Vietnam, Never a Dull Place

Vietnam, Never a Dull Place

» Featured Columnists | By Mike Cooney | December 29, 2011 9:47 AM ET

Our entire trek had been relatively safe and free from any major catastrophes.  However, in hindsight putting our faith in six Vietnamese motorcycle drivers to take us to a town we did know the name of seems either very adventuresome or completely stupid, depending on your point of view.  Only one of the drivers spoke enough English, and he assured us all would be well.  Visions of riding down a remote road and being robbed did cross my mind.

We were told the seaside town they were taking us to was approximately 20 miles away.  Before leaving I told the English-speaking driver that I needed to stop at an ATM, since I did not have any Vietnamese dong to pay them.  I hoped that would buy us a little more time before we were robbed.  We rode through small villages and beautiful countryside, although it was difficult to enjoy the scenery given the rate of speed they were traveling, and the constant fear of being bounced off the seat.  Like the ride from the rendezvous point in Cambodia to the border, each of us carried as much gear as possible plus had to hold onto the seat or driver - an intimacy none of us were eager to experience.  The sixth driver carried everything we could not.

It was not until we arrived at our destination that we learned just how terrified Harrison had been during the ride.  He had carried his guitar throughout our entire trek including the four months in Central and South America.  The only way for him to hold his guitar on the motorcycle was to have it across the seat between him and the driver.  In addition, this configuration gave him very little seat on which to sit.  After the excursion, he shared with us in vivid detail that not only did his driver feel compelled to be in the lead and drive the fastest; the driver was also cutting in and out of traffic.  Harrison was convinced that at any minute the guitar sticking out on either side would clip another vehicle and the result would not be good.  He informed us that he would never-ever use that form of transportation again, period.

We were dropped off at a government-run hotel in the town we still did not know the name of.  Apparently it was standard practice for uneducated travelers to experience what we did on a regular basis, as the driver seemed to know the desk clerk very well.  He and the other drivers no doubt received a kick back for bringing unsuspecting travelers to this little known destination.  The English-speaking driver assured us he and his fellow drivers were the only way to get to the next major city, and that we should call his mobile when we were ready to leave.

The hotel appeared to be a Vietnamese franchise for "Bates Motel".  That impression was later confirmed when we checked into our rooms.  They were decorated in early Ho Chi Minh and sanctioned by the austerity police of the Communist Party.

We left the hotel to find something to eat and quickly realized no one spoke English.  While walking down the street, we saw a sign heralding the Relax Restaurant.  Hopeful that someone there might speak English, we walked to the completely open-air establishment.  A Western looking man came to greet us and stated his name was Jim, and he was an expat from Australia.  We asked him where we were and he proudly told us this was Hon Chong, which is best know as a major destination for faithful followers of Buddha.  There was a shrine in a cave where pilgrims from all over Vietnam came to pay their respects.

Our newfound friend took us under his wing and was our guardian angel for the next three days.  We did not know such protectors would have a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, but under the circumstances we were not in a position to be choosy over whom we were assigned.  The last time anyone speaking English visited Hon Chong was three months earlier, so Jim was eager to catch up.  He and his wife ran the restaurant and served great meals of fried rice and vegetables - we ate there nearly every meal.

After checking into the Bates Motel, we noticed a large group of guys participating in a variety of team building exercises.  At a distance the group appeared to be Vietnamese boy scouts - all wearing blue uniforms with red ties.  In addition to team building, they took a written exam on the lawn, and later held a loud and lengthily awards ceremony.  The similarities to boy scouts ended that night when they celebrated the end of their activities.  Up close it was obvious we had mistaken their slight-framed physical build for boys, when in fact they were very much adult males.  They partied all night long, drinking and singing until nearly dawn.  Fortunately, they left the next day by bus, no doubt with significant hangovers.

Hon Chang's only attraction was the large Buddha located in a limestone cave at the end of the main road.  Busloads of pilgrims visited the shrine daily.  It was a highly revered sight and very impressive even to non-Buddhists.  The village was located on the coast, and had impressive limestone rock formations off the coast.

Jim confirmed there was a bus going to the next major city, Can Tho.  We were all relieved to know it was not necessary to engage the six motorcycle drivers for a second death defying ride, especially Harrison.  Jim made sure we caught the right bus and his wife instructed the driver in Vietnamese where we wanted to go, as we had to change buses in a town along the way.  She asked the ticket taker to make sure we transferred to the correct bus.

For anyone that has followed our travels, you know that we have experienced some outrageous bus rides.  From four-hour chicken-bus rides in Guatemala to enduring hours of Khmer music videos in Cambodia.  However, nothing had prepared us for two of the most insane bus rides of our entire trek.

The bus leaving Hon Chong was so dilapidated that we were not sure it would make it to the next town.  In a previous life it was probably a school bus, but that was nearly 30 years ago.  The lack of seat cushions and a suspension system long since worn out resulted in a bone-jarring ride that caused our teeth to hurt, not to mention our heads.  At one point it started to rain and water poured in as if the windows were open, which they were not.  The bus driver honked the horn constantly, and for no apparent reason.  There was no traffic in sight and few pedestrians.  Perhaps he was heralding his arrival for those not yet waiting by the road.

The bus finally arrived in the town where we needed to change buses.  We were grateful to get off the bus in hopes the next one would not be such a wild ride.  The ticket taker escorted us to a street corner where we met the next bus.  It was in slightly better condition than the one we just got off of, but only marginally.

The next four hours made all previous bus rides seem mild by comparison including the most recent.  The driver took the top prize for the worst and most dangerous of all time.   His manic driving was aided by the ticket taker who leaned out the front door yelling at all other traffic to get out of the way.  The driver came within inches of motorcycles and other vehicles as he passed, while the ticket taker yelled at them for not getting over.  On several occasions the driver passed traffic and cut back in only feet away from oncoming buses and trucks.  The horn blowing never ceased, and once I counted 50 honks within one minute.  We finally arrived in Can Tho after four hours on the bus ride from hell.  I wanted to get off and kiss the ground like the Pope, but probably not for the same reason.

Can Tho is home to over one million people and the largest city in the Mekong Delta.  It is located on the Hau Giang river, a major thoroughfare for boat traffic in the southern region of Vietnam.  The city has plenty of reasonably priced hotels and offers visitors many sightseeing options including floating markets, large street markets, tours of the canals and other attractions including the Ong Pagoda museum, Khmer Pagoda and Binh Thuy temple.

The city has many good restaurants.  In most cases the food is both cheap and plentiful.  As an example, all five of us ate at a vegetarian restaurant for $1.50 USD (not a typo).  We were served a variety of delicious dishes on platters.  Needless to say, we ate there on several occasions.

Can Tho has all of the modern conveniences, while at the same time embracing old technologies.  An example was a man who made his living repairing analog scales.  He appeared to have a booming business and for good reason.  Every merchant used this type of scale to weigh everything from rice to meat.  Based on the overwhelming number of street vendors in the riverfront area, he was enjoying job security the rest of us can only dream of.

Our next destination was Ho Ch Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.  It is a huge city with nearly as many mopeds and motorcycles as people.  There, we were introduced to the Saigon Shuffle, not a dance step, but a means of survival when crossing streets.

And remember, "Travel is the ultimate education."

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