Life

Escape from Vietnam

Can a person be allergic to a country?

By Steve Burgess 7 Mar 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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The guide onboard our boat must have been reading my mind. As we pulled away from the Vietnamese customs dock and headed up the Mekong River toward Cambodian territory, he turned to the handful of passengers and smiled. “Now you are finished with Vietnam,” he announced.

My tired little heart filled with joy. Can a person be allergic to a country? All through my three weeks in Vietnam I knew there were many things about the place that I would appreciate in hindsight. And I was very eager to do just that. But Vietnam would not let me go with out a fight.

Chau Doc was an unexpected stop on the grand tour. My plan had been to go straight from Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, straight to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. It looks simple on the map. It isn’t. After a hair-raising bus ride I landed in the Vietnamese border town for a final night in-country before proceeding by boat to Phnom Penh the next day.

Chau Doc seemed a pleasant sort of place, a lively but modest-sized town located in Khmer country. It was Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s military incursions here that led to his demise when Vietnam retaliated and ended his genocidal reign.

As in Can Tho, the locals here were fascinated but friendly. When I chose a café I was instantly surrounded by the young owners, who plied me with anxious questions about my impressions of their shop. It was rather sweet and touching. Were it not the tail end of three weeks spent in a fish bowl, it might have been quite pleasant.

Numbers game

Although the Mekong Delta had proved more relaxed than Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, it was still a land where I seemed to stand out like Ed McMahon. Not untypical was one evening stroll to catch a ferryboat across the street from my Can Tho hotel. At the dock I was set upon by a hyperactive old man who machine-gunned me with his medical and dietary theories—“Coffee number one, but no sugar, no sugar number one. No white bread. Cigarettes not number one. Breakfast number one, bath in the evening, number one, sugar not number one.” At last came the piteous sales pitch for his box full of liniments—“Please, I guarantee, I guarantee. You go home, tell your parents, your family about me. You buy from me God smile on you, you no buy from me… I guarantee, please, only five dollar.”

The damn ferry must have sunk. I ducked into a floating restaurant for coffee. I was trying in vain to explain to the waiter that I needed another one just like the last one when a large family group arrived and, spying me, crowded around. “We have lived in California,” announced the family patriarch proudly, and as the clan watched excitedly he proceeded to converse. The usual pleasantries were exchanged to demonstrate Dad’s ability to rope this Western steer. Looking up, I noticed that one member of the family had retreated into the corner to record the entire exchange with a video camera. This feat of Father’s would entertain family gatherings for years.

Sitting duck

Then there had been my three-hour boat tour up the Mekong from Can Tho. I started too late in the day to catch the frantic morning activity of the Mekong’s floating markets, so my guide promised me a trip around the small canals and handed me off to the straw-hatted peasant woman who would take me upriver.

It was a wonderful feeling. Iced coffee in hand, I sat like royalty in my personal long boat as we proceeded out of the dock and along the banks of the Mekong. Lines of shanties and makeshift cafes passed by. Here at last it was possible to observe in peace.

A boat came out toward us, and my pilot cut the engine. A cooler of beer and soft drinks were produced from the other craft. I was encouraged to buy one for myself—clearly we would not proceed until I did—and another one for my pilot. Fair enough, I thought, and with that transaction completed we continued on. But the mouths of little canals were passing by unexplored as we proceeded straight upriver. Soon we arrived at the floating markets, now bobbing in afternoon torpor. Our boat nudged up against a barge full of pineapples and a smiling, shirtless young man leapt into our boat to carve me up a pineapple. It was explained to me that this would cost a dollar. More pineapples were offered for more dollars. I begged off, split my pineapple with the pilot, and we set off for home.

It was a dollar—a meager buck. Two bucks if you include the drinks, a total of 12 dollars US (plus tip) for the whole excursion. Dirt cheap for a unique experience, even if it wasn’t precisely the one I’d signed up for. And yet I sat and fumed.

Borderline

It reminded me of the (probably apocryphal) tale of Winston Churchill and the society woman. Churchill asks her if she would sleep with him for a million pounds and she admits she’d consider it. Churchill offers the same hypothetical arrangement for two shillings and the indignant woman cries, “What do you take me for?”

“We’ve always decided what you are,” Churchill is said to have replied. “Now we’re just haggling over the price.”

Like the story says, it’s the thought that counts. This particular bit of extortion had been an undeniable bargain. But it was yet another definition of my relationship to this country, another reminder of the role I could not escape in Vietnam.

I was ready for it all to be over.  Chau Doc, while perfectly pleasant, represented an extra stop on the road out.

My last Vietnamese supper would also prove somewhat typical. Shanghaied into a Chau Doc diner by aggressive touts, I sat in an open-ended blue room rendered hospital-like by fluorescent lighting (although admittedly the wall full of geckos diminished the antiseptic feel). At the next table a waiter sat and clipped his toenails. In Vietnam, salesmanship often stops at the door.

Eventually I got a plate of the world’s greasiest spring rolls and was forced to gently correct the cashier who attempted to overcharge me. I wasn’t over the border just yet.

Good morning Vietnam!

Slumber was proving difficult. Strange knockings and noises throughout the hotel tore at whatever thin veil of sleep I managed to weave. Then, at about 4:17AM, the gong started. A lovely, low, relentless gong, perhaps coming from some nearby place of worship. And that was it for sleepy time in Vietnam.

Fatigued and frazzled at the boat dock, it was time for that particular brand of panic which must, it seems, be experienced at least once per trip—the missing passport. Fellow passengers joined me in a sweaty attack on every corner of my baggage until at last our guide sauntered up to remind me that he had taken the passport from me in order to arrange my Cambodian visa. With a few hours of sleep, I might have remembered that.

The breeze poured through the open windows as our speedboat sliced toward Cambodia. Our guide’s Buddha-like smile reassured me. I closed my eyes and told myself that Phnom Penh would change my luck.

Of course, The Deer Hunter taught us that Vietnam never leaves you. Thanks to the Tet holiday, Abba’s tune “Happy New Year” was my constant companion for at least two of my three Vietnamese weeks (my Can Tho hotel had it playing on a endless loop in the lobby). Now I plan to go buy it and play it over and over. Think Christopher Walken with a revolver and you’ll understand. ‘Nam does things to ya, man. You don’t know. You weren’t there.

Steve Burgess is entering the homestretch of his travels through Asia. Below are his previous dispatches for The Tyee: 

Vietnamese Driving Lessons

Burgess and the Red Dragon  Burgess and the Big Night Out  Walkabout with Hanoi Steve  Burgess in Bangkok  Dispatch from Hong Kong  [Tyee]

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