Now I'm practically up to date. We got back to Phnom Penh from Kampot, six people in a toyota Camry (Toyota own Cambodia: landcruisers for the hard stuff, hiaces for hauling many people, camrys for normal car duties). The main road between Phnom Penh and Kampot is sponsored by a Japanese govrnment aid grant, and it makes perverse sense for the Japanese to be funding the construction and maintenance of roads, so Japanese corporations can then sell Khmers their cars at immense (for your average Khmer) prices. This kind of car is generally agreed to take seven people in Cambodia - driver, two in the front seat, four in the back seat - and there was some confusion when Ben and Jen ncomplained that there weren't enough seats for all five of us and the driver, on account of the fact that we all outweigh even a fairly hefty khmer by about 30kg. Eventually they sucked it up and sat in the front together. We rather foolishly got dropped off in the middle of the seedy tourist district, on the shores of Boeng Kak, a lake which Ronery Pranet says is a "horrifically polluted body of water that nobody should swim in, no matter how many beers they've drunk". We're staying at the Lazy Fish guesthouse, where $3 gets you a shack on stilts above said body of water, a fan, and a bathroom - perfectly serviceable. The place has a big deck and a bar and a free pool table with several cthulhian angles and only one cue, and the staff constantly try to sell you mariuana, even though it's actually illegal. This is a very strange place.
In any case, since I've now spent five and a half hours writing this up, I'm going to have a beer and a game of pool. Tomorrow we're probably going to the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields.
Kampot and Bokor Hill Station
So now I'm only a few days behind time. After arriving in Phnom Penh on the evening of May 1, we decided the trick was to hire a jeep and head south to Kampot, on the coast, apparently only two hours away. Our efforts came more or less to nothing; nobody in PP would hire us a 4wd for anything less than $100 per day, and a minivan was over $50. But we did find a guesthouse in Kampot who had a 4wd pickup truck we could hire for $45/day, inclusive of fuel, driver and all driver's expenses. We arrived late in the day after another eye-boggling bus trip through rural Asia and proceeded to drink far, far too much beer over a game of cards - our first blow out since ... Hue, I guess, on Ossie's birthday. The next day was a write-off - I was ready to get up at 0800 as agreed, but nobody else was even awake, so I had a shower and decided to go back to sleep.
The main bag with Kampot is that it's near Bokor Hill Station, formerly a luxury resort for French Imperialists, then a battlefield for the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese People's Army, now a national park struggling to stave off the effects of illegal logging and poaching. This is one area in Cambodia where landmines aren't a problem - neither the KR or the VPA used them here, since they wanted to retain control of the land for civilian use, or so I'm told.
We argued over the best way to tackle the road from Kampot up to Bokor Hill Station - 30km of ruined rouad which I guess hasn't been maintained or repaired since the French fled in 1954. I was in favour of motorcycles, thinking that the half-day we had available to get used to the bikes would be enough, and reasoning that since there were no landmines, we wouldn't need a guide. Jen was particularly unhappy with this idea, and I suppose it's fair enough, given that I'd only just strarted riding bikes again after not doing it since I was a kid, Deb and Ben had ridden them for the first time in Hoi An, and Ossie can't even ride a pushbike. So we got the pickup at 0900 the next morning (May 4) and went to market, bought a kilo of beef, a kilo of pork, some mushrooms and aubergine and limes and garlic and onions and green peppers and chillies, some bread and bananas, a slab of beers, a case of water and a lot of ice, and headed on up the mountain.
The road really is in very bad repair - 30km takes at least two hours. It is, however, a very safe road, because it's impossible to go fast without breaking bits of your vehicle, and we had a grand old time on narrow seats in the back of the ute. The first buildings command an incredible view from more than a kilometre's altitude over the coast not much more than a kilometre away. The main group of buildings, about ten kilometres further on, are spread over a wide swampy plateau. On a small hill at the north (inland) end of the plateau is the shell of a small chapel; on the larger hill at the southern, coastal end of the plateau is the hotel and casino which was the centrepiece of the resort which was here. These two buildings, less than a kilometre apart, were held by the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese, respectively, and a bitter battle was fought for control of these highlands here. The buildings here are all very heavily graffitied, but one particular piece in the chapel stands out:
"This Church" we are the Protectors: TEP-SARY, VANNOL, NOB-VONARA
These are Khmer names, not Vietnamese names.
The rocky headland above the chapel is wreathed in cloud and drops sheer down into a jungly wilderness stretching to the sea, which you can sometimes see if the cloud clears for a moment. There are the remains of an artillery emplacement here. It is truly a majestic place, and I can see why an army would defend it to their last man.
The hotel itself is more creepy but altogether less inspiring than the chapel; it sees many more people, and there's a refreshment stop and a huge amount of rubbish here. The drive, on a joke, let me drive the ute down a couple of KM to the ranger station, in the middle of the plateau; upon doing so, I found that the thing had virtually no brakes. To get any sort of brake action, you have to pump the brakes, and on the third or fourth pump they kick in. There was nothing much for it - we would have to come down the mountain in the thing tomorrow. After checking in at the ranger station, we took off to the Popokvil Falls, a double-tiered waterfall which turned out to be much less impressive in the dry season (now) than we'd been led to believe. There was no swimming, but the falls still provided a good cold shower and water massage. Upon return to the vehicle, our driver had made busy collecting firewood for dinner.
The ranger station is another of the old french buildings, being redecorated and refitted to train more rangers and act as a research facility for the national park. Two more buildings have been put up either side of it for classrooms and accomodation. Dinner was a bit of a trip. The driver, whose english was insufficient to swap names, got a fire going in about fifteen seconds, and the rangers, laughing at our pitiful woodchopping technique, began to give beginner's classes in woodcraft. As it began to get dusky, we realised that the faint rumblings we'd heard all day were lightning, which had been crackling and fizzing around all day. I went into the kitchen to make prep for grillings, and like bush kitchens which are used every day, this one was utterly spotless. An hour later, we were all prepped and the generator was giving a bit of light,the fire had burned down to good coals and we'd fashioned a grill station out of some masonry, but an amazing lightning storm was riolling in fast, and we barely got though one grill's worth before we had to give up and use the woks in the kitchen. The torrential rain lasted only an hour or so, and by 2000 all was calm again and the fire was still going. The lightshow continued all night, moving closer and further away, all around us and over the sea.
Next day we took it easy, mooching around camp then visiting the temple on the same cliff as, but about a kilometre from the chapel. A small boy, probably a monk-in-training, played with his best friend, a blind monkey. For being blind, the monkey seemd to have no problems getting around and doing monkey business, and the affection and partnership between the two of them was really genuine. The kid was still small enough to not be treating the monkey like a pet - they were partners in malarkey. A very old monk and a younger man looked on indulgently.
The trip down the hill was, if possible, worse than the trip up. The brakes gave us no problems, so I guess the driver was used to it. Once back in Kampot, we stopped for a quick drink before heading out to Kep - another former french resort, famous now for its seafood. To go between Kampot and Kep, you need to pass over a long, flimsy wooden bridge. No problem, right? people do it every day. We had an excellent meal in Kep; I ordered 'full chicken' expecting some bizarre thing or other, but in fact I did recieve an entire chicken, roasted in Khmer style and presented on a bed of sauteed vegetables. Good eats. I rate Cambodian food far above Vietnamese food. Jen and I swam in bath-temperature water. On the way back, we were told we'd have to take a detour, as the bridge had collapsed in the intervening three hours. The driver reckoned the detour would take two clocks, but it was only about one clock in reality. The whole drive, lightning rumbled and flashed all around us - coming to Cambodia has almost been worth it just for the lightning.
That night we were exhausted, but we tried to teach Retti, the young dogsbody type dude at the hostel, to play cards anyway. i reckon he would have gotten it, too, but he was called off to do some work and stop slacking.
The Road To Phnom Penh
We took the 28th as a reserve day, to collect wits and rest our bruised arses. It was simply too hot to do anything, accustomed as we had become to the cooler temperatures of the highlands. I bought a copy of General Vo Nguyen Giap's People's War, People's Army; Giap was the commander in chief of the North Vietnamese Army which routed the French at Dien Bien Phu, and later held out against the American and ARVN forces until 1975, when the americans left, then immediately prosecuted another war against the Khmer Rouge to defend against China's pincer movement - the Khmer Rouge, backed by China, in the Southwest, and the Chinese advancing directly from the North. It's not really a book as much as a collection of papers, and this 1968 English edition has a foreword by an american military historian who still talks as if the Vietnam War is winnable for the Americans. The book is subtitled The Viet Cong Insurrection Manual For Underdeveloped Countries. I haven't really had much time to read it yet.
Because independent travel in Viet Nam is such a pain in the arse, and so expensive, we signed onto a tour which would take us, by bus and by boat, to Chau Doc on the Cambodian border and thence to Phnom Penh up the Me Kong river. While in the tour office, it began to rain like I never have seen it rain before. I've experienced three years of monsoons in Korea, and gotten caught in a thunderstorm at an extinct volcano in Thailand, but this is just something else - fat, warm drops of rain falling in a thick stream which saturates everything in seconds. An umbrella is no defence; a raincoat is next to worthless, the only thing for it is to submit to the rain and seek the inside of a building where you can sit and marvel at a year's worth of rain coming down in an hour. I stupidly did not realise this, and tried to make a break for the hotel - two minutes fast walking. No part of me remained dry when I arrived, and by the time I'd gotten changed and gone outside again, the streets were ankle-deep in water. We sat in a corner cafe with beers watching the streets flood deeper, even the floor of the restaurant was under a few inches of water. Saigonese went on about their business, driving their little bikes as hard as they could through the lake, to keep the water out of their exhaust, usually to no avail. Kids went bodysurfing on bits of cardboard, old women came around with baskets of wet fruit, prissy princesses tottered on through in high heels; life just went on as if nothing had happened. Ossie found a small water snake in the restaurant, and repatriated it to the deeper water of the road. Eventually the water subsided, and within three or four hours all was dry again.
At this time I found out that my laptop was broken. Much swearing and frustration ensued as I tried to take off the back of the case with a boning knife and a screwdriver, but eventually I discovered a crack in the connection from the power input to the greenboard, probably caused by impact on that corner of the laptop while the power cable was in. I'd foolishly left the machine sitting on a desk in Nha Trang with the power cable in, and I guess the maid must have knocked it off or something. Beyond my power to repair, and leaving Sai Gon in 14 hours, I took the hard drive out and abandoned it. At least my pack is now a few kilos lighter. This is the reason I'm playing catchup now.
The tour left an hour or so late the next day, which was fortunate since the laundry which claimed to open at 0700, didn't until 0800. The first stop, after two hours, was My Tho, and upon arrival we queried our guide about some changes which had been made to the itinerary. Lo and behold, we were on the wrong tour, which basically spent the whole day faffing about going to bee farms and such, before going by bus to Chau Doc. We caused a ruckus, and ended up calling the office we'd booked through, and discovered that the tour we'd been sold didn't exist any more. So we got in a taxi, then on a bus, then on another bus back to the fucking cafe we'd booked through, and were very promptly and without any hassle given our money back in full. In Asia, being there is nine tenths of the task. That night we went and watched Chelsea thrash Manchester United with Mr Betty, who was going to have the laptop repaired once he figured out what was wrong with it. It was now the 29th, and Ben and Jen's visas expired on May 1st, so we had two days to get to and cross the border.
The next day we made our way by cab to Sai Gon's West bus station, and were all set up on a chicken bus to Chau Doc (5 hours, $5) when I realised I'd left my damn passport at the hotel. Hotels in Viet Nam have to take the passports of all foreign guests for registration with the police, so on reflex I'd handed over mine when checking in the night before. However, this particular hotel didn't take passports as a rule (no idea why), so when Deb had paid the bill in the morning, she hadn't gotten the passports back. The Traveller's Creed, kids, with apologies to the USMC:
This is my passport. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My passport without me is useless. Without my passport, I am useless. It is my own responsibility and nobody else's.
Deb and I got off the bus, I got on a moto back to the hotel, where the hotelier was utterly mortified that his staff hadn't checked and given it back, and I got back on my moto to the bus station again. While travelling, we were passed by two lads on a motorcycle, one carrying a very large, live fish by the tail. The fish was not amused.
I arrived back at the bus depot to find that Deb had been taken in and looked after by the bunch of old men whose job it appears to be making sure everything runs smoothly - she'd been sat down in the shade and given a cold drink, and shielded from the pushy moto mafia. There was one further problem; Ossie had the ticket stubs, without which we couldn't demonstrate that we'd paid for the tickets, even though the station master, who spoke English and was very helpful, had seen us buy them, and the ticket-checking lady, with a face like a smacked arse, had personally taken them from me. A bus was about to leave, and it was decided that we had to buy two more tickets. By now I could see the game here: to get on THIS bus and only be an hour behind our friends, we would have to buy another ticket each, because they presumed we were in a hurry, and people in hurry will do what they have to do. The worth thing you can be in in Asia is a hurry; you are at the mercy of anyone who is capable of speeding things up for you. So we stood and calmly reasoned with the smacked-arse lady and the station master until the bus left - and then, as if by magic, a new handwritten ticket appeared for us, on the next bus. Once again: being there is nine tenths of the job - if you just stand your ground quietly and remain calm, if you're prepared to let things take as long as they have to take, you will eventually find yourself in a position of greater strength than those who are trying to hinder you. You will eventually not be worth their hassle, and they will give you what you want just to get you out of their way.
The bus did eventually leave, and I think it was the best and the worst five dollars I've ever spent on transport. The best, because the bus through the country roads of the Me Kong delta is an astounding, intimate, complicated journey which puts you in very close proximity with this Vietnamese heartland; the smells and the the sights and the sounds, the colours and rickety old buildings, people doing their business and preparing for Independence Day celebrations, it really is the best damn bus journey I've ever done. The worst $5 though, because for $50 I could have gone with Binh through the country he grew up in, where his family lives and in which he played and worked and learned as a kid, and it would have been yet better.
I get the feeling that life in the Me Kong delta hasn't really changed much in principle for thousands of years. It is very densely populated, but there are no cities of any consequence down here. Most of Viet Nam's rice is grown here, and the largest numbers of cattle and fish. The houses are set side by side along the many roads and rivers which wind through the area, some on permanent land, others of which move as the waters do. Individual families grow rice and bananas, farm fish and raise chickens and ducks and cattle and goats, some make bricks and others make fish sauce - everything seems to be done by hand, and in such proximity to everything else, it's impossible to survive without cooperating. But, the fact of the matter is that it HAS changed; until a few hundred years ago, most of the Me Kong in Viet Nam was Kampuchea Krom - lower Cambodia. In exchange for military assistance against the Thai, who were trying to claim the lands around Angkor Wat, the Vietnamese were allowerd to settle the Me Kong, and a small city north of it, which is now called Ho Chi Minh City, or Sai Gon. The industrious Vietnamese had coveted the Me Kong for centuries, thinking that the Khmer were letting it go to waste by not settling and utilising its massive area and fertility. The French had a saying about Indochina which runs along the lines of: The Chinese sell the rice seed to the Vietnamese, who plant it. The Khmer watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it rustle in the wind. The implication is along the lines of the Chinese are astute businessmen, the Vietnamese are hardworking, the Khmer are lazy and the Lao are just backwards, which is more or less still the attitude today.
The further up the MeKong we went, the more it separated out into individual rivers, until at sunset we crossed what I guess is the main branch, miles wide, by ferry at Long Xuyen. Just after nightfall we made Chau Doc,which was buzzing with Independence Day celebrations and thousands of people. We somehow managed to find the only hotel which wasn't full, and by pure chance met Ben and Jen and Ossie, whose had had a blowout and had arrived in Chau Doc only a short while before us, despite leaving almost three hours earlier.
Just at closing time, Deb booked us on the boat to Vinh Xuong on the Vietnamese side, where we'd have lunch and change boats after the border crossing. The boat trip on the heavily-populated Vietnamese side was, if possible, even more far out than the bus trip had been - seeing the river from river level, as the people who live there see it. We were joined on the boat by a brit called Gareth, a retired Japanese man who now teaches Japanese in Thailand, a young Hong Kong cancer surgeon, a couple of gals from Christchurch, four young Korean women and two obnoxious Russian couples. The men were reasonable enough, didn't say much and kept to themselves, but the two stroppy braless tarts were precisely the kind of people who give Russians a bad name - complaining about everything, insisting that people on the bus be moved so they can sit with their boyfriends, basically just being boorish. Ben and Jen, having just spent a month or so in Russia, made the observation that the only Russians who can afford to travel for leisure are the very rich, and these pair certainly acted like princesses of privilege.
All that said, the trip was slow and easy, and we had a long stop for lunch at the border, where we played a bit of ball and teased the kids. The tour guide had taken our passportsto border control for visas, and when we got them back, there was a Cambodian visa and a receipt for $20 each - she'd said it would cost $22 - and we presumed we'd be asked to cough up the $20 at some point or other. But it was not to be - we were waved through customs and stamped into Cambodia without so much as a speck of silver crossing anyone's palm. $60 richer might not seem like a lot, but in this part of the world it's a shitload of money and after the hassles of the earlier part of the Viet Nam leg, we were glad to have clawed a little back.
Cambodia on the Me Kong is as different from Viet Nam as it's possible to get on essentially the same terrain. Gone are the stilt houses, the paddies and banana plantations, the fish farms and little boats and water buffalo wallowing - it's a wide, flat river with low, flat banks covered in jungle or grass or nothing. Occasionally we'd see villages of naked brown-skinned children, which is almost unheard of in Viet Nam, and a few times people were washing their cattle or fishing or bathing, but it was like going from a country of 77 million people to a country of nine million with land to spare. The people were very friendly, though - waving out and shouting hello and jumping up and down if you waved back, all those sorts of things. It must be a good life being a bare-arsed little kid on the Me Kong - river and jungle and animals and your family. Until you get old enough to work, and until you realise that other people get to eat things other than rice and fish and bananas.
Neak Luong is a scruffy port town, and we were quickly shuffled onto buses. Cambodia's roads are famously bad, and if this was an indication of a main highway (I've since discovered it is) then it really doesn't leave much hope for the minor roads. On the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the bus broke down (air compressors for the drum brakes, they said) and we were immediately transferred without hassle to another bus. The russian tarts caused no end of trouble over this, despite it being a matter of getting off one bus and onto another. We were dropped off outside a guesthouse, but we hauled our packs across the road to a bar with booming reggae, cheap beer, and a joint-smoking proprietor called Phillipe to plan our next move.
The Road to Sai Gon, part 3
We'd decided on the strength of the first day to extend our trip from two days to three, going to Gia Nghia in the Southern Central Highlands tonight (April 26) and thence to Sai Gon on the 27th. This second day was rather more travel and less sightseeing than the first, though it was livened up some when Ossie's bike blew a tyre at about 1000. It takes these guys about 10 minutes to repair a puncture and re-inflate the tyre using a hand-pump in the burning sun. Our first stop was at Buon Ma Thuot, the other major city in the highlands, home to Asia'sbest and most famous coffee; the raw berries are fed to a civet cat, thenthe coffee beans are collected from its shit, then roasted and so on. Enzymes in the cat's digestion alter the coffee, giving it a smoother and richer flavour and raising the price of its production astronomically. A young medical student called Trung Nguyen made a fortune growing and marketing this coffee; he's apparently one of the Socialist Republic's richest men, and his coffee is everywhere. Buon Ma Thuot is his home base; this town is ruled by coffee. Buon Ma Thuot also has the distinction of being the first city in South Viet Nam to have been liberated by the Viet Cong, and the only city other than Hue to have been held by them for any real length of time. on what is now the centre of town a famous battle was fought. The VC had dismantled and carried by hand along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, by night, an entire tank, then had dug a great pit and reassembled the tank, by night and by hand, then had used it to ambush the hapless ARVN defenders of Buon Ma Thuot. The tank (probably not the same tank, but still) now takes pride of place in a memorial monument in the central roundabout of the city.
In Buon Ma Thuot, we stopped at a bakery, then on to Virgin Falls, probably so named because of a romantic suicide or somesuch. Fearsomely hot, we lunched by the water, across the river from a group opf young, tough-looking guys. They invited us over, but we stayed where we were, so they came over to us - four lads about eighteen and one of fourteen or so, fit and shirtless, clearly wagging school or something. They were unfailingly polite and despite us not sharing a common language we got on fine; they offered us beer and cigarettes and shots of ruou, we gave them bakery food which they seemed entirely intrigued by. All the stories we'd heard about gangs of young ne'er-do-wells in Viet Nam appear to have been unfounded. These guys looked tough; one had a row of what looked like cigarette burns up the outside of his left arm, another had a big scar on his right shoulder; but they were entirely genuine, just lads wanting to meet us and share their lunch and enquire where we were going. They gave us a bag of tiny, sour apricots s we left, and insisted on a dozen photos.
Later in the afternoon we stopped for yet more agricultural outings - pepper, rubber, more coffee, sugar, tapioca (VC food, they call it), and around 1600 it rained - just lightly, but enough to drop the temperature down into the 30s for a while. It seems like rain in the mid-afternoon is how it plays down here, and once it rains the temperature doesn't seem to come back up until nightfall, which makes even the smallest amount of rain an unmitigated blessing. On the motorbikes, with the wind (VC Aircon) we were actually COLD for a glorious few minutes.
This stretch of road, from Buon Ma Thuot to Gia Nghia and beyond, runs more or les along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and parallel to the Cambodian border. As such it's the site of much history, many monuments and also a great deal of military presence. Apparently the Ho Chi Minh trail is still maintained to a certain degree, or some parts of it are still under military use, so there are restricted areas, warning signs and checkpoints all along the north and west side of the road. The war against the Khmer Rouge is still a fairly recent memory, and this ancient border area is heavily guarded. As we stopped at the Ho Chi Minh Trail Monument; the place where the trail builders from north and south met when creating the trail itself, a little bare-bum kid went by with a pineapple and a stick. As a big truck passed by, he hunkered down in the ditch, making himself small and protecting himself from stones and dust. Khoa pointed to him and said "look, little VC". This is Viet Cong heartland, and the Viet Cong are still remembered as heroes here; it retains the feel of a frontier area through the peoples' simple solutions to problems using available materials and technology, and through its remoteness from the big cities. We stopped at a roadside cafe in a rubber plantation, and drank coffee lying in hammocks in the cool damp after-rain air - VC bed, they call it.
The hotel we stayed at in Gia Nghia was brand new and very snazzy, quite un-VC. Apparently it was owned by a traffic policeman. How, you might ask, can a lowly traffic policeman on a rural civil servant's salary of a few hundred dollars a month, afford to open a twenty-room hotel? The answer lies in Viet Nam's lack of traffic regulation - what is and is not an offense, and the precise nature and severity of said offense, is left largely up to the discretion of the officer. So traffic policemen just stop vehicles now and again, on flimsy pretexts liek having your lights on during the day, or having too many people on board, or not having your load correctly covered. If the driver and policeman can agree on a reasonable fine, the driver pays it and goes on his way; if not, the driver normally has to go and explain himself to the policeman's superiors down at the station - in this case he almost certainly won't pay a fine, but he might well be tied up in red tape for four hours, during which time his passengers and cargo go nowhere. And next time he comes by, the fine will be larger, and the wait longer. Like in Korea, foreigners are almost never stopped, because the policemen are ashamed of the fact that they can't speak english.
Dinner in Gia Nghia was another fantastic feast of local food: Lau Bo, Vietnamese beef hot pot. The first place we went to, which had huge freshwater crayfish and odd-looking bent-necked eels was full of drunken party members and cronies; apparently the progression of dinner -> drinking -> karaoke -> whorehouse is the same in Viet Nam as in Kore and Japan and China. The hot-pot place was quieter, just local families and the hosts eating. Binh is a very demanding customer, particularly when he's entertaining honoured guests like us, and we got nothing but the best in service and food - big slabs of boiled beef, huge plates of cress and licoricey leaves and mint and coriander, noodles and mushrooms and so on. At one point Ossie and I were talking with Khoa about various entrails and offal. Ossie mentioned tripe, and Binh overheard; before Ossie could explain that he doesn't like the stuff, there were big lumps of chewy tripe in the stew.
The biggest day's riding was the next, to Sai Gon, and it also entailed getting back down to sea level and the sticky heat of the Me Kong delta. We had breakfast in the Viet Nam - Cambodian border town of Dong Xoai; apparently poor migrant workers and traders come from Cambodia on day-passes to work and sell goods here; it's a rough town but one I wish I could have stayed longer in, just looking around the market. After an hour or so, Thien's tyre went again; this time they dismantled the wheel and changed the tube, which was still done in remarkable time.
The other big industry we hadn't yet seen is cashew nuts, which is probably the most interesting bit of it all. You might think the reason cashew nuts are so expensive is because they're quite hard to grow, and require incredible amounts of work to harvest and prepare for eating. This is true, but the fact remains that prepared cashew nuts from Viet Nam only sell for about US$1 per kilo, and then can be bought at retail in the west for ten or more times that price. The cashew nut is actually attached to a fruit which looks a little bit like a quince - the fruit is apparently worthless, but the fact remains that there is only one nut per fruit, and the nut and fruit have to be separated. The nut is then enclosed in a leathery, oily husk, which must be dried out and split open - one nut at a time. The oil from the husk is pungent-smelling, very sticky, like tar, and irritates the skin and eyes. Once out of the husk, there is yet another layer of thin skin, a little like peanut skin, but with this same oily tarriness, which must be cut and scraped off, by hand. Only once all this preparation is done can the nuts be dried and roasted. All that work is done for $1 per kilo; it appears the real winners are the people who charge the other $9 per kilo for the privilege of shipping, salting and bagging them. From there it was plain sailing all the way through to the plywood factory, where lathes made from truck engines peel strips off rubberwood trees for layering and glueing and steaming into packing cases and so on. Nothing goes to waste, again - the offcuts of this industry, like the cashew husks, go into brick and tile factories as fuel.
As we came down through the hills back onto the arid plains, the temperature rose again, and we didn't stop until we were quite close to Sai Gon, at the site of a bombed-out bridge. Unlike most of the bridges further north, this bridge was blown on purpose by the retreating ARVN and American soldiers in April 1975, as they were pursued by the Viet Cong. Now, a new bridge is being built next to it, which means three bridges within 100m over the same river - the old bridge is now unusable, but will remain as a symbol of VC Triumph over the American Interventionists and their Republican Running Dogs.
Two more stops - a ceramic factory where everything has a backup in case the power goes out; potter's wheels driven by bicycle, etc. The other stop was the place where they make pallets and wire spools - the sort which adorn children's playgrounds all over New Zealand - out of ruibber wood. These are assembled by hand by children, some handicapped - one we saw had permanently cocked eyes, and had to turn his head to the side to see anything, and yet was banging in a four-inch nail in three strokes, time after time. The Socialist Republic doesn't have time for the disabled, or children deformed by agent orange, or for people maimed in industrial accidents, so they tend to work in places like this; dangerous, hard labour, with no rewards and virtually no pay. Khoa doesn't like sawmills - in 1992 he was working as an engineer in a mill sharpening and cleaning bandsaw blades, when one spun into life and sheared off half his right index finger. He got a few hundred dollars from his employer.
Coming into Sai Gon itself was really more of a big deal than I'd thought. It's a big city, almost 10 million people, and spread over a fairly large, flat area with many rivers and swamps and lakes and canals. The one overriding aspect of the city is the traffic - it's famously bad, and we got caught amongst the very worst of it, on April 27th at about 1700 - rush hour. Motorcycles - the scooters I've already described - outnumber other vehicles at least 100 to 1. They're small and agile, the drivers are fearless to the point of insanity, and there is simply no space too small for one to fit through. In Sai Gon, if you swerve half a metre to avoid a collision, you're a bad driver - a good driver would swerve ten centimetres, and leave the rest of the space for another moto. The trip of ten or so kilometres into Pham Ngu Lao, the heart of the tourist district, took about an hour. The Easy Riders' 125cc bikes - proper bikes, with a clutch and gears, rather than step-through, with fat foreigners and a big pack on the back, are sluggish and easy to stall under these conditions - where, strangely, a 70cc super cub with five people on it is still as nippy as you like. These are driving conditions which have to be experienced, they can't be described. The motos are like water in a river, flowing around any object slower or larger than them, which is everything. Yet more proof of the madness which makes these motos the all-purpose all-terrain vehicles of Viet Nam: two men on a moto, carrying a 30-inch plasma TV worth something like $5000. For fuck's sakes, spend $5 on a taxi! But if it's good enough for the people, I suppose it's good enough for their gear, no matter how expensive: Viet Nam's annual road toll is about 50,000 people - the population of Wellington city from Thorndon to the top of Brooklyn hill, to Mount Cook and Mount Victoria, and the bulk of those deaths occur in Sai Gon.
But we survived, and with very sore arses checked into Hotel Betty, run by a French teacher who'd worked in France and Belgium, and who also spoke fluent English. We met up with Ben and Jen; the day we'd left them in Nha Trang, Jen had come down with gastroenteritis and had been laid up in bed for most of the intervening four days; they'd arrived in Sai Gon about the same time as us. Out to dinner one last time with the Easy Riders, who by now were like old friends. Parting in Shakespeare's Verona may be sweet sorrow, but in Viet Nam it's just weirdness with money changing hands, much shuffling of feet and avowals to remain in touch. The mood was lightened somewhat by Thien, who had apparently never eaten anything other than noodles and rice, at the age of 46. He when the whole hog in Sai Gon, and ordered a large Mexican Pizza, which he proceeded to eat very gingerly, but not before giving pieces away to everyone else at the table. I gave Khoa my LED headlamp, which he coveted for nighttime motorcycle repairs. Binh was uncharacteristically quiet and serious. The whole fee for our four days was $170 per person - a very large sum given our individual budgets, and a very large sum in Vietnamese terms as well, but again it didn't seem enough. That said, the Easy Riders aren't rich - they might earn $50 per day, but it's only when they can find work, which certainly isn't all the time. Khoa works as an Easy Rider when he can; otherwise he drives the Chicken Bus between Sai Gon, Da Lat and Ha Noi; he also runs an engineering and construction workshop, and his wife is a receptionist at the 5-star Sofitel Da Lat. Between them, they seem to be able to get by, and both their daughters are at school, which is quite a rarity. I get the feeling Binh does the Easy Rider thing full-time. He's one of the originals (number 007, right), and he has a fat black book full of handwritten recommendations and photos of his previous guests. Binh speaks English pretty fluently, and also claims to speak French, German, Dutch and Danish, and some others which I forget - maybe Japanese or Chinese? We didn't believe him, but he did manage to ask Martin, in Danish, what his name was. Thien is a strange one - he looks older than Binh, but is ten years younger. He looks as if he's had a hard life or spent a long time in prison (or perhaps re-education camps), but he's calm and friendly and plays a superb game of football. He definitely is the junior partner in this enterprise, and doesn't speak much English. Ossie's report in Thien's book was the second entry. Trung, my guide from the first day, is a self-avowed Country Bumpkin - never went to high school or university, and learned all his English for being a tour guide. He claims that the reason country bumpkin families (not his, though) have so many children is because they have no power, no TV, no radio - so once it gets dark there's nothing to do but hanky-panky, as he says.
And that's the trip. I haven't gone into half the detail I could have, and haven't show a quarter of the kinds of people these guys are. This, so far, has been the only must-do activity of the journey.
The Road To Sai Gon, Part 2
After lunch on day 1, we caught our first sight of the Ho Chi Minh trail; now a narrow path not rerally fit for 4wds to run along, but along which used to flow food, arms, artillery pieces, even tanks dismantled into parts and drawn by oxen and people. Apparently we could have walked back to Da Lat in 10 hours; it would have been a good trek, too. The other way, the road lead out to the coast south of Nha Trang, connecting by sea with the bunkers we'd visited at Vinh Moc.
The rest of the day we barely stopped. We passed a new highway-grade road which had been carved out of a cliff face - until six months ago, the villages at the end of that road took a day on foot to get to town by perilous cliffside jungle trails - now it takes 15 minutes by motorbike. The village elders closed the villages up; apparently when the road finally went through, the first thig to happen was tour operators bringing in busloads of tourists, bpoth foreign and Vietnamese, to see how an authentic hill tribe village looked. Schrodinger would be rolling in his grave.
That night we met up again with Trung at Lak Village - another such village, only the road had been put through some years before. A vigorour game of football ensued with Trung and Khoa and a random vietnamese dude, and a Danish man called Fleming and his two sons Martin and Kasper, 14 and 9, in which I was penalised for trying to keep goal with my hands (honestly ... I can't train my goalie's reflexes out). It was 5-5 when we decided the light was too bad to play on. A grand night was had in the floating restaurant, surrounded by frogs and geckos and lilypads.
Tomorrow I'm taking a reserve day to come and write the rest of the trip up, including crazy days in and out of Sai Gon, bus and boats up the Me Kong to Phnom Penh, and four days down on the south coast in which time my arse got unmercifully pounded by bad roads. I promise, really I am.