I left my heart to the sappers round Khe Sanh

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Friday, September 5, 2008

So goes the opening line of the famous Chisel song "Khe Sanh". I knew that Khe Sanh existed in Vietnam, but only because that as an Australian, it was a pre-requisite to know the song and its lyrics. What I didn't realise was that Khe Sanh played a major part in the American War in Vietnam a few decades ago, and that the lyrics of the song made a lot of sense to me, now that I've returned to South East Asia to "check things out again".
Indeed, Vietnam is another country to tick off on my list in South East Asia. I'd come to Vietnam full of expectations, which can be a dangerous thing to do, as one's pre-conceptions of a country might not be realistic. However, Vietnam was everything I had imagined it to be; awesome, sheisa and everything in between. Unlike Cambodia and Laos (which I loved) which at times can feel like you are looking for something to do, Vietnam offered plenty of opportunities and variety to keep me occupied during my two months there.
With my facial features, longish hair and darkish skin, I passed quite easily as a local person. Especially in the countryside, locals would think that I was a villager originating from somewhere in the highlands, and then look upon me in amazement when they discovered that I spoke only a handful of Vietnamese words. Indeed, upon wandering around a fishing village, none of the local fishermen would even bat an eyelid when I strolled past them. I was ably informed later that the locals thought that I must just've been another poor villager from the countryside venturing into the big smoke of the city to seek employment and a better life. Indeed......With my scruffy appearance and dirty non-designer clothes, it made quite a lot of sense.
Actually I was invited by a fisherman from that village to go squid fishing one night, which was why I was floating around there. It definitely made for a pleasant change to do something completely off the tourist trail. I observed the fisherman going through his usual routine of checking the old diesel engine and parts for oil, rounding up the ropes and finally spluttering his old girl into life. His old girl (the boat), the pride and joy of his livelihood, looked as good as new after a fresh coat of paint. She chugged slowly into centre of Nha Trang harbour in the darkness of a moonless summer night, and I wondered how I was going to make conversation with my limited Vietnamese. Squid fishing was not easy initially, especially with the rudimentary gear which we were using. However, the Vietnamese blokes on the boat really tried to make me feel comfortable, even though our verbal communication was virtually non-existent. It was surprising how much we managed to communicate with each other using only hand gestures. As our time extended deeper into the night, the squid even made an appearance and soon everyone was in on the action. The freshly caught squid were cleaned and eaten on the boat, both sushi and barbeque style. To this day, they were the freshest and tastiest squid/calamari I have ever tasted. The seafood was accompanied by several cold beers, against a backdrop of the lights of the beachside resort of Nha Trang in the distance. "This is the real Vietnam", I thought to myself, and I was stoked to have experienced a few hours of local life. 
There's a place not too far from Nha Trang in the Khanh Hoa province which I really wanted to visit, my obsession stemming from a postcard which I've seen previously. Sea water is pumped through pipes a kilometre in length onto a large, flat field and allowed to evaporate under the scorching sun. The resulting salt that remain is then harvested by having it manually carried onto dry land, before being transported to a factory for further processing and packaging. Now to make things interesting, Mother Nature had decided to amend the order of things by unleashing unseasonal rain on the salt fields and thus disrupting the evaporation process. Several times I was on the verge of leaving the province due to the unpredictability of the weather, and several times I made changes to my onward travel plans to try and see the salt fields.
The heavens finally provided a cracking blue and sunny morning for my last day in the province. As a passenger on the back of a motorbike, we left at the crack of dawn and travelled fifty kilometres or so. We rode past thousands of locals exercising on the beach at sunrise, scenic ocean views, fishing villages, shrimp farms, small towns, even smaller villages and local fish markets. When we arrived at the salt fields, the vision of that postcard came to life as perhaps a hundred or more women, each of them dressed in gumboots, gloves, long sleeved shirts, pants and a conical hat were in the midst of shifting the copious amount of salt in the field. The salt was systematically carried onto dry land in two baskets attached to the ends of a bamboo pole slung across the shoulders. Each grain of salt was blindingly white when reflected in the sunlight, and shimmered like snowflakes when they were added to the mountainous pile that was already on the dry land. It looked just like an image from a National Geographic magazine, and I was certainly glad to have made the effort to see it. I hadn't noticed any travel agencies in town offering group tours to visit these salt fields. In many ways (as a 'selfish' traveller), I am glad that mass consumer tourism has not yet made major inroads into what is currently quite an individual thing to do. Those amicable, smiling workers would surely lose their innocence and humour if there were bus loads of tourists pointing their cameras at them all hours of a working day. 
The idea of riding a motorbike through the Vietnamese countryside appealed to me, as it gave me a sense of freedom. With a special friend accompanying me, we rode through the winding roads of the rice terraced covered hills surrounding Sapa in the north of Vietnam, and was stunned by the majestic scenery that the region provided. In the Black H'mong villages, girls and women appeared from everywhere in their quest to flog their handicraft wares to the unsuspecting visitors. Small waterfalls punctuated the landscape, the dirt roads turned to muddy streams as incessant drizzle kept falling in the hills. The drizzle then became a torrential downpour as we rode on, singing aloud "I'm singing in the rain". Despite being soaked to the bones and covered in mud, it turned out to be quite a brilliant day. I certainly felt very happy.
Quite different to other countries in South East Asia, one of the luxuries which I have had throughout Vietnam is a television with cable channels in most of my rooms. Channel surfing is a national pastime back in Australia, and at times I would stumble across a Hollywood movie dubbed in Vietnamese. It's all well and good, except that the dialogue of all characters, male and female, young and old, was spoken by one Vietnamese woman, in the same monotone voice, throughout the entire length of the movie. I'm sure that every Hollywood movie I saw dubbed in Vietnamese had the same monotone voice woman behind the microphone. Quite a career.
One of the greatest benefits of travelling is learning, as I must have reiterated in previous blogs and e-mails. Having not shown the least bit of interest in history when I was at school, I knew very little about the American War. Only after visiting the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum in Saigon, and the underground tunnels at Cu Chi and Vinh Moc have I realised and comprehended the gravity and magnitude of the war that I knew so little about. Seeing the places where parts of the war actually took place, and imagining how they must've been like all those decades ago. Listening to locals telling how the war directly and indirectly affected them was quite fascinating. To see recent history in that country is the best way to learn about it.
Well, I'll be leaving my comfort zone of Asia very soon. I've certainly spent enough time on this continent. It's time for a change, me thinks.

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