Saigon, Vietnam

The vicious road from Cambodia brought us to a lonely border outpost in the middle of endless rice paddies. Several tourist buses arrived at the same time so we were quite a crowd as two slow motion (socialist) border officials, under the watchful eye of their superior, took turns entering each person’s data, first into an ancient (socialist)computer, then into a (socialist) book by hand. Once stamped we walked to another (socialist) window manned by 3 officials where we paid a customs fee, and waited while 2 people filled out our receipts (socialist). At the 3rd window we handed all the paperwork we had collected to 3 more officials, who each glanced over it, signed something and passed it to the next guy who appeared to do the same before he passed it all the 3rd (how socialist!). Once out the door we only had to hand our passports to one more guy before were finally in Vietnam. Apparently it takes 10 men in Vietnam to do the job of 1 or 2 in any other country.

Don’t get me wrong though, I love Vietnam. The road to Saigon was a whole lot better than anything in cambodia and by 8 pm, 14 hours after leaving, we were in saigon. The ride into town was great. Since the government started allowing some personal ownership in the 90s, the Vietnamese scooter boom has really taken off. Forget bicycles, these boots were made for scootering! The only traffic law in Vietnam is the honking horn, so our bus sped through the sea of scooters, perma-horn blasting “get out of our way, or else!” The number of narrow misses with tiny scooters was enough to make your skin crawl. Nevertheless, somehow it works as the amorphous mass of scooters flows in all directions through intersections in a way that defies western logic.

Saigon is an exciting city and we spent the first day walking around, stopping at the war museum to get the Vietnamese perspective on the war. The museum was very intense because of the graphic photos of American atrocities done to civilians. It’s weird to read and hear the words “American” and “enemy” used as synonyms. As eye-opening as the museum was, I found it a bit too one-sided because the government since reunification in 1975 seems to have forgotten that the Vietnam War was in many ways a civil war, and the Americans (though perhaps with imperialistic motives) were helping the South Vietnamese keep the northern communists from taking control. Basically there are no references anywhere to the fact that Vietnamese were fighting Vietnamese. Only the Americans are remembered as the enemy. History is written by the guys who win. It’s hard to get the real story from people because they are “not allowed” to talk politics with foreigners. The veterans of the South Vietnamese Army are mostly ostracized from society. They are not allowed regular work permits so they can’t get good jobs, even today, 30 years later. Most former lawyers, doctors, etc… now work the streets (illegally) pedaling people around on 3-wheeled bicycles.

Saigon is a great place for eating, so we indulged. Our culinary exploration took us into uncharted waters as we got braver with each meal. It started with crab and grilled frog legs (not too exotic – tastes like chicken). Frog and crab were too easy though, so we upgraded to eel and snake. Both were served whole on a platter and were quite tasty. We finally worked up to scorpion. Picture this: a plate covered in a mound of whole scorpions, each about 4 inches long with big claws and a stinger. Of course we had no idea how to eat it. The waiter showed us. Easy! Just break the stinger off, grab the whole thing with your chopsticks, dip it in the salt/lime sauce, and have at it. Crunch, crunch, drip, drip. Hmmmmm. Tastes like… insect? Actually it was quite ok and I think I’d eat it again.
That night, feeling really brave, we ordered a worm to wash it all down. Gag me now!! The fat, juicy, bright-yellow grub came on a plate with some mayo. Ughh! I went first and grabbed it with the chopsticks, dipped, and then bit off the back third. Worm juice squirted all over and was running down my chin as Jake and Kyle sat laughing at me, drawing the attention of about 100 people in the restaurant. They finished it and we all decided it was one of the most vile things you can eat without dying.

We also spent 3 days touring the expansive Mekong River Delta on a tour for $25, including hotel. This was extreme tourism in a way I’ve never experienced: we didn’t have to think for even one second as our guide shuttled us from bus to boat to restaurant to hotel and back each day. All I had to do was follow from one tourist trap to the next. First it was a home rice paper factory, then coconut candy, then fish hatchery, then canoeing past floating markets, to bird watching, and so on. Neat stuff really, but difficult to enjoy fully when someone else decides where we go and how long we stay.

This is getting long, so I’ll write more another day.


Vietnam, Central Coast

After touring the maze of rivers and canals of the Mekong River Delta, we headed back to the Saigon area to visit a tunnel network used by the Viet Cong. The Cu Chi tunnels form a 3 tier network of over 100 miles of underground bunkers, tunnels and trap doors. These tunnels were supposedly the scourge of the American forces because the military unknowingly set up up its Saigon defense perimeter right over the tunnels (which proved especially useful for the viet cong during the Tet Offensive). As the story goes, the local population, innocent farmers by day and Viet Cong guerillas by night, kept the Americans at bay until the American military finally carpet bombed the whole area and dropped so much napalm that all the crops and jungle vanished. Many of the massive bomb craters, big enough to build a house in, still remain, showing just how destructive even one bomb can be.

Our visit to the tunnels was interesting because it gave us more of the Vietnamese perspective on the war. A local guide walked us through the area, proudly showing the various booby traps used to kill or injure Americans. It made my stomach churn a little each time this guy set off a booby trap and said, with a smile on his face, “and this is how we used this trap to kill Americans…” We continued our tour above ground, visiting Viet Cong trenches that had hidden entrances into the tunnel network so the guerillas could appear above ground, fire some shots, and then disappear again without being spotted. I can’t even imagine what terror the Americans felt in that jungle, not knowing who the enemy was or where they’d appear next.

Our last above ground stop was a firing range where I had the rare opportunity to fire 10 rounds (for a fee) of a really, REALLY BIG machine gun. What a rush! The sound was deafening and of course I didn’t get anywhere near the actual target as my body was being rattled to bits by the force of each shot. Finally we crawled through some of the tiny tunnels to see what misery it would have been to crawl around in there looking for Viet Cong, knowing that at each dark turn there could be a booby trap to pierce your body with barbed iron hooks, or maybe a pit filled with cobras to fall in. War sucks.
Jake flew home from Saigon, so Kyle and I continued north to a small beach town where we lounged a bit and rented scooters to explore the nearby fishing villages and sand dunes. The local squid fishermen use 5-foot diameter bamboo baskets, waterproofed with tar, to move from the shore to their boats. It’s amazing how they can paddle these things while standing and not tip in the choppy waves. Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub!

The scooter craze, I’ve realized, extends far beyond Saigon and has overrun the whole country. Given how poor the country is, we were baffled that so many people could afford scooters. A little investigation gave us the answer: nearly everybody rides “Made in China” Honda knockoffs with names like “Sanda” and “Hongda.” They then scrape off the Chinese brand stickers and replace them with “Honda” stickers available at your friendly neighborhood scooter parts shop. These little bikes only cost about $300, putting them well into the price range of the hardworking Vietnamese. Since everyone rides scooters, there is very little short range local transport (compared with Latin America where a bus plies every street, alley, and farm road) the only way for us to get around locally is to rent a scooter for ourselves. It’s amazing what kind of cargo the people can carry on their scooters and still zip past each other kamikaze style: who would have thought that you can carry 25 chickens by lashing their feet and hanging them from the handlebars? Ever had to transport a bunch of 60lb bags of rice? No prob for a Hongda. How about a family of 5…anytime!
Gotta run…more later. Thanks for reading!


Luang Prabang, Laos

I finally made to Laos after a full month in Vietnam. After leaving the beach in Southern Vietnam, Kyle and I went to the highlands town of Dalat, where we rented scooters for a few days and explored the surrounding hills. The cool highland weather was a refreshing change from the sticky coast. Our countryside explorations took us miles and miles out on narrow, meandering muddy farm roads. The people living in the tiny hamlets throughout the hills were extremely friendly, always waving and smiling as we rode past. Each hill we crested revealed another stunning vista of pine forests and vibrant fields where the peasants were hard at work harvesting.

Our hotel in town was a great place to relax as well, especially because we finally got a truly hot shower. After chilling out for a few days, it was time for Kyle to head home, so I continued on my own back toward the hubbub of the coastal lowlands.

Na Trang is a beach resort town on a picturesque stretch of sand along the South China Sea. There wasn’t much to do except eat and hang out on the beach. I rented a scooter again and explored town, stopping to see the ruins of a small temple complex built ages ago by the Cham people when they ruled Vietnam.

From the beach, I took a night bus further north to the old colonial town of Hoi An. On the bus I met a German couple and we ended up traveling together for a few weeks. Hoi An is a very charming little maze of alleys and colorful colonial houses. The main industry in the area is tailor shops who make clothes at very competitive prices. I ended up ordering a bunch of stuff because the prices were so good.
By a stroke of luck, we happened to be in town for the entire duration of the annual full moon festival where the people from the surrounding villages come to town to parade the streets in dragon costumes. From the balcony of our hotel we watched the sea of people below as the sound of beating drums echoed through the night. The ornately decorated dragon, made of two people, would dance wildly to the drum beat while local shop owners put money on the floor for the dragon to “eat.” The most amazing thing of all was when the dragon (just the front guy) scurried straight up a 20-foot bamboo pole which was supported by a few men at the bottom. At the top of the pole the dragon placed his belly on a small platform and then spread out horizontally like Superman as the men at the bottom spun the pole and the dragon round and round. Quite spectacular! At one point, a group set the pole up right in front of our balcony and the brilliant red and yellow dragon came right up onto the balcony and danced around for us, frenzied by the tempo of the huge wooden drums.

After a few days in this town, we decided to head further north, all the way to Hanoi. We booked a sleeper train for the 20-odd hour journey. Unfortunately, the extra money we paid for the train (versus the bus) wasn’t worth it because the train stopped at 2aam and they herded everyone off and put us on a fleet of buses. It turned out the flooding from recent heavy rain had washed out the tracks ahead so we had to bus around the flood and then pick up another train for the rest of the journey. After an hour on the bus and all the hassle involved in changing trains, we only arrived 5 hours late in Hanoi.

Hanoi is a bustling city, but nowhere near as chaotic as the insane, honking scooter-ville of Saigon. We stayed in Hanoi’s colonial old town, where each street is a different trade district. There is a scenic lake, bordered by huge trees and a sidewalk, where we spent part of each day walking around the lake and buying ice cream at each lap. The walk to the lake was always interesting as we traversed the various trade districts, past flower shops, tinsmiths, cobblers, tailors, carpenters, etc…all conducting their lives and business right along the narrow alleys.

From Hanoi I (the Germans were ill and stayed in Hanoi) bused to the coast (the Gulf of Tonkin) and took a boat trip through magnificent Ha Long Bay to one of the islands. The bay is littered with hundreds of stunning green islands, each just a huge limestone dome, covered in jungle, rising out of the blue water.

The tour stopped to visit a few caves which were typical tourist kitsch. The guide even said that the rainbow of colored lights illuminating the stalagmites were there to please Vietnamese and Chinese tourists who love (corny) colors and music. One man’s junk is a another man’s treasure. I stayed separate from the tour on Cat Ba Island to do a little exploration on my own. I spent the day on a scooter but it rained a lot because of a fast-approaching typhoon somewhere in the South China Sea. The islanders were actually really freaked out about the typhoon.

That evening I was swimming about 50 yards from the beach in a beautiful bay surrounded by cliffs and jungles and a man ran out to the waters’ edge, frantically waving his arms and jumping up and down. At first I thought a sea snake was coming or something, but then I heard him yelling, “Typhoon! Typhoon!” I swam in and he drew a picture in the sand of a storm battering Vietnam and through sign language told me I shouldn’t swim because I’d get sucked out to sea. I couldn’t take him seriously, but was done swimming anyway and went back to town. There, nearly all the fisherman were moving their boats to a more sheltered bay in preparation for the storm. Maybe it was serious after all? Well, the typhoon turned toward Korea and I sailed back to the mainland under sunny skies the next day, even though the paranoid boat captain was convinced that at any moment the sea would swallow us and send us to our watery graves. My 2 German friends were waiting on the mainland, unable to see the bay because the boats weren’t allowed to go out to sea (once again for fear of the typhoon). We headed back to Hanoi together and made a new plan. That night we decided to venture into new culinary waters and headed out to an intense snake restaurant on the edge of town.

The three us strolled into the restaurant, which had a giant painting of a cobra outside. Immediately three waiters appeared and one of them opened a floor-level cage, reached in and yanked a HUGE cobra by the tail out onto the floor. Whoa!! We all jumped back as the cobra coiled up and spread its ominous hood, hissing at everyone. The waiter started taunting the cobra, causing it to strike, lightning fast, while hissing with an evil look in its eyes.

This 5-foot monster was way too big for the two of us to eat (the German girl would have none of it) so we asked them for a smaller snake. The waiter quickly grabbed the snake’s tail and swung it around before deftly catching the head in mid-swing and threw it back in the cage. He then yanked a smaller, 3-foot cobra out and it coiled up and started striking as we stood, mouth agape, only a yard away from this madness. My quick, wide-eyed nod of the head told them that this snake would do, so the waiter once again grabbed the tail, spun the snake around, then grabbed the head in mid swing (the force of the swinging makes the snake unable to strike). Another waiter came up with a knife and slit the snake’s throat and drained the bright red blood into a glass. He then slit open its belly and pulled the stomach out and drained the green bile into another glass. Lastly he cut out the still-beating heart and placed it on a plate (whoa!) before they whisked us off to a table upstairs.

We had barely sat down before two shot glasses of blood and two of green bile, both diluted slightly with rice wine, appeared before us. The waiter asked who was oldest (it was me) and before I knew it, he dumped the live heart into my glass of blood. A quick photo and then it was bottoms up! Heart, blood and all. It was quite tasty really. They then brought us the snake, cooked and prepared 10 different ways: wok fried, as spring rolls, soup, fried skin, boiled, etc. The whole meal was really thrilling and extraordinarily delicious. I would eat it all again in a heartbeat (pun intended)…

Anyway, I had 4 days left on my Vietnam visa, so I dropped my passport off at an agency in Hanoi to get the Laos visa and we took a night train to the highlands on the Chinese border to spend those days until the visa was ready.

Sapa is a peaceful little village set high in the verdant hills of Northern Vietnam. The early morning van ride from the nearest train station took us over a rough dirt road for an hour-and-a-half through some striking scenery. Each bend in the road revealed a brilliant green valley, sometimes filled with early morning mist. The various mountain peaks came and went from view as the mist shifted from here to there.

The hills are inhabited by non-Vietnamese ethnic minorities, each with their own distinct languages and cultures. Over the generations these people have constructed vast terraces along the steep slopes to grow rice, making for amazing scenery as the bright green and yellow rice paddies formed a staircase into the mist. When we got to the town we enjoyed the cool weather and wandered around, shocked that nobody hassled us, nobody tried to sell us anything, and most importantly, there were no honking horns. Peace at last! Could this be Vietnam? We ate in the lively market each day where the indigenous women, ornately clad in blue or red tribal garb, sat around chatting and selling fresh veggies. Instead of scooters this time, we rented ancient Minsk motorcycles. These Russian-made antiques are pre-World War II design and are hardy enough to handle the rugged terrain but simple enough to be fixed by anyone. We explored the highlands, riding in and out of the clouds and passing small villages along the way.

The night train back to Hanoi dropped us off at 5aam so we strolled to the lake to watch the sunrise and wait for our hotel to open. The Vietnamese are early risers, but I had no idea what was in store for us at the lake. On the way to the lake, thousands of Hanoi residents were streaming along the roads in our direction. We got to the lake in time to witness a daily Hanoi ritual where thousands of people walk around the lake and line up by the hundreds to do tai chi aerobics to the music played over portable stereos. Amazing! Thousands of people out and about at 5am, working out together, none with proper Nike running shoes, or the other paraphernalia we decorate ourselves in to work out. I spent the day hanging out, constantly shocked at the noise and confusion of big city Vietnam after growing accustomed to the peace of the highlands. I sent a package of stuff home before picking up my passport and Laos visa, then said goodbye to my German friends and that evening got on a 22+ hour “direct” bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. More on Laos in the next email….