Ha Giang Mountain Majesty 2 of 2

Three hundred yards down the road, my travel companions were waiting. “Is everything OK?” Dean asked me. Smiling I said, “Oh, you should have seen me – no problems whatsoever. Apparently, he just wanted to check my driver’s license.”  We crossed the valley, and then up another pass. This pass was unlike the others; the biome changed from the dense subtropical foliage to a dry pine forest. It looked more like Colorado than Vietnam.

I kept thinking of that song, "Rocky mountain high in Colorado.  . ." This didn't look like tropical Vietnam.

I kept thinking of that song, “Rocky mountain high in Colorado. . .” This didn’t look like tropical Vietnam.

After an hour of pressing my bike down the tight switchbacks, I reached the bottom – and stopped for lunch. Twenty minutes later, Dean and Natalie pulled up. “Do you think we should get our permits now?” Dean mused. “Yea, we should have done that in Ha Giang City, but we should definitely get them now.” I told him. Ha Giang Province is an area that has a frontier with China, so foreigners are supposed to get a permit. We went to the local police station. Twenty minutes and a few dollars later, we had our ‘hall pass’, nicely printed on a yellow card.  “We need to call ahead to Dong Van and reserve a room,” Natalie told us, “The hotels are going to be packed.” Getting out her smart phone and connecting to the wireless signal, she called a few places and finally reserved a room for us all. 

Driving out of yet another valley, we climbed again into scenery that changed again. The limestone slopes became covered in jagged talus; it seemed as if it was from a film-set for a fantasy production. “When’s Gandalf gonna show up?” I thought to myself. It was a wild landscape, but every pocket of soil between the boulders was cultivated by highland peoples dressed in their tribal costumes.

The tribes somehow manage to make this stony ground produce. They use every inch.

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The road took a turn and clawed up the side of a gorge with a river about 200 meters below the road. Ahead there was a small crowd of people, looking over the precipice. It was obvious what had happened. As I walked up to the precipice I could see a twisted motorcycle at the bottom of the ravine. “Someone fell?” Natalie said. “Yea, apparently he didn’t even touch the side on the way down.” I commented. Three men were at the scene; having moved his body to the side, they were standing over the bike and going through his identity papers. Natalie listened to the conversation, “They say he was probably drunk and lost control.” “Well if he was drunk,” I said, “he really picked the wrong road to drive on, because there ain’t much room for error.” Dean wasn’t convinced, “People always say that when someone crashes. A bus probably came around a corner too fast and knocked him off.” It was a real sobering thought: one moment of inattention and . . . but there was nothing to be done, so we drove on.

The terrain grew steeper with each hour.

The terrain grew steeper with each hour.

Despite the unpleasant stop, we drove up and up through jagged moonscapes, until we entered the clouds and crossed another pass. I checked my altimeter watch; it was about 5,000 feet – the highest pass I’ve ever crossed in Vietnam. We were now close to our destination – Dong Van, and it was downhill. Several kilometers later, we rounded a corner, and there it was; a small town in a flat valley with steep mountains around. The skies had been sunny; but the rain came it torrents as soon as we reached the valley floor.  Perfect timing.

Drenched, we rolled up to our hotel, only to discover they had given our room away to someone else. Thanks! So we drove to a traditional inn. It was one of the oldest buildings in town: with a courtyard, tiled roof, stone flagging, carved wood balustrades and massive wooden gates – it was like a tavern from a Kung Fu film set, where’s Jet Li when you need him? They had a room available; and in good ‘traditional style’ the room was: a windowless nook with a rock-hard bed. That’s something they never tell you in all those Kung Fu films. Since other tourists were setting up sleeping bags in the town square, we took the room.

We stayed at one of the oldest buildings in town. Cool looking but uncomfortable.

We stayed at one of the oldest buildings in town. Cool looking but uncomfortable.

Thursday, after a flee-bitten night, we decided to go to the northernmost point of Vietnam – Lung Cu. This was another drive on winding roads, through jagged mounds of disfigured rock with pocket-sized crop fields. It took us about an hour to reach the destination, a massive tower perched on a knoll.  “Do you think we should go to the top?” said Dean. “I guess so, perhaps we can get a good view of the Chinese border,” I told him.

A hot climb up a massive stair case brings you to the northernmost tip of Vietnam. I can see Kunming from here!

A hot climb up a massive stair case brings you to the northernmost tip of Vietnam. I can see Kunming from here!

The climb to the top was a shade-less eternity of steps – I thought my knees would burst. The monument at the top was the usual concrete massif with plaques and murals – but no protection from the burning sun for the crowds. The scenic views were rewarding, but fifteen minutes on the glaring concrete was enough. I told Dean, “I don’t know if my knees will handle all those stairs on the descent.” “Go down the road, it will be easier.” Natalie told me. So I began to walk down the road, but was picked up by a motorcyclist – awesome.

By the time we returned to Dong Van, it was late afternoon. It was still sunny, but the air had cooled. “I think Nat and I will go up there.” Dean said, pointing to what looked like a castle on the top of a cliff. “Sounds good,” I told him, “I’ll go up in a little while.” Twenty minutes later I found the trail around the back of the cliff to the top. It was not a castle, but a French fort most likely built a century earlier. There wasn’t much left: a curtain wall clung to the precipice, a few trenches, and two circular emplacements for mortars or light artillery. “Oh hi.” said Natalie, after I found them at one of the emplacements. “Nice view, isn’t it?” Dean commented. “Yea, you can see how a small howitzer placed here would command the entire valley.” I told him. As the sun set, we went back to town. This time we stayed at a slightly better hotel, translation: we had a shower and no flees in the beds. 

This little fort sits precariously on a cliff a few hundred meters above Dong Van. There isn't much room for anything up here.

This little fort sits precariously on a cliff a few hundred meters above Dong Van. There isn’t much room for anything up here.

Friday morning was cool and sunny; we were able to get a fairly early start heading east to Meo Vac, and then south to Bao Lac. As soon as we left for Meo Vac we were surrounded by the most amazing mountain scenery of the entire trip. The road slithered like a sable ribbon through the sharp peaks covered in shattered rock; far below rivers wound through narrow choked valleys. I kept stopping to take pictures, and eventually Dean said, “Come on Caleb, we can’t stop at every spot for pictures.” “Yea, I know,” I told him, “but this is the best mountain scenery I’ve ever encountered in Vietnam.”

The Scenery is the best from Dong Van to  Meo Vac, pictures just do not do it justice.

The Scenery is the best from Dong Van to Meo Vac, pictures just do not do it justice.

We turned south down a smaller valley, and reached Meo Vac. From there we were supposed to head to Bao Lac, but somehow missed it all-together in our descent. It was hot now, and we drove along the bottom of a narrow valley. For some reason, it was anticlimactic. For me driving up into the mountains is euphoric, but coming down out of them is disappointing. Maybe it’s the heat.

The road to Bac Me followed a river through a  valley that was extremely narrow at times.

The road to Bac Me followed a river through a valley that was extremely narrow at times.

By the late afternoon we had reached the town of Bac Me and were a little unsure of how much further to go. “Nat and I need to be back in Ha Giang City before 10:30AM tomorrow,” Dean told me, “so we can catch the bus to Hanoi.” I encouraged him to not go further, “We are about three hours away from Ha Giang, but you won’t be able to reach it before nightfall. Poor mountain roads at night are a bad idea.” We decided to stay in Bac Me, and they would leave early the next morning.

The countryside in Bac Me was from a traditional water color painting. A great place to unwind.

The countryside in Bac Me was from a traditional water color painting. A great place to unwind.

We found a nice hotel, took a quick rest, and then drove out into the fields in the waning light. We parked near a river; it was a perfectly pastoral scene. Steep hills, rice fields, a flowing stream; people were washing clothes by the bridge; a woman was herding ducks, two young girls sat nearby tending a few water buffalo. As usual, Dean took to the rice paddies – sinking to his shins in the warm mud; I decided to try the creek instead. “Hey Nat,” Dean said with a slight smile, “Why don’t you go up and pet that water buffalo?”  She wasn’t interested, “No way.” I looked at the girls; they treated it like a pet dog. “I’m sure it’s safe, she’s probably used to being around people,” I said while casually striding toward the animal. I got within fifteen feet; the cow looked up, stopped chewing and stared at me while breathing heavily through her wet nose. That reaction, coupled with the two-foot-long horns stopped me in my tracks. I said to the girl in Vietnamese, “That cow doesn’t like me, does she?” The girl looked back with a smile, “That’s right, she doesn’t.” Internet videos of people being tossed into the air by buffaloes danced through my head. I walked away and the slab of meat went back to grazing.

This languid water buffalo wouldn't let me get any where near her.

This languid water buffalo wouldn’t let me get any where near her.

It was raining on Saturday morning, the days of clear weather were over and I had at least three hours of driving to reach Ha Giang City, the other two had left earlier. I planned to reach the city at lunch, stay the night, and drive back to Hanoi on Sunday. The road was rough, and the hilly country would have been beautiful minus the fog and rain. I hit road construction –this meant a kilometer of mud and about 200 meters of deep muddy truck ruts so terrifying, that at three different times I thought the bike was going to dump me into the goo.

The last few hours back to Ha Giang City was in this sort of weather. Unpleasant, not to mention the mud.

The last few hours back to Ha Giang City was in this sort of weather. Unpleasant, not to mention the mud.

I crossed into Ha Giang City and the sun came out, it was only 10AM. It was still early, so I thought, “I may as well go to Tuyen Quang City today.” The road was dry, so I rocketed along – reaching my destination at about 3PM. “Hmmm, I’ve only got about four hours to go, I may as well go all the way home.” That was a mistake, because the last two hours of driving were a dark, dusty gauntlet of terrifying trucks. Thirteen hours and 370km after leaving Bac Me, I dragged myself into my apartment – miraculously unscathed.

Ha Giang was that mythical place I had heard about from a few hardier travelers. It was the place that had been just out of reach for nearly two years, but I had finally seen it. I’ve been to many mountainous areas in Vietnam like: Sa Pa, Mai Chau, Da Lat, Phong Nha, and A Luoi. Yet the stark beauty of the landscape, the vibrancy of the ethnic minorities, and the lack of foreign tourists made Ha Giang exceptional.

In conclusion I’d say: Ha Giang, it’s an amazing place of fairy tale topography and cultures that time forgot. My advice to all tourists that visit Vietnam . . . go to Sa Pa or go to Da Lat. Don’t go to Ha Giang – there’s nothing to see.

;-)

Hours and hours of scenery like this. Need I say more?

Hours and hours of scenery like this. Need I say more?

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Ha Giang Mountain Majesty 1 of 2

Spring was heating up into summer, and I had weathered my third winter in Hanoi. Before the heat became unbearable however, I had laid plans to visit a place that had intrigued me for over two years. A week’s long holiday would give me the chance to finally see it. So, breaking with my usual tradition; I carefully began to plan my trip to the mountain province of Ha Giang. Also, I decided to find someone to travel with me. Fortunately, I was able to convince my friend Dean, who is also an American, to come along. “I won’t be able to leave Hanoi until after work on Tuesday.” Dean told me, “I’ll take the night bus, and arrive early Wednesday morning.”

Monday morning, saddled up my motorcycle and headed north out of Hanoi to Ha Giang City. The traffic was its usual intensity for the first hour – yet I was in the countryside after an hour. To my relief, the weather was cooled by the clouds. Yet this also gave me intermittent rains that kept me in a continual cycle of donning and removing my rain suit. At about lunch time, I began to drive through valleys with low limestone hills nearby. The roads weren’t crowded; but the steady stream of charging trucks kept me on guard.

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A friend of mine named Freddie had told me the trip to Ha Giang City would take two days; but as the day wore on – I began to believe that I could do it in one day. On through the countryside I pushed my bike till I was only 70km away at 3pm. It seemed most appropriate to send him a message, “Hey Freddie. You said it takes two days to get to Ha Giang. It’s only gonna take me one day, ‘cause I’m a freakin’ road warrior!” Before 5pm, I rolled into the town, nine hours and 317km after setting out.

I checked into a dumpy little hotel along the riverside, and took a look around town. Ha Giang City is a small town situated in a valley surrounded by low limestone mountains and divided by a river. Most of the town ran parallel to the river, and it had the usual assortment of shops and houses that many Vietnamese cities have. Ha Giang Province is a tourist destination of some popularity, yet it seemed off the usual tourist route – I only saw about three other westerners that whole evening.

A rainy day in Ha Giang city, a town on a river.

A rainy day in Ha Giang city, a town on a river.

Tuesday was a day of waiting. Dean, along with his girlfriend, was supposed to leave Hanoi in the afternoon and reach the town at about midnight. Initially, I thought of taking a day trip; but low clouds held rain that seemed to be on the verge of breaking loose. Instead, I went to get my bike washed; then got a haircut. I wandered around the town, till evening. Dean called me with a status update, “It took us a long time to get out of Hanoi traffic, and now were stuck behind a very slow truck that we can’t pass on these windy roads. I don’t think we’ll arrive until the early morning.” “Don’t worry,” I told him, “hotels are fairly vacant here. We’ll head out to the mountains tomorrow when you feel rested and ready.”

Rainy weather and cloudy skies for three days, not a good sign.

Rainy weather and cloudy skies for three days, not a good sign.

When I awoke on Wednesday morning, I walked out my balcony overlooking the river. The clouds still laid low overhead. I was beginning to worry that this would be a week-long ride of mud and rain suits. Our company of three finally met up for breakfast and fortunately, everyone was rested enough to set out before 10am. At first the road wound along one side of a river valley through the usual limestone hills and rice fields of northern Vietnam. But after forty minutes, we broke out onto a wide valley with higher mountains surrounding us.

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Within minutes of entering the “alpine” valley, the clouds disappeared and the sun shone brightly. The road led slowly upward, and deposited us in front of a large karst slope. We were entering a national park, and the road climbed steeply – buses straining up the switch backs. From this point on, the scenery became one amazing mountain view after another, the altimeter kept rising till we were on the plateau – over 3,500 feet. We drove through flatter terrain, but soon reached another line of mountains and began to climb again. Reaching the pass and heading down the other side. Before us was a small town in a flat valley, and the famous “Quan Ba twin mountain” – that was more like a hill.

Overlooking the beautiful Quan Ba Valley at the famous Twin Mountain. Which is the most famous sight in the whole province.

Overlooking the beautiful Quan Ba Valley at the famous Twin Mountain. Which is the most famous sight in the whole province.

After getting to the bottom of the pass, we drove across the flat valley floor, when to my consternation I saw a police truck ahead. Already the police had pulled over eight motorcycles of western tourists and their gear. As I rolled up to the stop, I could see the policeman single me out with his baton – Dean was of Chinese descent and his girlfriend Natalie was Vietnamese – they rolled right by, unnoticed; which meant I was on my own. I pulled to a stop and shut off my engine – I knew what was coming and was ready. “Hello” he said to me in English, I handed him my Vietnamese driver’s license and responded with a smile, “Chao Anh.” He seemed a bit surprised and switched into Vietnamese. “You speak Vietnamese?” “Only a little.” “Where are you from?” “I’m from the USA.” “How long have you lived in Vietnam?” “I’ve lived here about three years. Two in Hanoi and one in Da Nang.” “Great! What’s your job?” “I’m an English teacher.” “Oh OK, so do you like Vietnam?” “Naturally, I love it (as if I was going to disagree with him on anything).” “That’s great, that’s great! Enjoy the rest of your trip,” he told me handing back my driver’s license. I took it back as casually as I could and said with a smile, “Thank you very much.” As my bike roared to life, I looked over at the tourists – no Vietnamese language, no driver’s license – “See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya. . . suckers,” I thought to myself as I headed into the town of Quan Ba to rejoin my travel companions.

The little town of Quan Ba in a beautiful valley. Lovely!

The little town of Quan Ba in a beautiful valley. Lovely!

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Ten Seconds of Stardom

It was 3 AM, and I couldn’t sleep. Yet, I had an early start to my day this Wednesday. I needed to be down the street at David’s house to pick him up for a film shoot. That’s right he had landed for us a spot on a Vietnamese television series. I finally dragged myself out of bed, dressed and hauled out my bike.

I roared down the alley to David’s house, and we headed out to the rendezvous point near West Lake. Through some connections, my friend David had learned of a TV series commemorating the 60th anniversary of the French defeat, and we would be playing the French soldiers. It was a typical spring morning in Hanoi – so it began to rain. After reaching the meeting point, the assistant director pulled up on his scooter, and so did an English fellow, a Frenchman, and a Quebecois.

We all sat around waiting for the last man to show up, but as 6:30 ticked by, he was not present. I fact by 7:30 he still hadn’t arrived. “Why are we waiting?” I asked. “Oh we’re waiting for Vic, the “French Officer” of the film, he’s kind of inconsiderate so this is no surprise.” was the answer. Over an hour late, and a tall blond man drove up, came screeching to a halt, lifted both of his hands up in the “middle fingered salute” at our director and shouted, “F— you! You expect me to drive in this s—!” pointing up at the drizzly sky. His Lordship didn’t wait for a response after his rant, and without giving anyone else so much as a glance, he drove off. “Gentlemen, I’d like you to meet our commanding officer Vic.” I said loudly as he drove out of sight. “Yea, he thinks he’s a Hollywood Star,” our Vietnamese director responded, humiliated. We all had a sardonic laugh: annoyed.

Fortunately the rest of us were made of sturdier stuff and we headed out to the rural area of Ba Vi. The road was good, and the Englishman named Paul had a 150cc bike as well. So he and I took turns racing ahead, tunnel blasting, and generally larking about on the highway.

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By the time we reached the film location – the skies were clear. We up a muddy track and headed for a cluster of vehicles, tents crowned by a fluttering French tri-color. We parked our bikes, and took a look around.   Before us foxholes, pillboxes, and a network of trenches snaked through the red earth and down the hill. We then saw a scene of the Viet Minh charging the French position. Dozens of real Vietnamese soldiers were dressed in sandals and khakis. They were carrying Mosin Nagant rifles or PPSH machine pistols and ran up the hill, shouting a battle cry as they came on.

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Presently, we went to the costume bus, and got on our green French fatigues and American steel helmets. We then went over to the props truck and picked up our gear, cartridge belts, canteens, and weapons. Not liking pea shooters, I passed over the French sub-machine guns and picked out something more familiar to me. It was a very beat-up Enfield Pattern 30-06 rifle, but it still was fully functioning. I looked at the receiver and read, “Springfield Armory, 1917”. “Ahh, this is more like it.” I said. Apparently, the Vietnamese Army gave some wartime stock to the studio for use. The hardware – French, Chinese, American, Russian, was real – no plastic replicas.

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As we were getting used to our gear, “Gary Cooper” finally showed up, having taken the bus so as to not get his paws wet. This meant we could start shooting – with film that is. We had just gotten fully kitted out for battle; but then had to take most of it off for the POW scene (films are never shot in chronological order). So marching in a line with neither shirt nor shoes, we walked past the lead characters as they said their lines. “OK cut”, said the director – the lead Vietnamese heartthrob had messed up his lines. We had to march past him about seven times till he finally got the lines correct. Uniforms on again, shoulder arms, and we readied for our next shot.

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The next scene was the “charge scene” from the French perspective. We Frenchman were put in the bunker to be filmed firing down the hill on the Viet Minh. However, I would be on top of the bunker as the assistant gunner on the machine gun. A thirty-something Vietnamese fellow in fatigues took up his spot as the gunner. The film crew loaded a belt of blanks into a much-worn M60 machine gun – altered to look like a Browning 1917. “When the big explosion goes off in front, act dead” I was told as I lay on the sandbags. OK, feed a machine gun, and play dead after an explosion – how hard could that be? “Action!” and the sergeant fired a gun inches from my unprotected ears. A loud staccato broke out as the belt of rounds fed through so violently that it jumped out of my hands. I fumbled around, trying to pick up the belt – feeling like a dolt. On the second take I tried to let the rounds slide over my hands into the gun. “Action!” BR-R-R-R-R-ROWW – went the gun. Luckily I didn’t drop the belt this time. Before I could celebrate, the grenade exploded in front of us and I played dead – getting covered with sawdust. The camera caught the backside of my corpse on the pillbox, and my colleagues got the “face time” as they came out of the position with their hands up. Oh well.

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The sun was high, and so was the temperature; but we didn’t do much for the next two hours as other scenes were filmed. The Vietnamese soldiers had lost their shyness, and came over to talk with us and take pictures. None of us enlisted men were very good at Vietnamese, but the pictures made up for that. I broke out my pipe, and the fellows got a kick out of that.

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We had only done two scenes, but it was time for lunch, so everyone headed to the hotel. We sat down to a typical Vietnamese meal of rice, fish, vegetables and egg. After lunch I went into the courtyard to smoke my pipe. The lead actor was there, pulling on a Vietnamese water pipe – a “Thuoc Lao”. He didn’t speak English, so it was up to my Vietnamese. “”Where are you from?” he asked me. “I’m from the USA.” “How long have you lived here?” he said. “I’ve lived in Vietnam for three years, two in Hanoi and one in Da Nang. Smoke this,” I said, giving him some of my tobacco, “It’s very aromatic.” He put it in the bong and inhaled, which was mistake – it’s not for inhaling, so he gave a cough and grimaced. Not to his liking I guess.

After the two-hour lunch break, we returned to the location for more waiting. As the day waned, we were called up for our next scene, a morning scene. We were sitting around a fire eating breakfast while “Hollywood” Vic came over to the guard at the machine gun. Since the guard was sleeping, Vic would yell an order at him that startled him awake. We then all chuckled at his incompetence. In that shot the camera swept across us at the fire and I got my 10 seconds of face time. Mission accomplished, I’ll be famous . . . sort of.

Finally, we did a scene of the initial attack. The Viet Minh would be massing in the valley for a charge and four of us would pull up to the trench line in a jeep. We did that take five times over. With our Vietnamese driver going “hell for leather”, I began to wonder how any soldier could ride in that tin can without breaking every vertebra in his back. It was the most uncomfortable experience of the day.

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That was a wrap, and we headed back to the hotel, changed out of the fatigues, and collected our pay. The producer asked us to stay for tomorrow’s shooting, but I had to work the next day. David and drove the hour back to Hanoi, sore and exhausted; but glad.

Playing a small part in a TV show or film . . . tick that one off the “bucket list”.

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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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