23-30JUL2002 I expect this journal entry will be difficult to write. I've just spent 2 hours hassling with computers trying to get my pictures uploaded. No success. I'll have to try again in another city.
My trip from Phnom Pehn, Cambodia to Chau Doc, Vietnam was one of the easier border crossings I have made. We boarded a medium sized boat with good seats for a trip down the Mekong River. After about 3 hours we cleared Cambodian customs and immigration then re-boarded the boat. Vietnamese officials boarded the boat and cleared us to Chau Doc.
There the tour company, Delta Adventure Travels, picked us up and took us to their hotel with the promise that if we didn't like it they would take us elsewhere at no charge. The hotel was very nice; good room and good food.
I chatted with some fellow travelers and went to bed early. The next day I undertook the challenge of the international phone call. I needed to contact my credit card company to report fraudulent charges being made on one of my back-up credit cards. I can only speculate that someone got into my pack and stole an expired credit card and some cash. I did not notice the charges until I checked my online banking page moments before I boarded the boat for Vietnam.
The hotel had free bicycles so I headed to the Chau Doc post office (the only place in town to make an international call). Unfortunately the calls are so expensive that I did not have enough dong (Vietnamese currency) and the post office could not accept dollars.
I began my search for a bank. People pointed, but I never found it. Finally someone suggested the big hotel. There I was able to change a $20 and get a drink. I was quite thirsty because the mid-day kilometers on a bicycle were adding up. I returned to the post office and placed my call. Only 15 minutes later, I was connected. "Would you mind holding"? Well, yes. Eventually, I was able to communicate my situation and get a confirmation number. The customer service rep suggested that I call the bank directly, "just to be sure". When I explained the challenge of calling she said she would take care of it. Nine minutes and 300,000d later I went to pay my bill. Oops, I only had 284,000d. I left them $1 as security and hopped on my bicycle for one more trip to the hotel. Only 4 more kilometers and I was back at my hotel for a cold Saigon Beer.
The next day I embarked on the 2 day package with home stay. When I got off the big boat, I was joined by two women from Switzerland. We dropped our bags at the homestay and hopped on bicycles. We lounged at a restaurant by a canal until the rain stopped and the temperature cooled down.
Monika is an MD who works emergency services at a ski slope and Franziska is a teacher. Their English was very good and I enjoyed chatting with them.
Our bicycle tour took us down the small courntry roads surrounding MY Hoa Hung. We visited a sawmill, a blacksmith shop, and a high school. Very interesting. The guide told us that people bring their own trees to the sawmill and have them turned into lumber. At the blacksmith shop they made knives and sickles from scrap metal, shaped them and sharpened them. I asked if I could sharpen my Swiss army knife and they helped me. They had never seen such a gadget. I showed them the light, the pen, the scissors, and the can opener. The school was not in session but still had writing on the blackboard. The English classroom had a lesson still on the board.
We returned to the homestay and had a great meal. Our guide gave us the option of visting the crocodile farm in the caves or taking a boat to the floating market. Whether it was the 14KM round trip or the idea of crocodiles in caves, we opted for the floating market.
Each boat displays its product on a mast. So, if there was a bunch of potatoes it was a potato boat. We purchased some dragon fruit (the inside looks like a pear with poppy seeds) and tastes okay. We took a tour through the land market and returned to the homestay for a siesta. The heat made the idea of a bicycle ride seem too challenging.
We lugged our packs to the dock and rode the boat to the bus pick up site. After a high speed, harrowing bust ride we arrived in Ho Chi Mihn City around 7pm. I found a decent hotel and checked in.
I spent a couple of days exploring HCM City. One day I rode with Tran Van Sang (the night clerk at the hotel). We met his friends at a pagoda and practiced English over tea and sweet drinks made from sugar cane. Afterward we went to a cafe and had a good but cheap lunch.
One night Sang took me on the back of his motor cycle to a river boat restaurant. I had a good meal and there I met Mr. Wong, Bien, and Yu Ki. They invited me to join them. Yu Ki gave me her card. She is sales and marketing manager for Sapa Massage and invited me to visit the next day.
I took a long taxi ride, had a great Vietnamese style massage and then went to dinner at a Chinese restaurant with Yu Ki, Bien, and Hoa. I had three lovely ladies to myself until Mr. Wong showed up. Hoa was working on her English so I helped her while she worked on my Vietnamese pronunciation.
I decided it was time to move on if I wanted to see the rest of Vietnam so I booked an open ticket to Hue. I spent today updating my website and tracking down an ATM.
30JUL-2AUG02 I took the morning bus to Da Lat. As we traveled from HCM City we climbed into the mountains of the Central Highlands. The temperature began to drop to near comfort.
At the cafe next door to the hotel I became aquainted with Thang, a history student at the university in Da Lat. He wanted to practice his English and offered to show me around Da Lat. We walked down to the lake, ate barbecued corn on the cob, visited the amusement park and then headed back to the center of the city.
Thang, a history major, asked me how a small, poor country like Vietnam could have defeated a country as powerful as the US. We had a lively discussion about politics, Lyndon Johnson, and the lack of popular support of the war in Vietnam during the late 60's and early 70's.
That night I watched Vietnamese TV. It is heavy of patriotic singing and dancing. Sometimes they show historical dramas. There was a show in English but it was not possible to hear the dialog because of the Vietnamese voice over.
The next day I found an internet cafe and updated my website and even managed to upload photos. That afternoon, Thang took me to see the Buddist pagoda and to visit his university. The beautiful campus is on a hillside overlooking the city. We saw the history department where he checked his grades and visited the administration building. Before the war this was a cathedral. Now the cross on the tower has been replaced by a red star. We discussed the daily life of students in Vietnam.
We stopped at the cafe where Thang eats during the school year. He pays about $20USD per month to eat there every day. He brought out a special treat that he had cooked: barbecued chicken feet. Washed down with rice wine, they tasted delicious.
That evening I visited the internet cafe to eat some pizza. When I offered to take a picture of a family, I met Ha and her parents. She was on a school holiday from Japan where she is studying accounting. She speaks very good English and Japanese in addition to her native Vietnamese.
After talking with the Nguyen family, Sally and Sarah (UK) invited me to join them for a glass of Vang Delat, a pretty good local red wine. Sally and Sarah are taking an extended holiday before returning to complete their training at art school. Sally will study fabric design and Sarah will study graphics.
Today I visited the internet cafe again to update my website and got an email from Osmo and Lassi, who I met in Siem Reap. It turns out that they are headed to Nha Trang tomorrow, too.
2-16AUG02 In Nha Trang I met up with Osmo and Lassi. We shared a few beers and some nachos at the Tex-Mex Restaurant. I had some enchiladas too. But, the rice was inside and the sauce had a distinctly Asian taste.
I spent a day at the spa and had a mud bath and rejuvenating mineral bath and massage. I must now have the body of a 30 year old. Mostly I chilled at the beach and read books. Many books.
Lassi and Osmo had a tip from a fellow traveler in Saigon about a great beach resort named Paradise, about 45km north of Nha Trang so we shared a taxi and set off for Paradise. After a few false turns and many discussions between our taxi driver and the locals we arrived at the end of the road. We put on our packs and trekked 400m down the beach.
Paradise was nice but overbooked. Since they had no bungalows, I took the "Terrace Room". That is, I slept on a mattress on the terrace overlooking a beautiful stretch of clean beach. The price was right; only $4 per day for food and mattress. The food was good and the relatively small number of guests made for a pleasant stay.
After three nights, I got a bungalow and the price went up to a staggering $8 per day (food included). I squadered my savings on a couple of $5 massages and read every book in their small library. Massages and email were available at Doc Let Resort about 1.5km down the beach.
The resort is run by a Slovenian named Cherie and his Vietnamese wife and extended family. It is spotlessly clean and friendly. Call 091 400 7910 for reservations.
I met two nice Slovenian couples who patiently explained the difference between Slovakia and Slovenia. And I met a nice young English girl named Rose who had been there for several days. We joked about the fact that is was the "Hotel California" where you can check out but never leave.
I did finally catch the night bus to Hoi An, a beautiful river city with a well preserved historical section. My visa time is running out so I booked a bus to Hue.
What a trip! While going over the pass we were stuck in a four hour traffic jam. One truck turned over and chaos ensued. Vehicles were trying to overtake each other from both directions. The result was gridlock. The views were spectacular and we had plenty of time to enjoy them.
I did a quick tour of Hue and saw the tombs, the Citidel, and the Pagoda. Now I have to head for the train to Hanoi.
16-19AUG02 The train to Hanoi passed through the DMZ. Aside from a few bomb craters in the fields signs of the war were not visible. I was struck by the eerie similarity of the terrain with the simulated Vietnamese villages built for training by the US Army. The red clay and the scrubpine hills were very simalar to Fort Polk, Louisana.
Dinner was served on the train and it was pretty good. I enjoyed a conversation with an international studies student on her way back to school in Hanoi. The passenger next to me treated me to a bowl of rice porridge-like soup. This was popular late at night to help people sleep.
The train arrived at 4am. I found a taxi and attempted to find my hotel. The larcenous driver had other ideas. I eventually ended up at a substandard but slightly overpriced hotel. I was to tired to quibble. The next night I moved to a nicer place, the Prince Hotel. I booked my flight to Bangkok. It turned out to be cheaper with a stopover in Vientienne, Laos. So I spent two hours in Laos. Does that count?
On arrival in Bangkok, I rode the airport shuttle to Kao San Road and checked into the Palace.