March 15th, 2012: Saigon, Vietnam
I crossed over into north Vietnam from Laos on another beat up bus and rumbled to the city of Vinh. It looked like a hell hole and my time left in Asia was short, so I transferred onto an overnight sleeper bus heading south down the coast to Danang. After 14 hours on a bus just to get into Vietnam, I wasn’t exactly excited to jump on another one for 18 hours, but that’s what I did.
The city of Danang is pretty big and modern but not that interesting. I spent a day or so walking around aimlessly. My favorite part of the city is a tour agency called “Easy Riders.” It’s a group of locals, maybe 15 or 500 of them, I don’t know, that ride around on motorcycles and offer tours of any kind. My first encounter with these leather clad tour operators was when I was first looking for a place to stay. A smiling biker pulls up next to me and says “I know place for stay. Come!” I gave some excuse about needing an ATM to get cash and he said, “No monies, no worries! Come!” Whatever, I got on. He took me to a really cheap hotel that wasn’t bad at all (somehow the lizards crawling on the walls were an extra charm) and just left after telling me he was part of Easy Riders. I didn’t really understand what he meant.
Later in the day, another motorcycle man stopped me as I was walking back from lunch. Asking me if I wanted a tour or a ride, I told him I was just going back to my hotel and I preferred to walk. He looked at me and then got out his cell phone to make a call and I waved good bye to him. 3 minutes later, another Easy Rider pulls up and says, “My friend call. You want ride? Where you go? I take!” These guys are kinda hilarious. Instead of another bus ride, I took the option of a motorcycle cruise with the Asian equivalent of a West Side Story character down the coast to my next destination, Hoi An. On the way, I stopped at Marble Mountain.
Marble Mountain is a cluster of steep hills that pop out of the Vietnamese earth like genital warts. Riddled with caves that have been excavated for limestone and marble, Buddhist shrines have been built in and on these heaps of stone. The skirts of the hills are covered with a shanty town of sculptors selling 7 ton marble lawn fixtures for people who like that sort of thing.
I hiked up to the top of the hill and cooked myself in the tropical heat. Popping in and out of pagodas and temples along the way and acting as an additional photo attraction for young Vietnamese school girls. Eventually I found the ancient Ling Ong Pagoda that is built inside of the mountain in a cavernous rock cathedral. Holes eroded into the ceiling over the years allow for beams of sunlight to shine down into the dimly lit cavern like lasers, making the pagoda one of the coolest religious shrines I’ve visited yet.
I hopped off the motorcycle in Hoi An and said good bye to the cheery Easy Rider gang member. I shouldered my bag and walked a few blocks until I found a hotel, passing about 30 tailor shops that make just about any sort of clothing you could want. In fact, the main reason I’m in Hoi An is to pick up a suit to wear to my brother’s wedding instead of spending $500 or more back home. (I got a full suit perfectly tailored for me for somewhere around $90).
Hoi An is an ancient town located on the South China Sea and served as a trading port for hundreds of years dating back to the 1400′s. It’s beautiful and quaint. For these reasons, it’s also full of tourists. I’m not exactly cutting a path into undiscovered lands here. It’s a nice enough place to explore by foot and experience shadows of a glorious past.
I rented a motorbike and rode it to the MY Son ruins, 20 kms outside of Hoi An. The structures are old, decaying Hindu temples, made a mere 300 years after the crucifixion, making them as old as most books of the New Testament. These are a dedication to Shiva. For the budding Hindu practitioner, you’ll remember that Shiva is the Destroyer, among other things. It’s fitting that a large majority of the site was destroyed during one week of carpet bombing at the height of the Vietnam war. Ho hum.
I rode back to Hoi An zipping by rice paddies on my way. I was lucky enough to be in town for the Full Moon Festival and to see the celebration in action. As the name suggests, once a month on the full moon, the historic/ancient section of the town celebrates. All cars and motor bikes are banned from the city center and electricity is turned off. The streets are lit by paper lanterns and candles. The locals sell water candles to float down the river as a prayer or for making wishes. Families drift down the river on traditional fishing boats in darkness, depositing these candles in a ritualistic fashion. I even bought one from a girl on a bridge and lowered it into a canal using a long wooden hook. My wish for uncomfortable bus rides was now guaranteed.
With my fancy tailored suit in hand, I fled down the coast along the South China Sea to Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the Communist revolutionary and leading figure of North Vietnam). I just want to say it right now, I like Saigon. It’s a great blend of old and new in terms of history, culture, and technology. Modern skyscrapers look down into narrow streets, illuminated at night by the glow of neon signs. There is an unfathomable amount of motorcycles that crowd the streets in a sea of exhaust, looking like a tightly packed marathon — knees and elbows continually colliding — spilling into all available spaces. The side alleys are alive with people and food stalls and old women squatting on the ground throwing cigarette butts at your feet. Middle aged men wearing ties are drinking whiskey in these same alleys with a breakfast of noodles and unidentifiable meat. People are nice and warm and indifferent in that big city kind of way.
I took my time walking the labyrinth of alleys and sitting on the back of motorbikes as familiar sights popped up. The American Embassy where the famous helicopter evacuation during the Fall of Saigon took place was a mile from where I was staying. Other scenes, though not specific, looked familiar enough from all the old Vietnam War movies I saw. Happily enough, the only difference was that no one was shooting at me.
About 15 miles or so north west of Ho Chi Minh City lay the Cu Chi Tunnels. This is the infamous network of tunnels that the Viet Cong utilized during the war and went a long way in deciding its outcome. From here, the VC planned the Tet Offensive and executed it. South Vietnam was the American strong hold and base of its power during the war, yet the Viet Cong operated quite literally right underneath the US military. I visited a small section of the tunnels for the day.
The visitor center at the tunnels is what I imagine the 1950′s Soviet Union would put together. Big flags and slogans are posted and a ridiculous propaganda video is played as an introduction to the tunnels. Old war footage is played with a voice over by a Vietnamese woman in English. Is sounds like she is talking with a gun to her head. “The American enemy raids villages and kills children. The People’s Army, with more efficient skill, kills the American murderers before they know what hit them. The enemy dogs with helicopters are no match for the People’s Army.” Ad nauseam.
The tunnels themselves were interesting in the ingenuity and sacrifice they involved. Some of the traps the Viet Cong set were medieval and reminded me of hunting snares. Camouflaged holes with trap doors and bamboo spikes at the bottom looked gruesome.
I crawled through a section of the tunnels used by the Viet Cong and I did not like it. Dark and cramped, I couldn’t imagine spending days and nights, weeks and months, living in these while bombs exploded overhead. The tunnel I went through, all 100 meters of it, was reinforced for safety, enlarged for us big fat westerners, and had all of its booby-traps removed. It was an interesting experience but not something I’d care to do again. Besides, there was a firing range where you can shoot abandoned war weapons that had been refurbished!
The shooting range was a bunch of big guns lined up on a metal fence and facing a big hill 100 meters away. At my feet is a carpet of bullet casings, piling up and spilling all over the ground. You pay by the bullet and I threw down some money for a string of metal projectiles. I know it’s obvious, but I have to mention it – big guns are loud. Like deafening. I don’t know how the whole country of Vietnam is not deaf from the war. After being around the range for 8 seconds, I opted for the attractive “ear protection.” With that, I was all set. I got my Rambo on and unloaded 20 shells in roughly 3 seconds without ever coming close to hitting a target. More proof of why I should never be in the military.
South of Saigon and the Cu Chi Tunnels is the Mekong River Delta. My time was running out so I opted for a delta tour (even though I would prefer to go independently) to get to some of the harder to reach places quickly. It ended up being pretty interesting since there were a few side trips I wouldn’t have taken otherwise.
Of the side trips, I got to go to some of the local businesses that have been operating in the delta for decades and sometimes centuries. These included a small plantation that grows fruits and produces honey, a candy operation that makes terrible tasting soap flavored sweets, and a rice noodle factory. The noodle factory was probably the coolest out of them all. We traveled on small boats on the Mekong’s tributaries to tiny villages where they make the noodles. I think rice noodles are one of the things that makes Vietnamese food awesome and it was interesting to see how they boil and mash the rice into a paste that is then processed into sheets and cut.
Near the town of Cantho on the Mekong River, I came to the floating markets. The whole Mekong region is linked by waterways that extend for hundreds of miles through small streams, canals, and minor rivers. Here in Cantho, the farmers from the outlands all gather to buy and sell their harvests. The easiest and fastest way for them to transport their produce is by water, the way it’s been done for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Instead of loading everything on and offshore, the people found it easier to do their business right on the water, thus the floating market was born.
The bigger boats in the market have poles that they raise up in the air to hang their produce on so that shoppers can see from far away what they are selling. The vegetable and fruit boats are circled by smaller boats of locals who paddle between them to buy what they need. Like a fair or street market, other small boats have set up shop as floating restaurants, bars, bakeries, and even gas stations.
Here’s a few silly photos I saw on my last days in Vietnam: