A Different Perspective

Trip Start Jan 04, 2011
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Trip End Ongoing


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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

It's been a long and interesting trip from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City; and I do mean long.  Vietnam is one long country and with a long side trip included I traveled almost 1300 miles. 

After a 12 hour overnight train trip from Hanoi I arrived in the city of Hue.  The city was once the imperial capital of Vietnam and is chock-full of interesting historical sites left over from this period.  As I walked away from the train station I ignored the small army of touts offering the usual array of "deals" on hotels, taxi rides and tours.  About halfway to my hostel a guy a motorcycle pulled along side of me, introduced himself as Quy and began to chat.  He told me he worked for a group that gave personalized motorcycle tours of Vietnam.  I responded to him, in my practiced vague and slightly defensive manner, that I wasn't really interested in a tour and I already had previous plans.  Still, he didn't seem to be overly pushy, was very friendly and quite articulate in his use of English.  I finally agreed to take his business card and contact him if my plans changed and I became interested in a tour of central Vietnam. 

I spent the next couple days becoming familiar with Hue, visiting the old citadel, home to the Nguyen emperors, and the various palaces and temples built within its walls.  The place reminding me a great deal of the Forbidden City in Beijing which makes sense due to the fact the Vietnam had once been dominated by China for nearly 1000 years and shares many similarities in culture and language with its neighbor to the north.  Also during my time I did a little Internet research into the company that Quy worked at.  It seemed almost everyone on TripAdvisor gave them, and him in particular, glowing reviews.

It wasn't long after that I saw Quy riding by on his motorcycle.  I stopped him and told him that I was indeed interested in taking a tour with him and wanted to discuss the details later that day.  We met for dinner that night talking about the specifics of a 5-day tour that included visiting major historical sites around the DMZ, rural western Vietnam and some of the largest caves in in the country, and the world for that matter.  The tour would then end in the city of Hoi An to the south of Hue.  He agreed that he wanted to do the tour as well but had already been booked by an English couple for a 3-day trip from Hue to Hoi An.  In the end we worked out a good compromise.  I would take a 1-day trip down to Hoi An with his friend. Quy would meet me there in 3 days and we would do the whole thing in reverse, finishing back in Hue where he would give me a free tour of the sites outside the city which I had not yet visited.

The next morning Ty, my driver, was there to pick me up at 8:30am.  He also had another driver with him taking an Australian guy named Michael on the same trip.  The ride down to Hoi An consisted of several stops; the first being a 2 hour break at a place called Elephant Rock to do some swimming.  It was an alright place with lots of locals enjoying themselves in a cascade of pools, although the "Elephant Rock" itself was just a huge boulder with an fake trunk cemented onto it.  Next we crossed over 2 high passes in the mountains with amazing views of the surrounding jungle, valleys below and several decaying concrete bunkers left over from the French occupation of Vietnam. 

By mid-afternoon we stopped for lunch near the Marble Mountains outside of Danang.  My driver said we could take the stairs or if we wanted the elevator to the top of the mountain.  I thought he was joking until I walked around the corner and low and behold there was an actual elevator attached to the side of the hill.  The top of the mountain was full of various temples and grottoes containing many giant Buddha statues.  It was also full of other tourists as the Marble Mountains is one of the most popular places to see in central Vietnam.  Our final stop before Hoi An was a beach called My Khe, nicknamed China Beach by American troops during the war and made famous by the TV show of the same name in the late 80s.  The beach of fine-grained white sand stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions and was surprisingly uncrowded.  This will likely change soon though as I noticed a lot of resort development just above the beach. 

Just as the sun was setting we reached our destination, Hoi An, known for its well preserved old architecture, atmospheric markets and for being the undisputed custom-made clothing capital in Vietnam.  Crammed within the city's small old town are over 200 tailoring and shoe making shops.  I kept telling myself that I did not need, nor could carry, any more clothing but was finally talked into purchasing a coat, jacket and pair of shoes all for $120.  Although initially opposed to it, the service and dedication to quality by the tailor I chose made me feel better about shelling out the money in the end. Also the clothes really did look and fit great but I still had no room for them in my bag.

Now it's time to move onto the best part of my journey in Vietnam; the 5-day trip on the back of a motorcycle through rural Vietnam.  Quy arrived, as promised, on the morning of my 3rd day in Hoi An and had all the equipment necessary to attach both my big backpack and day pack onto his bike.  For the next 5 days it would be just me and him riding for over 800 kilometers on the bike.

Our first stop was just an hour away at a place called My Son (Pronounced Me Sun).  Billed as Vietnam's Angkor Wat it was nice but certainly didn't come anywhere near the grandeur of the real Angkor Wat in nearby Cambodia, which I had twice visited on short trips while living in Beijing.  The rest of the day was spent riding on the back of Quy's bike with me enjoying the scenery and trying to snap pictures of interesting things as well sped along.  Quy would also take the time to explain the places and people we passed in great detail.  He seemed to always know when the seat was starting to become uncomfortable and we would stop for short breaks.

At the end of the first day we reached Khe Sanh, the site of one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.  Quy was very knowledgeable about the battle and had a personal connection to it as well.  His father had fought as a soldier here for the North Vietnamese.  It was strange being an American on a trip like this and hearing about the place from the perspective of the son of what used to be your country's enemy.  I was not the first American, however, he taken on a tour and Quy was quite skilled at striking a balance between historical facts and personal details when describing these events.  Of course, neither of us was born until after the war was long over. In fact we were both the same age and born within a few months of each other, but he certainly had a more direct connection to that time than I did.  As the trip continued I would grow to learn more about the war and the man who was my guide. 

The next 2 days were long rides but consisted of the most dramatic scenery during my tour.  Ten years ago Vietnam decided to a pave over a section of the Ho Chi Minh trail as a matter of national pride and to connect many of the isolated minority groups near the border with Laos to the eastern part of the country.  The road here resembled a twisting serpent that winded its way up and down dozens of mountains blanketed in immensely dense, lush jungle making the building and paving of this road seem all the more impressive.  The area here was so sparsely populated that in an entire day of riding we would pass less than a dozen other vehicles

At the end of the 3rd day we reached Phong Nha Ke Bang park in north-central Vietnam.  The area is home to many of Vietnam's caves including the largest cave in the world, Son Doung. Discovered less than 2 years ago it is sadly not yet open to the general public.  We instead stopped to visit Thien Duong, Heaven Cave.  Only opened to the public less than 3 months ago, Thien Dong was, until recently, thought to be the biggest cave in Vietnam at 31.4 km long.  The rather unassuming, small entrance opened up into a huge cavern that a skyscraper could fit in with room to spare.  Whoever planned the lighting for the cave did an excellent job as all of the many strange formations were well illuminated and had signs in Vietnamese naming them.  The ceiling of the cave just looked unreal; almost as if had been painted on like the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

The following morning we took a boat trip to two other, less impressive, caves.  One of which, known as the Water Cave, was entered and exited by boat.  After the caves we ate breakfast and were back on the bike headed east for Quang Tri.  On the way we stopped briefly to explore some old underground tunnels near the DMZ where families would take refuge during the American aerial bombing campaign.  Next we visited the bridge that originally divided North and South Vietnam as well as a monument and small museum with photographs of the devastation to the area during the war

During the course of the tour we we would stop at our hotel around sunset each night and then share a dinner before getting some rest for the ride the next day.  At these dinners I began to learn more about Quy's personal life and his family.  His father had fought in several major battles during the war finally taking four bullet wounds at the battle Quang Tri, 2 of which were never removed due to their proximity to his heart and lungs.  His mother, who was from Hue had had to flee by herself down south when the US bombing of the area had begun and 2 of his father's 3 brothers had died in other battles fighting for the North Vietnamese.  His father's remaining brother had fought for the American backed South Vietnamese army.  After the war was over it remained a point of contention between them and they rarely spoke again. 

Quy, himself, as I mentioned before was my age and we had lived vastly different lives growing up but also shared some very strange similarities.  He grew up in a small village outside of Hue and remembered around the age of 8 when the village got its first TV.  The village actually didn't even have electricity yet and the TV only ran for 2 hours a day off old car batteries.  The owner of the TV would charge a small ticket price and everyone in the village would gather around it twice a week to watch some old Indian or very occasional American flick.  As Quy grew up things gradually became better and he worked hard to study English at school in Hue.  He became not only the first person in his family to go the college but the first person in the entire village.  Quy had held several other jobs before becoming a tour bike driver for Hue Riders, which he chose because he could be his own boss and loved the freedom of riding.  He also really felt that he was living what we call the "American Dream" because now he owned a house of his own with all the modern conveniences, room for his wife, 2 kids and mother and would be able to send his children to a good private school when they were older. 

I found his life story as compelling and interesting as the scenery and history of the places we visited.  But what really struck me like a bolt of lightning with surprise was that when he was a young kid growing up in the 80s and early 90s he would visit a small club in Hue where they would always blast American Heavy Metal and Hard Rock music.  When he started singing "18 and Life" lyrics by the group Skid Row it was like I was with my best friend back home in 4th grade all over again.  I couldn't believe it!

Now back to the tour...

Finally, it was day 5 of my tour and time to head back to Hue.  We had a few more planned stops along the way, such as a cemetery for soldiers that died during the war, but most of the day was going to be on the back of the bike heading straight for Hue.  Everything was going along swimmingly.  We were about 40 kilometers out of Hue.  It had rained and the road was a little wet in places.  One thing I had previously noticed about drivers in Vietnam is that when they make a right turn at an intersection on to another road they never seem to look over their left shoulder to see if there is any traffic coming, seeming to trust that other drivers will simply see them and make way.  We are riding along and suddenly a huge truck just pulls out right in front of us.  Quy had no time to brake and the front of the bike began to twist back and forth wildly on the wet pavement.  In the blink of an eye the bike was on its side and I was sliding across the pavement with my left leg still trapped under the bike.  For some reason I didn't feel panic or tense up but only began to wonder how badly my leg was being shredded between the bike and the pavement.  We finally slide to a halt and I got up and asked Quy if he was OK.  We were both performing visual checks of our bodies for damage as sometimes I've heard you can have a serious injury but not feel the pain from it right way.  We realized that neither of us seemed to be seriously hurt.  Quy had a nasty gash on his left hand and I had a good scrap on my foot and some along my forearm but we were both surprisingly lucky.  My fat backpack sticking out from the back of the bike had kept the full weight of the bike off my leg as it slid on the pavement instead of my leg.  We took it slow the rest of the way back to Hue.

My last day in Hue Quy,true to his word, took me on a free trip around the city.  I then bid him farewell and boarded a bus for a 28 hour ride to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).


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Comments

Cristina Adam on

Danny, I love your pictures and your blog in general. Wow, you have made the most awesome trips. I admire your courage and desire to learn not only about the country, but the people themselves. I am such a cry baby, I would have cried my heart out when I had to say goodbye to this new friend your made in Vietnam.

Dustin on

Sounds like a great trip. I think the motorcycle tour was a great idea. Love all the pictures. Take care and keep up the good blog entries

Betty Stephens on

Hi Dan,
Your pictures and stories are wonderful. You can live it all over again when you are back in the states through your documentary. How about a book?
We're thinking of you in your travels!

Teri and Jim on

We are enjoying your trip on line and will be looking forward to your "book"!! Stay safe!

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