January 26, 2011
More letters home from Vietnam, mostly bitching about bus rides. (Previously, and also.)
Crappy bus ride last night. They subsidize the cost of these (cheap) tickets, as I think I mentioned, by getting kick-backs from restaurant stops along the way and the hotel they drop you off at. (You don't have to stay there, but since it's 5:30am and you want to stumble into a real bed, you tend to be amenable to the first decent room on offer.) Last night, they did a 45 minute restaurant stop at 11:30pm. Everyone had been asleep by then, and falling asleep had taken a lot of work in those chairs. So, having to wake up for a "break" put the mood of a mute riot in the air. Everyone ignored the restaurant, of course. There was a ferocious mutual sulk between the passengers and the restauranteurs.
I'm in Hue now, about four hours north of Hoi An, still around the center of Vietnam. I didn't have internet access last night. The hotel shut everything off at 10:30pm. I was cranky as hell this morning, because the girls at the hotel offered to call the bus company and arrange for a pickup at the hotel, which was nice - but they screwed up the time. It was an 8:00am bus, and they told me the bus would pick me up at the hotel at 7:50am. Fair enough. But they actually meant 7:15am, so I couldn't shower or get dressed or eat or pack properly (because I didn't know about the error until 7:10am). And I was annoyed, because the bus station was five minutes away - why in the hell would I want to be picked up 45 minutes early for a bus station that I could walk to within five minutes? They didn't even manage to properly confirm the seat - me and the other two travelers from the hotel had to take the hotel's van to the bus station anyway, where we were the last people on the bus, and I squeezed in next to a laser-printer box in the only seat that was left. (Seats are supposed to be assigned.)
Not a fascinating story, I admit, but I had to tell it because it irritated me. All things considered, though, that's about the worst travel problem I've had in my month-plus trip, so I'm doing fine. The bus ride was two hours quicker than expected, even with an unnecessary 15 minute stop and a stop to change a tire (!) after about an hour.
I need to find a hotel in Hue. It's raining, which is revolutionary. Part of the reason I'm ahead of schedule on this trip is that I haven't lost any time to weather - it rained the very first morning I was in Bangkok, while I was sleeping, and nothing but sun ever since. It's nice to see the rain.
I'll be here for a couple of days, and then a fourteen hour bus ride to Hanoi. (Oh, my poor, poor ass.)
You're my only email tonight; I'm exhausted, and I'll probably fall asleep right after I write this. Today was sort of emblematic of the whole trip through Vietnam: hours of annoyance with a handful of moments that made it all worthwhile (mostly).
I did a tour of the former DMZ (demilitarized zone), the area that was supposed to be a buffer between North and South Vietnam, and which inevitably wound up having the most fighting.
Unfortunately, it's one of those places that you can't really go by yourself - you have to go with a tour group - and there were 34 people (not including the driver) in 30 seats, so you can imagine how comfortable that was. The bus was a rattle-trap. (It finally broke down about a mile away from our hotel at the end of the day, so I walked the rest of the way back.) And when you get that many strangers crushed in so closely together, inevitably, tempers flare. My temper was fine - I spaced out with my iPod most of the time - but there were a bunch of Israelis who were really, really loud and kept ignoring requests from the rest of the bus to keep their voices down, so there wound up being a shouting match over it. (One of the Israelis compared the bus to Nazi Germany, which is how you know things have gotten weird.)
But in the midst of all that ass-pain, sweat (barely functional a/c, of course) and ill will, there were acres of achingly gorgeous rice paddies - you've never seen such green - and another trip through man-made tunnels, these ones big enough to walk through without squatting, and unlike the first set of tunnels, near Saigon, when we visited these ones, we skipped the "museum" and spent the whole time clambering through the tunnels. It was claustrophobic as hell and totally cool. Finally emerging into overcast daylight to see the South China Sea was a beautiful sight.
(ED: A friend in the U.S. emailed to let me know that Kurt Vonnegut had died.)
I'm glad I heard it from you. I'm at a hotel in Vietnam, near the former DMZ, and there is a maniacal Vietnamese four-year old running around behind me. I don't think he was going to bring it up.
Yeah, I miss the man, and I can feel the shape of his absence from the world.
We'll hold a memorial ceremony on the site of the old Evanston Barnes and Noble at the end of the month. I'll bring the mustard gas; please bring the roses.
Tomorrow, I'll check out the Imperial Citadel (this was the old capital of Vietnam) and then catch the 5pm bus to Hanoi.