Vietnam Updates

Whew – finally have some time to sit down and catch up on this blog. We have been having way too much fun – we’re already in Cambodia and I am still working on writing up Vietnam!

I forgot to mention the last time that the bus driver got lost on the way to the tunnels. How is that possible? The guide had been working with Sinh Café doing this same tour for over ten years!!

Jessica loves all the small toilets and bathtubs. The first time I sat down on a toilet here I really noticed the difference in height, but now it just seems normal. I feel tall here – the light switches and everything are built for a much shorter population.

I think I left off last time just before the Mekong Delta tour that we took with Sinh Café. It took some doing to make sure I’d found the ORIGINAL Sinh Café when I was making the bookings as there are many many copycat businesses trying to capitalize on the good reputation of the original. The tour cost us $18 each and Jessica was either 50 or 75% I can’t remember which now. This included two days of air conditioned coach transportation, an English speaking guide, two boat rides, one night’s accommodation (more on THAT later), one lunch and one breakfast – oh and a free t-shirt! What more can you ask for?

We were up early the first morning and it was a mad dash to pack a day bag and eat breakfast before catching the cab. We paid an extra dollar for Sinh Café to organize transfers for us. Well worth the extra cash, as we didn’t have to fuss about with the touts outside the hotel. We promptly forgot Jess’s new juice bottle in the cab, which cost Grant $16 at the airport in Singapore. It turned out to be a good thing, though, because every place here sells canned drinks with a straw, so a sippy cup is just a stinky germ-fest anyways.

We knew the drill from the last time we took a tour, so we hopped on the bus immediately. We got the front seat because we figured it would be better to see out and maybe help to minimize Jessica’s motion sickness. But, we forgot about all the horn honking and how impossible it would be to sleep. It was a loud trip out to Cai Be! But, the view was fantastic. Amazing how the busses drive down the wrong side of the road and just honk at people to get out of the way, the driver is talking on his cell phone half the time. With one hand on the horn and one on the phone, I have no idea how he managed to steer the bus down a narrow highway clogged with cars, trucks, scooters, motorbikes and about a million school kids on their bicycles who all ride in packs and refuse to get out of the way!

The first stop of the day (aside from “stops to rest”) was Cai Be floating market where we drove around in motorized boats with dubious safety standards and loud motors that looked as though they’d been cannibalized from lawn mowers. I was instantly glad I’d brought Jessica’s life jacket, as there was one jacket per two people strapped to the back of each bench. The benches weren’t bolted down and the one Grant got was so rickety he thought for sure it was going to collapse under him. Jessica was safely jacketed up, though, so Mommy could relax and watch the market go by. The market was a wonderful glimpse into the every day life of Vietnam.

People obviously live on some of the boats, while others are just for marketing purposes. To advertise what they are selling, vendors will hang one of whatever it is at the end of a long pole that can be seen from quite a ways down the river. Piles of every kind of produce imaginable are for sale in the floating market and boats just pull up beside one another to bargain for goods. Enterprising drink vendors weave in amongst the main market boats selling drinks and snacks to tourists, of which there are many. The live-aboard boats have laundry hanging from the tops and often plants growing aboard for a bit of greenery or fresh fruit. Kids run everywhere and dogs are plentiful – not sure if they were for food, but they looked like pets to me. The river is everything to these people – water source, bathtub, transportation, garbage dump, and toilet. We were pretty careful NOT to get any water splashed in our mouths. Of course, later on I saw one of the local café’s washing dishes in the river. Best not to dwell on that too long….

After the fairly noisy and sweaty boat ride, we pulled into one of the villages built along the river. Here we had a wander in the market and saw people making rice paper, rice crispies, and coconut candy, etc. Of course, we bought some of everything so Jessica could try it. She actually ate some of the rice crispies and coconut candy to my great amazement! As we’re walking through this crowded rabbit warren of a market, trying to follow our little Vietnamese guide, Grant decides to stop and do some shopping without looking where the guide was going. I left the rice popping demonstration to see where he’d gone off to with Jessica and saw him way behind us shopping. The guide told me that: “the baby wanted to shop,” so I figured that Grant had seen us and knew which side street we’d darted into. Not so much. When our group was ready to head further into the market, I looked around and no Grant. I backtracked through the market and found him merrily joining a completely different tour and about to board the wrong boat. I told him to keep up with the tour in the future! It seemed like I was always missing out on every demonstration because I had to keep going back and making sure Grant was keeping up.

After the various industry demonstrations, we stopped at a lovely shady spot fo our free lunch. I can’t remember what it was they served, only that we didn’t like it very much. Jessica was feeding fruit to the Japanese guy sitting with us, and he was too polite to refuse her. After lunch we had a demonstration of some of the local music, with an absolutely adorable little girl singing. Jessica started singing along to the tune of “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” though thankfully only the few people directly around us heard her.

We re-boarded our boat and took a trip through the village and down the river through some islands. Then we got back on our bus where our English speaking tour guide left us! He said we’d be driven to our hotel for the evening and we’d be joined by our new tour guide in the am. Ok. Nobody was worried until the bus stopped at some sort of official-looking place and the driver told everyone to get off. No explanation given – because nobody who knew what was going on spoke any English, and our Vietnamese was limited to “Hello” and “Thank-you,” which didn’t get us too far! We were herded into a group and watched helplessly as the bus with all our belongings in it disappeared over the horizon. Speculating madly amongst ourselves as to what might be going on, we followed the crowd into a waiting area and tried to stick together. Eventually it became obvious that we were getting onto a ferry. At that point, most of us suddenly remembered that the trip itinerary mentioned that we were spending the night on an island, so a ferry began to make a lot more sense. Unfortunately, we then watched as our bus got onto a completely different ferry.

The ferry was packed with people, vehicles, and livestock – including a particularly smelly truckload of pigs, which fascinated Jessica. It was only a short ride and then we all filed off to look for our bus. Thankfully, it showed up and we boarded for the short drive to our hotel in Can Tho.

Upon arrival to the hotel, we realized that we were supposed to have our passports with us – and they were hours away safely locked in our hotel in Saigon! Thankfully, I had photocopies with me, and the hotel bent the rules a bit. By law, hotels in Vietnam have to have your original passports complete with valid entry visa before you can rent a room. The guy was seriously unimpressed with us, but he let us in!

The hotel was a bit of an eye opener for Grant, who had thought we were roughing it before! There was no elevator, and our room was on the fourth floor. After lugging our daypacks and a tired three year old up four flights of stairs, we opened the flimsy door to our room for the evening. The room was a windowless rectangle with three single beds along the wall. The beds filled the entire wall, with no space in between – a fact that Jessica capitalized on by bouncing to her heart’s content and shrieking at the top of her lungs. Nobody could have heard her over the noise from the busy street outside, though! There was a small TV that got only Vietnamese channels, and Jessica insisted on watching some of the singing. The “mini-bar” was six cans of warm pop sitting on top of the end table. There was also a phone and a rickety old built-in wardrobe that reeked of mothballs.

The bathroom was a tiled room with a toilet and a shower head. There was a hot water heater on the wall that looked about two gallons worth, but we couldn’t ever get it to work. Thankfully, the place was clean enough and the air-conditioner worked. I spent about twenty minutes chasing down all the mosquitoes in the room because we didn’t realize that the hotel supplied RAID to spray through the room while you were out for dinner. Turns out that enough people sprayed the hallway and the surrounding rooms that ours got done by default! So, between my manual efforts, and the residual cloud of pesticide leaking from the adjacent hallway, we had a relatively mosquito free night.

Once we’d “settled in” we headed out to explore the town a bit and find a bite to eat. Kitty corner to the hotel was a shopping mall with a grocery store so we headed over there to check it out, because we were a bit tired of the bustle of the streets by that point. We browsed through a bunch of fake watches and Jessica once again got mobbed by the locals. (Apparently all Asians adore her, because she gets mobbed by all Asian tourists as well.) One woman was trying so hard to get her daughter to play with Jessica. Not that I mind her playing with local kids, but this poor child did NOT want anything to do with Jess and her mother kept forcing her to come over and “talk.” They finally went away only to come back a few minutes later with candy that the mother forced her daughter to give to Jessica.  In the course of about three hours, Jess had her photo taken at least ten times. Everyone here has cameras in their cell phones and they all whip them out the moment they see Jessica coming. She is definitely a little rock star! (so I don’t feel bad about taking pictures of their kids!)

At the top floor of the complex, we discovered – much to Jessica’s delight – an indoor playground. This was perfect because she could run around and scream and generally be a kid. She did so well all day on the bus and boat rides, that we were really glad to find some safe(ish) space for her to run free. There was a bunch of video games, some small mall-type coin operated rides, some bumper cars, and a big play structure in the back. My favorite was a fishing game that incorporated real live (and somewhat stressed out) goldfish. We wouldn’t let Jessica try it though – what on earth would we do if she caught one?

Grant got to shoot things, and Jessica met a little boy to play with so everyone was happy. The little boy she met spoke no English, and Jessica only knew how to say “Hello” in Vietnamese, but I don’t think she even noticed that he wasn’t talking…she never stopped chattering at him the whole time they played together. He took full advantage of his new girlfriend and happily jumped on all the rides I paid for. They held two kids, and Jess was happy enough to have him along, so it didn’t bother me. The funniest was the bumper cars. Jessica really wanted to go on them, so in they jump and he immediately takes the wheel. Jessica let him take over and then proceeded to give him direction on how to drive properly and criticize his every move: “you’re not really a very good driver, you know.” Typical woman!

After our little monster had some time to run free, we went next door to the food court for dinner. It looked clean enough until some commotion half way through our meal caught our attention. One of the kitchen girls was chasing one of the waiters with a live mouse (rat, maybe?) that she’d just caught by the tail! Ick – well, the food wasn’t that good anyway, so who’s hungry now?

We headed back to our less-than-luxurious accommodations and Grant decided he’d head out to get a massage. Six seconds before he came back through the door two hours later, Jessica FINALLY fell asleep! His massage was interesting to say the least!

He walked next door to a hotel with a massage sign prominently displayed and asked for an hour long massage, which would be the local equivalent of $4. He was then led into a room where he stripped down to his undies and a towel. They wanted him to wear these little plastic flip-flops, but they were only about half the size of his feet! Then, much to his surprise, he was taken for a 15 minute steam bath.  After exiting the steam room, he was told he’d have a further 15 min in a sauna….at which point he figured the undies were pretty much useless and soaked anyway so he dropped them off in his locker. After 15 minutes in the sauna, he had a further 15 minutes in a Jacuzzi and was beginning to wonder if there was a massage in his future after all! Finally, after a five minute shower, he was led into his massage. Of course, at this point, he was naked, exceptionally clean, and clutching his towel like a life-preserver.

The massage was the traditional Thai or Vietnamese style that we’d experienced in our hotel room involving lots of back walking and arm pulling. The woman didn’t speak any English so Grant couldn’t tell her to stop, either. At that point, he just wanted it to be over. When he got up to leave, the woman had him sign a slip of paper, which, of course, he didn’t read. Apparently, he’d just approved a 100,000 dong tip (about $6) for his masseuse. When he realized what he’d done, he refused to pay the extra tip, and gave her about $1 instead. There was a big bouncer-like guy glowering at him the whole time and hot-footed it back to our hotel room, where he arrived looking so upset and disturbed that it caused Mommy to inquire about just what KIND of massage he’d just experienced.

The following morning, we headed downstairs for breakfast. Coming down the stairs, Grant spotted a cockroach under the buffet table and the cook stomped it and kicked it under the table on the way by – so needless to say, he didn’t eat any breakfast. Jessica, of course, doesn’t eat. So, breakfast consisted of bread and jam for mommy, and we all piled into the bus hungry and tired and grumpy.

We boarded a second boat to take us to the Cai Rang floating markets. This boat was even more rickety and old than the first and didn’t have a roof on it, so it was a hot ride to say the least. Jessica was squashed between us on a bench seat built for two Vietnamese people so you can just imagine how comfortable that was for her! She kept elbowing us to try and make some room for herself.

We visited vermicelli making shop, and a rice husking mill and then sat in some fruit gardens to enjoy some tropical fruit. Jessica finally ate some bananas, much to my great relief! This is also where Jessica encountered her very first squat toilet. Up until then, we’d managed to find ‘western’ style toilets everywhere. But, this place had a tin shack with a porcelain squat toilet and a bucket of water beside it to “flush” the toilet. (Those of you with any experience with toilets in Asia or Africa will be thinking “Oh, you found a nice one!”) I tried to make it sound like fun to pee in one of these, but Jess was having none of it. I stripped her to the waist figuring there’s no way she’s coming out of there dry otherwise, and at least we’d have a shot this way! She cried and fussed at first and we stood on the pink one and then tried out the blue one next door because she liked the color better. Finally, I convinced her to try peeing and she did rather well aside from a few splashes on the shoes. (Much dousing with hand sanitizer…..) When we came back out to the tables where everyone was eating she gaily announced: “Hey Daddy! I’m a better pee-er than you are!!” Since then, there have been no issues with toilets unless they’re terribly dirty and/or smelly – and who can blame her there!

The Cai Rang market was similar to the one we visited the day before – a colorful chaos of people, boats, produce, animals – you name it. There was something interesting to see no matter which way you looked. After the boat ride through the market and our “rest stop” for fruit, we boarded the bus again. This time, we had an English speaking guide for our ferry ride, because he had joined us in the morning before the boat ride. He explained to us that we couldn’t travel on the ferry on board the bus because once one sunk and: “there was nobody left on board still alive.” NOW we understood why we got on a separate ferry from the bus!

As we’re walking up to the dock to get on the ferry, I lost sight of Grant in the crowd. I had been talking to a really nice Kiwi couple as we were waiting for the ferry. The guide was motioning for us to hurry because they were closing the gates to the ferry and we would be left behind. I looked around and figured Grant must have gotten ahead of me, because I couldn’t see him anywhere (and he’s a head taller than everyone.) So, I grabbed Jessica and the lot of us ran for the ferry before they closed the gates. After boarding, I look back, and there’s Grant wandering along in the OPPOSITE direction to get on an entirely wrong ferry. Once again, he’s not anywhere near anybody in our group. They are closing the gates to depart and he’s barely within shouting distance! I SCREAMED his name and Jessica started yelling as well. The guide realized we were leaving him behind and started shouting at the guys closing the gates to wait, but they shook their heads and closed the gate. At this point, Grant looks round and realizes what’s going on. He starts to run for it, but the ferry is starting the engines and the gate at the back is shut. By the time he reaches the edge of the dock, he’s got about a three foot jump to make and the ferry is pulling away fast. The guards at the back are screaming at him not to jump (in Vietnamese, so I’m assuming here) and waving their arms. He jumps anyway and makes it ok, and climbs over the gate. The guide just claps him on the back and laughs: “It’s OK You have very long leg.” Needless to say, Mommy was LESS than impressed.

Waiting for the bus on the other side of the ferry dock, we’d been there for ages because it took longer for our bus than it did for us. We were standing in front of a market with a bunch of stalls, all selling more or less the same stuff. We wait for something like half an hour in the hot sun. Most of us have turned around and bought cold drinks from the vendor behind us. The bus will come down the busy street and stop for us to get on, and we can’t be wandering away. So, all of us are standing in a group and talking and drinking our cold drinks. Except for Grant, that is. He doesn’t want a drink…well, not until six seconds before the bus arrives when he decides he needs to walk half a block away to get the same drink that was sold precisely where we were standing. (The kids begging were annoying him and Jessica) Once again, we’re all on the bus and the guide is looking at me: “where is your husband??”  This is starting to become a theme….

Lunch on the second day was emphatically NOT FREE, but they shuttled us off to a nice little place with good food at really cheap prices. I can’t remember now, but a yummy lunch was something like five or six dollars. Then we all piled back into the bus for our long ride back to Saigon. Grant, bless him, sat with Jessica so I could actually listen to my iPod without someone complaining about my choice in music – AND hear it in stereo. (Jess steals one of my headphones all the time and insists I play “Bingo,” “Piano Man,” and “Halleluiah” all the time. Although it’s way cute to watch her sing along to Piano Man, the novelty quickly wears off on a long bus ride) I was kind of dozing and listening to music when I realize we’ve been stopped at some lights or something for quite some time. Hmmm. Odd. I wait a few minutes and we’re still not moving and people seem relatively animated, so I unplug my headphones and ask Grant what’s going on.

Turns out, we’ve been pulled over by the police for speeding! In Vietnam, this means they immediately impound the vehicle and pull the driver’s license. Wow. You can put a family of five AND their groceries on a scooter with no helmets and drive down the wrong side of the road without signaling, but get caught for speeding and you lose your vehicle for TEN DAYS, and immediately. The worst part of this is some people on our tour have planes or trains to catch and we’re now running seriously behind schedule while our guide and driver argue this out with the authorities. They first wait to get the picture back to ensure that it was indeed our vehicle that had been speeding. Once it’s determined that yes, our terrible driver has indeed broken the law, negotiations ensue. I’m naïve enough to think that the authorities simply want a bribe. Not, apparently, in Vietnam. (THAT would be Cambodia) 

After much haggling, they let us continue on our way. However, they keep the driver’s license and registration. This is making him into the slowest and most paranoid driver on the planet because it’s illegal to drive without a license – no matter what the reason and we’re beginning to gain an appreciation for how serious the Vietnamese traffic police can be! The driver has to drive two and a half hours to Saigon and then BACK to this place to have the vehicle impounded…all without a license. So, the tour bus will spend ten days locked up, and we are all getting the impression that this driver is not going to have his job for too much longer.  We rolled into Saigon over an hour behind schedule and then we felt REALLY guilty when we found out that the bus driver first had to drive us across the city back to our hotel in very busy traffic before he could head back to the police station….all because we’d paid $1 for transfers. Had I been more on the ball, we would have simply taken a taxi from Sinh Café and let him get moving. Oops. We tipped the tour guide heavily and all the tips were being handed over to the driver which made us feel a little better about it. Hopefully the poor guy didn’t lose his job over the situation!

For our last night in Saigon, we were too tired to feel very adventuresome with our food, so we hit the Irish pub again for dinner. I was exhausted and had tons of bookings to sort out, so I let Grant do the packing. It drove me crazy because then I couldn’t find anything later and made everyone angry…but Mommy is learning to delegate a bit more.

We took a cab to the airport the following morning to catch our flight to DaNang with Vietnam Airways. What a pleasant surprise!  Service was impeccable and friendly, food was good (they actually fed us a meal on an hour long flight), flight was early, and the baggage showed up unscathed and intact. More than I can generally say for Air Canada! We were surprised at the size of the plane though – we had been expecting a little puddle jumper, and got a massive plane! The only issue we had was that they didn’t seat us together, but Grant managed to trade seats with the guy sitting next to Jessica and me.

Jessica is not too sure about Vietnam yet. She says everyone has black hair (she’s realized it’s mostly her hair people are fascinated with) and she is getting frustrated because she can’t talk to people. She doesn’t mind all the attention showered on her once she’s actually made someone’s acquaintance – like the women in the salon who did her nails. But, she’s getting pretty fed up with the constant bombardment on the street. Good thing Daddy is tall. She spends a lot of time riding up on his shoulders where people can’t touch her as easily.

We were met at the airport in DaNang by a driver from our hotel for our free airport pick up – BOY is that nice! Hotels do this mostly because taxi drivers will try to take you to a different hotel than the one you’ve booked and often successfully divert business. It’s just easier to send a driver to pick up guests, thus ensuring your guests actually arrive!

En route to Hoi An, we negotiated with the driver to pick us up five days later and drive us over the mountains to Hue. This saved the commission on the hotel booking this for us, and we paid $50 US for an air-conditioned car to drive us two ½ hours door to door.

We were not terribly impressed with Green Field hotel. We had our choice of two rooms and chose the one on the second floor because we figured it would be quieter. It turns out the building was under construction and, in fact, NO rooms were quiet from about 6-7 am onwards.

On arrival, some sort of bugs in the carpet were biting our feet, so we got them to RAID the room. The beds were super hard, the pillows like rocks in a pillowcase, and the shower sprayed all over the floor and was about chest height so you had to kneel in the tub to rinse your hair. We slept on top of the covers with our own sheets because we were paranoid about the bugs we’d encountered on our first day. Construction on the hotel began very early in the morning so no sleeping in!! However, our air-con worked (more than our friends across the hall could say), the shower had hot water, the pool was lovely and clean, there was free fresh fruit in the room every day and breakfast was free and reasonably edible. The free internet was REALLY slow, but front desk service was quite friendly, and we were able to book train tickets to Hanoi right from the lobby. Not our most pleasant stay, but nobody got sick or robbed, so all in all a success!

Well, I’m signing off now – we’re actually already in Laos…I just can’t seem to find the time to do these updates anymore. We’re having too much fun shopping in the night markets, and Grant keeps stealing my computer to rip music! I’ll post about Hoi An next time….

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