Vietnam Diary

The following is a redacted version of my travel diary.  Everything that wasn’t written contemporaneously (except for minor spelling and grammar corrections) is in brackets. Most prices are expressed in Vietnamese dong (VND); at the time, there were 15,500 dong to a US dollar.

Day One – 15 February 2004 – Saigon

I’m here in Saigon.  I’m sitting the lobby of the Orient Hotel, waiting for my guide, Mr. Hoa.  Mr. Tran, who rented me the Bonus motorbike, came by to give me the helmet.  He seemed almost pathetically glad to meet an American. [He greeted me with a soul-brother handshake he must have learned in 1972 from American GIs.]  As an ex-ARVN tanker (he has a scar across the top of his skull from an NVA bullet) and the son of an ARVN captain who spent four years in re-education (now living in Dallas), Tran is in a strange world — among his own age group a pariah, to the younger generation a ghost from a past they don’t remember or understand.

The chairs here in the lobby are like rosewood thrones, fancy, expensive-looking, painfully uncomfortable.  A cyclo-driver has his eye on me from the street and whenever I make the slightest motion to stretch my legs, he’s gesticulating optimistically.  The desk clerk is taking her sweet time with the bill — how difficult is it to multiply $12 by 1 night?

Day One (continued)

The first disaster.  After an hour of riding, the brake handle snapped off its pivot.  We went first to a clean, fancy repair place that refused to fix my cheap Taiwanese bike.  Hoa made a few calls then located another shop, across the street, thank God.  Riding in the apocalypse that is Saigon traffic is only slightly more relaxing without front brakes.

There were two mechanics, one younger with novelty teeth and an old tattoo almost eradicated by road rash, one older and tougher.  I needed a new lever and I bought a spare and have the brake cable replaced just in case.  10 dollars.  Hoa and I ride to the highway and I pay him his $20 for two days work, plus 20,000 VND (about $14) extra.

He was worried about me.  I told him, “Good judgment comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgment.”  We shook hands and I rode into the maelstrom of Vietnam’s Route 1.

First I and all the other motorcycles and bicycles were funneled into single narrow lane on the bridge over the Saigon River.  It was a madding nightmare like the chute of a slaughterhouse.  Once over the river we joined traffic, which consisted of enormous clattering trucks and even larger Korean-made air-con tourist buses.  I was stressed for a while, but began to find the rhythm of it.  I sang songs, aloud and full volume, and I could not hear myself.

Before leaving, I had gone with Hoa to the War Remnants museum.  For a while, I steeled myself against the photos and exhibits.  War is, after all, Hell.  All this, and worse, happened before, in every war and to the extent it doesn’t happen again, it’s because the US learned here.  That pose worked for a while, but the past eventually soaked in.  I sat down next to Hoa and offered the weakest excuse.  “We thought we were doing the right thing.”  We did think that.

Stopped at the river bank, I noticed a decorative sticker on the nose of my bike.  “Buddha?” I asked.

“Yes,” answered Hoa.  “Are you Buddhist?”

“No, Jewish.”  He nodded.  “Do you know what ‘Jewish’ means?”  He nodded again blandly.  “What?” I demanded with a laugh.

“You believe in only one god, in the sky, and you never see him.”

“Only one god, and we never see him,” I echoed.

Hoa reflected on this.  “I think maybe I’m Jewish.”

Route 1 was exciting, but enervating.  I made several wrong turns to get here, past the exit for Dalat.  I’m sitting in one of a double row of roadside cafes, just tarp lean-tos, sipping bitter ice tea.  The mamasan was interested in my diary but I really couldn’t explain it.

I eventually found Route 20 and after that the Cát Tiên exit, but spent an hour putt-putting around.  I started to ask people, “Cát Tiên ở đâu?” Where is Cát Tiên?  Everyone gave clear, consistent directions (to the extent I could understand Vietnamese) that seemed to be pointing to the wrong place.  Finally, I came to an old man, the very image of Ho Chi Minh.  “Cát Tiên ở đâu?”  He walked over to the bike and gently put his hand on mine and pointed to the ground.  This was Cát Tiên!  Apparently, there’s a village of the same name and everyone had directed me here.

A crowd of children had gathered and I pulled out one of my mom’s bilingual books from my pack and presented it to a the child to who seemed like the right age.  This drew an even larger crowd.  With the phrase book and gestures, I finally conveyed what I was looking for — the park itself.  Four young girls on two motorbikes led me to the right road some distance away.  I was still 11 km from the park.  I drove though more rural villages until the road was blocked by a family of, well, what were they?  Big ungulates, too big for cows, and they weren’t water-buffalo, they were tan not black and had very broad, straight horns. Maybe this was the fabled gaur!

Or not.  I was concerned they might block the road permanently or even attack.  But no, when I came closer, they placidly clumped off.  A few clicks on, I saw more of the maybe-gaurs, pulling ox-carts [Note: I later checked.  They were not gaurs, but I still don’t know what they were.]

I arrived at the right Cát Tiên and after some pointless paperwork, I received an entry ticket, parked my bike under the ranger station, and boarded a small ferry over the river to the park proper.  The boatman, Co, a cheerful teen with rotted teeth [a lot of sugar cane in this country and very little oral hygiene] but some grasp of English punched my ticket and put me in mind of Charon — a bad portent after the day of near-scrapes on the highway.

I bribed a driver 50,000 VND ($3 US) to include me on a night safari with two British tourists.  Not much luck.  We bounced along through the dark for 20 minutes in an old Willie Jeep before we caught the first pair of glowing eyes in the million-candlepower spotlight.  They belonged to a cat, an ordinary Felis domesticus, and only a kitten, like somebody’s pet strayed into the jungle.  After that we saw hundreds of deer — bucks, does, and fawns, a night herd indifferent to our light and our noise.  [I had jokingly told friends I was going to Indochina to seek the rare Javan rhinoceros, which supposedly makes its home here in Cát Tiên, but I would have settled for much less, but this was even less than that.]

Day Two – Cát Tiên to Di Linh

In the morning, I slipped back across the river to retrieve my bike key, which I had foolishly left in the ignition [the rangers had thoughtfully stored the key in a desk, so there was no need for my concern].  The river was misty and magical, but the ferry each way was filled with park staffers — locals and one kid named John from OzQuest (something like an Australian Peace Corp) who was spending a few weeks clearing trails and picking up rubbish — so the ride itself was a few minutes of the quotidium I was fleeing.  Breakfast was just bread, the staggeringly inefficient kitchen having run out of everything else, just as last night’s dinner was just French fries, “chips” as Fiona and Carole, the two middle-aged British women from the safari, liked to call them.

It took me an hour to find Route 20 again.  At one point, I became trapped in Joe McCarthy’s nightmare, a long boulevard lined by huge Stalinist buildings with all the exciting accoutrement of Red Fascism: red-star flags, hammer-and-sickle banners flapping, scary Asiatics in starched green uniforms with red epaulets, posters of the Socially Realistic worker and soldier, farmer and commissar, all looking fiercely toward a Brighter Tomorrow.

Finally, I dodged through an unmarked alley and found myself back on Route 20.  The ride through to Route 27 was a piece of crumb cake. The traffic was light and orderly.  I lunched on delicious pho’ for 7000 VND (about 45 cents); I had a drink at a Catholic shrine with a pleasant Israeli couple.  Then I turned on to Route 27.

To call Route 27 a highway, or even a road is a joke.  None of it was paved.  Parts were gravel, parts were mud, parts were a packed dirt harder, rougher, and slicker than cobblestone.  [At one point, I ran out of gas and had to push the bike back almost a kilometer to the gas station, a typical Vietnamese station with a shed, one hand-powered pump, three teenagers hanging around drinking Red Bull and smoking, and one old guy making motorcycle parts by hand from scrap metal with nothing but a hand-held electric grinder and an arc-welding kit.  The teenagers were impressed that I had enough ready cash to fill up the whole 10-liter tank.  I showed some rare foresight and bought a dust mask too.]  I took wrong turn after wrong turn as the sun got lower. My mantra changed from “Buôn Ma Thuột ở đâu?”, where is the city of Buon Ma Thuot, to “Khách sạn ở đâu?”, where is a hotel?

[Vietnam is a populous country with few large cities, so you are rarely completely alone.  If there isn’t a motorbike carrying three or four kids in sight, there is a peasant in a mollusk hat walking by the side of the road carrying a hoe or billhook.  Almost no one here speaks English and many don’t even speak Vietnamese, so communication can be problematic.]

[The road got progressively worse to the point where it was little more than a dirt track through farmers’ fields, but a progression of huge dump trucks filled with gravel still came the other way.  I came to a fork; the route leading in what I thought was the right direction, due west, was tiny, barely more than a cow-path, the gravel trucks were coming from the south-west route.  I went there, reasoning that the truck must be coming from a population center of some sort. In fact, they were coming from a gravel quarry.  I doubled back to the path and took it.  It became even more narrow, it was no more than a footpath, the vegetation on both sides brushing my shoulders.]

I began to resign myself to sleeping outdoors, without dinner or even a sleeping bag, when I found two girls, maybe 12 years old, on a Vespa, who agreed to lead me to a guest house.  It was less than a kilometer away, but I would never have found it.  I gave the girls 5000 VND (about 30 cents) and they seemed very happy.  The mamasan led me to a very nice, large room.  She said “1”, which I took to mean 100,000 VND ($7) for the night.  She was probably ripping me off, by local standards, but I would gladly have paid five times that.  I went to dinner with the hotel manager at the cafe next door.  There were only five or six tables in a huge space (and oddly, a motorbike, with the engine idling, parked in the middle of the room), but there was some sort of party going on upstairs.  I ate my dinner and then watched the hotelier eat his (Vietnamese restaurants are not punctilious about delivering all the diners’ meals together or any meal quickly).  We were leaving when my wrist was grabbed by one of the group of old men, very dark skinned, mostly toothless, who were sitting at the only other occupied table.  “We are Hmong,” he told me, without preamble.  He gestured for me to sit.  I did, happy to find some English speakers, and the manager did as well, but with some ill grace.  I bought a bottle of rice wine (they were concerned about my paying the 60 cents for the liter).  The manager was uncomfortable and said nothing to them, although he clearly knew them.

The manager and I went back to my room and I asked him to show my location on the map.  I got a shock: I was just in Di Linh, 150 km short of my scheduled milestone.  There was no way I would get to Hội An, my eventual destination, by Wednesday morning.  I would be lucky to get there by evening.  I’m going to have to take the train back, no Nha Trang beach for me.  I went to bed hoping my not-getting-lost luck would improve.

Day Three — Di Linh to Kon Tum

I awoke at four and spent half an hour puttering, getting ready.  I got the bike ready but, of course, the courtyard gate was locked, so I was stuck.  I decide to wait until dawn.  I paced quietly, but after a few minutes, the old lady awoke by herself and let me out.  A passerby helped me start the bike [in fact, I never got the hang of starting it when the engine was very cold but anyone else could do it in one kick] and I was off into the dark.

The dark and the cold.  Deep in the tropics and I’m freezing.  [On the train back, I was to read about the damp cold at the siege of Khe Sanh, not far away.  Even at the moment, not yet having that historical perspective, I thought how glad I was that the cold was my only problem and none of the farmers walking to work in the darkness was VC.]

I put on my raincoat, the only over-garment I brought, but it only helped a little.  Riding at night is actually easier, less traffic and variations in the road surface stand out more strongly in the headlight than in the sun.  I went higher and higher in the hills, thankful for the good sealed road.  Eventually, the sky pinked, but it got even colder, as the mist thickened.  I got to a place marked Chuối [which apparently means “banana”] — it’s only three buildings: a moto garage, a general store, and produce market, all ramshackle planks and and corrugated steel roofs.  Despite the early hour, there were a half-dozen people hanging about.  I bought gloves, gasoline (the garage mechanic looked peeved that I bought from the general store’s pump, not his own, three feet away — the only two gas stations for 30 km in any direction and they are adjacent) — and one of those superb sandwiches.  While I was eating, the shopkeeper brought me five red 10,000 VND bills — my change from the 100,000 VND I had paid for the gloves, grub, and gas, which I had thought was just payment in full.  Two days’ pay around here, and I would have blithely gone off without it, and he brought it back.  Obscurely, I was touched.  The shopkeeper brought me to the rear of the (well-equipped) store and we had tea.  He handed me a shot of a viscous brown liquid that turned out to be French coffee, which I despise, but I choked it down politely.  It was mostly sugar and condensed milk anyway.  A few more pleasantries with the shopkeeper and his pretty wife and I was off again.

The trip was largely a blur.  City, with its chaotic traffic, hill country (jungle, aspen forest, or pine), dirt-poor village, rice paddy, then the sequence again.  Different parts of the countryside reminded of Hawaii, Colorado, Texas, and Florida.  The worst of the population centers reminded me of urban Mexico.  I passed a tremendous flock of girls in white áo dài on bicycles, at least 500 girls, a school, I suppose, letting out.  I stopped in a pine forest at a cafe under a lean-to, run by an astonishingly beautiful woman with an equally beautiful toddler, who kept climbing up on one of the flimsy plastic chairs and trying to put on an extra pair of pants.  I told the woman, “Con trai bạn rất đẹp”, your child is very beautiful, and went.

Outside Pleiku, there was an ugly incident.  At the crest of a hill, I saw a large bundle on the center line.  As I came close, it was a person, lying immobile.  I pulled over, almost losing the bike on the soft shoulder.  Traffic streamed by the body.  I crossed the near lane, feeling every bit the American meddler.  He (or she, I couldn’t really tell) wasn’t moving, but there was no blood visible.  A white man crossing road attracted more attention than a local lying in it, so traffic stopped in both directions.  The casualty recovered somewhat when I touched his shoulder and began to wail, not in pain so much as desolation.  He didn’t weigh 40 kg so I helped him to the side.  Quite a crowd had gathered and they seemed irritated with the “victim”.  I realized this was some sort of ploy, so I got back on my bike.  The guy was now miraculously recovered and started to beg me for money.  A taxi driver was giving him a few cents disdainfully as I rolled away.  A kilometer down the road, I saw an ambulance coming the other way, so someone must have called.

I got to Kon Tum and checked into the first hotel I saw.  It was a mistake; the place was shabby and overpriced – $20 for a double room, with a nonfunctioning minibar, a fetid toilet that wouldn’t stop flushing, and cockroaches big as dollar bills and bold as lions.  I wandered about the dismal town.  It was clearly a tourist town, but for local tourists.  The hotel was full of, of all things, Laotian diplomats, in town for a conference (one of three different international conferences going on in the country at the moment).  I stuck up a halting conversation with a nice young woman named, like most nice young women in Vietnam, Phường (“phoenix”), and her older brother Hờm.  He might not have been her brother in the Western sense, given the Vietnamese tendency to refer to any relative and most close friends as siblings, and for that matter, to strangers as uncle or aunt.

Hờm gave me a ride to the Internet cafe.  I invited him and his sister to go to karaoke with me and he seemed to agree.  I wrote home, disjointed e-mails that probably alarmed my family, gave up after an hour (14 cents for the time), and took a taxi-moto back to Hờm’s cafe, but they had gone home.  I went to a roadside stand and sat there for an hour with the proprietor, her 12-year-old son, and off-duty taxi-moto drivers.  One, Van Hung, gave me his home address and took mine.  I decided to send him a postcard of the Golden Gate Bridge. [Stupidly, I have since lost the address.]  I walked back to the hotel, disappointing Van Hung, who wanted to drive me — “no money” he said, and at first I thought he was complaining about slow business that night, but finally realized he was offering a free ride.  I needed the exercise and I had already spent 13 hours on the bike today.

Day Four — Kon Tum to Hội An

I actually slept in.  I didn’t check out of my overpriced craphole until 8.  Everything went swimmingly well — I found a stand that has gasoline, oil, and Vietnamese sandwiches, though the spread is just butter and sugar, got out of Kon Tum, no problem. On the way to Đắk Glei, I came to a checkpoint.  “Đắk Glei không?” I asked.  All the guards laughed cheerful.  “Lào,” they said.  Laos!  I had taken a wrong turn and was now about to enter the wrong country.  Cheap map. I had tea with the guards, who seemed very happy about the break in their monotonous day, then backtracked 13 km to find Đường Hồ Chí Minh — the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Well, things had changed since Uncle Ho was in charge.  And for the better in this case.  HCMT was the best road I seen in Vietnam — concrete paving that would grace an American superhighway.  And, since it is in the middle of nowhere, not much traffic.  At first, the countryside was just farm land and napalm-scarred hills, but we began to rise, my poor bike straining with the extra effort up 20 degree slopes and then purring gratefully on the ways down.  I actually found the turn off for Tân An — back to the the hardened gravel I hated so much from Monday.  That only lasted a few clicks until I came to a dilapidated bridge.  Astonishingly, there was a taxi, a Toyota Corolla, crossing it already.  The bridge had been paved at one point, but now it was just the concrete substructure and metal jointing raised six inches up.  I watched the Corolla gamely clamber over the joints and drive off before going myself.  It was a dental-work-loosening experience even on my dirt bike; I cannot imagine it in a ordinary sedan.

Beyond the bridge, the gravel road got worse.  I came to the base of a hill I wasn’t sure my bike could handle and sure enough there was the Toyota slowly climbing it and a small pick-up, even further up the mud slope, doing the same.  Before I could start up myself, a truck, a damn 15-ton lorry, came down the other way!

After this hill and a few more kilometers of gravel and the road abruptly turned into a cyclist’s dream: clean and perfectly paved, it carved into dense jungle, banana and fern, curving between lush hillsides in graceful swoops.  Anxious though I was to get to Hội An as planned, as much as my butt, knees, and ankles ached from four days in the saddle, I felt the urge to double back, just to cruise through paradise one time more on my little putt-putt.

I pulled over once to recheck the directions — my almost constant habit by now — and got a nasty shock. The ignition key was gone from its slot.  Maybe on the bridge, or the hill, or just on one of those charming swoops, it must have bounced out.  Now the thought of going back seemed almost unbearably onerous.  There was no kill switch on the Taiwanese bike; the only way to stop the engine without the key was to pop the clutch and stall it out.  Plus, I couldn’t leave the bike unattended or refuel it.  Even if I did go back, the odds were against my finding the key along 20 km of road and trail.  The engine worked, I had plenty of gasoline in the tank, 1100 km of third-world traffic and roads hadn’t killed me.  I decided to press on and slightly more anxiously I resumed my cruise.

Vietnam changes quickly as you move through it.  One minute, I’m slipping between palm fronds and Gilligan’s Island huts, the next I’m in a sleepy Asian town, the next, literally one minute later, I’m back on murderous Route 1.  I had forgotten just how frightening it could be — how fast it moves, how big the buses are, how intently you must pay attention.  As I drew closer to Hội An, nothing looked familiar. I had been here once, three years before and was expecting, ludicrously, to recognize my way.

Hội An isn’t like most small towns here, with their Wild-West streets, dusty and broad, and the endless lines of open-fronted concrete buildings.  Hội An has narrow lanes, hemmed in by trees and two- and three-story wooden buildings, like the European cities its founders came from.  I asked an Australian couple for directions — as much because they are the first Westerners I have seen since Cát Tiên as any hope of help.  They fuzzily recalled that Old Town might be back the other way.  I U-turned, rode a block, stopped, stymied.  “Where you go?” a moto driver called out.  I was about to brush him off but then thought better of it.  I drove closer to him and indicated the empty key-slot.  He got it and gestured for me to follow him.

He was tough to track through the sea of pedestrians, motos, and cyclos (bicycle rickshaws), but in a few blocks we got a stand selling locks at the edge of a small market.  I was skeptical, but decided that in a country of 10 million scooters, a lost key must be as common as rain.  In fact, the locksmith didn’t even have to cut a new key. He looked over the bike and produced one that fit.  Which raised the question in my mind: what’s the point of a key if any key opens any lock?  To judge from the insignia on the head, this new key was even for a Honda, but it worked perfectly.  The moto guy was still hanging around, so I gave him 5000 VND to get rid of him, which of course had the opposite effect.  I asked the locksmith for a second key, which took a little longer.  He asked for 20,000 VND ($1.25) for the two keys and I reacted with surprise.  His assistant assured me, in shaky but functional English, that this was very cheap.  I agreed and said that in California, I had once paid $50 for this same thing.  They were very interested to hear this, so I told them the whole story of the day my sister-in-law locked herself out of her apartment.  The two men laughed and thought about being locksmiths in California.

The moto guys was still there; he wanted to tout me a hotel, but I was not that stupid.  “I have one,” I told him breezily, shook the locksmiths’ hands and rolls away.  I ducked through the market, an act that seemed like riding a Harley through the produce section of a very crowded Safeway, but I met enough scooters coming the other way that I felt better about it.

By a burst of luck, I found myself in front of the same hotel I had stayed at three years earlier.  For six dollars a night (they quote the rate in American money), I rented a large airy room with two queen-sized beds (which turned out to be four twin beds paired off) and a private bath (which, although mine personally, was not actually attached to the room but just shared a tiny open foyer with it).  I threw my stuff on one of the beds, took my laundry downstairs.

The women at the desk were very helpful and could get train transport from nearby Danang back to Saigon for me and the bike.  They also spontaneously decided to teach me to say “I love you” in Vietnamese: “Anh yêu em.”  “Tôi yêu em,” I tried. They laughed and explained. “Tôi” is formal (like “Usted” or “vous” except it means “I”).  I agreed that if you know someone well enough to say you love her, you know her well enough to use the informal.  They laughed again, this time, I could tell, thinking of times that that might not be true.

2 thoughts on “Vietnam Diary

  1. Headed to Bien Hoa, near Saigon, in a few days – plan on staying for a couple of years, since I don’t figure to feel at all at home until I’ve been there at least 8-9 months, and that’s being optimistic. I’m documenting the experience of changing careers from film/video/TV etc. to Teaching English as a Foreign Language, starting from the day I first began my job hunt. It’s at, or, either way. Glad to see a post on your time there. Your writing is terribly readable and thoughful. Thanks.

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