Sunday, October 31, 2010


I slept through much of the ride to Hue. It wasn't a long trip - only four hours perhaps. I tried to read, but I could not for the life of me keep my eyes open. I woke up once we entered the city limits and discovered that it was bigger and more varied than I had expected, with everything from modern, to old European, to functional concrete buildings and long iron bridges leading to hundreds years old palaces and temples. The bus dropped us off on a street that was somewhere between modern and functional concrete structures. Unsure where we were at, we grabbed a taxi to our hotel instead of walking. He dropped us off at the start of an alley, pointing us down the small lane and indicating that he could go no further. We would have to walk from there. A passing motorcyclist took an excited interest in us as were were gathering our backpacks and paying the taxi. He stopped to chat and offer his help. When he found out we were from America he became even more excited and just about begged us to have coffee or lunch with him. Normally, we would awkwardly decline, trying to be as polite as possible and not offend, but for some reason I was feeling risky and adventurous, so before Chuck or Mom had a chance to reply, I told him "Okay, yes. We can have coffee. At 2:00." He was grinning ear to ear as we pointed out a coffee shop across the street, and was still smiling as we parted ways. Chuck and Mom weren't too thrilled about the plans, but they were willing to go along with it. I figured that nothing interesting ever happens unless you do something interesting (which is a fairly unusual conclusion for me to come to – I usually try to avoid situations that are too interesting). Our hotel was a short 3 minute walk from the main road in a comfortable, small, sleek building. The most striking thing about the place was the staff. They were so ridiculously friendly and helpful. They made sure our AC was working, that we had everything we needed, were we hungry, did we want to book any tours, and always with a big, enthusiastic smile. Every time we came downstairs, whether to give them our passports or ask for the wifi password, they seemed so happy to see us and said hello and good day and all that. It was very cute, but a bit overwhelming. The rooms were nice - two king beds, flat screen TV on the wall, bathtub, and all kinds of different lighting options – I liked the cubed floor lamp that gave off a soft glow. We didn't spend much time relaxing just then, though. Feeling hungry and ready for lunch we decided to try the hotel's sister restaurant one street over and one of the overly friendly hotel staff insisted on walking us there. She put on some long sleeves and grabbed an umbrella before leaving so as to lower her chances of getting any sort of a tan. She chatted with us about how Vietnamese people love white skin and chuckled at the fact that in America many people try to darken their skin. I know they avoid tanning for societal reasons (if you have dark skin you might be seen as "inferior," or at it's best, just unattractive) but it's such a good idea for maintaining youth and health. I wish I could stand to wear long sleeves in hot weather, or be bothered to carry an umbrella with me wherever I go, but so far I haven't managed to motivate myself enough. At the restaurant we met yet another incredibly friendly girl named Dong (whenever she said her name her lips clamped shut and cheeks puffed out on the last syllable) who had a tiny voice and a bit of a lisp. Once finished with lunch it was close to 2:00 PM, so we headed off to our meeting with the random old Vietnamese man. I secretly hoped he wouldn't show up, but that was not to be. He had not forgotten and was as excited as ever when he spotted us coming towards the coffee shop. We all took a seat in small, plastic chairs and ordered from the limited, unwritten menu. We had to ask for a number of different drinks before we hit on one that the surly owner actually had on hand. Once that was taken care of we introduced ourselves and delved into conversation. He was very curious about where we were from and what we thought of Vietnam, and especially curious about my Dad when we mentioned that he had been there during the war. It turned out that he was one of those who had supported the south, something about his own father having been involved with the US military in some capacity. He insisted that he knew my Dad - I never figured out if he meant figuratively or if he was convinced he had really met him at some point. Not sure. But he told us that he would pray for him, which was a nice sentiment. There were some definite anti-north and anti-current-Vietnam-government sentiments that he didn't feel comfortable speaking about at a normal volume of speech, so occasionally he would lower his voice and lean in to tell us stories about being snatched in the night if you disagreed with the government, or how they take money or land from the people on a whim. He also said that I have some sort of peaceful Buddha look going on. I wasn't quite sure what he meant by that either, but he meant it as a compliment and I took it as such. At the end of our conversations he decided he wanted to give us some coffee, and wanted us to bring some of it to Dad. So he took five minutes to run down the road and returned with a bag of individual-serving coffee packets and two coffee drip cups. Then he asked us for $10 to cover the cost. Ah, Vietnam – where everything comes with a cost. Gotta love it. We said goodbye to him, grateful for the strange experience and not quite sure what to make of it, and headed to the train station. We were hoping to get train tickets from Hue to Hanoi, but all the sleeper cars were sold out when we arrived. I conferred quickly with Mom and Chuck and decided we would go ahead and just get regular seats, but when I pushed my way through to the window again, those were sold out as well. I'm leaving out all the gruesome details of this experience, but let me assure you that the whole attempt to buy tickets was utterly frustrating. There was no line - just a crowd that you had to shove your way through. The seller didn't speak any English and didn't give a damn about anyone, Vietnamese or otherwise. The trains were obviously not being efficiently run due to the overwhelming number of people who wanted to travel but couldn't get tickets. The whole system seemed so apathetic and cold. I was so glad to get out of there. We booked a bus with our hotel instead - much cheaper, nicer people, and plenty of seats. After that we finally had some time to relax at the hotel. Dinner was eaten at a fancier place than we usually went to. We tried a number of different Hue specialties, one of which came with a fermented shrimp sauce that wasn't as bad as it sounds, but still nothing I'd choose to eat again. I convinced Mom and Chuck to indulge in some ice cream afterwards, and then headed to the hotel for the rest of the night.

We woke up early on the 3rd and waited downstairs to be picked up for our DMZ tour, DMZ being the demilitarized zone, or the old border between north and south Vietnam. The tour bus ended up being a much smaller tour van, and a rather uncomfortable one at that. I was not thrilled about spending the next 12 hours hauling around in it. We drove in silence for the first two hours - no tour guide, no chatter. A few of us tried to sleep, but the seats weren't cut out for it. They were hardly cut out for sitting. We were all relieved when we finally stopped to pick up the tour guide and have breakfast. We ate, used the bathroom, then climbed back into the van, ready for the tour to actually start. Mom, who had been unlucky enough to be stuck in the tiny, fold out chair for the first leg of the trip, now got to sit in the cushier front seat because the guide needed the fold out seat given its central location in the van. Then we were off again, only this time we got some info about the sights we were seeing and were going to see. The guide told us about the craters that, although hard to see while flying by in a vehicle, littered the fields on either side of the road. She said the fighting was quite brutal in certain parts of the DMZ (she pronounced it dee-em-zed, like the British would) even though it was supposed to be a battle-free area. When we passed over the Ben Hai River she pointed out that it had been the official border between the north and the south. To the north of the river were the Vinh Moc tunnels, which was where we were headed. We learned that they had been dug over the course of two years, housed 350 people, and were bombed ceaselessly by the Americans. One series of attacks forced them to stay within the tunnels for 10 days straight, the longest amount of time they went without glimpsing sunlight. Seventeen babies were born within the tunnels and spent the first few years of their lives not knowing that their tunnel-dwelling existence was unusual. The people were so against leaving their home that they suffered through almost eight years of an underground existence just to stay. Arriving at the tunnels we were given a short above ground tour and shown a ventilation shaft (many of these were made with the help of the American drill bombs, which drilled just far enough to start a deep hole, but never could quite make it down to the level of the tunnels), a number of tunnel entrances (which were way bigger than the ones at the Cu Chi tunnels) and the museum (there was a picture of the Vinh Moc choir - five ladies singing in the tunnels). Then we got to the good part where we got to actually go underground. These tunnels were very different from the ones at Cu Chi. I could stand up as I walked through them, for one. They were also much cooler than Cu Chi, thanks to the fact that a number of entrances opened onto the beach and sucked the windy air into and through the tunnels. There was one doorway (forks in the tunnel were often framed with wood, like a doorless doorway) that had a lovely cool breeze and I just wanted to stand there for five minutes to enjoy it. In one part of the tunnel, as we were nearing the exit, the guide warned us that it was slippery and to be careful. I almost slipped once, but caught myself. Immediately afterward I almost slipped again. And then again, twice more. Fate finally rolled her eyes at my ineptitude and tossed me to the ground with a squeal. Gah. Five different people around me were all "Oh my gosh! Are you all right?" Yeah yeah, I'm fine. I laughed it off as well as I could and when I emerged into the sunshine a few minutes later I was rather proud of my dirt streaked arm. I had Mom take a picture for me before I brushed it off. We had come out at one of the beach-side entrances and the blue water looked delicious. There was no time to frolic in the ocean though, so we followed our guide back to the entrance where we haggled with the seven different vendors for water before getting back in the van and heading to our next stop: the Rockpile. Let me tell you, the Rockpile was very boring. It's not supposed to be exciting though, as you can't even get close to it - all you can do is stare at it from the side of the highway and try to imagine the history that the tour guide just explained to you but you have since forgotten. All I can recall about it is that some serious fighting happened there. Now it just looks like a small, jagged hill overgrown with greenery. Back in the van and on to Khe Sanh Combat Base. This was yet another site where some pretty serious battles took place. I believe it was mainly US Marines that were stationed there. They underestimated the North Vietnamese army and ended up abandoning the place in 1968, but not until after a lot of lives had been lost. Now the base is home to not much more than a small museum and a couple helicopters. The black and white photos in the museum had captions that read "...courageous men who killed American troop..." under a picture of Vietnamese soldiers, or "Looking up the way to escape" under a photo of a lone American soldier. The surrounding countryside was rather beautiful. I have to admit, I enjoyed it, the chicken and her peeping chicks, the chilie plant, and the butterfly that landed on my skirt more than the war stuff. I think I was getting warred-out by that point. Chuck and I got sodas from the single drink vendor who used nothing more than an igloo cooler to keep the drinks cold, and waited by the van for the rest of the tour group to finish exploring. I think much of the rest of the group was feeling the same as me because it didn't take long for everyone to gather round and for us to move on to the next, and last destination. As we were driving alongside a rocky river I noticed a group of people sifting through the pebbles along the shore and asked the guide what they were up to. Just as I suspected, they were looking for gold. What I hadn't expected was that it was a government run and owned operation. I hadn't ever heard of government run mines, but being that it was Vietnam, it fit in with the style of government. Not five minutes past them we stopped once again to take a look at the Dak Rong Bridge, which marks the beginning of one of the important highways used during the war. We climbed into the van one last time and breathed a sigh of relief that we were finished. All that was left to do was make the two hour trip back to Hue. A number of us tried sleeping through the ride, but that darn uncomfortable bus was uncooperative. Other than that, the ride was smooth and traffic free. We had an uneventful evening: dinner at the hotel restaurant and setting up a Hue tour for the next day. Sleep.

On the 4th, Mom and I got up and ready for our tour. Chuck was burned out, so he opted to stay at the hotel and relax while we saw the city. Oh, and it was the 4th of July, so happy Independence Day to America! Of course, there was no celebrating the occasion in the middle of Hue, Vietnam, but at least we remembered it. Mom and I hung around downstairs until someone came by to pick us up for the tour. We followed her down the alley and out to the main street where a big, long charter bus was waiting for us. We were just about the last passengers to be picked up, so the only two seats next to each other that were available were at the very back of the bus. I noticed as made our way down the central aisle that almost all of the other passengers were Asian, probably Vietnamese. I wondered what language the tour would be in. We picked up a couple more people (one guy had to sit in a fold-up chair placed in the aisle because we ran out of seats) and headed to the Imperial Palace. The guide gave some background info in Vietnamese as well as English (that answered my earlier question), and then we filed off the bus and made our way to the entrance. Man, was it hot out. Every time I stepped off the (mildly) air-conditioned bus my back bloomed in sweat, making me look as though I'd recently jumped in a pool with my clothes on. I wasn't the only one though, which made me feel better. I learned that day that yes, even Asian people sweat. We wandered around the Imperial Palace, sometimes staying with the tour group, sometimes wandering on our own, and eventually losing our group all together only to run into them again on the other side of the palace grounds. We also came across a teen-aged girl who was sitting on a bench in the midst of the undulating crowd of people crying her eyes out. She was bawling and wailing and not trying to hide her distress in the least. Everyone stared as they passed her by, and one couple tried to approach her to see if she needed help. She completely ignored them, got up, and moved to another bench, her howling uninterrupted. Very strange. I really wanted to know what her story was, but alas, I will have to make one up: she was a Vietnamese princess from the times when the palace was whole and bustling with royal life until one day she wandered into a strange, small room in the royal temple and when she came out she found herself in 2010, only she didn't know she was in 2010 or what was going on and she was just scared and lonely, surrounded by strangely dressed people talking a funny version of her Vietnamese language. And then she stubbed her toe and it really hurt, hence the crying. Moving on. The complex itself wasn't particularly stunning. There were a few beautiful buildings, but nothing really made me say "Oooooooo." On the way back to the bus we grabbed some pomello and green mango to try. The pomello ended up not being ripe. The mango as well, but at least it was meant to be that way. It made my mouth pucker furiously. We were driven to one of the city's better known garden houses next. It was... a house. With a messy backyard garden. I suppose I was, once again, unimpressed. I mean, sure it was pretty, but not handsome enough to tempt me (anyone recognize that reference?). There were some pomello and peach or apricot trees in the backyard, along with a number of other unknown plants. We next headed to Thien Mu Pagoda which was much more attractive than the garden house. The pagoda was on a small hill and surrounded by enchanting river scenery. Small, canoe-like boats laden with unknown goods drifted against the blue-brown water. Larger passenger boats crowded along the shore, their owners offering rides to anyone who passed within earshot. The pagoda itself was lovely in its simplicity with seven tiers that tapered upwards to the sky. It made for some pretty photos. Past the pagoda and through a big archway was a temple. The heat dulled the thump of drum beats that were pounding out some sort of daily ceremony. As we made our way towards the temple the ceremony ended with a few sharp strikes of a gong, and faded into the typical sounds of tourist chatter. We arrived just as a group of white-robed monks were filing out through a side entrance. Whatever the ceremony was, we had missed it. The temple wasn't special as far as we could tell, so we spent only a few minutes within and headed back to the pagoda. Our tour guide was busy rounding up the few English speakers on the tour when we showed up, in order to tell us some of the history of the pagoda. From what I could gather, a spirit woman appeared on the hill and proclaimed that whoever built a pagoda on that spot would be the savior of the province. Some guy heard this story and decided to built a pagoda, thereby making him the savior. I dunno about you, but it sounded to me like he kinda cheated the system. But he left a nice pagoda behind, so it's okay. At this point Mom and I decided that we were going to head back to the hotel instead of finishing the tour. We were catching the bus to Hanoi that evening and wanted to have time to shower and relax before hand. Our tour guide seemed genuinely disappointed when we told him our plans, and doubly so when two Australian women joined in and decided to do the same as us. But he was very accommodating about it and even helped us hire a boat to take us down the river and back into downtown. The Australian women joined us which cut the price in half. We stepped on board the boat and took a seat in the plastic patio chairs that had been arranged in front of each window. The chairs weren't nailed to the floor, but it wasn't as if we were going out on the stormy high seas so it didn't much matter. I think the owners lived on the boat, so when it wasn't full of people they stacked the chairs in a corner so they had space to stretch out on the floor to sleep or eat or whatever. We were basically taking a ride down the river in someones living room. As soon as we got going one of the women on board began trying to sell us stuff. First it was drinks, which Mom and I did buy. Then it was scarves, pictures, cards, etc. Mom ended up buying one of the cards because they were kind of nice, but otherwise we just wanted her to leave us alone. The four of us were glad when she finally ran out of stuff to try and sell. We puttered down the river for 20 minutes, the wind blowing in through the wide windows and drying our eyes. The shore was full of green with a few ancient stone tombs here and tall water-side hotels there. It wasn't a long ride, and it was certainly much nicer than a packed tour bus. The only problem with the experience was that they tried to drop us off short of our destination and told us we'd have to pay another 20,000 dong (or $1 US) to go to the main dock. I was inclined to argue, but the Australian ladies sighed and agreed. It was only a few minutes more until we were once again on dry land. From there we made the short walk back to our hotel where we could finally sit down and relax in the cool air of the AC. Chuck had just ordered lunch when we arrived, so Mom and I quickly added to the order, only realizing then how hungry we were. After eating we showered and hung around on our laptops for the rest of the afternoon. One of the girls who worked at the hotel somehow found Chuck on facebook and went looking through all his pictures. She laughed when she saw the ones from the start of the trip and told him that he had been fat back then. She couldn't stop giggling. That started the girls on a conversation about their weight, one of them commenting on how fat she was because she weighed 40 kilos (about 100 pounds). All I could do was shake my head with incredulity. Sigh. At close to 5:00 PM we were picked up and taken to the bus stop. Although the bus was sitting right in front of us, we still had to wait a good 30 minutes before being allowed on. It was a bit of a push-fest to get on as well, which I thought was strange as I think everyone had pre-bought tickets. I never understood pushing or impatience when you're guaranteed an assigned seat. It was a sleeper bus again, but it seemed a bit smaller than the ones we'd been on previously. Mom climbed up into her bed (we were all on the top bunks this time) and immediately had a small panic attack of sorts. Her legs and feet didn't quite fit into the little cave that was meant for them. She twisted and turned a bit. She scooted down and scooted up. She said she wasn't sure if she was going to be able to make the trip. But then we discovered this little door thing down by the foot of the “cave.” Mom was able to pop her toes out the door and that seemed to make it all better. So thank goodness for that, otherwise we might never have made it to Hanoi.

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