Escape from Siagon and the rusty nail
Ho Chi Minh City Travel Blog› entry 1 of 1 › view all entries
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.
...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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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)