Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tiger Beer, Dragon Fruit, and Rice Hats

Gooood Mooorning, VIETNAM!!!!!! (I've been wanting to say that for awhile.)

My first day in Saigon was admittedly a bit stressful. I was hot, hungry, and tired. The exchange rate is confusing. $1 USD equals $17,500 VMD (vietnamese dong). Not something you can quickly calculate in your head. Fortunately they quote prices in and widely accept US currency in Vietnam. However, one of my friends from the ship kept "high-balling" me. Like for instance, a Vendor would say $15 and I would say $5 and my "friend" would say "How about 12?" I think she thought she was trying to help me, but this got extremely agitating.

The vendors kept saying "LA!" which means "NO!" After Morocco, I thought I had perfected my negotiating skills, but it was hard to practice with another person cramping my style.

Also the "thing to do" here is get a dress custom-made in Vietnam. So I went to get measured, and I felt very rushed and the price was not as cheap as I thought it would be. I will go to pick it up tomorrow. When I told them I'd be picking it up 4 days later, the Tailor sounded agitated with me, even though I had just paid them a pretty nice amount of money for this elusive dress which is supposed to fit me like a glove.

The last frustrating part of the day was that my colleagues on the ship organized a dinner. Eighteen people planned on going, but then they got lost and couldn't find the restaurant. They were wandering around for about a half hour, back and forth with all of us in tow. I finally just bailed to find the first place I saw that served cold Tiger Beer. Three of my other friends followed me, after being equally frustrated with the disorganized planning. The four of us had a great dinner and lots of ice-cold Tiger beers, which immediately made me feel better.

Usually I am pretty "roll with the punches", but I think the heat in Vietnam does something to my calm demeanor. After my frustrating day, I was ready to get out of Saigon.

And it got MUCH better, as I led a group of 20 students on a three day trip to the Mekong Delta. We had a fantastic trip and fantastic tour guide. Our guide's name was Thien, with a little ^ above the e. He was absolutely amazing, funny, and knowledgeable. He is one year older than me, and he told me that our generation doesn't speak much of the Vietnam War. He grew up in a town near Quang Tri, where my dad was based during the war, but he said this generation of Vietnamese people tend to love Americans and they know little to nothing about the war.

So Thien, with the ^ above the e's focus was simply on modern day Vietnam and the Mekong Delta. It was an action-packed tour with a boat ride through the Delta, transfer to a smaller sampan, and a lot of driving by motorcoach. I think the sampan was my favorite part, though. There were only 2 or 3 of us on each sampan and there were these strong ladies who paddled for us. Now I understand why people used to buy "rowing machines" to exercise.

There were mosquitos and it was HOT. We were told to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts. We were all sweating, and I still got a few mosquito bites, even with the sleeves. Oh, and I also thought I should also probably wear a boa to make my outfit complete:

For part of the trip, we also rode bicycles. I hadn't ridden one since I was about 10, but now I see why they say "it's like riding a bike" just don't forget how! It was probably the most peaceful and relaxing part of my trip. Butterflies fluttered across my path, roosters and ducks ran out into the street, and bright beautiful coconut trees and banana trees were growing at the side of the road. I also rode past a pineapple plantation. I momentarily forgot there were 20 students cycling somewhere behind me.

Then we went to a market where we were the *only* tourists. This was not a touristy place, just Vietnamese people. I wandered on my own a bit to feel the full Vietnamese immersion. It is strangely soothing to be alone in a foreign town, surrounded by strangers who don't speak my language. I can't explain it, but it just feels very liberating and brave. (Even though our tour bus was waiting for me about 10 blocks away!)
After the market we took a small sampan to Mr. Tiger's fruit farm. Mr. Tiger is this elderly Vietnamese man who grows all of these crazy fruits (dragon fruits, jack fruits, durian, lychees, watermelon, and some others.) He also makes his own "moonshine", this really strong, yet fruity whiskey, which burned from my tongue to my throat to my stomach.

We also got to try all of these yummy fruits. Cam on! (That means "thank you" in Vietnamese!)

The first night in the Mekong Delta we stayed at a cottage house on stilts. The entire house was open-air, and it belonged to a family. They basically operate a bed and breakfast, but a bit more rustic. It really was pretty, and here it is at dusk:

There were mosquito nets surrounding the beds. I am not much of a camper, and this is about as "outdoorsy" as I get. Those blue things are the mosquito nets. You untie them and they surround your bed as you sleep so that the mosquitoes cannot get through. It was actually pretty fun!

I slept really well.......until about 4 AM, when the local Rooster began his "cock-a-doodle-doo" ritual. This continued every ten minutes, until about 7 AM, which was when we were supposed to have awakenend. I think almost all of us were awake with the first cock-a-doodle-doo, though!

The second night we stayed in Can Tho, still not exactly a touristy place, but there was a hotel which was quite nice and comfortable, and most importantly: AIR CONDITIONED. I also got a massage there which cost $6 USD for one hour. Amazingly cheap! And they used hot stones and oils and everything. It was fantastic. Just what the doctor ordered!

One of my favorite things to do is visit grocery stores. They always sell such neat foods that we don't have in the US. I come back to the ship with armloads of food like "lemongrass and chicken" flavored potato chips. Or Lychee soda. In addition to the cool grocery store, I was also able to visit another unique supplier of food in Vietnam: the Floating Market. Boats are all over the place and they pull up next to you and sell their produce.
This little boy was quite the salesman. He latched onto our boat and gave his banana sales pitch in pretty decent English:

Tomorrow I am going to the War Remnants Museum. I expect it to be emotionally jolting, shocking, and macabre. I will take many photos and post a blog when I return tomorrow evening. Additionally, my Dad has agreed to be a "guest contributor" to my blog. I have emailed him a few questions about his service in the Vietnam War and he has responded. Stay tuned....

In the meantime, I'm tired. I think I'll take a siesta. This lady has the right idea:
Good night, Saigon.

1 comment:

Mendy said...

Again, I'm so glad to be able to experience this vicariously through you. Beautiful and fascinating.