Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Goooooood Morniiiing Vietnam

Phew! Made it! It took two full days of boats, buses, and vans, but at last I am in Vietnam.

I left Don Det on the morning of the Januaray 15th. I have never had so much difficulty leaving a place. My three days there stretched into nine and I knew that I needed to get on the road again despite the fact that I could have been quite content to stay there for the rest of my trip! Establishing a daily routine and having friends for more than three or four days was so nice that I did not want to give it up. Above all else saying goodbye to Bong was the most difficult thing I had to do. We sat on his porch feeding some sticky rice to the chickens and looking at a TIME magazine that I had given to him. Finally I said goodbye, and went to collect my things. Of course he followed me, and when I put my backpack on he grabbed my Camelback and threw it over his shoulders, dead set on accompanying me on the rest of my journey. I let him walk with me for about 100 meters and then we walked back to his house. His mom was not around so he just started coming with me again. I felt so sad that I was leaving and he definitely was not making things any easier. Finally Mama (as I came to call her) came out and took his hand and they waved as I walked away. The whole boat ride back to shore I could not shake the fact that this was yet another person whose friendship I charished greatly, and yet I may never see him again.

I tried to shake these depressing thoughts by turning my attention to the urgent matter of figuring out where I was going. As I saw it I had two options.

1. Go to Savannaket by bus and cross at Lao Bao into Vietnam. This would take two full days, but would be quite easy as Lao Bao is a large border crossing with lots of bus services. The drawback would be that if I wanted to go anywhere south of Hue once I hit Vietnam I would have to go down, and then turn around to head north again towards Hanoi.

2. Go to Attepeu and try to get a bus through a much smaller, recently opened border crossing. From there I could go to Qui Nhon and work my way north. The downside being I didn't have much info about the border crossing, or any real idea where to go once I hit Vietnam.

I elected to go with option two when I ran into a fellow traveler at the bus station, who happened to have a Vietnam guide book on him. I planned my route and then I was on the road again.

Day 1 consisted of a twelve hour bus ride to Attepeu, which meant that I was going to be arriving in a town that I knew nothing about (and that is a bit off the beaten track) well after dark, which typically means it will not be easy to communicate or navigate. I finally arrived and, due to the fact that there were no tuk tuks or taxis at the bus station, started walking the two km into town. When I finally got there it took me another 45 minutes just to locate a guest house. Any guest house. At last I found a descent place and dropped my bags off before heading to hunt down some food. Luckily, I didn't have to go far before a guy called out to me in English, "Hello, how are you?" I smiled and said "Fine, how are you?". "Do you want eat?" he asked. I was starving and immediately accepted his invitation to join him and his friends.

It turned out that they were a group of Vietnamese who had just arrived the week before in Laos to work as accountants for some company whose name and business I could not discern. The man who had called me over was the only one who spoke any English and so he translated for the rest of the group. We chatted for about five minutes and then shortly after my food arrived he told me that they needed to get going, and that they had paid for my meal. Before I could protest he shook my hand and they walked out the door. I sat back down and enjoyed my delicious meal before heading off to bed.

I started my journey to Vietnam early the following morning. The ride was uneventful, and the border crossing much easier than I had anticipated it to be. I arrived in Kon Tum at around 2:30, from there I could connect to Qui Nhon, my final destination of the day. The bus to Qui Nhon was not leaving for another hour and since I had exactly four dollars left on me I took the opportunity to go find an ATM. And that was when I got ripped off for the first time in Vietnam. I needed a motorcycle taxi to take me into town but did not firmly establish a price before we left. Now, I know that was stupid, but I was getting frustrated with the language barrier that I was facing and finally after trying to ask about the price for a couple of minutes I just gave up and crossed my fingers that he was not going to fleece me. Ten minutes (and my remaining four dollars) later I was back at the bus station with enough funds to continue my journey, despite the fact that I was charged the same price for that excursion as I was for my ensuing five hour bus ride.

While I waited for the bus a middle aged man came over, introduced himself, and invited me to join him for a cup of coffee. I was on guard at this point and politely refused his first couple of offers, but he was relentless and soon we were sitting in a nearby cafe sipping coffee and working on his English. About ten minutes later the bus driver showed up to inform me it was time to leave. I went to pay for my coffee, but the man insisted on paying and for the second time in two days a Vietnamese man was picking up my tab. This isn't exactly weird other than I had been warned by so many people about always being on guard in Vietnam, and always watching out to make sure that I was not being taken advantage of. With a warm fuzzy feeling in my chest I hopped on a bus for what would become one of the most memorable bus rides of my entire trip.

I like bus rides. I always have. Sometimes they are short and scary, other times they test your endurance. My first real bus ride occured when I was 18 and decided to do a 44 hour journey from Phoenix, AZ. to Great Falls, MT. with one of my best friends, two sets of golf clubs, and a duffle bag. It was quite a journey. Definitely not enjoyable, but certainly memorable. Because of that bus ride I was anxious to have so more grand adventures riding buses all over the world. From the Chicken Buses of Guatemal to roof riding in Nepal I have been through an awful lot of crazy bus rides over the last 6 months, but none as scary or spectacular as yesterday's adventure.

So, after all that I have been through, what was it about this ride that left me praising every diety known to man when I finally disembarked in Qui Nhon? The answer is quite simple. Population Density. There are over 82 million people living in Vietnam, and as a result daily life seems to just spill onto the streets. So while we were still passing on blind hills, and whipping around hairpin turns we were doing so while sharing the road with not only other vehicles, but also: motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, dogs, chickens, and last but not least children. Dodging all this traffic was nerve wracking and on more than one occasion our tires were squealing as we swerved to avoid old women on bicycles, or dodged children playing soccer. The ride also happened to be one of the most beautiful rides I have ever been on. Vietnam is unreal beautiful. Thick, lush hillsides surrounded even lusher rice paddies. In some areas the coffee plantations filled the surrounding country side for as far as the eyecould see. And that sunset? Phenomenal! More colors than I have ever seen and somehow the sunset took up not just the western horizon but the entire sky. Despite this beauty I remained white knuckled during the entire ride, keeping myself prepared to jump out and administer first aid to whoever our first victim was going to be.

Fortunately, that moment never came and I arrived in Qui Nhon around 7:30 p.m. It was pouring as I hopped out of the bus, and as luck would have it the only taxis around were moto taxis. Great!! I negotiated a much higher price than I would have normally paid, but was ready to do anything to get on the road and out of the rain as soon as possible. I have rain gear buried somewhere at the bottom of my bag, but knew that I would not be able to get it out without getting everything in my pack soaked so I just sucked it up and hopped on the back of the bike. The 10 minute ride was hellacious. I was soaked and shivering when, at last, we arrived at a hotel. The problem was it was a nice hotel. A very nice hotel, and certainly not the guesthouse I had asked him to take me to. According to my driver that guesthouse no longer existed despite the fact that it had been recommended to me earlier in the day by a Dutch couple I had met at the bus station in Qui Nhon.

As an aside. This is a very popular scam not only in Vietnam, but in other areas as well. Taxi drivers will tell you a guesthouse is full or that it has closed down and then deliver you to a different (and usually more expensive) hotel, where they recieve a small percentage of the room charge for taking you there.

Despite the fact that I was frozen and exhausted I was not about to give in to this scam. I was burning on the inside and wanted to do nothing more than pick up this little four foot nothing Vietnamese guy and hurl him across the room. Instead I some how managed to smile and explained to the gentleman working at the hotel that I wanted to go to a specific guesthouse because I had freinds staying there, and therefore knew that it existed. After a hurried conversation between the clerk and my driver we were back on the bike and ten minutes later I was standing in the guesthouse bathroom stripping of my soaking wet clothes and jumping into the first hot shower I had had in at least three weeks!

So that was day one in Vietnam. Day two is just beginning and it is also shaping up to be just as intense and chaotic as day 1. Qui Nhon is not really on the tourist path through Vietnam, and everywhere I walk heads are turning and people are calling out. A lot of them are quite friendly just saying hi, but I have also been cat called relentlessly by Vietnamese teenagers. And on top of that, for only the second time in my life, I had a gun pointed at me this morning. Now, it actually wasn't a big deal, but it was unsettling nonetheless. I was walking down the street and three Vietnamese teenagers were walking towards me, each one carrying two AK-47 assualt rifles. They were cat calling me a bit, and I was actually in a bit of shock that they were just walking down the streets with these old rifles. At first I thought they were fake, but as we neared each other I could tell they were the real deal. As we passed each other one of them leveled the rifle at his hip and pointed it at me while saying something to his friends. We never stopped walking, and there was no confrontation. I also suspect that the guns were either non-functional or at the very least not loaded. Either way it still wasn't a pleasant experience.

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