On the Road with Mr. Linh
I left off last night and went looking for nachos... and I found them.
Someone like me, with an addiction like nachos... can NOT be held back. When I arrived at "The Chop," I didn’t even really have to look at the menu… I knew exactly what I was ordering.
"... and NO cilantro, please..."
The place was filled with North Americans... and I assume that each & every single one of them was there for a much needed respite from rice. That was certainly why I was there. I love nachos. It said on the menu that the nachos were served with BBQ beans... and most often, I am not an avid fan of BBQ sauce, but decided to keep my mouth shut and suck it up.
Suck it up for the sake of the nacho.
At least it wasn't rice...
In a country where I based my entire reason for traveling here around being overly obsessed the North Americanized satay sauce, I had NOT encountered much of the stuff at all. I should have called this blog, "Rice is Not Always Nice" or "Springs Rolls vs. My Rolls."
In regards to the the nachos... they were good. They were different. No cheese (the menu did say cheese, but I didn't really find any.) No vegetables (except jalapeños - and only about 4 little pieces, at that.) Just chips, smothered with a boat load of beans. Of course... I ordered more jalapeños. While I was sitting there, this American sitting at the table next to me sparked up a conversation. He seemed nice, in his 30's... definitely pro-American and stereotypically over confident and slightly overbearing. From what I could gather, he had a strong intent to show how well traveled he was, how cool he was and how he's not afraid to take risks when it comes to an all night party. When he inquired as to where I was from, this is the conversation that followed;
Him: "Where are you from?"
Me: "Just outside Vancouver."
Him: "Do you mean Portland, but you're too embarrassed to say?"
Me: "Huh?" (I didn't get it...)
Him: "Portland, Oregon."
Me: "No... I'm Canadian. Vancouver, BC." ... strange conversation, but true...
I have heard rumour about certain Vietnamese nightclubs selling balloons filled with some sort of dentist office type laughing gas and he was giving me the low down on where to get it, best prices, amounts to inhale... how it makes you feel, the estimated time of each high... and I quote, "As far as drugs go, this shit is actually really pretty good for your body." I think that I will just decide to take his word for it...
Taking part in the giant canisters of medical-grade nitrous oxide may seem like an exciting diversion, but the reality is far more risky. We spoke to bar owners who chose to keep their anonymity. They have stated that they've seen regular users act violently and experience noticeable personality shifts.
Anecdotally, they told us that they've seen even casual users have sometimes experienced anxiety, depression and hypertension.
Such behaviour is consistent with the psychological damage caused by N2O abuse. Irrational and aggressive behaviour are just some of the possible symptoms that can result from a disruption to methylation effectiveness.
While he was filling me full of stories of his extensive world travel, drug abuse and frequent & recent blackouts in foreign cities... another solo traveller walked in and sat at a table near us. I could tell she was intently listening in on the conversation, and trying not to laugh at the same time. His one big tip to the both of us, if we were interested in hitting the town to get 'super messed up,' was to leave our accommodation carrying only cash and a hotel/hostel business card. Money for drinks, drugs and a taxi back to where you were staying. It was that simple. No chance in losing all your important things.Except maybe a kidney... or your liver...
Turns out that the other solo traveller was Emily- a consulate for the American Embassy, living in Ho Chi Minh City. She tried, in a casual and relaxed manner, to stress the dangers of purchasing and consuming drugs in Vietnam, due to the strict rules and the amount of foreigners that are currently doing time in local jails. The Embassy can't do anything about it until the Vietnam government feels that the prisoner has served their time for crime committed. At one point when Emily was speaking, I piped in with my two cents worth and he looked at her, rolled his eyes and said, "You should probably know... she's Canadian."
What does that meant???
I may never know... but with that remark, he assured us that he's always really careful in regards to drinking & drugs, everything is super cool in his world... and off he went to get a tattoo. Emily and I hit it off fabulously. Her and her husband have just moved to HCMC. She had to do 6 months of Vietnamese language training prior to coming over and she's here for a minimum of 2 years. We finished our drinks, then ended up wandering the streets, popping in and out of different shops, losing direction with every turn and trying desperately to figure out our way back to where we'd been earlier and seen a deal on something silk... Once again, I was suckered in to buying more things that I don't really need, nor want. The vendors are sneaky. As soon as you express any sort of interest in absolutely anything- they will literally follow you down the street, bringing the price down so low that it makes it near impossible for you not to turn around and buy it. If customs tears my bag apart, they are going to think I'm apt to open up my own shop! Emily and I exchanged numbers and I'm going to meet up with her when I'm back in HCMC. She offered for me to stay at their house on the night before I fly out, but I declined due to the fact that my flight goes at 5AM... so I should probably be there at 2AM... or earlier. Don't want to be an inconvenience or hinderance to anyone! Think that might be one of those nights that I just stay at the airport. My favourite hotel... :-( Mr. Linhs’ adventure tours picked me up at the hotel the following morning around 8am.
Now before I go any further, I just have to say... "WHO... in their right mind... eats an entire bowl of BBQ beans and jalapenos the night before they embark on a 3 day tour (with strangers) in a country that is predominantly known for NOT providing toilet paper in their public washrooms?"
Won't be needing laxatives today.
I already claimed the elevator as my own on the way to breakfast.
I was positive that I'd make a load of friends on the tour bus. Loads.
I'm a fool.
I was grateful that there were others on the tour... albeit couples. Nothing screams I'm Single more than traveling with a bunch of couples. It's tough... and occasionally insightful, to have that perceived 'you're lonely and we know it' finger pointed at you. The wolf is always at the door... I'm officially on a honeymoon with myself and I'm loving it.
The one fabulous thing about traveling with couples is that as soon as the trip is over, you're more than delighted to be alone again. People often wonder why I travel alone and I often wonder why more people don't. I am the master of my journey, controlling my entire vacation from the luxury of My. Own. Head. Sure I can jump on to the tours and travels of others along the way, but ultimately, I make all the decisions. If I want to visit museums every single day- no one argues with me. If I want to lie in bed all day - no one nags me. If I want to drink myself in to oblivion - no one judges.Well... I do... a bit... but I usually get over it. I read an article recently that spoke about the judgmental eye being cast on women traveling alone. No one bats an eyelid if a solo woman goes to another town to go shopping... ?
I normally get one of two different responses when I mention that I'm traveling alone. 1. You're so brave.
No... I'm not at all.
It's just another country with exactly the same resources as we have back home. Restaurants, pubs, info centres, mini marts, pharmacies, grocery stores.... fruits, veggies, beer, ice cream... Anywhere you go, you get familiar with your surroundings REAL quick. It's a survival mechanism built in to all of us. Perhaps the rules of the road differ ever soooo slightly... but other than that... same, same, but different.
2. Aren't you scared?
I take that back.
Yes... of all the drivers both on & off the road... and of having to eat rice at every meal. Here are the rules;Keep your passport safe.Keep your wallet & money safe.Familiarize yourself with your surroundings.Watch were you're going at all times.Make eye contact.Follow your intuition always.Some people will give you the world - just like home. Other will try to take everything you have - cheat you - just like home.
My main fear of traveling alone is that I'm going to get stuck alone on one of the tours I book. They never tell you how many people have booked, or who they are, or where they're from. I really wish they would. Sometimes, not all the time, I long for the option of a singles tours. I think it might be beneficial to try and categorize different trips - families, couples, singles, age groups... even languages sometimes. When you're alone on a tour - you have to be attentive and on alert. It's just you. Usually the guide feels an obligation to educate/entertain you the ENTIRE time and it's your obligation to stay interested and happy about it. Awkward. I'm one of those people that needs regular 'tour guide breaks'... not to be rude or condescending... but I need more social interaction with other travellers, the opportunity to be able to stare out the window and I want to be able to pass out if I'm tired... or just play on my phone in silence. There were 2 other couples on our tour - an older couple from Portugal (forget their names) and a couple from Australia / Columbia - Mia & Jorge. Our tour guide was Ning. No strange name like Unicorn or Chicken or Hero or Mr. Tip... just plain old, boring Ning. I thought he would for sure be Mr. Linh, but foiled again.
At first he REALLY liked me because I was Canadian and, from what I understood, his English teacher from years ago was Canadian- so I was automatically in the cool category. Then he found out that I'm not from anywhere remotely near Toronto... and now I'm pretty much dead to him. I'm fairly certain that Ning thinks I’m a high maintenance nightmare.
Ning... Air conditioning on, please.
Ning... Turn air conditioning up, please.
Ning... Can you please turn down the air conditioning?
Ning... Do you mind turning the air conditioning off, please?
Ning... Can you stop at a shop for lotion?
No... not sunscreen lotion... body lotion...
I just need what I need...
We drove forever. If you think driving long distances is treacherous, imagine the fun to be had from the cramped & narrow un-comfort of the middle seat of a van. Now, I can't attest for what everyone else likes and does not like, but I'm just not a big fan of showering and then getting urine on my feet.Not a fan.
I got my first taste of the 'squat.'
Maybe 'taste' is the wrong word, but I find it near impossible to squat, hold up clothing off the dirty floor, hold balance, aim AND try not to get back spray on myself...
I ended up peeing all over my right foot.
Some people would argue that I shouldn't have worn my flip flops in there to pee... but in my defence I didn't know that the toilet was like that, I often wear flip flops when I pee and thank GOD I was wearing plastic flip flops... or I'd have a serious issue with a real buffet of human waste on my only pair of shoes. Yuck. Then I had to scrounge just a little bit more of the damp, conglomerated toilet paper they graciously provide, and attempt to clean myself up, which only resulted in managing to cover myself in little wet pee balls. Finally I just took a ladle of their fresh water they had outside the room and doused my foot in it. My fat, pee pee foot.
So that's what I did...
After surviving the trauma of my own urine... I decided to grab something snack-ish to keep in the van in case I got peckish during the tour. Everything displayed looked foreign and there was really nothing in the shop that even remotely screamed out "you recognize me"...Nothing.
So I settled on some sesame seed candies that looked like they might be tasty. They weren't. Don't get me wrong... they probably were tasty... 3 years ago when they were fresh....Now, not so much.
I fear that they'd been sitting there for some time. In order to get in to them, you had to tear thought this decayed congealed plastic... you really had to want the candy. I probably consumed more plastic attempting to eat these little candies than normally would be approved by Health Canada. We hadn't been on the road more than 2 minutes after this little stop, when something started beeping.
Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep
It was constant, infuriating, menacing, annoying and continual... and it didn't stop. Not only did it not stop, but neither the driver, nor our guide seemed the slightest bit bothered by it.
Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep
Finally, high maintenance nightmare Joanna from not-Toronto, had to speak up...
Is that someones watch?
Maybe an alarm going off?
No one could give me the answer I was looking for... just "GPS" and then the conversation was over and on to other things. Finally I had to put my headphones on to attempt to drown out the irritation... but even that hardly worked. After 40 minutes, I asked again... ever so slightly more aggravated this time.
This time, they explained to me that the GPS tracks the drivers every move and knows when he should stop for a 15 minute break. Considering that we had just stopped, this seemed odd to all of us. Very odd. BUT... we'd only been stopped for 10 minutes, so the GPS didn't record it. The beeping stopped when we stopped for lunch. Thank God... I was envisioning having to hire a taxi for me to follow the tour van if it continued... Every stop from then on, our entire group made sure that we meandered around for at LEAST 15 minutes before getting back in the van. We could not endure the beeping again.
Lunch was the usual large buffet of plated foods that never stopped arriving at the table.
Pork, more pork, fish, chicken, another pork dish, rice, another bowl of rice, steamed cucumbers, morning glory, beef, a type of soup, spring rolls, watermelons...
There is no such thing as a light lunch... how I would have longed for a small cheese platter and some crackers. Nope.
After lunch, we crossed the street and visited a Mother Goddess Worshiping Temple. I believe that we were in an area called Dong Dang? Almost right at the China border. This temple was the brightest, most multicoloured & vivid temple I've ever seen - and there were actual REAL people inside going through the serious, devout ritual of worship! They all were surrounding one particular pious person, who seemed to be in a trance state... dancing and singing... To the foreign eye, it all seemed overly glamorized, maybe even commercialized, as if they had deliberately planned this rite in preparation for our arrival. But it was undeniably legitimate! There were offerings of oranges, bananas, potato chips, pop, beer... and other assorted and unusual sacrifices surrounding the various rooms of worship. I guess that Worship of the Mother Goddess is the oldest religion in Vietnam, pre-dating even the Chinese occupation.
Leaving the Temple, we hit the road... and I decided that it would probably be in my best interest if I were to divert my eyes to absolutely anywhere in the entire world rather than directly AT the road while we were driving. It was narrow, winding, lawless, disorganized, rugged, uneven... ultimately everything you're searching for in a road trip. In addition to all of that, take in to consideration all of the mopeds, semis, vans, cars, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, water buffalo's and stray dogs. Not to cause undue alarm, but it's... chilling to the bone. It's like a video game.
Vietnam Highway- Are you up for the challenge?
I was even thinking reality TV at one point - everyone would die! On one steep, narrow, mountainous blind corner, our van pulled out to pass an enormous semi, and at that exact same moment, the semi tire exploded, flying up and smashed our side view mirror. BOOM! I thought we were being shot at. By even just stepping in to or on to a motorized vehicle in this country, it's almost like a symbolic gesture of accepting death. "I'll take one for the team. I'll die." We finally arrived at our homestay for the evening around 5pm. It was right in the middle of a very tiny, remote village... a very poor, farming village. We stayed with the family that (presumably) owned the home. A large home - built out of wood and stone and concrete and slate and bamboo... and, and, and... Whatever they had, they used! Now... this was an experience... I am definitely not knocking, nor mocking the experience, but I think I might have been better off doing something like this at the onset of my journey. By now, I have become completely inunated in the lap of luxury.
When I say that this is a farming village, I mean it. Every inch of land is dedicated to feeding the villagers. Corn for the cows and the water buffalo, chickens running around all over the place, rice fields, fish ponds, banana trees, grapefruit trees, pumpkins (though they looked like big zucchinis)... The room that everyone stayed in was upstairs - in a big, open space... It was a large room, sanctioned off in to separate dwelling sectionals, divided using drapes, sheets and curtains as walls and doors.
Each ‘room’ had a very firm mattress on the floor. Along with each mattress came one pillow, one mustard yellow duvet and a canopied mosquito net over the area. Like Sleeping Beauty... We all met below to eat with the family. The usual. Rice, pork, chicken, beef, morning glory, cucumbers, spring rolls, soup, watermelon... Two large, authentic and identical meals in one day. I was sincere and polite with my gratitude.. but I couldn't take the lack of variety. Loss of appetite immediately. As a child, I was extremely picky, but as an adult, I figured I'd outgrown this, due to the fact that I can eat almost anything, apart from mushrooms, cilantro,... broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts... spam...
But honestly- if I don't want it, I won't eat it. If it represents a certain taste or smell or provokes a bad memories or thought, or I'm just not in the mood, it's a no go... no matter what it is. If I'm tired of it, I'll starve. Like rice right now. Could we maybe switch to rice noodles for one dish?
Would that be too much to ask?
Then, much to our delight, every member of the family... and their friends too... kept approaching our table at different, individual times, to do a shot of corn wine. Once again, NOT wine... like Grapa mixed with Bacardi 151... but worse. So trying to fend off their shot-seeking attention, pretend to shoot it back, hide the shot behind a main dish bowl and then attempt to empty it before another family member showed up to repeat the process...
Where's real wine when you need it?
I didn't sleep well.
Maybe it was the hard mattress?
Perhaps it was the constant, uninterrupted, heavy, synchronized snoring of at least 8 of the 15-20 people staying in the home?
Could've been the rooster that started crowing at 12:24AM and didn't stop?
It might have been the screaming baby? I can't say for sure... but I tossed and turned all night.
I knew the funeral was the following day and it's all that was going through my mind. Tossing and turning in that hard little bed, in sequence with every good and bad memory that surfaced. I felt that maybe I need to try and find my own inner peace, while at the same time, giving myself my own closure... So I decided to write some words down that could possibly be read out at the funeral. I wanted a little part of me to be present, no matter how far removed I was.