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 vietnam

apr 22
After an all day bus ride to Vietnam, I ate lunch at a local restaurant in a town across the border. In just a few hours drive, the culture had changed dramatically from the laid back atmosphere of Laos. Crowded tables of loud, chatty people, all appearing to talk at once. Although Communist politically, Vietnam has bought into capitalism wholeheartedly. Shops lined the streets of this town, some with international names. The music of traffic filled my ears - drivers spoke with their horns. There were lots of bicycles, and many bikers carried goods on their back. Domed bamboo hats perched on women walking their grazing buffalo on a rope, rice fields were crammed between buildings, behind stores. I traded some dollars and kip at the border for about one million dong, worth only $40.

The harbor at Halong Bay was full of dark wooden junks, a few sported the traditional golden fanned sails. The Auk Dueng, or the Sunrise, with twelve passengers, glided smoothly into the bay at the northeast end of Vietnam. Dramatic limestone cliffs of almost 2,000 islands jutting up in fantastical shapes, some tiny rocks, others looming walls. We slipped in and out of the isles, to a sheltered area inside a circle of tall island rock and dropped anchor. I was the first in the water, warm and welcoming, a magical place to swim. The shapes became even more mystical in the evening fog, echoing shapes surrounded us like gray watercolors.

At the first sign of morning light, I stepped carefully around the sleeping bodies of the crew in the common room and climbed up to the upper deck. The silhouettes of the islands, misty at 5:45am, slowly came alive, blessed by the cloudy morning light. After a while, the crew awoke and the junk began moving. I stood there in reverence, as blue gray forms drifted by.

The hectic, frantic traffic in Hanoi is like an interweaving jumble, a constantly moving river, criss-crossing drivers - there are no lanes, really, just shoving over a bit for oncoming vehicles. The sidewalks are not much better - vendors squat or sit on the cement, piles of wares or eating tables, motorcycles parked, and of course, lots of people. I explored the old quarter, the narrow streets were devoted to different items: shoes down one road, vegetables another, tin yet another. One old house, preserved as a museum, captured the feel of old Vietnamese life.

At a traditional water puppet performance, the stage was a pool of water where brightly painted wooden characters jerkily danced and acted out country life in short skits. There were leaping fish and dragons, fishermen, a boat race and even a stately procession, accompanied by Asian melodies from a hauntingly beautiful one-stringed instrument. Imagine families working in the rice fields being entertained by these traveling troupes.

I wasn't planning on visiting Uncle Ho, but did want to see the government center, however I was shuffled into the line for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum upon entry with no dissent accepted. In the complex were the graceful lotus shaped One Pillar Pagoda which held a female Buddha, and Ho's houses - one of French architecture and a second Japanese style house with three simple rooms he had built and preferred. If you go, skip the propaganda filled history museum.

I spent a while in the quiet gardens of the Temple of Literature, the former National University, then found a sidewalk cafe for a mango shake. At the outstanding Museum of Ethnology, I was thrilled to discover that, in addition to two floors of extensive exhibits including videos of tribal rituals and craft making, there was an outdoor village of houses from the different Vietnamese hill tribes, set up as if lived in.

All in all, I did not particularly like Hanoi. Weaving on and off the dirty sidewalks and into the street, dodging motorbikes, with trepidation, was nerve wracking. Heading south on a train, the countryside opened up to rice paddies, corn, and now and then marijuana fields. A lone buffalo stood in some fields with a white crane standing at its side, symbiotically eating insects or whatever else the buffalo carried or dug up while grazing.

Touring around Hue on the back of a motorcycle with a cooling breeze on that 100+ day, I visited the historic Imperial Citadel, the Royal Tomb with it's sentinel statues, and other sites. Winding through alleyways, some at right angles, narrowly avoiding a dog, chicken, goat, chicks, I expected to come out with laundry streaming from me like flags. Along the route I met a one-armed conical hat maker, an incense maker, and two lovely old ladies: one a bamboo object maker who now runs a museum - she acted out the use of each item, from bicycle plow to fish catchers to rice grinders, with a wide tooth-blackened smile; and an elegantly dressed fortune teller on a Japanese style covered bridge.

The most charming of the Vietnamese cities, Hoi An, was a center for custom tailors and shoemakers. An afternoon stroll brought me through yellow, balconied shops and restaurants with a lingering French atmosphere. I went snorkeling to Cam Island, a gorgeous, secluded beach, among loads of stinging tiny jellyfish. The My Son (mee sun) ruins, along green forest paths, were in various states of reconstruction after centuries of becoming overgrown in the jungle and bombed during the war.

Although I didn't go to the war related museums in Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by locals, stories of wartime and its aftermath were all around. Most guides and hotel and shop people I spoke to told strikingly different stories to this inquisitive American than in the propaganda-coached north: horrible deformities caused by Agent Orange and landmines, family members lost to massacres of villages, and destruction of treasured sites, some restored, some remembered.

I took a boat from My Tho to Dragon Island on a little tour out to the Mekong Delta. Our little boat seemed so small where the river grew so wide. A day of tropical fruit, cocoanut candy, and elephant ear fish. At one place, former rice paddies had turned to lotus ponds, pink flowers raising their heads over the flat leaves. In a rowboat navigating a canal choked with mangrove trees, rowers and passengers all wore conical hats.

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