I wake to an almost eerie sunrise, tinting the haze in an orange-red color becoming a grainy photograph in my mind and on my lens. Laos has been special. Unexpectedly so, beautifully so, and my heart sinks a little as I put my bag out the door for it to be picked up. But I am missing my name written on my ID tag in Vietnamese and Cambodian, so the journey continues. Besides, in Vietnam I have a familiar face of a friend waiting. It will be nice to catch up and hear about his life as a local.
We will experience flying a new airline for us: Vietnam Airlines. Just right to get us in the Vietnam mood. Somehow, Robin William’s voice as he says “Good-morning Vietnaaaaam” doesn’t seem to get out of my head. Our flight is delayed an hour which allows me some time for coffee which comes in a heart-shaped cup. I add the local paper and some Thai music on my headphones. I close my eyes for a moment and think of how enriched I am by all the experiences I’ve had so far. The silly grin surfaces on my face once again.
As we arrive, it surprises me that the airport is not very congested. Sufficient immigration officials for all of us so we spread out, almost one to a line. “Paraguay?” mine asks inquisitively. “Yes”, I smile. I am used to this interaction. Happens in every country. Sometimes they chat about it, sometimes they have to look it up on their list to actually confirm that such country exists. Here I get a scowl. Alone? No, with tour. Where? To Myanmar, Thailand… NO! Where tour? Oh, they cleared immigration already. I get a shrug from him. From? Laos Another shrug. Ticket? Uh, which ticket? Next to?? Oh, here’s my itinerary. By bus to Cambodia next. I’ll make it short for you guys… In total I got (in about 10 minutes) around 7 shrugs, numerous scowls, a request to produce my alien card from the US, and when he ran out of questions and reasons to question my visa he just stared at me scowling and I at him, still smiling. He still has my passport. My mind was wondering what next and my heart at this point was racing, racing to nowhere but exerting itself nonetheless. GO!, he says and I enter Vietnam as I see my guide coming back for me. Turns out that all the nastiness could have been avoided had I slipped a few bucks. Or then again, I could have ended up in jail trying to bribe a public official. I wasn’t going to take any chances.
It’s mid-afternoon on a Saturday in Ho Chi Minh. The city seems to be on speed. The sounds of motorbike engines punctuated by horns, people talking loudly and my gasps, as I see more than one unsafe driving condition and near miss, are not melding together well at all.
It’s Bangkok craziness times three. We are instructed that when we get off the bus, if we cross the street we should not stop in the middle, not walk back, not run. Supposedly they will skirt us if we just walk calmly. If I raise my hand, as in Bangkok, will they stop? Giggle. Nope, but you can raise both arms in signal of defeat says my guide. Ay, ay, ay!
We go to the Ming Phuong lacquer factory. They give us a fan upon arrival that I will use throughout the rest of the trip. The process of lacquering is so time consuming and involves so many steps that I now understand why it is so expensive. So much patience involved. This woman is breaking the duck eggs to apply on one of the steps. These men are varnishing, seemingly unaffected by the fumes that emanate from the pool. And, yes, two of them are smoking away as they work. The result is astounding on some of the pieces.
I buy two small items. Little old me, who never buys anything on vacation, must have had a crash course ‘cause my suitcase is getting mighty heavy!
Next we head towards the Notre-Dame Basilica in the center of the city. For the record, I don’t think I’m in France, there happens to be one in Saigon that was built in 1877. It is pretty though not that impressive when compared to the European cathedrals.
Remember April 29, 1975? On April 30 Saigon fell and the reunification of Vietnam into a Communist state began. This marked the end of the Vietnam War. On April 29 the CIA personnel was evacuated from the top of the CIA building. A famous photo by Hilbert Van Es captures the moment for posterity. We are staring at that building now. The actual building will be demolished in a week’s time to give way to a new development.
As we again cross the street to the bus (and survive) I hear that Amarjit has had her camera stolen in less than a few seconds. We are all heartbroken. She had all the photos of the trip in the one SD card that was in it.
We go to the hotel. The group will have dinner there. I was going to call my friend but no need. His girlfriend and he are in the lobby waiting for my arrival. I take a quick shower and go to dinner with them. I leave my camera or I would share photos. Tried a soda, lime and sugar concoction that I loved and my first Vietnamese-style soup, which was great. We eat outdoors. It’s really crowded and I am reminded that it’s a Saturday night. The evening is still young and we (actually they) decide that we should go dancing at The Sheraton where there is a live band. Haven’t danced in years and made up for it tonight! Haven’t gone to bed this late in a long time either. The cab tries to charge me much more than what he told them he would. Hey, I’m good at this by now and give him only what was arranged and open the door to the lobby at 2:00 am.
Feeling young all over again. Let’s see if I still feel like that tomorrow.