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.

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