“Shhnake wine good tonic for fuckee fuckee,” he slurs authoritatively. My friend, guide and probably my last link to sanity, Vui beams at me as he takes yet another bite of yet another species of genus unknown. Though, if there’s even a morsel of truth in his encouraging words, I should be the finest fornicator on this fine night. I’ve just knocked down a whole bottle of some strange liquid that has been decanted from a bell jar holding thirty venomous snakes and a crow thrown in for good measure. Obviously they are all dead or piss drunk. Either way I wouldn’t be surprised. For out here, anything goes.
The American way of life seems to have penetrated Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) probably more than the bombs that they merrily dropped over Vietnam three decades ago. As night falls, the frenzy from the streets pours into the endless bars that dot the sidewalks. Pool sharks hang around these jaunts where walls are adorned with worn-out posters of rockers from the yesteryears. Fuelled up on the snake wine, I revel in a delightful nostalgia that hangs precariously in the air from a time before I was even born.
Hung-over and leaving the city on an embarrassingly small scooty, I head for the south-eastern coast. The road mostly snakes along the shoreline and is peppered with coffee stalls that are run by prostitutes. Meandering between dense jungle and isolated beaches, I arrive at the beach town of Nha Trang and head straight for the scuba shack. The Vietnamese scuba diving instructor has a finger missing after sticking it into an anemone, and casually reveals his encounters with decompression sickness. Just the push I needed to get into a deep crevice of black water. There are interesting formations underwater but not much sea-life out here. As I walk up the wharf I realize that everything that should have been in the sea is hanging up in the shops. Rather dejected, I opt for Mama Hanh’s boat tour around the islands. Enjoying a boat-full of Vietnamese food, we encourage her implausible stories that get progressively outlandish. Loud as ever, Mama Hanh pours shots of wine down everyone’s throat (thankfully no snakes or crows here), as people float around in truck-tire tubes, catatonic, after what seems like a hundred roll-ups of Kampuchean marijuana have been passed around.
Heading north, I reach the ancient city of Hoi An. It has an interesting cultural past, but can be seen several times over in a day. In the Chinese quarter, most of the houses are converted into art galleries. I saunter in on a family composed around the lunch table, a painting in itself. The art is impressive and impressively out of my budget.
The next few days I ride my monstrous scooty cutting through the Central Highlands. Dalat is the main town here. A hill-station with a French District, a beer-bottle pagoda, and a food market selling pig’s brain, snake meat… the usual. The Crazy House is a series of quarters moulded in the shape of various things (yup ‘things’) on the whim of some crazed French lady. The guide here takes me into the honeymoon suite and while showing me around, he starts playing with the hair on my arms. Having experienced this local male fascination with bodily hair before, it really doesn’t bother me… though the intense honeymoon atmosphere makes for a speedy exit.
Several pagodas, floating markets, and snake farms later, I find myself ten feet underground in the Cu Chi tunnels. This 200-kilometer subterraneous network of hospital rooms, conference chambers, full-fledged kitchens and even mini theaters spreads far below the thick jungle. Without flinching, I follow a guide in and decide to crawl through the maze of underground passages. A minute later, dying of claustrophobia and cramps, I’m begging the guide to get me out. I break my journey with a week’s stay in the Mekong Delta. The family I am living with don’t speak an iota of English and regard me to be a great source of amusement. Soon, after being laughed at continually, I feel a need to regain some of my squandered dignity and wind my way back up to Saigon.
A month and more has passed and I haven’t even been up to the north of the country. A good excuse to return, but now my budget has run dry and my scooty can’t handle the company anymore. Vietnam has an unpredictable infrastructure, and may not be an ideal leisure destination if you really want to get under its skin. But it’s alive with a passion one sees in its people and culture. There’s an exhilarating sense of spontaneity I experienced here. An excitement that springs from the place…that cannot be packed into one’s bag and taken home.