Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Over My Head
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam - (map)
Maybe the cold I am battling contributed to my being overwhelmed, but my head swam with the sight before me. We had landed in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam an hour ago. As our taxi driver navigated through the streets on the way to a hotel, I stared in awe at the swarm of motorcycles before us. To the constant sound of our driver's horn honking, motorbikes zigzagged across our path in an endless stream.
The sidewalks looked like any other Asian country we've visited - outdoor cafes setting up for the dinner crowd, small shops displaying their wares, the familiar street stalls selling local food, and people laughing and conversing in small groups in front of buildings. These things did not overwhelm me. It was the traffic. There was so much of it and never ceasing!
I chuckled nervously, wondering how I was ever going to cross the street once I set out exploring the city. By observing others I thought maybe I could learn a lesson or two before I tried it myself. But unlike other cities I did not see many pedestrians braving the traffic. From the few I saw, I learned I must take it slow, inching my way across the road. Taking slow steps would give drivers enough time to account for my being in their path. Hopefully they would avoid me.
Once I got over the initial shock of the volume of traffic, I settled back to watch motorcycles speed past us. Women dressed fashionably in silk outfits sat upright and proper on their motorbikes, their noses and mouths covered with fabric masks to keep the black fumes out. A family of four whizzed by, all precariously perched on the one small seat. A young girl, still wearing her school uniform, nonchalantly merged her bicycle into the mass of traffic. I gasped as she came dangerously close to a speeding motorbike. She didn't even give it a glance. I realized for her it's just another typical ride home from school.
Sharing the road with the motorbikes are a few cars and trucks, many cyclos (three-wheeled rickshaws), buses, and bicycles. Our driver pulled up to a street known for it's cheap hotels, making it a magnet for backpackers. We pay him the agreed $5.00 and hop out. Immediately I have to face my fears. Our hotel was on the opposite side of the busy road. I looked to Tim for support, but apparently he didn't share my fear for he was already in the middle of the road, weaving in and out of traffic. I took a deep breath and looked for a small space to step into. Tears welled up in my eyes. I was truly overwhelmed by the steady stream of traffic, with no break in sight. I watched an old lady cross the street. She walked slowly and deliberately. The traffic flowed around her like water flowing around a rock in a stream. I followed her example and slowly crossed the street, taking slow, small steps. It seemed counter-intuitive to walk so slowly in the fast traffic. But the drivers could see me, see the pace I was walking, and anticipate my movement so they could navigate their vehicles around me. I felt like I was in the middle of a video game - attempting to avoid all the monsters trying to devour me! I made it to the other side, Tim standing there grinning at me. We both knew we accomplished a small victory - crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City.
Secret Service in Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam - (map)
This morning we woke up to pouring rain - the steady kind of rain that shows no signs of relenting. The kind of wetness that sucks the adventure from you and drives you back into bed. But today was our first full day in Saigon and we were anxious to explore it. Donning the armor of an umbrella and raincoats we ran down the street in search of a taxi.
Our first stop was the Art Museum. The large yellow and white French building whose architecture fascinated us as much as the art on the walls. The building had tall ceilings, large open windows, a spiral marble staircase and an ancient wooden elevator. Tim and I wandered its three floors for hours, stopping occasionally at a window to watch the rain fall and people dart for cover.
The modern art on display depicted scenes of everyday Vietnamese life, its people, and images from the war. Some of the art pieces successfully captured the horrors and suffering of the war in the faces that stared back at me from the canvases. This museum, unlike fancy Western art museums I am used to, was old and worn. Without any air conditioning or humidity control, mildew was slowly creeping around the edges of many pieces.
On the second floor of the museum I heard some commotion near the stairs. Always curious, I wandered over. There, towering over 3 small Vietnamese men, was a huge muscular black man with a distinct American accent. I think his size equaled the other three men put together.
I pretended to be captivated by a small Chinese teapot on display near the commotion û but I was secretly listening to the ensuing conversation of the foursome:
Vietnamese man: "We could take down this painting if you like." They were looking at a large painting of a heroic figure waving a red flag in one hand and shaking the other hand in a defiant fist. The figure was surrounded by a crowd that looked equally angry, patriotic and eager to fight.
American man: "No, we all know there was a war. No one denies this. You can just leave it as it is." His voice boomed and echoed as it bounced down the halls.
As I listened further I heard tidbits about "the President" and "security". I knew President Clinton was expected in a couple days in a historic visit to Vietnam. Putting two and two together I realized Clinton would be visiting this museum and this guy was security. I chuckled to think here I was in Vietnam, half way across the world from home, but here in the same room was the secret service from Washington, D.C., preparing for the President's arrival. My apartment in Washington, D.C. was only a couple miles from the White House and this felt disturbingly familiar.
The next issue I heard discussed was whether the museum officials had set aside a bathroom for the President to use. It was amusing to hear him struggle to communicate that Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea needed their own private toilet. I had just used the toilet and knew it was dirty and old. I smiled as I imagined this was the toilet the President would use as well.
My lingering over the teapot was starting to attract attention so I moved on. Later, Tim and I watched more secret servicemen lay cables and wires on the ground floor, their size equally as massive as their companions.
President Clinton, welcome to Vietnam!
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam - (map)
What starts in the market:
Ends up eaten by a family in a back alley:
Hoi An, Vietnam
Thanksgivng in Vietnam
Hoi An, Vietnam - (map)
For Thanksgiving we spent 14 hours on a bus. It's rainy season in central Vietnam and it has rained almost constantly since we have been here. As thick gray skies hung overhead, water cascaded down the bus windows and large puddles formed in the road's potholes. In some places on the road where flooding had recently occurred, mud banked the road several feet high. The only reason traffic could pass was a bulldozer had previously plowed the mud to make a path. It was a long, bumpy, and claustrophobic ride and I was glad to finally reach Hoi An.
After a long search for a hotel with available rooms, we went to look for food. It was Thanksgiving after all, even if there was only one hour left to the day. We found a great Chinese restaurant open on an otherwise dark and closed down street. It was a beacon of light and color and we went straight to it with pangs of hunger. While friends and family at home were feasting on turkey and stuffing, we were feasting on a much less traditional meal. Dish after dish of great food was set on our table û crispy spring rolls, won ton soup, fried vegetables, Chinese dumplings, and custard flan for dessert.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Hoi An, Vietnam - (map)
Hoi An is a historic town located halfway down the coast between Saigon and Hanoi. It is a place where a simple walk down the street saturates your senses with textures, color, people, and sound - a photographer's dream. We were charmed by it all and spent each day strolling down the picturesque streets soaking up our vibrant surroundings.
The color of buildings in the narrow streets kept my eyes darting left and right. Their bright yellow and aqua paint has faded into earthy hues after years in the bright sun. Red tiled roofs and painted walls have grown green patterns of moss, lichen, and mold - a product of heavy monsoon rains and occasional floods. Big round Chinese lanterns for sale in every color sent nighttime rainbows into the dark streets. Historic homes, built centuries ago in Hoi An's heyday as a port town, have been in families for generations. The dark wood finish of their interiors was as rich as their past. Even beige, the color of the conical farmer's hat, was exciting when perched on top of hundreds of women in the market.
The people of Hoi An were as colorful as the buildings that surrounded them. I was equally captivated by watching the six schoolgirls in uniform giggle as they struggled uphill riding adult-sized Chinese bicycles. One looked up at me and flashed a wide smile as I passed. Or the waiter in a roadside shack who sold drinks, wearing a crisp white shirt and dress clothes as if he was the head of a five star restaurant. He sat down a talked with us excitedly until our bus left. And Nam, a smallish 15 year old boy who worked in a restaurant. He had the seriousness and resolution of someone twice his age, but still asked me for an American coin for his coin collection and grinned when chided him for looking so serious.
I made a couple of quick friends, such as the four women who gestured for me to sit next to them when I found myself cycling through an unexpected downpour. For ten minutes of rain, we spoke about life in our respective towns. I also met Hahn, the owner of a great tailoring shop that Michelle and I had clothes made in. When we departed from Hoi An, she saw us off with two bottles of water and apples for our bus trip. I met countless other people as well, if not with words then a quick smile and a friendly gesture.
Years from now I will look back on my trip to Vietnam and my mind will drift here. And although my memory might be as faded as the paint on an old building in Hoi An, it will be as warm as the bright colors.
Hoi An, Vietnam - (map)
From the beginning of this trip to arriving in Hoi An I have shown much self-control in shopping. All along the way souvenirs have called my name, begging to be bought and taken home: bracelets from Bali, pottery from Penang, sarongs from Samoa and T-shirts from Thailand. With much determination I have looked away, ignoring their magnetic pull and my money staying safely in my pocket. But upon arriving in Hoi An, all hope of discipline was lost.
Hoi An is famous for its fine tailors and the cheap prices for custom-made clothes. The streets are lined with hundreds of different tailor shops, each with a storekeeper calling out to you as you walk by, "Come in!" In the front of each store is a showroom of various outfits displaying examples of what you can buy - shimmering evening gowns, cashmere coats, and flashy silk tops. The walls of the shops are lined with bolts of fabric piled high to the ceiling in every color and fabric imaginable.
The process to get clothes made is as fun and exciting as buying the clothes. After walking into the store of your choice, you are ushered to a small table in the center of the room. As you browse through the latest fashion catalogs, the shop owners are busy bringing you water, tea, or fruit...basically pampering you. Once you pick the style you like, either from the clothes on display or in a fashion magazine, the tailor sets to work gathering your measurements. As the tape measure circles different parts of your body, the tailor calls out to an assistant your measurements, who obediently writes them down in a notebook. Then you pick the fabric and colors you like. If you order your clothes in the morning, you return in the afternoon for adjustments and by the next morning your clothes are ready!
While it is fun to get clothes custom-made, what breaks down every budget traveler's defenses and causes cash to steadily drain from the wallet are the prices: tailor-made cashmere suits for $25, evening gowns for $11, silk blouses for $7, full length wool coats for $23, and cotton Oxford shirts for $5. Prices low enough to make your knees buckle and mouth drool with desire. Things you never knew you needed you suddenly want.
By the end of our buying extravaganza, when the sewing machines stopped whirling and the scissors ceased snipping, Tim and I had a beautiful array of new clothes. A suit, coat, silk shirts and blouses, shipped home, will welcome us back to the US in style.
** Note: For those of you who are going to Hoi An and are looking for a tailor, we highly recommend:
79 Tony at 79 Huynh Thuc Khang St.
With Hahn, the owner, we recieved top-notch service and clothes!
Hoi An, Vietnam - (map)
Hoi An has color even in black and white.
|Take a Chinese bike around town:|
|Visit the market:|| |
|Buy some apples:|
|Walk to the nearby river:|
|And take a boat ride from a local:|
Hanoi, Vietnam - (map)
Arrived promptly for night train to Hanoi. Train is delayed until 6 p.m. due to flooding and poor track conditions.
Three forty-five train arrives. A group of European package tourists boards the expensive sleeper car up-track. We enter the "hard sleeper" car with a few Vietnamese travelers.
Six questioning people stare back at us from the inside of our compartment as if we have crashed their private party. They have traveled halfway between Saigon and Hanoi. With people passed out on either side of us on unpadded plywood cubicles three tiers high, the compartment now resembles an opium den. I'm instantly filled with trepidation and I recheck my ticket to make sure I'm entering the correct berth.
We cause a commotion stowing our bags and clamber up to the third tier bunks. Eventually we settle in to a prone position and give each other looks across the compartment, asking each other with shrugs and giggles if being on this train is really better than taking the bus.
We approach a stop in the Quang Tri province and the loudspeaker mounted on the ceiling by my head crackles to life with music and a five-minute speech in Vietnamese and English. In a strange mix of helpful tourism information and propaganda, we learn the details of evil American aggression, heroic Vietnamese bravery, and beautiful countryside near the old DMZ.
I stare at the white metal ceiling 18 inches from my face. As I contemplate thirteen more hours of staring at the same spot, the man in the berth below exhales a plume of cigarette smoke that mushrooms off the ceiling and creeps around me. I grimace and look down from my berth high above in the cloudy heavens. I see a pile of shoes heaped in the center of the floor surrounded by bits of trash.
Our compartment has six berths, but nine people share the tiny space. Apparently, stragglers without seats are allowed to make themselves at home here, because several men are using the bottom two berths as seats. One man carefully scoops spoonfuls of soft-boiled duck egg from a shell and washes it down with gulps of beer. Two other men stare absentmindedly out the window and smoke. Another reads a well-worn magazine. I haven't seen the woman in the middle berth open her eyes in three hours.
So many children throw rocks at passing trains that protective cages have been installed on all the windows. I wonder if any rocks will crash against our car, and in the spirit of synchronicity, a heavy rock crashes down on the roof in a spot close to my head.
We have stopped for a passing train. Someone has turned off the ceiling fan and the air has become suffocating. I bury my face in my shirt to filter the smoke and drape a bandanna over my eyes to darken the bright light.
I can't help but to wish harm on the person below. I hope that a rock will make it past the protective covering on the window and knock him unconscious, or that he will choke on the food his slovenly lips smack loudly. I know I shouldn't think this way, but can't help myself. Everyone in the compartment had finally fallen asleep when he rudely turned on the bright lights to eat and smoke. Argh!
Sunrise. I don't feel too bad considering.
I climb down from the bunk, crouch in the hallway, and watch the fields and villages come alive. I share brief conversations in broken English with the people in my compartment and wonder which one I almost killed last night.
Unsure, I'm forced to be nice to everyone.
Arrival to Hanoi!
Hanoi, Vietnam - (map)
I'm not quite thrilled with Hanoi. The people seem distant and the noise level is crazy. Nevertheless, I know I'm going to miss it when I'm gone.
It is the buzz of the Old Quarter that keeps my head spinning with interest. It was built in the 13th century for foot traffic. The narrow streets now support a huge network of motorcycles, bicycles, cyclos, pedestrians, trucks, and vendors. There are very few streetlights or stop signs here, so people just fly into the intersections, mix around, and spit out where they want to be. It has no rules, yet works perfectly.
The streets were named for what they sold, so that Hang Hahn sold onions, Hang Huong sold incense, Hang Ca sold fish, and Thuoc Bac sold herbal medicine. Only a few of the names are appropriate nowadays, such as Lo Ren, the blacksmith's street, where welding equipment and hammers spill out into the street with wrought iron furniture and clanging.
I never grow tired of seeing what the women vendors have to offer as they amble down the congested streets carrying their traveling stores. Each woman shoulders a heavy wooden bar with a basket hanging from each side. The baskets could be carrying bananas, caged chickens and ducks, raw meat, a neatly arranged array of vegetables, seasonal fruits, or fried dough. It could even be huge bouquets of cut flowers or piles of bricks. With each of their steps, the bars bend under the weight. I'm amazed that their small frames can support so much.
Journey to Sapa
Sapa, Vietnam - (map)
5:30 a.m., Hanoi:
It is still dark outside. The street is quiet and peaceful, no hints of the frantic energy that will consume it shortly.
Tim and I sit on the steps outside of our hotel. Like the city, we are just waking up. Across the street an old man emerges. He vigorously swings his arms, squats a few times and then begins a brisk walk. A lone cyclo driver passes, hoping for an early morning customer. A figure burns trash on the corner and the fire's orange light jumps and dances. A woman with a large basket on her head stops to sell us bread still warm from the oven.
We hear the sound of an engine. Bright headlights swing around the corner and blind us for a second. Our mini-van has arrived. We board and start our journey to Sapa.
5:30 p.m., Sapa:
Twelve hours later we spill out of the bus, our legs cramped and necks stiff from the long, bumpy journey. Although uncomfortable, the ride treated us to rich views of the Vietnamese countryside and scenic vistas: rice terraced hills, windy rivers, and water buffalo tilling the fields.
Sapa is a hill station in north-west Vietnam built by the French almost 80 years ago. It sits on the border of China, high in the mountains surrounded by mountain peaks and swirling mist. The cool temperature and thin air remind me of how high up we are. The land is rich with green and yellow farmland and rice terraces. The streets are dusty, but rich with blue, red and black of the minority hill tribe people who live around Sapa.
We have come here to see these people who have changed little from their ancestors. We plan to trek to the surrounding villages, wander the lively town market, and admire the hill tribe handicrafts.
Sapa, Vietnam - (map)
Sapa is a strange and unique place û so different from my Western world. It is dusty remote roads and colorful people make it the most exotic place I've ever visited.
This morning our small tour group clambered back onto our minibus to head out of town and to trek among the near-by hill tribe villages.
As our bus reached the edge of town, out the window something white caught the corner of my eye. Looking closer, with a mixture of shock and surprise, I realized it was the carcass of a large dog. Most of its fur was gone and its white body stood out glaringly against the dusty grey sidewalk. Squatting next to it was an old woman carefully pulling out the little remaining fur. I knew the Vietnamese ate dog but this was the first time I had seen anyone preparing one for consumption. While traveling I struggle to keep an open mind to cultural differences. If the old woman had been plucking feathers from a chicken I probably wouldn't have given it a second thought. Meat is meat, right? Still, the sight left me feeling queasy and a little uneasy.
The bus continued to rumble along windy roads and the views were breathtaking. We were greeted by rice terraces carved into the steep hills, basic wooden houses with small children peering out of doorways and hill tribe women carrying large baskets on their backs as they walked along the road. Deep in the valley below a river ran, stumbling and tripping over rocks.
I was still recovering from seeing the dog carcass when I spotted a group of women on the side of the road gathered around a man and his motorcycle. A large pink pig hung over the back of the motorcycle. It was so big the head and tail almost touched the ground. On closer inspection I realized the middle of the pig was missing - almost in the perfect shape of a square. Confused, I looked at our guide for an explanation. He said the man was a local butcher. He traveled to the houses with the dead pig and the women ordered pieces, which he cut right there. Door to door service! Later, in a cloud of dust, he passed our bus on his motorcycle with the pig still draped on the back, innards hanging out.
A few kilometers out of town our minibus stopped by an old abandoned church the French had built long ago. Now all that remained was its stone shell. We continued down the red clay road by foot. As we arrived at the first village, Dao women and girls surrounded us to sell their wares. I was enveloped in a sea of red turbans, mud-caked feet and hands shoving jewellery and embroidered purses in my face. At first I declined to buy from them, but they persisted and my defenses broke down. The older women's grins, with only a couple yellow teeth remaining, were hard to resist. Two bracelets and one purse later I walked on.
The village consisted of a couple stores, a small health clinic, a post office and a school. With no trees, sparse vegetation and dirt roads it had the feel of a ghost town.
We continued up a small dirt path, through rice paddies, toward an even more basic village. Thirty wooden houses sat perches on a steep hill. As we approached I heard children yelling and caught glimpses of black forms scrambling down the hill. When we arrived at a small wooden gate, marking the entrance to the village, we were greeted by a dozen children dressed in indigo blue (the H'mong tribe). They stared at us, their eyes reflecting caution as much as curiosity. I am sure we were a strange sight - tall giants dressed in hiking boots and fleece jackets, interrupting their daily lives.
As we climbed up the hill, more and more children emerged. Most were very young and shy, all were covered with dust and dirt. Any awkwardness soon melted though as the older boys demonstrated their skills at shooting wooden arrows from a crossbow. They use the crossbow to kill birds, rats and an occasional rabbit, for food.
We were then ushered into a small house consisting of two smoky dark rooms with dirt floors. It was lunch time so several woman were dishing out vegetable and rice to about ten children. While the men work in the forest and fields, the women stay home and care for the children. Over thirty people live in this particular house. At night, they sleep on the floor wherever there is space.
One of the more interesting sights I saw was when we first approached the village. In a small stream a wooden contraption was built. It was a hydroelectric generator - on a Gilligan's Island scale. Thin wires hung from the generator to each house allowing enough electricity for each house to have one light bulb.
Sapa, Vietnam - (map)
The colorful Sapa weekend market in northern Vietnam should be a wonderland of photographic "good shots". On a flight of stairs above the commotion, I had a great view of the many hill tribe people below me. The Black H'mong women, known by their indigo-dyed hand woven clothes and pillbox hats, were there in the greatest numbers. The Red Dzou women were the most colorful, dressed up with bright red hats of folded cloth that sat back on their shaved heads. All around me, stripes of colorful beadwork, bright woven textiles, gold teeth, and dangling silver earrings filled the market with color.
My first instinct was to take photos, and I soon found out how little the minority people appreciated it. They all turned, hid, or asked for money. Out of respect for their wishes, I put my camera in my backpack and took photos with my memory.
Many other tourists didn't care if they upset the locals and went chasing after them with cameras or took their photos after being asked not to. They just shot away, like taking photos of animals in the zoo or freaks in a freak show.
One Frenchman walked around the market with his photography vest full, the brim of his round hat up pushed up the same style as Ralph Kramden, and his large black camera. He first tried to surprise the hill tribe people by snapping quickly composed shots. They must have been to fast for his Nikon, because he quickly changed tactics and started walking past the women with his camera hiked on his shoulder trying to snap photos without looking through his viewfinder. He thought he was being discreet, but the click of his camera could be heard 15 feet away and his eyes bulged with comic trickery when he strained to look sideways. His behavior could not have been more obvious.
But the hill tribe people return to the market and put up with this every weekend. Why? To sell tourists hill tribe crafts. I think every woman there tried to sell me a bracelet, handbag, hat, pillow, weaving, article of clothing, or some other miscellaneous trinket. If I showed the slightest interest, eight other women would flock around me trying to sell similar items.
It is an even trade. Too many tourists spoil what used to be a genuine cultural experience. They then turn their visit into an opportunity to take photos to wow their friends at home, while the hill tribe people sell out their values to improve their poor living conditions. While both groups walked away with what they wanted, I left with a sense of emptiness.
But I guess I can't complain. As a tourist there, I'm part of the problem.
Bac Ha, Vietnam
Colors of Bac Ha
Bac Ha, Vietnam - (map)
Bac Ha is famous for its Sunday market, a weekly hill tribe event that draws locals in from all over the surrounding area. Unlike Sapa, it is not staged for tourists and far fewer tourists make it up this way. (For the time being.)
The market was in full swing by the time we arrived, so we ended our bus trip from Sapa by passing through a narrow street full of hill tribe people. As we made our way through the crowd inch by inch, the bus driver honked and the crowd parted uncomfortably. Judging by the looks of the surrounding people, I imagined our tourist bus looked, from the outside, like a fishbowl full of interlopers.
After making it through the crowd, Michelle and I headed back to the market on foot.
We were struck by the vibrant color of the women's clothes in the market. Royal blue tops radiated from neck to shoulders with thin colorful embroidered lines. Skirts mirrored these lines, adding other fields of solid colors, miscellaneous patchwork, and intricate flower patterns. To top the women off, plaid hats clashed in pinks, greens, and yellows. With the hundreds of women around me and the vendors selling these colorful clothes on racks, my eyes played strange tricks whenever I scanned the crowd.
The market was very crowded, but not so large that we couldn't pass by everything once in 30 minutes. We walked with short steps and patience, often waiting in pedestrian bottlenecks and being pushed by little old ladies who barreled through the crowds like wrinkled geriatric tanks.
To the right of the entrance, people selected tall staffs of sugarcane from a huge purple pile, which they would break into pieces, chew on, and spit to the ground. Over these chewed up chunks, we passed by clothes and vegetable vendors, past huge piles of tobacco and bamboo water pipes, to the meat section, where butchers cut from meat sitting out in the open air and heat. The meat was unusual. Besides the usual items like pigs, cows, chickens, and ducks, the Bac Ha market sold dogs.
As dogs were available as cuts of meat, they were also available live, right next to the live pigs, chickens, and other livestock. It took me a while to get used to, but to many of the north Vietnamese people, dog is a delicacy. Meat is meat, I thought, but I still became queasy when I spotted a motorcycle taking off down a bumpy road carting a cage full of puppies.
We rounding the corner and pungent fumes of alcohol accosted our senses of smell, from corn whiskey, a Bac Ha specialty. The potent moonshine is decanted by vendors from large white plastic jugs to used bottled water containers. If you doubt the ability of a vendor's hooch to peel paint or light your senses on fire, you can try a shot for free. I tried one later in the day in a hill tribe house û wow! Being bathtub brewed, the stuff is inexpensive. A 20 liter container costs about $12.
Completing our circle in the market, we passed by more colorful clothes, housewares, food stalls, and horse carts. There was so much to see, so many new experiences. After two hours of walking, my eyes and my head needed a rest.