To celebrate Chinese New Year my friend, Jenna and I have began our travels about the subcontinent of South East Asia. Today is the last day of our time in Vietnam and it has been a whirlwind adventure. I am including the journal entries I have made for the past week and hope you enjoy the adventures we have been having!
Monday, January 3, 2011: Hanoi I was completely humbled today. It’s easy to consider yourself worldly after living in China for 5 months and in some respects the term is deserved – I have become numb to some of the strangest customs in the world. However, my trip from Shenzhen, China to Hanoi, Vietnam went surprisingly smoothly from my wake-up call at 5:00am to tucking myself into and unfamiliar bed that same evening. Caught the proper bus, which left on time, cab driver in Guangzhou understood my combined hand motions and poor pronunciation of airport, checked into our flight 2 hours early, even bought my friend Laura a China gift as a thank you for opening her house to us in Thailand. The flight left on time, Jenna and I both slept. The only displeasing quality of the day was how utterly freezing the weather has been. And let me tell you, I did not pack a ton of warm items to drag through Cambodia and Thailand so I am making do with a jeans/hoodie combo. It will just have to do until we get down south.
Justin, another American teacher, was my hero of the day for telling me about buying Vietnamese visas online. It took all of 10 minutes to have our paperwork finished and brand-spanking-new visas pasted into passports. So exciting! Only 3 more pages until it’s filled up. Makes me really want to take a couple random trips this spring. I wonder if normal people are motivated by competition against a little book of papers. Probably. Anyway, found my name on a sign outside baggage claim (first time my name has been on a sign) and the cutest little man tottered ahead of us to grab the car and take us to the Hanoi Phoenix Hotel. Really it’s a hostel, a pretty nice one; clean sheets, hot water, internet, friendly people, and help booking transportation/outdoor adventuring in Halong Bay. We drove through farmland – meaning patches of various crops that changed every 20-50 feet so the shades of green made a color-coordinated quilt between the piles of rubble and half-started, or half-finished, buildings – for about 10 minutes before entering the city.
The building colors are brightly colored so that I felt like I was about to arrive in Chacala, Mexico. I quickly realized that no building would be completed in Mexico that was as tall as there were. They were beautiful if you saw them in the right place – say, the Old Quarter by Hoan Kiem Lake – all squished up against each other, colors blending together. I have no idea which influence was first to come upon the city, but I have the colors of Mexico – lime green, papaya orange, and that blinding blue that doesn’t seem like it could actually exist in nature – the skinny, tall bone structure of SanFran, or perhaps Holland, and the total disregard for order and contemporary city blocks of China and Italy. As we got closer to town, buildings got narrower and motorbikes multiplied. Jenna and I went out for a walk to grab some food after dropping our things into the room and this was when I realized that I am not the jaded hard-to-shock girl that the ease of getting to Vietnam suggested. First of all I took a map out on the sidewalk – everyone knows real travelers don’t do that. Sidewalks were by no means a place one should expect to walk. They are obviously a place to haphazardly park millions of motorbikes, forge metal, conduct business meetings, and eat dinner – which we did.
Woman in Pot On our search for food we saw a ton of people eating a delicious-looking fried dough variety on tiny plastic stools scattered over the sidewalk. At first we couldn’t figure out where the food was coming from but u[on closer inspection we saw a woman with a pot crouched on the sidewalk and a tiny tray of (hopefully clean) dishes crammed into the alley (or rather a crack from the buildings settling) behind her. Figured it couldn’t be a bad idea so we grabbed tiny stools and ate our fried shrimp bread sipped in spicy cold chili sauce for dinner. The flavors were amazing, and the cold/hot combo made the spice of the sauce pop. We officially named our dinner spot ‘Woman in Pot’. Not sure if we will ever find her again but one can hope. Got a busy day planned for tomorrow and am now falling asleep to 90′s pop music videos from Brit, BSB, and SpiceGirls.
Tuesday, January 4, 2011: Water Puppetry First things first, before attending the Water Puppet Show I was in a little bookstore where I happened to pick up a book on the topic of why water puppetry survives in Hanoi when it does not anywhere else in Vietnam. After exiting the theatre I have a crystal-clear opinion of why it should not survive in Hanoi either. While it was only 30 minutes long, by the third act (maybe 7 minutes) Jenna and I exchanged a confused glance. I am sure that I do not understand the cultural history and significance that is being continued and I honestly would give my undivided attention to anyone who could explain to me the origins but as I cannot find a person or even written description to do an acceptable job my opinion remains that water puppetry is very odd. Still if you visit Hanoi I encourage you the check it out for yourself. There’s nothing like it - anywhere.
Lessons Learned 1. The best way to cross a motorbike-filled street is to slowly walk into the gaps between the vehicles and act confident. Only almost got hit twice. 2. $3 USD is sometimes $4 USD. Depending. 3. Arm movements cannot even be CHina-sized here. I just about clotheslines a scooter man with my elbow tucked. 4. Pho is delicious in America and Vietnam. 5. In Vietnam I look a lot like Avril Lavigne. 6. If you look too long at anyone they will chase you down with baskets of food, cyclo bikes, straw balancing scales, and stolen books. 7. Water Puppetry is weird. 8. Yellow flowers are not an appropriate landmark when navigating an unfamiliar town. 9. Vietnamese people smile a lot more than Chinese people.
Wednesday, January 5, 2011: Halong Bay The man who will be our guide through Halong Bay is named Tuan. He had a big smile and is a little sarcastic. He got us on a boat and we sailed to Tien Cuon Cave, or Heaven Cave. The cave itself was much bigger than I had imagined. As we walked though Tuan told us legends and pointed out interesting shapes in the rock formations. Dragons, turtles, man, dolphins. Touched the stone for fertility, shaped like a breast. Lots of Asian people trying to do cute sideways looks up against it, which was entertaining. Met some fellow travelers on the boat as we waited to arrive at our kayaking spot. Oli and Sam are from London, have been traveling for 3 months now – China, Bangkok, Laos, Vietnam, back to Thailand. Really great guys, lots of entertaining stories about their high school days and the time they have spent out on the road. Three Dutch men, all very tall and red-headed traveling for 8 months and just arrived from China on the same route south we are. And a couple from Chile who have been living in Australia for 6 months just for fun.
Friday, January 7, 2011: Journey South Raining like crazy in Hue as we wait for our continued journey to Hoi An. Went out to walk around the town and see the citadel but got soaked so back at a cafe just watching people. Supposed to be warmer down there but it’s only 3.5 hours south. Not promising.
On a Sleeper Bus: By Jenna Visoria
Well, I’m on a sleeper bus with nothing to do but write. the lights are out and there’s a million bumps in the road, so I hope this is legible in the morning. I have a prime seat on this bus – front row, middle bed, and a head-on view of everything our bus driver almost hits. It’s currently 8 o’clock and only two hours since this journey began. Every time I look up from my book to the ginormous windshield in my face, I see a new random thing – the first was trying to pass a truck stacked with Heineken boxes, another was tailgating a truck with lots of long wooden sticks sticking out the back, but most of the time it’s dodging motor scooters in the rain on a pothole abundant road in an extremely oversize bus, Oh, and I forgot to mention that the “co-pilot” of the bus is sleeping next to me on the floor because all the beds are taken. Yep…I’m on a sleeper bus.
Sunday, January 9, 2011: Nah Trong Well, just woke up. 6:53am to a beautiful golden-pink sunrise over the sea and palm trees. As we are getting closer to town there are already people jogging, strolling the beach, and even a man doing pull-ups from a tree branch. The bus is freezing so I am looking forward to disembarking.
Approximately 4:45pm Sitting on a beach in a sundress and bare feet. Don’t think I have felt this complete in quite a while. Spent the morning alternately jumping through the aqua waves and working on some tan lines. The boardwalk feels just like shore front Waikiki. Palm trees, wide sidewalks, runners, couples playing on the beach. I love the feel of sand, love the sound of waves. Now we are just taking in as much as possible before Saigon tomorrow. Went to lunch at one of the places recommended in the S.E.A tour book. Put little BBQs on our table and let us grill our own beef/chicken/squid etc. Tasted smokey and a little spicy from the chili and shoyu sauce. We saw on the map there was a market just a few blocks in from the restaurant so thought we’d check it out to see if there was anything unusual about it – I am a sucker for markets you know. Well, it was a lot bigger than expected. Vendors making up a little labyrinth of fruits, prepared foods, flip flops, souvenirs, straw hats, and other random objects. Got some bread and fruit for tomorrow and now just sitting on the beach.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011: Cu Chi Tunnels
Took a cultural tour today to aid our understanding of the country and its people. It was an incredible experience. I would encourage anyone near Saigon to take half of their day to see and learn about a war we know so little about now. I even was able to go down into the tunnels and climb though them for about 100 meters. It was stifling. Could not imagine living in that state for 30 years.
Guide: Mr. Bin Vietnamese-Filipino heritage, worked for the US Navy in San Diego. Served as a Captain for 7 years including the years of the American-Vietnam war. Spoke fondly of both Ho Chi Minh and Bill Clinton. Spent 7 years in a Vietnamese prison after the war ended being educated on Communism.
Tunnel Design: The tunnels were designed to trap anyone who didn’t know the way. the height was just a meter and the widest point during combat was 30cm across. They got increasingly shorter and thinner that farther underground you went.
The path of the tunnels was made in a zig-zag track so that gun shots would be caught against the walls.
There were 3 levels made a t different depths. The first at 3 meters were bunkers. There were 5 of these used for unique purposes. The first was a sniper hole, the second was left empty, the third was for medical supplies and treatment, fourth was the kitchen (and in order to avoid giving away their position by cooking smoke rising from the ground, they built underground chimneys that released the smoke away from the bunker) and fifth was for water supply. On the second level at 6 meters were trails used to travel to other areas. The deepest level was at 8 meters and was the route used to escape if the tunnels were entered, gassed, or attacked. The escape tunnel let into the river and American soldiers would purposefully attack at high tide in order to make escape more difficult.
The ground in the area is a clay soil which hardened when fire touched it. The VietCong soldiers took advantage of the strength and not only heated the surface themselves but urged on fires started from the bombings.
Using bamboo poles they built air-vents into the ground ever 30 meters.
VietCong: The VietCong soldiers wore black and white checked scarves during combat around their heads and neck. the color and pattern of these scarves are signs of the “People’s Army” all over the world. Used by Fidel Castro, the Taliban, and in Cambodia during revolt.
When soldiers would leave the tunnels as night to spy on American troups they would return to the tunnels wearing their sandals backwards to avoid leaving clues.
Ho Chi Minh Service of Labor War Invalid and Social Affairs Because of the use of Agent Orange the generation of people born during and after the war to women who were pregnant at the time of combat had a high rate of deformities. In most Asian countries and birth defect concerning hands, arms, legs, feet and faces would automatically place you as a street beggar for your life’s work. In Vietnam, I learned today, the government has provided steady work and a community for the people suffering as a result of Agent Orange. They are able to do small jobs with the parts of the body not damaged, like handicrafts, of traditional southern VN, some farming, store tending, and cooking. The handicrafts support the communities and increase tourism bringing outside money into the area. And these people are not left to try their luck in the cities with a handicap but are given a chance to earn a living in an environment of support and respect. I was a little wary because this is basically putting people on display as a tourist site but the alternatives are far more off-putting than the reality. I was impressed with the skills and happiness of the individuals (I could never create the works of art they were doing and I joked around with the checkout clerk about currency exchange) and the foresight of the government. That is an outstanding example of what should be happening if you want a social system based on equality for the masses.
Hope you enjoy the novel. Tomorrow morning bright and early we are off to Cambodia for a week. Should be enjoyable if not a little heart-weary at times.