The war in Vietnam

We wake up early again and eat noodle soup for breakfast just before leaving for the Cu Chi tunnels north of Saigon (stopping at another handcrafts workshop on the way).

Our guide is a funny former English teacher from the Mekong Delta nicknamed “Slim Jim.” The name suits him as he is indeed quite slim mainly because, as he says, he “drinks too much and smokes too much.”

Slim Jim is a great storyteller, going into the history of the “American War.” He was a member of the South Vietnamese army for a year (he didn’t see combat) before leaving to become a teacher. When the North took control of the country, he had to go off and learn communism and party politics before he could teach again. Others from the South army were sent to more intensive re-education camps, escaped the country (the boat people) or earned safe passage to America.

Throughout our travels in Vietnam I’ve often wondered how the French and U.S. troops could fight in the mountainous terrain and dense jungle. In the end, they couldn’t. This is why the Americans horribly polluted the country with toxic Agent Orange.

Beyond the terrain, exploring the Cu Chi tunnels certainly reveals an ingenius foe in touch with the locals and committed to their cause, using whatever means were at their disposal to fight the war. Sandals were made from tire rubber. Bamboo sharpened and used for deadly spears in horrific hidden booby traps. Unexploded American munitions carefully taken apart and used to make new landmines.

And the earth. Tunnels 60 x 80 cm, two or three levels deep. Perfected over 20 years of warfare. Brutal, petrifying.

I imagine hiding in these dark tunnels as B-52s flying above turn the land as dimpled as a golf ball.

Beyond the tunnels, there’s a destroyed U.S. tank that hit a Vietcong antitank mine. Escaping U.S. troops were shot and killed. Smiling people pose in front for pictures.

There’s also a rifle range with a machine gun, M-16 and AK-47. And, yes, Sara and I fire a few rounds of the AK.

When we’re dropped off in Saigon we return to the War Remnants Museum. One-sided, yes, but still an interesting collection of photojournalism from the French and American wars. Images of the destruction from the previous cities we visited – Hanoi, Hue in particular.

And the remnants of Agent Orange. It really does break your heart.

Throughout my travels in Vietnam I read the novel “Going After Cacciato” by Tim O’Brien. Clearly written by a Vietnam veteran, this story details a stream-of-consciousness Vietnam using vivid descriptions I can picture from my own trip and ugly anecdotes of this ugly war through the eyes of a grunt.

Dirty on all sides, but in Vietnam the scars are more obvious and still healing.

Taking Saigon

The hotel in Mui Ne, Vietnam was bad, but the AC worked great and the owner put us on a cheap and comfortable bus to Saigon. To our complete disbelief, this bus stopped less than a block from our downtown hotel (made even better by the fact that it was raining when we arrived).

They say there are nine million people and five million motorbikes in the city formerly known and still commonly referred to as Saigon. Faster, taller, brighter than Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City buzzes with energy. A capitalist hub in this communist country.

Day 1:

– Relax in our beautiful (and clean!) room

– Pho at nearby Pho Quyen based on the recommendation of a friend (one of many great suggestions, thanks Stephen!). The spicy pho bo ke (?) is some of the best of our trip.

– Make all arrangements for the next day then hang out at a bia hoi with a group of Vietnamese teachers who make me cheer in Vietnamese with every toast.

Day 2:

– Up early. Breakfast of eggs and bread. I just eat the bread because, well, I cannot eat eggs.

– We take a city tour with the company Delta Adventures. We hit the main sights – War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace, Chinatown market, a beautiful Chinese pagoda and temple – along with shopping stops that are interesting for only a few minutes. I sample weasel coffee (called this because this highly coveted coffee is harvested after the weasel digests it). I see rows and rows of disabled people making eggshell paintings and vases. But I’ve done all my souvenir shopping. No more room.

Overall, the tour is an overview of the city, but I’m left wanting more. Many times our bus would pass by large monuments and our guide would say nothing. In other occasions, I asked her about a part of the Reunification Palace and she responded, “I don’t know, I wasn’t born then.”

Day 3: The Cu Chi Tunnels. To be discussed in my next post.

Day 4:

Hot and sunny in Saigon, we walk around the city then sit in a coffee shop drinking iced coffee and eating beef stew and carrot cake.

Siesta.

I wake with a craving for Western food. A burger to be exact. We run into a place called Café Zoom literally seconds before a quick tropical downpour hits and I order a delicious bacon cheeseburger. I haven’t eaten anything this rich and meaty for a while. I feel a little rough after.

We hang out in our room for the evening eating popcorn and coconut-flavoured peanuts (a fantastic discovery in Vietnam).

We prepare for our retreat from Saigon.

Mui Ne: Dirty hotel, fish sauce, and moonlight bike ride

We end our motorcycle tour at the beach town of Mui Ne at a hotel our guides recommend. I’m cold and drenched. The room is warm and cheap. We later regret this decision.

On closer inspection the hotel is pretty dirty. Although it is close to the beach as we are told, the beach is more of a dirty stretch of sand far from the main restaurants and ATMs, which we discover after a lengthy walk.

But this lengthy walk discovers a bar with hammocks next to the water. Quite nice.

Dinner at a restaurant highly recommended by Lonely Planet. The grilled fish is bland and the service is poor. Let the review go to their heads it appears.

The next morning an early walk alone to take a few pictures. Cows sleep underneath the coconut trees in the field between our hotel and the beach. The sand gets much cleaner further down and I walk through a resort, which I think would be a nice place to stay should I ever return.

We rent a moto for the day – a 100-125cc bike – my first time ever driving one of these. A little trouble at the start, but it makes for a nice day. We drive past streets of drying fish – Mui Ne is apparently famous for its fish sauce – and stop at the region’s giant sand dunes where two kids take us off sledding.

With shirts, shorts, arms, legs and shoes covered with fine red sand, we drive along the coast stopping at the previous day’s mudslide on one end and a pretty major roundabout on the other (which I handle with very little trouble might I add).

Upon returning to our hotel, I discover that my right arm from the end of my t-shirt sleeve to my knuckle is a bright red along with two one-inch squares just above my knees. After walking along the dirty beach, we stop at the resort I visited that morning and sit in unused lounge chairs and read books for about an hour.

Grilled meat for supper at a nice family restaurant with cute kids and a cute puppy, pineapple pancakes with chocolate at a cool beach bar named Pogo (?).

A bike ride with a full moon shining down as waves of the South China Sea hit the shore.

Motorcycle Diary

When I was a kid I went for a ride on my neighbour’s motorcycle. As I got off, I put my ankle down on the side of the muffler. My leg sizzled. Searing pain.

This has forever clouded my view of motorcycles.

Despite this, on our second day in Nha Trang, Vietnam Sara and I signed up for a motorcycle tour into the central highlands. For two days we would drive from the beach city of Nha Trang up into the mountains nearly 2,000m high to Dalat where we would stay for the night and down through jungle roads to the beach at Mui Ne.

Sara would be on the back of our tour guide Si’s bike. I would drive my own.

I do not own a motorbike license let alone have I ever driven one or even a scooter. I could count on one hand the amount of times that I had ever been on a moto (including that listed in the introduction).

So what did I do? That night I typed into Google, “How to drive a motorcycle.” The YouTube videos didn’t seem to work, so I was left with reading a 10-part series in About.com.

Perhaps I was a bit over my head. At least that’s what I thought in a night of uneven sleep.

However, all this worrying was for naught.

We arrived with our bags at 8:30 a.m. and didn’t hit the road until 9:30. As we sat around, I was told that late the night before five Irish guys also signed up for our trip and a second guide was needed. If I wanted, I was told I could ride with this guide for no extra charge. It seemed like a good idea.

Our motorcycle trip was by far the best way to see Vietnam. I would say it was a turning point in our travels in this country.

Getting away into the countryside and seeing its sheer beauty certainly instills a deep appreciation and understanding why so many foreign soldiers – be it Chinese, Khmer, French or American – turned their backs and went home.

As mentioned, the first day was high into the mountains to Dalat. The weather began with hot sun near the beach followed by cooling and a downpour during our “com ga” (chicken rice) lunch. More sun, cloud and heavy, heavy rain as we entered Dalat cold and wet.

Ask a Vietnamese (at least the ones I talked to) and they’ll tell you Dalat is such a beautiful, romantic place perfect for honeymooners. But, in the black rain, it really didn’t impress much ¬– although we had some tasty spaghetti (I have found the noodles in Vietnam are good if not better than most Italian places) and a strawberry pancake.

Day 2: Dalat to Mui Ne.

Up bright and early, pack up, coffee, baguettes and jam, and on the bikes. Stop briefly at what everyone calls the “Crazy House” in Dalat, a strange hotel that looks like it was designed by someone inspired by Gaudi.

From here, we start our descent heading down past mushroom farms and coffee plantations. Apparently Vietnam is the #2 exporter of coffee in the world behind Brazil. Impressive.

The view heading down through the jungle is stunning.

The weather is a mix of cloud then rain then hot, humid sun, then intense tropical downpour with drops the size of cherries, then hot humidity, then another downpour to make us thoroughly soaked as we enter Mui Ne.

We repeatedly stop to put on and take off rain gear. We also stop because of a mud slide across the road where a car gets stuck. One guy helping to dig out the car stops, looks up and frantically starts to run. His large truck has started rolling backwards about 50m away. He catches it just in time, jumps in and puts on the brake.

We walk through the mud and get on our bikes at the other side then drive to Mui Ne. I get off at the hotel. My ankle is fine.

The Nha Trang Sleeper

We had finished all of our Christmas shopping and our last day in Hoi An consisted of shipping everything home and waiting to depart.

We decided to take a sleeper bus to Nha Trang. And no, we didn’t know what this was, but for $9 each, it seemed worthwhile.

Looking back, it was without a doubt my worst sleep of the trip.

Beyond the short, uncomfortable beds with the backs at a 45 degree angle and extremely limited storage space, which meant I slept with both my camera and daypack (so they wouldn’t be stolen of course), they played some sort of Asian pop music the entire night. I forgot I was even wearing earplugs because they didn’t help.

Uncomfortable and loud. No more than a half hour sleep.

We arrived in the beach city of Nha Trang at around 6 a.m. We found our hotel and by 7 a.m. we were asleep.

As for the rest of Nha Trang, well, I’ll describe it as such:

– Coconut milk out of coconut beside the beach
– Rain, postcards
– Swimming in the South China Sea
– Buckets and jars
– A late morning
– Delicious pasta saves the day
– Swimming again
– Reading, relaxing and an unexpected shopping trip
– Packing; anxious and excited for our upcoming motorcycle trip.

I’d like to buy a suit

 

Street food in Hoi An, Vietnam. Lunch consisted of grilled meat that you would then roll into rice paper with cucumbers and lettuce. The meat was brushed with a coconut curry. So good.

“Hellooooo! Where you from?”

Such was the call that greeted us the moment we stepped out of our hotel in Hoi An, Vietnam first thing in the morning.

We came the day before, taking the bus from Hue. Drove past China Beach. Envision streets full of green U.S. army jeeps, marching soldiers.

We arrive in the late afternoon, take a cab, check in and sit out on our balcony staring at houses with red clay tile roofs, walls of blue and yellow. The sun set by 530 and we went for a walk in the quiet night. The streets were well lit and, surprisingly, closed to motos. Their sound is replaced by classical music played over loudspeakers.

Walking through Hoi An we are astounded by the sheer number of tailor shops, each full of mannequins wearing modern and elegant fashion attire. Piles and piles of fabric sit inside.

We go for dinner and order shrimp that is baked inside a coconut. We add some vegetables and a type of light shrimp dumpling. The meal is one of our best of the trip. We would return here days later for Thanksgiving adding some spare ribs and a bottle of wine as a treat.

After dinner on our first night we walk back to our hotel. Sara spots a suit style she likes. She quickly tries it on. It looks perfect.

Returning to the introduction, after finishing a breakfast of pineapple pancakes with chocolate sauce and thick Vietnamese coffee, we face the day. The quiet Hoi An of the night before is replaced with shopkeepers calling for us whether we show interest in their wares or not.

We briefly browse then head to the suit shop from the night before. Two or three hours later and I’ve ordered a full suit, a jacket and two dress shirts. I can’t remember what Sara ordered.

We then walk to a shoe store and order tailor-made shoes. All for a cost far lower than anything back home.

Lunch at delicious Café 96 where we eat papaya salad and spring rolls and decide to take a cooking class the next day.

The next two days would be shopping, bargaining, drinking fresh fruit juices and mixed shakes. Our clothes were ready to be tried on 24 hours after we sized up and our shoes were completely finished, although I really didn’t like the colour of mine too much in the end.

Sara in the shopping hub of Vietnam. Beyond the tailor-made clothes we managed to finish most of our Christmas shopping. Hopefully it arrives in time...

Throughout the first three days in Hoi An, the weather was absolutely stunning. Super hot and blue skies, moon and stars at night.

Yet, such things are fickle as many store owners in this town know only too well.

We ended night three back at Café 96 where we came for a cooking class. In Vietnam it seems a family restaurant really is a family restaurant. Bup, the friendly owner took us through the steps of preparing spring rolls, prawn papaya salad, grilled spicy eggplant and seasoned fish wrapped in banana leaf.

As I was cutting and chopping, his three-year-old daughter stood beside me, watching intensely, yelling continuously.

“Do you want to see where the fish is baked? Go outside and to the right,” said Bup.

Sure enough, there’s grandpa grilling the fish over an open flame in a barrel.

The meal was amazing and he gave us the recipes to take home. I would definitely recommend Café 96 as a fun and inexpensive cooking lesson in Hoi An.

Nine members of Bup’s family worked in Café 96. He lived in the second floor of the building. Almost every fall they were usually forced to shut down the restaurant as Hoi An’s notorious floods had a nasty habit of filling the entire downtown with water. Bup’s restaurant has a marker on the wall over six feet high from the water level in 2009.

On our fourth day in Hoi An, we decided to book a tour to the My Son Chumpa temples about an hour and a half north of the city. A bus there and a delightful boat ride back.

Unfortunately, it rained. Although dressed for the weather, we were still pretty soggy. The temples were neat to walk around, however it was sad to learn many were destroyed by American bombing. Some statues had bullet-sized dimples scattered throughout. What a shame.

The intense rain had knocked out the power for most of the afternoon in Hoi An. We sat in our room reading, heading out twice in the downpour to pick up suits and go for a delicious Thanksgiving meal.

With the power back on we called our families for Thanksgiving. This ended at 2 a.m. when the hotel’s power went out and our room went black.

Hue biking fun!

A dragon guards a doorway at the citadel in Hue, Vietnam.

Hue, Vietnam is advertised as an old city with old walls and a citadel that dates back to 1804.

We arrived here via the overnight train from Hanoi – about 15 hours – and after checking in and eating some pho, we rent bikes and explore the city.

We take a loop around the walls of the citadel and go into what was described as a forbidden city inside. After seeing the Forbidden City in Beijing, this place was somewhat underwhelming. Much of it was destroyed by the Americans and they still appear to be taking their time to put it together. At the same time, fragments of buildings and foundations make the mind wander and I find myself curious about what stood here before.

We walk around here for a bit and enjoy vegetation that seems to get bigger and thicker the further south we go. We see an elephant chained by the foot. Apparently he gives rides around the citadel. I hope he’s alright, but he’s clearly agitated.

It’s getting later in the afternoon and we pick up our bikes and head off to the Thien Mu Pagoda about four kilometres away. I feel my bike ride getting more and more difficult. Maybe it was always like this and I’m just tired.

We get to the pagoda, park our bikes and hike up about 40 steep steps. It’s quite pretty and one of the nicer pagodas I’ve seen thus far. Behind it is a courtyard that leads to a Buddist temple. A loud drum echoes as incense burns in a cauldron.

We remove our shoes and enter the shrine to Budda, who, I must add, is increasingly becoming my favourite religious icon because he always looks so peaceful and happy.

A boy younger than 10 dressed in a light blue robe walks in and clangs a large metal bell with a wooden stick. Soon enough, a dozen others are in the room kneeling on the ground, singing, banging drums and ringing bells. The sound is sweet like the incense smoke that seems to hang in the air.

Eventually, we find our bikes and head back. Yes, my biking feels really arduous now and I hear a clanging sound from behind me. I call back at Sara as I’m biking and she says my tire looks pretty flat. I hope to make it across a nearby bridge and from there I plan to walk back.

I turn on a small roadway to head on the bridge and find that rather than a road it’s more of a narrow lane with enough room for a single bike. It’s too late to turn around.

The bridge is made of long metal slabs with a six-inch empty spaces between them. My back tire clicks and scrapes on the metal and I fear it sliding and getting stuck in each empty space. Getting off and walking my bike is not an option as the honking from the long line of motorbikes behind me would get even worse. Besides, there’s no room to walk my bike anyway.

It takes 10 minutes to get across and I decide to walk from here on. It seems like we’re going around in circles, somehow slightly lost in this small city. We stop to look at a map and there beside me in a small, dark, grease-covered shack is a man fixing bikes.

I point to my tire and he immediately pulls it off, finds the hole in the tube and patches it up in under three minutes. He asks for 10,000 dong or around 50 cents.

During this time, Sara’s figured out the map and we’re pointed in the right direction as hundreds of rush hour motorbikes fly past. Finally, after an intensive bike ride home, we find our hotel and return our bikes.

We tell the lady at the hotel that my tire was flat and I had to go and get it fixed. She shrugs her shoulders and asks if we want to book our next bus trip with her.

“No,” we say and leave, booking our ticket to Hoi An at an agency 10 metres away.

Hello Hanoi

Standing at a crosswalk in the Vietnamese capital. Feet on crumbled cement with an ugly broken hole nearby that could leave a broken ankle. Smells of exhaust mixed with street meat cooking on a fire and the other city scents that seem to draw rats at night. Sounds of hawkers selling, selling, selling. And, of course, incessant honking and motorbikes, constant motorbikes whizzing past.

There’s not always a light that shines to tell you to walk and no red light to halt the traffic. So what do you do? Look for a brief opening on your side of the street and Just Walk. Do not stop. Let the bikes anticipate where you’re going and they will drive around you.

It’s a bit of a nerve wracking experience at the start, but it really is all you can do if you want to get across the street in Hanoi. For a first time visitor it’s chaotic, far busier than any of the cities I had been to in China. But at the same time, Hanoi feels full of life. Narrow streets, speeding motos, hawkers, tourists, locals selling fruits and grilled snails all compacted together. Vibrant and exciting.

Amidst the noise there are some great ways to appreciate the culture.

1.) The Bia Hoi: Sit down on a plastic chair a foot high and enjoy the show. Draft beer costs roughly 25 cents a glass. A couple notes, you will be constantly sold too and if the police come, immediately get your chair off the street and on the sidewalk or bad things may happen.

2.) Cafes: The French colonisation was truly a Bad Thing for Vietnam, but there are a few positives that the French left on the culture. Most notably some fantastic cafes, bagettes and a love of good coffee. Sitting in a courtyard with coffee and coconut ice cream. Perfect.

3.) History: Vietnamese history is complicated and there are many ugly parts. Much of it is documented at the so-called Hanoi Hilton or more accurately the Hoa Lo Prison. This former French prison details the treatment of Vietnamese revolutionaries who lived in brutal conditions facing disease and torture. After the fall of the French in Indochina, the North Vietnamese used it to house American POWs such as one John McCain. Looked like a pretty good time. Basketball, cards, beer, Christmas trees, volleyball. Happy times. At least, that’s what we learned.

The military history museum was also another interesting spot if you like that sort of thing. Weapons, photos, strategy planning, Dien Bien Phu, a chronicle of this country’s fascinating military history complete with captured equipment and a giant monument made from downed American planes. A touch macabre.

4.) Pho Bo: The noodle soup that feeds a nation. For a national dish, this one truly is a winner. Outside our hotel was a small booth with stools, simple tables, a giant pot of steaming broth, and a pile of beef and vegetables. All combined for a perfect bowl of pho (pronounced “faa”). Have it for breakfast, lunch, dinner or just a snack. Wonderful.

Beyond that listed above, Hanoi also is home to some pleasent temples, tasty restaurants and one of the best English bookstores I’ve been to so far in Asia.

There is an easing-in process to Vietnam, but cross the street a few times and you’ll figure things out.