Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ho–Hee-Ho–Chee Minh and Foo Kwok!

See photo album here.

After recovering from my malaise in Phnom Penh, I hopped on a bus to the city that never shuts up - Ho Chi Minh City! We crossed the Vietnamese border without any major issues other than being treated a little like cattle; the best one can hope for at a border crossing in Asia I suppose. I didn’t have to worry about overcharging this time as I purchased my visa in Bangkok and they had their way with me at the Embassy instead.

While I was waiting in the line up, a Vietnamese family walked past me and rolled over my bare foot with their suitcase and no apologies. This was my first taste of the negative side of Vietnam, but more on that coming up in later blogs.

I sat beside an English army vet who I thought was around 45 but learned was actually my age. When he finally awoke from his apparent drunken siesta, he told me all about how he had been shot and wounded more than once during various duties. When he got the call to go to Iraq, he stayed awake for 3 days so he could claim he had gone crazy and wouldn’t have to serve. He now lives in Cambodia on money he receives as a veteran and drinks most of it away. We made the obligatory pit stop at a roadside restaurant and he drank 2 beers in less than 20 minutes and then purchased 2 more for the rest of the bus ride to the border. Of course the nurturing mother in me wanted to plead with him to get help (yes she IS in there somewhere) but I felt it was not my place to preach and I can’t imagine what this poor bloke has been through and is trying so hard to forget.

I met 2 girls from England – Odette and Jen – and 2 girls from Quebec – Anna and Nicole, when we arrived in HCMC. We decided to all pile into a cab to head to the ‘backpacker’s district’. The driver drove us around for about 10 minutes and when we got to our ‘destination’, he pointed to the metre - 500,000 dong, equalling $31.25 US! This is Vietnam for god sake! So we fought with him for awhile but since the meter said what it said, we eventually all paid our $6 reluctantly. A couple of days later, Odette and Jen walked around the corner from our guesthouse and saw the spot where the bus had dropped us off and the cabbie had picked us up. Yep! We were a block away from our destination and had taken a $30 cab ride to get there!

I had planned to go with the girls to Mui Ne but wanted to see the War Museum first so had stayed another day. I met a girl from Israel in my dorm room, Elisheva, who had just spent the last 10 months traveling through China and Mongolia! She was planning to go to Phu Quoc Island for some beach time, which had been part of my original loose itinerary, so I decided to tag along.

I said a temporary goodbye to my 19 year old Vietnamese/Australian ‘little brother’ who speaks barely a word of English. I met him at a place called Cafe Sozo just down the street from my guesthouse. Cafe Sozo helps underprivileged families in Vietnam find employment ( In Hong’s case, his dad (Australian) has nothing to do with him and same goes for his mom (Vietnamese). He works 12 hours a day, every day as a waiter there for 4000 dong/hour – that is about .25 cents US. He has to support himself and wants to go places but has to work so much harder than any of us just to make ends meet. We bonded and it was nice for me to have a regular place to go edit photos, where people knew my name and I could hang with some locals!

Elisheva and I took 7 (yes, SEVEN) modes of transportation to get to Phu Quoc Island. First was a cab ride through HCMC. At one point, amongst a flurry of motorbikes, it felt like we were in the middle of a wasp’s nest - motorbikes circling us from all angles, with no way out. I couldn’t imagine being on a motorbike or on foot in that havoc.

In HCMC, the whole fam-damily piles on (up to 5, and sometimes even their dog). Traffic there is Ridiculous (note capital ‘R’). There is no rhyme or reason to any of it and no one really obeys traffic signals but instead honks there horn to warn everyone else to look out and get the hell out of the way. When everyone is honking their horns like hooligans at the same time, how are you supposed to know WHO their honking at? As a pedestrian, I seriously prayed for my life every time I crossed a street. If I hesitated - poof! - a teensy Vietnamese lady would appear to take me by the arm and lead me safely across. This was a nice gesture but a little scary if you’re not ready to let someone else take your life into their hands! At one point, I tried to see how high I could count before hearing a horn; ’one, t..BEEP!, on..BEEP!, one..BEEP, on..BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!, one, t...BEEEEEEEP!!!’.

After a one hour stop at the bus ticket office and a mini-bus to the bus station, we departed at 11 PM on another local mini-bus to Rach Gia (so much for the sleeper bus!). The driver had the a/c and Vietnamese tunage blasting throughout the entire 5 hour journey. He kept braking at warp speed right before every bridge we traveled over (and there were many) where we would then strike the approach and catch enough air to cause all of our behinds to take flight off our seats. The guy beside me bumped his head on the roof on more than one occasion and also thought my shoulder made a nice pillow.

We arrived at Rach Gia sleepless at 4 AM in the dark with not a clue where the ferry was located and wasn’t due to leave to the island for another 4 hours. So we walked to the nearest street which was just a hummin’ with people preparing for the morning market. Elisheva was extremely sick and had such a sore throat that she wasn’t able to talk which made devising plans an interesting task. After observing the market for awhile, hobnobbing with the locals and some sign language, we set out to find the ferry first by foot, but gave up after realizing no one spoke a spit of English and all seemed to point in ambiguous directions to the ferry. So we hopped on a moto (transportation vehicle #4).

When we finally boarded the ferry, the two of us fell into comas for the entire 3 hour journey before getting to Phu Quoc Island and catching a bus into town. Then came the part I always dread when arriving in a new place - negotiating transportation to a guesthouse. This is always tricky business because they will first try to overcharge you and second, take you to an expensive guesthouse where they can make a commission from the owner (hoping also that you are so tired from the journey that you will just decide to drop your backpack and pay the extra dong).

The most concise way to describe the next 45 minutes is that it was a complete ‘shit show’! After much negotiating in the heat of the midday sun, we got our way and FINALLY ended up at our guesthouse of choice. The entire journey took us 15 hours from start to finish. The moral of this story is – take the one hour flight to Phu Quoc Island from HCMC - it’s WORTH it!!

Up next – cocunuts, coffee and....high tech monks!

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