Vietnam 5: Appointment in Saigon

If you take a look at the Mike Map, you’ll see that after moving at turtle pace down through the east coast of China, I jumped across nearly all of Vietnam in one fell swoop of a train journey. Thirty-four hours in the train. The standard preposition to use there would be on, and yet, when the trip is that long, the feeling is definitely one of being in; not of wanting to get off, but to get out. Out into the thousands of tiny villages that but right up against the tracks, out into the sun and the rice paddies, out into one of the restaurants serving real food. And, in the case of a cycle-addict such as myself, out and onto the open road.

Nevertheless, despite all the reasons why I would rather have covered the 1800km on my own steam, there was a reason to to chose locomotion: Suzie, a friend from afar (well, Korea), coming for a visit. She’d be in Malaysia with another friend for a week and could easily make the hop to south Vietnam – on the condition that I would make it too. This put me in a tough place, eco-wise, what with my number one “rule” being No Gas. 1800km is about how much ground I tend to cover with the bicycle in a given month. Counting the trip back up north, and miscellaneous bus trips in the middle, I’d be covering about 4,000km using fossil fuels, and doing all the damage that entails.

And yet, the decision was not exactly a difficult one. Touched that my friend was willing to purchase an additional plane ticket and go through the hassle of getting a visa for Vietnam – not to mention forsaking a week of Malaysian beach time – just to hang out with me, how could I let my “no gas” principle stand in the way? The train would be going with or without me, my weight would be infinitesimal compared to that of the train and all the other passengers, the (extremely resource-intensive) work of laying out the tracks had been finished decades ago, and most importantly, I didn’t want to be an asshole. Actually, that was the second most important consideration. Most important was that I simply wanted to see my friend. In the end, I did less wrestling with the question of whether or not I should go and more wrestling with the question of how much wrestling I ought to be doing in the first place.

In this sense, perhaps surprisingly, it’s the no meat and the no trash rules that are easy to follow. The first just requires choosing restaurant A rather than restaurant B, and then item C instead of item D. In other words, it requires no extra time or energy at all. The second, likewise, just requires carrying a single container around with you – whether a plastic bag nabbed from under someone else’s kitchen sink, a nice piece of tupperware, or, in my case, a camping pot – and then shopping at street vendors and traditional markets rather than convenient stores. This requires a little more patience than vegetarianism, but not too much.

The NG rule, on the other hand, requires giving up on traveling more than fifty miles on any given day, or moving faster than ten or fifteen miles per hour – major impediments to social life as we know it. That, and there are fewer “this is absolutely wrong/stupid” moments associated with NG. For instance, when I drive by a slaughterhouse and hear pigs in their death throes, I immediately think : this is wrong. When I see someone buy a Coke, crack it open, enjoy its taste for about thirty seconds, and then leave the can to pollute the earth, I think: that was bad for your health, an utterly transient pleasure, unnecessary in every way, and also short-sighted. But gas? We never see the oil it comes from, we almost never see the liquid itself, the emissions themselves vanish into the air – there’s much less chance for a visceral reaction, the kind that’s necessary to shake us out of habit and encourage us to make the changes we should.

That, and it’s pretty tough to imagine a world without gas. I don’t think it’s too difficult to conceive of a world where people ate mostly plants, or of a world where stores sold primarily fresh packaged food. But a world with no cars, trucks, buses, trains, planes? How would anyone go anywhere? What would people do? Meat and trash permeate our society, but our society wouldn’t fall apart without them. A world without gas, though, would be a different world altogether.

I suppose it’s this sense that has something to do with my lack of fanatical commitment to NG.

This has been my attempt to honor the NG rule as best I could; if I can’t follow it, I can at least try to figure out why.

Just thoughts, no conclusions.

So, now, on to the fun! Hope I didn’t spoil the mood…

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View on the ride down. Almost every moment I was looking out the window, there were rice paddies to be seen. Reminds me of staring out the car window as a kid in California, watching the broccoli and lettuce fly by.

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I took a similar train ride four years ago, from Saigon to Hue. 19 hours, but I didn’t talk to anyone. This time, I intended to be more social, to make friends with other passengers, to actually interact a bit with Vietnamese people rather than just watch them from afar. Here’s Phuong, who spoke a bit of English, works twelve-hour days at a chicken restaurant, wants to move to Ireland to work so he can send more money home to his wife and baby, played Justin Bieber songs for far too much of our time together.

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Baby boy, who didn’t cry the whole time. Not even when the big-nosed white guy played with him! I promised to send Phuong these pictures, but the email address he gave me didn’t work. Are you reading? Email me!

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Reunited at long last, engaging in the essence of travel: walking around, looking at stuff, eating fruit, taking pictures, sweating.

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In the company of Wendy, our awesome host and old friend from Daegu. We crashed at her place and let her guide us around Saigon when she wasn’t busy at work. Work! Ha!

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Saigon…Vietnam’s biggest city, and economic capital, sprawling but still delightfully small and charming in many ways. Maybe it was just the sun. Or the company.

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Jam session in the park.

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Some important building with a statue of Ho Chi Minh in the front.

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Looks kinda ugly, right? A little chaotic, wires everywhere, tons of noisy, stanky scooters. And yet…don’t you want to go check it out?

Bonus factoid: many Vietnamese women wear pajamas around all day.

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When walking across the street, don’t speed up and slow town trying to accommodate the drivers, as it will just confuse them. Keep a steady pace and let them avoid you. It’s what they’re used to.

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Nice one! I even saw a cop sleeping across six lined-up scooters once. Is there a way to make my bike do this?

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Becoming a sardine on the night bus to the highlands of Dalat. The ones that sleep 24 people usually have berths running up and down each side, with upper and lower bunks. This one was a 36-er…but the bus was the same size. My feet = your pillow.

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Typical travel agent trick: “Yes, the bus leaves at 9PM and arrives at 6AM.” Truth: the bus leaves at 10PM and arrives at 4AM. At a bus station way outside of town, so you’ll have to take a moto in. Luckily, the morning market was already getting started. Coffee, tea, fried doodads, K-pop on TV.

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Just more proof that, when traveling, even when things at first seem to suck (i.e. the bus dumps you off somewhere unexpected at oh-dark-thirty), everything will generally turn out to have been for the best. Say our bus had arrived at six as advertised – we’d never have known that these people get started at 4.

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Same place! By the morning, everybody’s gone. Actually, I saw some cops confiscating vendor ladies’ scales and sticks and other equipment. Another time, I saw a vendor jestfully throw a styrofoam box at a cop, which the latter swatted out of the air with a chuckle. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, interesting relationship the people have with police here.

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Day 1 in Dalat: walk around the lake. Revel in the relative absence of motos, the clean air, the reasonable temperatures, the sense that somehow we’ve made it to Switzerland.

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Stop for coffee and/or sweet tamarind drink. Pay $2.

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Feel superior to other cyclists.

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Try to charm cute little girl in park.

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…but she’s not having it.

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Watch kids rip around the park in mini-cars.

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Dinner at the same central square, in its night-time mode.

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Day 2 in Dalat: Adventure time! So you want a little taste of the life of a Mike, do you, Suzie? How’s a grueling cycle ride out to some random waterfalls sound? With minimal preparation, crappy rented bikes, and weird squishy jelly sandals? Let’s see what you’re made of…

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It was about this time, coasting downhill next to rice terraces and tiny villages under the hot sun, that she said: “Ok, I get it. Cycling around the world is for sure the best possible use of one’s life.” (Slight embellishment.)

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Elephant falls

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And washing off beneath.

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…and then it was time to ride back home. 35km, uphill, 600m altitude gain, last (half-?)hour or so in the dark. Nothing to shake a stick at! Quite the trooper, she only unleashed about half of her store of expletives at me. But come on, it was worth it, right?

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Must’ve been, because the next day, we did it again. After hours of fruitlessly searching for an outdoor pool to tan at, we gave up and soaked up some sun in a public park. Once I had sufficiently burned myself

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we went back, rented some bikes again, and cycled a milder 7km out to another waterfall.

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Ride back home, stop for coffee and mango shakes (they were out of avocado) at a scenic little cafe, pay $2.

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Spend eight of my mother’s hard-earned dollars on one of the best dinners ever.

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The $8 even included (the first) dessert.

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Stuffed, but might as well stop for coffee, pumpkin pie, and the world’s most expensive ($2.25, wtf?!) mini-muffin.

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Then another night bus, this time back to Saigon. Sleep all morning, spend the afternoon drinking coffee, watching this asshole fish, and sneaking into a pool at a fancy-schmancy hotel.

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Night cap: happy hour at another fancy-schmancy hotel, watching evening come over the city from the 23rd floor.

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And then that was that. Back to the airport the next morning; back to work for Suzie and back to life on the road for me. See you again in India, right? With a bike and a tent? Yeah?

Having no plans, I walked (to Wendy’s) home from the airport, a solid two point five hours, savoring the fact that I had nothing but time on my hands (except for that part about having twelve days to leave the country). I took the long way, got lost here and there, waited longer than I had to at crosswalks, and then took the stairs rather than the elevator. Every moment light, open, floating. Alone again. Where to go?

Spoiler: I’m already 4000ish km north in China, so I guess that’s been answered. But that’s how it felt then.

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4 Responses to Vietnam 5: Appointment in Saigon

  1. mingyulee says:

    사진이 점점 좋아지고 있네. 축하!!!

  2. myra says:

    mike

    it is wonderful to see these pictures of you and your friends and your travels and to hear your comments in your blog. it brings back my memories of our trip to china to see raffe and makes me want to return. raffe and his band have been invited back to china to perform maybe they will go. you can look up good night circus and dead band alive on
    youtube and vimeo. have a wonderful and happy birthday i wish we were all there with you
    myra

    • Michael Roy says:

      Myra! Glad to see you here on the blog, keep checking in! My time in China is just about finished, but if Raffe and his band make it to Southeast Asia, you can bet I’ll try to meet up with them ^^

  3. myra says:

    mike,
    i am sitting here with lou and your mom and they said to wish you a happy birthday too.
    we went to the local book sale and got some books in a variety of languages and we are going to a really good restaurant for chinese and tai food tonight.
    myra