The Road to Sai Gon, part 1
You already heard most of what there is to hear about Nha Trang, except that due to a ticketing fuckup we had to get the Chicken Bus to Da Lat, instead of the tourist bus, which wasn't so bad.
When people imagine Viet Nam, they imagine thick, lush, wet rainforest, dark soil and water everywhere. I've come to the conclusion that this is because most Vietnam War movies are actually filmed in the rainforest of the Phillipines, where it really is like that. In fact Central and Southern Viet Nam from Da Nang south to Sai Gon - the area where the bulk of the fighting took place - is quite arid, with red and yellow volcanic soil, and the populated areas tend to be very flat. Much of this is to do with defoliation, though Agnet Orange and napalm were used more commonly in the highlands where jungle cover had not already been cleared away by a thousand years of extensive agriculture. Da Lat is in these highlands, the second-highest region of the country, which shared a long border with Cambodia, and was mostly uninhabited by Vietnamese until the French arrived and made it into a mountain resort. The city itself was largely unscarred bvy the war - it served as an unofficial truce point where commanders from either side could cool their heels in the fresh mountain air - but the countryside around Da Lat was almost completely destroyed. More than 75% of the jungle is gone, and has since been replaced with gardens and pine forests. Apparently this changed the climate quite radically - Da Lat women were famous for their pale skin, red lips and pink cheeks, because of the city's cold alpine climate. Now, it';s only 10 or so degrees colder than the rest of Southern Viet Nam. Which still makes it a wonderful place to be. A place cool enough to walk around - up and down hills - without getting hot and stinky. Da Lat is also famous for the Easy Riders, a group of professional motorcycle tour guides, most of whom served or worked with the american army during the war, and so a) speak excellent english and b) were re-educated and marginalised in the new Socialist Republic, and have had trouble getting other work. I can't say enough about how good these guys are - they're the best; polite and professional, careful and sensible drivers, considerate, respectful, knowledgeable, funny, honest, etc - and this is their country and they know it like the back of their hands.
We took up with Binh, Easy Rider #007, who unofficially used to fly helicopters for the americans during the war. He's 56, from the Me Kong delta, but married a pretty Da Lat girl and has lived there since, and now can't stand the heat and hustle of Sai Gon and the lowlands. He and Trung and Thien took us about Da Lat for a day more or less free of sightseeing and tourist hassle; we dropped in to see local stuff happening, like people making bamboo trays for silk worms, a silk factory, mushroom farm, coffee plantations, a spectacular waterfall where you get your own personal rainbow if you climb through a small hole in the rock, a village with an enormous cement chicken (known as the Chicken Village) where we were invited in to do a bit of teaching at the local school, and that sort of thing. Basically, just seeing the country at work, and getting a history lesson about the war, reconstruction, liberalisation of socialist laws, and so on which has seen Da Lat flourish. On the strength of this, after deliberating for ages at the cost ($50 per person per day, no negotiation, all inclusive - these guys are professionals and charge like professionals) we agreed on a two-day trip about half of the way to Sai Gon.
The next day Trung wasn't there; he was doing the same route of our first day with a Danish family in a Landcruiser, so we had Khoa, AKA David, instead. We visited a family who made rice paper for spring rolls, and rice crackers and rice dough and rice wine, which isn't actually wine at all. This stuff is called ruou, and is what I was fed to drink in Dong Hoi after the chilly bin incident. They make it by taking broken rice, the cheap stuff which won't sell for export, boiling and soaking it to release the sugar, adding yeast and allowing it to ferment (vietnamese temperatures make for easy fermentation), then distilling the resultant beer. The rice mush which is left over doesn't go to waste - nothing does, out here. It gets fed to pigs. It's very high in energy because the fermentation is incomplete,but as an added bonus it makes the pigs drunk and lazy, so they spend all their time sleeping rather than running around wasting energy. Consequently the pigs are more docile, easier to handle and put on weight faster than sober pigs, and everyone prospers. Except the pigs. I hate to think what happens to the pig who doesn't get his fix of rice beer mush. Or rather, the pig farmer who tries to handle said pig.
We also visited a Koho village - the Koho are one of Viet Nam's 50-odd minorities, and the Koho are the same people as live in the Chicken Village. These people have been more marginalised than most by pre-liberation Viet Nam, but have been looke after, after a fashion, by the socialists. Mostly this seems to be because they are a liability and a barrier to progress if not assimilated. The Koho and most other minorities have historically been nomadic slash-and-burn jungle agriculturalists, which works fine if a) there aren't very many of you and b) you have lots of jungle. Since the American War b) is no longer true, and the socialists, in order to better control these people, make them learn Vietnamese and so on, gave each family a cow. Having a cow eis immense wealth to a culture of jungle nomads, but it does require them to settle down - cows don't like jungle very much. Now, most of these minority families have several cows, and very little else now that they're prevented from making a living in their old ways. It's a clever ploy, and surprisingly farsighted for communists - carrot, rather than stick, to get people to do your bidding.
Off to dinner now, more to come.
Exit Hoi An
Our last day in Hoi An, we rented motorbnikes from the hotel and drove about the place, heading out to the beach and then down the unfinished coast road for half an hour or so before going back into Hoi An for lunch.
We left Hoi An that night, April 20, on the 12-hour overnight bus. A 12 hour bus trip is never fun, and this one wasn't. At about 01:45, we hit something on the road, with a bang and a crunch, something hard which bounced under the bus and made it lurch upwards. Everyone woke up, but we didn't stop until about 5km later, when the crew got out and looked at the damage, had a smoke, then we carried on. I still have no idea what it was - could have been a rock or a motorbike or a milestone or one of the ancestral shrines which Vietnamese set up next to fields to bring a good harvest. I've decided that ther only way to stay sane in Asia is to think like the locals - if they aren't worried, why should I be? Bus Travel in Viet Nam, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love The Chaos.
The trip from Nha Trang to Sai Gon, and thence to my current location in Phnom Penh, is a long story, so I'll tell it in a few parts as I get time; my laptop died in Sai Gon, so I'm 100% internet room now.
Vietnam's beach resort par excellence. Spent two days here; the first recovering from the overnight bus from Hoi An, then yesterday we hired a speedboat for fishing and snorkelling.
Fishing was a waste of time; nothing bigger than your hand, and only about six of the little bastards for three hours work. Apparently the fish bite first thing in the morning, before heading out to deeper water in the heat of the day, but it was all I could do to motivate the rest of these lot to come out at 0900, leat alone 0600. Snorkelling was grand, but would have been better if the damn fins had been big enough, or if the mask would just stop filling with water. Nha Trang is hotter even than Hoi An, and it's practically impossible to do anything outside from about 1000-1500.
Our bus to Da Lat just artrived, I have to go.
Went to the Cham ruins at My Son yesterday with Thuan and the gang, but it was far too hot to actually do anything and we all got fearsomely sunburnt. The ruins were used by both VC and American forces during the war, and consequently were bombed into oblivion - there's not a whole lot left to see. Ticket price includes a ride from the road to the start of the ruins in a real live United States Marine Core jeep left over from the war.
It was a strange parting - as soon as it came to talking about money, Thuan got very quiet and seemed a bit sad. I'm unsure whether he felt we weren't giving him enough, or if he justfound talking about money distasteful - it's certainly weird for me, since we've become quite good mates over the past few days, but that's where it comes to the crunch - this is his living.
Hoi An is Tailor Town, and everyone gets clothes made to measure here, at stupidly cheap prices. Consequently, we're spending more time here than I want to waiting for next-day clothing service.
Today we're going to wander about the old town, once the sun cools a bit, and probably get on a bus tomorrow for Nha Trang, Vietnam's premier beach resort.
Redemption by motorcycle
We did finally get a good meal in Hue, at the Tropical Garden Restaurant. We ordered two disshes each, and had a pretty wide variety of traditional Hue cuisine, and it was all good. Afterwards we went to the DMZ bar, your garden variety of asia-tourist bar, playing Santana, and with graffiti on the walls; after the stroke of midnight it was Ossie's birthday, and in his honour I attempted to make a round of Irish Carbombs. An Irish Carbomb is a cocktail which is quite simply a pint of stout with a shotglass filled with 50/50 irish whiskey and bailey's dropped into it; however the DMZ bar had no stout (only local lager); no irish whiskey (johnny walker it is, then) and no shotglasses, so I just poured the whiskey and cream in. The resultant mixture curdled and was appalling. The Vietnamese Carbomb comes with my lowest recommendation.
Following my tirade the other day, I'd decided a change of plan was in order. When surrounded by snakes and rats and idiots, I've found it's best to seek out someone who's not, and stick to them. In this case, that someone is Thuan, who does motorbike tours out of Hue. Deb and Ossie and I hired him and two bikes, of which I drove one, for a trip around the old Nguyen tombs south of Hue city. The tombs themselves were pretty good - the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, who had 104 wives and untold numbers of concubines but died childless, is more like a garden than a tomb; and fair enough, since you'd want your spirit to be at home, as an emperor. But the main attraction of all of this was riding about, seeing what there was to see and more or less pleasing ourselves. Another tomb was a wide circular stone wall surrounded by a moat in which old men caught fish. Inside the wall is very dense, lush jungle. The doors are permanently locked; Thuan says because there are many poisonour snakes in there. Whether to guard the tomb, or simply as a consequence of being left alone for long enough I'm not sure, but it is very much a forbidden jungle city.
After the tombs and so on, we went to a local restaurant - if restaurant isn't too strong a word for plastic chairs and tables under a tarpaulin. The food was the most simple - raw peanuts (soft and creamy, not hard and nutty); grilled pork and bitter leaves to wrap it in; garlic and lemongrass and chillies and salt and lime and fresh green peppercorns to flavour it with. Back into town and a few more beers (an Irishman's birthday never passes without much beer being drunk), followed by vietnamese hot-pot, much like the chinese/mongolian kind. I talked a lot with Thuan - like most asians, he's clearly worried that we've been married for five years already, but have no kids. He told us a bit about Vietnamese family planning, how Vietnamese hate using medical birth control or fertility treatments, but how women manage families by knowing when they're fertile. He also claimed to be able to choose the gender of a child at conception - if you go deep, he says, it'll be a boy - shallow, and it'll be a girl. He chose a girl for his first child, because he remembers how much trouble he and his older brother got into, and he wants his family to have a calmer life. He'd also bet 10,000d on Blackburn Rovers to beat Liverpool. If they win 2-1, he gets 200,000d; 3-2 he gets 300,000d; 2-0 he gets 600,000d; 1-1 draw, 60,000d. I'm not sure how they work those odds out. As it happens, Blackburn lost 0-1, so he lost his 10,000d.
While sitting there, we were joined by three incredibly drunk but very convivial Frenchmen in their 40s - Christophe, Phillipe and Pascal. Christophe was a roofing salesman, and Phillipe and Pascal his two top clients in the construction business - both had bought over a million euros in rooves in the past year, and were being treated to a couple weeks in L'Indochine on Christophe's company. The poor owners of the hot-pot place were up well past their bedtime. Christophe tried to pay the bill with a 20 euro note, which the old woman wouldn't take because she didn't recognise it; Thuan recognised it, and changed it on the spot for her for the remainder of the bill, about 200,000d. 20 euro is worth about 400,000d, but Thuan was the only one who seemed to realise this, and in the end everyone went away happy. So it was back to the DMZ for us - the only place open late is a foreigner bar. Much silliness ensued; a beer fight of mammoth proportions, and an arm-wrestling competition in which I beat Ben and Phillipe by the narrowest of margins before the owner threw us all out for being too noisy, and throwing beer everywhere.
A little before the beer fight, about 2am, Deb had said she'd go down the road to the ATM, but on instinct I told her to stay, and went instead; being hassled all the while by siclo drivers - "you want ride? you want massage? my sister give good massage, only fie dollah..." etc. I told them all to piss off, but when I came out of the ATM box, three had set their siclos up like a corral, and were right up close: "you get money? we go now..." I told them (truthfully, since the ATM didn't work) that I didn't have any money and went to the other ATM across the road, which was also out of order - normal in Asia. When I came out this time, FIVE of them had set up, and they made a circle around me, right in my face, close enough to smell their stale-smoke breath. I'm quite certain if I'd got money out of the ATM I'd have had a fight on my hands, but as it was they'd seen the machine didn't work, so I just pushed them out of the way and went back to the bar, happy that it was me and not Deb who'd come out. When I mentioned it in the bar, Ben and Os, both normally very peaceable chaps, were all for going outside and having them there and then, but I talked them out of it. I do think the Frenchmen would have been on our side too. Phillipe used to play flanker for one of the Top 14 clubs - Toulouse or Lyon, maybe. Yet more proof that the taxi mafia are the scum of the earth. Thuan and Nam were horrified when I told them about this, and about the incident at the Hue - Da Nang turnoff a few nights earlier; they hate the mafia as much as we do for spoiling their reputation as honest workers.
The next morning, at about midday, Deb and Os and I got on bikes with the three amigos: Thuan and his mates Nam and Hoa, and off we went to Hoi An. Thuan is 26, married a year and has a daughter almost two months old; he's smart and funny and chatty and always complains about how much everything costs, but is a very careful driver. Nam is older; 29 he says, but he looks about 35; handsome, quiet and serious; speaks fluent English and I get the feeling he's the leader of the pack, the wise one the others look up to. He drives fast and loose, like he's been doing it for years, which I suppose he probably has. Hoa is much younger; shy and quiet, smiles a lot and tries to keep up with Nam. Packs and all, on a 110cc scooter. These things are effectively a nifty fifty with gears; not the sort of vehicle anyone in NZ would consider taking on the open road. In Vietnam, however, it's perfectly sensible to do so, since the bulk of the other traffic on the roads is precisely these same bikes. Mostly Hondas, between 50 and 125cc, these things are used to transport everything from one person to a whole family (I've seen dad, mum, and three kids on the one bike), livestock (one farmer and four pigs; two in crates, two tied on their backs across the seat - alive), furniture (refrigerator; coke machine; bed - no problem!), firewood and vegetables and bolts of silk and, really, anything else you care to think of. These bikes are Vietnam's all-purpose transportation system. They cruise at about 50km/h, which gives you plenty of time to see and smell and hear the country. I am convinced they are the ideal means of getting around.
We stopped off at Elephant Spring, so named because water runs from the trunk of a rock carved in the shape of an elephant. It was green and clear, and the pool is four metres deep; deep enough to dive from the rock three metres above, which I did. Next stop was for lunch on the northern side of Hai Van mountain - the bus goes through the tunnel the French (?) made through the mountain, missing the spectacular views from the pass. As it turns out, we missed the views too, since we were well up in the clouds by the 800 metre pass. Coming into Hoi An, as we had seen leaving Hue, there were dozens of young women in ao dai - traditional Vietnamese costume; tight-fitting pants and tunic which buttons to the neck, with long gloves, hats and silk scarves. The front and back panels of the tunic reach down to the knees, like a dress with split sides; all in a colour somewhere between white and lilac, silk, all riding bicycles with baskets on the front. Every inch of skin is covered, to prevent it from browning in the sun, and they look like princesses on bicycles as a consequence. I asked Nam what the story was, and it turns out that ao dai is the uniform for girls' high schools and universities. The whole trip of 130-some kilometres took about five hours, with two hours of messing about. As a contrast, the bus takes four hours, with no stoppage.
The hotel here in Hoi An is brand new, and very well turned out, despite its $10 cheapness. So new that the restaurant upstairs doesn't yet serve food (just chairs and tables), and the internet in the rooms (from which I write this) doesn't work properly; but still, at 6000d per hour, you can't really complain too much. The water filling the bath is also an unsettling brown colour - like the water is tainted with the red dirt of the central coast, like it's been pumped from a newly-dug bore, which it probably has. Tomorrow we're probably off to see the ruins of My Son, the old capital of Champa, a nation which was absorbed by Vietnam in the 16th century, before the boys head back to Hue.
It's good to ride a motorbike again - it's been bloody years since I did, but it's easy enough to pick up again. I convinced Thuan to let Ossie have a ride on one of the automatic (gearless) bikes, and he almost crashed it into a tree - poor bastard never learned to ride a bike on account of getting hit by a car while learning when he was six, so a motorbike might be a bit tricky. That's another job for tomorrow - Ossie riding a bike.