Wednesday, February 29, 2012

hamster roulette

Governments are evil. As soon as people start enjoying something the government passes a law that makes it illegal. They take all the fun stuff away from their people. Alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, you name it. Alcohol for example is illegal in countries like Sweden or Saudi Arabia. That's right: Sweden. Ever tried to buy a bottle of wine in Sweden on a Sunday? You can't, since the government controlled system bolaget stores are not allowed to open on a Sunday to sell you a bottle of Bordeaux. In Saudi Arabia it will be impossible on the other six days of the week as well. Minor details. Some countries even go so far that they won't allow you to drive your car as fast as it possibly can on its motorways.
Now, the Vietnamese love gambling. Guess what? It's illegal in Vietnam! Now lucky enough there are usually loopholes to find your way around the law to get what you want. In Sweden you can go to a pub or a restaurant on a Sunday and order a bottle of red (let me know if you find out how to order a pint in Saudi Arabia...). And if you want to test the speed limits of your car all you have to do is to drive it across the border to Germany and off you go. The same goes for gambling in Vietnam. Cross the border into Cambodia and the first thing you encounter on the other side is a casino. But there are also other ways of bending the law and bet your money within the country. On a bus ride from the Cambodian border to Saigon, our bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. There was a passenger terminal of the bus company with a food court and outside the terminal was a small fairground with a stage and some booths selling food and drinks.
And then there was hamster roulette. A big round table that had a lower section with a smaller diameter and doors around it with numbers on them. In the middle of the table there was a bucket upside down that had a rope attached to it. The rope went straight up, around a roll and down to a bloke standing besides the table. People started to place their bets on the numbers around the table. We are talking dong, millions of them. Once the bets were placed the bloke next to the table would pull the string and the bucket would lift up. Under the bucket was a hamster. The hamster started running to the edge of the circle. It picked a door and took the exit. The lucky person who bet his money on that particular door won. The next morning in Saigon I bought ten buckets. I'm going to open a casino.

What gambling is to Vietnam, are late nights of drinking in bars to landlocked Laos. There's a curfew. All pubs and bars have to close at 11.30 pm so that the customers can be at their registered home or hotel by midnight. There's one exception though: bowling alleys. The party goes on in bowling alleys until the early morning. Also, there is a law in Laos that forbids foreigners to have sexual intercourse with locals, unless they are married. I am not sure if there is an exception if you do it in a bowling alley, though...
I left the Kingdom of Cambodia a day later than originally planned. It was Tet, as Chinese New Year is called in Vietnam, and according to my "travel agent" who had his "office" set up on a street corner in Kep there was no transport on New Years Day. So I had to spend another day eating crab with Kampot pepper before crossing the border to Vietnam...
the "office" of my travel agent, Mr. Pharis in Kep

Hatien Vegas, first stop in Cambodia for the Vietnamese

good bye, Cambodia, last casino before the border

good morning, Vietnam

gambling room in the independence palace in Saigon, 70s style,
the president was a gambler, too.

I left Kep in the morning and four buses, several Mekong delta crossings and a hamster roulette break later got into Ho Chi Minh City a.k.a. Saigon when it was almost midnight. I had my first pho straight away from a street food stall. I thought I had seen mad traffic in many places I've been to before, but Saigon is just mental. You can't see the street for the mopeds. The Tet celebrations were to continue for days to come. Since 2012 is the year of the Dragon, the city had dragons installed in many locations and every moped in HCMC was on its way to one or another dragon. Chúc mừng năm mới - Happy new year!

Moped madness, Saigon
Happy Year of the Dragon!

Vietnam telecom. surprisingly it works.
Before leaving Saigon I went to see the Cao Dai temple at Thay Ninh. Cao Dai is a religion that mixes concepts of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, blends it with a dash of Hinduism (Brahma, Shiva and Krishna are sitting on the temple's roof) and honours a wild bunch of saints and holy spirits including Victor Hugo, Jesus, Shakespeare, Buddha, Jeanne d'Arc, Mohammed, Napoleon, Descartes, Churchill, Lenin and Tolstoi. If religion is a buffet, this is it. That's me in the corner, choosing my religion...

prayer time, Cao Dai temple
Prayer time is four times a day: 6 a.m., noon, 6 p.m. and midnight and this is what it sounds like.

Cao Dai temple, Tay Ninh
On the way back to Ho Chi Minh City we stopped at the tunnels of Cu Chi. During the Vietnam war the Viet Cong guerrillas built a network of more than a hundred kilometres of tunnels that served as routes for supplies, homes and even hospitals underground. It was probably due to these tunnels and the booby traps built around the area that Vietnam became a war the U.S. troops could not win. Some of the tunnels have been restored and can be visited. We were told that they have been somewhat enhanced in size (so that over-sized tourists fit) but they are still very claustrophobic and get narrower and narrower as you crawl through the tunnels for the final exit (there are several exits before that just in case you panic...).   

wrong door. booby trap, bamboo spike version.

Cu Chi tunnels: I am disappeared

Claustrophobic Cu Chi tunnels

No comments: