Vietnam

A Work in Progress

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“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” ― Jawaharlal Nehru

It had to happen eventually…today is my last day in Vietnam. Since leaving the Mekong Delta region, I’ve spent two days in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. It was like going from Kansas to Manhattan. There’s unending traffic, old colonial architecture, street markets, high-end restaurants; Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Catholic places of worship and lots of reminders of US history here.

On the antique street, there are old American GI aviator sunglasses and zippo lighters for sale. There is the Reunification Palace (as its now called) where Kissinger met with the South Vietnamese leadership and the eventual site of their surrender (or liberation according to the current regimes version of history). Yet the the city itself feels like it’s moving forward - refurbishing historic buildings and building new ones like the Bitexco Financial on top of an old colonial building. Maybe this is what Vietnam is…a work in progress.

Before I left, I read lots of things about travel in Vietnam. It didn’t always get great reviews. There are lots of people trying to sell lots of things - even when wearing flip flops you’re fair game for aggressive shoe shine boys. It’s a hard country to navigate. The public transportation system is not well developed and there are lots of scams targeted at tourists. The people can be difficult or unfriendly. Despite all this, the real question is, “Is it worth it?”

It probably would have been easier to sign up for a tour and been driven around the country in an air-conditioned bus or car to avoid some of these pitfalls, but I’m pretty sure I saw some things and met some people I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m not saying it wasn’t hard - it was. I’m fairly certain I paid more sometimes than I should have, but I’m not going to argue about 50 cents or a dollar or two. I did feel pressure to buy things, but the things I did buy, I’m happy I did. I got where I wanted to go on trains, boats, buses and the back of motorbikes. Along the way I shared meals, trusted in the kindness of strangers (and was not disappointed), learned that there is nothing you can’t load on a motorbike - from a family of four, to a refrigerator, to eight kegs of beer, to 500lbs of rice, to a half a slaughtered pig; saw amazing landscapes and a way of life vastly different from my own.

Generally speaking, the people were hard, but in most cases their lives have been and continue to be hard, in a way most of us will never understand. On the other hand, rarely was a smile not met with a smile. Even when they were obviously trying to con me or sell something, a smile and a shared knowing laugh, seemed to be enough to stop the game. And if we were lucky enough to be able to communicate in broken English, they were willing to talk and share their lives for a brief moment. They are still trying to figure out how to open their country and themselves to all types of travelers and tourists, and while there is still work to be done, I would have to say, yes, its worth the effort.

A Web of Water

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“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
― Gustave Flaubert

From An Bihn Island I moved even farther south to the largest city in the Mekong, Can Tho. Can Tho is not a beautiful city (read lots of concrete block buildings) there are few sites to see, but it is a growing city, home to the largest university south of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), and a redeveloped riverfront. It is a stopping point between HCMC and the unreachable areas of the delta. I came here to get a glimpse at those unreachable place.

While we use cars, trucks and highways to move goods, in the Mekong, everything moves by water - from logs, to food and even household goods. The major rivers are navigable, but the small channels are accessible only by canoe-like boats called Xuong. Without roads, this is the only means of transportation in and out. Even the ever-present motorbike isn’t feasible.

Today I hired a Xuong (almost always driven by women) and an English speaking guide to visit several floating markets - the center for trade on the delta - and to go deeper into the delta’s channels. My guide was amazing. Her English was mostly self taught, but she was curious about the US and about improving her English. She was also very generous in sharing information about her life, her family and living on the river. She had spent her early childhood on a boat, although her family were now farmers.

Most of the floating markets set up before sunrise and trade is over by 10am, so we had to be on the river by 5:30am to reach the first market. Some markets are wholesale markets, like Cai Rang, where larger boats bring produce from many farmers and sell to individuals who then take these goods to the markets on land. Each area of the market is devoted to a single product…yams, pineapples, watermelon and each boat is identified with a large pole on the bow indicating the items they have for sale. The small boats weave in and out of the larger boats, bargaining, trading, and stocking up. There is a small grocery store boat, a boat selling coffee and even a boat selling noodle soup to the wholesalers. The larger boats, and the boats’ owners, remain on the river for several days until the goods are sold.

After Cai Rang, we visited a smaller market for farmers selling directly to other farmers…trading papaya for ginger, or purchasing sweet potatoes. Then set off down a narrow channel into the delta. It became clear that many of these people never travel from home. They are fully self-sustaining. The river and the land provide everything, from peppercorns, and herbs, to rice, fish and vegetables. What was more amazing, as my guide and I spoke, she could look at a plant and tell me what they used it for. There was almost nothing that couldn’t be eaten, used medicinally, or didn’t bear some sort of fruit (over 100 varieties of bananas). All of this knowledge handed from one family member to the next.

As we motored back to Can Tho around noon, I though about trying to fight a war in this place, about how unprepared and unknowing we must have been. It has taken generations to know what they they know. I also felt humbled. There is whole way of life - a hard life - that exists completely and utterly different than my own. Hundreds of thousands of people, working, trading, living, getting married, feeding their families all on this network of waterways.

Delta Time

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I left Hoi An and traveled south through Saigon to the Mekong Delta. (plane, taxi, bus, a smaller bus, ferry and motorbike was all it took). I arrived on An Bihn island, a short ride away from the town of Vinh Long, a small provincial capital. I had booked two nights at a home stay with a Vietnamese family. Mr. Phu’s home stay is a little larger than some. You do not share the family home, but stay next to the home, in a thatched building with several rooms and shared baths.

To say it was culture shock, would probably be an understatement. Compared to the international, tourist-friendly town of Hoi An, An Bihn is nothing but jungle, slow moving canals of water, stilt houses, no signs in English or French and the heat is stifling, a rare breeze moving the jungle around me. Since I arrived late in the day, I opted to spend the evening with a book and dinner made by Mr. Phu’s wife.

In the morning, I borrowed a bike and set out to explore the island. The roads are mostly dirt trails, cement paths wide enough for a bike or motor bike, maybe two if you’re a good driver, and one single lane asphalt road. There was no available map, so Mr. Phu drew a circular route for me that was to take about two and half hours. At his suggestion, I started out early to be done before the heat of the day.

During my ride, I did not see one other tourist. Occasionally a Vietnamese kid would yell hello, but as I stopped at a roadside stand to buy a bottle of water, I felt a little like a curiosity. I’m not sure they see many Americans on a bike riding around the island. Because of the heat, nothing seems to move very fast and work seems to happen early in the day and late afternoon. As a I neared my home stay, I saw lots of people laying in hammocks (a really good idea at this point), or asleep on their motorcycles in the shade. I did round a corner on the cement path and see a lean two with a pool table and several guys shooting pool. I had to wonder how they even got the pool table there…boat, motorbike?

I got back to Mr. Phu’s grabbed my book and headed for a hammock. I think this is the first time on this trip that I have not been doing something in the middle of day. I wasn’t quite sure I could really relax, except that moving induced sweating, so staying still seemed like the best option. I laid about for few hours, Mr. Phu and his wife even joined me by laying in the hammocks in front of the house for a while. I finally decided I could move again, and with another map from Mr. Phu I headed across a bridge to the adjacent island and then took my bike by ferry to the market on the mainland, another short ride and a ferry back to An Binh.

Life seems to move differently here, and while it is not necessarily beautiful (maybe interesting and different), there is a beauty in the rhythm of the place.

Through the Mist

“The present changes the past. Looking back you do not find what you left behind.” ― Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss

I spent the last couple of days in the northwest mountains of Vietnam around Sapa. The French once called this area the Tonkinese Alps - it’s home to the highest peak in southeast Asia Fansipan. Sapa town is a strange mix of hippie backpackers (mostly European), outdoor trekking types (lots of pants with zippers) and the native Black H'mong, Flower H'mong and Red Dau people (hill tribes).

While it was supposed to be one of the drier times of the year to visit, mother nature had other ideas. It was pouring when I arrived and a grey fog settled around the mountains. I decided to take my chances and booked a guide for the following day for a 12km trek to three neighboring hill tribe villages. On the morning of the trek (which honestly I hoped meant walking), it was misty and cool, but the rain had ended. I met my guide Ahn and we headed through town, out the main road, past the checkpoint for entry into the hill tribe area and onto the trails. As we hiked up and down the mountain side, through rice fields, mud, more mud, and rocks, she leapt like a mountain goat and I kept hoping I wouldn’t slide several hundred feet down the mountain through the orange mud.

The clouds moved in and out of the valley and I could see endless steep slopes carved into terraces for rice planting, water buffalo grazing, wooden houses perched on the side of the mountain and small villages in the valley below. While it was take-your-breath away beautiful, it also become clear as I talked with Ahn and others over the next two days, it was not an easy life.

The H'mong are a very traditional people, trying to grow enough rice to feed the family through the winter, making most of their own clothes, including spinning hemp fibers, dying cloth and embroidering designs and taking care of their families, young and old. The outlying farms do not have electricity (or heat), just a water-powered generator for a light bulb or two. It can be a two or three hour trek (each way) from the farm to the nearest market or village to sell or trade goods. Education especially among girls has been a problem. Many marriages are arranged based on astrological signs and birth years.

As I visited the villages with Ahn and the next day at a hill tribe market, I began to wonder how many more generations will live like this - both the good (strong families and culture) and the bad (poverty). There is better access to education for the H'mong people and a push to keep children in school longer. There is a greater opportunity to earn money through tourism and some H'mong are moving away from the family farms. H'mong teenagers with cell phones are probably going to start arranging their own dates. I hope they can navigate a future without loosing their past.

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Water and a Way of Life

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“They spoke less and less between them until at last they were silent altogether as is often the way with travelers approaching the end of a journey.” - Cormac McCarthy

I left Hanoi on Thursday, and one taxi, three buses and a boat later, I arrived on Cat Ba Island in northeastern Vietnam. Cat Ba sits on the edge of Halong Bay - a UNESCO World Heritage site, significant for its beauty and culture.

Halong Bay and neighboring Lan Ha were one of those bucket list places for me. The rocks and karst formations rising out of the sea are the stuff of National Geographic photos. Also as a solo traveler, it was time for some sort of group trip…didn’t want to start talking to myself. So I signed on for a day long boat cruise/kayak/beach trip around the bays. A perfect antidote to recovering from the frenzy of Hanoi (and I am on vacation). The small group was made up of mostly Europeans, and a Russian.

We headed to the dock and boarded a wooden junk boat. As we pulled out of the harbor, we traveled past a floating village of fish farms. These fish farmers spend their entire life on the water…floating houses, dogs and kids running between the fish fish containment areas, generators, and even a floating grocery store. Water taxis ferry children to the island for school and goods back to the fishermen.

We moved past the fish farms into open waters, we cruised around Halong Bay past amazing rock formations…the remnants, according to legend, of a dragon that hit the water. I sat on a chair on the deck and reminded myself how lucky I am to be able to see this…most people will never see this in person. Also, the group of people I was with were smart, funny travelers, who had great stories to tell from places they had been around the world. They were not the backpacker set, but mostly working people like me who had taken a few weeks to escape the real world.

We anchored and kayaked through caves and lagoons, ate a seafood lunch, prepared by the guys on the boat, swam, drank a beer…I could have gotten used to this life. As we were heading back at sunset, our guide, a 10th generation Cat Ba Island native, began to talk to a few of us about the state of the bay.

We motored past oyster farms and more fish farms, he pointed out boats specially designed to catch small fish to feed to the larger farmed fish. There are no regulations to control the over fishing of these small fish and the larger native fish are become scarcer and scarcer. Once, the people of the island would trade produce to the fisherman for these native fish, but the cost has skyrocketed and they can’t afford to eat the fish from the bay any longer. The majority of this fish is consumed by wealthy Vietnamese tourists in the summer months. China controls the South China Sea and Halong Bay is the bread basket of seafood for Vietnam, if this ecosystem is destroyed, so will go the culture and economy of the region. You could hear in his voice the concern and sadness for the future of this place.

We quietly rode in the harbor in the pink light of sunset, grateful for an opportunity to see this beautiful place…for as long as it exists.

Seeing History in a Mirror

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“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
― Marcel Proust

When I left for this trip, more than one person asked me “Why Vietnam?” Honestly, I don’t think I had a very good answer. Culturally, I like this part of the world; had heard it was a great (and safe) travel destination and, it was really affordable, but I was/am no great student of Vietnam. I could give some highlights, early religious dynasties, colonial occupation, the rise of communism, war with U.S, and that every other item of clothing sold in the US has “made in Vietnam” label on it.

After a day of being the passive observer (and trying not to get run over) in the Old Quarter, I decided to go a little further…hoping to gain a bit more understanding of the people and place. I was struck by the profound visible signs of loss in this historic capital, but also pride, resilience and sense of sameness.

I learned that they revere learning. The Temple of Literature, founded in 1070, is one of the few remaining examples of Vietnamese architecture still standing. The temple was built to honor Confucius and scholarly learning. The names of great Vietnamese scholars are etched in stone tablets on the edges of the temple. It is still regarded as a place of learning…today there were a group of Vietnamese high school kids in a graduation ceremony on the grounds.

I learned that the Vietnamese are proud of who they are and their country (even if we don’t agree with their politics); and they honor their forefathers. After the Temple, I walked to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex. Like Lenin, “Uncle Ho” is honored with a huge monolithic stone mausoleum, where thousands come to pay tribute each year. Adjacent to this is a museum dedicated to his life and work and surrounding this is is huge botanical garden.

I learned that they value art and creativity, but have lost much of their heritage. A trip to the National Museum of Fine Art, begins with the phrase, “what you see here are examples or remnants of early works, most have been lost by wars.” The Vietnamese were great sculptors in bronze and stone, wood carvers, print makers, silk painters and a lacquer artists.

As I moved to the more modern section of museum, I saw works in these same traditional medium, but about the war with the U.S. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. While I don’t know many people personally who served in the war with Vietnam, I know the impact it is has had on us culturally. I have visited the war memorial in D.C. and been awed by the enormous losses suffered and the residual pain. Yet, these works showed the same costs of war….widows, children, loss, resolve, sorrow, poverty, pain. It was like seeing history in a mirror.

I know there are unresolved political issues between my country and theirs and there are many Americans who lost too much, but it seems to me, that going forward only happens when you are able to look beyond what is different and see what is the same.