Sunday, August 19, 2007

Black Comedy

I'm going to vent now. What follows will make me sound narrow-minded and bitter. I'm willing to accept that. And the pictures have nothing to do with the text. They are just there to add some local color.

I've spent the last week bouncing from one central Vietnamese city to another. The names change but the scenery and the experience remain constant. There's been little to capture my attention and I believe it's time for me to leave Southeast Asia. I've been in here for nearly five months and fatigue is slipping in. What happened? Why do I suddenly have so little patience? Why am I treating the locals like lepers and scowling at children and old ladies?

My foul mood started the first day in Ho Chi Minh City, when the hotel I'd booked online, and for which I'd paid a deposit, was full. I was placed in another hotel, but it was temporarily without electricity -- "because it's Sunday," they said. I shrugged off these hiccups as the idiosyncrasies of a foreign culture. But as the days progressed, hiccups began to mount, leaving me short-tempered and craving a frosty Starbucks Frappaccino and the comfort of a multiplex. I want skyscrapers and neon, fixed prices, public transportation and overpriced accommodation.

Don't take this as an indictment of Vietnam or the Vietnamese, or of any country in Southeast Asia. It is merely my attempt to explain how another culture can provide hours, or days, of frustration.

Muc (Dried Squid)

While in Ho Chi Minh City, I decided to play tourist and booked a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels. I was told that a bus would take me to the tunnels and the return trip would be on a boat. When I arrived the next morning, I was told that the trip to the tunnels would be by boat, the return by bus. They told me the boat trip would take about an hour and forty-five minutes. But 90 minutes into the trip we stopped at a dilapidated riverboat cafe for a 15-minute toilet break. The break turned into a 45-minute stopover so our guide, so it seemed to me, could watch television. Because of the delay, and the slow boat, it took nearly three hours to get to the tunnels. We were so late that we missed ninety percent of the introductory presentation. We also learned upon arrival that the entry cost was not included in the tour. I don't mind paying more, just tell me up front what to expect from the tour. The tour was so poorly organized and haphazard I'm surprised it continues to exist. I won't even go into the unscheduled stop at a "crafts factory" on the trip back to HCMC.

My next stop was the beach resort of Nha Trang. The trip from Ho Chi Minh City had taken 12 hours (not eight, as advertised) and I wanted nothing more than a hot shower and a comfortable bed. But that meant navigating through the pack of touts crowded around the door of the bus, then avoiding the motorbike drivers and hawkers who follow tourists as they walk down the street. I found a hotel that promised Wi-Fi in the room and settled in. The Wi-Fi signal was too weak to be of any use. "It works in the daytime," the manager told me. The foul mood invaded my dreams.

A Little TLC

It's tough making a living, especially if you are cyclo or motorbike driver. I've been told that these men, and they are always men, are usually quite poor and working just to survive. They are a constant presence in the tourist ghettos, the refrain of "motorbike" repeating itself every few minutes. The more aggressive drivers will follow you as you walk down the street. They will flash a set of postcards showing local attractions or rattle off a list of popular sights. I understand they need the money, but every time I need a motorbike, I find the nearest driver and tell him I need a ride. I've never walked down the street and suddenly realized I'd rather be on a motorbike.

Motorbike and cyclo drivers are also reliable for two more annoying questions: "Where are you going?" and "Where are you from?" I don't know why they ask the former. The latter is, I think, an attempt at being friendly. I do my best to be polite and say "No, thank you," when approached by these guys. It happens only about 100 times a day, so by the evening I end up being a jerk and just ignoring them. However, once the sun sets, they also start offering prostitutes. I don't want a ride, a one-hour tour or a hooker. No, thank you. I don't know any other way to say it.

Cham Goddess

I'm now in Hue, a city in central Vietnam. everything I experienced in HCMC and Nha Trang is being repeated here. The hotel advertises Wi-Fi in the room, but there is no signal whatsoever. They brought a cable into the room so I could connect to the LAN. It delivers unreliable service. I thought it was my computer until I came to the cafe where I am now writing and the Wi-Fi works as advertised, without interruption or complaint.

TO continue, this morning, Sunday, the staff at the hotel explained that the loud banging from the building next door, the banging that started at 7:15 a.m., was preparations for a festival next year. Really? Why not just tell me they are doing construction? When I used their tour desk to book a flight to Hanoi, the woman helping me turned the transaction into a sales pitch for their sister hotel in Hanoi. She also told me it would cost $8 to take a private car to the airport. Only after I'd pressed her did she admit that I could take a bus for half that price -- but only after telling me it was no good because I would have to leave the hotel two hours before my flight. Huh?

Eye of the Dragon

I will return to Southeast Asia someday. This region is filled with wonderful places and people. I've had adventures and experiences I will never forget, even in the locations I've mentioned in this post. It's not all bad.

I'm off to Hanoi tomorrow, where I will stay for a few days. The travel bug hasn't been beaten out of me yet and I'm not ready to come home. Next stop: Hong Kong.

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Blogger K Collins said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:27 AM  
Blogger K Collins said...

And I thought NYC was a pain in the ass...You've had a purty good run; time to move along, Monkey Boy!

3:28 AM  

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