Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March 15 Saigon

The only interesting thing about the bus ride to Saigon was the border crossing and even that was pretty smooth. The bus concierge or conductor or whatever the title handled everything. He collected everyone's passport. That was difficult for some farangs who've probably been told never to let their passport out of their sight. I could hear him patiently (with a minor bit of exasperation) explaining that it would be a lot easier for them if they let him handle things.

We were sitting beside a 60-65 ish American with motorcycle boots and a thin grey ponytail. At the border crossing he was pulled aside and held us up for about 15 minutes. When he finally got back on he seemed peevish and said "They know me here." Now what could that mean?

We arrived in Saigon on exactly the same street that Nancy and I stayed on in 2008 - Pham Ngu Lau. It's the 'backpacker area'. That means taxis, rickshaw's, travel agents, tour companies, cheap restaurants, bars, sidewalk vendors, massage joints/spas chock-a-block. Every bar and restaurant has one or more touts standing outside luring you into their place. Tense.

We are travel weary because neither of us really wanted to see a thing in Saigon! I told Ian about the War Remnants Museum but we both thought it was too grim. We walked to the old post office which I think is a very beautiful building - French Colonial.

We strolled around a nice park, had coffee and a crepe, watched the brides having their wedding photos taken. I couldn't bear the idea of going back to PNL street again. I saw a beauty salon and decided to get my hair cut. Ian left.

Before I could even sit down he was back and we each had shampoo, massage and hair cut. It certainly improved our collective mood. We actually hadn't realized we'd asked for the massage bit - in fact, I'm pretty sure we hadn't! But, oh what a treat. Shampoo, facial scrub, facial massage, head massage. Move to the vibrating tables and more massage. About an hour in all.

Then the hair cuts. The man who cut our hair, Mr. Vinh, is immigrating to Fredericton NB!! He loves Canada - "clean, green, quiet". I almost wept.

Mr. Vinh told us he has to have $300,000 to buy a business in NB whereas a business in BC would be $800,000. We talked about Cdn immigration. He was well-informed.

We ate at a Pakistani place that night. My few words of Urdu came in handy not for any practical reason but for diplomacy. The owner is from Pakistan as were a few other diners. He was thrilled we'd been there and could chat about this and that. He is actually from Kashmir ... "the Pakistani part." I realized that I feel more affection for South Asian culture that I do for SE Asian. I'll have to ponder that.

We left Saigon early in the morning. Well, not so early - 7:30 bus that left at 8:45!

March 17 - St Patrick’s day To Mui Ne

It must have been the luck of the Irish that kept us alive! I tried to keep my head down and focus on knitting (I’m on my second sock – not a match for the first sock). Every now and then Ian would look at the road and I usually heard a deep intake of breath and then “Oh fuck! That was too close.” It seems that passing another big bus and forcing oncoming cars onto the shoulder is SOP. Or, the other manouevre I marveled at was the car passing us on the right just as our bus driver pulled out to pass the big vehicle in front of us. I wondered how we’d merge in front.

We got off in a small beach town called Mui Ne. It’s very close to Phan Thiet where Reece went with his father. It’s a very long arcing strip of pale sand with lots of high end and low end ‘resorts’ along the shore and working class Vietnamese trying to make a living off of fishing and tourism.

The music in the open air restaurants was very annoying – but it seemed only to us! I can just see Frank rolling his eyes! Sometimes it was trance music and other times high-pitched Asian bubblegum pop.

We went to a little bar run by a French couple. They favored the trance music or improv jazz. But they were sweet and trying hard to make a go of it. Ian had some red wine which as usual came ice cold. He thought French people would be more ‘in the know’ about wine but when he asked she shrugged and said “I know, I know but ...?” I guess it has to be either too warm or too cold.

March 19, 20, 21   Nha Trang      

Ian described Nha Trang as the Acapulco of Vietnam. Well it is a city on a beautiful beach and it is a holiday destination for Vietnamese as well as foreigners. I’ve never been to Acapulco but from photos of it I’d say Nha Trang is way better. Maybe not for much longer as there is a fair bit of BIG hotel construction going on along the road in front of the beach. Thankfully the beach side of the road is being spared any construction.

It’s a beautiful city oceanside. There are frangipani trees, poinsettias, trees clipped into pyramid and cube shapes, coloured paving stones, sculptures and lots of happy people. There are a few cafĂ©/bar places along the beach – but low key places.

In the evenings around five o’clock the air cools considerably and people come out to stroll along the front. We saw people, mostly in their 50’s and 60’s doing exercise – qigong, calesthenics and jogging.

The Cruciverbalist Caper: On our first day in Nha Trang Ian went skin diving. Since it was Sunday I thought I’d try to find an International Herald Tribune Sat-Sun edition (for the NYT crossword). I knew from past experience that it can usually be found at hotels like the Crowne Plaza, Marriott etc. I walked all over town for the right kind of hotel with no joy. By 11:30 a.m. I was overheated and worn out.

Later I was telling Ian about my efforts and the lack of the right kind of hotel. He pointed and said “What about the Sheraton?” Gobsmacked I was! I didn’t feel optimistc but I could leave no stone unturned.

The Sheraton is on a corner with the main door on a side street and another on the beach road. We went in the main door. What austere, elegant emptiness. The lobby was enormous soaring three stories above us and with a tiny reception counter and an even tinier concierge counter. Both counters seemed to be suspended cream-coloured stone slabs. Behind the concierge desk was a beautiful smiling female VN automaton. A woman actually but rigid. I askd if there were any newspapers available. I tried French too (remember the good ol’ colonial days?). Her eyes darted back and forth – English, Vietmanese, French, Vietnamese. Finally, smile intact, she pointed far across the lobby to a woman in a black suit.

As we made the long journey across the lobby the black-suited woman walked out of sight. As we neared the spot where she had been we saw that it was the entrance to an austere, elegant bar. I thought the stuff on the counter was menus.  No! Be still my beating heart – the IHT!!

I picked it up thinking I’d ask to buy it or tear out the xword. Ian, in a complete departure from his usual ‘do the right thing’ stance said “Put it in your purse!” We snuck into a little alcove, I stuffed it in my purse and we scampered out the second door without seeing another soul! It’s true – addiction leads to property crime!

The puzzle was a difficult one (or I’m out of practice) and after three days I threw it out.


I’d made up my mind that I wasn’t taking anymore buses. The night train to Danang was full on Monday night so we had more time in Nha Trang. We went to the hotsprings for a mudbath a mineral soak and a foot massage. They tried to sell us a VIP private room with full body massage etc for $155. I can only imagine what hanky panky goes on in the VIP rooms.

We opted for a non-private deal. I wasn’t crazy about the mud part. They ran a tub for two with muddy water (or very watery mud) and we were supposed to sit in it for 30 minutes and then sit in the sun and dry out. I lasted about 20 minutes mudding and drying.

The we went to a mineral tub for two. The woman had a gallon thermos jug with her and when our tub was full she emptied the thermos which had boiled water and two softball sized herbal pouches. I sniffed and sniffed but I couldn’t tell what the herbs were.

She left us with instructions to sty there 45 minutes and then get up and put on the flimsy shorts and tank tops she left behind. She also left us some tangerines and water.

The tub was in a jungle environment, ficus, ferns eucalyptus, hibiscus. There was a bird or lizard that started out with a chirpy kind of sound that then turned into a creaking door sound.

The two women who showed up to do our feet were great fun. As Ian’s ‘therapist’ moved her hand up his thigh he gave me a furtive glance. The women didn’t miss a beat and in sign language with lots of hoots they made jokes about the male anatomy! Ian was very calm and cool about it. Then it was my turn. My gal reached over and rubbed my nipples. If I’m not mistaken she called them mosquito bites!

They asked if we wanted a full massage, not just feet. We hadn’t paid for that. “No worry madame. You pay us. But ssshhhh, no tell.” Then she dragged her finger across her throat like she’d get axed for taking our money.

This was the deal. The spa charges $6 for a full massage of which the masseur gets less than $1. Being one with the people we snuck the bills to them directly for a clandestine massage.

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An Asian pleasure I’ve always enjoyed is toothpicks. They’re on every table. Yesterday I noticed I was picking my teeth to the trance music! I have no idea how long I’d been at it when I ‘came to’.


Motorcycles and scooters are the primary means of transport. We stood on a corner looking at all the scooters going by with little children on them. I once saw a woman driving with one hand and holding an infant close to her chest.

Some people use a seat like a baby bar stool. The legs fit on the ‘floor’ of the scooter and the seat of the stool is about even with the seat of the scooter. The babies seem to have great balance and they know intuitively? not to move around. I guess they get nine months in utero training.

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Night train to Hoi An. A much better way to go especially with a little blue pill. We bedded down about 11:00 in a compartment with four berths – two up, two down. Our compartment mates were a VN woman going to a gender issues workshop and an older man.

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