Sunday, July 8, 2007

Central Vietnam

Thursday night was hard on my stomach. A bunch of us went to check out a Tex-Mex bar-restaurant called R & Rs. It's run by a greying American guy with a Willie Nelson-esque ponytail. He's brought a little bit of Texas to Hanoi. I loaded up on peanuts, french fries, a hamburger and onion rings, all washed down by cheap beer. Then we left for Finnegans where we had more beer and I didn't drink much water when I got home.
The next morning I woke up before my alarm went off, which is rare for me. My stomach was angry at what I'd put it through. After several weeks of excellent health and appetite, I'd succumbed to the inevitable Ho Chi Minh's revenge. The main symptom was a persistent, tired achiness that ate at my whole body. It was not the type of illness I wanted to have during a weekend of fast-paced travel. Last year, this happened in Istanbul, but I rested and it was gone the next day. But the year before in a hotel in Eastern Turkey, I'd woken up feeling much the same. By the mid afternoon, I was wasting away in the back seat, unable to drink water or eat anything. That bout of dysentary left me 15 pounds lighter than I was going in to it. So I was worried. Was my discomfort routine traveller's sickness? Or was it recurring dysentary?
We had a short flight into the very tropical airport of Da Nang, Vietnam's third biggest city after Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. We were met with a mini-bus and a tour guide who pointed out absolutely everything. "On the left is the third district middle school. And up ahead is the biggest drug store. All sorts of medicines sold there."
Da Nang was clearly a city on the move. There was construction at every turn. Rows of shopfronts had been leveled to make way for widened roads. Gleaming hotels and business towers were rising out of sandy wasteland areas. In ten years Da Nang may look more like Seattle than the Vietnamese fishing port it once was.

The road to Hoi An was nice, lined with tiny homes facing the road. Like most houses near the beach, these were painted brightly and often well decorated.

Before reaching Hoi An, we stopped at China Beach, so called by the American servicemen who enjoyed it during the war. The hotels and shops along the beach were generally very shabby. Women sat in hovels selling water and charging beachgoers to use primitive showers and changing rooms. But within the sleepy concrete zone, big new hotels were going up. I would guess that the whole beach will be lined with luxury hotels by 2020.

I can understand why developers would be drawn to China Beach. It has a thick belt of fine white sand, sparkling clean water, gentle waves, and views of distant peninsulas and islands. This beach and others like it could become major attractions, as big as Cozumel or Cabo San Luca. For our part, it was a real treat jumping in the warm water, having the entire beach to ourselves. If we ever come back, I'll probably have to share it with alot of other people.

The swim felt good, but in the aftermath, I started feeling intensely achy again and could barely muster the strength to tour around Hoi An. We had a nice stroll through the very picturesque town, but it felt like a long trek.
First we saw the main temple, built in honor of a harrowing sea voyage faced by a group of Chinese settlers took in ancient days. Inside there were reliefs of sinking ships as well as the mythical figures who saved the doomed passengers. Large red incensce spirals hung from the cieling, creating the pleasant aroma common to all Buddhist temples and shrines. Bought by families to commemorate important events or wish good luck upon friends and family, these incense spirals burn for exactly one month.

Even in my exhausted, feverish daze, I could appreciate the scenery in Hoi An. The town was built by Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the 18th and 19th century and many of the two story houses are very fine inside, having been built by merchants. One house is occupied by 9th generation Chinese immigrants, who let tourists inspect their house (and buy tourist junk, of course). It was a cool house--dimly lit and covered almost exclusively in wood the color of dark chocolate. The wall on the first floor showed signs of water damage. Apparently these homes flood several feet during the rainy season. For this reason, the second floor has a large trap door, which they use to hoist raise first floor furniture when the rain starts to come in. During the dry season, it is used to scare tourists, like the Spanish woman who almost had a heart attack when she looked down to find that she was standing on a wooden grate.

The most iconic sight in Hoi An is the wooden bridge that crosses a canal dividing the Chinese and Japanese quarters. It was built in 1930 by a Japanese entreprenuer who charged people to use it. It has to be the shortest toll bridge I've ever seen.

The authentic Hoi An footbridge. My smile was not authentic--I was feeling miserable.

The guide took us to a silk making workshop, which annoyed me, because I was in no mood to be dragged through another tourist trap. But it was actually pretty interesting. They had beds of leaves squirming with lazy white silk worms. From there the worms are put in a grate where they spin balls of silk fuzz which women thread through spinning machines to create spools of silk string. The string is fed into a clanky wooden weaving machine that produces shiny silk cloth. The silk is crafted into all sorts of products that I'm not interested in buying.

My strategy for travellers sickness was to drown it, starve it and shoot it with Imodium and Tylenol. But I thought it would be good to break the fast at dinner, so I ate some soup and white rice. Then I rested in my room and went to bed early, hoping that I'd feel better in the morning.


And I was in luck because I felt fine the next day. I certainly felt better than the rest of the group, who had stayed out late the night before. The drive north along the coast to Hue took us through dusty fishing hamlets and newly-painted businesses. The beaches continued to be first rate, and there was even the ubiquitous hillside pagoda.

Outside of Da Nang, we passed ghostly concrete barracks. The guide lost no opportunity to talk about everything she saw and announced that these were American barracks, which surprised me. Although the Americans built a massive military infrasturcture in and around Da Nang, I never thought the Vietnamese would have left anything standing.

After we passed through Da Nang, we faced a huge green mountain. The Japanese recently built a 12 mile tunnel underneath, but we decided to take the scening route over it. The bus wheezed up the steep passes but it was worth it for the commanding views. Desaix reminded us how these mountains weren't always so pleasant by recalling how the Viet Cong once shot at his jeep as he was travelling to Hue.

After we crossed the pass, what had been a bright, sunny day turned into a wet journey through the lowland. The landscape was extremely lush and rice farming peasants were visibly poorer than people around Da Nang.

We came to a clearing in the middle of nowhere and came upon an elaborate tomb of the first Nguyen king, who ruled in the early 19th Century. Vietnam is covered in modest family burial stones, but this monarch rests in style. His tomb is a series of three elevated shrines rested on islands in a man-made lake. The water is as calm as a mirror. It's a big place with only a few tourists so it has a very serene atmosphere.

The king's tomb is nestled in the countryside, but he built an even more maginficent palace in Hue, and we headed there next. The Citadel is a massive block in the center of Hue, nearly a square mile in size. It's the Versailles or Topkapi of Vietnam, although only a few of its 150 buildings still remain. With the help of UNESCO, Vietnam is rebuilding them one by one. The front section facing the river is the least destroyed and best maintained. Visitors arrive at a large tile square from where they cross a moat to enter the thick, imposing South Gate. The area reminded me of pictures of the Forbidden City, and in fact, the tour guide grudgingly admitted that the architect of the Citadel had studied in Beijing. So that explains that.

Inside the South Gate, there were deep ponds filled with lotus leaves and dense schools of coi, which clamored over each other to be fed. Beyond the ponds, there were a series of additional temples and other buildings, including the vacuous throneroom, which has been meticulously restored to its former glory.

Beyond that, the Citadel was mostly a sprawling green pasture. As a naturally defensible complex, the Citadel was used by Vietnamese resistance forces against the French in 1947. Later, Viet Cong forces siezed the Citadel in the 1968 Tet Offensive, where it became the center of a month long standoff. In both campaigns, the Citadel was badly damaged, and I saw a number of ruins destroyed by American bombs. Even near the less affected areas, there were bullet marks all over the place.

After walking around the Citadel, we hung out in front of the South Gate, in the square. Kids ran around flying kites in the warm wind and we couldn't resist. Unfortunately, 20-year-old Princeton students aren't much good at flying kites.

The bus dropped us off at the "market", a dimly-lit bazaar stuffed into a grim concrete relic of communist days. Hundreds of tiny booths were squeezed among one another and the goods were arranged in ways that defyed physics. All the shopowners were women, in contrast to the less hectic Covered Bazaar in Istanbul, where all the shops are run by men.

I walked to the hotel and we had a set course dinner in a shiny new restaurant built by a female entrepreneur who owns three restaurants and a hotel. After, we all headed over to an outdoor bar/cafe called DMZ. I talked to the owner for a while. He spoke very good English--even knowing what a B.A. and a B.S. were, although that may have something to do with the fact that his friend teaches at the University of Kentucky. He, like just about all Vietnamese, are wildly optimistic about the future of their country. The economy will always be strong. The government is liberalizing and will soon be a democracy. Health care is poor but getting better.

I got into pool matches matches against some guys from Brazil. I took Marcelo and BT down in close games but then Marcelo redeemed himself with a win, forcing me to sit back down with my group. In the middle of an old '60s tune, Desaix leaned forward and remarked that this bar made him feel as if nothing had changed in Hue since he was there in 1967.

Some of us went on to a club which made it clear that things actually had changed. The place bumped with techno and the back patio looked like a Rainforest Cafe. I decided to head in on the early side, so I set out on foot to the hotel, which was nearby. The road crossed over a grassy island that divided the Perfume River and a small lagoon. Off to the side of the road, between two cows, a group of seven Vietnamese guys sat in a circle and called me over. I've gotten very used to shrugging these type of things off, but I reallized that they had nothing to sell me, so I walked over to them. They were right next to a brightly lit, well traveled road, and I was bigger than them, so I judged that I wouldn't be in too much danger. I sensed that I might be in for an interesting cultural experience, and I was right.

They gestured for me to sit down in the circle and asked me friendly questions. We've been learning handy introductory phrases just for this purpose, so I was able to carry on a reasonable exchange with them, with the liberal use of gestures and grunts. To the left of me, Phou, a twenty-six-year-old with a scar over his eye, helped me out with a few extra English words which sometimes made all the difference. We managed to entertain each other for more than about an hour, and when none of us had anything else to say, the snores of their passed out, shirtless friend filled the silence.

As they learned that I was 20, from the U.S., and learning Vietnamese, I learned some things about them. Apparently, they're all motorbike or cyclo drivers and I'm convinced they're some sort of motorbike posse of some sort.

In the middle of the circle, lay leaf bowls stuffed with various strange morsels that they insisted I try. One looked like sliced liver with herb seasoning, but it didn't have the consistency of liver, so I'm not sure what it was. Another snack was an unknown white meat which peeled off a thick bone. I gave them some of my cold water; they kept handing me tiny porcelin bowls filled with clear liquid poured from a waterbottle. It was absolutely foul, tasting like a rotten combination of vodka and tequila. I'm guessing it was some sort of moonshine rice wine. As a kid I used to watch Operation Dumbo Drop and I recalled the scene when Danny Glover almost vomits when the Vietnamese villagers force him to sip some of their homemade rice wine. I empathized with Danny Glover, but the moonshine at least complemented the meat snacks.

The most excitable of the group had too many little bowls of moonshine and stumbled around a bit, sticking cigarettes in the mouth of the passed out guy. Then he mounted his motorbike, jolted forward and rode off for about twenty minutes. I looked around the group and half-heartedly raised an objection, but they didn't take an issue with their drunk friend, who may well have gone off to go pick up some fares. Remind me again not to ever ride motorbikes.

At one point in the night, two girls stopped their bikes and talked to the guys from the road. The guys seemed to be enticing the girls to join them but the girls sped off. Half an hour later, they showed up and joined us on the grass. But they just squated there uncomfortably, looking numb and not saying anything, as if they were dreading their fate. It was a very strange dynamic. The guys became shifty, and I said goodbye and left, wondering how I'd be able to convey to my friends how crazy an evening I'd had.


Anonymous said...

Nice website kent. I've been to many of the places you saw in DaNang and Hoi An.
Just got back sept. 2007
Great stuff.

Enjoying your comments about vietnam too.
HCMC is my favorite place, after that Nha Trang.

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