Choices. After Daniel left, I had some. I could go west into the country of Laos, described by fellow travelers as “mellow.” After over a week in Vietnam, mellow sounded good. Or I could jump all the way down to more dodgy countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. But Mom wouldn’t like that. Or I could remain in Vietnam and see the central part–popular destinations like Hue (pronounced HWAY) and Hoi An (HOY AN)–places my brother and I had to skip because of flooding there. I knew it would irk Daniel if I got to see those places now, without him. “No Hue,” he would protest. But I’m already in Vietnam, so I might as well see all there is to see. So Hue I went (to).
I got there by way of a special sleeper bus. I chose the bus over the train. This was a mistake. The pictures I’d seen made the bus’s rows of sleeper berths look spacious and inviting. Sucker! I’m not a big guy, but slipping into my bed was like trying on a tight sportscoat. And it wasn’t much longer than a bathtub. There were two levels of sleeper pods–bunk bed style–something not borne out by the promo photos. The narrow aisles could only be traversed by shuffling along sideways. There were three rows of eight bunks running the length of the bus, head to toe. Forty-eight suckers, crammed in like captives on a slave ship.
The rear of each berth was raised such that your feet actually fit in a compartment underneath the head of the person in front of you, and the feet of the person behind fit underneath your head. Like a very long luge. When the driver braked, your feet pressed up into this little foot drawer. At the same time, the curtains to my right raced forward on their runners, apparently recently greased. And the driver seemed to like braking.
He also seemed to like swerving. This knocked us into the sides of our very long luge (thus simulating the thrills of Olympic competition). And he definitely liked honking his horn. I don’t know why I expected otherwise. Every motorist in Vietnam rides the horn. But it didn’t occur to me that a driver transporting a bus load of passengers WHO ARE TRYING TO SLEEP would do so.
Despite all of this, I don’t think the slaves were close to mutiny. My fellow lugists were a fun-loving bunch who seemed to just roll their eyes at the experience even as their bodies rolled centrifugally. One poor Dutch guy, a six-footer, refused to complain, managing to get to sleep on his side with his knees pointing out into the aisle. His name is Floor–yes, Floor–and he would’ve been better off sleeping on one.
After a night of spotty shut-eye, when the morning came I accepted that I would not sleep further and began to enjoy the ride. Cruising along on my back as I lay in my top-deck pod, I watched the world go by–the rice paddies, the river boats, conical-hatted ladies balancing baskets on sticks across their shoulders, farmers transporting loads on their bicycles. I felt like a king in a royal procession, perched atop a (small-eared) elephant. I was savoring the reprieve from the hawkers, though I knew I’d face more of them just as I had in Hanoi and HCMC. I prayed for patience to endure the clamor and for discernment in fielding the onslaught of offers.
Upon arrival in Hue, the hotel reps fell on us immediately. The first one who approached me seemed to make a good offer, so I accepted a ride to his hotel, negotiated for a room, threw my pack on the floor (not the Dutch guy) and fell asleep on my bed in pretty quick succession. When I awoke, I had brunch and hit the town.
Hue was the capitol of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945. In 1802, the emperor (founder of the Nguyen Dynasty) built an Imperial City in Hue, modeled after the the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. Unfortunately, not much is left of the Imperial City due to clashes here during the Vietnam (American) War. (Hue is just south of the Seventeenth Parallel, the dividing line between the North and South during the war.) I spent the remainder of the morning walking inside the grounds of the citadel, whose walls contain the site of the Imperial City. But apart from Thai Hoa Palace, with its red-columned interior and ornate throne pedestal, and a few relatively lacklustre buildings, the citadel area felt like a ghost town.
As I headed back to town, an old fellow stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of me and motioned for me to eat at his restaurant. Since hunger pangs were just invading my belly, his timing was perfect. It turns out, the man is a deaf-mute and communicates with animated gestures, like Harpo Marx. He sat me upstairs on a balcony overlooking the street, and I had a dish that entailed me filling rice paper with shrimp, bean sprouts and peanut sauce and then rolling my own spring rolls. I also had a locally brewed beer (Larue), the bottle of which Harpo opened with the slap of a home-made bottle opener–a bolt screwed into an eight-inch stick. I later learned that Lonely Planet recommends the little restaurant, called Lac Thanh.
After I ate, a teenager who works for Harpo offered to take me to some of the sights on his motorbike. This sounded like a good idea since I only had that afternoon to sight-see. There were four things I wanted to see, so we agreed on a price, and then Harpo handed us helmets and insisted that we wear them. That made us just about the only people in Vietnam wearing helmets. (But I think a law is going into effect very soon requiring motorbikers to wear helmets.) Harpo also instructed the boy in the best sequence for visiting the sights. So clever were his non-verbal directions that even I understood which place he was describing and when to go to it (and I don’t speak a lick of Vietnamese).
We charged onwards, first to two of the imperial mausoleums in the area. The first one was that of the 20th century Emperor Khai Dinh, noteworthy for the elaborate, brightly colored porcelain carvings that completely cover the royal tomb’s interior walls and ceiling. The second one was that of the 19th century Emperor Minh Mang, set between two gorgeous, man-made lakes.
We then rode to the Hon Chen Temple. The Temple is accessible only by boat, so my ride stopped on the muddy banks of a recently flooded river, and I hired a sampan to take me across to the other side in his long, narrow boat, which he steered with a long pole. I was the only one in the boat and the only one visiting the temple. The employees there had congregated in an open sleeping quarter and were eating noodles and taking shots of Japanese liquor. They insisted I join them. So I squeezed into the room and raised my shot glass with them several times, yelling the traditional “mo, hi, ba–yo!” and drank.
The final stop proved to be sobering (literally). The wedding-cake shaped Thien Mu Pagoda was built in 1601 and still houses a colony of monks. I saw a group of monk boys in the courtyard playing hackey-sack. I also saw a slightly older group of monks doing heavy construction work. But what was sobering was the powder blue Austin car on display. This was the car beside which a monk named Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death in 1963 to protest the excesses of his president’s regime. The shocking photo of the monk ablaze is displayed on the car’s windshield. He was a member of this monastery.
It was a full and satisfying day. There was no overwhelming clamor. Rather, God had brought the right people across my path (or me across theirs) at the perfect moments such that I benefited from their services and they benefited by having me as a paying customer.
The next day, November 28, I took a bus south to the town of Hoi An, four hours away. On the way, we passed through Da Nang, an area popular with American soldiers in the Vietnam War and a major airbase then. What first impressed me with Hoi An is that its intersections are controlled by proper traffic signals. Now here’s a progressive town, I thought.
The charm of Hoi An is that in all other respects, it’s quite traditional. It’s small and comprised of rows of shops and restaurants, similar to the Old Quarter in Hanoi, but without the overcrowded sidewalks and chaotic traffic. The street nearest the river was still flooded the first night I was there, but by the second night the street was dry. (Locals told me the periodic floodwaters come in only a few hours but take days to drop.) The town boasts 200-year-old wooden-fronted shop-houses filled with crafts and galleries, a Japanese covered bridge (originally built in the 16th century), Chinese assembly halls, merchants’ houses, small museums and an open-air market.
I only stepped inside a couple of these places, preferring instead to stroll along the streets and bide my time in cafes (eating such things as “white roses,” thick, rice-flour noodles, bean sprouts and pork-rined croutons in a light soup topped with thin slices of porK). At night, the streets are a delight to the eyes, with shops aglow with paper lanterns illuminating multi-colored paintings and shiny silk fabrics.
While strolling through Hoi An, I ran into three vivacious Argentinian (redundant?) girls–Victoria, Lucia and Delfina–whom my brother and I had met up in Sa Pa. It’s always nice to find a familiar face when so far from home.
During my first day in Hoi An, I took an excursion to a place called My Son, the site of temple ruins of a people group called the Cham. They were around just before and overlapping with the Middle Ages in Europe, roughly the 4th century to the 13th century. Their sanctuaries feature the many-armed Hindu goddess Shiva, elephants and bulls. After seeing Angkor Wat, these temples did not blow me away. Actually, many of them had been literally blown away by bombs during the “American War.”
The guides seemed quick to point out that the damage was caused by, specifically, American bombs. Frankly, after visiting the various war museums and other significant Vietnam War sites in the country, I’ve grown sensitive to what I perceive as America-bashing. Not that I believe everything we did in the Vietnam War is defensible. But hearing the criticisms–not just from the government and some locals here but also from many other travelers who are quick to mutter things about the “bomb-happy” USA–offends me, just as criticisms about my family would offend me. Seeing different parts of the world has made me more appreciative of what we have in our country and the role we play globally…. Okay, okay, you can take your hands off your hearts and stop humming patriotic songs. But I wanted to get that off my chest.
I flew out of Da Nang today (just 30 kilometers from Hoi An) and now I’m back in HCMC. Early tomorrow morning I fly to Singapore. (I couldn’t get a direct flight from Da Nang to Singapore.) From there I fly to Australia. I must say I’ll be relieved to move on from Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Not that I’ve disliked my travels here. Not at all. Last night I had a wonderful conversation with an old restauranteur named An and his partner, Loan, who told me some things about ancestor worship and life in Hoi An. I just wish I’d had more somewhat intimate moments like that instead of being perpetually on the defensive against hawkers and scammers. It’s hard to be at peace here. I’ve felt like an outsider here in many ways: as a tourist, as someone who doesn’t speak the language, as a visibly different white man, and, most significantly, as a wealthy westerner. So I’ll be relieved to move on much like one is relieved to arrive home after rush hour. Nuff said.