It has been a looooong time since my last blog post. Perhaps I get intimidated by the hours it takes to upload photos from Banlung! I have been hard at work, but decided to take a holiday to celebrate my birthday last week. After all, it was the big 2-5, and I decided to close out the first quarter-century of my life with a trip to Vietnam! As I write this, I am back at my desk in Banlung, amusedly listening while the construction workers next door sing along to Ke$ha. Loudly.
Saturday, the 23rd of June, I headed south to Phnom Penh. Previously, on my way up to Rattanikiri, I experienced the speedy, and slightly scary, mini-van service that is popular with locals. For this trip from Rattanikiri, I opted for the much cushier mega-bus, run by Sorya Transportation Co. Similar to the mini-vans, the bus company didn’t seem too concerned with leaving on time. I was picked up 30 minutes late, and we slowly packed in. There were at least ten empty rows, but the attendant insisted that I sit in my assigned seat. So I clambered over an elderly Khmer woman and squeezed myself into my spot at the window beside her, Seat 12.
I could hear people around me talking about me, the “baraang” foreigner. So I told them in Khmer that I understood, though I had really only caught a few words. The lady next to me apologized, and proceeded to hold my hand for literally the first two hours of the trip, stroking the inside of my forearm and admiring my pale skin while I slept. Throughout the trip she asked me a lot of questions, and I stumbled through answers about where I was from and why I was in Banlung. Sometimes I had no idea what she was saying, and I simply responded with “jaa.” At stops, fairly often, she bought snacks for us. The banana chips were delicious, but I struggled to swallow a few tubes of the pickled fish paste that she gave me, to be polite.
For the most part, the bus trip was pleasant. I had a great view out my window, I caught up on some Khmer grammar, my seat fully reclined, and the A/C was so strong that I had to pull my blanket from my backpack. We watched Cambodian music videos for the entire drive, which are entertaining to say the least. The downside to the bus was that we took our sweet time getting to Phnom Penh. Purportedly an “11 hour” bus ride, we left Banlung at about 7:00 AM, and didn’t make it to the capital until nearly 8:00 PM. The minivan would have had me in Phnom Penh at about 3:30 in the afternoon.
When we arrived at the bus station, I proudly used Khmer to negotiate a moto ride and give directions to Ali, Abby and Art’s house. We headed immediately out to a party at friend’s house, where we had sausages, drinks, and an intense Jenga session. Afterwards, we went to the Champs – Elysées Hotel for some fancy karaoke. So you know, all karaoke houses in Cambodia basically double as brothels. We obviously didn’t partake in that optional service, but we did sing some cacophonous renditions of Eagles hits and “My Heart Will Go On.” The last stop of the night was a bar called Equinox, to watch the European “football” tournament, live, at 3 AM.
On Sunday, I was not feeling 100%. I ate a delicious (expensive, $3.75) breakfast at a French restaurant in Phnom Penh. I saw Prometheus in 3D at the theatre, which was creepy. Afterwards, as a pre-birthday treat to myself, we went to Bodia Spa, a fancy place next to the National Museum. The spa feels very western, with prices that clearly aim to solicit tourists and expatriates. I splurged ($23.00) on a relaxing massage with rosemary oil. Bodia is immaculately clean, with hot showers in each room, modern decoration, a serene pond in the lobby, and receptionists with refined English ability. Still, there were charming Asian touches, like chilled lemongrass-ginger tea to start your visit, on a tray alongside hot towels and beautifully folded lotus blossoms. For only about $4.00, a Khmer massage is usually great! But, it was nice to be able to fully de-robe for a change. We finished the day with some surprisingly delicious Mexican food.
Monday, I felt worse. During the day, I made it over to Agugu’s to say hello. In the evening, I went to another movie. This time at Flicks, the cozy community theatre, with big mamasan chairs and plush mats to lie down on. I saw Sin Nombre for 3 bucks, which was a fantastic foreign movie.
Tuesday was my birthday! But, I felt even worse. I pulled myself up out of bed to go to a British doctor, recommended by the US Embassy. He did lab work and apparently I had Dengue Fever in my bloodstream, which could be the reason why I had such a high fever just little while ago and why I have been so fatigued. I also had a secondary bacterial infection, which was the real killer. I picked up medicine, and spent the rest of the day in bed. My roomies roused me in the evening, and took me to Mama’s New York Deli, which is run by a Khmer lady who worked in NYC for 30 years. She makes an seriously amazing corned beef sandwich on rye. Once back home, I was surprised with a beautiful sampling of 12 little cupcakes, from a bakery run by an NGO. We sat around and tasted them all. The Oreo Cream Cheese was definitely the favorite, followed by the White Chocolate Macadamia. So delicious. All in all a restful, tasty birthday.
On Wednesday morning I was off on a 6-hour bus ride to Vietnam. Crossing the border was relatively quick, as Vietnam requires visitors to arrange a visa ahead of time. I hadn’t done any research about Ho Chi Minh City, AKA Saigon, and was blindly heading into the city alone. So, I borrowed an outdated Lonely Planet guide from an Aussie across the aisle. We arrived at about 3 and, from the notes I had jotted down, I was able to get myself to a central area, close to the sites that I planned on seeing. The hostel I chose was squished into a narrow alley, 15 floors of one room each. I was thrilled to the luxuries of a balcony, a hot shower, a seated toilet, a thick mattress, and an incredibly high-powered A/C unit.
Traveling solo in a new city is an amazing experience, especially in one that speaks a challenging foreign language. I have been abroad in the past, but always to places with a group or at least another friend. Wandering around alone is intimidating to me, but exciting. In each new city, there is a learning curve for being comfortable. Initially, I pick a destination, figure out my route, and head out into the city on foot. I never feel that alone. Solo travelers seem to find each other. I share drinks and meals with strangers, chat with other “baraangs” on the bus, etc., despite the fact that I will never see them again.
It was already late afternoon in Saigon, but being an avid phô-lover, I immediately hoofed it over to Phô 2000 for dinner. I devoured a fantastically authentic bowl of the Vietnamese staple, surrounded by pictures of President Clinton during his trip to the shop. Since his visit, the sign out front has been changed, to include the slogan: “Phô for the President.” Afterwards, passing a Louis Vuitton, a Chanel, and numerous other fancy boutiques, was a clear sign that I was no longer in Cambodia. I made my way to the Saigon Sheraton, to visit the notorious 23rd-floor, open-air bar. Once up the elevator, I looked out over the sprawling city at a spot next to the rail, despite the rain. My first (pricey) Long Island Iced Tea went down the hatch too quickly, and I had to buy another one to make it through the sunset. It was worth it. I stayed for at least 2 hours, while the sun retreated and the city lights came to life. Absolutely beautiful, an amazing end to my first day as a 25-year-old.
After downing some French pastries, Thursday’s agenda began with the Hồ Chí Minh Museum, once known as Gia Long Palace. The exhibits were historical and informative. Several students in a Vietnamese school group snapped my picture as we wandered through the wing documenting protests of US involvement, which was a bit awkward as an American. From outside, the building is beautiful, built during French occupation. The grounds were lush, and contained antique vehicles, aircrafts, and Vietnamese military equipment. After the French withdrawal, Gia Long Palace had served as the temporary residence of Ngô Đình Diệm, first president of South Vietnam. He lived there while his main home (Reunification Palace, which I visited later) was being re-built after a rebel bombing. Diệm installed a bunker and an extensive tunnel system beneath Gia Long, which was one of the most interesting things to see. He used these underground passageways to escape during a coup in 1963, but was assassinated soon after.
The number of motorcycles on the road in Vietnam is simply overwhelming. Leaving the museum, I was incessantly hounded by drivers wanting my business. Happily using my own two feet, I quickly arrived at my next stop, the War Remnants Museum, just a few blocks away. It was apparently once called “The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government of South Vietnam.” As the former name suggests, the museum is extremely critical of America and South Vietnam, but does not discuss questionable war efforts by the Viet Cong or North Vietnam. While the content is skewed, it still realistically portrays atrocities of war. Photographs of civilian massacres and the destructive effects of Napalm made me not-so-proud of America. The Agent Orange exhibit was particularly disturbing, I just cannot believe that we utilized this chemical. There were numerous photographs of resulting deformities, and even a few misshapen fetuses preserved in formaldehyde. Less graphic was the Anti-American propaganda exhibit, with images of war protests from around the world.
I ate another bowl of phô, this time at Phô 24, and I opted for beef rather than chicken. Delish. Then, I headed over to Reunification Palace. The palace looks surprisingly like an 80’s office building from outside, but the interior is lavishly decorated and spacious, with long hallways surrounding glass-walled rooms. The current structure replaced the older Norodom Palace, which was home to the French Governors of Cochinchina. After the French signed the Geneva Accords, Norodom Palace became the home to Ngô Đình Diệm, the first leader of South Vietnam. As mentioned before, rebels bombed the older palace, and Diệm temporarily resided in Gia Long Palace while he commissioned the construction of the new building. World-renowned, Vietnamese architect Ngô Viết Thụ designed the present Palace, but Diệm was assassinated before completion in 1966. The Palace passed to the next president, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, who led South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. This is evidenced by the extensive basement, which obviously doubled as a wartime headquarters. Thiệu fled the nation a few days prior to the fall of Saigon, when a North Vietnamese tank bulldozed through the gates of the Palace and officially ended the war.
With the three main tourist sites under my belt, I wandered around town. I checked out the tallest building in town, the night market, and the riverfront. Of course, I opted for another bowl of authentic phô for dinner on the street. Stopping in for Tutti Fruitti Frozen Yogurt made me feel like I was in America. The American vibe continued while I drank a Coors Light, though the “Cold as the Rockies” slogan was definitely written in Vietnamese, which made me laugh.
After an early night and plenty of sleep, I spent the next morning searching the aisles of Bến Thành Market, a must-see in Saigon and my last stop. The massive market is similar to those in Phnom Penh, but it is cleaner, stocks higher-quality goods, and is flooded with tourists. The vendors are equally pushy, but I did help my bargaining to inform them that I live in Cambodia and I could just buy something there for cheaper. I found some great treasures for my friends, a colorful backpack and a beautiful set of chopsticks for me.
I was off to the bus station early in the afternoon. Departure was delayed for 2 ½ hours, and customs at the border was a slight headache. Apparently I have to leave the country by July 29th, so I think a trip to Laos is in order. We arrived in Phnom Penh at close to 8:30. I was tired. Agugu faithfully picked me up, and I chatted with my friends for a bit before bed. Early the next morning, I was off to meet my taxi to take me back home. A quick, exhausting trip, but it’s good to be home in Banlung!