|Nuns at the Dieu Quang temple.
From a cafe on the corner of Ha Noi and Nguyen Tri Phuong
streets in Hue
at 6:15 am, sitting on a very small seat at a low table, ca phe sua
hand (by now my readers should know that ca phe sua is my addiction --
strong coffee with sweetened condensed milk served in a tiny glass which
is itself in another glass of hot water), I finally have time to write
about the South Central Viet Nam part of my trip.
The students drive by on bicycles in blue pants, white shirts and red
ties. Or the lucky ones are piled on their dad's honda. Young girls in
the same uniform, older girls in their wonderful white au dais.
parade beautifies the landscape from south to north, in villages and
cities, at the beach and on the mountains, four times a day: 6:30 am,
11:30 am, 2 pm and 5 pm. The cafe is filling up quickly with men ready
to start their day -- smoking, uong ca phe (drinking
coffee), talking and laughing. I bet
the Vietnamese men in the U.S. miss that. (Two burly bald Westerners
with pierced noses walk by -- ugh!)
Well, it's Tuesday April 16 (despite what the Subject line says), and my
trip is at the midpoint geographically and chronologically. Two weeks
travelling North from Sai Gon to Hue have produced their share of
unforgettable memories, which I'll share with you, my adventuresome
readers. I've met people from every range of the political spectrum,
and have taken some trips that I wouldn't particularly want to repeat!
So far, 3 people have tried to trick me, 1 successfully. By the way, I'm
also at the midpoint in provinces: 27 visited, 3 missed, 31 yet to see.
(I've included Da Lat province and one or two others that I visited on my
last trip but not on this one.)
I planned to travel north from Saigon by train or local bus, but at the
end bought a tourist minibus ticket from Saigon to Hue, via Mui Ne beach,
Nha Trang and Hoi An, for $14. It's just too cheap and easy to pass up.
But the rest of the trip will be train to the bigger cities and local bus
to villages. I bought the minibus ticket at the suggestion of the
reception lady at a $3 "dorm" hotel in Saigon who, for those of you who
know her, looks exactly like Mrs. Bay.
First stop was the idyllic beach town of Mui Ne. I slept in a
thatched roof cottage on the beach front under palm trees (got up in the
middle of the night to go to the bathroom, but the dogs growled at me so
I went back.) Sunbathed a bit, and visited a few sights such as some
beautiful sand dunes, and a temple built by the Indian-influenced Cham
people centuries ago. Brown cows shared the road. All very relaxing
after the hecticness of Saigon.
At the sand dunes, I talked with two photographers who worked as farmers
when they weren't taking award-winning photographs, and had picked up
quite a bit of English, Japanese and German in their spare time. I wish
I could pick up Vietnamese in my spare time.
In Phan Thiet, near Mui Ne, I was supposed to meet Kha, a young Christian
student I had met in Da Lat on my last trip. He is a hysterically funny
guy, now working as a seminarian. I wonder what his sermons are like.
Unfortunately, the difficulty of sending and receiving emails meant that
I never got his phone #, so missed the chance to see him. I also wanted
to get some photos of fishing nets on poles, which they use in Phan Thiet
to get the fish for their world-famous nuoc mam or fish sauce. (You
can tell where it's being made by following your nose.) But I never
found them either. My website schedule says for Phan Thiet: See Kha,
take pictures, neither of which materialized.
Next stop further north up the coast was the famed beach town of Nha
Trang. Vietnamese readers may have seen a Paris by Night episode in Nha
Trang. I was detemined to find a cheaper hotel there than the default
hotel where the minibus dropped us. But a young woman at the hotel made
me an offer I couldn't refuse -- a $5 room with a TV. (Most rooms so far
have been $6-8). First time I've seen TV for a month, so I caught up on
the situation in Israel (sort of, since it's in Vietnamese, and I
understand about 0.1%), and got hooked on the morning exercises.
hai, ba, bon...(one, two, three, four...)
Graceful rather than bouncy exercises.
For me the drawing card in Nha Trang wasn't the beach (anyway, the bus
conductor, a young jokester who had most of his fingers missing, told us
that there were a lot of pickpockets on the beach so we should be
careful). It was a Buddhist nunnery called Dieu Quang,
from which four
nun friends of mine in Maryland originally came.
I went there several mornings and enjoyed the delighted warmth of the
mainly young nuns, taught some English, learned some Vietnamese,
took a siesta with them in the afternoon, saw an interesting Buddhist
movie, and enjoyed their an chay (vegetarian) food.
One sweet young nun
is a carbon copy of her 10-year older sister in Maryland. One young nun
was a bit of a proselytizer, which surprised me, but I told her that I'd
gone through too many religions to be interested in starting another,
much as I respect the Buddhist viewpoint.
And in the evenings, I was lucky enough to have some Vietnamese classes
with the hotel receptionist -- a young man named Nhut, who turned out to
be an excellent teacher. He was organized, spoke clearly and slowly,
spoke English well, and was a perfect fit for me. I wish I could have
studied with him for a month.
I got brave enough to try to chat with some of the local staff in
Vietnamese, and usually got a blank stare in response. One time Nhut was
standing nearby and said, "I understood exactly what you said; I don't
know why they didn't." We decided that before trying to break into a
conversation with a Vietnamese person, I should give them some indication
Xin loi... (Please) that I would be trying to speak with them in Vietnamese.
I started to talk Vietnamese and English with the other receptionist, a
young woman. One day, with rapture in her voice, she shared the
following with me. "The national day of liberation (April 30) is
coming. Would you like to learn to sing this song: 1000 years of rule
by the Chinese, 200 by the French, 20 by the Americans, and now we are
Another great thing about the hotel was a little puppy that gently chewed
the ankles of all guests, and went to the welcome mat when he wanted to
pee. The dogs in Viet Nam are almost all small. He got a hug and a
scratch from every guest or staff who entered the lobby.
I rode briefly by the beach with a great (cute) cyclo driver, who had
been on the "wrong side" in the war, and had not had very much work. But
had "one wife, 6 children", and read lots of books.
As much fun as Nha Trang was (with a cheap room) I had to move on
sometime! I had been ahead of my schedule, but after 3 days was catching
up. The question now was -- should I take in the three provinces that
were west of the coast, in the mountains? The regular tourist minibus
just went along the coast to Da Nang, and a tour to the mountains was
five days -- way too long.
(By the way, it's 7:30 at the cafe, and most of the men have left for
their work. Adults are riding bikes or motorbikes, presumably to their
jobs. Each person is in one position -- upright. One of two expressions
-- "impassive" or laughing. I'm intrigued by the "controlled /
impassive" expressions I see around me. I like it, but I don't know
enough about why to even talk about it. In the U.S. there would be 100
different expressions and positions -- grumpy, happy, tired, angry, slouchy,
wriggly, stretchy.... An overstuffed bus drives by, policemen in khaki
with red and yellow stripes on shoulders and caps oversee a construction
site. A love song (I think) plays in the background. My courtesy glass
of tea keeps getting refilled. It's a beautiful warm morning in Hue, and
I'm lucky to be here.)
Back to the mountain question. The tour company (TM Brothers) whipped
together a solution -- get off the tour bus half way up the coast at Quy
Nhon, and then take a local bus west to the mountains (Pleiku and Kon
Tum). That way I would see 2 out of 3 mountain provinces, and have a
chance to visit (and just be quiet) at the site of some terrible
battles. Then go the next day by local bus to Da Nang on the coast. As
often happened, the local bus trips were.. um, let's just say not boring.
As the nice safe tour bus entered Quy Nhon several hours north of Nha
Trang, a banner in English (extremely unusual) said: "Welcome to Quy
Nhon. Good luck to you." I felt I would need it. I worried when there
would be a bus going to Kon Tum. And what kind -- sardine or room to
move? I didn't think of the price but I should have.
As the tour bus came to a stop, a bus to Kon Tum appeared! The conductor
ran out seeing a possible rider. I asked how much, and the tour bus
conductor also negotiated with him. I heard "Tam ngan" (8 thousand --
about 50 cents) for a 5-hour trip. Wow, even cheaper than $1 for the
3-hour trip I'd taken from Tay Ninh to Saigon. But if it's too good to
be true, it usually is.
Once in the bus (on a seat with some space) the bus conductor, a funny
guy, started in on me. My Vietnamese was just enough to encourage him to
ask questions and laugh at my response. You can always talk for 15
minutes about how old you are, the ages of your children, where you've
been, etc. and play with the beautiful babies (who tend to pee when you
hold them...) Then came the price -- "tram ngan" (100 thousand, or $7) I
had always been quoted the Vietnamese price before, and was expecting 8
thousand, so I was confused. I asked several people if that was the price
and they said it was. About triple what I'd paid before. Then the guy
-- who knew he had a fish flopping on the hook -- said when I would go
from Kon Tum to Da Nang it would be 300 thousand or $21! 300 kilometers,
he said.... I felt I was in La La land! $21 on the minibus got me from
Saigon to Ha Noi. Anyway, he was definitely playing with me, and trying
to get whatever he could I paid him the 100, and later learned that
Vietnamese would pay about 35, so the normally accepted double price for
foreigners (which I support) would have been about 70. But the Lonely
Planet says it's theoretically illegal to sell tickets to foreigners, and
the conductor can charge whatever he wants. So 100 wasn't too bad. And
when I went from Kon Tum to Da Nang, I negotiated the price to be 100 --
Kon Tum was cool, almost cold, and high in the mountains. So far the
temperature in all places has hovered between 90 and 100 (30-35C). I
bargained with the honda guy at the bus station for muoi ngan
take me to a hotel recommended by a man in the bus. But once at the
hotel, he asked me for 20, and the hotel person told me, yes it should be
20. But ha! I know enough Vietnamese now to find out that he told the
hotel person he'd brought me all the way from Pleiku to Danang! A bit
embarassed, he took off with 10. But there seems to be a different
spirit here. I don't know if it's because we're heading north, or just
Kon Tum and Pleiku are places we heard during the war. Terrible battles
took place here, one on Charlie Hill nearby where a Vietnamese commander
determined not to retreat or surrender, and lost a large number of
soldiers. A Vietnamese song was written: Nguoi o lai Charlie -- the
people stayed in Charlie. On my one day in Kon Tum, I wanted to visit a
battlefield -- just to be quiet in memory of the horrors that had taken
place. The guide I expected to use was absent -- and the guides I got
turned out to be people on the opposite end of the political spectrum
from the young girl in the Nha Trang hotel. They were Catholic
Christians, and either they or their parents had been on the "wrong"
side. So there were two reasons why their lives since 1975 had been
hell. I was saddened to hear their story, but glad to be able to talk
with them at length -- at a bar at the end of the day.
But it's 8:30 am, and perhaps this email has gone on long enough. So for
now, goodbye from the blue mountains of Kon Tum province.