The Adventures of Pickpocket Pam and Driver Dan

So, it turns out that when your Gap Adventures guide warns you that there is a risk of people trying to rob you while driving by on a scooter, they aren’t kidding. To prove this point our fearless leader Shane subjected himself to just such an incident.

At about 10:30 in the evening, while walking home from dinner to the hotel, Shane met two new Vietnamese friends, we’ll call them Pickpocket Pam and Driver Dan. While driving past, Pam tried to stick her hand in Shane’s pocket to grab his wallet. Fortunately Shane not only realized what was happening, he actually did something. Where I would have, judging by past history, curled up to protect my pizza (ok, there was no pizza, but it’s my only frame of reference), Shane protected his wallet while grabbing the back of the scooter. The sudden drag on the scooter sent driver Dan and his quick fingered sidekick flying. Apparently not able to recognize a lost cause when they saw one, the less than dynamic duo continued their attack rather than making a run for it. The result? Shane’s foot through the engine, rendering the scooter scrap, and both Dan and Pam spending time in headlocks. Unfortunately Shane wasn’t without injury as Pam bit him, that’s right, I said bit him, while in the headlock.

Adding to the evidence that our new anti-heroes aren’t going to be winning Nobel prizes anytime soon, the whole incident took place in front of a police station. Shane was able to call them just by yelling and both were arrested. While my limited understanding of the Vietnamese justice system suggests a small bribe will leave Pam and Dan free to try again, some solace can be found in that they are out the cost of a bribe, need a new bike, and suffered a minor ass whooping at the hands of a vertically challenged Irishman.

Despite all that, and a three hour stay at the hospital to get shots for the bite, Shane was only a few minutes late meeting us for the transfer to the airport for our flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The hotel in Siem Reap was only 15 minutes from the airport and it was quite the shock when we arrived. It’s gorgeous! All of our other hotels up until this point have been great but this one definitely stands out. We normally save a nice hotel stay for the end of the trip but I suspect our hotel on the beach in Thailand will look like a hovel in comparison.

Tara Angkor Hotel, Siem Reap

With no planned activities, we spent the afternoon by the saltwater pool before going into town for dinner at Moksha. With a 4:30 am start coming, to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, bed followed shortly after.

Two lessons today. For the criminals out there, think twice before messing with an Irishman. For us travelers, tight shorts are our another example of fashion protection. Just imagine what tight shiny shorts could do!

Ôi Chúa ơi the Cu Chi tunnels are tight.

The focal point of our second day in Saigon was a trip to see the Cu Chi tunnels. Dug between 1948 and 1968 the tunnels were used by the Vietcong while fighting the Americans.

The site seems to be very well preserved and set up to give you a taste of what it must have been like, both to live in them and to try and attack them, neither of which I would have enjoyed in the least. It’s not hard to see how difficult life would have been living there or how terrifying it would have been for the Americans.

The tunnel exits seem to be everywhere, there are 200 km worth, and though they have been widened for tourists, they’re still very, very small. This is especially true for those of us over 6 ft., as two of us in our group are. The tunnels were made as small as possible to make it harder for the larger American GIs to fit. As you may know, I may be tall but I’m far from “big”, and this is even more true for Russell, our other six foot plus guy on tour, but it was definitely a squeeze for me to try and fit through the little entrance. Once inside, it was very dark, stuffy and claustrophobic. Only three in our group made the full little tourist journey, the rest dropped out at various intervals. I can’t imagine living down there for days on end.

Now you see her…

Now you don’t.

The tour highlighted some of the ingenious, and gruesome, inventions that the Vietcong made. One I had wondered about before our visit was, if they cook down there, how do they avoid having the smoke give them away. The answer is a 15 ft chimney that leaks the smoke out so it blends into the fog. The other inventions were less constructive: various booby traps. Most of them, ironically made with metal scavenged from US bombs, involved spearing those unlucky enough to find one.

The one aspect of the site that I found a bit inappropriate was the gun range where you can fire war era, and scale, weapons, e.g. M16 rifles and bigger things. With the tunnels underfoot and the guns pounding in the background, it’s not hard to understand why some visiting vets find it to be too much. I can’t imagine that the locals living nearby appreciate hearing the weapons that killed so many on a daily basis.

Along the route between the tunnels and Saigon we stopped to see how rice paper for spring rolls is made. Turns out, it’s harder than it looks. Apparently the women teaching us can do 500 an hour. Katy gave it a try. She struggled to get one done, as did everyone who tried.

Katy explores the mysteries of rice paper making.

Back in Saigon, we walked over to have lunch at Pho 2000, the same restaurant Clinton ate at when he was in Vietnam in 1995 after the US embargo was lifted. The Pho was really good and cheap to boot.

Presidential Pho.

The afternoon saw us strolling around town window shopping. We also stopped at the Majestic Hotel to have a drink at the rooftop patio overlooking the river. The patio was great and offered a great view of the city. It definitely wasn’t cheap, my beer cost four times the one I had at lunch, though still much cheaper than it would have cost at home.

Roof top drink in Saigon at the Majestic.

We planned to have dinner in the market but, having been there the night before, we decided to check out the backpacker district instead. Not surprisingly, the area was full of young travelers and cheap places to eat and drink. We picked one that looked good and watched the people flow by. All in all, a perfect way to finish another great day.

No real lessons learned today, but if your Vietnamese is a little rusty, you may be wondering about the title of this post. Well, “Ôi Chúa ơi” (pronounced oi-choi-oi) means “oh my god”.

Saigon at night. Not bad for the backpacker district.

One goes down, the other six million keep on rolling.

After a short flight from Hoi An, via Danag airport, we arrived in Saigon, a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City.

So, the name thing. Let’s deal with that first. I think we can all agree, Saigon is a much better name than Ho Chi Minh City. I know the communists won, but they don’t exactly show a flare for naming. As exhibit B I give you the “American Killer Hero” award given out during the war.

After a quick check-in at the hotel, we headed over to the War Remnants Museum, another marvel of communist naming. I can only imagine that it happened something like this:

– Comrade 1: “hmm, what do we do with all this left over stuff from the war?”
– Comrade 2: “we shall put it in a museum that tells the story of this glorious victory. The Museum of Left Over Stuff.”
– Comrade 1: “I don’t know, that’s kind of boring.”
– Comrade 2: “ok, what about the War Remnants Museum?”
– Comrade 1: “nice, now we’re talking”

Despite the boring name, the museum was actually quite interesting, remnants and all. I was expecting it to be pretty biased, which it was, but not nearly to the degree I expected. In fact, I suspect that many of the facts quoted, many very disturbing, were accurate. What was missing was context. As with most history, I’m sure the truth lies somewhere between the American version and that of the Vietnamese.

Close up with a Huey.

After the museum we regrouped with our traveling companions and went off on a Cyclo tour. As was the case in Hanoi, the Cyclos were a great way to see the city at a pace that lets you digest things, but with someone else worrying about getting you through the traffic. We saw most of the highlights of Saigon, once known as the “Paris of the Orient”, from the Cyclo and then ended our tour with a nice dinner in the heart of the city.

Cyclos… Kind of like glorified wheelchairs.

Saigon is a very nice city. I like the mix of new and old; it was very evident that this is the commercial centre of the country. I find that the look can be best imagined by combining Toronto’s Chinatown with some of the architecture of a European city.

I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the traffic. In a city of eight million, there are six million scooters. At times it feels like all six million are trying to get though one intersection, at one time… in all four directions. In short, it’s crazy. The craziest I’ve seen so far, it even makes the Middle East seem relatively tame.

That said, I think another good word for it is “organic”; it’s kind of like a river or school of fish. Therein lies the secret to being a pedestrian in Saigon. Before, I would have described it as a life size game of frogger, but really it’s more like wadding into a river or swimming with a school of fish. The trick is to move in slowly, at a consistent pace and with a sense of purpose. If you do that, the traffic will adapt and flow around you. Well, except for the taxis. Some of those guys are just bastards looking to take people out!

A typical medium sized intersection.

With that many scooters flying around, there are bound to be some accidents. It didn’t take long before we saw one. Here we saw the other organic side of the traffic, survival of the fittest. He went down mid-pack and anyone who wasn’t directly impeded just kept moving along. Fortunately he wasn’t badly hurt and was up on his scooter chasing the pack pretty quickly once again. The secret to his safety? Shiny pants. With pants that shiny he just slid safely along on a cushion of shimmer until he had come to a stop.

Today’s lesson: Shiny pants aren’t just for looking good.

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