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Trip 10 -- Outer Indochina

Message 2: Phnom Penh to Hue

Date: Thu, 9 Feb 2006 10:39:37
From: seth@sethweinstein.com (Seth Weinstein)
Subject: Indochina update #2: Phnom Penh to Hue

I quickly learned two things about Vietnam. One: All meals are a pleasure. Two: All land transport, other than by train, is exasperating.

After a four-hour speedboat ride down the Mekong from Phnom Penh, I arrived at the Vietnamese border town of Chau Doc and attempted to make my way farther down the Mekong Delta, to a city called Can Tho. In Chau Doc I was inextricably latched onto by a certain pedicab driver with a strident voice, who diverted me from my walk to the bus station in an effort to get me to ride with him. I thought I'd lost him by ducking through a crowded market, but he found me several minutes later on the other side, whereupon he led me to the wrong bus station - one without any buses to where I was going - and then tried to convince me there weren't, in fact, any buses going out of town at all because it was still the extended holiday of the Vietnamese new year.

I found the right bus station, of course, and was on my way to Can Tho within a few minutes. Arriving two hours later, I was pleased to see that unlike in Cambodia, street signs in Vietnam are meticulously abundant - they just didn't happen to match any in the map in my guidebook, because bus stations in Vietnam have this frustrating habit of being about 90 miles from the city center. I had to wrangle directions out of moto drivers (I'm convinced they're behind the whole scheme, forcing people to endure a moto ride after a long bus trip).

But once I got settled into a hotel along the water, I was content. There was a cool breeze, families enjoying the sunset, and much river traffic - from small, laboriously paddled sampans to large wooden trading boats. I sat down to a fine snake curry at a waterfront restaurant and watched life go by.

The highlight of Can Tho was its floating market. At sunrise a boatman took me in a small motorized sampan through the smaller canals around the Mekong - where houses are built right into the water, resting on stilts and made of patchwork assortments of brick, bamboo, tarp, and tin - and to the market itself, where boats of all sizes sidle up to each other and bargain. Here came a giant barge with pineapples, there went another one with carrots and cabbages. A woman in a smallish boat sounded a shrill horn as she blazed through the market, offering little packets of soap and canned goods - a floating convenience store. A couple of boat women offered me coffee. Noticeably absent were fish and meat, but my boatman explained that because of the new year there was less activity and pretty much everything had gone haywire. At least that's how I understood it at first; in fact he ultimately answered every question of mine by working the phrase "Happy New Year" - the only words he could say in English - around complex sentences of unintelligible Vietnamese, accenting the three English words as if capitalizing them in speech. Example:

"Are they selling fruits and vegetables to restaurants, or are they selling them to people to bring home?" I asked.

"Thi sist hedaw ningo fthe Happy New Year ageo faqua rius," he replied. He mimed drinking rice wine - everyone had been intoxicated for days. "Yu gata no wen ta hol dem Happy New Year no wen ta fol dem," he continued, dancing around on the boat to indicate that everyone was in party mode and no business was being properly conducted.

(I found out later that most of the sales are to middlemen, not private buyers.)

I eventually used the "Happy New Year" trick to ward off the constant solicitations of touts. It was a phrase everyone knew, and it put a smile on everyone's face.

"Where you going? You need motorbike-taxi?"

"Ochi chorniye Happy New Year ochi strastniye!"

"Come into my bar. Just one beer. You want pretty lady..."

"Hava nagila Happy New Year v'nismekha."

Saigon - the term is still widely used, and it still accurately refers to the central business district of the metropolis now known as Ho Chi Minh City - is a relatively modern web of wide boulevards and small side streets. It seems to be oddly lacking in seriously important sights, apart from Reunification Hall - only four decades old and architecturally unstimulating - and the War Remnants Museum, which contains harrowing photographs of "the American war," displays planes and bombs used during the war, and shows - with photos, film, and actual fetuses - the deforming effects of Agent Orange. In the center of town, the elegant exterior of the French cathedral is offset by the garish neon captions in the interior chapels, and even in Chinatown's magnificent pagodas and meeting houses the Buddha statues are backed by pachinko-like flashing lights.

A popular excursion from Saigon - and I decided to be popular - is to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, a communist-built network of narrow, underground living spaces about an hour's drive northwest of Saigon. The Viet Cong lived here and organized, among other things, the 1968 Tet Offensive against the United States and South Vietnam. It is a truly fascinating web of tunnels, built on three levels and organized into planning areas, living spaces, and kitchens (smoke was diffused and let out through small holes far away from the tunnels), among other things. There was an escape available into the Saigon River. Traps similar to those used to catch tigers were used to snare the enemy: a camouflaged door built into the ground would give way when stepped upon, and the victim would fall into a hole and skewered by metal or bamboo spikes. Some of the tunnel passageways are less than a foot square.

I decided to take a train to the inland city of Dalat, which was a silly idea because there are no trains to Dalat. The closest station was near the coast, at a place called Thap Cham; it's a couple of hours by bus from there to Dalat. But I was tired of buses, and I wanted to take a train. Buying a sleeper ticket was a quick process, the attendant on the train was friendly, and I had an entire locking compartment to myself. They even brought me bread for breakfast.

Thap Cham means "Cham towers" - the small town is named after the three brilliant 13th-century towers built by the ancient people in honor of King Poklongarai, the former ruler of the Champa kingdom. Built out of red bricks without the aid of cement, the towers rival any of the Angkor temples in beauty, if not in scale.

From Thap Cham I flagged down something resembling a bus heading to Dalat - or actually, it found me. It was a sort of hybrid bus and cargo truck that had room for about ten passengers and a wide open space in the back, and it would have been a most expedient trip if we hadn't stopped for an hour to pick up several tons of wood and potatoes to be delivered to Dalat. Still, it was an intriguing ride, with fantastic views as we headed up a long mountain pass.

Dalat is a cool respite from the hot coast and a popular Vietnamese honeymoon destination. On arrival, I headed straight for the Crazy House. (Some would say I was long overdue.) It's a hotel with psychedelic animal-themed rooms - the Termite Room, the Kangaroo Room - built into bizarre structural foundations such as a giraffe and a giant mushroom. You have to climb up and down winding, intertwined staircases to get anywhere, and there's not a right angle in the place. I considered spending the night, but the cheapest room was $19 - whoppingly expensive by Vietnam standards - and the manager was none too friendly on my arrival and steadfastly opposed to bargaining, despite the fact that she said all the rooms were available.

Ultimately I decided not to overnight in Dalat at all, opting instead to attempt to reach Kontum, farther north in the mountainous highlands, on an overnight bus. I spent the rest of the afternoon riding a cable car over the surrounding forests and farms and enjoying Dalat's relatively cool climate. I headed for the town's central lake and plopped myself down in the middle of an amusement park of sorts, where I was befriended by a 17-year-old girl and her mother; the former wanted to practice her English. They took me to their favorite street stall for dinner, and then I tried to kill time before my bus.

In typical Vietnamese fashion, the bus station was a half-hour walk out of town. I'd gone there earlier in the day - it's near the cable car - and ascertained, through my own vigorous hand gestures and the ticket seller's broken English, that there was a bus to Kontum at 2:00 a.m. She wouldn't sell me a ticket, though - it had to be purchased on the bus.

Dalat closes early. I had some tea until the cafe kicked me out, at about 10. Nothing else was open except for a very lively disco, and I wasn't in the mood. I ate some noodles very slowly, meandered around town checking out colonial buildings, and finally, shortly after midnight, headed to the station, where I figured there might be a bit of activity.

No bustle. There was one other person there; he never looked at me. I sat down on a bench, leaned against my backpack, and fell asleep.

I awoke shortly before two; there were a few other people, but no sign of a bus. I asked one of them about the bus to Kontum.

"Oy, Kontum?" he said, or the Vietnamese equivalent. "Very far" - he meant the bus station! "You go moto..." he said, gesturing somewhere toward the vicinity of Algiers.

"The lady here said there was a bus from this station at two," I said.

Another man stepped in. "Yes, from here. Five o'clock."

"No, no...she said there's a bus at two..." I said.

He walked me across the station parking lot to another ticket window beside a minibus (officially a 16-seater, but they squeeze in up to 30) marked "Kontum." He rapped on the window and asked when the bus would leave.

"Four o'clock," he said.

The main ticket office was in the center of the lot; it handled tickets for a couple of companies. There was no one at the desk where I had received my misinformation earlier, but I started to riffle papers in search of evidence. Then there was a rustle - she was sleeping on the floor behind it! She said something in Vietnamese that I assume was a less cordial version of "Please step away."

There was another man in the office, a representative of another bus company. "Kontum?" I asked him.

"Three o'clock," he said.

Suddenly the correct minibus came without any warning, I boarded, and we left at 2:37. We headed back down the mountain, the driver taking the hairpin turns at speeds I wouldn't touch in daylight on a straightaway. At the bottom, we waited for two hours: No Vietnamese bus ever leaves less than packed, and we were going to sit there in whatever tiny village this was, until enough people decided at 4:00 in the morning that they wanted to go to Kontum. Miraculously, they came - one of the passengers, though born in Vietnam, lived in California and had gone to school in Iowa.

It's about 300 miles from Dalat to Kontum. We got through 275 of them before the minibus halted in the city of Pleiku around noon and they told me I had to get another bus for the remainder of the journey. "Don't pay any more," my Iowan friend warned me.

They sold me to an empty minibus, which was a death sentence, as it took an hour for it to fill up. Three other buses came by, full of passengers bound for Kontum, and if I'd been able to flag any of them down I'd have jumped ship immediately - but we were on the wrong side of the street. When we finally got under way, they asked me for an additional fare - and I launched into a lengthy explanation of how I was under no circumstances paying anything more, especially when they had kept me waiting for an hour. I would have been happy to be thrown out - there was another bus just behind us.

Kontum's bus station is...a half-hour walk into town. My next stop was going to be Danang, gateway to the historic city of Hoi An. There was one bus at six o'clock the next morning, with a fare of 59,000 dong (about $4), and a schedule from another carrier announced buses at 7:45 and 8:30 - but "no tickets" for that carrier, according to a man standing in front. I wasn't quite ready to commit to such an early departure.

Kontum was a very pleasant place to hang out for half a day. Its allure lies in its gorgeous, almost Bavarian dark-wood church and in the abundance of Bahnar villages within an easy walk out of town. Besides, it has a cool climate, a scarcity of nettlesome motorbike drivers, and pristine, cheap hotels. Bahnar communities are recognizable by their raised houses on stilts - the animals are kept underneath - and the large, communal building called a roong, which has a tall, steep roof. I took a long, beautiful walk near a village and headed to a beach across a suspension bridge - a popular place to watch the sunset.

At 5:45 the next morning, the lady wouldn't sell me a ticket for the 6:00 bus, which was moot, as there was no sign of it. She pointed me to the other window - the "no tickets" window. Disheartened, I walked outside and figured I'd just wait for a Danang-bound bus to show up. After all, that had proved to be the tactic in Dalat.

One man asked where I was going, and when I told him he pointed me to a minibus with a posted departure time of 7:00. "Two hundred fifty thousand dong," he said.

"But the bus fare is only fifty-nine thousand," I countered.

"Aye gana skam yu Happy New Year up da wazoo," he said.

Was he for real? "I humbly submit that as the new year was ten days ago, there shouldn't still be a special holiday fare in effect, and that sounds a tad high to me," I said, perhaps a smidgin less politely.

He spoke in a low voice. "How much will you pay?"

"No more than one hundred thousand," I said.

"No, no, no," he said. "Because no tickets, special rate, Happy New Year..." he droned on.

Then I noticed that there were actually several minibuses with signs for Danang, departing every fifteen minutes. Furthermore, people had tickets for them. Their drivers tried to hide their piles of tickets when I attempted to see what they looked like.

I went back into the station. The "no tickets" lady was issuing tickets for the minibuses right and left, at the correct minibus fare of 85,000 dong. I got one for the 7:15 and we were on our way.

One passenger was passing out small plastic bags to many of the others. I didn't know why - they weren't big enough to be for garbage, and in any case the Vietnamese always throw all their trash out the window anyway. An hour into the journey, as we wound our way around hairpin turns through the mountains, it became clear: They all got carsick. They had perfected a routine, much like a baseball pitcher masters his technique. First they'd spit lightly into the bag, as a warm-up. Then there would be a series of pitiful, pleading coughs...and finally a long belch and the follow-through. Then they'd throw the bags out the window.

Hoi An is probably the most touristy place in Vietnam, but it's probably also the most beautiful, and I think that more than makes up for it. An important Cham city until they were driven south, and then an important Vietnamese port city, it really flourished when Chinese and Japanese traders came in droves in the 1700s and instilled their own architectural styles into the town. The Chinese built pagodas and clan houses, and the Japanese built Hoi An's most famous landmark - the covered bridge at the end of town. Hoi An prospered as a port city until the end of the 1800s, when the river silted up a bit and Danang was able to take on more of the boat traffic. But the little wooden houses, with their interlocking yin-yang terracotta roofs, and all the impressive assembly halls, temples, and family shrines, remain intact. And the shophouses still function as they always have - only now they sell to tourists instead of exporting by sea.

There's lots to do in and around Hoi An other than visit the old buildings, of course. One afternoon I took a leisurely walk down back lanes and past rice fields to Cua Dai beach, and one morning I visited the ruins at My Son. This is the most extensive set of Cham temples in Vietnam; they've been largely reduced to ruins (those back at Thap Cham were much more pristine) due to American bombing.

And one evening I took another cooking class. It wasn't quite as involved as the one in Battambang - the instructor did most of the work, wielding ancient Vietnamese cooking implements in manners evocative of the Iron Chef - and we merely assisted with the dishes. But it was very informative, and the instructor was full of jokes: "If you don't have lemongrass, you can use turmeric. And if you don't have turmeric in your country, you can use spring onion. And if you don't have spring onion in your country, you should move to another country."

I took the train from Hoi An to Hue, which was silly, because Hoi An doesn't have a train station. I had to take the bus back to Danang (even here they tried to overcharge me, claiming that the first bus of the day costs more) and then wait for a train, which left an hour late. But this was a three-hour train journey I was told I shouldn't miss, and it was well worth the effort. For the first hour and a half out of Danang, we followed the coastline of the Gulf of Tonkin, perched high above it, separated from it by a tree-laden hill. On the west side of the train was a steep forest. And then, suddenly, we were level with the frothy coast, just a few meters away. And then we turned inland and followed the rice paddies and rivulets into Hue. The young Vietnamese Railways staff - most were around 20 years old - were extremely friendly, sharing fruit with me and chatting up a storm. The train had a loudspeaker on which was played pop music at a fidelity similar to the level you get when you listen to a mobile phone atop a mountain in high winds, but all in all the train experience was spectacular.

I conclude with a couple of food experiences, because I haven't mentioned enough in this update: To repeat, every culinary experience in Vietnam is a joy, from roadside pho stalls (the staple beef-noodle soup - actually pronounced something like "fuuh") right on up to the royal-court-music-accompanied buffet at the Saigon Morin hotel in Hue. But like pretty much everywhere in Asia (except Japan), the best food is at the outdoor, no-frills, sit-on-a-plastic-chair-and-throw-your-used-napkins-on-the-ground places. Most of these involve some kind of preparation at the table, whether it's grilling your beef on a tabletop barbecue, wrapping up your spring rolls, or inserting greens and hot sauce into your pho until the desired degree of seasoning and spiciness is acquired. A few of my favorites:

1. Ben Thanh market, Saigon: This is actually a boisterous night market lined with food stalls specializing in seafood, particularly local shellfish. I went for the soft-shell crab in tamarind sauce and the grilled cockles.

2. Bale Well, Hoi An: In a courtyard off an alley and owned by the irrepressible Mai, who sat down and chatted with me, taught me a few words of Vietnamese, and even put lotion on my shoulder when I started scratching mosquito bites. There's no menu at the Bale Well. You sit down and immediately are brought a stack of rice paper, a bunch of shrimp spring rolls, a plate of greens, a little dish of kimchi-like cabbage, and skewers of pork satay. You wrap everything up into the rice paper, dip it in a spicy sauce a little like chili, and stuff yourself for about $2. Perfect.

3. Luong Son, Saigon: The deep-fried scorpion tastes a bit like soft-shell crab, only darker...but the pincers can be crunchy and tasteless. And don't forget to remove the little thorn at the end of the tail.

Cheers,
Seth

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