I woke up in a strange place

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

January 25, 2012

The last few letters home from Vietnam. (Previously, and also, and as well.)

Long Hung Hotel, Hanoi

Really crappy start to Hanoi, unfortunately. I got off the bus and pushed past the hotel touts, set off walking to find a hotel from a list of guidebook recommendations. Like anything, though, when you're actually looking for them, you can't find one. Hanoi doesn't have a backpacker ghetto like Bangkok, Saigon, and many other cities do. After a long time - it was about 6am, and I hadn't had anything to eat or drink since the afternoon before - I found a hotel, but it was booked full. It was a really nice street, though, and although the hotel next door wasn't listed in any of the guidebooks, it looked okay. So I went in, checked the price, and went up to have a look at the room. $10, included hot water and a/c. Seemed fine, so I handed over my passport (that's the check-in procedure in Vietnam) and agreed to stay.

Ugh. Mistake. There was no remote for the a/c, so I called the front desk. The creep explained that there was an extra charge if I wanted to use the a/c. (He suddenly had this smarmy "I gotcha" thing going on.) I told him we agreed on $10 and I'd pay $10 or I was leaving. He brought up his register book and was pointing to lists of people who'd paid the extra charge, as if that meant something. I told him to give me my passport. Finally, he backed down and said he'd waive the a/c fee. He handed over the remote to the a/c (and the television). I went back up.

So, of course, the a/c didn't actually work, and for good measure, the television was making a loud buzzing sound on every channel, and there was grime all over the bathroom, table, and chair, which in my sleepy state I'd failed to investigate. I flipped out, went downstairs and told him to give me my passport. He said I had to pay for half a day's use of the room. I refused, and we argued. But he had my passport locked in a safe, so there was nothing I could do. That handing over the passport thing sucks, because it eliminates all leverage that you, the guest, have. I knew from walking around that there weren't any police in the neighborhood, and unlike Thailand, where the Tourist Police are the toughest cops in the country and all of the hotels are terrified of them, the police in Vietnam don't care about tourists. I told him he had to give me working a/c and television or it was in legal violation of our agreement, and the police would pay attention to that. (Bluff on my part, but it basically worked.) It took that loser more than half an hour to go from room to room in that dump to find a working television, to find a room with (barely) working a/c, and to bring the television in there. I went to sleep, furious, and made a reservation for tomorrow at the recommended hotel down the street. When I left for the day, I did have the good fortune to run into five backpackers who were about to walk in there, and told them to stay away. So that helped my mood.

(ED: In retrospect, I should have just given him the $5. I had lost perspective by then.)

Old Quarter traffic

The other hotel is very nice, though. I think tomorrow will be a better day. I'll go see the embalmed Ho Chi Minh in a glass case, making the second Communist leader-in-a-box I've seen (after Lenin in Moscow), and in the afternoon, I have a ticket to Water Puppet theater, which everyone loves. The day after that is kayaking and sleeping on a boat in Ha Long Bay, supposedly the natural wonder of Vietnam, and then back to Hanoi for a night before the flight to Bangkok on Thursday.

(This internet cafe is a dirty hole in the wall and reeks of cigarettes, but it's like 20 cents an hour!)

Stamped walls in Hanoi

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.

(You know what else is awesome about America? Everybody gets charged the same price for things. Even though the "foreigner price" is rarely very expensive here, it's usually double or triple the "local price", for everything from food to tickets to museums and historical monuments. We'd never do that at home.)

Communist mosaic

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.)

Couldn't get in to see the Ho Chi Minh Box, though, as the mausoleum is apparently closed on Mondays. (Lonely Planet = wrong on this one.) So I'll have to check that out early Thursday morning before I fly back to Bangkok. The water puppet theater was dope, as I'd thought it would be. I have a couple of good videos. I couldn't follow the story, but I doubt anyone in the audience could. (Seemed to be about how some fish are hard to catch, and dragons spit water at each other except for times when they spit fireworks instead, and there were some boats, and a giant turtle.)

Water puppeteers take a bow

Tomorrow night, I'm sleeping on a boat on Ha Long Bay, so I don't think I'll be able to check in.

Boarding the junk

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.

Ha Long Bay (5)

Morning on Ha Long Bay (2)

(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.)

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

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.)

So Lenin is tops-in-a-box, and Mao is second, but there's room for debate about who's third. The personality cult around Kim Il-Sung is more intense than Ho Chi Minh's, who is beloved but is portrayed as a folksy grandfather in his own country, not a living god. And Kim gets extra points because his country is still communist, whereas Vietnam has quietly gone proto-capitalist like China. But Ho has the iconography of the war behind him, which is of incalculable value, and he gets more visitors because he's not in fucking Pyongyang. So I'd give the third spot to Ho, but I'd be interested in your opinion.

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.

Conflating War with Industrialization in that Distinctive Way Only Communists Can

Western Imperialism in South America Is What's For Dinner (and Dinner is Falling)

You're right about the way history plays out, and how plans at the time don't necessarily account for it. In all of the talk about the domino effect, nobody seems to have considered that communism simply doesn't work as an economic philosophy, and that - much moreso than a war - would be what kept it from taking over the world. Vietnam and Laos were among the poorest countries in the world (Laos still is) until they started moving back toward capitalism. North Korea probably spends 25% of its GDP on the Kim Il Sung box. Obviously, there are other reasons for Cambodia's ongoing struggles, but their economy was completely erased by communism. Nobody embraces that which does not work. And that which is simple and obvious now completely escaped the grand theorists of the past.

Not that anyone told Natan Sharansky and his book club.

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 Am Taunted for Choosing Unwisely

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.

Motorcycle kamikaze

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.)

View from a bunker

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.

Again with the bombed-out tanks

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.

Jungle to tunnels

(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.

Paths come together

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.

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.

Often discussed:

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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.