Archive for May 2009
Whew … the silly season of teaching is amongst us. The end of the year is always hectic. Assignments to mark, exams to write and mark, reports to muddle through, kids and teachers getting sick ….this time of year at schools is always a rush with eveything happenng at once, tempers fraying and in four weeks it’ll all end with a shout of joy at the last day of school and the start of the summer holidays.
To give myself a little breather in between I’m popping across to Phnom Penh for the weekend with some friends. I plan to do nothing so much as sit by the fabled riverside and relax with a cold beer. Well, sorta ….I’ve been reading up on wikitravel, the go to site for when you’re travelling somewhere, and there are a few things I’ll want to get to once I’m in PP.
The palace, a few of the key Khymer Rouge sites and the local market. That’ll be enough for one weekend. I fly out tonight and back in on Sunday evening …ready to be assailed by all the end of year arrows of outrageous fortune. Whoo hoo … just a few hours to go …and I’ll be in PP … a city that everyone who’s been there raves about as being a fun little place for a weekend getaway.
A few weekends ago I finally got off my fat backside to go do one of Saigon’s touristy sights. The War Remnants Museum is one of the must see sights for many who travel through here. This is despite the fact that no-one here talks about the American War (as the Vietnam war is know as over here). No-one talks about it because it’s history as far as most people are concerned and has little bearing on their life. As a citizen of a country which sent troops over here I have not once had a derogatory comment come my way. The exact opposite in fact, people here are friendly, hospitable and respectful. I’m not sure that all Vietnamese who visit Australia get the same type of reception that I do over here …. to our shame.
Back to my point. In my time I have only heard one person make a comment about the war. It was a person I have the occasional chat to in my weekly routine. We were discussing the public holiday for the Liberation of Saigon when he remarked that it wasn’t exactly a happy day for him. He then went onto say his father had fought in the South Vietnamese army. He then went on his way and I was left thinking that was the first time I’d ever heard any reference to the war.
So I find myself outside the museum on Vo Van Tan street. I park my bike at a nearby restaurant, bargain briefly on the parking fee seeing as I’m not going to eat there and head across the road for an iced tea as I wait for the museum to open. When the museum opens I find myself surrounded by tourists. Some backpackers, some coach tourists and some, that, back in my hotel days, we used to call FIT’s, free independent travellers. There are also quite largish contingents of Vietnamese tourists.
Outside the main museum building are parked a number of tanks, helicopters and planes which remind me of nothing so much as movie props. I am reminded of the comment I once heard/read that the Vietnam war wasn’t so much a war for my generation as a movie. These thoughts soon disappear as I enter the Tiger Cages which remind of the stories of Abu Ghraib as I see a manacled mannequin in a tiny cage and read of, and see pictures of, tortured prisoners.
From there, and in more sombre mood, I head into the main building. There I am assaulted by pictures of war that are familiar. Then I see some that are not familiar …..bodies dragged behind armoured vehicles, pictures of the village of My Lai, beheaded North Vietnamese soldiers, bayoneted Viet Cong, napalmed women and screaming children. I am by now feeling very quiet and find myself easily angered (oh, the irony) by a couple of young backpacking lads behind me laughing.
For some respite I go to the children’s room to see cheesy drawings of peace and friendship. They’re cheesy but they reflect the Vietnam that I know … the one in the photos seems nothing like the place I live in. I leave the museum to catch up with a friend. As I walk out I reflect on the fact that the museum is clearly a place of propaganda. There is no balance in this place and yet, almost every bit of evidence on the walls of that museum come from Western journalists. The horrible things on the walls did actually exist, they have not been made up. I don’t think the Vietnamese were angels in this war but I do sometimes wonder how they can so easily, not only forgive, but welcome their former foes with open arms. It’s a credit to them.
Day two in Vung Tau (I wrote this a week ago) and I find myself sitting in a place called Ned Kelly’s. Actually it’s called Ned Kelly’s 2 and is a bit nicer and better situated than the first. Now why would an Aussie travel across the world just to sit in a place called Ned Kelly’s, a place that couldn’t be more Australian than if you called it g’day mate. Truth is I still can’t do Asian breakfasts and my hotel breakfast was gruel, gruel and more gruel – the horrible, clumpy, gluggy rice breakfast dish also know as congee or bubur ayam. So I looked for a place along the coast with comfortable chairs, good views and that would serve a decent banh mi op la (baguette and eggs) and ca phe sua nong (Vietnamese white coffee) ….. a nice compromise between what I wanted to eat while still acknowledging where I was. That’s how I find myself at Ned Kelly’s .. the op la is superb and the coffee is hot and steaming ….. better yet the view across the harbour is delightfully Vietnamese.
I sit there looking at all the blue and red fishing boats sitting in the harbour of the "front beach" …. fishermen potter around their boats in stuttering little runabouts, one man rows a little boat while another, in a similar boat, uses both feet to row as if in some gym rowing machine. In front of me parade a series of Vietnamese couples cruising the avenue looking at the sites.
Around me I see a mixed crowd, two blokes talking about work, a Vietnamese family, the expat owner and his Vietnamese wife and a couple of what must be old diggers talking about Long Tan.
I return to my op la and the fantastic view in front of me. I try to ignore the modern art building that looks like a slightly crumpled much more metallic version of the opera house but it’s hard to ignore. It’s not particularly ugly but this modern art ferry terminal just seems horribly out of place – a sign of Vietnam’s future where they see Singapore as their ultimate role model. I find myself quite liking Vung Tau despite the fact that everyone I talked to about the place wasn’t a fan. It’s no Bali and the beaches in the main part of town are crowded. The town itself is quite interesting and it has superb roads running through town, along the coast and around the large hills in the area they call mountains. It has good cafes and restaurants and decent hotel. A great place to visit especially if you’re on a bike.
This morning I rode through sunshine, through traffic, through fields of ducks and then I rode through a monsoonal rainstorm. Now I sit here in Vung Tau sipping a coffee while I look at the waves from the South China Sea crashing against the busy Vung Tau "back beach".
I headed out of Saigon mid-morning. My copy North Face backpack neatly packed and nestled between my knees in my bike’s luggage rack. I may have looked like your Nanna riding a nanna bike but I felt like an easyrider. My journey out of Saigon was heralded by flowing flags and banners. Alternating symbols, first a star then a hammer & sickle on identical blood red backgrounds. Yesterday was the anniversary of the liberation of Saigon and today was May 1st – no doubt the real reason for the banners. I chose to look upon them as my very own honour guard of communist symbolism as I rode down to the beaches of Vung Tau.
The ride out of Saigon was relatively uneventful and I chose to put on some 90’s rock tunes on my iPod as I rode out. Turning onto the road to Vung Tau (highway 51a) I stopped to buy a baguette and iced-green tea. The smiling Chi (older woman but not too old) who in retrospect I think I should have called a Ba (a woman a fair bit, maybe mother’s age old) consented, smilingly, to me taking a photo of her and her streetside, freshly baked Banh Mi.
A few miles further just beyond Bein Hoa I found myself visiting Dairy World. Or at least that’s what I think it was with it’s massive cow statues, and mentions of Bo Sua (Beef/Cow milk). I rode in through Dairy world, stopped off to buy a drink and some freshly baked little doughy things stamped with the decidedly English word “egg”. Quiet delicious and a nice little break on my journey.
From there I zoomed off. In my earphones the 4 Non-Blondes sang to me and asked me "what’s going on now" as, on the sidelines, a panorama opened up. To my left misty covered mountains, to my right fields of white ducks, rice paddies and buffalos standing sentry duty on the banks of sodden, muddy coloured rice paddies.
My trusty Yamaha purred between my thighs, my iPod picked another great tune, the wind kept me cool, the rush of air over the handlebars and onto my face kept me smiling. I found myself singing out loud as I enjoyed the visceral rush of riding and the screensaver scenery around me. I don’t know what my fellow riders on the road thought but I was having a ball riding and singing.
And then the clouds rolled in. The air began to thicken and the small pockets of blue left in the sky began to close up. As one the traffic around me began to speed up as if our combined horsepower alone could keep the rain at bay. ’twas not to be and the first drops started breaking. I pulled over to a nearby stall and bought a poncho. Pulling it on my head the baby blue poncho did much to enhance my easyrider cool. Off I rode into the storm the tunes still playing and me still singing.
Within minutes the wind began to pickup and soon the rain was falling hard, fast and needle sharp. I slowed my bike to a crawl and still the rain hurtled into my face at breakneck speed like kamikaze pilots eager to inflict damage. Just prior to my face turning into steak tartare I pulled over to a garage and waited with 50 or so fellow riders. After 20 minutes or so the rain seemed to ease and I, knowing Vung Tau was still 50km’s away was keen to get on with it. I rode back into the needles and rode and rode and rode. When the rain eased I sped up and when it came thundering down I slowed to a crawl but I kept going. My smile slowly turned to a grimace but through it all I was finding a perverse joy. Here I was riding a bike through the rice paddies and buffalos of Vietnam while doing battle with the monsoon, how could I not be enjoying this.
On I rode and eventually I arrived at the outskirts of Vung Tau. My poncho had not served it’s purpose, ripped up by the wind, rain had soaked through and then, just to make sure I really was wet the gods had sent truckers and fellow bikers to ride through massive wake producing puddles just as I was riding past them. On four separate occasions I was engulfed by a wave of water taller than me and my bike. You’d think my sense of humour was being tested 😉
In Vung Tau I drove through the rain, saw a likely hotel with great views of the ocean and likely to have room service, hot coffee and hot water. So here I am at Sammy hotel drinking my ca phe sua nong while the hot water runs in my bath. I’ll go out again when the rains die down. What a long, wet, enjoyable ride that was.