Friday, June 6, 2008

Foo Kwok and Ho–Hee-Ho–Chee Minh Continues....

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.

- Mark Twain

To view pics from Phu Quoc Island, click here.

To view pics from Ho Chi Minh City and Mekong Delta, click here.

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Elisheva and I got a rustic bungalow for $10/night, situated just metres from the beach. She went straight to bed and I went directly to the beach to investigate our new surroundings and get some grub (the term ‘grub’ will become quite literal in Laos later on). There was no one else there! I had a little nap on a beach chair in front of a resort hotel and walked back to the guesthouse after a couple of hours. I was somewhat relieved to see a few other homo sapiens lounging in beach chairs, getting pedicures and massages or having a beverage in the beachside restaurant. It was then that I knew I was going to like this place – quiet but not completely isolated either!

The next 10 days were spent drinking coconut milk, having naps (this was new for me and I QUITE liked it!), reading The Motorcycle Diaries, writing in my journal, drinking Vietnamese coffee WITH condensed milk (the ONLY way!), getting oil massages under a palm tree ($4), lollygagging in the ocean, watching the sunset (the moon sets a couple hours after the sun and turns a burnt orange right before making its exit), renting a moto for a ride around the island (I WILL own a motorbike someday!) and long beach walks in the warm, docile waves. We also met some great couples from Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands. It was lovely to meet for dinner and swap travel stories.The most memorable and TRAUMATIZING came from a German named Ingo. Dog lovers beware: what I am about to describe does not end happily. He had heard from another traveler about a lady who spotted a little girl in a Vietnamese market somewhere. She had 4 or 5 small puppies in a tray and was walking around with them. The lady asked what she was selling them for and the girl pointed to her mouth in a gesture to say, ‘to eat’. As many people would have done, she immediately said she would buy them, hoping to save them from this ill fate. She looked down to look for her wallet and by the time she looked up again, the little girl had broken each of the puppy’s necks right in front of her thinking she had made a sale and the lady was about to eat them. See? Traumatizing. The interesting thing is that many Vietnamese actually keep them as pets but not all of them eat dog as it is an expensive delicacy.

One night, I went to watch the sunset atop some big rocks in the sea. When I arrived, there were some monks getting ready to go for a swim, so I tried to get some good shots, incognito of course, but one of them noticed and decided to turn his camera on ME. I didn’t realize these monks would be armed! The next 15 minutes were spent taking photos of each other and exchanging no words, just laughter and hand gestures. One of them handed me a pink bracelet (which is now white from wearing it every day) before I watched their little brown figures walk away from me to become specks in the light of dusk. Sunset with a group of giddy (and surprisingly high-tech) monks is not a bad way to spend a late afternoon, anywhere in the world!
The ocean itself was another highlight of Phu Quoc. It was so completely calm some days that it reminded me of the lakes I swam in growing up in Saskatchewan - slow, orderly ripples - I almost expected to hear the sound of loons in the distance. The boulders saluted the fishermen as they cast their nets and I blissfully floated around like a buoy, bobbing around with no purpose really but to bob! All I could hear was the bass of my heart pumping and the ocean as it sounds in a seashell. I wished I were a mermaid with my hair turning all thick and silky from the saltiness, whirling around me in leisurely splendour!OK...back to reality Tracey!

The trip back to HCMC was another wild ride! We were fetched from our bungalow at 6 AM to catch the 8 AM ferry back to Rach Gia. It was on that ferry that we became prisoners to Vietnamese music videos! I apologize to all Vietnamese people when I say, they are REALLY, REALLY bad - sappy soft pop, dramatic overacting and mouthing the lyrics about 3 seconds too late. Then came an American movie with Vietnamese voices dubbed the highest decibel possible. Everything about Vietnam is loud; the constant horns beeping, the sound of phlegm removal onto the concrete and phrases steadily repeated like, ‘Madam! Moto? Where you go?’ and the ever popular and hard to resist, ‘You buy!’

From the ferry, we caught a mini-bus to the bus station and got on another bus where we discovered there was NO air conditioning! I am not sure what is worse – too much or none at all – but the road back was neither dry, nor pleasant. The driver kept telling us to close the windows, so our English friend had to show him his sopping wet T-shirt. I think he could have rung out enough sweat to put out a small fire!
Before we departed Rach Gia. Felix, our German friend went to grab a drink from the cooler. He came back with what was called, ‘Bird’s Nest’. Hmmmmmm....I looked at the ingredients which said, ‘Water, Sugar, Bird’s Nest’. Mmmmmm-K. How do you put a Bird’s Nest into a drink I ask you??? When I was back in HCMC, I did a little research and found out that there is a bird that makes its nest by using its own saliva. It is called a swiftlet! So if you ever come across a drink called, ‘Bird’s Nest’, you can tell all your friends that it is actually just bird spittle! Nummy! It also comes in the form of a soup and ranges in price from $30 to several thousand, depending on the quality of spittle I suppose?!

Somewhere along the way, we stopped for a bathroom break. Unfortunately for the tourists, we have to pay to use the ‘WC’, which very rarely has toilet paper or a sink or soap or anything that might suggest cleanliness! This one in particular was a cess pool of filth and neglect. I had sandals on and had to carefully navigate my way through a good 2 inches of water on the floor before reaching my destination – the squatter toilet! Most toilets, especially in rural areas, are of the squatting variety, but not so bad as it means that one doesn’t have to touch anything save for scooping a small bucket into a big vat of water to ‘flush’. The tricky part is not slipping off said squatter while you try to find your stash of toilet paper which is usually in your backpack, which is usually on your back because there isn’t a dry or germ-free place to put it. Needless to say, I have strengthened muscles that were of little use to me until now!

When I walked out to leave, ALMOST totally unscathed, my ankle rolled over causing my foot to dip into the ‘toilet pond’ on the floor. ACK! God knows what little cooties could have been in there glomming on to my foot but all I could do was rinse it off with my bottled water and hope for the best! By this time, I was rather acquainted with the antiseptic-ness of Asia and just had to forget about it. I will never take for granted the absolute luxury of a clean bathroom ever again.
When we arrived in HCMC (almost 7 hours later), there was a crowd of people gathered around a motorcycle which was in pieces near a lifeless body that had been covered by a mat (thankfully). We were all very saddened by this sight but not at all surprised. Occurrences like this happen every single day and even every hour in Vietnam. Statistics say that 12,000 people lose their lives in moto accidents every year. In fact, it is the LEADING cause of death in Vietnam and they JUST passed a mandatory helmet law at the beginning of this year – a step in the right direction at least but there is a lot more that needs to be done.

My visa was soon to expire so I had to spend a good 5 days in HCMC in order to get it extended. During that time, I took a trip to the Mekong with a few friends I had met at my guesthouse. One was from NZ, one from Australia and the other from Sweden. The beauty of it was that none of us knew each other but all became fast, albeit temporary, travel buddies. The Mekong was nice but a little too touristy for my taste – the tour I went on centred mainly around taking us to places to buy stuff. When we were on a boat down the Mekong, locals had little baskets yelling, ‘BIG MONEY!’ Translated, this means, ‘throw money at me for no apparent reason because you are all filthy rich!’

When I finally got my visa extension, I booked a bus to Mui Ne, about 3 hours up the coast from HCMC. As I was packing my bag, I met Sam and James from England, in my dorm room. They just got off from doing a whirlwind tour of South America and were finishing up SE Asia by heading to Mui Ne before Southern Thailand. The three of us set forth on what turned out to be 11 of some of the BEST days I have had so far!

Up next – Jibes, Wax and Lucy!

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