Column #007 – The Cambodia-Vietnam Border

Location: Juicy’s CafeTime: The Indelible Hours of the Early Evening
Proximity to Reality: Unsure, but Likely Close


It happened very fast… an aggressive pack of motorbike taxi drivers swarmed around some of them grinning surf break smiles with perfect teeth while volume jousting for our attention — A Filipina, An American ex-pat and myself. They offered to take us back to Saigon, probably a three-hour ride at greater than necessary expense. I said a few things in Vietnamese to them and started walking, which is a bargaining tactic if you think someone is overcharging. Not the nicest thing to do in Western countries, probably not in Vietnam, but it works and Vietnamese men in the motorbike profession know how the game is played. One man on a noticeably low-riding Honda Wave idled next to me as I walked. I smiled, but kept moving until he started saying “Xe buyt, xe buyt,” which means “bus”.


I stopped and looked back at the Filipina and the American. Her hair shone like dark honey in the sun. She was growing testy, and repeatedly told them in broken Vietnamese that she did not speak Vietnamese well, and that she wanted a bus. The American held congress with his phone and ignored the drivers. I turned to the driver who’d mentioned buses and asked him the cost to get to the station. He said it would be ten thousand VND, or about 40 cents USD, for the quick ride over. The sun was raising hell all around so I quickly accepted and hopped on back. Streaks of sun-smacked red covered his hat, as if it had been left next to a hatched fence for weeks. His hair erupted underneath in clumps leaping like crab legs. He drove fast.


I had just finished paperwork to secure a Vietnamese Work Visa when the Filipina and the American sat down near me at an oddly constructed glass table — the kind of table you’d expect to find in a hippie den, all glass and under-shelving that prevented close proximity to the table. Earlier, I’d rushed re-entry paperwork while just over the border in Cambodia in an attempt to get ahead. I felt tired and worn down, and the American man would not stop talking about teaching, which is what most ex-pat teachers talk about out here when they meet on the way to and from places. Talk began again. The American ex-pat explained that he taught 25-minute English classes online to children in China through a website I failed to write down while the Filipina woman filled out both of their forms. He was a pasty man with a pewter dragon pendant around his neck and a metal bracelet of a similar design. He wore a loose Acapulco shirt and sported some impressive facial and arm acne. The woman appeared to be several months pregnant. They ate instant noodles while we waited for the paperwork to process.


I looked outside of the small office and watched several dogs slowly lope around shaded areas. This was it, I thought. The end of nearly six months of paperwork and short hellish moments of extragalactic despair dealing with many rules that seemed too old-fashioned to be real. I sipped  bottled water and freely sweated in the heat. For most Vietnamese it has been and will be much, much harder to get a Visa for work or travel in America, so any sense of complaint from my end is short-lived. After a few minutes the two Vietnamese officials manning the station handed us back our passports and my stamped and signed paperwork and we shook them under the hot sun to facilitate the ink-drying process and walked back towards the road to Saigon where the motorbikes taxis swarmed.


So, we rode at impressive speed to a makeshift bus station with people lounging on chairs or in hammocks just out of the violent reach of the 3 pm sun. I paid the driver, and he nodded approval with ancient Opabinian energy. We made to mount a bus with local service to Saigon, which would have taken at least four hours, when a Vietnamese man with a charcoal Fortuner offered a ride back. The ride took less than two hours at speeds exceeding 100 km/hr, which is fast for Vietnamese roads. He seemed to know all the speed traps and only slowed a few times, right before the tan uniforms and white helmets of the highway police appeared aside the roadway.


I knew the speed because I noticed the American was using a GPS App to track the travel, so I asked him about it. We got to talking despite my prickish mood and wound up having rather good conversations. At some point we stopped and a shoeless Vietnamese man hopped in the way back next to me and promptly fell asleep curled like a great fearless creature from millions of years ago. The kind of man who maintains a stately, stoic presence no matter his profession. A bit later we stopped again and he got out and started walking towards a small cafe, still barefoot, carrying a bag of energy drinks he must have stowed before getting in.


For the rest of the ride, some Canadian post-rock hummed in the ears like a hut full of gnawing ocelots. The end of my twenties in sight, and hopefully a moratorium on persistent patterns of entanglement one should feel free of when passing mid-life. The sunslaked patties slid by smooth and devoid of Americonian stress. The countryside of Vietnam, even in the hot hot heat, is quite beautiful at times. My eyes lazed about the patties and fields and rivers until the outer parts of the city began to take away views of nature. The three of us were dropped off by Tao Dan park in District 1, shook hands and went our ways.