Vietnam is a beautiful country with two great traditions -- delicious cuisine and rip-off artists that would put the Chinese to shame. And so, any trip there is a roller coaster of annoyances and pleasant surprises. Let´s begin with the Ho Chi Minh trail from Laos. This crosses Vietnam in the center of the country, and so we have to preface this section by saying we only visited the capitalist, modernized south of the country, which is supposedly very different from the north (which is usually described like your standard grey and cold communist country). But we didn´t have time for both, and Dana was yearning for a sandy beach.
Coming from Laos on one of their excrutiatingly uncomfortable and dusty pick-up truck buses was just barely tolerable, and we arrived at the border town just after noon. We hopped on the back of two motorcycles for the 5 miles to the next town. We were heading to Hue, and we quickly found the only mini-bus heading that way. We were told the 3 hour trip would cost $60. (Keep in mind two days of buses in Laos cost about $5). When we protested this obvious farce, none of the passengers on the almost-full bus opened their mouths when we asked them what they paid (even with sign language). So, we did what we always do when faced with a situation in which we have next to no leverage -- sit down and wait. Eventually the guy came down to about $15, and so we went. After getting to the coast, we were informed that the bus was actually not going to Hue (about an hour away), and of course nobody spoke english and the bus driver was not the same guy as the tout who put us on it, and really knew nothing about it. To cut to the end, we parked our asses in the van and refused to get out until we were reimbursed something for the trip onward to Hue, threatening to wait all night, call the police to help "mediate," etc. Fortunately a hotel owner nearby came to translate and eventually we got some money back, promptly hailed a minivan taxi to Hue ($2), and were on our merry way.
The first impression we had of Hue was the amazing number of motobikes being driven there. There are few cars, but the streets are jammed packed with the ever popular Honda Dream scooters or the newer Honda Wave (as one Vietnamese man put it, there are the 4 "H´s" of desire -- Handsome, Honda Dream, Handphone, and House). The absence of any traffic lights makes crossing the street extremely hazardous, and this is a theme we would see again in other cities and espcially Ho Chi Minh. To join in the mess, we rented a Honda of our own and darted out of the city to visit various tombs of past Vietnamese emperors. Nothing terribly interesting about the graves, but zipping through the small towns to see markets and farmers (women) in conical hats tending to their rice paddies was a lot of fun.
Hue is also known for a special type of cuisine, a part of which is a kind of Asian fajita dipped in peanut sauce. We quickly identified our favorite restaurant, "Lac Thien," which is run by a deaf-mute and his niece who helps translate. In true Vietnamese fashion, there are two restaraunts by this same name side-by-side on the street. Both have identical menus, and promote deaf-mute proprietors. They each have a sign out front saying, "As recommended in the Lonely Planet -- the food is awesome." At least pertaining to the deaf guy that we selected, there was a lot of truth to it.
From Hue we took a day train down to the beachside city of Nha Trang. The train was itself nothing special but took us through some of the most spectacular scenery of our trip to date. It first winds around cliffs and untouched pacific coast beaches, and later heads down the center of bright green rice paddies and small villages. At one stop Dale got off to buy some snacks and was almost "duffled" (see Paul Theroux´s Great Railway Bazaar) when the train started chugging slowly forward. He had to run with armfuls of Asian cookies but made it back aboard safely.
Nha Trang was a fun place, if you could put up with the thousands of touts and hucksters that constantly bombard you with offers from rickshaw rides to steamed shellfish. The beach is beautiful and long, and the town is reasonably interesting. We got a spotless hotel room for $10 (including a/c, fridge, TV, and balcony with ocean view), which was perfect in every way except for the giant, 6 inch cockroaches that Dana occasionally spotted scampering about.
We relaxed on the beach, fending off the continuous stream of vendors -- and this is where the rip-off and touting skills of the Vietnamese really shined. Books (popular fiction, LP guidebooks, etc.) were perfectly reproduced on color photocopy machines, covers and all, and could be purchased for a dollar or two. Pirated CDs, DVDs, and CD-Roms -- looking identical to the originals -- were something like 6 for a dollar. Even the beloved Honda Dream scooter was faithfully replicated by the Chinese and imported, to be sold for a small fraction of the price of an original. Everywhere we went rickshaw drivers shouted, "Where you go?" (to which we always answered, "nowhere"). Cute young children sold postcards, books, candy, and cigarettes on the beach, and as one explained to us, they have to do all their selling at a young age, because once they reach adolescence they are not so cute and nobody will buy from them. That said, one particularly enterprising postcard seller had neither arms nor legs (a relic of the landmine problem), and still somehow managed to sidle up to us on the beach and make a sale.
Of course we rented our own scooter, and explored the town and surrounding areas. At one point far from town the scooter quit on us. Dale, insisting that he could see gas in the gas tank, was sure that lack of fuel was not the problem. Hours later, having added a little gas, we were off and running again. On another day Dana relaxed on the beach while Dale went Scuba diving. The diving was very average -- not just because visibility was poor but because the ocean floor looked like a parking lot. Dynamite fishing (and you could hear the explosions continuing while diving) destroyed nearly all of the coral reefs of Vietnam.
At this point to do Vietnam some justice we really need to obsess a bit more about the food, which coming from Laos was for us as miraculous as Moses parting the Red Sea. Street food ranged from baskets of steamed lobsters, fresh tropical fruit, or bite-sized waffles (why does everything bite-sized taste so damn good?), french bread sandwiches, dim sum dumpling things, corn on the cob, etc. Do the Laotians know that this kind of food exists so close by? It´s like living a block away from Taco Bell and eating nothing but sand.
The restaruants are even better. Local eateries deliver your personal charcoal grill, on which you place huge portions of marinated tuna steak, shrimp, squid, or meat and cook to your taste. Each plate of food costs about 15,000 Dong ($1). It´s well worth the painful burns you are sure to recieve on your hands and face. Other restaurants of note are vegetarian only, and sell large plates of shrimp, beef, chicken dishes, etc. all shaped out of some kind of tofu-like substance and look and taste practically identical to the original. Even Dale, who is far from a tofu fan, was impressed.
Now we need to discuss the political environment a bit. In the south of Vietnam, as mentioned above, the atmosphere is very commercial and capitalist. Of course, here resides the people who were fighting alongside the US against the North during their civil war (which they now call, "The American War"). And so, many of the people here are not communist or fans of the government, and have been trying hard to leave the country (to come to the US) since the end of the war. One relatively wealthy, local female entrepreneur we met in Nha Trang showed us a huge file of letters sent to various US senators and immigration officials since 1970. Her brother now lives in Texas but she cannot get out. It´s important to understand that her life is very difficult, being a supporter of the losing side of a war, and the Vietnamese government is not one to forget these matters easily. Her business and life are constantly under threat.
From Nha Trang we took a tourist bus to Dalat. For the first time since Nepal, we found a very well run transport system of decent-enough buses shuttling around backpacking whities from one major city to the next. In Dalat, a very odd but pretty city, we rented a scooter to check out the neighboring "Lat" villages. The owner of our hotel (The Hotel Europa) told us to be sure to bring along a few packs of 555 (brand) cigarettes to bribe local policemen, should we be stopped to show non-existent "permits" to visit areas outside of the city. She then covered her mouth and laughed hysterically, and said in broken English, "I am so sorry. That is Vietnam...I am so ashamed!"
Dalat is a unique place built around a lake and a mini-replica of the Eiffel Tower. In addition, there is a surreal amusement park called the "Valley of Love" (see pics below) where honeymooners and lovers rent paddle swan boats and can get led around on a horse by locals dressed as cowboys and Indians.
Dalat is also the place where we made a few Vietnamese friends. The first was Loi, who was a university student. We enjoyed shocking him by telling him how much a university education can cost in the US, in addition to the price of a movie, or a salary of a banker. To all of these amounts he would just laugh and say that it was impossible -- he didn´t believe us. He was also very excited to show us a very beautiful part of his city nearby his university. We were surprised later to be standing on the top of a small mound in the local golf course! Well beauty is in the eye of the beholder we figured...
One night we went out with Loi after seeing him again randomly on the street. He was in tears as he explained how tough it is to find work in Vietnam, how other students actually bribe professors with money for good grades, and how in general one can only get work if one´s "uncle" already has a job in the company. It was sad but we felt less and less guilty as he racked up the bar and dinner tab, and then requested cab fare for the short walk home.
A far better friend was a waiter we met named Win at a restaurant called Golf 3. (Of course, Golf 1 and 2 were nearby). We happened to have an old John Cheever book with us and as he was trying to learn English, we gave it to him. His eyes lit up and said, "An old book is like an old friend." Later he gave us a 500 Dong note folded into a flower and insisted we come back for dinner. At dinner later, we ordered one of our favorite dishes, shrimp in tamarind sauce. It was very messy, and before we knew it Win was sitting down next to us peeling our shrimp! Later, he took us to a local coffee shop (and to our amazement insisted on paying for his own drink). We found it difficult to converse but finally figured out that "Jackanmak" is Michael Jackson, and "Celeron" is not "soldering iron" but Celine Dion. Dana also chipped in with her best caveman-speak, explaining that "Dale drink lot coffee," followed by the requisite, "Dunkin´ Donut."
We were sad to leave our new friends in Dalat but quickly forgot about them as the tour bus zoomed away, duffling us at the hotel. Luckily, this was a country where the motorbike rules the road, and we were able to catch up to the bus on the back of two scooters, with each driver holding a backpack on his lap and us on the back.
On to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), or Saigon. It´s a bustling, relatively modern place, complete with an expensive section, a tourist ghetto, and everything in-between. We ate well during the day and at night went to the Apocalypse Now bar. Streets were jammed with masked Honda scooter and cyclo (rickshaw) drivers. Vietnamese cyclos have been designed so you sit in front of the bicycle, rather than being dragged behind, so you have an unobstructed view as traffic comes barrelling towards you at top speed. We told one cyclo driver who wanted to give us a lift that we we wanted the exercise of walking. He said, "Exercise...good for you, bad for me."
One of the major tourist attractions of HCMC is the museum of the "American War". It´s a very disturbing place filled with pictures of death and destruction. One particularly troubling exhibit had actual babies deformed by Agent Orange preserved in large jars of formaldehyde. The entire museum is decidedly anti-American, with one whole room devoted to pictures of worldwide protests against the US (and this is after supposed recent attempts to "soften" the language of many of the exhibits). We found it interesting that nowhere was it mentioned that what we call the Vietnam War was a civil war between the North and the South, and that the US was one of many countries assisting the south. It is also quite obvious to any visitor, at least in the south of Vietnam now, that most of the people desperately wish that the war would have resolved the other way.
We left Saigon to Phnom Phen, Cambodia via the Mekong River and a newly opened border crossing, through the wild border town of Chau Doc and floating Cham villages (more fully described in the Cambodia section). It was a beautiful, relaxing trip of 2 days and a perfect end to our journey through Vietnam.
Vietnam is a unique, beautiful, and interesting place with a complicated history. One of the best books we have read on any country is, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace by Le Ly Hayslip. Even if you can´t get the $2 Vietnamese pirated version, it´s well worth a read.
Vietnam Pics! (click picture for full-sized version)
Hue: The fort / Traveling in style on a Honda Wave
Tu Duc's Tomb / Rice paddy workers
Nha Trang: harbor / beach
Doklongari / Dalat and its Eiffel tower ripoff
Dalat: The Crazy House / Bao Dai's Summer Palace
A new friend showing off the Dalat golf course / #1 honeymoon spot: Love Valley
Happy honeymooners at Love Valley / A rice farm
Camera shy corn vendor / Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City
Saigon: Who is that masked woman? / Motorbikes, motorbikes and more motorbikes
The Mekong Delta: a persuasive cake seller / The only way to travel
Our ride to the Cambodian border