Monday, July 25, 2011

Ha Long Bay (July 15-17, 2011)

Ha Long Bay View
It was a hokey tour, but the place is enchanting.  After watching the movie Indochine, Ha Long Bay became a “must-see” place on my bucket list. I looked into trying to get there via train to Haiphong, but realized I would still be a great distance from where I wanted to be.  So, the simplest solution (and cheapest) was to book a tour.  All hotels in Hanoi offer such tours and after talking with Giang at the Thu Giang hotel, I signed up for a $65, two night tour.  The first night was sleeping on a boat (junk) out on the water and the second night in what was to be a hotel in Cat Ba Island.  It was a good deal and the place is enchanting, especially in the fog and even in the rain.  I would expect it to be nice in the sunshine too, but I didn’t get to experience that.  

I always take a photo of my bus
to make sure I get on the right one!

The trip began early on a Friday morning as I was picked up by the tour company and hauled my stuff off into a minibus.  Soon, the bus was packed with people going to experience Ha Long Bay.  Of course, there is not just one mini-bus with 30 plus people heading east, but hundreds of mini-buses crowding the highways east of Hanoi!  Sitting next to me was the father of a Korean family (the wife and daughter sat in the seats in front of us).  We talked a few minutes, until we ran out of English.  He taught me a few basic Vietnamese words.  His Vietnamese vocabulary consisted of six words, about the same number as I knew, except that all mine were food related and his words were relational.  How (mhieu), thank you (cam on), I’m sorry (sin loi) and hello (sin chao).  I showed him photos of my family and he introduced me to his wife and daughter and after we got to Ha Long Bay, I never saw them again!  As we got out of the bus, we were divided up like sheep and goats, based on what kind of trip we had signed up for.  Some were down just for the day, others for one night and others of us for multiple nights.  Some of us were staying on a boat for the night, others staying in hotels.  It is amazing how the tour guides kept up with everyone as you are often moved from one group to another based on your tour and the needs of the tour group.

My junk for a day and night...
After the great divide, I was marched off with a new group of people onto one of the hundreds of junks waiting at the docks around Ha Long City.   We stowed our luggage on the boat and sat down for lunch.   On my boat was a Swiss family (I didn’t ask about their surname, figuring that if it was Robinson, it might be a bad omen), a couple girls from Germany, three guys from Great Britain, another couple from Great Britain who’d been teaching at an English school in Bangkok, two guys from Texas (Alan will be attending law school at Notre Dame in the fall), a guy and girl from Argentina and a guy from Chili who was linked at the hip to the girl from Argentine, and a few others.  Joining us was the tour guide, the cook, the captain (he looked about 16) and a deck hand (he looked to be about 12).   We motored slowly out into the bay as we were fed lunch.  The highlight of the trip was the food—it was all good with the exception of breakfast on the boat which consisted of a fried egg and four slices of (untoasted) white bread.  

After lunch, we joined in with half the population of northern Vietnam who just happened to be visiting Hang Sung Sot or “Surprise Cave” at the same time as we were there.  The cave would have been truly spectacular had there not been more people at one time underground in that cave than in all of New York’s Subways.  The hoards of people were rushed through as our guide, who had a vivid imagination, pointed to the likeness of all kinds of animals in the formations.  Somehow, it all centered on dragons and turtles with an elephant and a bride and groom thrown into a mix that supposedly related to the prehistoric legends of Vietnam’s creation. 
The highlight of the cave tour wasn’t underground.  It was getting on and off the boats!  The boats dropped off their passengers at one dock and then moved to the other dock where they picked up their passengers after making it through the cave.  This wouldn’t have been a problem except that there were more boats in the water around the cave than there had been around Normandy on D-day (we just didn’t have people shooting at us).  It was all one massive game of “bumper boat” as they jockeyed for position by pushing other boats around.  It’s amazing that with all the bumping and ramming, a boat doesn’t sink or (more likely) a deckhand looses and arm or leg.  It was a delightful mess to watch!

After the caves, we were taken to a fish farm (I’d seen enough fish farm already), but there we also got to kayak.  According to the brochure, it was to be for an hour and a half, but since we were running late we only got 45 minutes, which was enough to paddle through some caves which was pretty neat.   As the odd man out, I was by myself (every other else was paired up) and one of the few who had any idea how to do this.  George, the guy who’d been teaching in Thailand, asked me, “I bet you do this for fun, don’t you.” 
When the time was up, we were back on our boat and, after dropping some people off on Cat Ba Island (they had signed up for a tour with accommodations on land), we putted out into the bay and dropped anchor.  We were told we had a hour to swim before dinner and most of us made the best of it, jumping off the top of the boat into the water below, trying not to land on a jelly fish (there were a few that we spotted).  Afterwards, we had a nice seafood dinner with octopus and fish and a delicious mango salad among other treats. 
I was supposed to share a berth with another passenger, but somehow there wasn’t a room for me and they ended up sticking me in a bunk room with the three guys from Great Britain, which was okay, but not what I’d paid for.  As compensation, the next day cancelled my bar bill which included all of one beer and one bottle of water.  Had I know that was the deal, I’d brought a round for the house. 
After dinner, the cook turned up the music so loud that I retreated up on the top deck…  The bass must have been all the way up for the boat just shook.  Others in the group, like the Swiss family, headed to their berths to escape the throbbing beat.    
“Isn’t it nice out here,” the tour guide said as he joined me on the upper deck and pulled out a cigarette.
I shook my head, acknowledged that it was, as I peered into the dark fog that was soon to be supplemented with smoke.
“I really like it out here on the water,” he continued.  “It’s so quiet and peaceful.”
“Did you say what I thought you said?” I asked, shouting over the music.
A little while later, the music was turned down a notch.  I expect the tour guide said something to the cook, but it had started raining and I was tired, so I headed to bed early and was asleep before ten.  It rained all night, at times hard.
The tower at the top of Tetanus Trail
The next morning the rain had stopped and I was up early, doing some writing and watching the morning light make its way through the fog.  Then, after our fine breakfast with an abundance of white bread, the South American contingent and I were taken to the docks at Cat Ba Island (we were on the two night tour) while the rest were taken back to the main dock for their trip back to Hanoi.   There, we were mixed up with a bunch of other people and taken to the Cat Ba National Park where we got to climb 330 meters in the fog, to a sight that would have truly been amazing if we had more than a 100 meters of visibility.  Instead, we all risked tetanus and got incredibly muddy for the satisfaction of knowing we were at the high point on the island.  The trail was steep and in many places steel ladders and rails had been installed.  But since this is a jungle and it rains and is foggy all the time and the steel didn’t happen to be stainless (nor had it been galvanized or even painted), we climbed ladders and held on to rails that had rusted out and left jagged edges.  I renamed it the “Tetanus Trail”.   The highlight of the climb was the guide, who spoke absolutely no English but was the most helpful guides I’ve come across.  He ran up and down that mountain, keeping up with everyone, all while pointing out things in nature.  At the top of the mountain, as we waited everyone to arrive, he showed me how to make a whistle out of a leaf.  Tipping isn’t always done in this part of the world, but I decided that he deserved one.
After we got down from the mountain, all soaking wet, we were taken to Cat Ba Town.  On the tour bus there, we were told that we had the afternoon free.  If we wanted a nice beach where we could lie out or swim, there was an optional trip to Monkey Island.  But at that point, the heavens opened and didn’t look to be slowing down at any time soon.  I don’t think any of us went to the island.  Instead, we had a great lunch and I took a nap and wrote some in the afternoon and, getting cabin fever (and once the rain slowed to a drizzle), walked around the harbor (Cat Ba Town is basically a fishing village).  Dinner was also good.  At night, the Vietnamese who’d come to the island for vacation was out partying.  I walked around and had the honor of having one of the local pimps try to set me up.
“Where are you going, you want a xo em?” a guy on a motorbike asked as he pulled up beside of me.
“No thanks, I’m just walking,” I answered. 
“You want a girl, right,” he asked, showing his pimp strips. 
“No,” I said, continuing to walk. 
He followed me, telling me about the nice girls he could provide. 
“No,” I said again, this time forcefully. 
“What you have against girls,” he asked. 
I started to explain that I have nothing against girls, but then realized I didn’t need to provide an explanation to a pimp, nor did I need to be polite, and told him to get lost.
The next morning, my roommate, the guy from Argentina, was up early trying to find the South American Soccer finals on TV.  Argentine was playing Uruguay.  Unable to find it on TV, I lent him my computer so that he could keep up with what was happening and went for a walk, watching the fishermen bring in their catches to the wharfs.  Afterwards, we had a great breakfast, followed by a crowded mini-bus ride across the island.  At the docks on the other side, we were put on another boat with more people we didn’t know.  As we rode across the bay to Ha Long City, I sat up top, soaking up the little sun that was trying to break through the fog.  There, talking to Marie, I learned that my trip could have been worse. 
As we were sitting on the launch to take us to the junk that would take us back the Ha Long City, a number of us were talking and two of us realized we were both from North Carolina (and both had James Taylor on our ipods).  As we talked, Marie entered the launch, saying “it’s good to hear English spoken.”  She then said something about the “trip from hell.”   On the junk back across the bay, she was in the deck chair next to mine on the upper deck.  As we “sunned” under a foggy sky, she told me the full story.  Marie, a tall freckled redhead from Seattle, is living in Hanoi and has a two year contract to teach interior design at a local college.  She has only been in the city for a little over a month and this was her first weekend escape.  Unlike the rest of us, she had done her research and signed up for a tour on a particular boat.  But, as they were dividing the sheep and goats at Ha Long City, she got put onto another boat, one that consisted of a Vietnamese family who’d gathered for a reunion.  The only other non-family member (outside the crew) was a Korean college student who spoke little English.  “They were nice,” she said, but not being a part of the family, the two of them were left out.  Marie was on a one night tour, and the afternoon was mostly rained out.  Their kayaking had been cancelled due to lightning; the swim in the bay was also cancelled. 
After we arrived at the docks, a new guide (my fourth, if I counted correctly) led us across the street to a restaurant where we had another wonderful meal.  Then we were loaded back onto mini-buses.  Marie and I sat together talking about living in Vietnam, her work (before the economy tanked, she had a job designing the interiors of yachts, which in my book ranks up there with a mattress tester as an ideal job), politics (even here, the American debt crisis is a topic) and church (she’s very active and a good friend with her Catholic priest in Seattle).  On the way back to the city, as we had done on the way out, we had a 20 minute bathroom stop at a place where they sold handicrafts and snacks. Not being interested in the high price crafts, I brought a package of ten post cards for 20,000 dong ($1) and an ice cream bar for 10,000 dong (50 cents).  Such was my contribution for a clean bathroom and free toilet paper.
As I said, Ha Long Bay is an enchanting place.  Leave it to tour companies to transform the enchanting to hokey.  Some things are universal.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hue and the Reunification Express to Hanoi (July 12-14, 2011)

Tracks in Hue, south of the Perfume River
I thought the earth would never stop shaking.  I ran over the unsettled ground and grabbed my daughter from the porch of a strange house..  The house was shaken to splinters with the vibration, the siding and the sheetrock falling away from the splitting studs.  When I saw there was no insulation, it donned on me why the house had always been either hot or cold (a funny thing to recall in the midst of an earthquake).  Caroline and I held each other until finally the ground stopped shaking.  I never imaged that an earthquake could last so long, but once it stopped shaking, we ventured out see if everyone was okay.  Donna was in another unfamiliar house, across the street and was helping someone put back dishes that had fallen out of the cabinets.  Then the earth started shaking again and the plates kept falling, this time breaking as they fell.  I said something about it being an after-shock and woke up, realizing it had all been a dream.  The train was jerking on some rough track (perhaps going through a yard with a lot of switches which tend to be rough).  It was 2 AM and we were a two hours south of Hanoi.
I’d come into Hue with Toan at noon on Tuesday (July 12).  One of my earliest memories of the evening news coverage of the war in Vietnam was the fighting around Hue during the Tet Offensive.  The North Vietnamese were quick to take most of the city, raising their flag over the Citadel and isolating two small units (one an American and the other a South Vietnamese unit).  Reinforcements were quickly sent up from Da Nang and for the next two weeks, a bloody battle ensued.  The fighting was intense and close range as they fought house to house and block by block.  Once the city was retaken, it was learned that the northern soldiers had come into the city with a list of names of people believed to be supportive of the South.  In all, over 3,000 Hue residents were rounded up and executed (a story not shared in any of the museums I visited, but then the victor gets to write history). 
From the back moat looking forward
After lunch on the edge of Hue, we crossed the Perfume River.  Unlike most jungle rivers that tend to be brown or red with silt, the waters of the Perfume looked pristine.  We rode on into the city and found my hotel where we dropped off my bags.  Then we headed to the Citadel, a massive fortress on the other side of the Perfume River in which the Imperial City sits.  The old fort is impressive.  The outer walls are 10 kilometers in length.  The fortress was built in the early 19th Century, some of it with the help of the French who were trying to weasel their way into Vietnam by appeasing the emperor.  There is a huge battery in front of the fortress upon which waves the largest Vietnamese flag in country.  I have no way of verifying if it is the largest (that’s what Toan said) but it’s huge, about as large as those flags that used to fly over our gas stations as oil companies showed their faux-patriotism while creating a traffic distractions.   This large flag can be seen from most places within the old imperial city and serves as a visual reminder that the emperor is no more!  Further supporting this idea is the missing “Forbidden City,” the inner city where the emperor lived and ruled.  These palaces were made mostly of wood and burned in 1947.  The area saw further destruction in the 1968 Tet Offensive, when the flag of the north flew over the Citadel for a few days. 
Restoration work
Today, some of the buildings as well as the impressive gateways have been restored and more work is ongoing.  The various walls with their graceful arched gates and numerous lily-filled moats create a special feel about the place and I enjoyed my time wandering around.  I spent two hours there, but could have spent the whole day as the city is massive!

After visiting the Imperial City, I had Toan drop me off by the train station.  I paid him and we said our goodbyes.  I was sad to see him go as we’d had a great time together; however, my butt offered a dissenting opinion as it happily saw the bike take off without us.   Knowing that I needed to be in Beijing by a particular date and afraid that the trains are filling up, I’d hoped I could buy a ticket from Hanoi to Beijing, but was disappointed to learn that I could only buy that ticket in Hanoi (and would have to show my passport with a valid Chinese visa when purchasing it).  Even if I could have brought the ticket, the hotel had my passport (a requirement that many hotels enforce in Vietnam, as they have to be report to the police nightly all foreigners—and maybe even nationals—who are lodging there).  So, empty handed, I walked back to the hotel, staying close to the river and trying to avoid the pestering xe om’s who wanted to give me a ride or set me up with a girl.   Instead, by the river, I had a string of women boat operators trying to sell me a tour on the Perfume River.  I really wasn’t interested and was wanting to get back for dinner, but one of the women who’d started out offering an hour river trip for 300,000 dong (about $15), dropped the price all the way to 80,000 dong (about $4).  It would have been a deal, as it would have been a “private tour.”  Seeing the boat, which was about 50 feet long and could carry at least 30 people, I had to shake my head as I can’t believe she and her husband would have made anything on such a trip. 
For dinner on Tuesday night, I ate spring rolls and a bowl of noodles with pork.  Later that evening, I had a long discussion over a beer with a retired professor.  We discussed our favorite authors.  He likes Hemingway and we talked about the Nick Adam stories and my fishing on the Two-Hearted and Fox Rivers.  Both of us agreed that The Old Man and the Sea was his classic, a book that was translated in the Viet language before 1975.  We also briefly touched on For Whom the Bells Toll and the American experiences in foreign civil wars.
I was glad to talk with this professor (I am purposely omitting his name).  As one who had devoted his life to academics, he understood where my questions were coming.  I told him about the “Lost Cause Movement” in the American South around the end of the 19th Century.  Noting it had been about the same amount of time in Vietnam since the fall of the South, I wondered if a similar movement had developed.  He didn’t think so (although other books I’ve read have suggested that there is disillusionment among many of the Southern Viet Cong who feel betrayed by the North).  First of all, he inserted, Vietnam is a socialist country in name only.  Then he presented an interesting idea.  “America,” he said, “won in 1973.  You got what you wanted, a way out.”  “The North,” he suggested, “won in 1975.”   They got a unified country.  And in the 1990s, with the movement away from socialism to a capitalistic economy, the South won.  He then shared with me an article by James Kurth, “The U. S. Victory in Vietnam: Lost and Found,” that he felt confirmed his ideas about the aftermath of the war. 
I think he may be right as the South is doing much better economically now and this makes Vietnam different from the American experience.  After the Civil War in America, the South, which was economically inferior before the war, was destroyed.  In Vietnam, the South had better infrastructure before the end of the war and because the fall of the South was so quick, there wasn’t as much of the massive Sherman-like destruction that laid waste to wide swaths of land.  However, because of the Christmas bombings of 1972, the North was in worst shape and needed more rebuilding.  In the 1990s, as economic restrictions were liberalized, the South was in a better position to capitalize.  Interestingly, on the train from Hue to Hanoi, I met several guys who were from the north, but had gone south to find employment and were going to home to visit.
The professor then said that his country had to put the past behind them and raised a concern that was beginning to sound like a broken record: China’s dominance of the South China Seas off of Vietnam’s shores.  Vietnam is trying build its navy (someone had told me they’ve recently purchased six submarines from Russia), but it doesn’t have the money to build a sufficient fleet to challenge China and to protect its long coastline.   Vietnam has a long history of struggling with China (they last fought in the late 70s, when China sought to punish Vietnam for ending the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia).  The Vietnamese have always been suspicious of the Chinese even though the Viet people were probably originally Chinese (but that was more than a few years ago).

Reading (a guidebook) at the Temple of Literature

On June 13th, with a little over half a day free, I hired a xe om driver for the morning to take me to a few sites around Hue.  We stopped at the Temple of Literature, where I was the only tourist.  Such an experience doesn’t speak well for the written word!  The temple was a place where students of Confucianism would take exams to determine if they were ready for civil service.

Thiem Mu Pogada

Next, we stopped at the Thien Mu Pagoda, a Buddhist site that was known for its opposition to Colonial powers and to South Vietnam’s anti-Buddhist policies in the early 60s.  In 1963, a monk from this monastery drove to Saigon, drenched himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in opposition to these policies.  The photo of his burning was seen all over the world and provided a foretaste of what was to come from Vietnam.   The car he drove to Saigon is now kept at the site as well as photographs of the monk.  According to my guide book, the pagoda is still a thorn in the side of the government as it still protests against policies deemed unfair.  There were lots of monks milling around, but they were mostly boys (many didn’t even look to be in their teens).  I couldn’t see them being much of a threat to the government.  The pagoda, however, is beautiful.  It sits on a bluff overlooking the Perfume River. 
After the pagoda, we headed to some bunkers the xe om knew that had been built by the American soldiers during the war.  There were three bunkers that overlooked the Perfume River, west of the city, and a road that led into town.  They had been closed off, but you could walk around them.  Although interesting, the view of the river from the cliff was stunning.
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped for lunch and had fresh spring rolls (they are steamed, not deep fried) and a vegetable pancake with peanut sauce along with a glass of carrot/ginger juice.  Once back at the guesthouse, I spent my remaining two hours completing my blog post on Phnom Penh.  At 2 PM, the proprietor’s daughter gave me a lift to the train station on the back of her motor scooter.  I was ready to head north (the train was scheduled for 2:45 PM).
While waiting for the train, I was talking to some kids when a Vietnamese man approached and asked where I was from.  It’s one of the questions I get asked a lot, but generally by those whose English isn’t very good as this guy’s.  His English was flawless. 
“America,” I said. 
“But where?” He asked. 
“Michigan,” I said. 
“You don’t sound like you’re from Michigan,” he said.
It turns out this man has lived in Raleigh, North Carolina for the past 20 years and knew a Carolina accent when he heard one!  We talked for a while.  Although he’d left Vietnam decades ago (he started out in New York State before going to North Carolina, he now comes back and spends a few months in the country each year (He says he can pay for his airfare by the cheap cost of living here).  He has a daughter who lives in Hue and she and his grandchildren, along with his wife, were at the station to pick up his other daughter.  She also lives in Raleigh and had flown into Saigon and was taking the train north to visit.  Sometimes the world seems to be a small place.
On the train, I talked some to the family in the bunk below me.  They were both from the north, but working in the South and were going home for vacation, taking with them their two children (ages 2 and 4).  Unlike my previous Vietnam train, these kids (one with his dad and the other with his mom) fit in their parent’s bunk.  The other guy in the compartment never said a word (not even when we woke him to tell him we were in Hanoi and the train was emptying).  Instead, he spent his waking hours grading some math test papers!  I spent some time writing. 
As I had no desire to return to the dining car, when the train stopped for servicing at Quang Tri, I got off in search of food.  I purchased a large bowl of instant noodles (bun pho or beef noodles) and a can of beer for 40,000 dong or about $2).  Each car has a boiling water dispenser and I filled my bowl with water and, since I was on the top bunk, sat on a plastic chair in the walkway and ate my dinner.  As I was eating, a man in the compartment behind me struck up a conversation.  He was coming back from a holiday in Saigon (even though he worked for the government, he always referred to the city by its French name and not Ho Chi Minh City).  His name is Soon (it’s spelled that way but has a funny curly-cue over the second vowel).   He is a year younger than me and works in foreign affairs in Hanoi.  He has taken the train to Beijing many times, as well as into North Korea.  His area of expertise is China and Korea and he said he’s fluent in Korean and knows some Chinese.  We shared family photos and talked about many things, including the threat of China in the South China Seas, and the fact that we’re both blessed by being born late enough to miss out on the Vietnam War.  He has a daughter that is currently a university student and his wife runs a small store.
At 9 PM, everyone in my compartment had gone to bed and I decided I’d better do the same as the train was due into Hanoi at 4 AM.
The train on left is a "hard seat"(3rd Class) non-air conditioned train
The one of the right is my train

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Ho Chi Minh Trail (July 11-12, 2011)

The rain came in waves, blowing across the highway.  Lightning flashed around us and the thunder clap was heard just moments later.  Rubber and cinnamon trees waved wildly while leaves blew across our path. Toan slowed the bike down in order to maintain control. We could hardly see and although we were both wearing full rain suits, we weren’t exactly dry.  But for the first time since leaving my air conditioned room in Hoi An, I wasn’t hot.  With the wind and the speed of the bike, the rain was quite chilly. 
We were traveling on the Ho Chi Minh Trail when the storm hit.  Vietnam 14, the official name for the road that is called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, runs just east of the Laos border in the steep mountains of western Vietnam.  The original Ho Chi Minh Trail was a web of dirt paths (with bomb craters) that crept down both sides of the border, but road that bears the trail’s name is now paved.  At least that’s the intention, but with the mountains being so steep and there’s always a few sections “washed out.”
 Growing up in the late 1960s and early 70s, I’d never dreamed that one day I’d be traveling on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  These mountains were a thorn in the side of the American forces in Vietnam, who certainly weren’t welcomed in these hills at the time.  Trying everything to block the flow of weapons and supplies to the communist forces fighting in the south, the American military dropped an unimaginable tonnage of bombs on these mountains.  It’s amazing that the place isn’t flat, but having seen what they were bombing, I can see why the bombing was so ineffective.  These are steep hills.  The region is still sparsely populated, mostly by ethnic minorities who eke out a poverty existence by farming the hillsides and grazing cattle (like the American West, this is open range country) and a handful of government and military personnel who are stationed along the border.
I’d met Toan through a Vietnamese Presbyterian pastor that a friend of mine at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary had introduced (via email) to me.  This pastor also manages a Vietnamese “Easy Rider”company that takes tourist on motorcycle trips around the countryside.  When I realized that I wasn’t going to get a ticket for Hanoi for a few days (the trains are all filled due to Vietnamese vacationers), I decided to check into the possibility of such a trip.  Toan had just finished taking someone through the Central Highlands, from DeLat to De Nang.  As he had planned to be at his mother’s home north of Hue in a few days (his family was gathering on the one year anniversary of his father’s death), it worked out for him to pick up a couple more days of work.  Essentially he was taking me from Hoi An to Hue in a “roundabout way” as we easily tripled the distance map quest would have plotted (a fact of which my butt continually reminded me). 
By Vietnamese standards, Toan’s bike was big.  It was a 150 cc Taiwanese bike.  Many of the bikes in Vietnam are Russian or Chinese.  Toan complained that they were always breaking down and were not as powerful as the Taiwanese bike, although he had his eye on a 175 cc Japanese bike.   Even though it was big for Vietnam, with two riders and gear, it struggled up the mountain roads with grades often greater than 10 percent (one sign indicated a 16% grade)

Toan met me at the hotel a little after 8 AM on July 11th (my brother’s birthday).  We packed up the bike, which didn’t look quite so large with all our packs strapped on.  Along the way, Toan stopped at a pottery and tile factory (more like a home workshop).  They weren’t doing any work with the clay, but the kilns were being fired (with wood) and it was interesting.  Then we headed on to a Cham temple that was built in the 11th Century, when the Cham people were still Hindu.  They later converted to Islam.  This brick temple showed signs of the war with chunks of it having been taken out by bullets.  Next we stopped by a place where they made rice paper.  A soupy rice batter is made and then is steamed over boiling water, and then it’s transferred to a screen where it dries.  The “paper” is used in making wrappings for spring rolls.     
I want to go out in a hearse like this!
Our final stop for the morning, as we headed toward the mountains, was at a Cao Dai temple.  This relatively new religion was founded in the Mekong delta in the 1920s by a civil servant working for the French.  However, the religion was anti-colonial even though one of their “saints” is the French novelist Victor Hugo and they also adore Joan of Arc, another French icon.  Early in their history, they struggled with their colonial rulers but after the Second World War, they broke with the communist and, with their own army, fought with the French.  Ngo Van Chieu, who founded the faith, sought to blend a number of faiths and draws heavily upon Buddhism, Taoism, Spiritualism and Confucius with elements borrowed from Christianity and Islam.  The structure of their faith is adapted from the Catholic Church and the leader of the faith is known as a pope.  The all-seeing eye (like that on the American dollar) distinguishes their temples.  Graham Greene has them mentioned in a conversation between Fowler and Pyle in his novel, A Quiet American.  The temple is rather gaudy as one might expect with such a blend of faiths and there is no one around to explain anything.  We wander through the temple by ourselves, then Toan (who wants to keep an eye on the bike and our gear) leaves me to explore on my own.  The most interesting sight is the hearse I found sitting in a shed next to the temple and the caskets they have for sale.  For between 50 and 350 dollars, one can get a nice carved wood casket.  Even adding shipping, they’d undercut the prices of the American funeral home industry.

We ate lunch at a road side café next to the road and then gassed up the bike (it only took 5 quarts but Toan said they’re be no gas for a long while).  Afterwards, we took off into the mountains.  As we climbed, the clouds began to build and soon we could hear distant thunder.  For the next hour, somehow we missed the storms, but then, when we were feeling lucky, our luck changed.  Pulling over to the side, we quickly got all our gear covered up, then pulled on our rain suits and set off as rain pellet us.   It would rain for the next couple of hours.  Occasionally there would be downpours; at other times, the skies would let up to a drizzle. 

During one of the drizzles, we stopped at a Ktu Village, one of the many mountain ethnic groups found in this region.  A woman who was building a fire to cook dinner, on a stone hearth that sat on her bamboo floor (the floor was raised) invited us to come in, but we were dripping wet and refused.  The tribe had cows, sheep and goats, grew corn, rice, tapioca, and harvested cinnamon.  Along the edge of the road, they’d laid out pieces of cinnamon to dry (the drying would have to wait another day).  “Cinnamon,” Toan explained, “takes ten years to grow as a tree.  When the tree is cut, they peel the bark, dry it and sell it to dealers; the wood of the cinnamon tree is burned for fuel.”   Most of their rice was grown by “dry farming,” which Toan explained to be a bad practice as they would burn a hillside, stripping it of vegetation and then plant the rice without terracing the hill.  When the rains came, after the rice was harvested, the hillside would erode away.
After visiting the village, we crossed a river and as we climbed out of the valley, we stopped at a Ktu burial site.  They build miniature houses for the remains of their dead and then place inside all sorts of gifts for their ancestors (beer, sodas, cigarettes, fruit and rice).  I’d wondered if I was in the Southwest and, except for the greenery, this place could have been the background for a Georgia O’Keeffe painting as each burial house was adorn with the skull of a cow (actually, a water buffalo).   
Leaving the valley, the trail climbed higher in the mountains and a sign indicated we were in a frontier area.  Laos was just a few kilometers to our left.  The mountains were beautiful and the clouds, which shrouded parts of the mountains, created a mystical feel.  We rode a long ways on a crooked road that hugged the steep mountainside.  At several places mud covered the roadway and once we had to get off and push the bike.  Finally, as the sunset, we dropped out of the mountains and into a beautiful valley , where rice was again grown in paddies.  We left the mountains and drove to the valley town of A loui, where we stayed for the night.   After cleaning up, we headed out for dinner in a local restaurant (rice, vegetables, morning glory, pork chops and fish) along with a Huda beer.  Huda, Toan explains, means “made in Hue.”  For a long time, we talked about Vietnam. Toan, as did many on my trip, expressed concern for China and how they are dominating the sea right off Vietnam’s shores. 

 I was tired and went to sleep shortly after dinner.  The next morning, I am up early and slip out the room at about 5:30 AM, walking through town.  The town isn’t very large, taking me maybe 15 minutes to walk the length of it, but it boosts at least six cell phone stores!  The population has a mix of Viet people along with those of the Ktu and Paco tribes.  I came across several women smoking a small silver pipe, a custom of some of the ethnic minorities.  Almost all the men smoke in Vietnam (and almost always cigarettes), but these were the first women I’d seen lighting up.   In the middle of the town, they were sitting up market and I walked through sampling the wares.  There were all kind of produce for sale as well as bananas and pineapples, ducks and chickens (live, of course), vegetables and household products.  The women came to market with woven packs on their backs which they used to transport their wares for sale or to take their recent purchases back home.

I got back to the hotel around 7:30.  Toan was just getting up.  After catching up with my journal, we went out to breakfast and then loaded the bike for the ride to Hue.  It was only a 65 or so kilometer trip, but it took us all morning as there was lots of road construction where we’d have to wait for machinery to get out of the way.  Along the way, we stopped at a bee farm.  It was amazing that there were 100s of hives in an acre or so, set underneath trees that were being grown for pulp wood.  Three guys were working with the bees.  They used a sugar cane by-product, which they cooked into a paste and then fed to the bees so they didn’t even have to leave their hives to make honey.  I found the honey to be weak and without much flavor.  It was interested in how we could walk through the bee hives without being stung (the guys working there did so without shirts).  We also stopped at a rubber plantation, to see the harvesting of rubber.  It was noon when we got to the outskirts of Hue.  We stopped for lunch, and then rode on into the formerly royal city.

Waiting for a road crew on the way to Hue

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Reunification Express (Saigon to Da Nang) and Hoi An (July 8-11)

Our car attendant
Vietnam is a long and narrow country, making it the perfect place for train service and the “Reunification Express” ties together the country, linking Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon) with Hanoi (or Ha Noi).  It’s not a fast train as much of the line is single tracked and, if you were to do the trip in one leg it would take you two nights and a day.  And, from the viewpoint of those of us in the West, a sleeping birth on an air conditioned train is relatively inexpensive even after recent price increases.  Wanting to see more of the country, I broke my trip into two parts.  I left Saigon at 7:30 PM on my first leg, heading to Da Nang.  Sharing a cabin with me was an American couple from New York (just outside the city) and a Vietnamese woman with her two children—who were six and ten.  The kids and the mother slept together in the same bunk.  The narrow bunks were comfortable for one person, but are not much larger than a cot and I can’t imagine they were comfortable!  There must have been some rule about not having so many on the same bunk, for the car attendant came by and had some heated words with the woman and finally she gave the man a couple 100,000 dong notes (each note is worth about $5).  He stuck them into his pocket and all was well.  I assumed, by letting her slide, he profited well on the trip.
The cabins have electrical outlets, which is a nice.  For a while, I plugged in my laptop and wrote and worked on photographs for my blog.  Then, as everyone in the car was beginning to sleep, I decided to go explore the train.  It was about 9:30 PM.  There was a “dining car” located nine cars ahead of mine and as I started to make my way through the train, I was shocked by the number of people and where they were at.  At the ends of the cars, where one is deafened by the constant clang of the couplings, people were sleeping in folding chairs and on rice mats!  In the coaches, people were sprawled out in the middle of the aisle.  I had to straddle their sprawled body, trying not to step on them, as i made my way through.  Seeing the condition of the coaches, I was ever so glad that I had a berth in a compartment. 
The dining car was another experience.  It was ¾ full of people playing cards and drinking heavily.  The floor was littered with beer cans.  I was greeted warmly by several of the people, although no one seemed to speak fluent English (and, in some of their conditions, I wondered if their Vietnamese was any better).  I got a beer and some chips and sat down and chatted a bit with my fellow travelers and shared photos of my family (I wish I’d brought more photos with me).  Afterwards, as our chat was short as there weren’t a lot to be said, I caught up my journal.  When the beer was gone, I made my way back to my compartment, hopping over those sleeping in the aisle.  My compartment mates were all asleep and I crawled into the bunk and was soon there myself.  Over all it was a good ride, except that the engineer running the train was a little heavy on the brakes and a couple of times it felt as if I might be thrown off the bunk.
The next morning, I was up a little after 5 AM.  As our compartment was on the west side of the train, I went outside the compartment and stood in the hallway that ran on the east side, stretching as I watched the sunrise and viewed the Vietnamese countryside.   At a stop where they serviced the train, I was able to get a cup of coffee and a small loaf of bread for breakfast.   I got to know my neighbors in the bottom bunk.  I’d assumed they were a couple and that she was a few years older than him, but was surprised to learn that she was his mother.  As a teacher, she is traveling a few months in Southeast Asia and he joined her for the second half of her trip.  Like me, they’re planning to get off in Da Nang and going on to Hoi An where they hope to buy clothes (they had measurements for their whole family).   After breakfast (with the other Americans, I have a small French loaf of bread that I brought track-side with the coffee), we share fruit and other food with one another and the family above.  It is at this point that we learn another secret.  They guy in the bunk below had complained even since getting on the train about something that smelled.  The Vietnamese woman, as she was getting food for her to eat, had some of that stinky fruit that you smell here wrapped up in a plastic bag.  When she opened it, it really stunk and soon, the attendant was back in our compartment having harsh words with her (the train is like a lot of hotels in this part of the world, you’re not supposed to bring such fruit inside).  By this point in the trip, I could smell the fruit before I saw it.  But we were gracious and ate some of her fruit (it’s actually not too bad) and her kids enjoyed some of our cookies and other fruit.
The rest of the morning I spend talking with the Americans or reading.  Few of the attendants on this train spoke English and, not having a timetable, we had no idea when we were to get into Da Nang.  Both the guy in the bunk below and I had tried to ask an attendant about our arrival and the attendant pointed to 2 PM on our watches.  Thinking we were going to be late (we were supposed to get in a little after noon), the three of us got food from one of the carts that comes through the cabins from the dining car.  For about 30,000 dong ($1.50), I had rice and chicken and morning glory (a green vegetable that’s popular here).   As soon as we finish eating, we’re told we’re coming into Da Nang.  It’s only a few minutes after noon.  Had I known the train was on time, I would have waited and gotten better food in Hoi An.
Wooden boats at Hoi An

I'd booked myself into the Sunflower Hotel in Hoi An, a place located between the town and the beach (I was less interested in shopping than in going to the beach).  As Hoi An is about an hour south of Da Nang, I had taken up the hotel’s offer (for $14) to send a driver to pick me up.  The couple had a reservation in Hoi An and we, for a bit more, they piled in the car and the driver delivered them to their hotel before taking me to mine.  When I got to my hotel, I was informed there was a power problem in part of the hotel and they asked if I wouldn’t mind being in another hotel for the night, that they would pick me up in the morning.  Although I didn’t like the idea (the pool at the Sunflower was really nice), I also didn’t like the thought of being in a room without a working air conditioner as it was extremely hot.  As it was, I was in an even nicer room for the night (although the pool wasn’t quite as nice).  That afternoon, I walked around town, had some chicken and rice for dinner, and went to bed early only to get up early the next morning and walking around the town again.  I was back and at 8:30, the Sunflower picked me and brought me back to their hotel for breakfast.  Their breakfast buffet was incredible—a single room (you almost always pay double here for a single) cost me $19 a night and included the buffet.  I’ve had buffets in the United States that cost that much and wasn’t nearly as good—with fruit and eggs and omelets cooked to order, seafood noodles, fried rice, pancakes, bread and all the coffee you could drink (the coffee was a real treat cause normally you get just a small cup of very strong coffee).
A friend made at Randy's Bookstore

My first afternoon in town, I walked around to see what was available.   It’s a cute town, with a river that separates it into several halves.  At one time, this was a bristling place and luckily it came out of Vietnam’s long wars pretty much unscathed.  In its early days, there were Chinese and Japanese businesses along with European countries who’d set up shop here.  However, the river silted up early in the 20th Century, which negatively impacted commerce and slowly the city lost out to other ports in Vietnam.   The older part of the town still has the charm of its earlier days with the beautiful Japanese Covered Bridge and the various “Chinese Assembly Halls (each group of Chinese merchants from different cities had their own place to gather for worship and, as in Saigon, the Cantonese hall was the gaudy one).   I enjoyed my walk so much that the next morning I was up at 5 AM, walking around.  I saw the sun rise over the river and went through the market, picking up some bananas, carrots and mangos to have for lunch on the beach.
 There are a lot of tailor shops in Hoi An!  I talked to a few of the tailors (you can get a suit made real cheap here—50 bucks or so—but the cheapest ones also looked it).  I decided to have a suit made by a guy named Bu who manages a tailor shop known as “Chic Couture.”  (I assure you, their suits were classier than their name).  Even there, I went with an “upgraded fabric” and ended up with two suits, one Italian cashmere and the other a heavier wool.  Bu took my measurements and got the coat right on the first try, but had to adjust the pants.  I hate tight fitting clothes and because of my thighs, pants are hard to fit.  After loosening the legs twice, Hu said they better be okay because he was making me a suit and not cargo pants…  My time in Hoi An included a daily stop at the tailors and on the evening before I left the town, I had my suits and two shirts he’d made shipped to a friend in Scotland to hold for me till August when I will pick them up before setting out across the Atlantic on a ship.   Including shipping by airmail, the two suits cost me approximately $280.

sunrise over the river

 My other plan for Hoi An was to rest from my travels and to write as I soaked up the sun on a beach.  Hoi An is blessed to have Cua Dai Beach, a nice strip of unspoiled sand just 5 km away.  The beaches through Central Vietnam are all lovely, with palm trees, white sand and no steep drop offs.  From the Sunflower Hotel, I rented a bike for a buck a day and rode it to the beach numerous times.  The sun was hot in midday, but after lathering on sun screen, it felt good to lay there and listen to the surf and to swim in the warm water.  In the afternoons, it would cloud up and cool off (and occasionally rain, but I was back from the beach by then.  On my second morning in Hoi An, I rode out to the beach for sunrise.   I got to the beach just after the sun came up (I did catch it rising on the river behind the beach) and was surprised to find the whole town there.  The afternoon before there had only been a few Vietnamese on the beach.  On this Sunday morning, the place was crowded.  People were sitting watching the water and the sunrise behind the distant islands while others played soccer and badmiton and a few younger boys threw mud.  The latter didn’t last long, just enough to shower me and a hoard of other sun worshippers with grit.  Their parents immediately sprung into action and, by the tone of their voice, threatened to lock them into tiger cages on Con Dao Island!
Heading back to the hotel from the beach, I stopped to photograph the river when a non-Asian gentleman ran over to me from across the road waving his hands and mumbling something.  “What?” I asked and I caught the word “playa.”  For a moment I was stunned and then realized that he was asking me if he was on the right road for the beach and I responded, “Si, playa.”  He smiled and I went on to repeat, “Yes, beach.”   He grinned as if he just realized the English word for beach and said, “Ah, yes, the beach,” and continued on his way.    A little further, I had to pull off and watch a farmer unload his hogs.  These pigs, about the right size for a spit, were in the back of a trunk bed that was nearly a meter above the road.  Pigs aren’t known for their jumping ability and this guy was pulling them off and they were bouncing on the pavement and getting up and snorting angrily.   In America, I’m sure the local chapter of the SPCA would have been on this guy’s case, but in Vietnam, it was just cheap entertainment.  I wasn’t the only one to stop and watch!  There were about a dozen pigs in the back of a mini-truck and none of them wanted to “go to market.”  The farmer had a heck of a time getting them down the alley where he was directing them.
Dressed up for first communion
As it was the Lord’s Day, I came back from the beach, showered and enjoyed the hotel’s buffet and then road my bike to church.  As far as I could tell, Hoi An has no Protestant Churches so I went to the local Catholic Church for a festive worship.  It was “first communion” for a number of children who were all decked out in their finest clothes and who took part in the service by reading scriptures, serving as the choir and collecting the offering.  Although I couldn’t understand much, the priest did say a bit about first communion for the three of us (that I saw) who were obviously not Vietnamese. 
Hoi An is also known for its food.  It’s cheap and good.  At least once a day, I ate my lunches at the numerous “chicken and rice” stalls around town (for a little over a buck, you can get a plate of chicken and rice with vegetables).   For the other meal, I generally went upscale (and spent two bucks or maybe four).  The four buck meal was in a restaurant with a table on the porch overlooking the river and included a sampling of Hoi An cuisine (Cao pork, white rose, wanton fried vegetables, garlic grilled fish, the all-present rice and a dessert custard).  Another evening, I had spring rolls, crab cakes and rice, and a wonderful pineapple pancake for dessert.  Although one can still drink Saigon beer here (and the ubiquitous Heinken is the only international beer available), regional beers reign in Vietnam and in Hoi An, it is Bere Larue which (according to the bottle) has been brewed in Da Nang since 1909 (they must have made a fortune when the American military was there).   
On the morning of July 11, I left Hoi An on the back of a motorcycle, heading west toward the Laos border and for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but that’ll be the subject of another post.