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.

Amazing who you meet on the street in Hoi An

There’s more to Hoi An than shopping. While we definitely took advantage of the opportunity to have clothes custom made, we also made time to enjoy the town. With everything moving at a much slower pace, and the Old Town district closed to scooters, it was a great place to just walk around and explore.

Our first full day in Hoi An started early with a trip to see the fish come into the market at 5:30 in the morning. While the streets between the hotel and the market were largely empty, the market was buzzing under the tarps. Of course, the tarps were set up to keep the locals dry which meant I had to walk around bent in half or stand with my head through a hole. It was great to be the only non locals walking around the market, though a few other morning tourists joined us eventually.

Early morning at the Hoi An market

After the market, believe it or not, we decided to go for a run. Conveniently, we were told that the beach was about 4 km from the hotel. It may just have the time off. It could have been the early morning. Maybe the humidity we weren’t used to, or the rough roads and traffic dodging, but it was a long 4 km. My guess is that our round trip was 10 km. Whatever the distance, it was good to get out for some exercise. While it was cloudy, the beach was nice and we had an opportunity to see the fishermen coming in on their round boats; they look like giant soup bowls. It’s pretty impressive that they can stand up in the surf, let alone steer them into shore.

Coracle landing on Hoi An beach.

After some much needed rest, a shower and a second breakfast (the fruit before the run had long since been expended), we headed back into town. As we rounded a corner near the market, we bumped into Kevin and Vanessa. While we knew before we came to SE Asia that we would see them, and had even confirmed by email that we would potentially cross paths in Hoi An, it was still odd to turn the corner and find them walking towards us. We had a chance to catch up quickly in the street and more over dinner that night at Mango Rooms. It was great to see them, and their two month trip definitely makes our 2.5 weeks seem far too short. They also gave us plenty of reasons to come back to this area to visit Lao.

Dinner at Mango Rooms.

Our two evenings in Hoi An also gave us a chance to see the lanterns that light up the town at night.

Stimulating the Vietnamese Economy

Hoi An has been our favourite stop so far. It’s smaller with a pedestrian friendly old town that you can wander around comfortably. It doesn’t hurt that it was warmer. We were in shorts and t-shirts pretty much the whole time.

Our drive from Hue to Hoi An included a quick stop at the Marble Mountain in Da Nang. Actually, we never really stopped in Da Nang, but you can see just from driving through how different it is going to be in a few years. All along the coast massive hotels are being built by the likes of Le Meridien. A little further down the road Colin Montgomery has just designed a new golf course. I only hope that some of the guests of these resorts actually get a chance to see Vietnam, that they don’t become gated communities with little outside contact.

Sculpture in one of the Marble Mountain caves.

Maybe it was seeing all this foreign investment in Vietnam, or just Katy’s love of a good deal, but once we arrived in Hoi An, it didn’t take us long to start doing a little economic stimulating of our own.

We knew before arriving that Hoi An is the place for buying clothing and it didn’t disappoint. I was able to get two made-to-measure suits and two shirts, all for what you would pay for just the shirts in Toronto. Katy did even better with a range of items from dresses, to skirts to jackets. A few of the items she had made had the women sitting at the table next to us quite impressed and asking for directions.

The trick now is getting it all home. We’ve managed to get everything in our luggage. Now we just have to hope it all irons out well when we get home.

Peeing in the corner – The importance of reading the fine print

Some downtime at the airport means a chance to catch up on these posts; we’ve been busy.

Hue, a town in central Vietnam, is the centre of Buddhism in Vietnam. Once the seat of Vietnam’s royal family it’s also full of history.

We were only there for two days and one night, but managed to see a fair bit in that time. Our visit started with a tour of the Tu Duc Royal Tomb. Just outside of town and very picturesque, the tomb complex was beautiful and one of Katy’s favorite stops. Though Hue was founded in the 17th century, I was surprised to find that the Tombs date from the 19th century (1802-1945). This seems to be a bit of a common theme in Vietnam, everything being from more recent history than I anticipated.

Statues at the Royal Tomb

Man made Ponds at Royal Tomb

After the Royal Tomb we toured the Citadel. Again from the 19th Century, the design is a mix of Chinese design principles and French military design. Though there has been a bunch of restoration, you can see some of the damage left by fighting during the Tet Offensive from the American War.

After a quick stop for lunch at a restaurant called Lac Thien for some delicious Banh Khoi, we went to the Thien Mu Pagoda. The Pagoda provided three things: great pictures, as usual, a moral dilemma, and the title of this post. The picture below illustrates the moral dilemma, is it appropriate to take pictures of people participating in religious acts? In this case, the ceremony was open to the public, which is how I justified this picture, but I’m always a bit unsure.

Monk at Thien Mu Pagoda

Now for the post headline. As we were walking around the grounds of the Pagoda, Maggi, a member of our group from Britain, decided to visit the toilet. She saw the WC sign and a monk coming out of a door. As he left, in she went.

About 10 minutes later, I decided to take advantage of the toilet before our boat ride down the Perfume River back to our hotel. I headed off in the in the same direction as Maggi had gone earlier. However, when I got closer I noticed that beneath the WC on the sign it said “20 m” with an arrow. With this additional information, I walked past the building Maggi had entered and found a full public toilet. Needless to say, this left me wondering where Maggi had gone.

As we sat on the boat, I asked Maggi how her trip to the toilet had gone. She looked at me somewhat oddly before explaining how there had been a small hole in the corner and a bucket of water with a ladle of some sort that she used to pour water down the hole when she was finished. I smiled and watched her face get increasingly red as I told her of my discovery 20 meters down the path. The best we can figure, with some input from our guide, is that she used the monks’ shower as her toilet. It could have been worse, a monk could have walked in on her.

The moral of the story, don’t blindly follow religious figures. They might not be leading you where you think. Oh, and always read the fine print.

Same, Same, Different

Made it to Hoi An today.

The drive from Hue to Hoi An was an interesting one, full of honking and swerving into oncoming traffic. I find driving along the highways in “developing” countries really interesting. It gives you a feel for the scale of the country, let’s you see how people get around and gives you a glimpse into life outside of the cities. It’s also interesting because it’s so similar in many countries, be it here in Asia, in South America or Africa… Yet, it’s also different. As they would say here, “same, same, different”.

The differences are easy to spot, rice paddies here in Vietnam vs. dessert in Jordan, but it’s harder to put a finger on the similarities. For one thing there is the idea that lines on the road are really just suggestions. Of course there’s the road quality, but that varies even if you move from Ontario to Quebec. Perhaps the unifying thing about countries like Vietnam is that life really exists on the side of the road. People are waiting for buses, live stock is roaming around and there are stalls everywhere.

Anyway, I suppose that’s more of a thought of the day than an update, but that’s all I’ve got for now. The hotel here has wifi in the rooms, so I’ll get a post up about Hue tomorrow. I the meantime it’s getting late and we have plans to be up early at the market to see the fish come in.

One picture from Hue:

Somewhere between Hanoi and Hue…

So, I’m not that old, but it’s amazing how the technology side of travel has changed. I remember standing in random phone booths in Europe to be able to check in with home. Now, I’m lying on an overnight train from Hanoi to Hue updating a blog.

Despite the uncooperative weather, cold and rainy, Halong Bay was still beautiful and well worth the three hour drive from Hanoi. The stunning islands are apparently the result of selective erosion or dragons, depending on who you choose to believe; obviously the rational person will believe dragons.

The Junk Boat on which we spent the night was anything but junky. Our room, yes we had a private room, came with a double bed and private bathroom including a shower with hot water. The food on the boat, primarily seafood, was plentiful to say the least. For the vegetarians among us, it came in the form of every vegetable or fruit on the boat deep fried. normally I lose weight when we travel…that doesn’t look likely this time.

Halong Bay – squid fishing in a UNESCO site

Squid fishing is easier than you would think, after bobbing a lure up and down for 20 minutes or so we had an excited squid trying to ink on our guide.

We also had a chance to get out on kayaks with Mr. Ha in the morning before heading back to port. Our early morning start time paid off when we found ourselves alone in the lagoon.

Halong Bay picture of Mr. Ha leading the way.

Overnight trains – not for those over 6 ft.

So, the sleepers in the overnight train aren’t meant for the tall, but I can hardly complain. While we can at least stretch out a bit and are only on the train for 13 hours. Those in the “hard chair” carriage ahead of us have only wooden benches. To make it worse, many of them while be making the trip all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), a trip that takes three days and two nights.

Hanoi is a one day city.

After some much needed sleep we got our first real look at Hanoi today. The conclusion: Hanoi is a one day city. This doesn’t mean that you couldn’t spend more time here, just that you can easily see all the highlights and not feel like you’ve missed anything.

A few highlights:

One thing that struck me was the subtle propaganda that still runs through official information. Actually, “local spin” might be more accurate. An example is the text in the exhibits at the Lao Ho prison, that describes “the imperialist” Americans and the “patriotic revolutionaries”. A little different from how our neighbors would describe things.

Koto, a non-profit restaurant that trains street kids for work in the service industry while giving them a safe place to live and an education was a get places for lunch. That’s true whether or not you know about the positive impact it’s having.

Some things are easier to show than tell so, few pictures: (video may follow, if i can get the upload to work)

Katy makes a new friend.

And of course, traffic:

Vietnam first impression and a couple of pictures

It’s been about 27 hours since we got up, so its definitely time for bed and I’ll keep this short.

The one thing that has struck me so far is how similar the drive in from the airport to the city is, regardless of the city. The people have been nice so far and the hotel room is much nicer than anticipated.

Looking forward to getting out to see Hanoi in the daylight tomorrow.

Here are a couple of pictures:

Katy’s first thought upon reaching the hotel.

Killing some time in Hong Kong’s airport

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