Apr 19 2008

The Motorcycle Diaries (Conclusion)

Published by at 10:51 am under Central Highlands,Vietnam

Day 5

Riding to Nha Trang, VietnamLast night, Mr. Hoa indicated that he was feeling sick to his stomach, which suggests that my intolerance to eating wilted leaves for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is actually contagious. Our wake-up call this morning was at 5:30, and while Brittany, Mr. See, and myself dined on fried eggs (“omelettes”) Mr. Hoa sat sullenly at our table, shaking his head at the thought of trying to eat. Today was the fifth and final day of our motorcycle tour, and given Mr. Hoa’s present condition, our guides were suddenly eager to get us to our final destination, and begin the journey back home to Hoi An themselves.

“Final destination” originally meant Da Lat, back when we signed up for this tour. But sometime during the past five days, Mr. Hoa convinced us that we should instead go to Nha Trang. Nha Trang is only slightly farther down the road than Da Lat, and Mr. Hoa insisted that we would like it much better. (“Very beautiful! I’m sure!”) A little bit of online research one night this week showed that Nha Trang has another advantage over Da Lat: a train station. Now, we had originally planned to spend several days in Saigon and the Mekong Delta in the far south. But over these past few days, it’s begun to sink in just how little time we have left on this trip. Today is April 1st, and therefore, the first day that we can say: “we go home this month!” This prospect is equal parts happily relieving, and frighteningly disappointing. But most importantly, it’s a reminder that every day spend in Vietnam and Cambodia from this point on is one day fewer on the Thai beaches. It took about a second for this realization to sink in before Brittany and I simultaneously suggested cutting the rest of the Vietnamese south from our itinerary, in the name of making it to white sands that much sooner. Looking back, this may go down as the easiest decision of the trip.

Nha Trang’s train station links to Saigon, and Saigon links to Cambodia. Despite being lost in Vietnam’s Central Highlands this morning, getting to Nha Trang would mean that we could be in Cambodia tomorrow. A quick look at the scribbled itinerary we’ve been working from reveals that such a decisive move would add four days to our alotted beach beach vacation. Who ever said anything about Da Lat? Nha Trang, here we come!

Riding to Nha Trang, VietnamWith Mr. Hoa leading the way, we went FAST this morning. Weaving through traffic and flooring it on straight-aways, Mr. Hoa was a man possessed. Possessed by conflicting needs: first, a need to finish this trip and find a bed, and second, a need to pull over every hour for dry heaves. While Mr. Hoa relieved himself in some coffee fields at one rest stop, the rest of us drank tamarind juice and ate steamed corn. Hmm, I wrote that as a good thing, but I can see that it sounds sort of gross. I trusted Mr. See on it, and now you should trust me. But in the interest of full disclosure, my perspective might be slightly askew at this point in the trip. During the rest stop, I found myself peeing out in the open, facing the coffee fields, with my back to corn eaters in plastic roadside chairs, motorcycle drivers speeding down the road on my right, and a traditional spirit house fashioned from a broken TV shell sitting in a tree trunk on my left. And somehow finding all of this completely normal. It’s times like this I wonder: is returning home going to be a culture shock?

At around 11:00am, during another pit stop, Mr. Hoa motioned for me to come squat in the dirt beside the road with him. I did, and he began to draw a diagram in the dirt with a stick. He explained that in 50km, we would reach a fork in the road. There, one road would take us the final 30km to Nha Trang. The other would lead back to Hoi An, and home for the Misters. Mr. Hoa didn’t think he could make it all the way to Nha Trang and back, and he asked me if he could get us on a bus bound for Nha Trang once we reached the fork. That way, he and Mr. See could begin the return journey home with the 60km round-trip to and from Nha Trang. Just as I was saying “no problem,” a van came down the road with NHA TRANG written on a sticker on the windshield. Mr. Hoa flagged it down, and asked if they had room for two more. They did, and Mr. Hoa quickly paid them from his wallet for our passage. And in this way, our time with the Misters came to an unexpectedly abrupt end.

Last picture with the Misters!We got the van driver to take one last picture of the four of us before Britany and I crammed into the already-packed van (see right). The SE Asian idea of “room for two more” varies from the Western concept. We passed (and were passed by) the Misters a couple of times on the last stretch of road leading to the fork, but we lost them forever when the van stopped for lunch at a roadside dive. The last thing Mr. Hoa asked us was to mail him a copy of our photo of the elephant penis. We’ll miss you too, Mr. Hoa.

Explore the Vietnam Central Highlands on Motorcycle: Misson Accomplished!

The rest of our trip to Nha Trang was strange. For reasons we still haven’t figured out, the driver of our van passed Brittany and me off onto a different van driver a few miles down the road. Once again, money exchanged hands between drivers, and we were passed off like cargo. We didn’t mind the switch, because this latest van’s karaoke system was mercifully broken. While our Vietnamese co-passengers rode in disappointment, we experienced our first peaceful van ride in this country. It’s a given that the vans and buses in Vietnam never have A/C (this is doubly true for the ones touted as having A/C at the booking agency) but no ride is deemed road-worthy unless it has mounted TVs and blaring karaoke. Stepping into the van to find a broken karaoke system will always be one of my happiest memories of Vietnam.

In the end, we did make it to Nha Trang, where he headed straight for the train station and bought two tickets on the overnight train to Saigon. When I told one crazy British woman where we were headed, she looked around in fear, as if I’d just confessed to being involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the national government, and then urgently whispered: “it’s Ho Chi Minh City!” Lady, NOBODY calls it Ho Chi Minh City. Not the southerners, not the northerners, not anyone. If Ho Chi Minh himself reanimated tomorrow, and heard you walking around calling it “Ho Chi Minh City,” HE’D think you’re a psycho. Of course, he’d still eat your brains, because zombies aren’t picky like that.

Our accelerated gameplan went off seamlessly, and the next morning, we departed Saigon on a bus bound for the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. But not before being ripped off one last time before escaping the country. On the way to the Cambodian border, bus company employees came around to collect our passports, and money to pay for our Cambodian visas. We knew from prior research that a Cambodian visa costs $20 US, so we were surprised when the employee held out his hand and asked for $24 each. We both resisted, insisted that the price is $20, and I tried to hand him $40 for our two visas. But he wasn’t having this. Acting like he didn’t understand me, he simply stood there with his hand out, repeating his price. By now we’d attracted the attention of the passengers around us, especially those who had already shelled out $24 each. We continued to insist that we would pay $20, and when he continued to ignore this, we said we would wait and pay the officials ourselves at the border. But when his response was to refuse to service other passengers until we’d paid our $24, he slyly turned pressure from our fellow travelers onto us. We finally paid him his $48, but when our bus finally arrived at the travel agency’s office in Phnom Penh, Brittany instantly marched inside the office and demanded to know why we’d been overcharged. Their response: “take it up with the bus drivers.” Back outside at the bus, the drivers’ response was: “take it up with the office.” Then, the bus pulled away once more, and our $8 was never to be seen again.

We sought a moral victory by refusing to use the agency’s affiliated tuk-tuk drivers, who were eager to ferry us to our guesthouse in the city. Not that they were ever going to get more money out of us at this point, but they didn’t help their cause when they watched me walk in the direction of an independent tuk-tuk driver parked down the block. They jeered, “Why you want to go with him? He is a stupid farmer. He not even know English!” Like many SE Asian tuk-tuk drivers, the older man WAS clearly a farmer who had been forced to abandon his fields in search of better income. I showed him where we wanted to go on a map, and he knew enough English to quote me a much better price than the evil company vampires were demanding. As we smugly rode off in this tuk-tuk, the farmer turned around to look at me, and pointing to the company drivers, disgustedly drew one finger across his throat. I said, “I feel the same way.”

BONUS: Although we were only in Saigon for a matter of hours, we did manage to get a good video of typical traffic in the capital city. This is pretty much the same scene you see every day in Hanoi as well. Notice the complete absence of traffic signals and painted lanes. Rule #1 in Vietnam: every man for himself!


Afternoon Traffic in Saigon from Brittany & Ben on Vimeo.

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One Response to “The Motorcycle Diaries (Conclusion)”

  1. Ben's Momon 19 Apr 2008 at 9:45 pm

    Brittany, I love you in that blue t-shirt – cute, cute, cute!!!

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