So I land in Saigon. What's the first thing I buy? A bottle of duty free Armani cologne. Western candyarse. Damn - probably could have bought it more cheaply in Malaysia. Make that a tight Western candyarse! Somewhat embarrassed by such extravagance at the start of what is meant to be a relatively spartan backpacking sojourn, I headed off to the dodgy backpacker district for a bit of self-flagellation in the form of an ugly hook to hang my hat on for the next few days. These sorts of guest houses have been perfectly adequate for my needs in the past, and they're also good for meeting up with other travellers. Not so in Saigon. Here, cheap accommodation tends not to be shared - there are no common areas which makes interaction with one's fellow travellers difficult. This is a pity, because I was quite keen on hitting the town in the evenings but am not so keen on rocking up to clubs on my own. So after traipsing around the obligatory tourist circuit in Saigon (Reunification Palace, absurdly biased "War Remnants" museum etc), I complied with my cardinal travelling rule - if thou is not having fun, it's time to get thy arse outta town.
So off I went to the Mekong Delta. At the bus station in Saigon, I bumped into a Viet student who was keen to practice his English on a captive foreigner. Tung was a nice guy. Turns out we were heading in the same direction - I was heading down to Mytho, gateway city to the Mekong delta, which is also where his family lives. Next thing I know my evening and next day was being organised for me. He called his mother with news that a foreigner would coming to stay for the evening. His mother subsequently called every member of their extended family with the news, and suddenly I had about fifteen meet-and-greet appointments over the next 30 hours or so. This turned out to include his parents (of course), both grandmothers, three aunties and one uncle and their children on his mother's side, two aunties and three uncles on his father's side and several of his friends. None spoke English except Tung. There were a few amusing, if slightly surreal, moments. For some reason, southern Viets go to Mytho to get hitched, and consequently the wedding industry there is big business. Tung's mother and her sisters all own wedding costume hire shops, so I found myself trucked around to various relatives to drink tea and attempt communication, each time surrounded by hundreds of gaudy wedding dresses and monkey suits on hangers. Weird.
The next morning, Tung and I headed off to the nearby town of Ben Tre to meet his father's side of the family. One of his Aunties owns a roadside coffee shop which is also the home of his grandmother. After the tour of the premises and the family meet-and-greet, Tung and I were at a bit of a loose end. It was suggested that a trip to the local karaoke bar might be in order. I must say, singing New York, New York at 9am on a friday morning isn't something I ever saw myself doing, but what the hey.
I wanna wake up in the city that never sleeps...
Yep, sounds like Ben Tre all right. I made several attempts at Elvis and Sinatra numbers. The karaoke machine we used had some software built into it that gave the singer's performance a percentage mark. Amusingly, I cracked the top score for murdering The Lady Is A Tramp, despite ad-libbing most of the melody and having only a vague recollection of the lyrics. After this triumph, it was back to Grandma's for lunch to celebrate. I was assured that she was an excellent cook, which she undoubtably was - I thought the flagship dish (served in a large bowl) would be sweet, but it tasted like a mild curry. It looked exactly like white wrist sweat bands suspended in translucent purple liquid - the principal ingredient was some kinda weird fruit. Anyone who can make something looking like that taste good must be an excellent cook.
Then it was off to visit more rellies and be force-fed everything from coconut milk drank out of a coconut cut from the tree before my eyes, to rice spirit straight out of the still. It was great to see a part of the countryside most foreigners would miss, and naturally I handled this whistlestop tour with unflagging grace, but by the end of the second day on the campaign trail (or so it seemed) with Tung my unflagging grace was, well, starting to flag. On the inside, anyway. So it was quite a relief to be deposited at my hotel to continue on with the journey.
I desperately wanted to boat down the Mekong, but I didn't want to go on a group tour. I asked the hotel receptionist for assistance, and she called up some dude with a boat. That's a good start. I'm interested. Let's go and see this boat. It inspired me to write a song in its honour - I think I'll call it Not Sinking, Sailing. I had a few misgivings about the...erm...riverworthiness of the vessel, but the guy had me when he told me that Westerners never take this kind of boat. Hah! Who's the candyarse now??? Here's proof that I have the lowest standards of you all! Still, those of you who've seen the bathroom at the shared house I used to live in probably are already aware of this fact.
So, after a minor mishap when the boat almost capsized from the wake created by a small boy doing doggy-paddle alongside us, we were off! The guy wasn't kidding about Westerners not taking this route - we stopped at villages along the river where they wouldn't have had Occidentals there since before the Yanks pulled out. Heads turn pretty hard when someone like me wanders into such an overwhelmingly Vietnamese world. Happily, the Vietnamese are very friendly. I went to a roadside bar, and everyone wanted to buy me a drink. Once again, it was nice to see a side of Vietnam that most travellers wouldn't. That evening I had one of those "Thank God I was here" moments. The sun had set and the light was fading fast. We were motoring down the Mekong. The drone from the boat's outboard motor - a curious-looking device employed by many river craft in this part of the world, resembling an extra long whipper-snipper - was starting to grate. I put on my headphones and played the sublime remix of Nina Simone's Feelin' Good, found on the (highly recommended) Verve Remixed compilation. In the far distance, an electrical storm punctuated the twilight horizon. A whole manner of river craft, from small sampans to huge rice barges, slid past - all rendered silent by the aforementioned aural splendour. There and then, the significance of time and place hit me; I was in a small boat sailing down the Mekong, one of the world's great rivers that provides for hundreds of millions. And Mother Nature was putting on some performance. It was a moment I'll never forget.
My boatman (who spoke English) agreed to deposit me on a bus that would take me to the port city of Rach Gia, on the edge of the Gulf of Thailand. This is where I planned to catch a fast boat to Phu Quoc island. He was as good as his word - a bus heading to the ocean was flagged down and my pack and I were crammed into it. Not a problem - I was surrounded by grinning Vietnamese who, despite the fact we clearly didn't share a common language, chattered away at me. I babbled a bunch of nonsensical English back at them - this farce eventually degenerating into a sing-a-long. (I guess they'd got word of my recent triumph at the karaoke bar in Ben Tre.) Vietnamese songs, of course. Not a problem; I improvised the lyrics, causing much hilarity amongst my travel companions. Turned out to be a good way to pass the time - I was soon at my destination, where I booked a ticket booked on the somewhat intimidatingly-named Superdong boat, bound for Phu Quoc.
When arriving at the dock, I have to say that the Superdong looked superdodge. Still, at least it was superfast. A ferry takes eight hours to chug between Rach Gia and Phu Quoc; the Superdong completes the journey in two and a half. It was great to be on Phu Quoc - the island operates at a noticeably more relaxed speed than the relatively relaxed Mekong delta communities. And it's quite beautiful and hilly, in a tropical island-type way. Upon landing, I immediately hired a motorbike and roared off to explore. Most of the island's roads are unsealed and are pretty abysmal in places, and I reckon I must've covered nearly all of them. That poor bike copped a thrashing over the six days I had it. I certainly visited every village. The people outside the major tourist hub of Duong Dong rarely see foreigners, and are incredibly friendly to outsiders. I was constantly smiling, waving and shaking hands with people in the villages - felt as though I was running in 2008. Move your big arse over, Hillary.
And then there're the beaches. These are fine, but not great. They're marred by a fair amount of rubbish that is washed up or simply tossed aside as soon as it's created. I remember one morning, in an atypical fit of environmental zeal, I picked up all the rubbish on the beach belonging to the resort I was staying in - much to the bemusement of my Vietnamese hosts. Crazy Westerners! They were right; the next day, a new sprinkling of garbage had started to accumulate. Talking about atypical behaviour, I also got down to some outdoorsy type stuff that I wouldn't normally do, like snorkeling. My guesthouse lent me a mask with snorkel and some flippers. The mask and snorkel set looked like something the French thought was too crap to take with them when they bailed out of Indochina in 1954, and the flippers were at least two sizes too small. My somewhat unimpressed memory of the event may have been tinged by the inadequate equipment, but perhaps snorkeling sights are not Phu Quoc's forte - hey look! Brown rock...and there! Brown coral! And what have we here? A small silver fish! Swimming near someone's hat! Still, I had fun making ASDIC (anti-submarine warfare sonar) pings, then picking up rocks and pretending to depth charge fish - you know, just like in that movie Das Boot! You know, the sort of thing everyone does when they go snorkeling. After a couple of hours, this became boring and I headed back into shore to finish off the rest of the glue stick I'd started sniffing earlier that day.
After six days or so, I caught the boat back to the mainland, tanned and relaxed. At a restaurant near my hotel I met Toan, another student keen to practice his English on a live subject. I was planning to leave town that night heading for the big smoke, but didn't fancy the prospect of arriving in Saigon at two in the morning, so I decided to delay my passage to the following morning. Toan grabbed this opportunity to show me the town's fancy new shopping centre. I didn't want to buy much beyond a razor, but Toan was very interested in some hideous deodorant spray that's apparently being promoted on high rotation on Vietnamese commercial television. I pretended to like the smell of it (it was truly awful) and bought it, then later gave it to him. After, I bought him a pizza at the centre's restaurant - he hadn't had pizza before. All of this generosity - which set me back about $6 in total - made me the honorary son of Toan's parents. They didn't speak English, but we managed to communicate moderately well using gesticulations and a Vietnamese-English dictionary. Both the mum and the dad tried on their son's new deodorant spray. They wanted me to stay for a couple of days so they could drag me around their extended family, though I politely declined (been there, done that, thanks all the same). Geez, trophy Westerners really mean something here. Still, I compromised somewhat and agreed to leave at midday instead of early morning so I could watch Toan and his mates play a high-stakes game of soccer.
The game, which they won via a penalty shootout, was the penultimate match of the season. If they win the final match, the guys stand to get their mitts on a 400,000 dong (about $30) bounty. Even when split between eight, this is a sizeable amount of money for the average Viet 18 year old. So there was quite a lot riding on the game. I was glad to see that the Vietnamese have their own version of the Little Athletics parent - the sponsor of the tournament (who's gunna cough up the prize money) was out in force. You know those blokes that dress up in designer sports gear for these types of events, but look as though their pulse hasn't crept above resting rate for at least a couple of decades? Well, this guy looked like that. Oh, he also looked like Kim Jong-il. I'm guessing he had a son playing for the team opposing Toan, because he was an absolute menace. At one point he simply jumped on the dirt pitch and started playing for the opposing team, making a most amusing spectacle of himself and openly breaking the rules. At one point, when a player from Toan's team was taking a corner into his goal square, this guy came out and stood right in front of him so he couldn't take the shot. Still, the dad (whose white shorts were by then sporting a brown behind due to the fact he kept falling on his arse - was classic) owned the game and no one said anything. To add to my increasing amusement, during the middle of the match, some old dude on a Harley-Davidson rode up. Now, most people own a scooter in Vietnam; a Harley is an incredible extravagance available only to the rich. Later, I asked Toan who this guy was. Apparently he's a local mob boss. And guess what - he was the spitting image of Mao Zedong! So at this humble backyard soccer game I witnessed Kim Jong-il in designer sports gear incompetently meddling in the match, and Mao - who's apparently reinvented himself as a Harley-riding gangster - spectating. Who would have thought it.
So I took my leave of Toan and his family and headed back to Saigon, where I encountered my first proper accommodation horror story of the journey. I decided to try the "lesser" backpacker district in Saigon. The Lonely Planet guide I've been utilising singled out an establishment called Miss Loi's Guesthouse, but for some reason I had it in my head that the place was called Miss Kim's Guesthouse. I asked someone to take me there, and they dropped me off at a place called Kim Kim's. The room was relatively cheap and passable at a glance, so I took it, dumped my bags and went to out to eat. When I got back at around 10.30, I was padding around the room in my bare feet when I stepped in a pool of liquid in the corner where I'd ventured to recharge my MP3 player. What the hell is that doing there? It got me thinking - that smell in the room which I'd unthinkingly assumed was mustiness characteristic of many cheap lodgings actually has quite a strong urine smell about it. A closer look confirmed that yep, there's a puddle of urine in the corner of the room. And what's that? An - upon cursory examination, what appeared to be unused - condom hanging out of the bin. Nice. Hotel staff were summoned, much heated debate in Vietnamese was exchanged, and the English speaker attempted to explain how a puddle of urine had appeared in my room between the time I first checked in and subsequently arrived back. I didn't understand him, but the room was mopped and I stayed as I couldn't be bothered hunting for another hotel room at what was by then 11pm. Told you earlier about my low standards, right? None of my stuff was missing (it was all locked in my backpack anyway), but I was sure to deadbolt the door from the inside before I went to sleep last night.
Anyway, that's more than enough. I'm getting on a train that's bound for the old imperial capital of Hue in an hour or so. Holy crap, this is a long post - haven't had time to proof it, will do so shortly. In the meantime, apologies for any errors. Soon I'm going to write about my observations of the Vietnamese people. Stay tuned....