Saigon, Bangkok and Closing Thoughts

I'm now back in the US writing from the comfort of my apartment, with good home-brew beer, real bread, and a distinct shortage of papaya salad. Alas, while simple to make, I don't ever recall seeing big, green (unripe) papayas in this country. If you do find some, there's a recipe online

Interestingly enough, I just noticed that the author for that one is Eng Tie Ang - a woman I've taken Thai cooking classes from here in Seattle. Have to call her up and see where she gets green Papaya.

Getting back to the narrative: Sunday we biked 110km down to Bao Loc. Traffic wasn't too bad (by Vietnam standards) and the countryside was quite scenic; lots of coffee fields! This was our last day on the bikes, and 5 weeks to the day after we started, the odometer was showing 2500km. Not a bad accomplishment considering the number of days spent not-biking.

Bao Loc was nothing special - just a convenient shopping point and the location we'd catch the bus to Saigon. Dinner was OK, and breakfast was the standard grease-soaked, under-cooked fried eggs with baguette. Shortly thereafter I noticed on an English menu in Saigon "Half-Cooked Fried Eggs" so apparently they like them that way. After breakfast we wandered up to the market and found an absurdity: oranges with little PLU stickers from California. I can't imagine how this can be cost effective since everything is so cheap, and there are so many local varieties, but there they were. We didn't buy any.

The bus was supposed to pick us up in front of the post office "between 10 and 11", so at 9:45 we plunked ourselves down in front of the post office, and waited.. 10:30... 10:45... we really didn't want to take a "local" bus which would most likely take 8 hours, not 4,and not have AC. 10:58, and the bus shows up. Next problem: it's a modern bus, mid-sized, and I assumed the bikes would go in a cargo area underneath. The bus driver mimes that I compact the bikes a bit - turn handlebars sideways, drop the seat. Then mimes that I bring them into the bus. And I had to very carefully wheel both bikes all the way to the back of the bus, flip them upside down and squeeze them onto the back seat, which I did while apologizing profusely to the Germans sitting in the next seat up. The tiny Vietnamese woman sitting across from me was very cute, and I swear is Yoda's second cousin.

And then we were in Saigon; a name with a wide range of connotations and attached emotions. Actually it's called "Ho Chi Minh City" now, in honor of Ho Chi Minh who started the people's rebellion in Vietnam, around 1925 (against the French colonial rule). However, HCMC refers to a huge area divided into 11 districts, and the "district 1" is pretty much the original Saigon and is still referred to as such - by south Vietnamese anyway. We followed directions from Katy for a hotel, failed to find it, wandered around and eventually found a reasonable room in (I'm not making this up) "Hotel 69". Really. There was even a huge neon "69" on the sign. Let me point out that this merely refers to the street address, and there were no mirrors on the ceiling or pink champagne on ice.

Over dinner that night Katy explained some things about Vietnam from her 6 months experience teaching English here. For example, I wondered if they randomly throw items on your table in no particular order because they expect everyone to be sharing everything. Katy had a simpler answer: "no, they just don't care". Makes more sense than mine; If you order spring rolls (from the "appetizer" section no less), 2 drinks, and 2 dishes, you might get (in order) dish 1, one of the drinks, the other dish, the other drink, and just when you figured they've forgotten, the spring rolls. She also sympathized with my frustrations that Vietnamese seem totally incapable of modifying the menu - for example, if they have "fried tofu" as one dish and "fried rice and vegetables" as the other dish, and I ask for "fried rice and vegetables AND tofu", it blows a fuse, and I never actually get that seemingly simple combination. Katy explains that "It's because they've always done it according to the menu, and god forbid one do anything differently. For example, they still paint the bottom 4ft of tree trunks white. Why? Because the French did, so now it's required that tree trunks be white, absolutely no other reason". So much for my "it's insecticidal paint" hypothesis. She also explained that "Rua Xe" is "moped wash", which explains the bazillions of "Rua Xe" signs I'd seen. Good information because our bikes needed a bath before packing.

Another observation: the streets of Saigon are very clean. This is _not_ because they've stopped pitching trash everywhere; it's because there's a small army of people cleaning up the trash all the time.

The hotel staff had been less than helpful. I wanted to change $30 (in bills, not travelers checks) to VND. One of the 20s had a dirt smudge down one side - so they refused it. I pointed out that it had the very nice little embedded strip and all that, no luck. So I took it back upstairs and washed it (money laundering?), let it dry, and came back down pretending it was a different bill. This time they took it. Then we asked about borrowing a hose to wash the bikes. They said

"out front, but not now, later".
"How much later?"
"At 11:00 is ok. well, no, actually 12:00"
"Midnight???!"
"Yes, at midnight, you can wash then".

yeahright.

At least our room was reasonably quiet, although we were next to the Mosque in central Saigon, which has a wake-up prayer at 05:00. Otherwise slept pretty well for a change, although for reasons I'm at a loss to explain, I've been plagued by almost nightly dreams (nightmares?) of returning to grad school.

Tuesday we wandered around and hit a few museums including the "War Remnants Museum", formerly known as the "American War Crimes Museum" before someone decided to be a little more politically correct. The second title is more apt for the contents however, since it's basically focussed on the "American war" as it's called there (to distinguish it from the French war, and the various Chinese wars). There was a helluva photo exhibit done by photographers to honor those photo-journalists who were killed in Vietnam. There was also an entire room devoted to press photos of Anti-War protests around the world, big "No US War" signs and marching crowds - which looked a lot like something you can find on CNN right now.

We also needed to find bike boxes. On the street where Lonely Planet said we'd find bicycle shops, we found many many moped shops. And two very helpful cyclo (pedi-cab) drivers who said they'd help us find some "over by the riverfront". So we actually got our lazy butts pedaled around for a while, and ended up at the "box factory", which, like every other business, was a narrow building spilling its inventory and employees onto the sidewalks. Saigon has very large sidewalks, which are impossible to actually walk on because they're either full of parked mopeds, or the local stores consider them to be a natural extension of their property. In any case, they said they'd build bike boxes for us, and the dimensions we looked at seemed about right. They they said "$20 for 2 boxes". We turned to leave, and that dropped the price to $15, among much explanation and demonstration of what high quality cardboard we'd be getting. $10 we offered. More explanations of the cardboard quality, and eventually an offer of $12. Time was wasting so we reluctantly agreed (hell, at home we get the things free from bikes shops). Size was fine though - in fact a little too big if anything.

Then we cycled around a bit looking for a "Rua Xe" to wash the bikes. After much looking (these had been everywhere in the country, not a one when we needed it of course), we sorta found one, which laughed us out the door. Then we noticed the bikes weren't really that dirty and figured we'd deal. In fact they were suspiciously clean. Returning to the hotel, the "unhelpful" staff explained that they had washed the bikes for us at midnight the previous night!! Now that's service. Gave them a very nice tip.

The last night in Vietnam we went to a restaurant with Katy and a couple friends. The restaurant had a huge menu - 18 pages including everything from pig's brain to various types of eels, to baked pigeon! (really. they have pigeons on this part of the planet too. Tom Lehrer would be proud). And on the very last page, a couple types of fried rice. There were 3 vegetarians among us, so fried rice it was. Seems fitting for the last Vietnamese meal I suppose.

Wednesday it was on to Bangkok with a noon flight. On arrival my carefully taped up bike box had split on the bottom, and my bike seat was riding around the baggage carousel on its own. Otherwise stuff seemed to be there. Taped the box back up and headed to the hotel, our luxurious western owned Quality Suites (at western prices as well). En route the driver pulled up behind a moped, stopped, and did not honk! Ahhhhhhh, we have returned to the civilized world! My digestive problems which had ranged from minor to major since central Lao vanished within 24 hours of hitting Thailand. On the downside, we sat in traffic worse than Seattle's as we went downtown for the afternoon, where, oddly enough, I got numerous pictures of the Swedish flag. Apparently the Swedish King & Queen were in town for the day, and sure enough, the road suddenly went deserted, lots of police popped up, and a motorcade went by.

We hired a tuk-tuk to see the sights, he said "20B/hour" and we saw the very large standing Buddha, a jewelry shop (the usual ruse, fortunately they were even less interested in tuk-tuk dropped tourists than we were in jewelry), and the "Golden Mount", a tall Wat we climbed to the top of and surveyed the Bangkok skyline as the sun went down, a deep deep red color. Returning to our ride, we found that our tuk-tuk had vanished. This was beyond comprehension because we hadn't paid the driver! We felt a bit uneasy, and had no desired to cheat the guy, but he never did come back. We found a market serving, of all things, decent chocolate cake, and Gretchen was very happy. And then a small restaurant with the vital English Menu where we ordered a crispy noodle salad, green-chicken curry, without the chicken, and fried rice with mushrooms, and then with Vietnam honed weariness, sat back to see what actually came out. This turned out to be: drinks first (!), followed by the noodle-salad appetizer (!!!), which was very tasty, and had the spice fire-power to take the (remaining) paint off a tuk-tuk at 50m! Both the dishes turned out to be "fried rice" but in this case, they were so well done (green curry spiced for one, excellent spices & mushrooms in the other) that this was easily forgiven, and quickly devoured in between bouts of sucking on ice-cubes to quench the flames. Both Lao and Vietnamese food were much much less spicy, our taste buds had grown bored, and soft since leaving Thailand.

Thursday, our last day we wandered around the huge and glittering Wats, and then took a river-boat tour. Bangkok has an immense system of canals and an hour boat tour showed a much different side of the city than seen from the street. Despite the filthy water kids were jumping off bridges and swimming, having a grand time. In the afternoon we wandered around Chinatown and Little India, had some more Indian food (not so great) and the trip was over! Except for that pesky plane ride home. Another roll of tape went onto the bike boxes and they held to Seattle. 7 hours flying to Tokyo, 9 hours to Seattle; enough time to finish Michner's Alaska, and very little sleep. One departs Bangkok at 06:10am on Friday, and arrives Seattle at 07:10am on the same Friday! Warp your mind around that one. The key is staying awake for all of that day to beat the jetlag. Wasn't easy, especially with the 40F and raining weather. Ran errands, such as dropping off 43 rolls of film (38 slide, 5 B&W) at the photo lab, and picking up the bucket of mail at the post office. Today was a gorgeous day in the great Northwest. I went for (yes really) a bike ride. And it was quiet!! And beautiful. Nice to be home!

So, after 6 weeks, and using up an entire 16oz bottle of No-Ad Sunblock, we're left with an interesting study in contrasting cultures, which was driven home by completing the loop with a return to Thailand. I'm going to pontificate a bit here, so if you're getting bored, skip to the end, otherwise, read on.

Thailand is without question, the richest country of the three. There is an absolutely huge Buddhist presence - most of the men have worn the orange robes for a least a few months, or even years as part of their education. How much this contributes to the happy, peaceful disposition can not be said for certain, but the original Thai Monarchy was established in the mid 14th _century_, with only a small, peaceful change to constitutional monarchy in 1936. In addition, Thailand is the only SE Asian country never to have been a European Colony. By quietly, peacefully going about their business, Thailand has had little in the way of armed conflict in centuries, and with plenty to eat, growing economy, and nearly stable population there is every reason to remain that way. The food is excellent, the country is very clean, people are extremely friendly and helpful. As far as bikers are concerned, the roads are good to excellent, although traffic is heavy if you're forced onto the highway by lack of side roads.

In comparison, Laos is an extremely poor country; 80% of the population still lives by subsistence agriculture, infrastructure is minimal, and free enterprise is low. The communists took over in 1975, and started to de-centralize in 1986, but for the vast majority of the subsistence population, who or what is running the government makes very little difference to daily life. The population is very heavily stacked in the 0-14 year age bracket, growth is high, but overall population is still very low. Food was available, although not in great variety, and generally a bit bland. The roads were in ok condition, usually no shoulder, but not enough traffic to be a problem. The people were phenomenally friendly, living was cheap, and cycling was great due to the low traffic (with occasional exceptions for construction areas in hell).

And then there's Vietnam. Everyone knows about Vietnam, from Apocalypse Now, and a score of other movies, if nothing else. The country is intense. No other word really fits. The people are strong, determined, and despite the heavily communist government, there's a real feeling of everyone for himself. Everyone else is in the way. The culture is pushy, aggressive, forward to "in-your-face" levels, and, for someone of a quiet, western disposition, very abrasive. I had expected a rich country in comparison with Laos, but that was my mistake. The CIA fact book says " Vietnam is a poor, densely populated country that has had to recover from the ravages of war, the loss of financial support from the old Soviet Bloc, and the rigidities of a centrally planned economy." I never felt threatened, per-se, and people did not take particular offense to our being Americans, just to our being non-Vietnamese. On a personal note, as a vegetarian, the food is extremely limited. I didn't like the food, and it didn't like me either. The traffic was intense, the noise and air pollution both very bad.

It wasn't until returning to Bangkok that I really became aware of the poverty of both Vietnam and Laos. Vietnam is practically a western haven in comparison to either of the others. I would go back to Thailand in a heartbeat - there's much to that country I've never seen. Laos was nice, but we've seen most of it, not much reason to return. There's a lot of Vietnam that we missed, but the trials of seeing the country through, around, and between the people are such that I have no desire to return in the near future.

Usually the point of bicycle touring is to get off the bus, and into the country. On a bicycle you experience the small towns, the people and places between the bus stops. You live outside the tourist-bubble of insulated travel zones with English signs, menus, hotel staff and other tourists. In Thailand and Laos this provided an excellent, interesting and delightful tour of the countries. In Vietnam, the biking was generally so unpleasant, and finding agreeable eats so difficult, despite being the only country using the mostly-Roman alphabet, that we found ourselves sprinting from tourist stop to tourist stop, wishing we could avoid the country in between.

In very short summary of the relative benefits of each country: Thailand had the best food, no question, and very friendly people Laos had the least traffic, best biking, and friendliest people Vietnam had......... the best hotels for the money.

hope you've enjoyed these monologues, until next trip, ciao

M<


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