Monday, April 19, 2010

Boats, Trains and Buses in 'Nam

I flew into Vietnam over a week ago to rendezvous with Sarah Schwarz, aka the Shaman, for our Adventures of Shorty and the Shaman. Yes, I'm "Shorty." We spent a few days in Hanoi, then up to Ha Long Bay for an overnight boat tour, back to Hanoi, then train to Hue, then a bus to Hoi An. We're leaving Hoi An on an overnight bus ride tonight to Mui Ne, a beach town down in the south. A few comments about 'Nam and travels so far:
  • Traffic in Hanoi was perhaps the inspiration for that video game of the frog having to cross the road. Red lights, I am almost certain, are for decoration and not for any sort of traffic signal. Pedestrians are the lowest on the food chain and must yeild to literally everyone else - which includes buses, taxis, motorbikes, cyclos, bicycles and especially ones that have ridiculous amounts of cargo on them. I have also determined there are exactly 6 different honks that are their own language. There's one for passing on the left, one for heading straight into oncoming traffic, one for passing on the right, when a pedestrian gets in your way, when an old lady gets in your way, and when there is literally no one else around and you're just bored. Our bus driver to Ha Long City employed all six of these liberally. In fact, I don't recall 10 seconds when he wasn't honking the horn.
  • The boat tour around Ha Long Bay included an overnight on the actual boat. Since there is limited entertainment when you're on a boat in the middle of a bay at night, the crew decked out our boat with a karaoke machine. I think primarily for their amusement, but we (three Belgians, an Aussie, two Swedes, a Brit, and two Americans) totally jumped in on that action. However, a word of warning: Never, ever under any circumstance let a British lady choose "Born in the USA" as a song in Vietnam. I'll let you Google the lyrics, but let's just say they mention a racial slur in reference to a war they're not so fond of over here. Whoops.
  • The train we took was an overnight bunk, three beds to a bunk and two bunks per cabin. The problem is that the bunks are too small to even sit on (except the bottom ones, which were conveniently taken up by an old Vietnamese couple who didn't seem very happy to see two Americans in their cabin), so for the 14 hour train ride you're either standing in the hallway, or your laying down. That's it. There is simply no other option. The other thing is that the entire car is non-smoking, which seems to be open to interpretation. Most people just walk to the end of the car and smoke near the bathroom. Our older gent decided it would certainly be of no inconvenience to anyone to just smoke in bed. With the windows and doors shut.
  • I feel so popular in Asia. I swear I never knew I had this many friends! Every town we walk into, we inevitably walk by hotels that want to sell us a room. They always have one person perched on the porch area yelling, "Hello my friend! Room for you." I'm actually getting pretty fond of it so I'll now walk into shops and cafes and greet them with "Hello my friend." Seems like it's the thing to do, so why not?
  • Vietnamese, similar to Thai and Lao, is a tonal language. That means that the word that seems like the same word to us, but put into a different tone (like say, as if you're asking a question) means something totally different. Here I am trying to ask a question in Vietnamese, and so my voice kind of lifts at the end, right? Well, I don't know what this translates into, but it's definitely not my question. They just laugh. I keep trying anyhow...
  • Uncle Ho. There's no way to post a blog entry without mentioning "the man" in Vietnam. He's everywhere - on street signs, banners, people's living room walls. When in Hanoi we had the pleasure of seeing Uncle Ho. That's right. Like great Communist leaders before him, Ho Chi Minh is embalmed and on display for the adoring public to pay their respects. Bizarre to say the least, but an experience worth having.

'Nam has been fun so far. Met some other folks we're traveling with and enjoying the sights along the way. Yesterday we rented motorbikes and went out to My Son, ancient ruins from the 4th - 13th century. They, of course, weren't in ruin until the Viet Cong based themselves there for a period of time and the good ole US of A bombed the bejeezum out of them.

After a few days at the beach we're going to head to Saigon and from there over to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. From there I'm heading back into Laos on a mission for my favorite bar (more on that when it comes time).

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