27 June, 2010
Khe Sanh, Vietnam

We left Hue about 8 am today, riding alone, since Max and Jess are northbound on the train. It was a pretty unremarkable ride. The first stretch was gross, on a badly potholed road, but once we hit the Ho Chi Minh Trail it was nice again – just two lanes of blacktop in very good condition, with barely another vehicle on the road. We were going through mountains and river valleys again, which certainly beats the plains, but… they’re sort of starting to wash over me now. I’ve seen a lot of them.

We made much better time without Max and Jess (although I would gladly sacrifice that for their company!) but this also meant long periods of riding, since I no longer “had” to pull over and wait for them to catch up every half hour or so (I liked doing that, because it gave my ass a break). We rolled into our intended destination of Khe Sanh well ahead of schedule, about two o’clock.

Khe Sanh is a tiny little nowhere town near the Lao border. It was the site of a major, extended military campaign during the war, in which the Americans wasted much time and energy defending a tiny town of dubious strategic importance. Today it’s a dusty little coffee plantation with not a lot going on; it took us quite a few tries to find a decent hotel.

We ate at the worst restaurant yet here, a completely empty dining hall attached to our hotel, which was stunningly atrocious in terms of food, service, price, everything. Lunch went okay, but when we returned for dinner we picked the wild pig. “No,” the waitress said.

Okay, fair enough. We picked some other things, and then Chris said, “Can we have a large bowl of rice, too?”

“No.”

“…Rice?”

“Um, no.”

“You don’t have rice?”

“No.”

“Rice?!”

This is South-East Asia. Rice is the staple crop. Like rats in New York City, you are never further than seven feet from a grain of rice. How the fuck could a restaurant not have rice? We prodded her for quite a while to ensure that this was in fact the case, rather than her simply not understanding. Nope. No rice. “I can’t believe this,” Chris said. “This is outrageous.”

Half an hour later we were walking through the streets carrying plastic bags full of cooked rice, which we purchased from another ‘restaurant’ which had no tables or chairs and may have just been somebody’s personal kitchen. “We’re at the point now where it’s so bad it can only get better,” Chris said. “We just walked a k’ for rice.”

“Maybe tomorrow we’ll walk two k’s,” I said.

We got back to the restaurant and placed orders again. Our waitress was sniffing. “She better be upset and not sick,” I said.

“She’s sick, dude.” In the background, the waitress sneezed.

We then waited fifty minutes for them to cook a handful of diced pork, serve it up to us with an entire cucumber sliced on the side of the plate, and pay $3.50 US for the privilege. It was during that fifty-minute wait (with literally nobody else in the restaurant; fuck, I’d actually wager that we were their first patrons in weeks) that our bleary-eyed frustration with Vietnam’s customer service reached its zenith, like a blazing hot signal flare rising into the night sky. Hopefully it will now begin to descend, sputter and wink out – that part of the analogy representing our murder-suicide pact.

Earlier in the day, shortly after we’d arrived, I went and visited the former American military base, which is now a modest museum. There were some old helicopters and tanks and stuff rusting away out the front:

Chinooks are fucking huge. And it’s weird when you get up close to a helicopter and realise that it’s really just a whole bunch of metal sheets riveted together.

As always, though, the best things about Vietnamese museums is the propaganda. These were just some of the photo captions inside the building:

“The American soldiers’ panic shows on their faces at Khe Sanh front in 1968.”

“The American and South Vietnamese soldiers rushing to get on the helicopters to run away from the “Khe Sanh hell” in 1968.”

“American troops praying to God for escape from “Khe Sanh hell.”

That last one was quite relatable.

I also found the guestbook interesting, since it was filled with the usual claptrap by left-wing hippies about the evil invaders and the brave North Vietnamese, and rather more sensible comments by returning Vietnam vets. It’s amazing how experience can change your perceptions. I also used to take a kneejerk reaction to the Vietnam War, assuming it was just yet another part of the grand tapestry of American Imperialism. But aside from earlier comments about how South Vietnam, y’know, wanted the Americans here – and, indeed, fell to the North after they left, sparking one of the biggest waves of refugees in history – it really boggles my mind to watch people swallow propaganda whole. Simply because the Americans committed atrocities does not entail that the North Vietnamese were flawess angels. Indeed, throwing your full support behind the considerably more barbarous government of Ho Chi Minh is… stupid. No other word for it. (The same applies to America vs. Islamic fundamentalism today, with the caveat that it is not a proper war, and therefore America should be expected to act far better than it does.)

Likewise, I used to have a very open mind about other cultures and other people. I used to be all about multiculturalism. I wholly agreed with a sentiment that I read about time and time again, expressed by travellers returning home: Travelling opens your mind. It makes you realise that all humans are pretty much the same. We’re all good people. Our similarities are greater than our differences.

Fuck that. Every day in this country I have to restrain myself from visualising the Vietnamese as some kind of subhuman race, incapable of accomplishing the simplest of tasks, staring at easily fixable problems like the apes transfixed by the monolith in Space Odyssey: 2001. A while back, when I couldn’t find any ATMs that would accept my card, I tried to get a cash advance from no less than four Western Unions. In every single one of them theclerk would stare at my Mastercard with expressions ranging from fascination to wary hostility, holding it at arm’s length like it was some kind of bizarre radioactive moon rock. They didn’t understand “cash advance” even when I used the Vietnamese phrase for it – writing it, not just trying to pronounce it. What the fuck else does Western Union do? And I still get headaches thinking about all the wasted time trying to get a guy holding a welding torch to weld my clutch bracket back onto the bike after the crash.

Incidentally, this was the guestbook comment left by the stupidest person. Who can tell why?

Here’s some more fun. I returned from the museum to find Chris and the hotel manager shifting our things to another room down the hall. “We’re moving,” Chris said.

“Because of the air-conditioner? I noticed.” It had been rattling and clanking earlier, loud enough that we wouldn’t have been able to sleep.

Chris paused with his bags in one hand, looking me in the eye with a cold stare. “You have… no idea… how hard it was to get this accomplished,” he said. “Literally the entire time you were gone I was trying to explain it to him.”

He related the tale to me further after we’d shifted and the manager had left. “He took me down here, and there’s these fucking soccer players, being all loud and gross and shit.”

The other rooms are indeed all occupied with boisterous, disagreeable Vietnamese soccer players; I walked past an open door to see one just standing there naked spraying deodourant or something around, wearing a shirt but no pants. He was dressed just like Vietnamese children, who like to keep their lower halves unobstructed so they can piss and shit everywhere.

“…So I asked if we could have a room on one of the other levels. Like fifteen minutes of ‘up?’ and ‘down?’ and ‘five? three?’ And then he finally clicks and takes me down to the next floor and I ask if we can have a room here and he goes, ‘Oh, no, full.’ What the fuck. Cheers, thanks for the tour, before this I thought it was just air holding this level up.”

Later on, as we were sitting in our new room, the air-conditioner suddenly started to rattle and clank. We both stared at it for a moment. Chris took a piece of notebook paper, wrote “I vow never to return to this forsaken place,” and signed it. I turned it off and back on again, which seemed to stop the noise. For now. “We could always ask him to move again if it keeps fucking up,” I said.

Chris put on a cheerful Vietnamese accent. “Oh, yes, you move back to 205!” And in his own voice, with frightening clarity and conviction: “I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you. I’ve killed better hotel managers than you.”

I feel sorry for Chris. I’m sort of at the level where everything here is still hilarious, because of the shocking new depths of appalling service it reaches every single day. Chris is just plain fed up with it. Of course he’s usually a forecaster of my own moods, so I’m sure I’ll be there in a day or two.

I hear that the current line of thinking amongst Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam-Laos Banana Pancake backpackers is that Vietnam is the lowlight. It doesn’t surprise me. Personally I think I hated Thailand more than anything else, but if you removed Max and Jess and the motorcycles, and placed them five hundred k’s to the west, I think the scale would probably tip in Thailand’s favour.

We have quite a few days of riding ahead of us. We’re planning to reach Ninh Binh around the 2nd or 3rd of July, stay a few days there, and then arrive in Hanoi a day before the girls do, on the 6th. Barring any major mechanical failures, we should have quite a few days of easy riding with the occasional long endurance stretch thrown in there. Tomorrow we’re heading to Dong Hoi, which is slightly larger and meant to be fairly nice. Unlike Khe Sanh it’s actually listed in the guidebook and has a few places to stay and some proper restaurants, so WAIT FUCK IT’S ON THE COAST THERE’LL BE NO ELECTRICITY FUUUUUCK

You know in Apocalypse Now how Kurtz whispers: “The horror… the horror…?” That. That over and over again. That is the phrase with which to describe Vietnam.

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