Archive for the ‘Traveling in Vietnam’ Category

We have been able to spend five days visiting a number of villages and markets in the northern mountains, far away from any sort of modern conveniences. Our guide, Cao, is from a town on the Chinese border who knows the area well, and can speak some of the local languages. He makes us breakfast and lunch every day, using bread and Laughing Cow cheese that he brought from the south, local eggs, local greens and hacked chicken, and noodles and rice. We eat on little tables tucked onto open porches on the street.

The diversity of the tribes is amazing. Most of the country’s minority groups live here – eleven million people comprise 53 different ethnic groups that are further divided into multiple subgroups, giving Viet Nam the most complex ethnic makeup in Southeast Asia. Many of the tribes have migrated from regions of China, but some share racial characteristics with Indonesians and other island peoples.

Despite diversity of tribal origin, dress and language, their lives are similar. Most of them stay always close to home. Farms have been created primarily by swidden farming – slash and burn trees, clear and terrace the land. These mountains were once heavily forested, but over years they have been stripped then planted. Traditionally, a family carries soil up from the valley or moves every few years, as the soil depletes. The work is arduous, and everyone participates. Children are unsmiling and sober, expected to work along with their parents when they are young, and to take care of them when they become adults.

The food here is mostly vegetables: rice, corn, cabbage and greens. Every inch is planted – a couple of square feet of soil at the edge of the road will have three or four stalks of corn. In the larger terraces, two crops of rice and one of another vegetable are planted each year. Some families have a few chickens, and occasionally a pig, but malnutrition is an ever-present problem for the region.

Life is dependent on weather and luck. The houses are partially open, and usually have only a couple of low-watt bulbs to light inside, so the weather outside – cold, rain, whatever – is what the people live in. It affects the amount of food they will have, and their health. Our guide visited a friend whose wedding he had attended last year. The man had lost four water buffalo and two cows to the hoof and mouth disease that was rampant in the cold, wet winter that just ended. Without water buffalo it is impossible to farm effectively.

We brought several different gifts with us on this trip. We gave out candy for the children everywhere. The older children take it, then share it immediately with their younger siblings; different from most countries where they grab as much as possible then horde it. Balloons were a big hit. But most rewarding was the gift of reading glasses. You see no spectacles here at all, on young or old people, so we picked up a dozen pairs of inexpensive reading glasses in Hanoi. They were mostly taken by women, who continue embroidering as long as they can see, but there was one man who just kept looking at his sleeve and his watch, grinning broadly.

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The mountainous region of northeastern Vietnam, populated mostly by groups of Hmong, Tay and Zao who come here from China several hundred years ago, has been under dispute with China since the late ‘70’s. It has recently been opened for travel. Tourists today are mostly from China and other parts of Vietnam so it’s fairly untouched. Seeing this area is the main reason we came to Vietnam.

To get to here was a full day drive from Hanoi, a change in altitude, and a large change in wealth and amenities. Here there are guest houses, not hotels. The rooms are unheated, always chilly and damp. Bathrooms have western fixtures, but no tubs – just showers that pour onto the floor and although that works well, walking through them afterwards is pretty slippery. The beds are different from any I have ever used – like plywood, but surprisingly good to sleep on. Most interesting are the lobbies, which are a combination of garage (our van drives right up to the check-in desk and spends the night) banquet hall, bar and restaurant. All completely open and unheated.

We spend some time visiting villages and homes. In general, houses of the minority tribes are built on stilts, with animals kept underneath. This comes from a time when they needed protection from wild animals, but it also provides some safety and warmth for them today. Upstairs is the main part of the house. In very prosperous homes there is a kitchen, a television, glass in the windows, and an open sleeping area. Upstairs, under the thatched roof, is storage and more sleeping. In most of the homes there is a pit for a fire that is used for cooking, and stacks of vegetables on the main floor.

The priorities for a man of these tribes are three. First he needs to get some land and a water buffalo to farm it. Second, he takes a wife. Third, he builds a house. The house is a long process – one of the nicer ones we visited took fifteen years, during which the man found the lumber and cut it, fashioned the logs for tongue-in-groove, then assembled it with the help of other villagers.

The economy is subsistence farming with some sales at local markets. The land here is all mountainous, very steep, often very rocky. In the years that these people have been here the mountains have been stripped of their original forest, then terraced for planting. Everywhere the mountainside has been worked into flat areas, some only a foot or two wide – and soil carried up from the valley to fill it. There is not so much rice here– that is mostly at the bottom, – but many vegetables. In the worst places, between rocks and on very steep areas, are sugar cane and corn. We see people at every level working. This is winter, so most of it is in building new terraces using hand tools and bringing up soil in baskets.

Today is Tiger Day, Saturday, and we plant to go to a huge market in Minh Tan. It’s an hour drive from_our night Yen Minh, over a pass on the narrow, very windy mountain road that connects all of these villages. The drives are fascinating, scarily high with lots of passing on curves and little visibility in the fog. There’s not much point in being nervous, or in wearing a seatbelt – as Maynard points out, if we go off the edge a seatbelt will not matter.
We are hurrying to the market when suddenly Cao says “Oh no – bad luck” and then a couple of other things in Vietnamese. We can see across the valley that our road is blocked by a cement truck. Scooters are going around it but there isn’t enough room for anything larger. The driver and a couple of the scooter men stand around and scratch their heads.

We get close to the truck. Cao and our driver run up to it, Jim and Maynard follow with their cameras. There is about ten minutes of trying to get the truck to move, but it’s stuck across a hairpin, the drive wheels behind the cab skidding on mud on the inside and gravel on the outside. Finally the men start to pile gravel on the outside of the truck to give us more “road” to maneuver around. Ginny and I get out of the van and run ahead as the driver inches past on the out (downhill) side. And he makes it, with only one major scratching sound.

And we are off to market!

And what a market it is. Probably five hundred people in the mist and rain and mud, selling and buying everything from pregnant pigs to cell phones and flat screened TVs. I get Jim to take a picture of some of the pigs, and our driver translates for us the owner saying in wonder “Why are they taking a picture of filthy pigs?”
It’s not just a market, it’s the social event of the week. The women group and regroup into clutches talking and drinking tea. Teenagers walk around in groups, eyeing other groups of the opposite sex, then pairing up and slipping off. The men have their own way of being social, using corn liquor. By 11:30 AM when we leave many of them are blasted. They stagger and become friendly. Several walk up to Jim and ask to have their picture taken; one hugs him when he sees it on the display. The way back for most of these people to walk, purchases carried on their backs. I have no idea how the women get their husbands home.

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On Saturday we fly to Da Nang, into the airport built by US Marines in 1965. The Center of Vietnam is filled with names I remember from the war – Da Nang, China Beach, Hue, Khe Sanh, and Tu Cung Hamlet (My Lai). Our guide, Tuan, works with many American veterans who are returning to see the country. The atmosphere is very different now. In fact the drive from Da Nang along China Beach is filled with hotels and pilings of new hotels on the South China Sea. The vision is that it will someday be a Miami Beach, magnet for Asians and Europeans who want a beach resort vacation.

There’s a lot of history here, and much of it is about Ho Chi Minh. He spent his whole life working to unite Vietnam and to free it from foreign dominance: from the French, from the US, and from the Chinese. Interestingly, immediately after WWII he opted to have the French stay in the North rather than the Chinese, saying that he would rather “smell French shit for five years than Chinese shit for the rest of his life.” It is obvious that the Vietnamese do not trust, and do not like the Chinese

Our first days are spent in Hoi An, an ancient fishing village built by Chinese and Japanese traders in the sixteenth century. Maynard was here 13 years ago, and can’t wait to see again the beautiful houses built over two hundred years ago along the three streets that make up the town – pale yellow and blue and green, with dark wood shutters and doors. And they are all still there, but now they house restaurants and shops and art galleries. The fishermen have all gone into the tourist trade or moved away. Hoi An was declared a UNESCO Heritage site in 1999, and the tourists began to come, bringing money to the local economy and changing it at the same time.

There is a wonderful local produce/fish/meat market each morning. The people selling there arrive at 4 AM using torches to light their way. It runs along the riverfront and down a couple of streets, and it’s mostly covered by plastic bags on poles – even I have to keep my head down to walk through, so it’s a real challenge for Jim.

We go before breakfast, so Ginny and I need to get coffee. The high point of Viet Nam is their coffee – it’s made very strong then mixed with sweetened condensed milk. Just fabulous. At the market we find a couple selling it by the water. We can sit down on plastic stools and have it in glasses, but we want to keep up with Jim and Maynard, so we take it “to go.” They mix a concentrate of coffee, the milk, add boiling water, then pour it all into a plastic bag, close it with a rubber band and put a straw in it. We can stroll along the market seeing the ducks and chickens and fish, watch women slice vegetables and dodge the bicycles and motorscooters, and still have our coffee. What fun. And it’s the best coffee I’ve had on the trip so far!

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Vietnam Photos

We have been in Vietnam for just over a week, and I am posting my first photos. Photographing people here is a challenge. First, it is very crowded. There are over eighty million people in Vietnam so there is not a lot of space. And the people do not welcome photography. I have been waved off many times. Now, I am worried about my self confidence.

We are in Hue, which is the middle of the country. Tomorrow we leave for Hanoi.

Click here to see my Vietnam pictures. I am placing a link on the blogroll on the right where you can always find the pictures.

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Asian Plumbing

I have travelled extensively in Asia for almost 20 years. Plumbing for toilets, sinks and showers is adequate but rudimentary outside of big cities.

But Asians are nothing if not innovative and they love hi-tech, so when they decide to improve, they leap-frog anything available in the US. Witness Japanese toilets, which now have heated seats, automatic spray after-cleaning and even play music. The company To-to is bringing many of its improvements to the US, and if these digital wonders are not popular yet, the more basic types are selling well.

In Ho Chi Minh City our hotel has what will certainly be the next-generation of shower. It’s a self-contained unit, reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron, with glass doors that slide shut encapsulating the user in a combination shower/Jacuzzi. But it’s so much more – there’s no need to leave to see the city. There is an FM wave radio, a CD player, a telephone. For anyone who wants a shower, there is a choice of overhead or hose type, with or without the twelve spray jets from all sides. If your day has been particularly dirty, you can just push the ozone release button to be deodorized. There’s a steam bath also, and an emergency bell. A mirror. A foot massager. The system is run by a control panel with 20 touch pads. They each have symbols on them, but these are a little obscure, so there are detailed instructions posted on the outside of the unit. Jim and I spent about 20 minutes trying to figure it all out, pushing this and that, but in the end, I could only get the hose shower to work. The temperature is controlled by the non-functioning touch pads, so it was a little chilly.

Five years ago I was in Ladakh, dumping a bucket of water over my head in a freezing room. The result was pretty much the same.

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The Mekong River rises in Tibet, flows through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and then breaks up into multiple branches in Vietnam before it empties into the South China Sea. Flooding, endemic to the region, is kept under some control by a complex network of canals designed by Indian traders over 18 centuries ago.

The region is very fertile, and recently hugely successful in selling its products. Before Moi Doi, farmers worked for the government at a fixed wage. There were checkpoints every 100-200 km to detect transport (smuggling) and selling (profiteering) of produce. As a result, Vietnam was an importer of rice and the country was plagued with periodic famines. Since privatization of farms in the ‘80’s, Vietnam has become the second largest exporter of rice in the world, and also a significant exporter of coffee, paper, rubber and fruit. They take great pride in the fact that they have now sent farmers to Nigeria and Sierra Leone to teach them better techniques for growing rice.

When you drive through the area, you are always next to water, always crossing bridges, and often taking ferries. So for fun, you go by boat. We took a two-day “cruise” on a small one, along with four French who never quite acknowledged our presence. It was a real hoot – everything mini, but complete: tiny beds, tiny bathroom, a “shower” arrangement in the bathroom. And, like all cruises, great food!

The high point was visiting a floating market. For that, we launched off on a tiny skiff with about six seats and a tin roof.  The Cai Rant market is huge, there are hundreds of boats of all sizes buying and selling everything. It’s a wholesale market, so large numbers of items were changing hands. A buyer would chug up to a seller, pay for his produce, then the transfer would be a sequence of tosses – 50 watermelons or whatever – from one boat to the other.

Most had the produce stuffed below deck. A pole at the front of the boat was used to “advertise.” So, if it was onions for sale from that boat, there would be an onion hanging from the pole. In the first few minutes, I saw:

White pumpkins
Sweet Potatoes

Then I tired of writing them down. It is clearly a long morning if you need to shop for everything, so there were lots of canoe-sized craft snaking through the larger boats selling tea and coffee and sodas to drink.

We stayed for about an hour so Jim and Maynard could photograph. Jim spent the time up on the tin roof of the boat, and I waited for a splash as we bumped our way through the crowd. Luckily, he held on and we got back to our little cruise ship intact.

We spent our last night in the Mekong in Chau Doc, on our own. Our guide Hung recommended that we try a restaurant across the street from the hotel to sample the local specialty, Lau, so off we went.

The restaurant was just a few tables on the sidewalk. There were no customers when we went there, unless you count the very skinny dogs and cats hanging around. The menu had a few English words on it, so we found the page for Lau, and each ordered some. The woman who took our order seemed surprised by it, but then the beers came and we relaxed, pleased at our ability to eat local. Finally, the woman set up four gas burners on the table, one in front of each of us, put a huge pot of noodles, vegetables and whatever on each and turned them on. The heat was intense and the cats began to circle.

It was terrible. Jim managed to get a few helpings of his Eel Lau down before he gave up. Ginny only tasted her Fish Lau briefly. Maynard said his Chicken Lau was not bad, but then gave up after a couple of bites, wondering if maybe he could get some toast. We finished our beers and paid. The cats came closer. Do they want our dinner, or maybe they were dinner?

We finally went back to the hotel, into the dining room, and ordered dinner.

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The City.  Officially Ho Chi Minh City, but still Saigon to those from the South, this does not have the look of a dour Communist  metropolis. Stores are open and full and restaurants are crowded. The people, while not really friendly, are talkative and energetic, dressed in trendy city styles. And moving constantly.

Ho Chi Minh City has 8 million residents who ride 3 million motorscooters. They flow constantly through the streets, resembling nothing more than a one-dimensional swarm of bees that maneuvers instinctively around pedestrians, cars and trucks. They generally ride one or two to a cycle, but often carry a couple of children in addition. There are as many women riders as men: the women cover their faces with masks and their hands and arms with long gloves to protect themselves from the sun. The riders wear helmets now too, because of a recent law, but these seem insubstantial, as much use as a Yarmulke might be in an accident.

We arrived with Ginny and Maynard Switzer on Sunday night, just escaping a  winter snowstorm to come to this city sitting in the humid mid-nineties. HCMC is an interesting mix of the influences of its past. Chinatown is very large, and the home the Cha Lon Wholesale Market, a huge, tight packed mix of ………everything: spices, butchers, plastic ware, women’s shoes, barrettes, vegetables, dried bird’s nest, laid out in a dizzying lack of order or sense. Other areas of the city are very European with broad avenues and sculptured parks,  but much of it is narrow and windy. There are several memorials to the wars – referred to as the French War and the American War.

And religions. Vietnam is at the convergence of many religions. Most people consider themselves to be Buddhist, yet Confucianism shapes family and civic values, and Taoism the understanding of the cosmos. Fully ten percent of the people are Catholic, and that number is growing since the suppression of the religion by communism has ended. A fascinating religion, Cao Dai, created by the Vietnamese, has grown out of this convergence. In 1925, Ngo Van Chieu received a vision that told him to create a religion that was the culmination of two earlier alliances of God and mankind – those brought about first by Moses and then by Jesus Christ. We visited a pagoda of this religion, At the entrance was a painting of the meeting of Ngo Van Chieu with Sun Yat Sen and Victor Hugo, entitled “The Three Saints.” There are 2-3 million people who espouse this mix of Eastern and Western philosophies. Amazing.

There are a few vestiges of the communist government – a press that publishes 600 newspapers and magazines yet is completely run by the government, TV and radio whose content is broad but whose real news is controlled by the government. But with the fall of communism in Europe in the late 80’s, and the loss of financial support from Russia, Vietnam has experimented with a much broader economy. Doi Moi beginning in  1986 permitted private ownership of businesses. 1995 saw recognition of the Vietnamese government by the US. Vietnam joined the WTO in 2007 and is now a member of ASEAN.

Just over forty years ago the US was at war with this country, a war that was so devastating that it fractured the structure and values of the US, killed 58 thousand Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and left millions wounded and displaced. Now relations seem to be coming to a full normal, as if nothing had ever happened. Except for all those dead boys.

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