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Monday, April 30, 2007

Nha Trang, Vietnam

Nha Trang

Dirty beaches, rough waves, and Mama Hanh in the good ol' days of spliffs and surf

We reached Nha Trang and headed straight for the beachfront road where many of the hotels are located. Prices carry a negligible premium for beachfront location so I got a clean safe room for $8. I settled for the appropriately named Hotel 78. Located at 78 Tran Phu Street. I had the rest of the afternoon and two more full days to spend in Nha Trang.

While Ha optimistically went off to wander the streets of Nha Trang hoping to find a foreigner that might be willing to givehim a few dollars for a ride to Saigon I went to the beach hoping for a nice swim. Forget it. It was a windy afternoon with the strong breeze coming in directly off the South China Sea. Most of the waves were coming in at around five to six feet in height. I cautiously walked in, no further than up to my knees, but just to the spot where most of the waves were breaking. I did reasonably well to hold my balance against the waves. I got knocked around a little bit, but just enough to be fun, and managed to stay on my feet for about ten minutes before finally getting knocked down by a good seven-footer. But no sooner do I stand up and shake the sand out of my shorts that I turn around to face a sheer eight to nine foot wall of water. As quickly as I could mouth "Ohhhh, shit!" I'm knocked head over heals, spun this way and that and deposited with a resolute 'thud' on the beach; my mouth full of sand, my shorts at my ankles, and the wind knocked out of me. I decided it would be a better idea to lie on a beach chair and wade up only to my ankles. Maybe I could find a kiddy pool.

Nha Trang has what could be a spectacular beach if they'd clean the place up. Not only is there an excessive quantity of garbage on the beach, there's quite a bit floating in the water, too. There's nothing like getting tossed around in the waves only to then have to remove pieces of plastic bag that have wrapped themselves around your legs. The people working at my hotel in Dalat had recommended I do not go to Nha Trang for this reason and had suggested Ca Na, some seventy miles to the south. I saw Ca Na on the way back to Saigon and it is indeed a very clean quiet place. On the other hand, Nha Trang is becoming one of Vietnam's premier resort towns, and it looks like tourist growth is outpacing infrastructure. If you don't look at the trash, it's a nice wide beach with the added view of the mountains coming right down to the shoreline. It's lined end to end with palm trees, so it's get predictably chilly after about 4:30 p.m. when the sun is blocked from the beach.

I was supposed to meet Ha for dinner, as I was going to treat him as my tip, but at 6:00 p.m. he couldn't be found. So I had my own meal at an overpriced beachfront restaurant with an army of beautiful waitresses in colorful ao dais. I returned to the hotel about 7:30 p.m. and found Ha waiting for me, so we went to a cheap Vietnamese place and he had his noodles. We then hit a local pool hall for a few beers and a few games. The following morning he was gone at sun-up, when I saw him three days later in Saigon he told me he did the whole 270- mile trip in one very long day.

One of the things you're supposed to do in Nha Trang is take a boat trip to some of the outlying islands. These boat trips really aren't sightseeing trips, but rather an excuse to party. There are several operators with Mama Hanh's being the best known. The boats leave around 9:00 a.m., two boats filled with about 70 people set off for the first of four islands. After an hour the boats anchor offshore the first island and snorkeling equipment is handed out. About twenty feet below is a decent reef. An hour later and the boats are off to dock at another island and the sightseeing part of the trip is pretty much over. At noon we set anchor again and lunch was served. Here's where you get your $7 worth. Plates and plates of a variety of fantastic seafood cooked uncountable different ways are laid out. Seventy people couldn't come close to eating all the food they provided. Then the floating bar is opened. Attached to a rope, a Styrofoam cooler filled with drinks, including Mama Hanh's homemade wine, is set afloat and Mama Hanh with the help of a couple of foreign staff pass out drinks. Everyone is provided a life preserver. After the drinks Mama Hanh passes out joints. Regular payments to the police and that she's providing smoke to foreigners and not Vietnamese keeps her from losing her business. However Mama Hanh was quite irate when the Australian version of Penthouse magazine reported about the police payoffs in a feature article on her boat tours. She tells anyone and everyone who'll listen about this, usually while showing off the laminated version of the article she keeps. Apparently a few Nha Trang police officers also read Penthouse.

Mama Hanh is certainly a colorful woman. She's 39 years old (so she claims) but looks like the far side of 50. She has a good command of English, especially all the four letter words that she serves up as easily as she serves up drinks. She brings along a generous supply of beer and sodas that she offers at very reasonable prices. I think she was getting something like 10,000 dong a beer (about 75 cents). Needless to say quite a few people were thoroughly drunk by the end of the day, including Mama Hanh. Once the floating bar is shut down the boat moves along to another island for no other reason but to lay out about a hundred plates of fruit. Amazing fruit, many of which were varieties I'd never seen before and all local to the area. Vietnam puts out some really good fruit. One such local type is dragon fruit. It's about the size of a grapefruit but closely related to the kiwi. It has a purplish-pink skin, with white flesh and black seeds. I could have eaten them all day. After the fruit feast the boat stops at one more island if for no other reason but to stop at one more island. A nearly toothless thirtysomething woman and an entourage of children await the boats to beg for handouts of uneaten fruit and whatever else they can get. The boats remained docked for about thirty minutes and a somewhat inebriated Mama Hanh admonishes everyone to remember their belongings or, "fuck you, you leave I keep it, maybe you get it my office, or maybe I like it, you don't, so fuck you." Thus is Mama Hanh. Acridness aside, she's a nice woman that'll never let you take yourself or anything else too seriously.

I spent most of my other day in Nha Trang on the beach. I started the day with a walk through the town. Nha Trang (pop. 200,000), like the other tourist centers of Cantho and Dalat, is a healthy city, a lively resort sprouting new high-rise hotels along its beachfront. My only complaints with the place were the beach garbage and the number of beach vendors.

I started my beach day at the north end of the beach. That was near the bank, I had to get money. It was about a mile back to my hotel, and I took the beach route. The surf was noticeably lower than when I had arrived the day before last, coming in at about three to four feet. Walking along the beach I was accosted about ten times to rent a beach chair on that tout's particular beach. I had planned to do so anyway, but was going to do so in front of my own hotel. For 10,000 dong (about 75 cents) you get the privilege of a nice beach chair on your choice of beach and the opportunity to talk with scores of vendors all day long.

I planned to buy my lunch from one of these vendors, but I had no desire to buy a book, a postcard, a t-shirt, chewing gum, cigarettes, or who knows what else was offered to me. By mid-afternoon I turned robotic, saying, "no buy" without even bothering to look up from my book to see what I was 'no buying'. I didn't have to wait long for lunch. A pleasant woman in a conical hat came along carrying two large pots on a bamboo stick across her shoulders. She put her heavy load down beside me and started sticking crabs and shrimp in my face. After choosing a collection of crabs and shrimp it was bargain time. She asked for 35,000 dong ($2.60). I got her down to 25,000 dong ($1.85). As she's preparing my lunch she kept repeating, "very good, very good, and cheap price, oh, very cheap price." So I knew I paid too much. But considering what I was eating would have cost about ten to fifteen dollars in the USA I hardly cared. Very quickly two more food vendors sat down alongside my beach chair. One is selling fruit and I certainly wanted a few dragon fruits and pineapples and whatever other exotic fruits she was offering. Thus another ridiculous bargaining process ensues, and again my indifference to haggling over the equivalent of about fifty cents no doubt resulted in another overcharge. I then notice my seafood vendor happily telling her friends she was getting 25,000 dong from me for my meal. Her sign language gave her away. Now I really knew I paid too much. And I really didn't care, except I did notice one of the shrimps disappeared. I pointed this out and she feigned carelessness and the missing shrimp was miraculously found.

The vendors collectively spoke enough English to have a very basic conversation about all the usual topics, where I came from, was I married, how much money did I make, etc. Despite these women weaseling a few thousand extra dong here and there they still live a poor life. When I eat crabs I tend to stick the pieces, shell and all, in my mouth and remove the crabmeat however I can. With almost every shell I'd throw away, shells that had just been in my mouth, the vendor would pick it up and put it in her own mouth removing whatever crab meat I might have missed. She wasn't letting anything go to waste. When she got ready to leave I asked her if I could see how heavy her pots were. She gladly let me try balancing the pole on my shoulder. This 95-pound woman was carrying 40-50 pounds on her shoulders. She then pulled her dress back to show me her shoulders. Heavily callused with raised red ridges, the result of years of walking miles up and down the beach every day. Suddenly, I cared even less about the eight thousand extra dong or whatever I paid. If anything, I was kind of glad for it.

Of the many vendors who stopped by my beach chair, there was one in particular I actually put my book down and listened to for a few minutes. An older man, maybe in his fifties, he sat on the edge of my beach chair and introduced himself. He was very well mannered and spoke very good English. After the usual inquiries, most notably my origin, he proceeded to tell me what I had already guessed. He, like the souvenir vendor I met in Cantho, had been American- educated and a South Vietnamese military officer. Thus, following reunification he was 'reeducated' and like all the surviving officers, stripped of his citizenship. He now made his way by providing one-day tours into the surrounding countryside, his native area. Somehow, I had a feeling he would probably provide a pretty good tour and no doubt would have had some interesting stories to tell. But I was returning to Saigon the next day, so I gave him a sincere apology and he thus excused himself.

Throughout Asia one often encounters unusual translations of the English language. At my hotel there were a series of warnings in regards to potential problems should you choose to rent a motorbike. Perhaps most interesting was this, "Please lock it carefully in order to be stolen." You figure it out.

Early the next day I took the tourist van back to Saigon, a relatively painless ten- hour drive that included a nearly one hour wait to get across the bridge that carries National Highway 1 traffic into Saigon city. Once in Saigon, I ran into Ha who was already in bargaining mode. He knew I was going to Cambodia by land the following day. Although there is a bus direct from Saigon to Phnom Penh there is an interminable delay at the border as you wait for every passenger to clear immigration and customs. I had no intention of taking that option. So Ha and I agreed on 110,000 dong, (about $8) for him to motorbike me to the border. From there I'd walk into Cambodia and then get a car to Phnom Penh hoping to find another traveler or two at the border to share the expense to Phnom Penh.

We left shortly after 7:00 a.m., again deftly negotiating the insane Friday morning Saigon traffic. By 9:30 we reached Moc Bai, the border village. Knowing that from time to time, visas have 'problems' that can be either 'fixed' with a payment or perhaps just to display the unquestionable power of the Vietnamese border patrol, it may be required that you return to Saigon and resolve the 'problem' there. Therefore, I wouldn't let Ha leave until after I received my exit stamp. I was delayed for about thirty minutes as a bus full of German tourists had arrived ahead of us. There was only one person working the counter who had no intention of hastening his work, nor did he see any reason to process a solo traveler or two ahead of the stack of German passports that lay before him. So with a few Cambodians I waited and waited. Finally I was processed. I turned to Ha and pulled out the agreed price of 110,000 dong, but that wasn't the limit to my dong. I still had about 35,000 dong in my pocket and Ha saw it. Vietnamese dong is not convertible. You can't even legally take it out of the country and if you do you can't change it anywhere. Ha knew that. I knew that. So I start laughing, look into his expectant eyes, and hand him the crumpled wad of dong. "Thank you-ou-ou-ou-ou!" And he gives me a big bear hug and a slobbery kiss on the neck followed by a lot of laughing. Strange guy, that Ha.

Ha left to return to Saigon and whatever else, while I had one more hurdle to cross: customs. Land crossings to and from Vietnam can be excruciatingly painful. Getting through customs requires filling out a form, having the form signed off, assumedly after having your bags searched, then returning the form to another officer who will check it along with your exit stamp. Then you are free to walk into Cambodia where life gets a whole lot easier. Most bags are thoroughly searched or perhaps less thoroughly searched in exchange for a small payment of cash or cigarettes. On this day, luck was on my side. As I reached the customs end of the building the German tour bus had just been unloaded, dozens of bags lay strewn about the room while several customs officials gathered around, no doubt calculating how many dollars and cigarettes they'd get. Several bags were already opened, their contents spilling out all over the place. Behind them the few Cambodians I waited with earlier were also being similarly treated. After properly filling out my form, I was pointed towards the two officials now finishing with the Cambodians. He did not see from what direction I had come from, and maybe he assumed I had been with the Germans and thus already searched and bribed. But whatever he was thinking he promptly signed off my form without so much as a second look at my bags. I passed the form off to the next officer who checked that I had my exit stamp from immigration. Free. I was now officially out of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and now free to walk across the no man's land to the Kingdom of Cambodia. I never so much as had to touch the zippers on my bags.

Dalat, Vietnam

By Gordon Sharpless


Dalat Cowboys and Love Valley provide comic relief in an alpine setting

After a rest day in Saigon spent photographing street urchins and visiting a museum or two, I set out on the next leg of my journey: a trip to Dalat and Nha Trang. Dalat is a city high in the central highlands region and Nha Trang is a popular beach resort. These are both popular destinations that the sterile tourist buses operated by the Saigon cafés go to for a very reasonable price. Of course I didn't want that so for a not-so-reasonable price I'd get a guy to drive me on a motorbike from Saigon to Dalat to Nha Trang. From there I'd send him back alone while I lay on the beach for a couple of days before taking the tourist bus back to Saigon. I'd need the driver for four days and expect him to drive me about 325 miles before driving himself another 270 miles back to Saigon.

Thao didn't want to make the trip so he introduced a friend of his, Ha, a very likeable guy of about 40 who spoke very little English but was beginning to make an effort to learn. In Dalat I loaned him my phrasebook for a day to study and copy down vocabulary. He also owned a larger bike. Most of the motorbikes are the Honda Dream variety, one step above a moped; but Ha had a 125cc, the largest anyone in Vietnam without connections can own. We agreed on $85. He proved to be a careful driver and even admonished me once or twice for what he thought was jumping off the bike too quickly.

Dalat (pop. 125,000), about 190 miles northeast of Saigon is an attractive city sitting atop a plateau at about 5,000 feet. It's a relatively new city established in 1912. It is one of the most popular destinations for the domestic tourist industry. If there's one thing that's popular with the Vietnamese, it's kitsch, and Dalat has no shortage of kitsch.

Aside from the ability to stop anytime for any reason, one of the reasons I wanted a motorbike was to see Dambri Falls. About halfway to Dalat it is one of Vietnam's largest (over 300 feet high) and most impressive waterfalls. As it's only about ten miles from the highway it surprised me that the tour buses skipped it. Dambri is indeed a very impressive waterfall with an equally impressive water volume. I had to keep some distance away to remain dry, which turned out to be a pointless effort.

The road to Dalat began with an amusement park ride called 'Friday morning rush hour in Saigon'. It was insane. We only made contact with two other vehicles (one motorbike, one bicycle), which judging by Ha's reaction and the other drivers' reaction this was clearly a common occurrence and in the absence of property damage or bodily harm, there was no point in even stopping. Once out of the city we followed National Highway 1 for awhile, past a lot of factories, a lot of industry, and a lot of noisy traffic. Another hour or so and we turned left on Highway 20, the real road to Dalat. The scenery quickly changed to rolling hills. Soon we passed a large man-made lake to the left and soon after that we began our climb to the first plateau. The surrounding scenery was very rugged and junglelike. Although the mountains weren't much more than 3,000 feet, they were very steep and covered with dense vegetation. Once on the plateau the land changed back to rolling hills with the occasional bump in the earth that might be legitimately called a mountain. We reached Dambri at lunchtime.

After Dambri another old friend returned. As we're riding along the crest of a high hill leading back to the highway I see off to the northeast, our desired direction, that big old black monsoon cloud happily dumping inches and inches of rain wherever it goes. Thirty minutes later we were in a drizzle, I stopped Ha, ran into a store and bought a couple of cheap ponchos to keep the bags dry. Good timing, within minutes we were in a deluge that was to last for three hours, causing us to skip a few things I had wanted to see on the way to Dalat. The rain didn't stop until we were about fifteen miles outside Dalat. By this time we were both drenched and cold. Up on this plateau the temperature was closer to 70 degrees and not the 95 degrees of the Delta. But Dalat sits up on another higher plateau and is thus even colder. Soaked to the bone but enjoying the brief respite from the storm, we wound our way up to Dalat, 5,000-foot elevation, and 55- degree weather. No sooner do we enter the Dalat city limits the sky opens up again. Another monsoon. Of course neither one of us knows where we're going and Ha wants to drive around in the pouring rain and ask directions. I force him to pull over by the Central Market where I duck under cover, dig out my map, and navigate us to the Mimosa Hotel. We were both shivering when we reached the hotel. Literally. "Da-da-da-da-dooo y-y-y-y-y-ou ha-ha-ha-have annnnnny-y-y-y-y ra-ra-ra-rooms?" I ask. My shoes never dried until we reached Nha Trang three days later. My clothes only dried because the next day I gave them to the hotel to wash. In my room they were as wet the next morning as they were the moment I checked in.

In the warmth of my room I peeled off my clothing, warmed up with a hot shower and then settled in for dinner at the hotel restaurant. The Mimosa Hotel is one of Dalat's oldest hotels located in an old building that is still in reasonably good shape and still maintains a lot of its old character. And though a little damp, at five dollars a room what more could you ask for?

The restaurant served up decent food and soon a few other foreigners wandered in; a couple from Sweden, a guy from Canada, and another guy from Norway who had some strange ideas about travel. We got into a short debate about whether or not China was cheap to travel. The answer depends on where you go, the southwest region of the country is one of the cheapest destinations in Asia, the eastern cities (Beijing, Shanghai, etc.) are some of the most expensive destinations in Asia. But he stubbornly maintained that China was a bargain. When I mentioned Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong he shrugged them off, "Not China."
"Beijing is not China?"
Umm, okay.

The following day started out clear, sunny, and cool. I planned to see some of the surrounding waterfalls, visit a minority village, and maybe take in some of the sites within Dalat seeing some of Dalat's famous kitsch for myself.

I saw a couple of waterfalls, a lake or two, a pagoda, and Bao Dai's Summer Palace. I also visited a Koho minority village commonly known as "Chicken Village", where I perhaps made the mistake of putting to much faith in guidebooks. I came expecting a quaint little village devoid of beggars and greedy souvenir and craft sellers. So no sooner do I get off the motorbike that several young children come running up to me with their hands out. This was instantly followed by a woman persistently asking me to visit her craft shop. Ignoring them all I walked off into the village which consisted of a few dirt lanes, small wooden shacks, and small gardens that probably did little more than feed the families. This was a poor village.

There is legitimate debate on the appropriateness of promoting villages as tourist attractions. Northern Thailand is full of minority villages and these are major drawing points for the regional trekking industry. Around Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son and other areas numerous tour operators offer treks through the mountains, jungles, and villages. The villages are always described as 'authentic'. What is 'authentic', anyway? When is a village not a village? Anyway, at some of the villages, the inhabitants have been paid a small sum of money to dress up nice for the tourists, hide the television sets, and sit around and do authentic hill tribe activities like making blankets. On the other hand, some villages do exist in a much more natural less-affected state. But keep in mind, the moment you and me - the tourists, set foot in any one of these villages, the cultural pollution begins.

As I walked through the village, I happened across a few children playing in a lot. This of course generated my interest to take a couple of photographs. While I've encountered many camera-shy children who didn't want their photograph taken, of the hundreds of children I have photographed in Asia, or attempted to photograph, I have never encountered a hostile reaction, until this day. No sooner do I set a shot that an older boy of maybe ten jumps up points an accusatory finger at me and screams "No!" Okay. Fine. I put the camera down, but that wasn't good enough. The kid starts throwing rocks at me. The rocks were too small to pose any danger but the reaction disturbed me. I stayed in my crouched position for a few more seconds staring in disbelief at this furious kid while another small rock lands a few feet to my right. I say nothing, get up and start walking away when another rock sails past my head. That was enough. I stopped and turned to face this kid now standing about fifteen feet away from me. I took a few steps towards him, shook an angry finger and said, "That is enough. I'm leaving, okay?" Though I doubt he understood my words, he understood my tone. He just stood there glaring at me for a few more seconds and then turned and walked away. I did the same. While I'll be the first to admit that I was invading their privacy, what disturbed me most was not that the kid didn't want to be photographed but rather his violent response. The first thing I wondered was whether or not that was his own behavior or was he acting on the instructions of an adult. Then I also wondered what must have transpired before me to create such a hostile reaction.

I continued about the village for another fifteen minutes. I found Ha sitting by the large chicken statue that gives the village its name. Nobody is really sure why the chicken is there, even though it's only about twenty years old. A number of theories have been offered, some historical, some practical, and some outright mythological. But for however it got there, Ha was now there trying to get rid of a few beggars.

At the front of the village we stopped by the same craft store where the young woman running the place had persistently tried to get me inside. I agreed this time to have a look. She put on the hard sell, continually reminding me about what a poor village this was, how they were a poor minority group receiving no help from the government, and finally how her poor dear old grandmother spent days and days weaving these blankets. The latter related to me only after I countered her price for a blanket with a considerably lower offer. Despite my less than positive impression of the village, I did buy a blanket - I needed one, and they were quite nice.

As a postscript, just after I left Vietnam the newest edition of the Lonely Planet Vietnam guidebook was released. I read their updated review of Chicken Village. Although they toned down their opinion a bit, (the 1997 edition gave a glowing review, praising the absence of beggars and lack of commercialism), they still seem to believe that there are no beggars in Chicken Village. And no mention of rock throwing children either. My advice, give this place a miss.

There are several waterfalls around Dalat that are worth visiting. There are also a few lakes but neither of the two I saw really impressed me. The first I saw was the Quang Trung Reservoir, and the other is in a place called Love Valley, which is also a manmade lake. When I mentioned Love Valley to Ha, he made a disgusted face and managed to say, "No good, no good, Love Valley, ugh, no go, no good."

"I know, I know. But I want to see," to which I laughed sarcastically and Ha seemed aware that I knew exactly what I was getting into.

Love Valley is the epitome of kitsch. The souvenirs, the paddle boats, the benches with big pink hearts overhead, they all make for a most interesting experience. But nothing beats the Dalat Cowboys. Local men dressed up in exaggerated American western garb, looking like they stepped out of a bad 1950s television show with their horses no less decorated. It's a sight. In the valley's defense, the natural scenery is not bad; it's an attractive lake in an attractive valley against the front side of Lang Bian Mountain. Apparently Dalat is a popular honeymoon destination for young Vietnamese couples and Love Valley is one of the main attractions. But as a foreign visitor coming with no romantic intentions, I walked away with nothing but a good laugh. But it's what I came for. When I came out and saw Ha I just busted up laughing. He did the same. What a place.

There are several palaces around Dalat that had originally been built by Bao Dai, the emperor of Vietnam from 1926 to 1945. Visiting the Summer Palace provides an opportunity to wander about a 25-room residence still kept as it was thirty years ago. Not a bad place to live. We then headed for the Governor General's Residence, another palace built the same year, 1933, as the Summer Palace and also containing 25 rooms. But it was closed, reserved for a wedding reception.

We returned to the hotel and I let Ha go for the day. It was still only about 4:00 p.m. so I went to take a walk around the city. Dalat is an attractive city and as it's a tourist hub, it's far more prosperous than most Vietnamese cities. The center of town is dominated by a central market and is also one of the highest elevations within the city. On a nearby set of stairs many women sell a wide variety of food and down below are many more tables and vendors creating a fairly lively night market. Off in one direction is a mini (about one-third size) replica of the Eiffel Tower. The streets are winding and I managed to get completely lost as I walked around. About 5:30 it started to rain but not heavily. Nonetheless I didn't need to get anything else wet so I figured out where I was and located my hotel returning reasonably dry.

The My Dung restaurant... care to see the menu?

The next day I planned a trip to another minority village, the Lat village. This is located about 12 kilometers north of Dalat on the other side of Lang Bian Mountain facing away from Love Valley. From the village it's possible to climb to the top of the mountain, or ride a motorbike to a slightly lesser peak. I planned to do one or the other but hadn't made up my mind yet. The highest peak of Lang Bian is about 7,900 feet but at Lat Village you're already between 5,500 and 6,000 feet so it's really not that big of a mountain. Going to Lat Village and Lang Bian Mountain requires a special permit from the local police. This involves either visiting the police yourself or getting your hotel to put your name down on a tour. Either way it's five dollars.

When we left my hotel it was cloudy and by the time we reached Lat village it had started to rain. Fortunately the rain stopped as quickly as it started. I wandered the main street of Lat village, a series of small wooden buildings. Many villagers looking entirely western walked around paying no attention to me. Though there was nothing special about their style of dress it was clear to my eyes that these people were definitely not ethnic Vietnamese, as is true of quite a few of Dalat's residents. Then it started to rain, again. I located Ha and we rode to the end of the village, which is also the base of the mountain. It was about 9:30 a.m., I decided to wait an hour or two and see what the weather does before making a decision about going up the mountain or not. On the left side of the road were a few tables under a roof where drinks and snacks were available. A number of tour van drivers were relaxing, waiting for their cargo to return from wherever.

A young village woman ran the place and she proceeded to sit down at my table and talk with me. Ha was at another table preparing for a nap, probably hoping I wasn't going to have any insane ideas like asking him to take me up the mountain in the rain. But there was no danger of that happening, I didn't want to get wet anymore than he did. The young woman started shuffling a deck of cards, "play?" she asks me. Of course I couldn't refuse. What better way to pass a rainy morning than by playing cards with a young village woman? So I taught her Rummy 500 which she got the hang of pretty well. I 'helped' her in the beginning so as not to discourage her by running up an insurmountable early lead. Her name is Phuong - a Lat villager of about 22. In addition to speaking passable English, she spoke Vietnamese and the local Lat language. We passed the morning playing cards and making small talk. Ha was soundly asleep in a chair, probably dreaming of Saigon, where he'd be warm and dry, not stuck on a wet chilly mountain waiting for some foreigner to finish playing a card game with a village girl. By 11:15 the rain hadn't quit and Lang Bian Mountain was almost completely lost in the clouds. I decided to give up. I woke Ha and told him 'let's get out of here' to which he was all too happy to oblige. We made it back to the hotel by 11:45 reasonably dry. Our timing couldn't have been better. No sooner do we return and reach the safe confines of the building that the sky completely opens up. I ate lunch and told Ha he could do whatever he wanted, if it stopped raining and I wanted to go somewhere I'll find him, and not to worry about it if I don't. It didn't matter; the rain never let up. It was another deluge that lasted well into the evening. The day was a complete washout; my afternoon spent reading a book in my room, periodically looking outside to check on the weather.

The next morning brought bright blue skies. It was also departure day. We we're going to leave the mountains for the coastal resort town of Nha Trang. This was the only day I really got my money's worth for having hired a motorcycle. We left Dalat on a back road, one ignored by all the buses due to the many winding and twisting turns the road takes as it meanders across the plateau, then out of the mountains, and finally down to sea level. The area reminded me a lot of southwest Virginia. The Dalat area wasn't so much dramatic mountains, but rolling hills covered with forests of mostly evergreen trees. But what was mostly definitely not southwest Virginia was the endless terraced fields growing crops of whatever - tea, coffee, bananas, etc. After one final tortuous road brought us down out of the mountains the landscape changed quickly. In a short time what had looked like southwest Virginia now resembled southern California. Hills almost completely devoid of trees, limited to mostly scrub, reached all the way to the ocean. We continued on a flat road with mountains behind and to each side of us, passing through friendly villages, dodging water buffalos, chickens, and the like.

We came to a large town just as school was letting out for the lunch break. This instantly filled the road with hundreds of bicycles carrying uniformed boys and young women in ao dais. "Hellooooo" they yell to me. And there we turned left onto Highway 1. It was a scenic drive on a fairly empty stretch of highway with the mountains to our left, the South China Sea to our right, and the ever-present smell of salt air.

The Mekong Delta, Vietnam

By Gordon Sharpless

The Mekong Delta

Snakes, rivers, ferries, rivers, floating markets, more rivers

The Mekong is one of the world's great rivers, flowing some 2600 miles from the mountains of Tibet to the South China Sea and the Mekong Delta is one of the world's largest river deltas. The Delta region really begins around Phnom Penh, Cambodia where after joining with the Tonle Sap River, the Mekong divides into its two main branches: the lower Mekong, commonly known as the Bassac River, and the Upper Mekong. From here, numerous small tributaries and manmade canals create an environment often better suited to boat travel than to land travel, and indeed, that's how many people navigate between villages, and any tour to the region will include at least one, maybe several boat trips.

The river is a lazy one in the dry season. At times several miles wide and brown as mud, the river helps irrigate such a large region that rice harvests not only feed the entire nation, but make Vietnam the world's third largest rice exporter as well. The region is mostly rural, dotted with several small cities including the rapidly developing Cantho, the unofficial capital of the Delta region. The upper half of the region, from the Bassac River to Saigon is relatively easy to access by ground and is the region that most tourists visit. Few tourists go much below the Bassac River where things get a bit more backward.

A majority of Delta tourists take an organized tour. These can be arranged from many of the local cafés for about $30 plus food and lodging which provides a three-day tour that takes in most of the major sights from the Bassac River on up and also includes several local boat trips. The boat trips are the most problematic part of the tours. This is because they are very expensive. Most provinces do not allow private operators to give foreigners boat rides and thus the government has been able to maintain a monopoly over the service with rates running about $20/hour. A bit pricey, especially if you're going solo. Even in the less regulated provinces you'll still have trouble getting a ride for less than $10/hour. If you're signed up with a group these matters will have been taken care of and you can get your economical boat trip. As a solo traveler you're stuck with a tough decision. You can take a tour that will, on the positive side, get you a good boat trip and also get you around to most of the major attractions, but on the negative side, well, you're on a guided tour in a minibus. This is not very conducive to meeting the locals, taking spur-of-the-moment photographs, or visiting some of the more out of the way places south of the Bassac. As an alternative you can rent your own motorbike for about $10 a day or pay somebody about $16 a day to drive you on his motorbike and act as your personal tour guide and interpreter. I chose the latter and was glad I did. I definitely lost out on the boat trips and I missed a few other attractions as well, but in return I got plenty of roadside and village photographs, plenty of interaction with the locals, plenty of miles on little dirt roads through rice paddies and quaint little villages, and finally, a trip to a most fascinating village almost unreachable by anything but 4WD or motorbike.

There is another reason why I chose to pay somebody to drive the motorcycle. In Southeast Asia the roads are hardly limited to motorized traffic. Highways are shared with oxen-drawn carts, herds of goats, wandering chickens, families of ducks; people will even spread rice across part of the road, using the convenient flat surface for drying. The last thing I wanted to do was splatter some poor villager's chicken, then be forced into intense negotiation with a crowd of angry villagers trying to agree on a settlement for turning someone's precious chicken into dumplings before they had a chance to sell it. It's a mistake that would no doubt turn one dead chicken into one very expensive chicken.

I set out for a three day journey through the Delta on the back of a motorbike driven by Thao, the same guy who had driven me around Saigon one day and also taken me to the Cu Chi Tunnels. For this trip he was using a motorbike that came courtesy his sister-in-law which predictably broke down a few times and got several more flat tires as well. This is to be expected, but in all but the most remote regions of Vietnam there are roadside repair places every few hundred yards. These often provide a unique opportunity to mingle with the locals who may come out in droves to observe the lone long-nose standing around waiting for his flat tire to be repaired. Usually the conversation goes like this:

"Hewwwoooo," from about ten different people. Then someone in the crowd volunteers that they studied English for a few years when they were a child. The self-appointed interpreter begins the conversation thusly:
"Where from?"
Chatter amongst the group.
"Huh, where?"
"Ah-mer-i-caaaa. You-Ess-Aaaaaaa."
Puzzled looks, then comprehension:
"Ahhhhh. U Eth A. Wery good! Wery good! U Eth A."
The speaker then turns to the audience and says "Hoa-ky" (Vietnamese for USA). Several more minutes of chatter followed by: "You- ahhh- you- ummm." He then makes hand motions as if to fire a gun.
"No. I was too young."
I point to myself then make motions indicating I was a child during the war. The group understands and chatters away a few more minutes.
"You wy?"
My turn to say, "Huh?"
"You wy?"
"I wy, huh?"
"You ha' wy, where you wy?"
The speaker now seems puzzled at my lack of comprehension. After all, he studied English for a couple of years when he was a child. Finally he makes hand motions to indicate a woman and then points at me. Oh, 'wy' = wife. I show them a picture of my girlfriend, not bothering to explain that she's my girlfriend and not my wife. This generates a lot of excitement.
"Ah, wery boo-tee-full. Wiet Nam, yes?"
"No. Thailand."
"Thailand. She comes from Thailand."
"Huh? Dailant? Wha'?"
Then I get my phrasebook to see if the word for Thailand or the nationality Thai is in there. Of course it isn't. But it doesn't matter. Now they all want to read my phrasebook so I give it to them to look at and they walk off with the book and the photograph of my girlfriend, temporarily forgetting to talk to me. Eventually the flat tire is repaired, my book and photo are returned to me. Everybody yells "bye-bye" and were off to the next village and another flat tire and another experience not so dissimilar from the above.

The first day of the trip saw us leaving Saigon in the morning heading south on National Highway 1. National Highway 1 is Vietnam's lifeline, running from near the southern tip of Vietnam to the northern border with China. Just as Route 1 gave the traveler of old a fascinating look at a cross-section of America from Maine to Florida, National Highway 1 in Vietnam does the same here. A very popular trip is to self-ride a motorbike from end to end, which in another year I may, chickens be damned.

It seems almost everybody in Vietnam wears a baseball cap and as everybody rides on motorbikes hats flying off of heads is a regular occurrence. The Vietnamese have a very unique skill. Even at full highway speed, the men are most adept at picking a lost hat up from the road with their foot. The hat is then passed off to its rightful owner who can always be identified as the one person standing on the side of the road without a hat on his head. I lost my hat twice that morning. Later in the day, I successfully 'scooped' a hat with my own foot, passing it on to its appreciative and somewhat surprised owner.

Though Vietnamese is written with the western alphabet, that doesn't make pronunciation any easier. Consider the following towns: Mytho, Cantho, and Long Xuyen. None of these are pronounced anything like you'd expect. Nor are Mytho and Cantho pronounced anything alike. Mytho is pronounced like "me-toe", Cantho is pronounced like "can-toey" and Long Xuyen is pronounced, well, as close as I can spell it, like "lung-shoiyen" (it's a triphthong). And then there are the tonal variations…

We made our first stop at the town of Mytho (pop. about 100,000), the first major city south of Saigon, it sits on a branch of the Upper Mekong. Because of its proximity to Saigon it gets most of the one-day tourists and is proportionately expensive. Stopping at the city park along the river Thao cautioned me to be very wary of pickpockets and con artists. But all I had to deal with was a lot of people trying to sell me an expensive boat trip. From Mytho, we headed to a small village where I came across a small three room schoolhouse with a few dozen kids around ten to twelve years old playing in the yard. We stopped and as I have done many times in Cambodia, I simply walked right into the schoolyard with camera in hand. My arrival was met with yelling, shouting, laughing, and general hysteria. None of the kids came too near me, staying close to the relative security of the school building. A couple of shy ones ducked out of the way, but for most of the kids, the boys especially, it became a time to jump on top of each other, yell, tackle their friends, and yell again. Finally ending when about ten of them had tangled themselves up in one pile of yelling and laughing bodies. Did someone yell, "fumble!"? Right next to the mayhem a group of four girls made funny faces at me.

We then went to a local snake farm. It's interesting to go to a snake farm in a country where the word liability isn't found in the dictionary. If you've ever wanted to reach out and pet a cobra, this is the place to do it. The cobras are kept in a pen with a small moat and cement wall, so they're not likely to get out. But you're welcome to go in if it's something you've always wanted to do. All but one of the cobras were asleep and it took some doing to see where they were hiding, but the one cobra that was awake didn't want any company. In possession of a 300mm lens, I could safely lean on the cement wall and get some good close-ups that would give anyone the impression that it was me and the snake all alone in the river. The snake certainly did its part, rising up and hissing at me with its hood fully spread. It wasn't a very friendly snake. Cobras are common in the Mekong Delta and snakes (I don't know if they are cobras or not) are readily available at many restaurants for a very reasonable price.

Leaving the snake farm unharmed we returned to the highway and headed for the next town, Vinh Long. I was soon glad we were on two wheels and not four. As much of the Delta is rivers and canals, the roads require a lot of bridges. Most of the bridges should long ago have been declared unsafe and closed to traffic. As a matter of fact, about half of them are being replaced or are receiving major overhauls. Meanwhile, traffic continues to pass over the dilapidated old ones, often squeezed to a single lane creating lengthy waits for the four-wheeled vehicles stuck in line while the two-wheelers whiz by.

We made a quick stop in Vinh Long, which sits on the Upper Mekong. The Mekong, being a mile or two wide at this point must be crossed by ferry. They use big ferries capable of carrying about a dozen trucks and buses, dozens of motorcycles, and a hundred, maybe two hundred people. Again, Thao cautioned me about pickpockets. Next to the ferry a huge billboard proudly displays the latest feat of Vietnamese civil engineering. A huge suspension bridge is under construction to carry traffic over the Mekong. The towers are already up and visible from miles away. Also visible from miles around were thunderstorms. The rainy season is not supposed to begin until late May, but on March 29 it arrived.

Vinh Long is an unremarkable town and we soon departed for Cantho (pop. 150,000). Cantho is a healthy lively city that belies the economics of the surrounding area. It's certainly clean, there's been plenty of new construction, and the locals spend their evenings in leisurely relaxation along the city's generous riverfront.

But before we could enter Cantho, we had another ferry crossing, this time over the Bassac River. Just as the boat is pulling away a dirty, toothless old man selling assorted souvenirs approaches me, "Excuse me, where are you from?"

I was slightly surprised at how clearly and smoothly that sentence was delivered. "U.S.A., but I live in Thailand," I said guessing he might speak English well enough to understand my disclaimer. Whenever asked of my origin I always try to explain that though I'm a US citizen my home is now, and for the foreseeable future in Thailand. He understood me fine.
"America? Ha ha ha. I'm VC!" And he stuck a finger in my ribs like a gun. "Are you scared?"
"No. Not at all," I replied with a smile.
"What do you think about Vietnam?"
"I like it a lot. Nice people."
"Good. I like America." And before I could comment he beat me to my next question. "Oh, I know America, all right. I was educated in the 1960s in Texas courtesy the United States Government, then I was an officer for the south. Fought right alongside the Americans. Then you know what happened?"
"I sure do. The north won, they sent you away to be reeducated and then they took your citizenship."
"Reeducated? Ha! Thrown in a prison is more like it. Reeducated. Ha! But you're right, that's what happened. So you know. Good." And then he changed the subject.
"Do you know about Cantho? We have women in Cantho. You better be careful. A nice young man like you get in trouble with our women in Cantho."
"No way," I said. "I have a girlfriend in Thailand. I can't think about any Cantho women."
Then I showed him her photo.
"That's a beautiful woman. Thailand, yes? No, I don't think you'll get into any trouble in Cantho." Meanwhile several other men were straining for a look at the photograph.
He continued, "You know what I have here?" And he pulled out a long cotton swab, a foot long toothpick with a small fluff of cotton on the end. "Do you know what you do with this?"
"I can guess but something tells me you have a better idea."
He laughed. "Of course I do. Tonight when you're thinking of your girlfriend you take this stick and clean your ears. But only when you're thinking of your girlfriend."
I laughed at the logic of that one.
"Really," he said. "This is a special stick. You'll see. You try, okay. Believe me, okay?"
"Okay, I believe you." And then he gave me the stick.
"Here, my gift to you. Free. I'm very happy to have met you. I hope more Americans come here, come to my hometown, Cantho. You take care of yourself, God Bless, and all of that, okay."
And he went off to talk up a few other foreigners that were on the ferry. And I was left amazed. I just had a conversation with a foreign educated, fluent English speaking man that had no citizenship, which means in Vietnam, no rights to a home, and thus forced into a life of selling cheap souvenirs on a passenger ferry in the Mekong Delta. Who comes up with these stupid ideas? What an unbelievable waste.

Though Cantho boasts plenty of comfortable hotels along the riverfront, I went for a cheap place that required I give the bed a healthy dose of deadly bug killer. A notice under the window of my room warned me "don't fling anythings pass the window please, thanks". Like an empty container of deet spray? For dinner I decided to go with the local delicacy and treated myself to some snake. Not bad, a little chewy, but stir-fried with some rice and veggies, it was a perfect way to wrap up a day of riding from Delta city to Delta city.

The following morning I did my one and only Delta boat trip. For $20 (too much) I got about two hours that took me to the local floating market at Cai Rang about four miles down the river. As with most boat rides it got boring before it was finished and had I been more savvy I might have gotten the ride for closer to $10. We then left Cantho in a light rain shower and started heading up along the river towards the Cambodian border about 75 miles away. It was soon evident that as we headed north the economic boom of Cantho wasn't moving in this direction. After a few minor breakdowns, but a nonetheless scenic ride we reached the unremarkable town of Long Xuyen. We stopped for a rest and I walked around the crowded and busy riverfront market. As we readied to leave Thao told me if we were to spend the night here I'd probably have ladies knocking on my door offering to keep me good company for the night. From Long Xuyen we continued towards the border. I also noticed another sign of poverty. Unlike previous places where everyone was busy working at one thing or another, once past Long Xuyen I saw a lot of people sitting around doing nothing. Idleness- a telltale sign of serious poverty. We entered the town of Chau Doc (pop. 60,000), just a couple of miles from the Cambodian border. We then turned left where several miles to the south is Sam Mountain. It's really a hill, maybe a thousand feet high, but it gives great views of the surrounding countryside. At the base of the hill are a number of pagodas. These are quite a drawing card for Vietnamese tourists making Chau Doc and Sam Mountain noticeably more prosperous than the surrounding area. This is also the end of the line for 99% of the tourists. The foreign tour buses go no further and even some Vietnamese are afraid to venture along the wild frontier of the Cambodian border region. Even Thao was nervous about going any further, but agreed to do so anyway as it was one of the conditions of my hiring him.

The village of Ba Chuc is only twenty miles from Chau Doc but it might as well be a hundred miles from nowhere. A few miles from Chau Doc and we were heading south on a rough dirt road. A few miles from Ba Chuc and the road was almost gone, replaced by a raised rutted pile of dirt that was rough on two wheels, a challenge for a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and probably impassable for anything else, at least during the rainy season. There is however, another road to Ba Chuc from the southeast that is apparently marginally better. Good enough to get the occasional bus through, but probably not after breaking down a few times. I would bet money that during the rainy season Ba Chuc is all but cut off from the world, reachable only by motorbike and four-wheel-drive.

So what is it that brought me to this little isolated village and at the same time gives many Vietnamese a mild case of the willies? Let us return to Cambodia and the years of the Khmer Rouge. It was ultimately the invasion of the Vietnamese that brought down the Khmer Rouge and was ultimately the slaughter of innocent civilians in villages like Ba Chuc that precipitated that invasion. On the day the Khmer Rouge began its series of border raids, April 15, 1978, Ba Chuc was a quiet little village of about 3,500 people. For two weeks, ending April 30, 1978, the Khmer Rouge tore through Ba Chuc slicing to bits anything that breathed, literally ripping apart young children limb from limb and hacking the adults to pieces with machetes. When the raids ceased the population of Ba Chuc had been reduced to 2. That's right, two people are known to have survived the massacre.

Two things immediately struck me: How extremely friendly this place was, almost suspiciously so, and not surprisingly, how young it was. While a number of adults had moved in to repopulate the village, it's still the children who run the show here.

A memorial stupa to the Ba Chuc massacre sits in a field near a group of pagodas. It is similar to the popular Killing Fields Memorial at Choeung Ek near Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Here, the stupa houses about 3500 skulls and other remains, and like Choeung Ek, categorized by approximate age and sex. Given the popularity of the Killing Fields, and that the fields surrounding the Ba Chuc memorial are no less awash in blood, it's astonishing that the Vietnamese government has done nothing to promote this site for tourism. The town is extremely difficult to access; you have to really want to come here to get here. The site is completely devoid of any English translations, and though you can buy a pamphlet for 2000 dong (about 15 cents), it's only in Vietnamese. In one of the surrounding pagodas there is supposedly a photo exhibition of pictures taken upon the gruesome discovery of the Ba Chuc carnage. I looked all over the pagodas and asked a few locals (as well as I could) about the location of the photos, but I never could find them, and it wasn't for a lack of trying.

Driving around the village looking for the memorial I was amazed at the amount of "Hellos!" I received. As usual, they came mostly from children, though the adults were no less friendly. It was a ceaseless barrage that was almost suspicious in nature, as if the entire village had conspired to say 'hello' to every foreigner who passed through. The "Hellos!" were far more frequent than anywhere else in the Delta region. But if it was a plot to get me to say good things about the village, it worked. This raised the question- just how often did foreigners make it down here? I had Thao ask, and apparently one or two foreigners usually find Ba Chuc each day so my presence wasn't all that rare. Maybe that's just enough foreigners to be interesting, but not so many to become boring?

I spent only about three hours at Ba Chuc, but it was an afternoon well spent. After exhausting any hope of finding the photographic exhibition, settling instead for a substantially less graphic photo display of some local monks and villagers celebrating things worthy of celebrating, I decided to explore the village a little. The local high school was letting out attracting my attention, and I theirs. Meanwhile a couple of young village boys in dirty pajamas followed me around hounding me to take non-stop photographs of them and otherwise trying to jump into every photo I took. Thankfully they eventually disappeared.

Departure was delayed by yet another flat tire. We pushed the bike to one of those ubiquitous motorbike repair shops, conveniently located across the street from the high school. This one consisted of a small lean-to, a bench and a few tools - a typical shop. Waiting around for the flat to be repaired a number of village children came by to watch, mostly to watch me.

An interesting thing to do in remote, and sometimes not so remote parts of Asia is to pull up somewhere on a motorbike, get off, then just stand around and see what happens. Sometimes you are ignored. Sometimes a few people look at you and maybe point. Sometimes you attract a whole crowd but it may just be more to look at your Reeboks and Ray-Bans then at you; or best of all, you attract a crowd as I attracted this late afternoon in Ba Chuc. For about thirty minutes children aged 6-16 came and went, with the occasional parent stopping to check out the foreigner of the day.

Flat tire repaired we left to return to Sam Mountain/Chau Doc. We were going to stay at one of the many cheap hotels by Sam Mountain and then ride to the top the following morning to check out the views. But at this time the only thing I was viewing were big black clouds dumping huge quantities of rain a few miles away in Cambodia. Thankfully they stayed in Cambodia.

Leaving Ba Chuc was like arriving, an exhausting number of 'hellos'. I stopped a few times on the way out for photos: a small hut on stilts, a group of boys playing soccer, children playing in front of their homes. As night came so did the mosquitoes. Though they weren't biting me, we were riding at 30 mph; I was subjected to a continuous stinging barrage of bugs hitting my face, getting in my eyes, and even in my mouth. Mmmm, mosquitoes.

We spent the night at a guesthouse that I never would have recognized as a guesthouse but Thao knew the owners so I was in for $5. Dinner was whatever the wife felt like cooking, on this night - pork chops. The facilities were very communal - you shared it with the family that lived there. But the place was a lot cleaner than the previous night's hotel so I had nothing to complain about.

The next morning saw us ride up Sam Mountain, look at the views, and then hit the road for the 150-mile ride back to Saigon. We stayed on the highway until Long Xuyen where we turned onto a back road. We took this paved road for about 15 miles before turning on to a dirt road that we followed for another 60 miles.

We had two ferry crossings. The ferry was delayed at the second crossing as three policemen came aboard and initiated a bag search. Apparently they got a tip that someone had been paid to carry a bag across the river which the police seemed to think was a bad idea. In fairness, I should mention that the Delta is a major route for drug smuggling from Cambodia to Saigon. The police decided the easiest way to handle the problem was to just grab a few bags and take off with them. One of the police officers eyed my backpack strapped to the motorbike, but as he came towards it another officer, a senior presumably, chased him away from it having identified it as belonging to a foreigner. Whew. They took a couple of bags and interrogated a man with a bicycle and cart who apparently was indeed the 'suspect'. We met up with the man on the road later and Thao got the story from him. He was indeed carrying the bags across the river for someone. Oh well. But the man didn't seem the least bit upset at the loss of the cargo.

We had lunch in the town of Cao Lanh at an unremarkable basic roadside place that in great Vietnamese tradition was playing Vietnamese pop music as loudly as possible. But in honor of the lone foreigner it was decided that I would surely rather hear some western music and was promptly rewarded with some of the cheesiest renderings of 1970's disco music I've ever heard. It wasn't even well known disco, either. I recognized one or two songs as abominations I had buried deep in the recesses of my past, but the rest was unrecognizable except as being something awful. I think the CD may have been used towards the end of the war to extract confessions from prisoners. It would have worked.

After lunch we turned onto a dirt road that would be home for the next 60 miles. The road took us past endless rice paddies, little villages, and lots of friendly people. We broke down a few times, and wiped out once on a muddy stretch of road causing harm only to one foot peg that we had welded back on at the next village.

At one village I received a little more attention than I normally like. We had just come down with yet another flat tire so Thao charged on ahead leaving me to walk alone the few hundred yards to the repair shop. No sooner does he take off that a local on a motorbike pulls up alongside me and offers me a ride to wherever. That in itself would be fine except nothing comes for free. I tried to decline the offer but he was insistent so I finally gave in. Across the street from the repair shop was the village bus station. Forget what you imagine to be a bus station. It was basically an open-air café with a chalkboard displaying the bus schedule. They served drinks and probably could locate somebody to cook you a meal if you wanted one. There was a bunch of plastic chairs around tables occupied by about a dozen men playing cards and dominos. I was put into a chair and I promptly purchased a bottle of water, and of course, I also had to buy one for the guy who gave me the ride. A few more people tried unsuccessfully to get me to buy them something, too. They invited me into their game but as in Saigon, money was involved so I stayed out of it. For ten minutes or so it was fine, communicating through phrasebook and the one man who spoke a few sentences of English, we had a conversation that pretty much followed the standard script (see above). Unfortunately as happens sometimes, you're with a group of locals having a reasonably good time and somebody has to ruin it all. Usually it's some drunk with a big mouth that is just as often chased off by his friends, but in this case it was one man who decided I was very rich and should share my wealth with him. I'm well aware that even in blue jeans and a t-shirt, I can still look very wealthy to someone in the Third World. First he points to my shoes - Reeboks. He motions like I should give them too him. Forget it. Then he points to my pants - Levi's. American Levi's (there is a difference between Levi's made for sale in the USA and Levi's made for sale in Asia and I've met a number of people in both Vietnam and Thailand who can instantly spot the difference). He indicates that he'd like a pair of Levi's and makes like he's going to check my bag to see if I have another pair. Then he looked in my shirt pocket, which I had forgotten all about, and pulls out my sunglasses - Ray Bans, and the real thing, too. I was a rich man - Reeboks, Levi's, Ray Bans. The only thing left was my bag - Nike. But Nike doesn't impress in Vietnam. Nike products are everywhere in Vietnam and at incredibly cheap prices. As I think is common knowledge, many Nike products are made in Vietnam, so not surprisingly an awful lot of those products disappear through the back door. You can get any real Nike product for next to nothing if you know where to ask, and it's not hard to find the right person. So anyway, this guy keeps bugging me to give him something and trying to get his friends involved too, most of who ignored him. At this point, I'm now thinking what if this guy does get into my bag coming across a Canon EOS camera and a couple of lenses. I was looking for an escape route but just then Thao showed up with a repaired motorbike and we were on our way. I seriously wondered if in a few miles this guy might appear in my life again on less friendly terms, and I'll admit I did look over my shoulder a few times when I heard a motorbike approach, but it was just simple paranoia on my part. He wasn't a thief, just an annoyance.

In another village we happened across the excavation of a van from a ditch which pretty much had attracted everyone in the village. But as I took a few photos of the scene, someone, who as it turned out, had something to do with the van excavation (the van's owner?) growled something at me which I readily interpreted as 'stop taking pictures'.

Overall, it was a very pleasant ride along this dirt road. But after a few hours I noticed once again that ominous sight of huge black clouds dumping tons of rain on some hapless village. I made two suggestions to Thao. One, let's get back to the highway - now. I love this road but I'm not going to love it when it turns to mud (this didn't seem to be of a concern to Thao, though). And two, if it looks like we're going to hit this thing, we need to cover my stuff with plastic (this also didn't seem to be of a concern to Thao). He continued along for a few more miles passing a few crossroads that may have led to Highway 1. We were almost in the storm when we entered a large village with a numbered paved road cutting through it. Thao asked around and figured out how to get to Highway 1, but he didn't need to, the crossroad and Highway 1 were both on my map so I already knew the road went to Highway 1, but Asians don't read maps. Really. At this point it was absolutely certain we were heading right into this monsoon.

All over Vietnam you can buy ponchos for a few thousand dong that are good for about one day before coming apart into a half dozen various-sized pieces of plastic. With some difficulty I got Thao to stop so I could buy a couple - not for me, but for my two bags. He was reluctant to stop, saying "Rain, no problem."
"No, it is a problem. I have stuff, like some camera equipment that can't get wet."
He was slow to grasp the importance of the fact that not only did I not want my camera wet, I didn't want my clothes and other possessions wet either. But when the first raindrops hit he did duck under a shelter and we wrapped everything up in plastic.

Fortunately for us we were moving in the opposite direction of the storm so it didn't last long, but for about fifteen or twenty minutes we probably had two or three inches of rain fall on us. I couldn't have been wetter for swimming in the ocean. But soon the sky cleared bringing back the hot Southeast Asian sun that along with the 30-mph headwind generated from the motorbike had me nearly dry by the time we reached Saigon around 6 p.m.


By Gordon Sharpless


A superficial survey

February 23-25, 2002 - I made up an excuse to go to Singapore - buy a digital camera. Not that Singapore has any great bargains in that department, but the model I was buying, a Sony F707 was selling for about $200 US less than in Bangkok, so that savings would at least pay for my air ticket and hotel. But why travel alone? Hello, old girlfriend! Want to go to Singapore for the weekend? You do? Great. And that was that. So much for saving any money - might as well make a holiday out of it.

Ning dutifully picked up a copy of a Singapore guidebook written in Thai and proceeded to educate herself about Singapore far better than I would, though Rough Guide does make a handy little guidebook, "The Mini Rough Guide to Singapore". I can imagine the publishers sitting around their London office, deep in thought, index fingers placed to their mouths, "hmm, we shall call it... Mini Rough".

Being just after the Chinese New Year and a holiday weekend in Thailand, some Buddhist holiday I know not what, the plane was fully booked, and Don Muang, Bangkok's International Airport, was crowded as could be.

So with a bit of mayhem leaving Thailand I could only imagine what might await in Singapore. We landed at Changi and got our first taste of Singaporean efficiency. Never in my life have I cleared immigration, picked up checked bags, and exited an airport on an international arrival so fast as at Changi. It couldn't have been more than ten minutes from exiting the airplane to entering a taxi. I was very impressed.

The taxi was a nice comfy Mercedes that cost the same as any other taxi. Riding to the center of Singapore I was again impressed by what I saw - trees, gardens, nicely landscaped grounds around the expressway. And many colorful buildings. Though almost gaudy at times, I came to like the colorful paint schemes that characterize so much of the architecture in Singapore. Pastel colors of every shade of the rainbow and then some as each building in a row adopts a different shade. I quite liked it.

We stayed at the Miramar. It was a little more of a hotel than either one of us required but the whole thing came on a package and given the high price of hotel rooms in Singapore, if we had just tried walking in to a cheaper place, the savings would likely not have been significant.

Checked in, we then went for a long walk with the ultimate goal of purchasing a digital camera. Ning would then choose Sunday's activities and Monday we'd probably just go shopping or something.

So we walked around a bit, and yes, the streets and sidewalks are clean, but not that clean. There is garbage lying about though not very much. And I did step on something gooey - was it chewing gum? Well, it was kind of black and dirty, so I'm not really sure what it was.

Squeaky clean censored Singapore? Not at the House of Condom, Lucky Plaza

Let me clear something up. I, too, had heard all the stories of Singapore being a bit of police state with fines for this that and the other thing and certainly one would expect to see plenty of police about, right? Wrong. In the forty-eight or so hours we were in Singapore I saw only two police officers. One was riding a motorcycle around Sentosa Island and the other I saw standing next to his motorcycle along the expressway as we returned to the airport on Monday afternoon. I could have spat, chewed, and tossed litter all I wanted. Than there's that thing about flushing toilets. Well, all the public restrooms I ever used were automatic flush anyway. And no, Singapore public restrooms aren't all that clean. Certainly cleaner than, say, China, but nothing to get excited over - assuming then, that one gets excited over spotlessly clean public restrooms in the first place.

Anyway, we wandered closer to downtown Singapore all the while I was noticing something else pleasant about Singapore - the cars actually yield to pedestrians in crosswalks!!!!! That's an Asian first! Well, second, if I recall in Hong Kong they also tended to yield to pedestrians, but then again when a swarm of two hundred people pours into the street when the light changes one doesn't have a whole lot of options other than to stop. But here, it could be just the two of us readying to step into the street and whatever car was preparing to turn would hold that thought until we were out of the way.

We walked around some more before stumbling into one of the large electronics shopping malls on Bencolen Street. Here I haggled over prices employing the tried and tested bargaining tactic of walking away when dissatisfied with the price, for surely they'd chase after me offering a lower price. Nope. They just went back to doing whatever it was they were doing, perfectly content to have me walk away as far as I wanted. Not ready to make a purchase here, we jumped into a cab and went over to Orchard Road and the Lucky Plaza where I eventually made my purchase for the same amount of money as if I had bought the camera back on Bencolen Street. In the basement of Lucky Plaza is a good food court and we ate plenty.

Sri Mariamman Hindu
Temple in Chinatown

As Gordon had a new toy he wasn't about to do anything but play with this new toy so that finished off the day for sight-seeing, but it was already after seven in the evening, anyway. And still daylight. Being an hour ahead of Thailand and Cambodia the sun sets later in Singapore and it really did feel odd to both of us to have sunlight to well past 7:30 pm.

Day two. More walking. We went first to the Chinatown area and popped into the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple. Yes, you just read Chinatown and Hindu temple in the same sentence. We quickly came to the mutual determination that we had seen better Chinatowns elsewhere. Probably because both of us have been to China already.

So, Ning, it's your day, what do you want to do? Museums? Galleries? Culture? Oh, Sentosa Island, Singapore's answer to Disneyland.

Actually Sentosa was good for a laugh. We took the cable car over giving us a nice expansive view of the Singapore port with the skyline of downtown Singapore beyond it. It's a pricey place to go and some of the attractions struck me as perfectly silly, Volcanoland??, but Underwater World had some interesting fish to look at. Piranhas grow that big! The entrance ticket to Underwater World includes a dolphin show at Dolphin Lagoon, so we boarded the bus and zipped to the other side of the island, where we were treated to a brief, and I do mean, brief, dolphin show.

Then it was back to the main island. Dinner at Boat Quay, a long strip of over-priced restaurants offering alfresco dining. We chose some Indonesian place that was quite good, never mind the cost. Remember folks, most of my eating is in Cambodia and Thailand.

The final day was spent wandering about Orchard Road shopping malls looking at a lot of expensive things and not buying them, except for a watch, but that was her money.

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

By Gordon Sharpless


Perhentian Islands

I wanted an island - peaceful, attractive, and with good snorkeling as I still don't dive, though the day may soon come when I do. We decided on the Perhentians, particularly Perhentian Kecil as it's cheaper and there was supposedly good snorkeling on the north end of the island.

Two bus rides got us from Kuala Lumpur to Jerteh and a short taxi ride to the boat jetty. Two boat options - slow boat (an hour, not counting time spent picking up passengers on the return trip) or fast boat (thirty minutes not counting the same dilly dallying). 20 ringgit each way for the slow boat, 30 ringgit each way for the fast boat. Not a cheap ride either way you go.

We settled into the D'Lagoon, located on the north of Perhentian Kecil. I wanted quiet and I wanted snorkeling at my doorstep. The guesthouse provided both as well as friendly staff. On the other hand, the bungalows were a bit over-priced and the food was no great shakes, either. Still, to be fair you always give up a little on a small island as everything has to be brought out by boat and the refuse hauled back to the mainland. The place is also home to a number of metre-long lizards that run around behind the place but they're harmless and seem quite used to people.

There's a large reef in the lagoon in front of the bungalows that was supposed to offer some fantastic snorkeling - or so I had read. There was a time I'm sure that it did. Now, regrettably 90% of the reef is dead. Still, while the coral is brown and broken the marine life is plentiful. Lots of colorful fish, mostly small, a few large groupers, many barracuda, and sharks. Supposedly turtles are frequently seen but I saw none.

This was also my first shark encounter. Prior to this day the most seemingly menacing things I had ever seen were, in the Florida Keys - stingrays, a lion fish (or one of those prickly colorful poisonous things), and barracuda and more recently I met a moray eel off Koh Lanta in Thailand that had, like all the aforementioned critters, no interest in me at all. For as with most marine life, none of these animals are the least bit dangerous if you leave them alone.

I was on the opposite side of the island, a ten-minute walk through the jungle on a cleared path to a nice secluded beach. It's quite rocky offshore and just beyond the rocks is another dying reef but it's abundant in marine life. Floating through it all in water streaked with sunlight I caught a glimpse of something flashing about five or six meters away. Looking closer I saw it was a blacktip shark about six-feet long. First thing I thought, "Blacktips! They eat people!" And like the silly underwater novice I am, I got the hell out of there pausing one time to consider the irony that if this shark really was interested in me, my hasty exit and the vibrations I would have made in the water in this retreat would surely have attracted the fish.

I returned to D'Lagoon and asked if they heard of many shark sightings. I expected one of three responses:
1.) Oh my God! You saw a shark!
2.) Don't lie, there aren't any sharks.
3.) Yeah, so? People see them every day.

Did you guess number three? They did, however, comment that most of the sharks were out near some rocks but a couple of hundred meters from where we were standing and they hadn't heard of shark sightings on the other side of the island. I then took a look at the resident generic guide to the fishes of the wherever we were waters and found what I saw. Ohh... it's a blacktip *reef* shark which is half the size of a blacktip and according to the book, only aggressive if cornered whereas the big blacktips have been known to chomp on humans. Two other tourists overhearing this commented that they had seen the sharks everytime they went out into the lagoon.

Hmm. Maybe I should stop being silly and go see the sharks. So I did. Following the advice of the two tourists I headed to the area where they said I'd be most likely to see one, near the rocks a few hundred meters from the lagoon. On the way I encountered a school of barracudas and would see numerous more individuals.

Before long, one shark swam by a few meters below me completely ignoring my presence. A few hours later, on my next swim, I had my closest contact of the day. While I was gently treading water, trying to be as motionless as possible, it took all of about five minutes for a shark to turn up. This time it was swimming straight at me, however it showed no signs of aggression whatsoever. It came within about two meters of me then satisfied with whatever it needed to know, it turned to the right and disappeared. We had bonded. A special moment between man and beast. We were one. Our respective slots in the food chain, on the ladder of evolution, we knew where we stood (or swam as the case may be).

Before long, the shark returned, swimming in a wide circle around me. More bonding. We were a team. Secure, confident, I watched my soul mate disappear in the murky, sunlight streaked depths in front of me. Then I turned to look behind me. Another shark. Wait. I had bonded with... which one? Oh, never mind.

Sure enough a shark or two would be my companion the rest of the afternoon as well as all the other colorful fish that inhabited these waters. Still, I couldn't get over the fact that 90% of the coral below me was dead.

The following day I found myself with a horrible sunburn. Sure, I used sunblock, but had neglected to reapply the stuff each time I went for a swim. So we decided to head back to the mainland. We took the lunchtime boat and as we were the first stop we spent another hour picking people up before making the thirty-minute dash for shore. We got a quick look at Perhentian Besar Island and at one resort, Perhentian Island Resort, an expensive looking one, the water was spectacularly clear and inviting. How the snorkeling and marine life would be, I don't know.

My quick impression of the Perhentians are of attractive and peaceful islands. However, if you're not much for snorkeling or diving you may find yourself quickly bored as there is little else to do. Speaking of diving, I don't know what the options are in the area at this time. Obviously a dive would involve a boat trip to somewhere, one can hope anyway, where the coral is still mostly alive.