Sunday, June 05, 2005

Michael, You're Never Far from Our Hearts

Our Memorial Day weekend started out just like any other. On Friday, I waited around for our Household Effects, or HHE, in the alphabet soup jargon of the Foreign Service world. The moving team consisted of six Vietnamese men, compared to the three we had in Washington, DC. I’ve decided that many jobs here that would normally take one person or even a machine to do require at least three. For example, the toll booths on the highways have four people—one person to collect the money, another to issue the ticket, yet another to watch the other two, and a fourth to tell jokes and spit watermelon seeds at motorists. In our case, the moving team had three men to transport the boxes, while three others stood around and shouted. They seemed much more in shape than the ones we had in Washington, where the head of the team was Porky, or Puh-Key, as he pronounced it, a large, 64 year-old man who had been with the same company for 42 years. Graciously, the two younger men let him move all of the heavier items, while I watched in horror as he maneuvered our way-too-large couch out of the way-too-small doorway of the apartment. Unlike the move from Washington, however, the men here unloaded the truck during a torrential downpour. While I was lucky enough to wait inside during all of this, it was a bit distressing watching our boxes being unloaded. After all, how sturdy can cardboard be during a monsoon? In the end, all of our boxes arrived safely and, while, funny enough, the contents smelled like they had, well, been on a ship for three months, luckily the movers in Washington managed to pack the most important items, including potatoes, onions and garlic cloves that apparently had been lying around in our pantry, as well as scrap paper and a bag of trash from the kitchen.

Duke and I sorted through some of the boxes—those three-month old potatoes and garlic cloves really hit the spot—then gave up and prepared for our trip the following day. We decided to go to Mui Ne, a small beach about four hours away on the southern coast famous for its high sand dunes. We took a tour bus, where we had the misfortune of sitting in the front seat, so we could see exactly how close our driver came to hitting vehicles and pedestrians in the other lane head-on, as he passed even more impossibly-slow trucks and tractors. I tried to ignore the signs every kilometer or so warning about wearing helmets and keeping one’s speed down in order to reduce the alarming number of highway deaths. It was comforting to see that the drivers, and bus drivers in particular, had cultivated a complicated series of signals for speedtraps. Sometimes it was a simple honk and a flash of headlights, other times it was headlight flashes and a horizontal arm rapidly moving up and down, still others executed a Macarena-esque arm move followed by some head jerks. What was amusing, though, is that usually the passengers would do it, too, perhaps in case our driver did not see these obvious gestures. It turns out our driver had perfected the art of slowing down just before the radar gun and speeding up right after we were out of range, just in time to pass a large truck and careen over a blind hill. After four hours of this, we arrived to our hotel, only to discover that the place had given our room away. This was both amusing and annoying, as it was the off-season, and there were all of 10 people staying in Mui Ne Beach, so we found it difficult to understand that there were no more rooms at our hotel. In any case, we walked a few meters up and settled on a place with the unfortunate name of Indochina Dreams.

Despite what Lonely Planet said about it being “dreamy,” with “well-appointed” rooms, we couldn’t get out of there fast enough, although we did have to stay the first night there. Our bungalow, while quaintly situated right on the beach, was a sweatbox, as the power kept going off so that neither the fan nor the air conditioner—for which we paid extra—was able to work. While our bed only had a few dead mosquitoes, ants and spiders on it, the room was missing a certain je ne sais quoi. What sealed the deal, though, was our young waiter/cleaner/beach attendant. He really wanted to practice his English, to the point where after serving our lunch, he actually sat down with us and talked at length, in barely understandable English, I might add, about karaoke and Michael Jackson, breaking only to run and get some very sadly drawn sketches he had made of the sand dunes. I didn’t have the heart to tell the poor kid about the Michael Jackson trial and the state of the Neverland Ranch. Later, when he came to sit with us on the beach, again uninvited, I bit my tongue as he showed off his Michael Jackson moves, complete with head snaps and arm waves. You see, it was too sandy and uneven to do the moonwalk. The next morning, our new friend seemed upset when he saw that we were leaving, as he was sitting in the beach chair directly outside of our room, waiting, I’m sure, to debate which album was better, Farewell My Summer Love or Thriller. Perhaps it was better that the Michael Jackson for him was the pre-1985 Michael, before he had his third nose pinching, his hair caught on fire during a Pepsi commercial, he dangled his precious Blanket over the balcony, and he climbed trees with Martin Bashir. Oh, Michael, how far you’ve come since The Wiz and Ben the Mouse. No, for the waiter/cleaner/beach attendant, he will always be the hoo-hoo-ing, jamon-ing, chika-chik-ow-ing, crotch-grabbing Michael.

We spent a second way less eventful night in a much better hotel, where the staff outnumbered the guests three to one, we had a large pool, a spot on the beach with raked sand and some unfortunately dressed and very sunburned Russian female guests to keep us company. Getting to the second hotel was interesting, as we took our first motorbike taxis, which are called xe om, or hugging vehicles. They are all over Saigon, but I’ve been a huge wimp about even attempting to get on one, which is good because apparently there is such a thing as xe om etiquette. Had I used one in Saigon, I would have hopped on and put my arms right around the driver’s waist, thinking that, well, it’s a hugging vehicle, so one must hold on that way. Normal passengers, of course, do not do that. For skittish westerners like me, you hold on to the metal bar in the back. If you’re more confident in your balance, you can rest your hands on your thighs. If you’re an expert, you can do a handstand and practice juggling tricks while riding on the bike. Although we only went about two kilometers in the xe oms, it was just long enough to be intoxicating for Duke and ridiculously terrifying for me. The xe om drivers in Mui Ne, after all, have much more of a free reign than their counterparts in Saigon, who are slowed down by cars, buses, cyclos and occasionally intersections.

After a short three-day, two night holiday, we unwillingly headed back to the city. We were smart enough not to sit in the front seat on the way back, which gave us more time to concentrate on the rain that was seeping in through the less insulated parts of the bus. Despite the fact that it is officially rainy season in southern Viet Nam, Mui Ne Beach does not receive much rainfall due to the sand dunes, which help create a microclimate. Not too far out from Mui Ne, however, we were reminded of what was waiting for us back in Saigon, as the Dutch man across from us was frantically trying to stop up the cracks in his window. I found some irony in the fact that a man from a country that should be under water was unable to stop the roof and windows near him from leaking. Stay dry, everyone.


At 11:22 AM, Blogger Chin-hitter said...

Brilliant. I'm going to try and get my friends to do a quarter-Macarena (dispensing with the clockwork 90 degree turns) to indicate to other drivers that they are approaching a speed trap. I'm surprised, however, that the Gloved One-obsessed Vietnamese people don't use MJ-approved moves as their signal, e.g., a quick foot-kick out the window, or a representation of moonwalking done with the fingers of the right hand on the left forearm.


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