When we went outside the hotel to get soup for breakfast, we saw Cambodia – a valley, and then a row of mountains that is already in another country. After breakfast we went back to the hotel for coffee with Nip and Quan, as next to us sat a bunch of giggling women who spit shells of seeds on the floor. I had a feeling they were laughing at Roni and I, because they were from the outskirts areas and hadn’t seen a lot of white people in their lives.
Before nine we were on the bikes again, back on the roads. The sun was beaming and strange tan marks began to form on my thighs. We stopped here and there at monuments for the war fatalities, and on a narrow road inside a jungle. Quan showed us a small rough fruit you can eat its soft core, and said in broken English that they used to eat that in the war to survive. He saw a root with a strong perfumed scent, and said you can chew on it if you have fever. We continued the ride, stopping here and there in front of landscapes that broke my heart.
We reached at a relatively big village with 10,000 residents, and Quan took us for a walk in the marketplace. Curious children followed us as we looked at the vegetables and meat, tubs of seafood, live poultry and one crab that escaped a tub and walked in the market’s alleys. Outside we met Nip, who waited by the bikes. We bought some fresh fruits, had sugar-cane juice and continued.
We passed by a field of guavas and Nip bought some home, and then stopped at a Mường village – a minority in Vietnam. Girls walked around with school shirts and colorful skirts and some kids stared at us while we sat on a bench in one of the yards. Nip said that minorities get support from the government, so they have electricity and TVs in their homes. He also said that the Mườngs often get married to their relatives so the children might be under developed. And stupid, he added quietly. I peeped at their faces, and saw that indeed some of them seemed to look under developed, physically and mentally.
After that we stopped again at a remote town, to look for lunch. The skies got dark and as soon as the afternoon rains began we got under a shed at an old lady’s yard. We sat by a long wooden table as the nice woman took out rice, fried pork, greens, small bowls of soup. Heavy raindrops dripped from the edges of the roof. While Nip and Quan talked, I could already understand some words. Even when he spoke Vietnamese, Quan pronounced long slow letters.
As the rain stopped we began with a long ride of 70 kilometers to the bus station, where we will take the bus to Hồ Chí Minh. Above us were red and green mountains and above them the big skies, beneath us a valley and lakes with floating houses. It was raining lightly part of the time. Once in a while we passed by a truck or a bike that emerged from beyond the road’s curves, and here and there we stopped to stretch and look at the view. I don’t know how long this ride took, perhaps even hours. Eventually more vehicles appeared and we arrived at a town, and then to a bus stop. We paid Nip and Quan, thanked them and said goodbye. Again, with this strange feeling of letting people go.
A clumsy sleeping bus approached the station. The ride took forever. Pretty quick it got too dark to read, and I’ve forgot my phone at the hotel in Đà Lạt so I couldn’t listen to music. After three days of open roads it was wierd to sit inside the bus, on the bottom bed near the floor, as bare feet passing by.
Towards ten PM we began to see through the windows some buildings, skyscrapers, colorful lights, and eventually the bus stopped at a broad main street. Lots of cabs passed by and one driver asked us where we need to go to. After we gave him the adress of the hotel he said it was just a few minutes away, and showed us where to go. Inside the block he was pointing at there was a hidden ally that led into a crazy maze of narrow streets. We arrived at the small hotel and the owner, a young woman who said her name was “Miss Vy”, greeted us kindly. After she gave me my phone, that was sent there by Hien from the hotel at Đà Lạt, she showed us our room and said to ring a bell by the entrance if we go out and want to come back.
We went outside to the busy street and found a small place for dinner, and as we ate I looked at the people. For a second I’ve felt like in Bangkok again, at the Khaosan, because of big groups of tan European and American tourists. It was full of music and bars everywhere and the locals seemed to be more modern than in other places – young women with mini-skirts leaning against motorcycles and smoking, flirting, two fancy transgender tip-toeing on high heels, merchants with small wagons crossing the streets and selling dried salted octopuses, drunk men laughing loudly.
The next morning I woke up early but stayed to cuddle in the bed, and eventually went down to the lobby at nine. We sat with Miss Vy on the couch and she showed us on a map places to go to. She then took us through the narrow alleys out to the main avenue to a woman that sold Bánh mì outside. The recommendation was great. We ate the Bánh mì at a park across the street and then kept walking along it and had iced coffee, and then went to the market. The sun was high in the sky and inside the market building it was shadier than on the streets, and very crowded, and people from all around tried to sell us things.
We passed the hot hours with watermelon juice and lots of iced-tea, and after a quick shower at the hotel we went to “The Bánh mì King”. With hair dyed to black and huge rings on his fingers, the Bánh mì King ruled his small kingdom, and his staff produced dozens of crispy Bánhs with huge amounts of butter and pate, which made the Bánh mì taste divine. We ate standing under a roof while the heavy rains began to fall.
We planned on staying for two days at Hồ Chí Minh before traveling south and then back to the city, and on the first visit it seemed to me cynical and alienated. The huge main roads busy with hundreds of motorcycles, the tall buildings, the nights when neon lights ignite and the streets fill with tourists. It was hard to see what’s real and what’s not. Young women were standing at each corner with fake smiles, belonging to the sex industry and not happy at all. By the evening I had the same feeling I had in Bangkok, like meeting somebody radiant and glamorous that would never let me into their heart.
On the morning of the second day we went to a travel agency to book a bus to our next destination, Cần Thơ. Fans on the ceiling swirled the air lazily as a sweaty agent suggested some deals for tours and sightseeing in different towns by the Mekong, and said we didn’t have much to do in Cần Thơ for more than a day or two. Yet we refused for the deals and only chose a bus ride there because we preferred to not be tied to schedules.
We went back to the room and packed some stuff. Then we went to the mail post to send a few things home and save space and weight in our bags. We found the one clerk that spoke English, who wasn’t particularly friendly, and it seemed we were bothering her. She unpacked our things and checked them one by one, and then repacked them into cardboard boxes that didn’t seem to be strong enough to survive the trip. The packings and paperwork took almost two hours. When we finally went out it was pouring rain and we were hungry, so we ran to the marketplace building nearby and ate rice and fried pork. After the rain stopped we went back outside, and passed the day lazily. As evening came I began to like the city. The streets are huge, but inside every block of buildings there’s a web of tangled alleys that amongst them there are peaceful everyday lives. Later on the night market was opened, and the sleaze I’ve felt the night before turned into a feeling of life and freedom. There were mostly clothes and shoes in there, and I found the perfect pair of shoes at a tiny crowded store that was run by a loud woman. I decided to wait and buy them when we come back, so I don’t have to carry them during our trip at the Mekong.
We finished the day at a BBQ place on the street where we had meats and cold beers, and went to bed early.