Sleeper Buses and Hooker Swarms

And I’ve gotten behind in my blogging since we got to Nha Trang. No worries, plenty to write about.

We got to Nha Trang Saturday morning via a “sleeper bus.” This was my first foray into this…economical means of transportation. Ben and I, along with our friends Claire, Lydia and Josh, all piled into the back of a 40 person sleeper bus for the 14 hour drive from Hoi An to Nha Trang. We managed to get the back, which was basically a 5 coffin cave with about 2.5 feet of headroom for each of us. To say we were close was a slight understatement. I didn’t exactly inherit my mother’s claustrophobia, but I was pretty close.

We did plan ahead though, as Claire had taken this means of transportation before. Since prescription drugs are more of a do-it-yourself free for all here in Vietnam, we got ourselves some Valium all had a modified “desperate housewife.” We joked and horsed around in the back of the bus for the first 2 hours, but by the end of my whiskey and coke, I was down for the count, and managed to wake up just about a half hour north of Nha Trang.

Thank god, because it would’ve been a tense 14 hours otherwise.

Upon arriving in Nha Trang, I thought that the Valium had put me down for far longer than 14 hours. It appeared to be as Russian as anything. Apparently there are direct flights from several locations in Russia, including Siberia and Irkutsk. Russians, being the warm cuddly types, tend to flock to vacation spots together, so someone after the Vietnam War realized that Nha Trang was a beautiful place to escape a Siberian winter, and there have been massive flocks ever since.

Ben and I tried to check into our hostel, Mojzo Inn at 7AM, only to be told by the most delightful trio of Vietnamese women you could ever hope to meet that our room wouldn’t be ready until 2. So we dropped our bags and went in search of breakfast.

Just around the corner from Mojzo Inn we found a large bar which was playing the NBA playoffs and the Bruins-Canadiens game. They had large English breakfasts on the menu so we decided to go grab a seat. We were basically the only fools around, other than an older gentleman at the end of the bar. He saw that I was trying to watch both games and asked if I wanted the TVs turned. I noticed his Minnesota Twins polo, and away the conversation went.

Turns out that he was the proprietor of this bar, known as “Booze Cruise.” A process engineer by trade, he was sent by his employer to Saigon 7 years ago. After spending 6 months, he flew back to Minneapolis and told them he quit. He then moved back over to Saigon, married his Vietnamese girlfriend, and went about trying to start a business.

They started out in Saigon, where his wife was finishing her masters, but came up to Nha Trang for a weekend getaway. After 3 days, John looked at his wife and told her to head home and finish her degree, but he was going to start a business in Nha Trang. He started networking, and combing the beach for backpackers to talk to, and realized that there was a seriously underserved need in this town full of tourists and backpackers. So he rented a boat for $25, filled it full of booze, charged $10 a head and the “Booze Cruise” was born. He made $500 on his first cruise, and has been building an empire ever since.

Those humble beginnings are now the root of a 5 bar empire, completely with several apartment buildings. He goes “home” to Minnesota once a year for about a month, but he said that when he is there, he starts getting the itch to get back to Vietnam. John and the bar are the center of the Nha Trang expat community (at least the Western delegation) as he has every Western sporting event you can imagine, from Aussie Rules, to soccer, to NBA to tennis.

I’ve taken my breakfast over there every morning since we got here, blissfully able to watch the Pacers (until this morning) and watch my Blackhawks advance against John’s Minnesota Wild.

Getting to talk to John every morning has really opened my eyes to a few more issues in Vietnam that I was unaware of. I can now identify the classic Vietnamese “hooker swarm” pickpocket method, as well as which Nha Trang bars are most likely to serve the old “roofie-colada.” Beyond helping me safely navigate a city which certainly has a seedy underside, we broached more serious issues of geopolitics.

John told me that he hasn’t been able to have a booze cruise in over a year since the Chinese started encroaching upon Vietnamese maritime rights. He’s got the bars, so he’s fine financially, but it is just another case of foreign aggression against this land. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also been a big issue here given the large Russian expat community.

John was able to put me onto Ocean’s 5, a dive shop here in town run by Westerners where I decided to get my SSI Open Water certification. I figure since my brother is a Navy diver, it couldn’t hurt to be able to have another activity to share if we ever get on vacation together.

Today was my first day of open water diving, and again I was shown the real world ramifications of the Chinese aggression. Our boat, along with a few fishing boats, were escorted from the Nha Trang harbor out the 8 km to the diving locations. China has declared all water further from 10 km from shore to be theirs, mostly for the oil and gas rights, but they are encroaching on the traditional fishermen of Vietnam as well.

My dive instructor Will, had been working out of Nha Trang for 2 years, and had never seen destroyers be dispatched to escort boats like ours. He was amazed, but at the same time I could see the worry etched on his face. Events like this are most certainly not good for business.

This is yet another instance where Vietnam is realizing that the lack of American influence in the Far East is making a place where the rule of law counts for less and less. America has made commitments to many countries in this part of the world, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines coming to mind first, and if we don’t peacefully project influence through both diplomatic and naval power, China will continue to run roughshod over its less powerful neighbors.

Unlikeliest of Friends

In the last 6 weeks on the road, I’ve made more than my fair share of friends. One friendship that I will truly treasure as highly as any will be with Man from Hoi An.

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A university student, studying of all things, Banking and Finance, Man was our tour guide with Hoi An Kids, a group which puts Western tourists with local university students to develop student’s English and foster a positive tourism experience within Vietnam.

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Man took us to a local island where we got to see and participate in a variety of traditional local activities, from rice noodle making, boat making, mat weaving and an understanding of a local family temple.

Boat builders in Com Kim

Boat builders in Com Kim

After spending 5 hours sweating and smiling along with us, Man suggested hitting up a bahn mi spot in Hoi An, which to my delighted surprise was once visited by Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations.

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The sandwich really was a symphony on a baguette, with beef, chili, fresh cucumber, fried egg, chili sauce and a host of other lightly pickled vegetables that almost made me cry knowing I’d probably never have another again. He dropped us into another local coffee shop where we talked about the economics of his family’s farm and his ambitions after finishing university.

I asked him if he had any suggestions on how best to get up to Hill 55, a place where my Uncle Denis had fought during the Vietnam War.

Normally, I would’ve been a touch nervous about bringing the war up, but Vietnam is a place that is largely at peace with its past. One of the youngest populations in the world, Vietnam doesn’t bother with the problem of trying to explain away its history. The Vietnamese ethos is firmly in the present, with a solid lean forward.

There is something to be learned from that, both as a nation and as an individual.

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Man said that he’d be more than happy to take me up to Hill 55, and that he’d see me bright and early in the morning. 8 AM rolled around and he was at the gate, smiling as I choked through a cup of delicious Vietnamese coffee.

We took off on his moped, to go grab one for me. We pulled into an alley off the main drag, (ironically only a few doors down from Cafe 43, where we’ve been taking our cooking classes) and he smiled and said, ‘There’s yours.” I jumped on my bike and away we went, about 20 miles outside of Hoi An to the site.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with Vietnamese traffic, let me tell you, this was an adventure. I’m pretty well fearless where motor vehicles are concerned (thank you again Uncle Andrew) but this was just insane.

Imagine an Indianapolis 500 with 200 cars in the field, except with mopeds, cars, touring buses, and bikes. All vehicles go approximately the same speed, no two horns sound alike (though all are constantly being used) and no one has a rear view mirror.

The only rule is to not kill another driver.

I still have yet to see a stop sign since we left Hanoi, and I’ve only seen a handful of stop lights, all of which were treated as flippant suggestions more than the law. There is no such thing as a Vietnamese traffic cop, other than the guy with a scoop shovel who cleans up the inevitable accidents.

I was excited, but my ass still hurts from the constant clenching as I weaved in and out of mopeds carrying families, 16 foot long PVC pipes, 5 100 lb bags of rice, and a massive pile of rice sheaves reminiscent of a certain Monet series.

Then there were the middle of the road cattle drives.

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But we got there, and that’s what’s important.

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Once we got there, Man showed me the still flattened remnants of the old American Marine Bases, while showing me the panoramic geography of the area. Even to a total military novice like myself, it was very obvious to see the military value of such a hill, which is why it has been fought over between the Vietnamese and their various foreign invaders for the past 1100 years.

Once we got to the top of the hill, Man and I talked about his thoughts on the wars. We talked about the long history of Vietnamese occupation. His reverence for “Uncle Ho” was obvious, but so too was his understanding that the past does not dictate the present.

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Only in the past 39 years has Vietnam been a country allowed to operate on its own.

I want to be clear that I’m not about to embark on an American apology tour, a la President Obama 2008. Nor am I about to engage in re-fighting a war which cost both sides entirely too many fathers, brothers and sons.

There is a lesson to be learned from all things if one is willing to stop trying to justify the actions taken, and look at a situation holistically. Too often, we constantly try to paint history to put ourselves in a better light, at the cost of real growth.

The Vietnam War was an absolute tragedy. Americans have for 40 years tried their hardest to ignore it, and in doing so we have failed to learn the lessons it offered.

In 12 years of school, I never once was taught anything about the Vietnam War aside from the fact that it happened. A war that cost nearly 60,000 American lives wasn’t considered important enough to teach to our students from 1993-2005.

That is absolutely criminal. Having lived half of my life in a world shaped by the post 9/11 wars, I find it absolutely asinine that we aren’t teaching our students about a war that so brutally divided a country we still haven’t completely healed.

How can we ask the next generation of leaders to be better than the last if they aren’t expected to consider the historical situations that got us to where we are today?

The lessons offered by the Vietnam War were paid for with the blood of 58,220 men. It is a callous offense to their memories if we don’t learn from it.

Since landing in this country, I have tried to educate myself on the ins and outs of Vietnamese history. Desire for self governance remains the prevailing theme regardless of what I read.

A day many thought would never come

A day many thought would never come

An excerpt of this unanswered letter, from Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman in 1946 was particularly powerful to me.

“These security and freedom can only be guaranteed by our independence from any colonial power, and our free cooperation with all other powers. It is with this firm conviction that we request of the United Sates (sic) as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence.

What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.”

As Man and I stood on that hillside, opposing heirs to a legacy of bloodshed, he looked at me and said.

“I do not hate America, I don’t understand why they fought my people, but that is in the past. The duplicitous Chinese are the enemy of the future, and Vietnam must stand with America against them.”

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As we spoke, there has been diplomatic saber rattling about China’s encroachment upon Vietnam’s maritime rights. I hope that America lives up to its once sterling reputation as “guardians and champions of world justice.”

For all of our diplomatic blunders, we are still the preeminent guarantors of freedom against those nations which would look to subjugate their neighbors.

I hope that we realize the responsibility of that preeminence. The world depends on it.