Monday, June 25, 2007

Malaysia's Loh & Loh eyes civil engineering projects in Vietnam

Loh & Loh eyes projects in Vietnam and Middle East

KUALA LUMPUR: Loh & Loh Corp Bhd is eyeing lucrative water projects in the Middle East as well as civil works in Vietnam.

Expecting the group to make inroads into its maiden overseas markets by year-end, managing director Jason Loh said it would set up offices and scout for partners and sponsors to secure mostly water projects in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

"The water projects there are huge but they come with a lot of risks too,'' he said after Loh & Loh's annual general meeting on Monday.

Loh said water projects were one of the group's main expertises that also include railways projects and it would be leveraging on that strength to build it reputation abroad.

Previously, the group had been eyeing a number of civil and water projects abroad including those in India but none materialised.

Its foray into China's operation and maintenance was also unsuccessful.

"We don’t discount turning back to China. We always want to be in places nearby such as in China Vietnam and Indonesia," Loh said.

He added that in Vietnam, the group would be mainly involved in the construction of buildings and bridges.

At present, Loh & Loh has an order book valued at RM500mil that will keep it busy in the next 18 months and plans to top up another RM500mil worth of new projects this year.

For the year ended Dec 31 2006, the group's net profit had more than doubled to RM12.68mil from RM5.2mil previously, mainly due to higher deliveries of projects last year.

Revenue grew 55% last year from RM138.39mil to RM214.63mil, of which, according to Loh, 70% was driven by water projects, followed by buildings construction and other civil jobs.

Friday, June 22, 2007

New oil field found in Vung Tau sea

22-06-07 The Lam Son Joint Operating Company (Lam Son JOC) has found commercial oil while drilling two wells at the Thang Long field Lot 02/97 about 160 km to the east off shore the southern Ba Ria-Vung Tau province.

The new oil field is located in Cuu Long sediment basin, 27 km southeast of the Ruby oil field and 80 km northeast of the Bach Ho (White Tiger) oil field.

As the Thang Long field has oil-bearing bed lying in a record shallow level in the Cuu Long sediment, it is considered to be a convenient place for oil exploitation.

According to General Director Nguyen Quyet Thang of Lam Son JOC, a joint venture between PetroVietnam and Petronas Carigali Overseas of Malaysia, his company has discovered oil in all three wells it has drilled so far. They are Thang Long-1X, Thang Long-2X, and Thang Long-3X wells.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Vietnam travel "dos" and "dont's"

Vietnam Travel Dos and Dont's

Last night as I was writing this up, once again, Saigon's power failed. This time for 40 minutes between 17:30 until 18:10. Thank God I wasn't in the elevator. Guess with all the power failures I have experienced across the country, one should add a small flashlight to the list of things you should bring but thankfully, I have a laptop with a 3 hour battery that serves as my portable/emergency power station! haha

These are just some loose thoughts pulled together. I hope they help.

Saigon Charlie

  1. Do travel to Vietnam as it is an experience of a lifetime!
  2. Don’t gamble in their casinos as they are all massively rigged.
  3. Do travel by train in Vietnam if you want to see it and the locals through their eyes while meeting people, young and old.
  4. Don’t use travel agencies for train tickets as the price you are charged is considerably higher than the actual price if obtained at the station window.
  5. Do expect the trains to be considerably less comfortable than Thai trains and almost always behind schedule, even to the point of hours.
  6. Don’t buy electronic goods in Vietnam as they are double the price you would pay if you bought your new camera or laptop at Pantip Plaza in Bangkok.
  7. Do expect an effort to be made to steal whatever electronic item you have on you by what is commonly known here as ‘Saigon Cowboys’ who commit the grab and run while on motorbikes. Also expect less violent theft at train stations and other public venues. Almost everyone I have spoke to who has been here for any length of time as had his phone, camera, laptop, etc. stolen but it is somehow accepted as the way things are, very unlike Thailand where such things very seldom happen.
  8. Don’t expect the police to assist you if you are robbed. They do not carry weapons and are totally ineffectual. They are a complete joke in Vietnam compared to Thailand; which makes a considerable effort to protect you and your personal belongings and security.
  9. Do carry toilet paper at all times as you often do not have napkins or tissues available at restaurants and of course, for that run to the toilet afterward.
  10. Don’t worry about malaria tablets. Toss them if you have them.
  11. Do however carry Tiger Balm, bandages and Band-Aids along with some decent antibiotics you picked up in Thailand before heading to Vietnam. Make sure you take care of even the smallest scratch.
  12. DON’T get sick in Vietnam as the price of medical care is ridiculously expensive due to a scam they run with travelers and their travel insurance companies. I guess it is OK if you got the insurance but if you don’t, are you prepared to pay $300 for a doctor’s visit? Better fly back to Bangkok if you are that sick as the ticket and medical care is less.
  13. Do drink their coffee if you like to wait lengthy periods between being served and actually having the ability of drinking what will mostly be 3 good sips at best as it drips into the cup beneath it. I like all forms of coffee but this method is not appealing to me in either form or taste.
  14. Do use Highland’s Coffee cafes in Saigon if you like an excellent cup of coffee, a decent breakfast or meal and a solid and free access to the Internet for your laptop via their WiFi networks.
  15. Do expect free Internet and WiFi at most restaurants and cafes around Saigon as well as in Hanoi. Notebook required of course.
  16. Do expect VOA (Voice of America) Internet news and sites to be filtered and blocked by the Vietnamese government (www.voanews.com ) Not sure what else they block politically.
  17. Do expect to pay less for the local beer, Bovina than for a bottle of water. I have been in cafes where Bovina on the menu is 8,000 dong while the water was 15,000 dong. Other beers such as 333, San Miguel, Heineken, etc. are usually around 30,000 dong as they are beers that foreigners drink.
  18. Don’t expect wine to be inexpensive as that is expected to be drunk by foreigners and as in Thailand, taxed as such.
  19. Do expect hotels, guest houses, restaurants, café and streets to be exceptionally clean with few if any bugs.
  20. Do expect many building’s exteriors to be brightly colored along with their trim. Radically different than in Thailand as most buildings there are dull, grey or black.
  21. Don’t expect huge differences in prices between a backpacker’s hostel room with bunk beds and a very nice hotel with all the trimmings. The difference is usually only between $7 for the hostel bunk and $15 for first rate accommodations.
  22. Do expect high quality postcards with very inexpensive rates for international mail. I have also discovered that all my cards reached their intended recipients in Germany in less than 2 weeks, but none reached the USA. Cheap rates however do not extend to sending items home!
  23. Do expect all post office personnel to be amazingly friendly and helpful. Every place I went I was stunned with how professional and friendly they were.
  24. Don’t expect your clothes to be ironed when you send them off to be laundered. Even when I ask for them to be ironed, they still come back wrinkled as hell. Seems the concept of an iron is Thai in nature, not Vietnamese.
  25. Do expect to pay 9-10,000 dong per kilo in Vietnam for your wash. Two kilos worth of laundry is a couple of shirts, pants and underwear for a week.
  26. Don’t expect to sleep late as Vietnam starts early (6AM) and noise is overwhelming all of the time.
  27. Do get a room without a window which will cost less AND afford you some quiet from the noise of the street.
  28. Don’t expect elevators to be a common item which is one reason the higher you go, the cheaper the room, unlike in the west.
  29. Don’t expect Vietnamese to queue or line up at any public window or while boarding a bus, train, etc.
  30. Do expect to have a wide selection of TV channels on your hotel’s cable system ranging from the Discovery Channel to Chinese TV in English as well as many movie channels.
  31. Do expect to have hot water in your room from a central system instead of from wall heaters that seldom work as in Thailand. Also expect toiletries in your room such as toothbrush, comb, soap, shampoo, etc. which seems to be required by the government to acquire a ‘star’ rating of at any level. I have never lacked for anything with any hotel I have stayed in Vietnam EXCEPT for peace and quiet!
  32. Do expect the traffic to be insane, far beyond what you might have experienced in Thailand. It is nerve racking both as a pedestrian and as a rider or driver. For me, I much prefer to be driving than riding. Sidewalks are no more than an overflow for street traffic and all are used in both directions. Bikes are constantly coming at you and whizzing by you as you walk on the sidewalk if you can. Most of the time you are however forced to walk on the streets as Vietnamese don’t walk anywhere and sidewalks are motorbike parking lots.
  33. Don’t expect traffic lights, sidewalks, pedestrian crossings to give you ANY protection from vehicles. I have found it actually to be safer to hire a moto for a short distance than to walk there and I really like to stroll around cities.
  34. Do expect to use dollars as your primary currency while in Vietnam instead of the dong. Many restaurants hand you the bill in both currencies. Fees and rates are quoted in dollar as well. Euro is hardly recognized and can actually be quoted at rates significantly less than the international rate. Dollar is king in Vietnam and the American’s lost the war???
  35. Do expect to pay 10,000 dong for a moto ride just about anywhere you might want to go.
  36. Do expect to be able to rent a motorbike but don’t expect the rates to be cheap like in Thailand. Usually double the daily rate I have found.
  37. Don’t expect Vietnamese food to be anywhere as good as Thai food. It is also very ‘bland’ by comparison. I consider it much ‘heavier’ than Thai dishes.
  38. Do stay in the Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel and Hoa’s Place on China Beach if you want to meet other folks traveling the world. Both places are incredibly unique and extremely friendly. Email Max at www.hanoibackpackershostel.com and Hoa at hoasplace@hotmail.com
  39. Do use the Air France/KLM office in the Caravel Hotel in Saigon (next to the Sheraton) for some of the friendliest and most professional travel service I have experienced in Asia. Make sure you ask for ‘Diem’. www.airfrance.com.vn
  40. Do have a beer and some damn good pub food at a place that has had its named changed to ‘The Office’ as I write this but has no signage yet. They are just down the street from the Sheraton in Saigon and have many different screens showing Rugby to poker playing. Michael the owner is a Brit and quite a character. Actually, every expat I met there is quite a character!
  41. Do stay at the Orient Hotel in Saigon if you want to be in the center of the action with an exceptional room with breakfast for $12 a night. They are located in an area which is pronounced ‘fam u lau’ (Pham Ngu Lao) and are on De Tham Street in District One. orient-hotel@hcm.vnn.vn
  42. Do visit Finnegan;s Irish Pub in Hanoi if you like to meet other travelers for a beer. Located on Duong Thanh Street. finneganirishpub@yahoo.com.vn
  43. Do visit the Cho Dan Sinh Market not far from De Tham street if you want to buy US military memorabilia such as Zippo lighters.
  44. Do expect visas in Vietnam to be much easier to obtain than in Thailand as well as being for longer periods of time. Unlike Thailand, but like Cambodia, they can be obtained through travel agencies here.
  45. Do expect English teachers to make double that of what you can make for the same amount of hours teaching in Thailand.
  46. Do expect ‘local grown’ motobikes to be half the coast of similar models in Thailand. A new, 110cc bike is no more than $500USD.
  47. Do expect there to be many options for playing golf in and around Saigon.
  48. Do expect to find ATM’s EVERYWHERE!!!! And often times they are air-conditioned!
  49. Don’t go to any of the 100s of Western Union counters if you want to send money out of the country; only if you want to receive it!
  50. Do visit Nha Trang if you want to hit the beach as well as party your ass off at night. Sex and the City has nothing on this place.
  51. Do expect your electricity to be sporadic in places like China Beach and even Saigon at times.
  52. Do expect to hear many conversations from travelers discussing a book called ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts. Haven’t read it yet but it sounds pretty amazing.
  53. Don’t expect Vietnam Airlines flights out of the country to be cheap as their ticket prices are double what you might expect to pay as are other airlines flying to places like Bangkok. Cheapest ticket I could find one way to BKK was $185.
  54. Do expect internal air flights to be a bit dodgy. VASCO equipment ‘shakes, rattles and rolls’ with bald tires and hot shot pilots being the norm as with Vietnam Airlines. Expect bus rides from airports such as in Chu Lai to be the ride of your life!
  55. Do expect to find a Mosque calling people to prayers in downtown Saigon next to the Sheraton and Caravel Hotels. Fascinating actually!
  56. Do expect to see some of the most amazing colonial architecture in both Hanoi and Saigon with places such as the post office and opera buildings in Saigon as good as it gets.
  57. Do expect an amazing day trip via Russian hydrofoil to Vung Tau at the mouth of the Saigon River. Way cool place if you arrange transportation around the area and peaks.
  58. Do visit the ‘Ned Kelly Bar’ just across the ferry docks in Vung Tau when you arrive for a cold beer and a decent lunch. Also a good place to meet the local expats.
  59. Do expect everyone you meet to have a business or name card. If you like to stay in touch with folks you meet along the way, good idea to get a 100 or so printed up with your contact information, web site or blog on it.
  60. Do expect an unending harassment from touts selling things as well as ‘shoe shine boys and men clapping or screaming at you to give you a moto ride while anywhere near a ‘tourist area’. Not bad once in other parts of town or in towns where there are few white faces.
  61. Do expect ‘fixed prices’ at many tourist shops on the main streets and no flexibility on price which shocked me. You however can bargain hard and should in tourist markets as they start 300 % higher than what is a real price. Also expect a lot of ‘touching’ and an effort to ‘block you’ from exiting when in their shop. Can be quite trying at times.
  62. Do expect children to be very friendly and a simple hello will usually get you a wonderful smile and ‘hello!” back. Many want to practice their English skills as well.
  63. Do expect many older men traveling to Vietnam to be here to obtain ‘brides’ or ‘girlfriends’ (…and I DO NOT resemble that remark!!!). Just the nature of the beast I guess and it is a major ‘industry’ of sorts with many web sites supporting these efforts. Not unusual to meet men in their 70s talking about their fiancée and their efforts to get her and her daughter/son a visa to this country or that. If you are older and lonely, guess this is the place to come…..
  64. Do expect to be constantly offered ‘marijuana’, ‘pot’, ‘smoke’, ‘massage’, ‘boom boom’, etc. wherever you go, regardless of your age. Not sure what they are trying to sell to the women however…..
  65. Do expect every single moto driver to have a plan to sell you something. One I hired for a few days eventually came up with a plan to sell me his neighbor’s motorbike for $350. I had to laugh as he hadn’t tried the other things….yet.
  66. Don’t expect to find McDonalds or Burger King as so far, I have not seen one anywhere from Hanoi to Saigon although there are quite a few KFCs.
  67. Do however go to one of the many ‘’Lotteria’ if you want a super-sized burger with three layers of meat. Super size takes on a whole new meaning there.
  68. Don’t expect to find 7/11s on every street corner like in Thailand as there are none. The concept of a convenience store seems to be in its infancy here and for the person that gets in first here, an incredible money maker. Here however I would put a Vietnamese spin on it and make them a drive through!!!
  69. Don’t expect motorcycles riders or drivers to have helmets. Don’t expect most of the bikes to have rear view mirrors as well as no one here is 'looking back', only forward! (….and do you honestly think they have driver’s licenses or have taken a test concerning rules of the roads?).
  70. Do visit the very professional Tourist Information Center in Saigon on Le Hoi street to meet some interesting and intelligent young ladies who can help you along the way. www.vntourists.com
  71. Do come to Saigon if you like watches, both new and used (originals, not copies) as there is no limit to what you can buy. Most shops I found were clustered around the Sheraton.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Midnight ramblings from Saigon

by Saigon Charlie

Midnight in Saigon

Well, it has been a long day here but I have opted to end the day in bed watching the Discovery Channel’s Travel and Leisure. As I don’t have a TV in Europe, kind of nice to take a break from the road and veg in front of the idiot box and watch who and what I am suppose to be. Today I am suppose to be rich and famous in Monaco and go experience the foods of Beijing. Cool. Let’s go!

The trip here in Vietnam is winding down a bit earlier than planned due to me no longer having a camera and a replacement here being twice the price of the same models in Thailand. Same goes for laptops. If you need electronic gear while visiting and traveling in and around Vietnam, make sure you get it at Pantip Plaza in Bangkok before heading out.

As I had to get back to Thailand before heading back to Europe, I hit the usual web sites, from Air France to Thai Airways, and eventually opted to head down to the Air France office where an extremely nice and professional lady named ‘Diem’ joked with me for nearly an hour as I made my travel plans and got my tickets.

If you come overland into Vietnam out of Laos or Cambodia as most due, it seems that most plan on flying back to Bangkok before heading home. Although a good plan, it might shock you to learn that ticket prices are twice as much as you might think for the 1 hour flight as all airlines are around $200 for a one way ticket from either Hanoi or Saigon to Bangkok.

Having spent over 60 hours riding local trains in Vietnam with what I estimate to be over 3,000 kilometers, I think I might be qualified to make a few final observations about traveling around Vietnam.

Everyone of course will leave with their own impressions, given age, place, sex differences, etc., but having said that, for me I am constantly comparing Vietnam to Thailand as that is the place I have spent many years and for me, has come to define the ‘Southeast Asian’ experience. And what are the major differences you ask?

  1. Noise. It is EVERYWHERE here. Almost without exception, you are immersed in it. Even the hotels I have stayed in, it has been hard to find something that could be defined as ‘quiet’ with people coming and going and partying all through the night. The locals extend their room space into the hall. Doors aren’t closed, chairs moved into the hall and the party continues there between the parties in various rooms. Of course, if you have a window, the non-stop honking and beeping of motorcycles can try your nerves. As mentioned many times before, people here do not speak softly as they do in Thailand.
  2. Unlike Thailand, you are constantly ‘assaulted’ by an endless number of touts for this or that when anywhere gets near a tourist hang out. From pretty ladies smiling lovely smiles selling you books at prices far above what they should be to young boys following saying ‘shoe shine mister?”, it is never ending. I have also found that it is not uncommon to have this endless stream of humanity follow you into a restaurant and continue their pitch as I have watched numerous times money given to these folks just to get them to go away, which is the worse thing you could do! Just keep saying “no!”. They eventually get it. Although you and I as westerners want to make eye contact, that is the beginning of the end for you as that eye contact is taken as a welcoming sign to establish the hustle. If you want to avoid these situations, keep your eyes down and don’t make eye contact with those making attempts to sell you something.
  3. The moto driver outside your hotel has bigger plans for you than taking you to your destination for 10,000 dong. The better his English gets, the more sophiscated his plan will be. Not as complex as an Istanbul carpet salesman inviting you in for tea, but the hustle for something is part of where this conversation is headed, and depending on your sex, what that entails. If a man, obviously you will hear ‘massage mister?” or ‘boom boom mister?”. A bit younger, you will be assured you will get an offer for some type of entertainment in the forms of drugs. Often times, that person making you the proposition outside your 3 star hotel, is an ‘off duty’ cop. You figure out where this is headed.
  4. The price of local transportation is 10,000 dong. End of discussion. Take it or leave and every single driver will but most, unless you look like a local or seasoned traveler, will start at 3 times that amount. Just be firm and walk away if they won’t take it. Seconds later they are next to you saying, “OK! Let’s go!”
  5. Trains are always late. Prices are very cheap as long as you stay away from travel agencies that will book you a ticket. Even the ‘Five Star Train Service’ co-located next to the train station will always have a ticket for you BUT at a price double that of what it should cost. They figure, rightly so, that you the foreigner don’t have the guts to deal with the mayhem of the Vietnamese train ticket window and the crowd pressing against you or maybe you have arrived at the station when it is closed from 11:30 to 13:30 civil servant nap time.
  6. I found that in Saigon the hotel will arrange a taxi for you to the airport for $6 but it is highly probably the taxi driver will bitch and moan and complain about accepting this rate and when YOU take your bags out of the taxi, expect him to have his hand out.
  7. As I have said here in this blog before, theft is a huge problem although from personal experiences and observations, not limited to Saigon or that matter to white faces. Beyond my own experiences, nearly everyone here has a story to tell. Seems theft here Is a non-racial nor western vs. eastern event. Everyone that looks like they got something worth having is a target, even in remote areas such as Quang Ngai. If you got a laptop on you or a camera that is bigger than your pocket, somebody, somewhere has you marked and is most probably waiting for the right moment to strike. I am terribly sorry I have to write these words but they are true…
  8. You will meet some wonderful people on your journey, including children and adults. There is an innocence at times that is priceless and the joy of talking to children, as well as adults, is one part of what traveling is all about BUT having said that, if you are male, and alone, somebody is looking at you with suspicion because unfortunately, there are a bunch of perverts out here from all nationalities.
  9. I am constantly listening to conversations about health issues with one of the main discussion points being ‘malaria’ tablets. Simply put you don’t need them and if you take them, you are more probably at getting ill that if you don’t them, I also want to mention that health care in Vietnam is expensive. Save getting sick for Thailand. A trip to the doctor here or in the new hospital in Siem Reap is a $300 appointment as they expect you to have ‘travel insurance’ and will charge you as such. These are insane amounts and nothing more than a scam. “Up to you” as we say in Thailand but if you don’t have travel insurance, you better re-think how sick you are before walking through that doctor’s door.
  10. One of the most comical things I see daily is what people are carrying. I just can’t imagine what people are lugging around in the huge backpacks they are carrying along with the other backpack strung over their stomach. Clothes in Asia are dirt cheap and often cheaper than what it cost to wash them at a hotel! Is it really necessary that everyone knows you wear designer, name brand clothes from Europe? For men, a pair of shorts with decent sized pockets and a pair of long pant is all you will ever need. When one gets dirty, wear the other and get it washed. A few t-shirts to keep the sweat away from a couple of shirts is all you will need. Do you really need socks when it is 35 degrees outside and your feet are constantly soaked from the rain. My rule of thumb is my total wash should never be more than 3 kilos, 5 maximum if you want to keep your tux with you…
  11. You will acquire things along the way to take home for yourself and friends which is great but if you start off with your maximum baggage allowance, how are you getting those items back? Oh yeah, the post!
  12. Not so fast buckaroo! Posting things back home to Europe or the States is expensive, whether in Thailand or Vietnam. If posted from Cambodia, you might as well throw your money into the Tonle Sap. Many men I know are mailing back those items that make your sex life a bit more stimulating back home with the lass you lovingly left, but if so, don’t be so stupid to put your name on it, as what you are doing is illegal!
  13. Have a small medical kit. Make sure you get some Tiger Balm in Thailand (red not white) as well as some bandages and bandaids (plasters). Some tape with small scissors need to be thrown in as well. When (not if) you get cuts, clean them immediately with bottled water and use Tiger Balm and the bandage to keep it covered. Tiger Balm keeps the wound moist so sometimes, as with poison, that might not be the right choice and will make the rash spread. Tiger Balm is also good for sunburn but having decent lotion is also important from the intense sun. As said before, drop the malaria tablets as they are expensive and will most probably make you ill. An assortment of antibiotics can be bought over the counter in Thailand and cost nearly nothing.
  14. Police are not here to help you! You need to get that concept out of your head! They are here to take your money if they are involved. If a crime against you has happened in Cambodia, they will expect $100 to do the paperwork which is a total waste of time. In Thailand, you have an accident, and they are called to the scene, they will be expecting a cut of whatever settlement is arrived at. In Vietnam, the crowd that gathers around the accident becomes the 'jury' to the event and its settlement. You kill someone on your motorbike drunk in Thailand, you aren’t going to jail but you will be expected to pay the family a rate that is appropriate for the person’s age, sex, martial status, number of children, etc. Run over a 10 year old girl, and the price is much lower than a 29 year old man with a family of 3 working as a mechanic. Simple enough but expect the police who ‘broker’ the deal to get their commission. No police, no commission. Simple as that.
  15. If you are involved in an accident, sober or drunk, run as fast can and get as far away from the event as possible. State the motorbike was stolen and you were not on the planet that day. Staying at the scene while people are picking up the bodies even though you were not responsible and the person who hit you was drunk out if his mind, will not have an outcome you expect as they will blame you, the foreigner. If you witness an accident and go to help, you will be paying for it. You don’t listen to my advice in these matters, you will regret it for a long time as nice guys finish last out here.
  16. In Vietnam they don’t have helmets and no one expects you to wear one. Shit, they don't even have rear view mirrors. In Thailand, helmets have come to be expected in places such as Pattaya only because they are a source of revenue for the police if you don’t wear one in the form of on the spot tickets and fines. Forget the fact that the helmets there couldn’t protect you from the impact of a fly hitting you at 30kph. It is a total joke but as in Thailand, show is what is important. Substance is not…
  17. Theft in Thailand is different in some ways from Vietnam as a Thai will not steal from you for several reasons. Most won’t steal as they are Buddhist but even if they do, you can expect the police to beat the shit out of them if they get caught (and they will) stealing from a foreigner, as tourism is vital to their economy and they know it. The police in Thailand come down heavy on Thais stealing or committing crimes against us BUT having said that, beware of the new foreign friends you have just met on that long, 7 hour bus ride to a place where everyone intends to get trashed out of their minds. Single white woman have a mystical charm about them to these eastern boys (and horny white boys) and they are immune, even while filling their bags shoplifting at Thailand’s finest department stores. Hopefully they have had their fill before they get to you and your backpack…..
  18. You have to be almost insane to survive out here and anyone who has been out here for any length of time has moved their ‘center’ so far to the right or left, that ‘normal’ to them will seem bizarre to you. Hang out here in Asia though for awhile and walk a mile in their shoes (or pumps if you prefer) and you might see everything through a different pair of rose colored glasses. People are here because they don’t fit in where they are from and as we say in Thailand, “you don’t fit in but you don’t stick out!”, as bizarre is normal!
Good night Vietnam!
Charlie

Monday, June 11, 2007

Train journey from Quang Ngai to Nha Trang Vietnam

Train Trip from Quang Ngai to Nha Trang, Vietnam

13:00

Pulling out of the station in complete and utter chaos. Man with his family with what appears to be 6 children, consume the seats around me and as he rips off his shirt, is now sitting bare chested in a seat in front of me. His wife has taken the chair directly in front of me and both have lowered the backs to what I call the ‘chaise back lounge’ position. Oh joy as this has barely left me enough room to breath.

Seems like over half the train is below the age of 18 which pretty much is a decent demographic representation of Vietnam today. On to Nha Trang!

As we pass rice paddies along the dike the tracks are resting on, I can’t help but marvel at the engineering feat they entail in their construction and upkeep.

If you look closely at them, you will notice they are structured in a tier system with water being pumped onto the highest level allowing it to naturally low out and down from that point.

I also can’t imagine the heat the men and women in the fields must be enduring on a day like today with the temperature hovering over 35 and the humidity quite high. Fully clothed in long sleeve shirts and pants and rubber boots, they must be baking under this mid-day sun.

People in my coach are sprawled out like we at a teenager slumber party. It is actually quite funny to see as teenage girls covered with their constantly worn surgical masks and floppy hats spread themselves across their other seats, poking their long legs and bare feat into the air. You sure as heck would never see such a thing in Thailand as sticking your feet at anyone is considered a very rude and unholy thing. What an amazing cultural difference.

I have been told that I am on an ‘express’ train which simply means in Vietnam that the train makes less stops and supposedly waits less on the side rails for other trains passing us. Once again, ‘express’ is defined as a comfortable jog as we make our way south. I wish my camera hadn’t been ripped from me in Saigon as there are so many great photos in this coach alone. The only thing that is missing are the pigs and chickens and the snoring is free!

Well, we did manage to leave only 20 minutes late which isn’t bad considering the previous ‘express’ train to Saigon scheduled to leave at 06:00 didn’t pull out of the station until 07:30. But unfortunately even after leaving near the appointed time, we are now parked on a side rail waiting I am sure for someone to pass us only 30 minutes after leaving Quang Ngai.

The snoring in the coach is now being balanced with the crying of a small infant just to the left of me. It is quite small and the parents are quite young and seem quite unsure about what to do.

Massive thunderheads with their anvil shapes are building up towards the western mountains on our coastal run to Saigon. I suspect we might be hitting some rain before this trip has ended.

I did notice before we left the station in Quang Ngai that the man who had his computer and documents stolen at the station around 7AM was now back and was sitting at Shirley’s café with an obviously very pregnant Vietnamese woman. I managed to ascertain from him he had not recovered his belongings and from his looks, I could tell he felt like his guts has been ripped out. Definitely not the self assured, almost arrogant strong man that had strolled into the station in the morning with shined combat boots. Actually now his face could only be described as a puppy dog who just got hit in the nose after peeing on the carpet.

As the train restarts after another train passes us heading north, the snoring and crying intensify. And to think, only 8 more hours to go!

But that is why I do this; the entertainment and fun of it all.

Other than me, there are no other white faces on this train.

Wow, that’s a first. Fields of watermelons being harvested with huge stacks being loaded into trucks along the roads.

14:00

We pass over a second river since Quang Ngai and as with the 1st, a mere refection of its former self. I use the word ‘reflection’ as you can tell the deep and wide channels that the waters once cut haven’t been experienced in quite some time as now fences and crops are starting to consume the silty soil where the waters once flowed. Even fences for livestock are now frequently seen in these dying river beds.

I really haven’t had a chance to talk about ‘Shirley’ who took such good care of me during the 6 hours I waited for my train. As I said earlier, she rode in with a uniformed man a it after I arrived that I later learned was a police officer and her husband now.

She really wanted to tell me about herself and as I listened, she gave me an amazing tale of her working for the Americans as a combat nurse with the 91st Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai in the late 60s and early 70s. You sensed a lot of pride in her story and recollections and asked me if I could help her son find a job. I said I would do my very best.

I also played at length with her 20 month old grandson who is as smart as a pistol. I mean the kid took to my computer like a fish to water and after watching me shake hands with another gentlemen I had been talking to, put out his small hand and shook mine strongly! Pretty cool for a 20 month old I would say.

We stopped very briefly at a place called ‘Ga Duc Pho’ (poor duck I guess..) where thankfully the young couple and their infant left. After leaving this station the train started to pick the pace up and after entering a lovely valley, it is starting to sway back and forth with the familiar ‘clacky, clack’ that these trains make. God how I love that sound.

Although I think I have never told anyone my grandfather’s faite, the family story is that he died in a railroad accident from a pressure line that got uncoupled and snapped his neck. That supposedly happened when my father was 16 which contributed to his heading to Chicago where he worked as a drummer and started driving fast cars (for various unmentionable endeavors) Maybe it is because of the family but I suspect it is more because I like to ‘go’!

Although today has been a scorcher up here on the central coast, I have found Saigon to be constantly cooler and more pleasant even in spite of it being June. I can honestly say that of all my years in places like Bangkok and Phnom Penh and now Saigon, Saigon has been without a doubt the most pleasant temperature and humidity wise but maybe that is because of its constant breezes?

Another thing that one needs to understand in this part of the world is facial expressions. So much is communicated without saying anything at all and that could be one reason I feel so comfortable out here.

You almost have to be an actor to communicate here and making people laugh with your expressions and a smile is a key to that success. As an example of this idea is the tremendous success of ‘Mr. Bean’, which is actually showing here in Vietnam in the theatres with posters of his stupid expressions hanging everywhere.

They also love cartoons like Tom and Jerry which seems to be showing on just about every TV in every waiting room I have passed through. Obviously the message and the humor is being communicated without a word ever being spoken. Something to learn from the above if you live and work here.

We have passed an area along the eastern dike our track is on of huge salt farms where mounds and mounds of salt are captured from the sea in large, shallow evaporating pools. They look very similar to the thousands of similar pools I saw from the plane as we made our numerous turns back at Chu Lai while looking for the runway. Seems ‘salt’ is a major business along this coast as well as oil.

One thing that I have also been surprised with in Vietnam as I make my way up and down the coast is people here love colors! The brighter, the better with intense blues, greens, yellows dominating the exterior walls of many buildings and homes. Not quite Santorini but an Asian equivalent.

Combined with the lush, vividly green rice fields, quite a panoramic of colors at times. Sure won’t see that in Thailand or Germany. Large concrete water ducts also crisscross the landscape as well as other dug into the earth by both man and animal. These arteries represent life to the these people, no different than the blood that flows through us.

On a not so serious subject, they love to play ‘Petanque" or ‘Boule” which are the common names around the world for a steel ball game. I couldn’t agree more as I have played 100s of game while living along the banks of Chao Phraya River with my Thai friends.

The game is simple and fun and involves each playing having 3 balls and 3 chances at getting as close to a pea some meters away. It is sort of like bowling but unlike bowling, you can throw the balls as well as roll them. From what I have observed so far, it seems Boule is more common the farther north you go with Hanoi having ‘Boule pits’ everywhere. Great game to play on a hot evening, underneath a large tree, while sipping a Mekong Rum with a bit of coke and ice.

The train continues to zip down the coast passing within spitting distance of the South China Sea. The sea’s waves along with some beautifully colored temples pass by and then we enter the total blackness of a tunnel with the feeling you are in a chapter of an Agatha Christie novel.

After the brief flirt with the ocean’s waves, we head further inland as we get close to the second hour mark of our trip. We are now immersed in coconut groves which have obviously been planted by humans but beautiful nonetheless.

I am also curious about the loudness of the people around me as it is constant wherever I go. The reason it is so noticeable to me is that I spent so many years in Thailand where public transportation is quiet except for some blaring music or movie and people talk softly and even when on their mobile phones in public, cover their mouths. That concept is obviously alien to this culture!

They also don’t seem to mind who sees them while doing their business in public facilities as I have yet to find a lock door and often times the door isn’t even closed. Sort of embarrassing to keep walking in on people on trains and waiting rooms but they don’t seem to mind.

Public norms here in Vietnam reminds me of living on a farm with a bunch of brothers and sisters. Guess that is sort of what communism and socialism has taught these people; we are just one big happy family, so little things like closing the toilet door isn’t necessary which might also be the reason everyone is screaming at the top of their lungs when talking on their phones as we are all related and maybe they think I am trying to hide something if I talk softly? I don’t know but it is another huge difference between Vietnam and Thailand.

15:50

‘Ga Bong Son’

We just made our third stop in two hours. Once again it was quick but not painless as I had moved to another seat where the seat in front of me was inclined into my stomach (and no wisecracks about me being fat!). A new family was boarded and I have the lost the capitalist luxury of a seat I can breath in.

Very shortly out of Bong Son we cross another river that has three bridges across it. Once again, and I know this gets old, but there is only a trickle of a channel and as before, large areas of the silted river bed are being turned into pastures and gardens.

That reminds me as I write it that a few days ago I was watching Chinese TV and say a very interesting news feature about the 3rd largest lake in China reaching a state of pollution that now the millions of locals who rely on the water, have to now use bottled water instead. Due to soaring temperatures the lake’s chemical composition has changed and the sulfur and pollutants have reached a point where the water is unusable.

What was sort of interesting about the feature was not that the lake was polluted beyond human use and involved millions of people but the story’s slant that people were hoarding the water and that the government in Beijing was stepping in to save them by diverting bottled water from other provinces was a rather interesting twist to the real problem I would say. And you thought only Washington had ‘spin doctors’!

We enter another tunnel but this time a single light pops on. Now my visions of bloody daggers sticking out of bodies as we exit a pitch black tunnel have been erased from my head…

Wow! I just discovered there is a table hidden in the arm of my chair. I honestly don’t remember seeing that in the other 40 hours of trains that I have rode in Vietnam but I unfortunately can’t use it anyway, as Ms. Cool’s chaise lounge in front of me precludes that from happening.

The girl several seats up from me is seated so she is facing my way in a 4 seat table seating arrangement. Now try to imagine the image of a young lady, surgical mask in pink and white totally covering her face to her eyes, where you see two slits followed by your typical floppy hat pulled down low to meet the mask.

Her legs are propped up onto the small ‘dining table’ that serves the group of 4 seated passengers, with her naked feet and toes inches away from an elderly man trying to make use of the table to eat some food. Next to him is her friend, also similarly attired with her feet also propped up on the table. Doesn’t that make you hungry?

I thought at first when I arrived in Vietnam the ‘head to toe’ Taliban dress code was something to keep their young white skin from coming in contact with the sun. Now I am not so sure as I glance around my coach and notice every single girl, without children and not married and in their late teens, seems to be also dressed this way….while inside a train coach with the curtains drawn. Seems to be more a social status symbol which could be "I’m single", look at me!? Maybe it is the Vietnamese equivalent of body piercing? Don’t know what it is but there is more to the story here than just the sun.

I forgot to mention that the price for this seven hour excursion was actually less than my ‘1 hour = $1USD’ rule I use for ground and river transportation in Asia, with the rule only being violated when forced into transportation occupied only by foreigners. In today’s care, as I am the only one, the $1 rule applies.

The girl to my left has started to sing, even though she still has her surgical mask on as if she is performing an operation at a M.A.S.H. unit. The young lad sitting next to me has offered me his chips several times and to be polite, I have accepted twice. What is also amazing is his father has realized that maybe his wife’s chair is putting a bit of crimp in my seating arrangement and has told her to raise her seat. That is so cool as there are many more hours to go. I guess good things do happen for those that wait, and wait..and wait…

The train is really screaming along how and even the ‘clacky, clack’ has ended for more of a ‘metallic roar’ for lack of a better phrase. If we could keep the door closed to our air-conditioned compartment the sound might be a bit less but the hired help make sure that doesn’t happen with their frequent trips up and down the train selling something or the other.

The young man seated next to me seems like a bright young lad and obviously bored. As I really have nothing to give him, I pull out a couple of English language magazines about Vietnam I have on me and let him look through them. At least there are pictures he can look at. He is quite polite and says ‘thank you’ in English.

As I look up, I notice the mountains are to the east of us and between our train and the coast. I guess we have moved further inland as I don’t see mountains that were to our west for several hours.

We are now three hours into the run south and some pretty impressive Cham ruins appear towards the coast. Almost appears the pointed hills they are sitting on are man made. Need to look into that as a possibility and also take a peek at the area when I get back with Google Earth.

As we pass over stream after stream it suddenly dawns on me how exposed Vietnam is to bird flu as every place there is water, not far away down stream, there is an open air duck farm, and they are everywhere! I sure wouldn’t want to be the government official in Hanoi responsible for a lock down in this country.

I also have to laugh as the man in front of me realized that maybe ripping his shirt off as he settled into his seat was a good idea as he just got a whiff of his own body odor. Seems that was enough to make him get up and put his shirt back on. Comical to watch as he came to this realization…

16:00

We are starting to enter into an area that is obviously seeing some substantial growth with new warehouses under construction. Once again, another river BUT this one has water! Wow. Wonder why such an exception compared to the dozens of streams before this one? I also notice a road bridge crossing the river has a large diameter blue pipe strapped to the bridge which I know also carries water. Shortly after this crossing, there is another filled with water and then some more amazing Cham ruins right in the middle of some good size town we are passing through. Where the hell am I? I sound like I’m writing the script for a Carmen Santiago geography lesson!

16:15

A few miles from the Carmen Santiago mystery, a garbled speaker announces something which no human could ever understand in any language. It seems we are stopping at a rather large railway station called ‘Ga Dieu Tri’. I remember this from my last trip south from Hanoi and I know we are going to be here for awhile.

Once again the air conditioning stops when the train stops and the heat from the western sun trying to come through my curtained window is intense. Now I know what a lobster in a lobster pot feels like as they slowly turn up the heat. Once again, the boarding chaos commences but this time we have ‘cleaning ladies’ making a sweep through the train looking for anything of value, bottles to cans.

The children around me are so cute I can’t stand it. Bright, well behaved, curious and very polite unlike their older teen-aged adolescence elders. Wonder when and how they turn into the ‘ladies’ with their feet sticking up into the air in old men’s faces?

16:30

Two blasts of the horn and we immediately start moving again and the aircon starts. Whew! Really sorry for those in the other cars that are riding in the heat but I guess they do have the windows down so there is air flowing through the coaches. Once again, I am car ‘6’ which seems to be the airconed car on these trains.

The young lad just laid a carmel treat on my small table as I had my eyes closed for a moment. How can you not love these people in spite of all the things that make things here very difficult at times? I don’t even want to think about the war….

I just can’t help but laugh to myself as I stare down the coach and see all the thin, naked feet and legs peering over seats like seedlings growing over beach dunes. If you have been exposed to customs and culture in Thailand and understand a bit of Buddhism, this simply could not happen on a Thai train. I know teachers who have been fired from their jobs in Bangkok for putting their feet upon their desk while reading. Feet are so unclean and so very unholy…

As I watch male train staff move up and down the aisles doing their duties, I can’t help but wonder at the simplicity of their uniforms compared to what you might expect in Thailand. Here people in uniform, from police, to teachers to military is at best described as utilitarian. In Thailand on the other hand, it is hard to tell the Chief of Staff from the military from a parking lot attendant as they both wear pretty much the same amount of ribbons, lanyards and hats that would make Admiral Nimitz blush.

Another thing here is the police don’t carry guns-anywhere. Haven’t seen one yet except maybe a glance of a sidearm when I was boarding the plane with the police officer next to the plane while boarding to Chu Lai.

In Thailand, guns are everywhere and even the teachers in the south have been issued shotguns. Not saying that is a good thing but it is here that someone violently ripped an $800 camera from me while the police meters away only shrugged. I have never, ever, once felt unsafe in Thailand and seldom locked my doors to my apartments and homes there. Think there are any links here between guns and security? Most Americans sure think so.

Thailand is about show and the uniforms and the guns are part of that. Mirrors American thinking of course. But another thing in Thailand which is hyper-critical to understand is the concept of 'face', and of course the trappings of 'face', from watches, to offices, titles on business cards as well as the uniform you wear and the gun you might carry.

The concept of ‘pretty’ is also critical as well in Thailand, from building a tall tower, to the looks of the cars on the SkyTrain. Haven’t been here in Vietnam long enough to know the importance of either or both, but from the outside looking in, doesn’t seem to be important (at least for now) but I have a funny feeling that will change with time.

The coastal mountains are definitely getting larger as we progress south, with our train making a course which appears to be in a valley between two parallel ranges. Rows and rows of planted trees of some variety (rubber?) sway in the low lying foothills, while higher elevation timber appears to be older.

I have FINALLY got to see the face of the girl with her pink surgical mask. Now I know at least the reason she is wearing it. I would too.

As we progress into the ‘evening hours’, the people are starting to come alive from their listlessness. Women with their husbands seem friskier, the children are chattering away, girls now removing their masks and I can even hear laughter now and again.

Although there is no ‘siesta’ part of the culture, it does seem that one in reality happens due to the intensity of the afternoon heat. The public servants take one of sorts but it begins at 11:30, not really a response to the heat of the afternoon or what I would call a 'siesta'.

It has already been a very long day for me having been up at 4AM with a 6 hour wait at the station for my train. As the sun lowers over the low peaks in the west, the shadows are getting long and the colors are starting to dance their evening dance.

The bright yellows and greens of the passing structures almost twinkle as we whip pass them. This is what traveling is all about; the dance of the colors!

Now the young lady that was singing with her mask on has offered me some peanut flavored treat which I graciously accept. She has removed her mask to eat however!

I feel bad I have nothing to offer back to either her or the young lad next to me.

17:30

Dinner served! As the cart makes its way down the compartment, excitement builds and everyone gets prepared for dinner. Soy sauce bottles appear. These people are prepared!

My tray arrives and I once again have my central rice dish with three side dishes. You would have to be an old Asian hand to eat what I ate, but it was filling.

I also managed to return my young friend’s kindness as I remembered on my laptop, I have an assortment of games that came with the operating system. Cool, I thought. What child doesn’t want to play computer games and as it turned out, he knew immediately what to do and it wasn’t long before he was surrounded by his sisters and others telling him which box of this memorization game or another to turn over. They were having some serious fun and fun is something that is not allowed….at least with a foreign man on a train I quickly found out!

The rest of this story unfortunately takes a sad turn as the police turned up. And they got heavy. First question wasn’t if I was an American but confirming the fact that I was. The second was, “Is this your son?” No I stated, it the man who is sitting in front of the boy.

The police sergeant with decent English skills and a strong odor of alcohol on this breath continued with his interrogation by asking me where I was going. I stated I was departing the train at Nha Trang. Was I going to the festival there? Didn’t know there was one was my response. Apparently not the right answer as I am suppose to know where I am going and for what reason. It was obvious I needed to shut down the notebook and tell the children to go away as he continued to watch them play a game called “Purple Palace” and he was obviously not pleased.

I shut down the computer and he took an empty seat behind me a few rows back. I thought maybe I needed to take a ‘walk’ and went to the toilet but as I was coming back, it was obvious he was ‘debriefing’ the boy next to me. When he saw me, he stopped. I honestly felt they were going to pull me off the train and interrogate me as I have had two other conversations with travelers who have had this happen to them.

I have found out as I try to talk with people up and down Vietnam that they expect you to be married, have children and if not, it doesn’t fit into the profile they have been taught to expect. Even their English training entails these questions in their 2nd and 3rd position after “where are you from?”

Traveling alone, as I have learned long ago puts you in a class that is ‘suspect’ for whatever reason the culture has for single people traveling alone; gay, pervert, etc.

As it turned out the remainder of the trip had a heavy cloud over it and there was a 30 minute wait only a few kilometers from my intended destination of Nha Trang, which delayed my arrival until past 21:00 (9PM).

Needless to say a very long and tiring day but I did manage to collect my things and my thoughts and we parted with the kids and the children’s father shaking my hand as they were also departing the train in Nha Trang. I guess all in all not so bad a day as from Quang Ngai to Nha Trang, from a 20 month old child, to an ex-Army nurse, an old man, children and a father; many shook my hand this day. I guess for others, they would have preferred me dead……….

Throwing my rucksack over my shoulder, off I went into the blackness of Nha Trang….

Good night Vietnam!
Saigon Charlie

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Nha Trang – Sex and the City

by Saigon Charlie

Sunday Morning

I have no idea what the guide books write about this place but in my opinion, the heading should read, “Nha Trang – Sex and the City”, because that pretty much sums up why white folks come here.

Where to begin? I guess at the beginning.

Yesterday, was Saturday and today is Sunday (so far so good). I needed to get some work done and the first Café near my hotel a bit off the beaten path was unable to get my laptop on the Internet even though it has connected each and every time from Bangkok where I bought it, through Laos, Hanoi, Saigon, etc. No problem. Thanks for letting me use your air conditioned VIP room with lovely ladies offering massages, but I really need to get connected and get some work done.

After paying that check, I headed towards what I figured was the beach after checking the sun's position, was soon on Nha Trang’s curving, wide horseshoe shaped beach/bay.

Yesterday, as today, was brutally hot and after a quick look along the beach, I headed towards the hotel and tourist shopping areas. Along the way, I met a Vietnamese/American who was dangling a huge camera around his neck and I warned him to take care. We talked for a bit about him and his past, shook hands and I was off again.

I eventually ended up by my lonesome self in a huge bar/restaurant where I needed to get a bite to eat as I had not had western food in several days, mostly living off rice and chunks of one boiled meat or another thrown on top. Although filing, not my cup of tea too many days in a row.

I looked through the menu and thought that the prices were quite high for just about everything. I almost walked out but the young man behind the bar was friendly enough and when he offered to put another San Miguel beer on ice, I thought in tune with the needs of his customers. I thought, ‘what the heck’ and asked for a Tropical Pizza.

As I am finding out here, things take time. Lots of it and when it arrives, it is almost like you are expected to be grateful it has arrived at all. Another very odd thing was the comment of the cook who served it to me stating that it was the best pizza in town.

As I peered down onto the wooden dish it was sitting on, it looked rather sickly and as I took my first bite, I almost gagged as I imagine cardboard tastes better.

After several pieces of this delicacy, I was still trying to determine if the chunks of something that was on top were the pineapple. Honestly, after finishing it in its entirety, I don’t know what was on it. As I was really hungry however, and it was in the category of ‘food’, I finished it.

I paid the bill and as I was walking out I hear ‘Charlie!”. As no one is shooting at me, I guess that is a good thing and see two Danish girls that I have met along the way in my travels the past few months, the first time in a Thai restaurant the night before I crossed the Mekong into Laos at Chiang Khlong.

They were sitting at a table at the same restaurant but near the street so I went back inside and we exchanged pleasantries for a bit. It was obvious they had been doing some heavy partying the night before and it was almost comical to hear them talk about how much more money they were spending than what they had budgeted. Duh! Go figure. Asia is cheap but drinking in bars is not. Buying custom made clothes and shipping them home to Denmark isn’t either. Rules Number 1 and Number 2.

After listening to their tales from the road filled with partying and young men, I gave them some suggestions about how to make their way back to Thailand via Cambodia. Flying out of Vietnam is not cheap as they discovered so they were thinking of heading overland (over water?) through Cambodia. Even for a tough guy, that is no easy trip, as they already knew, so were somewhat between a rock and a hardspace with what to do.

We said our goodbyes again and I headed to the water front again where after a bit, I decided that I really needed to make my way back to Saigon (again) and as I had already confirmed the flights were full, that meant I had two other options; bus or train.

If you have read my previous stories, for me, bus is a non-option here so off to the train station I went on the back of my 10,000 dong moto.

We arrived there at exactly 13:00 (1PM) and all the counters were closed. Of course. It was the required 2 hour napping time for Vietnamese civil servants and behind each counter if you looked down into the darkness, you could see Vietnam’s finest sleeping on metal cots behind each position. Once again, it appears that nappy time is between 11:30 to 13:30 so I go back outside to pay my moto driver and of course he thinks he as a fish on the line and doesn’t want to be paid and he ‘will wait’. No. Take the dam money and thanks very much!

Back into the sleepy train station I head and plop myself down on a plastic chair. Nothing to do but wait.

Around 13:25 you see a head pop up from behind a counter and a woman begins to pull her hair back from. Another pair of eyes with dark hair appears and that goes on 2 more times. OK I thought….show time!

Of course while I had been waiting others have come to also purchase tickets and as I made to the counter and was ‘first in line’, a crowd formed around me. There are no such things as ‘line or queues’ in Vietnam; people crowd towards the door, window, steps, etc. Getting in a line is an alien concept here.

So I am 1st in ‘line’ and after I establish to the others who are making an attempt to be first that I am first, the lady opens her window and we start what I now know is going to be the negotiations for a ticket.

How about Sunday I ask? Nope. Full. Funny I thought as with nearly 15 trains on the schedule, how can they all be full and how does she know this without even checking.

No problem. How about Monday? Sure. 3AM departure. 3AM I ask!!?? No, don’t think so.

This went on for a bit and I finally ended up, with the help of others around me, with a ticket for a sleeper ‘hard’ with 5 socialist comrades departing Nha Trang right before 11PM Monday night. That means “no mattress” if you don’t know what ‘hard’ means. Mattresses are a capitalist invention….

I left the station with my ticket south firmly in my wallet and sure as hell, who is waiting for me but my good friend, Mr. Moto. OK. No problem. Take me to my hotel where I grab my notebook from the upstairs penthouse suite I am staying in and as I come down I notice he is having a conversation with the man who is the owner. As they see me, the conversation abruptly ends and he runs for his bike.

We head back for the beach area where it is my intent to get my Internet work done. I had asked the folks at the ‘Crazy Kims’ if they had WiFi and was informed they did so it was my intent to head back there and get several hours of work accomplished.

Once again, Mr. Moto wanted to wait and was by now making his best effort at selling me something. Smoke? Girls? Massage? AK-47’s? (just kidding on the assault rifle.)

I pay him off and find a suitable table and away I go, hunched over my laptop for the next several hours until the beeping sound of dying battery starts. I move to a stool at the bar where the new girl plugs the cable in for me and away I go.

As I am getting a bit hungry and cardboard pizza is now not an option, I peer down the lengthy list of savory delights and opt for what has to be the safest thing on such a menu for foreigners; a cheeseburger with chips (for my American friends that is French fries.)

Once again, as always, the wait seems endless but that is OK as I am really getting a ton of work done.

It does arrive before dusk however and as it is placed next to me and something that appears like ketchup is set next to it, I am asked if I want a knife and fork.

Being the smartass I am, I asked, “does that cost extra?” which got a pretty good laugh from the gent across from me sipping on a coke chatting up the bar maid with lines “that he had no girlfriend.” How amazingly original I thought….

Ever heard the old Wendy’s expression, “where’s the beef?!”. That sums up my burger experience here entirely. As with the pizza, the bun was far larger than the undetermined meat that was between them.

Now I guess why I found all this very strange as this was obviously a HUGE bar for foreigners with all the trappings and signs and t-shirts that one would expect. The first bartender was making his best effort at selling me a ridiculous shirt that I am sure the proceeds would go to ‘helping the children’ (..and this is a place that also has a massage parlor…must do facials…..). I guess somehow they were also connected with a famous diving venue, according to their signs and had some thing going with the local ‘street children’ to educate them and get them money.

Sorry. I don’t buy it one bit and let me tell you why.

Long ago I learned that those that scream the loudest about this or that, are usually the guiltiest or are trying to hide something. The ‘tip’ jar had a sign saying the tips went to the children’s education. Signs everywhere screaming anti-pedophile slogans. The signs indicated that there was a night for the children to learn English as well with foreigners, but while doing so, those same foreigners consumed a lot of items from the menu at some of the highest prices I have seen in Vietnam for such a place AND when I did tip 10,000 dong (15%) for my ‘burger’ with a free fork and knife, the manager who gave me the check quickly shoved the amount into his right pants pocket and the girl behind the bar who had waited on me for the past couple of hours didn’t see a dong which is the way things work out here. WAIT STAFF NEVER GET THE TIPS YOU GIVE THEM!!!

How many times have I tried to tell people this as from Hong Kong to Saigon, it goes to the managers or even sometimes, the owners of the establishment as non-taxed money. My wife in Hong Kong who worked as a bartender in one of the best bars there NEVER SAW her tips from the tip jar as it went to management! Whether you are police or a bartender, money flows UP the chain of command. If you want to tip, which I do, make sure the person serving you pockets it.

As I was leaving I asked the young lady what she was doing so intently on her calculator. She said she was ‘calculating her salary’….

As I just didn’t have a good feeling about my social do-gooders as observed actions speak louder than words, so I went down the street after my Internet work was done to a place called ‘Guavas’. Nice enough. Good music. Pool table up front. Four or so interesting looking ex-pat types sitting at the bar. OK. What’s on their menu?

As it turned out this was a very good choice as they had my favorite vodka tonics at 25,000 dong which is a fair price. Unlike sooooooo many other places that pour such a cocktail with a jigger, this woman took the bottle, tuned it upside down until the ice was covered with the libation and with only a bit of space left (a very little), poured on a newly opened can of tonic! My kind of place! Seems happy hour there last until 8PM.

The next few folks I met came in and joined our crowd and people started to shuffle out while others shuffled in.

A man from Leeds came in with his Vietnamese lady that apparently was traveling with him around the country. Interesting character, working in offshore oil. Met the new manager of Guava next to him as well and although originally from England, he had been living in Australia and having come to Vietnam for only a month, was now here 6 months on. The reason for that appeared a bit later; as had the required tattoos and a very busy mobile phone. She obviously knew what she was doing...

And then in walked my long lost Danish friends and in tow, of course, were two young men. What had the cats brought home this time I thought? Oh, I see, a couple of nice juicy mice! Had to laugh as every time I see them, there are 2 different men in tow!

They came right up to me and started to talk with me like I was their long lost brother and the 2 men started looking at each other like what’s this all about? They were telling me how happy they were to see me as I always made them laugh (which is true I do…) and they were trying to get me to go with them to another bar called ‘Sailing Club’ (or something like that) and as I had nothing else to do, off we went AFTER another round of amazingly tasty shooters from the management. Free of course!

We strolled down ‘beach road’, their new young men in tow, in what can only be called total mayhem. I was surprised to see however we were walking towards the beach and not to the establishments on the opposite side of it, and soon discovered why as we walked into one of the largest bars I have ever been in, which ‘consumed’ most the beach’s width, including a stage area and ‘cat walk’ (that’s suppose to happen tonight).

Inside there were hundreds and hundreds of patrons with a huge number being either single women on the prowl or joined together in cat houses. Drinks were served in buckets and ridiculously cheap at 25,000 dong for vodka, pineapple and red bull.

As we settled back into our chairs and I started to talk with the young men, a lady pulls a chair next to me and sits down. Reasonably attractive I thought but I am ‘engaged’ at the moment. Be with you in a moment. Anyway…

I find out the tall lad is from New Zealand and is basically your south island beach bum type with curling blond hair from diving and surfing. I can see what Charlotte wants this one for.

The other was Israeli and I guessed correctly at 32. He was interesting but politics, history, etc. were not keeping my other, obviously very bored lady entertained.

We exited from ‘inside’ to ‘outside’ and the beach and now I am watching some entertainment from a Frenchman doing magic tricks. Tattoos can been seen poking out everywhere from under his clothes. Children following him around like the pied piper…

People are disappearing, Charlotte has disappeared again and I have discovered she is now dancing in the orgy of hundreds of dancers inside, with no one in particular.

She has let it be known to her big brother that she thinks the New Zealand guy is way too cute and has offered him a place to stay in their hotel as he as no room. How convenient I thought!

Did I mention that he had been traveling with his Czech girlfriend for many months that he had known for several years and because she caught Charlotte kissing him, she went ballistic and all hell broke loose? Geee….Sex and the City has nothing on this plot that is unfolding here in Nha Trang. No idea where that ex-girlfriend is but rumor has it she is still in Nha Trang looking for him…is that the white girl I see running down the street with a butcher knife???......no wonder she is called the “Queen of Drama” in Denmark (or is that 'Drama Queen'?)!

It is obvious the night is young for everyone and as it is past midnight and they want to move on to another place close by, they insist I join them. “Sure”, I say. Why Not? And guess what? That was the name of the place, “Why Not?” Talk about stupid humor.

I however opted to leave ahead of them to allow them to decide who was having sex with who or all together. We were suppose to meet up at a place just beyond ‘Why Not?” called the ‘Red Sun’ and then go to ‘Why Not”.

As I left, it was apparent that there was some serious partying going on with 100s now on what had become a dance floor. What little clothes on most were sure to come off in the throes of passion and the city’s heat before this night turned into morning. That was one thing you could be very sure of.

Red Sun reminded me of places I use to hang out in Cambodia. This was the after hours place on this sun strip and people here were to match up with those that hadn’t scored at other venues earlier in the evening. Although I had enough at 1AM and opted for a moto home, I did stroll past “Why Not?” and saw it was also jamming. Having had enough though, home and bed was it for me. I’m such a boring guy…..

Good morning Vietnam

Charlie