Train Jolts and Curves – A Dispute About Coffee Money

It bumped, jostled and curved its way onwards. It was as though its screeching wheels and groaning cogs were winding down or in serious need of lubrication. The passing life outside was shrouded. The dark night kept it secret, a murky world, mist-covered by windows. Daylight, welcoming, was there. The sun pushed through shods of clouds that hung on distant mountains. Some, closest, were rocky and variable. The rest was flat and fertile: rice fields, palm and banana plantations. The clapped-out rust and crudded stretch of iron proved remarkably resilient as it jolted and shunted forward blaring its horn, grinding to a halt.

It made a change being able to chat liberally to a fellow English speaker, an Irish script writer based Down Under. The crowded tourist den, Saigon’s ‘Crazy Buffalos’ and ‘Allez Boo’ bars sprang to mind, feeling eons away – something conjured up from a distant past. But that’s what I like about train travel. It can be traditionally slow and time enveloping, or rapid, due to modern demands, spurting the adrenalin. The former speed gave me a fleeting chance to see Vietnam’s hinterland: a passing mountain backdrop, oblong shaped houses, huts, and shacks used by land holders. Some were tending to crops, others wielding the odd cow.
I briefly got off at a station and bought two rolls of bread, and cheese slices. The bread was 100,000 Dong more, the cheese cost 40,000.
Much later, a man in his thirties and a thin woman in her mid-sixties, got on.
“Would you like some chicken and rice?’ She asked.
“Well….OK,” feeling in the mood to eat.
“I’ll get you some.”
“How much?” I asked when she came back.
“A hundred thousand.”
“A hundred Thousand! Too much.” I was going to hand the carton back.
“We got one for thirty earlier on this train,” Ronan, the Irish guy chipped in.
“Okay, forty thousand,” she compromised, stroking my bare feet and ankles hanging over the berth, appearing sweet.
“You…coffee? You coffee?” The guy pressured.
“I’ll get the coffees, Dave,” Ronan was being extra supportive and hospitable.
“Forty thousand for one.”
“What! You’re joking!” I fumbled through a bundle of Vietnamese money. I hadn’t the correct amount. Ronan got into an even hotter argument. The guy became aggressive.
“It’s too much, and you’ve only filled half the cup.”
I tried to fob him off with 5,000 Dong in two 2,500 notes. He threw them back in a rage, although I think he changed his mind and took them back in a flash just before the train started moving.
“Notice how the old woman looked sweet,” remarked Ronan.
“Sure did. When they behave like that they lose my sympathy.” The deceit, though, was easily manifested.
It’s what’s repugnant about today’s world; money mixed with ignorance. We are declining, not progressing; both as a civilisation and as a species.
However, the difficult incident passed away in a welcome relief made more so as swathes of sunlight fell upon mountain sides underneath blue skies. The Central Highlands area of the country told a few tales of intense activity during the Vietnam War.
“Come and see this, Dave.” Ronan invited.
We stood behind the window. He pointed out that passing close-by tree-clad mountains would tell a few stories about jungle warfare waged between the guerilla cong. Tons of Dioxin was used against the militia, scorching much of the plantation. Ronan could identify the names of these hills. A few scorched buildings were seen, evidence of the War. Discussing the conflict, I wondered.
“So it was Johnson, then Nixon, who were chiefly responsible for prolonging the war?”
“Nixon was a big crook,” Ronan interposed.
If you consider the amount of bomb tonnage dropped on the North and the Watergate scandal, it isn’t hard to refute the allegation. However, taking the actions of Bush and the Iraq War for all the wrong reasons, Nixon’s actions perhaps pale by comparison.
The train stopped at a packed level crossing. It had hit a girl and remained stationary for a good half-hour until she was lifted out of a ditch. It wasn’t easy to see how injured she was.
The locomotive made a big uphill sweep, hugging the edge of the coast. It twisted and bended by the side of a 3,000 foot mountain above a coastline of little coves. Little waves from an inky sea were lit-up by funnels of light beaming from offshore patrol boats. A necklace of lights twinkled on a horizon while myriads of stars lit-up the sky.
I gave Ronan my Hue Backpacker’s Hostel Card. It would ease his taxi journey into the old capital.
‘You’ll have the place to yourself,” he thought as he pointed to the other occupants of the cabin. A young guy and his wife with their little girl sucking a bottle of milk staring bright-eyed up at me, were preparing to leave.
“Are you sure they’re a couple?” I asked.
“Yes, they were very much together down the corridor.”
“But I never saw him hold the baby.”
“Maybe it’s a cultural thing.”
The train hit a wall of fog as it rattled, ground and jolted into Hue station. It would rat, tat and crunch its way into the darkness a whole lot more after I called “cheerio” to Ronan, watching his slim build disappear into the station.
The swoony song, “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” had a hollow ring as a guardsman came in and crashed out on one of the empty bunks.

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A Ridiculous Altercation – Everyone’s Coming to Saigon

If you’re faced with killing time, you’d hope there’d be plenty of things to do. Not so in Saigon, unless you book a place on a day-long Mekong Delta tour or lounge on your behind all day swilling beers in or outside the ‘Crazy Buffalo’ or ‘Allez Boo’ bars. There’s always lounging on a park bench, of course, unless you get shifted or told to sit up by a park official.
I’d booked the slow way back to Hanoi; a two-night train journey that wasn’t due to depart until 10 p.m. I didn’t want to hurry back to a college campus that would, in all respects, be lonesome, dispiriting, not to mention shrouded by cold dreary weather. I decided to stay away for a few more days and recapture the spirit of travel. The colder air in Hanoi would perhaps be welcoming.
I left my rucksack downstairs. The guest house owner immediately suggested a motor bike ride to the railway station, once I told him about the train journey. I thought a taxi would be a safer idea. These folks will try anything to rake in more dosh.
“How much?’ I asked.
“Thirty thousand,” cheaper than the taxi.
I found an indoor restaurant along the street on the opposite side and ordered some breakfast: a ham omelette and two iced teas. If I thought, because it was Chinese New Year, that there’d be 50% off the price of food and drinks, think again. I was actually charged 15% more – branded ‘lucky New Year money.’ I was surprised that I had to pay 11,000 more. Foolishly I made a song and dance about the unexpected increase.
“Why didn’t you put the notice on the menu folders at the beginning of your shift?” I asked a flustered young waitress.
“I told you already about the increase, man. It’s the boss’s decision.”
She’d already sped off on the back of a motor bike to celebrate the New Year leaving her meagre staff to do all the work.
“It’s only half a dollar, man. Most of the restaurants on this street are closed.”
Maybe I should have told her to speak more slowly, but I agreed. Besides, am I that hard up? What about the poor soul, rushed off her feet?
I went off to the market where all the confusion took place with the elderly beggar woman, but it was also closed, so I stretched out for a while on a park bench. I lay on the concrete for what lasted like a long time, watching a squirrel dart up and down the thin branches of a couple of hovering trees, until I was motioned to sit up by a park official.
I sat in the ‘Crazy Buffalos’ bar drinking a glass of Vietnamese tea and scrutinizing excitable trampy pop videos. The Lady Ga Ga type is what a sizeable proportion of young clientele like these days. The music’s loud and beaty, too. How else do you kill time, except exchange more Chinese currency and saunter around stores picking a few more DVDs?
The backpacker streets were full of waifs and strays falling out of the woodwork, coming in from all over the place. The mind boggles. Everyone’s coming to Saigon, if not Vietnam, it seems. Well, it’s cheap and congenial. It’s 2,000 dong for a single banana, 6,000 for a large bottle of water – normally 10,000, although I got fed up with paying out tidbits of money.
I called round to the guest house to pick up my rucksack and claim the motor bike ride. The owner said his son would take me to the station. Sitting at a computer, he’d had too many beers. His speech was slurred.
“You’re drunk!” came my dismayed response. I was worried I wouldn’t make it. His father stepped on the bike instead.
The streets were infested with legions of motorbike riders – a plague of Pied Piper rats being tuned away. In this case, the tune came from ratcheting throttles of accelerator handlebars. He almost bumped into one causing an impatient outburst. For a big city like Saigon, the railway station is rather small.
The train slowly clunked and clattered away. I agreed to change cabins so that a guy from Hong Kong could keep an eye on his ailing father. I’m glad I did, otherwise I wouldn’t have shared one with an Irish guy who’d turned up from a day-long Mekong tour. Wish I’d joined it. Recounting his experiences, there were some eccentric group members too.
“Raced here to get away from a lady,” he said.
‘A girl?”
‘No, the real thing.”

Cluster of Saigon Watchers

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Thoughts about the Vietnam War – A Chinese Photographer

Saigon, because it lacks the jumbled-street character of Hanoi: its roads and streets are broader and straighter, isn’t as interesting as the capital city, and doesn’t have its vibrancy. However, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t easier to get around in. It is very like Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, which has its streets made on the grid system.
I strode off towards the light brown-colored cathedral named after Notre Dame. The central area surrounding it is large and the streets are spacious. Water sellers were charging 10,000 Dong for small bottles. It might give passers-by more of an incentive to buy one at 5,000. After taking a picture of two of the church’s interior – it’s not that spectacular, and a stained glass window or two, I paused at the gates of the Reunification Palace. It looks more like an embassy or some other modern administrative building than a palace. Tourists and the public aren’t allowed inside. Apart from a solitary tank stuck in the grounds, there isn’t much to notice, so I headed for the War Remnant’s Museum.
If you want to know more about the Vietnam War and its outcome, then the museum’s the place to visit, not that a visit to Vietnam itself doesn’t tell its own story. I didn’t get there until around 11 a.m. It closes for lunch at 12 p.m., so I would have to return at 1:30 to finish an adequate tour of the building.
Examples of obsolescent fighter jets, tanks and bombs used in the conflict are on display in the courtyard. They’ve not only been put there as historical memorabilia of the weaponry, but also to show a thought: ‘this is the consequence of war,’ and ‘look at what the Vietnamese people have achieved in overcoming aggression by capturing this sophisticated firepower.’ A boast or not, there’s more about an introduction to the War, photographs with text, that decorates the walls of the ground floor as you walk in.
I went into a video room and sat down to watch a documentary about the effects of the chemical Dioxin, otherwise known as ‘Agent Orange,’ used widely during the War and which, to this day, has devastated the lives of many people from village communities. The museum gives over a whole section to the part the chemical played. The rest of the second floor covers what is called the ‘War of Aggression,’ and the third floor, contributions by photojournalists who were killed, and other artifacts.
Despite creeping tediousness – a time-consuming look at all the photos and reading every caption, every picture tells a story, it was interesting learning more about the history of the struggle the Vietnamese experienced, notably French imperialism in the 19th Century, to the end of the Second World War when Vietnam as a socialist republic was founded. It wasn’t until 1954 when a Communist-led nationalist movement known as the ‘Viet Minh’ defeated the French by winning the battle at Dien Bien Phu. A historical convention at Geneva partitioned the country at the 17th Parallel into the Communist north and the so-called ‘democratic’ south. It was in 1975 that the US and the South Vietnamese Army were defeated and the Communist forces that unified the whole country captured Saigon, thus finally ending years of struggle over the rim of Indochina.
The War lasted for about 8 years, although was extended for a further three. Up to four million Vietnamese perished and fifty-eight thousand American soldiers died. Pictures hanging on the museum walls, representing what some of them did, are harrowing.
The whole hemisphere, including Laos and Cambodia, was used to drop as much tonnage of bombs. Presidents Johnson and Nixon ordered four times the amount of TNT to be dropped that was expended during World war Two. Raids on Hanoi, the north and the rest of the theatre boosted the U.S. arms trade, and photos of the B-52 Bombers look mightily impressive. Nixon extended the bombing by trying to bully the North Vietnamese into a peace submission. However, it didn’t have the effect of softening the resolve of the guerilla movement known as the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army. It did just the opposite, and Nixon got world condemnation. When a country has had years and years of struggle against foreign domination and oppression, war becomes a mere appendage in the hardening of resistance.
I was glad to extricate myself from the tedium and the feeling I was getting in everyone else’s way that had just as much right to be in the museum as I had. I took pictures of the plethora of artillery, and later, I bought a photocopied book from a store in the backpacker area called ‘Vietnam – A History’ by Stanley Karnow. It does a prodigious job at chronicling the causes and events of the War. Back in Hanoi, I bought a three disk DVD series entitled, ‘Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War.’
I grew up hearing about it being the ‘big’ event that it was during the 60s and 70s, supposedly against the spread of Communism and about young men dodging the ‘Draft’ risking imprisonment, although little else. However, the ulterior reasons for war: territorial expansion, resources, a need for aggression, to manufacture new arms, no matter who is caught in the crossfire, are denied by those responsible. The current NATO campaign over Libya is a case in point. There’s no such thing as a smart bomb, although those in the histrionic organization like to utilize and show off its latest laser technology, but if any rebel or civilian the campaign is supposed to be waged on behalf of gets killed, then too bad.
What now, though, for Vietnam forty years on? It still feels the effects of the conflict: a struggling economy, rural poverty, a need by local people to sell, sell and sell again, a devalued currency and a marginalized state.
Despite the socialist propaganda on notices, monuments that portray it and slogans bandied about the country, not to mention the emblematic hammer and sickle and lone star on red flags, how truly can Vietnam stick to that ideology today. It is now ironic, that the Communism the country so desperately fought for has ended due to the absence of the Cold War that is replaced by a growing market-driven global economy. If it stuck to its Communism, it wouldn’t be an open state pandering, amongst other things, to western tourism and hard capital. Nevertheless, if the Vietnamese are sponging off visitors, then who can really blame them. After all, the West colonized their country in the 19th century, bombed the s**t out of it and leaves it marginalized today. Money, money, and money again, however grubbily, talks.
I went back to my room and had a shower: feet still sizzling from the sunburn. I ordered a bite to eat. A Chinese guy, visiting from Shanghai, kindly treated me to a Tiger beer.
“Seven RMB here, thirty at home. Vietnam is like China twenty years ago. I like Ho Chi Minh City. Stay for five days.”
He had difficulty finding a cheap room.
I took him to my guesthouse and asked the owner if she had any spare rooms. The ash from protruding incense sticks brushed my trousers.
“He needs a room,” turning towards the Chinese guy.
“Sorry. All full here. I do have one in another place for fifteen Dollars.’
“Okay,” the guy returned.
A female backpacker turned up.
“Are you looking for a room?” she asked.
“No, I have one. He is,” turning again to the Chinese.
“Why is everywhere booked?” she looked nonplussed.
“Can’t say,” although it was late in the evening and the Tet Festival was getting into full swing.
I strolled around the shops ending up buying a few classic DVDs: “Braveheart’ and the 1992 French Film, ‘Indochine’ starring Catherine Deneuve which largely deals with the French occupation of Vietnam.
It was time to batten down the hatches. Local workers emerged clashing symbols and were dressed in red silk costumes wearing facemasks, stopping at each store doorway prancing, dancing, and shaking around in a gigantic Chinese dragon.
Get ready, it’s Chinese New Year, or is it Tet they’re supposed to be celebrating?

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To Saigon, and a Mistaken Money Worker

Busy Road - Saigon

While traveling through Vietnam, it is puzzling, if not interesting, to note the many times you will see Ho Chi Minh City referred to as Saigon, and the other way round. It’s as if the city can’t shackle off it’s colonial past or get used to its present-day status as the second major city in the socialist state. Until 1861, the Vietnamese called it ‘Gia Dinh,’ until the French dubbed it Sai Gon, which means ‘fire,’ or ‘cotton stick.’ In 1975, the city lost all these names once it fell to the invading Communist forces. Officially, the city centre is named after the socialist founder, although District 1 and other places retain the name, Saigon.
I finished packing my belongings and went downstairs to wait for the bus that was supposed to arrive promptly at 8 a.m. I talked to the son of the guesthouse owner who spends most of his time in the one-time Cochin-China capital.
“How long have you been in Vietnam?” he asked.
“About two weeks.”
“Two weeks.” He dragged on a cigarette. The subject tapered off. He had studied a business course in Canada, so his English is quite good.
“You’re going to Saigon today?”
“Be careful with your money because it’s crowded.”
“My money’s in the smaller pouch.”
“Put it beneath your shirt.” I did as he suggested.
“Do you like it here?” He shook his head.
“It’s too boring. I’m only here to help my mom.”
They are nice family. He is really pleasant, polite and courteous. His mom is easy going. She was helping to keep her grandson occupied by letting him ride in a toy jeep on the side of the road. She used to rent out bungalows further down the resort road, but sold the business and now does the dormitory.
I talked to the Dane about some scuba diving I once did off Hainan Island, and then about the fishing industry in Vietnam and depleting fish stocks.
“I don’t think it’s just a question about Vietnam. The Chinese also love their fish, too, as do the Japanese. The Vietnamese certainly relish and cherish it in a big way.” The myriad of fishing boats along the bay said as much, and the South China Sea is certainly suffering from a depleting industry made worse by acquired taste syndrome like shark fin soup.
He gave me his email and I said I would send the link to this blog once I had finished it.
There is nothing much worth noting to capture one’s attention from the window, unless one is interested in all things Asian: architecture, sometimes drab, buildings, geometric bridges, other infrastructure, and projects left unfinished. Bricks were randomly discarded like emptied sacks of potatoes, others blocked neatly as though leggo had been played, piles of neglected sand and gravel. Guys were lying in hammocks sucking nicotine. Maybe the heat was stifling any building work, or the forthcoming Tet festival was dominating people’s minds.
Saigon is indeed hot and cluttered as the bus dropped me at the backpacker Main Street and alleyway area. I settled on a single room for 8 Dollars half way up a dingy narrow winding staircase. The hotel sat at the back of an avenue of narrow enclosed thoroughfares. People were burning jock sticks, sitting outside talking nineteen to the dozen and revving motorbike engines; noise that filled the streets to a crescendo.
As I didn’t have to be back in Wenzhou until next week, I decided I’d have enough time to take the slow way, so I booked a two-day train journey to Hanoi starting the night after tomorrow from a nearby agency. I didn’t want to be back too soon.

Flower Market - Saigon

I was told what the main attractions are in the city: Notre Dame-style Cathedral, Liberation Palace, a park area and a war museum. I first used a street map to find the ‘Bien Thenn’ Indoor Market. I could hardly walk through it – I’ve never seen so many concentrated goods in one place.
I stopped at one food stall and asked for a plate of rice and chicken. It wasn’t long before a thin elderly woman with short gray hair came along begging for money. Thinking she was a worker at the stall, I gave her a 50,000 Dong bill. I waited…and waited…No change.
The owners of the stall guessed what was going on after I’d indicated my concern and flew into a panic. One woman gesticulated, how that woman is a beggar who constantly goes around the market pestering for money.
They found the woman. I got my 50,000 Dong returned and paid the right people and got the right amount of change. I also gave the woman 2,000 Dong. The stall workers had a good laugh at the episode as I left.
There’s a first time for everything, it seemed.

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For A Few Dollars More and The Road To Nowhere

Coast - Beyond Mui Ne

It was relaxing coming downstairs to the restaurant area to watch the shimmering sea off the Mui Ne coastline. A perfect setting. I could gaze all day.
Diverting my attention to the stream of motorcyclists, some quite casually, as though a few had grabbed a shopping bag or two, then holding it limply, was quite amusing.
I set off in search of a motorbike to rent for the day and legged it to the Sta Travel Agency. I was disappointed not to see yesterday’s smiley guy manning things. Instead, there was another guy, not so smiley, and not as friendly.
“I’m looking to rent a motorbike,” seeing two models parked outside.
“Six Dollars.”
There was one manual model.
“Try it. It’s easy,” the guy encouraged.
Although I’d used one quite easily in Cambodia, I couldn’t feel confident or bothered about changing the gears while riding.
Feeling foolish on the bike, I got off and quickly changed the subject.
“What’s there to see?” Noticing pictures of the main attractions plastering the back and sides of the office.
“Red Sand Dunes, White Sand Dunes, Red Canyon, Little Stream. Red Sand Dunes. Canyon closed for repair.”
“And the White Buddha?”
“Too far.”
I dithered about trying out the bike, then changing my mind at another agency that had better bikes.
Walking away from feeling embarrassed, I was shortly confronted by a motorbike owner who was eager to hire his out for the day. His persuasion didn’t take much.
“You want a motorbike? Yes?” I felt foolish as I procrastinated.
“You can use mine for two hundred thousand Dong. It’s automatic.”
I hadn’t ridden for two years. The owner showed me how to use the controls:
“This is brake, then ignition. Turn the handle towards you to accelerate. Then turn the key backwards to open the seat to find crash helmet and petrol tank. Try it for a few hundred metres.”
I sped off and returned – that easy for 8 Dollars. Two Dollars more than using an older manual model.
“I’ve put in two litres. The pointer should be halfway.” He hadn’t.
This seemed to justify the Dane’s point about affording fuel – or lack of – or the guy just didn’t want to coff up the extra money. If anyone visits Vietnam after reading these posts and want to do the same thing, make sure there’s enough petrol in the tank or go elsewhere.
“Where’s your guesthouse?”
“It’s called ‘Keng'”
“What time should I come to collect it?”
“How about five pm. There’s a yellow sign outside. You can’t miss it.”I sped off, although I awkwardly climbed the bike over the pavement kerb to get the tank filled from a transparent cylindrical petrol canister, much to the amusement of a woman sitting nearby.
“How much for one litre?”
“Twenty Thousand,” a boy replied.
It felt buzzy, or zany, speeding along the road to Mui Ne village, past the cluster of bobbing fishing boats anchored off-shore. A map, more like a drawing, showing the way past the Red, and then to the White Sand Dunes, was inadequate. A couple of girls pointed in the right direction at a turn off.Throttling along the coastline, against the wind, admiring the sweeping landscape is exhilarating, and so much better than being cossetted in some organized tour.
Vietnamese were swinging and lounging in hammocks in a run-down shed, shading themselves from the burning sun. the shack looked like their home. I stopped and asked a German the way to the white sand:
“Oh, I see. Those are the Dunes,” looking at some distant white hills to the left of a lake, blued by the sky.
“The picture postcard view.”
I stopped a few metres from the paying entrance:
“How much?”
“A hundred thousand,” a girl standing by the gate answered.To walk on some sand just didn’t feel worth it. I took some pictures instead by the lake made attractive by trees and vegetation.
“Would you like me to take your picture?” A young American couple asked.

Lake and White Sand Dunes

The German guy had doubled back and said the road yonder went nowhere.
“There is nothing. It’s like what I experienced in Australia.”
Clocking up the kilometres meant clocking up the fuel consumption. My stomach sank at the thought of running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere, so I stopped, relieved, at the nearest petrol station – another cylindrical pump.
“How much for two litres?” I asked a woman manning the pump.
“Fifty thousand.”
“But it’s twenty thousand a litre in Mui Ne,” I challenged.
A boy assisting the woman – maybe his mother – came over:”Mui Ne’s far. Here it’s different. The extra’s no big deal.”
The woman fluttered a few notes in the wind. I settled on forty-five. A German couple pulled up:
“Is this the way to the Dunes?’
“Yes, you’ll see a stand and parking lot, but it’s a hundred thousand if you want to go to the sands. The woman riding pillion looked astonished.
“Money. money, always money,” her partner confirmed. “We’ll just take some pictures instead. Better idea.”
I headed back to Mui Ne, enjoying the breezy ride, although the exposure to the sun on my arms took its toll.I rode into two eager little girls who asked if I wanted to slide down the red sand I was passing. I made the mistake of stopping as the girls, shabbily dressed, became a nuisance.

Passing the Red Dunes

“How much to slide down?” I asked.
”Ten Thousand.”
“Just to do something stupid.” I tried to wave them away.
Seeing I wasn’t going to pay up, they hung around the front of the bike and fingered the throttle handle.
“Leave it alone, it’s not my bike.”
“You’ve got some candy.”
“I don’t have any.”
“You lie. You’re a liar.”
“How am I a liar? I don’t eat much candy. It’s bad for your teeth. You don’t know anything about me.”
Getting confrontational, asking them awkward questions, made the younger girl’s eyes water.
“Bye, bye, bye, bye,” waving me away.
“Yes,” as I sped away, reciprocating their uncomfortable reaction.
Mui Ne’s market is busy: crammed with street sellers selling vegetables, fruit, notably water melons stacked high.
After finishing a baguette sandwich for the ridiculous price of 7,000 Dong, I motored to the other side of the resort area to find three or four remaining

Cham Tower - Mui Ne

towers – the old Champa Ruins – Khmer architecture from the 9th Century.
The road was busy at the bottom of a short hill as I made an awkward turn.
Ruined towers from a bygone age are at the top of another hill, like monuments around Angkor Wat, used for Hindu deification or god-worship. It was nice getting a bird’s eye view, scanning the coastline and nearby fishing town. I sped back, had a beer, showered and waited for the motor bike guy who turned up one hour and forty-five minutes later. He checked it over.
“You didn’t leave much fuel in the tank.”
“And you said there was two liters in it at the start, but there wasn’t.”
“Not knowing how to counter this argument, he asked if I wanted to use it tomorrow.
“I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“I see. Good bye.” He rode off.
The son of the guesthouse proprietor was helping his son ride his buggy cart on the pavement. I talked to an Israeli girl who’d checked in earlier.
“You didn’t go to the Dunes?”
“Didn’t think it was worth it.”
“You would have had fun.”
“Did you see the Fairy Stream?”
“Missed it. Was it that good?”
“Not spectacular, but nice. Everything in Vietnam’s cheap.”
“I’m leaving tomorrow; making my way back to China. I’m working there.”
“You’ve reached the end of your vacation.”
The Japanese girl I’d met in Hoi An left for Saigon this morning. She told me she also had to stop and get out at Nha Trang on the way here, and was also surprised.
Why was I not surprised at hearing this news?

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Mui Ne – Chatting About Kite Surfing

Kite Surfers - All At It

“If you do that, I’ll fly away.”
I took up the Dane’s offer of getting involved in kite surfing. He offered to teach me how it’s done, at least the basics. I agreed to meet him on the beach near a wind-stretched red flag at 1 pm.
I’ve never been surfing, and thought the high curls and crashing water a bit off-putting, not that I couldn’t manage them, being a good swimmer.
A lot were out in full swing on the spumy sea. One surfer, though, struggled, showing how difficult the sport is. He couldn’t get enough power from the kite, or wasn’t handling the controls correctly. After falling off several times, he gave up, despite being aided by his ever alert female companion. Most, nevertheless, were real pros: turning, flexing, jumping and skimming on the high waters; in fact, getting as much from the activity as possible.
The Dane kept his promise and surfed in. He left his equipment set up on the beach to demonstrate.
“Had a good time?” I asked.
“Sure, although it might be a bit dangerous. Have you checked out the prices at the school?”
“I think they’re a bit pricey.”
He showed me the way you handle the bar and pulley; something about turning right, then left. I added a comment about the kite and the board after lifting them:
“They’re not that heavy.”
A British guy came over and asked the Dane about how you get the power.
“I’ll have a jolly good look before I even think about doin it,” showing a jocularity peculiar to his countrymen. “Maybe not. I have enough toys already.”
“I feel the same,” I agreed.
“I’ll be goin in a couple of days anyway.”
He asked me where I am from:
“The North of England.”
“And you?”
From Whitstable in North Kent.”
“Yeah, your accent sounds from that part of the country.”
An almost-naked female approached and strolled past. Apart from wearing a very skimpy bikini bottom and a blue-wrapped turban-like head covering, had nothing in between. He commented on her drooping boobs.
“It’s really awful….aren’t they?” I made no comment.
Looking back after she’d passed, he said:
“The other end’s not much either. Oh, well, all you can do is letch.”
I’m all for freedom and the unencumbered, but if you’re exposing yourself on a public beach, then your likely to encounter attention or cause some reaction.
He commented on a surfer practicing some complicated manoeuvres:
“Look, there’s a guy playing in the surf.”
He flipped, turned, and skimmed in the curling water.
A gigantic curl prompted:
“Here’s a woppa! I can’t help thinking of the theme tune from ‘Hawaii Five O:’ da da da da da da….” He continued to mimick the sound.
“And what about Captain Nemo and the Penguins? ‘mine..mine…nice to talk to ya.”
I shook his hand. He slipped on a flimsy mult-colored sleeveless shirt and left.
I made my way back to the road and stopped at a restaurant and asked for a bowl of chicken soup and two Saigon beers.
Although generally polite and exact when it comes to handling money, Vietnamese can get a bit muddled about change, as some are not used to changing large denominations.
“Do you have change for me?’
I took back the 150,000 Dong; 10,000 too much.
I fished through my Dong notes and tried to indicate that he should have 10,000 Dong more, but it didn’t register. Rather than broach the problem again, I left and called into the Co Co Cafe and booked a bus ticket for Saigon for Tuesday, the morning after tomorrow.
A young guy, friendly and smiley, was sitting at the booking desk of the Sta Travel Agency.
“I’ve been learning English for five months.”
“Five months!” You speak it well.” His level and motivation were surpising. It must go with the job.
“But I need to improve.”
“I wish my current lot of Chinese students were that good and that motivated. I’m heading back there.”
“To China! Vietnam was controlled by China for a hundred years,” hinting at how his country and people suffered under foreign imperialism and aggression. The French, probably, were the next to grab hold of it.
“I have a brother who works as a farmer in the mountains. He is very poor.”
“I’m sure that area would be very interesting to travel through. The real Vietnam,” I assessed.
I said I’d be along tomorrow to rent a motorbike for the day. I also hoped to see his happy, friendly and smiling face once more.

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Mui Ne – Eating, Kite Surfing, Do-Nothing

The watery-blue sky gave way to an emblazoned sun. The sea below shimmered intensely. The winds were slight, the sea was quiet. The waves, however small, took their time. To the left, the bay swept out of sight beneath a shallow land bank. Before it does, the village and a myriad of fishing boats are anchored off-shore. Across the road, palm tree branches and clustered coconuts tower above a stone seating space, supposed to be an open-air restaurant overlooking the splashing sea.

Mui Ne possesses an unhurried atmosphere; a place to take it easy, to let your hair down. Sun-drenched beach locations have this quality. Sihanoukville in Cambodia, I could name, is another.

Coastline - Mui Ne

Mui Ne offers more. It’s called kite surfing – a relatively recent twist (excuse the pun) to the surfing sport, and an added bonus to any, or would be, enthusiast. Until seeing the activity in full swing from the bus, I’d never given it much thought, or even knew it existed.
I went downstairs and ordered an omelette and baguette roll with a Lipton tea and honey. The Keng Guesthouse has a homely feel. The woman who runs it with a quiet assistant or two, is rather modest with an unpressured attitude towards her guests.
The dorm’s other occupant was a young Danish guy hoping to study architecture. He is very much into the kite surfing craze, having spent twenty-five million Vietnamese Dong on the full equipment from a store along the road.
Sitting at the front of the restaurant, I gazed at the sea landscape and watched a stream of motor bikers slip by.
“It’s interesting. Vietnam’s a big motor bike society. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anywhere where there’s more. It seems that ninety per cent here is the motor bike,” I commented.
“Almost everyone in Vietnam has one,” the Dane replied. “It’s a kind of status symbol, although a bit shortsighted because some are too poor to pay for the fuel. They’d be better off buying a bicycle.”
“But it’s certainly utilised. I see the bizarre way some carry or handle goods and luggage on it as quite amusing. It’s all about economics and which way’s the cheapest.”
He went off to get himself and his surfing equipment ready for the winds that would pick up around eleven am. I packed a few things and headed for the beach. I couldn’t wait for the sunburn.
I stopped at a tourist reception area and went to exchange some Chinese RMB.
“I can only give you two hundred and fifty thousand. I’ve checked the rate with the bank.”
“But in Hanoi I got three hundred thousand, and in Hoi An two hundred and ninety.”
He wouldn’t budge.
“A hundred isn’t enough. Can you exchange more?”
I handed over 200 RMB. He handed back 500,000.
I had to walk quite a distance before finding an alleyway that led to the beach. Others are reserved for hotel patrons.
I saw the words ‘Thai Store’ in large lettering above a wide shop and went inside. My eyes fell on a pile of western style baseball caps with the country’s emblem, the yellow gold star sewn in front. I came back later.
The wind got up, disturbing a few sand grains. The waves swelled and mounted in increased rapidity making it impossible to swim properly. Nobody, however, was that interested, except playing around in the sucking waters.
I stood watching the surfers cling to their taut kite pulleys, rapidly skim the water’s surface, into the glistening mass. I pondered at the predicament of others who’d fell into the turbulent waves. It looked exhilarating and addictive, but decided the fun was expensive and not for me. After playing around in the crashing waves and getting sunburnt, I left the beach and bought a cap.
The store proprietor, preoccupied in front of a computer, could hardly be bothered to serve me once I’d got his attention.
“Twenty thousand,” he said hurriedly.
It was supposed to be thirty thousand.
I stopped at a restaurant and drank a couple of Saigon beers, being cheaper than the Tiger brand. I also ordered a plate of French fries. The owner, with his son’s help, was cementing the driveway. They began by embedding the gravel, then the mixture was poured in.
I sauntered back to the shower room where I shivered in tepid water, immediately feeling the chilled after-effects.
I went outside and walked for a few metres into the cool night and ordered a plate of scallops in onion oil and a pot of Vietnamese green tea at a nearby seafood restaurant. The wind hurried, making sparks from a charred burning open stove dance merrily in my direction.
The sunburn kept me from sleeping a wink. It behoves you to take precautions.

Upper cut - Mui Ne

Vietnamese seafood is very tasty, and Mui Ne is a place to taste it, whether you order shrimp, lobster or snapper.

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