Escape from Siagon and the rusty nail

Ho Chi Minh City Travel Blog

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Saigon

I arrived in Saigon safe and sound... well at least sound. It was kinda like Bangkok, just a little more gritty and -real-. Flying out of Nagoya, I had a layover in Taiwan, and spent the second plane ride really digging into my head. I wasn't sure what to expect when I got off the plane, but I was more afraid of what I might meet here than anywhere else I've traveled... extreme sports? Who needs em, I travel alone.

I stepped outside and a taxi driver immediately latched onto me. He wanted 10 bucks to take me into town.. hell, I wouldn't even pay that much in Japan-- then this guy told me the place in town I wanted to go was all under construction ("But how about this lovely area of the city?"). I shook him off and then played two taxi drivers against each other until the price was 5 bux.

motercycle hell, saigon
. which I think is still the higher side of average, but I was sweating my ass off by now, so I hopped in and enjoyed the ride into...

...fucking motorcycle hell. Bikes like gnats in summer surrounded the taxi as soon as we pulled onto the street, swerving this way and that, driving down the wrong side of the rode, onto the sidewalks and off. The rule of the road is more or less that bigger goes first and smaller ones swerve outta the way (or get hit)... but my driver was kind enough to warn motorbikes that we were about to run down by laying into his horn a good 3 or 4 times. We had bikes constantly juking left and right while the driver kept blasting the horn. The problem was that as soon as one bike would make way, there'd be another 5 in front of it, so needless to say, I got a 30 minute horn seranade.
not much privacy... kinda like NY ;)
Oh, and Saigon's got traffic lights, but I think they're just decorations for the Tet festival or something, cuz nobody was paying attention - least of all my driver. So we'd suddenly find ourselves in the middle of an intersection with traffic on all sides stopped around us, waiting for us to inch our way out of the jam. By the time we got to the hotel, my jaw was sore from clenching my teeth so hard.

I got out, played frogger across the street, and haggled a few bux off the room. I got to talking with the guy at the front desk, Dak, maybe about 21, whose English wasn't that good, but I could instantly tell he was an honest guy. I checked in, bought a beer and went outside. A motorbike driver approached me and we started talking about Japan and the Vietnam war (I had a feeling I'd be talking about these two things a lot over the next two weeks).
Lulu, 18 going on 45, wouldn't let me relax with my beer at her sidewalk cafe until i agreed to order some food from her too (even tho i wasn't hungry)
.. but the vibe was friendly and we continued chatting even after he realized I wasn't going to hire him. His English wasn't the best, but better than Dak's, and I liked the guy so much that I didn't even realize he was missing his two front teeth until a good half hour in. His name was Jun (or something that sounds like Jun) and he said he was gonna hook me up with a tour of the city on Tuesday.

But I didn't want to stay in Saigon that long, so I went to a travel agent and booked a domestic flight to Phu Quoc (pronounced Foo-Wok), a large island that's actually sitting smack dab under Cambodia. For its relatively large size and untold beauty, it's still somewhat of a secret as far as the Asian backpacker-trail goes.
Saigon by night
.. for the moment. We'll see...

It was getting dark, so I went back to the hotel  to ask Dak where I could find some good food and maybe a bar where I could watch some soccer (it's HUGE here). His buddy was there hanging out and after Dak translated my question to him, he gave me this smimey look and started making calls on his cel phone. Through Dak, I found out he was calling around to see if he could hook me up with a "bad girl" or a "bed girl" for the night -- not sure which, but Dak turned to me and said "He is bad boy." Well like I said early, Dak's an honest kid, so I politely turned him down and went out to explore on my own.

I found a little hole-in-the-wall down a little alley, away from the motorcycle exhaust and had some awesome pho (rice noodles) with shrimp and a beer -- for under 2 bucks.
scorpion wine
While I was finishing my beer, a little orange kitten came and fell asleep on my feet, a woman with her baby strapped to her neck by its feet tried to sell me gum, and a guy holding a tied stack of about 30 of the grooviest books ever written (I felt all warm and gooey knowing I had read most of them already) tried to sell me pot.

I decided to move on and find that bar, but I found an internet cafe instead. I still wanted to get a beer before I headed to bed, but I didn't want to stay out too late, cuz i was going to get up early in the morning to see the Viet Cong tunnels of Cu Chi.

I went to bed feeling surreal... I couldn't believe I was actually in Viet-fuckin-nam.
the way in


***

I woke up with a sense of urgency unlike any of my travels... I really needed to get the hell out of Saigon.

The day before I had gone to the Cu Chi tunnels, and that was all well and good-- met a young Japanese guy named Yuji and we hung out speaking Japanese; did about 10 minutes in the tunnels but chickened out after a few forks in the way made me paranoid of getting lost; opted not to shoot the AK-47, although at a dollar a bullet, who could resist; our driver disappeared and the 8 of us who had booked the same tour had to haggle with another tour bus to take us back to Saigon. It was fortunate that the Phillipino elementary school happened to be on a field trip that day and we all fit on the bus by sitting the kids on our laps.
the way out


Afterwards, I was planning on having Jun drive me to the War Remembrance museum which offered the Vietnamese side (the ones who won, that is) of the Vietnam War -- interesting side note: up until a few years ago, it was called the War Crimes Museum, and some tour brochures still call it that -- But as it turned out, the tour that gave us a lift back to Saigon was going there too so I just stuck with them. I said good bye to Yuji and got back on the bus. I ended up sitting next to Steve, a 49 year-old carpenter from Calgary who looked like a skinny Robert Duvall. There was something bold in his attitude that attracted me to him right away, kinda like he wasn't afraid to show that traveling alone filled him with fear but that in overcoming that fear he was free to do anything, if you get my meaning, and that struck a resonance with myself.
just your average 9 year old pool shark (seriously. this girl smoked me at pool)
We ended up getting a beer in one of the many storefront bars along Pham Ngu Lao street in Saigon after the museum (which by the way was satisfyingly depressing). And then I saw Yuji and we became three. The three of us immediately went bar hopping, and the momentum in which three solo travelers suddenly finding themselves in a group of trusted friends caused us to act like complete idiots-- we got into trouble that's not worth bragging about throughout the night, and I'm sure lent a little bit of our own truth to the negative stereotype of western tourists in Vietnam.

I woke up ashamed at the memory, and also panicked about possible repercussions. I called from my room for the hotel to have a taxi waiting at the door to take me to the airport. I tried to make my getaway quickly, irked a little at having to wait at the counter while Dak went next door to get proper change for my bill.
leap of faith on the 50 seater
From the door of the hotel to the door of the taxi.... a few familiar faces, don't stop, just smile, just smile, just smile, close the door, phew.

I checked into the airport, the sensation still not completely gone I knew until I was actually in the air. It was Monday, and the domestic flight terminal was nearly empty, except the flight I was taking, the flight to Phu Quoc (again, pronounced Foo-Wok). At the appointed time, we all took a shuttle into the middle of the airstrip and boarded a twin propeller plane, maybe large enough to hold 60 people at most. All I kept thinking was that it would serve me right if the fuckin thing crashed head-first into the ocean. But if I've learned anything in my life it's that anger and regret aimed back at yourself can only be a disguise for not wanting to learn from your actions -- they make the boundaries of your mind smaller, and I certainly don't travel to grow smaller.
Phu Quoc


I landed after an hour and dodged the taxis outside the airport- the island was small enough that I would just walk to the beach myself and find a bungalow. However a young man approached me on the street and said 5000 dong for a motorbike ride. He had a timid smile and nervous laugh, wore his hat almost down to his eyes, talked with a shrug in his shoulders that told me he was definitely full of shit, but also that he didn't care cuz he had nothing to lose. His name was Francis. I liked him right away and hopped on.

The way to the beach turned out to be much longer than I thought. The streets were dirty and the smell was overpowering as we went through the fresh fruit and fish market, over a rickety harbor bridge and down a dirt road that ran behind the guest houses and hotels parallel to the beach.
very jungly
He kept turning to talk to me over his shoulder, full of "These hotels too expensive - I take you farther down - nice beach, good price - cheap, cheap!" to which I objected at first, but as he continued to turn his head to insist, I consented to get his eyes back on the road. Anyway, I was laughing inside- he was such a bad con, someone who could only last a couple of seconds before bursting into laughter at his own lie.. like I said, I liked him immensely and let myself be driven down a rocky path to a shitty part of the beach where his friends ran a second rate guest house. I humored him by going down to look at the beach, which was more of a tide pool, and took a look at a few rooms, which off the porches they had to shoo a few of the locals to show me the room.

In a conspiratorial tone, I told Francis to take me to a better place, one that has a beach with sand, and he laughed and we left after he said a few embarrassing words to his friends who were sitting around a table playing cards.
Francis and his new swim trunks
I was glad to leave. The next place he showed me was the real deal -- a great beach, nice room, inexpensive, and a restaurant on either side of the place. I booked it, tentatively telling the staff that I would probably be staying only a few days.

Haha, little did I know.

I hadn't brought a pair of swim trunks with me, so I asked Francis to drive me back into town so I could buy some. Like the first bungalow, the first "store" he drove me to turned out to be his friend's house. I gave him a look and he smiled his smile and said, Ok! Ok! I take you to good store. She my friend, nice lady." We found his friend's shop and after trying on a few trunks, i found one that would work. While i was looking around, Francis kept bringing me clothes that he liked and nudging me.
where's the v8
I knew he wanted me to buy him something. He finally found a pair of swim trunks he wanted (the silliest-looking things I'd ever seen), and I bought them for him because they were only a dollar. He took me back to my hotel and said goodbye.

That first day was spent exploring my immediate surroundings, mainly the beach and my porch, where a little portable hammock was placed. I made the acquaintance of the two German girls next to my bungalow and the two German guys next to them-- coincidentally all of us had been on the same plane and ended up at the same place. I met the German couple staying to my left, and then another German couple who were staying next to them... Surrounded by Germans! How odd. I read and passed out in my hammock about 7pm and woke up 12 hours later, my legs screaming with mosquito bites.
Main street


Tuesday was uneventful... so wonderfully uneventful.

Wednesday, as I realized I wasn't about to leave anytime soon, I thought to walk into town and see about renting a motorbike for a couple of days to see the island. I took my time and looked around, but honestly couldn't tell which places rented bikes and which didn't because there were motorbikes parked everywhere. Also a certain timidness had overtaken me, a bubble feeling I've grown quite familiar to, such that everywhere outside lies clues into the human condition, but are only to be viewed unless the bubble should break, like I'm in a antique shop surrounded by delicate knick knacks, each with a secret if I look closely enough. I gave in to this overbearing sensation and walked about 2 hours outside of town and back-- the entire way filled with countless smiles and an often "Hello!" from a passing child who would run away giggling immediately after, absolutely tickled with his or her own prowess.
chickens and gasoline
I was much more impressed with this vision of the Vietnamese people. How they loved to smile and laugh.

At one point in my walk, I was well out of town and hot and thirsty, so I stopped at a storefront- no more than a garage really which probably served as the family's home, displaying one lonely box of sodas and a small glass counter filled with cigarettes. A family sat together in the shade of a palm tree directly in front of the store. I motioned that I was thirsty and said, "Water," but the grandma fetched me an odd-looking white soda. The mother of the family, holding her baby while the father spooned what looked like salsa into its mouth, pulled out a tiny stool for me to sit down on while the grandmother used an ice pick to crush some ice. I was so surprised by the offer that before I realized it I was bashfully accepting and taking a seat.
who needs TV when you can walk 30 seconds to the little restaurant on the beach, eat fresh shark and watch the sunset every night?
I finished the little bottle of soda, forgetting that the grandma was busying herself crushing my ice, but they were amused by how quickly I had drank, and we seemed to stare back at each other, delighted by this rare experience that just sort of... happened to have happened. I walked back in a good mood.

I was on the road parallel to the beach, about 10 minutes away from my hotel, when it happened. I had just passed another house where the children came trotting out as I came by to practice their "Hello!" and giggle sillily away, and these two kids were especially adorable, making me smile and think to myself as I continued down the road, that "Gosh, I can't believe how friendly----"

when pain shot up through my foot and I froze. I knew what had happened but I couldn't believe it even after I saw the proof sticking obscenely out he bottom of my rubber sandal: I had just tread onto a rusty nail about the size of my thumb and as thick as a pencil.
vietnamese coffee
In horror I examined the gap between my foot and the sandal to see how far the nail had entered my foot. It was at least 3 centimeters, or a little over half an inch...

"Oh my god." Shock and numbness. Me, balanced on my left foot, hunched over holding my right foot in one hand, the top of the rusty nail in the other, perched, ready to yank the nail out of my foot and back through the sandal, but unable to move... 1 minute, 2... 5 minutes passed in that horrible stance, trying to build up enough courage to just.. YANK. And out it came, rustier than an old umbrella, while from the hole, suddenly unplugged, blood gushed forth. Not knowing what to do, I took a few wobbly painful steps towards the direction of my hotel, but the idea was ludacris so I sat down and washed the puncture off the best I could with the water I had with me.
if you look closely enough , you can spot the baby gecko on her hand


An old Vietnamese man saw me and came running over. Still in shock I jabbered away what had just happened to me, but it was obvious to him because he immediately took my foot in his hands and began to squeeze the wound as hard as he could. Blood was pouring out but with each squeeze, a little less poured forth. Quickly a small crowd had gathered around me on the street. Among these was a plump 70 year old Vietnamese woman, her face completely covered in make-up and wrinkled from waaaaaay too much sun, who began talking to me. Her sudden appearance had frightened me a little, but I realized that she was speaking English. She told me not to worry-- this happens often enough in the fields and it is the same treatment given to workers who must go on with their work, injured or not.
sunset from my beach on phu quoc
"He is making sure there is no piece of the nail left inside your foot. Very good. Vietnamese medicine," she proudly concluded.

I had been distracted while she talked, and I looked back down at my foot, which the old man had just stopped squeezing and was no longer bleeding. Vietnamese medicine, I said to myself with a wonder.

And then he said something to his friend to fetch him something, who ran into a nearby house. When I saw the axe in his hands, I struggled to get up and said "No Vietnamese medicine!" But the woman laughed and assured me he wasn't going to cut me. I poised to fight if I had to, but the old man took the small axe in his hand by the blade, and instead began using the handle to beat the living shit out of my foot, especially right over my wound.
half smile, half grimace
It hurt like hell. The old woman must've noticed that my tolerance had just about reached its limit for "Vietnamese medicine" for she said to me softly, "It hurts now, but later, it is better, you'll see."

The beating stopped suddenly and the old man smiled at me, obviously satisfied that he had done his best for me. Strangely, I felt that I had indeed been well cared for. The crowd was talking amongst themselves and about the same time everyone came to the general conclusion that I should go to the hospital and began making gestures of injecting themselves in the arm with invisible needles. The scene turned quite silly.

The old woman then struck a dialogue with several of the men and informed me that one of them would drive me to the hospital on his motorbike for 10,000 dong (less than a buck).
my new-found friends at the restaurant on the beach
I didn't know how to thank the woman enough. I asked her where she had learned English and she told me that she had lived in Australia for 52 years with her husband, and that this was the first time she had been back to Vietnam since. She was a true angel. I forget her name.

The tetanus shot only cost 20,000 dong, but the nurse wouldn't clean my wound. The man who drove me came into the room with me, and I think he told her that I had already received "Vietnamese medicine." I asked again, trying different words, "clean, disinfectant, wash, cleaning..." The nurse looked at me blankly and then exchanged a few words with my driver, who made a disdainful gesture and whispered, "No problem." My heart sank. I asked if I could at least have a bandaid. The nurse, recognizing the word bandaid, said: "Town buy bandaid.
lazy days
Go town, you buy." I left the hospital without delay and the man drove me back to my hotel. I paid him double.

I tried to stay off my foot that night, but I exulted in the thought that I had received a secret Vietnamese treatment, and I honestly believed in my heart that my foot would hastily recover from the wound. It also came to mind that, this being the first time I had ever stepped on a rusty nail, if I was ever going to do so in my lifetime, a tropical paradise is the place I would wish to do it. I came to the conclusion that I was about to stay on the island for much longer than I had originally intended, but the decision didn't bother me too much.

In fact it rather freed me. Over the next few days, as I lazed around and did simple island things like, eat, drink, swim, read, sleep, and play pool with the locals, I began crossing cities off of my itinerary that I knew I wasn't going to have enough time to get to.
fishing fleet
I felt more and more satisfied with my trip to Vietnam. Slowly the burden of trying to bear witness to Vietnamese culture in the space of 2 weeks lifted itself from my shoulders. What relief!

Well, I suppose I should wrap this up. I've rented a motorbike from Tuan at the restaurant for 20,000 dong an hour and I told him I was only going to need it until 2pm-- that was about 3 hours ago! I still have to go to the Vietnam Airlines office and put my name on the waiting list to get off the island because the flights are all full until Wednesday, which would leave me about one day to get up to Hanoi for my flight back to Japan.

...not that I mind now.


(This is a journal entry from the time I spent in Asia. I went to Vietnam in the spring of 2006)

Nyl says:
Wow, your stay in VN seems very interesting. I'm Vnese and I didn't even have that many experiences when I was there. Should you ever wanna go back there again, you may try the northern of VN, many historical places and beautiful sceneries (halong bay).
I wish I could be brave and spend couple of years in Asia like u did.
Posted on: Dec 10, 2007
TRE69 says:
Traffic in Saigon reminds me of traffic in Manila...cars, tricycles (motorbikes modified into mini taxis), jeepneys, trucks, buses...all trying to jockey for position...crazy stuff all you can do is hold on tight! So glad for you that Vietnamese medicine works! Great story!:D
Posted on: Sep 14, 2007
carpefunk says:
Foot healed in less than a week, if you can believe that - not even a scar. Vietnamese medicine... As for Saigon, some things are not meant to be written
Posted on: May 01, 2007
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Saigon
Saigon
motercycle hell, saigon
motercycle hell, saigon
not much privacy... kinda like NY …
not much privacy... kinda like NY…
Lulu, 18 going on 45, wouldnt let…
Lulu, 18 going on 45, wouldn't le…
Saigon by night
Saigon by night
scorpion wine
scorpion wine
the way in
the way in
the way out
the way out
just your average 9 year old pool …
just your average 9 year old pool…
leap of faith on the 50 seater
leap of faith on the 50 seater
Phu Quoc
Phu Quoc
very jungly
very jungly
Francis and his new swim trunks
Francis and his new swim trunks
wheres the v8
where's the v8
Main street
Main street
chickens and gasoline
chickens and gasoline
who needs TV when you can walk 30 …
who needs TV when you can walk 30…
vietnamese coffee
vietnamese coffee
if you look closely enough , you c…
if you look closely enough , you …
sunset from my beach on phu quoc
sunset from my beach on phu quoc
half smile, half grimace
half smile, half grimace
my new-found friends at the restau…
my new-found friends at the resta…
lazy days
lazy days
fishing fleet
fishing fleet
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