Writings from SE Asia


From Surreal to Senational (22.01.07)

Part II.

In Saigon, the city never sleeps. We spend a few days there, in a cushy hotel by the river that Niles' dad booked for us in advance, which was an absolute lifesaver not to have to figure out a place to stay with the effects of sleep deprivation from the plane and the overwhelming confusion of the city. It was very, very comfortable. Pool on the roof with terrace bar comfortable. Weight room comfortable. Free shoeshine comfortable. Chandeliers, 20 floor atrium, and nightly classical ensemble comfortable. I mean really... 4-ply comfortable. It was great to be able to wake up in the mornings and go to the roof for pictures of sunrise with reflections of the dawn warming the water on the rooftop. It was even better to be able to get my shoulder back to strength in the weight room, as I haven't been able to gain back strength since my recent bike accident. It's amazing what low-impact working out can do for rehabilitation. Now why didn't my physical therapist recommend this...? Anyways, the hotel was a great place to retreat to after exploring the insanity of the city.

We had noticed in passing that there was no button for floor 3 in our elevator, and it was quite by accident that we found it. One night when we had recuperated enough from the flight, we decided to go out to a bar. We walked around to try to find one... this one looks weak, nothing going on... only a few old guys in this one... "here, you come in bar. One drink, one girl. Very young, very pretty" , girls standing in the doorway reaching out as the subtle odor of opium pours out from behind them to the sidewalk... no thanks. Finally, after all but giving up, we decide to go into a casino and karaoke bar that is right next door to our hotel. We are ushered by a greeter through the neon lights coating the entrance doors into a small room with comfy leather chairs, end tables, and mirrors on the wall. The doors close, and the room rises. When it stops, doors on the opposite side open up. To the left is the entrance doors to the casino, to the right, the bar. We decide to go have a drink before heading into the casino. We start into the bar, and before even rounding the corner realize that there are no seats available in the bar. We also realize that every single seat in the bar is occupied by a stunningly gorgeous young woman. Whoops, wrong way, we turn around quickly and instead decide to go into the casino where Niles changes a couple bucks and looses them quickly on the slots. The staff there gives us looks, clearly recognizing us for the high-rollers we are. If being in a crazy city in another country weren't enough to make me feel like a fish out of water, being here definitely did. In an effort to act non-chalant about the whole situation, we ask where the karaoke bar is. An attractive young hostess leads us through the siren-filled bar to a staircase. Conscious of each step, and keeping our eyes fixed on the far wall the whole time, we make our catwalk to the staircase without even glancing at one of the 30 or so women looking at us walk through. Whew, we need a drink! We go down one floor to a karaoke bar filled with japanese men singing quite talentedly to depressing ballades. Seated next to each one was a beautiful Vietnamese girl who would just sit there and look pretty. This, and the occasional smile or laugh, was their job. It was definitely less awkward than upstairs, including a waitress coming up to me and asked would I like a girl. Yeah, on the rocks... er, no. A minute later, a line of girls come in to be selected by another customer. Eyes on the karaoke ball bouncing along the words. After listening to a few numbers, we finish our chinese beers, and leave. That was definitely enough for one night.

Our days there were spent walking around and eating, and seeing the occasional monument, which is pretty hard work. And seeing the tolls it can take on your body, we decided to treat ourselves to the thai massages being advertised on pamphlets handed out in the touristy areas. Heck, 75 minute massages for 7 bucks?! Why not? Unlike our hostess bar experience, it was all kosher and comfortable. We got the hot stone oil massage, foot rubs, and tiny thai masseuses walking on our backs. These little girls even bent us backwards over their knees to crack our backs! Insanely talented! It was by far the best 7-dollar massage I have ever had in my life. I liked it so much, I followed it up with the $10 foot and hand massage. Ahhhhhh... after 2 and a half hours, I walked out of there like putty.

While in Saigon, we ate pretty well. Okay, we ate some insanely good meals. We decided to splurge one of the first nights and eat in a restaurant with a pool in the middle with a fountain and statues around it. We ordered spring rolls and the waiter brought out the ingredients and prepared each one for us on our plates. When we finished, he would prepare another one. Soooooo good. Another night was some of the best Italian food I've had since being in Tuscany (Santa Lucia, if you ever find yourself in Saigon).

After spending a few days exploring Saigon, where there are 5 million motorbikes all swarming the roads, and guys across the street with bicycle-drawn carts wave like you're an old friend they haven't seen for a long time, we decided to take a tour of the Mekong Delta. It was a bus ride out to the delta and then cruising around on boats, both motor and row. We tasted wild fruits from the delta, listened to traditional music being played by old men accompanied by little girls singing, and I even got to mess around with their instruments. We visited floating markets with hundreds of boats, where old women row beside you and sell you coke or juice or water, and all of the vendors have huge polls coming up from their boats on which they advertise their products by tying them to the polls. Carrot, potato, lettuce, bok choi... We visited a rice paper factory, a coconut candy factory where women's hands moved a lightning speed to wrap up little sweets, played with pythons (I was molested by one, and the lawsuit is in the works; I have pictures damnit), and drank rice wine mixed with honey and tea - the "Delta Breeze" which we invented, and which was named by a girl from Israel named Iris. I first met Iris and knew she was cool when we were heading up one of the thousands of water ways, and we heard a screeching coming from behind some trees. I asked her what she thought it was, and she responded "Pork-fried rice". Iris is a wonderful person travelling around SE Asia for months on end (like so many others we've met), and can be found showing compassion to strangers and animals alike. We ended up travelling with her for the next few days. We also met some other characters on the delta trip as well, such as "Lady Margaret", a boisterous older Aussie woman teaching English in Cambodia, and her two grown children who bought about 50 bags of coconut candy to take back to Australia.

At nighttime we stayed in a rather dodgy hotel in sweltering heat and humidity. There were unclosed walls near the ceilings, and you could hear everything outside, including motobikes that were in desperate need of repairing and vicious dog fights in the middle of the night. People going to work at 3 in the morning didn't make for a good night's sleep either. Initially we had paid for a 3-day tour of the delta, but switched to 2 after the first day. I mean, cruising around the marshlands was cool and all, but one can only tolerate the "complimentary showers" provided by wind and speed boats which sent the river water spraying onto us most of the second day. River water in which garbage and dead animals buoyed...

So we went back to Saigon with the intention of staying the night and leaving on an open tour bus for a beautiful city in the mountains the next day. That night we hung out with Iris and her friend Sara from Boston who had come to Vietnam to teach ESL, but had yet to find a job. We decided to go out to Indian food, and it was so insanely spicy that Iris felt like she was high, and Niles had to take all of his attention to focus on it not hurting him as he stared forward in a paralyzing heat-induced trance.

It was in the moment right after eating this meal, walking down the bustling street lit by neon signs and open shops flooding their light out, that I finally felt comfortable and content. It had taken me many days to recover from the fatigue of the jet lag, and to be able to adjust to being in a different culture, but at that moment, I felt at home in my body again. It was a wonderful feeling, and after drudging along for a few days, I had the sense that this trip was going to get better. I even got a solid 7 hours of sleep that night, something which had eluded me up to this point.

The next morning we awoke and Niles, Iris and I boarded a bus for Dalat in the mountains, a mile-high city known as "The City of Eternal Spring" for it's year-round flower crops, a lucrative business. The bus ride up there was about 8 hours long, which afforded the time to read up on the city. It's also known as "Le Petit Paris" for it's Eiffelesque looking radio tours and French influence, and it is a vacation spot for newlyweds.

There was also something rather interesting in both of our guidebooks about a group of Vietnamese motorcycle guides called the Easy Riders, who were known for putting people on the backs of their bikes for tours of the countryside around Dalat... and beyond. Both guide books said: "Don't worry about finding them. They'll find you." At the time, I don't think either of us believed it though.

To be continued...