|Brother's cafe in Tay Ninh.
Hi from somewhere in the 3 provinces just north of Sai Gon,
There are some topics about life in Viet Nam that one could talk about
for hours -- such as the traffic, bathrooms, and transportation. The
traffic is ALMOST beginning to make sense (:), except that I'm going to
die when I come back to the US and walk out in the middle of traffic, as
one does here. And bathrooms of various types have lost their novelty.
But transportation is still of great interest to me. I haven't yet
travelled by train, and the many ticket options were confusing. People
who had travelled by train said both: "It's a wonderful way to travel",
and "dachau". Depending on your seat, I guess. But several days ago, I
successfully bought my first ticket in Vietnamese -- a soft seat (ngoi
mem, as opposed to ngoi cung, hard seat)
day ticket from TPHCM to Nha
Trang, no airconditioning: $6. And the options are beginning to make sense.
However, I'm going to cancel that ticket because Monday I decided to
branch off of my schedule to go north along the coast, and to instead
visit some of the provinces north of TPHCM (Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh or Sai
Gon). I had one address in the province of Binh Phuoc north of TPHCM
which I decided to visit. Problem is, I couldn't see the town name on my
map, and my contact spoke very little English, so I couldn't ask. She
decided to rent a car to pick me up ($25, my penny!) It turned out that
her town's name had been changed from An Loc to
Binh Long -- no wonder I
couldn't find it on the US-bought map.
The visit at first looked like it was going to be a waste of time. This
is a young lady who has been sponsored to come to the US, and seemed to
me to be an angry young woman with a disfunctional family, with whom I
didn't have much in common. Her brother, not sponsored, was a sweet man
who spoke pretty good English, and was unemployed except for a breakfast
restaurant in his home by the side of the road.
Anyway, after having lunch with her and her brother's family, I thought
about the logistics of travelling to the next province --
Tay Ninh, where
the biggest Cao Dai temple is. They looked at me with disbelief when I
said that I wasn't going to rent a car to go there (another $25). A bus
(xe do) would cost about $1.50. But they were sure there wasn't any bus
that went to Tay Ninh from Binh Long. They shook their heads again and
again -- "You travel by yourself? Why? You want to go to Tay Ninh how?
By xe do? It's dangerous, the bus has lots of accidents, people will
steal your backpack. Vietnamese people don't take a xe do unless they
Well, to make a long story shorter, after a good evening reading English
books to the family and hearing them read pretty well, I was up bright
and early at the brother's cafe, ca phe sua in hand, by the side of the
road waiting for the xe do to Tay Ninh. His home has a branched tree in
front with orchid-like flowers drooping from it, so you feel like you are
eating under a flowered canopy. Kids going to
school bicycled by. The local guard in customary "calf-shit green"
uniform stopped by for a ca phe and conversation.
He said: It's boring here, isn't it. But I like it quiet, better than
in the city.
I was wondering a bit myself about the dangers of bus travel, as we
waited almost 2 (pleasant) hours for the bus, which comes somewhere
between 7 and 8:30. What would I do with my backpack and small suitcase
if I had to stand? Would I put my suitcase on the top, and would it be
safe? Would it be a small crowded xe do, or a more comfortable bigger
The bus turned out to be half-full and extremely comfortable though old.
Suitcase went under the seat, and I had a marvelous trip through the
somewhat mountainous land, with different scenery and different crops
from the Long An area. There is mile after mile of rubber trees here,
and a huge new rubber company. The bumpy road almost makes the trip more
Someone would let out a shriek about every minute or so --
which means one of the following:
1) she has a disease,
2) it's an old
traditional Vietnamese custom
3) has something to do with the traffic, or
4) I have no idea..
And I ended up with a pleasant travel companion -- a young girl named My
who was going to Tay Ninh to sell bananas that she had bought in Binh
Long. She buys them for 1 ngan (1000 dong - about 6 cents) a kilo, sells
them for 1.2 ngan a kilo, sells 100 kilos in a day, then returns to Binh
Long. The trip costs 20 ngan. Ok kids, what's her profit? I have it
worked out as exactly zero, unless she gets a discount on the trip.
My had studied English for 2 years, but was working a hard job that
didn't bring much in. I asked her what I could do about my suitcase and
backpack while I was visiting the Cao Dai "church" and she pointed me to
a hotel that even the Lonely Planet didn't know about -- for $1.50. Ha,
I feel like quite the experienced traveller!! A trip for $1.50 instead
of $25, and a hotel for $1.50 instead of $10.
And while drinking ca phe sua
in the small chairs in front of the hotel
(actually a nha tro, which is an overnight room -- as opposed to a
tho which could mean a church or a brothel or a poet, depending on the
accent!!) I had one of these wonderful conversations with pure strangers
that happens so often in this country. A man
stopped by and it turns out he was in the US getting trained in
electronics from August to December 1974. Another 4 months, and he would
have been "stuck" in the US for good. He was a Cao Dai, and I tried to
get from him some info on this religion which is built on communications
from seances, but he didn't have the vocabulary for that discussion.
I visited the church, then it was time to think about
getting back to Sai Gon. Took a nap, then got up and the man at the
tho pointed to his watch, waved me to a honda driver, and in a few
minutes I was at yet another food stand at the side of another road,
waiting for yet another xe do. This time my conversation partner was
the food stand owner, a vegetarian Caodai lady. I joined her for bun
chay (vegetarian noodle soup), but the bus came before I finished. She
said "An di" (eat, finish!) but me and my backpack and small suitcase
were quickly back on a bus headed for some bus station in Sai Gon, again
in an uncrowded bigger bus -- as the sun was setting.
And again, interesting travel companions. I have yet to have a local bus
ride where there hasn't been a friendly person hanging around to talk
with -- not pushy, but fun. This lady showed me all sorts of strange
vegetables and animals that she was carrying. I've forgotten the names. I
nibbled at a "flower" that tasted like clover. She gave me a
fruit/vegetable that looked like a yellow pepper, but smelled sweet. She
offered me some animals that looked like small eels -- but I declined!
And then -- before I knew it (2 1/2 hours) we were in the An Suong bus
station of Sai Gon. But where the heck was it? -- the Lonely Planet
doesn't mention it. Surrounded by anxious honda drivers, I determined to
find out where I was before paying someone to take me to a hotel. Turns
out the Lonely Planet gives it a different name: the Tay Ninh station.
Bargained a bit for the price to the tourist area (ha, I can finally
bargain a bit, though I don't try too hard), stopped at my favorite cafe
for a chao chay (vegetarian rice soup with veggies and ginger), then
discovered a nice dormitory room next door for $3. Man, am I good! I
just wish I'd discovered this place during my two weeks here before. Uh,
there was a man in the dormitory, but... he was a nice young Japanese
boy, and ... well there are advantages to being almost 60 on a trip like
And on that note I'll wish you a happy Wednesday, and go back to my map
to plan the weeks ahead. Went through 3 new provinces this past two days
(Binh Phuoc, Tay Ninh, and the one below Binh Phuoc), which makes 17
down, 1 missed, 43 to go (61 total). Vung Tau, a seashore area, is the
logical next province to go to, but people say it's a tourist trap. I'll
probably skip it, and head for the salt dunes near Phan Thiet, where I
believe I can meet a young Christian student that I met on my last trip.
He's now a "Seminarian" on his own, and a very funny guy.
From Phan Thiet I'll go to Nha Trang by bus, and then will start
travelling by train, slowly toward the north -- Da Nang, Hue, Dong Ha,
Vinh, and finally, Ha Noi.
I might not have internet access in the next few weeks, unless things
have changed since I was in Vietnam two years ago. I can't update my
website, since the government has blocked Geocities, the parent
website. I've been a week ahead of schedule up to now, but since I've
taken 3 unplanned days to visit provinces Northwest of TPHCM, I'm now
just 4 days ahead of schedule. I imagine I'll soon get back to the
Thanks for hanging in there with me, and I trust you are enjoying this
the most beautiful time of the year in the US.