Tag Archives: Cowboys

Chagras and Capotes in the Ecuadorian Andes

The Vagabrothers ponder the pursuit of authenticity as they ride horses across the Andes.  Appeared on MSN Travel UK on 5 September, 2013.

The bull stared me straight in the eyes, dug its hoof in the dirt, snorted out a hot breath of steam, and prepared to charge.

I’ve always had mixed emotions about bullfighting, but this was no time to judge the ethicality of the tradition. I was in the middle of a bullring in the Ecuadorean Andes, unarmed, waving a pink sash in front of me, trying to embody Hemingway’s definition of courage – grace under pressure.

But instead of courage I found embarrassment – the “bull” before me was actually a young calf used to teach bullfighting to children. But at 200kg, she was over twice my size and ready to skewer me unless I dodged her next charge.

Llamela!” said the torrero standing behind me. “Call her!”

I searched my mind for what to say. My nearest experiential reference was staring down an angry Rottweiler back home. I started there.

“Hey buddy.  It’s okay, I don’t want to hurt you.” I said in my most calming voice. “¿Bailamos?”

She charged.

I moved the capote right, letting her pass by as gracefully as I could, but the calf dug her head into my thigh, circling clockwise as I tried to keep one step ahead of the horns. Finally, she ripped my capote from my hands and stood on it triumphantly.

I turned to face the stands, expecting disapproval. Instead, the audience laughed and clapped – for I am now a professional dilettante.

Read the full story on MSN Travel UK.

Carnival en Cádiz (Pt. 1)

I feel drastically unprepared for this. It’s 9:30 Saturday night and I’m drinking a calimocho in front of the station and watching the trains whisk thousands of people around the bay to Cádiz.

I should have taken a siesta this afternoon. My costume is decent. I am dressed in loose pants and a shirt covered in Hindi excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita, trying to pass off as an Indian. Derek, another local English teacher, is dressed as a detective. Zubin is wearing street clothes with a 2€ plastic mask on his face. And Taylor, our CouchSurfing host, is wearing a ski jacket and holding a Mexican wrestling mask under his arm. For better or for worse, the four of us have banded together for the wildest celebration of Carnival in all of Spain.

I heft our bottles of rum and wine as we enter the station to greet the rest of the gang: about ten other English teachers from across Andalusia and Alicante. We take a few pictures while we’re all together. Our group won’t survive intact once we arrive in Cádiz.

Everyone is buying round trip tickets for the train. The first train back to El Puerto leaves Cádiz at 4:30 AM. The station is buzzing with anticipation. I try to imagine the return home from Cádiz. Some blurry late-night retreat from the sunrise. More likely wet and shivering on the beach or bobbing in the Atlantic.

The train arrives and we all rush onboard. It swells as more people board at each stop. Now we are all pressed against each other chest to chest. I’m standing next to two Spaniards, one dressed as Napoleon Bonaparte and the other as the Pope. They are chain-smoking doobies of chocolate and have effectively hot-boxed the entire train.

I am squeezed between the other passengers and the walls of the train and our rhythms all synchronize into one throbbing pulse rising rising rising with each passing station. My face is pushed against the cold metal walls of the train as it whips clockwise around the bay. It is as packed as a Bombay local train at rush hour, and if they’d opened the doors we would have hung out the side of the train just like the Indians.

I make a joke that the only place with any space remaining is in the bathroom. We all laugh, but then a group of girls goes into the toilet and never comes back.

We finally arrive at the station. Ya esta! Ya esta! they shout. Everyone is spilling out of the train when suddenly I hear a loud THUD! and a girl behind me starts screaming. I turn and find Napoleon Bonaparte sprawled on the ground with his eyes rolled back in his head and his tongue flopped off to the side. I think he is having a seizure and pull out my pen to wedge between his teeth.

One of the American girls behind me yells Someone call 911! and her friend is screaming, They don’t have 911 in Spain! They don’t HAVE 911 in Spain! They don’t HAVE it! Meanwhile, the Pope drags Napoleon off the train and down onto the platform.

Then Napoleon is back on his feet, dazed but smiling. The Pope tells me that the chocolate had gone to his head. I smile and hand Napoleon back his hat. Within minutes the doobie-smoking-dictator is ready to re-attempt conquering the night.

So am I. We gather in the vestibule of the train station and make a futile attempt to reassemble our massive posse. A girl says that I don’t look Indian enough. She rubs a little lipstick on her finger and smears a makeshift bindi across my forehead.

Then a collective gasp sweeps across the entire train station and from the corner of my eyes I sense the crowd start backing away from me.

I look up. Taylor and I are alone in the middle of a gigantic circle of onlookers. Taylor is finally in his costume. When taciturn Taylor told me that he was going to put on his costume, I didn’t realize that it would entail taking off all his clothes.

There he is, standing next to me in the freezing cold wearing nothing but some teeny undies and a Mexican wrestling mask. The Spanish have never see anything like it. In Spain most people are terrified of being perceived as ‘ridiculo’ – walking around in whitey-tighties is just not done.

Therefore Taylor is an instant hit. Todo del mundo is yelling Joder! Mira a este tio! Taylor really looks like a wrestler. He is Taylor no more – he has transformed into El Luchador.

People are a-pointing and cameras a-flashing, but we have to get a-going. I run into the circle, break through the ‘Madre mia!’s, pull the rock-star off the red carpet and sweep him out of the station.

It’s no use. We’ve only advanced fifty yards and once again he is surrounded by onlookers. He is turning every head with in a 50-foot radius. ¡Que cajones tienes, tio! they shout, ¿No tienes frio? El Luchador’s incessant photo-shoots are preventing us from going anywhere.

But it doesn’t matter. Our buddy is the most famous guy in Carnival and we all leech off his parvenu status. We’re like Turtle from the early seasons of Entourage as we walk down the street introducing ourselves as friends of El Luchador.

We push him through the crowd and he parts the sea of people like Moses. Everyone is just turning their heads and stepping out of his path.

We’re at the edge of a main plaza now. It is the size of a football field and it’s overflowing with people, pouring groups of costumed Carnivalers down side streets and into cafés and bars. I put my hands on my friends’ shoulders and let out a deep breath of satisfaction. We made it.

“Jesus, guys. It’s only 10 PM,” I say, “We’ve got over six hours left to go. Bust out that rum and let’s mix ourselves some Cuba Libres.” I dig through my goodie bag and pull out the supplies: two bottles of Coke, and a few cups – but no rum.

It’s my fault and everyone knows it. I must have forgotten a bag when I’d gotten off the train. Napoleon’s pseudo-seizure threw me off. I offer to buy more rum and we push through the crowd in search of a liquor store.

Everything is closed. The bars have barricaded their doors and are selling cañas of cerveza and ham and cheese bocadillos – the fuel of Carnival. No liquor stores in sight. We’ve lost all the rest of our group and now it’s only me, Zubin, Derek and El Luchador. We find a store and someone goes inside to re-supply. I hang outside and watch the crowd pass by.

Cádiz is abuzz with an army of Smurfs, 100 Ali Babas trailed by 4,000 thieves, 300 Musketeers and more Dukes and Marquis than I could Count.

It’s pure bacchanality. One enormous, nationwide, institutionalized sin before Lent. Everyone laughing and strolling the streets with drink in hand – a macro-bottellon.

My friends come back outside with the rum and we fill up our glasses. Derek offers me a bag of lemons and I reach inside and snatch one up. “Hey!” he says, “Don’t be so cocksure with my lemons!” He throws me an accusing glance. “And let’s put all the rum inside one bag so we don’t lose it again.” I ignore him and turn to address the others.

Vale. ¿Listos?” I ask, “¿A donde vamos?” Someone suggests we go to Plaza de something-or-rather and we plunge back into the seething tangle of alleyways.

We approach a plaza even larger than the previous. We have to link arms to stay together through the crowd. We pass a drunk American with her finger in one ear and her phone in the other, yelling,

Where are you guys?!? I’m lost! Do you see a…a sign or…or a building or something? I see – What? I said, I see a big church and… and there are a lot of people dressed like jesters dancing on a tractor! Where are you…?”

¡Egads! ¿Jesters dancing atop tractors? ¿What on earth could she be talking about?

Then I see what the poor girl is referring to: a large pack of chirigotas, the wandering groups of guitarists and singers that make Cadiz’s Carnival celebrations famous. I’d seen a few groups earlier, wandering amidst the party like 15th century minstrels caught in a time warp. But this was the first time I’d seen so many of them at once, and dancing on a trailer no less.

The tractor swings around the corner before me, hauling a trailer full of chirigotas singing with great élan. There must be twenty of them, all dressed as some sort of jesters with costumes exhausting every color of the rainbow. A dozen or so singers wrap around the edge of the trailer on all sides and encircle five guitarists who float above them on a platform. The guitarists strum their Spanish guitars with a flamenco rasgueado and sing along with the rest.

I focus my attention on the singers. Most of them are quite drunk yet they maintain their panache. They sing, not in the sloppy way we Americans might sing “Friends in Low Places” at a Karaoke bar, but with a dignified drunkenness. You can almost hear the sherry swishing around in their bellies as they sway in unison. They slur articulately with their left hands on their hearts and their right arms extended before them holding their copas in the air in a perpetual toast to the good life.

They are dressed in the same clothes, singing the same songs and all equally drunk, but each man is slightly different. Each has his head cocked at a different angle, his arm raised to a different height, his voice tuned to a different pitch, and his eye winking at a different muchacha in the crowd. Music, style and movement all harmoniously composed. Not a touch of discord coming from the whole drunken lot

The tractor fires up again and starts moving towards a nearby plaza. A drunkard stumbles into the road and pauses directly in the path of the chirigotas. He is incredibly disheveled. His ski jacket is stained with the mud, blood and booze of a night he will never remember. The tractor honks its horn and moves closer to him but he is oblivious. He is preoccupied with something in his pants and has both his hands wedged elbow-deep into his unbuttoned jeans searching for Dios sabe que.

As I watch the fool standing in the plaza and unknowingly squaring off against the tractor it seems like some absurdly comic re-enactment of Tiananmen Square. I can see the headlines now:

Yesterday, on the second day of Carnival in Cadiz, one man, drunk as a skunk, felt he’d had enough wine and decided to take a stand against his fellow revelers. He courageously stood before a band of chirigotas and refused to move. Their tractor was about to run him over when suddenly he shouted, ‘¡Ya! Enough! The forces of fun and merriment have carried this party too far! What we need is solemn sobriety! Go home chirigotas! Thou shall not pass!’ But it was of no use. An plain-clothed officer from the State Ministry of Bacchanal filled up his glass and definitively crushed this nascent party-pooper movement…

The tractor moves off and disappears into the crowd and we run into some of Derek’s friends: a cute blonde and her effeminate male companion both wrapped in pink, blue and orange boas and trying to pass off as a Chickens/Hen duo As we are introduced, the Chicken and I lock eyes. I call for a new round of Cuba Libres and a toast. We look for the bag of booze but once again we are all empty-handed.

¡Me cago en la leche!

(See Part 2 for the rest of the story)

Couchsurfing in Lijang (Lijang, China)

Lijiang was far better than Dali.  Its old town was more charming and more authentic, and, once again, CouchSurfing had greatly enhanced my experience in Lijiang.  It was the first time I had actually surfed a couch, that is, the first time I had ever stayed with another CouchSurfer I had never met.  Until then, I had only been meeting people for coffee or beers.

My host was fantastic.  I stayed with Keith, a former journalist from New Zealand who moved to Lijiang three years ago and has spent his time since then restoring a 100-year old traditional house.  His proposal was straightforward.  Yes, I could stay with him, but I had to spend two hours a day helping him restore the house.  Deal? DEAL!

His two story house was centrally located and separated from its neighbors by a brick and tile wall.  The wall enclosed a pleasant courtyard with a small garden.  There were seven spare rooms in the house, for Keith lived alone.  I took one.  It was excellent.

It was a strange change of pace for me after so many months of traveling.  I volunteered to walked his dog and I looked forward to helping restore the house – I actually enjoyed doing chores!  It felt good to set down my bag and live a settled life for a bit.  I stayed over half a week.

But I was not ready to settle down, not yet.  I still had time on my hands and much ground to cover.  I had two essential constraints –TIME and MONEY.  I decided to stretch both to their limits.

But where to go?  I had about 3 weeks before I had to get on the Trans-Siberian but nowhere in China looked particularly appealing…except for Tibet.

But it was waaayyy too expensive.  It would break by budget to say the least.  Plus, I had met other travelers returning from Tibet, and many of them said it was actually quite Chinese, not Tibetan.  They told me I could find more Tibetan culture in Sichuan province, where the Tibetans were freer to practice their religion.

On top of it all, it was a pain in the neck to get there.  I would need a bunch of permits, and the government was forcing tourists to join organized tours.  If I wanted the costs to be anywhere near affordable, I would need to join a tour.  But all the tours were being organized in Chengdu, a day’s journey away in Sichuan province.  I dismissed the idea and promised myself that I would return to China and visit Tibet later.

But then I had a conversation with a Chinese-American who was determined to get to Lhasa.  He said that his people – the Han Chinese – were destroying Tibet, that he was determined to see the place before it was gone forever.  I told him I was going to go later.  He told me I could not wait.  He was right, “later” is a very dangerous word.  Some things simply cannot be put off.

Plus, what could I tell my grandchildren when they asked me about the mystical forgotten Kingdom once called Tibet.  Surely you were alive when it was around, weren’t you Grandpa?  What could I say, that I almost went, but that I was too cheap for fork out the cash?

No way, Jose.  I had sacrificed too many good experiences so far in the name of pinching pennies and this was one not to be missed.  My trip was cut short by two months anyways, so I could make it happen.  Spend the money now, make more later.

So it was decided – I was going to Tibet.

There a few problems with getting to Tibet.  As I said before, I had to join a tour to be allowed into Tibet.  And if I wanted this tour to be affordable, I needed to split it with three other people.  I sent out emails and posted messages across the net and finally I got a taker – three random people leaving for Lhasa in a few days time.

I tried to explain that I was trying to travel overland, and that I was avoiding airplanes unless absolutely necessary.  It was useless.  One guy had to take an airplane, and Chinese regulations stated that all of our tour group had to arrive on the same plane together.

So I had to take a plane.  It violated one of my core travel principles, but it is necessary in life to be flexible.

Plus, there were greater injustices.  I needed two or three expensive permits to visit Tibet, I couldn’t go anywhere without a guide AND I had to pay for his food and accommodation.  Oh yeah…and the Chinese are occupying Tibet, the Dalai Lama is forced to live in exile, and the Tibetans have suffered from 50 years of abuse from the Chinese military.  Yeah…that too.

So I waved goodbye to my first CS host and took a bus and a train to Chengdu, and left of Tibet the very next day.


Ballin’ on a Budget (Hong Kong)

Twelve hours later I emerged from the Metro in the middle of Hong Kong.   The city was modern, sleek, prosperous and energetic – it had that unmistakable electrifying buzz of a city that is on the move.

Blackberry-toting businessmen and well-dressed women hurried around me as I tried to get my bearings amongst skyscrapers, BMWs and Gucci and Prada stores.

I felt so out of place.  After a half-year on the road I looked like a pauper.  I couldn’t wait to change out of my grubby backpacker clothes into something snazzier.  It was time to comb my beard, iron my slacks and take Hong Kong by storm.

But first things first.  With the exception of Singapore, Hong Kong was the most expensive city I had visited.  I needed to find budget accommodation.

Luckily I had ran into (literally) two friends I had traveled with in Laos and Cambodia – Joan from Catalonia (Spain) and Marian from Germany.  Joan had a tip – a place called Chunking Mansions. In the world of budget travel, any place that has the words “Mansion”, “Palace”, “Manor” or anything similar is always a hole.

This was no exception.  It was a total dump.  Sixteen stories of squalor crammed beyond reasonable limits with dingy guesthouses, dirty from roof to basement, and redolent of pig fat.  Chunking Mansions is undoubtedly the most diverse place I have ever visited in my life.  Almost everyone in the building is a first-generation immigrant – it is the Ellis Island of Hong Kong.

The guesthouses are mainly run by Indians and Nepalese people and the hotel registries read like the roll call at the United Nations:  Gabon, Senegal, Japan, China, Thailand, Philippines, Russia, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Mozambique, Pakistan, India, Brazil…and USA (me!).  And that is just the guesthouses.

The ground floor is a mix between a Chinese electronics arcade and a Arab bazaar, where Bengalis hawk fake iPhones, Ugandans run internet cafes, Malaysians talk business with English expats over the Punjabi’s chai tea and samosas, Pakistani barbers trim the beards of their Islamic brothers from Bangladesh and Algeria (and the occasional haggard American in need of a trim) and hundreds of Indians try their damnedest to sell you everything else under the sun.

Every time I left my hotel room, it was a mad dash to the elevator past the endless Hello, friend, you need room? No!  I escaped into the safety of the elevator for a moment of silence before the man behind me tapped my shoulder and said, Hello, friend, you want mobile phone?  Veerrry cheap…  NO!  The elevator doors opened and I was off like a racehorse past the other hustles: fake Rolex?  You wan’ lady tonight? And of course, the Hello, tailor-made suit for you, my friend?  No, sir, I am homeless.  Oh, I see…you want hashish?

Chungking Mansions was a sight in itself, but there was more to see in Honk Kong.  I took the historic Star Ferry across the harbor to Hong Kong Island and spent a day walking beneath the shadows of Hong Kong’s massive skyscrapers, monuments to wealth and success.  The skyscrapers’ logos read like a summary of global finance.  The Bank of America jostled with the Bank of China for dominance of the skyline.  It was a symbolic pissing contest of global proportions.  This is where your profits are going, shareholders – to keeping up appearances.

While young ambitious financiers sell stocks bonds from the 50th floor, old Chinese men sell shrimp paste and seal penises just outside the lobby.  Seriously.  I wandered from birds’ nest shops (for birds-nest soup), to shark-fin stores, herbal medicine shops, temples, antique shops, and of course, electronic stores.  Hong Kong is the electronic kingdom, and they sell every type of camera, computer, cell phone, gizmo or gadget you could ever desire.   Luckily, I escaped without buying anything I didn’t need.

What I did need was literature.  Once I entered China, I knew that my information would be heavily restricted by the government, from political books to “subversive” internet sites blocked by the “Great Firewall of China.”  Unfortunately, books (like everything else in Hong Kong) were very expensive.  I had to pick wisely.

First pick: What Does China Think? by Mark Leonard, to acquaint myself with contemporary political issues in China.  Second pick: The Wisdom of Confucius, collected works of Confucius himself, to understand the philosophy that has shaped China for thousands of years.   And third pick: Riding the Iron Rooster – By Train Through China, by the great travel writer, Paul Theroux.  I would be on a similar journey, and I had heard good things about this author from many people, so I picked it up.  Each book has a different flavor – the first, informative; the second, philosophical; the third, entertaining and informative, as all travel writers strive to be.  I recommend all three.

Hong Kong was expensive, but I found ways to get by on the cheap.  We crammed four people into a small hotel room, I ate Indian curries from Chumking Mansions, I walked through public parks, visited public museums (free on Wednesdays), and browsed through art galleries and antique shops.  And, when everything in a city is just too damn expensive, there is always one thing you can do for cheap – ride the public bus around town for a few hours.  People watching and local tour combined for less than a dollar!

As I hopped on and off of buses and chatted with locals over tea, I could feel it in my soul…I was falling in love with Hong Kong.  I loved the vibrant mixture of contrasting elements – East and West, green jungle and glass skyscrapers, communistic China and capitalistic Hong Kong.  At first I was intimidated by China’s mixture of historical depth, cultural strength, and economic and political power, but now I desire to embrace this ancient culture.  I would love to return to China, to study Mandarin and learn the ways of the Chinese people.

I immediately decided to extend my stay in Hong Kong.  Everything seemed perfect.  I loved the vibe of Hong Kong, I had found a way to survive cheaply in the city ($20 per day), and I was reunited with my good friends, Joan and Marian.  Then it just got better and better.  As I mentioned before, all three of us were members of Couchsurfing.com and we had branched out to the local Couchsurfing (CS) community.

Couchsurfing is a website that connects travelers with locals from around the world.  So if you are settled at the moment (working or studying), then you host travelers passing through your hometown, and vice-versa.  Hong Kong’s CS community welcomed us with open arms.  Within a single day, I went from traveling solo to mobbing around the neon streets of Hong Kong with seven other CSers.  And each night our group got larger and larger!  First, it was Marion from Quebec, Rene, Cristian, and Alessandro from Germany and Crystal from Hong Kong.  Then we met Kelly and three more girls from Hong Kong, Sidh from India, Jack from Italy, David from Catalonia, Jeremy from France…the list was endless!

We watched the nightly lightshow over Hong Kong harbor, watching Chinese cargo ships passing by and discussing the rise of China and the role of the West in the 21st century.  We went to Hong Kong’s hottest clubs in the Lan Kwai Fong area…then looked at the drink prices and started our own club – the 7-11 club!  2 for 1 specials all week long!

Joan, the Catalan, and Marion, the Quebecer, told us it was St. John’s Day, a holiday in their hometowns where people apparently start fires and jump over them like madmen.  Sounded good to me.  We bought champagne (from the 7-11 club), took the “Peak Train” to a hill overlooking all of Hong Kong, and celebrated St. John’s together, half a world away from Catalonia and Quebec.  We spent hours on top of the hill, hiding from the rain under a small overhand and warming ourselves with wine and the fires of St. John… Mists engulfed the entire mountain and stole our little party away from the rest of Hong Kong.  All of us were far away from friends, family and our hometowns, but we were all brought together through Couchsurfing.

If you can’t tell already, I am a HUGE fan of this website.  Many people have told me they wish they could be traveling, but they have work or school.  Well, this website allows connects you with the international traveling community without even leaving your home.  You can meet travelers for coffee or beers, take them around your town, or even allow them to stay on your couch for a few days.  There are no requirements; anyone of any age, occupation, or race can join.  I encourage you to learn more about this revolutionary movement, and if it seems right for you, make yourself a profile and get in touch with your local CS community!

After about five days of roaming around with my new CS friends, I got an email from my good friend, Cristina, from Spain.  She was coming to Hong Kong in 2 days, could I meet her?  Of course!  I extended my stay for a bit longer, and soaked up a little more of Hong Kong while I could.  She arrived and we went out on the town in style and rode the metro home as the sun rose over Hong Kong.  It was a great way to wrap up a week in Hong Kong, but it was time to move on – mainland China beckoned me.

I had processed my Russian visa with very few problems.  Once again, I had managed to jump through a few hoops and overcome a few obstacles to bring myself one step closer to my dream – the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

I took the train out of Hong Kong and back to mainland China.  I had enjoyed my week in Hong Kong, and as I rode out of town I wondered what would happen to the political anomaly that is Hong Kong – how will this former British colony, this self-governing, ultra-capitalistic enclave re-integrate itself into China?  It was a good question, but first I had to reintegrate myself into mainland China.  No more English speakers, back into a sea of Mandarin!

Swingin’ Through Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

Saigon – Economic powerhouse – The Vietnamese work ethic – Regional differences – The American War – “Motorcycle for Sale”…

I entered Saigon by bus, snuck past the motorcycle taxis and tuk tuk drivers, and caught a local bus to the center of town.  I passed through the sprawling city into its center and jumped off the bus in the heart of old Colonial Saigon.

I was surrounded by the monuments of the French Colonial Era – magnificent administrative buildings, luxury hotels and cultural centers.  From the Post Office to the reproduction of Notre Dame Cathedral, the old buildings were an elegant adornment on the vibrant city.  I explored these buildings by day and at night I had drinks with friends at the base of the Saigon Opera house, stunningly illuminated with blue and white lights against the dark sky above.

Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, was the jewel of French Vietnam.  The French built a beautiful city, installed electricity, sewers, and infrastructure, and developed Saigon culturally, economically and administratively along Western lines.  The French influence, followed by that of America, created a strong culture of consumerism that Ho Chi Minh’s socialism could not eradicate.

Today, the capitol might be in Hanoi, but the capital is in Saigon.  The economic policies modeled after Gorbechev’s Perestroikia, called doi moi in Vietnamese, are in full swing twenty years after their adoption in 1986.  The wide French boulevards may be decorated with the red and gold sickle and hammer, but they are lined with capitalist enterprises.  Five minutes of bargaining in Saigon’s markets is enough time to convince anyone that this place is anything but communistic.  Like China, Vietnam is a hybrid economy – communist in name but capitalist in reality.

Between 1995 and 2005 Vietnam’s GDP doubled and Vietnam positioned itself to join the top ranks of Asian economies.  The government is privatizing state enterprise and everywhere you can see joint stock companies, that is, businesses created from foreign investment.  Much of the foreign investment comes from what the Vietnamese call V.Q.’s, or ethnic-Vietnamese born abroad in the US or other nations.  They bring with them capital and business acumen and they are propelling Vietnam’s development, but the global economy has drastically affected Vietnam – foreign investment is down 72% from last year.

In 1994 Vietnam joined ASEAN and normalized relations with America, and America responded by lifting the trade embargo in place since the end of the Vietnam War and restoring full diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1997.  In 2000, Vietnam created its first stock market and President Clinton became the first American President to visit the country since its war with America.

Nine years after President Clinton’s historic visit, I made my own less publicly celebrated appearance in Saigon.  I was surprised how welcoming Vietnamese are towards Americans; I expected resentment but instead every other person just smiled at me and talked about how they have family in California.  Most Vietnamese want to put the past behind them and focus on the future.

The Vietnamese impress me.   They are very industrious and work all day, six or seven days a week, carry themselves with the pride of a self-made country, and give excellent value and service.  It is impossible to find the dingy backpacker dives of Cambodia or Bangkok here: every hotel has air condition, television, comfortable beds, and a private bathroom with hot water.  All of us backpackers in search of the most basic accommodation are forced into relative luxury!

Much of these differences between Vietnam and her neighbors can be attributed to the religious divide between Theryavada and Mahayana Buddhism.  Many Laotians are content to sit in a hammock all day, certain that they have thousands of lives ahead of them, so why rush to reach nirvana in this life?

Not in Vietnam.  Since the 1940s, Vietnam has fought in five wars (against Japan, France, America, Cambodia, and China) and they understand how much can happen in one life time.  Unlike Laos, they strive for perfection in this life.  There is an old saying that sums it up well, The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Laotians just listen.

Saigon was an interesting city.  I rendezvoused with expats I had met through friends and from the Couch Surfing website (for more information, click here or view my CouchSurfing profile).  I would like to thank Viet Nuygen for an illuminating conversation and Nichali and Kelly for taking me out on the town!

I went to the American War Remnants Museum and the underground tunnels at Cu Chi and tried to see the war from a Vietnamese perspective.  I met former soldiers from both sides of the conflict, I saw pictures of bloody battles, and I read personal accounts of the war.  In particular, the museum was a horrible showcase of the atrocities of war.

Thus far I have studied each country I have visited and explored histories of wars and dynasties of which I was ignorant.  But Vietnam is different.  I studied the Vietnam War in university, and I felt that, like most Americans, I had a preconceived idea of Vietnam before my arrival. Would it be like the ‘Nam from Platoon or Apocalypse Now? 

I knew there was more to Vietnam than that bloody war between our countries.  The Vietnamese are willing to put the war behind them, and so am I.  The Vietnamese do not hate Americans, and they will probably become one of our country’s close partners in Asia.  So though I will comment on the “American War” as appropriate, I hope to show you another side of this country, a Vietnam with no battles, no bombs, and no bad memories.  It is time to move on, time to see what else Vietnam has to offer.

I started with food.  I sampled everything from snake curry, to pho noodle soup, and snake wine.  At night, I sat on plastic stools in the street and drank bia hoi (literally, raw beer), which is home-brewed beer that costs about 60 cents a liter!  For about $2 I bought almost everyone I met a round of beer.  If only it was the same back home!

After four nights it was time to move on.  Shrewd Vietnamese businessmen sell “open bus tickets,” which take you all the way from Saigon to Hanoi for about $30 and allow you to get on and off in pre-selected cities along the way as you please.  The catch?  The bus drops you off at 5 AM right in front of their hotel, so you are too tired to search for anywhere else.

It was a good price, but I was weary of the commission culture and the inflexible pre-determined route, and I knew I would never get off the tourist trail.  Still, I was tired of bargaining with bus drivers and it seemed like an easy way to go through Vietnam.  I decided to buy a ticket.

But as I walked to the ATM to withdraw cash for my bus ticket, I came across an interesting flyer advertising the following:


A damn good question.  I wrote down the seller’s phone number and arranged a meeting that same night.