I woke up in a strange place

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

September 1, 2010

More letters home from Vietnam. (Previously.)

The Mekong River in the morning (1)

I'm in a city called Can Tho. You might be able to find it on your map, depending on how detailed it is - check along the Mekong, in southern Vietnam. Last night I was in Chau Doc, which you might be able to find near the Cambodia border, but it's quite small. No internet cafes. Can Tho has a few, but they're bizarre. I'm the only person here not playing an RPG or a keyboard-based version of Dance Dance Revolution. (It's loud and obnoxious, actually.) It's all housed in a dusty shack with a badly-aging paint job, and Google thinks I am spyware because of my location - I keep having to do those "type the word in this picture" tests every time I want to read or send an email, or even search the web. Despite its relatively large size (300,000 people), this is definitely a "gape in total shock at the foreigner" city.

Can Tho skyline

I met a Japanese kid and split a hotel room with him last night. It was fun to break out a bit of Japanese, and he seemed to enjoy it, too. Virtually all Japanese people who travel abroad travel in big guided tour groups, totally insulated and doing nothing for themselves, but if you do meet a Japanese person who's traveling independently, they always have the most amazing plans. Takeshi, the kid from last night, is on a six month break from university and plans to cover China (done), Vietnam (done), Cambodia, Thailand, Australia, Africa, South America (Chile, Argentina, Brazil), and more. By himself, with one backpack, in six months. It made me feel pretty unambitious by comparison.

This was the second day of my three-day jaunt along the Mekong River. Tomorrow night I'll take a bus from Saigon to Nha Trang, which is a beach city, and I'm not sure how long I'll stay there. Probably just overnight, although maybe even shorter, depending on my initial reaction to the city. If I step off the bus and it's just drunk foreigners stumbling around, I'll take off. (The bus gets in at like 5:30am, and leaves around 7:00pm that night.) The two Mekong days have been good so far, very relaxing.

Strangers passing in the daylight

It's hot here, but I don't think this trip will get any hotter than Angkor in Cambodia. I'm still not bronze (too scrupulous with the sun-screen), but have settled into a pleasant gold. My soak-the-shirt-with-sweat level is in decline, thankfully. And hot water and air conditioning seem to be everywhere in Vietnam - those would double or triple your hotel rate in Cambodia.

I'm going to punch the teenager next to me if I stick around too long, so I'd better wrap this up. Sorry. (He keeps looking over here to figure out what I could possibly be doing with a computer that doesn't involve pressing arrow keys to make animated characters on a pseudo-NYC basketball court dance.) I meant to write longer. I should have a little time to write tomorrow night between getting back to Saigon and catching the bus.

Cafe in Can Tho

I have big, round hickeys all over my back. After I writing some emails, I walked back to my hotel - circa 10pm - and at the city's major intersection, a man and a woman had mats laid out on the sidewalk. "Massa?" the woman called out. I stopped, intrigued by the total ludicrousness of the offer. "How much?" I asked. "Fi' dolla," she said. "I don't know," I said. She jumped up, ran around behind me and started massaging my shoulders. "Oh, fine," I said, figuring I'd spent way too much time sitting on buses over the last few days, and since it was a husband and wife team and they were right out in the open - on the sidewalk! - why not? So I took off my shirt and laid town on the mat, and both the man and the woman set to work smacking various parts of my body. They were distracted for a while by my back hair, and sent into spasms of hilarity by my chest hair. I just laughed and watched cars go by.

Eventually, another customer (Vietnamese) came by, so the man went to work on him, and the woman lit a small torch and began putting small wine glasses on my back. I couldn't see exactly how she was doing it, but she was using the heat from the torch to create a vacuum inside the glass, which then made the glass suck on my skin. I'm not sure if it had any therapeutic value or not, but it was pretty memorable to be lying on the sidewalk at a major intersection with no shirt and several wine-glasses stuck to my back and arms. She offered to do my front as well, but it was getting near 11pm, and the doors of the hotel were supposed to close then, so she plucked off the wine glasses and I headed back to my room. Now I have a few dark hickeys on my back, which is perfect timing for going to the beach today and tomorrow.

The wine-glass massage felt okay. My left arm was a little sore the next day - the husband was much stronger than the wife and he was working on that side - but not painful. The hickeys still look gross, but again, no pain. A good hour-long Thai massage costs less than $5, whereas the Vietnamese are experts at tacking things on to the cost - it'd cost more like $45 here, so I haven't bothered with a proper one. (The sidewalk massage, as I said, was an even $5, which was exactly what I had left in US dollars in my wallet at that time. I guess they had about $5 worth of expertise. Fair enough.)

Along the banks of the Mekong River (8)

Only a few minutes to write and eat dinner. I had 45 minutes between buses, thought it would be an hour and a half. Nha Trang in the morning - look north, along the coast.

Nha Trang

The overnight bus ride could have been worse. I certainly didn't sleep well, but I woke up without any lasting aches or pains, so I guess I got through it okay. Stumbled into a hotel room without really being aware of what I was doing and slept a couple hours more, was relieved upon awaking to discover that it was a reasonably nice room ($6 a night). The weather is incrementally cooler here. Although there as many foreigners a locals from what I've seen so far, I'm inclined to relax on the beach for a day or two. There are some islands out in the bay and I saw mention of a "Monkey Island" so I'm going to look into chartering a boat.

The local internet cafe had a printer - I helped them set it up, and they decided to charge about 12 cents a page - and I found a boat to take me to Monkey Island tomorrow. (Apparently, the official name is Lao Island.)

Palm trees lean

After I wrote that last email, I ate lunch (most expensive meal I've had in all of Southeast Asia - almost $7), went back to my hotel to change into swimwear, and then set off for the beach. It's only two and a half blocks from my hotel. It wasn't cold by any means, but it wasn't really sunbathing weather either, so after reading for a few minutes, I went into the water. Because of the wind, the waves were too high to swim very far out to sea. Most people were staying within a few yards of the shore and pogo-ing to catch the (quite large) waves.

And then I saved a girl from drowning. She and her boyfriend were a distance to my right, and everyone else was to my left. They were too close to the jagged poles of an old wooden reef. A giant wave hit, way over my head. I went under for a couple of seconds and came up, laughing, my shorts most of the way down my legs. But I happened to look over there and saw that, somehow, the girl had been pulled way out to sea - the tide was quite strong - and her (short) boyfriend was still struggling to get his balance in the foam. She started screaming, so I swam over there as fast as I could. I caught her hand and pulled her to my chest as two big waves hit. I was able to keep her head above water, but got two big nosefuls of salt water for myself. Then I swam with her back to shore. She was dazed, but she seemed to recover quickly. (No CPR necessary.)

So, pretty exciting. And my stomach has been queasy ever since from all that salt-water.

My mother emailed me to wish me a Happy Easter. (She'd like to believe I know when Easter is and will do anything about it, I guess.)

Jesus in Vietnam

Of course I'm alive, Mom. It takes a little more than a couple of border crossings to get rid of me. I'm in Nha Trang along the southern coast of Vietnam if you'd like to follow on a map. (Or, knowing you, maybe you'd just rather not know.)

(ED: My mother was, indeed, happier not knowing any more than that, and politely declined to hear about anything else I did for the rest of the trip.)

From an island

Exhausted again, but all's well. I have a bus to catch in about an hour. The boats worked out fine today. I spent the morning on an island, just swimming and gazing out at the blue blue sea, and then in the afternoon, I took another boat to the monkey island. I was kind of worried because, shortly after setting foot on the island, I lost the ability to say anything other than "monkeys monkeys monkeys", and I had some concern that it might be a permanent condition, but in time, clarity was restored.

King of the old go-kart shed

Whoever manages this island wasn't doing anything to keep the monkey population under control like the Japanese do at their various monkey centers, so there were quite a few monkeys running amok on beach chairs and idle jet skis, probably more than the island should be able to handle. I think some people tried to establish a beach resort here, but the monkeys aren't having it. There were a few odd tourist attractions like a go-kart track, and the monkeys kept wandering out on the track as well.

Needless to say, I took something like 400 pictures, and will have quite an effort to whittle that down to a manageable number on the bus tonight.

Made a move on the canoe

Monkey break-out

Basically, imagine Detroit after they win a sports championship, but substitute monkeys for people, and it's a beach instead of the ghetto, and they win a championship every day.

Pushing this jet ski out to sea

It did occur to me that I might have died before I arrived on Monkey Island. I had actually saved a girl from drowning the day before. I was sprawled out on one of the beach chairs as monkeys shook the umbrella next to me, apparently hoping that food would fall out of it, and I thought, maybe she pulled me under, and now I am in heaven. But the smell of monkey poop reminded me that I was still very much on earth.

The classy end of Monkey Island

Probably too much sun today. I'll have an easier time sleeping on the bus tonight than I did two nights ago.

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.