"The Experience of a Lifetime in Viet Nam"
Newspaper story & photos by: Brad Carlile
Freeport Journal Standard, 12-Feb-2000, p. C4.
Viet Nam. That name always prompts a reaction in this country, it often brings anger and stirs up resentment. Viet Nam was a site of a brutal war that also divided this country from thousands of miles away. Many Americans have the view that it is still a land of bomb craters, Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance.
I was a child during the Viet Nam war years. Even though I was too young to fully comprehend what was going on in places called Saigon, Da Nang, Hanoi, Mekong Delta, and Haiphong Harbor the names were etched into my brain. These were soon to become real places to me.
Why would an American want to go there even now? "Tourism?...Are you crazy? They hate Americans," I was told. Much has changed.
Contemporary Viet Nam is a land of beautiful mountains, expansive rice paddies that reflect the skies, bustling cities filled with enterprise, and friendly people who have big smiles for visitors. For the Viet Namese, the war they call the American war, was 25 years and three wars ago.
I spent three weeks traveling in Northern Viet Nam during November of 1999; there were so many different things to see and do that I changed by original plans to travel the length of the country. I will have to go back to see central Viet Nam and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). As I soon find out, many locals still refer to Saigon as Saigon.
Hanoi has become one of my favorite cities in the world - lots of energy and things going on, yet at the same time mellow and polite. Hanoi is a growing city that is modernizing itself while still holding onto its thousand-year-old traditions.
Hanoi has many museums, lakes, elegant boulevards, French-colonial buildings and pagodas to see, and great food to eat. The bustling streets are filled with people on motorcycles and cyclos (three-wheeled pedicabs). It is also easy to hire a ride on the back of a motorcycle or on the front seat of the cyclo from any street corner.
My trip also took me east of Hanoi to Haiphong Harbor and Ha Long Bay on the Gulf of Tonkin. A three day boat cruise barely touched the surface of one of the most strikingly beautiful bays in the world. Thousands of limestone pinnacles majestically jut up out of the emerald sea.
Two separate week-long trips from Hanoi to the northern provinces were the most unique part of the vacation. A guide, a driver and a land cruiser get our group of five tourists into some of the most remote villages in Viet Nam -- and a chance to do home stays in traditional rural stilt houses.
After passing though the flat plains covered with rice paddies we started to climb into northern mountains toward the provincial capital of Cao Bang. The hills became mountains with rounded peaks with steep sides. The rice paddies became terraced to take maximum advantage of the landscape. Different ethnic groups live in this northern region. Many of the people in these villages are from an ethnic group called "Nung".
The first village where we spent the night was five miles from the nearest road. When we first walked into the village we were only greeted with a few cautious glances. As we waved and smiled more people came around. Our guide went to strike a deal with the village elders to have us stay with a family in the village.
In the mean time we tried to talk with people in the tiny bit of Vietnamese we had learned. Many in the village hadn't seen many westerners in person. We joked around and played with the kids. Curiosity abounded -- soon everyone warmed up and there were many smiles. All of us were eager to find out more about the other.
When the guide came back he introduced us to the Nung family who would host us for the night. They showed us their living quarters in the upper floor of the stilt house. The lower floor served as a barn for the water buffalo, cows, ducks, chickens, and pigs. Dinner came in flapping its wings -- it was as fresh as any chicken meal you can imagine. That night laughter, jokes, and songs were mixed with rice wine and shared food. We slept on thin straw mats placed on the wooden floor -- our hosts were graciously worried that westerners might not be comfortable with their way of sleeping.
A common breakfast in Viet Nam is "pho" (pronounced "pha" - with the pitch rising at the end almost as if you were asking a question). It is a richly-flavored beef broth noodle soup that has flat rice-noodles, green onions, various green leaves, chili, and a squeeze of lime. It can have either slivers of beef, pork, or chicken sprinked on top.
Our lunches and dinners are typically rice accompanied with several meat, fish, and vegetable dishes. A favorite side dish of many of us were the Viet Namese spring rolls. Usually either beer or a rice wine call "ruou" (supprisingly pronounced "Zee-oh") accompanied many meals. Traditionally, all of this was finished up by green tea.
In the days that followed we traveled to other villages and explored this mountainous region. We also visit many limestone caves filled with magnificent stalactites and stalagmites that seemed to go on for ever. Another highlight was the beautiful waterfall called "Ban Gioc" which is on the boarder between China and Viet Nam. Tensions are still a bit high in this even though it has been 11 years since the war with China. We even have to surrender our passports at the checkpoint a few kilometers from the falls. Upon returning to Hanoi, many of the westerners I was traveling with had different plans on what to do next. The trip to the Northeast was very interesting and a lot of fun. I immediately tried to get on a similar trip to see northwestern Viet Nam.
The night we get back, Gabe (an American from Maine) and I head to a sidewalk restaurant before he heads out of Hanoi. On the way back several cyclo drivers try to get us to hire them. But our hotels are only a few block away. Gabe turns to two of them and says "How much if we pedal you?" The first shakes his head, "no". These leads us to believe that this sort of thing never happens in Hanoi. Then a second cyclo driver smiles and says," 4,000 dong" (about 30 cents - a fair price).
Soon Gabe pedals the cyclo driver and myself in big loops around the city. As we pass Viet Namese in sidewalk cafes, I point back toward Gabe pedaling away. This is followed by double takes, smiles, and laughs. These are not used to seeing westerners doing work of this sort. We then swap. I begin to pedal. Mischievously I veer toward any tourists I see and say, "Look out, I don't know what I'm doing! I don't have my license." This is followed by even more laughs.
The trip to the northwest offered different experiences that were equally intriguing. Different ethnic groups inhabit this mountainous region. The first night we stayed at a "White Thai" village. In this village they produce a lot of beautiful textiles.
We stay in a variety of villages on our way going north. The highlight of this trip was to visit two Sunday markets. In the morning we go to a market in which many ethnic "Dao" women come to the markets to sell the weeks products. These range from vegetables, textiles, rice wine, and deep blue indigo used for dying clothes.
Later that day we head up to the mountain town of Sa Pa to see the enthic" Black Hmong" market. The Black Hmong wear indigo blue vests that are dyed multiple times and polished to an almost metallic blue finish. This is was a fascinating market. These markets bring people together and are important for both economic and social reasons.
Upon returning to Hanoi, I ran into Alexis, an Australian woman from the northeast trip. In an excited voice she says, "Brad, weird things are happening in Hanoi. Hanoi is out of balance!" She continues, "The talk in all of the cafes this week is that there are westerners driving cyclos!"I pause before I say, "Those westerners were Gabe and myself!" Thus ended my 15 minutes of fame in Hanoi.
All of these fascinating and fun experiences definitely want to make me go back to Viet Nam some day and see even more.