Happy Bumpy Birthday to Me

At some point today, my birthday will start, but I don’t flip over the age counter until it is 8:25 am on the east coast of the U.S. the time I was born on this date. Then and only then will I accept being a year older, a dramatic change from my youth, when I waited for the clock to strike midnight in just about any time zone to claim a celebration should begin.

I was having my morning coffee outside while having a cigarette when one of the tuk-tuk drivers came up to talk to me. After immediately telling him we were leaving today and would have no need for his service, he said he was waiting for a Brit or Aussie staying at the hotel who he had arranged to pick up the night before. His English was near excellent. We chatted about what I had seen in my limited time here, then there was a lull in the conversation as we watched the market place become more and more alive. He then turned to me and said “I feel sick. Yesterday, I went to a wedding in a village forty kilometers from here and in order to return here to work, I only had two hours sleep. Now I don’t feel too well.” I asked if he could take the day off to get some sleep and feel better, but he said he needed the work and the money to support his family who lives in the village he came from. He was so young looking, I assumed he meant his parents. Later, Ron had the opportunity to speak with him and found out he is thirty-five years old, has a wife and three children. He is one of nineteen children and his father is close to eighty years old. He father was hoping to have all of his children home for the New Years celebration in April since it may be his last, but this young man can not afford to attend and was feeling sad about it. There are so many stories similar to this one about how people in these countries have to make dramatic changes in their lives in order to survive; it makes many westerners look pathetic by comparison with our sniveling complaints about how difficult life is for us. We have no idea many times, what sacrifice to survive really means.

Twenty minutes later than scheduled, our shuttle arrived to load us with nine others to bring us to the bus station for our trip to Ho Chi Minh City. With traffic, a journey that should have taken fifteen minutes, took twice as long. When we arrived at the bus station, there was not a bus in sight, but a parking lot full of soccer mom vans all painted the same green with white lettering, leaving us a scratching our heads perplexed. When I handed our tickets to a young man who seemingly was an official something, he took them, and returned them stamped and then pointed at yet another van. The second van was no different than the first van we rode in, making us wonder if this was another intermittent form of transport. He took our luggage and pointed to two seats, but at the time, I had not noticed our seats were numbered and matched our assigned ‘bus’ seats.

As two of ten, we were ready for take-off. Traffic was mounting as the morning rush was well under way by this time. The zigs and zags that these drivers have to do are amazing. I think I have determined the qualification for a Vietnamese driver’s license. They use a tennis court with twenty cars in it. In order to pass the test, you have to drive one of the cars to each corner and to three random points in the rectangle without killing or doing major harm to anyone. If you can accomplish this, you have earned your license. A written test seems ludicrous since there are no traffic signs and only one or two street lights that no one pays attention to. They function as pretty red and green lights without stimulating any other associations.

The first part of the drive was not too uncomfortable. The scenery was poverty row and more poverty as displayed by the run down businesses trying to sustain their proprietors. The word strip mall has new meaning here. These buildings and businesses have been stripped of whatever dignity they once had. It occurred to me that all of the Reality shows on television are all amateur wussy games compared to the reality of life these people have in daily existing. If you were to put a group of Vietnamese or Cambodians up against any of the groups who have suffered and whined about their trials of survival, the American group would have been voted off of the island so fast, there would not be second show, let alone a full season.

One hour is about all I could take of looking out the window, since the weaving of our van in and out of traffic was a dizzying experience. Without lines painted down the middle of the road, the entire road is fair game regardless of the direction of travel. The car horn becomes an indispensible tool for signaling other drivers of cars, trucks, motorcycles, and bicycles of your intentions. In Egypt, there was a joke. “What is the first thing in an Egyptian car to wear out? The horn. Here, the answer should be the driver. I think I would rather suffer the trials of Hercules than attempt being a professional driver in this country or Cambodia for that matter.
After two and a half hours had passed, we stopped for a ten minute rest break. I could not believe the colossal big gulp drinks my fellow passengers returned with. Surely, they knew when the next break would be. We thought ourselves brave eating a tangerine, still fearful it may be just too juicy for our own good. These people were drinking like camels preparing for a trip over the Sahara. As it was, I had to chant mantras just to keep my thoughts clear of anything that would lead to an unscheduled stop of the van.

Ten minutes after leaving the bus station, we where stuck in traffic. The side door flung open and five people jumped into the van. Ron and I clutched our bags tightly. Highwaymen in broad daylight in the middle of a town have come to rob us? Rob us only if we were interested in what they were trying to sell; the five were hawking drinks, fruit, lottery tickets, and cakes. Two blocks later, everyone disembarked from the van, but the driver motioned for us to stay put. Were we the only two going to Ho Chi Minh City? What a strange place to drop off all of the other passengers. Within another block, we were on a ferry boat.

As we sailed over the river, an older man who was a fellow passenger returned to the van and started talking to us. He asked me if I had been to Vietnam before. This is the third time in two days I had been asked this question. I am assuming they are asking if I fought in the war, guessing me to be age appropriate. He said he worked with the U.S. Army during the war, but he had not used his English for a number of years. When we changed the subject to the journey, he said that the ride was realistically two and a half hours, but because of the road conditions, it made it a much longer expedition.

For the next two hours, the road was so bad, it was like riding the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland while an earthquake and tornado were happening simultaneously. The only thing we did not do was flip over and I can only assume it was because there was so much traffic, there was no room to do a flip. There was not even enough room on the road to flip a coin. The gravel roads had more potholes and pits than a teenage boy with a bad case of acne. Trying to read during this time could cause epileptic seizures even if you were not epileptic; trying to nap could cause the same sickness that affects astronauts in deep space. The mantras in my head were getting louder and more intense as my bladder was doing shake, rattle, and roll for another two and a half hours. But wait, that meant five hours on the road already and this was supposed to be a five hour trip, yet we were not at our destination. Bless Buddha, we did make a second rest stop.

I would have rather wrestled alligators than get back on that van, for some undetermined amount of time, but not having a clue where we were and being short on alligators, I acquiesced. It was not until another one and a half hours passed that our senses led us to believe we were close at hand, however, the bus station looked eerily like the original and the two rest stops, so we could not be sure until the driver motioned for us to get out of the van. With the luggage in tow, our vet friend helped us arrange a taxi to our hotel, located in District 1. We agreed on $10.00 for the fare, which was ominous in this very inexpensive country.

The drive was like something out of a science fiction movie. Swarms of motorized vehicles were coming from six different directions to one traffic circle with everyone wanting to finally escape it to go in a different direction. Hollywood has never produced such miraculous scene without having a fifty car pile up as a conclusion. I did not fear for our lives nearly as much as I did for the motorcyclists and bicyclists. This is something that should be videoed and put on YouTube, because it really has to be seen to be believed. Egypt’s drivers are pure amateurs in comparison.
This city is immense, congested, and makes Las Vegas look like an abandoned playground by comparison. Though there is no plethora of casinos here, the lights and activity certainly make up for it. Our hotel is down an alley. That does not give me confidence. Once we start trekking down the alley, we discover fifteen other hotels and an equal number of restaurants are resident businesses of the same alley.

Our room is spacious, clean, and comfortable, but nothing to do back flips over. We are on the first floor, the only room on the first floor at the top of the stairs from the reception desk, so our only window is looking down on them.

We checked our alley and the next alley for dining opportunities which range from Vietnamese, Italian, Mexican, Thai, and Indian. We settled on Indian. The food was great, but after we finished, this young woman came up and asked if I wanted another beer, totally ignoring Ron. I said no thank you. Then she asked if she could sit with me. RED Flag, red flag! I simply said I did not think so and she left. I was expecting problems with the bill, but there weren’t any. There were many other tourists there, so it made me more confident in creating a scene if there were a problem.

One of the rules of our hotel that is posted besides no explosives is that prostitutes are not allowed in the room. I told Ron if he had any birthday surprise planned for me, he had better nix it.

My birthday continues until 8:25 EST tomorrow. I was ripped off on this one with this travel nightmare.