July 6, 2008 at 9:11 pm | Posted in Vietnam | 1 Comment

Vietnam June 1 – June 23

As travelers, we never delved into public transportation outside of subways in major cities. Buses were too complicated and geared towards the locals. Yet, in southeast Asia, buses are king. It was so easy to find a bus going from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Saigon, Vietnam. The nice bus takes you through the border crossing, manages your passports, and takes you right into the city center, cheaply. They run all of the time. Not only that, our hotel booked the tickets and the bus company delivered the tickets to our hotel and a van picks you up at the hotel to bring you to the station (except that they forgot to pick us up so our hotel manager whisked us to the station in his car)! All of this for about $12.00 per ticket for a 3-4 hour ride. It was so delightful to find that wherever we landed, there were plenty of people available to get us where we needed to go.

We arranged for a hotel in Saigon (we use Skype for all of our calls at a cost of a few pennies whenever we have a good internet connection in the room). In Saigon a decent hotel room costs about $40.00 which was a steal for us. We later learned that we overpaid for nice lodging which can be had elsewhere in town for half that. Peter really liked Vietnam.

Our plan was to take the train up the coast from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north but no pressure. We didn’t want to rush around and see a lot. We were tired and wanted to relax. We poked around Saigon and rode in cyclos (bike-powered carriages) and shopped and ate. We stayed until we could get a seat on the coastal train to Nha Trang which is a beach town. This time we only paid $20 for a nice room and lingered on the beach all day for two days. Everyone had motorcycles and after awhile we really appreciated motorcycles which we regard more as a renegade vehicle at home rather than a practical one. Motorcycles can easily go around you when you are crossing the street, they use less fuel, they are quiet (no Harleys here), old ladies drive them, and you can carry anything from panes of glass to sacks of rice and even livestock on the back! Plus, there are so few cars that there is little chance of getting hit by a car while on a motorcycle. Except they also make nimble getaway vehicles as we unfortunately witnessed after one drove up on the sidewalk and failed at an attempt to whisk our camera out of our hands. Luckily the strap was wound around Laura’s wrist.

After Nha Trang came lovely Hoi An but the trip caused us to appreciate buses even more as the trains were less than desirable as were the little 6-legged critters occasionally showing up in our cabin. As usual, the kids slept fine as we laid awake watching out for uninvited wildlife. Arriving in Hoi An made it worth it, though, as it was one of the few towns in the country that remained unscathed from the ravages of war. Which, by the way, was difficult to not feel guilty about as we travelled around. We squirmed a bit each time we were asked which country we were from especially after seeing men with amputated limbs or strange growths protruding from their body from agent orange poisoning. But simultaneously we hoped that people would greet us happily and with hope for a new relationship with Americans, and they always did. In Hoi An we explored the fishing culture by boat to view the hundreds of fishing nets dotting the landscape as if it were a giant outdoor sculpture. We watched boat building, wood working, tailoring and dined on spring rolls and rice with chicken. The town had the charm of a European city surrounded by the culture of living off of the land and the sea. The boys proudly donned their new Vietnamese straw hats and explored the temples and the handicrafts centers (and the pool). They made fast friends with the young girl who sold Chinese paper lanterns in a small wooden shack. The hundreds of multi-colored lanterns lit up the shack like a Christmas tree and we went out of our way to visit her each night (and bought a lot of lanterns!) She was so happy the day we met her as she had just bought a new bike and celebrated by bringing us some cool sugar cane juice to quench our thirst. And $84.00 for a new bike was a king’s ransom considering each handmade lantern sold for only $1.00 or $2.00.

We boarded a sleeper bus (literally rows of beds, small beds) and headed to the northern parts of Vietnam. All along the way people were tending to the rice fields. Rice was either being planted, harvested, cut, thrashed, bundled, carried, dried or eaten. The Vietnam life was ruled by rice. Never had we seen such a intertwined relationship with food and it was a lovely relationship that meant hard work yet the interactions were so beautiful and photogenic. Conical hats peeking out above seas of green rhythmically and tenderly gathering each stalk by hand.

We landed almost haphazardly in Ninh Binh while attempting to switch bus lines and ended up staying in this part of the country for five days. The landscape was out of a movie and the world was quiet and dreamy. We hired motorcycles to take us to the countryside and Laura snapped photos from the back of the bike while the boys were in their glory. We took a misty boat ride through pristine grottos and through idyllic villages where rice was being harvested and children were biking home from school. We arranged for a private tour with a fantastic guide, Hien, and a driver who took us into the western hill towns to visit hill tribes whose culture is well preserved. We stayed in the homes of the local families and ate with them and slept on mats on the shiny bamboo floors just as they did. We learned to communicate with sign-language and used our guidebook and the boys communicated with toys and other games. One of the towns we stayed in just got electricity 6 months earlier! Their houses were simply one big room with no shelves and no inner walls and no material belongings. Mats were taken out for beds along with mosquito nets and curtains for privacy. We would awaken to the sounds of roosters, cows, and waddling ducks being taken out for their walk. Work outdoors started very early to beat the heat. We stayed in three separate homes amongst the White Thai and the Hmong people. Our guides cooked our food, carried our bags and took us to places where tourists do not roam. We bought lovely crafts and sampled the local cuisine although we steered clear of the snake infused whiskey and winced at the sight of all of the live animals in cages awaiting their fate in the kitchen of the restaurants we ate in. It was an unexpected diversion that was one of the highlights.

When we returned to Ninh Binh, we discovered that a family that we met on the bus several days earlier had passed through our hotel on their way to Halong Bay which was our next destination. They are from New Zealand and have a son Nicholas. We made our way to Halong Bay via bus and ferry (treacherous ride – think CNN news headlines of sinking ferries in far-off places) but we landed safely despite the bout of seasickness that hit three of us. We searched for a hotel and while doing so ran into our New Zealand friends. They helped us secure a room for $12.00 per night (6th floor up, no elevator) and, along with them, we were able to fulfill our wish to charter a private boat for 2 days/1 night around UNESCO World Heritage listed Halong Bay. The boys were so excited to be with their new friend for two days and there was lots of swimming and feasting on fresh seafood made by our crew of three Vietnamese sailors who didn’t speak a word of English but knew how to whip up a gourmet feast on a two burner hot plate! We sailed among limestone rocky sculptures in which the scene changed dramatically with every turn. We had two days of sunny weather and a cool night to sleep under the stars. It was a dramatic end to a fantastic adventure in Vietnam.

The boys enjoyed each part of the adventure in much the same way they would enjoy an adventure at home. They would never think, “I cannot believe I am in Vietnam!”, they think, “Wow, they rent out floating tubes at the beach here!” They still want to skim rocks whenever we pass a lake or pond and splash through puddles in the rain. They want to look at toys in the windows and want to head back to the hotel earlier than we do so they can sit and play with their Legos. They still ask mind-bending questions such as, “How come our shadows don’t have color?” and “How long would it take to hit the ground if someone fell off the top of the Empire State Building?” and “Do frogs in America speak the same frog language as frogs in Thailand?” But in between their normal interests, they know there was a war between America and Vietnam and that there are landmines in the bush. They know that the old lady rowing our boat to the restaurant works harder than old ladies at home. They know that the children at our homestays didn’t own a single toy and not because they are poor but because there is work to be done. But this hasn’t changed them…yet. They still want to buy cool gizmos that they see in a store and they still talk fresh and complain when it is time to do schoolwork. We do not have any expectations as to how this adventure will or won’t impact them. Oliver still wants to be a park ranger and the boys are quite sensitized to the plight of many species of animals and to the longevity of our forests. They watched The Inconvenient Truth with us and seem to understand our role in minimizing the impact of global warming on our planet. They do not hesitate to turn off an unused light and do not litter and want to help. They are very enthusiastic to travel by cyclo, rickshaw or motorcycle (although we don’t think their intentions are altruistic in these cases). Only the future will tell.

(Once again, it is difficult to pare down photos for a slideshow. Click here for the “Highlights Only” slideshow otherwise click the photo below for the “Total Adventure” slideshow)


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