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Tay Ninh
Letter #7: April 2, 2002
by Beth Buffam

Brother's cafe in Tay Ninh.
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 have to..."

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 one?

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 exciting.

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 nha 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 nha 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 this.

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 original schedule.

Thanks for hanging in there with me, and I trust you are enjoying this the most beautiful time of the year in the US.

-Beth

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