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!

02/8/13

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.

 

 

01/28/13

Hoi Polloi

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I am a sheep.

I planned my Vietnam itinerary by figuring out where everyone else goes, and following suit.

Therefore, my next stop after Ho Chi Minh was Hoi An, a large coastal town in central Vietnam known for its beautifully-preserved historical downtown and its highly skilled tailors. (A lot of people go to Nha Trang before Hoi An, but I’m more interested in history than beach. And clothes. Because did I mention that the highly skilled tailors can make whatever you want for very cheap? I have a whole Pinterest page devoted to dresses I want to have made for me while I’m in Asia, and Hoi An seemed like a great place to start.)

On my first day I checked into my hotel (yes, this time I stayed at a real hotel, with a restaurant and a swimming pool and families staying there. But I stayed in one of its two dorm rooms with five other backpackers. Luckily for me, everyone in our room was very nice and welcoming. I spent the first day hanging out with Lydia, a German girl who currently lives in Australia. We started by going out to lunch—which is when I realized that Hoi An is significantly more expensive than the rest of Vietnam. Our lunch cost what two meals would have cost in Ho Chi Minh. I felt like I was being cheated—but then I realized I had paid $6, so I needed to chill out a little. But it was the principle of the thing! The next two days I was very careful to go out of the city center for lunch.

After we ate we walked around the old quarter. It was adorable—a river flowed through the center, and colorful boats bobbed at the banks. The buildings were clearly hundreds of years old and oozed charm. And it seemed like every other storefront was a tailor with beautiful dresses on display in the window.

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My brother is getting married in September, and since I’m in the wedding party I knew that I needed a navy blue cocktail dress. Before I left I had scoured the internet, trying to find the perfect design for a tailor to copy, but nothing jumped out at me. Walking through Hoi An, however, I saw lots of dresses that I liked quite a bit. And finally, after we had walked through the stalls of the city market and admired the view from two different bridges, I saw The One. Already the perfect shade of blue, it was a strapless chiffon with a high fitted waist and a flowing skirt. The staff saw me admiring it and rushed out to urge me to try it on. How could I resist?

The dress in the window

The dress in the window

Inside, there were stacks and stacks of bolts of fabric on every wall. Once I had changed, we discussed how the dress could be modified (I don’t like strapless dresses—I’m always afraid they will fall to the floor—so I asked them to add a halter). I asked what the final cost would be, prepared to negotiate them down.

“Thirty dollars.”

I forgot about negotiating.

We agreed that I would return the following morning for my first fitting.

Lydia and I ended up joining two of our roommates—Katie and Katie, an engaged couple from London, and their friends Julie and Neil, a married couple from Belfast, for dinner at Morning Glory, a fancy (at least, it felt that way to me after the places I’ve been eating lately) place in the city center. Neil was apparently very keen to try it as it was supposed to use the best ingredients, etc. Because it was so nice, almost all of us ended up ordering the cheapest thing on the menu, cau lau (a pork and noodle dish that is a Hoi An specialty). I enjoyed it, but others who had had cau lau before felt that it was just as good for a lot less money elsewhere.

I told everyone about my plans to go to Laos and Julie volunteered that she had once taken the 24-hour bus from Hanoi to Vientiane. I asked her what she had thought of it. “We called it the hell bus. It was horrible. There were lots of bugs, it smelled terrible, we were swerving on mountain roads all night, and the row behind me was filled with luggage that local people were sitting on, which meant that I had their dirty feet on either side of my head. But it makes a great story! You absolutely should do it!”

I bought a plane ticket the next day.

Speaking of the next day, I found my way back to my tailor in one try and was very pleased with myself—which turned about to be hubris because it was the last time I was able to find anything in Hoi An in one go. (The streets just look so similar! Fortunately, it is not very large so there is a limit to how much walking back and forth and back and forth you go do.) They had basically finished the dress—I could have taken it home then and there. But I thought it was a little loose in the bodice (at first they argued that it only felt loose because I wasn’t wearing a bra, but then one of them felt it and instantly changed her tune), and I didn’t like the location of the halter straps, so I asked them to move them. They told me to come back in a few hours.

The final draft

The final draft

I decided to use the time to get some pencil skirts made. I could have used the same tailor, but none of the dresses on display in the shop had complicated skirts, and since pencil skirts have to fit exactly right or look incredibly cheap, I decided to go to what Trip Advisor claimed was the best tailor in town: Yaly.

Even from across the street I could tell that Yaly was on a whole other level from my first tailor. A staff member was waiting right inside the door to welcome you. Instead of one room, there were two floors, a courtyard, an area with changing rooms and mirrors, a shoe section, and catalogues and laptops to help you figure out what you wanted. I pulled up my Pinterest page for my consultant, Nga, and showed her a picture of a J. Crew pencil skirt. She told me it would be $35, which seemed like a lot when I had just gotten a whole cocktail dress for $30, but I knew that the skirt would probably be more work than the dress, since it would have to be tailored so precisely. We went upstairs to look at fabric. She pointed me towards a stretchy blend, and I picked out four colors: kelly green, aqua, cobalt blue, and red. (I know what you’re thinking, but I am unrepentant. Except for one t-shirt, which I bought because everything else I owned was filthy, I hadn’t bought anything for myself for the entire trip. And I had been coveting these skirts forever).

Deciding to get pencil skirts was easy; answering all Nga’s questions about every little detail of the skirts was not. How wide did I want the waistband? What fabric did I want to use for the lining? How narrow did I want it at the knee? How long did I want it? Fortunately, most of the choices I could put off until the following morning at my first fitting.

I sat on a bench by the water and read my Vietnam War book (and deflected people’s offers of boat rides) until it was time to pick up my dress. This time, it was perfect (if a little tight—I was alarmed to find that I could not zip it up all the way, but the tailor was able to very quickly… I just hope that someone, anyone can zip it for me in September). She thanked me for the business and told me to give her best wishes to my brother, which I thought was very nice.

Back at the hotel, Lydia, the Katies, and Leonart (a medical student from Germany), all admired my purchase. I amused myself by writing to my future sister-in-law and telling her that the dress is a style that is very popular in Vietnam that I haven’t seen anywhere else yet—a corset with a sheer skirt over hot pants.

The five of us decided to be lazy and have dinner at the restaurant next to the hotel. It was exclusively populated by white tourists, and it was open to the outdoors , resulting in a seemingly never-ending parade of vendors popping through, offering you everything from bracelets to toys. Saying no over and over again to very hopeful people wears you down a bit after a while.

I began to worry that ordering my pencil skirts was a huge mistake. What if the fabric was wrong and they looked terrible?

But the first skirt looked absolutely fantastic. Even though the bottom seam wasn’t even basted, it looked so good that I was ready to jump up and down. This skirt looked so fabulous that it made up for all the weeks of dowdy gray t-shirts.

Draft one of skirt one

Draft one of skirt one

In between fittings, I decided to explore the other side of the river. I walked far enough (maybe 10 minutes) that I found restaurants where only Vietnamese people were eating. Picture a carport: concrete floor, roof, open walls. Now add some plastic, child-sized furniture (I don’t understand why the Vietnamese use this tiny furniture. Yes, they are short, but they are not kindergarten short. And yet, you can tell a restaurant is really for the locals because the seats are 1 foot off the ground.) I decided that it was time for lunch, and I chose a place at random (there were several in a row because a branch of the river flowed by the back). Later I noticed that there was a monkey on a chain in a tree in the front yard.

When I walked in, there were about three tables of Vietnamese diners. Nobody approached me until I had stood in the center of the room for close to a minute.  Finally, a woman came up to me and said, “Drink or food?” I replied, “Food and drink.” She replied, “Cola?” Which I thought was a little odd, but maybe she only had cola, so I said, “Sure.” Then I sat down at a table next to the river. She returned with a bowl of noodles. I started at it for a moment before realizing that she hadn’t said cola—she’d said cau lau! Whoops! Fortunately, cau lau was fine with me. (I ended up having some cola too. She brought me a glass with ice cubes, which I was pretty sure were made with tap water. After several seconds of indecision I decided to discreetly dump them over the railing onto the embankment. I figured that that’s what the Vietnamese would do in that situation.)

While I was eating, my waitress turned on a TV in the corner to reveal a Korean soap opera. She was absolutely engrossed in it—the whole family gathered in front of it in tiny plastic chairs–and it took a long time for me to get her attention when I needed to pay. Since there hadn’t been a menu, I was a little nervous that she would try to tell me a ridiculous price, but in the end, my noodles and Pepsi cost me a very reasonable $2.

Back in town, I went to my second fitting, where I got to try on all the skirts, which were more or less finished, minus the bottom hem. Some fit much better than others and needed a lot of adjusting. It was a bit strange to have all these women, who came up to my shoulder, poking and prodding me. I felt giant. (I am 5’5”.)

With Nga, who made me feel like a giant

With Nga, who made me feel like a giant

Other things I did to kill time between fittings (I had three for my skirts): look at eyeglass frames (Phuong in Ho Chi Minh City had told me her glasses were very expensive–$35!); visit a temple (this was a very disappointing experience. An old man waited by the front gate to sell tickets for $1, which seemed wrong since I’d never had to pay to go into a temple before, but I thought I might as well do something cultural in Hoi An. Then he insisted on taking my picture (“you take me picture!”)  in pre-ordained places around the (incredibly uninteresting) grounds. Then he would demand that I look at the picture and give my approval. He couldn’t answer even basic questions–I tried to ask what kind of temple it was, and all I could get out of him was “no Buddha.”)

The old man told me to stand there

The old man told me to stand there

Sadly, the Katies (who had rapidly become some of my favorite people from the trip) and Lydia all left on my second day, so my third and last night in Hoi An Leonart and I walked into the city for our final fittings together (he had several suits made at two different tailors). I think he was amazed by how lost I was able to get on my way to a place I had already been to three times. He dropped me off at Yaly and went on to his tailor. Most of my skirts still needed minor adjusting; the lining needed to be tacked down on a couple. But one of them had bigger problems; it just wasn’t falling straight. I was trying to think of a tactful way to say it when the supervisor said it for me, in rapid Vietnamese that I could only understand because the hand motion she used mirrored the angle of the skirt. I was glad I had paid extra to go somewhere where they care enough to make it perfect, without my having to ask. (Leonart was not so lucky; he had commissioned the tailor to make two shirts. One had been perfect at the last fitting, one too loose. They had somehow managed to tighten the perfect one and leave the loose one alone!)

All in all, my time in Hoi An was very pleasant. I never made it to the beach, but that seemed just as well since Lydia and the Katies got badly burned there and they said that it was not that attractive a place anyway. I feel slightly guilty that all I did was buy clothes, but, hey, I supported the traditional local economy. (And I’m going to look so good in my skirts, you are going to hate me.)

 

 

01/23/13

Tunnel Vision

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I am not an adventure traveler. Show me something that provides an adrenaline rush, and I will show you me, running the other way.

So when I heard that it was possible to go down in the tunnels that the Vietcong had dug many meters underground, I was instantly turned off. It sounded both unpleasant and almost tacky, making a sort of adventure out of the war. But then I met Birgitta in Phnom Penh, who told me that it was a really educational experience that I should not miss. She reminded me that people lived underground for 20 years–largely because of American bombing. After that I felt that it was my duty as an American to try to understand what had happened.

Travelers from other countries keep asking me what we learn when we study the Vietnam War in the United States. I tell them that we really don’t study it—at least when I was growing up, it always came up at the very end of the school year, since it was such recent history, so we rushed through it in the last week or two before summer vacation. It was no more than a page or two in our history books.

So I have been trying to fill in the blanks in my education. I’ve been reading an absolutely terrific book, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, by Christian Appy, which is an oral history of the war culled from dozens and dozens of interviews that he did with people from all sides of the conflict.  I can’t help but be most fascinated by the Vietcong accounts, which often have my jaw on the floor. One Vietcong woman said that she was scared before her first battle against the Americans—they were so big and had such advanced weapons—but when she shot her first one the others started to cry and run over to the one she had shot so it turned out to be very easy. She once volunteered for a mission so dangerous that her comrades held a funeral for her before she went. She sat there while they listed all the awards she had won and talked about her just as if she were dead. She spoke a lot about the tunnels they lived in to withstand the bombings and hide from the Americans. She said there were very few places where you could even sit up, let alone stand. Once bombings shut all the openings and they were trapped for a week until they could dig themselves out with bayonets.

It was to those tunnels that I went on my last day in Ho Chi Minh City. (Our guide (whose name was Phu but who told us that if we couldn’t pronounce that, we could use his English name—Puppy) was very adamant that the city should be called Ho Chi Minh and not Saigon, directly contradicting my guide from the day before.)

The Cu Chi Tunnels are about a two-hour drive from the city. We stopped halfway there at a rest stop that doubles as a workshop where victims of Agent Orange make lacquer pieces. It felt a bit odd to walk by them and snap pictures, but apparently that’s what they wanted us to do, as they did not seem to be selling their wares and I couldn’t figure out why else they had brought us there.

When we finally arrived at the entrance gate it was packed with tourists. I’m amazed that our group (of about 15) didn’t get separated—Phu (no, I am not going to call him “Puppy”) was always racing off in a new direction, leaving me scrambling to catch up.

We began by walking into the forest. The trees in it seemed young, as you’d expect given that the whole area was bombed to pieces 40 years ago. Our destination was a thatched-roof-covered room where a video informed us about the war in a narrative so biased it was at times rather humorous (the Americans were referred to as “devils”). Unfortunately, there was another group there as well so we were at the back and I was unable to see/hear everything. After the video the other group left and Phu had us move up the front, where he showed us a diorama of the three levels of tunnels. The top level was only 3 meters underground, and that’s where the Vietcong did most of their living. The other two levels were for escaping. (I just read an account in my book that said that there were always helicopters or airplanes overhead, so much so that when the skies were quiet they knew a big attack was coming and moved to the lower level tunnels. As such they rarely got hurt.) Phu showed us how they diffused the smoke from cooking (by not having a chimney that went straight up, but a horizontal space that pushed the smoke farther away from their living space).

The room where we watched the video.

The room where we watched the video.

Then he took us on a walk through the forest, stopping at various points to show us different things. First stop was one of the original tunnel entrances. It was an unbelievably tiny rectangle—maybe a foot by six inches—with a lid camouflaged by dirt and leaves. Here’s video. Phu asked for volunteers and a number of people climbed in. I was waiting for my turn when he rushed off to the next location and I had to race to catch up. Oh, well!

One of the most fascinating stops was the trap they invented to kill the German shepherds the Americans used to try to find the tunnels. It was a sort of seesaw that flipped over when the dogs stepped on it (they coated them in fish oil to attract the dogs). On the other side were sharpened bamboo spikes. Once they killed the dog, they ate it. Here’s video.

Phu showed us a mannequin dressed in typical Vietcong attire. He said the giveaway was their shoes—they wore distinctive crisscrossed sandals. When they went into villages in normal clothes, the tan lines on their feet would give them away.

Phu explaining VIetcong clothing

Phu explaining VIetcong clothing

He took us to an exhibit showing an underground workshop with mannequins demonstrating how the Vietcong made tools—but I was too distracted by some obnoxious Chinese(?) teenagers to pay attention. They were taking lots of goofy photos with the mannequins out of his sightline. I was this close to telling them that millions of people died in this war; show some respect, when it was time to move along.

The next stop was the shooting range. Yes, the only shooting range in Vietnam is right next to the tunnels. I can’t decide how I feel about this; on the one hand, it seems tacky as hell; on the other, it really helps with the atmosphere to hear guns going off in the distance. When we got closer to the range the noise from the AK47s was actually making me jump—it helped me imagine how much worse it would be if those guns were trying to kill me.

One of many traps for humans. They were designed to maim, not kill, since it slows the enemy down if they have to carry wounded.

One of many traps for humans. They were designed to maim, not kill, since it slows the enemy down if they have to carry wounded.

After that, it was finally time to go down in the tunnels. (They had been slightly enlarged for westerners—according to the Danish girl, the average Vietnamese man weighs something like 48 kilos! Which is about 105 pounds!) When we arrived at the entrance (stairs covered by a thatched roof), people from the group ahead of us were already coming out, having turned back because they couldn’t cope with the claustrophobia. That was not an auspicious beginning. I nearly gave up right then. But then I reminded myself that the whole point of my coming was to experience the claustrophobia and try to understand what the Vietnamese people went through during the war, so I inserted myself into the middle of the line (I had no intention of being stuck next to the Chinese teens), and walked down the stairs.

The stairs led to a slightly lower level where there was an actual hole (probably close to 3 feet in diameter) that you had to lower yourself into to get to the tunnel itself. That was a bit scary. The tunnel I found myself in was about 4 feet high—I was able to walk doubled over. There were dim lights every few feet. I followed the guy in front of me as closely as I could. More than once another hole appeared and we had to go down another level. That always involved a deep breath. There were twists and turns. We were often backed up when the people in front of us would stop to take photos (I could usually only see one or two people ahead of me, but they would report back what was going on). During one of these traffic jams the guy behind me asked me to take his photo and as far as I was concerned, he immediately became my best friend, since I needed someone to talk to and encourage to keep myself distracted. Especially since the tunnel kept getting smaller. By the end we were in a sort of crouched position, scooching along. Here’s (very poor quality) video. But all in all I was surprised at how little it bothered me. It actually reminded me a bit of a feature at the Boston Children’s Museum, where as a kid I crawled around in a rather claustrophobic jungle gym that spanned two floors. I just told myself I was in a museum exhibit and was fine.

When I emerged from the tunnel (up more stairs and out of another thatched roofed area) I was absurdly proud of myself. I had seen cocky 20-year-old guys seriously consider giving up, and I had done the whole thing without breaking a sweat. Metaphorically. Because literally, I was bathed in it. It was so hot down there that I was sopping. But I had kept a cool head.

Someone is very proud of herself!

Someone is very proud of herself!

Just when I was getting cocky, our guide told us that he was giving us the rare opportunity to go through an original (read: not enlarged) tunnel. The idea of going through an even smaller space made me nervous, but there was no way I was not going to try. This time I decided to leave my purse with one of the wusses people who decided not to go down in the tunnels and just carry my camera. Our guide (who never came down in the tunnels with us) told the girl who was at the front to keep turning right and never turn left (which was quite scary to think that we could go off in the wrong direction and get lost!) There would be no lights in this one, but she had a small one on her cell phone (which is how she ended up in front).

The experience was much the same as the first, only with more nervous laughter, more darkness, and more crawling, since the ceiling was too low to do anything else. Since I was holding my camera, I had to crawl on the back of one hand, and I still have a cut there a few days later. I used my camera to create some light for the people behind me (I could see a little bit up ahead of me, but they were in darkness.) I took dozens of forced flash pictures of nothing. We were always telling each other what was happening to keep our nerves calm. At one point I went down a level and the angle was steep and the ground slippery, so I made sure to call back and warn the people behind me. Eventually, I came to a hole in the ceiling and had to use all my upper body strength to pull myself into what turned out to be an underground room. That turned out to be the end of the tunnel. Once again, I was giddy with pride and drenched in sweat. I kept apologizing to people who had to stand near me—but, of course, they were in just as bad shape.

Unfortunately, I didn’t spend much time in the tunnels reflecting on the war. I think if I had thought things like, “imagine spending 20 years down here with the most powerful army in the world bombing you,” it would have been too scary and I wouldn’t have been able to do it. But I have been reading my book every chance I get–each time I eat a meal alone or when I have a few minutes to sit on a bench–so I have definitely been thinking about it a lot. I feel like I finally understand it–as much as someone can who wasn’t there, of course.

On the bus on the way back I decided to be polite and introduce myself to the guy in the seat next to me (whom I had ignored on the way there in favor of my book). He turned out to be Ludo, a French-speaking Swiss math teacher, and an instant friend. We chatted all the way back to the Ho Chi Minh, then had lunch together near the War Remnants Museum (which I was determined to see more of than what I could during the 50 minutes I had gotten during my city tour).

That night I fulfilled my promise to the woman at the first restaurant I ate at in HCMC by coming back to see her before I went. Alas, she wasn’t there, but since I brought a large group of people (a mix of friends I had made in the city and people from Couch Surfing I had invited sight unseen) to her restaurant, I felt like I had done my part to repay her kindness.

(One of the people I brought to dinner was Tara, an American who is teaching English in Korea. Tara had just arrived in HCMC, and I asked her if she had crossed the street yet. She said no, so I told her to just stand right beside me and walk at the same speed I did, and I would put myself between her and the traffic. When we crossed, a couple of older Vietnamese women were crossing as well, but I was the closest to the cars/motorbikes. Halfway through, I felt Tara take my hand. I thought it was kind of adorable that she was that scared and felt she could trust me even though we had just met. But when I stepped onto the curb and turned my head, I saw that it wasn’t Tara at all—one of the older Vietnamese women had taken my hand to protect me! I was so touched. She didn’t even try to speak to me—just walked away quietly.)

Our dinner was lovely. The group was very diverse (Ludo, Ludo’s French friend Rashid, Tom (Hong Kong/Australia) from the Mekong trip, Tara, an American who was staying in the same dorm as I was, and two people from Couch Surfing, Glen from Yorkshire and Phuong, from, of all places, Ho Chi Minh City). I peppered Phuong with questions about herself, Vietnam, and local etiquette. She is 25 and works in market research. She loves to travel but she says it’s very difficult to save for it since the dong is worth so little compared to other countries’ currencies. She said she thinks it’s fine for me to wear tops that expose my shoulders, so so much for that worry.

Our merry, blurry dinner group. L-R Phuong, Glen, Ludo, Rashid, Tom, me, Tara

Our merry, blurry dinner group. L-R Phuong, Glen, Ludo, Rashid, Tom, me, Tara

After dinner Phuong took us to a couple of bars back in the Backpacker district. She met us there since she had brought her motorbike to the restaurant. As the rest of us walked we ran into some Vietnamese teens who started speaking to us (I assume because they wanted to practice their English). One young man gestured to the traffic and said, “We drive like fishes, but if you step into traffic blindfolded you won’t get hurt.” I loved the image of them driving like fish—it’s so true. The motorbikes move like schools of fish with almost no rhyme or reason to it.

When we got close to Saigon Buffalo, the bar where we were to meet Phuong, a whole team of its staff swooped in on us, urging us to go in. I assured them that we were going to. They continued to insist. I pointed to Phuong and said, “Look! My friend is right there! You don’t have to try so hard.” But they still did everything short of pushing us onto the patio. It was really annoying. But I was still very happy to be there–since I had stayed in every night Skyping and writing, it was great fun to sit at an outside table and watch the world go by. Later we moved across the street to a roof deck where we could see the lights of the tallest building in the city (it’s only 40-odd stories high, which seems plenty). When we left one of the employees actually grabbed my arm and tried to drag me into the nightclub section of the bar. I yanked my arm away, pretty pissed off. I guess they must get in trouble if people leave. Or maybe they make money per person they bring in? Either way, it’s too much pressure. (Incidentally, Ludo and I could not agree on which country’s people pressures you more, Cambodia or Vietnam. I said no contest, Cambodia, and he said the opposite. I could not believe he thought Vietnam was as bad as Cambodia, let alone worse, and he was equally disbelieving of my reaction.)

I had to get up very early the following morning to fly to Da Nang, so Tara and I said goodbye at midnight and walked back to our hostel. Once again, I found myself sad to leave a city where I had met so many nice people. I could only hope that my next stop, Hoi An, would be just as fun.

01/20/13

Big River


537139_10152415519235277_1041764245_nWhat to say about my two-day trip to the Mekong Delta…

The river is huge. Huge! I think it must be wider than the Mississippi (it’s hard to tell, because it has so many town-sized islands in it that you can’t see the whole thing at once). The wide parts of the river aren’t terribly attractive, since the water is brown and there’s not much to see except rundown buildings far away at the shore. But the narrow parts are magical. We took a small boat (our guide called it a canoe but it was more like a punt or a gondola, since it is pushed with a long pole) down what our guide called a creek (it was probably 15 feet wide). Here’s video. The foliage is so thick and so tall that it creates a sort of wall around you, and with just the sound of the water lapping at the boat it is very peaceful. (I had the somewhat surreal experience of being in a boat with a Spanish couple and their Vietnamese guide—I got so confused when this Vietnamese guy started speaking to me in Spanish! But I decided to take advantage of his expertise. I asked him if it’s true that there were crocodiles in the river (our guide had warned us just before we got into the boats, and while I took him seriously in the moment, later I began to wonder if he were pulling my leg). He said he didn’t think there were so many anymore. I asked if it were possible to swim in the river. He said something like, “Look at the water! It is so brown. And the mud is very deep.”(At least I think that’s what he said–my Spanish vocabulary does not extend to analyzing mud.)) The “canoeing” was definitely the highlight of the boating, since riding in a big boat with 40 people in a river a mile wide does not feel nearly as special.

The rice noodle workshop

The rice noodle workshop

In addition to boating down the river, over the course of the two days we visited a cocoanut candy workshop, a rice noodle workshop, a fruit farm, a Buddhist pagoda, and a village where they performed traditional music for us. I assume that  our guide got paid by all these businesses (save the pagoda) for bringing us there, since we were all encouraged to buy candy, food, fruit, and crafts wherever we went.  Most of these stops were pretty dull, but I quite liked the fruit farm. I had never seen pineapple plants before. They are surprisingly inefficient—a very large plant for a single piece of fruit. The farm was crisscrossed with man-made canals for irrigation. Our guide said that the water goes in and out with the tides; just before the tide goes out, they put a net at the end of the canal to catch all the fish that were pushed in with the water. One of the highlights of the farm was a bridge the owner had built in the traditional Mekong style over a small pond. It consisted of a series of extremely narrow logs (about as wide as my foot) which allowed you to walk as though on an extremely arched balance beam. They only inauthentic part was the railings, which they had put up for us tourists. I certainly could not have done it without them. (There were some extremely hungry-looking carp in that pond…)

A pineapple plant

A pineapple plant

I became fast friends with a French girl named Stephanie who was also traveling alone. She has just quit her job and sold all her furniture to start a new life in Scotland—where she has never been! I was very impressed by her bravery.

Our guide, Thanh, was at first very funny and entertaining. He told us Thanh is a very popular name in Vietnam—for girls. (He was the 11th son in a row and his father was so desperate for a daughter that he named him before he was born.) He had lots of interesting anecdotes about the history and culture of Vietnam. He said that originally only the north was Vietnam. But the king had a beautiful daughter, whom he married off to the king of the neighboring kingdom (what is now central Vietnam). As soon as the wedding was over the king of Vietnam sent his army into his son-in-law’s territory. Thanh said that his father used this story to warn him to stay away from beautiful women. (Thanh’s father also warned him to stay away from women from the Mekong Delta, because it’s such a prosperous area thanks to the rich soil that people from the area are not good at saving money and they are a bit lazy compared to the rest of the country.) Thanh also explained how the Mekong Delta came to be part of Vietnam (it was part of Cambodia and virtually empty, but then word of its excellent farming conditions spread and it was settled by so many Vietnamese that it became part of the country).

I say Thanh was funny and entertaining at first because halfway through the first day there was a dramatic switch in his personality. I first noticed after Stephanie told me that she was scheduled for a home stay that night. I asked Thanh if I could switch to one as well, since that sounded much more interesting than spending the night in a hotel, and he said I could but it would be $8 more. I asked if the $5 I had had to pay as a single supplement fee could be applied towards the $8. He became very huffy and said no. I asked why not and at first he wouldn’t even answer me, but after I pressed  he said that he had to pay for the hotel room whether I stayed there or not because it was too late to cancel. Which seemed very reasonable to me, and I said so, but he was still in a terrible mood from my question and said, “Clearly, you don’t want to pay more. You should just stay at the hotel.” The people around us looked at me in puzzlement, like “what’s wrong with him?!” I said no, I was perfectly willing to pay more; I had simply wanted to understand why. When he went away I remarked to Stephanie that I couldn’t understand why he was so defensive—he had seemed so nice and funny earlier. She said that when she had first arrived he had taken her ticket and she had asked if he would be giving her a receipt and he had said, “Don’t you trust the Vietnamese?!”

Later, when we were driving on the bus, Thanh asked if we wanted to hear about what we were doing later that evening now or after the rest stop. (He often gave us choices like that.) Somebody said they’d like to hear now, which was apparently the wrong answer, because Thanh looked deeply affronted and then launched into a rambling speech (using a microphone!) about how he had never had a complaint or a problem with a group before, but clearly we didn’t trust him. He went on in a martyred tone for several minutes. The Australian teenager across the aisle from me and I spent the pity party making “WTF?!” faces at each other. I can’t imagine an American service industry professional freaking out like that over anything short of rioting. It’s a shame because I really liked him at the beginning, when he was telling funny stories and encouraging us to correct his English, but after that I was tempted to offer to teach him the English word “tantrum.” (Later, at the pagoda, he was talking to us about Buddhism, and he started talking about the day when everyone goes and prays for their parents. He started talking about the importance of family in Vietnam, which evolved into the importance of not neglecting your parents, which somehow evolved into an angry rant about how those of us who have parents—his are dead—don’t appreciate them.)

Anyway, I don’t want to make it sound like our guide’s crazy mood swings ruined the trip. Not at all—if anything, it gave all of us something to bond over.

At the end of the first day, after four hours of driving in a bus broken up by many boat trips, we arrived in the city of Can Tho (pronounced, to my ears at least, like Gun Ter). It looked very much like Ho Chi Minh City (which Thanh, incidentally, told us to call Saigon, because “Ho Chi Minh City is just too long”), only much, much smaller, of course, and without the same energy. Most of the people staying in the city were staying at an establishment Thanh repeatedly informed us was a “seven-star hotel.” Stephanie and I giggled to each other about how disappointed we were to be missing our big opportunity to stay at the world’s best hotel. (A quick glance at the spare lobby had us concluding at the rooms must be gold-plated.)

Those of us doing a homestay were sent in a minivan out of the city. Before we left Thanh, in a moment of good humor, told us to take a walk after dinner and try to catch a firefly so we could make a wish as we released it.

Outside the city center, in a no-man’s-land of big box stores, we drove around a rotary with a construction site in the middle. Sitting beside the central island, in the lane itself, was a man playing an acoustic guitar and singing. In the dark, surrounded by cars and motorbikes. I couldn’t figure out if he were playing for the construction workers or the motorbike riders.

We left the main road and drove down a dark one-lane street with small, square white houses (picture garages in southern California) on either side, close to the street. Most of them had wide doors that were open to let in the cool night air. All of them—every single one—had a portrait of Ho Chi Minh in the living room. (Later I asked a Vietnamese girl I became friendly with if that were compulsory; she said no, she doesn’t have one.) None of us knew what to expect—would all six of us be staying with the same family? Anya and Jan, a German couple going with us, told us that when they were in Halong Bay they did a homestay where the family gave them their beds and slept on the floor! I fervently hoped that wouldn’t happen for us.

I needn’t have worried; when the cab finally stopped, it was to pull up next to a large, professionally-produced sign: “Welcome to Hung ‘Homestay.’” At the end of the driveway were a number of round tables where westerners sat, eating dinner. Stephanie and I looked at each other. “W’re at a guest house!”P1040583

Naturally, we were disappointed (especially when it became clear that the Vietnamese family that ran the place couldn’t really speak English so our interactions with them were by necessity very limited), but once we got over that, it was a really lovely place. Our rooms were  behind the house, and felt like they were practically in the jungle due to all the plants and loud animal noises. They were little cabins made out of some sort of woven leaves. They faced a small canal (about six feet wide) which you had to cross via a bridge that was one-foot wide. (The first time, I wasn’t brave enough to try it and went farther  along to a bigger bridge; after that, I got over it.) Stephanie and I were put in the same one; it had two queen-sized beds under mosquito netting and a very primitive bathroom.

After we dropped off our things we joined two couples from our tour in the dining area (which felt like a carport.) Soon a woman from the family appeared with a bowl full of brown spring roll filling and some rice wrappers. She demonstrated how we should roll them, and then left us to prepare a bowl full. Once they were ready, she led us into the kitchen to fry them on the stove. (It looked more or less like a western kitchen, with some very nice wooden cabinets.) We took turns lifting the rolls into the wok with chopsticks. When they were all ready we returned to our table to find it piled high with food, including the ingredients for fresh spring rolls (vermicelli, lettuce, mint, etc.) We were shown how to put them together and left to our own devices.

After dinner we decided to take the walk Thanh had suggested. We took a right turn out of the driveway and headed in the opposite direction from the city. It was a warm night and it was fun to stroll down the street, peering into houses. Most people were sitting right inside the open door, looking right back at us. We got a lot of hellos. One entire family came out to the street to talk to us (they pushed their shy little girl to say hello, which she refused to do until I said it first), but unfortunately they didn’t know any other words. (We tried French and Spanish as well to no avail.) Through some cute pantomime they were able to convey that the flowers on the tree beside us were asleep for the night. Eventually we just smiled a lot at each other. It was a little frustrating, but it was also one of my favorite moments of the trip. How can you not be touched by people crossing the street just to smile at you? Here’s some video of our walk.

Eventually we spotted our first firefly. It was on the same side of the street as the river, and when Anya headed down a path in pursuit I had a horrible vision of her being eaten by one of the (alleged) crocodiles. Fortunately, we soon spotted some on the other side of the street. To my amazement, I was the first to catch one. I held it in my cupped hands for a second before releasing it, and my wish, into the side yard of a Vietnamese family who probably would have been astonished had they looked out their window.

Even when we were walking where there were no human noises—no televisions, no music, no voices—it was far from silent. The insects alone made quite an impressive racket. Then there was the wind in the trees, and the water. Stephanie and I stood and listened for a moment and thought about what it must have been like to be a soldier listening to the same noises, wondering if one of them was trying to kill him.

When we got back to our cabin we were very glad to have the mosquito net. We had quite a menagerie of bugs in there (including, at one point, fireflies) as well as the lizards that are ubiquitous in this part of the world. All night I could hear what sounded like burrowing beneath me—I just prayed that if whatever it was emerged from under the bed, I would be asleep when it happened.

Our cabin. This photo doesn't capture how pretty the area was.

Our cabin. This photo doesn’t capture how pretty the area was.

We got up at 5:30 to see the sun rise over the river (at least, that was the theory—it was already up by the time we headed with the man of the house to his small boat at 5:50. He took us down a small branch of the river to the spot where we would be meeting up with Thanh and the rest of our group. Here’s some video. As we headed down the river he somehow managed to serve us breakfast (rolls with jam), complete with tea! When we arrived at the meeting place a middle-aged woman pulled up beside us in a small wooden boat filled with bottles of soda and beer and made him an iced coffee right in the boat. She served it to him in a small plastic bag with a straw sticking out of the top.76916_10152415520620277_665862059_n

Thanh and the others appeared in a large boat and we climbed aboard. Then we sailed down the river to see the floating market. It consists of dozens of boats ranging from the very small (like the four-seater canoes we took the day before) to the medium-sized selling everything from pineapples to cabbages to the boats themselves. They advertise their wares by hanging a sample from a tall bamboo pole. That way, from a distance you can see who has watermelons and who has mangos. Many of the boats pulled up beside ours to sell coffee and fruit to us tourists.

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Most of the women were wearing the iconic conical hats. (Thanh explained that there are many purposes for these hats. First, to keep out the sun. Second, they can be used as measuring devices since they each contain sixteen rings. So if you use the hat to borrow rice from a neighbor, you can remember that you owe them four rings worth, for example. Third, if you have to use the bathroom out in a field and someone surprises you, you can use the hat to cover—your face.)

All in all, it was a very pleasant experience that I will always remember fondly. While I neglect my parents and distrust the Vietnamese, of course

 

 

01/16/13

Miss Saigon

 

One of the tanks that helped "liberate" the Reunification Palace and end the war

One of the tanks that helped “liberate” the Reunification Palace and end the war

Greetings from Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon! I arrived yesterday afternoon after a very pleasant 6-hour bus trip from Phnom Penh. The view was scenic—lots of rice paddies and tropical plants in Cambodia, and busy-looking towns in Vietnam. (You can check it out on my Youtube page, where I have also added short videos from the rest of my trip, just to give people a feel for what everything looks like). The border crossing was a piece of cake—easier than going to Canada.

The one hitch was that when I arrived in HCMC and found myself on a street corner/construction site with cabbies demanding to know where I was going, I didn’t know. I couldn’t find the confirmation email for my hotel booking on my ipod, and I didn’t have the faintest idea how to pronounce its very Vietnamese name, so I wrote down what I thought was the name of the guesthouse and showed it hopefully to the closest cab driver. He assured me that he knew where it was (I was dubious, fearing that I might have just written down a random combination of “ng” and “th,” but I figured that I didn’t have much to lose—going anywhere would be better than staying where I was.) I asked him how much the ride would cost and he told me he’d use the meter.

As we drove he told me that HCMC had a population of 10,000,000. “What’s the population of New York?” he asked. “Eight million,” I replied. He smirked, clearly pleased at HCMC’s superior size. “How old are you?” I told him. “Are you married?” I told him I wasn’t. He was contemptuous. “In Vietnam, women are married at 24, 25.” He was beginning to annoy me. “I’m lucky,” I told him. “I can do whatever I want. I’ve been to 30 countries.” He continued as if he hadn’t heard me. “I’m 34 and have two children.” I decided to let it drop and not get into a pissing contest with a cab driver from a developing country.

But if I had known how much he was going to overcharge me, I wouldn’t have been so restrained.

I had somehow managed to misunderstand the exchange rate when I had looked it up the day before—I thought it was over 100,000 dong to $1 when in fact it’s about 20,000 dong to the dollar. So when he charged me over 400,000 dong for a 10-minute cab ride I didn’t think twice about it. It was only later that day that I realized I had spent over $20! (To give you some perspective as to what $20 is worth here: tomorrow I am going on a 2-day excursion to the Mekong Delta that includes a 2-3 hour bus trip, numerous stops, two meals, and overnight accommodation for $24.) Ugh! Thinking about that smug little man with his superior attitude AND his dishonesty makes me wish I had told him off. Oh, well! Hopefully karma will get him someday.

My guesthouse turned out to be down a very busy little alley off a very busy street (are there other kinds in HCMC?) The man and woman at the front desk could not have been sweeter—they practically begged me to have some complimentary tea and made sure I had a map of the city and anything else I might need. The room I’m staying in is on the 6th floor (yes, it’s a walk-up), and the toilets and showers are off the balcony, which means you feel like you’re showering outside. I brushed my teeth this morning while looking down over the neighborhood rooftops. (And up—there are plenty of taller buildings around here.)

After I got settled I decided to take a walk. HCMC feels much busier than Phnom Penh (which felt pretty busy). I thought PP had a lot of motorbikes but HCMC is just crazy—if you are outdoors, you are probably in the path of someone’s moto. Even if you’re on the sidewalk. The parks actually have metal bars suspended about 6 inches off the ground to prevent people from riding through them.

I had heard before I got to Asia that crossing the street in Vietnam was scary, but since it was scary at first in Phnom Penh I thought it would be about the same. (Nobody will stop for you in either city unless you are physically blocking their path. This means that you have to start crossing the street while there are a dozen motorbikes speeding towards you. You just have to make a judgment about when to start going (to give the drivers enough warning), and be sure to walk at a consistent speed so they can decide whether to go in front of you or behind you (they’re not going to come to a complete stop unless they absolutely have to—and believe me, nothing you do is going to make them think they absolutely have to.) And remember to look both ways! Nobody follows the rules. Nobody.) It is almost the same as PP in HCMC, but there are so many more motos that it is definitely scarier at busy intersections. A couple of times good Samaritans have actually walked me across the street because I was hesitating (sometimes simply because I forgot that waiting at a corner for traffic to stop is a useless exercise here).

Being me, I was famished (my bus got in at 2:00pm), but I didn’t want to eat just anywhere—which meant that it was close to 4:00 when I finally spotted a restaurant that looked like a good place for lunch. It was an absolutely gorgeous space, with carved wooden tables and chairs, black ceramic bowls that looked handmade, and very elegant decorations. Normally I wouldn’t dream of eating at such an expensive-looking place, but I’d seen the menu outside and it was ridiculously cheap. (I had an enormous bowl of noodles and shrimp and a coconut shake for $5.) Since it was so late (or so early, depending on your point of view), the place was deserted. At first the staff left me alone, but when I asked for my check the owner, who had seemed very quiet and businesslike, became very bubbly and as sweet as the cab driver was rude. When she heard it was my first day in Vietnam she insisting on treating me to a traditional dessert made of bananas and chocolate (delicious). She sat down with me and told me all about herself (she saved for years to open the restaurant, which she had finally been able to do the year before. Her husband is a landlord—she explained that it’s very hard to buy a house in Vietnam because you have to pay cash, so people need to rent.) She kept apologizing for her English—and I kept reminding her that I didn’t know how to say a thing in Vietnamese. (She then taught me thank you, hello, and sorry—the three most important words in any language.) She was very interested in my life—she had me write down the names of the TV shows I used to work on so she could look them up—and she immediately friended me on Facebook. She begged me to be careful walking around the city, warning me that close to the Lunar New Year (Tet) there is a lot of petty theft. She kept saying, “This neighborhood not safe.” I had trouble believing her—it seemed extremely safe (Chanel was around the corner), but since she was so insistent I decided to take a guided tour the next day instead of walking around on my own. She told me that my hotel was too far to walk to, and was amazed when I told her I had already walked from it. “Vietnamese don’t walk anywhere! We [she acted out riding on a motorbike.]” She was slightly concerned that I was going to walk back, but I told her that if it got dark, I would take a taxi. She spent a lot of time carefully augmenting the map my guesthouse had given me, adding her restaurant and carefully drawing a line showing the route I should take. As I left she made me promise to come back and see her before I go.

Is that the sweetest thing you have ever heard or what?

(For the record, the restaurant is called Co Tam Kitchen and it’s located at 71 Ho Tung Mau Street in District 1.)

I walked back as the sun set, and for the first time I began to regret the absence of the ubiquitous Phnom Penh tuk-tuk drivers. It was getting dark, I wasn’t 100% sure where I was going, and there was no cheap, easy way to get a ride there, since I didn’t really trust the taxis after my experience and I had no intention of riding on the back of a moto. But the flip side of almost no one offering me a ride was that I felt comfortable asking for directions (in PP I never wanted to ask because why would they tell me when they wanted to drive me there?) I pulled out my map a few times and people very helpfully pointed the way. It was rush hour on a Monday, and I couldn’t believe how many motos were on the street. There was a point when I was literally trapped—surrounded on all sides–and I was on the sidewalk!

Eventually I made it back to the hostel, where the staff helped me arrange my city tour, as well as excursions to the Mekong Delta and the Cu Chi tunnels. Most impressively, they also found me a flight to Da Nang for $30 less than I was seeing online. Now I know never to book anything myself!

This morning I got up bright and early for my 8:30am city tour. One of the downsides of staying in a dorm is that you can’t just leave your things strewn all over the room (well, you could, but that might not be the smartest thing to do), so you have to allow time not just to get dressed, but to repack your clothes and lock up your valuables.

There ended up being 12 of us on the tour—two Brits, one German, two Belgians, a few Brazilians, and me. We drove from attraction to attraction in a van while our guide, Tran, explained the upcoming destination in broken English.

The stop I was most excited about was the War Remnants Museum. It’s dedicated to what they call the American War, and it was fascinating to read about it from their perspective. Fascinating and horrifying. Granted, it was totally one-sided, but I couldn’t point to anything in the exhibit of the “U.S. aggressive war in Vietnam” and say, “that’s a lie!” (But then, of course, I’m no expert. We hardly studied it in school, and as I think I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t able to finish the book that I started about it. I just downloaded another to my kindle, though, so hopefully soon I’ll be better informed.)

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They have a whole room full of photographs of Agent Orange victims—babies born with no legs, no arms, etc., along with quotes from international figures condemning the use of the chemical as criminal and immoral. I had a really hard time looking at the photos–there are so many of them and they are merciless. But what really got to me was the next room—after showing you all that, you are then greeted with this sign:

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I had to fight back tears.

My favorite exhibit was of photographs by photographers killed in the war. It featured images by journalists of all political stripes, and many of them were from the last roll of film they ever shot. They were pictures of everything from medics in the field to Vietnamese families running to escape bombs. A sign said it was a gift from the people of Kentucky to the people of Vietnam. That made me feel slightly better.

I should say that a number of Vietnamese people have asked me where I’m from and nobody has had a negative reaction. Usually they tell me they have a cousin in California. I just met a very sweet 63-year-old moto driver who, when I smilingly refused his offer of a ride, engaged me in conversation. When he heard where I’m from he told me he loves American movies. “Indiana Jones! Harrison Ford!” He listed the cities he has met people from. When I told him my brother lives in Chicago, he said “I know Chicago! Al Capone!”

After the museum I asked our guide what had happened to his parents during the war. He said that his father worked for the Americans and so after the fall of Saigon he had gone to prison for two years. He also had two uncles who had worked for the CIA and they had also gone to jail.

The next stop was the city’s main market. He gave us 50 minutes to explore—as much time as we had had at the museum—which was about 40 minutes too many. As Rob, one of the Brits, put it, it is the most chaotic place any of us had ever been. You are literally always in someone’s way, inside or outside of the building. The passages between the stalls are about eighteen inches wide, so you are always squeezing past someone. Standing still for even a minute is impossible. Not virtually impossible. Impossible. There were some interesting things for sale—particularly in the food section—but I couldn’t wait to leave.

I ate our (barely edible) lunch with the British couple, Rob and Lou. Lou is a social worker and I was fascinated to hear about her work in child protective services (she said it’s not nearly as bad as I imagined—it’s mostly telling immigrants that hitting children with a belt is illegal in Britain and they should not do it again. And they don’t.)

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Other memorable stops included the Reunification Palace, which was the site of the end of the war, and the city’s very cute French colonial post office.

Ultimately the tour was a pretty unsatisfying experience—we rushed through the one thing I cared out (we had less than an hour at the War Remnants Museum) and spent far too long at things I didn’t (we went through every room of the Reunification Palace). But at least I won’t have to leave the city thinking, “gee, I wish I had gone to a lacquer factory.”

I ended up having dinner at 5:00pm (I was starving due to the rock-hard spring rolls I’d had for lunch) at a pho place recommended by the ever-smiling receptionist at my hostel. I asked the waiter what the best pho was, and he suggested a beef variation that was slightly more expensive than the others (it was almost $3!) I consumed the (delicious) dish while sipping my first Vietnamese iced coffee (which is now my favorite food!) and watching the motos whiz by as the sun went down. Here’s the view:

A perfect end to a very nice day. Which I think was a Tuesday. But I’m not sure. Which makes it a spectacular day.