Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Good Afternoon, Vietnam

We've arrived in Vietnam, and I'm not sure if we should be surprised or not, but it's raining. It's the first real rain we've seen since we've been in Southeast Asia and it's quite the downpour. Luckily, we have our raincoats (and rainpants and packcovers at the ready if need be) although that hasn't stopped every shop vendor we walk by from trying to sell us ponchos. A motorcycle even pulled over while we were walking on the street and offered to sell us two purple ponchos. I guess the Vietnamese aren't used to seeing a lot of REI eVent jackets.

Our big plan from our last blog post was to head east from Savannakhet to the town of Sepon where we'd use this as a base to explore the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We headed down to the bus station and booked a ticket to Sepon. They didn't put our backpacks in the luggage compartment and we found out why about five minutes into our ride when we stopped to pick up a herd of goats! It's cliche to talk about the live chickens on a bus (yes, this bus had that too) but a herd of about 15 goats in the luggage compartment seems too ridiculous not to mention. Jaimee got a few shots of the goat herders in action:
Other than the goats, which we could hear bleating, the ride itself was fine. Except for the fact that we stayed on the bus about an hour too long. Our "ticket" (in quotes because it consisted of a verbal contract with the driver) was to Sepon, but somehow we missed the town and didn't figure this out until we'd reached the Laos/Vietnam border town of Daen Sawan. Instead of trying to backtrack (it was 3PM at this point), we took a room at a guest house in this town. Daen Sawan does not have much in the way of amenities, and we were novelties of some sort in that I don't think this town sees very many tourists. The town has hundreds of kids, all of who know a few English phrases (popular refrains: "Hello Thank you Good-bye" or "Give me money"), which they love to yell as we walked around. The were also lots of pigs, chickens, geese, dogs and cows roaming the streets.

The next day we set out for the town of Ban Dong which, according to our guide book had some old American tanks along the trail. Here's the description from our guide book:
The most tangible relics of Operation Lam Son 719 are two rusting American tanks that sit on the outskirts of Ban Dong, on Route 9. The easiest tank to find lies five minutes' walk off the road that cuts south out of town toward Taoy. Shaded by a grove of jack-fruit trees, it rests atop a small hill east of the road, partially dismantled for its valuable steel.
Given that we couldn't even find a major town along a major road while on a bus, what do you think our chances were of finding these tanks? This is assuming they're even still there. Also, what does a jack-fruit tree look like? We did find a tank though, in front of what we're guessing is a museum. The building wasn't open and the people in the area didn't speak much (any?) English so we couldn't find out much information about the tank or the building.
So, after wandering up and down a dirt road in the middle of the mid-day sun looking for tanks, we decided to call it quits, had a Pepsi at a little shack/store and went back to our guest house in Daen Sawan. Catching a ride back wasn't exactly easy. Public transport in this area of Laos consists of motorcycle taxis (not an option for two of us together) or flagging down passing vans. After waiting a while, a van did pass by and stop for us, agreeing to take us to town. After arriving in town, the driver wanted $5 USD, which I countered with 40,000 kip (a little less than $5) but when I gave him a 50,000 kip bill he tried to keep the whole thing. We went through a tugging match with the bill until finally he acquiesced to giving me change and to my surprise handed me 30,000 kip. I grabbed it and we jumped off the bus.

While we were having a late lunch back in town we were surprised when a young Dutch couple we saw on the bus (we found out they were Dutch by talking to them) came walking back into town, asking the restaurant owners about staying in their guest house. Apparently they had some issues with their Vietnamese visa (it wasn't valid until the next day) and were turned away at the border. We ran into that couple again the next day after crossing the border. We shared a van to the Vietnamese town of Hue, where we are now. I was mad though because we paid $20 US dollars (good thing we've been carrying these dollars around) for the van ride from the border to the town of Hue (it ended up being about a four hour ride), but the driver picked up the Dutch couple after us and they were able to bargain it down to $8 each! Our bargaining skills clearly need some work.

One other thing to note: we took our first motorcycle taxi. The bus depot in Hue is about 4km from the town center and being that it was rainy (and a little cold actually), walking didn't seem like a good option. Plus, it's impossible to look at a guide book without getting about five different opinions from all the various people hustling things. We gave in and each of us took a ride on the back of a motorcycle into town, which was sort of exhilarating, but also a little scary. At least they provide helmets for you. Here's Jaimee with her helmet:
We booked a very nice hotel room with free wifi and our bathroom even has a shower curtain! We also decided to to a real tour for tomorrow, this time of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) between North and South Vietnam. It's an all-day tour, which usually is not our cup of tea, but we figured it's a way to see a bunch of sights all at once. Plus, I don't think it will require us to identify any types of trees in order to find stuff. We'll be sure to report back how it goes.

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