Sunday, December 23, 2007

Trip Summary

My first and most enduring impression of Vietnam is the motor bike. The Vietnamese use motor bikes as their primary transportation, and there are thousands of them clogging the streets especially in Ho Chi Min City (Saigon). There are some cars, but usually are government officials or tourists transport. There are also trucks, but they are generally restricted to travel at night. Bicycles are also common, but primarily used by school kids, and peasants.

Traffic is chaotic by our perspective, although there is obviously some logic to it all. Crossing the street as a pedestrian is a challenge. You have to not hesitate, walk slowly and make eye contact with oncoming traffic. The bikes will not slow down, just whiz around you. Helmets are required only on national highways, but most people wear masks to ward off the pollution and sun. Many women also wear long sleeved gloves that go above their elbow – even in insufferable heat. The Vietnamese value fair skin, and want to avoid sun tans. These gloves can be a fashion statement, available in a plethora of bright colors like purple and lime green.

The most amazing thing about their use of motor bikes is what they carry on them. Whole families cram on one bike with Dad driving, and in front of him one of the kids. Then, sometimes standing on the seat with their hands on Dad’s shoulders is a second child, often no more than three years old. Then comes Mom on the back, who may be holding an infant, who is most likely sound asleep!

In the countryside the other loads carried on the bikes can be any type of produce, usually heaped on in big bundles. We saw cages of live ducks, chickens, pigs, and puppies (in the North they eat dogs) all on the back of motor bikes on the way to market. We even saw a young water buffalo hog-tied to the back of a bike, and a few miles later a cow strapped on the same way. On a closer look it was clear both were still alive, even though their heads were tied less than a foot off the ground. I would think their meat would be tainted by the fear (and consequential adrenaline) those animals endure during their ride. The Humane Society would be horrified! We frequently were driving in the country side, sometimes for three hours at a time, so I have many photos of the motor bikes loads.

Like in other countries we visited, many people were after our dollars and we were sometimes overcharged, or targets for street sales – sometimes seemingly out of the middle of nowhere. "Last price, three dollars!" On the other hand, I found the Vietnamese more willing to engage with foreigners, and "Where are you from?" wasn’t necessarily a come-on to buy something. I had a group of eleven year old school girls practice their English on me, and request I sing them a song. I sang them "Happy Birthday" (it happened to be Cooper’s birthday that day), and they sang along with me, followed by their rendition of "Farmer in the Dell". Just as they were going to sing me a Vietnamese song they were called away by their teacher. I think the fact that this old man was lurking around the school yard raised less suspicion in their country than it would in ours. As a foreigner I could get away with odd behavior.

Speaking of odd: a group of twenty-somethings found it very odd that we had stopped along the highway to photograph farmers harvesting rice. They stopped to find out what we found so interesting, and then posed for pictures themselves.

I found the people more willing to have their photos taken than in most other places I’ve been. I rarely had someone tell me not to take their photo. They often wanted no other compensation than to see the digital preview on the back of my camera, and even sometimes said, "Thank you." when I took their picture. I have a lot of red, beetlenut smiles from old ladies, and kids especially clowned and crowded around us, their little faces staring in my lens. A large percentage of the population speaks at least a modicum of English, as it is taught in the schools and is viewed as an international opportunity. The Vietnamese language has several tonalities and has a quality to it like singing, although this can also become a high pitched screech with women in the markets.
Speaking of old people, there aren’t many still alive! Sixty percent of the population is under twenty-five years old. My generation either died during, what they call the American War; or they have died since of cancer from agent orange and other chemicals we dumped on their country.

In fact, one city has been called "Cancer City" because so many people have died there. I also encountered a number of people with birth deformities, and was told this was also from various chemical agents. Peasant families blamed the mothers, believing it was their bad karma from some violation of local mores. The children, and their mothers are often shunned and the kids become beggars, sliding along on their butts with useless, shriveled legs in the air and their hands in gloves or on wooden blocks. We saw few handicap accommodations. The only "wheelchair" I saw was a rather large cart that is pushed along by a motion like a pump handle.

We had a great guide in Hanoi, a thirty-two year old woman named Nguyen Phuong Thao. Her father served in the war – and was gone for twelve years. Thao said it took up to eight months for a letter from him to arrive, and sometimes there was blood on the envelope because the carrier had been wounded or killed en route. Thao also described the post-war hardships that went on until the early 1990's. Rationing was a way of life with long lines, and meager availability of goods – which was unequally distributed depending upon one’s position with the Party or government. It made me think of Animal Farm: "Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others". Thao said it wasn’t what "Uncle" Ho intended (but he was dead by that time). She did not grow up with toys, other than some fashioned by hand by her parents; and she remembers always being hungry as a child. All her clothes were hand-me-downs, and it was common for many people to live in one or two rooms, sleeping on mats on the floor.

Despite these hardships there seems to be no particular hard feelings towards Americans, and the Vietnamese are particularly reverential about their "Uncle" Ho. What Vietnamese want most to visit is Ho Chi Minh’s mummified body (he wanted to be creamated)– which was closed the day we were scheduled to go there.

The Vietnamese economy has greatly improved at this point, and most everyone now has a motor bike, a television, and a cell phone. Their houses can still be quite small, or tall and narrow with an extended family all living on three or four floors. They often open up large doors which expose their front room. Typically inside would be the family sitting on the floor, sometimes eating their dinner. A small television would be in one corner, and in a more prominent spot would be the family’s alter to honor their elders. In Hoi An we walked to our hotel from town through a residential neighborhood of relatively new houses. The streets were lined with the country’s red flag with a single white star in the center. Kids played in the street which was also populated by a number of dogs. I was told there are no strays, but there were lots of puppies – in part because they are used both as pets and food. Having a dog was also considered good luck. A few cats were also to be found, and caged birds were common – doves and myna birds. I also visited the home of a cyclo driver that I spent an afternoon with in Hue. He lived on a boat along a river with his wife, toddler son, and father. His wife cooked on a propane hotplate, and there was no running water. The total space they had was two small rooms on a boat that must have been about thirty feet long. My driver’s name was Hom, which translated to "Hero". He took me from the hotel to the Dong Ba Central Market, which was one of the better experiences I had with ordinary people. I gave out Polaroids, and was deluged with people who wanted their photo taken. While I was in the market Judy enjoyed a manicure, pedicure and a massage in which a small woman literally walked on her back. She came back with red toes and a generally refreshed demeanor.

As for ordinary people, this tour primarily insulated us in a cocoon of tourist traps. As in China, everyone visiting Vietnam is herded to the same sites with the same itinerary. The epitome of this was our day trip from Saigon to the Mekong Delta. It was a boat ride across the Mekong River, and then a walk on Unicorn Island, along a path in the jungle, interspersed with tourist stops with things for sale, like coconut candy, and wine with a snake or scorpion in the bottle. It was sweltering hot and humid. The only local people we saw were manning the tourist traps. We then were returned to our river boat on smaller sampan boats through narrow canals. It was sort of like a Disney ride.

Also a Disney ride of sorts, was our overnight stay on the Ha Long Ginger in Ha Long Bay, in the respect that it was totally tourist oriented. However, this turned out to be quite a memorable excursion because the Bay is breathtakingly beautiful with hundreds of limestone islands jutting out of the water. Our boat was full with two dozen tourists from Australia, Norway, London, and Maine. We did visit a small floating fishing village which clung to the side of one island. Local boys paddled out to us, and managed to sell me four shells with some hard negotiating.

Our friend, Steve H. helped us plan this trip. He goes to Vietnam twice a year, and one of his favorite places is Hoi An. It was among the trip highlights for us. Steve suggested going to the fish market at dawn in Hoi An, and watching the fishermen unload their catches in a very busy market place loaded also with fruits and vegetables. It was a bustling, noisy collage of boats, fish, and produce.

Later in the day, Judy & I took a cooking class in Hoi An, where we made rice paper for spring rolls, and cut tomatoes in the shape of roses.

Another highlight was the noon mass at the Cao Dai Great Temple in Tay Ninh which involved a procession of at least a hundred robed participants, representing their beliefs in the universality of religion – in particular Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. They also honor Jesus, Mohammad, Victor Hugo and Napoleon.

For the most part we stayed in five star hotels. This was more first class than we usually travel, and was the arrangement of our travel agent (not Amazing Vietnam, but an international agent in Chicago). In Hanoi we stayed in the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, pictured here, which is reputed to be the best in the city. The rooms were actually rather small but it had a designer taste and flat screen television.
Most memorable to us, however, was the Majestic Hotel in Saigon for its breakfast on the fifth floor overlooking the bustling city and Mekong River. All the breakfast buffets were outstanding, including a wide array of fresh fruits we weren’t familiar with, like dragon fruit which is white with little tiny black seeds, and a red exterior with dragon fins. All our hotels also had pools, and we found with the heat and humidity they were a great refresher in the middle of the day. We did encounter some unexpected cool weather, however, in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay; where we worried we hadn’t brought enough clothes. Layering worked.

Epilogue: It took twenty-seven hours from the time we left the hotel in Bangkok to get home. That is not counting the flight from Hanoi to Thailand. We stayed in Bangkok an extra day to go to the palace. The upshot is that the trek from the United States to and from Vietnam is a rigorous journey -- but well worth it, and we plan to do it again in 2008!