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.