Friday, February 26, 2010

Tet in the Delta

Tet, or Chinese New Year, is a time for Vietnamese families to come together, eat and ensure their future financial prosperity by handing out red envelopes of cash to the youth and paying up to their parents. For the expat, it means that there is nothing to do because everything is closed for the next week. This leaves us with two options, go somewhere that doesn't celebrate the Lunar New Year, or go to the beach.
Our initial plan was for Daphne and I to take a train to Hue for the holiday, but as I waited until a week before Tet to go to the train station, I found that all tickets were sold out. When I got home I looked online for flights but those were sold out as well. Not just for Hue, but for everywhere. An amateur mistake, tickets for Tet holiday need to be bought one to two months in advance. Noted. So we went with the one form of transportation that no one had bought tickets for, or would want to. Motorbike. My second-hand counterfeit 100cc Wave, to be exact. And since Hue was a bit too ambitious for a week-long trip we chose to go through the Mekong Delta instead. A motorbike trip through the Delta was one that I wanted to do since I got here but thought that I would never get the chance. Now, it was the only trip we COULD do.

Escape from Saigon
The plan was to leave Saigon at 9am on the 12th. I knew the trip was off to a bad start when I wake up to find the time read 9:15. We packed, went to have breakfast and weren't properly on our way until noon. Of the whole journey, the hardest to map was the route leaving Saigon. To get to the Delta you take highway 1A all the way south, but if you'll look at the maps of HCMC, you'll notice that it doesn't cover enough of the city to show 1A. So I looked up the map on and wrote what seemed to be the directions to get out of town. But when we got to where I thought I needed to be, I became confused with how to proceed. So I stopped and we asked for directions to My Tho, the first main stop in the Delta. The man kindly led us back the way we came, into district six and straight to METRO, the department store. Flustered by this misunderstanding caused by our poor pronunciation, I pull out the map and point to where we wanted to go. The man nods knowingly and points back the way we came. In all, it took an hour just to get out of the city and on the highway.

The Bumpy Road
Twenty minutes on the highway, lady luck snubbed her finger at us once again in the shape of a flat tire. Unlike the highways of the West, a busy street like this in Vietnam means a lot of business opportunity. All along the highway are simple mechanic stops and Cafe Vong's, which provide coffee in the shade and the comfort of a hammock. We blew a flat right next to a pit stop and got patched for 30,000VND. But a patch wasn't enough and ten minutes later we were flat again and buying a new tube for another 100,000VND. Worried that so much bad luck so soon was a bad omen, we contemplated turning back. But the thought of being stuck in Saigon with nothing to do for a week was too depressing, so in the end we got back on the bike and pushed on.
Along the highway were families traveling in our directions with gift hampers and bags loaded on their bikes, no doubt on the way to visit relatives in the Delta. This was a comforting sight, as they were all making a similar trip on bikes that were in no better shape than ours. When we told our friends back home what we were planning they would look at my bike and say, 'on that?' Seeing the other bikes on the road, no less derelict than mine, infused us with a bit more confidence than we started out with.
When we got to My Tho we realized that we didn't have time to stop and have a look if we wanted to make it to Can Tho, where we wanted to spend the night, before sunset. With only a week, we had to keep a pretty strict schedule for ourselves so we pushed on and stopped at a hammock place on the highway for some Hu Tieu and the what was the milkiest Ca Phe Sua I've ever had. The hammocks were the perfect treatment for a sore backside.

[Daphne's fake Roxy bag]

As the sun neared its descent, we crossed a magnificent suspension bridge just before Vinh Long where many travelers had stopped their bikes at the top to enjoy a vast view of the Delta, while being sold cold beverages by merchants.

Another half hour and we reached a despicably filthy town called Binh Minh where we had to catch the ferry into Can Tho. The streets here were filled with trash, mostly burnt plastic. It may have been the result of 'cleansing' before Tet, but nowhere in the Delta did we find anything this bad. We were glad to be done with it and at the ferry, just as night had begun to fall. The ferry trip cost a mere 2,500VND and found us packed with a hundred or so other motorbikes heading to see their families. Some people carried yellow flowered plants, like Cai May, a uniquely Vietnamese custom, not even Daphne knew what purpose it held. As we crossed the ferry, we could see another beautiful suspension bridge that looked completed but had no traffic on it. Perhaps the road will be finished there soon and the trip to Binh Minh can be avoided in the future.

Can Tho
Can Tho is a small town that tourists go to if they want to visit one of the floating markets. Our plan was to go visit one early in the morning before heading back on the road, but first we needed to find a place to stay and eat. We picked Lonely Planet recommended Xuan Mai. The staff was friendly, the price was only $12, but the room looked like a hospital room. Still, we were too weary to fuss about town looking for the ideal accommodations, so we took the room and then a much needed shower before heading out to explore the town.
The town itself isn't much. Most of the action was on the river, which had a small tourist market, a few unimpressive restaurants, a gaudy bar called New Cafe, and a lot of tourists, mostly Vietnamese. Across from the market, a stage was set up where some youths were putting on an impressive break dance session, a novelty like this I would be surprised to see in Saigon, let alone in the heart of the Mekong Delta. Tired and hungry, we went for another guidebook recommendation, Phuong Nam, which would prove to be one of the many ways Lonely Planet would fail us on our journey. The food was okay enough, until the next morning.

[Selling plants with yellow flowers is a common sight during Tet]

The loudest business man makes the sale]

Back in the Hospital Room
When I woke up the morning of Tet Eve, I knew that the floating markets weren't going to happen. Food poisoning. The frog legs I had the night before weren't as good as their taste suggested. Fortunately for Daphne, she has an aversion to the delicacy so she was fine. I had to send her on a pharmacy mission while I hid under the blankets, seeking sensory deprivation. Light treated me no better than it treats a vampire and even the sound of the refrigerator was like a drilling on my skull. After some medicine and much purging, it was already 11 and leaving was a must.

[Daphne never passes on a photo op]

I don't know what it is about driving, but it somehow made me feel better. When we would make stops, for gas or to replace Daphne's recently destroyed flipflops, I would feel ill again, but as soon as I started to drive I felt better. So drive I did, until I felt I was well enough to stop for a break and without feeling ill. We stopped for sugarcane and hammocks, I ate my first meal of the day: an apple. Just as we were getting ready to leave, a man came from inside the house behind the hammock stop and invited me to share in some of their rice wine. While not being in the state to start drinking, I was in even less of a state to pass on hospitality. We joined them on the ground for some drink and a bit of food as they shared a joke or two, no doubt at our expense.

Along Canals and Coasts
The 120 km drive from Can Tho was more scenic, running alongside a canal, and quieter, although not in as good of a state as the one from HCMC. We arrived to Rach Gia on the western coast of the Mekong Delta, hoping to catch a ferry to the island of Phu Quoc. Unfortunately, the last ferry had gone already that day, and the next day was Tet, so the ferries would be closed. Instead of resigning to stay there for two nights with nothing to do, we decided to use the daylight and drive another 90 km north to Ha Tien, near the Cambodian border. The road there was even more beautiful than the other roads we'd traveled so far, with the exception of a couple of cement factories and the speed strips and bumpy roads that threatened to destroy my suspension. On our left Vietnam's coastline opened to a beautiful sunset and on our right was forest, paddy fields and little shacks. Ha Tien was even smaller than Can Tho and with even less to do in the town itself. But it was in a good proximity to some other sights we could explore the next day, since a ferry would be impossible from there as well until the 15th. When we arrived at the hotel, Daphne received a beauty mark that's sported by many Vietnamese girls, an oval shaped exhaust burn on the back of her right calf. Burns are nasty things, looking fine when they happen, but monstrous a few days later.

[Along Vietnam's very small western coastline]

Karaoke New Year
We showered and went out looking for some festivities, but the closest thing we could find was a group of men hosting karaoke in the street, blaring out of eight giant speakers. We joined them for a bit and drank with them from their community cup. They got us to sing Hotel California, which we butchered thanks to the keyboardist, who was drunk and didn't know when to switch from verse to chorus. For some strange reason, the town seemed almost completely empty with the exception of gangs of children who ran around the streets at night asking for lucky money. Perhaps that's reason enough for the adults to stay in hiding. We went to bed that night early, barely able to stay awake long enough to greet the Year of the Tiger.

First Day of the Year
The next day, we woke up to the sounds of drums in the street. Teens were performing Lion Dances in stores and in the roads, a blessing of sorts that will be performed for the next fifteen days until the next full moon. Megaphones installed on electric posts spewed out speeches and patriotic songs in the town and the countryside. We decided to take the bike out and explore the lay of the land. But the tank was empty and we soon found out that all the gas stations were closed for the day. No matter, there were enough people selling gas outside of their houses at a hiked rate that finding gas wasn't a problem, though the extra charges did sting.

We went to a nearby cave pagoda we read about in LP called Thach Dong. It was small and crowded with praying tourists so we left after having a quick look and headed for another cave complex called Da Dung[not in LP], which was recommended by our hotelier. The limestone mountain consisted of a long trail up and down with some 14 caves throughout. With the exception of one Quanyin statue, the caves only had urns for incense and a mat to pray on in front of the urn. Daphne and I were adopted by a group of youths who were exploring the mountain. These youths, armed with nothing but a flashlight and bottles of water, were intent to look into every crevasse within the mountain, as if they were expecting to find treasure in there somewhere. If they found a hole big enough to fit a body in it, there they went. If a ledge had enough hand holds, they were climbing it. I followed them on a couple of their adventurous routes, only to find that the mountain had so many bottomless drops in it, its a wonder the whole thing doesn't collapse from its own hollowness. This mountain was a truly excellent find, something like this in the States would be much more restricted due to its lack of safety. I'm certain that the mountain has claimed a few lives to its belly over the years. If you visit this place be sure to bring plenty of water, flashlights and friends. At the bottom of the mountain we posted at a hammock spot near a lotus field and drank some Ca Phe Sua, taking a much needed rest. With not so much daylight left, we decided to drive the 30 km to Duong Beach and watch the sun set on the water.

Don't Ride at Night
The beach is quiet and calm, with no real potential for beach tourism due to the poor sand. We enjoyed a beer, in hammocks again, and when the sun descended we payed our tab and headed back for town. As the sun went down, I had to keep my sunglasses on for as long as I could to avoid the sting of night insects that splattered in our faces. Worse than the night insects that stung the face and eyes, was the ever present danger presented by bicycles, which rode through the night without any reflectors and showed no concern when faced with the sound of engines and horns behind them. After a couple close brushes, we decided that the Delta at night was definitely to be avoided.

Ferry to Phu Quoc
We woke up early the next morning for the ferry to Phu Quoc, which cost 190,000 each plus another 110,000 for the bike. The boat looked sleek and fast, and so it was, but due to the small round windows that were posted too high to see the horizon, I found myself more ill on this boat trip than I have ever in my life been by air or sea travel. I spent the majority of the hour and a half with my eyes closed, fingers squeezing the bridge of my nose as I hyperventilated into a plastic bag. Daphne was ill too, but not nearly as bad. In fact, the male passengers on the boat were evidently more sick than the females. Even when we arrived I couldn't break my meditation until it was time to get off the ship. Fortunately we were going to spend three nights on the island before I had to get back on another boat.

An Island with Few Flaws
We cut through the island, which Daphne noted after looking at a map is larger than her homeland, Singapore, and made our way down Long Beach along a road that alternated between gravel and red dirt, to Lam Ha Eco Resort, where I had made a reservation for $20 a night. The place, however, was not worth the price tag nor the mention in LP. In the room there was a calender that showed June 2008, which was probably the last time the room had been cleaned. The TV had seven channels, but they were all the same one. When we asked where the beach was they pointed us to a road and said, '70 meters'. When we walked down that road we were surprised by a beautiful cluster of bungalows with hammocks on their porches right on the beach that were cleaner than the rooms at Lam Ha and for the same price. We made a note to move the next day.

The beach itself was perfect. White sand, calm waters, virtually no tourists and we only saw one jet ski[the scourge of beach peace]. Long Beach was just that, long. Long and mostly undeveloped. There are some beaches on other parts of the island that are even more deserted, but we found that making the trip was completely unnecessary as we had all we could want right there in our front yard. When the sun set, it set right in front of us, reflecting a beam of light on the water that ran perfectly perpendicular with the sand. We drove in to the town of Duong Dong to have a tasty and cheap meal in the night market, and joined some French expats from China in a nice place called Le Bistro.

Picnic at the Spring
We made the move to the bungalows the next day and after arranging with the owner for some ferry tickets to Rach Gia, for a surprisingly meager 50,000 VND, we drove into the heart of the island to visit Suoi Da Ban, a natural spring. Being the dry season, the spring consisted of a trickle of water flowing along the boulders and an occasional pool. As we followed the stream up the boulders we passed many picnickers along the way, eating fruit, drinking beers, listening to cellphone music and of course, leaving their trash behind. Its something we witnessed throughout our trip in the Delta, no real trash service or environment education means rubbish in every backyard, which, for most people in the Delta, meant a river. We managed to walk far up enough to escape the sounds of cellphone music to enjoy some shade and dip our feet in a pool of water that was cleaner than the rest we saw on our way up. The peace was short lived. As many as five small groups ascended and set up camp, disturbing our short lived peace. On our way back down, we were invited for a couple warm beers by some picnickers and followed our tradition by accepting their hospitality.

[Sadly, that mess wasn't going anywhere]

Trapped on an Island?
When we got back to the hotel after dinner, the hotelier informs us the bad news: there are no tickets off the island until the 22nd. Very big problem. I had work on the 20th, there's no way this could be right that we had to be stuck on the island for another five days because of no boat. Was the transportation really that poorly managed?
We decided to look in town the next day, surely a proper travel agency could help us out, we thought. Worse case scenario, we can always hire some drunk in a fishing boat, though that would take some five hours, and the bike would probably fall through the bottom of the boat. We tried to rest our minds with a night walk on the beach. Daphne, who was convinced that we get more stars in America than in Asia, was pleasantly surprised that night when she looked to see a gorgeous array of stars. We had a brief argument over the constellation that she called The Plow, but I knew as Ursa Major. As the sky glittered, so did the sand from the phosphorescent plankton, that lit up with every step.
Thankfully, we were able to settle things at a travel agency in town the next day, buying ferry tickets at 250,000 VND a pop. We spent the rest of the day as we had spent the first, enjoying the beach for one last time and doing nothing. At sunset, we took a walk and I took some yoga pictures of Daphne on the beach.

Back to the Delta
I was dreading the boat ride back, which this time would take two and a half hours. To my pleasant surprise, the trip wasn't nearly as rocky, and the windows were bigger and lower so I could keep my eyes on the horizon and felt fine. Even managed a small nap. The ride back from Rach Gia seemed to go by much more quickly than the first time and we were back in Can Tho before we knew it. This time, fed up with Lonely Planet's 'research' we searched for a room ourselves and found one that was cheaper and better than the hospital room from before.
We arranged a three hour trip to a floating market for $10 for 6am the next day and headed to the market where we drank Saigon Do's by the river and shared a pork belly hot pot. The hot pot came with a side plate of instant noodles that you could add and two eggs. When Daphne went to crack one of the eggs she found it oddly difficult. As she pulled it apart she let out a scream as some thick bloody mess poked out of the shell. Dropping it on a plate she hid her face behind my back as the table next to us laughed. Later, a woman from the table brought over her ladle to show us what we were missing. In it was something in the shape of a tree mushroom and bland white in colour. 'Baby,' says Daphne to the woman. 'No! No baby,' she replies and offers it to us. Daphne isn't interested to take the chance but being more curious when it comes to food I went ahead and ate it. The taste and texture is comparable to that of egg white, nothing too special. I ask the lady to clarify what it was. 'It's the thing that becomes a duck.' To which Daphne replies, 'so it is baby?' And the woman nods, 'yes, baby'. Duck fetus. Not that big of a deal after all, though I guess its different in a hotpot versus boiled in its shell.

Floating Market
On our last morning, we were out on a small row boat before the sun had even lifted itself over the horizon. In this three hour boat trip I took more pictures than the last week in the Delta. Our boatman took us to see the market, where people were selling mostly watermelon, pineapples, cabbages and other produce. There were even boats selling noodle soup and beverages. After a tour of the market and some breakfast, our boatman took us on a trip through several canals that at times reminded me of scenes from Apocalypse Now. We passed by houses that faced the river, witnessing people starting their day by brushing their teeth, washing their hair or doing the laundry in the river. As we floated along the quiet water we felt like we couldn't have ended the trip on a better note.

[Our captain]

[A merchant makes her way]

[No strangers to dental hygiene]

[Breakfast time]

[VIP parking]

[Daphne enjoys the ride through the canal]

The Easy Road
When we returned to town we were back on the bike for the final journey home. Leaving at a more suitable hour, we had the luxury to stop twice along the way at Cafe Vong's for couple siesta naps in a hammock. As we rolled back into Saigon, after our 800km+ adventure, I said to Daphne that half the fun of a trip like this, is making it back home.

[Bringing home a gift from the family]

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Welcome Home

[Part 4]
My parents and I were on the flight back to Saigon. The plan: Daphne would meet us on her bike at their hotel, we would go to Bee Saigon and have some yummy fish for dinner, buy a tour to Cu Chi Tunnels for the next day, when my parents would be flying out late. Of course, you know where this is going. No writer would give out the plot in the beginning if it wasn't going to completely change before the end.
I had to pick up a new visa after we landed because my school had given me a single entry one last time, which is fine because they said they'd reimburse me for this one, too. Standing in line[a much longer wait than Hanoi for some reason] I turn on my phone, down to one bar, and call Daphne. Busy. One more person closer, I call again. Busy. One more person closer...
She picks up. Tears are on her voice. She tells me she had an accident. She tells me she has to get stitches on her chin. She tells me her friend Yen is coming to get her. She doesn't know what hospital yet. I'm almost speechless. All this and I'm technically not in the country yet. All this and I still don't have my luggage, still haven't gone through customs, still an hour away on taxi. All this and there's only one bar left on my cellphone.
In the mean time, I'm letting people pass me in line one at a time. With nothing else to really say, Daphne said she'd call me back and tell me what hospital to meet her at when Yen got there. Finally, I get to the counter, fill out the application and wait. Wait for what seems likes ages. Back when I first arrived in Vietnam, to Hanoi, I didn't even get to finish filling out my app before they handed me back my passport. Finally, they call my name and I get my passport. I walk over to customs where there's no longer a line, but get stuck there when the officers computer freezes just before finishing. The computer wakes back up and I get my red stamp. Daphne calls again, telling me that Yen wants to take her to a local hospital in D. 5. I tell her that if she's getting stitches she should go to an international hospital instead, suggesting FV in D.7 where I went, post-Cambodia. But that was too far out, so instead I gave their clinic in D.1 a call to see if they would do stitches. But the illiterate nurse that answered the phone said I should make an appointment for the next day. That was no good. Meanwhile, Daphne's still at home, waiting for Yen, and we're still in the airport, my parents asking me 10 questions a minute that I don't have the answers to.
We head for the taxi stand, where there are no reputable taxis to greet us. The first one we do see, is taken by some cripple girl in a wheel chair. Just didn't seem right to go up to her, talking about an emergency need to cut in line. We finally got a ride, heading first to their hotel and then to the yet undecided hospital. Daphne calls as we are exiting the airport and says that they picked Colombia Health Clinic in D.1. Sounds fine, until I get another call on the way. Colombia didn't have any doctors on staff[?] and they had to go to another hospital now, SOS International. So I drop off the parents at their hotel, circle the location of Bee Saigon on a map, switch phones with them to avoid running out and being stranded, and head over to SOS.
Scene: Me, walking into the small operating room, with a full camper bag on my back and an even heavier backpack on my chest. The doctors, wide eyed, 'you can't bring those into a sterile room!' So the bags get ditched in the hall and there I am, finally, at Daphne's side. As she lays on the operating table, she looks up at me and points to her chin. A sleek, clean cut opens like a mouth as she tilts her head up towards me. A cosmetic stitch was sewn from the inside, so in the end we didn't know how many she had. Her knee and foot were badly scraped as well, so the nurse had to use the antiseptic and bandage it up.
Price of everything: $330. Daphne's school was about to help her get insurance, but just a bit too late. The nurse says that the dressing needs to be changed everyday, the price of which would be $22. Poor Daphne's spirit is crushed. She had just began to feel more comfortable driving her bike. The accident itself took place only a block from the apartment while she was on her way home. Some guy in the wrong lane scraped her passing by and she hit the brakes. But the rear brake was weak and needed to be tuned, so all the stopping power went to the front wheel and she flew over her bike. The sharpness of her jaw had acted as a knife, the gravel road the cutting block, cutting open her chin from the inside. People around were helpful, and gave her cotton swabs to hold to her chin. One off duty cop drove her and her bike back to the apartment. He told her to call family. But she didn't have any to call, and I was in the clouds.
Not having insurance made the whole thing an expensive enough affair as it was. It didn't help that we were in the most overpriced hospital in town, or that Daphne had to call off work for two days[much more annoying to do when you have three different jobs to call]. The nurse there was very friendly. She provided us with some free bandages and the address of another, more reasonably priced clinic. I helped Daphne to a taxi, finally heading home. On the way I call my parents to give them an update and check in on them. They're at Bee Saigon, but instead of ordering fish, which was why I sent them there, my mom had ordered a beef dish. A decision she would come to regret. I told them that should order a tour for the Cu Chi tunnels for just the two of them, and that we'd meet up after they got back to have dinner before they left.
The next day my parents didn't go on the tour. My mom had food poisoning. On the way to SOS for a dressing change, I dropped off my keys for them so that they could check out of the hotel and hang out at our place to get some relaxation. We then go to get the dressing change which should have cost the $22 that was advertised the night before, but instead we were given a bill for $80. $80 to put on three new bandages. We told them the price quoted and refused to pay anything but. They then lowered the price to $50, we still said no but with a final price of $35 we consented, reluctantly. In Vietnam, even the hospital bills can be bargained I guess. From then on we went only to Victoria Clinic, the one recommended by the nurse from the night before, which was cleaner and only charged $15 to change dressing. I also picked up antiseptic and more bandages and did most of the cleaning and dressings myself. Keeping her knee from getting an infection was a daily affair.
We came back home and spent the rest of the afternoon resting with my parents, drinking tea and looking through pictures from the trip. Daphne took a couple of naps here and there. We went to a Chinese place nearby for dinner and late at night we said goodbye to the folks as they grabbed a taxi for the airport. We were planning to go see Avatar just then, but as we were about to leave it started to rain so we took a literal rain check for the next day.

Two days after the accident, Daphne was back at work teaching yoga. Three days after the accident, she's back on her motorbike[though we do go and get the brakes fixed]. A week later, we remove the stitches[only $15 at Victoria]. Now, her chin has healed really well, still a pink scar visible but on the underside of her chin and still healing. Her knee and foot are healed up too, no more bandages. We did try to go see Avatar the next day, but the theatre was sold out, for the next two weeks, so we had to buy a ticket in advance for the next available time which was three days ago[there's only one screen in Saigon playing Avatar in 3D and the whole city wants to go]. Daphne's still nervous every time she rides her bike, sadly getting over that will only take time but she's making good progress and is pretty good driver. Next weekend we plan on taking a trip to the Mekong Delta for Tet. Hopefully, it will be much less eventful then this last trip.