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    Our Longest Bus Ride to Date

    February 2nd, 2008 by mary

    From Hanoi we were thrown into a tired bus with the locals at 7pm. The rear four aisles were jammed floor to ceiling with cargo, overflow from the roof. It was amazing that it wasn’t caving in with half of Vietnam strapped to the top. Our bags get tossed in the back and the bus guys try to shove us into seats with baggage at our feet. This is a 21 hour bus ride so there was no way we were going to compromise with legroom. The pushy punk finally takes the box out from under the seat ahead of us so we sit down. Some others weren’t so lucky. There were bags and boxes under all the seats. A few of the locals have the double seats to themselves but over the course of the night we would pick up others to fill those spots. The seats weren’t bad. There was a noticeable lumbar support and the cushion was still intact. Each seat even had a blanket. Later we found out that that was because the aircon would blast all night. The locals were prepared with their knit hats, gloves, and winter jackets. We huddle together under our two blankets draped over us. At least once every hour and a half we made a stop for petrol, food, smoking, bathroom, more passengers, and once at a mechanic for reason unknown. Of course there was onboard entertainment. Now I know what a Vietnamese award show looks like. Ugh! That was when the earplugs and eyeshades came out. Steve seem to conk out pretty early on. I read and struggled until after midnight. Even then I kept waking every twenty minutes readjusting within my confinement before finally dosing off for a longer spell. The brief moments that I open my eyes the bus was crawling in fog so thick you can barely see the back of the bus ten feet ahead of us. I knew it would be cold but I didn’t expect pea soup. One time when I opened my eyes I noticed that we weren’t moving but there was another bus next to us. The mist is so heavy that I have no idea what’s around us or where we are. I just figured it was too hard to see so we stopped.

    At about 6:30am I peep out from under my shades to see Steve awake. It seems we’ve been waiting at the Vietnam border waiting for the office to open so we can exit. We must’ve been there for at least an hour, maybe two. The bus punk collects the passports without explanation and I watch him put them in a plastic bag. Next he grunts at us to leave behind the others. It is freezing outside. The thick mist is still burying us in and we follow the cajoling guards into the sparse building. We join the mob and I squeeze to the front of the counter so I can see what the guards are doing. There are stacks of passports on the inside of the glass. Doubtless from all the other buses and trucks waiting next to ours. Luckily the guards grabs our plastic bag pile first and starts to slowly check each one through. He’s being particular with which ones he fishes out first. Ten foreigner passports go through before he grabs mine. It gets stamped and he calls my name out. Before he hands it to me he demands $1. It was too early in the morning to question him about the fee so I tell Steve who is two people behind me to hand over the cash. Even he doesn’t want to deal with it either so we pay the bribe and get our passports back. Then we had to walk across the checkpoint to officially leave Vietnam. We walk into the fog not knowing where or how far to go. The mist is clinging onto every surface. I feel my backpack and it’s soaked. Finally we see another gate through the haze and the door is open. We rush through knowing there would be a mob behind us. The border guards here on the Laos side actually speak english and they’re as helpful as can be given the conditions. We pay for our visa on arrival in addition to an extra $1 that everyone has to pay. At least we get a slip of paper to make it feel like a real fee. We’ve been doing this type of free-for-all queueing so I work my way to the front of the counter and shove my hand through the opening in the glass as soon as the guard glances up. You can’t too early or it’s taken as an affront. You have to be assertive but not aggressive. It’s a fine line and the difference is getting what you want or the cold shoulder. Yay! We’re through. As soon as we see the bus at the gate we hop on and hide under our blankets. My earplugs and eye shades go back on and I sleep until Steve wakes me after 10am. The sun was out and the sky blue. What a difference a few hours make. I felt like I was coming out of the blinding cold cloud that was Vietnam and stepping onto the clear, sunny warmth of Laos.

    That night Steve fell asleep pretty early. I stayed up and did some yoga. 21hrs on a bus really makes my back and butt sore. It could’ve been must worst though, we know. We’re actually quite content with this record breaking bus ride. Our previous longest bus ride title holder was when we left Bukittingi in Sumatra. That was 19hrs and this one was smoke free.

    Posted in vietnam | No Comments »

    Ha Long Bay

    February 2nd, 2008 by mary

    Rather than suffer through two days of buses we flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. The capital was another busy and smog ridden asian city. The weather was much colder here than the south. So when we took a few days excursion to scenic Ha Long Bay we pulled out the long sleeves. The bay is dotted with thousands of sheer limestone rocks that shoot straight up out of the calm waters. Spread amongst these karst formations are small fishing villages adrift in the sea. There are caves to see and viewpoints to hike to but the main draw is sitting on the roof of the junk ship watching the rock islands cruise by. We did bike through one of the larger islands and kayak around others before the weather got too cold and we had to retreat to the sheltered cabins.

    Posted in boat, vietnam | No Comments »

    ‘You Know Nothing!’

    February 2nd, 2008 by mary

    The Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war to hide from the American troops were 65km outside of Ho Chi Minh City. To keep us entertained on our bus out was Mr. Bean our engish speaking guide. When he was young he lived in various parts of the States eventually becoming an officer of the US Navy. When the US became engaged in the Vietnam War he was sent here to train the Charlies to fight in the foreign fields. The VC eventually captured him and sent him to prison for four years to get re-educated. Everyday he went out to the fields to pick up land mines with his hands. At the end he emerged a happy man knowing his rightful place was in Vietnam and that the US government was full of lies. I’d say the re-education worked perfectly on him. He kept telling everyone over the microphone ‘You know nothing!’, ‘You understand?’, ‘You really want to know?’

    He said the Vietnam war really started in 1858 when the French occupied the country. Then the US financially backed the francophones and when they pulled out over half a million American troops showed up in rice paddies. The VC’s guerrilla warfare kept the Americans at bay and forced them to eventually give up the campaign. From there the Vietnamese fought Cambodia, actually invading them but he left that part out. And finally it was war with the Chinese which finally ended in 1980, the official end of the Vietnam War according to him. But it was because of the false media and internet that the world thinks it ended in 1973 when the US troops left. There was a VC award called American Killer Hero. So for the entire ride out we heard his take on the war, Americans, and the Vietnamese farmer forced to become a killer. And of course he presented this as his obligation to make sure we got something out of our $4 tour. At the Cu Chi tunnels we first sat down to watch a fifteen minute communist propaganda of the Vietnam War made in 1967 with smiling gun toting VC. Needless to say it was highly anti-America. From there we were lead from one hidden entrance to another, to holes made by B-52 bombs, to booby traps, to bunkers, to a destroyed tank, and even a firing range where you can shoot a variety of war guns for only $1.3 per bullet. Sure the people actually firing the AK47s were given earmuffs but the rest of us sitting twenty feet away just had to bear the deafening noise in silence. After all that we crawl ed into the cool, but stuffy darkness of a tunnel. At first it’s high enough to walk through totally bent over but after dropping down to the second level, about 6m below the surface, crawling became the mode of transportation. The tallest spots were no more than one meter high and sixty cm wide. The lowest places were two feet high. It was pitch dark but smooth. The earth was ripe for tunneling here as clay is easy to dig and hardens with heat which meant the napalm bombs on the surface only strengthened the tunnels below. In Cu Chi the tunnels ran 258km in all and some went under US bases. Mr. Bean praised the craftiness of the VC and told us in many ways why they were better than the Americans. This included using American trash to throw the dogs off the trail of the tunnel entrances. Also they used discarded US bombs to make mines and used truck tires for sandals which they wore backwards to throw their pursuers off. But Mr. Bean’s attitude wasn’t unique. Walking around this country you can sometimes sense a muffled anti-Americanism. But any anomysity they might have against us disappears when they see the dollar.

    Posted in vietnam | No Comments »

    Mekong Delta in South Vietnam

    February 1st, 2008 by mary

    In southern Vietnam the mighty Mekong river is the prominent artery and thousands of brown veins branch off into a network of canals. The lives of the people here are heavily dependent on these waterways. There is no end to the list of the river’s uses. We spent hours upon hours along various watery passageways seeing the ways people here live. There were several floating markets with mountains of coconuts, bananas, pommelos, potatos, green onions, and so many other fruits and veg. Each boat had a bamboo pole at the bow with their wares hanging prominently. Near Can Tho the floating houses sat over fish farms with up to half a million fish below. There were duck farms, dead floating rats, monkey bridges, muslim villages, rice paddies, noodle factories, and trash galore. During one 8hr tour our boat driver had to stop the engine 11 times to unwrap the various plastic bags, weeds, and ropes from the small propeller. By the time we made it to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) we were delta’d out.

    Posted in vietnam | 1 Comment »