My layover between Vientiane and Saigon was Phnom Penh. I thought this would be great because I could call Tien using my Cambodian SIM card and let her know that my flight was an hour late, but she didn't pick up. We were on the ground for about 15 minutes, then I boarded the same airplane in the same seat and we flew away.
Along with arrival and departure cards for passport control, the spread of H1N1 has prompted governments to require incoming visitors to fill out questionnaires about the state of their health. Previously the questions had been something like "Have you had dizziness, cough, diarrhea, fever, nausea within the last 10 days? What countries have you visited in the last 10 days?"
The Ho Chi Minh airport has had the most outbreaks of H1N1 that I've heard of yet which explains their additional diligence. "Have you come in contact with anybody who has had fever, cough, diarrhea, nausea within the last 15 days." I couldn't even remember everywhere I'd slept in the last 15 days.
I managed to find the slowest line at passport control. This is something I have a real knack for. I also had done this in Thailand when I was trying to catch a flight that was already boarding and in Laos with the whole pen incident.
As I was walking outside I felt distinctly different from the last few times I was in Saigon and I thought about how much I'd done in the past few weeks that had given me a new confidence in international travel.
As I walked outside Tien was waiting for me in a black blouse and a white skirt, looking beautiful and beaming with joy. I never quite know how I'm supposed to express my feelings within cultural affection allowances, but I managed to find something that was acceptable to show my joy at having her back. She grabbed her sister Mai, who I was not expecting to see, and we went off to find a taxi.
This was where my travel experience came in handy. I cut through the timidness that Tien has, kicked the first taxi driver to the curb and found a ride to the hydrofoil station at a quarter the cost. This is what you learn from getting ripped off at the Saigon airport. "Fool me once, shame on ... shame on you. If you fool me... We can't get fooled again."
We got to the hydrofoil station and I was quickly reminded how utterly chaotic Saigon traffic is. Smoggy, loud, and chaotic. What sense is there in calmly walking across a six lane river of continuously flowing traffic?
We bought our hydrofoil tickets for the Vina Express to Vũng Tàu, but it wasn't leaving for over two hours, so we found a place to sit and wait while drinking coffee and eating some noodles. Then it began to rain. Then it began to pour. Then we realized that we would miss the glorious sunset we'd hoped to see from the hydrofoil just as we were to arrive in Vũng Tàu.
The hydrofoil was awesome and pretty freakin quick. It skimmed over the water and made big splashes up onto the window. It was also very agile in the water, so agile that sometimes we thought it'd tip over, but it skimmed by tug boats and ferries and barges and oil rigs down the Saigon River and off into the pacific ocean. A girl came by and told us that because of the weather there were oceanic problems at the port so we'd have to go to a different port and take a bus into town. This frustrated us beyond the mere absence of a sunset, but that's how travel goes in these places. There was also the standard TV display of random entertainment and most of what we saw was some weird kung fu movie with four people who would wring out a shirt and drink water from it, then use it as a weapon.
Right at dusk we pulled up near a dock in an industrial area a little ways up a calm river just south of Vũng Tàu. It was still gently raining as they made us climb over 3 ships with no planks between them while carrying our bags to get to the actual dock. Tien was still wearing her nice clothes but we managed to cross with few issues. She admitted that she'd dressed poorly for traveling because she wanted to look nice for my return and this was fine by me.
Some of us managed to pile into a bus and fill it completely up while others remained outside in the rain haggling with taxi drivers. Soon it was completely dark, the rain had returned to a pour and we were stuck on a one lane dirt road behind a car that had no driver. I was reminded of those idiots in SF who double park on the train tracks and lock their car then disappear inside of a building. One time I sat on a train for 30 minutes while they towed the car. This time it only lasted 5 minutes though, which was nice because traveling can really wear you out and I'd been traveling all day and had already been off schedule twice.
We arrived at the bus drop off and stood under an awning at the local KFC while people tried to figure out where they were going to stay, then tried to find taxis to take them there. It's interesting having people who speak the language with you because they can actually get useful information, but this information is rarely passed on to you. I kept flipping back and forth between "let me handle this" mode and "you handle this" mode. In the end Mai found us a place next door to the house of a girl who was trying to find a taxi, so the four of us got in the taxi and headed off. It appeared to be nowhere near the beach by the time we got there on the back streets, but in fact ended up being only two blocks from the beach. We dropped our stuff in the room, took a little rest and went off to find dinner.
After dinner we walked down to the beach. It was great to finally be there... aside from the fact that the waves on the shore were lined with trash, it was beautiful. With Tien on my back we waded about 50 feet out into the warm water and stood there watching the lightning storm that was going on way out in the Eastern Pacific. It felt great to be back at the ocean. I had been by the ocean for the previous year and a half while living in San Francisco, but in the previous two months I was away from it and it was great to have it back. Even more, it was great to be in warm water as opposed to the cold SF Pacific, and it was great to have my girl with me to experience the lightning show, which was reminiscent. It was, I guess, a mix between old good memories and new joys.
The following day we got breakfast and then headed out to a large Christian monument on top of a hill just south of the strip where we were staying. This was the first real Christian anything I'd seen on my trip. There wasn't a word of english or french on any of the plaques so I have no idea what it was about, but there were angels and moses and cupids and at the top of the walkway up the hill, a huge statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched.
By the top of the hill I was drenched in sweat. I sat with Tien and talked about some of the hardships we faced in getting married and bringing her back to the USA. There are a few big hurdles to pass this month and I wanted to make sure she was still with me on all of our plans. She was, so we were happy. Her sister arrived with a bag of fruit after we'd been there a while, so the three of us sat and ate lychee and rambutan. We stayed at the top for a while, then headed back down the hill and off to the hotel.
Our plan was to clean up and go swimming, but the climb up the hill and the heat of the day had wiped us out, so we ended up falling asleep for an hour or two. This was fine though, we needed it, and afterwards we headed down to the beach. We found three chairs to rent and Mai stayed to watch our things while Tien and I ran off to go play in the water. As it turns out, swimming is not one of the things that is taught in Vietnamese school. Later I had a good conversation with Tien about the differences between an average first world education and an average third world education. The fact that Vietnam is about halfway covered with water yet they don't teach swimming blew my mind. Tien said that 15 students had died the previous year from drowning while riding a boat to school in heavy rains.
This lack of swimming education made Tien terribly frightened by the waves and it took me a while to chase her through the water and coax her out past the breakers to where the water was more calm. Unfortunately she couldn't always touch the ground out there. She had seen a photo I took in Ha Long Bay of a boy floating on his back and wondered how he could do that, so I taught her how and in typical Tien style, she learned very quickly. In 15 minutes she was floating on her own as large waves that were on their way to breaking passed her by. We ended the swim lesson, took a few minutes to enjoy the water and the fact that we were finally traveling together, then headed back to the shore to let Mai have her turn in the water.
There were women walking around with eggs and fish and baskets containing metal cans with fire that was boiling water where they would cook you fresh seafood. Many women were walking around with baskets of fresh fruit, and some guy was riding his bicycle by with a huge speaker system on it that made me think of the pillow fight in SF this year. A few people rode down the beach on their scooters. A group of kids next to us had collected a few dozen shells with crabs inside of them and as we were leaving one of the crabs tried to walk its way off the table. A man nearby picked it up before it got off the table and showed it to the group of friends he was sitting with.
Mai, Tien and I headed back to the hotel. The path to the beach is a typical Vietnamese path, which means it is free to ride scooters on and do whatever else you feel like doing on. Some kids were parked on their scooter talking on the phone. One woman was cooking up some weird fish that looked like a flat octopus.
The next day was Monday, but still Sunday in the USA which means I still had time to post my weekly photo set, The (d)SPOT. Because there was an elevator shaft between our room and the AP, I had to sit in the hall next to the elevator to do my work. I caught up with some co-workers and did other assorted online stuff as I was posting my photos. Just as I was finishing up and saying goodbye to some folks, the power went out. At first I thought the AC had just gone off, but then my internet connection was interrupted. I finally verified that it was indeed the power being out by checking the elevator, which was nonfunctional. I thought about how awful it would be to be trapped in an elevator in a small hotel in a third world country and was thankful that I was not.