Monday, September 27, 2010

Ben Tre

The bus ride to Ben Tre was probably one of the worst we've taken. There was no AC, and Vietnam is hot, so we were both sweating a lot. The seats were made of a nonporous material that trapped in heat, making it even worse. And poor Chuck had to deal with a guy who kept falling asleep on him. Actually, that was pretty funny. Well, I thought it was funny at least. I think Chuck was less amused. We had decided to sit in the very back seat because it was long, running uninterrupted across the width of the bus. Of course, we eventually picked up just enough passengers that one fellow had to join us, sitting between us before we had a chance to rearrange ourselves. It wasn't long before his head began to sink and bob. Eventually he was bent sideways towards Chuck like a palm tree in a hurricane. I was honestly quite impressed with his flexibility. I certainly can't bend like that. Chuck was pressed as far into his window as he could get, staring at me wide-eyed as I smothered my laughter. We hit a big bump at one point which woke the guy up. Chuck seized his opportunity and offered to switch places with him. Of course, the guy ended up staying awake for the rest of the trip leaving me to wonder vaguely if Chuck had just been tricked into giving up his window seat. The trip was almost three hours long. As we got closer, the scenery became less man-made and more green. The land was covered in tropical jungles. I could just see the happy little monkeys, swinging through the trees, bananas in hand, singing monkey-songs to their numerous monkey babies. Each monkey family would have a treasure trove of bananas that never ran out because the bananas trees were like overflowing fountains, constantly spewing forth giant delicious bananas. A monkey heaven. Realistically, there were probably no monkeys within five miles of us, but it was easy to imagine that there were. Ben Tre's bus station was curiously devoid of any taxis. The mystery was lessened once we realized that tourists don't go to Ben Tre. It's really not a tourist town, by any stretch of the imagination. The only reason we were there was because we had to kill some time in south Vietnam before Mom arrived. I had read they had a coconut candy factory that one could visit, but beyond that, nothing. We waited around for a while, hoping that a taxi would show up. Eventually we caved and just got moto taxis. $1 each. The ride went smoothly, and once again, I found that it was kind of fun. We arrived at our hotel which looked big and fancy from the outside, but inside it had a slightly depressing feel - empty and dead. It was cheap for being a nice hotel, though. We were rather hungry by this point, so after tossing our stuff in our room we headed back out and down the road for food. We found a few little places right nearby and took a seat at one. The woman who worked there spoke absolutely no English, and we had been very lax in learning any Vietnamese. We ordered by nodding yes as she pointed at various bins of meat and vegetables. We didn't know what they were, so we just nodded yes to everything. I tried to order water to drink, but apparently my pronunciation was so horrid that she just could not understand. I resorted to ordering the easily pronounceable "Bia ba ba ba," Or Beer 333 (the Vietnamese word for 3 is ba). Our soup ended up being fantastic though. And the beer was, admittedly, refreshing. After paying and thanking her we walked a bit into town. We were looking for deodorant and Coke, both of which were proving to be elusive. As we walked, children would say "hello" to us. Some would shout it boldly with a big, unashamed grin, while others were more shy about it. We passed a few parents and grandparents who encouraged their kids to say "hello," waving their arms in our direction in encouragement. One girl waved enthusiastically from her seat at a coffee stand with her Dad. Another girl peeped a greeting from the doorway of her home and then ran to hide behind her grandmother. Children waved from motorcycles as they drove past with their parents. We even had a few young adults say "hello" to us. It was a nice, yet overwhelming experience. I was shocked at all the greetings. They really must not get many foreigners around there. Eventually, we gave up on finding any Coke (although I did find some cheap deodorant) and headed back to the hotel. That evening we ate dinner at the hotel bar/restaurant, which was decently crowded with people watching the World Cup. Oh, those vuvuzulas were just awesome. Who doesn't love that constant buzz? I enjoyed me a nice Vietnamese iced coffee (ca phe sua da) while Chuck tried a mixed drink of some kind. A nice and relaxing evening.

Our room included a breakfast buffet, so on the 18th we were sure to wake up in time to enjoy it. It didn't end up being very exciting. Some old fried rice, pho, random meat. Then we went back to sleep for a few more hours (we do love sleep). Our day ended up being filled with laziness. We were supposed to go to the coconut candy factory, but we just didn't feel like it. We considered going swimming at the hotel pool, but we took one look at it and decided "No thanks." It was green and cloudy and obviously not maintained. I found it so strange that they had this big, fancy hotel, but didn't really seem interested in taking care of it. We went to a soup place for lunch and ordered, once again, by nodding yes to the different ingredients that the woman pointed out. A Vietnamese man struck up a conversation with us as we ate. His English was not very good, but we managed to figure out that he was a doctor of some sort, and not yet married, although he's thinking that probably next year he'll go ahead and get married. He has no girlfriend at the moment, but that shouldn't pose a problem. He'll go ahead and get married next year. That was a mindset that was certainly foreign to me. I mean, people are pretty much the same all over the world: eating, sleeping, sexing, pooping. But the nuances of how we do it can be very different. After eating and saying goodbye to our new friend we took a short walk along the river. Once again, people were very curious about us, some saying "hello" and others were even brave enough to talk to us. An older man who was out jogging stopped and chatted. He had lived for a while in Australia, so his English was pretty good. We gathered a small crowd of five or six people over the course of our conversation. They just stood nearby and stared and Chuck and me. No attempts were made to be discreet - they just openly stared. But it wasn't an aggressive stare, like how some parts of India felt. It was just genuine, idle curiosity. But it was still weird, so after finishing up our conversation we headed back to the safety of our hotel. We left the room only once more, in the evening to go the bar/restaurant for dinner and drinks. Chuck brought his Thai language-learning book along and had me quiz him. I hadn't realized how much he had learned! He got everything right, and his reading was spot on. I was quite impressed, although he kept telling me how terrible he was every time I tried to tell him he was awesome. Then I practiced my Thai reading. That wasn't so good. But hey, I think it was alright for not having studied anything. The only practice I ever got was when Chuck point pointed at a sign and had me try to read it back in Thailand. After we got bored with the Thai book we headed back to the room, and eventually to sleep.

The 19th was a typical check-out day. We packed, paid, got our passports back, etc. The hotel called the bus company to pick us up. It was a free ride to the tiny bus office – that's some awesome service if you ask me. We got our tickets and waited until it was time to go. Back to Ho Chi Minh to meet up with Mom!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Can Tho

The ride to Can Tho was only 4 hours or so, making it a pretty short and easy trip. We tried reading the Vietnamese signage along the way, noticing certain words that showed up much more frequently than others and jotting them down to look up later. Once in Can Tho we were happy to discover that the bus company we used also offered a free shuttle service to your hotel of choice. The shuttle bus could only take us so far though, as our guesthouse was down one of the many small alleys that wove in, out, and around the city. Luckily, we found it pretty quickly, although it certainly didn't look much like a guesthouse. It looked more like someone living room, complete with one couch, a TV, and a coffee table. And there was no one in sight. We shouted to make our presence known and within a few moments were greeted by a short lady in PJs and a green mud mask. She led us through the room, out a back door, into another alley and back into a smaller sort of living room where we met with a woman who led us up to our room on the fifth floor. We settled in and took a brief rest before heading back downstairs to find food. The two women were still downstairs, waiting for us. I guess we hadn't checked in completely leaving them to wait as we rested in our room. Whoops. In Vietnam the rule seems to be that you must hand your passport over to the hotel for the duration of your stay. I don't know if this is a legal thing or if they figure passports are good collateral for any damage or refusal to pay - either way, you're left passport-less most of the time in Vietnam. So we dutifully handed over our passports for safe keeping, paid for our room, and deflected her attempts to sell us on a canal boat tour, telling her we'd get back to her about that. Heading down the road we found an Italian place that offered wifi, which is what we needed seeing as our guesthouse didn't have any (annoying, I know). So we ended up eating Western food for dinner and using their wifi. Afterward we took a brief stroll along the river before heading back to the guesthouse. We ended up booking a canal tour to see the floating market after all, before going to bed.

We woke up way too early on the 16th. If we were going to see the floating market in action we would have to get there bright and early. We were both surprised at how bright it already was at 5:00 AM. Unreasonably bright, if you ask me. We groggily made our way downstairs where we met with our tour guide for the day: an older woman in her PJs, missing a few teeth, and blessed with an almost childishly innocent personality. She handed over a bag containing a baguette and a bunch of finger bananas - our breakfast - and motioned for us to followed her with a toothless grin. We made the short walk to the dock, passing numerous fruit and veggie vendors on the way. How do so many people manage to get up so early? Our boat was an old, long, and narrow thing, made of wood and only wide enough to fit two people. We climbed in and took our places on the little seat while she stepped into place behind us and took hold of the rudder and motor with obvious familiarity. She yanked the starter cord a few times before it caught and we motored out into the river towards the market. Chuck and I indulged in finger bananas as we took in the scenery. To our Western, nature-starved eyes, the abundance of wild greenery was really beautiful. Stilted wooden houses perched atop the water, many looking about ready to completely topple in. They were mostly roofed with corrugated tin, although some had sections of dried palm fronds instead. We noticed people crouched down by the dirty water washing dishes, or clothing, or rinsing their vegetables. I saw one woman cutting up a chicken and tossing the bad bits in the river, and 15 minutes away from her by boat was a man taking a bath and washing his hair. In the same river. At that point, I decided that the river must not be a very clean or healthy body of water. We continued on a ways (past the floating gas station – how cool) until we could spot a small collection of boats in the distance. As we got closer we were approached by a boat shaped similarly to ours, but smaller and faster and loaded with snacks and drinks. I was thoroughly impressed with how well the driver was able to maneuver her boat using just one hand and foot as she stood at the rear, a cone hat perched sensibly on her head. As a side note, I found myself astounded at how many people really do wear cone hats in Vietnam. It's not just a false stereotype – they really do wear the cone hat. Ok, back to the boat lady. She spun herself around and lined up parallel to our boat, matched our speed and pointed at her goods. "Water?? Coka?" We declined repeatedly, and when that didn't convince her we resorted to just ignoring her. It took a few moments until she was convinced that we weren't just playing hard to get. She levered the motor once again and zoomed off to find someone else to bargain with. We neared the collection of boats in the distance, watching them grow to a size that was larger than I had expected. They were perhaps 40 feet long with very round hulls, made completely of wood and looking quite worn. I could tell which ones were loaded with goods not only because I could see the fruits of vegetables on the deck, but also because the boat would be sunk halfway down in the water, some boats looking as if they might be flooded at any moment. This floating market was more of a wholesale floating market, with each boat carrying oodles of just one item, namely pumpkins, pineapples, and watermelons. Each boat also appeared to serve as a house and people were out doing dishes or cooking as well as trying to sell their fruits. We ended up buying two pineapples as we left the small market, our boat driver making the exchange for us. As she steered down a smaller side canal she peeled the pineapples for us, leaving the stem on so that we could hold them like popsicles. She also made a stop along the river bank where some palm trees were growing out over the water and cut a few large fronds off - we had no idea what she was up to, but after some time it became apparent. She was making us jewelry! Out of palm fronds. While steering the boat. It seemed like a lot of work and concentration, but I suspect she must get bored if she does nothing but drive, so it made sense. By the end of the trip I had a pair of earrings (they "clipped on" due to their spiraled shape), two bracelets, Chuck had one bracelet, and a sword/wand with flowers woven into it. We were constantly impressed. Somewhere along the canal she pulled over to a little dock-like protrusion and pointed to a paved path that ran along the water. We managed to communicate just enough to understand that we were to meet her back at the dock after exploring whatever it was she had stopped to have us explore. So we climbed off the boat (all the while hoping she wouldn't just leave us there) and made our way down the path. We ran into a group of tourists who were all headed into a big garden or farm of some sort, so naturally, we followed them. The farm was a mix of wild overgrowth and cultured crops. Pink lotuses with yellow incense-cone-shaped seed pods. A mango tree dripping with green mangos. One spiky pineapple, nestled in a leafy cradle. Guavas, individually wrapped in a little plastic bags for protection. And my favorite was the dragon fruit. We didn't know what the plant was at first - it looked like one of the nameless vine-cactuses that grows back in Florida. Once we spotted the bright pink ornaments of fruit that were attached awkwardly to the plant we recognized it as dragon fruit right away. I was so excited at finally seeing what a dragon fruit plant looked like, that I had Chuck take a photo of me making my best dragon-face next to the thing. A small path that ran between the stands of guava trees led us back towards the canal via an open-air restaurant. I think that our boat lady had meant for us to stop and eat lunch there, but we weren't all that hungry (we'd eaten too many finger bananas perhaps) so we just got a much-needed bottle of water and headed back to the boat. She was waiting faithfully for our return and gave us one of her big, toothless grins when we came into view. She really seemed like a sweet lady. She continued paddling us down the canal for two hours, all the while weaving the palm fronds into little works of wearable art. It was a lovely - if not a bit lengthy - ride past small wooden houses tucked among the palm trees and whatever else plants that were growing unchecked. It was just what I had pictured in my head. It fit perfectly with my notions of what a rural, Asian, canal should look like. Wild with only small and simple touches of human intervention. By noon we had come full circle. The guide pulled up at the small dock we had departed from and we made our way back to the guesthouse amidst the ever present fruit, vegetable, and meat vendors that dotted the streets. Oh, we gave our guide a tip for all the leaf-jewelry. I'm pretty sure that money was first and foremost in her mind as she made them, but she did seem to be honestly appreciative when we tipped her, which was nice. What did we do for the rest of the day, you ask? Sleep, of course. We had gotten up way too early. We re-awoke a bit before sunset and headed to the Italian restaurant with the free wifi for a few hours. We booked bus tickets to the tiny little town of Ben Tre (pronounced kind of like bun-chuh - Vietnamese pronunciation is hard stuff) for the next day. We avoided eating at the Italian place, hoping to find some good Vietnamese food for dinner, and heading down the riverside promenade we found just that. There was a little area set up with tin tables and looked to be manned by three different street cart restaurants. We compared the menus quickly and chose the one that had hot pots because Chuck was craving a hot pot. Our waitress was a pretty young woman wearing a Zorok beer-girl dress. Have I mentioned beer girls? I feel like I have, but I can't seem to find it when I look back through my posts. So perhaps I'm repeating myself when I tell you about beer girls, but oh well. So, Thailand is where we first noticed beer girls. You can tell a waitress is actually a beer girl because she'll be wearing a cute, short dress with the logo of whichever beer company she works for embroidered into it. At first we thought they were just waitresses who had gone the extra mile, but it turns out they're more than that. If I understand correctly, they don't actually work for the restaurant - they work for the beer company. A restaurant can apply for, and if they're doing well enough they'll be given, napkin holders, napkins, signage, etc, all with the beer logo on them, and a beer girl. She is paid by the beer company, not the restaurant. So the restaurant gets a free waitress, and the beer company gets (hopefully) better sales thanks to all the advertising. I think it's a pretty cool system. And it works. I can attest to this because Chuck and I ended up buying Zorok beers along with our dinner, thanks to the beer girl. She was also a great waitress, helping us with a smile every step of the way, which was completely necessary given that we didn't know what to do with our food. We ordered something called "spiny with salted chilly" (yes, it was spelled "chilly"). What arrived at our table was a plate of long, thin, raw fish on skewers, covered in red sauce. We waited there for a few minutes staring at the fish, wondering if we were supposed to eat it the way it was. We looked around but didn't see anyone else with any "spiny." Chuck picked one up and gave it a sniff and a poke. I picked one up and made it talk by flipping its little mouth open and closed. We were getting close to trying it raw (I mean, we've eaten sushi...) when our Zorok girl returned with a table-top grill. I think this is point at which she realized we were like helpless children who needed to be taught how our dinner worked. She took us on as a little pet project and stayed with us to cooked our fish, gently telling us "No" when we tried to eat them before they were sufficiently cooked, and showing us how to pull the spines and ribs out by tugging on the tail. Then she helped us cook our seafood hot pot, adding all the ingredients in the correct order (can't you just throw it all in at once?) and serving us the resulting soup with a smile. She was pretty nice. The whole meal ended up costing $10 - what a deal! We walked around the city a bit after eating, but it felt kind of creepy and deserted. I have one particularly vivid memory of our walk. The road was empty save for two homeless bundles, one sitting while the other was laying on the sidewalk under a blanket. I remember that I tried not to look at them - both out of politeness (because staring is rude, or so I've been taught) and a feeling of awkwardness. But as we passed, the woman - who was staring pointedly at us - slowly pulled the blanket off the laying man. Attached to his back was a collection of twenty or so small, round, glass jars, suctioned to his skin like bulbous scales. He just layed there motionless on the sidewalk, while she stared at us. It was a very strange sight, made more sinister by the weird, pale yellow light cast by the street lamps. I only glanced at them for a split second, but it was one of those split seconds that brands you. Looking back I almost feel like I missed my chance to be part of some adventure involving witches and magic and a destiny to save the world from forces beyond any mere human's control. Like something from a movie. But really, what were the glass jars? What were they for? Was he sick? Why did she show them to us? Was she a witch-lady?? Was she going to curse us??? I think it might have been a type of "massage" called cupping, where they suction glass jars on your skin for therapeutic reasons, but I didn't learn about cupping until long, long after seeing the jar-covered man.

On the 17th Chuck got up well before I did. He went out for food while I slept. I got up close to noon, which gave me just enough time to pack and get downstairs to check out. We got our passports back, the poor things having been held hostage for the length of our stay. They were, happily, unscathed. Our transport to the bus station ended up being a motorcycle taxi. I was dreading the ride. I am not a fan of moto-taxis. First, I have a horrible sense of balance. I'm sure I could easily throw us all off balance and end up smeared on the road. And second, it's so intimate. You have to touch the driver. I mean, you have to straddle the driver. Unless you go for the more lady-like, but more precarious, side saddle position. I opted to straddle the dude, scooting as far back on the seat as I could without feeling like I was about to fall off. I'll admit it - it ended up being kind of fun riding on the back of the motorcycle, wind blowing, leaning into the turns. They still scare me, though. Once at the bus station we wandered through the crowded, dusty lot, looking for the bus with “Ben Tre” posted in the window. It ended up being less than luxurious. It was less than comfortable, even. Short and cramped with no AC. Luckily, the ride to Ben Tre would be a short one.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Ho Chi Minh I

We were seated at the very back of the bus on our ride to Ho Chi Minh. It wasn't as uncomfortable back there as one might imagine, although getting the little AC vent to point at me was nearly impossible. Honestly, I was just glad that we weren't sitting in front of the couple in front of us. They seemed to have no sense of the effects of their actions on the people around them. Either that, or they just didn't care. They would both prop their feet up on the seats in front of them, the poor fellows' who were sitting there being jerked noticeably each time they decided to change position. They guy, who was sitting next to the window, would wedge his foot between the headrest of the seat in front of him and the window, his foot just inches from the face of the poor guy who had to sit there. They would also throw their hands over the back of their seats, and in the girls case, flip her hair over, so they were taking up some of our sitting space as well. I had to sit in such a way that I avoided having her hands on me, although at one point I didn't bother moving which seemed to make her feel somewhat uncomfortable. It was really obnoxious. My evil side rejoiced in their distress when it appeared that something wasn't right with their visas. The bus attendant collected everyone's passports, but he wouldn't take theirs, pointing at their visas and speaking in a tone that said they weren't valid. It turned into a little scene at the back of the bus with them trying to compare their passports to those of the people around them (who weren't too excited about helping them out) and calling for assistance on their cellphones. It was all in Vietnamese or Cambodian, so Chuck and I couldn't understand any of it, as much as we might have liked to. By the time we got to the border crossing they had must have gotten everything sorted, because they had no problems going through. Neither did we, which is always a very good thing. By dusk we had reached the outskirts of the city. The traffic became crazier and the intersections grew bigger as we made our way to the heart of Ho Chi Minh. Masses of motorcycles waited at every stoplight (most of them waited, at least – some of them were impatient and wove their way precariously through the crossing traffic) and when it turned green a free for all battle to be the first through the intersection ensued. People swerved around and in front of each other like they were on a stunt track. I was glad that we were in a big bus rather than on a tiny motorcycle. We were dropped off in a big empty parking lot along a busy road. Hurrying over to the nearest (and only) taxi, we asked him to take us to our hotel and showed him the address. As it turned out, our hotel was just a block down the road, and the taxi was nice enough to tell us this and point us in the right direction rather than charge us for a short trip down the road. The hotel was not the guesthouse that we had expected. It had a big, glass-front window and a nicely decorated lobby with modern fixtures and furnishing. It was also more expensive than we were expecting, leading us to think that perhaps we weren't at the right hotel after all. We checked in anyways, deciding that one night in a nicer place would do us good. Once in our room we hopped online and discovered that we were, indeed, in a different hotel. It had almost the same exact name as our place, which is why we'd been fooled. We decided that while we were searching for food for dinner, we would also search for the guesthouse we had intended to go to. Thus, we took to the streets. We quickly discovered that Ho Chi Minh is filled with these cool alleyways that run through and between all the buildings. They are wide enough to fit a car in some places and in others they are narrow enough that you have to turn sideways to scoot through. Most alleys lie somewhere between these two extremes. Getting lost is very easy because it's like a huge labyrinth. We took the time to wander around and do just that. We passed by many homes whose front living rooms opened up right onto the alley - not via a door, but via the whole wall. The front wall was nonexistent, meaning that in order to shut your house at night you would have to pull down a metal shutter or something similar. It almost felt as if we were intruding as we passed by homes with people laying on the floor watching TV in their PJs or families eating dinner on the floor. There wasn't much in the way of couches or cushy chairs, so mostly people were on the floor. The guesthouse we were looking for was along one of these alleys and we found it without much trouble. The older lady that we spoke to, who I suspect was the owner (along with her husband), seemed pleased when we told her we would be coming to stay there the next day. Then we got some food on the next street over, which was another busy road that looked to be geared towards travelers. We had some pho from a tin-table restaurant that was fantastic. Pho is one of the most famous dishes from Vietnam. It's a soup made with noodles and some sort of meat, and often comes with an assortment of greens and bean sprouts to toss in if you'd like. The Vietnamese people eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it's usually pretty good. The soup we had was a great introduction to pho, but perhaps it spoiled us by setting the bar too high. I'm not sure I found another pho quite as tasty throughout our travels. The World Cup game was on while we ate. People seemed to be pretty engrossed in the games and cheering could be heard floating out of various establishments along the road. We had noticed it playing in a lot of the homes we had passed by while walking through the alleys, too. I hadn't expected Vietnam to be so interested in the games. This was also the point at which we were introduced to the unique sound experience of the vuvuzula. We could hear the buzz of the vuvuzulas before we could make out the cheering of the fans, so we could always tell when a nearby TV was tuned in to the World Cup. We weren't interested in the games ourselves though, so after eating we wandered down the road a bit just to see what was going on. Mostly noisy restaurants and lots of motorbikes. We headed back to the hotel for sleep.

In the morning we made it a point to wake up in time for the breakfast buffet. I'm not sure it was worth getting up early for, though. It consisted of some over cooked fried rice, odd bits of meat, some sauteed veggies, and pho. Afterward, we checked out of the hotel and went around the corner to the little guesthouse. It wasn't as big or fancy, but it was cozy and had a charming feel. For lunch we walked down the main road, past a a big green park to the Ben Thenh market. It was like most other markets, although perhaps the aisles were a bit more narrow and the vendors more pushy. They were bold enough that a few even tried to grab our arms and steer us into their stalls. That's really not a good way to convince me to buy your stuff. We quickly made our way through the clothing and fabric sections to the food area. There were a ton of different little stalls, although we had no clue what they each offered. Act as though we knew what we were doing, we wandered around the maze of "restaurants," finally choosing one at random. The owner/cook/waitress handed us a menu. It was all in Vietnamese. But not to worry! I had written out a list of a bunch of different Vietnamese dishes the night before, which I whipped out with a sense of triumph. I only found one item that matched though - a snail soup. Since I was feeling brave, I went ahead and ordered it. I'm not sure which bit was the snail - the chunk of unidentified, blotchy, crumbly stuff? Or maybe the purple sauce that smelled very strongly of a dirty aquarium? Either way, it was pretty good after I got used to it. I admit though, it was definitely an acquired taste. Chuck got a noodle dish with chicken on top which was a little more suited to a Western palate. After lunch we walked back to the hostel along some back streets that were, like most of the city, jam-packed with businesses of all sorts. Perhaps an indication of a booming economy? One can hope. For dinner we went down to a place busy with locals. The tables and chairs were sized for children, but Vietnam has a thing for small, short tables and chairs. Within 10 minutes of squeezing my butt into the tiny chair, the sky opened up and let loose a torrential downpour. Being that the restaurant was located on the corner of a busy intersection, we got to watch all the traffic going by in the rain. It was pretty entertaining. My favorite were the motorcyclists who didn't have any rain gear on, hunched over and soaking wet. Most people seemed to be smart enough to have ponchos though, which they draped over not just themselves, but as much of their motorbike as possible, leaving them with a faded blue or green or yellow headlight, depending on what color the poncho was. The rain didn't effect how they drove - they still barreled through the intersection, weaving amongst themselves. Some people ignored the lights and others even resorted to taking shortcuts down the sidewalk. Our dinner was a tasty dish I had written on my list of Vietnamese foods. It was like Vietnamese fajitas in a way, because it was an assemble-at-table dish. We were given a plate of all the ingredients: sheets of stiff rice "paper” wrappers, rice noodles, cucumber, pineapple, bean sprouts, lettuce, and the star ingredient, grilled, pepper-leaf wrapped beef. You just pile a bit of everything on the middle of a piece of rice wrapper, roll it up like a spring roll, and ingest. It was good stuff. Because of the rain, we were finished eating long before we actually went back to the guesthouse. It was close to midnight when the weather let up enough for us to hurry back and to bed.

I slept in on the morning of the 15th, whereas Chuck was awoken early by some stomach pains. I remember him waking me up briefly at some point to tell me that my Mom had decided to come to Vietnam and would be arriving in four days. She had been considering flying over for a few weeks already, but hadn't made her final decision until that point. She would need a new passport, a Vietnamese visa, and a decent, cheap plane flight, which is a lot to ask for on such short notice. The stars must have aligned themselves just right, because she found a flight, got her visa, and decided to come out. Upon hearing the news I mustered up as much excitement as I could in my unconscious state and went back to sleep. I have to admit that I was both excited and nervous about seeing my Mom for the first time in over a year. I wouldn't know what to expect. But I put that aside, deciding I'd be able to deal with it whenever the time came. It wasn't until noon that I woke up for good. I woke up to find that the AC was off and the power had gone out. We packed our stuff up, happy to be leaving the slowly warming room, and headed downstairs for breakfast before we checked out. While enjoying my raisin filled pastry and sweet, iced, Vietnamese coffee (I love their coffee...made with sweetened condensed milk) I realized that the power hadn't actually gone out - it had been turned off. As far as I could figure, the owners had shut off the power. My best guess is that they were trying to save money on their energy bill. Either that or there were mandatory electricity restrictions. This was the first time we had encountered this voluntary (or forced if that was the case) power conservation in all our travels. Usually when the power goes out in a hotel it's accidental, not intentional. But they seemed happy and content to have no electricity, so whatever. We finished breakfast, checked out, and hopped in our pre-paid taxi to the bus station. We had booked bus tickets to Can Tho the night before, and the ride to the station was included in the price. The taxi had this cute, unique feature where it would play a little song whenever the turn signal was on. It was hideously out of tune and sounded terrible, but it grew on me after a bit. I think a lot of the vehicles in Vietnam have little songs that play when turning or backing up. I'm not sure what's up with that - I guess they like music. The taxi ride was long enough that we began to wonder if we weren't being kidnapped, but after 40 minutes we pulled up in front of the big, busy bus station. Our driver jumped out and dashed to a ticket window to get the tickets, then drove us around through the maze of buses to a waiting room filled with people. Apparently we would have to wait for a few hours because the bus we had intended to catch (the one we had been told we had a reservation for) was already full. So we sat and waited. At some point it began to rain and the room got even more crowded. We watched people come and go and Chuck made the observation that they walked the same way they drove. Holding the door for someone else looked to be unheard of. If there were two people, one going out and one coming in, instead of one waiting for the other to pass through first, they would both push through the doorway past each other. There didn't seem to be a sense of awareness about the people around you and it was common to see one person pass in front of another and then just stop to look in their purse or check their cellphone, forcing the other fellow to now have to go around. It's sort of like you just do whatever you feel like without paying much attention to anyone else. This is exactly how traffic seemed to work as well. I wonder which came first? Eventually our bus pulled up. We stood up, along with the rest of the room, and squeezed our way through the door, then squeezed our way onto the bus where we were happy to find padded seats and AC. Off to Can Tho.