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Getting Lost in Vietnam

by Barry Kaiser
(Edmonton, Canada)

Fishing Boat in Long Hai
Fishing Boat in Long Hai

"What do you mean you think it?s a brothel?" Sitting slumped over his knees, an exhausted Graham asked. I knew his patience was running out, but I thought he would be more understanding of our plight. I told him that he would have to see the hotel for himself. At this point, I wasn?t really sure where we had ended up.

While this complex looked like a large estate with its manicured lawns and hedge-lined roads, the three hotels inside were so different from each other. Since our quest for a hotel in Xuan Loc had started more than an hour ago, this purported brothel had become our best option for a comfortable night?s sleep.

As we entered the hotel grounds, a number of Vietnamese teak bungalows greeted us. A small tranquil pond made for a beautiful centerpiece to the area. While everything looked so serene and pristine, the façade of a Vietnamese hotel had fooled us before. As we rode up to the main building to register, I saw those ominous looking young ladies loitering around the entrance. This seemed a bit odd considering we were kilometers away from town.

As we entered the small lobby, three of those young ladies followed us. They giggled as one of them approached Graham and in one fluid motion pulled on his forearm hair, pinched his nose, and planted a small kiss on his cheek, while at the same time smiling as she pulled a pink condom out of her pant pocket to show him. Both Graham and I were startled. Graham then turned to me with a smile. "Yep," he said. ?We have ourselves a brothel!?

My friend Graham and I were on a three-week cycling tour from Hanoi to Vietnam in the fall of 1999. After being stuck in the small tourist town of Hoi An for four days, because of a massive flood that had hit central Vietnam, flying out to Saigon was our only way to continue our journey south.

It would take days for the roads and train tracks to be passable again. At first, our trip appeared over; however, we decided instead to venture off into the countryside for a few days and get away from the tourist scene that had overwhelmed us in places like Hue and Hoi An. Because there wasn?t much in our Lonely Planet guidebook about the area north-east of Saigon, we decided to take this direction.

Our ultimate destination was a small local tourist town on the coast called Long Hai that we would end up reaching the next day. With darkness approaching, we needed to find a town with a hotel soon. While Xuan Loc wasn?t in our guidebook, it was on our Nelles map. Given the size of dot Xuan Loc represented on our map, my intuition told me that there would be a hotel in town. Little did I know that this four-day side trip would be one of my most unique and memorable travel experiences.

While I had many opportunities to ?wander? through countries like Egypt and India during my around the world tour ten years ago, this was the first time my plans had been so radically changed on one of my annual three-week tours. For some reason, there always seems to be more planning that goes into a shorter trip like this than a longer one. Perhaps the constraint of three weeks forces one to be more efficient with their trip. Discarding our guidebook and ?getting lost? for those four days would be different, but it would end up being incredibly rewarding.

After checking into our hotel, we made our way to our rooms, which happened to be one of the bungalows we had seen earlier. It was like nothing I had seen before. The large open rooms didn?t entail anything more than a queen size bed covered with satin sheets.

There wasn?t even a chair in the room, but then again why should there be ? this was a brothel! People were here for a short time, not a long time. In the bathroom, I found a few used combs and toothbrushes standing up in a cup next to the sink. My mind pondered for a moment at what must go on in these rooms. A door even adjoined our rooms, but I didn't even want to think what that meant?

As in other communist countries, finding a quality hotel in Vietnam can be a challenge at times. Many of the hotels are state run and often left to ruin. One of the hotels I checked out in Xuan Loc looked like something out of a fairytale with its moat and castle like facade.

However, the inside looked like something right out of an Alfred Hitchcock horror movie. Lights ? if they existed ? were dimly lit; floors and counter-tops looked like they hadn't been cleaned in years; shower heads were dangling from base; beds looked more like hammocks (I couldn't even bare to look at the sheets?). At this point, I was willing to ride through the night to find something more suitable in another town. After 13 hours of travel, Graham would have nothing to do with that idea. Therefore, I continued to search until finding the brothel. In retrospect, I find it interesting that everyone in town we had asked about hotels directed us to this area. Either these were the only hotels in town, or they thought brothels were the quest of western men.

Fortunately, for both Graham and I, the young ladies we had met earlier in the hotel lobby were ?preoccupied? that evening, and they didn't feel the need to market their wares anymore. Our trip into town for dinner would be one of our best. Before traveling to Vietnam, I had told Graham about the fantastic night markets of Thailand.

I had always assumed that the same would hold true in Vietnam, but that hadn't been the case yet. Tonight was different. Dimly lit streetlights and food stalls lined the main road out of town. Hundreds of people loitered around the food stalls looking for a quick bite to eat.

The distinct smells of chilies, fish sauce, garlic, and basil filled the air. Along with the many strange and exotic dishes that were being prepared, we also appeared to be equally as exotic to the locals. The vendors were all interested in talking to us and having us sample their specialty dishes. The dishes we tried ranged from Vietnamese beef noodle soup to spicy steamed clams. We weren't disappointed. With an appetite only a cyclist could appreciate, we had enough room in our stomachs to satisfy many of the curious vendors that night.

In my ten years of cycle touring through the developing world, I have noticed that travelers tend to stick too closely to the sites and routes laid out in their guidebooks. For the developing world, Lonely Planet guidebooks rule. The sites they recommend in their books tend to be more historic and visual rather than cultural in appeal. Every time I bump into a fellow traveler on the road they always seem to be headed to the next tourist destination, but how many pagodas and temples do you really need to see on a trip? For me, that number grows smaller with every trip.

"Graham, I really think you will want to get out of bed early this morning," I said. He has never being a morning person, and I usually gave him the time to sleep-in on our days off, but this was different. Being an avid photographer, I knew that he would revel in the experience that I had just witnessed on the beach of Long Hai. The night before the beach was relatively quite with young children playing along the beach and in the surf. Their parents were further back and closer to their huts working on nets or chatting in small groups.

A fishing fleet had arrived overnight and had anchored a few hundred meters offshore. Whether this was a once a day or once a week event, I will never know. Small round boats looking nothing more than big bamboo weaved bowls slowly moved people out to the fishing boats to unload the catch.

The variety of fish was bewildering. Other than the obvious, clams, shrimps, and squid, I wasn?t sure what made up the rest of the catch. It did look fresh and exotic though. With hundreds of people scattered along the beach, it looked more like a sea of conical hats than the quiet little beach I had seen the night before. Before the seafood made it off the beach, it changed hands to new owners.

The seafood was then whisked off by whatever means imaginable. Little old ladies with fish stacked in two baskets balanced by a carrying pole shuffled off the beach to awaiting vehicles. Motorbikes with two baskets loaded with shrimp were speeding off to destinations unknown.

This whole scene was incredibly chaotic. People were so busy that they seemed oblivious to that fact that there was a foreigner on the beach that morning. Afterwards, Graham couldn't thank me enough for prodding him out of bed that morning. Still to this day, his slide carousel holds many pictures from that morning.

On our fourth and final day, we headed back to Saigon on a beautiful morning. The early mornings in the tropics are such a great time to ride, because the air is crisp and temperature still cool. We hadn't had many cycling mornings like this in Vietnam, so we would savor this one.

The amount of life on the roads was also fascinating. Everyone was up early to get as much done before the heat of the day wears down the soul. While I thought I had seen everything at this time of day, I wouldn't be prepared for the funeral procession that we saw at dawn. Hundreds of people followed a white flower-covered hearse as it made its way down a dirt road into the rising sun.

As the road back to Saigon became bigger and busier, we felt something missing. We had plenty of daylight left, so we stopped on the side of the highway to look at our map once more. While the detail on our map wasn't great, we did see a road that appeared to make its way back to Saigon through the Mekong Delta, but we couldn't be sure that there would be bridges to take us across the various tributaries. However, we were more than confident that we would find a way. We then looked at each other and said, "Let's go and get lost again."

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Central Vietnam

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North West Vietnam

Sapa, Lao Cai, Dien Bien Phu and Son La are some of the bigger and well known places in north west Vietnam

local minority in north west Vietnam

Vietnam Maps

map of Vietnam
Map of Vietnam