I got out of Vung Tau after a few days of relearning the traveller’s life. I made a few friends that I could not afford to keep for long. So I set out of the small town with the intent of crossing the border to Cambodia. However, I managed to find a host in Saigon and decided to stay for a couple of days. Despite the few times I had been in the big city, I had seen very little of it and had used it more or less as a pass-through.
I left Vung Tau and headed for Saigon. I was in half a mind to exit the country on the same day and spend more time in Cambodia. For some reason I had never felt any charm for the big city in the multiple times I passed through it. I was also running low on my reserve of dongs as well and did not want to make another withdrawal. Just to try my luck, I sent some random messages on couchsurfing and one of the better rated hosts accepted my request! All this happened during my 2 hour transit from Vung Tau to Saigon, so by the time I stepped out of the cab in District One, I had the address of my host and directions of how to get there!
I caught a bus from the Ben Thanh bus stop as directed by my host, Phuong. The ride took me a considerable distance off the city’s center. I got off in front of the Trường ĐHSP Kỹ Thuật, the Technical University of Saigon. I walked into one of the lanes to the house number that Phuong had provided me. The house was easy to find but I was left slightly amused when I found myself looking at another English Center!
The receptionist let me in and and Phuong came out of a meeting to tell me that it would take her 30 minutes or so to complete the meeting. I asked her if I could dump my bags somewhere and then told her that I would return in half an hour. I strolled out of the center to look for a cafe and found one a few buildings down from Phuong’s place.
I sat in the small cafe reading and sipping on my favourite form of Vietnamese coffee, a Ca Phe Sua Da. This district seemed to be reasonable as compared to District One. Things were not outrageously expensive and I did not need to think a hundred times before I decided to treat myself to a coffee. Before the thirty minutes were over, however, it started to rain; and it rained like mad! It was so bad that I decided to sit the rains out despite the center being less than fifty meters from where I was.
The rains did not stop, however, and I decided to leave after having another smoothie. I got a little wet in the few feet that I had to run in order to get to the center. Phuong was sitting at the reception and we exchanged hellos again. She took me upstairs to show me the room I would be getting. I was to have a big room all to myself! NICE! There was a fan and a mattress; what else could a weary traveller want for? Phuong did not talk much, and I was not sure if it was her nature or whether she was too busy. She just showed me where what was and then left telling me that she would appreciate it if I came down to talk to the students later that evening. I gladly agreed.
Chinh and I had gotten in touch and had planned to meet later that evening. The rains were proving to be a nuisance though and we postponed the plan for later. The rains would not stop till around 8 in the evening, pouring with intensity for more than three hours! I went downstairs to talk to the students later. It was a pretty nice experience as always. These students were the more advanced ones and I now had the requisite training to talk with patience and understanding. We talked mostly about my travel through Vietnam. Two of the students even offered to accompany me for dinner when I told them I had not had food yet!
I ate a Bo Kho Hu Tieu for dinner and talked some more to the two students who had joined me. I asked them about their studies and about life in Saigon. It was true what I had been told earlier. Life outside of District One was much cheaper than in it. This being the university area, it seemed to be really cheap. I bid the guys farewell after dinner and walked back to the center. I sat downstairs a while and talked to Phuong about travel in India; how safe it is for travellers, etc. I have found this a constant apprehension in many females whom I have met. They want to go to India but the news says that it is unsafe for females. I tried to explain as best I could but it is difficult to dispel such reservations.
Two more girls who were being hosted by Phuong returned from District One telling horror stories about clogged roads and standstill traffic because of the incessant rains. They were surfing in the center as well but I did not get to interact with them. The center was big and comfortable but consequently lacked opportunities to get to know one’s fellow surfers. Anyhow, I did some writing and then called it a night. I had some vague plans as to how I would spend the next day.
Up in the Air
I took a bus back to District One the next day. The public bus service in Saigon was proving to be quite convenient. By the time I had reached Ben Thanh Market, Chinh had pinged me and we had arranged to meet for lunch. Chinh was a friend of a friend whom I had met during a trip to Saigon while I was teaching in Dong Nai. Neither of us were aware of any good places in District One so I agreed to meet Chinh near the airport. She was an air-hostess and lived in that area. The war museum that I had planned on seeing was also breaking for lunch so I had something to do rather than wander mindlessly in District One.
A bit of looking around online led me to a very useful app, BusMap. This app listed all the bus routes and provides easy search facilities to look for options to commute from point A to point B. Using the app, I found a bus route that would take me to the airport and then found the closest bus stop on that route; easy-peasy. To top it off, the bus cost me a mere 5k VND. Upon getting to the airport and meeting Chinh, I told her how awesome I found Saigon’s bus service. She had never taken the bus though since she found them hot and crowded.
Amazing buses of Saigon
We went to a place that served Bun Dau Mam Tom, a rice noodle and tofu dish with shrimp sauce. Chinh ordered the food and I did the majority of eating! We talked a lot, during the lunch and after it as well. She was having a hard time coping with her flying schedule. She flew to Los Angeles (USA) twice a month and while I had thought flying to LA would be an exciting prospect, she enlightened me to the other side of the story. The life of a flight attendant was not as rosy as I had previously supposed. She also informed me that Nils might be returning to Vietnam for a longer time. That would be something. 😀
Kevin approves of Dau Mam Tom!
Chinh paid for the lunch despite my insistence and then we sat in the mall next doors for some dessert and coffee. Chinh’s friend joined us there and we sat talking about random things. I left a while later; they were school friends with much catching up to do and I had a war museum to visit. I took another bus back towards District one and got off right next to the museum; easy-peasy.
The war museum left me in a state of frustration. Along my travels through Vietnam, I had time and again met Americans who, after a few drinks, were willing to talk about the Vietnamese war. I had heard them take various stances; some said that the American government was simply supporting a civil war like in the case of Koreas; some admitted to them going overboard with the bombings; some agreed that the Americans were wrong, but that was the American government, not the people. What I found in the war museum was a tremendous amount of buried history, something that no one was talking about.
My source of knowledge about the Vietnamese war had always been popular media. While I admit that it is not the best of sources for knowledge, I had no idea how biased it all was. My few hours in the museum made me aware of the other side of the story. The Americans had allegedly set up a (questionably) puppet government in southern Vietnam after France’s defeat as the coloniser. They had even issued statements that they were protecting their interests in the tin and tungsten available in the region. This is not something difficult to imagine. Imperialism is no longer an unknown strategy now.
Then there were the napalm and phosphorus bombs. And the gruesome Agent Orange. Chemical warfare was one of the excuses that the American government had used to invade Iraq. How many remembered that they had committed the same crime themselves in Vietnam? To top it off, all these chemicals were dumped in the country when they left after their “defeat”. The Vietnamese were left to deal with these toxic residues of warfare.
And then there is the glorification of the American war veterans. Bob Kerrey, a decorated war veteran, was made a senator and he did not admit to his crimes till 2001 when independent agencies uncovered the incident. He and his squadron had pulled out Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children, killed and disemboweled them during a raid in one of the villages. Where are these stories when the popular media depicts the war veterans?
Where are the explanations?
There are many more gruesome pictures in the album, of the horrors that USA wrecked upon Vietnam and it’s people. Look them up and read up on these topics if you want to be reminded of what the world’s western idol is really like.
Vietnam is trying to forget war and move forward and this is what is happening as a result. History is being ignored, forgotten and erased. America has done an excellent job of shielding it’s youth from the havoc they have and are creating throughout the world. They are made to believe in America’s greatness without having to learn what gory foundations that so-called greatness lies on. I am not suggesting that America lives in the past and constantly apologises for the crimes that it’s country had committed. But such ignorance of it’s history is appalling. It is propaganda staring us right into our faces. The voices of people like Chomsky are easily sidelined in such an ignorant setting and the loud believers and peddlers of the American dream are the ones heard.
I returned to Phuong’s place towards the evening. I had another talk scheduled with two students. The two were sisters, one around 20 and the other older. The younger one was a student and was interested in travelling. The older one was a teacher and had a bad case of car sickness which prevented her from travelling. I talked to them for a while and then went out to have some dinner. After dinner, Phuong and another girl from the staff invited me to join them for some dessert. We went to a nearby place to have a bowl of yoghurt and fruits which was pretty nice. We talked about my life and travels mostly. Phuong was surprised to learn that I was travelling after marriage and seemed to me pretty impressed by Parul. She was also interested in learning about how things differed between Vietnam and India. I explained her to the best of my ability how and why things in India were the way they were. We had a lot of time to talk since the rains had started pouring again. It was a repetition of the last night and we tried in vain to wait it out. Eventually we borrowed a couple of umbrellas from the vendor and walked back to the center while getting ourselves partially drenched.
I got up the next morning and packed my bags. I said goodbye to Phuong who was sitting at the reception. I got the printouts of my Cambodian visa on my way to the bus stop. I took the usual bus route back to District One and finished my daily post on the way. The journey to Ben Thanh market was short and uneventful as always.
As I walked from Ben Thanh bus stop to the Phuong Heng office, a few young fellows walked up to me and asked if they could practice some English with me. It was similar to what I had experienced in Hue. I talked to them and they talked back. Some of them were students and some were working. It was an interesting experience as always. They had an interesting exercise where in they tried to sell a pen to me in exchange for something I had. I gave them a packet of cookies, the only thing on me that I could barter. I told them the proverb about the pen being mightier than the sword and it fascinated them. They also gave me a 200 VND bill as a souvenir before saying goodbye. I was definitely going to miss this country and it’s people! 😥
Conversations in English
I got roped in by four more young girls once before eventually finding my way to the bus service office. Phuong Heng’s 1 PM bus was not running so they offered me a ticket for a 11:30 AM bus by another service, Long Phuong. I bought the ticket and decided to make the most of the half an hour till the bus by grabbing a bowl of Pho. I cleared my stash of Vietnamese Dong by buying some tidbits. I was ready to move out of Vietnam now.
The Long Phuong bus was not as comfortable as the one I had taken on my last journey to Phnom Penh. The person next to my seat was an old Vietnamese man who now lived in Houston. His entire family had moved to the USA and he had none left in Vietnam anymore. He was travelling across the border to Cambodia for just a couple of days. The intent seemed to be the casinos on this side of the border.
The border crossing at Bavet was slightly stricter than the last time but nothing that would make one break a sweat. I ate a Bo Kho Bhanh Mi while waiting for the assistant to come with our passports. The waiters at the restaurant were amused by my knowledge of the dish’s name. I slept some more on the way to Phnom Penh and the bus reached the city as uneventfully as the last time. I needed another top up to reactivate my Cambodian SIM card. It is amazing how much simpler everything is in Cambodia. I had needed long frustrating sessions of charades to get data recharges done in Vietnam. The level on English of the Cambodian people made it much easier to explain what I wanted.
I rushed to the Sorya bus stand to check if I could catch an onwards bus on the same day. I had missed the last bus by 30 minutes. I decided to stay in Velcommen again for the night.
Phnom Penh by night
The rude staff was rude as the last time. The firang owner saw me in with some ease. I spent the night eating dinner, reliving Cambodia’s dollar economy and working a bit. I slept early since I was tired and because I had an early bus to catch the next day.
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Find the previous posts in this series here.
And here is the complete album of the Saigon leg of the trip.