In the late afternoon I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. The bus had pulled to the side of a busy street several blocks from the bus station. My Couchsurfing host, a Vietnamese girl who I met in Japan, instructed me to take a bus to her district and walk a few blocks to her house. I realized I had no Vietnamese currency so I had to find an ATM. I searched around and found several, but each one I tried neglected to let me withdraw any funds. Eventually I found one that did, and found the bus I had to take after a lot of walking around and asking bus terminal personnel.
The bus attendant was kind enough to tell me at which stop to get off. I didn’t have much luck following my host’s directions and eventually had to contact her once I found a place to get WiFi. I sipped on a Vietnamese coffee while I waited (I’m not a coffee drinker, and it’s recommended that I don’t actually drink the stuff, but I wanted to be a patron to the nice people working there.
Tuyet, my host, picked me up on her scooter. In Vietnam there are just as many scooters as there are people. Being in the midst of dozens of them, all crammed together fender to fender on every street and traffic light, is quite an experience. There were times when my foot or knee or shoulder was bumped or grazed by a passing rider. Handlebars just miss catching an elbow or a hand by mere centimeters.
Then consider that this is the main mode of transportation for many people. I witnessed families of four riding on a single motorbike, sometimes infants being held under a mother’s arm like a football as the father weaved in and out of other motorbikes, cars, trucks, bicycles, and even food carts. Yes, bicycles and food carts are fair game for four-lane thoroughfares. Just imagine you are entering a roundabout in your Toyota along with scores of other commuters, and there crossing in the middle is an elderly woman pushing a cart full of sports drinks and sandwiches. I also saw a passenger pulling a wheelbarrow behind him; a family of three with a bicycle laid across a mother’s lap; children standing on rider’s lap, holding onto the handlebars with nary an arm holding them secure; girls dressed for the prince’s ball riding side saddle; and plenty of them with no lights even in the middle of the night, sometimes driving against the flow of traffic. Everybody gets out of the way, and nobody makes a fuss. Remarkable.
My first night in Vietnam, Tuyet showed me around District 1 of HCMC, where most of the attractions are found. People were out in force and peacefully enjoying the buzz of the city, the lights of surrounding buildings, and a few street performers and vendors.
I was given the upstairs room of my host’s house. Her mother was delighted to have me preparing dinner for us and even making a special Vietnamese dessert for my visit.
Tuyet had the day off and so we spent the day wandering around the city to see some famous attractions: the Post Office, Notre Dame Basilica, the Opera House, Reunification Palace, and so forth. We visited the War Remnants Museum, which details the horrors of the Vietnam War, or as it’s called there: the American War of Aggression Against Vietnam. The collection of photos, artillery, and exhibits showing the aftermath of Agent Orange are sobering, and I felt unsettled as we left.
We went to a charming little café that Tuyet had been wanting to visit. It was tucked away on a narrow side street. While we were there I popped into a tour agency and booked a tour for the next morning to Cao Dai temple and the Cu Chi tunnels.
Tuyet gave me a ride to the agency where I waited to be picked up for the day’s tour. I was early so the receptionist and I chatted until the tour guide, accompanied by two other guests, came by. Together we walked to the bus station and were directed onto certain buses. This one for the single-day tour, that one for the three-day tour, etc.
Bus tours like to break for a rest stop, which is really a disguise for a tourist trap. About thirty minutes into our ride – much too soon for a potty break on a three-hour bus ride – we pulled over to a place to use the restroom and were encouraged to check out the adjacent shop full of wares handmade by local artisans. Our break time would be 25 minutes. I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t take me that long to use a bathroom. But it could take that long to shop around an overpriced, well-lit market with a nearly 1:1 ratio of salespeople and tourists.
The Cao Dai temple is beautiful, but the religion itself remains a bit confusing to me. It’s a relatively new religion; a conglomeration of various religions and theology, with several important characters from those religions expanding their influence into this one. Our stop here was very brief, and we only had time to catch the opening portion of the worship service, which was too bad, as it seemed like a beautiful event.
By the time we reached the Cu Chi tunnels the day’s heat had hit its peak. The insects were angry and out for blood, while the fluids of my body had decided on a hasty relocation to my clothing, without even checking on the quality of the schools or neighborhood crime rates.
Our group was about 15 strong. I was the only American. The guide’s English was pretty poor, particularly for a tour guide. Two older Brazilian women who I befriended on the ride would at times ask me what the guide had said, and I often struggled to give them a clear answer. The tour itself took us on a walk around the forest where soldiers had set up a network of underground tunnels and rooms and had lived in for extended periods of time. We were able to go through a section of tunnel and at a certain point had the option of exiting or continuing on a few hundred more meters. I opted to exit; the heat was unbearable and my back and knees weren’t up for crouching down and shuffling along in the dark. In fact only a handful of the group opted to stay underground. There was an opportunity to purchase munitions and fire them off at the shooting range, a national training center of some sort. None of the members of our group partook in that. I instead spent the free time eating an ice cream cone (okay, two ice cream cones) and chatting with the Brazilians and an Argentinian. I wanted to bring up how sweet it was that the two nationalities would be so friendly and social with each other, but I didn’t want to stir up anything just in case. I also wanted to make a sign offering free hugs and stand by the shooting range, but I couldn’t find a Sharpie®.
When the tour ended the bus took us back to HCMC and made its last stop on a street. Not the street where we started. Not any familiar street that was at any point part of the tour or previously agreed upon or pointed out as something to remember, but just a street. We were told to exit. I said to the tour guide, “This isn’t where we started. We met at the tour agency.” He said, “Yeah, yeah, it’s just around the corner. Up that way,” and sort of kind of a little bit waved in some direction that was generally more or less not so specific or clear. So we all got off. I tried to dial in my radar and usually sharp sense of direction, but I found myself wandering streets I did not recognize. Taxi drivers must smell disorientation, as I was practically accosted by them at every corner and every few seconds. “Taxi? Taxi? You need taxi?” I had to pass the same people several times as I walked back and forth on a main street. I started shouting back to them, “Get in my way one more time. Step in my path once more. Go ahead. No, I don’t need your fucking taxi. What I need are directions to the fucking place where I’m supposed to be. What I need is for you asshole vultures to deliver what you say you’re going to deliver rather than trying to rip me off and squeeze every cent you can out of me. Fuck you. Go ahead, stand in my way one more fucking time.” Of course, as I asked several people to point me in the direction of the agency, nobody offered a clear answer. They either ignored me when they realized I wasn’t going to be their patron, or they’d counter with, “You need taxi?” I had had it. My iPod®, which I would use for communication when I could get Wifi, was dead. I couldn’t find a coffee shop or any place where I could get both an electrical outlet and Internet. My host was waiting at the agency to pick me up after she got out of work. I had no way to contact her. Just then I realized I had the business card of the place, and I dug through my bag to find it. I’d resign to taking one of the vulture taxis.
I have no qualms about taking a taxi or anything. I’m not above it. I’m not some super being world traveler looking to earn bragging rights about my resilience and savvy. It comes down to a simple matter of principle. I have an issue with people winning by fucking over other people. It’s what makes me angry, and it’s why I’ll never be a salesperson, CEO, or 2016 GOP presidential candidate.
When I read the card, crouched down on the ground, contents of my bag disheveled and spewing out of the lid, I looked up. A few meters ahead was the tour agency. Just like that. Tuyet was waiting for me and sighed relief when she saw me. We got cleaned up at home then went out for dinner, then called it a night.
We had breakfast together before I caught a bus to the airport to catch a flight to Danang, from where I would take a bus or taxi (spoiler: it was a taxi) to Hoi An, a quaint little town known for its tailors, well-preserved French architecture, and quiet beaches. During the flight, a woman from Vietnam who lives in D.C. engaged me in conversation, asking why I wasn’t visiting Danang and instead going straight to Hoi An. She also got sick from some turbulence and had to use one of those little paper bags. I have never seen anyone use one of those, so it was a very unique flight.
When we landed, she told me to come with her to see Danang, so I obliged. Her ex-sister-in-law and the parents of the father of her three children who could also be called her ex-husband were waiting to greet her. We all got in a little red car, and she directed them to a bustling little part of town. She said to be in touch in an hour and we’d meet up, and I was dropped off. So I contacted her around that time and she provided directions of where to go, which happened to be a nail salon. She was getting a manicure and pedicure when I arrive and she instructed me to sit down, and then I was given a manicure. After that we walked to the river, then hired a taxi to just drive us around the city. At one point we stopped to drink coconuts on the beach and the driver just waited without any care. I had to move on to Danang, so I hired the driver to take me there. It’s about an hour away, and he was more than happy to have the business. When I arrived at my hostel I was told they had mistakenly overbooked, and that I would be given a room at a hotel owned by the same person. I was driven over to it and went to check in. Even though I still had a shared room, it was a hell of an upgrade. A friend of mine once told me how three-star hotels in Vietnam are really four-star hotels, and this was pretty true. It had style. It had a bitchin’ restaurant. It had a fancy pool surrounded by little rocks where the water ran through. It had fluffy towels. And I was about twenty or thirty years younger than practically everyone else there. And you know how old people like comfort and luxury.
I rented a bicycle in the morning and rode to the old town and walked around to take some pictures and get a vibe for the area. I decided this was a place where I needed something more. A motorbike. So I rented one. That’s the way to get around. I handed over six dollars for a day’s rental and was given a helmet and the key. No questions asked. I rode to a tailor I had read good reviews about and had also received a recommendation for it. Kimmy Tailor. I decided to have a suit made. I have a black one and a grey one, but a nice blue one would complete my suit needs. I worked with Van, a tiny Vietnamese woman who was super friendly, jovial, and not pushy in the least. We selected some fabrics and discussed styles suitable for my frame. She took my measurements and told me to come back that evening after 5pm for my first fitting. Yes, only six hours after my measurements.
I decided to visit My Son Sanctuary, a World Heritage site about 35 kilometers from Hoi An. Van gave me directions and off I rode on my overpowered rental scooter. I arrived within the hour and wandered around the ruins. A Japanese tour group followed a guide around the grounds, and I had wished then that I had a guide to get a better understanding and appreciation for all of the sites. I started talking to a girl in the Japanese tour group. She looked bored out of her mind and she was clearly the youngest of the whole group (28, to be exact). She spoke English really well and we decided to break off and check out some of the other ruins for a few minutes. She said she was with her parents on this trip and was getting bored with being dragged around to tour after tour with slow people. We commiserated on that topic, then the group moved on. I noticed the sky getting grey so I quickened my pace and started back. Two girls — and I’ll just say, two really beautiful, I-will-be-the-father-of-as-many-children-as-you-want-and-I’ll-figure-out-the-rest-later girls — were walking back to the shuttle that would take us to the parking lot at the entrance gate. Their English was flawless. They were Asian. We started talking about the pending weather and I asked where they were from. China and Japan. Met in high school in the U.S. Lives in Shanghai. Lives in Tokyo. They too had come by scooter. We got on the shuttle along with a few Germans, a pleasant break from all the French tourists. And down came the rain. When the shuttle got to the entrance we all raced to a covered concession area and sat down to wait. This was not a typical, “I don’t want to get my shoes wet” rain. This was “do you think they’ll find us when we’re washed away by the black wall of hell water pouring from the sky like a dam broke?” kind of rain. It was the heaviest, fiercest, most unforgiving rain I had ever been in. The wind howled. Big things that should not fall over fell over. The rain blew in sideways and we could not stay dry. We shared cookies and conversation over the next hour, hoping that this devilish monsoon nightmare would soon be over.
As any good salesperson would see, an opportunity presented itself. Put away were the snacks, and out came a box full of ponchos. I was biting. Hell yes I’ll take a poncho, and two extra for the funny German dudes. The rain started to die down but had not completely stopped, and we decided if anything now would be our chance.
The two girls were on one scooter and asked me to lead the way. I said I’d do my best but no guarantees. It was quickly getting dark, and while the rain had finally stopped it was getting harder to see landmarks. We pulled over a few times to reset and make sure we were doing okay. Sato, the Japanese girl, pulled out her mobile device and checked GPS for our co-ordinance. We were getting there, but not quite. It started to rain again, and as we edged our way onto a three-lane freeway to contend with tractor-trailers and other motorbikes, visibility dropped and uneasiness shattered the mercury. We were sort of lost at this point. None of us recognized any of our surroundings, as it all just looked like the same black everywhere. Sato decided as passenger she would just keep out her GPS and navigate in real time. The girls would lead now. And damn they looked badass. As I began to follow I realized I might have been riding too slowly; they were fast and nimble on that motorbike. We somehow got onto a bumpy, narrow, empty path and for twenty minutes or so we raced along in the general direction of town. Part of me thought it was fun, and part of me thought, “this is where they’ll find my body, and the news report will state he was last seen with two bombshell Asian girls. I guess it’s an okay way to go.” Eventually we popped out into town, and my tailor shop was just ahead. The girls had to catch a bus and I had a fitting to which I was already two hours late, so we said our farewells in traffic.
When I walked up to the door at Kimmy’s, Van raced over to me. “I was so worried about you, but when I saw the motorbike with the raincoat, I felt relief.” That was so sweet, I thought. I had my fitting. Almost perfect. I would have to return the next morning for another and then again in the afternoon. I asked Van for a spa recommendation and she gave me a name and directions to a place nearby. I went in for a massage, enjoying the respite from the noisy streets and the free tea. Afterward I asked them for a decent place to eat. Conveniently they recommended the place directly across the street. And while I knew everyone was suggesting places where they had pals, each place got high marks in my mental review website. The food was good, the massage was relaxing, my suit was looking awesome. It was time for bed.
I had an early breakfast at the hotel and went for my morning fitting. It was perfect. I was told to come after twelve to have a final fitting and pick up my suit and shirt (I also had a shirt made). I killed some time around town and took delivery of my blue three-piece and dropped it off at the hotel.
I rode to Marble Mountains, another 30-kilometer ride. The sun was beating down and I was smart to wear a long sleeve shirt and sunscreen. The road there is flat and fairly straight, but the traffic is heavy enough that it’s wise to stay alert. And there are areas where sand drifts onto the road, and anyone who’s ridden before should know that you don’t want to hit sand at 50mph.
My visit to the mountains was enjoyable but was cut short by the agony I felt from what I would later find out to be food poisoning. Yes, they got me. Damn it. After I took care of business and felt well enough to move on, I rode back to Hoi An. Going the other direction was a little more difficult. The wind was blowing pretty hard and sending sand all throughout the air. Having no eye protection, I shielded my face with my left hand while I steered and throttled with my right. I came out unscathed, gathered my bags from the hotel, and got a shuttle to Danang airport for a flight back to HCMC.
I stood in a queue of people at check-in that could fill a soccer stadium. Two French guys kept working their way closer to the front, rudely snaking past the patient and courteous people as if they were entitled to it (and cynical me is certain they felt entitled to it). They stood by me. One of them got past me at the check-in counter. Jerk. You’re on my list now. At the gate I saw the French boys again. Great. We all waited in another line to board a shuttle that would take us to the plane, and the Frenchmen were up to their same dirty, we-don’t-wanna-work-for-it tricks. Everyone squeezed onto the shuttle and exited to board the plane. I walked to the staircase near the front of the plane (mine was seat 12H) while others walked to the rear one. The Frenchmen flanked me and some other passengers and again tried to hop to the front of the line. The attendant looked at their tickets and sent them to the back staircase. Go, Frenchmen. And don’t dare sit near me with your designer handbag you worked not-so-hard to buy.
Tuyet picked me up and took me to my hostel. She had some plain porridge for me to eat, as I wasn’t doing so well. We chatted for a bit but I was fading fast. I had a shower in the dark because I couldn’t find the bathroom light. Dried and dressed, I fell asleep pretty hard.
I had to wake up at the most absurd hour ever. Apparently it’s called 3am, and it really exists according to Wikipedia. I thought the whole concept of it was stupid, but nonetheless my flight was leaving at the equally stupid so-called 6am. I got back to Japan by the afternoon and didn’t even bother with trains. I got the airport shuttle to Sano and a taxi to where I left my bicycle and I rode home. I unloaded and collapsed on my bed, happy to be back to beautiful, friendly Japan.