Feb 26, 2013

Vietnam: do I love it or hate it?

Saigon is crazy. Traffic is insane, I've never seen so many pedestrians actually leap out of the way of cars and bikes! There are more motorbikes than you could imagine. I am scared to cross the street. I have no desire to take a taxi, since my arrival I've been ripped off at every opportunity. My taxi from the airport ended up being a private car that smiling dragged me across the airport parking lot with all my bags and my dog, and loaded me into a black car. Reluctant, I said I hadn't gotten any money yet and wanted to stop at an ATM. The driver escorted me back to the airport to withdraw money and stood way too close! I hate making too many withdrawals since each time costs me 5-10$. I took out 50$, which should have been plenty. The cab fare from the airport from what I read should have been 100,000-150,000 dong. (5$-7.50$.) the cab driver hurried me off and I asked what his fee was, suspecting that he was going to ask for more. When he wanted everything I had, I said no way, pulled out my book, said what it claimed, and he pulled over on the road outside of the airport and said I could get out. I managed to talk him down claiming I would have no money to eat for the next week, and shook my head in disappointment. I'm such an idiot. I should have walked away the second I saw it was a private car. I felt bad cuz he carried my bags and dog so far, but never again. I have no sympathy for the people that work in tourism in Vietnam. This was just a taste of what was to come.

Checking into my hotel I was moved to another, the hotel overbooked. Thankfully they put me up in a nicer hotel, and it wasn't too far away! I arrived at the new hotel and was greeted immediately by "sorry ma'am, please take off your jewelry and don't carry anything when you're outside, and don't go out alone at night." I was wearing a trinket necklace, but the bellboy was adamant that someone would rip it off my neck anyway.
Also, don't talk on the phone in public. Motorbike drive by thefts are ridiculously common. Wow, welcome to Vietnam!

My first day one of the bellboys offered to drive me around to some tourist spots in exchange for a beer and a meal. No too shabby! I saw some things I wanted to tour later on and got an experience in the intense two wheeled traffic. Scary.
The next day I went on a bus tour in the afternoon with "The Sinh Tourist". For less than 10$ I had guided tours of the old presidents palace, the war museum and an external view of the Notre Dam replica. I took some good pictures, but it was hot and I was lugging Doger around with me all day.
Later on after I ate some very overpriced food (for some reason I didn't have any luck with dining) I decided to go for a massage. Massages were much more expensive than Thailand. Twice the price, but I did get an amazing massage. I had a full body massage and cucumber face mask. The massage was intense and the masseur, a young Vietnamese guy who's name I can't remember, was not shy about covering every aspect. Stretching, pressure points, similar to a Thai massage but more gentle. And 2 hours :-)) it was awesome.
And then, it got a bit too comfortable. Assuming the guy was experienced, his movements were subtle and hard to tell if they were intentional... At first.
Fingers got pushed a little too close to my girly parts. Hands squeezed a little too low from my pectorals. I didn't say anything, he was too subtle, and he didn't push it. No happy ending but I'm sure if I said something it could have headed that direction. And the weird thing is, there were 2 others getting massages in the same room.
That was the mildest dirty massage I got in Vietnam. And I never asked for it btw, and I never gave any implication that I wanted to be groped. Twice was by women. Really awkward. Moving on... I met a young American Vietnamese guy who was from Nha Thrang, a beach town I read about that sounded like a fun place to explore. I was motivated... I went and bought an overnight bus ticket.
After one more night and one more dirty massage, I hurried to the tourist office and bought a ticket to Nha Trang.
After sampling some roast dog (with great reluctance) I asked the bellhop for a ride to the bus. He took me and my little one to district one where I would wait for a few hours before catching the bus... I figured if he had time we could share a drink and I would enjoy the company, but instead he asked me to go to a hotel with him. Wtf? Didn't you just spend two days showing me pictures of your beautiful wife and baby? I of course declined, without profanity, so he said "no way I don't want to hang out with you. I want to go to a hotel with you." And he drove away. That was my Ho Chi Minh experience.

I spent the night on a bus with very small beds, Doger at my feet and a very cramped ride. Not the most fun! We arrived very early in Nha Trang but thankfully it wasn't an issue to check into the hotel, they are accustomed to the early bus arrivals. My hotel was across the street from the tourist office (bus stop) so I didn't have to get ripped off by a taxi! I checked in, had a shower, and wandered about looking for something to eat. The city was covered I'm Russian so I didn't understand a lot, menus in Vietnamese and Russian, and loads of foreigners (guessing Russian.) everywhere I looked the food was not cheap, most stuff around 10$. After Thailand, spending more than 5$ was a gourmet meal and I was on a budget! I ate noodle soup most of the time, or crappy sandwiches, or whatever I could scrounge up. 7-11 doesn't exist here so I can't get cheap eats so easily. Only badly fries eggs. Sigh. Oh well, I had one really good bowl of noodle soup for 1$ and after that my culinary luck ran out. Ate some crocodile. Pizza and even a hamburger (being a pesco vegetarian that was a dumb idea but it tasted good at the time)
I really enjoy Phö (Vietnamese noodle soup) and thankfully Calgary has a large Vietnamese population offering many options for authentic dining experiences, and honestly I enjoy it more than when I actually stayed in Vietnam.
I was fed something similar to ichiban without the broth, and it was terrible. But I eat what is put in front of me, c'est la vie! I do love mama noodles, and had the opportunity to hit up a grocery store and buy a bunch. Great late night snack, cup of noodles!
I spent a few days on my own but later on my way to find something to do I was directed to the idea of a booze cruise. Turns out it was off season, but the Booze Cruise Bar became my new home. The owner is a nice American guy and he took me in. He actually has several apartment style rooms above the bar for roughly 30$ a night. Each room boasts a giant flatscreen TV, modern kitchen, rain style showers and balconies. And the beds are so comfortable! While sitting and enjoying a cheap draft, I was introduced to Adam. Another nice American who flew in the same day to help John with his bar. He was exhausted, which made for a very fun night of drinking! The group grew larger as time went on, and at one point I ended up on the rooftop bar of the Sheraton with several enormous Swedish guys, a couple Americans and some KILLER Long Island iced teas. I don't remember leaving, but I found Hong Kong coins in my bathroom and evidence of devouring mama noodles the next morning. Good times.
I decided to use the kitchen the next day, this is when I got to grocery shop (which I love doing in foreign countries!). I filled my basket with herbs, veggies and whatnot, found a random fish that looked similar to salmon or trout. (A fillet.). I bought some chillies and a can of fish and my goal was to replicate a delicious dish I enjoy in Thailand.
I invited Adam for a nice dinner, and that it was. I rocked it. The fish was buttery and delicious, the "Bplaa Grapong" was spicy, fresh and perfect! I made green beans and it all went together perfectly. Mmm.
Thus began a beautiful friendship. I'm sad to say I lost Adams email, but I'll never forget the time I spent there. We went on a few misadventures, including sunburn massages (where he didn't get a happy ending but twice I had women scrap their fingernails against my vagina until I yelped and leapt away from their hands. They always laughed.) dining and drinking.
I also met a very pleasant and drunk Australian guy named Mark. One night I was sat at the bar drinking alone, when Mark introduced himself to me. He was absolutely plastered, having drank two fishbowls already (roughly 7 types of booze and a giant fishbowl.) small talk aside, he got angry with me when I said I was not single and repeatedly said "I should kiss you, you're gorgeous." I'm not, but he had his beer goggles on. He invited me to share his fishbowl and I thought "what the hell. He shouldn't be left to finish this all by himself." It was so good... But then he orders a THIRD. what the hell was the bartender thinking? Mark fell of his stool, dropped his belongings, and I eventually found what hotel he was staying at (thank god he had a card in his wallet) and helped the bartender carry him to a taxi. I tried to take money from his wallet to pay the driver but he lashed out, told me to fuck off and not touch his shit (understandable) so I said ok and left him to his devices.
Earlier when he was a little more sober, I had given him my email and said if he wanted to hang out to email me. I also said "if you remember who I am". I had quite a surprise when the next day I received an apology in my inbox!
Another beautiful friendship full of misadventures... This is where it gets ugly.

Mark and I had a very drunken night and decided we wanted cheap eats... Noodles it was! We hopped on 2 motorbike taxis at 2am and ripped down the street for a bite. I pulled out my beautiful iPhone 4S to snap a shot of Mark and his noodles as the taxi drivers patiently waited for us to finish eating and go back to the bar. On the way back my driver offered me cocaine and after I declined admitted he was already high... Great. Upon dropping us off, my driver grabbed me in a hug, more like a molesters kidnapping stance. Arms pinned head pulled back I stood there frozen thinking what a weirdo... He kept saying I was a good person in his broken English, and finally left. Mark said, dude, check your shit, that was a fucked up hug I think he robbed you. Wouldn't you know it, iPhone is GONE.
I called it but it was already turned off. Motherfucker..... And I can do nothing. Canadian phone, not going back to Canada for months, I can't replace it or anything it holds. Fortunately I backed up my phone to iCloud the day before so I still had my photos. Sigh. Funny enough, the two bikes returned about twenty minutes later, so I tried to take a picture of the guy who ripped me off. He got very angry and tried to say he was some kind of person who was honest and cannot have his photo taken. So I took a shot of his motorbike license plate instead. That pissed him off! He and his friend chased us around the bar yelling in Vietnamese, trying to grab my camera. My driver started ripping his shirt off and Mark took this as a sign of "let's get the fuck out of here"... Woah.
The next day we drank to my misfortune and I debated going to the police... I spoke with some people and we all agreed the phone was gone forever, but maybe I could collect insurance. So the next day I went to the police station with Mark and we made our statements. I showed them the photograph of the license plate, and within 20 minutes they brought the guy in! He gave me the evil eye and said I was a bad person... Mark and I shuddered and exchanged nervous glances. The cops drove us around, picked up a girl from the bar to translate, drove to where we ate noodles, drove to the spot where the "hug" took place... Several hours later it was done and we rushed back to the bar for a quick drink and agreed we should lay low for a while. Time to switch bars. Before we could finish hour drinks,me guy shows up (not on his bike, mind you... The cops must have confiscated it.) and I tried to hide from him as he confronted the bar staff. Nope, he saw me. I felt terrible and embarrassed and scared as he cried out with tears in his eyes, "why? why? Wy you do this? I good person! I no have phone! How much? I pay!" He throws his arms in the air, fell to his knees, reached out to grab me when a few others stepped in and I ran off. He left very fast... And Mark and I as well. We decided to share a meal, and shook off the feelings we gathered that day. We shared a beautiful and spoilt Indian food meal, and I offered to pay since he helped me so much. I could not have made it through all that without my awesome Aussie. Thanks, Mark.
After that sorrowful event I decided I had enough of Nha Trang. Only 5 more days to kill I wanted to go home!
Mark and I bumped into each other once more, and decided to grab a bite together. We were stopped in the street by what seems a motorcycle gang... And waved the vendors away from whatever they were selling... I was slightly intimidate, but after a moment Mark smiled and said "oh hey buddy!" And shook hands with one of the bikers. They started to chat and from what I understood mark had taken a motorbike tour of the city, and these were Motorbike tour drivers. I mentioned that I was planning to leave for Dalat, I had spotted a brochure earlier for a 3 day trip and I figured it would preoccupy me and help me forget about my luck.
The drivers said "let's go somewhere and talk." Uh oh... Mark without reluctance hopped on the back of a bike and I was told to hop onto another, and we drove off. Where are they taking us??!!
To an empty restaurant coffee shop that had no people or food! But then Marks friend pulls out a book. It's a list of tours they do for multiple days around the country!
Photos, guest book, I was hooked. It was less than the bus tour, and one on one. Every hour or two you stop and explore a tourist spot, eat, drink, take pictures, and relax. No sore ass, and loads of fun! SOLD!!!
Bright and early the next morning I said my goodbyes, and met with Dtai my bike driver. He magically strapped my 30lbs suitcase to the back of his bike, and with Doger in my lap we went on our way!
This was the highlight of my trip. I smiled laughed ate drank and it was great. I saw the beautiful mountains, landscapes, farmers and locals working away making some kind of root, harvesting rice, shrimp farms in fields, coffee and the big beautiful houses from rich coffee farmers. Brick houses, bamboo and mud huts... That night we ate like kings. Live shrimp on the barby. It was gross but delicious. I can't watch... They were burned alive :-( poor shrimp. Mmmm. So good. I lost myself for a moment.
With three days of adventure upon arrival in Dalat I had time before I took the bus back to Saigon. I went to a giant night market and picked up some souvenirs for my friends... Had a snack and went on my way. It was a great trip. Thank you Easy Riders!
But will I go back to Vietnam? I don't know. I can't decide if I like it or not, of its worth all the pain and suffering. If I do go back, I know where to stay, I know who to trust, I know definitely will go Easy Riders again, but not bring an iPhone.
I really don't know. What do you think?