Friday, January 04, 2008

Mack the Tuk-Tuk Driver

There is nothing about this hotel that has not charmed us. The services are excellent, the room has plenty of room, and the television gets over 50 channels, one of which is BBC, so we were able to get Iowa caucus news. The furniture is good quality, not cheap junk and the mattresses are superb.

Breakfast is included, so I was able to get an omelet with a roll and coffee. The amount of butter was nearly humorous that for such a tiny bit they would bother dirtying a dish. Ron asked for some jam and it is 2 cents extra. No complaints, it is just a funny cultural difference.

At 9:00 am, while we were eating, our bicycle tuk-tuk driver was waiting outside for us, like a puppy waiting for a scrap from the table. We were the scraps he wanted. We had arranged for 10:00, but he must have been fearful we would skip out on him. He most likely was casing the place guarding all of our escape routes. We went out to tell him we had to rearrange our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City; Ron had the dates wrong and we were scheduled to check-in today. The reception was kind enough to call and make the changes. He was happy to wait for us and he had a friend with him. There was no way the two of us would last in one tuk-tuk for a long distance ride without one or both of us either falling out or becoming crippled along the way.

We asked our main ‘driver’ his name three times, but each time, neither of us could understand what he said, but is sounded something like Mack. Between us, this is what we called him. He has a stuttering problem in English and in Vietnamese. Watching his face when he is speaking his mother tongue, you can see he struggles at times, his head goes downward and his face contorts. Regardless, we were off to the mountain and the temples. We agreed on 80,000 Dong each since we had two ‘drivers’.

Riding a regular bicycle with someone sitting on the bar is plenty of exertion, but to have a cart attached with a 6 foot 1 inch man adding weight is enough to make me want a rest just thinking about it. For him, it was effortless and we sped through town to go tell it on the mountain over the river and through the water buffalo fields, through hill and dale. The ride was approximately twenty minutes long before he parked his vehicle and said we would walk from here. Here was an area filled with temples, Buddhist temples. As we entered the first temple, I put my cigarette out and was able to take my shoes off to enter, but Mack said not to bother. Unlike in Thailand and Cambodia, they do not remove their shoes when entering the temples. The caretaker was walking around smoking a cigarette, which shocked both of us, but Mack said in Vietnam you can smoke anywhere. I had an instant picture of a Catholic priest offering the Eucharist with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and started to chuckle.

Each of the temples was dazzling in its own way and Mack was great about explaining things to us. Many of the monk caregivers from each temple are buried within the temple and a memorial is set up for each of them. Photos were allowed in every temple except the main one. You could smoke in it, but not photograph it. One of the Buddhas looked like a Las Vegas night show, with a robe that lit up and behind his head a rotating color wheel of reds, oranges, and greens. We dubbed him the Elvis Buddha as irreverent as that may be, he did look entertaining, though from our western perspective, really tacky. Along with Buddha, there were female statues, which presumable were Kwan Yin. She is frequently portrayed as a slender woman in flowing white robes who carries a white lotus in her left hand, an abiding symbol of purity of heart and spirit. Some answers to our questions we received from Mack were incomprehensible and rather than embarrass him by asking him to repeat it multiple times. We had to piecemeal information we could understand.

Outside the largest temple, there was a little boy running around with a strange haircut. He had patches of hair on each side of the head, while the rest of his head was close to shaved. Mack explained that the family has dedicated him to the temple. The temple was an active place with dozens of people bringing in offerings, lighting incense and praying. It turns out that this is a normal day’s business and all of the surrounding shops sell flowers and baskets of food for people to buy for offerings in the temple. If I lived here, I would have to seriously look into Buddhism. A peaceful calm comes over me when I am in a temple.

We did not make it completely up the mountain as Mack has planned since the temples are less ornate as you climb higher, so it did not make much sense to go further when we have seen the best first. When reaching the bottom, we stopped for noodle soup. My pork noodle soup had kidney or liver in it and I was more than willing to share it with the two Chihuahuas running around the place.

On the ride back, we saw water buffalos grazing in front yards, houses on stilts, woman cooking from portable pots, and other cultural iconography making this country stand out from the rest and ultimately charming. We had Mack drop us off at the hotel, but he had convinced us we should take a boat ride to see fish farming, the only Muslim mosque in the area, and a small indigenous group of people who are silk weavers. We agreed to be picked up at 2:30 giving us a chance to get our butts back in shape before taking off again.

Mack was outside panting waiting our return by 2:00. We both managed to fit into his cart by facing each other and we took off to the dock. We boarded a boat, the three of us with the woman who was our captain. First stop was a fish farm. Interestingly, there are many houses that are built on stilts out on the river. The only access to them or from them is by boat, but whole families live here full time, usually fishermen. Some even have dogs, but I cannot figure how they walk it or train it for that matter.

The fish farm is one such building as the houses, but with racks for floors that are lifted up with thousands of fish kept confined. Mack fed them to show the tremendous reception they give for food. When they reach a certain size, they are transferred to another holding area, all the while kept in their native waters, the river.

The next stop was the silk weavers and for the life of us, we could not understand why these people were special. After many futile attempts, we gave us asking for an explanation we could understand. Where our boat docked, it was incredibly high getting from the boat to the dock. With my bad hip, it was impossible for me to lift my leg that high, so wanted Ron to go without me. Mack would not hear of this and I thought he was going to lift me himself, but being half my size, I am appreciative he did not try. I had to sit on the dock first and get up from there. Embarrassing moments are part of the game of travel.

In this community, all of the men wear sarongs, not pants. Within minutes, Ron had a sarong wrapped around him, a silk scarf around his neck and a hat on his head. In the time it took me to take his picture with both our cameras, I was being costumed also. Excellent craftsmanship, beautiful colors, but not something we would go around wearing in Hungary or the U.S. for that matter. With disappointed looks at their lack of a sale, we disrobed, said thanks for the chuckle and moved onward to the mosque in the area. All of the while, we were surrounded by fifteen little girls trying their best to get us to buy their waffles. They look like Belgium waffles, but have different fruits in them. Ron succumbed to one little girl unbeknownst to me, while I was promising I would buy 7 quarters of waffle for $1.00 from another little girl when we returned. I was hoping to shed her like dead fur.

When we returned from the mosque, my little parasite was ready to storm me for her dollar, having no other diversion than to wait for my return. When I looked for a dollar, I did not have one, only a ten and was not about to give it up expecting change. Her face was heartbreaking, so I gave her more than enough for two quarters of waffles and then gave her all of my change besides without expecting yet more goodies in return. She was still clearly disappointed. I seem to think she could not return home until her quota was filled for the day.

Yet another little one latched on to me and begged sorrowfully for me to buy from her too and would not take no for an answer. Just as we were going down the plank, another tourist was approaching and I suggested she try him instead. Like a mechanical robot, she changed direction and attention to target this newest victim.

After we headed back, we decided to walk around, so said our good-byes to Mack giving him his requested amount of money and a large tip besides. He was truly thankful. His plan is to ride for one more year and then leave the country to study English in Great Britain. We wish him luck.

Yearning for a good cup of coffee, we asked at the hotel for a recommendation. It was a distance away, but we walked needing to flex our muscles. The ‘good’ coffee is an individual French pot type device that sits over a glass. There are no lattes, so ordering a white coffee means the coffee drips into condensed milk. Aside from not being what I really want, it was tasty with the right amount of sweetness from the milk.

When I used the bathroom, the toilet was an American Standard brand. The lid on the tank was cracked and the toilet had no seat. The cracked lid with the brand name, conjured up metaphors in my mind about the broken American standards in the country now and especially with primaries starting to take place.

They tried overcharging us and we are not certain if it was an accident or not, but 10,000 Dong is a big mistake. Fortunately, they had left the menus on the table so I could show the waiter the costs of what we had and why the bill was wrong, because he did not speak English.

By the time we walked back to the hotel, the sidewalk restaurants and portable kitchens were invading any free space usually reserved for walking, so it was a dodge ‘em game with the traffic getting back.

For dinner, we decided to ask the desk clerk for a recommendation and he gave us three, each out of walking distance. Not surprisingly, there were two tuk-tuk drivers outside the hotel door pleading for business. We hired both of them to go to the first restaurant on the list. As a good sign, it was filled with locals and we were the only obvious foreigners there. As usual, I have problems finding things on a menu I can eat throughout Asia, because I am highly allergic to fish. That rules out not only the obvious fish, but all things cooked in fish sauce also, which is often the case with beef or pork dishes. I had three options on this menu; however, I could have ordered squid, frogs, snails or snake, but I am just not that adventurous before a major bus trip in the very near future. My beef with sesame was served with a salad. My rule of thumb is not to eat any fruit or vegetable that does not need to be peeled unless the menu specifies it was washed in pure water. Out of the salad, I ate the onions and cucumbers, left behind the lettuce and tomatoes.

Tomorrow, we leave for Ho Chi Minh City on a five hour bus ride on a bus without a bathroom. NPO (nothing by mouth) for me after 9:00 pm.

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