I woke up in a strange place

By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
See also: a novel about a monkey.

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August 23, 2010

More letters home. These are from Vietnam, following on from this and this.

Saigon traffic (5)

I'm in Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, as it's now officially named). The trip from Cambodia was easy and about four hours less than I was expecting. Usually, these bus companies make up for the low ticket price by getting a commission from unnecessary stops at restaurants along the way (and a hotel at the end), but that didn't happen with this one. And there was virtually no line at the border.

The main Thailand / Cambodia border crossing is a widely-renowned shithole, but the Cambodia / Vietnam border was easy. Immigration at land crossings are interesting, compared to airports. There's usually just one guy, and he is the king of that little kingdom. There are no laws except those which he chooses to recognize. The guy at the Vietnam crossing, for example, was standing next to the 'No Smoking' sign with a cigarette. (At an airport, if some immigration official went off the rails, you could take a step back and appeal to someone in another line, and there's probably a manager on the premises as well.)

At the border between Cambodia and Vietnam

It costs $20 to get a visa into Cambodia. The federal government posted a sign with the cost at the border office, which frustrates the border officials, because in the past, they could charge whatever they wanted, and it's not like you had somewhere else you could go. Now, they try to get you to pay in Thai money instead - 1000 baht, which works out to close to $30 - and then they can keep the extra $10. I met a couple of indie kids from Omaha, so we did that leg of the trip together, and we all insisted on paying the proper $20, so the immigrations guy stewed and told us "it's longtime three hours", even though there was nobody else there, although he hinted we could expedite the whole thing with an extra 100 baht apiece. The weather wasn't bad, so we just sat and waited, and reveled as more travelers arrived and refused to pay the extra fee. (Only two people folded - they got theirs in three minutes.) Finally, after two hours or so, somebody brought the immigration guy's lunch, so he handed out our visas so he could eat in peace.

Vietnam was different - the visa was paid for before we hit the border, so it was just a process of checking them in and then getting bags x-rayed (although not pockets or body, leading me to wonder what the point was) and then heading onward. The Cambodian and Vietnamese visas are both full-page stickers (with stamps on the preceding page). I only have three blank pairs of pages left. I've been living well!

Communist paradise

I'm happy here so far. The internet connection is all right, and cheap; food was fine, and cheap as well. The hotel room is probably the nicest I've had thus far, and my first since Bangkok to have hot water (although no pool, which the Bangkok one did have). It costs $10 or 160,000 dong a night. I have five currencies in my wallet right now. Again, I must be living well. (You would not believe how old and scummy the Cambodian paper bills are. It's awesome.) The best thing about Vietnam is that the words for "thank you" are pronounced "come on". I really enjoy that.

Going to the Cu Chi tunnels tomorrow. They are meant for people much shorter than me.

Shooting machine guns again

I fired an AK-47 today. I'd been satisfied after the M-16 episode in Cambodia, but there was this clearing near the tunnels where they were selling bullets for about $1.30 apiece (minimum purchase five), and I suddenly felt two things:

1. Gratitude, because I'd been going through these jungles where actual combat took place, and the sound of those machine guns in the distance had added a big chunk of verisimilitude to the whole experience;
2. Scholarly duty, because during the war, Americans used M-16s, and the Vietcong used AK-47s, so I thought this would help me see both sides. (They both made my shoulder hurt.)

So I bought five bullets and put them to use. As it turns out, firing the AK-47 was very loud (no headphones provided), kicked pretty hard against my shoulder (same as the M-16), and jammed up every couple of shots (unlike the M-16). I didn't get a target sheet, so I don't know how my accuracy compared.

All in all, I understand G.I. Joe and Cobra a little better now.

That's my tank

American M41 Tank Was Destroyed By Landmine In 1970

Anyway, I'm done with guns now, unless someone offers me a rocket launcher for, say, under $10 a pop. (I may go as high as $15, but you have to start these negotiations low.) A few years ago, when Cambodia was way, way out of control, you could get a combo deal on a cow and a shell for a rocket launcher - you blow up the cow, the locals get to keep the meat. Now, Cambodia is only way out of control, so there is no blowing up of cows, as far as I could tell. (Not that I would have!)

It's funny to read you saying that there are "rumors floating around". I'm sure none of them involve me in the Vietnam jungle firing off Soviet assault rifles. It is a fine thing when the truth of one's life is stranger than the fiction by such a margin.

My legs are in trouble, sad to say. Those tunnels were not meant for me. (That was the whole point of why they built them that way, actually.) The long bus rides haven't been doing them any favors either, I guess. But we're invincible until we're 30, right? I thought that was the biological deal. I'm assuming I'll be better when I wake up. Tomorrow I'm going to try to tackle Saigon itself, and then the day after that, I'm off to the Mekong Delta (big river) and probably out of contact for a couple of days.

Tour Guide: A Very Small Man

I haven't written much about my own reaction to all of this for two reasons. One is training as a writer - when doing sociological field research, we were always supposed to take tons of notes, ideally, immediately thereafter - professors had wild statistics like that you lose 65% of the detail of an experience by the next day. I think that's true, actually, although maybe not to that extent - but once you form your emotional reaction to an experience, you do start discarding the things that don't contribute directly to the narrative of that reaction. So if you want a rich story, get all of the details down first, and figure out what you think about them later - there's always time for that. Admittedly, while I know that's a good idea, I'm totally undisciplined about taking proper notes. I wish I would. But, yeah, the first time you hear about something from me, you just hear the details. I am the invisible voyager in the things I do.

Also, when you're alone for this long, a silence does come over you, and you get used to observing things and storing them away for later instead of reacting to them right there and then. I like stumbling across my own reaction to places I've been, sometimes a few months later - it comes as a surprise, but that's one of the things I like about travel, discovering the shape the experience has taken in my memory.

So there's that.

Pantheon of Cao Dai

The morning trip was to the head temple of Cao Dai, a religion (12 million followers, mostly Vietnamese) which is a mish-mash of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, but also has a strong Catholic influence (Jesus was floating above the altar, a notch below Buddha, right next to Confucius), floating eyeballs (like on the back of the dollar bill), and holds Victor Hugo (French author of Les Miserables) as one of its Three Major Saints, with Thomas Jefferson as one of the minor saints.

Sun Yat Sen, Victor Hugo, and Another Fellow sign a pact with God

The temple was totally surreal. I got to see about twenty minutes of their mass, which was mostly just chanting and bowing. Unfortunately, nobody was really on hand to explain any of it. It's a serious religion, but I don't think I've ever been in a stranger building. It was a brief but exhilarating experience. I have high hopes for those photos.

White dresses by the eye

Blue surrounded

The afternoon was the tunnels. I was disappointed there, overall. The place was definitely for real - the Vietnamese army still trains around there - but as a visitor, there was way too much being led around (above-ground) and being shown cheap models and mannequins, and not enough independent wandering. (Although, as I said, 100 meters in those pitch-black tunnels had my legs fucked.)

In the Cu Chi Tunnels

We had to sit through a video beforehand that would have been hysterically funny if a friend were along - think those clumsy, heavily-narrated black-and-white WWII newsreel clips about heroic GIs smashing Nazi Germany, but swap Vietnamese villagers for the GIs and "Americans" for Nazi Germany. "American Killer Hero!" chirped the Vietnamese Troy McClure over an image of a short, smiling woman in one of those pointy hats. "She is three times American Killer Hero." The woman smiles and waves.

If you're alone, that's just funny (and vaguely offensive), but if you have a friend to award "American Killer Hero!" for the rest of the day, it becomes a great day.

Careful! Bad Vietcong art. (5)

Let's see. About helmets on motorbikes - my hired driver for Angkor Wat had a helmet for me, although he wasn't wearing one himself. Otherwise, no, for those cross-town taxi-moto rides, nobody involved had a helmet on. I don't think anyone can really afford them, to be honest. It is interesting how much of the traffic in all three countries has been motorbikes, though. Bangkok is rich enough to have a fair number of cars, but everywhere else has been almost exclusively motorbikes. One of the moto drivers in Phnom Penh nearly shit himself when he heard that I used to have a car. (They also had a really out-sized understanding of how much money a teacher makes, but then, so did the Japanese.)

The driver, by the way, immediately started laying out a payment plan whereby, that very day, I would buy him one of those cycles with the carts attached to the back (doubles the fares you can charge) and he would have my investment paid off within ten months. He'd gone through the month-by-month returns for the whole ten months before I could stop him.

Crouched in a temple courtyard

I've been in cities, mostly, I guess - although there's a vast difference between the wealth of a city in Thailand and one in Cambodia. (I'm hesitant to bring Vietnam into the comparison, because I haven't been around enough yet.) Even Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia, was fairly beat up - like the ghetto of a rust-belt town like Detroit or Cleveland. Staying overnight in the Thai border town was pretty interesting - very, very dusty, small lizards wandering in and out of the hotel room - and I did get to some small villages in Cambodia, because my driver was keen to take me around. They've had internet cafes everywhere because it's a way to make money. You can have ox-carts and cracked pavement outside, but tourists have money and tourists want internet, so you get the internet before you upgrade from ox-cart to pick-up truck.

Crazy man

I had a really ugly experience with a cyclo driver in Saigon. When we met, he broke out a big notebook full of positive comments from people who'd taken tours with him in the past - it should have raised a red flag that none of the comments were from later than spring '03, but I went ahead with it anyway, because I didn't know where the hell I was going, and he seemed friendly. (And I'd had such a great time with my driver in Angkor.)

He drove for a way, long enough to get me out of familiar territory and to a deserted side street, and then pulled over and asked for payment (plus tip plus "extra help") up front because he'd borrowed some money and he needed to pay it back right then or something bad would happen. He was getting freaked out and on the verge of panic and violence. I kept my cool, stayed firm and defused the situation, but it was nasty.

Careful! Vietcong Folding Chair Trap.

I should go. Here's hoping my legs allow me to stand up from this chair.

I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.

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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.