Sunday, July 24, 2005

Riding The Ho Chi Minh Trail

"You see real Vietnam," Dung yelled back to me as we sped around a corner on the Ho Chi Minh Highway, the jungle surrounding us in the valley below and the mountain walls above. The jungle: a million different leaves, grasses, textures, and shades of green, so dense that the jumble of foliage becomes a single wild canvas.

We met Dung (pronounced 'Young') in Hoi An. He'd just arrived there with a couple from England, James and Sanne, who'd ridden from Nha Trang to Hoi An, along the Ho Chi Minh Highway (HCMH) -- a four day trip. The HCMH was completed in 2002, a highway built through Vietnam's more remote area, the Central Highlands... a paved homage to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The highway does not actually follow the original trail -- however, it is touted as a passage along the historic, secret military transport route, the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail (HCMT). And while the highway might not follow the original roads and footpaths of the HCMT, there are plenty of reminders of the American War (or Vietnam War in America), and passage through a number of villages, towns, and cities located on various offshoots from the HCMT's main artery, locations that the modern highway passes through.

It was kismet to find Dung. We'd been looking to get off Vietnam's well trodden tourist trail, Highway 1, which transports bus loads of tourists on the 'open tour circuit', which allows passengers to hop on and off the bus in various cities located along the Eastern sea-bound length of Vietnam. A motorcycle ride on the Ho Chi Minh Highway, James told us, is the way to do it.

I rode the first day, 120 km, through the flatlands outside of Hoi An and into the undulating Truong Son mountain range. The road, twisting and turning along gentle curves, was never without spectacular scenery -- views of lush valleys below and hills above, a lazy brown river in constant sight. In the distance, the mountains had a purplish hue, the hills surrounding the highway covered with green foliage, the sky baby blue -- it was not quite the jungle, yet... and for the first several hours, it was not the HCMT. We reached the highway (and the 'trail') in the afternoon.

Benjamin rode the following 3 days: 180 km, 260 km, 240 km. Originally we'd planned to split the trip in half: one of us on Dung's bike, the other on the extra bike. But after Benjamin's 'turn' to ride solo on day 2, and upon seeing and experiencing the hazards of weather, mountain terrain, moving obstacles, and (in places) poor roads, we decided that my riding experience was not up to the test of the highway, so I spent 3 days on the back of Dung's bike, which afforded me the gift of taking in the landscape without worry of the road. Benjamin proved to be an EXCELLENT rider, facing many suicidal dogs running into his path, errant cows and geese, giant trucks that force bikes off the road and into the gravel brim, rickety wood planked bridges, torrential downpours of rain, man-eating potholes, wind, mud, rocks, curvy steep mountain roads.

Riding the HCMH is not all about the riding, though. We made a lot of stops along the way. Many times, we would pull off the side of the highway to visit hill tribe villages. Sometimes our encounters with the Montagnards, as they were named by the French (and still call themselves this today) involved a gathering at the edge of the road and on other occasions we would find ourselves sitting at a table inside their homes. It was a bit awkward, at times, to find ourselves amongst the Montagnards. It felt a bit voyeuristic and invasive, but the people were warm and welcoming, if not a bit shy. They speak their own languages, not all know Vietnamese and virtually none could speak English, so Dung told us about their lives, their traditions, their day to day. Our visits were the most 'authentic' hill tribe visits we've made to date: in Thailand, in Sapa... these were not part of a packaged tourist tour, they were spontaneous and real. We also stopped at war memorial monuments, waterfalls, a museum, a coffee plantation, and several orphanages, plus more.

I was most affected by our visits to the orphanages. The children were a mix of shy, sad, friendly, affectionate, ranging for newborns to 20 years of age. We amused the children with images taken with our digital cameras (always a great ice breaker) and spent some time playing and cuddling them. The orphanages are a mix of 10 ethnic groups found in the Central Highlands, where ethnic minorities make up a large percentage of the population.

In recent years and even now, the minority groups in the Central Highlands face persecution and human rights violations. This has resulted in protests and emigration to Cambodia, with the ultimate goal of finding refuge in the U.S. In fact, these issues have been the cause of a 'lockdown' in the Central Highlands in 2001 and 2004, when foreigners were not allowed to visit the area. In fact, the Central Highlands were closed to foreigners until 1992, for fear that they would discover rumored labor camps hidden in the area. Several times throughout our trip, Dung mentioned that he would not stop in certain places because, "...they do not like tourists. Many people died here." The Central Highlands were a strategic area during for the U.S. during the war, with many bombing raids and a lot of fighting. Many people died, as Dung kept telling us, especially in the cities of Kontum, Pleiku, Buon Me Thuot, and other towns we passed through and stayed the night. For this reason, Dung suggested we tell people we are Canadian. This led me to rip up a few hotel registration forms as having 'Canada' written as our country of origin and handing over U.S. passports would not jibe...

But not everyone was on the Communist side during the war. While at the second orphanage, we met a man named Cham who told us he'd been an Advisor to the Americans during the war. In 1975, he was sent to prison camp for two years for his involvement in the war against the communists. Because he did not meet the U.S. requirement of 3 years in prison, he was not eligible to emigrate to America. He was orphaned himself at the age of 11 when the communists killed his father near Pleiku (one of the cities we passed through). Like many Vietnamese, the good and bad in his life are described as a matter of 'luck'. "I am unlucky," he told us, describing his daughter's recent death which has made his grand children orphans as well. They are 'lucky' to have him as a care taker, as are the orphans he now serves.

The HCMH/Central Highlands trip was full of amazing landscapes and experiences with the people -- so much, I cannot even begin to describe it here. Each day brought us something new: mountains, flat lands, jungle, corn fields, yam farms, rice paddies, coffee plantations, forests, villages, towns, cities, homes, shops, markets, villagers, families, children, people like Cham. We found ourselves always heading into dark clouds the color of lead, chasing blue skies and rainbows (it rained much of days 2 and 3). I cannot ignore the symbolic nature of our constant ride towards the clear skies ahead of us, with dark clouds over and behind us, along our journey of the HCMH.

We arrived in Nha Trang last night, tired from the ride -- happy to be walking instead of riding. Our butts have regained feeling and we are no longer walking like cowboys. We are in need of some peace and quiet, though... and Nha Trang is not the place to find it. It's a busy resort town with high rise buildings, not the small beach town we were hoping to find. Tomorrow we head off to Mui Ne where we'll find a beach bungalow and some R+R.... and I will try to contstrue the zillion sights, sounds, experiences, emotions of this trip into an article worthy of publication.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Easy Riders

We met the 'Easy Riders' on a busy street corner in Hoi An last night. They're a happy lot, with wind blown hair and a trace of the '50s in the style of their coiff. They have tanned skin, oil stained fingers, and an easy smile, as motorcycle dudes often do.

Benjamin and I were on a mission to find real motorcycles to rent, as opposed to the Honda Wave 110cc scooters found all over Vietnam. We walked the streets asking, "Minsk?" and were successively pointed down the street, then around the corner to the left, then down the street again. Among the tailor's shops and restaurants Hoi An is famous for, we found nothing that looked like a bike rental shop.

We stopped on the corner where the motorbike taxi drivers hang out and in no time flat, one of them came over to us, inquiring if we'd like to hire his services. "Minsk," we said again, "Minsks, we're looking to rent Minsks." The man gave us a nod, a knowing look, and then pulled a cell phone from his pocket. Several minutes later, an 'Easy Rider' wearing flip flops and blue jeans pulled up on a beat up red Minsk.

"You want to rent a bike?"

"Yes! Do you have two? For tomorrow?"

Negotiations ensued, deals were made. In the course of 10 minutes, Benjamin and I had 2 beat up red Minks in our possession for $7.00 a day. Our plan was to ride the bikes to ancient Cham ruins located 50 some kilometers from Hoi An. We were a group of 3: Benjamin, myself, and an Aussie friend named Aaron, who we'd met in China and again here, in Vietnam.


We woke up this morning at 5:00 a.m. We wanted to get to 'My Son', the site of the ruins, by 7:30, before the busloads of tourists showed up. I admit I was a bit nervous: third world country, third world traffic, third world hospitals, beat up red Minsk older than me, etc... But I reminded myself that this is why I learned to ride a motorcycle in the first place: so I could ride while we travel.

We picked Aaron up from her hotel at the scheduled hour, 6:00 a.m., and after a lengthy consultation with the hand drawn, xeroxed map we were given, we set off into the bright heat of the morning.

I chucked everything I learned in my 'motorcycle safety school' out the window, and these thoughts pervaded my mind for much of the ride to My Son.

We'd been taught to carefully examine the bike before riding: make sure the turn signals work, check the brake lights, toot the horn, adjust the mirrors, ensure competent brakes, check fluids, kick the tires... Of course, no-one really does all of this each time they get on their bike at home, myself included. And even if I wanted to, I could not do these things here, with this bike, for my bike had none of these superfluous accoutrements.

The turn signal button was melted to the handle bar, there were no brake lights, the horn was mute, and mirrors? who needs mirrors? I did have tires and well, I guess I did have some braking power -- Benjamin suggested I only use the back brake as the front one seemed to be on holiday. Aside from all of that, I was not dressed 'appropriately' for riding a motorcycle. At home I wear a full face helmet, a padded jacket, kevlar gloves, jeans, hard toed boots. All I had to wear here was a t-shirt, capri pants, and hiking sandals.

As I rode, I considered the story Aaron told me the previous day about a woman riding a bicycle in the crowded streets of Hoi An. "No breaks, no breaks!" she yelled as she zoomed by and zigzagged through the throngs of tourists. I figured I could do the same if my breaks failed, and likewise, I figured that I could yell out, "Beep! Beep!" at the top of my lungs since my horn, the all important driving tool of Asia, did not work. Of course, no-one would be able to hear my cries over the din of the bike: it was a 2-stroke antique and made sounds like metal bits thrown into a blender or nuts and bolts ricocheting around an air-powered popcorn popper.

Driving in Vietnam reminded me of a video game, where things dart on and off the screen with erratic behavior. This is a trick by those sick and twisted video game programmers to get you tensed up only to, eventually, let your guard down to your ultimate demise... many times the potential obstacle is really no obstacle at all. You relax as you become accustomed to them. That's how those programmers get you: just when you least expect it, a potential obstacle becomes a real obstacle -- you just never know when.

The obstacles on Vietnamese roads: children playing in the street, wobbling cargos of produce on bicycles, meandering pedestrians, dense packs of fast moving motorbikes and autos, speeding busses and tank-like trucks, mindless livestock, pecking chickens, vagrant dogs, water slicks, sand piles, gravel spills: all of the things I hoped to never encounter while riding a motorcycle. There are no stop signs or traffic lights or painted lines to keep things in order -- this is where that all important horn comes in. "Beep! Beep!"

Several times I found myself praying. "Hello? God? I know I have denied you in the past, but please keep the dogs from running out in front of me!" I'd heard about those suicidal dogs in my motorcycle safety class. One of the beefy guys in my class, the sort of male who wears thick gold chains around his neck, unbuttons his shirt to his navel, and has a flat-top hair style, recounted a story about how he, once, had to run right over a dog. He talked about the dog as if it were a mere speed bump that had gotten in his way. I thought it was in bad taste, and it was, but our teacher asserted that in some situations, it is better to hit the dog to avoid a worse accident. But I imagine running over a dog might cause an accident anyway, especially if one is blinded by tears and guilt.

Aaron told me I looked so serious while riding my bike, like James Dean in 'Rebel Without a Cause'. I assured here I was having fun, but driving a bike takes concentration, especially in Vietnam. Nonetheless, I'm happy that I can look so dashing in the face of sheer uncertainty.

As we neared My Son, I was faced with another of those 'things I never want to encounter while on a motorcycle'. And that was having a passenger. It was my turn to ride Aaron on the back of my bike. "I've never ridden a passenger before," I told her, "so the choice is up to you." "What does that mean?" She asked. I smiled. "Well, hop on then!"

I knew that riding with a passenger would off-set the balance of the bike. It also means another's life (or unsplintered bones) are in my hands. Aaron, all 6 feet of her, made an excellent passenger, though, and after a wobbly start, it was if there was no-one there at all.

It wasn't until the back tire blew that I became, once again, aware of my charge of another person's safety (incidentally, blowing a tire tops the list of 'things I never want to encounter...'). When the tire blew, I had no idea what happened except that what once was a humming hunk of metal between my legs had become a vibrating, epileptic, convulsive, jack-hammering hunk of metal between my legs. The bike shuddered and skidded and swerved all of the road.

"What happened?" Aaron asked when we'd come to a safe stop -- still upright, I might brag. She told me later she thought I was pulling some fancy riding trick out of my bag to impress her -- it must be my 'James Dean' appeal.

Several locals were on the scene right away, pointing and gasping and laughing that kind of laugh that accompanies wild shit that happens. It was a bad blow, but Aaron and I were safe and I controlled the bike as if I'd had 100 tires blow in my 1.5 years of riding experience. It occurred to me that in the space of one hour, I'd faced -- and conquered -- all of my riding fears.

The tire was fixed while we toured the ruins and when our bus from the entrance of the site to the relics broke down with a frazzled fuse, I began to wonder if transportation issues were to be the bill of the day. Indeed. I returned the bike when the back brake broke -- the spring had sprung and it was rendered useless.

"Beep. Beep."

What's in a Name?

When I was in the 7th grade, my family moved into a house that my parents bought from a man named Shawokker. It was originally built in the 1800s, a tiny bungalow, and while in Mr. Shawokker's possession, it took on the form of a bowling alley. It was a narrow building and was probably proportioned in its days as a bungalow, but Mr. Shawokker had a big family, being mormon and all, and so he built on to the bungalow, by extending it back... and back... and back.

After moving in, our neighbors (a little late with the forthcoming information) regaled us with tales of Mr. Shawokker's stupidity. You see, he was one of those 'do it yourself' kind of guys, not because he enjoyed it, but because he was a cheapskate and a fool. One of my favorite stories that our neighbors told us involved Mr. Shawokker falling through the living room ceiling. He was working on the second floor of the addition and must have stepped on some unreinforced floor board, which sent him plummeting through the floor of the master bedroom and onto the couch in the living room below. The man may have known how to preserve veggies (we found a ton of mason jars full of the stuff in the basement), but construction was not his forte.

Mr. Shawokker also installed the electrical wiring and plumbing in the house. When we'd flip the closet light on and off, the garage door would go up and down. And the garage door opener flushed the toilet. We were fearful of what might happen if we flushed the toilet the proper way, that is with the handle attached to the toilet, so we continued to use the garage door opener for several months until one day, one of my friends flushed it by accident. We all ducked for cover, but it turned out that it actually worked. That was a relief, because sanitizing the garage door opener was really getting to be a pain.

I nearly froze to death during the first winter in that house. My bedroom was an arctic chamber. As girls of that age do, I put a hand drawn sign on my bedroom door, but instead of saying something along the lines of, "Cheryn's room. Keep Out," my sign read, "This way to the North Pole." At first, my stepfather thought I was just complaining, as girls of that age do... but after a while, Bob decided to cut a hole in the ceiling of my closet so he could examine the heating ducts. "My God," he said, "That man is a monster." While my bedroom had heating vents, the heating ducts had been sealed off, a good 3 feet short of the vents. My bedroom had been Mr. Shawokker's daughter's room before we moved in -- apparently he was so cheap that he chose to freeze his daughter in order to save on heating bills. She probably has an unnatural blue tint to her skin and an large collection of sweaters to this day.

My family began to use the Shawokker name as a verb. We'd say things like, "He's a Shawokker," to describe a person exhibiting moronic behavior... or, "It's a Shawokker," to describe something that was, plainly, fucked up or cheaply done. Sometimes the term was used as an expletive: "Shawokker!" when, for example, stubbing toes on a box or piece of furniture left out of place. Sometimes it was used when a freak accident occured, like when a jar of jam fell out of the pantry, hitting a neighbor on the head, knocking her unconscious.


I have a friend named Sally. She's well traveled and doesn't hesitate to let everyone know about it. At a dinner party, someone might ask Sally to pass the salt and with salt shaker in hand, she'll say, "Did I ever tell you about the time I was sick for three days in a tent full of nomads mining the salt lakes on the Tibetan Plateau?" "Yes, Sally, we all love that one," everyone will reply with the demonic expression that accompanies the eyes rolled back in the head. But there's always some newcomer, some idiot, who will say, "Well, I haven't heard your story, Sally, and it sounds fascinating. Please go on." Several hours later, when desert has been served and there is no longer need for salt, the salt will be passed to the person who originally made the request. In the meanwhile, everyone at the table has spent the time fantasizing about sticking forks in electrical sockets or stuffing mashed potatoes in their ears.

Like Mr. Shawokker, Sally's name has become a verb. "Don't be a Sally," Benjamin and I will remind ourselves when meeting new people on the road (and we promise our friends that we'll stick to this when we return home). It's not easy, though, because Sally is a loudmouth and a braggart and she wants to be heard. Often times, we stop ourselves from saying things like, "Well if you think that's bad, in India (blah blah blah)..." or, "When we were in China (blah blah blah)..."

Sometimes these things fight desperately to creep out of our mouths because they are a kind of 'right of passage' in the traveler's world, but we've gotten over that. And sometimes, these utterances genuinely add to a conversation, which makes them OK. But other times, these things are released onto our audience to get other Sally-Big-Mouths, the ones who tend to complain (Sally is bipolar), to shut up. It's the verbal equivalent of the 'talk to the hand' hand signal. "You've been saying that traffic is so terrible in China for the last hour? Pah! You should ride on an ox cart in India," or, "The natives are getting you down and you'd like them to go away? Phooey! At least they speak English."

Other uses of the term "Sally":

"Pulling a Sally": to engage in Sally-like behavior
"I've been Sallied": a 'Sally' has dominated a conversation, bragging or complaining
"Sally...": a warning equivalent to the orange bar in the terror threat scale
"Sally!": equivalent to any expletive of one's choosing

Another annoying trait of Sally's is her tendency to use the term 'did' when speaking about visiting a country. Sally will say, "Well, first I did Malaysia, and then I did Thailand, and then I did Laos, and next I'll do Cambodia." You'd think Sally was a whore, with all this 'did-ing' and 'do-ing'. A person 'does' a pickup at a bar, or the laundry, or the dishes, but one does not 'do' a country. Please, Sally, mind your manners!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

A Few Days in Sapa

Sapa, located in the remote North, in the Western Highlands of Vietnam, was originally built by the French, in 1922, as a hill station to escape the heat of Vietnam climes. Today, it sees a steady stream of tourists that come for its scenic landscape of terraced rice paddies and to visit with hill tribes: the Black Hmong and Zao minority groups, or Montagnards, as the French named them. The journey to Sapa is an overnight train ride from Hanoi, approximately 10 hours if there aren't mud slides clogging the tracks (which turned our train trip into a 20 hour voyage).

We arrived at the train station in the city of Lao Cai and boarded a bus to Sapa. Here, the landscape changed from flat to mountainous. The views became dramatic, with terraced rice paddies lining steep mountain slopes. Tiny waterfalls trickle water from one terrace to another. Hill tribe people appear on the side of the road carrying baskets of leaves on their backs and selling veggies and fruit from roadside stalls.

We arrived in Sapa much later than expected and the mist and fog of the mountains had already settled over the town. We were reminded of Darjeeling (India), another hill station town nestled in the mountains and within the embrace of clouds. We took a cheap room, $4.00 a night, one without views. We figured we'd be out in the scenery, not inside our hotel looking at it. And besides, with the fog, there were no views anyway. Everything looked as if it had a piece of white tissue paper laid over it.

We were in Sapa to trek and stay overnight in a village. There are many tour operators in Hanoi offering 2-3 day treks with homestays. We'd left Hanoi intent on doing the trek on our own, but common sense got the better of us and we signed up with a group at our hotel. There are permits to be had, inclement weather, and zillions of trails. And besides, sometimes doing things with a group of people is more fun than with just the two of us. Ours was a group of 9.

The trek takes us up and down steep rocky trails, over streams and rivers, through mud and fields and rice paddies. Children ride on the backs of water buffalo; clouds of dragon flies linger languidly in the sky; small red bridges like mini "Golden Gates" hang over rushing rivers; women's hands stained blue from dye proffer local handicrafts; water falls stream over mountainsides; giant bamboo trees rustle in the breeze; white, blue, and gray fills the sky; terrace fields resemble topo maps, the lines of elevation in an architectural model, layered cake; soundless lightening fills the night sky.

It's the wet season in Sapa, with heavy rains in the forecast for our two days. When it rained, the water dumped down, swelling rivers and making dirt trails slick mud obstacles. We passed through several villages along the hike and stopped to stay the night in a rustic home located next to a river and corn fields. In the distance: water spilled over the mountain, against a wall of rock. Our home for the night was simple -- a construction of concrete, wooden boards, and corrugated metal. After a powerful evening rain storm, the river swelled and raged, making a thunderous noise. The WC, in a precarious position along the river bank, became too dangerous to use... a shack of woven bamboo, it looked like it could be swept away at any minute, even in the best of weather.

It's always a desire to pass through such places as if invisible, to see people living their lives as if there was no tourist trail. But it's not so. Hill tribe women and young girls crowd around to sell souvenirs throughout the day. Along the path and at the homestay, there was a constant group of Hmong and Zao women and girls selling their wares. The Montagnards used to grow opium, but a crack down by the government has put a stop to this -- many sell souvenirs instead. The tourist dollar is important to these people -- and as we come there, invading their villages and homes, gawking (politely or inpolitely), it is insensitive to complain about it. And besides, they are friendly people, so the sales pitch was tolerable... and creative.

"You buy from me," they'd say, all 20 of them gathered 'round with fists full of handicrafts for sale. Embroidered pillowcases and blankets, hats, purses, tin earrings, bracelets, necklaces, musical instruments, toy tops. The little girls put bracelets on our wrists, declaring us to be friends. "We are friends," they'd say with a smile. A little while later, they'd say, "We are friends, so you buy from me." Some would say, "You buy me," which Benjamin always corrected. He told a few little girls that if he bought them, they'd have to come home with us, so they started calling us 'Father' and 'Mother'. They wanted 500 million dollars for the honor of being our children, though, so we had to decline.

Thoughts of China...

It always happens that you don't truly appreciate a place until you've left it, until you have a comparison. And so I miss China. It's beauty, now that we are in Vietnam, is all the more enchanting...

So far, the landscapes of Vietnam are not as beautiful as China. This is not a disparaging remark, but an observation. Vietnam is like a wilder, unkempt version of China. The colors of SE Asia are as I remember them: orange dirt, dark green vegetation, a trace of brown everywhere. This, in comparison, to China's palette of a thousand greens and as many shades of ochre and brown. In Vietnam, the land is flat, making the views shallow. In China, with all its mountains, there were always sweeping, expansive views that went on forever... with a foreground, background, and thousands of middle grounds in between. In China, things appeared more orderly and neat -- in a pleasant way, not overly controlled. The landscape is manicured without being fussy. Rice paddies and farming plots are tidy and picturesque in comparison to Vietnam's more ruffian style.

But Vietnam is more tropical, and tropical places always have that overgrown feel... a bit wild, a bit less minded by a human hand. And in the same vein, tropical places have a certain sort of savage spirit -- Vietnam has this, China does not. It calls to an inner part of myself, the reason I became enchanted with SE Asia on my first visit here. In the same way that China is beautiful, Vietnam is intriguing.

I feel a bit spoiled by China's beauty; fearful that I'll not find another landscape that can live up to it. But I've only just started my journey in Vietnam. Time will tell...

A Night Out with Ha

We met Ha, a young man of 24 years, under the shady trees by a lake in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Benjamin and I were having a picnic. We'd discovered a supermarket on the top floor of a nearby shopping mall and bought a hunk of Gouda, a package of jambon (ham), and crackers. While colonialism may be a dirty word, there are some modern day benefits that, at times, outweigh the negative things that result when one country presumes to take control of another. Cheese is one of those things. And anyway, the French are long gone... Merci for the fromage.

We made little sandwiches with the crackers -- after 4 cheese-less months, I was too anxious to take the time to find a baguette, another remnant from French colonial days. I almost didn't even make it out of the store with the cheese in tact. As soon as I saw it, my mouth started to water and my stomach not only grumbled, it roared, "Give me cheese, I want the cheese. Give it to me now. Maintenant!"

We got a few looks as we sat there, making our sandwiches, looking like barbarians. We had no knife to cut the cheese, so instead we used our fingers -- and when we reached the thick end of the wedge, where fingers become useless, we bit off hunks for our cracker sandwiches instead, the way mama birds feed their young.

Ha joined us when we'd finished. He was walking by and upon noticing Benjamin's tattoos, stopped to take a longer look (Benjamin's tattoos are a great ice breaker in every country we've traveled). This led to a conversation and when I asked him where to get the best Vietnamese food Hanoi has to offer, Ha suggested that we follow him to a restaurant. Having filled ourselves up on cheese and ham, we weren't in the mood for more food, but somehow, plans were made to meet him later, in front of the post office. We would have dinner together.

We parted ways and as Benjamin and I walked back to out hotel, I regretted the plan we'd made. I wondered: Why would a total stranger wish to dine with us? What's up his sleeve? Are we stupid? Conversation ensued about what nefarious events awaited us. Perhaps there would be a group of thugs waiting for us in some dark alley Ha would lead us to... Perhaps Ha would drug us and steal all of our money... Perhaps Ha is an undercover cop setting us up for a drug bust -- he was a bit preoccupied with ganja, after all... and he wanted us to sample some of his stash. I asked Benjamin if we should bring our passports... in case anyone needed to ID our dead bodies. "No," he replied, "but I'm only going to bring 20 bucks."

We met Ha at 8 p.m. As we stood in front of the post office waiting for him, part of me wished he wouldn't show up. I contemplated not showing, ourselves. But not wanting to stand up a potential new friend, or leave a bad impression of my countrymen in a foreign land, we waited. He showed up, all smiles, and we walked back to the familiar neighborhood of our hotel.

"Four or five stars?" Ha wanted to know what kind of hotel we were staying in. I told him, "No stars. We're not rich." These kind of questions make me suspicious. "We're budget travelers," Benjamin added, to be sure he got the point. Ha smiled. I got the sense he didn't believe us when he followed his question up, asking the name of our hotel. We always fake ignorance with these questions. "Oh, just some place in a dingy alley... can't remember the name, actually."

After a 10 minute walk, Ha asked if a local place (i.e. sidewalk restaurant) was O.K. "Perfect," we answered. We wanted the local experience and anyway, sidewalk restaurants, if they can be called as such, are cheap. Ha ordered Hot Pot, ice tea, and vodka. The French aren't the only ones who left a bit of their culture behind... the Russians left vodka.

We had a leisurely dinner... we spent three hours eating and toasting each other with our tiny cups of vodka. The conversation was good. Things seemed on the up. Inside my head, I was feeling happy. I let my guard down. It's always nice to find a genuine local person while traveling. That's why we travel... to learn about other people, and there's no better way than to talk with them, spend time. And it's not always easy to find the genuine people. Usually, they want something from you -- and it makes sense in a way... there is no reason for them to befriend us. As travelers, we are just passing through... why would a local person make friends with people who, after a few days, will no longer be around. In poor countries, curiosity about people from other parts of the world usually plays second fiddle to greed... or need. A friendship, no matter how short, is usually not the purpose of their interest.

At first, things seemed different than our usual encounters with locals. Ha told us of Vietnamese customs, answered our questions about his country... the Vietnam of today versus the past... the attitudes towards foreigners and Americans in particular. But then the conversation switched gears. Ha told us he is poor. He is without work. He asked us about our income and the amount of our rent back in the U.S. Ha was sizing us up. He tried to sell us his guide services, yet we were in no need of a guide. His sales pitch was gentle, slow. And when we declined, he dropped the subject and always replied, "Of course, you can do it on your own, no problem."

It's not always easy to identify the sales pitch as thus. Perhaps it is simply a means of conversation, when other topics have dried up. It's even harder to identify a con, at times, until it has come to pass. None of this marred my impression of Ha, though. He was kind and friendly. He appeared to be honest and interested. But eventually, it was time for the bill. And all of that changed.

"670,000 dong!" I looked at the bill in amazement... and then looked at Benjamin, who was in shock. That's $40 U.S. dollars... and we were sitting on plastic stools, in the dim lighting of a sidewalk restaurant, where food is kept in ice chests, dishes are washed in buckets of dingy water, and roaches skitter around on the sidewalk looking for crumbs.

This was a problem... not only because it seemed to be a gross overcharge, but also because we'd only brought 250,000 dong ($20.00) with us.

Ha assured us the price was correct. "Of course," he said, "I usually come here with 8 - 10 people, which makes the price better."

"But we are only 3 people," I replied. "And surely, we did not eat the same amount of food as a group of 8 - 10!" We had, at first, eyed the plate of meat for the hotpot with skeptical eyes. It seemed like a lot, too much for us to eat... but eat it, we did. It may have been a lot, but it was certainly not enough for a group of 8 - 10.

I asked Ha if the price was really fair. "Well," he said, "it may be 100,000 dong more than usual, but I don't usually order the prawns." (100,000 dong is a bit more than $6.00 U.S.)

The atmosphere grew tense. Benjamin explained he wasn't prepared to pay $40.00 for a meal. Ha grew nervous. I saw him shifting in his seat. Ha asked, "What is your problem with me?" I told him the problem was not with him, but with the bill. I was aware that our reaction may cause him discomfort -- "face countries" as I call them, make such matters complex.

I suggested we all finish our Vodka, have a cigarette, and then come back to the problem. Benjamin and I had two choices: go back to the hotel and get more money or make a partial payment and come back the next day with the rest. I was surprised that the woman who ran the "restaurant" agreed to the latter. But she still demanded 400,000 dong in the interim... still a high price to pay. Ha kicked in a small portion of the bill and we gave the woman all of our dong with the promise to return if, after asking around, we found that it was a fair price.

We'd been had. Of course the bill couldn't possibly be so high. We haven't eaten anything that expensive in a real restaurant anywhere in our travels. And the woman knew she'd never see us again. She wouldn't let us go without paying the full amount unless the full amount was a sham. My guess: Ha set the whole thing up ahead of time. Perhaps he is related to the people who run the restaurant. He probably told them he'd be bringing us, and together, they would split the profit they made from overcharging us. Later, we found the same Hot Pot in a real restaurant for around $8.00... and found out that on the street, it should be no more than $5.00.

"How could we be so stupid?" I asked Benjamin. We stewed over the matter for the remainder of the night. We consider ourselves, after 4 months of travel, to be wise... to be impervious to the mistakes a first week or first month traveler might make... especially after India. Perhaps our egos had grown too big for our breeches. But what it really comes down to, we determined, is that we WANT to believe in the genuiness of people. We don't want to walk the world as skeptics and cynics. We must be naive to meet the real people -- we'll never find them with closed minds and hardened hearts. To always be suspicious, we'd live in a tiny bubble full of other Westerners... and we're not traveling to hang out with Westerners all the time.

Over a few beers before bed that night, we decided that sometimes being wise is to be naive. Travel is, after all, about the people we meet and yes, sometimes getting ripped off now and then in the process.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Hanoi Hilton

The Hoa Lo prison, or Hanoi Hilton as captured American pilots dubbed it, was opened by the French in 1896 to take care of anti-colonial Vietnamese. From 1964 - 73, it was used as a prison for American pilots whose planes were shot down over Hanoi (including Senator John McCain). It was a sobering experience to walk in what's left of the prison -- much of it has been torn down to make way for an apartment/office building that now towers over the place.

It's a peaceful place nowadays, a bit of a sanctuary from the bustle of Hanoi. But the torture instruments, guillotines, and shackled mannequins on display tell a different story. I can't imagine what it must have been like to be imprisoned there, for some Americans a decade of their life. I felt a bit self centered, as I walked the halls of the prison, to be feeling "too American" about the place: I had to remind myself that it was used by the French to imprison Vietnamese, inhabitants of their own country, for much longer.

Among the displays are cells with ankle shackles from wall to wall, which must have accommodated at least 100 prisoners (if not more), chained up side to side, packed together like sardines. The heat, the smell, the discomfort they must have endured...

One of the more interesting exhibits was a piece of propaganda published by the Vietnam government to quell talk of inhumane treatment of American prisoners. The poster, which seems something like a brochure for summer camp, is full of tiny black and white photos that accompany a running narrative about what life is (was) like in the prison...

"Time sure flies. Christmas is here again." This, supposedly, a quote from a prisoner. There are photos of prisoners receiving packages from home, cooking, playing volleyball, playing the guitar, attending church services, receiving medical care. The poster talks of how prisoners read books about Vietnamese culture and people (noting that it was a relief, for these men, to be free from the brain washing reading material from home). The poster also tells us how the prisoners found great satisfaction in growing flowers and raising chickens, some of which became pets. Prisoners, supposedly, found great pleasure in playing the guitar after dinner and holding nightly discussions about their home towns. I imagine the conversations eventually went something like this: "Oh, for the life of God, Bob, that story again?!?" I imagine those conversations would get quite tired after, say, 5 years. The prisoners also had plenty of fruits and veggies grown in the fertile soils of Vietnam... the poster compares the bounty to "...California, located somewhere on the West Coast."

In short, the poster makes being captured look like a better choice to whatever freedom one might find in the services... it makes the prison out like it's a resort... giving the name "Hanoi Hilton" an ironic twist.

Chore Day

We spent our first day in Hanoi doing 'chores'... it's a fact that long term travel is not always as glamorous or adventurous as it may sound. Much effort is spent, especially when first arriving in a place, in planning, exchanging money, setting up a rough itinerary, cleaning laundry, obtaining a visa for the next place, learning a few basic words in the local language (enough to get started), getting the lay of the land. It's especially difficult after a period of laziness, such as it was towards the end of China, to get back to the rigors of travel.

But doing chores is, also, a quick indoctrination to the new place we've arrived in. Looking for English books to read (there is a paltry supply in China), we went out in search of a book store... The best way to get familiar with a place is to try getting from one place to another. It's also a good test of the local's patience and kindness by asking for directions. In India, people wanted cash for a friendly point in the right direction. But here, in Vietnam, people have been helpful. It's a bit of a measure, I suppose, of what's to come in a place... the willingness of people on the street to help a foreigner without expectation of a commision for an everyday act of kindness.


Hanoi: sidewalk shops -- rather, entire streets as shops devoted to the sale of a particular product, such as towels or funerary plaques; sunny blue skies; women in conical hats selling fruit from baskets slung from a pole balanced on their shoulders; old, faded buildings stained with black mold and green swaths of lichen; cheery yellow structures, a reminder of French colonial days; crazy traffic -- crossing the streets, which are alive with a zillion motorbikes, is easier to do if you don't think about it too hard (walking purposefully and slowly is the trick... things avoid you).

At night, sights from the perch of our hotel room's balcony: families line the streets, fanning themselves in the stagnant heat; women have pulled plastic chairs into the road, thoughtless of traffic, and chat; children play badmittion and soccer in the street, amidst the traffic of passing motorbikes (one driver nearly lost control of his bike when hit in the head by an errant badmitton); a chihuahua barks at the goings on from the doorway of a home across the way, so tiny is the street, that the place (and dog) is almost within arm's reach. I can see into the home on the second floor across from our hotel: a man in shorts and nothing else lays on the tiled floor, listless from the heat, trying to cool down by playing dead. His wife, in a silky purple nightie, adjusts the fan, giving me a glance. They have little privacy with me standing there, watching them.


Our first day's chores were fruitful. Our passports are at the Cambodian embassy -- we will be entering that country in 1 month and we thought we'd free up some time in Southern Vietnam by taking care of our visas here in Hanoi. We booked ourselves on a Halong Bay boat trip -- we leave tomorrow. We secured train tickets to Sapa, where we'll go upon return from Halong Bay. We found a few English books to read. We planned our entire month in Vietnam, which proved to be the most difficult task.

We're used to having 2 months at our disposal (India, China), and we are not used to being diligent with our time. We have a tendency to be thorough and want to see everything when we're in a place. But there is not enough time, so we've had to make hard decisions about what not to do, decisions about what's the most important to us. We've decided to add some time to the Southern end of the trip for a motorcycle tour (on our own) through the Mekong Delta. It seems fitting to 'end' Vietnam and prepare for the 'beginning' of Cambodia by touring an area of land that once (not too long ago) belonged to the Khmer people.

Voyage to Vietnam

I felt it a bit ironic that we spent the 4th of July, independence Day, making our way to a country who fought ours for their own independence, a war that ended back when I was still in diapers.

We boarded a train in Guilin, China at 2:30 pm and were woken by Chinese authorities around midnight. We got our exit stamps and went back to sleep for a few more hours before being woken again at an immigration check point in Vietnam. We went through the process, bleary eyed in the dead of night, with a small group of other travelers making the same journey. We all had to get our temperature taken at the quarantine counter to make sure we didn't have SARS. The slip of paper handed to us, I presume, declared our good health. We were back on the train close to 4:30 am and arrived in Hanoi 4 hours later.

I'd been looking forward to Vietnam for some time. Our last few weeks in China were restful, particularly because we spent most of them (10 days) in one place: Yangshuo. While a beautiful place, the daily rain showers and boredom of immobility was starting to get to me. It's funny: a 10 day vacation used to seem so luxuriously long and perfect, back when a 10 day vacation was a long time to travel. The first time I had a full 10 days off work, I was close to 30 years old, and we went to Hawaii. Now, 10 days is too long, I think, to be in one place -- an ironic sentiment considering the total length of this trip.

I will miss the beauty of China: the verdant mountain landscapes, the mysterious mist, the tiled rooftops of villages, the patchwork blanket of ochre and green farming plots, the undulating hills and valleys, rivers and streams... I will miss the kindness of the people we made friends with... I will miss the amusement found in Chinglish and the odd-ball fashion statements... I will miss the ease of travel. China is an easy place to travel, despite the language barriers. What I will not miss: the food, which was always edible but not always pleasantly so... I will not miss the cities, with their ugly white tiled buildings... I will not miss the generic and overdone "tourist attractions"...

It's always something to move from one country to another. There is new currency to convert, there is a new language to learn, there is a new 'everything'. Despite this, it's interesting to see the influences one place has on another. When we arrived in China, I saw bits of India everywhere, in the temples, in the art of Kung Fu... Now in Vietnam, although my stay here, so far, is brief, I see influences of both India and China and know I'll see more as we continue to travel beyond Vietnam. It's as if we are following some path, where influences of the previous places continue to build on one another... the path, set by pilgrims and traders back in the olden days, is the highlight of my travels thus far. It's fascinating to see how cultures -- over time -- absorb and reinvent traditions and beliefs brought to them from someplace else, somwhere so different, so long ago...

Friday, July 01, 2005

A Hair Cut in China

"Bless me, my stylist, for I have sinned. I went to someone else."

I was determined to grow my hair while traveling. I didn't want the hassle of finding a salon, finding a good stylist, finding hair product, or finding a fashionable bag to cover my head when things went wrong, as they most surely would.

But heat and humidity and acne have a way of changing even the most stubborn of minds. Throughout India I put up with the pimples on my forehead. I put up with a limp, unstyled coiff. It was just easier to let it grow, according to plan. I'd started the process 2 months before leaving. I asked for a cut that would grow out nicely and then said good bye to Arthur, my stylist, telling him we should just be friends. Hair stylists are like boyfriends. You go to someone else, and you are wracked with guilt for 'cheating on them'. It's pretty much impossible to go back to them after visiting someone else. They always know. Don't ask me how, but they know. And they will always let you know that they know.

"Who cut your hair?" They might say all nonchalant-like. In these situations, I've told them that I was drunk and let a friend do it on a dare. This seems to smooth things over. I don't mind making myself look like an ass to avoid a conflict. A nice, fat tip at the end is always good, too.

I think I have an 'out', though, being on the road for this amount of time and all. I needn't be ashamed to have my hair cut by someone else, but I do worry about the shame that comes with a random hair cut, by some random person, in an even more random country.

Back at home, I always have a stylish doo... at least I try. It's easier than keeping up with the fashion trends and a stylish hair style makes up for a boring wardrobe. That, and cool shoes. So it's been painful for me to look in the mirror lately, not liking what I see. Photos are painful to look at as well. I finally decided that my plan to grow my hair out on the road was silly and stupid and most of all, uncomfortable and unbecoming. That, along with the heat and humidity of Southern China... a climate that will dominate my future as I travel through SE Asia, incited me throw caution to the wind (if only there was a breeze) and visit a salon, here in Yangshuo.

The man, who looked more like a Chinese bowling champion than a hair stylist, looked surprised that I was asking him to cut my hair shorter than the length of his thumb nail. Many Asian men have long pinky nails -- I've been told it's for good luck, but I have my doubts... Benjamin thinks they are grown to serve as nose picking implements -- this was the first time I'd seen such a long thumb nail on a man and if you believe that first impressions are important, this was not a good one in my eyes.

When I walked into the salon, which had 'Barber Shop' in vinyl lettering on the window, I was skeptical. But it did look more like a salon than a barber shop, so I ignored the name and took a seat. I'd agreed to a wash and cut and a price that was probably double what I should pay, but I wasn't about to haggle over the price of my hair cut when my appearance was at stake.

The wash was interesting. It didn't take place at a sink, but at the chair. They do it dry -- squeezing shampoo onto the scalp, working it into a lather without the aid of water. The guy washing my hair was a fine example of how NOT to wear your hair (a red flag in a salon)... he had long, stringy, dry, broken hair from a bad dye job. Chinese are not meant to be blonde. He also had long fingernails and raked them back and forth across my scalp, washing my hair for a good 20 minutes. Benjamin wondered if he was stalling for time, trying to figure out how to deal with my short hair request. I was more concerned about the numb feeling that the skin on my scalp had assumed. I've never had dandruff, but I was sure that this man was going to give me some.

Eventually he rinsed out the lather and sat me in the chair of the Chinese bowling champion. He was wearing a polo knock-off of a shirt. Instead of a man on a horse, the emblem looked like the face of Jesus, crown of thorns and all. An appropriate image, considering the state of my sensitive scalp.

I'd shown him my passport photo. I had short hair then. I figured this was the best way to get something close to what I wanted. He took a quick peek and motioned with his hand a few times... he wanted to make sure I wanted it that short. He even asked Benjamin how he was doing as he went about his business. I believe Benjamin told him to ask me, but he never did.

In the end, it turned out alright. Thankfully, mercifully, it turned out alright. I hadn't brought a bag with me to the salon.

There is always the first time someone you know has seen your hair go from one style to another. When they don't say anything about it, I assume the worst. They have nothing good to say, so they don't say anything at all. The woman who runs the guesthouse where we're staying said nothing -- and she's the one who referred me to this particular salon in the first place. But the other night, a friend we made at a cafe in town commented on how well the hair cut suits me. He said it looks 'European'. And we all know that's a compliment...