First hit to highland Vietnam tour – Porper story #5

The hit to highland Vietnam tour is the fifth post in a series of Vietnam experiences storied by Rochelle Porper, for the previous ones please read these.

First of all, thank you all again for your emails. I really appreciate them. I am glad you are enjoying reading about this trip – it makes me feel like I am taking you all with me and that is fun for me. I won’t be able to answer each one so easily anymore because I have less internet time, but I am thinking about you!

So, of course, another day another story. Or twelve. So we left Saigon to fly to Buon Ma Thuot. We get to the airport late because the ATM machine ate Sam’s credit card and we have to dash to the main branch of the bank to retrieve it. Apparently, this is a normal occurrence because when you get to the bank, the daily catch of ATM cards are all lined up on the counter and you grab the one that is yours, flash your passport, and on your merry way you go.

We are a little late getting to the airport but it’s kind of empty so it’s no big deal. We check our luggage and go to the security area. I only have my day pack, and as soon as I put it on the conveyor belt, I think to myself “shit – I left all the bullets from the M16 in the bottom of the pack”. This is probably not a good thing. Sure enough, my bag stops the conveyor belt and the agent looks my way. I am so used to security in US airports that I am a little  concerned. A soldier takes my bag and motions me over. He looks at me and calmly says “You have bullets in your backpack” and I reply “yes sir, I do” and he says “Will you please give them to me” and I say “Certainly sir” and dig into my bag and grab 4 of the 5 I have pilfered. I really want one as a souvenir. He takes them and says “Is that all of them?” and I think to myself that this is a trick question because surely he must know how many I have since he just ex-rayed my bag. But I chance it and say “Yes sir” and he smiles, returns my back pack and says “Thank you Madame, and have a nice day”. I think this is so totally hilarious. Can you imagine the TSA agent in Boston saying “Hey lady – will you take the goddamn bullets out of your bag and get a move on?.” But I kept a bullet and if you are nice, I will show it to you some day.

So we get to our destination, which is a smallish town in the southern highlands. In the van to the hotel, Long tells us that in 2003, there was a major insurgency here. Apparently, many South Vietnamese commanders from the war, who had escaped to the US after the South lost, returned here to recruit the villagers to try and start a minor revolution. They wanted to create their own sovereign state, and they targeted the people in the hill country because they are so poor and naive. Well, the government put down the revolution peacefully (something about the Vietnamese Army wearing loincloths and foregoing weapons for bribes) and everything ended well. However, because of that event, the Government no longer trusts Americans and so Long tells us that for the next several days, we will be accompanied by a different Communist government official to make sure we are tourists and not rebels. Each town we go to will be represented by a different official because each little town has its own local government. Long describes the official we will be with the next day as “nice but he stutters”. This I am going to enjoy.

We get to our hotel, which is nothing like the Metropole in Saigon. Its pretty run down and a little sad looking. So many places here look like they were built in the 60s or 70s and have not been updated since. But hell, this is the Adventure Tour of Vietnam and no one is complaining. The room is decorated in Shabby Dilapidated Art Deco and everything is tired and plastic but there is a color TV so maybe I can catch some of the Olympics. We check in and go off to eat dinner in probably the only place we can eat safely. Long orders for us and we eat beef tongue with chili peppers, wild boar, goat with ginger, beef wrapped in leaves, some fish cooked in something I have no clue what it is, and eggplant. I would classify this meal as ‘interesting’ rather than ‘delicious’ but the beer, at $0.60 a bottle , goes down very easily.

We are now in the part of Vietnam where Westerners rarely come so we are drawing a lot of attention as we walk back to the hotel. Kids are running up to us and smiling and waving and saying the only English words they know, which are “hello” and “thank you” (very polite, these children). But truthfully, Sam is the draw here. The average Vietnamese male is about 5’4″ and weighs about 140. Sam is 6’6 may weight twice that much. He can’t get 2 feet down the street without some guy coming up to him and measuring himself against Sam. They basically come up to just below his shoulder and they all think this is very funny. They are very respectful though, I just think they have never seen a human that large before. Sam said that this has been happening to him since he got to Saigon.

We get back to the hotel and up to bed we go. There are a few things I have noticed about hotels in Vietnam that appear to be consistent no matter where you go. First, every room comes equipped with at least two pairs of flip flops. I don’t know whose feet they have seen so I avoid them. And they also have fabulous bathtubs. I know this first hand because every night since I have gotten here, I have woken up in the middle of the night unable to sleep so I take a bath and go back to bed. Last night was no exception so at 3:30 AM, I hop in. When I am done, I go to turn the light off and I accidentally hit the wrong switch, and I turn off the air conditioner. I flip the switch back on, and still nothing. I sit a minute and try it again. No go. I go over to wall and look up at the air conditioner and know that I am in trouble. The thing was probably built the year I was born. There is no visible on or off button, and there are pieces of plastic and folded paper jammed in all around it and you know they have had problems with this air conditioner before.

It starts to get hot in the room almost immediately. I open the windows, thinking maybe I can catch a cool breeze but who am I kidding. Plus we are in malaria country and I decide an open window is a really dumb idea. I decide to call the front desk to see if they can send someone up. I pick up the Austin Powers red telephone and punch 0. I have a feeling this is a total waste of my time – this isn’t exactly the Hilton. No one answers. I am wide awake anyway so I get dressed and walk down the three flights of stairs to see if I can find someone to help. I know by the second floor that this is going to be a total waste of time because the lights are mostly turned off. Sure enough, I get to the reception desk and it’s empty. The computer is flickering but no one is there. Then I look on the floor and the two hotel clerks are dead to the world – sleeping on a tiny mattress with hot air blowing over them from a fan.

I go back upstairs to contemplate my options, which are few. Those of you who have traveled with me know that I absolutely hate hot rooms, so this is my worst nightmare. I sit on the bed for awhile and finally say screw it. I strip down, move the pillow to the foot of the bed and open the mini bar door in hopes that some cool air will wash over me. I know this is so stupid but it gives me the feeling of creatively solving a problem. Of course I can’t sleep but I do, at least, appreciate the humor of my situation. And then – and I swear that this is the god’s honest truth – I hear what sounds like a marching band with bag pipes coming down the street. It is 4:45 am. At this point, I totally concede defeat, grab my book and read for the rest of the night. And I hear the band again at 5:45 and 6:45, so I know I am not dreaming. Later I learn that the music came from the church. I am very glad that today, we are visiting the coffee plantations because I know I will need it.

by Rochelle Porper from Boston, Massachusetts, USA

For the next ones among this Vietnam travel experience, you can jump to the following days.

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