Written from Saigon (District 1, in the heart of the low-budget tourist zone) Wednesday, 3-14-2012.
I'm to get my room straightend up, bags re-packed and on the road within the next two horus or so, it's already after 0600, so this might be a bit shorter than it ought. We've effectively turned around now and will be heading North for the next long period of time. Ultimate south for the trip has turned out to be Ben Tre, and that was achieved by. . .er. . .cheating? We'll get to that in a minute.
The ride in from Ba Ria to this Mecca of tourism was not too difficult, for all that I dread Ho Chi Minh City driving. Traffic began busily in Ba Ria after I managed to get into it. First there was the flat tire in the back that had to be tended to. I did such a careful pre-ride check that I missed it, so had the bike fully loaded, helmet on, waved goodbye to the hotel staff on the front porch, and let out the clutch before I realized there was something definitively wrong. Stopped on the sidewalk, looked across the street to the nearest tire shop. . .they are, yes, almost that common here. . .and took her in for a patch. 15,000 VND (almost precisely 75 cents) and 20 minutes later and I was on my way, with a thoroughly professional modern patch on the tube. I've had tires patched here where the "glue" consisted of compressing a scrap of old tube against the prepped hole with a C clamp, the piston from a 50cc bike and a piece of flat scrap iron. . .then filling the piston with gasoline and firing it off. The heat fuses the patch to the parent tube. . .and you're off and running. They can readily do all of this in just minutes without taking the wheel off of the bike. . .but this morning's shop had air tools (for roughening the tube as well as inflating the tire when finished) and used cement and store-bought patches. I got a photo of the job in progress (first flat of the trip after all) which completely cracked up the family. They had a nice pen full of hens at the back of the shop and a gorgeous fighting rooster in his own little basket-cage.
So I got into traffic and off toward Saigon. Follow the roadsigns, every road in Viet Nam leads to HCMC, it's just that the traffic doesn't always MOVE on those roads. From Bien Hoa for twenty km's or so it was horrendous, with long stretches where two of the three inbound lanes were solidly blocked by 4-wheel vehicles and we small fry were slipping past in a solid mass of moving bikes. . .literally shoulder to shoulder, or at least elbow to elbow. . .in our own lane on the right. . .sort of. Anyone needing to turn right out of the truck and bus lanes had to cut across that flowing river of bikes and dam it off. Chaos doesn't begin to describe that sort of thing. And horns. Some of the horns they put in trucks and busses should be banned as lethal weapons. Lift you right out of the seat of your bike with the impact.
And then, in an instant it was all better. . .we entered the actual city's new roadway, added a lane for the 4-wheel traffic and an impenetrable barrier to protect (and contain) the motorbikes and suddenly there was enough room for everybody, so the cruise into the heart of the city was perfectly nice.
If you were there in the war years, Saigon today will astonish you. In those years the garbage didn't get picked up. Now I think it isn't allowed to hit the ground. In the war years there were sandbagged fighting positions on every street corner, concertina wire spread around them, machine guns, rifles, armored personnel carriers, uniformed soldiers in combat gear manning them, dirt and dust and (always) horrendous traffic. The parks looked like refugees (not refuges!), flowers. . .well, yes there were flowers, but they looked bedraggled and sad. Saigon today is a beautiful clean city, with an astounding building spree still ongoing today, so the skyline changes every year, not to mention the constantly changing available routing around the city on freeways (often elevated above the surrounding streets) and beautiful new bridges. It's an utterly overwhelming argument against war.
I found my way, as always in the big cities here, with guidebook maps and compass. The street signage is actually excellent, with visible street names on essentially every corner. Guidebook maps of course do not show the ordinary sized street names, they just sort of indicate that you'll be crossing a few streets before you come to the next arterial, but it's sufficient. I had to circle a bit, but the traffic was manageable and nobody minded when I pulled off to the curb and pulled out compass and book. Interestingly, nobody walked up and offered to help me out this time. When I've done that act in Saigon in the past Ive almost always gotten volunteer help. Not that it was always terribly helpful, but the thought counted at least.
So I came to a street completely filled with tourist hotels, restaurants, bakeries, souvenir shops and travel agencies. Not my normal routine, but exactly what is needed in this case. The travel agencies, you must understand, are the key to getting your visa extended. The government has long since realized it has no interest in trying to talk to hundreds of foreigners of dozens of nationalities on a daily basis (heck, probably an HOURLY basis). So the government uses the travel agencies to collect the money and the stacks of passports and fill out the paperwork and. . .the government puts the rubber stamp on the deal. I've suspected all along that getting the job done in just a day or two might be a problem. The reality at this time is that they want a full week to get it done FOR THE REGULAR PRICE. There's always that solution eh? So, no, this isn't a $30 visa, it's a $75 visa. It's a danged small and barely legible rubber stamp for that sort of money, but I'm a legal immigrant again for another 30 days. The actual money would work out better in future to get a 3-month multiple entry visa for the trip. Note to self. . .don't be so cheap next time you're buying tickets!
So. . .I'm staying in the "Spring House" hotel, at 221 Pham Ngu Lao Street, a vey narrow place, but quite deep and fairly tall. My room is at the back of the hotel up 4 flights of stairs (two floors) and is very very nice. This doesn't seem to be a family-run place, the staff all seem very professional and it's done to a very creditable standard. . .actual sheets on the bed for example. . .something you rarely see here, and everything, I mean everything, in the room actually works. The sink doesn't even drip on your feet! This is a really nice hotel, and seems to be the standard in the neighborhood. It is expensive, $15 USD per night, but really, in the heart of the city, it seems entirely worth it. The hustle and bustle outside is constant and impressive (which is why you learn to like back-of-the-hotel rooms, quiet is nice!!) and the variety of people on display is absolutely stunning. Every shape, size and color of person you've ever imagined (though fewer Africans than Asians or Whites). . .and the babel of languages and the accents of the English in use are just astounding. Sit down at an outdoor table for coffee and have a conversation with somebody from anywhere. It isn't Kansas anymore.
Once the sun goes down the park across the street comes alive. It's too hot during the day to really enjoy exercise, but once the sun is down. . .the park fills up with a pick-up soccer game or two, badminton, kick-the-feathered-thing around games (those people do some very neat things. . .I'd break my neck kicking something like that around). . .skateboarders and figure skaters (roller blades). . .one young man was simply magical. . .set out a straight row of 20 or so plastic "paper" cups 2' apart. . .then skated down the row, back and forth, frontwards and backwards, pirouetting. . .weaving his feet in and out among the cups without ever touching them. Amazing! Then his (maybe) six year old daughter, in frilly dress and miniature roller blades would skate out and he'd take her hands and dance and tow her along. . .really lovely. Oh, and the dojo. 24 black clad fighters, lean and lightning fast, going through one form after another in perfect ranks and files. The rest of us just walked around, some fast and others not. . .and the oldsters sat on the benches with the babies and talked.
Yesterday, waiting for the visa and wanting to stay out of the saddle (in honor of my saddle sores), I took a $10 one-day bus, boat and pony cart tour down to what used to be the My Tho to Ben Tre ferry crossing area, swhich isn't there anymore since the new Ben Tre-My Tho bridge has opened. (You say that "Ben Chay" and "Me Taw"). It's actually fun to sit in the tour bus and watch those poor little motorbikes scattering out from under our wheels as we speed by.
As "bus tours" go, it was actually more of a bus ride at each end of a funny "get to know the Mekong Delta in one day" sort of thing. Boat ride (typical river taxi bus sort of boat) to Unicorn Island, visit to a coconut candy factory (yum), ride on a pony cart (cute, and healthy looking ponies, though not apparently as well trained as the ones in Bac Ha whenever that was, 2009?) Anyway, then on to the island where the coconut monk had his monastery during the war (I was there at its height in '71, when there were a couple of hundred monks living on the island. . .it was fascinating at the time. . .their thesis was nonviolence, which they tried to illustrate with really colorful artwork and dioramas and so on. . .had a live deer penned up next to a statue of a tiger, among many other things. Anyway, it's all changed.
There we had lunch and tea with banana wine, ginger and honey. . .and some other things added I missed out on as I was busy buying the ultimate dragon shirt from a vendor there. (If you liked my first two dragon shirts. . .h'mm). Then there was a short musical performance by five singers (one of them about 8 and cute as a bug's ear) and two men playing strings. . .perfectly nice, then a paddle through the sloughs in 5-person sampans. . .and finally back to the bus via the water bus and hence home. The shirt?? Oh, yes, well, think Black Silk. Red silk lining and cuffs (long sleeved). Modest embroidery on the front (red) and a stupendous, incredibly detailed dragon on the back. If nothing else I'll frame it and hang it. . .somewhere. Anyway, it was a modestly entertaining day and kept me out of the saddle so my rump is happier. During the day i sat next to a Korean fellow, a gentleman from Malaysia (part of a very large family group) a very pleasant couple from Japan, and a boisterous Italian, who is here trying to set up a business importing model speed boats (about 3' long and highly detailed) to Italy from Vung Tau. He thinks he can sell $35 model for $150 Euros (1.2 dollars per Euro, so that's a handsome profit). The tourguide was an old VC soldier who lived through the war with only two wounds, both on the same day, from US helicopter machinegun fire. He's a year younger than I and was in action about 40 km generally from my nearest point of approach, so we never met. A very good thing.
Passport duly extended and back in my undershirt purse ready for the road. Will see how far north I can get after a reasonable get up in the morning. Probably won't hang on long enough to get to Buon Ma Thuot. . .that would be a long day, there's a smaller town, something like "Gia Nghia" that might be about the right distance. I try not to make promises on mileage any more. Even to myself.
(completed at Gia Nghia the following evening, so that was a good guess).
Fix a Flat without taking tire or wheel off the bike!
|Being a Mother makes you very patient. . .Saigon Cathedral|
|The Saigon City Hall. A certain French influence eh??|
|The Saigon Opera House|
|And somewhat more modern architecture. Saigon is rapidly developing a Seoul-like high rise attitude!|
|Oops. We didn't pick up all our toys before we left.|
|Saigon River. This is a very large and busy harbor. Note the city all along the horizon. Big.|
|More modern high rise apartments, office space in the background|
|Home in Saigon--The Spring House Hotel, very nice really, though the bike had to sleep in the cellar.|
|That would be 2 Italians, 2 Japanese and one American.|
|These sculptures MIGHT be original from the Coconut Monk's collection, they're at least in the right style, but they're not covered in broken glass and crockery. . .as much of the original was. . .very colorful anyway.|
|We got 34 tourists into 12 of these boats and only got one lady from Malaysia a bit damp.|
|Don't know what this is. . .spectacular bush full of the blossom stalks!|
|That's the Japanese Lady and the Korean gentleman, both charming. . .loading up to go home.|