Foreign travel often has a tendency to explode our assumptions; turning 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 hardened traveler. Our first encounter is the irritating treatment of emotionally distant, ‘I’ve-got-you-by-the-gonads-and-don’t-like-foreigners’ persona of the uniforms working the dreaded Department of Immigration. Biting our tongues, we suppress the urge to explain to these far too fascinated with their own importance bureaucrats from Hell, how to combine parts of their anatomy which have never before been introduced!
After finally receiving our clearance, we swim our way through a sea of touts swarming like buzzards on a carcass as they see us as ‘walking wallets’, with everybody wanting a piece of the action! Escaping the frenzy, we head for the backpackers area of town and find a quiet little oasis of calm called CAM Mini-Hotel. Families sit in the alley outside consuming exotic smelling meals in a blur of chop-sticks, and we welcome the melodious trills of the caged songbirds they’ve brought outside to accompany them.
Saigon’s traffic is truly ten pounds of stupid in a five pound bag, and crossing the Olympic-class crazy roads has our decision making skills closely resembling those of a squirrel! We must gather up the courage to put ourselves in harm’s way by stepping out in front of endless, tight as teeth traffic, and walk without stopping.
Horns are known as the Vietnamese brake pedal, and as all visitors to Asia learn, the most important working part of any vehicle! Maniacal drivers seem under the impression they are inoculated against accidents at birth and foster a mind-set that horn-blowing sheathes them, like a prophylactic, from harm.
Running on the choked streets would be suicidal, as I believe the Vietnamese word for pedestrian is ‘target’! Accordingly, I’ve resorted to running in place on the bed in our room to try and keep an edge for my upcoming ultra-run. Another valid reason to run indoors is the brutal mugginess outside, responsible for our perspiration incontinence. It’s so bloody hot I think people walk out into the traffic just to feel a breeze!
Today after visiting a bank, we’re 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! A 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; photocopy 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 urge-to-purge 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.
We soon learn that in Saigon, the name ‘sidewalk’ is somewhat of a misnomer as they’re colossally cluttered with motorbikes, food carts, and barber shops. Then there is the locals, who also love to spill out onto them, cooking meals and sitting on itty-bitty plastic stools with a severe degree of dwarfism; getting leg-less on snake wine or beer and thinking themselves better looking, champion boxers, and famous philosophers! Yes, sidewalks are virtually impassable, and even on a good day rate no better than ‘side-stumbles’!
During our many tours of Asia the roads are always a concern. Driving appears to be Vietnam’s most popular contact sport, with the traffic insanity worsening each year. Last year stats indicate 26,874 traffic accidents with 10,548 killed and 30,175 injured; equating to 73 accidents and 110 killed or injured every day of the year! Perhaps the Vietnamese believe that 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 on bicycle the rhythm of daily life in the delta area of the mighty Mekong River; flowing 4800 km from Tibet through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and finally here in the rfiver delta where it empties into the South China Sea.
After ten days of madness in Saigon, and desiring a hefty dose of ‘Vitamin SEA’, we head for the tiny but magical Phu Quoc Island; 15 km off the coast of Cambodia. A bonus is that there are likely less than a dozen foreigners on the entire island. Upon checking in to a hotel our passports are immediately confiscated and taken to the police station, and while their paranoia strikes us as odd, we have no choice in the matter and are keeping our fingers crossed they’ll be returned when we leave.
Exploring the tranquil island on a rented a motorcycle, our first stop is the remote but spectacular Sao Beach. Only one local family lives here and we’re greeted by the kids, to whom we offer some tic-tac mints. Showing them they’re to eat, they cautiously put them in their mouths, and bursting into ear to ear enamel, now become our merry little tour guides, escorting us around the stunning beach they call home.
Driving about on a rented motorbike we come to a Phu Quoc’s road actually crossing an airfield, so 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?
The island’s ginormous bug residents include one that looks like a furry egg with wings, reminding me it’s best to keep my mouth shut while riding; 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 enjoy some slothful down time. We lounge at the lovely Saigon Phu Quoc Hotel’s pool, enjoying fresh fish dinners outside on our balcony at day’s end, absorbing the sparkling horizon of a sea illuminated by the fire-lit lanterns on a gaggle of squid boats out plying their trade.
Returning to Saigon, we are immediately lamenting abandoning the quietness of our island stay. Calling in at the Saigon War Museum, we’re quickly taken aback by 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 a full crocodile carcass for my inspection. With a smile I swap some 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 run happening out into the countryside. The pretty run takes us past paddy-hatted locals busy with daily tasks like 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 absurdity of a 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 that all ‘sins’ are punishable by chugalugging a beer; the bad news – it’s from a hand held urinal!
Drinking far more than enough to compromise our ability to operate machinery, a silly beer-induced sing-a-long of filthy Hash songs helps shorten our bus ride back to Saigon. Having put some serious thought into the matter, I just don’t think that being an adult is ever going to work for me!
After two weeks, it’s time to let Saigons be Saigons, and we bus 7 hours north into the highlands, winding through mountain pine forests to Dalat, where the surprisingly, chopper-chattering cold weather has us rather peeved. After just a solitary night with frigid digits 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 an armadillo’s armpit offer unrecognizable meaty things looking like leftovers from an organ donor clinic, that would probably cause bacterial gastroenteritis and have us shackled to the porcelain singing through our sphincter.
Sitting down in a restaurant in Nha Trang, similar thoughts play through our minds looking at a bizarre menu, offering a strangeness of items likely to put 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
With no reasonable 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!
While out on a run I encounter a guy pedaling a cyclo; a type of transport looking like an oversize stroller. He seems eager to race me 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 run I’m handed a flower by a young girls 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 the flower is a lovely gesture and a great example of why I like to get the feel countries through my feet.
After a few beach days of slo-mo bliss, we’re once again prisoners of the dreaded bus. During a 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 small 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, giving the impression the city is bathed in sunshine. Hoi An’s specialty is its countless tailor shops that make quality clothes at great prices; 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 cloud-swathed Hai Van Pass, appropriately known as The Pass of Clouds, and we pray the mountain Gods will be kind while driving over the 21 km long 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, as it’s 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 bus; traveling from Ho Chi Minh City all the way north to Hue. The wearisome and worrisome journey has been rather unpleasant on the crap Vietnamese buses. They are seemingly designed for invertebrates and should probably 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 come as a surprise, since the area is a known gulag of fog and rain 300 days of the year! The more serious problem is that we can’t find a guide willing to take us to Khe Sahn and stay overnight. Apparently they are fearful of the area because of ‘ghosts’ from the war. This is a disaster, as it’s looking like my attempt to run across Vietnam may now in jeopardy.
After two days of struggle we think we have resolved our dilemma, and are keeping our fingers crossed. Optimistically, we pay a visit to the town’s market and 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 an umbrella to shed away any rain. On the very morning we are leaving, 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. First he unearths a car and driver, then agrees to accompany us on the trip himself and act as our interpreter; which turns out to be an immense stroke of good fortune!
Account of my run across Vietnam here: 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 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 peddalers 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 for easier prey. Fortunately, it seems the two of them have lost their backbone along with their principles.
Back at the hotel Christine somehow manages to cut her toe so I rummage around in my shaving kit in search of a bandage for her. At the very top of my unexpected meter, while poking about in a side compartment, I’m flabbergasted to find a rolled joint left over from a camping trip back home. I’m horrified by this careless oversight on my part, as I now realize for the last few weeks I’ve unknowingly been a drug smuggler in Vietnam.
With the humble herb in hand, I bolt into the bathroom. However, having the bud as a companion for such a great distance, it somehow seems cruel to have it end up in a watery grave care of the toilet. Instead, I switch on overhead fan, light it up, and watch as the evidence goes up in smoke. Then, wondering who else’s nostrils may be a nesting spot for the pungent fumes carried by an outside breeze, we rapidly vacate the hotel and crime scene.
We breathe a huge sigh of relief recognizing how lucky I have been, after carrying the dangerous cargo in my backpack undetected through major airports, and for more than a thousand kilometers overland from our start in Saigon. The communist government in power in Vietnam has some of the most severe drug penalties in the world, and I have no desire to endure the abysmal conditions of a Vietnamese prison!
Anxious about ongoing chest pains from my run, we decide to return home early to seek medical attention. Sadly, this means abandoning an intended visit to Laos, but we vow to return in the near future as it’s very much a country we fancy exploring. After flying back to Hanoi, we learn our first opportunity to leave is six days out, so until then, we’ll just hangout enjoying the vibe of the capital city.
Hanoi’s hub is Hoan Kien Lake, and lusty young couples are canoodling 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 for a lovely oasis in the city’s mayhem.
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.
After meeting an American couple, the four of us elect to travel together to the Perfume Pagoda, involving 60 km by road plus 1 ½ hours in a rowboat on the Yen River. The car horn works; but not wipers, shock absorbers, or brakes. Actually, I’m not sure of the latter, as they were never tested over the entire trip! Our guides name for this trip is pronounced Miss Chance, and the driver’s Mr. Zoom. We try to adjust our eyes to the fleeing landscape with the driver lurching through traffic like pylons on a race course, and 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!
With the Yen River thrusting up gasp-inducing limestone karsts similar to those in Halong Bay, we row shallow boats through a waterscape of gravestones, temples, tangles of water hyacinth plants, and flamingo pink water lilies. Locals in boats with mere inches of clearance 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!
With my chest still giving trouble on reaching the Buddhist pagodas and shrines built into Huong Tich Mountain, I let the others go on ahead while I wait at Thien Tru Temple, savoring 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 called Mama Rosa’s. After a fabulous feast we are 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! We curiously open his unforeseen present and find a tiny pair of ceramic shoes. We have no idea what prompted this gift, but it is a lovely gesture capping off a lovely evening. This gift of the shoes seems such an amazing coincidence and most appropriate given the saga of my run across the country.
Our extraordinary journey through Vietnam has been incredibly intoxicating, leaving us infatuated with an awe-inspiring country that previously we had only related to the war. Out hats are off to these warm and generous people whose resilience shines on, despite the 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