02/26/13

Sweet and Lao

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Boring.

That’s what everyone said about Vientiane, Laos.

And by “everyone,” I include the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia.

But I still wanted to go. One of my close friends and former roommates, Vatsady, is Lao, and I’d heard so much about Laos over the years and enjoyed so much of Vatsady’s pho that I couldn’t pass up a chance to go. I didn’t particularly want to take a 24-hour bus ride there from Hanoi, which was why I was flying.  (If I’d done more research I might have discovered that Luang Prabang—a town with a much better reputation among backpackers than Vientiane–has an airport as well. Let that be a lesson to you: research, research, research!)

I had asked Vats to see if her aunt, who lives in Vientiane, might be available to have lunch or dinner with me while I was there, and Vats had replied asking for the details of my stay. I had sent her the dates I would be in the city and my flight info but I didn’t hear back, and, being me, I was too distracted by all the sights and sounds of Vietnam to remember too follow up.

In fact, I was so bad at planning that even though I had read that I would need photos of myself and U.S. dollars to get a Lao visa at the airport, I didn’t have either one with me when I stepped off the plane. I approached the visa counter with trepidation, but figured that I couldn’t be the only idiot to arrive unprepared. They had to have some sort of work around, right? Right?

The work around turned out to be having a guard escort me out of the secure area and bring me down to the main concourse, where there was an ATM and a currency exchange counter. I handed the guy behind the counter piles of Vietnamese dong to change into dollars. He ignored it and informed me coolly that he only accepted Lao kip. I couldn’t believe that a money changer in an airport in a country adjoining Vietnam would refuse dong, but given the fact that I had an actual guard guarding me, I decided not to debate the point. I went to the ATM, took out Lao currency, and handed it back to be transformed into US dollars. (Again: why the hell do they require US dollars in Laos?!) Anyway, in the end I got my visa, but it was a long process. A long process made even longer because after I had finished I went to the ladies room, changed my dong at a different counter that wasn’t so snobby, and chatted with some Australians (they made my week by asking which country I was from, and when I told them, they turned to each other and said, “We both lost!” I asked where they had guessed I was from and they said “various European countries.” And I was wearing sweats and sneakers! Clearly, my light cannot be hidden under a bushel.)

Anyway, the point of all this is that when I walked away from the Aussies, having just wondered aloud where I could find a tuk-tuk to my hostel, I was totally shocked to see a very pretty, elegantly dressed woman holding a sign with my name on it.

Actually, my first thought was that perhaps the hostel had sent her. (I was picked up at the airport in Hoi An by someone from my hotel.) But, as you have doubtless already deduced, it was Vatsady’s aunt. Not only had the poor woman come all the way to the airport to get me, she had waited for an eternity for me.  I felt so bad!

She was very cheerful and sweet about the whole thing—much like Vats—and immediately brought me out to her car. She apologized for her limited English, and I assured her that I was very impressed that she spoke as much as she did. She drove me through Vientiane, which was much prettier than I had expected given the reviews. Sure, it didn’t look like a city, but it looked like an expensive suburb. (An expensive suburb with lots of Buddhist temples.)

Sone (Vatsady’s aunt) took me to a nice, sunny restaurant with two floors and a room devoted to a very elegant buffet. I recognized a lot of the food but there were some things that I had never, ever seen before, like the desserts, which seemed to be some sort of jell-o/fruit combo. She offered me some papaya salad—an iconic Lao dish–but I told her regretfully that I really can’t eat anything that spicy. While I was eating she stood up and walked away—I thought to the bathroom—but when it was time to go she informed me that she had already paid the tab! I protested, saying she had already done so much for me, but she replied that if she ever comes to Boston, I can treat her. I assured her that I would, but given the unlikelihood of that ever happening, I resolved to send her a thank-you gift.

After lunch Sone took me to her office. She runs the Lao lottery. It was interesting going to an office where everyone leaves their shoes at the front door. Most of her employees sit in an open space on the ground floor (that is not air conditioned—poor bastards!) Her office is upstairs and nice and cool. She let me use a computer on another desk to check my email while she worked. Her work seemed to involve processing lots of cash—perhaps from individual lottery ticket purchases? It was a Friday, and Friday nights they have the live drawing of the winner’s name, so she couldn’t have dinner with me, but she did agree to meet me at my hostel at 5:00pm to take me to see the sun set over the Mekong. In the meantime, she called a taxi to take me to a local tourist attraction—a park full of Buddha statues. It sounded kitschy but I was willing to try. But when she told me that the cab driver wanted $20 to go there I said forget it—I’ll just check into my hostel and nap.

Which is exactly what I did.

While I was waiting for her to show up I saw a familiar red beard appear at the front door. Ludo, was supposed to be in Luang Prabang, had evidently been put on the bus to Vientiane instead. He was as grouchy as you’d expect someone who had just spent 24 hours on a bus to the wrong destination to be, but I was still happy to see him.

At 5:00 Sone came to pick me up and we drove around the block to the Mekong. Many people were already strolling along the banks. The river looks completely different from the way it looks in the Delta; in Vientiane, at least when I was there, the riverbed is very, very wide, but the river itself was much narrower. Because the water was so low we were actually strolling quite a ways from the water itself; many people left the concrete walkway to run down to the water, but we stayed on the prescribed path.

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After we watched the sun set for a while we strolled through the stalls that were closer to the street. I was impressed at how fashionable the clothes that the offered were; all the stalls in Thailand seem to sell the same cheap clothes. Vatsady’s aunt bought some shorts for her daughter. I asked what happened if they were the wrong size. She replied that she could exchange them.

Sone asked me if I wanted to join her on a business trip she was taking for the weekend to southern Laos. I asked how much it would cost and she said about $200 for the plane ticket—way over my budget. I expressed my regret and she said that if I wasn’t going to come with her, I should probably go to Vang Vieng. If even she thought Vientiane was too boring, I decided to take her word for it. I would take the morning bus to Vang Vieng, a small town famous among backpackers because you can go tubing down the river—and stop at multiple bars to drink along the way. (Sounds like me, right? But I had heard a lot about Laos’ natural beauty, and I wasn’t going to see much of it in Vientiane, so I decided to go for it.)

When Sone headed off to supervise the lottery drawing I went back to the hostel to see if I could find some people to eat dinner with. As luck would have it, I struck up an immediate conversation with a French guy named David who was smoking on the stoop. I soon met all his friends, Thibaut (a law student studying in India), Veronique (a nurse’s aide of African descent), and a few others whose names have since slipped my mind. We ended up going around the block to a place that reminded me a lot of the garage-style Vietnamese restaurants—except instead of kindergarten-sized plastic furniture, it was adult-sized plastic furniture. There was also an animal nailed to the wall that we could not identify—it was brown and very furry, including the fluffy tail. One of the French people suggested it might be a raccoon. I assured them it was not!

After we ordered (I got some sort of noodle soup) the Lao men from the adjoining table tried to engage us in conversation. Then one of them came over, stood next to Veronique and posed for a photo, complete with fingers in a peace sign. This soon became a trend. Veronique looked uncomfortable—I felt uncomfortable for her! They were posing with her as though she were a mountain or a statue. I told her that she didn’t have to let them, but she said it was ok. Fortunately the ordeal didn’t last long.

Over dinner they began asking me about guns in the United States. They told me that they didn’t understand our gun culture and I said that I couldn’t understand it either. Then they asked me if I had a gun. I couldn’t believe they were asking me that after what I had just said. So I replied, “Of course! I never go anywhere without at least one or two.” I gestured towards my purse. “Want to see?” Most of them eagerly leaned in closer, but David said, “Oh—I thought you were kidding!” And I said, “Of course I’m kidding!” The whole exchange depressed me a little; it showed that no matter what I said, stereotypes were stronger. (I mean, did they really think I had crossed half a dozen international borders with a purse full of guns?! Sheesh.)

I was really exhausted from all the traveling I had done, but it’s hard to go to bed when people are urging you to stay up. Thibaut in particular (who’s an absolutely hilarious guy) would not let me go to sleep. It was also hard to leave such interesting conversations–though it became tricky when people who could not speak French tried to join in. One very loquacious South African guy went on at length about how excited he was to be in a place where race was not so important—and Veronique and the other French girl looked totally, totally lost the whole time. Which was a shame, because what he was saying was really interesting; he said his father was actually tried by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for his role in the 1976 death of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson (this is an infamous story in South Africa–I have been to the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto), and since his own last name is notorious, he (the son) cheerfully apologizes to people every day for the sins of his father. He was one of the most upbeat people I have ever met, actually. But very hard to understand if you didn’t really speak English to begin with, so the French people were very confused! Since I was so tired and the South African guy did not seem like he was going to give me an out any time soon, I was finally forced to sneak away without saying goodnight—and was very mad at myself in the morning when I realized that they were gone and I didn’t have their contact info. I especially liked Thibaut and David, and would have liked to stay in touch.

A two-hour bus ride later, I found myself in Vang Vieng. The mountains alone were worth the trip—they framed the small town beautifully. A free songthaew from the bus stop brought everyone to a hotel that I suspected was the most expensive place in town. I was about to grab my backpack and start looking for a cheaper place when my nose started to bleed.

When I was younger I got nose bleeds all the time—from stress, dry heat, you name it. I don’t get them so much anymore, but I am still so used to them that they don’t faze me at all. This hotel had an outdoor table and chairs, so I sat down with some Kleenex I had with me and prepared to wait it out. They usually only last a few minutes, so I figured I’d be up in no time.

After a few minutes a middle-aged white woman came out of the hotel with some gauze. She explained to me in heavily accented English that I should put it up my nose and pinch the bridge. I told her that I could speak French (it was becoming clear to me that almost everyone in Laos is French) and asked if she were a nurse. She said yes. In all my years of nosebleeds no medical professional had ever told me to stuff anything into my nose, but I figured it was worth a try. The nurse told me that I was probably exhausted and needed to get some more rest. I mentally shook my fist at Thibaut.

At about this point she went back into the hotel and one of the hotel employees came out, took one look at the blood on my face and hands, blanched, and begged me to go to the hospital. I assured him that I didn’t need to go but he kept saying, “It’s only five minutes away!” I told him not to worry—it would stop any minute.

But it didn’t. The nurse came out a second time and was surprised to see that it was not clotting. She said that if it didn’t stop soon I may indeed have to go to the hospital for them to give me “an injection.” I had read about hygiene in Southeast Asian hospitals and I silently decided that unless I were fainting from blood loss, I was not going to the hospital. It didn’t help that the nervous hotel employee came out a second time urging me to go to the ER!

After about an hour of this the bleeding seemed to be reaching an end. I gave up any idea of moving and decided to stay in the hotel, since they had put up with me scaring away other customers for so long. The man at the front desk told me, “I will put you near the nurse.” My room was pricey for Vang Vieng ($10!) but the high cost came with one major perk: HBO. Since the nurse had told me to rest, I spent the next two hours in bed watching “Two Weeks’ Notice.”

After that, feeling both sufficiently rested and starving, I went out in search of food. Everything in Vang Vieng was, unsurprisingly, geared towards tourists. All the restaurants were open air, and most of them had miniature beds instead of seats. I walked until I found the river and had some chicken fried rice with a view.

The view from my (very late) lunch

The view from my (very late) lunch

By this time the sun was nearly setting, so I headed down to the river, crossed a narrow bridge, and walked along the bank. When I reached the end of the path I found myself chatting with a middle-aged man who was also standing there. Of course, he was French. Philippe was from Paris, and celebrating his retirement. His wife of 40 years did not enjoy traveling as much as he did, so she was going to join him in Vietnam for two weeks of his three months in Southeast Asia. Since we were both alone and we both wanted to do something fun the next day, we decided to look into tours together. We found a place that offered both caves and tubing. When I heard the price I did some math and thought it seemed reasonable. But it turned out my math was wrong—I thought it was about $8 but it turned out to be $20! By the time I realized it Philippe had already paid, so it was too late to negotiate. (I can see how it seemed reasonable to him, having just come from Europe, but for someone who had spent $24 for a two-day trip to the Mekong Delta it was highway robbery.)

Philippe would have liked to go out to dinner but I needed to go straight to bed. We said goodbye and planned to meet the following morning for our tour.

The other people on our tour added some diversity by not being French, but French Canadian. They were three very young looking guys that I was surprised to learn were celebrating one of their 39th birthdays. (Strictly speaking, they weren’t on our tour—just sharing the same songthaew. They were going to fewer caves than we were, and kayaking instead of tubing. In my weakened state I was very glad not to have to paddle!)

After about half an hour the truck stopped and Philippe, our guide, and I hiked off towards the mountain through picturesque fields. We passed some cows, and a large calf approached me, clearly wanting to be petted. I hesitated, remembering the water buffalo in Hue, but I couldn’t resist, and fortunately, this one had no horns!

The mouth of the cave was down a short flight of rickety wooden stairs. Our guide gave each of us a head lamp and told us to watch our steps. After the cave in Halong Bay, this cave, with its low ceiling and lack of colorful lights wasn’t very impressive—but it was fun to turn our lights off when another group came in and then jump out and scare them!

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The second cave was barely a cave at all, but it was interesting because it had been turned into a Buddhist temple, complete with large statue. The bell it used to call people to worship had been made from an unexploded American bomb—a sobering reminder of the horror we had unleashed on Laos during the Vietnam War. (Guidebooks still warn you not to stray off the beaten path, since there are so many unexploded mines.)

The third cave was the most interesting—a river ran through it, so you entered it on an inner tube and pulled yourself along using a system of overhead ropes. The water was absolutely freezing, though, so at first I found it difficult to pull myself along while balancing as far out of the water as possible. Eventually I gave up and froze. After a few hundred meters the water became too shallow and you had to walk and carry your tube. Then it got deeper and you could float again. It was so long and so dark that I marveled at the bravery (idiocy?) of the people who had explored the cave.

After the caves we were rejoined by the French Canadians (whom I confess I found very difficult to understand—not because of their accents, but because they used so much unfamiliar slang). Then we piled back into the songthaew and went to the river for tubing. Philippe and I climbed into tubes and headed into the river. (Our guide followed in a kayak with our things, stuffed into waterproof bags.) Philippe and I soon found that we would be separated unless we held on to each other, so he hooked his legs over the edge of my tube so that we could talk while we floated.

He told me the story of his life. He had five children—four with his wife, and one he had fathered at age 20 with a thoroughly unsuitable girlfriend. She was so unsuitable that his daughter had nearly died when he had left her in his girlfriend’s care. More than forty years later, the memory still made him choke up. He obviously adored his wife and children and was really looking forward to celebrating his big wedding anniversary with all of them when he got home.

As we floated, we saw Lao people fishing with rods and underwater traps of some kind, and sawing off tree branches. We also saw lots of young Europeans floating by with beer cans, and then pulling over to run into the next riverside bar. Since we weren’t into that, it was a rather long experience (maybe three hours?) And it was just a little too cold—at least as far as I was concerned. By the end I was shivering and very glad to get out of the water and go change into some warm clothes.

We met up with the French Canadians for dinner, and were joined by more and more French speakers. We were also joined by an older American who as luck would have it has been teaching in China for almost ten years. I told him what I was planning to teach and he looked at me and said, “Unless your students are the top half of the top one percent of all students in China, there is no way they are going to understand that.” Which was a little discouraging. But he also gave me lots of helpful advice.

I was just thinking that it would be nice to go to bed early when who should show up but Thibaut! Once again he told me that I couldn’t leave—but this time I told him a French nurse had ordered me to get some rest. I took his email address and said I would get in touch so we could meet again in Singapore—which I am very ashamed and disappointed to say I totally forgot to do.

The next morning I caught a bus back to Vientiane, and booked an overnight train to Bangkok. At the station I met an American named Matt who is also teaching in China. He was with a young Chinese couple he had met on his travels and was helping since he spoke better English and they weren’t very experienced travelers. When we got to the border (just across the river) they were distressed to find that the woman was not allowed to continue, since apparently Chinese nationals need to get visas at the Friendship Bridge before boarding the train. For some reason the man was exempt. He boarded the train but was wracked with guilt. Finally he told us that he had to go find her and left. Matt, who had been planning to travel with both of them throughout Thailand, was distressed. But a few moments later the train started to move and the man reappeared, since he hadn’t been allowed to leave the moving train.

Unlike my glamorous train car in Vietnam, this train consisted of two seats under a bunk. At night the seats were transformed into a bed by the porters. The locals bought cheap food offered by vendors who appeared and disappeared very quickly at stops. Us foreigners got soaked by expensive menus offered as soon as we got onto the train by porters. I spent $10 on two meals—way too much for Lao and Thailand. Especially since the breakfast I had chosen turned out to be four cookies and a few pieces of fruit. But it was better than starving, which as far as I knew when I ordered was my other option.

I do wish I had had more time in Laos. As sleepy as it was, I would have liked to see more of Vientiane. Vang Vieng was very geared towards the young and perpetually inebriated, so it wasn’t really my cup of tea. Luang Prabang actually sounded the best of all the attractions to me, but it was too far to realistically go in the time that I had.

 

02/17/13

(Halong) Bay Watch

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A few hours after I got back to Hanoi from Sapa the front desk at the hostel called to say that Ludo had arrived. (Ludo is the Swiss guy I met at the Cu Chi tunnels. We had made plans to meet in Hanoi and go to Halong Bay together. After weeks of traveling alone, I was really looking forward to having someone locked in to eat meals with, sit beside me on buses, and apply sunscreen in hard-to-reach places.)

Knowing that we were going to Halong Bay the next day, we decided to make the most of our short time in Hanoi and headed out immediately to sightsee. We made a second attempt to see Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, but, once again, it was closed. But the visit wasn’t a total loss—who should we meet out front but Jean-Baptiste and Yeter, the French couple I had met in Sapa. They offered to take us to the extremely reasonable travel agency they used to book their side trips. It was a little storefront in the old quarter, where a young woman named Anna showed us beautiful photos of an elegant boat in Halong Bay. We were a little skeptical that the boat would look exactly the like the photos (the bed they showed was adorned with rose petals in the shape of a heart), but the price was unbelievable. My hostel offered one-night trips for $99—we decided to go for two nights for $75.

With that taken care of, we went out to lunch at a place Jean-Baptiste and Yeter liked. (They had spent a lot of time in Hanoi because they were waiting for a visa to somewhere—India?—and the embassy required them to stay in the city for a week.) I was excited to see cassava on the menu since it came up a lot in my Vietnam War book. (Apparently everyone in the North Vietnamese army, from the generals on down, was responsible for growing a certain amount of cassava so everyone would have enough food to eat.) Since I had no idea what cassava was I was eager to try it. What they brought me were little translucent dumplings with a squishy texture that, while not horrible, wasn’t exactly pleasant. I ate them, but I was glad that I didn’t have to rely on them for sustenance for 20 years.

I was determined to spend the rest of the afternoon seeing something cultural, and so I dragged Ludo to Hoa Lo Prison (aka the Hanoi Hilton). I didn’t have very high expectations of it, but I felt like it would be wrong not to go see the jail where so many American POWs, including John McCain, spent much of the war.

In front of the Hanoi Hilton

In front of the Hanoi Hilton

Most of the museum is dedicated to the horrible treatment the Vietnamese received at the prison under the French. There are rooms full of mannequins writhing in pain with their legs shackled to the floor. There are also rooms full of photographs and descriptions of the brave Communists who were imprisoned there in colonial times. There are also exhibits of the handicrafts they made while behind bars.

The Americans are confined (no pun intended) to two small rooms decorated with photographs that could only be described as propaganda; the American prisoners decorate the prison for Christmas; the American prisoners get excellent medical treatment; the American prisoners accept gifts as they sadly say goodbye at the end of the war. Since I had just read several POWs descriptions of their treatment (which involved heavy torture) I was not fooled, but don’t get me wrong—it didn’t anger me. I didn’t expect the unvarnished truth.

After the museum I wanted to at least take a look at the outside of the Temple of Literature (which Ludo, templed out, flatly refused to enter), so we headed in what my map told me was the right direction. And it was—only the map didn’t tell us that the area right beside it was a maze of narrow alleyways (think 10 feet across) where Ludo and I proceeded to get lost for quite some time. It was rather scary, too, since there were no tourists, we obviously had no idea where we were going, and robbing us would have been a piece of cake. At one point Ludo even told me that he thought we were being followed—then burst out laughing when I looked stricken. If I had felt safe it would have been quite fun—many doors were open, meaning that we were practically standing in people’s one-room apartments. It was fascinating to look up and see balconies and laundry crowding the narrow airspace above, blocking the sun

P1040829When we finally made it to the Temple of Literature they were indeed locking the gates. We decided to take a walk in the park beside it, which was full of people walking or playing games of volleyball. At this point Ludo noticed that my coat bore the initials “RF,” which he said was for Roger Federer. I told him I was completely indifferent to tennis, but that excuse held no water with him. He said that even if I didn’t like tennis, I had to see Federer play, because he was as graceful as a dancer. By this point Ludo was actually dancing around, hitting imaginary balls with an imaginary racket, and I, of course, was giggling uncontrollably.

Then out of nowhere a voice said, “I love seeing happy couples!”

We turned to see an elderly Vietnamese man sitting on a bench.

“How long have you been married?”

We looked at each other. Thinking quickly, I decided it would be less hassle to just say we were married than to have to answer lots of questions about why we weren’t. So I said, “Five years.”

“Where are you from?”

“I’m American; he’s Swiss.”

“My grandchildren live in Pennsylvania.”

By this time the old man was standing in order to talk to us more easily. He revealed that he was a former colonel in the army. He had fought the French, the Japanese, the Americans, and the Chinese. “But I know that the essence of Americans is very generous. There were just a few warmongers.” (He kept apologizing for his English, but it was impeccable.)

He talked a lot about the Vietnamese tendency to forgive. “I was at Dien Bien Phu [the iconic battle wherein the Vietnamese soundly defeated the French, winning their independence after 100 years] and afterwards I was guarding some French prisoners. A Vietnamese woman came up with some food for them. I said, ‘Hey! What about me?!’ and she said, ‘You’re from a poor country. You’re used to being hungry. They’re French! They need to eat.’” He laughed.

He said that he had recently met with some retired American military men who wanted to know how Vietnam had managed to win the war. He told them it was the Vietnamese spirit. A woman would take care of her children while her husband was fighting, and tend her fields, all with a gun on her back. If she saw a plane flying overhead she would shoot it down. And if the pilot survived the fall, she would serve him food.

“Do you dance?”

Taken entirely by surprise, I said that I did. (You know. More or less!)

“Then let’s rumba!” He grabbed my hand and pulled me into position, and we rumbaed right there on the path in the park.

Afterwards Ludo (who could only understand bits and pieces of the conversation) asked what was the colonel’s secret to his youthfulness. (He was 83, but could have passed for 20 years younger.)

“I was separated from my wife for 10 years during the war,” he said. (Lots of couples were unable to meet for years during the fighting.) And then he told us that his theory is that sperm gives you energy so men shouldn’t have sex more than once or twice a week(!!!) “But with such a beautiful wife, that may be difficult,” he said politely. Ludo and I avoided each other’s eyes.

Colonel To (for that was his name) told us that he had just been to an event celebrating the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Paris. I asked if he had known Ho Chi Minh. He said that they grew up in the same village. I wish I had recorded everything he said—it was all fascinating. (Afterwards Ludo ordered me to repeat every word in French so that he wouldn’t miss anything.) When we said goodbye I told him it was a true honor to have met him. He mused that he wished he got more opportunities to practice his (flawless) English. I suggested he hang out at the city’s major tourist attractions. So next time you’re in Hanoi, look for him!

With Colonel To

With Colonel To

At this point we were going to be late to meet Jean-Baptiste and Yeter for dinner, so Ludo and I ran through the streets—which wasn’t easy given the volume of motos.

We found Jean-Baptiste waiting in the lobby of our hostel. Yeter was napping, so it would just be the three of us for dinner. Ludo declared that he had had enough Vietnamese food for the day, so we ended up having hamburgers somewhere. Afterwards Yeter joined us for a drink. A football match was playing on the TV, and everyone in the bar was smoking but me, but all I could think about was that the following day I would finally get to see Halong Bay, which I thought was the most beautiful place I had ever seen pictures of. I hoped it would not disappoint!

The next day we got up bright and early for our bus ride to Halong Bay. (I felt a little schadenfreude when I saw that the manager of my hostel was chagrined I had bought the tickets elsewhere. But they had so overcharged me for my Sapa trip that I felt justified in my mirth.)

The bus ride was about two hours. Ludo was reading, and I kept interrupting him to point out amazingly green fields tended by farmers in conical hats. At one point we saw a water buffalo pulling a plow.

When we got to the pier my old enemy, fog, was rearing its ugly head. I fervently hoped that we would be able to see the rock formations that have made the bay so famous.

Our boat turned out to be a very charming older white vessel. Our bedroom did not have any rose petals in it, but it did have the same linens as the picture (alas, though we were initially given a very sunny, spacious room, we were almost immediately moved to a cramped one right next to the (very loud) engine room. Easy come, easy go!)

All of the passengers (there were about 15 of us) ate lunch together at one long table in the dining room at the center of the boat. In addition to Ludo and I (whom everyone, naturally and erroneously, assumed to be a couple), there were three French girls, Marie, Marion, and Maude, two Swedish girls, some Koreans, and a Canadian family consisting of two parents, Laura and Tony, and their 10-year-old twins, Hazen (a boy) and Shaeah (a girl). The Canadians, originally from the West Coast, now lived in northern China, so they had lots of advice for me—especially the kids!

I needn’t have worried about the fog. Even though it was overcast for all three days, the bay was breathtaking.

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Lunch, which was not very tasty to begin with, was ruined for me when the older Korean man sitting next to me, without so much as a word, reached over and repositioned the chopsticks in my hand in front of everyone! I was so embarrassed I didn’t know what to do. I had been very proud of my chopstick usage up to that point, and now I felt both dejected and exposed. I tried halfheartedly to eat the way he had, er, directed me, but I couldn’t and I ended up putting the chopsticks away for the duration. Normally I get along really well with old men (see: Colonel To) but I was so annoyed that I gave myself permission to give the Korean dirty looks for the next two days. (And for the record, I had dinner with Peter, my Korean friend from Sapa, in Hanoi on my last night there, and he holds his chopsticks the same way I do, if a little closer to the ends. So I was not wrong! And even if I had been, he could have found another way to tell me. End of rant.)

After lunch the boat stopped at the largest cave in Halong Bay. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it was spectacular—the ceiling was as high as a cathedral and the room was just as big. Colored lights illuminated points of interest, such as stalactites shaped like animals. (Our endlessly patient guide, Tho, never tired of the children’s guesses as to what each one was supposed to be.)

Then it was time for kayaking. I was looking forward to kayaking with Ludo, since he’s very athletic and I figured I would not have to do any work. J But then he overheard one of the kayak renters telling Laura that the children were too young to kayak. Ludo loves children (he’s a teacher) and he couldn’t stand the idea of them being disappointed, so he asked if I’d be ok with him proposing that we each take one of them out with us. At first I wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but it did seem like such a nice thing to do that I couldn’t say no. And the kids were so excited when they heard that they could go. I ended up going with Shaeah, who turned out to be a very bright, friendly, all-around-awesome kid. For some reason the men in charge of the kayaks only gave a paddle to me, so I gave Shaeah my camera so she could take photos. Which she did. In abundance! It’s a good thing it’s a digital camera, because otherwise I would be developing dozens of photos of Ludo and her brother.

Eventually I gave her the paddle and explained how to use it. It was nice to relax while she did the work (though she didn’t bring much power to the paddling).

Going through gaps in the rocks into inlets was amazing.

It was beautiful and exhilarating and fun.

On the way back we paddled by floating houses, complete with multiple dogs. I wondered how the dogs felt about being surrounded by water. (My parents’ dog hates water and can’t swim.)

After kayaking we sailed for a while. Ludo and I ended up hanging out on the top deck with the French girls and the Swedes. (I felt guilty because we were almost always speaking in French, because none of the French people spoke English very well, and I felt like we were excluding the Swedes, who were very nice girls.) I particularly liked Marion, who said she had had an enviable life in Paris, but she had developed serious stress-related health problems—problems that vanished as soon as she quit her job and started traveling. She’s not sure if she’s ever going back to live in France.

Dinner was actually quite good (if chopstick-free for me). The children were excited by the promise of karaoke, but the machine’s remote control turned out to be broken, which meant that it only played Vietnamese music. None of us were interested in that, so we ended up playing cards instead.

The next morning we had to be packed before breakfast because those of us staying for a second night were spending it on Cat Ba island, a very large island in the bay with its own national park. Marion, the Canadians, and the Swedes would be joining us.

Our first stop on the island was the national park, where we were told we’d be doing “a little hiking.” The “little hiking” turned out to be a very fast, vertical mountain climb, complete with ladder! The pace was so fast that we were hurrying the whole way—there was never time to stop and take photos. (Though our guide for this leg, who introduced himself as “Monkey Man,” did show us how he earned his nickname by shinnying up a vine and swinging from it!) When I finally made it to the top, drenched in sweat, I resolved to be the last person to leave, so I could set my own pace. (Ludo and the twins ended up climbing a very scary-looking observation tower at the summit, but considering the fact that almost all you could see was fog, I decided to keep my feet on the ground.)

Ludo and I were indeed the last people to head down, which was nice because I could take all the photos I wanted. What I hadn’t anticipated was that we would fall so far behind everyone that we wouldn’t know which path to take. And that it would start to pour. Fortunately, Ludo was wearing his raincoat so I gave him my purse with all my electronics to wear under it. And since the jungle was so thick we didn’t really get that wet. Fortunately, Ludo selected the right path (my instinct was to go the other way) and we soon found everyone else sheltering at a café near the entrance.

It was a long drive (45 minutes or so) from the park to the city where we would be spending the night. Our hotel was less than a block from the harbor, and Ludo and I were immediately excited by the tandem bikes we saw available for rent next door. After a nap we pedaled around the harbor, with me in the back (which made it possible for me to close my eyes when we were going downhill. I hate going fast!)

We ended up at a secluded resort. Ludo asked the security guard if we could go down to their private beach, and he said yes, so we left the bike and went for a walk in a beautiful cove. There was a cliffside boardwalk that allowed us to admire the view from an even better angle. Ludo sighed and said that he never returns to places, but he may have to come back to this one.

After dinner Tho took us to a bar where he said they had free beers for women. They did not. It was very cheesy, with giant music videos playing on a huge screen and disco lights flashing at 8:00 pm. We did get to meet a few other travelers, though. At one point we were all going around introducing ourselves, and after I said where I was from an older French guy from across the room smugly said, “I feel sorry for you!” You could have heard a pin drop. Finally I said, “Pourquoi?” (“Why?”) and he said that it was a joke, which it clearly wasn’t. And not only because it wasn’t funny. I should have said, “Well, it was hilarious!” but instead I said, in French, “For how many years do I have to put up with this type of joke from French people?” Which was not so snappy. And a little immature. But it truly feels like I have had to deal with this superior attitude for the 15 years that have elapsed since the first time I went to France. Marion, who was there and was mortified, said that she thought that it was a result of the post-9/11 change in the US/French relationship, but I told her that I first went to France in 1998 and people had exactly the same attitude then. (I want to emphasize that I have absolutely nothing against “French people” as a group—Isaure and many of my dearest friends are French and I could not love them more. I am usually the one defending “French people” from other nationalities.) Anyway, in the end I actually felt good about the whole thing because of the way all the other people reacted—with horror. I have been in situations where I think everyone would have agreed with him, so it was so nice to see the Swedish girls and Marion tell me that they thought he was an asshole. (Ludo was outside talking on the phone with his mother when it happened, but he was very supportive when he got back as well.) And I learned a few ways to say “unbelievably awkward silence” in French, so there you go.

We spent most of the following day returning to Hanoi. We took so much longer than expected that Ludo was afraid he was going to miss his bus to Luang Prabang, Laos, but Tho told him they were waiting for him and as soon as we got to the city he was whisked away on a motorbike.

I went back to the hostel to change for dinner with Peter from Sapa. He had been living in Hanoi for two months doing a legal internship, so I was looking forward to being shown the sights by a semi-local. I was amused to find that he actually knew his way around the city less than I did—he got so lost looking for the lake (that was actually on the same street as my hostel, where we met) that I assumed he must be looking for a completely different lake. I also had to keep grabbing him and pulling him out of the path of oncoming motorbikes. But after many wrong turns he did eventually take me to a very authentic restaurant I never would have found otherwise. One amusing (to me, anyway) moment happened when he remarked, “Say, they eat a lot of really weird food in China. How are you going to deal with that?” While eating intestines.

After dinner we took a walk around the lake. There were tons of people out strolling. One woman informed me that someone had just unzipped my purse, which freaked me out since it was the second time that evening. Fortunately, nothing was taken either time, but I resolved to wear it in front of me.

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Then Peter took me to a bar beside the city’s best-known Catholic church. We sat alone on a balcony festooned with what the British call fairy lights (we call them Christmas lights but that just seems wrong the rest of the year). I wished I had more time to explore the city, but alas I was flying out the following morning, to Laos.

Vietnam will always have a very special place in my heart. I can’t wait to go back!

02/14/13

Sing Sing(apore)

Ok, I hate to do this because I like doing things chronologically, but I am so hopelessly behind that I thought giving you a quick update as to my life and location would be better than having you wondering why I am still in Vietnam, weeks later.

Because I am not. I am in Singapore, where it is very rainy (think lions and dingos as opposed to cats and dogs) and very expensive (I will be wearing dirty clothes until I go back to Malaysia because there is no way this girl is ever paying $8 for laundry!) I should also add “very clean,” because it is illegal to say anything about Singapore without saying that. Not that I’ve had much experience of Singapore yet–I took a bus last night from Ipoh, Malaysia, and arrived at the border at something like 4:30am. Where I waited in a very long line before arriving at the front to find, surprise, you forgot to fill out a landing card! So I had to go fill out a landing card and go to the back of the line again. Sigh. This would have been utterly miserable had I not had a good book cued up on my ipod (Georgette Heyer’s “The Grand Sophy.” If you love Jane Austen, you will love this.)

By the time I had gone through immigration in Malaysia and Singapore it was after 6:30am. Then I had to figure out how to get a bus to the (very clean) subway system, which basically involved my begging the bus driver to just take me for free since I had no Singapore dollars and there were no ATMs. (It worked.)

Then I spent about an hour on the subway, before I walked two blocks to my hostel. (Which is very very clean.) They took pity on me and let me go to bed even though technically I’m not allowed to check in until 2pm.

I just got up and have been gorging myself on their free tea and free (wait for it) peanut butter toast!!! (I only stopped after four slices because I didn’t want the other guy sitting here to close his laptop and stare at me). I did manage to get peanut butter on my only semi-clean article of clothing, so now I get to meet the uber fashionable Singaporeans in a wrinkly dress that is also stained. Excellent.

Oh, good–thunder. I suppose I’ll have to go out there eventually but right now I just want to have more tea and toast. (Maybe I can distract laptop guy…)

And that is all the news from here. Carry on.

02/8/13

Such a Sapa

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Waking up at 6:00am is bad enough on its own. I always feel a little disoriented. But waking up at 6am on the Vietnam-China border in a city completely enveloped in fog is ten times worse.

Especially when you came there for the view!

Sapa is known for its beautiful mountains, which are covered with terraced rice fields. The fields are tended by the local Hmong population. They look slightly different from ethnic Vietnamese, and wear traditional costumes (which I absolutely love—they mix multiple colorful patterns, like plaids and flowers, and the overall effect is gorgeous).

I knew that the drive to Sapa from the station in Lao Cai would not be that pleasant when the driver started handing out the vomit bags. I never get car sick, but it was not much fun listening to the man behind me fill up his bag (and probably several others) throughout the long, winding drive up into the mountains. Especially since all I could do to distract myself was stare out the window at the pea soup.

After a considerable drive (an hour?), we arrived in Sapa. Because it’s so touristy, and on a mountain, it reminded me a bit of small town Austria or Switzerland—lots of tall, narrow hotels and restaurants. Many shops sold North Face jackets and pants, which they seem obsessed with in Vietnam.

When we arrived at our hotel the power was out. I told everyone that they should watch out—a hotel with no power at a remote mountain resort is a by-the-numbers Agatha Christie.

Our group was mostly made up of young Australians, as well as a Vietnamese couple (the woman, Ang, works in tourism in Hanoi and wanted to see the tour she keeps sending people to take) and a Korean guy my age, Peter, who is switching careers and as such is doing a legal internship in Hanoi.

Our guide met us in the hotel lobby, and urged everyone who wasn’t wearing shoes with treads to rent some boots from the business next door, which was offering rubber boots for $1 a day. They didn’t look terribly comfortable to me, but the Hmong all wear them, so they must be. He then told us that we should not take photos of Hmong people without their permission (which would probably involve giving them $1), and said we should not ask the price of anything they were selling unless we were serious about buying it. He further explained that the men worked in the morning, freeing up the women to help with tourism, then the women worked in the afternoon while the men rested. He didn’t say when the women got to rest.

We made our way to a square at the center of the town, where we were joined by a large group of Hmong women wearing their beautiful embroidered skirts, plaid head scarves, and rubber boots. (I would have taken photos, but $1 a photo seemed pretty steep!) Our guide explained that they would be joining us for the hike. We looked at each other nervously—we had a feeling they would be expecting us to spend a lot of money.

Our first stop was at a scenic overlook. At least I think it was, because we still couldn’t see anything but gray. It seemed to be a private home where the family made money by charging trekkers for using the bathroom. It was worth the price of admission, since two of the tiles were printed with X-rated images of naked women. (Ok, one of them may only have been rated R since she was holding some fruit in strategic places.) One of the Penthouse tiles was directly in front of the toilet; the other beside the mirror—presumably so you never had to entertain yourself!

At the (very) scenic overlook

At the (very) scenic overlook

As we wound our way down the mountain, the Hmong women chatted with us a bit. I told everyone my age and they told me theirs. (Unlike most Vietnamese, they looked much older than they were.) One was carrying a baby on her back, and I tried my darnedest to get the baby to smile without much success.

Eventually we spotted some green through the fog, and I crouched down to take a picture of the sliver of rice paddies that I could see. I needn’t have bothered; soon we were below the fog, and had sweeping vistas of breathtaking mountain fields, complete with water buffalo (how on earth do they get up there?!)

The mountain roads we were walking down were very narrow. The Hmong women had no problem at all walking briskly on the side of a cliff, but the rest of us preferred to stay away from the edge. But large trucks frequently surprised us, sending most of to hug the mountainside. I frequently walked in a foot-wide drainage ditch to save myself from having to pay attention.

Eventually we left the road and started walking down a muddy path in the trees. The Hmong woman nearest me took it upon herself to hold my hand the whole way so I wouldn’t fall. It was slightly embarrassing when I didn’t the help—but when I did I was very grateful! (Her hands were very rough and stained blue—I’m not sure why.)

Then we had to walk across a very tall bridge over a deep gorge—a bridge with no railings. I would not describe myself as afraid of heights—not compared to other people I know—but I did gulp slightly when I saw it. Fortunately, it proved to be wide enough (approximately eight feet if memory serves) that I didn’t feel in danger at all, and since it was concrete, I felt much safer on it than on my lower bamboo bridges I’ve crossed on this trip.

After that we arrived at the outskirts of the Hmong women’s village. I hope it doesn’t sound disrespectful if I say it was adorable. It was the closest thing I have ever seen to the Shire. We crossed a wobbly bamboo bridge over a river (later I saw water buffalo casually crossing the same bridge, apparently of their own accord). The bottoms of several of the terraces were level with us, and we saw ducks swimming in the flooded parts. The village was full of baby animals—chicks, piglets, puppies. Cute Overload should establish their headquarters there. Yes, the ground was a bit muddy and nobody seemed rich, but the vibe was a very happy one.

We ate lunch, and were indeed bombarded by requests to buy anything and everything. I knew that I was going to the Sunday market the next day, though, so I decided to wait.

Most of the Australians were staying in the village for home stays (which, once again, I hadn’t known were an option), so only Peter, Ang, her husband, and I were driven back to the hotel.

After long naps Peter and I met up again for dinner, which was included in the price of our trip—and therefore completely forgettable. Afterwards we decided to brave the fog to see a bit more of the town.

The town turned out to be much larger than either of us had expected—I might even call it a city. We went back to the central square, where our guide had told us a “love market” happened on Saturday nights (teenagers from the villages came to meet that special someone). Alas, we saw no love or even any market. (We did, however, go into a number of stores in search of Lunar New Year gifts for Peter’s parents. It’s the gift-giving holiday in Korea, and he wanted to get them something nice. He was looking for pants for his mother, whom he described as “very tall.” I asked if she were as tall as me (5’5”) but of course she wasn’t.

We ended up going for drinks in a bar full of westerners smoking hookahs and playing pool. We had fun guessing who was Australian and who was American. (Depressingly, Peter is much better at this game than I am.)

When we left the fog had somehow become even thicker—visibility was maybe 20 feet in front of us. And we were unsure how to find our way back to our hotel, so we ended up wandering up and down deserted streets. All the stores were closed, but many families lived in their stores, so Peter knocked on the door of a bakery where we could see a family watching TV and asked them where we could find our hotel.

Eventually we made it back—only to find that the front door was padlocked shut! At 11:00pm! After we rang the bell a few times with no result, Peter found a way in through the shop next door.

Our rooms were off the roof, where they was a little garden, and we ended up standing out there for a while, listening to water running in what we could only assume was a very big (and yet invisible to us) river. He said it was the first time he had heard silence since he came to Vietnam a month before.

And, of course, at that very moment someone honked their horn.

The next morning I woke up at 7:30am, eagerly anticipating a hot shower before my 9am tour. But almost as soon as I was out of bed I got a call from the front desk informing me that my tour actually left at 7:30! I rushed downstairs and hopped in a minibus headed for the Sunday market—3 hours away. My legs were killing me after the hiking the day before and being squished into the van didn’t help matters much, but at least the scenery (once we were below the fog) was nice.

My friend on the trip, since Peter had stayed behind to go on another hike, was a retired Australian named Mark whom I liked very much–while very much hoping that the Vietnamese wife whom he often referred to wasn’t my age. As we drove Mark and I pointed out “Chinese mountains” to each other (curved mountains that looked straight out of Chinese paintings, totally different from anything you’d find in Australia or the United States.)

The market turned out to be very, very large, with hundreds of stalls selling food and crafts, as well as a section selling farm animals. (I gave the water buffalo a wide berth after my experience in Hue!) Most of the sellers, as well as the patrons, were Hmong, which was nice because it wasn’t as touristy as I had feared. And since it was so crowded, there wasn’t that much pressure to buy.

After lunch we went to a different Hmong village—and I have to say, I wish we hadn’t. It was very poor and sad feeling. We went into a house and it was freezing cold and extremely spare, with a kitchen with a fire, a virtually empty living room with a dirt floor, and low-ceilinged bedrooms below a storage space for their rice. Ang gave some candy to the barefoot toddler who lived there; I wished I had something to give him. (Heat? Electricity? Options?)

Then we drove back to Lao Cai, where we had our pictures taken across the river from China, with the red flag waving in the background. I knew that I was about to be left at the train station five hours early(!), so I considered crossing into China for a  few hours, but I was afraid that something might go wrong and I might not make it back in time, so I decided to sit in a restaurant and work on my blog. A French couple who had been on the market trip, Jean-Baptiste and Yeter, sat down beside me, and we chatted a bit until Peter and the Aussies showed up a couple of hours later and I went out to say hello to them.

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The Vietnamese couple reappeared just in time to get on the train, but, alas, I was not in their car this time. This time it was me and three Vietnamese men I had never seen before, who proceeded to ignore me (which was probably just as well).

In the morning a car was waiting to take me back to my hostel, and back to big city life.

02/8/13

Kind of Hanoi-ing

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Everyone I met in southern Vietnam warned me about Hanoi.

“It’s so cold!”

“It’s freezing!”

“Don’t even bother!”

So I was expecting a windswept tundra with polar bears and maybe a few places to see water puppets.

I was very pleasantly surprised.

The old quarter, where I (and everyone else) stayed, has narrow streets and very small shops, giving the city a much more manageable feel than the wide streets of Ho Chi Minh. (It also makes it much, much easier to cross the street—which is still not an easy proposition given the volume of motorbikes.) The city contains numerous lakes, it’s very walkable, and you can feel the history. (In the old quarter, many streets have sold the same goods for generations. So one street might sell children’s clothes and toys, another lights, another shoes, etc. It’s very charming.

And if people thought Hanoi was cold, they had clearly never spent a winter in Boston. It was probably 60-something degrees Fahrenheit (but admittedly overcast).

After speaking to the people at my hostel I decided to depart that night for a side trip to Sapa, a mountain village on the Chinese border famous for its beauty (not ideal timing, but my friend Ludo from Ho Chi Minh and I had made plans to go to Halong Bay together in a few days’ time, and if I didn’t go to Sapa now, I might not be able to go at all). Because everyone said that Sapa was even colder than Hanoi (the horror!) I decided to buy a winter coat.

I headed to a street close to the city’s largest lake and after pricing a few found a puffy down jacket for $15. (And it looks like it cost $15. Though when Ludo—who is a gym teacher—saw it he was very excited, because apparently the “RF” on it stands for Roger Federer. We both agreed that Roger would be very sad to know how bored I am by tennis.)

I soon discovered that almost all the city’s attractions are closed on Friday afternoons, so I decided to take a long walk. I followed the avenue Dien Bien Phu (the location of Vietnam’s final victory against the French) to Ho Chi Minh’s imposing mausoleum. I admired the pagodas in two of the city’s lakes. (One had many frogs hopping around inside.) I walked around a third, smaller lake which I found very cozy. (A few days later, when I went to the Hanoi Hilton museum, I was shocked to see a photo of local people pulling a young John McCain from his plane in that very lake.)

On the other side of the lake I found myself walking towards a group of moto drivers. One called, “Moto?” I said no. He said it again. I said no again. He crossed the street towards me and said, “Moto?” I smiled and said, “Still no!” I was relieved when the other drivers laughed.

I found myself in a very busy neighborhood full of clothes stores. In a park kids were playing soccer and men were getting their hair cut while holding small mirrors in front of their faces. On the corner a man was making keys for moto drivers who pulled up beside him.

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I was getting picked up at 8:30pm for the train to Sapa, so I wandered back to the hostel to ask where I should have dinner. (Because the old quarter is divided by theme, as it were, it is really difficult to find restaurants compared to other cities.) The staff at my hostel suggested a restaurant, but on my way there I found an alley with the ubiquitous plastic tables and chairs and I ended up having a delicious bowl of pho for $1.50. I tried to talk to the family that ran the “restaurant” (it was one table in an alley), but they couldn’t speak English or French. (I was eating with chopsticks, and the mother kept coming over and pointing to the spoon she had left in the bowl. I tried to explain that I make less of a mess with chopsticks, but of course that was not an easy thing to get across! And for the record, the Vietnamese eat pho with chopsticks.)

Here’s a video of rush hour, with more people driving on the sidewalk than in the street!

At the train station I met a delightful older Asian couple who were also going to Sapa. They lived in New Jersey but had foreign accents, and I assumed they must be from elsewhere because the husband told me that he spoke “very bad” Vietnamese. But when I asked how he had learned his bad Vietnamese, he told me, “I’m from here, actually, but I fought for the South and I’m Catholic so I left right after the war and I hadn’t been back until last year.”

“How was it?” I asked.

He paused. “Okay.”

“Did you get to visit your old friends?”

He paused again. “They’re all dead. They all died in the war.”

I hated to ask painful questions, so I waited a while before asking another, but since he had fought for the South I wondered if he had a different perspective. “Do you think that if the United States hadn’t intervened, the war would have happened?”

But his answer was very final. “No.”

“Do you think that if the referendum had happened in 1956 and the North had won, you would have stayed in Vietnam?”

He thought for a moment. “Maybe.”

In case you missed that, even the Southern Catholic thinks we caused a war that killed 3-4 million people and displaced many more, for nothing.

The three of us ended up sharing a room on the train. There are several levels of cars on Vietnamese trains; if you want a bed, you can get either a “hard sleeper” with six beds in one room and harder mattresses, or a “soft sleeper” with four, soft beds. We had the latter. It was very elegant, with wood paneling and very nice metal finishes. But we still had to use the bathroom down the hall which of course had no toilet paper or soap!

I worried about him climbing up to the upper bunk at his age. But when I looked down before I went to sleep, he was curled up next to his wife on her bottom bunk. It was very sweet.

The next morning when I woke up the Vietnamese couple said they thought we had arrived. No one had announced anything, but we quickly put on our shoes and grabbed our bags. I don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t gotten off the train, and I’m glad I didn’t have to find out!

Next up: Sapa!

 

 

02/4/13

Hue Are You Looking At?

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After Hoi An, my next stop in Vietnam was Hue, the old imperial capital. I hadn’t planned to go there but I had been talked into it by a fellow traveler’s descriptions of the Nguyen (pronounced “Win”) emperors’ beautiful mausoleums.

My four-hour morning bus trip there turned out to be via sleeper bus. A sleeper bus, for those of you who are like me and had never heard of such a thing, is a bus with three rows of mini bunk beds. Your legs stretch out in front of you, and you can adjust the back so you are sitting or lying down. They give you a pillow and a blanket and I think they are awesome. Unfortunately, they are so awesome that I slept all the way from Hoi An to Hue and completely missed what is supposed to be the most beautiful scenery in Vietnam—except for once when I turned over, opened an eye and thought: “That’s quite pretty,” as I admired a bay with mountains in the distance before I promptly fell back to sleep.

 

On a sleeper bus

On a sleeper bus

In Hue I would be staying in my own room for the first time since Siem Reap—not because I was craving some alone time, but because for some reason Hue is almost completely devoid of hostels, and the one they do have is far from the action. Once I checked in to the Nhu Phu Hotel (recommended by the Katies, and impossible for me to pronounce correctly), I headed off to the city center to see the Citadel the Nguyen emperors had constructed and the imperial city, known by the delightful name “The Forbidden Purple City.”

Hue turned out to be much, much larger than I expected. I was imagining something on the scale of Hoi An, which is completely walkable. Hue was so large that by the time I had crossed the Perfume River (which is the best name for a river, ever—but it also suggests a small mountain stream, and not a vast river the size of the Hudson) and located the gate to the old city, I was getting exhausted.

So when I was approached by a friendly cyclo driver (passengers sit on a seat attached to the front of a bicycle) who spoke very good English, I was ready to jump at his offer. The price he named was outrageous ($15!) but since I liked him so much, and had no plans until my tour of the tombs the following day, I decided to go for it.

His name was Couteau (I’m sure that’s not how it’s spelled, but it sounded just like the French word for knife).

He brought me to one of the original gates to the imperial city, and showed me a narrow staircase that I certainly would have missed on my own which we climbed for a panoramic view. There was a lot of trash, but it was still picturesque.

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Then we went to a convent (well, a pagoda for nuns). I had never seen Buddhist nuns before and I smiled my hardest at them, hoping for some interaction, but it was not to be. I asked Couteau to wish them a happy full moon festival for me but he was strangely unresponsive. He did point out the pagoda’s dog, a medium-sized, yellow mutt which he said was a Buddhist; it ate only rice and if you tried to give it meat it would not be interested. I was fascinated, since my dog will eat absolutely anything, but not having any beef in my pocket, I could not test this theory.

The Buddhist dog

The Buddhist dog

As we pedaled through the city Couteau pointed out other neat things, like a truck that was beautifully decorated in a rainbow of bright colors. “Guess what that’s for?”

“I don’t know… weddings?”

“Funerals.” He asked me if we had something similar. I had to say no.

He took me to another pagoda, surrounded by a beautiful moat covered with a sort of lily pad-like plant.  Here’s video. This one was for monks. (Of course it was.) He took me around the back of the temple and pointed to a very large, old, empty building. He explained that it was a prison where the emperors kept people before they were executed.

We then went to a very pretty garden with a koi pond outside a very old-looking house. Inside Couteau showed me a recent photo of a large group of men and women. “That’s local people who fought in the Vietcong.” Another image was of an emperor who had over 100 wives—but no children! (I had fun making up explanations for that until the next day, when my guide said that he had had a childhood illness that left him infertile.)

I wasn’t sure if the Citadel was included on my tour the next day, so I asked Couteau to take me there. But when we got there it was about to close, so instead he brought me across the street to a sort of outdoor museum of equipment from the war. We wandered among the American tanks and planes until the sun got too low in the sky.

By this time Couteau had told me a lot about his life. He had been born right after the war. His father had fought with the Americans—but only because “if he didn’t, there was no money for food.” Late in the war another Vietnamese had attacked him for it, and shot him in both legs. He lost them both and hadn’t been able to work since. One of Couteau’s older brothers had also died in the war, killed as a child by bombs when the family was fleeing Hue for the south. (Hue was the center of a lot of fighting, particularly during the Tet Offensive.) For a while his mother had cut hair for a living, but now she didn’t work either, so Couteau had to support both his parents. The entire family lived together (including Couteau’s siblings and nieces and nephews) in a house which had been in the family for many generations. It was made of bamboo and so it was very uncomfortable when it rained. They had an outhouse in the back, and no real beds. At one point Couteau had had a television (purchased for him by a cyclo client from England) and a cell phone, but he’d had to sell both the last time his father was hospitalized, for much less than their value.

I felt terrible about everything his family had been through—especially since so much of it was caused by my country. I decided to give him a tip large enough to enable him to change something about his life.

But when he brought me back to my hotel at 5:00pm, he asked if I wanted to go driving again in the evening. Since I was already planning to give him more money, I said, “Why not?” He couldn’t believe his luck and asked if I would really be there at 7:00pm; he asked me to “Vietnamese promise”—and held out his pinkie for a pinkie swear.

At 7:00pm he waved at me from down the street. This time he drove me around the new city, on the same side of the river as my hotel. He kept pointing to buildings and saying, “A few years ago, that was forest.” He drove me around an enormous roundabout with a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh. I asked what the words said. He said they said that everyone should follow Ho Chi Minh. I asked what he thought of him. “I think he was a great man.” “So if you were alive during the war, you would have fought for him?” “Yes.”

He took me to the train station. Across the road were the ubiquitous tiny tables, where he ordered a pot of tea and some pumpkin seeds. He was aghast when I grabbed a handful and ate them whole. He tried to show me how to bite off the outer layer, spit it out, and eat the inside, but since I had grown up eating them whole on Halloween I did not see the need to do all the extra work.

He told me about the two times he had left Hue. Fifteen years ago, one of his passengers, a woman traveling alone, had gone on to Hanoi and been unhappy there alone, so she had bought him a ticket to join her. The same thing had later happened with Ho Chi Minh City. Otherwise, he had never been anywhere.

It made me so sad to think of all the opportunities I had and he didn’t. We sat and discussed ways he could grow his business. I got more and more excited when I thought about ways I could help, such as recommending him on TripAdvisor. But I pointed out that people would need a way of contacting him. I asked how much a cellphone would be, and he said 500,000 dong for the phone and 100,000 for a SIM card ($30 total). I told him I’d get one for him, but I thought that would only be useful for customers who were already in Vietnam, since almost no one would want to call him from another country to make a reservation. I offered to set up an email address for him, and asked if he could read English. He could not, so I pulled out my Kindle and read a couple of pages of my war book out loud to him, while following along with my finger. Occasionally I asked him if he could read a word (“the” or “and”)—but he never could, even after I pointed them out repeatedly. Eventually it became clear that he could only read a little bit of Vietnamese. School is not free in Vietnam, and he had never gone. And for some reason his parents, who could read, had never taught him. (He learned English from tourists.)

We finished our tea (he paid, because he said that if I paid the price would double) and we went to a hot pot place where they brought me a plate of whole shrimp, shiny black eyes and all. By this time I was singing the alphabet song and pointing along to a page of upper and lower case letters that I had written on a page I tore from my notebook. We got as far as the letter “g” when it became clear to me that he wasn’t prepared to learn the whole alphabet in one night. If he didn’t learn tonight, I didn’t know how he would be able to remember it, since it wasn’t as though I could give him a recording to listen to. I felt so disappointed that he repeatedly asked if I were feeling ok.

As he drove me home I felt quite dispirited. But I perked up when I realized that he did know a lot of words.

“You can read Ho Chi Minh, right?”

“Right.”

“H-O, Ho. H-O-T, hot. And Chi is the beginning of child. And Hanoi has the same beginning as hand.” That made me feel a bit better about his chances, but I knew that it would take consistent teaching for him to learn. And who would be willing to do that for free?

We agreed to meet up the next day at 4:30pm after my tour because he wanted to buy a notebook for testimonials from satisfied customers (lots of motorbike drivers carry them) and he wanted me to write in it. He also wanted to give me his address and new phone number.  I had to leave by a 5:30 bus for Hanoi, but I thought we would have enough time.

The next day I got up bright and early for my tour, which ended up being of the large bus variety. My seatmate was Mansour, an Iranian who had fled after the revolution and ended up in San Francisco. He was one of those people who means well but somehow manages to antagonize people with almost everything he does. As soon as he met me, he began loudly talking about what bad English our guide spoke. (We were seating in the second row of the bus.)

We started with the Citadel, home of the royal palace and the Forbidden Purple City. When we were in the throne room of the palace, one of the few places no one is allowed to take photographs, Mansour said, “Is that because of something the Vietnamese believe? But what if we don’t believe in that?” Our guide (a rather humorless fellow himself), said drily, “When in Rome.”

The Citadel was not that impressive (probably because the Americans bombed it during the war). Here’s video. Next we went to another garden much like the place Couteau had taken me. I wasn’t that interested in the garden but I was fascinated by the water buffalo eating the grass across the street. I decided to watch them from a safe distance, and, well, you have to see the video:

So that was pretty scary! I also felt guilty about retreating while the guy who had distracted the buffalo and his wife were still trapped behind a tree, but they were soon rescued by a Vietnamese guy who came running after the buffalo. (Since then I have been around a lot of buffalo and I have never seen them behave in a way that was anything but docile. I guess I just inspire passion in them!)

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The highlight of the day was definitely the three mausoleums we saw. The Nguyen Dynasty was comprised of 13 emperors, from something like 1805 to 1945. Seven of them built mausoleums, and the three we saw were magnificent. The gate of the first one opened onto a serene lake. You walk past that to a courtyard, then through a temple, then over a bridge over another lake, then to a hillside where the emperor is buried. Apparently from the hair the lakes and temples create the shape of his body. I could have spent hours walking around the lakes but since it was a group tour, we had to go off to the next one.

By this point I had made another friend, Carolina from Argentina. (I remained friendly with Mansour, even though he told me he was carrying $10,000 in cash(!) and “if the Vietnamese knew how much my watch is worth, they would cut off my hand!”) Carolina walked through the next mausoleum together, which was almost vertical on an impressively steep hillside.

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The final mausoleum was also on a lake (or a series of lakes—hard to tell). The sun was getting lower in the sky and it was just beautiful.

After the mausoleums we took a cruise down the Perfume River. At this point I was becoming seriously concerned about the time. It was almost 5pm and we were still chugging down the river! (This despite my guide’s assurances that I would be back at my hotel by 5:00). When we finally landed I sprinted to a cyclo and directed him to my hotel. Couteau was waiting for me—but so was a motorbike sent by the bus company to pick me up.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I have vowed never to ride a motorbike because I know someone who has a terrible head injury from a motorcycle accident. But in this case, I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t think Couteau’s cyclo would be able to get me there in time if the station was across town. So I said goodbye to Couteau, took his address, quickly scrawled a few lines in his book, and put my helmet own, feeling very guilty and hoping my mother never finds out. (You’re not reading this, are you, Mom?)

Riding the motorbike was not scary at all—it was actually less scary that sitting in a cyclo while Couteau made slow turns across several lanes of motorbikes! We got to the bus quickly and I grabbed a top bunk since the Katies had warned me that the bottom bunks sometimes had cockroaches.

In the next bed was a Dutch woman named Karlijn. She was absolutely beautiful, with flawless skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. When I asked her what she did, I fully expected her to say, “I’m a model.” Instead she said, “I’m a commander in the police force.” Being me, I spent the next hour or so interrogating her about her work in the police. She loves it—apparently she had always known she wanted to be a police officer—and she ended up with a very high position right out of grad school. She has to make very difficult decisions all the time (which impresses me to no end because I am capable of agonizing about the smallest choice for hours on ed). I had dinner with her and her fiancé, who is in the Dutch army. He had spent time at Fort Hood and I asked him what surprised him most about the United States. He said two things: that all of us aren’t fat, and that our houses are made out of wood!

After we had driven for an hour or so we pulled over to pick up the passengers of a bus that had broken down. The passengers told us that it had broken down 24 hours before! So they had been stuck in rural Vietnam all night and had to sleep on the bus! They were amazingly cheerful considering their ordeal. Karlijn and I took many, many photos with all of their cameras of the whole group posing in front of the disabled bus.

In the end I slept incredibly well on the bus, and was almost sorry to arrive in Hanoi in the morning.