Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Flight to Chu Lai and the Bus Ride from Hell! by Saigon Charlie

Jun. 7th, 2007

Saigon to ‘Dodge City’ (Quang Ngai), Vietnam

Mother of Mary! I finally made it to what can only be described as the Wild, Wild, West! But yes, you are right I am in the ‘east’, or at least on the east coast of Vietnam, and what a place this place is.

Getting here was rather tame if you overlook the Vietnam Air Services (VASCO) ATR-72’ bald tires, high speed taxis and fast landing approaches, with what was most probably a student pilot onboard learning to fly the damn thing.

All that aside, we did manage to land safely at an airport with a name that isn’t even on a map, Chu Lai. It is so remote here that there are only a couple of sentences in the Lonely Planet guide that even mentions the place.

That however doesn’t take away from the beauty that unfolded beneath me as we approached our destination, as the first thing that caught my eye, was a river with obvious waterfalls and rapids. Even from 6,000 feet or so, it was spectacular.

The second thing that made me blink was just how empty the miles and miles of barrier sand beach coast was. I got quite a lengthy view as our ‘training flight’ seemed to be at the hands of someone who obviously was not aware of where the airport was, as we were making bizarre turn after bizarre turn which was obviously not due to traffic or air traffic control, as there is neither!

It seemed to go on forever and I guess it is those same beaches that I have read will be hosting mega resorts someday according to the big boys in Hanoi, but as yet, there is nothing but water and sand.

I have a feeling that this will change one of these days assuming the folks coming and going survive the journey in and out, but in my opinion, that change is a very long way off.

Not sure which of there is more here; sand or sun or sun and sand, but as we land it is obvious there sure is a bunch of both as the “airport” is obviously being overtaken by both, with the last remnants of a once massive US presence serving as a commercial aerodrome.

I am not sure what the approach speed of an ATR-72 is but I do know we were significantly faster than what it was suppose to be; but maybe with the bald tires it goes faster?? What do you think?

Thank God for such a long runway however as we were ‘hot’ and the ‘follow me’ car they sent out to us to lead us back was very reassuring, as I wasn’t 100% positive the boys up front knew where the terminal building was.

We did manage to find it however as it was nestled up next to a few dozen old hardened aircraft shelters left over from the bad ole days and those nasty Americans. Honestly though, I really got the impression that someone up front was learning how to fly this thing as well as how and where to land it...

As I just said, the flight was pretty typical for this part of the world, (cough, cough..) with flight attendants being friendly and Chu Lai’s facilities modern and clean. It did take them quite a while however to find a truck to throw the passenger’s bags onto so they could get them from the plane to the ‘terminal’...but oh my Buddha! The bus ride into town was one of the wildest in recent memories!

I guess I should have known that this was going to be ‘different’ when the bus driver kept honking at a luggage cart parked inches away from our left front bumper after everyone had boarded the bus, while only a few meters ahead of us, another vehicle was parked blocking our escape path forward. I kept thinking to myself, why doesn’t he just get out and move it himself? Problem solved!

Without it being moved however by someone and with him seemingly unwilling to move it, it was becoming extremely obvious that the only way we were going to be able to exit our terminal parking space on the day we arrived was to:

(a) Move the cart out of the way.
(b) Wait for the vehicle in front of us to move.
(c) Backup and move around the cart.

Well, where I come from, options a, b, or c would seem like the obvious choices, but there is always option ‘d’ in Asia. And what is option ‘d’ you ask? Run over the cart! Perfectly logical for a local, Asian male driver in Vietnam.

As I have mentioned before in my blog, driving in Vietnam seems to be a very ‘macho’ endeavor reserved for ‘real men’ (reminds me of the bus ‘captains’ in Turkey who tell you to turn off your mobile phones while boarding). Thailand is pretty insane as well, but not what I call ‘macho’. Vietnam however seems to equate ‘size’ to the size of the vehicle you are captain of, the bigger the man…the bigger the vehicle...right?

Well since he had a bus, that made him a pretty big man and since he kept honking his horn with no one moving the cart, the only logical choice was to run over it as it would be beneath him to move it himself. Imagine the ‘face’ he would loose, he, the ‘captain’ of this bus having to move a baggage cart! How embarrassing! How demeaning!

Having now run over the cart, which is now jammed under the left front bumper, I see we aren’t going to be going anywhere soon because if this guy wasn’t going to leave his seat to move that stupid cart before he ran over it; he definitely isn’t leaving his seat to un-jam it after he has managed to put it under the bumper. So you ask, “what are we going to do?”

Me, being the ever practical kind of guy who likes to solve problems instead of creating them, jumped out of my seat, got off the bus, uncorked the cart from the bus, jumped back on, and off we went, to the sound of passenger applause! The other passengers were wide eyed as they watched all this unfold but applauded me, the crazy American! (...and people wonder why the oil refinery here is 10 years behind schedule??!!!)

Anyway. As we exit the terminal with Rocky the Squirrel at the throttle (I can see through the floorboard to the pavement as he shifts gears) it further becomes obvious this ride into town is going to be an ‘on the edge of your seat’ thriller as this man loves to honk his horn and come as close to objects coming from the opposite direction as he can humanly get. Can you say ‘chicken?!”

It soon becomes obvious that my friend with the floppy green hat and cool sunglasses is a certifiable lunatic as we are now driving in the left lane for shits and giggles, while ahead of us are two oncoming buses, side to side, with the one in “our” lane making an attempt to overtake the bus that is not in our lane, the oncoming one. Understand that?

You would if you saw it as we are moments away from being a mangled, burning wreckage heap. But do you think we move to our curb or to the right? No way! The name of the game is chicken and this guy thinks he is the biggest rooster in this barnyard, but fortunately the oncoming passing truck swerves in front of the oncoming bus he is passing and we edge over into the lane we were suppose to be in anyway. How thoughtful I thought. Anyone want to ride with me by bus the remaining 836 kilometers to Saigon?

As I take my hands from over my eyes from yet another near miss, I notice a marker on the side of the road stating it is ONLY 36km to my destination city of Quang Ngai, but those 36 kilometers became one of the wildest rides I have ever taken with ‘public transportation’ (and this is on a road that is perfectly straight and flat).

Not sure what this guy was smoking but maybe it is some of the funny weed that I was always being offered in Saigon. Personally, I think he was just a complete nut…..

Anyway, we finally cross a river of sorts and a town appears that looks like it should be where I am headed and I can find a hotel. Apparently some other well dressed Vietnamese with their luggage agree, and we all bolt for the door! No one pays any money and no one asks, so I guess the public buses are free in this neck of the woods, or maybe the real driver had a heart attack and this joker was a passenger?

Reminded me of a Harry Potter movie where he leaves home after blowing up his aunt and the ‘ghost bus from hell’ shows up to take him into London. And to think you have to pay good money at an amusement park to ride a roller coaster or see a Harry Potter movie to be scared out of your wits but here in Vietnam all you got to do is take the “Chu Lai Airport Bus” for free!

Ok. I made it and am now checked into a room on the 5th floor of some place with no elevator (of course) which I have no idea what the name is....Hung, Dung, Dong, Huong ...whatever...but wait....the sign says 120,000 Dong for a single bed, 140,000 for a double and yes, it is in Vietnamese and I can understand it.... but I of course get the 140 rate! But I don’t need a double I say...no problem, that’s your rate anyway.

I have noticed this to be a pattern wherever I am at in local, non-tourist areas that the rate somehow climbs significantly although, clearly stated in Vietnamese somewhere, what the room rate is. Seemed in Saigon the ‘foreigner’ rate at such hotels was consistently 200,000 Dong for a single guy like myself, although the posted rates were considerably lower. Guess we white guys aren’t suppose to be too smart and definitely can’t read…

So here I am and I have no frigging idea where the hell I’m at other than someone told me that they were building a new city here as well as an oil refinery. I did get an indication that I might be someplace 'famous' however as they kept hollering at me 'Moto My Lai'! 'Moto My Lai'!, and having grown up in and around the war, I knew those words were connected to one of the worst American massacres of the war.


I guess somehow I had entered a time warp of sorts into a dark side of American history. I simply shrugged my shoulders and said, "why in the hell would I want to go to My Lai?" and walked on by.

A sign along the road tells me Saigon is a long way away and there also seems to be a rail line that parallels the ‘road of terror!”. But other than that TinTin, it seems like I have fallen into one remote outpost!

Someone also told me that the Hanoi boys got the bright idea to build some power plants here as well, which rumor has it, are being built with the help by the good ole friendly folks at Siemens Power Generation (a place I use to work). And according to the Internet searches I did, seems like Chu Lai was also suppose to be turned into a ‘Shangri lai’ of sorts.

Unless I am in another country (another planet?) with the same named towns, have the folks who write this trash visited this place? And I thought China Beach had a long way to go; but they are light years ahead of this ‘Chu Lai Open Economic Zone’ by comparison.

As I said in the beginning, this place is the wild, wild west with oil and steel trucks dominating the roads. Chinese shop houses hug the paved roads as well as the side roads that are mostly dirt but getting paved as time goes by. Bet that makes for a lovely site during the rains.

It is almost funny to see business one with motorbikes for sale, followed by mobile phones, followed by generator repair, followed by Ma’s noodle stand and then to see the exact same pattern replicated all the way down the main street. Replication is good, right?

There sure are a bunch of motorbike shops here as well selling the usual Suzuki and Honda, but some are also offering a locally built bike which sort of looks nice.

I stopped in at one shop and asked ‘how much?’ Got my notebook and pen out and they scribbled into it “$550 USD”.
Not bad I thought for this nice looking, 110cc bike, but what also amazes me about this place is that no one does any business in the currency of the country; dong.

Seems the dollar is king here and even my Euro has been looked on with great suspicion everywhere I go; in spite of the fact that it has risen over 40% to the dollar in recent years. Makes no difference though, we do business in dollar and business dinners have Johnnie Walker Black scotch at the table. That’s the way the world works and I know I saw in the bible (Genesis maybe?), that the world takes dollar and drinks Johnnie Walker….and these are the people that ‘won’ the war? Unbelievable…

As I wondered around town on foot, it became apparent really quick that I was something of an oddity here on these streets. Some folks smiled big grins when I looked at them and said ‘hello’, others you could tell would slit my throat in a second if they had a chance.

I made an effort at a local café serving up some local blend of a fruit cocktail to get a cold drink as 'cold' anything did not appear to be on the list of options at the many 'Ma's Noodle Stands' in town. Tried my very best to be friendly and did manage to pull off the desired flavor I wanted by pointing to a ‘strawberry’ on one of the signs.

Of course, as with the hotels, prices are posted with said drink being displayed at 3,000 dong. My price? You guessed it; 6,000 dong. I just smiled and slurped my delicacy down.

As I could find nowhere that looked appealing to eat as everything appeared to be boiling in metal pots and knowing the ‘heavyness’ of Vietnamese noodles, I opted to head back to the circle where my hotel was which is also where I noticed a much larger hotel across the street. I figured there I could probably find something that might not come out the wrong way or the wrong end.

The hotel as I said was big...and empty. It took a bit of doing but eventually a nice young lady did come out to greet me as I placed myself at one of the huge room’s empty tables. As it turned out, ‘Flower’ went out of her way to help me and even was able to communicate with her English skills. It seemed she was also bubbling with pride as she was going to be opening her own ‘bar’ in the restaurant this week.

What she pointed to however was a place in the corner of the large room where a bar of sorts was located with about 4 bar stools. I have seen larger bars in basements but I guess you got to start somewhere and this was her shot at the big time.

She brought me a menu and I selected something called ‘seafood soup’ and ‘breaded shrimp’. Sounded really good but upon receiving my selections, once again, far less than expected and the shrimp were barely eatable with me having to take the ‘breading’ off to consume the them. The soup was obviously canned. I kept smiling as she watched...

I was however very grateful at her efforts to make me happy and she even went out of her way to call the train station and find out the times of the trains stopping in Quang Ngai heading south, (which by the way are at 6AM, 9:30AM and 12:30PM with the 6 and 12:30 trains being ‘express’), with the bill coming to 89,000 Dong. I gave her a 100,000 Dong and told her to keep the change. She was a very happy lady indeed. There is beauty everywhere but sometimes you need to turn over a rock to find it.

Quang Ngai is a sprawling town with the looks of a town trying to become something more than a sleepy backwater. If nothing else, it is clean (like just about everywhere in Vietnam) and from all appearances from the outside looking in, efficient as well. It however is NOT a tourist town in any way, shape or form. I think my buddy and friend, Han Solo from the Mos Eisley Cantina would fit right in however. Nobody appears poor but ‘poor’ is a relative term, as by western standards, these people are living on a small fraction of what we make in the west.

Recent articles published as recently as June 2, 2007 in local publications talk about Chu Lai and Quang Ngai as if they are happening places. Once again, have these folks been here? Articles state that three tourism projects worth US$100 million have been given investment certificates but I sure hope these boys have their own buses from the airport!

It is rather interesting to note that a company, Cadasa Research and Applications Information and Technology Joint Venture Co. (now that’s a mouth full) is to invest US$37 million of the above total in a five-star 300-room resort named , you guessed it, ‘Cadasa’.

Now what gets my curiosity juices flowing is what in the hell is an IT company doing starting a 5-star resort? Guess they need nice digs for all those software engineers they will need as they outsource to Europe and the US. Or maybe it for all the managers coming to visit them to sign outsourcing deals? Hmmmm

The Mai Doan JV Company will also spend US$50 million on another five-star 220 room complex while the Quoc Viet Software JV will spend US$15 million on a 200-room resort at Tam Tien. See a pattern developing here? Software, IT, five-star....you connect those dots.

According to the propaganda feeds, the ‘Chu Lai Open Economic Zone’ has 130 projects capitalized at US $1.43 billion (yes BILLION) dollars BUT only 58 projects worth US$560 million are ‘still effective’. What the hell does ‘still effective’ mean to you?

But yes, the authorities are still seeking ‘financial, banking, trade, tourism, and service centers’ here but of all the streets I walked for many hours, I failed to find even ONE travel related business or a bank. In Saigon both exist every few meters. Once again, who writes this stuff?

I didn’t want to end this part without saying that someone has also stated that there is to be an ‘entertainment area’ at Tam Hai, including a riverside villa, totaling a staggering US$2-2.5 BILLION dollars! Now what kind of ‘entertainment’ can you get for that kind of money in a place where pilots can’t find the airport and isn’t even on a map? I guess the guests are expected to speak Vietnamese as very, very few folks here speak English.

I’m sitting here at their train station and have flown into their airport and taken their buses and walked their streets...and someone is blowing funny smelling smoke!

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