NAM WAR STORIES
Trip Start Dec 15, 2002
18Trip End ??? ??, 2003
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Transportation in this country always comes with a little bit of excitement. Last time, I alluded to the road rules in the country (i.e. none) and our experience over the past few days supports that hypothesis. There is an exception to this law; when rule number one doesn't apply (i.e. never) the biggest vehicle wins. And so I present, our Vietnam war stories (told from the perspective of the absolute smallest vehicle on the road: a 50cc "ladies" scooter).
Vietnam is only a couple hundred miles wide, if that. We spent week one trapsing through the highlights of the deep north of the country; our direction of travel afterwards was fairly academic. What wasn't as easy a decision was the mode of our transportation. Because most of the backpackers coming through the country follow the same route (i.e. up or down, north or south), some entrepreneurial Vietnamese decided to organize a 'tourist bus open ticket' that would allow a traveller in one of the hub cities (Hanoi or Saigon) to purchase his ticket to the opposing hub, for one price and allowing as many stops as desired. In a land of copycats - in Vietnam, you can't trademark an English brand name, so many of the popular tourist agencies and restaurants have misrepresenting doppelgangers; hence, "Same Same But Different Cafe" - other tourist agents copied the idea and, without being able to differentiate on quality or service, a cutthroat price war began. You can cover the 1600 kilometers from Hanoi to Saigon for US$28.
So being the - how could I put this nicely - Jewish characters we are (well, an average of 3/4 Jew between the two of us), the low price was a strong selling point. But a comfortable mattress proved to be stronger, and we opted for the 10 hour train to take us south to Dong Ha, near the (ex-)border between Vietnams. The sunrise shining through our bleary eyes, we stepped off the train early someday morning (too much travelling makes it easy to lose track of days) and rode on the back of a motorbike to a cafe where we could organize a tour of the former demilitarized zone. Coincidentally, shortly after we sat down to enjoy our Vietamese Pho soup, the same bus that we had considered taking pulled in for it's breakfast stop. Overheated travellers hung out the windows, their eyes red from lack of sleep, and complained to us of the lack of reclining seats!, the incessant honking! and the wild passes straight into oncoming traffic! Clinking our glasses of tea in celebration of our quiet, peaceful evening on the train, we resolved never to take the backpacker bus.
Most tours of the DMZ originate out of Hue, two hours further south. However, using our combined powers of time management, we realized that we could squeeze an extra day into our travellers by meeting up with the tour as it headed north, towards the border. At worst, we figured, we would hire a motorbike and do the tour ourselves. Upon arriving at the cafe, we decided that the latter option would serve our purposes best; we set off, with several exhausted travellers straight off the overnight bus, six in all, on the backs of our respective motorbikes, towards the DMZ.
I don't know what I was expecting - in some cases, I think it was precisely what I expected. We saw some spectacular things: an immense cemetary contained the interred remains of the North Vietnamese Army, including soldiers as young as 8 and 9, and the incomprable Vinh Moc tunnels, where an entire village of people attempted to avoid the napalm rain the only way possible, by digging 23 meters into the clay ground, setting up a network of tunnels to function as a village for the duration of the war. Imagination was necessary - we stood in a forest of rubber trees as our guide explained that, for all intents and purposes, everything that we stood near and everything for many miles in all directions was charred black. We learned a lot of the war and benefitted from having a Vietnamese perspective and hearing Vietnamese opinions. Best of all was riding on the back of a motorcycle, in misty yet humid weather, and being able to picture Viet Cong (or American) soldiers lurking in the trees, all the while passing huge dugout remains of left over bomb craters.
Most ironic of all was while we carried on our tour of an American battleground, similar events were unfolding halfway across the world. At lunch, we clambored around a Vietnamese TV station trying desperately to get some sort of update on the situation; this would be a scene that repeated itself several times over the next few days.
We both enjoyed the DMZ tour; Carlson said it was also "exactly what he expected", so I guess that means he enjoyed it too. Afterwards, we had a few shots of Vietnamese whiskey - it was the proprietor's birthday - and we were on a smaller minibus to go south to Hue.
Hue is a biggish town further down the coast and a place we elected to skip in favour of saving some day earlier or later in the trip, I don't really remember. We were treated to a sight of Vietnam's largest flagpole (oooh!!!) and wandered briefly around the city before finding a bar that played American rock and roll where we elected to relax for the next few hours. We went back to our hotel - the place the tourist bus had dropped us off, a common scam we don't really enjoy; Carlson is quoted as saying "I will never stay in a place that the bus drops me off at it, no matter how great a deal it is" - and crashed for the evening. Or so we thought; an hour and a half later, I woke up to gentle biting on my legs. No, it wasn't Carlson getting frisky again, instead I had big red welts all over my body. The room we were in was bedbug ridden! I twisted and turned for about half an hour, and put on my pants and sweatshirts in the sticky and humid night in an attempt to ward off my bloodsucking pursuers. When that wouldn't work, I stubbornly took my pillow and tried to sleep on the hall floor, outside the quarantined area. Finally, I doused myself in a shower of DEET, pulled my hood up, and began the struggle to sleep. While I dozed in and out, Carlson was fighting similar battles, and we both woke up the next morning scarred and angry and generally not nice to be around. As if to aggravate our wounds, we were herded into a tourist bus and shipped south to Hoi An. Upon arrival four hours later, we were not in great moods.
Hoi An: Vietnam's Saville Row ... wow, don't I seem cultured. Hoi An is known throughout the coutnry and around the world as a conglomeration of talented tailors at very reasonable prices. After checking into a relatively expensive (US$15, with swimming pool!!) yet bedbugless hotel, we set off to maybe, perhaps think about maybe, possibly purchasing some clothes. In fact, maybe, possibly purchasing clothes was all we did for the 36 hours we were in Hoi An; I felt like the King of Siam as a literal harem of Vietnamese seamstresses hemmed and hawed over me, stiching here and chalking there. The only feminine attention I can get these days seems to be paid for. In between fittings (lahdeedah) we rented motorbikes, went to the beach, consumed our weight in mangoes, ran out of gas in a small Vietnamese town, and explored the pagodas and grottos of the Marble Mountains. Best of all (see the 3/4 part above) we were doing this for less than $1 an hour on a motorbike.
But our real calling in Hoi An was the tailors. We catered to their schedule. I counted at least five separate visits for fittings and alterations (Carlson: "My shoulders are too tight. No they are still too tight. No they are STILL too tight), finally escaping moments before we had to abandon the city to continue our whirlwind. A rough estimate between the two of us: four tailor made suits, ten dress shirts, several t-shirts and button downs and various other paraphanalia. Carlson easily convinced himself that, by making purchases he would have to make eventually, he was actually saving money in Vietnam. (NB: Carlson can easily convince himself of anything). It was a fantastic deal: tailor made suits for US$70, and I can't wait to make a big impression when I get back for High Holy Days at the Church on the Hill.
And then, for some reason (i.e. short term memory loss) we completely disregarded our earlier bus experiences (see: reclining seats, incessant honking, crazy passes, exclamation, exclamation, exclamation) and decided that we could make the twelve hour overnight bus trip to Nha Trang. There were extenuating circumstances - the train didn't actually leave from Hoi An, which was a minor problem - but we figured that we could brave it, and that the price was right.
All and all, it wasn't terrible - the bus was air conditioned and very bearable. More annoying was the 'lights out at 8.45 policy' which completely eliminated any timekilling activites and forced us to stare out the window or (ew) make conversation with each other. We drifted in and out of sleep, interrupted by the noise, 2 and 5 am stops, and scared to death by the swerves into traffic. Luckily, we were the biggest vehicle on the road (see road rules way at the beginning of this ramble) and so our path was cleared, usually to the expense of disembodied motorbikes and bicycles. We arrived in Nha Trang, took a nice hotel, fell asleep for the morning, and woke up to hot hot sun on sandy beach. Life is amazing.
Headline on CNN: Allies Advance!!!! (writer's note: I inserted the exclamation points, although I think that the ridiculously font size leaves them already implied; why does it seem like we are reading through the pages of a history book that has already happened? CNN is like seven months ahead of the rest of us.)
We perpetuated the scooter streak by renting the aforementioned 50 cc "ladies" scooter and putting up to local waterfalls. Five minutes after assuring Carlson I had plenty of gas to make the journey, my bike sputtered and stopped in the middle of nowhere. As Carlson searched for the nearest gas station to get a bottle of Saudi Arabia's finest, I was surrounded by Vietnamese, some genuinely excited to see me and some sticking out their hands and asking for money. Most entertaining of all was the arrival of the town drunk who made me feel slightly uncomfortable by touching every part of my body and standing so close that I felt drunk from the fumes off his breath. Carlson related later that the absurdity of it all hit him on his way back from the gas station: he was driving frantically, on a rented motorbike, swerving through traffic, in a land where no one speaks English, with a water bottle filled with gasoline, at top speed, back to where his friend was abandoned in a Vietnamese village and accosted by the locals. This was the exact opposite, in each way, shape, and form, of what he pictured himself doing on this day only six months prior.
I had no time for deep thoughts; did I mention the touching? Finally the drunk wandered off and Carlson returned shortly after to refill my tank. As he returned, so did the drunk, who demanded something - "I'm sorry I don't speak Vietnamese" - using the universal language of the outstretched palm. I rapidly jumped on my motorbike, manuevering around him on my way to the falls. We lounged for half an hour, jumped off a 10 meter ledge, "got the picture" as Carlson would say, and returned to Nha Trang for sunset on our fifth floor balcony, a game of chess and dinner. Tomorrow, we're going diving, and then doing the final leg of the journey on our way to Saigon; we cleverly opted for the train this time too.
My approximate skin tone - ask my grandfather to use the analogy using the African-American fellow.
Good on everyone for changing their MSN Messenger name to something wittily anti-war; we'll topple this government through millions of fat lazy people sitting in front of a computer sending emoticons to each other and trying to have dirty cyber sex.