Vietnam 2007

Posted on September 18th, 2012 by Viveca in Travel

Notes, photos, and video from visiting Vietnam in November 2007 with James. We booked a flight to Hanoi, one night in a hotel there, and a flight out of Ho Chi Minh City three weeks later. We figured everything else out as we went.

Stopover in Anchorage: The airport is an exotic mix of America/Alaska and Asia. I eat a reindeer hotdog. It’s spicy and good.

Menu in Anchorage airport

East meets west on the menu in the Anchorage airport

A stopover in Taiwan confirms what we’ve been told about the lack of line culture in Asia. Sample size: one crowd, all pushing.

Arrival in Hanoi. Our bags are lost in Taiwan. We wait for them to arrive on the next flight, during which time our free pick-up from the hotel assumes we’re lost and leaves. After a little jet-lagged panic, we find our own way to the hotel.

For the afternoon, we visit the Museum of Ethnology. The highlight is the on-site full-sized houses made by different ethnic minorities. They’re not replicas either; the museum invited tribespeople to come construct them on the grounds. Vietnam is much more ethnically diverse than I would have imagined.

Tribal building exhibition at Museum of Ethnography

Tribal building exhibition at Museum of Ethnography

Couple at Museum of Ethnography

Couple at Museum of Ethnography

Wedding couple posing at Museum of Ethnography

Wedding couple posing at Museum of Ethnography

Jaime had been wanting a conical hat for the trip (they’re not just a historic or tourist thing but rather are still worn by tons of people, mostly women), and she decided there was no point in comparing a ton of them to get the right price or perfect hat, she’d just buy one right away so she’d have it for the trip. She got one a the Museum and put it right on, although it was hard to figure out where to put the chinstrap, and it wasn’t too comfortable.

Women in hats

Women in hats

That night we order “barbecue” and are served a heaping pile of raw meat that we cook on the hotplate between our little plastic stools. It comes with a big plate of leaves, and James immediately abandons her resolution not to eat raw vegetables that might not have been washed. I never made such a resolution and am pleased that hers didn’t last through our first day. We order fried morning glory, which turns out to be some kind of vegetable.

Hanoi street kitchen

Hanoi street kitchen where our barbecue was assembled

Jaime with barbecue

Jaime with barbecue

On our first full day, we eat beef pho for breakfast in the hotel, which means someone from the hotel goes out and gets it for us from a street vendor. It’s delicious.

We ride a cyclo to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. A cyclo is a terrifying conveyance in which you sit in an open buggy pushed by a man on a bicycle. We also went to the One-pillar Pagoda and the Temple of Literature, at which we made a friend of a young Vietnamese man who waits there to find tourists with whom to practice his English. He showed us around and told us stories and, despite all our suspicions, didn’t want anything but to chat. That afternoon we went to the Water Puppet Theater, a classic Vietnamese art.

Shrine in Hanoi

Shrine in Hanoi

Volunteer guide

Volunteer guide

Water puppet theater

Water puppet theater

Edsel

The Edsel: A symbol of the failure of capitalism in Ho Chi Minh’s Museum, Hanoi

We also dropped in to a temple that had portraits of dead GIs from the “American War” featured along with images of Buddha and Confucius. Since the war is my primary Vietnam association, I had been worried about anti-American sentiment, but talking with the temple keeper gave me a totally different perspective. Think about it from their point of view: their ragtag, over-matched and under-armed soldiers defeated the greatest army from the richest country in the world. They don’t hate us. They won.

One-pillar pagoda

One-pillar pagoda, Hanoi

James had suggested we each set three goals for the trip. As far as I remember, hers were to take a cooking class, get a custom-made outfit, and eat dog. Mine were to climb through tunnels like Charlie, shoot an AK-47, and eat dog. That night we set out for dog.

The friend from the Temple of Literature had given us the name of a street where he thought we could find dog, and he’d written down “dog meat” for us in Vietnamese, so we showed the paper to a taxi driver and got taken out to a shady street far from anywhere. Sure enough, there was a vendor with a cart full of dog paws and face parts as well as other chunks of unappealing, gristly meat, skin, and fat in what looked like grilled, sausage, and fried configurations under the glass of her cart.

We got a mixed plate of dog parts and sat on plastic stools on the sidewalk to sample our fare. It came with a big salad and some salt and lime. We didn’t know if the salt and lime were for the meat or the salad, but the meat was so nasty we sprinkled, squeezed, and rolled it into lettuce trying to make it palatable. The only good thing we could say after was, “Dog? Check.”

Dog meat

Dog meat on vendor’s tray

Dog restaurant

Seating at the dog meat vendor’s

Dog meal

Three kinds of dog meat

We headed back and got pandam ice cream and another dessert that heaped beans, aloe, and gelatinous semi-sweet bits on top of shaved ice. I liked it, but James didn’t enjoy the snotty texture.

Dessert

Dessert

The next morning we had breakfast with James’s friend Mark and his girlfriend Marianna, who live in Barcelona but were coincidentally visiting at the same time. They were on the tail end of the opposite trip from us: they had started in the south and worked their way north. Since we hadn’t booked anything in advance, we were too late to get a tour together, but both sets of two headed off for an overnight trip to Halong Bay.

My notes here say “van disruption dog torture talk redivision – mixed boat.” I wonder what I meant. I think someone told us that cooks torture the dogs before killing them because the adrenalin tastes good. Our dog tasted so bad maybe it was treated kindly. They also tell us yellow dogs are the most delicious.

At Halong Bay, we wait for yesterday’s tourists to clear off the boats and them to set them for us before we’re allowed to board. What a tourism factory. We’ve stupidly brought roller boards, which we need to carry across other boats till we reach ours, crossing from junk to junk on planks while the boats bang against each other. We love how unsafe it is not because we’re particularly risk-seeking but because the complete lack of fear of litigation is an exotic un-American luxury. We meet our fellow passengers: Riel an anglophone Canadian, Jorgius the gorgeous Greek, and others from the UK, France, Germany, Thailand, Tasmania, and Malasia.

Gangway

Gangway to junk, Halong Bay

Dining on junk

Dining on junk, Halong Bay

Junks

Junks in Halong Bay

Cabin

Cabin in junk

Cabin floor

Floor of our cabin

Floating vendor

Floating vendor, Halong Bay

The Vietnamese crew assigns us seats, which they adamantly insist we stay at. When lunch takes a while to arrive, passengers talk of mutiny. In the last three years, the bay has gone from hosting zero boats to holding 550. It’s so full of tourists and wharves that it’s hard to see the famed karsts. We head into the bay, and some of us take out kayaks and get our clothes soaked in the filthy water. We visit a spectacular cave, where we run into Mark and Marianna. We spend the night on the boat.

Cave

Cave entrance, Halong Bay

Riel on junk's bow

Riel on junk’s bow

Cave entrance

Cave entrance

Karsts

Karsts, Halong Bay

Cave interior

Cave interior, Halong Bay

The water is too dirty to swim in; jetsam floats all over. We lie on the deck lazily in the sun as the boat passes pearl farms and fishing villages. Vendors paddle up to us with candy and sundries for sale. A woman boards to sell us local pearls. We both buy lots of necklaces for gifts.

On the bus trip back to Hanoi, we stop at Handicapped Kids Crafts, where horribly disfigured children, mostly with Agent Orange-induced birth defects, make handicrafts for tourists.

That night we go to a cafe with our new friends from the boat trip, Riel the Canadian and Englishwomen Sarah and Jessica. It’s funny knowing people here now. That night we meet up with Mark and Marianna again and go to the night market where we watch a female German tourist get into an arm-wrestling match with a local man.

Arm wrestling

Arm wrestling

An old man with a wispy beard wants to rub heads with me. Before the trip I thought it would be a good idea to shave my head. I was thinking it would be cool in the hot weather, practical, and that I could pass for a female monk. Nope. I stick out like a, well, like a woman with a shaved head. Worse, it turns out they shave convicts’ heads, so instead of thinking I’m a monk, anyone who doesn’t just think I’m a crazy American assumes I just got out of jail. The old man doesn’t mind me. He’s amused. His lips and teeth are black from chewing betel nuts, and he says, in his limited English, that he is my number one friend.

Night market

Our group at the night market, Hanoi

The night market is full of delicious oddities. We start by snacking on yucca with shredded coconut and a salty, fishy flakes and move on to peanut candy with a crunchy meringue coating. We get a bag of jackfruit chips and an ear of roast corn with dried shrimp and chili. I’m in heaven.

Eventually we decide to stop in a bar. The drinkers all have the cheap fresh beer. To our surprise, the menu includes dog— after we sojourned all the way to bumblesquat for it! We give it a second chance. This time is comes roasted in little slices with a flavorful sauce and a side of greens, and it’s lovely. Unfortunately, we’re too full from the night market to sample some of the menu’s other offerings, which include pig’s ovaries, cattle stomach, pigeon, and tongue.

Hanoi menu

Hanoi menu

Dog in cage

They say yellow dogs are the most delicious

 

The Greeks from Halong Bay, Georgas (pronounced “your goose” although he’s fine with George or Gorgeous) and Dimitri, had gone to a snake farm. They told us the waiters slaughtered a cobra for them, poured the blood and bile into separate glasses, mixed them with snake wine, and then dropped in the cobra’s still-beating heart, which they served to Georgas. He drank it down, both proving and ensuring his virility. Then they feasted on multiple dished made from the snake. He considered it, but the snake feasts are expensive, tourist rites, and we were not lacking for exotic fare with our multiple cheap dog dishes.

Reptile wine

Reptile wine

At midnight, the police drove into the bar and lowered metal walls around us. Nobody reacts.

The next day we follow one of our guidebook’s walking tour of Hanoi. We visit the temple in the lake and streets of specialized industry, including those devoted to tin and to counterfeiting. We eat fried sticky rice with fish sauce and hot sauce, fried corn pancakes, more of the multicolored gelatinous shaved ice desserts, donuts, and an egg roll dessert.

I had never gotten a professional massage, and our next stop fixes that pronto! We follow signs upstairs through a restaurant and are instructed to shower, change into baggy men’s boxers, and wait on adjoining cots. For $8 each, we get a 60-minute full-body massage, mostly with one girl massaging each of us, but other girls stop by and join in throughout the hour. Far from the quiet, relaxing, new-age (rhymes with “sewage”) experience I’m expecting, the girls giggle and chat incessantly, with each other in Vietnamese and with us in extremely limited English. Each time a new one enters, she asks the same few questions: how old we are, how many brothers and sisters we have, and whether we have boyfriends. Many people on this trip get shocked to hear that the one with the shaved head has a boyfriend and the pretty one doesn’t. Tourists just assume we’re lesbians, dog-eating lesbians, as per one nasty vegan on the van to Halong Bay. Well, she might not have used those words, but we got the idea.

Anyway, the funniest part of the massage is that every time one of the Vietnamese girls hears how old we are, she grabs our breasts, lifting them and letting them fall, and then argues with us that based on our breast-fall specs, we can’t be more than 26.

We have dinner at an Indian restaurant, where the menu looks oddly familiar, go back to the hotel to send emails and change, and then catch an overnight train to Sapa. On the train we’re housed in bunk beds across the car from two Vietnamese men. The older one speaks some English and French, and the younger one speaks good English. They’re fine, but loud drunken Germans make it hard to sleep. Jaime complains that her conical hat is hot, unwieldy, and uncomfortable.

Hats

Us in hats

The sun hasn’t risen yet when we arrive in La Cai at 6:30am. Tons of tour guides greet the train. We had been instructed to look for a “board holding by a man.” He helps us catch a bus to Sapa, and by the time we get there, we can glimpse the astounding scenery through the fog: mountains, rice terraces, water buffalo.

We have breakfast and a shower and chat with some backpackers. When we step out of the hotel, we’re immediately surrounded by Black Hmong women, who are all super short, mostly young, and carry children on their backs. They all ask our names, ages, number of babies, and number of sisters. They try to get us to buy bracelets and trinkets. They completely ignore the male tourists. More and more women and girls follow us as we go for a walk around town, each smiling and insisting that we only buy from her. We walk through a local outdoor market and see some Red Dao and Flower Hmong people vending wares.

Twigs

Villagers

Water buffalo

Water buffalo

Black Hmong

Among Black Hmong

Sapa market

Sapa market

Finally, it’s time to set off on our village tour and homestay. Our group is us, two Frenchmen, and a Vietnamese guide. I typed “a local guide” the first time, but in these parts the locals include tribespeople who don’t even speak Vietnamese.

We trek nine kilometers, some of it through quite difficult terrain up and down mountains. While we’re huffing and puffing, tiny tribeswomen in flimsy plastic sandals and tons of jewelry race past us carrying huge loads of textiles for sale or children on their backs. One of the women has taken James under her wing, and holds her hand through all the difficult parts. When we stop to rest, we chew sugarcane, and I try pennywort juice, which is not good.

We visit two “villages,” although the whole area is completely rural, so our untrained eyes can’t tell what differentiates one village from another or from farmland. “Village” just seems to mean a few houses are clustered closer than the other houses. The costumes are amazing, but the local women are driving us crazy. Groups of them walk with us for miles, repeatedly telling us, for example, that their baby is hungry and we need to buy “one small thing” from her so she can feed it. They leave the French men alone.

The highlight for me might have been seeing the kids playing with primitive skill toys. We pass several kids rolling hoops on the paths, and we discover a group of about six-year-old boys in the midst of what my friend Keith Bindlestiff calls a “top fight club,” spinning tops and then trying to knock off the other kid’s top. I insist on joining the game and promptly get schooled by a bunch of six-year-olds.

Hoop-rolling

Children rolling hoops with sticks on mountainside near Sapa

A Red Dao woman tells me how many chickens and pigs she has and asks me how many I have.

Red Hmong

Among Red Hmong

Mountainside

Mountainside near Sapa

By 3pm we arrive at our home stay house and have nothing left to do. We idle by a river then watch our guide cook dinner on an open fire. The woman whose house we’re at barely speaks Vietnamese. A mother cat and a bunch of kittens keep coming to the fire, and James cuddles the kittens. I ask the guide about pets, and he says that although some people do keep animals as pets, he doesn’t think this family does. So are the cats just strays? “You know,” he answers slowly, “that we Vietnamese eat anything?” We’re whispering so James won’t hear.

Kittens

Kittens

“Do you think they’re going to eat the cats?” I ask. He confirms. I ask him whether he’s ever eaten cat. He chooses his words thoughtfully and slowly responds: “Cat is more delicious than dog.” I am delighted first that that’s his frame of reference and secondly that I get the comparison, although given my experiences, this seems faint praise. Maybe I have to put cat on the list.

Homestay kitchen

Homestay kitchen

Magic doorway

Magic doorway: Children won’t cross threshold into home stay house

The meal is a delicious, multi-course feast. Everyone except me gets completely drunk on happy water, especially our guide. It’s awkward not to drink when it’s such a bonding ritual. They should “mo, hai, ban, zo!” (one, two, three, go!) before each group shot. I shout with them.

Home stay banquet

Home stay banquet with French men

Exhausted, we climb into the loft that surrounds the house. Our beds are pads on the floor under mosquito netting. We have giant, square covers, and the temperature drops enough that we need them. I was so tired I fell asleep writing this.

Sex crime

Poster

Wednesday, September 11, I woke up 11 hours later sore everywhere and worried I might be sick. We trekked through a bamboo forest and by a waterfall and had lunch on the trail. We returned to Sapa to shop at the market and take showers before going back to Hanoi. At the market, we saw little whole birds on skewers but didn’t try them. To get back to the bus, we got picked up in a rickety 20-year-old Russian 4×4. My notes say: “Jaime: imp. friend. Viveca: you had me @ hello.” Neither of us remember what this could mean. We took the jeep to a bus to a train on an overnight trip back to Hanoi. Jaime decided to “forget” her conical hat on the train.

Thursday morning we arrived in Hanoi before 5am. I hadn’t slept all night and was definitely sick by then, so we took a cab back to the hotel, where the lobby was full of motorbikes and sleeping staff. They didn’t have any rooms available, so I went to dozed in the lobby while Jaime walked over to the lake to watch the early risers doing tai chi. Eventually eight people checked out of the hotel, and we bought a half day so we could have breakfast, shower, sleep, and use the Internet.

Once we’d recovered a bit, we set out to explore the French quarter and visit the Hoa Lo Prison aka the Hanoi Hilton. I’m adding some links because I failed to take good notes. I do remember that the Vietnamese extensively document how poorly treated they were there by the French but skimp on how they treated the American inmates there. After seeing all the torture history, we went back for another round of massages, which felt great after all that hiking, and then ate avocado ice cream.

Hanoi Hilton

Hanoi Hilton

Hanoi Hilton interior

Exhibition in Hanoi Hilton

That night we caught an overnight train to Hue, although we still didn’t know whether it would be completely flooded. Mark and Mariana had not been happy after their visit, and the news reports were mixed. Still, we wanted to see it, and we were making our way south anyway.

We arrived at 10:30am, got a hotel, and went back to sleep because it was pouring anyway. Eventually we stopped waiting and went out to visit the Citadel and Imperial City while it alternated between drizzling and pouring. The Imperial City was a vast expanse of building ruins, urns, altars, and stelae in varying stages of renovation. It was dramatic and desolate in the rain.We ate egg pancakes with stuffing, shrimp paste on toast, buns, and stuffed glutinous rice balls with fried onions.

Hue theater

Hue theater

Price list

Price list

Hue interior

Hue interior

Hue Imperial City

Hue Imperial City

Ancestral altars, Hue

Ancestral altars, Hue

After we left the Imperial City, we walked to the Restaurant of Deaf and Mute where we made our own shrimp rolls out of impossibly thin but sturdy rice wrappers, which we stuffed with greens, figs, and shrimp mixed with vegetables and then dipped in peanut sauce. We also had grilled beets with fresh rice noodles and che drinks in plastic bags with no ice.

Afterwards we tried to go to a museum, but it was closed and everything was dark, so we went back to the hotel early and then were stymied to find the Internet wasn’t working.

It rained all night, and at 6am when we walked downstairs for our DMZ tour pick-up, a bunch of people were asleep in the lobby. Guess that’s standard for hotel staff. I should also mention that none of these lobbies have front walls; they’re open to the street, as are many restaurants and shops.

We took the bus to Dong Ha where we had breakfast near the Rockpile. Next stop was the Khe Sanh Museum, where we saw lots of photos of the war and actual helicopters and bunkers. Three million Vietnamese died in that war (and 58,000 American soldiers). We crossed over bridges through the DMZ and continued to the Vinh Moc tunnels where 300 people lived underground for years during the war. There were tiny bedrooms that housed families of four in an area about the size of a full bed. 17 babies were born in the tunnels during that period.

War Museum, Vinh Moc

War Museum, Vinh Moc

Armaments

Armaments, Vinh Moc

Family home in tunnels

Family home in tunnels, Vinh Moc

Tunnel entrance

Tunnel entrance, Vinh Moc

War Museum display

War Museum display, Vinh Moc

Tunnel entrance

Vinh Moc tunnel entrance

Bomb crater

Bomb crater, Vinh Moc

War Museum rain

Vinh Moc War Museum in the rain

On the way back, we noticed smoke, and it turned out one of the bus wheels had caught on fire. The driver poured a little water on it and kept driving. It burst into flames, and he repeated his ineffective procedure. The passengers didn’t care for this and insisted on getting out, so we waited at a gas station until a new bus came and took us back to Hue, where it was still raining and the Internet was still broken. For dinner we had figs and “shrimp & pork fantastic” with rice crackers.

Bus on fire

Bus on fire

Sunday morning in Hue we visited the mausoleums of Vietnam’s three Nguyen kings. On the way, we stopped to watch people making incense and conical hats. Two of the tombs were very Chinese, with harmonious pods, temples, stelae, and obelisks. They’d been partly destroyed and renovated. The third one was untouched. It was an elaborate mix of Japanese, Italian, Indian, and French influences with stunningly impressive mosaic walls and a mosaic canopy over the throne.

Nguyen king's tomb

Nguyen king’s tomb

Conical hat

Conical hat with shadow inside

Garden

Garden

New friends

Jaime and a mandarin

Porcelain

Porcelain work in tomb

Tomb exterior

Nguyen king tomb exterior

Moat

Moat at Nguyen king’s tomb

Tomb ceiling

Tomb ceiling

Incense making

Incense making

It was still raining on and off as we took the bus to Hoi An. Someone called me Brittney Spears, as she had also recently shaven her head.

Vietnam has the highest per capita death rate of any country. The streets are clogged with motorbikes, many with cargo and multiple passengers. Crossing the street is terrifying, and we’d already seen the aftermaths of three accidents: a truck in a ditch, a bicycle, and now a motorbike on the street with blood everywhere and a body being put on a stretcher. When you enter to cross, you can’t flinch, look around, or step backwards. No matter what comes at you, the best bet is to move forward at a slow, regular pace so the drivers can adjust around you. It’s not fun, and we’re ecstatic every time we manage to cross a street. On the highways, the buses and trucks all use horns instead of turn signals every time they pass another vehicle. It is not relaxing.

Typical intersection

Typical intersection


On the way from Hue to Hoi An, we drove through depressing, flooded Da Nang. We drank canned rambutan juice and ate fresh longans, persimmons, and tiny, delicious apples. We think we saw people eating fetal duck. Da Nang has lots of pastel-colored concrete buildings.

When we arrived in Hoi An, though, we broke down and accepted rides on taxi motorbikes from the bus to our hotel. The drivers probably would have put both of us and both rollerboards on one motorbike, but we took two, so each motorbike had one driver, one of us, and one rollerboard suitcase on it.

It wasn’t raining, but everything was damp and smelled moldy, and mosquitoes are a constant menace. Our beds are canopied with netting. We had a fine dinner of local specialties: “White rose,” a shrimp dumpling made with translucent dough, wontons, and cao lau noodle soup. Afterwards we went to a bar, window shopped (black pearls: $6!?), and took a quick dip in the freezing hotel pool before returning to use the hotel Internet. In Hanoi, the hotel room had a computer (and fresh fruit!). Since then, we’ve been relegated to tiny banks of old desk tops in each hotel’s lobby, where we compete with other travelers for limited and slow access.

One of Jaime’s goals was to take a cooking class in Hoi An, and we find the address of a place that offers them, but when we try to walk there, the street is completely flooded. I wade into the water and shout into the building, whose inhabitants signal me to go somewhere else. There, we get registered into a market tour and cooking class. The market tour guide introduces us to lots of strange vegetables and then says, “Now I want to sell you something,” and the tour turns into an infomercial for cheap kitchen implements (for example, tin peelers).

We’re told that it’s too flooded for us to take the usual boat to Red Bridge, where the cooking class will be held, so we take a van. Neither of us understand this logic, but we don’t argue. The cooking teacher is charming and funny, and we make our own rice paper wrappers, an eggplant dish, and some other stuff and have a wonderful dinner. I also appreciate the hyper-efficient turnover on the classes. Like Halong Bay, this place has tourism figured out.

Hoi An exterior

Hoi An exterior

Flooded street

Flooded street in Hoi An

Wading

Wading into flooded street, Hoi An

Sweat shop

Sweat shop in Hoi An

Hoi An market

Vendor in Hoi An market

Cooking class

Cooking class, Hoi An

Spring rolls

We made spring rolls (including the wrappers)

We head back to Hoi An for heritage sightseeing and shopping, and most excitingly, we eat fetal ducks in the market. Hoi An is known for its custom clothing, so we get fitted for a clothes. I buy a shirt, a pair of pants, a skirt, and a swimsuit, all custom made. Jaime designs a fabulous black and orange satin suit with an embroidered chameleon on it.

Intrepid eaters

Intrepid eaters face the fertilized duck eggs

Duck egg spread

Duck egg spread

Fetal duck

Fetal duck close-up

We return to the hotel to do laundry (too perfumey) and have a lovely salad, but it’s too late to get the $6.25 massages advertised.

Tuesday morning in Hoi An my stomach is shaky, and I’ve begun coughing. We were planning to go to My Son, but it’s still too wet, so instead we rent a cab for the day ($30 total) with Swedish Anna and Danish Jacob, whom we met on the DMZ tour, and head out for the Marble Mountains, which are truly awesome. The five mountains are made of marble and to the Vietnamese represent the five elements (although come to think of it I thought there were only four elements). We visited water, the tallest mountain, which is black, and walked through natural caves, temples, Buddhas, shrines, and totems of animal guardians. Trying to get her picture, I made friends with an old woman with teeth turned black from betel nuts.

Blue dog

Blue dog

Betel teeth

Betel teeth friend

Pagoda

Pagoda

China Beach

China Beach

Cave in Marble Mountain

Buddha in cave in Marble Mountain

Excursion

Team on excursion from Hoi An to Marble Mountains

Marble Mountains

Marble Mountains

Horses

Painting of horses

Next stop the Champa Museum in Danang, where we see big stone sculptures from the empire that ruled southern Vietnam for around 1,000 years before the Viet Diem people took over. The sculptures look Indian.  Museum is poured concrete in the style of a Champa building, and much of it is open to the outside air. Most of the statues aren’t in cases, and we don’t see any museum guards, but we also don’t steal ancient Champa statuary.

Champa relief

Champa relief

Champa monkey

Champa monkey

Back to Hoi An for awesome street food of cup-shaped rice flour pancakes with greens and good processed mystery meat for about 10,000 VND ($0.70) per bowl. We do tons of shopping, mostly buying gifts but also picking up our custom-made clothes. The store had recommended we come in for a second fitting, but we don’t have time. My shirt is not good (the neckline is way too low), and there are a few other problems, but the store promises to fix everything within three hours. We spend it eating fried garlic noodles and another good salad and have some bad green bean ice cream, possibly made of soy instead of dairy.

Fitting

Fitting, Hoi An

A Stranger's Face

A Stranger’s Face

Embroiderer

Embroiderer

Three more observations about the hotels: the room keys include a tag that turns on the power, so it’s impossible to leave anything on while you’re out. Many of the hotel restaurants unapologetically buy from street vendors. You order pho off the hotel restaurant menu, and then you watch someone go buy it. Some toilets are western, and some are squat, but they all have a hose to clean you off after. I begin to like it a lot better than toilet paper. Wish that were common in the US. Maybe I should start a one-woman grassroots lobbying campaign, you know like every time I make a hotel reservation here, I’ll ask whether the toilet has a hose attachment. That’ll probably get things changed pronto.

Shower

Complicated shower in hotel bathroom

Wednesday we flew from Da Nang to Nha Trang. My notes say “Englishmen.” Next time I’ll blog the diaries as I go. The hotel computers were down, so check-in was suspended. My gut was still off, but we took a cab to Phan Rang, which The Rough Guide to Vietnam had described as an “unsettling and unlovely place” with “really nothing of interest” to see, but we weren’t there settle, love, or see; we were there to eat gecko. Along the way, we stopped for some street food: banana leaf-wrapped packets we thought would contain sticky rice instead were full of spiced meat. We also had moo hen eggs, although “moo hen” sounds like a city kid’s barnyard animal mash-up. Eventually we found a restaurant where we sat in a courtyard and ate gecko ground into sausage-like patties. Since they use every part of the animal, grinding is a good choice. The patties were delicious, but we did get a few hard parts, maybe bone chips.

Gecko patties

Gecko patties, Phan Rang

Dinner dogs

Dinner dogs, Phan Rang

Menu

Menu, Phan Rang

Hotel lobby Phan Rang

Hotel lobby Phan Rang

Not surprisingly, given its unloveliness, we didn’t see any other non-Vietnamese people in Phan Rang, and the locals were surprised to see us. Lots of people laughed, begged, pointed, or said hello as we passed.We took xe om motorcycle taxis to the Po Klong Garai Cham Towers, which leer impressively on a mountain over a lame museum of photographs. The xe om drivers laugh at how terrified we are of riding with them.

Xe om

Xe om

View from Cham towers

View from Cham towers

Cham writing

Cham writing

Cham towers

Cham towers

We were back by 6pm and ready to be done with Phan Rang. The staff at our neon-covered hotel didn’t speak English, breakfast wasn’t included, the beds didn’t have top sheets, and the Internet didn’t connect, but we were happy to have a clean and convenient place to stay for $14 per night.

We went to a bar to let more people stare at us. We say “hello” and “thank you” in Vietnamese to everyone’s delight. We get beer (Jaime) and water (me) at a chicken and rice place. Two beers, one soda, and a large bottle of water was less than $2. Chicken and rice is a local specialty, but it looks boring, and we’re not hungry. We walk to a market, where I buy something they tell us is a custard apple, and the vendor shows us how to eat it.  A family tries to talk to us. We see a kid with lots of chickens on a motorcycle. Mosquitoes attack us in bed.

Custard apple

Custard apple

Cleaning boy

Cleaning boy, restaurant Phan Rang

Chickens on motorcycle

Chickens on motorcycle

Thanksgiving day we slept in till 9:40, which merited an exclamation point in my journal. Our morning pho in Phan Rang was the best yet. It included fish cakes, weird chopped meat, and that meat that gets steamed in the banana leaves, and it was served with a giant plate of fresh basil, bean sprouts, and other greens. We also had durian and sugar cane juice (separately). The latter was sweet and delicious. The woman pressed the sugar cane stalks in front of us. She was wearing pajamas, as many women here do.

Best pho ever

Best pho ever

Sugar cane juice

Sugar cane juice

Pajamas

The sugar cane juice vendor, this girl, and many other women wear pajamas

We asked a taxi to take us to the bus to Dalat, but instead of going to the bus station, it dropped us at a minivan. A bunch of men whisked in us and our luggage and piled into the van, which sped off. Besides us, there were four men in the van. One smells quite drunk. The other three all seem to work for the minivan. The one with deformed hands demands 200 dong from each of us. We say no, and he gets furious. We ask to get out, but the men refuse to let us exit. The van doesn’t stop, and we were getting quite scared. We agree to pay 150 dong each, and immediately everyone calms down, although we’re still worried they’ll just dump our bodies somewhere so they can take the rest of the money.

We drive back and forth on the same street in unsettling and unlovely Phan Rang for 30 minutes. We think they’re trying to pick up more passengers before leaving town. The guy with the hands is always the money-conversation/collector guy, but the other two keep switching places every few blocks, taking turns driving. The drunk makes insistent but incomprehensible hand gestures at us. Eventually we set off for Dalat, stopping once os the drivers can eat. We chat with a customer at the restaurant who happens to speak perfect Spanish. She tells us about having visited Virginia. Before we leave, she gives Jaime a bottle of water and tells us to be careful.

The drive is staggeringly beautiful albeit wet. We wound up mountain roads through tons of farms and small villages. We recognize persimmons, grapes, tomatoes, ginger, and other food just out there growing on plants.

The van guys keep asking us what hotel we’re staying at in Dalat. Usually we’ve been calling ahead to reserve, but this time we hadn’t, and we don’t want scary van guys choosing for us, so we look up one in our guidebooks and give them the address. They take us to the door, but the hotel is gutted. We look up another and drag our luggage there in the rain. It’s full, but the woman at the desk says they have another hotel nearby. It isn’t as nice though. She says it’s “standard.” Jaime asks what “standard” means, and she answers, “not good,” but agrees when we ask that it’s not bad either, so we go. I gave her the rest of the durian, which made her happy. [Now that I’m writing this, I think it must have been jackfruit, because it didn’t stink enough to be durian but who knows.]

The $7/night Mimosa Hotel is the yuckiest place we’ve stayed yet, but we still get a large room with two beds with mosquito netting, a television, our own bathroom, a desk, wardrobe, two big chairs, and a balcony. It doesn’t have toilet paper or towels, but the staff provides them on request.

In Dalat, we stop at a cafe to perk up (Vietnamese coffee for Jaime, tea for me) and then head to the market for our Thanksgiving dinner. Our first course is long skinny snails in soup with lemongrass, sucking out the meat and throw the shells on the ground. We eat outside, sitting next to the snail vendor on wet plastic stools on the steps leading to the market. We get another plate of fat, brown snails with a sweet and sour dipping sauce. These require tiny forks. Ashes and sparks regularly fly out of the brazier next to us. Another woman walks over with several large baskets of different snails and mollusks. The two female snail vendors decide to move off the steps into the plaza, so they make us move in mid-meal. The two plates of snails are 40,000 dong, about $2.50, which is surprisingly high.

Snails

Snails

Snails in night market

Snails in night market

Da Lat hotel room

Da Lat hotel room

Instead of eating more shellfish, we enter the giant market and wander the stalls, buying from anyone who gives us samples. The specialties here are grapes (gigantic), strawberries (don’t look good, but we like the candied samples), and artichoke tea. We buy rambutans, something I thought was a mangosteen but now think wasn’t, candied mulberries, and deer jerky. Outside we split a whole grilled little bird of some kind. We got a bit skittish before eating the head (beak, bones, and all), but it was delicious. After avoiding the grilled birds earlier because they looked both gross and boring, this might have been my favorite food on the whole trip. I only got it because we couldn’t find turkey. I liked the little bird so much that I bought a grilled chicken foot from the same woman. It was better than the boiled ones we’d tried but still not good. The wrist was okay.

Bird head

Bird head

Crunchy bird hand

Crunchy bird hand

Satisfied with our Thanksgiving fowl, we went to a bar for Dalat wine (Jaime) and ginger tea (me) and split a watercress-beet salad and the supposed mangosteen. There we met a female Canadian and male Brit who weren’t a couple but said they were Traveling with a capital T. We shared our mangosteen and candied mulberries with them. They were hippies on their way to a full moon party in Mui Ne, despite the threat of impending typhoon. The restaurant was way too smokey for me, a problem I had a lot there.

Friday for breakfast we had sticky rice with pepperoni that came with some shredded, hairy, salty stuff and more moo hen eggs. We hired an “Easy Driver” named Mr. Happy, and went to the Crazy House and then Bao Dai (the last king)’s summer palace. It was super 1940s style. We went to two waterfalls, both of which had lots of Vietnamese tourists taking photos of themselves sitting on ponies in cowboy costumes.

Doe a Deer

Lots of the attractions were stocked with fake nature

Waterfall

Waterfall

Crazy house

Crazy house

Eyebrows

Eyebrows

Characters

At the attractions

Winter Palace

Winter Palace

At the monastery, I asked a monk to pose for a photo with me so we could show our similarly shaved heads. He refused but was happy to pose if we included Jaime, “to avoid misunderstanding.” The monastery had a Chinese pagoda with a big-ass outdoor Buddha and dragons made of broken glass and pottery.

Flowers in monastery

Flowers in monastery

Monk

Monk

We visited a railroad station and the “Chicken Village,” named for a giant statue of a chicken. We entered a one-room house that was home to a family of ten. The scenery was beautiful. They pointed out the crops to us: coffee, avocados, “salad” (lettuce I think), and wild sunflowers that only open one month each year.

Village home for family of eight

Village home for family of eight

Chicken village

Chicken village

Mr. Happy tried to sell us a longer tour, but we declined exhausted. We returned to Dalat and had nothing to do after dark. The day had been beautiful, but at night it rained so hard the power went out, so we went for a walk and found delicious shrimp pancakes and various other street food.

We returned to the Peace Cafe and chatted there with two other Easy Riders, who told us they had both served in the South Vietnamese army during the war and been imprisoned. We met two nice Dutch men, the cafe’s popular and completely crazy owner, Tu Anh, and a nutty Canadian who was currently teaching here but said he’d been traveling for ten years.

The hotel room was freezing. We closed one window and tied it with a plastic bag. Then we stole blankets from an empty room. Before going to sleep we tried the deer jerky, but it was way too sweet. Still cold, I slept in my hat.

In the morning, our bus to the bus magically appears, and we leave for Ho Chi Minh City. Along the way we stop for a lunch of wild boar and rice. The landscape is spectacular. Although it was cold and rainy the whole time we were in the mountains, by 11:30am it was hot and clear. We arrived in HCMC/Saigon around 4pm and found our hotel. It was fine but too perfumey. We walked around the city and went to Restaurant 31, which had been recommended by last night’s Dutch guys. My stomach was bad, but that didn’t stop me. That restaurant had everything. We asked about the “steamed goat penis with Chinese medicinals,” and the waiter got so embarrassed he couldn’t answer and had to send over the manager. They thought we were asking what “penis” was. We finally managed to explain that we understood the word but were wondering whether it was more meaty or fatty. They said it was more like fat, so we decided not to order it, but they brought us one to see. The testicles were bound and swollen. It wasn’t appetizing.

Menu HCMC

Menu HCMC

Goat penis

Goat penis with Chinese medicinals

Instead, we ordered one scorpion each (not alive, I asked), a “field’s rat” and a” sprouts salad” to share, and two “worm coconuts.” I figure if anything can fix my painful stomach cramps, it’s this dinner. The worms showed up first: two large squishy ones in a bowl of what smells like vinegar with a few little slices of chili floating on the surface. The worms are very actively alive.

Scorpions

Scorpions

Rat

Rat

Coconut worms

Coconut worms

“I am officially expelling myself from the ‘I can eat anything’ club,” Jaime immediately announces, “because I can’t eat that.”

We let the worms swim around while our other dishes appear. The scorpions are big, with crispy tails. The carapaces and claws are too chewy. We’d been nervous about eating rat, but compared to the live worms, which were still pulsing and writhing in the bowl, rat was suddenly no problem. The salad was bitter and refreshing. Nobody ever asks about the salad.

Then the manager came over and told me to eat my worm now. I asked him whether you could eat the whole thing, and he said yes. Then, “No, wait, not the head. That’s poisonous.” Good thing I asked.

Foreigners from all the surrounding tables are watching. Several of the waiters gather around, and even the Vietnamese diners at the next table are squirming and grossed out, which makes us wonder whether this is all a cruel joke.

But I do it.

I put the worm in my mouth and tried to rip the head off, but nothing happens until Jaime reminds me to use my teeth. I had them closed but was just pulling in panic, not chewing. I bit the head off and felt the bug’s squishy inside and chewy outside. I ate it.

Jaime still doesn’t think she can face hers, so we nibble at our rat and salad, and then I just bullied her through it, one step at a time: “Just pick it up with your chopsticks. Just lift it to your mouth.”). She did it!

We are awesome. The Australians at the next table are duly impressed. After we eat but while we’re still finishing our drinks, the restaurant moves us twice to make room for larger parties. We saw a dwarf. The smoke in the restaurant starts making me nauseated so we leave. Yeah, my delicate gut can handle rat, scorpions, and live worms, but cigarette smoke turns my stomach.

We walked home via Notre Dame cathedral. We can’t get in to see the neon nave, but we enjoyed walking through an awesome park of teenagers canoodling on mopeds and an outdoor mass with a woman leading the ceremony on a karaoke machine. We also walked by the Hotel Deville, which is now communist party headquarters. Saigon is busy, neon, loud, and full of strange sights and smells, but my stomach cramps are getting so bad I have to keep stopping to rest. Jaime bought me a bottle of water and carried my bag for me when it became strangely heavy. Twice I had to stop to use the bathroom, once in a hotel and once in a restaurant. We saw a woman on the sidewalk get knocked over by two kids on a moto, who sped off. Strangers got her in a cab to the hospital. Finally, we made it back to the hotel. I took tranquilizers (I panic when I’m queasy), swallowed some Pepto Bismol, and collapsed. My pangs subsided to a dull ache as we watched TV and eventually slept, hoping I’d be better by morning.

Sri Mariamman Temple

Sri Mariamman Temple, HCMC

Xians outside Notre Dame

Xians outside Notre Dame, HCMC

Uncle Ho reading to a boy

Uncle Ho reading to a boy

Safety first

Safety first

By my 5am sick wake-up, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. I spent the day in bed, with Jaime bringing me water and the plainest food she could find, mostly bread. I made her go explore so she wouldn’t be stuck with me all day, but I during the day I never got farther than the hotel lobby, where I answered email for a few minutes before going back to my bed-toilet prison.

That night I walked around the block and ate some pho, which was enough to exhaust me. I was fatigued and achy, but on the mend. Kids tried to sell us pot, something we hadn’t expected in a supposedly repressive communist country. The streets of Saigon are full of beggars and vendors. Television is awesome. I read up on tropical diseases and decided I didn’t have one. Call it Uncle Ho’s Revenge.

Seen on sidewalk

Seen on sidewalk

By Monday I was marginally better, and we had plans. Back on a bus, our first stop was Handicapped Handicrafts, where we watched lacquer be made by war victims and, it appears, folks with various other deformities. The misshapen workers wore clean uniforms and kept working while we walked through, admiring their handiwork and trying not to gawk at their bodies.

Handicapped handicrafts

Handicapped handicrafts

Passing through rubber trees, the bus next led us to the Cao Dai Holy See, the main temple of Vietnam’s home-grown religion. Founded in the 1920s, the religion’s holy figures include Jesus, Buddha, Sun-Yat Sen, and Victor Hugo. From a balcony, we watched the noon service, which included live music, a chorus, and dozens of worshippers, students, and priests in different robes.

Three saints

Three saints

Cao Dai Holy See

Cao Dai Holy See

At lunch Jaime complimented me for eating well. It still feels like an effort.

And finally: Cu Chi Tunnels! First we watch a 1967 Viet Cong propaganda movie, oddly the same one we saw in Mr. Happy’s car only with a different voiceover. Then we toured through the awesome homemade weapons exhibit. We saw underground kitchens that channeled smoke away, the underground hospital, bomb craters, sandals made from tires, and other relics of the war. Many of the exhibits are displayed with lifesize Viet Cong mannekins, some of which animate, for example to show us how they sawed a dud US bomb in half to scavenge explosives. A few of us try going down a real tunnel entrance, which is completely camouflaged, even up close, and shockingly tiny.

Pointless display

Pointless museum display

Bunker

Bunker, Cu Chi

Dud

Animatronic of VC sawing a US dud missile for salvage

Mural

Mural showing American GIs in booby traps

Booby trap display

Booby trap display

Two of my three goals are being met today: next we go to the shooting range. We have a choice of weapons, and I’m briefly tempted by the M16, but we stick with plan A and each request an AK-47 and 10 bullets ($1 per bullet), which we promptly unload into at cardboard cut-out animal targets. Probably a good choice on their part not to use American GI cut-outs. The range is loud, and the shots reverberate through the jungle around us. We don’t win any prizes. I can’t tell whether either of us hit anything, but I don’t think we even came close.

Shooting range

Shooting range

AK-47

AK-47

We saw a tree with giant fruit that I thought were durian, but a woman tells us they’re jackfruit. Durian are spikier. Whatever they are, they’re the size of large watermelons, and watermelons don’t grow on trees. We didn’t eat the fruit, but we did eat tapioca, or as they call it manioc, which the guerrillas had to survive on in the tunnels. It’s horrid.

Jackfruit tree

Jackfruit tree

Finally, we enter the tunnels. We’d debated not coming since we’d been to the ones at Vinh Moc, but these are totally different. I had insisted on seeing those ones because they’re actual size (these have been widened, twice, for tourists), but these ones are still much smaller. We couldn’t even crouch in places let alone stand up–most people had to crawl at least part of the way–and they were extremely hot and dark. Very impressive.

Entrance

Entrance to tunnel, Cu Chi

Going in

Going in

Covered in tunnel dirt, we returned to the hotel to shower, and although I still felt nervous about eating, I was hungry for the first time in days.

Whew

Tunnels were exhausting

Early Tuesday morning we caught a bus to the Mekong Delta. We watched people make coconut candy, which was delicious, and ate a local fruit called, I think, sampuchi, which the locals say only exists here, but an Israeli couple tell us they had it in Thailand. We listen to local music while eating another dish they claim only exists here, elephant-ear fish.

Then we pile into canoes to briefly get rowed down a small canal full of other canoes full of other tourists. We biked through banana, coconut, mango, and papaya trees, and then took a three-hour boat ride back up the river, waving to folks along the banks and in passing barges.

Candy making

Candy making

School kids

School kids, Mekong delta

Local fish

Local fish

Boats on Mekong

Boats on Mekong

Traditional music

Traditional music

For the first time, neither of us feel like having Vietnamese food, so we took xe oms to a Japanese restaurant recommended by our guidebooks. My moto driver placed my arms around him and offered to be my boyfriend in Vietnam. The xe oms are still scary enough that I’m happy to hang on.

After several ordering misunderstandings, we have a good meal. I guess we thought it would be easy to order sushi because we know the names for the dishes back home. On the walk home we picked up a young, awkward economics student. The hotel Internet sucks.

On our last day, Jaime slept in till 1. We’re both tired. We visited the War Remnants Museum, which mostly showed grainy photos but also featured deformed fetuses, tiger cage recreations, and weaponry. We went shopping, and I made Jaime get a dress with hilarious Engrish sayings on it. Everything’s too small for me. We ate sticky rice that swelled into a giant puff ball like the outside of a Chinese donut, and “crams” with garlic.

Model prisoner

Model prisoner

We decide to get one last cheap massage. Jaime chooses a foot massage, and I go for the full body. Unlike our divey and brightly lit second-floor massage place in Hanoi, this is a giant massage palace advertising “beautiful massagers.” My beautiful massager (and she is) leads me to my tiny private room and then starts unbuttoning my shirt, smiling at me. I remove her hands and undress myself. I’m not sure she and I have the same idea about what I should expect in a massage, and her complimenting my nipples does not accord with my vision. The massage is thorough but unorthodox: she sits on my legs and walks on my back while holding an overhead railing. She doesn’t speak any English, but she keeps gazing at me and smiling. She’s 20 years old.

Afterwards, she gives me a slip of paper with room to write in a tip. The massage cost $8, and I add a $2 tip. She looks confused. I write $2 USD. She makes a pouty face and gestures she wants $5. We agree to $3, and I write that on the pad, the bottom of which says, “Do not ask for mouse tip,” which nobody can explain. Then my beautiful massager gets all excited and says she wants $2 (this negotiation, by the way, takes place in Vietnamese and hand signals). I say okay, and she holds her finger to her lips, signalling me over and over not to tell the men downstairs. She crumples up and hides the piece of paper I’d signed for $3 and makes a new one for $2. I thought she wanted me to hand her $3 in cash but make the paper out for $2, but she doesn’t take any money from me. She is so happy that I agreed to the secret $2 that she kisses me before sending me downstairs with the $2 slip. She also gave me a keychain that said “#81” but doesn’t have a key. Her number is 10. I have no idea what just happened.

Back downstairs, they give me free fruit and a drink (I ask for water) while I wait for Jaime, who arrives momentarily. Although we’re not both done and ready, they give her fruit too. Some men in kimonos and massage shorts also lounge around eating fruit. Finally, we pay (including my $2 tip) and leave.

Jaime tells me she also had an odd tip experience. She also offered the guy $2 and then agreed to $3, but she handed him a five and never got change. Plus, they charged her for a free drink. It was all very shady.

Here are some photos I didn’t know where to put.

Veggie gizzard

Because this is what vegetarians really miss by not eating meat

Cat

A pet in Hanoi

Grill on sidewalk

Typical grill on sidewalk

Toilet

Toilet

Women warriors

Women warriors poster

Tops

Super Top King

Frogs

String of frogs

After school

Parents picking up kids after school

Xmas in HCMC

Xmas in HCMC

It was a great trip, but I was ready to go home.

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The End of the Line

Weighing the options

SIR: St. George, Staten Island

Monday, April 9, 2012 Spring break for the Salisbury (CT) public ...

3: 148th Street/Harlem, Manhattan

Tuesday, November 15, 2011 I read a bit of that Quran, ...

S: Franklin Avenue, Brooklyn

Thursday, August 11, 2011 Boy if I thought Damaso changing his ...

NQ: Astoria/Ditmars Boulevard, Queens

Tuesday, August 9, 2011 It’s been almost five months since our ...

JEZ: Jamaica Center/Parsons Archer, Queens

Tuesday, March 29, 2011 We take the J because we both ...

SIR: Tottenville, Staten Island

Saturday, March 26, 2011 Holy end-of-the-line, Batman, Staten Island is really ...

2: Wakefield/241st Street, The Bronx

Thursday, March 24, 2011 We pull a last-minute switcheroo on our ...

R: Bay Ridge/95th Street, Brooklyn

Sunday, March 20, 2011 Ooph. No beautiful glowing glass art at ...

L: 14th Street/8th Avenue, Manhattan

Friday, March 18, 2011 This trip feels oddly important. It’s the ...

1: South Ferry, Manhattan

Tuesday, March 15, 2011 Sometimes, admittedly not as often as I’d ...

L: Rockaway Canarsie, Brooklyn

Sunday, March 13, 2011 After 18 years here, the cultural associations ...

6: Pelham Bay Park, the Bronx

Monday, February 21, 2011 We went to Manhattan. We went to ...

M: Middle Village, Metropolitan Ave., Queens

Saturday, February 19, 2011 Yesterday kids were playing basketball outdoors in ...

A: Inwood-207th Street, Manhattan

Thursday February 3, 2011 The idea had been hanging over my ...