Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Alex and Chickpea Do Southeast Asia: Vietnam is NOT my Facebook friend

Once you land in Vietnam, you realize fairly quickly that you are in a communist country. In the main cities, red flags line the streets. On corners, propaganda-laden billboards and the face of Ho Chi Minh stare down at you. Yet, after a little while, you just view these as just another part of the curious scenes that unfold daily.

For us, the full realization of what it means to live in a communist country didn’t come until we tried to log in to Facebook:

Denied.

It’s true. Without a fake IP address or some other workaround, you can’t access Facebook from within Vietnam.

It wasn’t always this way, which added to our confusion (some businesses proudly displayed Facebook websites). But in 2009, Vietnam began to crack down on Facebook, supposedly because some news events — easily controlled in the state media — began to run viral and, of course, unmanageable.

According to a recent Economist article, the Vietnamese government began another crackdown in late 2010 — just in time for the 11th Communist Party Congress, a five-year meeting among leaders to decide the country’s policy for the next 5 years.

Of course, we didn’t come to Vietnam to spend a day on the computer, stalking our friends back home. I would’ve liked to send a few messages to friends with birthdays and Chickpea had some addresses for postcards in her inbox, but it wasn’t anything major. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese aren’t so lackadaisical:

Internet-savvy Vietnamese quickly Googled solutions, shared them, and then used their blocked Facebook profiles to voice their annoyance at the Facebook block. One English-speaking city-dweller phrased their collective spirit succinctly: “FUCK YOU GOVERNMENT DON’T YOU HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO THAN BLOCK FACEBOOK”.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Alex and Chickpea Do Southeast Asia: The Night Bus from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

First, your hostel proprietor gives you wrong time for the bus.

Well, not necessarily the wrong time for the bus, but the wrong time for the mini-van to come pick you up and take you to the actual bus. After some frantic calls, you finally get to the bus terminal — a small, nondescript storefront with two huge buses in front. You wait. As people of various nationalities rush around you, asking worried questions and receiving no answers from the Cambodian bus operators, you start to wonder if you’re at the right place. After all, there is more than one night bus that leaves from Siem Reap.

You shove your $24 ticket at someone who looks like he drives the bus, or at least has ridden it before. He points to one of the buses. Inside the seats are numbered. A girl agrees to switch with you so you can sit by your girlfriend (the guy who booked your tickets didn’t make sure of that). That girl is headed to a different city (Sihanoukville) and you’re a little nervous that this might not be the correct bus. But when you ask, there is no definite answer.

The bus is a little larger than a Greyhound and has comfortable multi-colored blankets on the seats for you to use, which is great because the bus is freezing. Despite the seemingly unorganized nature of the whole affair, the bus leaves right at midnight. You settle down to sleep, occassionally adjudsting your blanket or peering out of the windows.

At 6 a.m., you arrive in Phnom Penh and the bus driver empties everyone into the parking lot of a small, outdoor bus station. “Wait here,” the driver says and then he’s gone. Your fellow passengers look confused too, heads darting back and forth, looking for any indication of where the connecting bus may be. So we all wait together under a tin awning. Several times, men come by asking where we’re going. When we answer, “Ho Chi Minh City” they say “OK, OK” and walk away.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Alex and Chickpea Do . . . Southeast Asia?

It’s true. Right now, Chickpea is on her way to Thailand — I’ll join her at the end the week — for a whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia. And I do mean whirlwind. Between January 19 and February 6, we’ll visit the traffic-clogged, neon-lit, pagoda-stuffed skyline of Bangkok, Thailand; the ancient and mysterious temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia; enjoy a few days of R&R on the beaches of Vung Tau, Vietnam; battle motorbikes and stuff ourselves silly with pho in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and wrap up in Vietnam’s burgeoning capital of Hanoi before flying back to Seoul.

Visiting other Asian locales is a large part of an EFL teacher’s overseas stay. If you ask 10 English teachers why they came to Korea, nine will list “travel” as one of the reasons.

We’re no different. So we’re using our 2-week winter vacation to see three countries we’ve watched countless travel shows about: Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Consequently, there will not be any new posts until the second week of February. But check back here for a series of posts about our travels, including how to find the cheapest plane tickets and navigating visas to what fried tarantula tastes like.