Permanent Vacasian

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. – G. K. Chesterton

Salt of the Earth

February 19, 2009
by Stuart
3 Comments
4,458 views

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Salt fields outside Kampot.

South Coast, Cambodia – We met Oscar not under ideal circumstances. For him at least. When we got our bus tickets to Kampot, we were told be to ready at eight in the morning. So we came downstairs, checked out and was summoned by the tuk-tuk driver to follow him to the tuk-tuk. Oscar had already claimed his spot. Deservedly so since he’d been sitting there for an hour waiting for us. He had been told to be ready at seven and had been waiting in the tuk-tuk for us ever since.

He didn’t say much on the way to the bus station. But when we got on the bus, he insisted that he get to sit where he wanted because he had missed the earlier bus. This caused a bit of a stir among the locals, but my attention was diverted to killing the swarm of mosquitoes on the bus – to great amusement by the women sitting behind me.

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The owner; A drying salt bed.

Right as we were to leave, a woman rushed on board and took the open seat next to Oscar. Her name was Srey, and she was to sweep us up in her net of energy and generosity for the rest of the day. She introduced herself and asked our names and the usual travel information then we started talking about something more interesting: her life.

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Phnom Penh

February 15, 2009
by Stuart
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The bowels of Psar Tuol Tom Pong.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – We got to watch the last four minutes of the Super Bowl as we ate breakfast our first morning in Phnom Penh. And after getting to watch Talladega Nights while eating dinner the previous night, I knew this guesthouse was gonna be alright. But then I saw they charged for toilet paper I was a little dismayed. And they had a weird accounting system: each room had a notebook where you wrote down what you ordered or if you took a drink from the coolers. Then you had to get an employee to put a check mark net to it as some kind of approval. It was kind of a waste of time.

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Pirated dvd collections. Other funny titles where: Tom Cruise: Bold and Passional; Mel Gibson: Bloody Fighter Man; Will Smith: The Whole People Superman.

The first mission of the day was to get more pages added to Tina’s passport. On the way to the US embassy, we stopped off at Wat Ounalom for a visual introduction to classic Khmer architecture – tiered temples topped with pointy towers in a courtyard flanked by smaller towers. From our hotel we can see towers spread across town but this was the first time we got to see one up close.

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The National Museum courtyard; Detail of Khmer statue.

Getting pages added was pretty easy, altho time consuming. In Beijing it took me about 15 minutes, but it took us over an hour to get pages for Tina – partially because all services for US citizens were handled by one window. While Tina was in line, I filled my time eavesdropping on the window where a steady stream of paunchy balding white guys were trying to get paperwork for their soon-to-be Cambodia brides.

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Delta Blues, Pt. 2

February 15, 2009
by Stuart
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Looking across the river to Can Tho.

After taking the boat back to Vinh Long, we caught the bus to Can Tho. When we arrived at what should have been Can Tho, we weren’t too surprised to find out that it was someplace else. So I tried explaining to the bus driver that we were trying to get to to Can Tho and that’s what we paid for. He wasn’t helpful but eventually a women who spoke English came over and helped. She informed us that we needed to take a ferry across the river then a motorbike to the city. She then negotiated a fair price with two moto drivers and we set off.

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A canal between rows of houses in a village near Can Tho.

After checking into the hotel we walked around town looking for food. But since this was still around Tet, most places were closed except for a bar with bad music blaring. We had heard our hotel served good food so we ate there. The food was actually pretty good which explained why restaurant was always packed. I had beef with lime juice and peanuts, which was really good for something simple, and a great banana shake that was strong on the condensed milk. It was so good, I had this meal again the next day.

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All lit up for Tet.

That afternoon we took a little boat across the river to the villages that were filled with equal parts nice people and trash. We wandered down the dirt paths that eventually opened up to some nice country side allowing us to take in the setting sun. Then we crossed back across the river and headed across a bridge to another island that was a popular hang out for the locals – the downtown is overrun by tourists – looking for some restaurants we heard were good. It was kind of a bust because none had English menus so we walked back and got some street pho then had some fruit shakes before bed.

*     *     *

We got up really early the next morning and walked down to the riverfront and hired a boat to take us to the famed floating markets – these are like regular markets but everything takes place on boats. But since this was turning out to be Tet Week, there wasn’t much going on. Feeling sorry for us, the driver took us on a great tour through canals around some islands.

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Meandering around the delta.

This was part of the delta we were looking for: quite little channels banked by banana plants, coconut trees, bordering on fields and rice paddies and little villages. People were out washing their clothes, making breakfast, even bathing. Our driver even carved a fresh pineapple for us one the way back.

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Banana trees next to a rice field.

When we got back to town, we had lunch and got ready for the bus to Rach Gia, a little town on the coast with ferries to Phu Quoc Island. When the shuttle for the bus showed up, the guy asked us for tickets. We had booked through the hotel and the only thing they had given us was a business card with something written on it. I protested and said we needed tickets, or a receipt. After being obtuse about it, they finally gave the driver some money – which he later used to buy our tickets – and they all started laughing at us.

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Along the canal.

Rach Gia turned out to be a dump. And because of Tet Week, everything was full and the ferry to the island was booked for the next several days. Moral of the story: even though Tet is officially three days, it really lasts for over a week. We found one room at a dingy little place – maybe the worse room we’d had on the trip. I had to insist that they put clean sheets on the bed! And by “sheet” I mean a thin little blanket. They don’t use sheets around here.

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Laundromat.

After learning the ferries were booked, we walked to the bus station to get a ticket the next day to get the heck outta this place. On the way we got lost, and stopped to  ask someone where we were on the map since it had few street names. Then one of these green buses that we have seen all over SE Asia drove by. We took them a few times in Vietnam and loved it, but since getting to the delta, we never could figure out how to book them.

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Bridge over muddy water.

I hailed the bus and it pulled over. We found out there was a office in town at the bus station and that they did have a bus that went to Chau Doc, our next town which serves as a departing point for Cambodia. Awesome! We made our way to the bus station and found the office only to be told they actually didn’t have a bus that went there (we did see a few on the way). Not Awesome. But we found info about the local buses that left the next morning.

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Looks like Florida.

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Most of the river is lines with stilt house which still flood each year.

On the way home we stopped at the only restaurant opened and ordered dinner. Apparently they had to get everything from the market because people started arriving on scooters carrying ingredients for our meal. Some guy showed up with chicken, another with pork. It must have been the dregs left over from the day because the food was pretty nasty.

*     *     *

The minibus to Chau Doc wasn’t too crowded and made for an easy ride. We had to take another moto from the bus station to the hotel and checked in. We hadn’t slept that well the previous night so we spent the morning relaxing. Then for dinner we tried to eat at the hotel but – because of Tet – they hadn’t been able to get much food the past few days so the menu was pretty limited.

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Stiltless houses.

We also booked the boat ride from Chau Doc up the Mekong to Phnom Penh. Well, it was a boat ride which ended with a two hour bus ride. If we wanted to take the boat right to the city, we’d have to take the faster boat which was about three times as expensive. When we explained that we had overstayed our visa, the woman looked a bit concerned but said it should just be a small fine.

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Hear come the noisemakers!

That night the hotel staff was up past 1am making all kinds of noise – yelling, laughing and what sounded like tossing pots and pans around. After finally falling asleep early in the morning, we were woken up a few hours later by this really loud drumming. The streets were filled with troupes of people in dragon costumes – and teams of drummers. Shop keepers or restaurants could pay and have the troupes perform outside on the sidewalk.

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This guy did all kinds of physical stunts. Pretty impressive.

Before lunch we changed hotels to a place right across the street that was about the same price but three times as nice. It was so nice, once we checked in, we didn’t want to leave the hotel room! It was sunny, had a balcony, and when we turned on the tv, Friends was on. Now, I don’t usually watch Friends, but I’ve noticed while traveling, any American sitcom is a welcome piece of home. Kind of like Oreos I’ve discoverd.

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From our hotel window in Chau Doc.

Later we walked around the town stopping to have a fruit shake at a street stall with chairs out on the sidewalk where we watched the town’s activity. We explored the riverfront and scoped out the pool at a fancy hotel before coming back to the main square and having a delicious bowl of pho as our last dinner in Vietnam. Man that’s good stuff – all spicy and limey. Perfection.

*     *     *

After a good night’s sleep – and a free breakfast! – we took a cyclo to the boat we were to take to the border. Our first stop on the boat was a floating house that had a fish farm underneath. We also visited a minority village with signs in English warning not to by cakes from the children because they might be contaminated. That, however, did not stop the kids from eating them. The boat trip also gave us unique views of river life. We finally got to see kids leading their cows or water buffaloes to the river and bathing them.

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Breakfast along the river.

As we got close to the border, our guide, the woman with whom we booked the boat, collected our passports and customs papers and took a moto to the border station while we continued on by boat. About an hour later, the captain handed us his phone – it was the woman. She said there was a problem with Tina’s passport, that there weren’t enough pages. We assured here that there were at least two blank pages, plenty for the Cambodian visa. She said there would be a huge fine and that we should talk when we arrived at the border station.

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I hope he find what he's looking for.

When we arrived, she gave us Tina’s passport and Tina opened it right up to the two blank pages and handed it back to the women. She was stunned and started cursing about the customs agent who told her there would be a fine. We weren’t really sure why she didn’t check herself, but whatever.

Border sign in Vietnamese, Khmer, English.

Border sign in Vietnamese, Khumer, English.

After lunch we walked across the no man’s land between Vietnam and Cambodia before hopping on another boat which took us to the Cambodian checkpoint. We then had to get off the boat to get our passport stamped. While in line to get my passport stamped I noticed that between the service windows there was a comments box – that was full of money. And it looked like a few people needed to pay the guards some hefty “comments” to get that stamp.

Rocking down the Mekong.

Rocking down the Mekong.

Delta Blues, Pt. 1

February 15, 2009
by Stuart
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We couldn’t have picked a worse time to travel the delta. Tet was in full swing, which really means everything shuts down and things get quiet. Buses aren’t busing, tours aren’t touring, and restaurants aren’t restauranting . On top of that, we decided to go independent style – whereas most tourists take tours when visiting the delta. The couple tour operators who were open, only offered a three-day trip for their max outing. We wanted to stay at least a week.

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Making coconut and peanut candy.

Since public buses weren’t running, we had to take a bus used by a tour group. The cheapest we could get was just a few bucks cheaper then the one-day tour. We decided to do a one-day tour to My Tho but not return to Saigon afterward with the rest of the group.

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Those hats are incredibly comfy.

The tour was the usual: see a few sights which all seem to involve shopping. When we got to My Tho, we ditched the bus and took a small boat around the islands. The first stop was a tea place that put honey, lemon (really it was a lime) and sugar in green tea. It was pretty good. But while we were trying to enjoy the tea, the store employees would give us a sales pitch urging us to by some of the honey or other bee products. The same thing happened when we visited a coconut candy factory. By the way, I might start drinking green tea with honey at home.

After the tour was over and everyone got back on the bus to Saigon, Tina and I got our bags off and started looking for a ferry to Ben Tre – which should be right across the river. Turns out the ferries weren’t running either. So we had to take an expensive taxi ride to the town instead. It was so expensive because the only bridge was a few miles away, taking us way out of the way. Plus there is a Ben Tre province and a Ben Tre town. Pretty different.

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Being rowed down a little canal around Ben Tre province.

Our hotel in Ben Tre was rather odd. The door to our room was lightweight aluminum with a huge glass window for the top half. And there was constant karaoke going on – because of Tet. This place also had the fastest internet connection I have ever used.

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Cruising the delta.

The rest of the evening was spent trying to find out how to get to Vinh Long, the next town we hoped to visit. After checking with a tourism office that had signs in English, but no English-speaking employees, we found a woman in a hotel with a travel desk who made a call and told us what time the bus left the next morning.

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Looking back towards Ben Tre proper.

We then explored the town along the riverfront and even wandered through the little villages across the river. The paths through the villages were narrow and paved with cement, canopied by banana plants and coconut trees. Going deeper into the villages led us to a beautiful open-air temple. So far, this might have been the most friendly town we’ve been to.

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The Tinh Xa Ngoc Thuan temple.

Because of Tet, all the restaurants were closed. As we were walking around starving, a woman on a motorbike pulled up and asked us if we were looking for somewhere to eat. We said we were and she pointed where we might be able to find a place. I guess we took a wrong turn because she and her daughter, on her own motorbike, pulled up and offered us rides. I asked how much, and she laughed and said “no charge”. They took us across town to a little street restaurant where we had some chicken soup that was good except for the bits of “chicken”.

*     *     *

Not surprisingly, when we got to the bus station the next morning, we discovered the time the woman had given us was wrong. The bus left an hour earlier. So we went back to the hotel where the woman working in reception that morning spoke English well, and I explained the situation. She told us to sit, made some calls, then said that a taxi would take us to a bus in My Tho that was going to Vinh Long.

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Scooter for four, please?

After another longer-then-hoped-for taxi ride, we got dumped at a roadside dive and told to wait for the bus here. About 10 minutes later the bus showed up. What a dump. It was a minibus with a million people in it. But somehow Tina and I scored the front seat.

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Old amusement park ride in Vinh Long.

Since a bus driver in Vietnam can’t go 20 feet without honking, we were relieved when the driver honked and it sounded like someone stepping on a wheezing old man. One thing was disconcerting, tho: the driver kept a little vile of something on the dashboard and would take a few sniffs of it about every five minutes. Occasionally he would put a dab on his finger and wipe his temples and forehead. It smelled like really strong cologne. And was light blue in color.

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Really funny kinds who hung out with us and ate our candy in Vinh Long.

The minibus dropped us of a bit outside of Vinh Long, but since we knew where we were on the map, we decided to walk to the downtown area. We found the place where you can book a homestay out on a few close islands and were relieved to find it open. Because of Tet, most families weren’t taking stayers, but the place that did, charged more. Since that’s why we came to Vinh Long, we decided to pay the higher fare.

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Waiting for the boat to the homestay.

Out boat wasn’t leaving for a few hours so we walked around town – spending most of our time talking with some local kids in a park – while waiting for our boat to the islands. We also relaxed at a riverside cafe where Tina discovered a love for ice coffee with milk. I drank coconut water from a coconut with a straw coming out that I’m sure was refilled with regular water.

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On the way to the homestay.

The homestay was more like a bed and breakfast-stay. The house was rather large with a few rooms with sheets for doors, mosquito nets over the beds, and not much else. But the food was awesome. After exploring the island, which was connected to smaller islands with little bridges, giving it a Venetian feel, we came back for dinner which was a spread unlike anything I’d had in a long time.

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Our fearless captain. Watch out for that bridge!

The main course was Elephant Ear Fish (a Mekong Delta specialty) spring rolls which you made yourself by pulling the meat off the fish, putting it in rice paper with cucumber, lime juice, mint, and lettuce. There was also a pork dish, huge prawns, fried spring rolls and rice. I’m not sure if I have mentioned this yet, but the rice in Vietnam is incredible. Every time I have had it, it’s been my favorite part of the meal. Fresh, flavorful, and always cooked perfectly

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Along the canals.

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Dinner is served. Best fish I ever had (and I don't even like fish).

Tet Offensive

February 12, 2009
by Stuart
2 Comments
2,332 views

Saigon was on the brink of mania. The excitement was obvious by the number of people in the streets and sidewalks, and the number of buses clogging the streets taking people home for the holidays. When trying to find a hotel after getting off the bus, the only way to move along the street was to walk down the middle. It got to a point were I had Tina stay in a safe place while I walked around checking out different hotels before settling on one.

The alleyway near our hotel.

The alleyway near our hotel.

This was the Friday before Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebration, which started Sunday at midnight. I can honestly say that I have never felt this excitement for any holiday back in the Sates, with the exception of maybe my 16th birthday. And I think it’s safe to say I was the only one that excited.

A gift given to an Ex-President of South Vietnam. Yes, they are real.

A gift given to an Ex-President of South Vietnam. Yes, they are real.

Officially, the country comes to a halt for three days of celebration. And that three days was supposed to start on Sunday when the holidays officially began. But in practice, Saigon was already closing down.

Jade Emproer Pagoda.

Jade Emperor Pagoda.

We had decided to extend our visa so we could check out some islands off the southern coast. So we went to a travel company and inquired about the process. We were told that because of Tet, we could have to wait a week until the offices reopened, and then it would be three or four days from then until we got our passports back. Basically we would have to wait for nine or ten days just to stay a few days more.

The iceman cometh.

The iceman cometh.

A guy who was teaching English in Saigon and at the travel place helping a friend make travel arrangements, told us about a woman who worked at a cafe who had an inside connection with the consulate and might be able to get it processed for us the next day.

Relaxing before the New Year.

Relaxing before the New Year.

We found the cafe and was told the woman was in the shower. So we waited only to find out that she couldn’t help, but that as long as we only overstayed a few days to a week, it would be ok and we’d have to pay a small fine. I asked if there was a chance of jail time and she laughed and said no.

*     *     *

We hit up all the museums and anything else that had a chance of being closed the next week. The first site was the Reunification Palace, which was the seat of the South Vietnamese power until in 1975 when North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates and said the war was over, and the South lost. The tour took us through the presidential rooms and a series of bombproof tunnels in the basement where there were still maps on the walls showing the locations of different troops in the country.

Going against the crowd back to our hotel.

Going against the crowd back to our hotel.

On our way to the War Remnants Museum we ate lunch at Pho 24, a pho chain that we had seen all over Vietnam. Since we’d seen it so much, we were curious as to why it was so popular. Well, once again curiosity killed the cat. This place was terrible – way overpriced and not very good. Plus they tried to charge us for napkins. Now, in Vietnam merchants try to rip you of constantly, but charging for napkins? Really?

Napping at the Giac Lam pagoda.

Napping at the Giac Lam pagoda.

As an American, The War Remnants Museum was pretty hard to take. Not only where the pictures pretty graphic, but the curators did not try to hide their feelings. There were also things about the War I had never heard – like there were several natural resources that we wanted to keep control over.

The Giac Lam pagoda.

The Giac Lam pagoda.

Now, I believe we had no right to start/be in this war. And it’s even more disgraceful and disgusting because we did it again in Iraq. But I think the museum could have been a bit more balanced. There was nothing about the atrocities the VC and North Vietnamese committed. And there was only a tiny section about the protests and the anti-war movement back home in the States. I only feel this way because I think with history, the more you know about the entire picture, the more you really understand what happened.

Birdman.

Birdman.

That night we walked down Nguyen Hue which had been closed to traffic and filled with flower exhibits. It also seemed like the entire town was walking around, too. We started feeling the effects of Tet because most restaurants were closed. So we walked around a bit and found an Indian place that was pretty tasty.

Saigon seen from up in the Giac Lam pagoda.

Saigon seen from up in the Giac Lam pagoda.

After dinner we walked around the flower street a bit more, then had desert at a coffee shop before heading home. It was on the way home that I had yet another “incident” with an elderly lady: the street was jammed packed. The road we were walking down was a main road that intersected with the flower road, so it was backed up for at least a mile. And since it was all motorbikes and pedestrians, all the nooks were filled – there was no demarcation between street and sidewalk.

The People's Committee Building.

The People’s Committee Building.

As we worked our way down the street, crawling around motorbikes and vendors in the street, and people trying to motorbike down the sidewalk, I led us through an opening right as the woman was trying to push her bike between us. Since I had to keep Tina close to me, I put my hand on her bike and stopped it – so we both could get out of her way – this was the sidewalk after all.

Notre Dame Catherdral.

Notre Dame Cathedral.

She pushed harder so I pushed her bike back. Well, she didn’t like that much and took a swing at me. But I had already passed her so she ended up punching Tina! Tina screamed and I saw the women swinging again, so I turned around and shoved her, knocking her over onto her motorbike causing it to fall over into the crowed. Then some guy rushed over between us and put his hands up, like we should take it easy.

*     *     *

After Saigon we planned on spending almost a week in the Mekong Delta. But with Tet closing everything down, we weren’t sure what to do. Most people see the delta with a tour group, but they only go for as long as three days. And I don’t like tours because they charge you a lot and don’t pass that profit down to the locals they use.

Main post office with Ho Chi Minh portrait.

Main post office with Ho Chi Minh portrait.

The first stop on most tours was to a town we wanted to see anyway, and paying for the bus was almost as much as going on the one-day tour (most local buses weren’t running that often because of Tet), we decided on doing the one-day tour, then staying in the delta and figuring it out from there. We found one of the handful of tour companies open and booked with them.

Saigon Central Mosque.

Saigon Central Mosque.

We wanted to see the Giac Lam pagoda which was in another part of the city. Usually we just rented a motorbike and did it ourselves. But with Tet, the traffic here was nuts. Plus, I don’t mind stopping on country roads to figure out the map, but to do that in the city isn’t fun. So we decided on hiring motos to take us. “Moto” is a motorbike taxi – you ride on the back of someone’s motorbike. And you just bargain with drivers until you come up with a fair price.

Father and son making the mosque of it.

Father and son making the mosque of it.

We started bargaining with one driver who was pretty firm on his price – which was too much for me. So I tried to get him to lower it, but he kept saying it was already a good price. He then said I “bartered like a woman at the market trying to buy fishes”. Dang, dude. Let’s make this personal. My initial reaction was to tell him that he bartered like a guy who’d rather sit on his butt then make any money. But instead, I took it on the chin and went to find fishes somewhere else. Which I did.

On the way to the fireworks.

On the way to the fireworks.

After spending a good amount of time at the pagoda we found some other motos and took them back to downtown. These guys were crazy drivers – we missed getting slammed by a garbage truck by about six inches. And because of their erratic driving, we ended up getting separated. It took the next hour or so to find each other.

My driver took me to the agreed location and we sat there waiting for Tina. After she didn’t show, my driver asked me for the money. We had heard about a scam where drivers separate people then charge more money from both then leave them. But I believe this was an honest mistake. But still, he wasn’t getting money until Tina showed up. So we drove around a while searching until I had him take me to the hotel, figuring that Tina would eventually work her way there.

All lit up for the New Year.

All lit up for the New Year.

While waiting at the hotel, my driver said that because he drove me around, I had to pay him over double what we had agreed on. I tried to explain that it wasn’t my fault he lost my friend. Then a baguette vendor came over to try to mediate. She didn’t speak much English, and took his side, and kept telling me “money, money, money”. Then more people gathered around and took his side and gave me dirty looks. I realized then that when you try to save too much face, you end up loosing it all. I had felt bad for this guy at first, but now I had no sympathy.

Maybe about 20 minutes later, Tina showed up at the hotel on the back of another moto. She got off and paid and explained that her driver stopped at some random place and tried to get her to pay more than we had agreed. Tina refused and paid him the agreed price, then hunted around for someone with a LP book and asked to look at it, found the name of the street our hotel was on, then got another moto to take her there.

My view of the fireworks. Awesome.

My view of the fireworks. Awesome.

Now that she was back, I payed the guy the amount we had agreed. He refused and turned away. So, I put the money back in my wallet and we walked off. He came chasing me, so I took the money back out, put it in his shirt pocket and told him to get lost. Tina unloaded on the dude about what a waste of time this afternoon had been and told him to get lost. The funny thing was that Tina’s moto driver had let her off about a block from where my driver and I were waiting. But since we both assumed she would be on a moto, we never looked at people standing around during our search.

*     *     *

To celebrate the start of Tet, there was a fireworks celebration at midnight Sunday night. The traffic was worse then the other night and getting around was hard. So we went back to the hotel and around eleven I left and walked downtown to the heart of the celebration alone.

The crowd still enjoying the fireworks.

The crowd watching the fireworks.

Thousands of us were crammed towards the riverfront waiting for the fireworks – at the end of that street filled with flowers. There were tv crews and spotlights and people climbing on everything to get a good view. It was so packed that at one point I wasn’t even moving my feet and the crowed was taking me along anyway. When I started to walk again, one of my shoes felt funny. I realized that it was jammed between the foot and flip-flop of the guy in front of me.

The post-fireworks traffic mayhem.

The post-fireworks traffic mayhem.

At midnight, the fireworks started. Right behind the buildings lining the right side of the street. So, all of us who had crammed down to the heart of the celebration, had to watch the fireworks from behind a building. Regardless, everyone went crazy – until realizing our view would be obstructed for the entire show. We looked around at each other finding it funny that the fireworks would be way off to the side from where the focal point of the celebration was. Occasionally the trails from the explosion could be seen, but for the most part we just got to watch the smoke change colors reflecting the color of each firework.

People burned gold covered rice paper for good luck in the new year.

People burned gold covered rice paper for good luck in the new year.

I got back to the hotel room  – after making it through the insane traffic – and woke Tina up to tell her how funny it was that after all that, I didn’t get to see any of the fireworks. She said that was too bad, and then added that she had a perfect view from our hotel room window.