Monday, 16 October 2017

#32 Vietnam part 1 - Goodnight Saigon, Gooood morning Vietnam!

The Vietnam chapter started with a now funny bump in the road. It wasn't that funny at the time but thank goodness it all worked out.

With all the good chat the day before my flight I completely forgot to get $USD 25 out to pay for my Visa on Arrival. I thought I would find a cash machine at the airport and do that whilst I waited for my flight from Bangkok however I discovered that once I was through immigration there was no way of getting cash out! I was stuck.

Even the information desk people couldn't help me after I explained my problem. Surely I wasn't the only person to have this issue? Was I getting a bit too casual about this whole international flight thing?

There didn't seem much I could do about it so I tried not to worry and looked online to see if anyone had written anything about this before. They had. And luckily it said that the immigration staff could escort you to an ATM outside the airport to get cash on arrival in Vietnam.

It turned out the staff at Ho Chi Minh airport were really brisk and unfriendly towarfs everyone which was not a great first impression but I guess they've got more important things to worry about than customer service.

When my time came to get cash out I couldn't remember which account I was meant to select as I hadn't used this card for about four months.

Unfortunately I must have pressed the wrong account too many times and my card became locked! This really was a disaster because no one working at the airport had a phone that I could use to call my bank.

After talking to one unhelpful staff member after another I finally found a very kind immigration officer who came up with a solution. She lent me $10 USD to buy a Vietnamese SIM card so I could phone the bank and unlock my card. Thank goodness for kind people!

By this stage I'm sure stress was written all over my face. I spoke to the bank staff and it was so good to hear that New Zealand accent and speak to people who actually understood me! I unlocked my card and withdrew enough money to pay the woman back, for my Visa and a taxi into town.

So Vietnam and I got off on the wrong foot but I was determined the next day would be better and that I was going to like this place. As I sat in the back of the taxi whilst we crawled along in horrendous Ho Chi Minh rush hour traffic, the driver put on a CD, and I immediately recognised the familiar notes of the Hotel California intro.

For some reason hearing this conpletely erased all the stress. It was all going to be fine. I could relax and laugh about everything now.

The hostel I stayed in the first three nights was right in the centre of the city on the most touristy road but for once I didn't mind. I met a nice Spanish guy in my dorm and was really grateful to have someone to laugh with about my misadventure at the airport.

The next day I managed to avoid being roped into any expensive tours by the hostel owners and got a map so I could explore on foot. It was time to really tighten the purse strings because my baht weren't going as far as I would have liked and I still needed it to last until December at least.

I decided to look at it as a challenge. How much of the city could I experience for free? I visited most of the main sights and just looked at them from the outside instead of paying to go in. I know it sounds silly but I'm over 'must see' things in cities anyway. I did, however, fork out a whopping NZD 90 cents to go to the War Remnants Museum and I'm very glad I did.

There was a collection of horrific photos taken during the American-Vietnam war and which made quite a lasting impression. I also enjoyed learning about the American soldiers who burnt their draft cards and refused to go to Vietnam. I feel like that is equally as brave as the soldiers who fought. Standing up for what you believe in is admirable no matter what, in a way. Despite the terrible things that led to the museum's existence, I'm glad it exists. Thousands of people are reminded of the attrocities that happened on Vietnamese soil every day and I hope we can all agree that we should make sure nothing like that ever happens again.

That evening I chilled at the hostel and chatted to the Spanish guy a bit more. He was there for skating. He had these cool little wheels that went on each foot and apparently there is quite a community of this flavor of skaters in Ho Chi Minh. He was so passionate about it and you could see his eyes light up when he talked about skating.

The following day I did a bit more exploring on foot by the river and in the afternoon I met up with a guy from Saudi Arabia who had appeared in the dorm in the Spanish guys place without me realising.

I had been very confused when I woke up and found a different person in the bed next to me than the person I had said good night to! Apparently there had been a booking error and I slept through the whole debacle.

Nevertheless he was also good company and we decided that we both wanted to taste crocodile as I had seen it on the menu somewhere near by. As we headed out, we met the Spanish guy again, and invited him to join us. He was vegetarian but keen to try something new.

We found a stall at the night market and chowed down. It was surprisingly delicious! It can only be  described as tasting like really good chicken. As we ate, the heavens opened, and we had to decide what to do next. Spanish guy suggested we try to climb up the tallest building to see the city at night, so off we went. We were pretty saturated, but the rain was so warm, we didn't mind.

Sadly it was too expensive to get to the top of the building so we made do with the poor mans view out another much lower window. It was fun nonetheless and we stopped on the way back at some street vendors to taste some Vietnamese moon cakes and chewy rice sweets.

The Spanish guy had to go to a new hostel so the Saudi Arabian guy and I snuck up to the rooftop of our hostel. He smoked a joint and I made him tell me his life story as the rain continued to fall on the tin roof and the lights of Ho Chi Minh stretched out in front of us under a haze of water droplets.

The next day I had a flight to Hanoi and made two errors of judgement. The first one was choosing a hostel that the Saudi Arabian guy reccomended and the second one was not researching the cheapest way to get from the airport to the city. Instead I opted for a metered taxi and of course the driver chose the longest way. I was watching this on Google maps but I decided not to get angry at him because it was my own fault for trusting him and I didn't realise soon enough to make him go the shorter way.

How was I still making these stupid mistakes? I am now at the stage in my trip where these mistakes could mean the difference between affording to stay another month in India and having to go home soon. Silly, silly me.

That night I was in an 18 bed dorm with people who really loved partying. I wandered around the markets finding dinner for as long as I could to avoid having to socialise and then lay on my top bunk watching Max Key (son of former Prime Minister John Key) vlogs (video blogs) and wondering what I was doing with my life as crappy music thumped away below me.

I lied. I made three bad decisions that day and the Max Key vlogs were one of them.

The next day my workaway host Viet had arranged a bus to pick me up to take me to Cat Ba Island. You can now drive most of the way thanks to a road that connects the mainland with the nearby island of Haiphong. Then you are required to take a speed boat the rest of the way and then another bus through the National Park to the town. The island was very scenic but I was so tired from not being able to sleep in the hostel in Hanoi that I slept most of the way.

When I reached the town the driver showed me to the place I was meant to be meeting Viet down a little alley near the main road. After a very brief meeting Viet went off to have lunch with the bus driver and I was left alone awkwardly having lunch with his family who spoke about two words of English.

I didn't really know what was going on. The hotel wasn't the same one he had told me about and I wasn't sure if this was where I would stay permanently. I also wasn't sure if I was guarunteed to get the workaway job or not and it was all very confusing.

I ended up falling asleep in the room he gave me as I waited for him to get back. Later he sent an email saying to meet him for coffee and to talk about the job, so off I went.

My first impression was that he wasn't your typical Vietnamese person. He seemed very highly strung. Perhaps it was the stress of starting his own online business. He proceeded to talk at 100 miles a minute about his website and chain smoked about six Saigon cigarettes in the space of an hour.

Then we were off having dinner with some friends of his who would be joining us on a tour the next day to Viet Hai fishing village. They were British. The son had been living in Vietnam for two years and his father and step mother were visiting him for two weeks.

The conversation jumped between politics to Vietnamese culture to Viet teaching his friend phrases to say when he wanted to pick up Vietnamese girls.

His friend then proceeded to roll a joint and smoke it right there with his dad. I was still so surprised at how openly people smoked weed here compared to Thailand.

I'd only been in the country four days but every day someone new lit up a joint in my presence. I concluded I should stop being surprised and just accept that things are very different in Asia especially when police officers can easily be bribed.

The next morning we all headed off to Beo Pier and took a small boat across Lan Ha Bay which is part of the larger and more famous Halong Bay. I  thought I was getting hard to impress but even I couldn't deny the beauty of this place. I'd never seen anything like it.

The limestone karsts towered above mirror - like water and the jungle was such a vibrant green.

We arrived at Viet Hai Fishing Village after about an hour and took an electric bus to a homestay where Viet told us about the traditional agricultural methods of early Vietnamese farmers.

We then walked to the site of an old village. The houses were mostly made of stone and the greyness against the bright green of the jungle around it was a beautiful contrast. We were the only ones there and it really felt like we were being let in on a very well kept secret.

Viet showed us to a river where he told us to take off our shoes and let the fish nibble at our toes. I was no more convinced than the first time I tried a fish spa in Chiang Mai. My feet are just too ticklish!

That afternoon Viet's friends had to leave and it was just me and him. He was going to show me the rest of the tour the next day so I could write about it for the website.

After a delicious meal sitting on the floor with the homestay family, Viet and the other men to sat around smoking and chatting. I left them to it and went to bed.

The next day it was time to go kayaking. We took a tiny local boat to a fisherman's house where Viet told me to go kayaking on my own in the mini bay. It was perfectly safe because there was only one way in and one way out.

They gave me a huge double kayak and a wonky paddle and off I went struggling to keep it heading in a straight line.

I explored for about an hour and then made our way back for lunch and to a junk that took us back to Cat Ba.

Viet and I met up the next afternoon and he gave me a brief description about what he wanted me to write about. The next few days were a bit of a struggle if I'm honest. He didn't like what I wrote and I didn't understand what he wanted from me. I settled for correcting some of the articles he had already written. It was very time consuming because first I had to figure out what he was trying to say and then re-word it.

I found myself getting very angry because he kept changing his mind. It had also been raining for two days straight and the foyer of the hotel had flooded. It was all a bit of a disaster.

Finally we had a sunny day and Viet told me to take the day off. I walked up to the Cannon Fort and explored some Viet Cong tunnels.

The next day we really started working. I still found it difficult to nail down exactly what he wanted or get much direction at all. It felt like he was impossible to please.

After a lot of frustration and a very heated discussion about marketing vs journalism we finally figured out why we were clashing. We were seeing things from two very different perspectives. I wanted to present factual, useful information, whilst he wanted flowery, exaggerated writing designed to make people want to spend their money and that's why I was feeling so angry!

We were both so glad to figure it out and realise it wasn't personal after all. It was just our professional backgrounds that made it hard for us to understand one another. Once that weight was lifted we got on SO much better and had some really good conversations.

On another of my days off I hired a motorbike and drove to the National Park with a Dutch girl that was staying in the hotel. We hiked up to the top of one of the peaks and the view was incredible. It was also blimmin humid and we were sweating from every pore.

Another morning I went for a walk around the clifftops and marvelled at the monstrous resorts that have popped up along the beach front.

One evening Viet took me on the back of his scooter and we drove around the island at dusk. It was fantastically beautiful. The images will be forever etched in my memory. The infinite shades of green, the gentle golden glow of the sun as it sunk into the sea, the smell of some kind of unfamiliar flower perfuming the air and the welcomed breeze that comes with riding on a scooter. Perhaps this was going to be ok after all.

I was reminded of the copy of Desiderata that hangs at my mothers house and the line that reads 'no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.'

No doubt indeed!  There's something very comforting about that.

The entrance to an old Vietnamese village in Viet Hai tucked between magnificent craggy limestone mountains and surrounded by infinite shades of green.

Fishing with Viet and the host family -Viet Hai

They let me out on my own in the bay!

The Vietnam flag and the spectacular Lan Ha Bay.

One of the three beautiful beaches on Cat Ba Island - This is Cat Co 2.

Looking out over Cat Ba National Park.

Crocodile meat for sale at the night market in Saigon.

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