Greetings all,Well, I spent Thanksgiving alone and fairly sick in my single room in a guesthouse. At least I was in a nice guesthouse. Actually, my single room was probably the biggest available in Ho Chi Minh City, complete with a bed, dresser, table, footrest, 2 chairs, bench, wood loveseat, and corner kiosk. Yes, I was confused with the kiosk at first as well, but in my delusional, feverish state, I made good use of it by first selling tickets to Miss Ho Chi Minh City and then playing poker with my closest imaginary doll friends. I lost a lot of money playing poker, but it wasn’t until the fever broke that I realized that the dolls had all been in my head. But that’s okay, because the day after Thanksgiving everything improved. I met up with a new travel buddy and we went to the Vietnamese underground war tunnels, otherwise known as the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels are quite famous with visitors who marvel at the tiny openings that the Vietnamese were able to not only fit into, but live in. It is with great sadness that I tell you that after several men on our tour made it in and out of the tunnel opening with ease, I was the only female to attempt it, and I didn’t make it in. Not because I’m claustrophobic, or because I didn’t try hard enough, or because I couldn’t fit. Oh wait, yes, it was because I couldn’t fit. I got my legs through but once my ginormous hips hit, the group of Singaporians we were walking with started tittering. I got up from sitting on the ground and we all went to the next hole in the ground, which was different and quite large, having been widened specifically for Westerners. “Here, maybe you can fit into this one!” they exclaimed, pointing in encouragement to a hole large enough to fit a baby elephant. They meant well. You’ll notice that what is written and what the actual story is…well, they’re completely different things. Above, for instance, you may have read that I went to the tunnels. The next few sentences gave you the real story, though. Do you often wonder how much of what you first read is true? What’s really behind the headlines? What are the people in the situation really thinking? I don’t want to lead you on or mislead you with what’s happened here, so now I bring you the real thoughts behind the headlines. It’s a li’l bit of Lost in Translation for you, but hopefully it’s better than the movie. Then again, I hated the movie but sat through it three times, so maybe, by extension, you’ll read this note even though you don’t want to. What you read: I ordered a delicious pineapple milkshake off a cart on the street.
What’s really going on in my mind: I feel like drinking something refreshing and fruity. Ah, a street stall selling shakes! My favorite, and I think I’ll get a pineapple one. Okay, there she goes cutting a fresh pineapple right in front of me. There’s no prepped fruit here, only the fresh stuff cut right in front of your eyes. Okay, she’s peeling it now in the brilliant way all of Southeast Asia peels pineapples, which saves a good portion of the fruit and looks cool too. Okay, now she’s ruined all milkshake credibility she had by touching money, rifling through several drawers, and exchanging something with her friend, who’s just pulled up. That’s wonderful, really. Great, now moneyhands is back at my pineapple, cutting it up. Okay, well at least I get a nice, refreshing, healthy dri…no, nevermind, there goes one, two, oh wow, three tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk. Goodbutbadforyou Morning Vietnam. What you read: Every guy is so friendly here, always curious and asking me questions!
What’s really going on in my mind: It’s simple: They’re either trying to get you to take a moto ride, or they’re asking if you’re single or not. Green card, anyone? What you read: After a long day working with the youngsters, the boys asked me to join them for dinner and had the eldest boy serve me.
What’s really going on in his mind: She was so nice to come, and we’re so young that we’re not corrupt yet, nor are we asking for her hand in marriage yet. Now that she’s helped us out, let’s share our dinner with her. No, of course I don’t note the dead ants that look like spices in the meal we just gave her. No, I don’t notice any giant cockroach crawling on the wall. What do you mean it just fell off the wall due to its massive weight and size. Even if it was real, I don’t see how it would be the biggest cockroach she’s ever seen in her life, and she’s from New York City so she’s seen them all. So you’re saying it fell into the cabbage, that’s fine. If that really did just happen, well, at least it is not in her food. Not that she’ll ever know what was in it, because that’s another story I’ll deny. What you read: My buddy and I motorbiked to a Cambodian cave and were led on a not-so-safe tour through it.
What’s really going on in my mind: I think the moto ride was safer than the cave. Here go these young boys in their flip-flops and their tiny flashlight, showing us through these amazing caverns. “Want to keep climbing, lady?” they ask. Well, sure. Oh, there’s a giant hole and some bad footing and I will fall down into that hole and die if I make a mistake, awesome. Lovely. Okay, I made it through, and now we’re onto another cave, and wow, this one is even more cavernous and amazing. And we’re walking over the Buddhist ruins, passing under the stone staircase that now leads nowhere due to a past partial cave collapse. Comforting. “You go further, lady, sir, you climb?” Sure, why not? So we’re led into a snaking walking tunnel and then come to an almost-sheer rock face that leads to light. The boy scampers up. “Just grab onto root. Tight.” Oh, I love putting my life into the hands of a tree root that’s not all that thick. But we make it up and into the open with just a few now-bloody scratches, and now it’s pouring. “Follow close, hole here,” says the boy, pointing out that if we don’t step on the rocky, vine-covered spires exactly as he does, you will fall through a hole and die. After climbing over this and that, we emerge at quite possibly the most beautiful view in all of Cambodia. Mountains in the distance, lush rice fields, gardens, homes, farmers, and animals here and there, and green palm trees dotting the misty horizon. It really was worth it, but of course I say that having not fallen down a massive hole and died. What you read: Cambodians love their karaoke!
What’s really going on in their minds: It’s quite normal for everyone to love listening, and just listening, not singing, to karaoke. That’s what it’s for, anyway, the notion of karaoke, to listen, right? Here in Cambodia, it’s all the rage. At a bar, at a friend’s, at a party…oh, how we love to sit stoically and watch the television play the same 16 songs over and over again! We think it’s a great celebration of life to silently watch this phenomenon. What do you mean sing with it? That’s confusing and takes effort, something we’re not accustomed to. We would turn it louder to cover your useless suggestions and chatter, except it’s already at maximum volume, and would also involve getting up and pressing a button since remote controls weren’t invented here yet. What you read: I got a great bargain on Indian food for my dinner the other night.
What’s really going on in my mind: Well, I’ve been sick for a few days and I’m finally feeling better, so I’m going with Indian tonight. Ooh, here’s a good deal! 2 dishes plus chappati, a soft drink (and the carbonation will help my stomach), and dessert. Not bad. I’ll order.
Oh, so the woman who suggested the deal is handing me a phone. Perfectly normal. So I just repeated my order on the phone to some dude, which I admit isn’t at all creepy since really, who needs to walk in back to the kitchen a few steps when you can just make a phone call? The man on the phone says he “respects my decision.” Hm. I don’t hear any kitchen sounds either, which is only creeping me out a bit.
Ah, just got my order, and apparently my bill is now higher. They’ve put me on the phone again. Takeaway is a different price, you see, but they didn’t bother to list it. Whatevs. Great. Oh, and a banana is dessert. Oh, and bottled water apparently is a soft drink. Interesting interpretation in this part of the world. It is also the worst Indian I’ve ever had, and I’ve really only had bad Indian food once in my life. Next time I’m asked to speak to the cook on the phone three times, I’ll eat at a different place. What you see: I don’t think Cambodian food can get much worse.
What’s really going on in my mind: …but the drinks are AWESOME! They have so many creations that luckily (almost) outweigh the bad food. They’re probably all good because they start with a large dose of sweetened condensed milk, which, next to a block of 100% pure, unadulterated lard or a cube of fois gras, is the next worse thing for your system.* So they have street fruit shakes with spiky mangos, persimmons, cheyote, custard apples, and many other fruits I’ve never seen, different powders and milks, bubble teas, milk teas, tapioca teas (none of which have any tea in them, of course), syrup drinks, etc. Etc. All mixed in a cocktail shaker to make you feel special. Dang, they’re good. And a common meal supplement. I miss them terribly. Maybe three a day wasn’t good for me though.
*Not an FDA-approved statement What you see: My private little boat captain makes all these funny gestures when he’s smiling and talking to me in a language I can’t really understand, so I just smile and nod.
What’s really going on in his mind: That was easy! I have a new wife now. What you see: Southeast Asians are liberal with their rules.
What’s really going on in my mind: No traffic rules. No “no nose picking in public” rules. No “don’t put your feet on her seat” rules. No personal bubbles. No private space. No men who don’t hit on white gals. No “you must sleep in the seats, not on the floor in the aisle of the moving train” rules. No moto/tuk-tuk/taxi drivers who don’t make you want to rip your hair out. No rules, but in Vietnam, a present from above. Toilet paper, free and meant to be used in your guesthouse bathroom. I’m in love. What you see: My buddy and I went on a trek through the Cambodian jungle with a guide and a ranger.
What’s really going on in the ranger’s mind: Well I don’t know why these foreigners come on holiday and want to sweat and hike through our pseudo-jungle. Plus, they get all decked out in those hiking boot things. Me? I do it in flip-flops, because those are the only shoes that exist here. What do people think of the trekking? Well the trek is pretty but if you count in the part about how it, like every other rain forest and primary forest growth in Southeast Asia is getting torn down, it’s not as nice as it seems, and add in the fact that the deforestation has ruined the animal population and that during our entire trip in the jungle, we don’t see a single animal other than a frog and or a tiny lizard, no birds, no wildlife, no nothing. At least I know where I’m going. Except for now. No, I do know where. Well, now I don’t know. Ok, now I do know. But be prepared because I might get us lost again…now. You enjoy backtracking, right? Is it me, my wrinkles, or my chain-smoking that makes the girl digs me? I think she’s attracted to the fact that I brought approximately 120 ciggies with me on our 3-day jaunt. And had to wake up at 4 in the morning to get my fix. Yeah, she’s definitely into me. Sick, going after men my age. What you read: I had to sleep in a “dormitory”-type room in Saigon.
What’s really going on in my mind: I’m totally okay with how things went. Upon looking for a cheap hotel for my last night in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City, but the names are used interchangeably), I find exactly what I’m looking for, a.k.a. the cheapest room in town. “Oh, sorry, no one else staying in room now,” the woman says, handing me the key sadly. I get a room that is about 1000 square feet. All to myself. Sweet, though it’s stressful trying to pick which bed to sleep in. What you read: I took a 1,200 kilometer, 3-day-long train ride through Vietnam.
What’s really going on in my mind: “Why you take train? Why no fly?” they ask me when I try booking at a tour spot. “Why no bus? Train long!” they say at another. “Why we can no speak English?” at yet another. Well, the reason I want to take the train is because I have very little time left in Vietnam, want to see up north, and hear it’s a wonderful way to see the scenery. So I book a ticket in a “soft seat,” a.k.a. no bed, just a seat. I do this because I want the real experience, because I’m cheap, and because I know I’ll only meet foreigners who can afford the expensive sleepers if that’s where I stay. And also, it’s not three days of travel. You leave really late the first night and arrive before sunrise on the third day. So really, you’re only using up one day, though admittedly not getting the best sleep. But boy is it a great experience. I sit next to a man who knows some English and talks with me quite a bit, I have a seat with actual leg room, and I’m meeting interesting people, to say the least. A group of 35+ soldiers (the soccer-playing, beer-chugging, happy Vietnamese kind) sit right next to me and take up all the seats in front of me, so to say that I am an object of fascination to them would be an understatement. Some of them speak some English, and are quite happy to ask me many questions. Oh, did I mention the scenery? True, we travel during the night a lot, but during the day, our train goes right in the middle of rice fields, in between rolling hills, and along curving mountains above the ocean. These small, lonely beaches, with white, frothing water, set among the wild green mountains, are amazing. Seeing five of the same in the distance with the fog rolling in is incredible. I can’t wipe the grin off my face at having seen something so beautiful, and in a way one can only see by train. In the night, I wake up and can make out dark mountains and silvery, moonlit lakes right outside the window. I think I’m falling in love with the scenery here. Of course, while I’m taking pictures of this all, one by one many of the soldja men come to introduce themselves. It’s cute. Throughout the trip, we’re all sharing snacks. If I was a normal person, I’d barely have enough snacks for myself, but since it’s me, I somehow have enough to feed almost all the guys. As I laugh, eat, and chat together with these extremely kind young men, it dawns on me that just 40 years ago, we were killing each other and winning praise for doing so. These guys, knowing full well that I’m American, are just as welcoming as could be, and we are very sorry to see each other go. They are the true people of Vietnam—friendly, helpful, and lovely. It has been an amazing train journey. Well folks, I don’t know how that read, but I do know that some of you read my last update very closely, for several of you noted that I’d had two questions marked #13, and only one answer. I did this for several reasons, but mostly just because I was being annoying, had nothing better to do, it was numbered 13 (which, in Sideways Stories from Wayside School, doesn’t exist), it actually happened on Friday the 13th, and I really thought we were going to crash. So now I’m on the last leg of my trip. I have only one week left! Unbelievable how time flies. Whether you like it or not, I will be arriving in JFK next Wednesday night. If you want anything that doesn’t involve prostitutes, prostiboots, or prostitots, let me know! This might include souvenirs, pictures, t-shirts, or hookers. I’m off to explore Hanoi, Vietnam, in my last week here. Please forgive this lame attempt at a note…I was sick, come on! Talk to y’all soon,
Kathryn, I loved this. I was literally laughing out loud and I loved the end of it too! I hope you have a great last week 🙂
I will gladly relieve you of any foreign coinage that you happen to not use up in your travels. BTW, I am insanely jealous of your trip, including all of the craziness that you have endured.