By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
January 25, 2012
(ED: In retrospect, I should have just given him the $5. I had lost perspective by then.)
I had a random brief conversation with a Vietnamese guy who said he was from Wisconsin a few days ago. I like how, in America, nobody is necessarily a foreigner - anybody can be from anywhere.
I'm at the nicer hotel now. Check-out from the dump was easy enough. They wanted to pull a trick with the minibar (e.g. charge me for drinks that were supposedly missing), but I saw it coming and told them I'd taken photos of the minibar right after I checked in and right after I checked out, so they let that one lie. (Kind of funny, though - drinks in minibars in Vietnam are cheaper than they are on the street. I think they're unfamiliar with the concept.) I'm paying way more for this hotel than any other on the trip - $17 - but that does include a good buffet breakfast, a palatial room, and open-the-front-door-for-you service. (Also laundry. I was at the end of my shirts.)
I'm back in Hanoi, catching the flight back to Bangkok this afternoon. It was a beautiful old wooden junk, very comfortable - we sailed for a few hours, and then set anchor at sea, surrounded by small islands, like the scales on the back of a dragon ("long" means "dragon"), and slept.
(ED: more news from the Western world: a friend wrote to me about the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, which had just happened.)
I hadn't heard about the college shooting - I was away from television and the internet for a few days. There are a couple of Asian English-language news channels at my current hotel, though, and they're covering it extensively. A lot of the coverage seems to be about whether Asian students in the US are going to suffer some kind of backlash as a result. Personally, I'm more concerned about what this will mean for creative writing students. They have it hard enough already.
I'm off to see the embalmed corpse of Ho Chi Minh this morning, allowing me to check off the #3 spot on the Dead Communist Leaders In Boxes list. (I can't say when I'll be able to get to China for #2, though.)
You raise a great point about Kim Il-Sung. I did some research, and he is apparently on view in Pyongyang; also, there are apparently only four Dead-Leaders-in-Boxes in total. (I read a great book by the son of the guy who came up with the process to embalm Lenin. I think he said that a lot of those Eastern Bloc dictator fuck-heads went for the embalming, too, but as the upkeep was expensive and everyone hates those guys now, they were allowed to rot. Stalin got the leader-in-a-box treatment too - Google around and you can find a supremely creepy spy photo of him lying next to Lenin. But then they buried his ass in concrete.)
Ho's tomb, by the way, was nearly identical to Lenin's. It's grey on the outside and doesn't have the same pyramid shape, but inside, the design is exactly the same, and they're both bathed in this eerie rose-colored light. Russians still handle the corpse-maintenance for them, so maybe they did the design, too. Both men are short, kind of waxy, and appear to be sleeping with a mild discomfort.
January 26, 2011
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.)
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.
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).
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.)
(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.
September 1, 2010
More letters home from Vietnam. (Previously.)
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.)
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.
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
August 23, 2010
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.)
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!
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.
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;
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.