Before I start anything, I just want to say that Vietnam is awesome. I love this country and it has made my list of top places I have visited. Every traveler will tell you that your experience in a country depends on a lot of factors. Some people may have an amazing time somewhere while others would never go back to visit. The experiences you have, the people you meet, your health, the weather, and the cultural connection can all play a big part in how you perceive a place. After a few weeks of health problems and coping with a round of homesickness, I hoped that something would shift in my surroundings to give me a zest of refreshment and motivation to get my travel mojo back. Well...I am back!While in Saigon, Dave, Laura, and I signed up for a half day tour to visit the war tunnels outside of town. We loaded onto a bus with about 10 other tourists. Our tour guide was named Joey, or at least that was the name he told us to call him. He had a microphone at the front of the bus and as soon as we were all seated he started explaining how he got the name Joey. He said that he had befriended an Australian ex-pat and they hung out a lot. The ex-pat called him Joey like the kangaroo. They got to know each other well and the ex-pat was going to try to get him into Australia to live. However, he ended up dying in a car accident….and Joey never got to Australia. His dream of starting a life there was shattered. The entire bus was silent after his introductory story. We weren’t sure why he had just told us that and what type of response he was wanting. Shortly after the story, Joey tried to liven up the group by telling jokes. I am not sure if it had something to do with the language or cultural barrier, but Joey did not have the concept of political correctness. Let’s just say, if you were black, gay, America, or catholic, you would have been offended. After calling Obama a “chocolate baby” and gay men “3 dollar bills” we started looking around each other wondering what type of tour we had signed up for. After he got out all of his bad jokes though, Joey ended up being pretty informative and I learned a lot about the war that day.
During the war against the French, the hill tribes and Vietnamese created tunnel systems throughout certain regions of the county. These tunnels were so intricate and certain areas were 3 levels deep. They included full-on living areas, breathing holes, watering wells, and booby traps. Some of the systems went on for miles and miles. During the “American War” the US soldiers would build camps over the tunnels without having a clue what was below them. In the middle of the night, VC would come out of hidden trap doors and ambush soldiers and then retreat back into the tunnels without leaving a trace behind. It took a very long time for the US Soldiers to realize what they were up against. Once they were aware of the tunnel systems, they did whatever they could to figure out where the hidden doors were located. Dogs were used to sniff out the area. However, the VC would steal American soap and other items and place them around the breathing holes. This way the dogs could not identify a foreign smell. Sometimes the American soldiers would find an entrance, but most often their bodies were too big to make it past the first level or they would get caught in a booby trap. Keep in mind, the tunnels were most often without electricity. The VC knew the systems by the back of their hands and even though it was dark, they would navigate around the booby traps. At the tunnel site, there was an area that had been cleared of any traps to allow tourists to crawl through. It was a 700 meter long tunnel and they actually made it slightly bigger to accommodate the western sized bodies. As soon as I entered a wave of heat hit me. I managed to bend my back over my knees and walked through most of it. Certain areas I had to get on all fours to get through. However, my shoulders rubbed against the ceiling and it was extremely tight fitting. If you were any bigger than me then it would have been difficult to fit through. After about 2 minutes of being in the tunnel I got a little claustrophobic. I knew as long as I kept moving I would reach the end, but there was no way that I was comfortable being down there. Sweat was dripping down my back and all I could think about was how the villagers and VC would stay in these tunnels for months at a time. They built weapons, devised strategies, cooked, slept, had babies, and raised families in these tunnels and here I was about to faint from crawling through 700 meters for 5 minutes. When we finally reached the end of the tunnel I ran out grasping the fresh air and wiping the sweaty mud off my body. This Taiwanese girl came out behind me and said in a gasping voice “No wonder they won”….I had to agree with her.
After Saigon, we decided to catch a bus to a town called Dalat. It is the gateway town into the Central Highlands. Most tourists follow up the coast line of the country, but I had heard that the highlands were a good alternative if you wanted to get off the beaten path. Dalat was a really nice town. When the French colonized, a lot of them would live in this area because it has the best weather in all of Vietnam. Throughout the year it ranges from 60-80 degrees, which is much cooler than the rest of the country. Because of the weather, they grow an abundant amount of fruit, vegetables, and flowers. It is also decent for grapes, so it is the town where the only Vietnamese wine comes from.
I had heard that there were these motorcycle groups in the highlands that would take you around on day tours. They were called the “Easy Riders”. After walking around the town for a bit, Laura and I stopped at a tourist office to inquire about it. We just wanted to see the countryside of the town and figured the best way to do it was by bike. We jumped on the back of these guys bikes and headed out for a day tour. Our first stop was a flower farm where we saw rows and rows of beautiful flowers. Each day they are trimmed and taken all over the country to be sold in the markets. Next stop was a coffee farm. Apparently, Vietnam is the 2nd largest export of coffee behind Brazil (this is according to my guide). Most of it goes to China and Japan and surrounding countries. I have really enjoyed the coffee here; it almost has a rich mocha taste to it. After that, we went to a Buddhist temple where I saw the most amazing “Happy Buddha”! Happy Buddha´s are the ones that have the big fat bellies. That type of Buddha comes from China, but there is a lot of Chinese influence in Vietnam being that they are neighbors and have fought many wars against each other. The Buddha was huge and baby blue. I have pictures on my picasa so you can see the magnitude of it. Behind its head were circles of neon lights. At night they are glowing all different colors behind his head – I would have loved to have seen that. We also went to a silk factory which was fascinating. I saw the entire process of the seeing the silk worm from the mulberry tree all the way to the weaving machines. Our guides then took us to a local´s house that distilled rice wine and grew mushrooms. It was such a jam packed day and we learned so much about the area. After the tour, our guide Vinh, told us about how we could hire them to take us through the Central Highlands on a 5 day tour through the Ho Chi Ming Trail (the rode built to carry military supplies to the VC). For whatever reason, Laura and I looked at each other and agreed that it was something we should do. I figured it would be a great chance to learn about the country, government, and lifestyles of the people. I was a little bit weary though, because I had not gone a solid 5 days without some sort of stomach issue. Laura had a stomach of steal, but I frequented the bathroom a lot. I rubbed my belly and asked her to be good for the motorcycle trip.
The next morning Vinh and the other driver Cho picked us up. We tied our luggage to the back, strapped on our helmets, grabbed our crotches and spit on the ground….I felt like a renegade! As we meandered out of town I leaned forward and asked Vinh if he had actually ever seen the movie “Easy Rider”. He said “Yes...Hit the Road, Jack!” (In a thick Vietnamese accent).
One of our first stops on the tour was a villager who made rice paper. The process was similar to the rice paper that I saw being made in Cambodia except that they put roasted sesame seeds into the rice paste. The family that we visited was so precious. This old man had a permanent indention on the bottom of his lip where a lit cigarette rested. He stirred the rice paste and scooped it up, placed it on a hot stove top like a crepe and then covered it. After about 20 seconds he would lift the top off, and pull up the circular shape off and place it on a bamboo tray to dry. He did this about 5 times in a row while staring at me and speaking Vietnamese. He was explaining the whole process to me as if I could understand his language. His wife walked onto the porch where we were standing and brought us the finished product. After the paper dries, they roast the paper over a fire and it forms this crunchy type rice cake. You break it apart and dip it into soy sauce for a snack. As I was trying some of it, the older woman walked up to me and stared into my eyes deeply. She then started rattling off in Vietnamese and kept looking at me. I wasn´t sure what was going on, but it appeared that she was saying something meaningful. “What is she saying….Vinh, what is she saying to me” I asked as if I was missing some really important information from this wise old woman. “She asked if you had been here before…because you white people, you all look the same to her. She can´t tell one person from the next.” Vinh and the older couple laughed about her comment. I had to chuckle to myself, too. There was a point in my life where I thought that all Asians looked the same as well. The old man let me and Laura try to make rice paper. Mine did not turn out to good and had a big circle in the middle like a donut. Laura´s was perfect, but I think it is because she lives in France and makes crepes. Afterwards, the old man said that he would hire Laura to make rice paper and I was reduced to feeding the pigs at the back of the house.
Our first night we arrived to a hill tribe village. They are the tribes that lived in the hills way before the Vietnamese arrived to the area. Nowadays, the government designated land for them and gives them a small sum of money to keep the village running with electricity and water. The village was filled with long houses and we were to stay in a family’s home for the night. Pigs, chickens, oxen, cattle, and an elephant roamed the streets. The villagers really didn´t pay us too much mind. There was no bathroom in the area that we were sleeping. It was at least a 10 minute walk to a toilet facility at a family run restaurant down the road. As we went to bed that night, Laura and I joked about how crappy it would be if one of us got diarrhea in the middle of the night since there was no toilet and we were unfamiliar with the area. Unfortunately, Laura did end up getting sick. Poor girl got up to walk outside and get some fresh air, but ended up clothes lining herself with one of the mosquito nets draped across the room. Once she made it outside she had to try and find an area to use the bathroom where she wouldn´t have a pig or oxen sneak up on her. It was a rough night for her. (Finally, it wasn´t me who had to use the bathroom!)
The following day, Vinh informed me that I would be changing drivers. Apparently, 2 other foreigners were interested in a Mekong Delta tour which Vinh specialized in. His brother, Chan, would be my new driver. Chan was a 25 year old single guy who was 4 foot 11 inches and probably weighed 100 lbs. I was HUGE compared to him. When I first met Chan, both he and Vinh told me that I looked like their cousin. I thought that was interesting considering I look nothing like a Vietnamese person. Chan was a lot more outgoing then Vinh, but his English was not as clear. He drove well though, and that was the most important to me. Chan and Cho often called us “Happy Buddhas” and would pat our bellies. Normally, I would be a little offended, but everyone looked fat compared to Chan.
Riding on the motorcycle with the wind in your face was exhilarating. We cruised through the mountains and passed small villages. We would stop at little food stalls to have coffee, sugarcane, or tea. The people would run to the road and wave to us as we drove by. Most everyone had a smile on their faces even as they worked diligently in the rice fields.
On the second day we stopped at a petrol station to fill up. Laura and I were stretching out our “monkey bums” as the drivers called it. We went to get back on our bikes. Laura swung her leg over her bag to the other side and heard a big rip. Turns out she ripped a huge hole in the crotch of her pants all the way down her leg. It was so funny too because this day involved a lot of hiking. She was so embarrassed about the hole that she wrapped her sarong around her pants. It was so deadly hot outside and she had all these layers on trying to hike up these hills and down these waterfalls.
For lunch each day we would stop at these local restaurants. Our drivers would order a little bit of everything on the menu for us to try. It was really neat because there was no way I would have the guts to order this type of food or even know how to order it. We ate pork, beef, chicken, fish, and all sorts of vegetable platters. The food was delicious. It was so interesting to see the different eating styles. For instance, when Chan and Cho ate fish, they would shove the entire piece in their mouth and then spit out the skin and bones onto their plate. I would meticulously pick the bones out of my fish before I put the piece in my mouth. Every time I ate something, I would rub my Buddha belly and ask her to cooperate. Somehow, it seemed to work. For once, I was eating street food and drinking ice but my stomach was doing well. Laura on the other hand, was not doing so hot. I gave her some of my Immodium and told her that should stop the bathroom issue for the rest of the trip.
The third day was our longest distance of travel. We had to ride 260 km. This may not seem that long but the bikes can only go 40k in the cities and 60k on the highways. We made plenty of stops to give our bums a rest. In the afternoon we stopped at this beautiful lake which had an overlook. Laura and I walked to the viewpoint to take some photos. There were tons of Vietnamese tourists there. They all stared at us and pointed. We were getting a lot of attention in SE Asia for being foreigners. Laura especially got attention because she is 6 feet tall with blue eyes. As we were looking out at the lake, a group of people came up to us and asked us to be in their family photo. They had a professional photographer and they all stood around us for the picture. As we walked back to the motorbikes, several other people came up and asked to have a photo taken with us. Most of the people came up to Laura´s elbow or bicep. I took a few photos as well because it was just so funny. I don´t think Laura found it as amusing.
That night we ate another fabulous Vietnamese dinner. Laura and Cho were tired so they went back to the hotel while Chan and I walked around the city. I needed to get some supplies at the grocery store so he took me there. When I was browsing through the store I noticed how everyone was looking at me. I don´t think many tourists made it to this particular town and certainly don´t go to the supermarket very often. Before I knew it, I had about 7 kids following me around each aisle. When I would turn around they would run off laughing. Teenage kids would come up to me and ask me what my name was and where I was from. The Vietnamese are very well educated with a 90% literacy rate. They love to practice their English whenever they get a chance. I spent about 45 minutes in the store having small conversations with people and kids following me around. It was a little bit awkward, but interesting none the less.
The next day they took us to an old airport strip that was used by the American Soldiers. Surrounding the airfield was land that was destroyed by Agent Orange. Many of the villagers that lived in and around this particular area suffered from horrible side effects from the toxins. A lot of the babies that are born have deformities. Still today, the land has not fully grown back, but each year more and more plants fill in the areas. When we were leaving the area, Chan was talking to me about the history. He said “my grandfather was a farmer in the central highlands when the war started. The center part of Vietnam was not really affiliated with the north or the south. However, it is where most of the battles took place. When the bombs started dropping around my grandfathers land he just started running to save himself. He ran for days trying to find safety. He didn´t understand the war or what was really happening. He was just trying to survive. Turns out he ran south. Because of the direction he ran, he ended up joining with the American soldiers. There were many Vietnamese and minority people who fought on sides without even knowing what they were fighting for. I think there were many American soldiers who didn´t know what they were fighting for as well. You and me, we are both young now. It is the older generation that had to deal with it. I like you now and you like me. I like Americans. I do not like the American Government, though. I don´t even like my own government. Who are these people that we call the Government? The Government is not fighting; it is the people that fight….but why? What do we fight for? A lot of people here believe in God. But God does not give me food to eat. I work and make money. Because of this I can eat every day. No, I do not believe in God and I do not know who the government is….the only person I can believe in is Myself. I know what I need to do to survive.”
It was one of those conversations that had me thinking the rest of the day. Here is a 25 year old guy living across the world from me, and he questions faith, government, and his own life. We are of the same generation who has troubled histories and government changes ahead of us. I wonder what life will be like for both me and Chan in 20 years. I think there are many people my age who have a lot of questions about the way things have been handled and I hope that the generations to follow continue to question and challenge and progress to a more peaceful world.
During our tour I also wanted to take some time to understand the communist government of Vietnam. I have been raised to view communism as a negative thing, but it seemed to me like most people in Vietnam were happy. I asked Chan and Cho about their jobs, their rights, and their overall lifestyles. From what I saw and gathered from our conversations, Vietnam didn´t exactly seem like a communist government to me at all. People can move freely through the land, own property, and start their own business. They still had to pay for their own healthcare. Ever since Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization and tourism became a big industry, a more capitalistic mindset has taken effect. I was still confused by it all. I did some internet searching and read that Vietnam is still considered a communist government but that they have a controlled capitalistic society. I guess you can grab a piece of the pie, but if it gets too big then the government may step in for a slice.
Laura reiterated to me that it takes a lot of years for a government to stabilize and find that right balance to work well for its people. The “American War” was fought to unify the North and South of Vietnam under a communist government. However, once the war was won, there were some tough years ahead for Vietnam in getting everything in order. But now-a-days, it seems like things are working well. When I asked Chan if Vietnam was still a communist country, he told me no. He said things are much better now, and even if they call themselves a communist party, it is not the same as it was 15 years ago. I guess the easiest way for me to understand it all is if you look at a spectrum. One end is communism and the other end is capitalism. If you are 100% communist then you lose progression. If you are 100% capitalist then a lot of people will fall into the cracks and their opportunities of succeeding will drop drastically as the richer get richer. There has to be a balance of some sort. Vietnam is communist with a capitalistic edge…while America is capitalism with some social programs. Obviously, I have no background in Political Theology and this is simply the observations and questions that I have asked myself. It is interesting to me to travel to each country and see how their governments work for them….and the opinions of the local people.
At one point in the ride, the chain on our bike broke. Chan pulled over to a mechanic shop to have a look at the damage. Laura and I sat down in some chairs and waited for them to fix it. This sweet woman came up to us. She was wearing gum boots and had the classic Vietnamese wooden hat on her had with a face mask on (tons of Asians where facemasks to not catch germs). She didn´t speak any English but came over and put her leg next to Laura´s and laughed. She was trying to emphasize how much bigger we were then her. I was holding my camera and she pointed at it. Then she pointed at herself. She stood up straight, removed her facemask, and gave me the biggest smile ever. I couldn´t believe she was asking me to take her picture….I stood up immediately and snapped a shot. I showed her the image and she laughed so hard, then grabbed her shovel and ran back to work. It was one of the coolest moments for me. She was a classic Vietnamese woman and I have been dying to get a good photo of a villager, but always feel awkward taking pictures of people. I will never forget that.
On our last day of the tour, we stopped at a little shop for fresh pineapple and coffee. Chan asked us why Europeans eat each other’s faces when he sees them on TV. At first we were really confused by the question. Then we realized he was talking about kissing. Chan has never had a girlfriend before and I don´t think sexual activity is very common unless you are married. We just shrugged and said it was a type of affection that we use in our culture. It is pretty common for people to kiss each other if they are dating. Then he asked us what it tasted like?......I thought for a really long time about the question and just told him that someday he would find out.
Overall the motorcycle trip was amazing. It was one of the coolest 5 days of my trip. It was really a neat experience to hang out with 2 local guys and learn about the culture and lifestyle of the people. It gave me an opportunity to ask questions that I normally would not ask a random stranger. We tried interesting foods and drinks and drove through amazing scenery. I photographed most of the trip and wrote descriptions on Picasa so you could see the different places that we visited.
Now we are in Hoi An. This town is known for tailor made clothes. I have not been shopping much on my travels but decided it would be fun to get some things made. So far, I got a fitted coat, silk dress, 2 cotton dresses, a pair of shorts, and flip flops made. I have NO IDEA where I am going to put all of this stuff and I think I will have to ship it home. It has been a bit overwhelming trying to pick colors, fabrics, designs, etc. But it has been fun, too. So far Vietnam has been awesome. We have about 12 more days to travel up the coast to the northern areas. I am looking forward to it!