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Journal Entries - Trip South

The Trip Begins - First Impressions, Hanoi - Sapa - Trip South - Ho Chi Minh City

What a Bus Ride

Thursday, May 20, 2004 – Abe Kaufman

Ha, now that was an ironic situation. We purchased bus tickets from Hanoi to Hue, which is in central Vietnam about 600 km from Hanoi, for a mere 6 dollars, which is by all means a steal. We boarded the bus just outside of the travel agency in downtown Hanoi, with only a handful of other passengers. When we bought our tickets they said it was a brand new air-conditioned bus, so we were fairly optimistic about our upcoming ride. My first fears about the bus ride were introduced when I learned that our bus was not equipped with an on-board bathroom. That caused me great concern given that our ride was going to be about 13 hours long. Given that information I refrained from drinking anything almost the entire ride. Anyways, things were still going pretty good, the bus was not even half full, so each of sprawled across multiple seats, enjoying the cold air blowing on our faces from the vents. I even got up and laid across five seats in the back of the bus, what luxury I thought. I wondered how they could afford to take this huge bus all the way to Hue with only a handful of people aboard. Well, my questions were soon answered when the driver stopped at the other end of Hanoi. Here, the passenger count on the bus at least doubled, if not more. I still wasn’t complaining much, even thought I was now crammed into a single seat, I figured I could still sleep some on the overnight ride. I would say the funniest moment of the whole trip, was when the seat next to Denver became occupied, and instantaneously, the seat in front of him was reclined by its owner, leaving him a tiny cubicle of space. Needless to say, the expression on his face changed drastically.


Hanh’s version of the bus ride

Hanh Nguyen

Ok, after reading Abe’s opinion on the bus ride, this is the same story from my point of view. Needless to say, it is “tough” to ride on the bus with loud obnoxious Americans like Holly and Abe. They jumped into the bus. Abe was so excited about the long trip that he put all his energy punching at the back of my seat… all the men in the bus turned around immediately, thinking Abe was abusing me… ready to protect me and kick him out of the bus. I had to try to smile… (a little bit of exaggeration here .. but 80% was true!)

For a while, the whole bus was quietly listening to Abe and Holly’s conversation in a strange language. But these two foreigners were really into the conversation that they hardly notice that. After a while, Holly felt asleep forgetting to ask for a sleeping pill. As usual, Abe made a new friend in the bus. His new friend made a good attempt to practice his English, which was complimented as “very good” by Abe. Abe asked the new friend: “How old are you?” He couldn’t understand. So Abe pulled out a new question starting with “How many years…?” I was very curious to see how he would finish up the question but he never did…

On my left, my bother slept unconsciously. I looked to my right side, on the other row of the seats, there Denver seated with his new neighbor. His new neighbor seemed very comfortable. He was all over the places while Denver cuddled up holding his computer or his bag (I forgot) at one corner. The guy in front of him at the same time laid his seat down very far, which gave Denver no space to move. :o( . I don’t think that Denver enjoyed the ride so much.

At one point during the trip, the bus stopped and we were released for a bathroom break. Too sleepy to find the way out for myself, I followed the crowd thinking that that would lead me to the bathroom. But surprisingly, the crowd started to spread out under the moon light, each person each corner in a big open area. Not until then I noticed that I’ve followed a crowd of men who avoided doing their business in a proper way. Embarrassed, I turned around like I didn’t notice what was going on.

It was a fun trip… good chance for me to see how each of us acts in a different environment.


Being Tourists

May 22, 2004 - Holly Showalter

It was Hué where we were really made aware of our status as “foreigners.” Every entrance price to every pagoda, tomb, or monument was listed twice – for Vietnamese and for “foreigner.” When we were charged 55,000 đong, Dũng and Hạnh paid 10,000. Coincidentally, it was on the Perfume River in Hué that a not-so-exceptional boat tour was made memorable by a band of comrades who shared this honorable identity.

Two middle-aged German speaking couples and a well-groomed, younger, picky guy accompanying the ones from Germany. I was intrigued by the tanned, bushy-haired woman who sat slouched, legs crossed as if she thought the whole world was just made to joke about. The older pair, from Holland cracked us up. She was a smaller version of his pear shape, with a slightly sharp and obnoxious manner we attributed to her slight deafness and lack of English skill. He had a habit of grimacing wide under a droopy white mustache. We all mistook the absentminded expression for a smile at first.


The Perfume River Boat Tour

Holly Showalter

Things started out badly as soon as we had boarded the old wooden boat early Thursday morning. We were enjoying the dragon decorations on the outer sides and scooting around in our (that’s right, you guessed it) short plastic chairs when the crisis began. The teenage girl who seemed to be somewhat in charge gathered rope and straddled the space between the boat and the shore, preparing to push off. A boy who seemed slightly older than her (we wouldn’t see him again) was motioning and asking in broken English for one of Germans near the front to move three feet to a chair on the other side. We were surprised when they staunchly refused – repeatedly. Feeling sorry for the boy – he obviously didn’t know what to do – I moved to the seat so that I was across from the three stubborn Germans and beside a nice Australian girl we would adopt as a friend for the day. The boy was claiming that the weight needed to be balanced. The Germans claimed the sun was sure to be on their necks the entire trip (it turned out to be a rather cloudy day).

Whether it started then or was inevitablel, there developed a rift you could feel between us and the boats owners – a Vietnamese family which included the teenage girl with tight jeans, some missing teeth and a little English knowledge; a mother figure who cooked and issued orders and advice; and fatherly and grandfatherly characters who alternated between lounging flat, asleep in the back, and lounging on the roof, where we lost sight of all but a leg dangled down, grasping the pole between two toes to steer. They were less than friendly and we were soon caught up in suspicion, interpreting their directions as influenced by both laziness and a greater concern for the entrepreneurs than for us passengers.

We were scheduled to stop at about five pagodas and tombs. The first was of little account. We played around stone steps of the steep bank, admired the blue and white construction plastic on the front side, and argued about the sweetness of jackfruit Dũng and Hạnh introduced to us. At the next stop the boat owners announced (slightly triumphantly?) that we’d have to rent motorbikes to get to Tu Duc’s tomb and pay the 55,000 đ entrance fee. “You have fifty minutes,” they announced. For some reason, we rebelled. Later Denver called it a coup . . . The fifteen or so of us in the boat had barely met, but we suddenly felt we had a choice to make. Hạnh was put in the uncomfortable position of translating between annoyed foreigners and increasingly impatient boat owners. The outspoken younger German man had his guidebook in his hand. We’d read the same Lonely Planet and agreed that it was Ming Mang (the last stop) that was the prize of the sites. The Tu Duc tomb was supposed to be similar and less impressive. The girl on the boat argued, through Hạnh, variously that we had to go (Tu Duc’s tomb is the biggest), that we couldn’t walk but had to take bikes, and that we had to get back on the river now if we weren’t going to stop. (From then on they depended heavily upon Hạnh for translation. Dũng hid under his hat, pretending not to speak Vietnamese.) Their complaints made Hạnh anxious. The rest of us were less concerned about their feelings. We banded together somewhat viciously to get “taken” by our “guides,” mostly surrendering to laughter at ourselves and our uncomfortable relations with our hosts.

Ming Mang was great. Extravagantly carved pillars, walkways over ponds of lotus – intended for use only by the emperor and his family. Hạnh and I strolled around the large lake, discussing what life as one of an emperor’s 200-some wives must be like. We imagine what these gardens must have been like back in the day – lush and full, tended by hundreds of servants.



Holly Showalter

We met our first American today. He looked Vietnamese, but spoke good enough English that I think we all believed his claim that he lives in the States - in Maine. More common though here are “mates” from Australia and England – we’re enjoying the accents – from France, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Japan, China. We even met a Tazmanian named Matt in SaPa. I overheard some English commenting the other day about how “Americans don’t travel well.”

The Australian girl we met on the Perfume River tour is my favorite so far. She quit her job as an IT techie at an all-girls high school (yeah Rochelle!) and was about a month into an eight-month stint around the world with her boyfriend. He was off on another tour for the day. She was friendly, good-humored, and accepting, though she did confide that she’d temporarily become a vegetarian since traveling abroad.


Stories from the Bus to Nha Trang

Holly Showalter

I sat beside a former English stage lighting designer on our last long bus ride. He’s in his 13 th month of traveling and still has five left. He entertained me through at least one would-have-been-long hour with funny, hard to believe stories. His practiced self-degrading humor and slightly ironical tone told me it wasn’t the first time he’d related these stories; I laughed and laughed. My favorite was set in Mongolia, ten days from a city. He hired jeeps to drive him to smaller and smaller villages and then a guide and some horses to trek around a lake. Two days into the trek he said, his guide explained through sign language that he’d like to go home to his family who he hadn’t seen in awhile. So this guy continued around the edge of a lake (he couldn’t get lost) by himself. He occasionally ran across tents and would be invited in for tea. They’d stare at him awhile. He’d head on. Out of food and hungry, he was saved by a lone man who located and roasted two marmots for the poor out-of-his-element Englishman. It was only upon arriving back in civilization that he realized 98% of marmots have the bubonic plague? (It’s what the guy said!) After that story, I couldn’t complain about the cramping, the claustrophobia, or the inescapable stickiness that accompanied the bus ride.

Denver made friends with a guy who had busted his leg up on a motorbike spill. He admitted he’d had a little too much to drink . . .


Suicide Buses

May 24, 2004 - Denver Steiner

You have already heard from Hanh, Abe, and Holly about our bus adventures, so I thought I’d add my thoughts on our bus rides. Starting with my first miserable all-night trip from Hanoi to Hue, I learned a few things about Vietnamese tour buses.

  • AC – Buses advertised as having Air Conditioning does not mean they will turn it on, leaving me in a suffocating death trap of heat. Window seats that can be opened are the best choice, except when the guy in front of me keeps shutting it.
  • Vietnamese bus drivers are absolutely nuts. I thought we were done for several times as our large bus raced past a line of trucks often around blind curves. Our driver had the uncanny ability to swerve back into the right lane in the nick of time avoiding a head on collision or clipping a motor bike. I swear our last driver couldn’t have gotten us here any faster.
  • The Horn - The use of the horn is a necessary survival instrument. The driver lays on the horn as he attempts to pass a large dump truck around a blind curve. From around the bend, another horn blares back, but our driver continues on, judging that the other horn sound is just far enough away.

I have finally accepted the fact that there isn’t anything I can do about it. It is better to just close my eyes and try to try to ignore the blaring horns and the stuffy air as I put my life into the hands of our skillful driver. I think we’ll take the train back to Hanoi.


Nha Trang

May 22,23 - Denver Steiner

Our journey south brought us to the small city of Nha Trang, our first stop along the coastline. As our bus sped into Nha Trang about 6am Saturday morning I could see the beautiful beach covered with locals taking an early morning swim in the cool of the morning.

Wanting to call home first to see if Hanh’s mother had booked us a hotel, we decided to explore the beach while we waited for the phone card place to open at 7. The water was beautiful, clear, and calm with barely a wave. I stretched out on a towel watching our luggage while Dung, Holly, and Abe took dip.

After a phone call home uncovered that we did not have a hotel booked, we set out hotel hunting aided by several guys on motorcycles hoping. We finally settled on a third hotel that had both air condition and an awesome view of the ocean at a decent price. After a quick brunch, we returned to the beach for a relaxing afternoon.

Sunday, our boat tour to four islands proved to be most pleasant. I was skeptical at first when I arrived to the boat crammed with a mix of foreigners and Vietnamese. I also was fearful that the advertised “funny men that will drive you crazy” would live up to their word. I didn’t have very high expectation for a $6 boat tour that included breakfast and lunch.

At the first island stop, guides handed out masks and snorkels and jokingly told us they’d charge us if we stayed in the boat. Despite a slightly leaky mask, the snorkeling was awesome. The water was incredibly clear and we could see a variety of coral and fish along the bottom. I enjoyed holding my breath and swimming to the bottom for a closer look.

For lunch they had quite the spread of food, a tasty mixture of rice, noodles, and various meats. Following that, the funny men had live entertainment which included dancing on the benches/table tops to English and Vietnamese songs. Afterwards we once again jumped overboard where they had a floating bar and everybody paddled around in innertubes.

In the afternoon, we stopped at a beach for a couple hours. Abe, Dung, and I spent a good deal of that time playing sand volleyball with two other boat passengers and several other Vietnamese guys who would jump in from time to time. Holly went off to watch Hanh get her nails done. Our last short stop landed us in a fishing harbor. All of us by this time were exhausted and decided not to pay for small basket boats to take us around.

Overall it was an awesome $6 tour that far exceeded my expectations. Later that evening we returned to the restaurant we had eaten at the night before because the food was good and they had reasonable prices. Holly also wanted to reorder the fish she had the night before. After stopping at an internet café, Holly, Hanh, and I were walking back to our hotel and witnessed a bad motorcycle accident. Immediately floods of people surrounded the guy. He was then put into a tricycle and pedaled off somewhere. He appeared to be unconscious. Just another real reminder of road dangers in Vietnam.


Mui Ne

May 24, 2004 - Holly Showalter

I’m overcome with renewed joy. There’s something about the ocean. Something about this place. It’s more raw, less populated and developed than Nha Trang. It seems closer, more real, more ours. The beach isn’t as beautiful as we’d heard, but the pervasive peacefulness makes up for it. We all seem to be hoping in one mind that the next few days will restore our somewhat tired bodies and spirits. Abe’s been feeling a little persistent queasiness. We’re all ready to just relax and hang out for a while. And I feel confident that we’ll find what we’re looking for. I feel the Spirit hovering over the waters here.

It was overcast when our bus bumped into Mui Ne a few hours ago. We ate lunch, negotiated an okay price for this cute little beach front bungalow (initially pronounced boon-gáh-lo by Hạnh), and lounged, reading on the wooden beach chairs. Then a storm crashed in. Dũng and I hurried into our bathing suits and ran through the slanting rain into the gray water. A dreadlocked neighbor searched for good surfing further out. We jumped high-spirited through the first waves of our trip, body-surfing until the rain came down so hard we couldn’t see.

I have serious doubts about the boys’ ability to just lay around like they’re claiming they want to do. It’s their constant energetic play that’s exhausted them. Hạnh and I have read, napped, and giggled on beach chairs while they’ve competed nonstop in volleyball and all sorts of made-up games.

For now we’re just enjoying the sound of the hard rain on the roof as the lights flicker on and off. I wonder how long it will take us to develop cabin fever. We keep ending up with smaller rooms, shared, with mattresses pulled in. There’s actually only one bed here. It’s more fun to hang out together, even if we have to change in the bathroom.

Now the rain has stopped and Dũng and Denver have joined what seems to be a roving soccer game on the beach. I can’t tell the teams apart. It’s not quite shirts and skins . . . Two sticks jammed into the sand make the goals. They splash through the waves stretching edge of the waves on one side and a shallow ditch on the other side. Denver makes a steal, Dũng misses a turn, Hạnh giggles proudly from her porch view, Abe’s mourning his lack of energy. I’m taking my chances with the laptop on a wet porch. They tell me that the electricity is more deadly here.

Farther down the beach some little Vietnamese kids try to float in on the last rolls of the waves in their plastic innertubes. Just out beyond the waves are the fisherman that braved the storm? - at least they’re back at it now. One or two at a time fish from a basket boats, rounded and about five feet across. They row with wooden paddles.

Dũng scored! Gooooaaaaaal!


Mui Ne - Peaceful Morning

May 25, 2004 - Denver Steiner

It’s only 9am, and already I’ve been up for three hours splashing in the ocean, riding the waves, and knocking around Dung’s volleyball. Now I relax in the shade with a cool breeze and the peaceful crash of waves on the shore.

We’ve made it to Mui Ne and are staying in a beautiful beach side bungalow. Our sleeping quarters are a little cramped, but I can’t ask for a better spot. Last evening at low tide Dung and I joined a group on the beach for a little beach soccer. We had fun releasing some energy after our morning bus ride.

I just finished “Reaching the other side”, a journal by Earl Martin of his experience as a MCC worker in Vietnam at the end of the American war in 1975. It was very interesting hearing the perspective of a MCCier who experienced the communist takeover firsthand while offering a point of view not taught in our history books. Martin lives in Harrisonburg, and I have seen him on campus at EMU before. I’ll have to meet him sometime.


To Windsurf or Not to Windsurf . . .

May 26, 2004 – Holly Showalter

. . . has been our most difficult dilemma of the day. Right next to our beachfront bungalow happens to be an impressive water-sport shop, from which well tanned and muscled young men (and a few women) of all nationalities have continuously appeared throughout our two days here. We’ve been impressed and envious, to say the least, of their skillful play in the waves.

Kite-surfing looks most difficult and most fun to me. Feet stuck into a small surfboard, and attached by a harness to a giant curved parachute-type-thing, you maneuver the “kite” by using a stick and lines attached to each corner. When they kite-surfers hit waves well, they fly into the air flipping and turning. Unfortunately, the lessons cost $85, and from what we can tell, you spend most of the two hours in the sand practicing with the kite.

We thought we might try wind-surfing, which has you standing on a bigger, more stable-looking board and hanging onto one side or the other of a big sail that swings any way you (or the wind) pulls it. The boys and I decided it couldn’t be too hard and it would be fun to split a four-hour session for less than $10 each. So we amble on over to the shop this morning to ask about it. When we find someone who speaks English – none of the Caucasians seem to – he’s haughty and aloof. He laughs at all our questions and the fact that we’re all, experience-less and thinking of renting (they don’t offer lessons) . . .

We talk to a man and woman who we suspect might be first-timers, we find out neither are and both think it would be frustrating to try without any sort of lessons. “You wouldn’t understand anything about the wind, or the waves, or the sail . . .” And, they tell us, the wind and the current here are strong. The wind only gets heavier and the waves bigger as the day goes on. We’re disappointed, but influenced by an unspoken commitment to stay under our loose $200 in-country budget. Tomorrow we’ll rent bicycles for $1 a day and ride out to the white sand dunes .