VIETNAM – October 24th – November 4th 2007
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Our 10 days in Vietnam ranks as one of the most fascinating and memorable trips we have ever taken. Randye and I (Martin), with friends Elyse and Steve,
joined a “Backroads Multi-sport trip” – they are an upscale (for me very upscale) active travel company.
I have spent my entire travel life shunning “organized tours” under the assumptions they would make the travel experience too sanitized, controlled and
disconnected from the local population – well, at least in regards to this trip, I was proven wrong on all counts.
The following is not in any way a full account or chronology of this trip – way too much happened – but rather a few experience highlights that I thought worth
writing down before I forget – and that some of you may find interesting to read.
1 – HANOI AND MOPEDS
We arrived at midnight at our 5 Star Hanoi Hotel about 32 uneventful hours after leaving New Rochelle. (One can tell it is a 5 Star hotel because they have rose
petals in the toilet bowl.)
Wide awake at 7 a.m. (their time) I figured I would take a solo jog before meeting our tour group. I donned a red, white and blue US Ski Team tee shirt (a choice
I can only attribute to serious sleep deprivation) and off I went – the only westerner (at that hour) and certainly the only jogger – going down the sidewalk of one
of Hanoi’s main thoroughfares.
One is immediately struck by the endless river of mopeds (mixed with bikes & motor scooters) rushing down the street, packed 10 abreast, in every direction, all
with working horns. At least 50 mopeds to every car, many with well dressed young people. As they are the basic form of transportation they carry everything. It
is common to see bikes and mopeds piled with a weeks worth of produce or balancing more cargo then I could stuff in our SUV. You would see drivers chatting
on their cell phones or talking with the driver of the neighboring moped. Passengers often are casually sitting side saddle and some are taking naps. Parents carry
babies and entire families of 5 are common – One child stands on the front runners, one behind the driver looking over the shoulders, and one being held by the
rear passenger. (One person saw 7 squeezed on one bike). Then there are the unusual items, like the man with two large hogs, a passenger balancing a wide
screen plasma TV, someone transporting two toilet bowls, and a couple with a cow slung between them.
This was all fascinating to watch, but I needed to cross the street to get to my planned destination of Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. This seemed impossible as the
constant high speeding rush of mopeds never stopped and had no breaks. So on I ran, for about a mile, before finally coming across a (or it seemed like “the”)
Hanoi traffic light. The flow of mopeds stopped and, not knowing for how long, I raced full tilt across the street in front of them. Maybe 2/3 of the way, with the
safety of the other side in site, a motor scoter with an Army Officer came roaring out of the stopped line right at me. He was wearing that deep green uniform -
distantly familiar in my memory - and seemed to be glaring at my red, white and blue tee shirt. I froze. He veered. We missed. He stared. I sheepishly shrugged,
and then jogged the rest of the way across – not quite sure what happened – but well aware I was missing something. Well I saw the presidential palace, the
Mausoleum and headed back, re-finding my traffic light, crossing more gingerly, and getting myself back to the Hotel in time for the start of “Backroads” first
activity – a walking tour of Hanoi with the other 20 travelers.
In front of our Hotel our local guide “Dy” started by saying the first thing he needed to do was teach us the secrets of crossing the streets in Hanoi. So I was
thinking that maybe this organized tour stuff might actually have some value after all.
He explained the mopeds never stop – I already knew that – so, you must simply step out into the traffic and walk steadily (never run), straight across the street.
You do this one at a time – or in pairs lined up in the direction of the traffic. Do not slow down, do not stop and never – ever - take a step back. It is also
advisable for novices to not look at the moped coming at you (like in rock climbing never look down). The idea is that the mopeds will be looking out for you and
will “flow’ around you as you move across the street. He then demonstrated as we all held our breath and watched his head bob above the tide of bikes; he
waved from the other side, repeated the process, and returned to us in one piece. He also clarified some of the more subtle point such as “one way” signs and red
lights are considered “advisory”. Also, most importantly, a moped with a 1000 pound refrigerator on its back (a not uncommon sight) will stop or veer or flow
around absolutely nothing – so must be give full right of way privileges. But he assured us, with these rules we would be safe – and none of us were hit or even
observed an accident.
So I discover in my very first hour in Vietnam that crossing the street constituted genuine “Adventure travel” and watching a busy moped intersection, working at
full speed, was truly top notch entertainment.
Vietnam - Kayaking, Biking and various other mis-adventures Oct. / Nov. 2007
2 - VIETNAM, AMERICA, THE WAR AND FORGIVENESS
Our local guide “Dy”, who was born as the war was ending, spoke perfect English. His father was a translator for the US troops, in what is referred to here as
the “American War”. After escaping from one of the communist “re education” camps he taught his young son English. Of limited use initially, he foresaw that
fluent English would one day be a valuable, marketable skill, which would lift his son out of poverty.
But it was not just Dy who was happy about the influx of American tourists; the whole country seemed to be. The “Museum of American War Crimes” has been
diplomatically renamed to “War Remnants Museum”. The infamous “Hanoi Hilton” focused only on the prisons use by French to hold Vietnamese patriots, not
on the Vietnamese use of it for captured American POWs. There is even a place next door for American POWs to come and stay with their families. They are
all rooting for John McCain to be our next president as they think his 5 year stay in Hanoi will then bring in more tourists to see the sites. They have a nice
plaque overlooking the lake where he was shot down.
The whole city strikes one as vibrant and growing – matching the statistics that make Vietnam one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Commercial
enterprises are sprouting up everywhere in this so called “communist” country. As it was explained by Dy, market capitalism is spreading like “dominoes” from
China throughout Indo China, and no where more so then in Vietnam. He was well aware of the irony of his choice of phrases.
The residue of communism is limited. Only ½ of 1% of farms are still communal, only the bureaucracy seems to remain fully in force. For example the stay of
one to the same room. The overall transition to capitalism has only happened in the last ten years and has not been easy. We were told the richest members of
the society seem to be lowly paid bureaucrats (who get $35 a month) but also got inside information on where new land development would happen and made
fortunes in land speculation. The country is filled with commercial and residential buildings a ridiculous 10 feet wide – even if they are 5 stories high and 50 feet
deep. The socialist era law that exempted structures 10 feet wide from taxes has been repealed, but a country full of these building remains. Along with the new
elegant shops and top notch resorts, the fields are still worked by women driving a water buffalo pulling a plow. Their two lane roads sometimes only have one
lane available as rice farmers find the road a perfect location for drying out their rice.
But everyone seems happy to see Americans, they all smile and say hello – especially the children. So the question was asked “have you forgiven us”. The
answer that emerged was deeply surprising to me. As the overwhelming majority of the country was born after the war, they looked at the “American War” as
mainly history. More importantly they look at their many victories first over China, then the French and finally over the most powerful country on the earth - the
United States – with great PRIDE, not with anger. They see themselves as the victors, not the vanquished, allowing them to be magnanimous toward us. They
are happy to have us come back and see their country now and show us how it is prospering. Americans of my generation may be angry or bitter over Vietnam,
but the Vietnamese people are not.
4 - BIKING THE BACKROADS OF VIETNAM
Biking the backroads of Vietnam – that was our basic plan – and finally it was going to come to pass. But first - as with street crossing - we needed some
instruction, as the rules here are just not the same. On a standard two lane road, other then the normal two lanes, in Vietnam there will be two additional phantom
lanes, on the outside of the street, going in opposite directions. So if you turn left into a two lane street you have the “advantage” of being able to do that with out
checking for oncoming traffic since you initially stay in the extra phantom left lane going opposite most traffic till you can slide over to the main right lane. The key
thing to remember is that when biking you must fight the tendency to stay all the way to your right as this space is designated for left turning vehicles – of all sizes. If
this explanation sounds confusing it is much more confusing in actual practice.
The next rule is never ever look back, the bikes did not even have mirrors. Those approaching you from behind are “supposed” to avoid you, and you are
required to avoid anything in front of you, but the firm suggestion is you change directions gradually. Of course this had to be done while at the same time avoiding
pedestrians that confidently stepped in front of you assuming you know how to flow around them.
All educated we were ready to ride, but were told we had missed the “warm-up days” so would now start by climbing 5 miles straight up to Cloudy Pass
reaching, in our first 5 miles, what was meant to be the high point after three days. The weather alternated between warm with extreme humidity to refreshing
heavy rain (much preferable), but the rain showers only lasted from a few minutes to as short as a few seconds.
At the top of the pass a collection of girls tried to sell you souvenirs with the rehearsed lines “You’re so handsome” or “If you buy something I remember you
forever” or with a poor attempt at making a forlorn face (since if you smile at them they inevitably break into a bright smile right back). I discovered when I took
out my “gorp” the selling immediately stopped as they vied for cashews or M&Ms. If one girl got 3 M&Ms then the each of the others felt entitled to the same
number. It got somewhat out of hand as they then tried to trade back less favored pieces for those they valued more. On this pass I think I saw the only
Vietnamese with maybe 10 extra pounds, and all her girlfriends vehemently tried to stop her from eating even one M&M - so maybe it is community peer pressure
that keeps them all so trim. The 5 miles down from the pass was even more fun, as was biking along the famous “China beach”, the famous R & R local for US
3 - TRAVELS AND TRAVAILS IN VIETNAM
The country of Vietnam surpassed my high expectations in almost every way. We did the standard tourist things – like the Hanoi water puppet theater and the
Cha-Ca restaurant where for 125 years (5 generations) they have only served a single fish dish – not surprisingly it was magnificent. But we also got to see
Vietnam’s “backloads” by spending half a day in a small remote island based village (ThoHa) which was still trying to hold onto its way of life in this rapidly
changing country. The village head proudly showed us around and explained the rice noodle “industry” they had created that provided the town its primary
livelihood. Although very poor by our standards everyone seemed healthy and happy and the village seemed very functional. It is hard to say that they will all be
better off once the commercialization taking place in the rest of Vietnam reaches them.
Our main excursion in the North was to HaLong Bay, which is filled with three thousand limestone islands, each with sheer cliff walls rising 400-800 feet straight
out of the water. With the possible exception of Alaska’s Prince William Sound I can think of no place on the ocean that is more stunningly beautiful. We spent
two days and nights cruising the bay in our “Junk” and kayaking on its more remote inlets and lagoons – some of which can only be reached via underground
tunnels connecting them to the ocean. In only 10 years – since its tourism potential was discovered – this bay has turned from a remote fishing backwater to a
bustling community with hundreds of “Junks” taking tourists out for excursions.
The next morning we visited the ruins of MySon. (This is Vietnam’s version of Angkor Wat, and represents the capital of a 14th century civilization that ruled a
third of present Vietnam). Sadly it was seriously damaged during the “American” war, and restoration – by the Polish – is going slowly. This days biking was to
be through the lowlands, past rice paddies and rural villages. It all started well enough, in finally sunny weather, with our group strung out over the miles of
countryside roads. We were all unaware that the regional water levels were rapidly rising to a major flood stage. First we found ourselves peddling though
shallow water during the low sections but soon this rose to knee level and higher. We all got separated from our support vans, the Backroad tour leaders, and
our fellow travelers. Although it is hard to follow directions if the road is under water, we had no choice but to keep pushing forward; riding the dry sections and
wading the wet ones. In some places we found enterprising local fisherman ready to row us over their section of road. In other long sections we found the road
covered in waist deep water that had such a strong current we needed to carry our bikes over our heads.
The safety of all this was dubious at best, but it is on just these occasions you are truly grateful that you actually had the typhus, polio, hepatitis and tetanus shots.
Randye thought that if the current was moving fast enough, than the water quality should be safe. I think this rule applied to New England streams and not to
water rushing over and through the fields, homes and streets in Vietnam. The rats at least seemed to stay on dry ground – or they knew something about staying
out of the water that we did not. Perhaps it was the large back water snakes – which we were assured were harmless. We were informed that only the small
colorful snakes are deadly poisonous. But not to worry – they only travel on top of the water so you can always spot them and if you make waves they can not
get to you. I never saw one of these so I never had to try that technique, which might have been tough while carrying a bike. Perhaps most questionable was the
practice of passing (hand to hand) the downed (but I assumed still live) electrical power lines over the heads of the people in the sections where we were using
boats. Since you are reading this you can surmise that we were not bitten or electrocuted or drowned or swept away and that we successfully made it through
some dozen water crossings, eventfully reuniting with our group.
So far everything had gone largely as planned. But our Backroads leaders (Holly & Gregg) had told us that in 14 years, and hundreds of trips, no Vietnam trip
had ever gone according to plan - in Vietnam it simply does not work that way. But even they could not have known that our trip was destined to break every
Global Backroads record for things run amuck – and in turn give us all a true flavor of what traveling in Vietnam is about.
The official itinerary had us flying from Hanoi to Hue to start the biking part of our trip. For a 10 a.m. flight we needed to have the bags out of our room at 6:
30 a.m. to allow Holly & Gregg to get them to the airport ahead of time to “improve” the probability they would make it onto our flight. We were warned, as
we went to the airport for our 1 hour flight, that 1 in 3 flights in Vietnam are delayed. What I did not realize was that in Vietnam a delay of a 10 a.m. flight
meant is was now scheduled for 3:30. But Backroards had held on to our tour bus, so Plan B was initiated and we went back to Hanoi to visit a museum, and
then back to the airport. This time on going through security the officer looked at my passport, then at me, then at my passport, then at me, and finally
shrugged and let me pass. Randye however was stopped as she did not have the beard that was shown on her passport photo. Well, she called me back, we
exchanged passports, and now the security people seemed much happier. We then discovered our flight was canceled, for unspecified reasons, so back we
went to Hanoi for dinner (Plan C), while Holly & Gregg were finally able to book us on a later flight to DaNang and then arranged a bus to meet us there and
take us to Hue (Plan K). I will spare the reader failed or abandoned plans D-J. Back at the Hanoi airport we patiently waited through the various flight
cancellation announcements, and we all cheered when our flight only had a gate change. Our group had three rows on this overbooked flight and I ended up in
seat 35E. That might not seem important but it appeared this was the only seat that the airline assigned to every overbooked person trying to make this flight.
Four times a flight attendant brought someone to my seat, and we would repeatedly have to explain we had a block of seat and no – this seat was not
available. So some inside advice is, if traveling in Vietnam, never take seat 35E.
The DaNang flight finally took off in perfect order – but that cannot be said of the landing. Just as we approached the DaNang airport a horrific storm blew in
and the plane went violently sideways (left and right), and then it slammed into the runway. We rolled and skidded for the longest time, grateful for the
extended DaNang runways – built by the US Army. We transferred to our waiting bus and headed down the single road to Hue in the ongoing, vicious – and
unexpected – storm. But an hour and a half into our two hour trip the road was found to be totally flooded. Plan “N” – to get us into a “suitable” hotel on the
DaNang side of the flood failed as none had space and spending the night in the bus was not seen as an attractive option, especially as the water levels were
still rising. Holly & Gregg eventually found a dump truck with high enough clearance, negotiated some terms, then found a ladder and got us all transferred to
this newest form of transportation. With this latest plan change they seemed to officially abandon the practice of giving out new plan “letter” designations. In
any case all twenty of our fellow travelers were very good natured about this turn of events, but I still do not expect the photos of this to make Backroad’s
elegant catalog. After a half mile transfer we got into waiting vans (conjured up by Holly & Gregg) on the other side of the flooded area and continued on our
journey. We arrived in our Hue resort some 17 hours after we had put our bags out in the morning. Since none of us had traveled with rain gear we were all
cold and soaked to the bone after riding in the open dump truck in torrential rains. This did not stop the super polite and eager to please Hue resort staff from
handing each of us the traditional moist towellet. None of us had the heart to explain to them we might have preferred a dry towel.
We spent the following day seeing Hue’s many interesting sites and visiting the now flooded Citadel – the location of one of the major battles of the
“American” War in 1968. With most roads under water the biking part of our trip was gong to be deferred just a little longer.
FINAL IMPRESSIONS ON VIETNAM
Our 49 hour journey back to New Rochelle from HoiAn was uneventful, other then a half day tour of Seoul - Korea, but it did give me ample time to reflect on
what really impressed me on this trip.
I was certainly impressed with the Backroads leader’s - Holly & Gregg - ability to shuffle logistics in a rapidly changing environment; with all 20 fellow travelers
in our group who jelled and accepted with good humor the many plan changes; with the stunning beauty of the country from the jungle to the ocean; but most
impressive were the Vietnamese themselves. All of those in the tourist business were friendly and welcoming, but what was unexpected was that even the poorest
peasants, who collected firewood for sale high in the mountains, would smile, wave and yell “Hello” as we passed. The children would universally happily pose
for photos and only expect to see the digital image in return. I recently read how an American veteran on his visit came across a former Viet Cong guerrilla fighter
who not only welcomed him but thanked him for coming back. Before my visit I would not have believed this reaction – but now, having been there, it is what I
would have expected.
HoiAn – our final destination in Vietnam seemed an appropriate representative of the country. An old town with beautiful Buddhist temples mixed with modern
deluxe resorts. HoiAn has turned itself into is a world class destination for elegant custom tailoring, but it also still has a typical third world market with foods and
goods sold in the open. The town was half underwater from the flood, but showed no signs of the stress one might expect from such an event; shop owners just
moved their wares to higher ground to wait for the water to recede.
One can plainly see that this is a county on the rise and despite the horrific damage inflicted during the war, that this is a land and a people who will prosper.
Vietnam was not only not destroyed – but seems to have come out stronger. It was with a sense of relief and gratitude to see how well this country, and these
people, are doing.
Martin Friedrichs - November 16, 2007