Posts Tagged Vietnam

Mekong Delta

So for accuracy’s sake… I have to confess that the journey from Saigon to Phnom Penh is a simple 7 hour bus ride west ($6) over roads that are described on the internet as “reliable yet spleen destroying”. Now that you know the easy way, let me tell you the way we chose to get to Cambodia, via the Mekong Delta. For context….the Delta is huge…as in the size of some countries big.

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With visions of a whole new area of the world to explore, we caught a tourist bus that took us 4 hours south to one of the 5 mouths of the Mekong. This area is known for the tough stout residents  cultural adaptations to life on the river. One of these adaptations is the uses of coconuts. They seem to only grow coconuts and use every part of them for anything possible. Fabrics, food, walls and mats, hats, drinks. Life revolves around the river and coconuts.

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We got a ride on a small boat that traveled an hour or so up one of the natural canals, stopping off for lunch at a small restaurant (grass hut home). While the young ones did the cooking and tried to sell coconut related products, the older family members organized a music “thing”, that sounded like nothing I had ever heard before.

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Then (from what I remember) we took the back of a tractor-motorcycle contraption across the island to the other side, then another boat to another island, then a bus to the nearest town (not sure the name) where we recovered from the oppressive humidity and heat in a decent hotel.  As the sun set, large spectral birds cast threatening shadows as they hovered outside our window. It was only when we saw the smiling children holding strings, did it dawn on us that they were kites being flown in the dusk breezes.

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Next morning, we took a power boat up the river to one of the largest floating markets in the world where families were selling cabbages, potatoes, meats of various sources and even live animals. As we wondered (via boat) around the market, the locals hurried with their work, stocking the boats that would pull up, negotiating prices and teaching their children lessons of some sort between sales. Some families rarely leave the boats or the massive delta. I wonder where they think we come from?

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Later in the afternoon, we took yet another bus to a frontier town near the border of Cambodia. Frontier towns are always nasty and usually sketchy locations at best. This town (Cho Du, I think) was one of the worse places we have ever visited. The narrow three story city is dirty, worn and smelled as bad as they come. Some areas we would walk, we found our eyes burning with smells of indescribable filth. The air of distrust and fear was directed at some source that I could never quite figure out or saw. (likely gangs or smugglers I guess)

Braving the heat, humidity and what felt like “warning looks” from mothers holding tight to their toddlers, we made our way down to the river. There sitting in her boat, as if she was waiting for us was a toothless ancient old woman, smoking a pipe and pointing and laughing at us like we had clown wigs on. We smiled back and she waved to us to get on the boat and made a motion that she would take us around on her boat. She held up a unreasonable number of fingers (the price) and we paid it as she continued to laugh at us like the fools we were. She would look at our shoes or our camera and just bust up laughing at how preposterous we were and personally, I didn’t disagree with her. I found her worn face so captivating that I ended up taking more photos of her than the river life around us. Eventually, she got very quiet, all the while wrestling the large gas motor with her large baked forearms.

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Dusk caught us by surprise and we quickly made it back to our horrible hotel to hide in the florescent light from what, I don’t know but do not doubt was there. The morning came with us dressed, packed and ready to catch the first boat north. The six hour speed boat trip was broken up by two border crossings (one to exit Vietnam and one to enter Cambodia), but ended with us finally reaching Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

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I can’t say that I recommended the path we took and I would not do it again but it did help us to see and understand more about a huge group of people and their lives on the river.

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We can already tell that this country of Cambodia is far different than anywhere we have been. More soon.

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Saigon, Indochina’s pearl

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In many ways, Saigon ceased to exist in the early 70’s when the Communists renamed it Ho Chi Minh City. Yet, someone forgot to tell the South Vietnamese. The people of Saigon are quick to laugh, quick to drink and stay out far too late. It feels that the excesses are more of a way to express cultural resistance, than a desire to party…..but I over-think everything and am wrong more often than not.

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Desiring to see a bit of culture, we attended a acrobatic interpretation of the lives of those that live in the South. Young men and women pretended to dodge motorbikes, deal with power outages, fish and farm and live…all the while telling the story as good (I think better) than any cirque du solei. The Opera house was an amazing piece of French colonial design from the mid 1800. Travel is a good excuse to do things that you would never make time to do otherwise.

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The city is modern, fast paced and full of wonderful buildings. In researching why there is so many amazing structures, I learned that Indochina (what is now three countries) was dominated by the French with the capital being Saigon. Like an Asian Budapest, Saigon received much of the European love of the colonial lifestyle. When the French left….they left the buildings, the food and a focus on staying up late.

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The streets are dominated by motorbikes. 80% of the 10 million inhabitants of Saigon owns a motorbike and uses it for everything from moving barber chairs, stacks of live ducks and I even saw a moto struggling to move a truck motor.

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The food here is amazing with every kind of fare imaginable and done with great art. For fun we tried to find northern Indian cuisine and found one literally across the street…next to the “Organic Weasel Coffee” shop. One day we ran across a Carl Jr. and ate greasy American food until we were sick!

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With Tamara’s marathon coming so quickly, she wanted to get her final training run in. Lacking a park, she used a neighboring Sheraton hotel gym while I tried to make sense of our upcoming turn north into Cambodia.

Saigon is one of the only places that has an English meeting and we were able to meet the Brothers and talk to them about their lives and ministry. The type of Buddhists here actually believe in a creator and often make small temples to the “creator” god. Like the Athenians of Paul’s day, they are unknowingly worshiping what our friends seek to declare with accuracy. (Acts 17:23) They are able to meet freely in the South but some of the foreign friends are in danger of deportation if they become known by certain words that rhyme with Gilead.

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At the meeting, the public talk was on materialism and the example given was a family wanting TWO cars….can you imagine? It is always refreshing to see another side to life but it bothers me how quickly that appreciation fades when we return home….

Siagon / Mekong

One day we traveled out to the town of CuChi known for its tunnels that were built by the inhabitants to resist the French occupation but ended up being used to fight the Americans. We were able to crawl through some of the 200 km of the tunnels and see the kitchens, schools and homes. They even had an area where they would take those that were spayed by chemical weapons, which seems to happen here often, from what the government employed guide told us.

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At the end of the tour, there was a fairly anti-American propaganda film and a firing range that we could shoot the weapons used during the American War. We both shot a AK-47 with its thin stamped out features and a WW2 M1 Garand that felt and sounded more like an medieval hand canon. I still cant believe how violent the Garand was!

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That night as we headed back to our hotel we discussed our convoluted path that would take us up the Mekong to the Kingdom of Cambodia. Dodging manic motorbikes we passed street stalls selling all manner of batteries known to man, 10 minute iphone screen replacement services and boiled dog on fresh Baggett.

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Next stop…the Mekong!

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Hoi An, the capital of Suits

Our travel sleeping choices have changed throughout the years. In the past, we have stayed mostly in typical “backpacker” hostels that usually contain a dingy private room for $15 or so. For the past number of years, our adventures seem to find us in small “traveler” hotels that range from $35-45 a night. These hotels are usually filled with local business men traveling to a meeting or retired German couples reliving their youth. The extra cost does add up but we have learned that maintaining the fortitude and morale of the group is critical in strange environments. We find ourselves in one of these hotels and spend the day hiding from the strange noises and smells outside.

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Eventually, we made it outside and were pleased to find a large town of European type canals, palm trees, rickety fruit stands on each corner and a tourist area of fine restaurants and tailors. These are the type of towns we try to avoid but like the hotel variable….we seem to be slowly changing into old Germans, reliving our youth. A local pottery family was offering free pottery classes and we ended up buying a few things to ship home. Nearby was a elderly Grandmother making “Ban Mi” sandwiches…which we had everyday for lunch ($0.75)

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At night the town seemed to explode with lights, music and food. Finely dressed Chinese and French couples stepped around smelly backpackers trying to bargain with locals merchants, while large groups of local teenagers break-danced on sheets of cardboard next to the canal. We shopped and ate to the sounds of “Rock me Amadeus” and old Justin Timberlake playing from kid’s boom-boxes while watching the giant nocturnal party. If we walked too far off the path, we found nervous looking backpackers buying bags filled with expensive substances and heavily make-uped women chatting economics with balding western men.

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During the day, we found a tailor with a good reputation (online) and started negotiating. Back and forth, we played good natured games of numbers that eventually we found a price and quality of fabric that suited our suits and tastes. I had two 3 piece suits, 6 shirts and a British style overcoat made, while Tamara had a vest, suit, blouse and fitted suit made. With shipping, it cost us a couple of weeks of income but with the price as long as we don’t gain much weight for a while. The fittings and alterations took a few days but eventually everyone was happy and we sent off the package for the transpacific journey home.

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Eventually, the time had arrived for us to face the train again. Another 18 hour, 500 miles of washing machine level comfort, medieval smells and epic scenery may seem like a strange choice considering a flight would only cost $100 each but the process of travel as important as the destination. Having said that, Tamara has always said that I am a “connoisseur of misery”. If I could, I would love to travel the 3 months via 17th century sailing ship to the new world or overland Asia with Marco or follow the path south with Livingstone. Fortunately, I love my Wife more and realize that there are more important things/responsibilities in life….but that is my default mentality that I layer my reasonableness upon.

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The train trip started so nice, with the room being fairly clean and empty. The air-conditioning succeeded in keeping the 90 degree heat out, as the South China sea crashed against the limestone shore outside our window. We enjoyed sitting in our private room, listening to music, chatting about some perceived insight while the ancient tracked machine pulled us south. That is a highlight I will store in my aging mind for later.

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Around the time, Tamara mentioned how lucky we were that our room was not filled with screaming children, the train pulled up to a small town. There was a knock at our door and in came a weary young mother with a newborn baby, a toddler, a grandma that seems to be recovering from a stroke and 3 sq meters of luggage. My Wife didn’t see the humor in the situation and headed to the food carriage. She ordered a few beers (I was disappointed when she would not share) and some local food, as I joked with the stewards.

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The evening found us in our bunks watching Despicable Me on the laptop with the toddler, while the Mother (infant permanently attached) quietly chatted with her ill Grand-mother. I can’t say it was a wonderful or restful night but it was all we could have hoped for.

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6AM found us pulling into Saigon; the old capital of Indo-China, the “Paris of the East” and the next leg in our Asia adventure.

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Nihn Bihn and the Night Train

Departing from Hanoi was a bit sad as we really enjoyed exploring the city, visiting with friends and getting a better understanding of a culture that had been completely unknown to us until now. The train was old and shabby, likely a second hand transport from China, but seemed to vibrate with a sound of adventure. That last bit could have been in my head. Very official looking conductors, dressed sharply in imposing uniforms, seemingly from a 1950’s eastern European movie, herded passengers like goats. Nursing mothers dragging sacks of mystery, old men with suitcases the size of small mattresses and a few Chinese tourist all made their way to their assigned carriage. As we boarded our carriage it was slightly concerning to notice a small barefoot man under our carriage, welding the axel. With each flash of the arc, my mind became more confused on what a welder could fix on the axel of a running train…. I tried to sneak a photo but a few of the uniforms directed stern sounds in my direction.

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The scenery slowly changed as we headed south. The homes became smaller, the cars were replaced by large thick cows, mopeds seemed to drive slower and drying laundry seemed to become the dominant flower on the trees. Raised concrete graves with offerings of food, paper automobiles and incense would be placed between artificial ponds completely filled with ducks. My understanding is that the ponds are filled with Carp who eat the water plants and the ducks fertilize the plants and eat the organic waste from the nearby family kitchens, providing a never ending flow of protein.

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Eventually modern civilization was replaced by a green patchwork of rice patties and thick wild groupings of disheveled bamboo stands. At each stop, women with baskets of fruit and greasy cakes would offer their wares and attempt to keep their small fuzzy headed children off the tracks. While I read a Hunter Thompson book, Tamara hypnotized the local mothers with her knitting skills.

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Nihn Bihn is only a few hours south but with over a thousand miles of upcoming train travel, (one end of Vietnam to the other) it pays to break up the trip into manageable legs. We found a two room “B and B” and the family let us rent their mo-ped so we could explore the area. While the town was fairly ugly with wide dirty streets, we dodged the random harried cargo trucks and eventually reached the peace of true countryside.

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The draw of this location is a picturesque river that flows through the small farms and between limestone hills. For a few dollars we hired a crusty woman boat driver who spoke only a handful of English with the phrase “It’s number one!” being used as a random noun and punctuation to anything of interest. Our boat headed down the lazy river and entered an area of large limestone towers that seemed to be placed in the middle of the ever present rice patties. It was not until the river started to take us under one of the limestone hills did we turn around and see our driver was using her feet to row the boat as she chatted to a friend on her cell phone. By about the third cave the weather pulled in some fog and chilly drizzle and we started to head back up the river. All the while, our pilot pumped the oars with her feet yelling unknown insults and laughing at the timid local men rowing down the river.

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(Click the one below for Video)

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With the weather getting so cold and wet, we decided to cut our visit short and head south on a night train to the half way point of Vietnam, Hoi An. To kill time til the train, we hiked up one of the limestone towers we saw the day before from the boat. The view was utterly amazing. Vast flat rice fields dotted with small homes under the shadows of limestone guardians. Had the clouds not been so thick, the photos would have been mounted on our walls at home for life. (Click here to see what it would have looked like if the sun was out)

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Train and bus stations are dangerous places in any country. These locations always have one or two predators and this backwater station was no exception. As we walked out of the inky night and approached the small one room train station, I saw two slimy young men standing just outside the florescent lights. Watching like subtle leopards, they analyzed each passenger for weakness or some other unknown variable. The stained lips, red teeth and wide eyes denoted that they were likely chewing beetle nut and wired for sound. Walking up the stairs, it became our turn for their inspection. As soon as I felt their eyes on us I slowed slightly, pointed at directly at them (like Fonzie from Happy Days)  and winked with a knowing smile. Surprised, they both gave me a genuine smile of large red teeth and again became serious as they examined the group of partially drunk French backpackers wandering behind us. I learned that trick from a expat in Honduras and it has served us well.

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Hoi An

With our train being only 90 minutes late, we took that as a sign of the night to come. Walking down the grimy narrow hall way of the train, we looked for the room that would be ours for the next 18 hours. We found our room occupied by a nice Chinese traveler couple. Oliver was my age and had retired from his marketing job with ExxonMoble with a small fortune made from investing in Chinese real estate. We had a nice conversation about traveling, nationalism and corruption of the governments of the world. His stories of growing up under the “Party” helped me better understand his dislike of communism. His brother had been detained and abused by the security forces during the protest of Tiananmen Square.

Oliver’s goal was to travel the world for many years, looking for “something” that he said he would know when he saw it. He was confident that what he was looking for was not religious, as “Chinese only worship money” (his words). When he asked about my beliefs, I was surprised that he had heard of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He said he had wondered in the past, why Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned by the “Party”, in China.

The next morning the new found heat of central Vietnam woke us to our train  slowly wobbling its way along a beautiful hilly coast. This area of Vietnam was the front lines of the “American War”, also known as the DMZ, but it was still a surprise to see neglected concrete artillery bunkers and machine gun nests being reclaimed by bamboo stands and laundry lines.

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Eventually, we said goodbye to our fellow travelers and arrived at Hoi An.

 

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Hanoi – Understanding Pho

Hanoi is the political capital of Vietnam. All the “Good Communists” (those with documented multi-generational support of the “Party”) come from here and are shipped out to be mayors and governors for the other areas of Vietnam. Being so far North, we are greeted by the typical winter weather of 55 degree drizzle. We often like to travel during these slower times as the domestic and foreign tourists are fewer and people are more relaxed as they deal with the normal day to day activities.

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The old center of Hanoi is watched over by 100 year old French colonial buildings that push in over the narrow streets. Ornate rusty metal railings seem to melt back into the buildings that grew them and colorful plaster attempts to create new and exciting textures as they dissolve. Amazing ancient banyan trees, on the corner of most streets, add an extra obstacle for the fast paced traffic of mo-peds, bicycles and a sprinkling of tiny taxis occupied by wide-eyed Europeans.

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The city seems to consist of two types of people; modest young men and women rushing to work on straining mopeds and tiny women on bicycles selling some form of food or clothing to those that that live in their area.

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Our wanderings around the city takes us pass an promenade Lenin statue that, unlike most countries we visit, is polished and well cared for. It was not surprising to find the National War Museum near our “Comrade Lenin”. The museum documents the countless invaders (Thai, Khmer, Chinese, Japanese, French, American and many more nations that always seemed to have one reason or another to be in Vietnam. Of course the Vietnam War is here called the “The American war”. The people (alive now) have absolutely no ill feelings against Americans, they are seen as just another group of people that failed to impose their will on the still young and hopeful country. Having said that, the propaganda at the Museum (and the history that is taught in schools) does the term “propaganda” proud. I saw one artillery piece that “while operated by the proud Mothers of Vietnam, sank 5 American ships during the battle of……”.

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We had a young university student (Thao) who volunteered (she would not even take a tip) to show us around Hanoi for a few hours . She mentioned at the War Museum, that American men were forced by the American government to fight. She was surprised to hear that some of my family and friends went to prison (18 months or so) because they refused the military draft. Even my Father had to face the draft board and explain why he would not join any military action, regardless of the consequences. I know it was many years ago but it made me so proud that some decided to obey their Bible trained consciences even if it meant prison. One of my good friends who did two tours of duty as a helicopter gunner during the War, said he wished he had the chance go back and join those that stood fast.

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One of the best part of travel is learning surprising things about yourself. We had the opportunity to do so when Thao asked us about the concept of “Personal Space”. She had been told that Americans (and Brits) become very uncomfortable if you move within a specific  distance to them. “Is this caused by childhood experiences or where does this come from?”, she asked. Most Asian people literally do not understand the concept of personal space. I have yet to grasp how I (we) have developed this special requirement and why it is so important to our social interaction. I bet I could find a book on it but it will likely remain a mystery for me.

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The Food in Vietnam is amazing and one of our favorite foods to eat.  Heaping piles of spicy fresh vegetables, flavorful curries and complex broths that can require days and dozens of ingredients to prepare. To get a better understanding of this side of the country, we joined a cooking class that had us preparing 4-5 of the more common dishes the locals enjoy. We learned to make Prawn cakes, Pho (a wonderful soup eaten for breakfast), green PawPaw salad (crunchy  veggie salad), spring rolls and a dipping sauce made from vinegar, garlic and spices. It was an enjoyable experience that had our teacher helping us find and taste the many different foods available in this area of the world. Yes they eat goat, dog and cat but they call cat “Little Tigers”, so I think it is ok.

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The Brothers in Vietnam are under a government ban. While they MAY not be thrown into prison, they are picked up by the police, interrogated, searched, questioned and detained if caught preaching or with Bible Literature. It is not Christianity that the government dislikes, it is Jehovah Witnesses, because they refuse to join the “Party” or the military. A friend told us that they have to hold conventions (in the 100+ summer and 40 degree winter weather) under tents in a parking lot because they are unable to rent a venue. Preaching is very difficult as you have to be sure that they or their friends are not informers or part of the police. The friends here are truly ones we should pray for.

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A Oregonian friend of ours has lived in Vietnam for many years. He assists the friends here as an elder (Coordinator, School and Secretary) and has spoken Vietnamese for over 20 years. He and another local friend (no need to for names) picked us up with their motorcycles for a day out visiting their friends. One of our stops was a small food cart that is owned by a extremely poor, widowed friend. She spoke as much English as we did Vietnamese but her kindness was truly expressed through her food. It was obvious that she found much joy in serving us, heaping our plates to bursting with noodles, grilled meet (beef or goat?) and fresh and pickled vegetables. It would have been so great to learn more about her from her own mouth. Just one more thing to look forward to in the future.

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The people of Hanoi have an eggshell thin veneer of seriousness that is cracked with just a smile or a “Sin Chow” (hello). After that they are almost universally kind, modest, friendly and a type of mild that is my new goal in life.

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After just a few days, Tamara and my feet were itching to see more of this unknown area of the world and so started our long travel South via train. More updates as they come!

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