Travel Companions, it’s an essential thing in the world. There are people that are your best friends, but you would not want to live with them. On the same note, there are people who are complete opposites, but when you hit the road it just works. The trials and tribulations of the road. My brother and I are like that. We are polar opposites on most political issues, and can argue till blue in the face. We have been kicked out of motels, fancy New York eateries, and the Vatican because of arguments ranging from religion (which I am anti), small government, and smoking. Personally, I think if my brother feels like arguing, we could actually get in a fight to why a ladybug has spots. Even after a long fight at the Vatican, (over pretentious place where priceless paintings are hung up like gaudy Christmas lights on the wall, where the poverty outside the walls is disgusting and squalid, and where they still follow outdated laws centuries old) we can have a beer, laugh it off, and act like nothing ever happened. But when it comes to traveling, we have very few problems.
We started traveling together when he lived in Germany, and I was going to school in Ohio. At this time our differences were even larger, though I was more of an environmentalist and idealistic artist then. He went to West Point Military academy where I won’t say he was brain washed, but his views were notably more conservative then my days at Columbus College or Art and Design. We traveled around Germany, and then eventually flew to Egypt and the Middle East for a month. We crawled through the pyramids at a time when for a five-dollar tip you could lay in the sarcophagus. We even left our guide and crawled up a shaft in the ceiling through an airshaft. We climbed Mt. Masada in Israel, spent a very scary time in Sophia, and learned to Scuba Dive with a scam dive shop in the Red Sea. It was an amazing trip, and really set the travel bug in me.
Since that time, we have gone everywhere from Japan, New Zealand, Argentina, and many more cool exotic places. It works out well because we both like to travel hard with no itinerary, stay flexible, and no matter how rough the day can be, we end it with a quite a few beers at some local pub that most people would be scared of. So it was exciting to be breaking up the trip with a visit from him. Of course it could have turned out into an all out disaster traveling with Brother and Girlfriend, but Yvonne and Jeff get along pretty well, and she falls asleep before he gets really loud.
Jeff is the photographer of the family, while I handle the video and any art. He always is carrying around the latest gadget, from huge camera bags, lenses that are like a foot long, to a million filters. In the Grand Canyon Jeff, Yvonne, and I took it on to ourselves to climb to the bottom and spend the night there. We were ill equipped with camping gear and food, but Jeff had everything you needed for a photo shoot. A bottle of whiskey we were going to enjoy had leaked all over my pack, which pretty much made me smell like a travelling dive bar. Well he sprinted down to the bottom, bragging the whole way about how easy it was. After a relaxing night of warm white wine, sleeping on the unmade tent under the stars, and waking up before dawn, his energy level was not quite the same. We started up which took 7 hours, and poor Yvonne had to carry his 50 lb bag filled with camera equipment. I carried her bag, and mine as well. Well after 5 miles or so up, Jeff sort of flopped on the ground, cramped up, and made a pretty amusing scene. There were horses there and tons of tourists, all looking at us. Yvonne and I were eating raisins out of the box when she screams maggots, and throws it down. I had eaten half the box, yuck. We were pretty much the laughing stock of the rest stop. Then we passed some clean looking tourists, and a little boy goes “Hi Uncle Mike.” My sister and her family passed us with out even recognizing us, and my Nephew recognized me, that’s how gross we were.
So we took many ferries, buses, and finally taxis to get back to Saigon to meet up with him at the airport. There’s a great feeling when you travel to going back to a place you have been before, like putting on a nice comfy shoe. Saigon had that feel for us. We met a really nice couple from Michigan who were originally from Vietnam and Cambodian, who had fled when things got bad during the Vietnam War and then the Khmer Rouge. We shared a cab with them, and headed back to the hotel we originally stayed at that we loved so much. They were so appreciative to have a nice place set up, and we spent a lot of time talking to them as they traveled around reconnecting with their family that they had not seen in decades. That’s the thing out here, as we soon learned, everyone has a story that is amazing how they survived multiple wars, and escaped with their lives. With everyone we met a deeper and more meaningful picture of the culture and life emerged.
I decided to pick Jeff up at the airport so he would not have to deal with a million scams, little did I know I was about to get nailed myself. I picked the Blue Something cab company because I thought they had a good reputation, but the dudes meter was rigged, in addition to that, the logo was slightly different, so it was a copy cat company. He took me the long way to airport, then would not go in but demanded more money from me. I told him to shove it and got out in the middle of the road and just walked away. So I ended up having to walk up the car ramp to the airport. I was furious about that. In hindsight I realized he was not allowed in the airport because he was not an approved cab company. Grrrrrr. Well, of course customs was a nightmare for Jeff, so I ended up waiting an hour or so, lucky they sold beer and there were some expats there to chat with and get more info on what cab company to use and not to use.
Jeff finally comes strolling out and I hand him a customary cold beer for the road and we are off to the hotel, this time in a sanctioned cab. It took half the time, and was a third of the cost. We met up with Yvonne and hit the neighborhood bars, which there were plenty of. We sat down on the plastic chairs on the street where you face off against the plastic chairs on the other side of the street, having a drink off against the other side. It’s a little like a snowball fight, where you have two walls for cover, and it’s all out war between the walls. It’s mad crazy in this neighborhood, with tons of expats drinking and partying. It was a good first night. We were not planning on staying too long in Saigon, Jeff had a limited time here, so we wanted to make the best of it and move on to Cambodia. So we set up our travel plans right away.
The next day we walked around the city, checking out the War Remnants museum, which I had been to before. This museum, even though it is heavy in anti-US propaganda, is a moving and heart-wrenching journey into the travesties of war. I think it’s important for anyone visiting Saigon to stop, because in the end, the message is you carry away is how awful war is, and how the people who really are hurt are the civilians, and mostly, the children.
After that we stopped at the Independence Palace, a modern monstrosity that was rebuilt in the sixties. Originally it was a gorgeous palace, but after a bomb blew half of it away, they rebuilt it in a sleek, 1950’s style, with hundreds of skinny windows. Inside is very similar to a set of the Brady Bunch, mixed with some African hunters game room. I am sure you can see now I am not much of a fan of modern architecture. The basement was pretty interesting because it had the most hi-tech technology for its time. So what you had were all these huge machines, looking like old boilers, and handmade maps on the walls. When I said the latest technology, I meant for 1970’s. The gates here are famous, because the North Vietnamese crashed through them in a tank at the end of the war when they took Saigon.
Back at the hotel room, it was Christmas in February for me. My parents had sent me a care pack in the shape of a new daypack, filled to the brim with things we needed to continue the journey. Oh it was very exciting going through all the pockets, getting new running shoes, toothbrushes, underwater camera, vented sun hat, and other exciting things. There were all kinds of things for Yvonne too, including new shoes. All our clothes by this time were more like rags, having continuously worn them for 6 months.
The next day we caught the early bus to go see the Cu Chi Tunnels. I had already done this trip, but was so amazed by it, and the guide, Mr. Bin, that I set it up again for Jeff. Mr. Bin fought with the Americans, and went through some heavy fighting in the area. To say he is a bit eccentric would be an understatement, so be prepared for some awkward moments and even being told off. He does not hold anything back, but what he does do is give you a very real sense of how things were, nothing sugar coated. The actually tunnels have been widened so westerners can use them, but the last time I used them I could barely walk for three days, my legs were so cramped up. Jeff is claustrophobic, so he got out on the first exit. This time I had an easier time, I did not squat walk, but crawled on my hands and knees, which brought more scrapes on, but meant I could walk the next day. There were also tiny hatches that the Vietcong would pop out of, shoot, than disappear back in them. They were so tight that on occasion a chubby tourist will get stuck. There are also examples of the various booby traps that would be used on the Americans, from pits with spikes, spinning spikes, bear traps and even a spike that would swing down when a door is opened. At the end you get a chance to shoot some powerful guns, but it’s expensive, 5 to 10 dollars a bullet.
We took the boat home, which is a relaxing trip. We met another American and chilled out on the back deck of the boat, drinking beers. I stood up to see the skyline of Saigon, and the wind whipped my brand new hat off my head and into the Mekong, a donation to the river gods for a safe trip. Back in Saigon we met up with Yvonne who had a nice day wandering the city. She ran into a couple at the post office that we had met in Jakarta, six months before. Then right when she was telling us the story they walked around the corner. So we had dinner and caught up on their trip. It’s amazing how small the world can be.