Monday, May 18, 2009

Hoi An and Saigon

After Sapa, Pat and I prepared ourselves for a long train ride and a much warmer climate than we had been experiencing in the south. We were taking one train to Hanoi from the border town of Lao Cai *an hour away by bus from Sapa) and from Hanoi we were catching another train allllll the way below the old DMZ line to the small city of Hoi An. Why go to Hoi An? For the culture, sure, but mostly we were going for some tailor made- cheaper than you can get in Canada-custom fit clothes. Like every other foreigner in Hoi An.

So our first task was to hop the bus from Sapa to Lao Cai. There are busses everywhere in Sapa so it should be easy, right? No.

We got on a bus, no problem there. And the bus driver knew we had a train to catch, he did. And we proceeded to drive in a circle around the town of Sapa until we picked up more passengers. I went from nervous to frightful to furious in a mere forty minutes. Finally, after the ten thousandth loop around the small town, we raised our voices a smidgen. Then we got one more passenger and the bus driver made us get out and get on another bus which had more people. I nervously checked the clock: it read 7:40 AM. Our train was due to leave at 9. And it was still an hour to drive to the train station. Ugh.

So we were finally on our way, packed tightly in a slightly falling apart mini bus, and I cursed the fact that there were no guard rails down the winding, one lane road. When we arrived in Lao Cai, we ran to the train station, scared to death that we had missed our train, and were met by three people: one girl behind the counter who had no idea what I was going on about, an older woman who kept saying "It's ok, it's ok" and a frowning younger man who kept replying "NOT ok, NOT ok". Apparently they didn't recognise the ticket I had. The man phoned the number on our ticket and remained frowning. The older woman kept reassuring us that everything was ok and we had not missed our train, and the girl behind the counter continued to chew her gum sullenly.

Finally the man said "Ok, ok" and exchanged our first ticket for a proper train ticket. The woman told us their wasn't any food on the train and took Pat to a place where he could get a baguette. While Pat was gone, I profusely thanked the man, who I assumed worked for the train station, for helping us.

"Ah, no problem", he frowned.

Then he said: "Are you going to give me something for my trouble?"

I was taken aback. I said "What?"

He said, "You know, I don't work here, I am just working for myself. Give me some money for what I did".

Not knowing what else to say, I replied "My boyfriend has all the money".

When Patrick got back, I whispered that the guy wanted money from us. Pat, who was hurrying me to the train, told me to forget about it, he was a jerk and he scared us when he shouldn't have. We started to run for the train and the guy trailed after us:

"Hey! What about me?!"

I replied that he never informed us about his "business" beforehand and he wasn't getting a cent. And my faith in humanity was shaken.

I told Pat that at least the older woman was kind to us. Patrick replied sarcastically, "Yeah. She made me go to her store to buy food. She didn't work for the train station either".

How depressing.

The train ride was very uncomfortable. Apparently when the Vietnamese say you booked a "hard seat" they literally mean a wooden bench. For about 11 hours. My bum's faith in humanity was shaken that day, as well. But the locals on the bus were great fun. They would just take our stuff without asking, looking through our books, playing with our playing cards, looking at the pictures on our postcards and laughing. It's like we were all old friends. A man who sold tea would sit down next to us and say we were like his children. That was sweet.

When we finally arrived in Hanoi we had a few hours to kill. I suggested that, if the hard seats were really that hard, then the hard sleepers would probably be absolute hell, as that is what we planned to sleep on en route to Hoi An (our train left at 11 and was due to arrive the next day around noon). We tried to get some soft sleepers but to no avail, and we ate a fattening meal at Lotteria (Korea's version of McDonald's, spread all around Asia) and had a beer at what appeared to be an upscale brothel. Finally we boarded our train and discovered, to our delight, that the hard sleepers actually have cushioning. Excellent. I fell asleep immediately.

The next day, after training through some beautiful seaside landscapes, we arrived in the city of Danang (a bus ride away from Hoi An). We forgot what the weather in the rest of Southeast Asia was like: unbearably hot! We didn't want to pay 10 American dollars to get to Hoi An by car, so we opted for the public bus, which we were told was only 10,000 dong (75 cents) per person. When we got on the bus, the ticket man demanded 50,000 dong from us. We said no, and he kicked us off at the following stop. We waited for the next bus, and they didn't try to overcharge us (although I handed her 10,000 dong extra, just in case).

We arrived in Hoi An and Pat found a great place with a pool and cable for just 12 bucks a night. Yay. We spent the next two days having fitting after fitting, picking out fabrics and eating clay pot pork with rice. Then we took the train once again on our way to Saigon!

Note: the dude on our bus back to Danang tried to overcharge us as well, but luckily I still had our tickets from the last bus that clearly said "10,000 dong from Hoi An to Danang". The ticket guy knew he was had, and to make him appear that he had not lost face we stayed quiet and simply handed him our fare. It's important for Asians never to lose face.

On the train to Saigon, I got cheated twice more by a guy that a) tried to show us to our car (which was clearly number four. I can count.) and then demanded money for helping us and b) a guy who served us a meal on the train and never gave me back my change, shaking his head and smiling and then quickly walking away. I mean, none of this would have cost us much, but it was the principle of the whole thing that made me very angry!

We arrived in Saigon at around 6 AM. We found a taxi that was honest and he took us to the backpacker district where we found some good accomodation. Pat wanted to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Vietnamese hid from the Americans during the "American War", as they call it, but I was tired and found that we had Discovery Travel and Living included in our cable. Hmmm, tunnels, or all of my favourite cooking shows that I haven't seen in ages? Easy!

Pat went to tht tunnels and had a great time, while I ate a great breakfast and watched Anthony Bourdain... and had a great time. When he got back we went to the War Museum, which was a sobering experience with very graphic images (but was surpisingly neutral in it's content! They talked about how both sides were affected by the war, not just the Vietnamese) and then proceeded to have some of the best ice cream I've had in three months before heading back. We left the next day on a bus bound for Phnom Penh, which is a mere six hour drive from Saigon. Goodbye, Vietnam! You're a wonderful country with some people that infuriate me, but I have no hard feelings.

The mean streets of Saigon.

Pat in his new suit, a la Toto Tailors in Hoi An.

Me, trying to sleep on the sleeper train to Danang. The view was too nice to nap, though.

The sandwich stand that dreams are made of... Pate Baguettes! Thank God they have them in Cambodia, too!

Outside the War Museum in Saigon.

Peace paintings by the children of Saigon: The War Museum

Clearly the Cu Chi Tunnels were not made with Patrick in mind.

Who keeps these darn bombs lying around?!

A typical Cu Chi Tunnel room. Uncle Ho: you the man.

Pat is like a kid in a candy store.

Images of victims of the "American War".

I wouldn't want to be a victim of these guy. Would you?

I got softhearted on some kid that looked like my brother Rory and bought this dragonfly that defies gravity. See how it rests on my glasses?

My new winter coat.

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