Easy Rider

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Friday, April 13, 2007

Well first of all I've just got to say - I was right! 

The pigs on the backs of the motorbikes ARE alive.  They are on their way to market to be sold.  Restrained but living, breathing and hating every single second of being a passenger on the back of a jumpy, bumpy motorbike.   This is one of numerous little facts our guide Mr Minh told us on our recent journey.

Despite the fact that I'm a bit of a scaredy cat (or should I say - living pig) when it comes to motorbikes, we decided to venture by bike from Danang to Hoi An and see a few sights along the way. It was a fantastic experience as we managed to traverse the Vietnamese countryside passing through every possible type of plantation possible: corn fields, tobacco plantations; manioc fields; watermelon groves; peanut and spinach gardens and in between every one was an endless light green sea of rice paddies. A spectacular sight! Every paddy, garden or plantation was alike in that it was being meticulously tended to by figures dotting the horizon all bent over double; all with the same essential sun defense: the conical pointy hat. The scenes were stereotypical Vietnam - except that this is how it really is.  Everywhere.

Iain spoke earlier about the tireless work that goes on in the metal-work sheds in the cities, but they are also at it non-stop in the countryside, in the fields; at the weaving factories; everywhere!

Along the way we stopped a few times and I can't really describe it any better than: barged in on people's homes. Mr Minh, our guide/driver, would stop at anything we seemed vaguely interested in and work the locals for us. This is how we managed to uproot a peanut plant from someone's garden and sample some of their freshly boiled peanuts and how I tried my hand at making rice papers - I failed by the way...  And it looks soo easy!

Unfortunately, it wasn't the right season to see silk being extracted from the silk worm cocoons at the silk worm farms. I would have loved that. Instead we just saw them weaving the silks with the dyed thread.  In the universe of silk sales that is Vietnam - it is mind-boggling to think that about 10kgs of cocoons beomes about a kilo of silk during manufacture.  Wandering around the millions of shops that sell silk table cloths, clothes, paintings, scarves, pencil cases, mobile phone holders and anything else you can think of, it is alarming to think how many silk worms were involved in producing such a large proportion of this countries GDP.

On our motorbike expedition we also visited one of the Marble Mountains and the Cham ruins at Myson. The Marble Mountains fit their description. They are made largely of marble which means there were some spectacular marble carvings in the heart of the mountain caves. Unfortunately, this also meant that the 4,000 little shops you passed during ascent were all selling giant marble carvings - with giant marble chunks nicked from the mountain. Mr Minh mentioned they were trying to stop the pilfering because the mountains might not last long if the marble 'borrowing' continued at the current rate. Good luck.

Myson (and the Cham ruins) was another suprisingly scenic stop to stretch the legs and prevent the saddle soreness from kicking in harder than it already was. [Not sure how people bike across entire continents - as 6 or so hours of motorbiking was enough for both of us]

Motor-biking was a great way to see the "real" Vietnam and the locals seemed to be genuinely pleased that we were interested in their lives. Either that, or they were just smiling a lot in the hope that we would leave them alone quicker.
- - -

I have only really known of Danang as a place that Robin Williams could enunciate very humourously, and I was keen to learn a little more about a fairly interesting historical place that crops up in a number of books. However, on leaving our train we were met by touts vigourously offering not to take us to any hotel - but to take us out of town. Anywhere we wanted to go out of town, they were clambering over themselves to take us to. Asking for a local hotel however was met with a quizzical look and (relatively) declining interest. "Low" interest from moto taxis is only ever relative.

As a quick point of note, catching the train from Nha Trang to Danang is an inspired choice: they serve great food, its surprising comfortable [soft seat class], and the train driver locks in all the radios to a the local affilliate of MIX106.5 that plays piano and synth incarnations of 80's classics all the way home. They had to drag me off.

Danang is not a tourist town. The moto driver tried to show me one other recommendation (i.e. where he will make a dollar). The hotel room I was shown wasn't finished yet still managed to smell not only like someone had died in there, but hadn't been removed. He's clearly out of practice on real customers.

There is essentially one hotel in Danang, and as a result all the ants are forced to live in the one place and weren't that happy i was on their pillow. This was our first seriously ordinary night. If one could harness 'dank' as an energy source then our hotel room would be fuelling China. Within 12 hours my entire bag got a distinctly funky edge.

To be completely contrary of course, Danang gave us one of the finest restaurants in South East Asia. They did a clay pot pork dish that was just inconceivably good. The only way I can think to describe it that it was what you expect when you order "XO pork" at a Chinese restaurant, only this is the first time that that choice is not a profound disappointment. It was like cognac and ginger in a hearty sauce, and the pork strips were cut in profile from pork belly - each long strip comprising a cross section of crackling, fat, and lean fresh meat. I think you can tell the suffering we have had by the tears of love hitting the keyboard as this is written.

The one moto driver who did take us to our hotel of course had an ulterior motive, but sometimes thats OK. Moto (scooter) riding cross town is small change - going cross country for a taste of the rural is where the dollars are. I think we were fairly happily sucked in to a low cost adventure - a few dollars more than just paying for the commute.

Along the way from Danang to Hoi Ani, our host Mr Minh discovered Claude's joy for all forms of food production other than types she is physically required to participate in. Peanut farms. Melon farms. Tobacco farms. We stopped at them all. Sensing he was well on his way to locking in a multi day trip to take us to Hanoi or beyond, he even took us inside a local family home where they were making rice paper. As you look at the photos for this part of the trip, try to identify the point at which this family's livelihood took a a turn for the worse. Somebody's three attempts at cooking the batter resulted in polite smiles for about 2 minutes until the results were deftly balled back up and set aside. "Maybe good for pigs?" quietly opined Mr Minh. But the two pigs looking on looked none too impressed and returned to their nutritious pile of garbage.

On the food front, I have unfortunately outdone Claude's go at buying mint flavoured potato chips and managed to buy New Colgate Green Tea and Domestos Burst. And being budget conscious I have bought enough to last us until South America. You get used to seeing little green leaves on boxes and trusting the good folks at Unilever not to make anything too bizarre. Well that trust is breached, amd I can no longer play the mint chips debacle card.

An overall impression of our day through the farms with Mr Minh is one of continual amazement that food is so cheap. A bag of peanuts, a packet of ricepaper, a melon - none cost more than a fraction of a dollar... how on earth it is worthwhile to farm and carefully attend to these is inconceivable. Don't start me on the rice. Its murderous work - generally done by those advancing in years - and there aren't that many rice grains per stem. I don't understand how this world works. It makes sense when you think of giant soulless factories stamping out millions of baby ricepapers. Watching them made one by one changes your views quickly.

Mr Minh was a little older than our previous guides, and in many ways it was talking over lunch that was the most interesting. He fought with the South Vietnamese Army (i.e with the Americans), a fact about he was in equal parts apologetic and proud. As a result, he did two years "re-education" with the Communists, working in the sun on farms for a fist full of rice per day. He adamantly made the point about the food given to him, repeatedly showing his fist across the tabel to emphasise how ridiculously small the amount is (and it really is). Though again, curiously, I found him in equal parts apologetic and proud about his time in the camps - it perversely seems that those who stayed less than 4 or 5 years somehow feel they did not suffer enough, or accepted the new way too soon. Unlike classical modern European history taught in schools, this is one of the few war histories where you still meet the soldiers and see the victims.

As part of our tour we came to a memorial noting a US atrocity in the killing of 150 civilians (40km out of Danang). He was understandably animated, and on the point of being incensed that this was not a site that hit the tourist trail nor was included in the guides. The experience was profoundly odd when you woke up to the fact that he fought with the Americans at this time, in this region. And standing in a small road surrounded in every directions by lush farms he adds, without a trace of the irony in the situation "And of course when the US scurry away, well then the communists take over, and of course then everybody starve". Farmers who have to hand over a surplus for no cash all of sudden started producing a whole lot less. What's amazing in the current day is how apparently small that profit motive has to be to get them making pretty much everything.

Once again, our guide discreetly checked with us that we were OK with not hearing the "official" version of history. He said that while much had changed since 1995 (when President Clinton normalised trade relations and the lives of the locals started getting dramatically better), they were still very much aware of what they hadn't earned yet. Lack of free speech clearly rankles. I never thought of Vietnam as being so harsh - never on a par with Russia... yet thats a view that I'm forced to change any time you speak with a local in a longer interaction. Really surprising, and odd it doesn't seem to be mentioned in the guides.

Our final stop on the trip was a significant, and unexpected, highlight. The ruins at My Son are the final remants of the Cham nation (although they remain as an ethnic minority living in the hills). It is like the Temples of Angkor on a smaller, less busy scale and remains essentially unrestored. Its a great afternoon tramping through really ruined ruins that still managed to show clearly that a society of some significance was here in the distant past. Some parts look a bit sick as they were bombed by the US, wrecking not just a beautiful historic ruin, but a perfectly good Viet Cong base. 

My Son is a further reminder that South East Asia had major political organisation and civilisation working 1000, even 1500, years ago. Which makes it all the more jolting to get into your next hotel (Hoi An) and not be able to hear yourself over town loudspeakers blaring fervent rapid fire cajolings to the townsfolk. We enquired to the hotelier (we had to, we were considering a room very close to a loudspeaker mounted to an adjoining school), who languidly and cheekily replied "Its just the government, telling us they have fixed all the problems and everything is good. Easy to ignore. You want room or not?"

We went to Hoi An as it gets a rapturous guide book write up. It is [please stand] a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It commands your respect. We planned to stay three days. We lasted less than 24 hours, in the fastest mutual decision ever taken to secure any form of transport out at any cost.

Its plainly a tricky job UNESCO have. I mean, you have your obvious World Heritage sites - ooh, a Great Barrier Reef, a Grand Canyon, your Angkor Wat, some Pyramids in Egypt - and you bang out a list. But what to do after that? You have all this travel budget, and lord knows you can't have the same list year after year. Now don't get me wrong, some are still good (My Son gets their tick of approval as well, and its well earned) but this is second time in two months we've visited historic towns that are nothing but continual gift shops and travel agencies. Claude was still keen to visit the "Old Town" after breakfast, but on consulting the map we realised we already had visited the Old Town last night on our way to dinner... its just that the structures we were meant to be oohing and ahhing over had become tailors and had VISA symbols stuck all over them.

As such, breakfast became a time of decision and planning, and both of us reached to turn to the "Getting There and Away" part of the Lonely Planet in unison, a full 14 hours after getting in.  I wish I had let Claude read the book first, for I cast my eye to the kitchen to see what I think was a 10 gallon barrel adorned by Fabio's beaming face containing I Can't Believe Its Not Scrambled Eggs several minutes too late to change my fate.

Vietnamese language localisation seems to consist of breaking Western words into lots of little bits. Hon Da is where you go to get your Honda fixed (took us a week to figure why there were so many of these shops). Ca Thy is not likely to be a nice restaurant, au contraire, it will contain scrambled eggs befitting the propietoress, Cathy from Watford. Once bitten.

The bus to Hue traverses a simply beautiful part of Vietnam. We penetrated 3km long tunnels that looked like they were lovingly carved by the Swiss and emerged into a misty region of lakes surrounded by hills and quiet towns. (Next time, this would be the best leg to take the train instead of the bus. Oops.) About 64km (you can tell I noted it) is another place getting added to the shortlist of retirement locations. 

Its an enjoyable series of ups and downs in central Vietnam. So now for the former imperial capital at Hue. It looks awesome, but our breath is held. Its a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


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