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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Good Morning Vietnam, Part Two.

Ok, hi -- I'm back.

After recovering from the unbelievable culture shock of Ho Chi Minh City, as NOTHING is familiar on this side of the world, I began to adapt to the city. I would even say that by the time I left, I came to really like it. Over the four days I spent there I think I saw all the city has to offer, historically and currently. Joy took me around town on a whirlwind city tour, starting with the markets that were brimming with vendors begging you to browse their booths. Everyone approaches you to enter their shops "Lady, come into my shop" and there's so much stuff everywhere. I have no idea how any one shop could ever sell all of the merchandise they have, there's just so much junk!! She also took me to eat authentic Vietnamese food at a little, non-descript outdoor restaurant in a back alley that I would NEVER have found on my own. We munched on Vietnamese pancakes -- a fried-ish pancake that's a cross between bread and egg consistencies, filled with noodles, bean sprouts, shrimp, pork -- that you wrap in giant lettuce leaves and dip into chili sauce. Rice paper spring rolls (not fried and so fresh) and bamboo, shrimp and pork salad. All so good, and things I would never know to choose to try had I not had her as a guide. Another night we ate Vietnamese BBQ ($20 total for ALL of us to have about 4-5 main dishes and appetizers) where they bring you the prawns (here, shrimp are those tiny little guys, prawns are the meaty big suckers) LIVE in a clear pot and you have to cook them at the table while they freak out and jump around the pot as they, um....die, then eat them (Lukoff, you would've been VERY upset). All in all, B&J helped me appreciate Vietnamese daily life in a way I couldn't have done as a mere tourist.

Speaking of being a tourist, I spent two days at all the "sites" of HCMC. Day one was spent at the Cu Chi Tunnels, Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum and other war-related places. Day two was spent along the Mekong River Delta, glimpsing that kind of Vietnamese life. The day that focused on the war was actually a very depressing day. I don't think, no matter how much you read, watched, saw, heard about the war, you can REALLY get a feeling for it, without seeing the actual places and ways in which the war was fought. At Cu Chi, there are preserved bomb sites, remains of demolished US tanks, man-made booby traps that look like the ground of the forest (but you step into and fall into spikes), torture devices, and foxholes (that you can actually get into, cover with leaves, and go undetected). It's all part of the perspective that you come away from Cu Chi with, but the most surreal experience is crawling through the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels were used by the North Vietnamese to attack Saigon. The intricate underground tunnels are 90 ft deep, each "level" 30 ft lower than the one above and are comprised of passageways, living spaces, weapons arsenals, sleeping and cooking facilities. We were able to replicate a crawl through the tunnels. You slowly descend via hidden staircases into tunnels AT MOST 3x3 feet. Then, you crouch through them. After about 400 feet of sweltering hot, twisting, turning darkness, you come to another descent, and go down another 30 feet to crawl space where you are on your hands and knees. I cannot even begin to describe how I felt doing that. Completely overwhelmed, locked in my head, even nervous at points. I was emotional at the idea that people actually lived this way in order to preserve their country's way of life. Then, you emerge into the fresh air again and you have crossed what might be the length of a football field, undetected. It's VERY frightening when you put that in the context of war. After seeing all of that, the range of ways that Ho Chi Minh's forces confounded the US forces, it's no wonder they won. Of course, being in Vietnam, a Communist country, it's very obvious that there's a slant against the American forces when you visit these sites. But, nevertheless, it didn't dull the sad feeling I had all day. How anyone can visit Vietnam and not reconsider their feelings on American led war efforts, in any region, is beyond me. Let's just say that I did a lot of thinking that day about wars that are waged on countries that might not be in our best interests to fight.

After Ho Chi Minh, I headed north to Nha Trang by bus for 2 nights. Nha Trang is a beach town, ala Jersey Shore. Very cheesy, lacking charm, mediocre restaurants but beautiful beaches. Sorry, my Jersey friends.... The trip up to Nha Trang was pretty uneventful until my Ipod ran out of batteries and the little Aussie kid in the seat in front of me who had no idea what the concept of "quiet time for 6 hours on a bus because the people around you have NO escape" was decided to use his "flashers" (flash cards with the alphabet on them) to name a word for each letter. About 15 times. I don't know how many times his parents could hear 'e is for elephant' or 'i is for iguana' without wanting to kill him. I give you ALL credit. You know who you are.... ;) On arrival in Nha Trang, I checked into my hotel, then headed out for a meal. I was STARVING as I hadn't really eaten all day. Outside of the food I ate with Joy, I really still haven't gotten eating in Asia down to a science. And tonight was no different. The soup could've passed for dishwater, the tuna could've been name-your-nastiest-meat-here, and the dim, lovely, candlelit ambience of the Sailing Club restaurant didn't help me IDENTIFY my food or see the bugs eating my legs alive so I looked like a sea-faring victim of scurvy by meal's end, so I merely went hungry (and itchy). Yet again. I am so determined to learn to eat Vietnamese, Thai, Indian food, and yet.....I'm having a hard time in my mastery. Upside, weight loss. Downside, starvation never really agreed with me. What I'd give for a chicken parm right about now....

The Sailing Club restaurant also fancies itself a beach club, so the next day, I went there to lay out on the beach in style. The beach chairs were amazing -- oversized and comfy -- and the people watching, fantastic. Still hungry, I tried a burger this time, thinking maybe ordering something I know will work for me. No dice. It was shit, too. But, what wound up being great about Nha Trang was that I got to feel like a traveler again. Starting in Nha Trang, I was on my own again. No Joy or Brian to help guide me and it felt nice. In SEAsia, such a well-trodden path, people abound and, likely, they're on the same tour as you are. So, I met Rich and Michael, two Aussies on their way up to Hoi An like me. We decided to take an overnight train together. Through them, I met Emma and Lee. Girls from NZ, same route. Adam, Johnny and Johnny's cousin (can't remember name...), who I'm bound to see through Cambodia in Feb. It's just this undercurrent of people, repeating in each place, making it comfortable. For me (now in Hoi An with many of the abovementioned folk), that part of this trip began in Nha Trang at the Sailing Club where all the travelers go for their night's kicks. It was also at the Sailing Club that I had my Page Six moment, the first this trip....

So, I'm sitting with a bunch of people and two very pretty blonds pull up chairs next to me. They had been with my group the night before. We start talking, they're both 30 as well, men, life, blah blah blah... And, as we're talking, people keep coming up to Natalie. I'm half paying attention b/c I'm talking to Tanya (Natalie's friend), and finally it hits me.
Me: Natalie -- are people asking you for AUTOGRAPHS?
Natalie: Nah, yeah. Whatever.
Tanya: Yes, they 100% are.
Me: WHO ARE YOU? Are you a little star in another country that I don't know about?
Natalie: It's no big deal.
Tanya: Yes, she's on a soap called Neighbours.
Natalie: Yes, yes...but it's nothing.
Tanya: And she is a pop-star in Australia, she has a hit now on the charts.

Turns out that Natalie is Natalie Bassingthwaighte, following the career paths of Kylie Minogue and Natalie Imbruglia who started on Neighbours and now, are pop stars, as you likely know. This Natalie is on a similar track. And, she was lovely. Just so normal and down to earth, having her holiday with a friend through Vietnam. We hung out through the Sailing Club nights and just talked about life. When I told Sarah (from Sydney) that I met her and showed her all the pictures, she keeled over with delight, rattling off a bunch of facts about Natalie like any of us would do about Gwyneth or Brad and Angelina. That'll be valid for Page Six in about 6 years when Natalie makes it in the US, but for now, that's my brush with celebrity...

Hoi An is where I'm at now, taking a night to myself after two long (and wonderful) days with sweet Sarah from Argentina who's traveling SEAsia too. We met here and took some time in the made-to-order-tailoring capital of the region laying at the pool of my ultra-fabulous hotel, running around getting clothes made (1 suit, 2 skirts, 3 shirts, 2 dresses), avoiding the hordes of locals by saying "No speak English" (it's hilarious - they have NO idea what to do with that, and actually, leave you alone!), and wound up in somebody's garage outside of town that they call "Dream Bar, Good Shit" (since Hoi An closes at around 11 PM, officially) drinking jam jars of "wodka" juice until 4 AM with a hot Aussie named Chris. Amazing to be with Sarah. It's like we left each other in Argentina yesterday, the familiar is good and we have a blast together. Tomorrow, I head up to Hue, then Hanoi. Tonight, time for bed.

More from the north....


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