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Thursday, January 19, 2006


It’s funny how when you expect the worst, you always wind up surprising yourself and having a blast.
For me, that was what Hue was all about.

I arrived into Hue after sleeping late in Hoi An to TRY to shake this latest bout of bronchitis that has plagued me since Argentina. Coughing the entire way, I was tired and cranky, and when I got to town, the backpacker’s strip was congested and dirty and I just had no energy for it. Part of the crazyness of Vietnam is beating off the natives hawking their hotels, fruits, silks, motobike and cyclo rides, tour packages, etc..etc..etc... Within minutes of the bus pulling into the stop, there were AT LEAST 15 men yelling at me (on the bus, mind you – in MY personal space):
“Missus, where you stay?”
“You have hotel?”
"Excuse me, excuse me. I talk to you."
“See my hotel. Cheap.”
“Where you stay expensive? Me, not expensive.”
“Miss America, look here.”
“USA lady, I have good place.”
On top of the verbal harassment, they’re pushing their flyers, held by dirty, long-ass fingernails in my face and breathing their stenchy, nasty, smoky mouth’s smells onto me. I just lost it.

“NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!!!!! I have a hotel, get out of my way, stop touching me! NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!!!!” Pushing through them with my backpack, my wheelie, my sick little body. Just fuck the fuck off, people! OH MY GOD. I can’t deal…. I just wanted to be home in my apartment, under my yummy down covers, matzoh ball soup and toast and TROPICANA O.J. having been just consumed, half-watching Oprah on TiVo and half-dozing. Away from Vietnam, away from all the goddamn people.

After getting to my hotel, going for a QUICK dinner of noodle soup (here it’s called “pho”), and putting myself to bed, I awoke the next day, still not even close to 100%. So, I cancelled the DMZ tour (demilitarization zone tour – a visit to the 17th parallel and Vinh Moc tunnels) that would go from 6 AM to 8 PM and slept in. I just couldn’t handle another long, tourist bus day of war sites, tunnels, and depression after seeing all of it. What would I do today? Me, without a plan? Everyone comes to Hue to see the DMZ zone, which I’ve been told is less than exciting and similar to Cu Chi. What else do they do here? I’m unprepared. Shit. I’m not good at unprepared. So at 10 AM, I ventured out, not exactly sure what my day would entail.

As I walked along the Perfume River, which divides Hue into two sides, I saw a prettier side of the city. The riverbank was lined with modern art plazas, the sun was shining, the hawkers were less obvious. I figured I’d check out the Imperial City or Citadel (much like the Forbidden City in China), a fortress city that belonged to the emperors of the Nguyen dynasties of Hue through the ages. But because Hue saw the most attacks in both the French and American wars, much of the Imperial City was destroyed. I was curious. As I was about to find a taxi, I was approached by a really sweet cyclo driver (cyclos being little one-seat carriages with a bicycle on the back that a driver pedals to get you from place to place). He introduced himself, started talking to me like a person, not a vendor and won my ride. I jumped in and let Long (possibly spelled Luong or Loong – one can never know here) pedal me across the river to the Imperial City.

There I spent a few hours in awed wonder at this massive enclosed city, blasted in most places to smithereens by war. But the architecture that survived was amazing. The temples and living quarters, just divine. Long/Luong/Loong had promised to pick me up after my tour of the Imperial City, to take me onto the Thien Mu Pagoda, and then, the tombs of the past emperors of Hue. I was game.

Long/Luong/Loong came back a bit different. He traded in his cyclo for a motobike. His floppy fisherman’s hat for a baseball cap. Waving like a madman as I exited the Citadel, he wore a huge grin and said:
“Mawie, you ride motobike, yes?”
I didn’t even hesitate. My friend Chris and I rode one back from an outskirt bar in Hoi An a few nights back and, the thing to do here in Vietnam that I had resisted on a safety kick, it was a blast (and I’ve always been a sucker for a guy on a bike…not that Long/Luong/Loong was really doing it for me…).
“Of course…”

So began my day motobiking around the villages surrounding Hue, as well as the tombs (or small towns with temples, lakes, residences, courtyards) built for past emperors. I asked Long/Luong/Loong to take me to see how the people really lived, off the tour bus circuit, as we traversed Hue and beyond to get to each tomb (they’re spread over a 30 km radius outside of the city limits). It was amazing. We rode through forest towns on dirt roads, through tiny villages preparing for Tet or Lunar New Year by hanging decorations on their makeshift doorways. I talked to little roadside water vendors who had family in the States and they had been saving for 15 years (!!) for a visa.
“Three more years and I go to San Jose,” said one.
“My brother send for me soon to come to California,” said another.
And everyone was so happy to shake my hand, to talk to me, to hear about America. It was absolutely wonderful to be communicating with these people, so easily and effortlessly. Then, to hop back on a bike, ride along the Perfume River (which is really beautiful) and just feel outside of the Vietnam that had me tearing my hair out yesterday, was so refreshing.

At the end of the day, I asked Long/Luong/Loong to take me for his favorite Vietnamese meal. He took me to some joint that would’ve had all of you balking and calling the Board of Health. But, it was absolutely the most delicious food and drink I’ve had here. For $1.35. And Long sat with me and told me about his family (my age, three children – oldest is 14!), and his life, the stall his wife tends to at the Central Market, how happy he is here in Vietnam. I hung on every mispronounced word. Then, he dropped me back at my hotel, 7 hours after we met, with a handshake, a “happy new year,” and a “you a cool girl, marie….luck in travels tomorrow.” Talk about feeling great after a long day….

Hue. Perfect.


Sunday, January 15, 2006

Good Morning Vietnam, Part Two.

Ok, hi -- I'm back.

After recovering from the unbelievable culture shock of Ho Chi Minh City, as NOTHING is familiar on this side of the world, I began to adapt to the city. I would even say that by the time I left, I came to really like it. Over the four days I spent there I think I saw all the city has to offer, historically and currently. Joy took me around town on a whirlwind city tour, starting with the markets that were brimming with vendors begging you to browse their booths. Everyone approaches you to enter their shops "Lady, come into my shop" and there's so much stuff everywhere. I have no idea how any one shop could ever sell all of the merchandise they have, there's just so much junk!! She also took me to eat authentic Vietnamese food at a little, non-descript outdoor restaurant in a back alley that I would NEVER have found on my own. We munched on Vietnamese pancakes -- a fried-ish pancake that's a cross between bread and egg consistencies, filled with noodles, bean sprouts, shrimp, pork -- that you wrap in giant lettuce leaves and dip into chili sauce. Rice paper spring rolls (not fried and so fresh) and bamboo, shrimp and pork salad. All so good, and things I would never know to choose to try had I not had her as a guide. Another night we ate Vietnamese BBQ ($20 total for ALL of us to have about 4-5 main dishes and appetizers) where they bring you the prawns (here, shrimp are those tiny little guys, prawns are the meaty big suckers) LIVE in a clear pot and you have to cook them at the table while they freak out and jump around the pot as they, um....die, then eat them (Lukoff, you would've been VERY upset). All in all, B&J helped me appreciate Vietnamese daily life in a way I couldn't have done as a mere tourist.

Speaking of being a tourist, I spent two days at all the "sites" of HCMC. Day one was spent at the Cu Chi Tunnels, Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum and other war-related places. Day two was spent along the Mekong River Delta, glimpsing that kind of Vietnamese life. The day that focused on the war was actually a very depressing day. I don't think, no matter how much you read, watched, saw, heard about the war, you can REALLY get a feeling for it, without seeing the actual places and ways in which the war was fought. At Cu Chi, there are preserved bomb sites, remains of demolished US tanks, man-made booby traps that look like the ground of the forest (but you step into and fall into spikes), torture devices, and foxholes (that you can actually get into, cover with leaves, and go undetected). It's all part of the perspective that you come away from Cu Chi with, but the most surreal experience is crawling through the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels were used by the North Vietnamese to attack Saigon. The intricate underground tunnels are 90 ft deep, each "level" 30 ft lower than the one above and are comprised of passageways, living spaces, weapons arsenals, sleeping and cooking facilities. We were able to replicate a crawl through the tunnels. You slowly descend via hidden staircases into tunnels AT MOST 3x3 feet. Then, you crouch through them. After about 400 feet of sweltering hot, twisting, turning darkness, you come to another descent, and go down another 30 feet to crawl space where you are on your hands and knees. I cannot even begin to describe how I felt doing that. Completely overwhelmed, locked in my head, even nervous at points. I was emotional at the idea that people actually lived this way in order to preserve their country's way of life. Then, you emerge into the fresh air again and you have crossed what might be the length of a football field, undetected. It's VERY frightening when you put that in the context of war. After seeing all of that, the range of ways that Ho Chi Minh's forces confounded the US forces, it's no wonder they won. Of course, being in Vietnam, a Communist country, it's very obvious that there's a slant against the American forces when you visit these sites. But, nevertheless, it didn't dull the sad feeling I had all day. How anyone can visit Vietnam and not reconsider their feelings on American led war efforts, in any region, is beyond me. Let's just say that I did a lot of thinking that day about wars that are waged on countries that might not be in our best interests to fight.

After Ho Chi Minh, I headed north to Nha Trang by bus for 2 nights. Nha Trang is a beach town, ala Jersey Shore. Very cheesy, lacking charm, mediocre restaurants but beautiful beaches. Sorry, my Jersey friends.... The trip up to Nha Trang was pretty uneventful until my Ipod ran out of batteries and the little Aussie kid in the seat in front of me who had no idea what the concept of "quiet time for 6 hours on a bus because the people around you have NO escape" was decided to use his "flashers" (flash cards with the alphabet on them) to name a word for each letter. About 15 times. I don't know how many times his parents could hear 'e is for elephant' or 'i is for iguana' without wanting to kill him. I give you ALL credit. You know who you are.... ;) On arrival in Nha Trang, I checked into my hotel, then headed out for a meal. I was STARVING as I hadn't really eaten all day. Outside of the food I ate with Joy, I really still haven't gotten eating in Asia down to a science. And tonight was no different. The soup could've passed for dishwater, the tuna could've been name-your-nastiest-meat-here, and the dim, lovely, candlelit ambience of the Sailing Club restaurant didn't help me IDENTIFY my food or see the bugs eating my legs alive so I looked like a sea-faring victim of scurvy by meal's end, so I merely went hungry (and itchy). Yet again. I am so determined to learn to eat Vietnamese, Thai, Indian food, and yet.....I'm having a hard time in my mastery. Upside, weight loss. Downside, starvation never really agreed with me. What I'd give for a chicken parm right about now....

The Sailing Club restaurant also fancies itself a beach club, so the next day, I went there to lay out on the beach in style. The beach chairs were amazing -- oversized and comfy -- and the people watching, fantastic. Still hungry, I tried a burger this time, thinking maybe ordering something I know will work for me. No dice. It was shit, too. But, what wound up being great about Nha Trang was that I got to feel like a traveler again. Starting in Nha Trang, I was on my own again. No Joy or Brian to help guide me and it felt nice. In SEAsia, such a well-trodden path, people abound and, likely, they're on the same tour as you are. So, I met Rich and Michael, two Aussies on their way up to Hoi An like me. We decided to take an overnight train together. Through them, I met Emma and Lee. Girls from NZ, same route. Adam, Johnny and Johnny's cousin (can't remember name...), who I'm bound to see through Cambodia in Feb. It's just this undercurrent of people, repeating in each place, making it comfortable. For me (now in Hoi An with many of the abovementioned folk), that part of this trip began in Nha Trang at the Sailing Club where all the travelers go for their night's kicks. It was also at the Sailing Club that I had my Page Six moment, the first this trip....

So, I'm sitting with a bunch of people and two very pretty blonds pull up chairs next to me. They had been with my group the night before. We start talking, they're both 30 as well, men, life, blah blah blah... And, as we're talking, people keep coming up to Natalie. I'm half paying attention b/c I'm talking to Tanya (Natalie's friend), and finally it hits me.
Me: Natalie -- are people asking you for AUTOGRAPHS?
Natalie: Nah, yeah. Whatever.
Tanya: Yes, they 100% are.
Me: WHO ARE YOU? Are you a little star in another country that I don't know about?
Natalie: It's no big deal.
Tanya: Yes, she's on a soap called Neighbours.
Natalie: Yes, yes...but it's nothing.
Tanya: And she is a pop-star in Australia, she has a hit now on the charts.

Turns out that Natalie is Natalie Bassingthwaighte, following the career paths of Kylie Minogue and Natalie Imbruglia who started on Neighbours and now, are pop stars, as you likely know. This Natalie is on a similar track. And, she was lovely. Just so normal and down to earth, having her holiday with a friend through Vietnam. We hung out through the Sailing Club nights and just talked about life. When I told Sarah (from Sydney) that I met her and showed her all the pictures, she keeled over with delight, rattling off a bunch of facts about Natalie like any of us would do about Gwyneth or Brad and Angelina. That'll be valid for Page Six in about 6 years when Natalie makes it in the US, but for now, that's my brush with celebrity...

Hoi An is where I'm at now, taking a night to myself after two long (and wonderful) days with sweet Sarah from Argentina who's traveling SEAsia too. We met here and took some time in the made-to-order-tailoring capital of the region laying at the pool of my ultra-fabulous hotel, running around getting clothes made (1 suit, 2 skirts, 3 shirts, 2 dresses), avoiding the hordes of locals by saying "No speak English" (it's hilarious - they have NO idea what to do with that, and actually, leave you alone!), and wound up in somebody's garage outside of town that they call "Dream Bar, Good Shit" (since Hoi An closes at around 11 PM, officially) drinking jam jars of "wodka" juice until 4 AM with a hot Aussie named Chris. Amazing to be with Sarah. It's like we left each other in Argentina yesterday, the familiar is good and we have a blast together. Tomorrow, I head up to Hue, then Hanoi. Tonight, time for bed.

More from the north....