Vietnam

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February 13 - March 13, 1998

I'd flown Lao Aviation before, and it was fine. And I'd flown on Friday the 13th before, and it was fine. But this was Lao Aviation on Friday the 13th. As I walked along the runway towards the decrepit looking plane, I heard a guy in front of me tell his friend that it was a Chinese copy of a Russian plane.

The interior was threadbare. There was no assigned seating. I sat down in a seat. The seatbelt was broken. The meal this time was a croissant with what I think was ham.

Then, as we neared Hanoi, from the overhead compartments at the front of the plane, smoke started to pour in. Soon the entire cabin was full of smoke. It didn't smell of burning, so I don't know what it was. But as I looked out the window I thought, if we have to make an emergency landing on that dirt road down there, my seatbelt doesn't work. Anyways, just before touchdown, the smoke stopped, and we landed okay.

When I got to customs, I discovered that they had screwed up my visa. Instead of starting that day, it ended that day. She told me I'd have to go to immigration immediately.

Then I was beset upon by taxi guys. I told them I'd take the minibus. They said no minibus today.

I got my pack. The taxi guys tried again. I said I'd take the minibus. They said no minibus today.

I went through security, and then to change money. There was a Japanese woman also changing money. She asked if I was going downtown. I said I was. She suggested we go together. The taxi guys descended on us. The Japanese girl said, we take minibus. They said no minibus today.

Just then a minibus pulled up. I asked if it was going downtown. It was. She asked if it was $4. It was. We got on as the taxi guys tried to stop us. "Don't go. It's not safe." And as we drove away, "Be careful."

The driver asked where I wanted to go. I said downtown to a cheap hotel. He drove to The Prince. I'd been warned that they steal stuff from your room there, so I said I wanted to go somewhere else. The Japanese woman tried to show him the map in her guidebook. He started yelling at her. "I no look at your map. You bad person. You bad person."

He said this hotel was $15. I said too expensive. Take me to $10 hotel. So he drove to The Red River Hotel. I get out. He asks the Japanese girl if she's getting out. She says she isn't. He asks if we're together. We say we're not. I later figured out what was going on. If Vietnamese men see a white guy with an Asian woman, they assume she's a Vietnamese prostitute, and yell insults at her.

This hotel wanted $15, so I went next door to The Camelia, and got one for $10. Now $10 may not seem like a lot for a hotel, but it's probably the most I paid in Asia. But it was also probably the nicest place I stayed. My own bathroom with hot shower, phone, air con, fridge, and tv with CNN, MTV, and, most importantly, the Cartoon Network.

Then I went down to Sinh Cafe to get my visa extension. He wasn't sure if they could do it, since normally they have a few days time, so he said to come back in an hour. I did, and he said they could do it. But he needed my arrival departure card, which the hotel had needed. So I had to rush back and take it, despite their protests.

At first he said my visa would be ready on Monday. Then he said, no, Sunday is a holiday, so it wouldn't be until Thursday. I later realized he meant Tuesday.

Anyways, that gave me too much time to kill in Hanoi. I went to visit Uncle Ho. Ho Chi Minh is stuffed and on display. There's a huge line up, but it goes fast, as they herd people through. I went to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which depicts Uncle Ho's life using abstract art. On the way there I discovered there really is a Tower of Hanoi.

The next day I did a tour to the Perfume Pagoda. We took a bus to the Perfume River; then a boat up the river. As we were getting on the boats, the police got in an argument with an overseas Vietnamese couple on the tour. The woman was videotaping the entire thing, which didn't seem to be wise.

Eventually they sorted out the couple's visas, and we headed down the river. When you get off there's a stone path that leads up the mountain to the pagoda. It started to get more and more crowded as we went along. Soon it was a total traffic jam. We were jammed in. People were pushing from behind. Things were getting ugly. Soon we feared for our lives. We could easily be trampled to death. So we turned around, and fought our way back.

The next day I ran into Fif, and the Israeli couple from the Buddha Park. We went to the Darling Cafe, and eventually a taxi pulled up, and Tracy and Angie piled out, along with Fif's three Israeli friends, who had been on the same plane. One guy left his belt pouch in the taxi. But eventually they were able to track it down, and the taxi driver wouldn't even take a reward.

I finally got my visa. I'd asked for a 30 day extension. Instead, what they did was, because I'd applied on February 13, they gave me an extension to March 13. Which is 28 days. And my plane left March 14. That meant either getting another extension, or risking the fine, or rebooking my flight. In the end I rebooked my flight. Meaning I would fly on Vietnam Airlines on Friday the 13th.

We all did the trip to Halong Bay. It's a bay with thousands of islands, jutting straight out of the water. It would have been beautiful if it was sunny. But it was just kind of hazy. When the boat stopped at one point, some locals rowed up to beg from us. Three little girls tried to sell us their baby sister.

After that Angie and Tracy headed south, while Fif and the Israelis and I headed up to see the hill tribes in Sapa. Sapa has become very touristy. The hill tribe women won't let you alone, trying to sell their crafts.

There was a crazy British woman named Angela on the trip. She was funny, but I figured if I'd had to spend a long time with her she'd drive me crazy.

We went to Bacha, which was great. The market was full of hill tribe women in their traditional costumes, but they weren't doing it for the tourists. They were doing it because this was their market.

When we returned to Hanoi I caught the night bus to Hue.

In Hue a university guy came up and offered to drive me around the sights on his motorbike for $10. That was probably too much, but I agreed. We drove around to different pagodas and tombs and stuff. Then, on the side of a mountain where monks go to practice yoga, he gave me this sob story. His father was a truck driver, and he'd been in an accident, and killed three people, and he was in jail, and the kid hadn't seen his father in four years. He needed $50 to go to Saigon to see his father. His grandfather had given him $25. He hoped I could give him the other $25. I knew this story was bullshit. It would cost me as a tourist $50 to go to Saigon and back. They charge foreigners five times what they charge locals. I nodded noncommitally, because he still had to get me back to the city. The rest of the trip he kept bugging me about the $25. When we got back I gave him the $10 and walked away.

The next day I did the DMZ tour. We saw where American bases had been. The only thing left was guys selling US dog tags as souvenirs. We also saw the tunnels where an entire village had lived for six years.

Then it was on to Hoi An. At this point I came down with a cold, which I must have gotten from the Israeli guy I was sharing a room with in Sapa.

Hoi An was a pleasant little town. Ran into Fif and the Israelis. They were all getting suits tailor made for $25.

Ran into Angela and Diedre, the strange Irish woman from Laos. They had met on the bus to Hoi An.

Did a trip to the crumbling ruins of the Cham temple.

Caught the bus to Nha Trang along with Angela. There we shared a room in a hotel that a Brit couple on the Sapa trip had recommended. It was run by a very nice family, who invited us to eat dinner with them one evening.

Spent a day hanging out on the beach. And a day on Mama Hahn's boat trip. For $7 the boat goes out into the harbour. You can swim, and float in life rings. They throw beer cans down to you. There's a floating bar, with free wine and joints. Then there's a huge seafood lunch, and a huge spread of fruit.

Unfortunately, it started to pour as we were on the bus to the docks. As we huddled in a shop, we ran into Emir, from Vang Vieng. He said the picture he'd taken in the cave had turned out.

Mama Hahn is supposed to be really crazy. Unfortunately she was sick that day, so we were being looked after by a baby Hahn.

I met a guy from Vancouver, and we got to talking, and it turned out he was originally from Kindersley. The baby Hahn overheard us talking. She was originally from Estevan.

Fortunately the weather cleared up, and a fun time was had by all.

By this point, true to my prediction in Sapa, Angela was starting to drive me bugfuck.

The next day I went to go to the beach, to write up my story of being sick at KFC in Malaysia. Before I could start, however, I was surrounded by a group of teachers college students. We chatted for a while, and then they went off to play some game.

I had just pulled out my notebook, and written a sentence and a half, when two columns of young Vietnamese women marched towards me. Soon I was surrounded. They were also students at the teachers college. They wanted to practice their English on me. So I joined them back at their tent, where they quizzed me about Canada. Then they tried to teach me some Vietnamese. They invited me to have lunch with them. Boxed lunches, with rice, vegetables, and mystery meat.

After dinner I played cards with them. A variation on Big Old Two, the game I'd learned in China.

Then I got abducted by another group of students to practice their English. I impressed them with tales of Regina in the winter.

I went back to the hotel. My stomach started hurting. I got the runs. I was hot and sweaty. Angela came and wanted to go for dinner, but I was too dizzy to stand up. Later I threw up, and finally started to feel better. That'll teach me to eat lunch with 28 Vietnamese coeds.

I was feeling better the next day, when we got the bus to Dalat. Dalat is up in the hills, and it's nice and cool. But it's not very interesting. We did a tour of waterfalls and crap like that, but it wasn't worth it.

We had a tv in the room, but it only got Vietnamese stations. I turned it on, and Road to Avonlea was on. It was dubbed in Vietnamese, but they just had one woman supplying all the voices.

The next day it was on to Saigon. It was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, but no one ever calls it that.

After one day Angela headed down to the Mekong Delta, much to my relief.

I visited the Museum of American War Crimes, which was interesting. Those Americans sure are scum.

Then I did a three day, Mekong Delta trip. First day we took the bus down the delta. Then a boat trip along the Mekong River to a Viet Cong base. Finally, something that looked like how you imagine Vietnam from movies. Hot, steamy, swampy jungle.

The next day we climbed Mount Sam, from which you can see into Cambodia.

The third day was my birthday. And one of the more unusual birthdays I've spent. We did a boat trip to the floating market. We went to the snake market, where you can get snake wine, live snakes, and snake meat. Walking down the market, I found one stall using Consumers Distributing plastic bags. Then on to the stork sanctuary before heading back to Saigon.

However, apparently it was the anniversary of the murder of some catholic priest, and everyone was driving down the delta to pay tribute. There was a huge line up at the ferry. We had to wait for two hours in the hot sun for our bus to get across.

Then, on the highway, traffic ground to a halt. They were doing construction, and traffic was backed up for miles. I thought, what a way to spend your birthday, standing on the side of the road in a traffic jam in Vietnam. After about an hour we finally got going. Back in Saigon, I had my birthday dinner with four Scandinavian girls from the trip.

The next day was Friday the 13th, and I flew to Bangkok. Vietnam Airlines was fine. But I didn't eat the mystery meat.


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Pictures and Text Copyright 1998-2014 paul Stockton. All rights reserved.

Last updated: December 18, 2014