Getting Around in Vietnam

Posted in Mixed Nuts on January 3rd, 2009 by MadDog
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In Hanoi, I was following Lonely Planet’s guide carefully. The atmosphere when I was there several years ago was slightly intimidating. There were cops or military looking people on every street corner. I was careful where I pointed my camera. I was also uncertain about travel methods. Nobody could tell me anything. I stayed away from cyclos and motorbikes. Therefore, getting around in Hanoi consisted mostly of walking if it wasn’t too far or taking a taxi if it was.

When I left Hanoi, I decided to take a train to Hoi An. I’ve always preferred train travel to anything else. It’s usually cheaper, you get to see more, and it’s not so tiring. I’d take two days on a train to ten hours on a plane anytime.

The train from Hanoi to Hoi An was an overnight run. Foreigners could not travel by coach, but had to take a compartment. I thought this was a good deal until I realized, upon boarding, that I shared the compartment with three other people, none of whom spoke English.

Fortunately, there was plenty of interesting scenery out the window to keep me amused:

Shooting through the window - a train tunnel on the way from Hanoi to Hoi An

At each little station, there were vendors selling all sorts of snack items. I tried a few, but was disappointed. Since I couldn’t read anything, each package contained a little surprise. I was unable to even recognise most of the items. Even some items that looked like candy tasted like dead fish. If fact, after a while, everything tasted like fish:

Lots of goodies at the train stations, but if you can't read, the packets are full of surprises

By morning, I was pretty hungry. A little old woman came down the isle with a big trolley carrying a giant cauldron of vegetable soup. It was delicious; I motioned for more. She gave me a frown, but ladled it out anyway.

I noticed a guy in uniform walking up and down the isle in the dining/bar carriage who seemed to be eyeing me with suspicion. He stopped and sat down in front of me and gave me that blank look that says, “I’m waiting for you to explain yourself.”

The engineer of the train from Hanoi to Hoi An, Vietnam

I did what any cagey old hippy would do. I handed him a cigar (you can see him asserting possession of it). As it turned out, he was the engineer of the train. He was taking a break and checking for suspicious persons. I guess I was a standout.

He turned out to be quite friendly. He even suggested that I might return to the locomotive with him and snap some photos. We talked for a while and then he got up to leave. I started to follow him. He said, “Where are you going?” When I said I was following him to the front of the train, he said, “NO! That is forbidden!” Go figure.

After my stay in Hoi An, I decided that the train wasn’t for me. I was running out of time anyway. Taking a plane would give me an extra day in Saigon.

As I waited in the airport lounge, I took a shot at some American women travelling together. A little conversation wouldn’t hurt, I thought. I realized that I hadn’t had a genuine conversation in English for over a week. I think I frightened them, because they absolutely refused to talk to me:

The airport lounge at Hoi An

I continued to gather my courage to get on a Vietnamese airliner. I had no idea what to expect. When I walked out on the tarmac and saw the plane, I thought, “That doesn’t look so bad.”

Vietnam Airlines - "We're Not As Scary As We Sound"

It got me safely to Saigon.

After a couple of days walking around and taking taxis again, I was tired. I must have walked a hundred miles already in Hanoi. I noticed this one cyclo driver who stuck around the entrance of my hotel. Unlike others, he never hassled me for business. I stood close by him for a few minutes and finally said something stupid like, “Nice cyclo, man.” He introduced himself and pulled out a packet of endorsements, photos, emails, and letters from probably twenty former clients. I was so impressed (and tired) that I decided to give him a try:Quang, the cyclo driver - Saigon

His name is Quang. It was the best decision I made while travelling in Vietnam. He took me anywhere that I wanted to go, day or night – at least the places he said were safe. He got me good deals on things that I bought. I know he went back for his cut later, but the prices were still better than I could haggle. He found some guys that were selling Cuban cigars for a decent price. He said that he was happy to have me for a client because I didn’t ask him to take me to prostitutes. I guess he gets a lot of that.

After the trial day, I had about four days left. I made a deal with Quang to haul me around for the next four days and paid him twice what he asked. We were both very happy with the arrangement.

Quang was one of the millions that were forced to leave the city completely deserted after the “American War” had been won. By the way, don’t bother to see it any other way while you’re in Vietnam. You’ll be all alone. He was not allowed to come back to the city for five years.

Here you can see my somewhat-less-tired feet , My Lonely Planet guide, and imagine Quang peddaling like crazy behind me:

Travelling in style in Saigon

I’d love to get back to Vietnam again someday. There’s so much that I missed.

When I’m in Saigon, I’m going to find Quang.

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The Mekong Delta

Posted in Mixed Nuts on December 27th, 2008 by MadDog
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I’d like to continue talking about my visit to Vietnam a few years ago. The truth is that I have so many photos of the Mekong Delta that I want to show you that I’m going to cut the chatter short and just describe what was going on.

The general advice of travellers who had been there was, “Don’t miss the Mekong Delta.” Having heard about it endlessly during the war, I wanted to see what it was like. It didn’t disappoint. It was as beautiful as it was described – without the bullets flying.

We embarked on a small boat on the surprisingly rough muddy waterway:

Our transport across the broad Mekong River

The colours were splendid. Boats and houses like a solidly constructed rainbow line the riverbanks:

Boats and beautiful houses line the banks of the Mekong River

The colour of the river made the boats look as if they were floating in hot chocolate:

Boats floating on the hot chocolate Mekong River

As it was during a major national holiday, the red flags with the bull’s-eye yellow star were peppering the scenery. In the next image you can see a huge watchtower at the left. I suspect that this is a leftover from the war. It must have made a tempting target:

Red flags aplenty - The Mekong RIver Delta

If you’re boat has a motor, you have to fuel up occasionally:

Refuel your boat here on the Mekong Delta

We switched to canoes for the trip to the village:

Canoes to the village on the Mekong Delta

The hats! They are iconic of Vietnam. I brought back six of them. They cost me about a dollar each and they last forever.

This is one of my favourite shots from all those that I got in Vietnam:

One of my favourite images of Vietnam

At the hamlet, we were entertained by a talented young singer and his backup band:

This Mekong Delta singer had a beautiful voice

His sister followed with an equally impressive performance:

A Mekong Delta village entertainer

Then it was time to wash up for lunch:

A place to wash up in the Mekong Delta

I don’t believer that I’ve ever seen a more interesting placement of a bathroom sink.

For lunch, we had to most beautifully decorated fish that I’ve ever seen:

Beautiful, but very stinky fish in the Mekong Delta

Unfortunately, it was also the stinkiest fish that I’ve ever eaten. I took a polite bite and then switched to the yummy veggies. Vietnamese taste aparently runs to the strong, fishy aroma. That’s not one of my favourite things. Dining out was a bit of a let-down for me. That’s because I was raised on stinky ‘fish sticks’ because they were cheap. I still prefer my fish to smell nothing like fish!

I would happily have spent several days wandering around the Delta region. Sadly, I was running out of time. I had planned to spend two weeks in Vietnam. If I ever get to go back, I’ll plan at least a month. The list of places I missed, but would love to see, is as long as my arm.

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Hoi An – Remember China Beach?

Posted in Mixed Nuts on December 24th, 2008 by MadDog
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Nobody could live through the 60’s and early 70’s without hearing about a lot of exotic Southeast Asian places. As a primary school student, I remember first hearing of American soldiers dying in “Indochina.”

In 1950, thirty-five US soldiers arrived in South Vietnam as part of a training program operated by the US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). Their mission was ostensibly to instruct Vietnamese troops how to blast their wicked communist brothers to bloody smithereens with the shiny new US weapons that they were receiving.

Twenty-five years later . . .

Well, we all know what happened. I remember watching the last Americans escaping in disarray from the top of the US Embassy while thousands of doomed supporters desperately scaled the fence to try to hitch a ride to . . . anywhere but there. They had been magically transformed from “allies” to “collaborators” with the stroke of a pen – probably a very expensive one.

It was called “Peace With Honour.”

I wonder how many Americans realize that the “Vietnam War”, which the Vietnamese, of course, call “The American War”, lasted 25 years.

By the way, the area we call Vietnam today has been overrun at one time or another by just about everybody capable of mounting an invasion. (The Chinese first invaded in 200 BC.) Apparently, it’s prime real-estate. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese have eventually kicked out every invader. Remember Dien Bien Phu? The Vietnamese have had to fight for their identity and independence since day one.

Okay, enough of that.

Hoi An sits sleepily about 35 kilometres south of Da Nang, a place about which Americans have heard far too much. During the 17th to the 19th centuries, Hoi An was a major international seaport. Today, it’s primarily a tourist destination. If you crave exotic scenery, it’s hard to beat. The Hoi An footbridge over the Bun River is an appealing example:

Footbridge over the Bun River in Hoi An Vietnam

The riverside is wall-to-wall humanity. Small motorboats crowd the shoreline:

River boat in Hoi An Vietnam

The red flags with the yellow star sprouted like poppies. I’d arrived during a major national holiday. Political announcements and slogan banners were everywhere – the usual “Workers Unite!” stuff, I suppose:

Banner in Hoi An Vietnam

Affluence isn’t much in evidence around Hoi An. As near as I could determine, this is an “average” domestic situation:

An average domestic situation in Hoi An Vietnam

Not posh, by most standards, but liveable.

I’d arrived by train (more about that another day). I took a taxi to my hotel. Wouldn’t you know it; the poor driver suffered a puncture on the way. Fortunately, it was only a tire:

A punctured tire in Hoi An Vietnam

Not so very long ago an entirely different kind of puncture would have been common.

I don’t remember the name of the hotel at which I rested for a couple of days. I do however remember that we had our very own elephant:

My very own elephant - Hoi An Vietnam

One thing that I noticed about that particular elephant was that it always seemed to be in a hurry. I thought that elephants mostly ambled. This one sprinted.

A last war note:

Hoi An is not far from China Beach. Americans will remember the place for two reasons. First, it was an in-country rest and recreation base operated by the military. It was terribly convenient. I’ve been told that you could get a picnic lunch at the beach and then hop on a Huey and head right back into combat.

The second reason that Americans might remember China Beach is from the horrible, simpering sitcom/drama bearing the same name that appeared on American TV from 1988 to 1991. I remember the few episodes that I watched as being nearly unbearable.

The war was bad enough – even from a distance.

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Hanoi – Caught Between Two Worlds

Posted in Mixed Nuts, Opinions on December 23rd, 2008 by MadDog
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It took me nearly twenty years to decide that I wanted to actually go to Vietnam. It was a sort of pilgrimage. Having spent years in the National Guard flying Hueys to avoid going there, it felt slightly hypocritical to suddenly want to go. Nevertheless, I had a lot of ghosts to lay to rest. Eunie and I have estimated that about a third of my pilot training course at Fort Wolters, Texas either didn’t make it back or were so adversely affected by the experience that their “Pursuit of Happiness” guaranteed by the constitution of the country that sent them to war was forever thwarted.

Here’s the view of Hanoi from my window at the Hanoi Horison Hotel. It was super-swanky and it cost me US$89 a night. I couldn’t believe it:

View from the Hanoi Horison Hotel

Absolutely nothing was as I expected in Hanoi. I don’t know what I expected, but what I got wasn’t it. I remember coming in on the plane to Hanoi. As I looked out the window at the thousands and thousands of bomb craters stretching from horizon to horizon, I started crying like a baby. It was a kind of catharsis, I suppose. It was also one of the more embarrassing moments of my life. I hadn’t even gotten off the plane yet and I was already attracting far too much attention to myself – something that I’d hoped to avoid.

I’m a little chicken-hearted when it comes to saying things here that might hurt someone. I guess it’s because I’m getting old – the testosterone level is blessedly diminishing. This time, I’ll take the risk. Can anybody tell me anything good that came out of that war? Did it kill Communism? Don’t be ridiculous. Communism died quietly in its sleep. Did it make America look good? Come on . . . Exactly what did all that suffering of every imaginable kind accomplish?

Try to find a Communist in Vietnam today. I can just about guarantee that there are none in this photo of a typical street scene:

Hanoi street scene

When I was getting ready to go, I contacted the Vietnam Helicopter Pilot’s Association. I left a message on their bulletin board explaining briefly the situation and the reason for my trip. I said that if anybody wanted to send me a small item that I could carry from Hanoi to Saigon that I would then return it. It seems now a ridiculous offer. I got one response. It was from a guy whose email address begins with dou4free as in “Do you for free.” If you’re not up on American slang from that era, let me tell you that “Do you” can mean kill you.

The poor fellow actually threatened me if I went to Vietnam. After a couple of increasingly angry emails from him, I told him that I was not willing to feed his rage any longer and I blocked his address. This is what war – especially one so damaging to human dignity as Vietnam – can do to people.

I want to believe that his attitude was not typical of the approximately 8,000 dues-paid members of the Association. (That’s out of 40,000 – yes that’s right, forty thousand – helicopter pilots that served in Vietnam.) That’s what I want to believe.

Hey, this is getting way too preachy. Let’s look at some images:

An astonishing scene - only a few motorbikes in sight in Hanoi

As it is throughout most of Southeast Asia, the motorbike is king. Though there are not nearly so many in Hanoi as in Saigon, there is one thing that they all have in common. They are powered by their horns. It is impossible to escape the sound of honking motorbike horns night or day.

(Okay, so it’s Ho Chi Minh city, but there is a part of it that is still called Saigon. I will use Saigon and, if you please, you may substitute Ho Chi Minh City.)

It has always amused me that Communism tried mightily to beat the religion out of people and so utterly failed. Apparently, it can’t be done. Shrines and temples everywhere decorate Hanoi:

One of the many beautiful temples in Hanoi

This has gone on long enough, so let me show you one of my favourite photos from Vietnam:

Is there a message here?

There’s something in this image that’s trying to whisper a message to my heart. I wonder if I’ll live long enough to hear it.

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Coming Attractions

Posted in Mixed Nuts on December 15th, 2008 by MadDog
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As you may have gathered by now, my ghostly computer is posting these articles in my absence while I’m away on Miss Rankin doing some very interesting dives until the 18th.

Before I left, I started working on photos that I took about six years ago in Vietnam (yes, I’m that far behind).

Here’s a little street-scene teaser from Hanoi:

Hanoi street scene

I’d go back to Vietnam at the drop of a hat. Having escaped it during the war (National Guard – yes, I’m one of those), I was able enjoy it nearly completely. I’ll explain the exceptions later.

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