By by Jacquelin M. Sonderling
“Vietnam?!” my friends asked in surprise. “The government tried to send me there 25 years ago! You call that a vacation??”
Yes, Vietnam. Chalk it up in equal part to a love of Southeast Asia, a desire to resolve lingering feelings about the war – and pure adventurism. When President Clinton lifted the trade embargo, I decided it see Vietnam while it was still – well, Vietnam.
My first glimpse of Vietnam was from above – a patchwork quilt of crops that could easily be mistaken for mid-western American farmland. But once on the ground, there’s no question – Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!
Let’s answer a few of the most-asked questions up front: hotels are clean but basic. Most have air conditioning, as well as lukewarm and cold running water. The food is delicious and the people warm and welcoming!
My introduction was Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City by the politically correct. But throughout the country, most Vietnamese till refer to it by its pre-Liberation Day name.
Saigon retains glimmers of its former beauty and grandeur. It’s easy to understand how it earned the nickname, “the Pearl of the Orient.” If you walk down some of the wider avenues that are lined with trees and park areas, and squint your eyes just a little, the disrepair isn’t quite as obvious. Huge elegant European-design homes and buildings and the smaller more delicate filigree of the Vietnamese-style structures fill the boulevards. The landmarks still stand – both the famous and the infamous. The former United State Embassy, for instance, is now the home of the Vietnamese government’s Oil Exploration Corporation. As I stand in front of it, I can visualize the helicopters taking off for the last time, hear in my mind the screams and yells of the people left behind, feel the fear and the panic of the unknown future. Not one to normally take pictures of landmarks, I slide my camera out of my bag and surreptitiously snap a few pictures. I feel uneasy, as I image many Japanese tourists must feel when they visit Pearl Harbor.
Saigon is definitely meant for two wheels and not two feet. The streets are crammed with bicycles, motorbikes and cyclos, with the car population growing steadily. Drivers zip nonchalantly through the streets, one hand continuously pressing down on the horn. The first two traffic lights had gone in about six months before my trip – but no one seemed to pay any attention to them. I got the feeling that rather than traffic laws, there are suggestions. And if the suggestions inconvenience the drivers – well, then just never mind!
The safest, and easiest, alternative is to do what the locals do – hire the Vietnamese version of the pedicab – the cyclo. You’re expected to bargain for the fare, and protocol calls for you to do so before you climb in. You can usually knock at least 5,000 dong (roughly 50 cents) off the first price quoted. But even if you overpay, it won’t be by ore than a few cents. And the fun you’ll have is well worth twice the price!
The cyclo drivers in all cities are a good judge of the pulse of the people. They’re anxious to talk, especially when they find out you’re from America. Everyone has a story, and everyone wants to tell it, no matter how happy or tragic. One of my cycle drivers proudly told me about his brother, an American-trained South Vietnamese Army pilot who died after two years in a re-education camp. The seamstress who measured me for my ao dais, the traditional flowing silk dress Vietnamese women wear, has many relatives now living in the U.S. They return to Vietnam every year, wanting her to visit them in America. The man who walked up to me in the state department store just wanted to show me the English dictionary a former serviceman had sent him from the States. They want to reach out and touch you, share their memories and experiences and expect nothing in return except a good listener and a chance to practice their English.Day One – Saigon to Dalat
We climb into our escort van and ride for about two hours to get past the crush of Saigon traffic. We unload at Thoi Thang – and draw a small crowd. The circle of fascinated on-lookers includes both adults and children. As a woman, especially one wearing bike shorts, I draw a few more stares. Bob, one of my fellow travelers, is the first one to push off.
I follow about ten minutes behind Bob. As I start pedaling, the heady reality begins to set in. I am actually riding my bicycle along National Highway One in Vietnam! Any doubts I had that I could make it on this trip have just vanished!
Along the way, people would stare, this look of “I must be seeing things” on their faces. It was great! A lot of people waived and yelled hello. I discovered that if I waived at the ones who just stared, most would return my waive.
About a mile into my ride, I pick up an unofficial escort – two young men on a motorbike, fascinated by my bicycle. They ride beside me for about half a mile, not speaking – just examining all the gears and gadgets. Then they wave good-bye and continue on their way. Along the highway, people stare, wave and yell. They’re as fascinated with us as we are with them. Often, they’ll ride up to us and start talking, their conversations following a pattern: “Hello! Whas your name? Where you from? Ah, America! America number one! This your first time Vietnam? How you like? How old are you? Are you married?” The last two questions are entirely appropriate in Vietnam – age and marriage are both quite honored.
As I get my first look at the land that is Vietnam, I’m taken by the beauty of the lush, green rolling hills. The foliage in some areas is thick, jungle-like. In others, it’s miles of rice paddies, broken sporadically by groves of palm trees. Closer to Dalat, the landscape changes again, becoming endless miles of tea fields and a startling brick red soil contrasting brilliantly with the deep green vegetation. It’s one of the most strikingly beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. It’s miles and miles of this rich, green tea with a few rice and corn fields thrown in.
And then the winding road up into Dalat. Maybe not as much winding as it is steep. I choose to do the climb by van. The cooler air is a relief after the hot, humid temperatures down below. Some of the people we see are wearing leather jackets and – believe it or not – fur hats! There’s certainly a chill in the air at night – but fur??
At the top of the pine-covered mountain (yes, pine trees do grow in Vietnam!), is a town that looks more European than Asian. In the 1950’s, Dalat was a big-game hunting ground boasting an abundant supply of deer, wild boar, black bears, panthers, tigers and elephants. The hunting days are long gone, and Dalat is now a vacation getaway, not only for tourists but for the Vietnamese. But memories of its past glory days as a hunt capital remain: local restaurant menus still offer venison, rabbit, boar and various forms of snakes. You’ll also find an abundance of stuffed wild animals for sale.The beautiful chateaux that fill the hills used to belong to the wealthy (including our hotel, Khach San Minh Tam, which was the summer home of Madame Nhu, the notorious sister-in-law of President Ngo Dinh Diem.) Now most of these homes are either used a guest houses – or belong to Communist Party officials. There’s apparently a lot of money in Dalat – relatively speaking. >Day Two – Dalat
It turns out that the rose garden of our hotel is the place for Vietnamese tourists to come and take pictures. The women are dressed in their finest ao dais, the traditional Vietnam dress. The combination of the beautiful women in their brightly patterned silks and the blooming flowers is exquisite. The parade starts about 7:00A.M. – so woe to anyone in a front room who was planning to sleep late! Fortunately, my room is in the back, with a spectacular view overlooking the mountains and valleys. Even so, I’m up with the sun about 5:30.
I want to see about buying some local artwork, so we hop on our bikes for a sightseeing tour. I’m having a few problems with a disabled rear derailleur, bent during transit in the plane’s cargo hold. But I mange to pedal into town, where I almost collide with a woman on a motorbike. I try to assure her I’m uninjured – but she doesn’t understand and stares at me, her eyes as big a saucers!
We continue up the small hill to the Pagoda of the Divine Calmness Bamboo Garden, home of a very eccentric Zen Buddhist monk and painter Vien Thuc. The small monk chatters away to us, leading us through a tangle of plants and passage ways into the studio that holds, conservative guess, thousands of his watercolor paintings. His goal, he tells me, is to create 100,000. I’m sure he’s easily half-way there!
Vien Thuc is self-taught in five languages. In his rough-hewn, overgrown studio, he holds my hand as he half reads, half sings a Vietnamese verse of his poetry that I ask him to translate. Then he kisses me on the cheek and pulls me into yet another room filled with even more paintings to show me the same verse in English. This one, I read to him.
He carefully rolls up the paintings I’ve purchased (three of them – total $10.00 He seemed surprised that I offered him so much. I think I may have over paid by a dollar or so.), wrapping them so I can carry them on my bike. But before he’ll let us leave, I have to sign his guest book and promise to send copies of the pictures I’ve taken.
Tonight, before dinner, we get a Vietnamese language lesson. Finally, we begin to make some sense out of those sounds! It’s really quite a musical language, with different tones meaning different words. I feel as if I’m getting the hang of it – after all, most language don’t come with pronunciation guides. But that, I discover, is what many of the curlicue markings on the letters mean! But still, it’s difficult. Did I just call my mother “mommy” – or “rice seedling?” We learn to ask such profound questions as “how much?” “what is your name?” “where is the post office?” We now can also say “delicious!” and for us, most important, “bicycle” (xe dap.) We’re all feeling somewhat more literate!Day Three – On the Road from Dalat to Nha Trang
The downhill ride through what I called the Khyber Pass – but is actually called the Ngoan Muc Pass – was spectacular. But I didn’t think I was going to make it! I rode two feet and another tire blew! (This is number three.) Again, it seemed like the whole town gathered to watch and “help.” While the on-lookers supervised the “lien xo,” or foreigners, I held a limited conversation with a village woman who admires my pale skin and proudly tells me she’s 53. In Vietnam, it’s quite acceptable to ask someone you’ve just met how old he or she is. Basically, the older you are, the more respect and honor you’re due. So older is a good thing. But it takes a little getting used to if you’re an American. I oblige my new friend with the information. She is more than happy to pose for a picture for me – but also makes me come stand in the shade because the sun is so hot and my pale skin is so beautiful. I want to tell her I’m pale because I just don’t tan, and that I’m slathered in sunblock – but I don’t know the words. Besides, I don’t think the concept of “Bullfrog #35” exists in this small village!
Finally, I’m on my way gain! The descent from Dalat is about 4200’. It’s absolutely spectacular, the steep, winding road bounded with luxuriant greenery. Every now and then, an overloaded bus will chug its way up the hill, belching black clouds of diesel exhaust, blasting its horn in warning. But otherwise, the only sound is the wind in my ears and the constant chirping of the cicadas. It takes a lot of concentration to keep my mind on the road – many times I toy with the idea of pulling over to the side and losing myself in the meditation of life for a while. This has to be the most beautiful part of Vietnam.
After 14.4 miles of bumpy downhill (but hey! Who’s counting?), some of it past a marble quarry, we stop for a snack – a bowl of pho, of course, and some delicious yellow bean cakes cut in diamond shapes. I love these and would ask for the recipe – if I thought I had a snowball’s chance of getting one I could translate!
Back on flat land again, I stop to take a picture of a couple of brick houses. Throughout the country, the houses are the same style – constructed of brick, painted bright colors and topped with lintels with granite or marble. While I’m shooting, a young woman comes out of a third house and calls me over. The whole extended family comes out of its two-room house to “talk.” I pull out the notes from my Vietnamese lesson the previous night, and they carefully read the page over, passing it around the group with great interest. I discover the woman speaks English, goes to college where she’s studying to be a teacher -- and has a cousin in Texas. I offer to take a picture that I can send to her cousin. Everyone crowds into the picture, and I snap away. They seem a little surprised that I want to take more than one. It occurs to me that film and processing may be a luxury to these people. After we take the pictures, we exchange addresses and I promise to send copies of the pictures to all. As I leave, the young woman looks me in the eye and says, “I will never forget you.” Nor I her.
Farther up the road, I meet up with Patrick, who’s waiting for me at a roadside “café.” I tell him I’m having trouble shifting, so while he tests out my bike, I sit down for a drink.
“Coka-da?” the woman who runs the café asks, pointing at Patrick’s cola. I nod and watch as her daughter picks up a chunk of ice, carefully washes off the dirt under a stream of running water, hacks off a piece and puts it in a glass for me. What I hadn’t learned during our language lessons was “no ice!” I can’t get the words out – and the glass with the potentially offending ice is now before me. Realizing it would be rude to fling the ice across the road, I try to hold it to the side of the glass while I drink the cola. As if that’s going to keep any nasties from the dirt from entering my system! Oh well…when in Vietnam…Days Four and Five – Nha Trang
It’s a good thing this is a non-riding day for us. My rear derailleur finally gave up. So while Patrick and our Vietnamese guide, Ahn Nhut, scour the bike shops in the beach resort of Nha Trang for a suitable part (no easy trick in Vietnam, we believe, where the only bikes with gears are those brought in by foreigners. And actually, I’m kind of hoping they’ll only find an old Russian replacement. What a kick that’ll be to take back to my Beverly Hills bike shop!), the rest of us take a cruise on the South China Seas in the bay off Nha Trang. There, the water is a clear blue, clean and warm, a pleasure to swim in. Whenever we get, hot, the boat stops, and we just jump in to cool off. It’s a lazy day, a pleasant rest from our first two days of long-haul biking – and preparation for what lies ahead!
It’s in Nha Trang that we meet other Westerners for the first time. It’s already a favorite tourist spot for the few Westerners making their way in. Among them are several Canadians, including a woman who’s been on the road for nine months and a man who’s been traveling for seven months. The thought appeals to me – until I realize I’d have no place to put the stuff I buy and have to carry all my clothes and stuff on my back. No thank you!
Some of these people we’ll run into again as we tour the temples and other sights in the area. And, as we discover, we’ll continue to see them on the road, since there’s really only one route through the country
Some I’m hoping we don’t run into are a group of Israelis on our cruise. There was one woman who refused a piece of watermelon, telling the waiter, “It’s better in Israel.” And there was the guy in the tiny bathing suit who sang his songs so loud that no one could carry on a conversation. And the stupid idiot who insisted on pulling our flat back to the boat to show off how strong he was, not realizing how improper it was for him to just take over and shove the young Vietnamese man aside. These people definitely outdid the “Ugly American” reputation.
Days Six – Nha Trang
Miracle of miracles! Patrick and Ahn Nhut have not only repaired my bike – they’ve round the actual Shimano part needed to fix it! Patrick feels he overpaid – probably because he was a foreigner who obviously needed the part. But the total cost of repair was only 30 cents! At my bike shop at home – tack on a few more zeroes! (And I admit – I’m a little disappointed that I won’t be going home with a Russian derailleur. Oh well…)
This morning we brave the Nha Trang traffic – not nearly as bad as Saigon but still not for the faint of heart! Our first stop – the rocks of the Promontory and a spectacular view of the water and coast. Many Vietnamese students go there on Sundays to practice their English. And practice on us they did!
We road on to the Cham Towers, where we encountered what seemed to be an endless stream of beggars. Many seemed to be physically fine – just old. But several definitely needed help. One young man was most like a war victim – missing his left hand at the wrist and his right arm about the elbow. Another had lost a leg. Both were probably victims of bombs.
Further on, at the Big Buddha on the Hill (as well called it!) we ran into more beggars, this time all women. Most were elderly, with the exception of a young, pregnant one who kept pushing her toddler toward us. The child had her hand outstretched for money.
The bright spot at the temple – we caught the end of a ceremony. The monks’ chanting always touches my soul.
All that sightseeing made us hungry, so our next stop was for lunch – ice cream, fruit shakes and banana splits at the Creamery – the “Second” best in Nha Trang. In Vietnam, it seems, if someone opens a business, and it’s successful, then someone else will open the same business right next door, anticipating more success. This was the case of two ice cream shops opening next door to each other – one claiming to be best, and the better one claiming second best.
Days Seven and Eight – Nha Trang to Hoi An, by way of Qui Nhon and Quang Ngai
We head off for Hoi An, with overnights in between at two very forgettable towns, Qui Nhon and Quang Ngai.
We start with a climb that for me was fairly difficult – but well worth it. In all the small towns we passed through, people stared and waived. In some, I could hear a child’s voice shouting, “Lien xo! Lien xo!” almost like an alarm, letting people know we were coming.
All along the highway, people stand in the doorways of their homes, shops or cafes and call out, “Hello! Come here!” Others ride up to you on their bikes or motorbikes and start conversations. I answer, using my best Vietnamese from my single language lesson, trying to explain that we “xe dap Saigon Hue” (pigeon for “bike Saigon Hue.”) But I know that most of what I say is lost in the translation.
Our lunch stop in Tuy Hoa is one of the best! Patrick and I arrived before the others. I saw him taking off his shoes and socks, and followed suit. We dived into the warm, salty ocean – oh, it felt so good! And I looked so funny! Bike shorts and running top! But oh – I didn’t want to come out of the water!
The restaurant was more like a large plantation house – high ceilings with fans, shuttered windows all wide open – it was so cool and relaxing that no one wanted to leave!
As we ride along, we see all sorts of things drying by the road – rice, yams, coconuts, peanuts. We see huge flat baskets of grains. And women with conical straw hats and bandanas wrapped around their faces tending to the miles and miles of fields and paddies.
By now, I’ve decided that a trip to Vietnam is whatever you want it to be – a memorial to a war that killed more than 53,000 Americans and close to one million Vietnamese. Or an adventure, an exploration and discovery of a new culture. For me, this trip isn’t about staying lost in the past. But even so, there were certain things I felt I needed to see. One of those was the memorial to the My Lai Massacre.
We don’t ride our bikes into Tu Cong hamlet, where the memorial stands. Instead, we ride in our van. We’ll get back on our bikes later.
The way into Tu Cong is little more than a one-lane dirt road, lined alternately on either side by thick jungle growth and rice paddies. As we get closer to the infamous site, I try to imagine what was going through the soldier’s minds so many years ago. I know there’s nothing that can even begin to explain or excuse the atrocities, but I try to image their experience, so different from mine. There’s a claustrophobic feeling on this road, thick jungle on either side, not knowing whether the villagers were friend or foe, and this mission was coming just weeks after the Tet Offensive.
The only one speaking in the van was Ahn Nhut, telling us about the men and women who remain in prison today, unwilling to submit to re-education camps. Ahn Nhut spent two years behind bars for his service to the South Vietnamese and American troops. But soon, even he stops speaking, and we ride in silence.
We’re the only visitors that morning. The chirping of birds and cicadas are the only sounds that break the silence as we walk into what was Tu Cong. A path leads through the park, small statues of blockish figures on either side. At the end of the path sits a huge stone carving. Behind it, the graves of the victims, buried in family groups and marked with their names and ages. We spend some times walking the grounds, looking at the ditch where the villagers died and going through the museum. David, our fourth rider, is 48 and was stationed in Vietnam for about a year in 1968. Bob is too young to remember the war. And I was a teen-aged protester. David and I talk a little, but mostly, we keep our thought to ourselves.
Later, we get back on our bikes for the final stretch into Hoi An. Patrick and I hit the road about 10 to 15 miles further up the road from the others. I take off first, and I must be really cranking along, ‘cause no one catches up! And this is a hot stretch – no trees to offer any shade.
As I’m peddling along, I hear a creak…creak…creak, but soon realize it’s coming from a rider in front of me. He seems a little strange – turns and just stares at me. I try to pass, but he catches up. So I slow down. It’s a bit eerie, but I think he’s really just curious.
The two guys on the motorbike aren’t curious. They’re out to have some punk fun, and I’m the target. First, I feel someone yank on my tee shirt. Ok. I laugh. David had his buns patted, now it’s my turn. I look around and see two guys on a red motorbike, laughing. I laugh, too. But they want more and start to edge me off the road. I stop. The I start again, and this time they try outright to run me off the road, laughing all the time. As they circle back, I squirt the driver in the chest (I should have gone for the face) with my water bottle. That just makes him laugh more. I use a few English obscenities – I can’t remember the Vietnamese swear words Patrick had taught me just the night before!
The motorbike driver leaves and goes up the road a bit. I know he’s waiting for me, and I decide not to play his game. Instead, I’ll wait for Patrick to catch up to me. But before he gets there, I notice two cops on a motorbike. They look so young and much too think for their new, sharply pressed uniforms. At first, I’m not sure why they’re here – am I about to be hassled as a foreigner? It doesn’t take long before a second motorbike of cops appears. I’m puzzled and just wish either Patrick or the van would get here.
Within a minute or so, the guys on the motorbike come back, looking for me. Now it clicks. Now I know why the cops are there. Either they’ve been watching us xe-dap – or someone in the gathering crowd called for help.
I make eye contact with one of the cops and nod to him at the two punks ride by laughing. The cops take off after them. I thank the village people, who are gathered behind me – and head off into the sunset. I never saw the cops – or the punks – again.Days Eight, Nine and Ten – Hoi An
As we travel along, I notice that all of the towns and villages look more or less the same, just with differing degrees of poverty. The older people working by the roadsides seem more than willing to be photographed and often break into huge grins when you thank them, especially if you say it in Vietnamese (com on, pronounced “gum un.”)
We finally reach Hoi An, a quiet seaside town, and one of the oldest seaports in Southeast Asia. It was a major international trading port during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It also contains some of the earliest fragments of Vietnamese civilization and provides a wonderful lesson in the country’s early commerce. Today, it’s a sleepy little town, with some of the best food in a country full of incredible food. But my favorite part – cars are not allowed on the streets so you don’t feel like you’re taking your life in your hands every time you cross the street! It’s a pleasure to park our bikes and rest our now-tender behinds for a couple of days!
Our hotel, Khach San Hoi An (Hotel Hoi An), is a colonial-style complex that was used by the Marines during the war. I’m convinced the cement slab I can see from my room that holds drying laundry had a previous life as a helicopter pad.
Our dinner at Miss Ly’s is true fusion of East and West. Avocados are abundant in Vietnam – but not mashed. So Patrick and company have taught Miss Ly to make guacamole. We toss in the black beans David has brought along, dig in with the deed fried egg roll wrappers and voila! Guacamole Vietnamese style! (Is it any wonder I didn’t lose any weight on this trip? In fact, I’m the only one I know who goes on a bicycle trip through the tropics – and gains weight!)
It’s a little cooler in Hoi An – in fact, so mild that we opt for rooms without air conditioning, thinking the ceiling fans in the lofty rooms will keep us cool. We turn in early on our first night, tired from two days of hard riding. From a distance, I heard the soft sounds of chanting. Devout Buddhists at prayer, I imagined, lulled by the soft sounds. Sometime in the night, I heard strange noises coming from the hotel lobby. I listened carefully – it was cheering as the locals tuned in to the World Soccer games. It must have been 3:00A.M. – and yet they were glued to the live coverage broadcast on the hotel’s television set!
Ahn Nhut does double duty today as he leads us through town. Among other things, we visit the Phung Hung Home, built more than 200 years ago. The architecture combines three styles – Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese, the major influences in Hoi An over the centuries. In the bustling marketplace, we bombard Nhut with questions – What’s this? What’s that? We point at almost everything. The things we see range from spices to packed molds of brown sugar to powders that have no translation into English – and then something that turns out to be glue! I laugh at a small baby, bundled into a hammock above his mother’s fruit stall. He sleeps quietly while she carries on her business.
Hoi An is famous for its cao lau, a delicious mixture of noodles, croutons, greens and pork slices. We stuff ourselves! Not one bowl but two! But the piece de resistance for me is dinner at Miss Vy’s – pumpkin soup, crab frittatas, grilled tuna and sausage wrapped in banana leaves and a marinated eggplant. A meal that could hold its own with any of the best restaurants in the world! Ngon lam, as they say in Vietnam!
While we’re in Hoi An, we make a day trip to Danang. After some of the places we’ve visited, it’s not really very impressive. A big city, without the charm of Saigon or the beauty of Hoi An. The port is as industrial as anything gets in Vietnam, adding a layer of grit and grime to an already dirty city.
The five mountains that make up Marble Mountain, on the other hand, are worth the trip. Jeez! I start to go shopping crazy! I could buy everything here! I think I probably could have saved a few dollars on my tea set. But I did just fine on my Buddha!
The mountains are beautiful. The first one we go into was used as a hospital during the war. The kids who attach themselves to us and act as escorts and tour guides (mine were two 16-year-old girls who are best friends) also point to the hole in the top caused by American bombs.
We climbed all the way to “Heaven,” a mountain that’s usually closed because the low-lying clouds make it too wet and slippery. But today, our nimble teen-age guides help us play mountain goat, and we inch our way to a spectacular view that includes Danang, China Beach and even Hoi An. Breath taking!
In the afternoon, we peddle about five kilometers to Cua Dai Beach to relax on the sand. No sooner do we plop ourselves down in the beach chairs than we’re surrounded by kids – buy this, buy that – and then the stream of beggars. They make a circuit, returning again and again. It finally gets to be a pain.
The funniest thing for us, though, is a herd of scrawny cattle walking down the beach along the water. The parking Nazis wouldn’t let us take our xe daps on the sand (although plenty of others had theirs there, along with a few motorcycles,) but it was ok for cattle!
We pedaled back to town for our dinner treatDays Eleven and Twelve – Hoi An to Hue
Our trip is winding down. We’re on our last long ride day for the trip to Hue. I start off the day in the van, the Hai Van Pass being too steep for me to ride up. At the top of the pass, we view the remnants of a bunker, first built by the French and later taken over by the Americans. The six-mile downhill is beautiful. But what caught my attention are the light green striations in an otherwise dark green carpet of forest. It’s a reminder that this area was Viet Cong territory and heavily bombarded with Agent Orange during the war – the lighter areas being the new growth. You’re never really very far from memories of the war.
As we come down the Pass, we get a startling view of the Lang Co lagoon. A picture stop for all of us, including our Vietnamese guide and drivers! Among all of us, we must’ve snapped a full roll of film!
I was actually keeping up with the guys until we reached a “ten percent” grade. Yeah, right. Ten percent my… I got most of the way up, then started walking. A few minutes later, the van came by and picked me up. Dung, one of our drivers, jumped on my bike and rode it the rest of the way up the hill. He gave it back to me, and I rode it to the next hill, where he did the tough stuff again! I rode a bit more, then it was Nhut’s turn. He pulled on Patrick’s Veloasia bike shirt, Bob’s helmet, rolled up his pants legs and away he went! He had the time of his life!
Meanwhile, the rest of us waited up the road at a café. There was a poster of Whitesnake on one wall, a poster of Bon Jovi on the opposite one – and 14 year old Russian newspapers covering the back wall. Talk about a time warp! But that’s Vietnam.
I finally climbed back on my bike for the last ten miles into Hue. And very interesting miles they were, too. You can tell how intense the fighting was in this area by the line of American-made bunkers that run through the rice fields. Reminders everywhere. Even Hue’s airport used to be an American air base.
It’s late afternoon when we finally ride into town. Our hotel is a kick! During the war, it was hospital – but it wouldn’t surprise me if it had been a horse stable before that! My room and bathroom are huge. But the funny thing is the door locks! They’re padlocks! You padlock yourself in, or padlock the door when you leave! It’s a funky place – but I like it.
This is just about our final meal together as a group, and boy, do we feast! The now-familiar spring rolls, crab soup, calamari, various forms of noodles, pancakes and vegetable dishes.
For our last day of sightseeing, we ride to the Thien Mu Pagoda on the Perfume River. This was the home of the Buddhist monk who drove to Saigon and set himself on fire in 1963. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place. But finally, we head back into town, cruising by the Citadel and what’s left of the Forbidden City. Old Hue is beautiful, again those wide, tree-lined streets and graceful architecture. And not a word anywhere about the tens of thousands of people massacred by the VC during the Tet Offensive.
In Hue, French is still widely spoken, by both the older and younger generations. “Madame,” they call, “would you like to buy a hat?” The cone-shaped hats sold in Hue are different from those in the rest of the country. In between the palm leaves, there are patterns and pictures, hence the name “shadow hat.” I buy one – not because I want to carry it home, but because I need it. Ahn Nhut had admired my black corduroy cap so much that I gave it to him, and now I need something else to keep the sun off my face!
Even though tonight is officially our final dinner, we’re all going on to Hanoi. I fly – the others take the overnight train. We make plans to meet two nights later for dinner – the final, final dinner before we all go our separate ways.
Hanoi’s beauty came as a surprise. I guess I expected it to be dull and gray, you know – communist. But it’s built around a number of lakes and has wide, tree-lined streets with huge sidewalks and street lights to which motorist actually pay attention! Much of the city was destroyed by American bombs and has been rebuilt. But in the Old Quarter, it’s just like the south! Twisted streets crammed with shops, eateries and people hawking all sorts of goods. The art galleries look especially interesting – but I’ve already bought my limit!
In Hanoi, I walk by Ho’s Mausoleum but decide not to go inside. Like so many Communist countries, the buildings that celebrate Ho are the finest in the country, and probably would be an embarrassment to the man if he knew about them. It’s interesting – no matter what town we went through, the best and often the newest buildings were usually built for the Party.
The Northerners are much more reserved than their southern counterparts, not as likely to yell out greetings or start conversations. But there are signs they’re ready to accept western visitors – and their dollars. On the edge of town, new office and apartment complexes are under construction. And several of America’s largest accounting firms already have hung out their shingles. But perhaps most telling was the resident – a policeman, actually – who called out to me as I passed by, “Hello!”
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