|Monday, January 15th, at 2:00 PM we walked across the Cambodia-Vietnam border into Vietnam.
Customs and immigration authorities in Vietnam are the toughest we have encountered on our trip so far. You must have a Visa to enter Vietnam and the Visa must specify the exact entry date and exact entry location -- no exceptions! Expect customs agents to empty your entire backpack and don't be surprised if they "shake you down", with some special fee of a few U.S. dollars.
After finally getting through to the border city of Moc Bai (the only land entry point from Cambodia to Vietnam) we exchanged some U.S. dollars into the Vietnamese currency, the dong (d). One U.S. dollar buys you approximately 14,000d. Loaded up on dong, we boarded a different bus and headed towards Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The ride took another 3 hours. We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City at 6:00 PM. We checked into the Hong Hoa Guesthouse.
Tuesday, January 16th, we tried to send some things back to the states. What a nightmare. The bureaucracy and red tape we encountered at the border continued with our attempts to use the Vietnamese postal system.
After standing in line for 2 hours, going through 6 "check points" and filling out 6 different forms, we were informed that the items we wanted to send were potentially "subversive" to the Vietnamese government. If we still wanted to send them we had to go across town to a government approval center, get approval and bring the items back, only to go through the 2 hour process again. We would have just said screw it and continued to carry the items, but we are trying to travel light on our Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Northern Thailand circle. So, off to the approval center we went.
At the approval center, after a frustrating verbal exchange with the agents, who could not speak a word of English, we were informed that we had to leave the items in question for 2 days. Then we could return and find out if we had gained approval to send them. As we watched the agents throw our package into a huge pile of "suspected" items, we wondered whether we would ever get them back. We will keep you posted.
One advantage of our "postal adventure" was that we were forced to walk all around Ho Chi Minh City. This hustling, bustling city is alive with energy. It's East meets West, it's old deals with new, it's modernity clashing with traditional ways. It is definitely an interesting place.
Wednesday, January 17th, we went to the War Remnants Museum. In the yard of the museum, U.S. tanks, jets, bombs and infantry weapons are on display. There is a guillotine which the French used to deal with Viet Minh "troublemakers". There is a model of the tiger cages used by the South Vietnamese military to house Viet Cong (VC) prisoners. There is an exhibt displaying photographs which depict the horror caused by the U.S. military use of Agent Orange. There is another section entitled "Some Pictures of U.S. Imperialists' Aggressive War Crimes in Vietnam", which includes photographs of the infamous My Lai Massacre. The photos of innocent women and children mangled by American bombing, napalming and artillery shells are particulary hard to stomach. The photos of torture are equally grusome. Yes, the museum is one-sided. Two particular photographs stood out in this regard. One was of an American GI holding up a mutilated body (really half a body) of a Viet Cong soldier by the collar. The caption reads, "Look at the American GI smiling as if he is enjoying himself." There is another photo of a group of U.S. soldiers seated in front of some recently decapitated Viet Cong soldiers with one soldier holding one of the heads. The U.S. soldiers look as if they are smiling and posing for the photo. But, even though the museum is one-sided, the one thing we took away from our visit here, is that war is bad news.
Thursday, January 18th, we started off the day by taking a cyclo to see the Jade Emperor Pagoda. The Jade Emperor Pagoda is a very interesting Chinese temple. Smoke from incense sticks swirls around you as you dart and weave your way through intricate statues and decorated characters. There is also a pool filled with hundreds of turtles outside the main entrance. While we were watching the turtles, a young Vietnamese man approached us and struck up a conversation. Eventually he got around to his motive. He wanted Joel to agree to marry his Vietnamese girlfriend so she could move to the U.S.! He offered us $1,000.00 (U.S.) for our service! Although he was interesting, he also seemed a little shifty, so we politely ended the conversation and walked away. When we returned to our cyclo drivers, who had seen us talking to the "marriage broker", they blurted out, "He bad man! Many scams! You stay away!". So who knows what that guy was really up to.
Later, we returned to the approval center to see if we would be able to send our items to the states. After paying a small fee we were informed that we could send the items. So, we returned to the post office, went through the same ordeal we went through on Tuesday, and finally got the items on their way to the states. What a pain.
The Notre Dame Cathedral is right across the street from the post office, so we checked it out before we returned to the guesthouse. It was built between 1877 and 1883, in the heart of Saigon's government quarter.
Back at the guesthouse we decided to do some internet and work on the website, or so we thought. It turns out you can only view "government approved" websites in Vietnam and Geocities, the host off our web site, is apparently not government approved. It looked like we would not be able to update the web site for our entire stay in Vietnam. Well, this would not do. Our web viewers are important to us and we know how much you enjoy checking out our updated journal, so we went to work to try to solve the problem. Eventually we discovered a way around the firewall so we can work on the website, but as of now we can't view the website to check if the links work, etc. So, we apologize for any potential errors in advance. We will keep working on a way to view the website and if we can not get in, we will be sure to check for errors after we leave Vietnam. At least we can keep the journal up to date.
Friday, January 19th, we took a 2 hour bus ride (one way) to see the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels of Cu Chi were built over a period of 25 years beginning in the late 1940s. They were built as a response by a poorly equipped peasant army to its high-tech enemy. The tunnels assumed an enormous strategic importance during the war and they were used by the VC to infiltrate intelligence agents and sabotage teams into Saigon. The 1968 Tet Offensive was launched from Cu Chi. The VC guerrillas who served in the tunnels lived in extremely difficult conditions and suffered horrific casualties.
We got a small taste of their extraordinary tenacity as we crawled through the dark, tiny passageways. You really do struggle for air and the claustrophobic feeling is intense. We were only in the tunnels for a matter of minutes, while they would live underground for weeks and months at a time, with the pressure of bombings all around them. It really is a testament to their courage and resiliency.
The presentation of the tunnels had a one-sided nature, similar to what we experienced at the War Remnants Museum. We were shown a 20 minute black and white propoganda film before we were allowed to see the tunnels. It used dialogue such as "The American devils attacked innocent women and children like dogs", and it praised the men and women VC who killed American soldiers, awarding them with the "American Killer Medal". Again, in spite of the one-sidedness, it was a very interesting, learning experience.
Friday night started getting a little crazy in the city. It's the first day of a celebration the Vietnamese call Tet. The celebration runs for one week before and one week after Chinese New Year's, which this year falls on Janurary 24th. Hung up all over the city were colorful banners annoucing the new year and special gifts were being sold from vendors on every street corner. It's good luck to give gifts like melons and lemon and orange trees and we saw literally thousands of melons for sale all over the city sidewalks, usually stacked high in a pyramid shape. There were also special gift baskets full of food, wine and cookies that were given as gifts. This celebration will continue for the next full week. Even the bank we went to today had a sign posted that it would be closed all of next week in celebration of the lunar new year. Now that's the way to celebrate.
On day 202 of our adventure, Saturday, January 20th, we took a 7:30 AM bus (that actually left at 8:00 AM) out of Ho Chi Minh City heading toward Dalat.
We purchased an open bus ticket with an outfit called Sinh Cafe Tours. For $29.00 (U.S.) each we get an open bus ticket from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, with stops in Dalat, Nha Trang, Hoi An and Hue. We don't plan on going all the way to Hanoi. We plan on stopping just short of there, at the town of Vinh, so we can cross into Laos at Keo Nua Pass, but we figured this bus ticket was still a good deal.
On the 8-hour ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat, we stopped three times. Once at a floating village, with a huge war memorial perched on a hill above it, once for lunch (at 1:00 P.M.) and once at a tea plantation. The terrain around Dalat, the central highlands, is very beautiful, green and mountainous. We really appreciated the cooler temperature. We haven't been out of the heat since Cairns, Australia and the fall-like conditions were a welcomed change.
We arrived in Dalat at 4:00 PM and crashed at the Pacific Hotel.
Day 203, Sunday, January 21st, was a "max it out", "what have you got" day. We rented a motorbike, grabbed our travel guidebook and tried to see as many of Dalat's attractions as we could in one day.
We started the day by having breakfast at 7:30 a.m. at The Stop and Go Cafe. It is not really a cafe at all; it is Dalat's leading artist and poet's house. The owner welcomes people in for drinks and small meals, so they can gaze at his paintings and read his poetry. With his French beret perched atop his head and a cigarette hanging from his lower lip, he made an interesting sight. During breakfast he gave Lisa a flower crown which he just picked from his garden, and which she wore on her head as they posed for a picture. He had a very thick guest book in which people signed their names, taped photographs of themselves and even wrote some poetry. One picture he made a point of showing us was of John F. Kennedy Jr. and a friend as well as his signature.
Our first stop was a visit to Cam Ly Falls, a small waterfall just outside the center of the city.
Next stop was a huge war memorial high above a hill overlooking the city. It was a very impressive monument, surrounded by gravesites of Vietnamese soldiers killed in the war with America. As we were leaving the memorial a huge gathering of people began walking up to the memorial. We sat on the side and watched the procession pass by, led by children carrying a wreath to commemorate the dead. As they walked by, many of the procession members said hello and asked where we were from. We replied with a polite hello and told them we were from America. Strange isn't it? Twenty-five years after American soldiers left Vietnam, we are sitting at a memorial commemorating the death of Vietnamese soldiers at the hands of American soldiers, telling the Vietnamese visitors to the memorial, that we are from America. Not only were they not offended by our presence, they seemed pleased to see us. They all responded to the location of our home with a quick smile and a hearty welcome to their country. If anything illustrated for us that the war is really over, this experience was it.
After the procession passed us by, we jumped on the motorbike and headed south out of Dalat. Five kilometers out of town, we stopped at the Quang Trung Reservoir and Datanla Falls. We also visited a very peaceful and beautiful Zen Buddhist monastery high on a hill overlooking the lake.
Further south, 10 km out of town; we stopped at another impressive waterfall, Prenn Falls.
Next, we decided to try to find a hill tribe village, which was supposed to be about 20km south of Dalat. The village is home to the Koho people and has a huge concrete statue of a chicken in the middle of it, hence its nickname with travelers -- Chicken Village. (Seriously!) That is all the information we had to go by, but we thought we would give it a shot anyway. The village was very difficult to find. We kept stopping along the way, trying to get directions. It must have been a comical sight for the local Vietnamese. Two western tourists pull up on their motorbike and start sputtering out words that must sound like gibberish. Joel is making a huge circle with his arms over his head, trying to replicate big, and Lisa is waving her arms, with her hands under her armpits, trying to replicate a chicken, as both of us simultaneously are blurting out "Bock, bock, bock!".
Man did we get some strange looks. They must have thought we were crazy. After thoroughly embarrassing ourselves numerous times, we finally found Chicken Village, and yes, there is a huge statue of a chicken. Apparently, during the war, the Koho people fled deeper into the hills and began practicing slash and burn agriculture and also began wiping out huge portions of timber. After the war, the Vietnamese government wanted to bring the Koho people back into their original village, before they totally destroyed the countryside. What better way to bring them back, than by building a huge statue of a chicken? They wanted them to be farmers again, and raise chickens, so it makes sense right? Whatever!
The Koho people proved to be very friendly, warm and generous. Even though they live in total poverty, they welcomed us into their homes and gave us some delicious tea. The kids were so cute and friendly. They showed us how they work cloth into beautiful blankets, clothes and handbags. One blanket that struck us as exceptionally beautiful took the Koho women 7 days of straight work to make.
What a day, we were starting to get tired now, so we headed back to Dalat. Before returning the motorbike we drove completely around a huge golf course, just outside of town. We went into the clubhouse; just to look around and found out that a five-year membership for one person, at this immaculately kept sea of green, cost $5,000 (U.S.)! Considering that the average Vietnamese person makes less then $400.00 (U.S.) a year, the presence of the course seems ridiculous. But it's not the average Vietnamese person who gets to play the course, they just get to work at keeping its perfect contours in order. It's rich westerners and prestigious Vietnamese government officials who get to swing the irons on this course. How strange to see this huge golf course, devoted to luxury and excess, amid so much poverty. Yes the course is beautiful, but something just seems wrong about it.
With our "max it out", "what have you got" day complete, we slept like babies back at the Pacific Hotel.
Day 204, Monday, January 22nd, we awoke at 7:00 AM, for our bus ride from Dalat to Nha Trang. The bus was supposed to leave at 8:00 AM. It didn't. Mechanical problems set back our departure time to 10:00 AM. The ride to Nha Thrang took 8 hours and we arrived at 6:00 PM. Once in Nha Trang, we checked into the Duyen Hai Hotel.
Nha Trang is Vietnam's version of an upscale beach resort. Nha Trang Beach is beautiful. The superb shopping and dining, combined with the magnificent beach, will satisfy even the most critical beach resort connoisseur.
Day 205, Tuesday, January 23rd, we rented a motorbike and set out to explore the area. We visited the Long Son Pagoda and climbed to the top of a hill, adorned with a huge white Buddha. We wandered through the ancient Po Nagar Cham Towers and discovered our own private little beach near the Bao Dai Villas. It was a wonderful day. Later that night Joel noticed his throat was slightly sore.
Day 206, Wednesday, January 24th, Chinese New Year's Day, we awoke early to board a 6:00 AM bus to Hoi An. Joel's throat was really sore at this point and he wasn't feeling well. We decided to keep moving anyway.
The bus ride to Hoi An took 14 hours. Fourteen hours in a crowded bus wouldn't be the easiest thing to endure under normal conditions. Combined with Joel starting to get pretty sick -- it was hell. Once we finally arrived in Hoi An, we checked into The Hai Yen Hotel.
Hoi An is a picturesque riverside town. It is a showpiece of Vietnamese and colonial architecture. Before arriving, we heard that many travelers end up lingering in Hoi An longer than they originally planned. That's exactly what we did. (Although our staying had more to do with Joel catching a full blown case of the flu than the charms of Hoi An.) We ended up staying in Hoi An days 207, 208, 209 and 210 of our adventure.
While waiting for Joel to recover, Lisa strolled through Hoi An's picturesque streets, visited a few pagodas, checked out the river and spotted a beautiful lamp a statue and a pair of sandles, she simply had to have. Hoi An is known for its cloth and tailors and the town has over 80 tailors, each promising cheap custom made clothes in a few hours. Lisa decided to have a shirt made and Joel opted for a shirt and a pair of pants.
Day 210, Sunday, January 28th, Joel felt well enough (or so he thought) for us to explore the most important ancient site of the Kingdom of Champa -- My Son.. The Kingdom of Champa flourished from the 2nd to the 15th centuries. My Son was the site of the most important Cham intellectual and religious centre, and also served as a burial place for Cham monarchs. My Son is considered to be Champa's counterpart to the grand cities of South-East Asia's other Indian-influenced civilizations: Angkor (Cambodia), Bagan (Myanmar), Ayuthaya (Thailand) and Borobudur (Java). Even though Joel still wasn't totally all there yet, it still was well worth going.
Day 211, Monday, January 29th, we took a 8:00 AM bus out of Hoi An, heading towards Hue. Six hours later, after stopping for lunch at Lang Co Beach we arrived in the city of Hue.
Lisa's friend, Al Yee, was nice enough to email us some information about Hue and his experiences near there, during the Vietnam War:
"Hue is the old capital city and the site of one of the nastiest Tet battles in 1968. I had just left Vietnam a few weeks earlier when the battle took place. My old company was involved with the rest of the 1st Marine Division. After the battle, the Marines found a large number of Vietnamese civilians who had been executed by the VC for sympathizing with the South Vietnamese government. The combat part of Stanley Kubrick's movie "Full Metal Jacket" is based on the battle at Hue."
Once in Hue, we looked at a few hotels and decided on Binh Minh Hotel. It was still early in the day, and Joel was thinking he was probably through the worst of his ill health (oh, was he wrong!), so we ate some lunch at Cafe Thu before hiring two guys to take us on their motorbikes to the Citadel.
The Citadel, constructed in 1804 by Emperor Gia Long, has a 10km perimeter. One of its most striking features is a 37m-high Flag Tower, which was erected in 1809 and extended in 1831. A massive typhoon knocked it down in 1904, but it was rebuilt in 1915, only to be destroyed again in 1947. In 1949 it was rebuilt once again. During the VC occupation of Hue in 1968, the National Liberation Front flag flew defiantly from the tower for 3 weeks.Monday night it became very apparent that Joel was not alright. The fever, chills, night sweats, nausea, diarrhoea he had expereinced in Hoi An, came back with a vengance. Joel would be laid up in the room, again, until Wednesday.
Day 212, Tuesday, January 30th, Joel was in hell. Do we really need to say more then that? You all know what the flu can be like. Tuesday night, Joel finally fell into a deep sleep. He awoke in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat. The bed had become a wading pool. I guess this is what they mean when they say "the fever broke". Exactly one week from when it started, it was finally over. Joel was all better.
Day 213, Wednesday, 31st, we decided to to celebrate Joel's rebirth by "maxing it out". We jumped on a motorbike and saw some of the Royal Tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty. Riding on a motorbike in Vietnam, by the way, is pretty much an "every man for himself" type of adventure. Everyone beeps their horn as a way of saying, get outta my way! There's really no such thing as driving on the right hand side of the road either. You just drive on whichever side is the easiest way to get to where you're going. It's crazy. On the way, we saw a very interesting method of transporting pigs. We assume they were on their way to be slaughtered.
The tombs of the rulers of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) are extravagant mausoleums constructed along the banks of the Perfume River. We visited two of them, the Tomb of Tu Duc and the Tomb of Khai Dinh.
Emperor Tu Duc's tomb was constructed between 1864 and 1867. It is a truly beautiful site, but it came with a price. The enormous expense of the tomb and the forced labor used in its construction spawned a coup plot in 1866. (It was discovered and suppressed.)
Tu Duc, who lived a life of true imperial luxury, had the longest reign of any Nguyen monarch (1848-83). Although he had 104 wives and countless concubines, he couldn't produce an heir. One theory has it that he became sterile after contracting smallpox. Tu Duc's actual burial location is unknown and the 200 servants who buried him along with a great amount of treasure, were all beheaded.
The tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh, who ruled from 1916 to 1925, was another impressive sight, although it was very different from Tu Duc's tomb. Khai Dinh contains a mixture of Vietnamese and European elements. Its architectural aspects are perhaps symbolic of the decline of Vietnamese culture during the colonial period. Even the stone faces of the mandarin honor guards are endowed with a mixture of Vietnamese and European features.
Before returning to Hue central, we stopped at Thien Mu Pagoda. This place of worship was a hotbed of anti-government protest during the 1960s. Thien Mu was the home of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who burned himself to death to protest the policies of President Ngo Dinh Diem, in 1963.
Thien Mu also became the focus of protest in the 1980s against the Communist government's restrictions on religious freedom. Things have calmed down, at least for the time being, and a small group of monks now live at the pagoda.
Day 214, Thursday, February 1st, we spent the day walking around Hue. We were leaving on a 6:00 P.M. bus, going to Vinh, so we had some time to kill. We talked to some locals, played with some kids, and sipped espressos at a street side cafe until 6:00 P.M. rolled around. Minutes before we were to board the bus we spotted an original watercolor painting, by a local Vietnam artist. We decided it would be a welcome addition to the Around The World Art Gallery, so we picked it up. The merchant of the art shop had to franticly cut a piece of tubing for transporting the painting and we literally ran to catch the bus, but we just made it. Looking back, we kind of wish we had missed that bus, as you will soon read why.
The bus was supposed to travel all the way from Hue to Hanoi. The ride would take 15 hours. We were the only travelers on the bus who were not planning on going all the way to Hanoi. We told the bus driver to drop us off at Vinh, approximately 8 hours from Hue. We should have arrived in Vinh about 2:00 A.M.. That didn't happen.
At about 1:00 A.M., only 40km from Vinh, the bus broke down, right at some kind of governmental checkpoint. The bus stopped to pay a toll and when they tried to get moving again the bus wouldn't move. The bus was dead and it wasn't going anywhere. The bus driver, and his sidekick, didn't tell any of the passengers what was going on and simply disappeared into the governmental building nearby. After sitting around for about an hour, Joel got restless and ventured out into the cold, rainy night. The downward beads of rain that plastered the ground surrounded the glow from a bright overhead light. Joel plodded through the mud, bent on finding out what was going on. He saw the bus driver's sidekick hanging out behind the bus, smoking a cigarette. His nonchalant aura, as he exhaled a cloud of smoke, bothered Joel. Why wasn't he franticly trying to fix the bus, or at least delivering a speech to the passengers in an attempt to quench the uncertain fear that hung back in the bus. As Joel moved to confront him, the bus driver moved out of the shadows to join the exchange.
It turns out that both the driver and his sidekick couldn't speak more than a few words of English. That is why they hadn't told us what was going on. The only thing Joel could get out of either of them was, "Bus come, trade."
Ok. Now we were getting somewhere. Another bus would come in a few minutes and we would all pile onto it, and off we would go. Sure we would lose an hour and a half, but no big deal. Right? Wrong!
Through a painfully difficult assault on the language barrier, Joel found out the replacement bus was coming all the way from Hanoi! It would be another 7 to 8 hours before the new bus would arrive!
Before Joel even had a chance to let this tidbit of information sink into his brain, his new "friends" used the opening in the language barrier to ask Joel to help them push the bus out of the way of the tollbooth. Apparently the governmental workers were giving them flack about blocking up the toll way. So, as huge semi-trucks blasted by, within inches of the bus, in the cold rain, Joel, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb, and a few other hearty souls who ventured out of the bus, at Joel's beckoning, pushed the bus off the road and out of harm's way.
After that monumental physical struggle was completed, during which Joel re-injured the strain in his back that occurred in Ko Samui, it was time to deal with the problem at hand. Were we going to wait 7 to 8 hours for a bus to take us only 40km north to Vinh?
We were in a unique position compared to the other passengers. They really didn't have a choice. They had to sit and wait it out. But we were so close. There had to be a way. How about hitch hiking? Was hitching a ride something people do in Vietnam? Would it be safe for two Westerners to jump on a semi-truck, at 2:00 A.M. on a deserted stretch of road?
When the bus driver and his sidekick, finally figured out what we were trying to ask them, their faces got all contorted, as they adamantly replied, ?No good, No safe!"
Ok. How about a local bus? Surely there must be a public bus that runs through here. Right? You could tell they didn't like this idea much either, but by this time Joel already had the big pack on his back and was poised to flag down the next local bus that came by. If it hadn?t been for Joel's size and his adamant behavior, they probably wouldn't have let us go. But when a local bus pulled up at the tollbooth, there was no stopping us. We pushed our way in and claimed a position, on the bus from hell.
The circa 1950s vessel we had entered looked liked something out of Night of the Living Dead. The bus was filled with approximately 15 to 20 Vietnamese men. They were dressed in army green jackets, camouflaged gear and one guy had on a worn-out Los Angeles Raiders jacket, that looked like Otto Graham wore it for warm-ups back in the 50s. Does he even know what the LA Raiders even are?
All 30 to 40 eyes peered back at us. They all seemed to look at us as some kind of alien beings. We could almost feel what they were thinking. ?What the hell are you doing here?!?
A porter worked his way through the peering eyes towards us. He had to actually physically show us the amount of dong required to travel aboard his vessel, before we could understand. Once he collected the cash, he became visibly more content and proceeded to kick away a Vietnamese man who had been sleeping underneath a tarp at our feet.
As the porter worked his way back toward the front, and the strain from the peering eyes began to fade, the lights were lowered to a dull glow of orange, red and green light. We could no longer see the fixated eyes leering at us, but we could still hear their whispers, although the foreign words did not bring understanding. We knew they were still all looking back at us. This was given away by the orange glow from the ends of the cigarettes, hanging from their lips, which filled the blackness of the bus like floating fireflies.
This is when the tremendous bouncing and jarring started. We felt like we were on a mechanical bull at a Gilly?s Saloon in Texas. Up and down, and all around! Where we stop, nobody knows!
When you are in a situation, which you perceive to be threatening, a natural tendency arises in which you try to do something productive. Joel eased this desire by clenching the plastic tube we had recently obtained for transporting our newest painting. As his fists squeezed and twisted the tube, he sized up the nearest potential opponents and watched their every move like a cat stalking its prey. Logic dictates you are overreacting, you realize this, but logic has nothing to do with survival, and when the endorphins are pumping in an adrenal frenzy, you are anything but logical.
Two hours to travel 40km. This is the mind-numbing pace we set and maintained into Vinh. It was a long two hours, but no one attacked us. Nobody gave us any trouble at all. Why were we so frightened? How do you think you would have reacted?
We arrived in Vinh at 4:00 A.M., on day 215 of our adventure, Friday, Febuary 2nd.
We checked into the Trading Hotel and crashed until around noon. Then we got up and set out into Vinh. We had two goals in mind. One was to send back the painting we had just purchased so we didn?t have to lug it through Laos. The second was to find a means of transportation through Keo Nua Pass, to the Vietnam-Laos border.
You think we would have learned our lesson back in Ho Chi Minh City. Just don?t send anything back from Vietnam. At the post office they couldn?t speak a word of English and they looked at us like we were freaks. We were going to have to carry the painting through Laos.
As far as transport goes we didn?t have the luxury of accepting defeat on this matter. As we walked the streets of Vinh, something became apparent to us. There were absolutely no Western people here. None! As a matter of fact we hadn?t seen a Western person since we left the incapacitated bus, the night before. Little did we know, but we wouldn?t see any Westerners for a total of 40 hours, between the time we left the bus and the time we arrived in Vientiane, Laos. But we are getting ahead ourselves here. Not only was Vinh void of Westerners, which is really no big deal ? the problem was nobody could speak a word of English. We had to keep our travel guide for Vietnam constantly out and open to the language section, as we mostly, futily tried to communicate with the locals.
We ended up running all over town. We finally did find some transport, in the form of a taxi that would pick us up at 6:00 A.M. the following day. In the process of exploring Vinh, complemented by a few tidbits from the guidebook, we got a pretty good feel for this area of Vietnam.
The weather in this area is terrible, and not just at the time we visited. The summers are blazing hot and dry. The winters are filled with freezing rain and wind. The terrible weather, combined with backward collective farming practices, make this one of the most destitute areas in all of Vietnam.
To make matters worse, this area was one of the most heavily bombed portions of Vietnam during the war. To add insult to injury, Vinh recently suffered through a huge and devastating fire.
You could feel the depressed nature of the place. This town was definitely not set up for any type of tourism. We were beginning to wonder what we were getting ourselves into tomorrow. Our guidebook informed us that Keo Nua Pass was just recently opened to tourists. Apparently we were the only ones who read that section.
Six A.M. came early. We ?strapped it up?, jumped in the car and headed for Keo Nua Pass. Keo Nua Pass is a gravel road that cuts through the mountain region connecting Laos and Vietnam. It was beautiful scenery. Huge mountains, lush jungles and cascading waterfalls all superimposed against a backdrop of fog which began to surround us as we rose up into the sky.
Although the terrain was beautiful, it also had a foreboding character. It seemed so vast and dense, so primal. This paradox created a state of confused perception. As we gathered our gear and walked into the fog we were struck by a sense of awe towards our surroundings. Were we simply walking across a border between two countries, or was it more than that? Were we actually walking the razor?s edge, the sharp internal border between the fear and courage in our very souls.
As we turned and looked back on Vietnam for a final time, we had a chance to reflect on our visit to this unique civilization. Back when we first thought of visiting Vietnam, the idea conjured up all kinds of romantic notions, most of them heavily weighed by the reminders of the Vietnam War. We are too young to remember the fighting, but the lingering effects of the war still deeply affect the consciousness of our home country. Our preconceived notions were quenched by the reality of today. We found Vietnam to be a country filled with spectacular scenery and highly cultured cordial people. The war is over. There are no POWs left behind. The CIA isn?t secretly training the hill tribes as guerilla fighters against communist aggression. The Vietnam we saw was a country devoted to peace and prosperity. A country that opened its door to us as it is opening it to the rest of the world. We invite all of you to follow our lead ? come explore this amazing country.
At approximately 8:00 A.M., on day 216 of our adventure, Saturday, February 3rd, we walked across the border from Vietnam into Laos.
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