Saigon/HCMC Vietnam: Guitar Street

by Stax

Gypsy. Tramp. Thief.

A sad story I will now relate. Our beloved guitar is mortally wounded. The wood underpinning the bridge split in half, leaving two of the strings unusable.

We don’t give up on the guitar easily though. We walk a couple of kilometers in 100 degree heat and blazing midday sun from Pham Ngu Lao to Saigon’s “Guitar Street” – a.k.a., Nyugen Thien Thuat.

"Guitar Street" in Ho Chi Minh City. Image courtesy vietnamnet.vn “Guitar Street” in Ho Chi Minh City. Image courtesy vietnamnet.vn

This where most of the stringed instruments have been made by hand, repaired and sold for hundreds of years. If there’s anywhere in Saigon to find out if Beej’s guitar has a chance at survival, it’s here.

But the prognosis is grim. Every shop we go to takes one look and says the same thing: “There is nothing that can be done.”

The bridge is cracked and if they take off the bottom part, the finish will also…

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Saigon/HCMC Vietnam: Pham Ngu Lao-cious

by Beej McKay

23/9 Park in the Dark. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
23/9 Park in the Dark. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

The 23/9 Park across from Pham Ngu Lao street in Saigon’s backpacker district is swarming with activity from 6 am on.

This being a large Vietnamese city where authority is centralized, most of the activity is pretty tightly regulated. The first day we’re there, dozens of organized groups are kicking the shuttlecock around; the next day, everyone – I mean everyone – is rollerblading, and it’s as if the shuttlecock never existed.

The slight oddness is amplified doubly by the fact that we’ve arrived while the entire park is being used as an advertisement for Vietnam’s tourist industry. A garish live concert, as loud as at any arena, is being held at the east end. Vietnamese pop singers extol the wonders of the country’s natural beauty in song while images of waterfalls and beaches are projected on a giant screen behind them.

The singers strain their hardest to get the packed and seated crowd worked up. They dance and sing with tremendous flair and energy. This being a reticent Southeast Asian country, though, and not prone to outward celebratory expression, the pop stars’ raised fists and triumphant smiles at the end of every song occasion no uproar.

No, instead there is dead silence once the music falls silent. Not one spectator betrays any sign that they have just witnessed a performance at all, no matter how slam-bang the spectacle. It makes me feel bad for the performers giving it all, but I’m sure they’re used to it.

Pretty sure this girl was there? Not positive.

The rest of the festival is mostly just booths hawking Malaysian cruises and temple tours and such. The only other highlight occurs when we run across a large group little kids dancing to a  great DJ spinning hardcore hip-hop tracks (think an F-bomb every five seconds) while their parents look on. The DJ is so good, in fact, that Stax and I have a hard time stopping ourselves from joining the kids. The dour expressions of the parents as they stand around put a damper on these inclinations, however.

Despite these peculiar goings-on, the park is very pleasant at most hours and usually full of Vietnamese students  eager to speak English or French with foreigners. Don’t deny yourself this experience – you will get more out of the exchange than the kids themselves probably will.

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Since we returned to Saigon from our mountain retreat in Dalat, we’ve been staying at the Vy Khanh Guesthouse down a maze of  back alleys just off the main street.

Shadows in the back alley. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
Shadows in the back alley. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

Vy is really nice and helpful and her guesthouse is too fancy for what we are paying. She’s also great to talk to, and the setting of her place is pretty awesome.

The alleyways of Pham Ngu Lao. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
The alleyways of Pham Ngu Lao. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

The steaming narrow alleys of Pham Ngu Lao, jam-packed with guesthouses and family residences and noodle stands and herb shops, wouldn’t be out of place in a movie like “Big Trouble in Little China”. I could easily picture  Lo-Pan and the Storms facing off against their rivals right outside our guesthouse.

Big-trouble-in-little-china-big-trouble-in-little-china-30907475-853-480
Ah, my dear misadventurists…make yourself at home in my Saigon alley. There is nothing to fear!
Why, thank you Lo-Pan! What a nice older gentlema....AHHHHHHHHHHH!
Why, thank you Lo-Pan! What a nice older gentlemAHHHHHHHHHH MAKE HIM STOP

Stax and I waste no time in finding the best Pho and the best fruit and yogurt smoothies in the neighborhood. The stage is set for a very pleasant five days in Saigon before we head  across the border to Phnom Penh. But as soon as I open my guitar case –  for the first time since our bus trip from Da Lat – I realize that not all will go as smoothly as I hope.

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Part Two of Saigon update soon!
To Be Continued…

Vietnam: Coffee! Coffee! Coffee!

Stax gets juiced up in Saigon and lives to tell the tale! Stay tuned for more misadventures from your favorite Misadventurists.

Gypsy. Tramp. Thief.

p20140512-175941Deceptively innocent coffee. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

Back in Saigon from Dalat, we’re hanging out at Highlands Coffee, a major coffee shop chain in Vietnam. I’m sitting in front of the large windows on the second floor overlooking the backpacker district at Pham Ngu Lao. We come here for a break from the crowds, wifi, and coffee, of course. Vietnamese coffee or Cà phê sữa đá, is so powerful, it could wake up the dead. I prefer to get it iced, but even the melted ice cubes do little to tone down its strength.

Still, I forget how strong Vietnamese style coffee is, until I take my first sip of the day. The mix of concentrated coffee and sweetened condensed milk hit me hard. Every time. One drop meets my tongue and my brain goes into system overload. Caffeine! Caffeine! Caffeine! Caffeine! my cells scream. Caffeine sprinting through the blood…

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Saigon to Da Lat, Vietnam!

Fellow Misadventurists! Greetings from Da Lat, Vietnam.

Why are we in Da Lat, an eight hour bus ride up into the mountains, so soon after arriving in Saigon?

To quote Senor Inigo Montoya, let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

After our long flight from Hong Kong to Manila; the afore-mentioned sleepless overnight layover in the stinking basement of the Manila airport watching bad 1970s Filipino exploitation movies; the subsequent, even longer flight over the Pacific from Manila to Saigon; the wait at the baggage carousel in Saigon only to discover that the airline had misplaced the bag with all of my clothing back in Manila, meaning I would be stuck in the reeking clothes I had worn since Hong Kong (sorry Stax!) while they tracked it down and sent it to the airport in Da Lat three days later; the local bus ride from the Saigon airport to the Pham Ngu Lao district and the near loss of my camera on that same bus; the ensuing fifteen minute chase after said bus on the back of a hired motorbike in the oven of midday Saigon, careening over traffic-swarmed bridges and bombing through pedestrian-swarmed riverside shanties, barely clinging to the rear handle, only to find the surprised bus driver lounging at his lunch stop miles away (he had stowed the camera safely behind his seat when he found it) – needless to say, this 24 hours of abject boredom and restless excitement has left us pretty much exhausted, and we need a break in a cooler climate.

So, back in Pham Ngu Lao, we pay the moto driver a few bucks for his trouble and then jump aboard a giant red Phuong Trang sleeper bus to Da Lat.

open_bus
Your typical sleeper bus in its wild habitat (parking lot). Image courtesy http://www.sleeperbusvietnam.com

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For those unfamiliar with the various species of Southeast Asian bus, a sleeper bus is the variety with three long rows of seats, top and bottom, which fold out fully horizontal into makeshift bunkbeds, allowing the rider (theoretically) to snooze away the long hours of the trip.

Relaxing, right? Wrong. DEAD WRONG. Image courtesy noplacetobe.com
Relaxing, right? Wrong. DEAD WRONG. Image courtesy noplacetobe.com

Notice I said “theoretically”. This theory – let’s call it the General Theory of Sleep on a Sleeper Bus – holds true only under one condition: if every human element present upon the sleeper bus is somehow controlled for.

For kicks, let’s enter one or more of the following variables into the experiment: the driver barrelling around blind corners directly into the path of giant cement trucks, barely swerving back into the correct lane in time to avoid collision and the fiery demise of all “sleepers” aboard; the driver’s cohorts blasting at top volume (I mean eardrum-splitting, cranked-up-to-11 volume) a musical concoction of pure excrement posing as Vietnamese EDM out of speakers that are conveniently located a foot over the “sleeper’s” prone bodies; the driver steering (I’m only assuming he was steering) with one hand while keeping the other hand constantly pressed to the ear-splitting air horn to helpfully warn motorbike drivers that he is about to run them over; and the fact that most foreign travelers on sleeper buses must settle for the higher top bunk (they tend to give lower seats to locals), meaning that every swerve, sudden brake, and crunching, bottom-out pothole is amplified to crisis levels.

Stax, true to form (as anyone who knows her will tell you), falls asleep almost immediately and barely stirs henceforth. I, with my control freak tendencies and hyper-awareness in moments of extreme danger, have to force myself to find brief moments of rest amidst the barrage. If I am to get any sleep for the rest of our extensive travels, I’ll have to learn to relax in these situations.

The sweltering lowland humidity gives way to the alpine air of the highlands. We glimpse dark forms of mountain ranges. The traffic has let up and and we now pounce upon only the occasional motorbike and bicycle (most leaping suddenly out of the blackness into our view because they have no lights on their bikes in front or in back). I’ll say this about rural Vietnamese commuters: they have some balls).

We manage to arrive in Da Lat at around midnight in one piece.

Well, I say “in Da Lat” loosely, because in one final raised middle finger to the passengers before he drives the cursed bus back down to the Netherworld from whence he came, the driver has dropped us at the farthest bus station, approximately 3 km from where most of us are staying.

For several moments the hapless foreigners stand with their huge bags beside them in the empty station, eyeing the unmarked taxis that wait like silent predators (and which we have been warned to avoid as they have the habit of scamming foreigners outrageously), wondering how we’ll get somewhere we can finally sleep.

Belatedly, help screeches in in the form of a free shuttle (which suspiciously does not bear the name of the bus company, and which nobody from the bus company thought to tell us about), a shuttle that will supposedly take us to our various guesthouses. We load our bags into this van and follow the driver’s finger to the seats. But all the time, my built in scam radar is bleeping wildly due to the warning signs I mentioned before.

I needle the driver:

“Free?” I ask. No answer.

“Free?” I say again, louder, losing precious face by the second. Again, no answer.

“Free or I get off the bus!” I say even louder, thinking that impossibly, he might not have heard me, or that he’s just hoping I’ll give up so he can get a good fare out of us.

Finally someone else – not the driver, who is scrunching down in apparent shame – turns to me and nods.)

In Vietnam for less than 24 hours, I have already managed to shatter the unwritten code of Southeast Asia – the one where everybody stays calm and doesn’t raise a fuss or a holler no matter what, even if heading at that moment over a cliff. I have lost face irretrievably for myself and my entire family past, present, and future. But at least I saved a couple bucks, and I am assured now that this is the right shuttle and not just an opportunist taxi posing as the shuttle.

All is dark at the guesthouse when we arrive. I help the grim-faced driver (who practically spins all the way around to avoid eye contact) unload our bags and he’s off, presumably to a bar to tell his drinking buddies about the horrible American he was just unfortunate enough to pick up.

Luckily the guesthouse owner has waited for us, even though our bus is over 2 hours late. We thank him profusely and head up to the cool and spacious guest room. Sleep overwhelms us seconds later.
TO BE CONTINUED. Next Post: Da Lat!

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Welcome to HCMC Part 2

And I never saw Beej again.

Just kidding.

I’m sitting at Highlands Coffee (a major chain in Vietnam), taking big gulps of my Vietnamese style iced coffee (syrupy and strong coffee, sweetened, and then sweetened some more with sweetened condensed milk).

Highlands Coffee Shop in Hcmc
Typical Highlands Coffee. Image courtesy vietnamonline.com

The big gulps serve two purposes. One, I’m thirsty and it’s freaking hot out here. Two, I keep forgetting that ice, while nice on a hot day, can contribute to gastrointestinal dysfunction. I actually say that lightly. As we are traveling through so many countries with so many different levels of disease factors, I’m assuming that I will catch something, I just don’t know when or where. But if I recall correctly, Vietnam is fairly good when it comes to cleanliness and disease control as compared to some of its neighbors.

But I digress. The point is, Ben is on an adventure. And I’m sitting here with nothing to do but lollygag. As you may recall from my previous post, Ben has hopped on the back of a motorbike to chase after a bus and retrieve the camera he loves before it falls into the wrong hands. Such high drama!

I’m hoping they find the bus and the driver. Losing that camera will be a big blow to our budgets if we have to buy another one for our doc shoot.

For now, I will sit in the a/c, drink my iced coffee, think about the cost of a new camera, think about mosquitoes, bide my time, and wait for Ben’s return.

Update: Ben has just returned, big grin on his face, his camera grasped triumphantly in his hands.

He raises his camera case high so I can’t miss it, much like Gollum raises the One Ring after a long and trying separation.

“I got it!” he exclaims.

What a relief.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Welcome to Ho Chi Minh Part 1

What happened in the first hour we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City from Hong Kong!

Standing under a bright blue sky and an unrelenting noonday Saigon sun, Beej and I are drip drip dripping sweat like broken faucets. We’re in the middle of a bustling bus depot at the busiest roundabout in all of Ho Chi Minh City. The hot wind, whipped up by the hundreds of motorbikes zipping around us, does nothing to cool us down.

I look up at Beej to say something about heading over to a coffee shop I’ve spied nearby. Having arrived by plane in Ho Chi Minh City not too long ago, it seems an hour an a half of languishing in 90 degree heat is not enough time to acclimatize to the weather when you’ve only just recently gotten used to the lovely 60s and 70s of Hong Kong. I want water. Stat.

But looking at Beej, I see a metaphorical cloud has descended over his face. He’s looking way too serious for having just arrived in Vietnam. These first moments in a new world are normally what he thrives on.

Then I see that his eyes are following the local bus we had just gotten off of as it heads to a nearby intersection.

“There goes my camera,” he says in a monotone. “I left it on the bus.” Two beats later, he brightens. “I think I can catch him.”

“Well,” I say. “You better run because he’s about to turn that corner.”

With that, Beej takes off across the intersection, dodging streams of motorbikes, toward the bus, which quickly leaves him in the dust.

So he turns toward a group of men with motorbikes, the same guys that promised us cheap rides when we stepped off the bus.

I want to tell him that I can take his big black backpack off his back, and maybe make his search a bit easier, but it’s too late. He’s already hopped onto the back of a motorbike and they’re off, weaving in and out of motorbikes, cars, mini-trucks, and other buses that make up Saigon traffic. With one hand pointing, I imagine Beej shouting, “follow that bus” above the roaring engines.

There’s nothing more I can do, so I head to that nearby coffee shop.

Gypsy. Tramp. Thief.

Standing under a bright blue sky and an unrelenting noonday Saigon sun, Beej and I are drip drip dripping sweat like broken faucets. We’re in the middle of a bustling bus depot at the busiest roundabout in all of Ho Chi Minh City. The hot wind, whipped up by the hundreds of motorbikes zipping around us, does nothing to cool us down.

I look up at Beej to say something about heading over to a coffee shop I’ve spied nearby. Having arrived by plane in Ho Chi Minh City not too long ago, it seems an hour an a half of languishing in 90 degree heat is not enough time to acclimatize to the weather when you’ve only just recently gotten used to the lovely 60s and 70s of Hong Kong. I want water. Stat.

But looking at Beej, I see a metaphorical cloud has descended over his face. He’s…

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