpackers area of town and luckily find an oasis of calm called CAM Mini-Hotel. Families are sitting in the outside alley consuming exotic smelling meals in a blur of chop-sticks and listening to the birdsong of caged songbirds brought outside to accompany them.
Saigon’s epic traffic is an astounding assortment of Darwin finalists, and crossing the Olympic-class crazy roads has our decision making process closely resembling those of a psychotic squirrel! This means putting ourselves in harm’s way by stepping out in front of tight as teeth traffic and crossing without stopping.
Horns are known as the Vietnamese brake pedal, and as all Asia visitors Asia learn, the most important working part of any vehicle! Maniacal drivers, under the impression they were inoculated against accidents at birth, foster a mind-set that horn-blowing sheathes them like a prophylactic from harm. My paranormal powers of deduction suggest that they all must have been dropped on their frontal lobes as small children!
Running on the choked streets would be suicidal, and the brutal mugginess responsible for our perspiration incontinence is so bad I swear people walk out into traffic just to feel a breeze! Combined with the fact I believe the Vietnamese word for pedestrian is ‘target’, I’ve resorted to boring workouts indoors, by running in place on the bed in our room; all to try and keep an edge for my upcoming cross country ultra-run.
Today after visiting a bank, we are involved in a frightening ‘drive-by snatching’ while crossing the main road. Two thieves on a motorcycle roar up and grab Christine’s money belt, actually ripping it in half. Miraculously, my ’shero’ manages to catch it with her elbow, forcing them to abort the robbery or risk their bike toppling over. They quickly speed away, leaving our hearts thudding in our chests at this dangerously close call; as the money belt contains all her money, visa, passport, and Traveler Checks. Nice save darling! Just another serious reminder that in the verminous city of Saigon, danger is never far away!
Home to over 7,000,000 people, the city abounds with contrasting images. Beautiful French architecture; horribly deformed beggars; wonderful little cafes; streets reeking of human excrement; steaming fresh croissants; rats in the streets; ladies in elegant aodais; conical paddy hats; preposterous bicycle loads; wonderful jack o’ lantern smiles; suffering third world dogs all mange and rib; exotic foods; nagging cyclo drivers; gut wrenching war museum; coconut carts; aged street vendors; exotic smells; curious back alleyways; snake wine; choking pollution; roving massage bikes; squid carts; five on a motorcycle; photocopied book sellers; monks with toques; clogged sidewalks; shoeshine boys; caged snakes; kids selling gum; duck-topped buses; mobile bike garden shops; tendon-snapping squats; and barbaric markets where dinner writhes, wiggles, croaks, clucks, and barks! Yes, around every corner there seems to be some exciting new stimuli playing out as accessories to a regular day in the conundrum that is Saigon.
In Saigon, the name ‘sidewalk’ is somewhat of a misnomer. Colossally cluttered and virtually impassable, they should, even on a good day, rate no better than ‘side-stumbles’! Taking up real estate is a sea of motorbikes, food carts, and barber shops, and adding to their clutter, locals are cooking meals and sitting on itty-bitty plastic stools with a severe degree of dwarfism, while getting leg-less on snake wine or beer; nursing the delusion that they are better looking, champion boxers, or famous philosophers!
In Asia the roads are always a concern, with the driving being ten pounds of stupid in a five pound bag. In Vietnam, it also appears to be the most popular contact sport, as last year stats indicate 26,874 traffic accidents, with 10,548 killed and 30,175 injured; equating to 73 accidents, with 110 killed or injured every day of the year! Perhaps the Vietnamese believe Nirvana may be obtained through the head-on crash?
A few hours from Saigon, in the river-land mixed town of Cai Be, we explore by bicycle the rhythm of daily life in the delta area of the mighty Mekong River; flowing 4800 km from Tibet through China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and finally here in Vietnam where it empties into the South China Sea.
After a week and a half of madness in Saigon we’re yearning for the scent of the sea, and head for the tiny but magical Phu Quoc Island; 15 km off the coast of Cambodia. A bonus is there are likely less than a dozen foreigners on the entire island. Checking in at a hotel our passports are immediately confiscated and taken to the police station. While their paranoia strikes us as odd, we have no choice in the matter, and are just keeping our fingers crossed they’ll be returned when we leave.
Exploring the tranquil island on a rented a motorcycle, we stop is at the remote but spectacular Sao Beach. Only one local family lives here and we’re greeted by the kids. We offer them some tic-tac mints, and showing them they are to eat, they cautiously put them in their mouths. Bursting into ear to ear enamel, they have now become our merry little tour guides, and escort us around the stunning beach they call home.
We come to a road that actually crosses an airfield, and with no planes in sight we seize the opportunity to roar up and down the runway on our crotch-rocket. After all, how often to you get a chance to cruise with knees to the breeze on an airport runway?
Phu Quoc’s ginormous bug residents include one looking like a furry egg with wings. This is a good reminder that it’s best to keep my mouth shut while driving, because if one of these bad boys should happen to whap me in the ‘chiclets’ there’s a very good chance I might never whistle again!
The island is also an opportunity to appreciate some slothful down time. We lounge around Saigon Phu Quoc Hotel’s lovely pool, enjoying fresh fish dinners out on our balcony at day’s end while absorbing the sparkling horizon of a sea illuminated by fire-lit lanterns on the gaggle of squid boats out plying their trade.
Returning to Saigon we are immediately lamenting abandoning our island stay. In sharp contrast to the mellow vibe of the island, we’re taken aback by the Saigon War Museum’s horrific pictures of the atrocities and savagery committed during the gruesome ‘American War’ which killed some two million Vietnamese!
Nearby in a shoemakers shop, I’m studying what appears to be a crocodile belt, and ask the owner ‘what animal?’ to confirm my theory. With marginal English he replies ‘lizard’; then ‘chicken’! I shake my head, so he runs to the back of the shop and proudly drags out the full skin of a crocodile skin for my inspection. I happily swap local dong for my new ‘lizard-chicken’ belt, leaving us both delighted with the transaction.
Christine and I hook up with the Saigon Hash House Harriers for a stimulating run out in the countryside that takes us past paddy-hatted farmers busy with daily tasks; including wading waist deep in mud and impossibly catching eels by hand, plucking lotus roots, and tending ducks in the gorgeous green rice fields.
The run finishes at an old abandoned French fort, and once all runners have returned, the absurd ritual known as’ The Circle’ commences. This involves the Hash Grand Master selecting Hashers for numerous Hash sins; both real and imagined. The good news for sinners is all ‘sins’ are punishable by chugalugging a beer; the bad news is it’s from a hand held urinal!
Drinking far more than enough to compromise our ability to operate machinery, we engage in a silly beer-induced sing-a-long of filthy Hash songs, which helps shorten our beer-binging bus ride back to Saigon. Having put serious thought into the matter, I just don’t think being an adult is ever going to work for me!
A couple of weeks later, it’s time to let Saigons be Saigons. We bus 7 hours north through mountain pine forests to Dalat, surprised and rather peeved by the highland’s chopper-chattering cold weather. It takes but a solitary night with frigid digits before we’re already fumbling for our next bus fare, and spotting a bus bound for Nha Trang’s promise of warmth, we’re all over it like freckles on a redhead!
As if the Vietnamese language and customs aren’t enough of a stressor, we also have the issue of foods we don’t recognize. Markets with the bouquet of a wolverine’s armpit offer unrecognizable meaty things looking like leftovers from an organ donor clinic; a likely source for botulism that would surely have us shackled to the porcelain singing through our sphincter.
Sitting in a restaurant in Nha Trang, similar thoughts occur when looking at a menu offering a strangeness of items that seem to transcend logic, and would be capable of putting even a slaughterhouse janitor off his lunch:
- Marrow and goat’s brains
• Goat’s penis & breast with oriental medicine in bowl
• Snake head in steamed pot
• Stuffed swimming bladder
• Grilled salamander
• Jellyfish mixed with wild boar
• Goat’s blood wine or Goat penis wine
Eluding logical explanation, my mind suddenly goes A.W.O.L., and to Christine’s horror, I order the goat penis wine. Moments later, with my liver aquiver, a full on shiver, and my esophagus traumatized for life, I immediately lose my fondness for goats! What on earth was I thinking? I can only hope this bleating buffoonery will become a ‘more-humorous-in-the-retelling-than-it-was-in-the-experiencing’ anecdote!
Out on a morning run I encounter a guy pedaling a cyclo; a type of transport looking like an oversize stroller. He seems eager to race so I take up his challenge, infusing my strides with a little giddy-up to ensure there’s no chance of a photo finish. Later on the same run I’m handed a flower by young girl as I run past, so I stop and put the posy in my hair as she tries to muffle her girlish giggles in her hands. Her gift of a flower is a lovely gesture, and another great example of why I like to get the feel countries through my feet.
After a few blissful beach days we’re once again prisoners of the dreaded bus. During our 13 hour journey to Hoi An it seems we’ve lost part of our hearing due to the repetitive ear-bleeding blasts of the air horn. It’s either that, or because of our kidneys relocating to the vicinity of our ears, courtesy of being shaken like a Bond martini over the mean roads with potholes so large they can likely be seen from space!
The diminutive riverside town of Hoi An has a charming ‘elegantly shabby’ feel to it with an unhurried vibe. People stroll or pedal bikes past ancient pale yellow houses draped in bougainvillea, and the morning light naturally lifts our mood as it bounces off the walls and gives the impression the city is bathed in sunshine. Hoi An’s specialty is its countless tailor shops making quality clothes that leave a happy wallet; so of course we can’t resist a purchase or three as we ‘thread’ our way through the historic old town.
Our timeline dictates that once again it’s time for – you guessed it; a loathsome bus! Visibility is minimal across the cloud-swathed Hai Van Pass, appropriately known as The Pass of Clouds, and we implore the mountain Gods to be kind while crossing over the 21 km mountain pass with treacherous switchbacks and alarming cliff drop offs.
Finally our jangled nerves get a break when the bus stops at Marble Mountain, where locals carve colossal blocks of marble by hand. Time-wise, the severe road conditions have not exactly produced a podium standing result. It has taken us 6 ½ hours to travel 140 km; a pathetic average speed of less than 14 mph!
We have now completed over 1,000 tedious kilometers by crap Vietnamese buses; traveling up the spine of the country all the way from Ho Chi Minh north to Hue. The wearisome bus journey has been harsh, and we gingerly exit like a couple of arthritic crabs. Seemingly designed for invertebrates, these rusted relics should carry some kind of warning for anything, or anyone, with a backbone longer than a toothpick!
In Hue, a psyche-sapping rain buckets down, which I suppose shouldn’t be a surprise, since the area is a known gulag of fog and rain 300 days of the year! The more serious problem is we can’t find a guide willing to take us to Khe Sahn and stay overnight. Apparently locals are fearful of the area because of ‘ghosts’ from the war. This is a disaster, as it’s now looking like my attempt to run across Vietnam may be in jeopardy.
After two days of struggle we think we have resolved our dilemma, and optimistically pay a visit to the town’s market to purchase a ‘paddy hat’ for Christine to wear during my run. The lightweight conical hat is a classic symbol of Vietnam; helpful as a both a sunscreen and as an umbrella to shed away any rain. On the very morning we are set to leave, we’re told our plans to hire a guide in Dong Ha have failed!
I am immensely distraught over the situation. However, Mr. Huy, one of the staff at the hotel who speaks English, comes to our rescue. He somehow garners both a car and driver, and then agrees to accompany us on the trip himself to act as our interpreter. This turns out to be an immense stroke of good fortune!
Account of my run across Vietnam: http://www.markcolegrave.com/uncategorized/2000-run-across-vietnam/
The morning after getting out of hospital, I’m still quite shaky but ever so grateful to be alive. The doctors and our interpreter are very much in our thoughts. Because of my current condition I’m unable to walk any decent distance, so Christine and I decide to hire a pair of cyclo drivers near the market to pedal us out to the Forbidden Purple City and Thien Mu Pagoda.
Upon returning, the predatory peddlers try to fleece us out of almost twice the agreed price. Resenting their tactics I unfurl a digitus-medius, accompanied by a torrent of profanity that tumbles from mouth my before my brain has a chance to put its pants on! A nasty mouth fight ensues, but despite their threatening gestures, we refuse to capitulate and walk away, leaving the moral pygmies to search out easier prey. Fortunately, it seems the two shitbirds have lost their backbone as well as their principles.
Back at the hotel, Christine somehow manages to cut her toe, so I rummage around in a side compartment of my shaving kit in search of a bandage for her. At the very top of my fright-o-meter meter, I find a rolled joint left over from a camping trip back home. I’m horrified by this careless oversight on my part, realizing that for the last few weeks I’ve unknowingly been a drug smuggler in Vietnam!
With the humble herb in hand, I bolt to the bathroom to eradicate it. However, having had the little fellow as a traveling companion for such a great distance, it somehow seems cruel to have its life end in the watery grave of a toilet. So, in lieu of death by drowning I arrange for a cremation ceremony! Switching on the bathroom fan, I watch the incriminating evidence go up in smoke. Then, in the off chance any vented fumes may find a nosey nostril to nest in, we show the hotel the soles of our shoes by vacating the crime scene.
We breathe a huge sigh of relief, recognizing how lucky I’ve been after carrying the dangerous contraband in my backpack, undetected through major airports and over a thousand kilometers overland from our start in Saigon. The communist government in Vietnam takes a rather dim view of drugs, and has some of the most severe penalties in the world!
Anxious about the ongoing chest pains from my ultra-marathon, we decide to return home early to seek medical attention. Sadly, this means abandoning our intended visit to Laos; a country we were quite keen to explore. After catching a flight back to Hanoi, we learn our first opportunity to leave the country is not for another six days, and so until then, we will just hangout enjoying the vibe of Vietnam’s capital city.
Hanoi’s hub is Hoan Kien Lake, where smoochy young couples canoodle on the lakeshore under gorgeous mimosa trees dressed in Christmas lights. Large tethered balloons hover overhead and a picturesque temple appears to magically float on the murky lake, making it a lovely oasis in the city’s mayhem.
With an American couple we’ve recently met, we travel to the Perfume Pagoda which involves 60 km of road plus another 1 ½ hours in a rowboat on the Yen River. The car’s horn works; but not wipers, shock absorbers, or brakes. Actually I’m not sure of the latter, as they were never put to the test over the entire trip! We try to adjust our eyes to the fleeing landscape as the driver lurches through traffic like pylons on a race course. Our guides name is pronounced Miss Chance, and the driver is Mr. Zoom, and we can’t help but chortle at the suitability of their names; I mean come on, you just can’t make this kind of stuff up!
Our experience leads us to believe we have finally deduced the Vietnamese rules of the road, which are;
- When driving anywhere in Vietnam, overtaking is mandatory.
- Every moving vehicle is required to overtake every other moving vehicle, irrespective of whether it has just overtaken you.
- Overtaking should only be undertaken in suitable conditions, such as in the face of oncoming traffic, on blind corners, and preferably in the center of villages or cities.
- No more than two inches should be allowed between your vehicle and the one you are passing – and not more than one inch in the case of bicycles or pedestrians.
The Yen River scenery is gasp-inducing limestone karsts similar to those in Halong Bay, and we row through a waterscape of gravestones, temples, tangles of water hyacinth plants, and flamingo pink water lilies. Locals in shallow flat-bottomed boats just inches above the water use poles electrified by a car battery to paralyze and catch fish; making the river’s visual splendor not only stunning, but often even shocking!
My chest is still giving trouble as we reach the Buddhist pagodas and shrines built into Huong Tich Mountain, so I let the others go on ahead while I wait at Thien Tru Temple, enjoying the solitude of this spiritual place and ruminating on our travels through the mosh-pit of awesomeness that is Vietnam.
On Christmas Eve, Christine and I splash out at a lakeside restaurant beside Hoan Kien Lake called Mama Rosa’s. After a fabulous feast we are relaxing and sampling concoctions of ginseng and licorice wines with the owner, when suddenly an unknown local dressed up in a Santa Claus outfit walks in off the street and directly approaches our table.
‘Santa’ presents only the two of us with a small gift wrapped package, then quickly jingles a small bell and buh-bye’s us! Curiously, we open his unforeseen present and find a pair of ceramic shoes smaller than a hotel bar of soap. We have no idea what prompted this generosity, but it is a lovely way to cap off the evening. The gift of the shoes seems such an amazing and appropriate coincidence given the saga of my epic run across the country.
Our extraordinary journey through Vietnam has been incredibly intoxicating, leaving us infatuated with an awe-inspiring country we had previously only related to the terrible war. Out hats are off to these warm and gracious people whose resilience shines on, despite the many misfortunes they have endured. During these splendid travels, Christine and I have accrued a montage of magic memories, along with a profound sense of achievement from conquering personal challenges.
This trip was an opportunity for reflection, and a chance to re-evaluate our life priorities; with our dramatic experience on the run giving us a greater appreciation of our lives and each other. For that Vietnam, you have our eternal gratitude.
Mark Colegrave 2000