Saigon & Dalat, Vietnam
Despite spending all my time in Saigon 12 days I’m doing my damnedest to avoid the place.
Monday afternoon finds me wandering into Sinh or Kim cafe to book a ticket to escape. These two places have the tourism in Vietnam by the bollocks, sewn up, impossible to avoid. It is possible to travel on local buses in Vietnam, sometimes. Thing is, it’s not even any cheaper and it’s definitely more awkward. Find out which bus station your bus leaves from, take a taxi to the bus station, get involved with the rugby scrum of ticket vendors. Then sit cramped on an old bus whose horn is set to go off with every rotation of one of the wheels.
Now I try to justify the use of their services in many different ways. But I sold out, took the easy option. I just hated giving these guys money, preferring to give it to an independent bus company. The fact that the office was next door to my hotel and the bus was actually departing from my door step had nothing to do with it, honest! With my collar pulled high and my cap pulled low I blended in with the backpacker tide on the street outside.
“Me in that place? You must be off your rocker, mate.” No, I had just got pissed off with the moto drivers each morning. With that knowing smile and sly wink they would take the mickey and say:
“You said yesterday you were leaving today.”
“Yeah well, Saigon. Same, same but different.”
Even had a local boozer of sorts, where the Vietnamese girls whip you at pool while you purchase the drinks. Was on first-name terms and hand-shaking acquaintances with a large number of them. The guys in the bar give the same knowing smile and slyly wink when I inform them of my departure tomorrow. When I present them with the ticket, there’s only one solution: Everyone must get rip-roaringly drunk. They are only in their early 20s, but nice people. I would always buy them a beer, glasses and ice to share. They put ice in the glasses then add the beer; it goes further, even if you would get a slap around the face if you tried to do it in England. They would actually take it in turns to buy a beer back to share, no prompting like.
At least this place was only a bar and not a nightclub. Although dancing did sometimes take place. Usually by the “Ain’t it way past your bedtime?” crowd at the cigarette and lighter vendors. Apparently there’s no age limit of when you can enter a bar in Vietnam, or sell cigarettes and play with lighters.
Being a bar it followed, loosely, some sort of closing time. Admittedly it could be around 3 or 4. But it’s nice to have someone turn all the lights on, turn the music off and usher you towards the door when you have a 7:30am bus to catch.
Finding the hotel was hilarious; it should have been next door, for Christ’s sake. I know there is a lot of redevelopment in this developing country, but this really was ridiculous. I’d been staying there for five days. Observed by a fellow foreigner, disintegrating into tears of laughter, I proceed to wake up two hotels before I find the correct one. All in a row, all next to each other. The thing is the front doors have shutters on them, which they lock, and a guard sleeps inside. Quite often you have to knock for a few minutes to wake them up. I wander inside, look around no it’s not my hotel. “I’m sorry,” in Vietnamese was second nature to me by now. Finally I find my bed and use it.
My first waking thought: “What time is it?”
I’d lost my Russian pocket watch some weeks ago, and now I relied exclusively on that famous invention, “the body clock,” to catch buses and trains. I had a 100% record so far.
My room was cheap; these by definition don’t have windows and are particularly dark. No hints of time to be found there. Pulling on my strides, hair care by UHU glue, still with pillow creases across my face, I rush into the restaurant where I know there is a clock. 7:05am it proudly announces. Still with a 100% record I go back upstairs to take a shower. No knowing smiles or winks for me today. The moto drivers would have to find another victim.
The bus was plush, lush and comfy. I spread myself across two seats just behind the driver. We all know the back of the bus bounces more than a lady of the night’s mattress. I slip into a dreamy world filled with the sounds of Elton John’s greatest hits.
Little did I know, this wasn’t just a means of transport between two cities. Oh no, I was now on a Kim Cafe tour. Trapped like a rat, what was I going to do for food? We’d have to eat each other. There was a particularly fat-thighed American sitting opposite me. I’m salivating. She takes it the wrong way. No, it was nothing like that really. But it did feel like one of the Carry On movies. Pick any one, as long as the whole cast was on a tourist bus.
We slowed down to take in scenic tea and coffee plantations, waterfalls and lakes. Elton John would segue into the voice of the driver, “On your left a lovely grass hut, the bus will slow down to allow you to use your camera.” I was nearly in tears of laughter myself when people actually did take pictures.
Kept expecting to hear Sid James’ dirty laugh emanating from the back of the bus. Or Barbara Windsor in a tight hostess outfit serving soft drinks. After three loops of Elton John it got real surreal as the driver reached for the Musak elevator music cassette. A cover of Barry Manilow’s “At the Copa” pushed it right over the edge. I was actually starting to sing along. I rummaged in my rucksack to find my cassettes. Tapping the diver on the shoulder I hand him “Eric Clapton Unplugged.”
“Same, same but different,” I offer. He inserts it into the player. Sanity restored, I continue to gaze at the scenic tea and coffee plantations.
Oh how I wished to be on a local bus, with foul smells, live animals, intrigued locals. “Why aren’t you on the Kim Cafe tour?” Give them their dues, the driver and his mate were very friendly. Although I take the piss with the tour commentary, the English was impeccable. Upon arrival we are all asked which hotel we wanted to go to, and there’s at least 30 of us. The driver takes the bus through impossibly narrow streets and actually waits while tight-fisted tourists they must have been Israelis haggle over the nightly rate: $5 or $4.
Local bus over Kim Cafe bus? Do I take it again? In the city I’m in now, Dalat, foreigners are actually banned from the local bus station. So I’m in Kim Cafe’s hands again. With a new selection of tapes I might survive the journey.