Back to Hanoi

The winter in Hanoi can be surprisingly brutal. In December it’s usually quite nice, 40 – 68F with mostly clear skies; quite cold for a tropical city. The Christmas trees of December give way to the citrus trees of Tet, and for this year – the city looked particularly beautiful for both holidays. However, either in January or February, a layer of thick cloud rolls in and locks the city in its damp cold grip for months. The streets are moistened with either a light drizzle or a thick mist that mixes with the soot which settles out of the air. This is just enough moisture to form a film of grey slime – making driving very hazardous by bike. I haven’t seen the sun for weeks; in fact it seems almost a distant memory.

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Hanoi? Why am I talking about Hanoi when I was just living in Da Nang just a few months ago? In the autumn of 2013 I was living in Da Nang – five minutes to drive to the beach, fifteen minutes to drive to a mountain rainforest. I had a three-bedroom house which I shared with a lap-warming cat in a quiet neighborhood. I had friends and work colleagues which admired me, what would cause me to leave this place and put my weary feet once more onto the path to Hanoi?

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Regardless of the wonderful lifestyle I enjoyed in the most beautiful city in Vietnam (Da Nang), all was not perfect in paradise. Although the cost of living is very cheap, there’s a reason for that – there isn’t much money to go around. For me this meant there weren’t very many good paying jobs; I found myself working six days a week, only a few hours a day. Sure, I could pay for rent and food, but I really couldn’t save up much and the schedule meant I didn’t have time to take even the shortest trip out of town. Although work was easy enough, I realized this was precisely the problem: I wasn’t challenging myself nor improving myself professionally. In short, Da Nang is a great place to hang out and lay low for a while; but not a good place to advance one’s career. It’s a place more appropriate for a retiree than a young professional of any sort.

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So with much regret and resignation, I began looking for another job. A job in a city I knew would pay more and have more room for growth. That city had to be, naturally. . . Hanoi. So in late November, I saddled up my cruiser and took the Ho Chi Minh Road away from my “Palm-Lined City by the Sea”; back to Hanoi. There is no beach to relax on, the roads are narrow and rough, the air is dirty, and I live in a studio apartment: no cat either. Yet, I’ve been able to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. Best of all, the job is challenging, pays 60% more, and I work only four days a week. How sweet is that? I’ve decided that this next year in Hanoi will be my “Year of Decision”: either I will commit myself to living in Vietnam long-term, or I will move to another country. Who knows, maybe I will end up in India as originally planned, four years later than expected.

Whatever happens, I’ll always be glad to have lived in Da Nang. It’s such a beautiful place – so it was worth trying to “make a go” of it. But the most important reason was family history. In 1972 my father was stationed in Da Nang for several months with the Marines, so from the early age of five – my first memories about Vietnam were stories from Da Nang.  In 2004, I decided to see some of the places my father had seen in his youth while in the Corps; so I took a short trip to Chiang Mai Thailand. It wasn’t the little sleepy town from Dad’s description anymore; but the city wall was still there. After that city I decided, “When I get the chance, I’m going to see the other place where Dad hung his helmet – Da Nang.” Nine years later, I not only visited the city Pop had seen forty years prior – I was also able to live there. Fortunately, I was able to be there not in a time of war and destruction, but in a time of peace and in a vocation that I believe helped improve people’s lives.

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Jeet yet?

It was a Tuesday evening and it had rained all day and the night before. I put on my rain gear – jacket, pants and overshoes – and drove my motorcycle to work. It was raining hard, visibility was poor in the fading light, and of course almost no one was driving with lights on (Vietnamese think this saves petrol). The rain was coming down in such big drops in the wind that it stung me through my rain suit even though I was only driving at about 30mph.

Finally, I arrived at work and carefully pulled off my rain gear – the water running off it in streams. Miraculously, I was 95% dry, which was better than one of my colleagues: he was soaked to the waist. He apparently had to drive through two feet of water. “Have you ever thought about scuba gear and a dry suit?” I asked him – a bit smug of me I suppose.

At about 5:20pm, I went up stairs to my classroom to set up, I assumed that if even one student braved the weather and came to class – I would be lucky. Right about when the clock ticked over to 5:30, to my surprise – my first student walked into the room. It was a woman I call Angela, an early-thirties stay-at-home mom. I hadn’t seen her for about 2 weeks, apparently her son was sick, and so this was a pleasant surprise.  Only one student; but it was time to start class, and I never delay class until the students trickle in.  We started with the lesson, jobs and workplaces. Eventually two other women came into class, Kim and Francine. More people than I expected, the place was “packed”.

After going over the various types of jobs, workplaces, and kinds of common career terminology, we switched to the pronunciation section. I explained to them that when people say, “I’m looking for a job,” or “I want to go home,” often times the sounds will be shortened. Such as, “I’m lookin fer a job,” or “I wanna go home.” I added, “It’s best when you’re learning English to say it in the long form, but be ready to hear people say these shorter forms.”

A thought crossed my mind for an interesting tangent, so I went for it. “In some places in the USA,” I said, “People have many different sentences that are extremely shortened. For example.” I wrote on the board: Jeet yet? I then said it out loud in my best Ozark twang and asked, “What does this mean?” They looked at me blankly. I wrote next to it: Did you eat yet? Then to show the progression I also wrote: Did ja eat yet? They were still mystified by the difference, and tried to say it themselves. I then wrote the rest of the “conversation” in its shortened form, “Jeet yet? Nah, jew? Nah, Yontah? Aight.” Next to it, I wrote down the ‘translation’: “Did you eat yet? No, did you? No, do you want to? All right.”  I tried to explain what “redneck” meant, describing a person who works manual labor jobs, lives in fairly simple conditions,  and talks in a way that isn’t considered very sophisticated, but I wasn’t making much headway. “Ok, this kind of speech is like Quang Nam accent in America,” I told them (Quang Nam being a rural province just to the south of Da Nang with a very distinct colloquial accent). As soon as I said this, they instantly understood and broke out into a laugh of recognition – it now made perfect sense.

After our enjoyable but small English class, I suited up and drove home, the rain was coming down even harder if that could even be possible. This was not a night for hanging out on the town, in fact we were scheduled to have a tropical storm (possibly a typhoon) hit the next day. Therefore, I opted to drive home, walk down to a shop to buy a few drinks and enjoy a night at home. Rain gear hung up on the hat rack, I took one of my 30-cent beers up to my room, sat down in my bed next to my cat and began to play a computer game. Only a few minutes into the game, the electricity went out, bringing my adventure to a quick end. 

I went downstairs, the only light I had was a little LED on my mobile phone, so I opened the folding metal door on the front of the house to let in the candle light from the houses across the street. After I opened the door I turned to go inside and heard a clear, “Hi” behind me. A robed and shaven-headed silhouette stood next to me – it was a Buddhist nun from next door. Without another word she put two candles in my hand and then lit one for me. “Thanks,” I told her in Vietnamese, “I don’t have any of these.” I sat back down, and began to think. The light put flickering shadows on the walls. It was really quiet, just the sounds of the rain (which had slackened), people talking, and someone faintly picking a guitar. Time ticked on, it was actually quite nice, unusually peaceful. I went upstairs and grabbed my tenor recorder, then began to play a few slow melodies with its low haunting tone echoing through my concrete house. After more than an hour the power came back on, thank goodness.

The next day was supposed to be the day the storm would hit, but that morning when I awoke it was hot and sunny – and in fact it stayed sunny the whole rest of the day. So much for battening down the hatches for a typhoon.

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Fix that Leaky Pipe!

“Hello, Mr. Khale?” a voice shouted through the haze of a sound sleep, followed by loud pounding on wood.  I looked over at my watch, 6 in the morning for a guy who works till 8 at night is WAY too early. It was probably the electricity bill collector, so I decided to ignore it and pretend to not be home. A minute later, additional heavy door knocking and additional loud calls came my way. This was getting annoying; couldn’t he come at a reasonable hour? Then I remembered, my landlord had said he would come by today to fix the pipes that were leaking water out onto the road. I had told him to come at 10:30 AM, but apparently he’d missed that memo. I felt a bit annoyed, “Didn’t he remember that I told him to not come too early?” So I decided to dig-in and wait till he got tired of trying. 

However, a few minutes later I heard him calling again, this time he was nearly shouting. Like a bear coming out of its winter den, I rolled out of bed with a growl onto my unsteady feet and went to see where the noise was coming from. Walking over to the second bedroom, I saw him standing on my balcony. He had climbed up a ladder! He saw me, bleary eyed and a little dazed, and he looked a little embarrassed. “Hello, sorry, we need to fix pipes.” I tried to ask him why he was here so early when I specifically told him to come later. Yet I couldn’t string a coherent sentence together in Vietnamese or English. There was nothing for it; I had to let him in now that he was here. So I shuffled over to the balcony door and opened it.

Without another word he rushed passed me and hurried downstairs, letting the repair man in, I could hear them getting out their tools and talking excitedly. I didn’t give it a second look though, and made a bee-line from the balcony back to my bedroom and closed the door. Apparently they had opened the door to the bathroom below the stairs where I keep the cat at night, because a desperate meowing came up the stairs and stayed in-front of my door. The cat is scared of strangers in the house – wimp! So I rolled my eyes and got out of bed again to let her in. She ran on the bed and hid under the sheet, quivering in fear, and half-drenched in water.

The racket downstairs continued for half an hour, the men talking loudly and walking all over from the ground floor to the rooftop. I gave up trying to sleep; my morning rest was ruined by now. Walking downstairs revealed to me the extent of the leaky plumbing – the entire ground floor was covered in water, which they were frantically trying to mop up and stop. The water storage tank on the roof had been leaking for many weeks, and recently the trickle had turned into a flow. I usually turned off the water to keep it from leaking, but had left it on all last night and apparently it was too much. I had to be at work at 9, for a morning class, which was why I had said, “come at 10:30” – after it was finished. Now I was stuck here waiting for them to finish, who knows how long this would take? 

I waited till about 7:30, and then I decided to call my boss and tell him to cancel the class. “I’m sorry,” I told him, “but my house is a mess. The floor is completely flooded, tools and plumbing are all over the place, and I have no idea how long it will take.” He was very generous, “Don’t worry, we’ll cancel your class and tell them it was a personal emergency.” Thank heaven that was sorted. But I was getting more annoyed by the minute. I had been asking to have this leak fixed for weeks, and hadn’t gotten much response till I told them, “No repair, no rent money.” Suddenly the owner then decided to come today and showed up at 6 when I had told him to come later – which of course made me miss work and inconvenience my students.

I had the inclination to upbraid him for this whole debacle; but remembering how Vietnamese don’t like confrontations – I relented and shuffled back up to my room.  Eventually, the plumbing was fixed, and the water was mopped up. So we sat down to settle the next few months’ rent. I also showed him a water bill which hadn’t been paid since December of last year, a full 6 months before I had moved in – and he agreed to pay that instead of me. Before too long, we had the plumbing fixed, the house cleaned, and the rent paid. They both packed up their tools and left by 10AM, much to the cat’s relief and mine as well.

This sort of thing is quite common and takes time to get used to – unplanned things get sprung on me or plans are rapidly changed with little explanation or warning. Life, just like the traffic here, is done ad hoc and by the “seat of the pants”. On the receiving end it can be really annoying, but it also means that I can change plans on people as well. So this can come in real handy at times. I just try to remember, stay calm, and try to work out some sort of compromise if possible. Don’t be a door mat, but don’t be a brick wall either.

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The Man I Almost Knew

It was a hot morning – by 9am it was already 97F. I went to my one of my favorite eating places today – and checked my email. There was a message from my sister that I had been expecting. It said, “Grandpa has finally passed away, I was able to see him and say ‘goodbye’ just shortly before he died.” As I read it, my feelings surprised me: I didn’t feel anything at all. He was 85, had been in a nursing home recently because grandma couldn’t take care of him anymore and had been fading for several years. Fortunately, they were able to celebrate their 65th anniversary together; however he steadily weakened till he finally slipped away.
I went over to my FB page, many of my relatives were posting messages regarding grandpa. I began to think back on my memories of him and the recollections of my father’s stories. Living in Indonesia during the eighties, I remember a picture of my grandparents on my father’s dresser. Grandma, a woman with dark curly hair flecked with grey, big pearled necklace and glasses. Grandpa – a slim man with more-silvered thinning hair, and an asymmetrical smile. This was all I knew for many years, till I visited the USA when I was 7. My father took us to Massachusetts in January; my grandparents had kept the Christmas decorations up so that they could celebrate with us. When I met them, they looked just like the picture on my dad’s dresser. It was a very memorable experience – we had a Christmas party, almost all of my relatives on my father’s side came to visit. The special treat for me was that it snowed, which is something I hadn’t seen living in the tropics. I remember Grandpa shoveling the snow, and me rolling in it.
Growing up on the other side of the world made it difficult to keep in contact, but I always remember getting letters from my grandparents – mostly written by my grandma; sometimes grandpa would write a section himself as well. We saw them every time we would come back to the USA, at least once and sometimes more. When they came to see us in Missouri during 2001 I was 20. It was then I realized that they were getting older; no longer did they look like the photo on my dad’s dresser. I still was able to talk to them on the phone in the following years. Finally, when grandpa had a small stroke in my mid-twenties it hit me – he was not going to live forever. We all know that no-one lives forever, but since I had always had all 4 of my grandparents – it seemed as though this would never change.
I talked to Grandpa on the phone a few times after his stroke; I could tell that he was fading. I should have called them more often than I did, but I was a broke college student with a lot of things on my mind – life got in the way.
As I sat in the café, I began to think of a posting to commemorate him on my FB page. I began to think through the memories of him, and my dad’s stories that he must have told me a hundred times. If I look at Grandpa from an outside perspective, he was a man of his times. He was a child of French Canadian parents, grew up in New England during the depression, joined the military during the War, and when he came home – married my grandmother. He supported a family of five children on a single income. He worked a blue collar job until retirement, never made much money, was married to the same woman his whole life, went to church on Sundays, and took his kids to the lake in the summer. I then thought of him on a personal level – he was a very quiet man. But if I sat with him or drove with him somewhere, he’d begin to talk about things. He was an affectionate man; he’d be out with us in the snow as children, take us out for doughnuts, or go to the zoo with us. He wasn’t an outgoing man, but he was never the stereotypical “grumpy old man” whom everyone has to tolerate. I don’t ever remember him being harsh or bitter.

Grandpa

Grandpa

While I was thinking about this, the sadness swept over me. I was in a restaurant, I didn’t want to be seen crying in public. So I tried to casually reach over to the napkin dispenser – and knocked over my coffee cup which attracted even more attention. Blinking back the tears, I mopped the coffee – and got a napkin to dab my eyes in the most covert way I could. Part of the reason I felt sad was I had lost my first grandparent. But the other reason I felt sad was I realized how much I had not known him. I spent my childhood in Indonesia, then most of my twenties as a broke college student in Minnesota, and the past 2 years as a not-quite-broke teacher in Vietnam. I was never in a place financially or geographically where I could enjoy the grandparent relationship that “normal” people had. It saddened me for losing the man I knew, but also for losing the man that I didn’t know.
I typed a quick memorial message; paid the bill and headed home to sit alone in my room and think. Gramps never did anything that made the newspapers, he worked a boring job his whole life, and he never made much money. He never had it easy: he struggled his whole life. Yet, he stayed with that job to raise a large family. He never seemed bitter, never complained, never threw in the towel, and he always seemed to enjoy his family. He was a responsible, pleasant, positive man and I don’t know if I could have done the same – had I been given in his situation.

Relaxing in Japan

Relaxing in Japan

I’ll close with the message I finally did manage to post on my social media page:
Grandfather died this week. Born in 1928, high-school education, joined the army in WW2 and was part of the occupation force in Japan, came back, married my grandmother, had five children, worked a blue collar job at Hamilton Standard till retirement, died of Alzheimer’s at age 85 . His life was the archetype of an entire generation, but to his descendants he was also a quiet, responsible, and loving man.

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Life in Da Nang

It’s been a while since I moved to Da Nang, I came in November with a good deal of money saved up and the hopes of quickly finding a house and a job. The house came quickly – I found a three-bedroom Vietnamese style house within walking distance of the beach; the job did not – I’ve been working only sporadically.

The move from Hanoi to Da Nang has been a story of trade-offs. The shopping isn’t as good as it was in Hanoi. The pay is definitely not as good as it was in Hanoi. But on the other hand, I’m paying for a house here what I used to pay for a studio apartment in Hanoi – and no housing is anywhere near a beach in Hanoi.  Besides, life in Da Nang has something I never had in Hanoi – quietude.

My average day in Da Nang consists of eating breakfast, running some errands, laying out on the beach at around 11AM, and then coming back for lunch and a nap before going to teach at night. Because no sane Vietnamese would go to the beach in the sunniest part of the day, I get it almost all to myself. Sometimes I’ll skip the beach and go for a quick motorcycle ride up to our local rainforest park called Monkey Mountain, and it only takes me twenty minutes to reach the top – 500 meters – to then sit in silence and watch the wind blow through the canopy. So either I can take an outing to the beach or the mountains and still have time to come back for lunch and a rest before a night’s work. Oh yes, I usually remember to post a snide comment on my facebook page like, “Hi, just had a great time at the beach – how’s snow shoveling going back in Minnesota?” at least once a week.

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A cool January Day on the beach near my house, Monkey Mountain in the Background and China Beach all around.

The winter was nothing like the gray cold affairs of Hanoi which stretch on until April, we got a mix of rain and sun in Da Nang, the temperatures stayed in the high 70’sF. So I was swimming in the sea till mid December. The temperature in March has been on a slow climb, but I still have avoided using the air conditioner, letting in the ocean breeze through the windows. I’ve really enjoyed my lifestyle change since moving from Hanoi, I suppose the only problem with Da Nang is that it is too perfect of a location. Because of it’s a small city with wide roads, no pollution, a beach and lovely country-side all around – it is THE place that every English teacher and expat wants to move to. Consequently, there are fewer working hours for everyone and even less pay to go around – I still haven’t moved into positive cash flow yet.

If work continues to be so scant I may have to stow the beach towel and head back to Hanoi for a few months to rebuild my savings, yet hopefully it won’t come to that. For several years, I’ve been trying to find a place in the world that I like, that has a nice atmosphere, good location, and is a place where I can make a living. Traveling from place to place gets quite old. I’d like Da Nang to be such a place, but so far this is still not a certainty.

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Follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail. . .

My contract with my employer expired in late October. They gave me my final paycheck, complete with severance pay, and I was free. Despite having a memorable year of employment, and spending over a year and a half in Hanoi, I decided to continue with my plan – moving to Da Nang. I boxed up most of my things and shipped them by rail to my friends in Hoi An: and with a small bag, and a not-very-detailed atlas, I readied my bike for the long trip south. I had made many friends in Hanoi, like my job, had been able to save a good amount; but the cramped city, the cold foggy winters, and the insane traffic had taken their toll. It was a decision long in the making – it was time to leave. I was going on a trip, from the Gates of Hanoi’s old quarter, to the river-front of Hoi An.

Day 1

So on a Friday morning in early November, I sat with my chopper loaded-up in front of Hanoi’s old brick gates. In typical Caleb style, I really hadn’t made a comprehensive plan; I just asked people while driving through Hanoi – which road to take to get to the Ho Chi Minh Highway. An hour of insane traffic, and I was out of the city, and soon in Hoa Binh – I found the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”, Vietnam’s primary inland highway. It was surprising; the road was a very well built road of two lanes that wound through the North Vietnamese countryside. The best part about it was there was almost no traffic, so I began to thrash it to 80kph, which is quite fast for Vietnam. The scenery was villages, fields, and of course the towering limestone hills that are so characteristic of that region of Vietnam, it looked like something from a classical Chinese painting. This Karst topography was particularly beautiful around Cuc Phuong National Park, but I just drove on through and only stopped for a few pictures. At about 5pm, I stopped at a small town called Tan Ky, and stayed at the Volga Hotel for the night. I could have gone further, but 8 hours on a bike in Vietnam is quite tiring.

Day 2

Waking up bright and early, I found a bike mechanic to tighten my new chain, and a local Pho shop for a bite to eat. It was well after nine before I was actually back on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Already, I was noticing a different accent in the Vietnamese when I talked to people, what would it be like by the time I got to Hue? It was autumn, and this region of Vietnam is actually not quite tropical. So it was cool, dry, and not a cloud in the sky – this with the lovely pastoral scenery, the jagged limestone hills – what can I say but that it was unforgettable. I had been driving for two days, and since leaving Hanoi’s old quarter, I had neither seen any foreigners, nor had I met a person who spoke English. It was fun because I was able to use Vietnamese for whatever I needed, no problem. Additionally, it seemed that as I raced by, everyone recognized me as a foreigner, and would wave. I was wearing a full-face helmet, but everyone noticed me, maybe it was the bigger bike I drove. Although it was possible to go all the way to Hue that day, at 3pm I decided to make a stop in Phong Nha, to see a world heritage site, Paradise Cave.

Unfortunately, I didn’t actually get to the park entrance till almost 4 o clock. I bought a ticket, and walked up a paved path for what seemed like an eternity before I finally got to the entrance. Stairs led down to a small opening, but this small entrance was a portal to a massive cave, that went on for several hundred yards. It was a cornucopia of flowstone, stalactites and stalagmites of a most delicate construction; and terraced pools so perfect they looked as if they were of human design. It was an awe-inspiring cathedral of stone; but I couldn’t stay long to gawk because the cave closed at 5:30pm. Although driving further in the night was possible, it seemed best for me to just go to a hotel at the nearby town.

Day 3

I hit the road at 8:30, clear skies and mild temperatures, the sun came shone on the limestone hills at an angle – creating sharp relief. The scenery was more of what I had been driving through thus far – limestone towers, flat valleys, rolling hills and rice fields. Early in the afternoon, I turned off the Ho Chi Minh Road and headed for Highway 1, the main road near the coast. The drop in altitude made things slightly warmer and I began to notice a climactic change. The skies were no longer clear, but had white patchy clouds that would dump rain in the most erratic manner. I stopped getting out my rain suit, because it wasn’t worth the hassle of taking it on and off. After lunch, I came to the Ben Hai River, the boundary line of the DMZ between the north and the south. There wasn’t too much to see, a big concrete and tile war memorial, a replica of a house that was apparently used for talks, a bridge for traffic, and a smaller footbridge that was crowned by a red banner. I took a few pictures, and drove on south.

Hue was the next town of size, and I arrived at about 3pm. In characteristic style, I had not planned my trip well, so I wasn’t sure which turn to take from the highway to get into the old city. But following a hunch, I tailed a bus full of fat white middle-aged tourists – and drove through the old city gates of Hue. After driving around the city for over 20 minutes, I finally figured out where my hotel was – across the river.

I booked a room, unloaded my bike, and then drove back to the old city for a look around. The city was first surrounded by a mote then by a brick wall about 12 feet high that had pock marks and pieces missing – scars of the 1968 battle that still remained. I parked near the main gate, and took a look around. The south gates faced the river and were guarded by a massive redoubt, and also protected another set of gates and walls which were the palace. The area around the outer walls and moat were now a massive park circumscribing the whole city, and people were out exercising in the fading light. So I went back across the river and found a most appropriately named restaurant, The DMZ.

Day 4

royal tomb interior

At 8:30 in the morning I boarded a van with about 6 other people for a day tour. Our first stop was out of town, a large brick walled enclosure that was a tomb for one of the emperors. It was not just a mausoleum; it was a massive park, complete with lakes, forests, gardens, houses and temples. Apparently, the emperor would come here to relax away from the city, so it was also a vacation home I guess. Then went to another tomb that was more like a fairy-tale citadel on a hilltop; small but opulently decorated. Then we went to another massive tomb, like the first it was a get-away palace as well. I don’t give many details about these because after the first one, I got bored and was fairly tombed-out by lunch time.

Finally, we went back to Hue to see the Forbidden City. So first we drove through the gates into the Citadel, then we walked through the palace gates into the Imperial Enclosure, then we walked through an amazingly-decorated audience hall into the Forbidden City. So we were in a walled city, within a walled city, within a walled city, impressive. The inner palace itself was subdivided into several other walled quarters, but much of its area was a bare field with only foundations remaining. This had been occupied by the NVA in the 1968 offensive, and the Americans had blasted the palace flat to retake the city. But people were rebuilding it, the new buildings looking much the same as the older ones. I lost track of all the walls I went past and all the gates I went through; it was huge.

Forbidden City Ruins

It was getting late in the day, and we went to another pagoda (oh please not another one) and finished with a short cruise down the river by boat.

Day 5

It was raining when I left Hue in the morning, but my rain suit did its job and I was out of the slop within an hour. Again, the rain clouds were patchy and rain was extremely erratic. I had been on the road for many days and I was anxious to finish my final leg into Hoi An. I blasted down the highway at 80kph and crossed a small pass that was at one end of a lagoon called Vung An Cu. As soon as I came off the small pass, I took an immediate right and went down the road that led around the west side of the lagoon. On one side were the forested mountains of a national park, on the other a placid lagoon and the Hai Van Pass was ahead of me – lovely. The main road winds around the east side, but this road had almost no traffic.

On the north side of the pass is a lovely lagoon.

On the north side of the pass is a lovely lagoon.

In no time I was at the foot of the Hai Van Pass and stopped for a few pictures. I then flogged my bike up the old familiar pass with my exhaust pipes roaring a nice baritone. The pass was cloudy, but it didn’t rain. I took the long way to Hoi An, along Red Beach, across the big suspension bridge and down the wide palm-lined road past China Beach. I rolled into Hoi An at about lunch time, and was able to get a friend of mine to film me riding up to the finish line – the river-front.  As switched off my bike and it ticked cool, I glanced at the odometer. From the gates of Hanoi’s old quarter, to Hoi An’s old river-front, it had been 1,040 kilometers in 5 days.

The air was cool, the sun was shining on the tile rooftops; I was home at last.

Hoi An at last, and what a lovely site.

Hoi An at last, and what a lovely site.

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Walking in Sapa’s Valley

It’s beautiful even in the rain.

Compared to the crowded and sunny coastal town of Ha Long, Sapa is quite the other extreme; it is a mountain town in the north west of Vietnam, at over 6,000 feet. The day after returning from Ha Long, I took a night train in a sleeper car to the border town of Lao Cai; rode a van up a winding road to the mist-soaked town of Sapa.

The van dropped me off at the hotel; they sent me downstairs for breakfast and told me to come back to the lobby at ten. So after stuffing my face for a half hour, I came back to the lobby and waited – noticing three girls dressed in indigo shirts and trousers covered in intricate needlework. Bit by bit, the tourists trickled in, and so did more tribal women. I deduced by their clothing they were from the Hmong tribe, a group of people scattered all over a mountainous area in south-east Asia anthropologist James C. Scott refers to as Zomia.

The tourists were grouped off in fives and tens with a Hmong woman to guide, and led out onto the road in the drizzle. I had thought the rain was too light for a poncho, so I wore rain pants and my A2 jacket. Ten minutes into the walk, my jacket was running with water; so I eventually broke down and bought an umbrella. Leather is horrible when wet.

The Hmong women guided us along the very slippery trails through the fields.

Soon, the guide led us off the road and down footpaths of hard slick mud. My hiking boots were OK, but many other people were slipping and sliding on it. The trek was peaceful; no honking horns, just the sound of rain, the river, and people talking. Our guide was 19, and with a baby on her back – she helped people twice her weight. I tried to use Vietnamese with some of the Hmong, but most of them didn’t  know Vietnamese – so much for having an edge that the tourists didn’t.

The quiet made people relax and fall into conversation as well as into the mud. One young Columbian woman was a doctor and had come with her sister and godmother for a holiday before she would marry in the fall. There was a South African couple who had lived in a few places, and was on their way to Australia. It was also good to talk to the Hmong, our group had attracted about 8 women to help us.

The terracing was beautiful to look at, but very labor intensive to maintain.

The walk was slippery and dangerous, but being in the cool air, with the silence only broken by the sound of flowing water in the river valley below. The air was misty, but still the views of the terraced rice fields were a pleasing change from the concrete and soot of Hanoi. The Hmong grow many of the things they need, food crops of course; but also indigo for dying cloth and hemp for making clothes and bags.

Our guide was 19 years old, a mother of two and did this trek several times a week.

We slogged on for what seemed like an eternity. At about noon, we stopped for a break near the river. A crowd of shy children came around us, looking at us with big “puppy eyes” and they were all quietly repeating a line that I couldn’t understand. “They’re all saying, ‘Hello, candy?’ but don’t give them any.” our guide told us, “It’s not good for them.” I understood, but I didn’t have any candy to give them anyways. We finally made it to the river, and ate at a cafeteria shared by a number of the tours. After our meal was done, I saw the purpose of the women who had helped so many of the tourists through the trail. They wanted the chance to sell their intricate needle-point textiles. Given the fact that they had been so helpful, my colleagues thought it only fair to buy a few things. I can see the reason in that – fair enough; but since I hadn’t needed any help on the trail, I decided to save my purchase of highland art for the next day.

The Hmong kids were friendly in an understated shy way.

Again, we headed out, going up the other side of the valley, this time on a semi-paved road through villages, many of the houses were farmhouses that doubled as home-stays. The afternoon was getting late – yet finally our guide introduced us to the family that we would stay with. It was a wooden house, with an upper floor that was solely dedicated to boarding tourists on mattresses with mosquito nets. The house even had an old billiard table under a breezeway. My feet were killing me, and we were given supper within a few hours – no one stayed up too late.

The next day it was still raining, I woke up to very sore muscles, and was told we had another trek of a few hours ahead of us – lovely. The young Columbiana’s godmother had twisted her ankle the day before, so she was not in good shape for walking. After a few hundred yards, she turned back. This trek seemed worse, I was now sore, it was raining more, and the trail went through bamboo groves that grabbed my umbrella and sloughed water onto me. It was also too warm for any other rain gear. There was not much to see till we reached the waterfall – water cascading down an angled bed of rock. Three hours to get to – 5 minutes to see. It’s about the journey not the destination I suppose.

Finally, we walked down the hard mud to the bottom of the valley. After two days of trekking on such muddy trails, and seeing everyone falling down around me – I had not fallen once. I was 50 feet from the bottom of the trail, when my feet went out from under me and I landed on my hindquarters ingloriously. It had to be that way didn’t it?

We came to a little “café” for a snack, and I finally bought three wristbands from a little girl, and a pillowcase from an older women. The fabric was covered with the typical geometric patterns that are found from all over “zomia” from Bhutan to Laos. A bus took about 30 of us dirty and wet tourists to the hotel for lunch; there was no way I was going to walk the whole way back. By now the entire town was enveloped in cool mist, reminding me of summer in Darjeeling or other mountain towns in the eastern Himalaya. I was too battered to do much shopping or any more walking.

I would say that Sapa was worth the visit. Granted, it was crowded with tourists, but the tribal peoples seemed to handle it differently than the Vietnamese of other places like Hanoi’s own old quarter. Maybe I should come near Christmas, when the temperatures are near freezing – Vietnam isn’t all tropical heat.

The cloud soaked streets of Sapa had a mysterious quality to them.

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