16 April 2008

Mr. Saigon

The only reason I'm writing the third part now is it's raining like hell outside, which is pretty unusual, and I don't even want to imagine what that's going to do to the roads around here and their fine coating of dirt, mud, garbage, piss, and shit.

So away we go!

In dramatic fashion (one of the Trangs came to say goodbye and ran after the train waving as it pulled out), I departed Hanoi for Dong Ha on the edge of the former Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam. Sounds dangerous, doesn't it? Or at least like a good name for a dance club. I had arranged a tour at Harry's DMZ Cafe (or something), and Harry was there to collect me at the train station and put me on the back of a motorcycle (with helmet!) which careered at an alarming velocity from sight to site around the DMZ. God, that was a hot day. So hot... Phew... Anyway, we visited a piece of the Ho Chi Minh Trail; the extraordinary Vinh Moc tunnels, where hundreds of families lived during the war in conditions so horrible and requiring such resilience that I was convinced we never had a chance to beat these people; a reforested field pockmarked with bomb craters; a former US Army "base" (more like a shed) still surrounded by a dangerous mine field I chose not to run around cavorting in; and a beach.

The most interesting thing about the DMZ is probably how uninteresting it is. Most of it has been reclaimed and repurposed, as though it never existed. I speculated at the time that this was appropriate given the attitude of most Vietnamese people to the war: they seem simply to have forgotten it. Or they don't care. Or, in the case of young people, they don't know *and* they don't care. Though they suffered more, they seem to have gotten over it in a way Americans should have by now but haven't. I can't really say for sure, but it doesn't seem to occupy a traumatic region in their national imagination or to have produced a romanticized fiction of a collective loss of innocence that continues to fester, pustulating from time to time into such things as banal political rhetoric and Oliver Stone. Maybe it's a Buddhist thing, not worrying so much about the past, or a Chinese/practical/entrepreneurial thing, concentrating more on the future. In any case, I don't recommend a visit to the DMZ.

My next stop was Hue, the former imperial capital. I was in luck, because I chanced to stumble assbackward into the Hue International Festival, a multiday affair that began right when I arrived. I totally seriously recommend you try to attend this one day. It only happens in even-numbered years. So instead of wandering half-dazed around the Forbidden City-esque palace, pretending to be interested, I got to see the most amazing cultural performances from a dozen countries held in and around the palace: a series of spectacular shows, many running simultaneously, in a spectacular setting. I thought the Chinese opera (I think it was opera) was the best. But I like anything that combines singing and dancing with acrobatics and sword-fighting. The second night, I was offered my first "happy ending" at a massage parlor in Asia. It would not be the last.

Moving right along... my next stop, everyone's next stop in Vietnam, was the UNESCO-listed ancient Chinese trading town, Hoi An. Hoi An is quite small and comprised mostly of pretty, old Chinese-style mansions of the type hard to find (I can now say) in China itself. I even stayed in one for $3/night: The Ancient House Hotel or something. Hoi An was a convenient base for me to visit the also UNESCO-listed Cham ruins of My Son and the infamous village of My Lai, where the eponymous massacre took place and where I, trying, while staring at the present site's emptiness and placidity, to drink this in, drank tea.

The most popular things for tourists to do in Hoi An itself, other than (yawn) look at temples, are to take a cooking course (check) and to buy a f*ckload of tailor-made clothes (check). For some reason, the tailors there are famous and famously cheap. I probably had more fun, I reluctantly admit, picking out innumerable patterns, colors, and materials than I had doing anything else in Vietnam (so I obviously turned down the happy ending) and walked away with, I don't know, fifty shirts, twenty pairs of pants, underwear, coats, jackets, shoes, blah blah blah for quantitatively more money than I should have spent but relatively nothing in Western terms. I pleased the endless family that sold them all to me, anyway, because they took me out to dinner at a restaurant on the beach. The food was the most delicious I had in Vietnam. The next day, I woke up sick.

"No, no, I'm just hungover!" I cheerily told the tailoring family before groggily setting off for Danang. I skipped China Beach and went, after a brief museum visit, straight to the airport, where I lay uncomfortably across several seats for five hours before my cheap-ass flight to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC).

There's really only one reason I wanted to visit Saigon. Can those of you who know me well guess what it is? I'll give you a minute to figure it out.

Still not sure? OK, one more minute.

Give up? It's so I could wake up in the morning, look around perplexedly, and say, a la Martin Sheen from Apocalypse Now!, "Saigon. I'm still only in Saigon." Anyone surprised?

I have to say, I quite liked North Vietnam more than South Vietnam. They do actually feel like different countries when you're there. The South, for example, seems more boisterous, commercial, and American. Ergo, I didn't like it. It's also flat and lacks the lovely undulating terrain of the North. I forgot to mention that my volunteer situation included a weekend trip to Ha Long Bay, the major (UNESCO!) attraction near Hanoi. It's basically a sea of giant karst formations that project out of the water in a lovely fashion. We did this trip entirely the wrong way--that is, in two days. Day one, we motored to Cat Ba Island, where we spent the night. On day two, we motored back. Lovely scenery both ways, but we missed out on our chance to explore the *really* lovely Cat Ba Island. But I, you shouldn't be surprised, sprang into action to correct this oversight as best I could. The night we arrived, I ran around to all the hotels until I found one where I could arrange with, basically, some guy to pick me up with his motorbike at 5 am and take me on an impromptu tour of the island. And this is what he did. Our first stop were some caves once used by the Viet Minh during the French colonial period. The guard guide guy there showed me around and then sung patriotic anthems until we asked him to stop. Then, we went through some villages to a national park. Scrambling up through the dense and wet foliage, we finally arrived at an observation tower. From the top, such an incredible view as can't be described in some pedestrian travel blog as this... those same upward-jutting karst formations, but these jutting upward from a jungly and misty landscape, themselves greened over and providing homes to squadrons of colorful birds and oddly-oriented trees and such. My favorite book as a child was Dr. Seuss's "On Beyond Zebra", and gazing at this bizarrely Seussian landscape, I myself felt it necessary to invent new letters in order to describe it. Ah, perhaps *that* explains all the wiggles and squiggles and marks! I was so pleased with this little tour (and, honestly, with myself for having thought of it), that I paid the driver double the price we'd agreed on (150,000 dong, or $10 US, but it's funnier to say "dong").

See what I mean? I so much preferred the North, that I'm still talking about it in the section about the South! So back to the South. Oh yeah, I arrived in Saigon with Ho Chi Minh's Revenge. So I went to the hospital, they stuck an IV in me, charged me hundreds of dollars, there's a long and boring story about how I finally after a year got my insurance company to pay for this and then, in HCMC itself, since there's nothing to see except the famous reunification palace (scene of the Saigon airlift), I just ate delicious food. I also took a day tour to see 1. the main temple of the weirdest religion you'll ever have heard of, Cao Dai (or Caodaism), and you'll really have to Google it to enjoy the full extent of its peculiarity, their Victor Hugo-venerating (!) doctrine impressively straining credibility even more than that of the Mormons; and 2. the Cu Chi tunnels, similar to the Vinh Moc situation, but without the prime beachfront location, but with an exhibit of gruesome, American-killing traps, including an AK-47 firing range (I didn't partake), but these tunnels have been widened for the comfort of fat, Western people so perhaps the effect is lost.

I left HCMC/Saigon on a bus that eventually became a boat. You see, my friends, I had found a novel way to cross the border into Cambodia: by river ferry! First, though, I had a three day tour of the Mekong Delta to enjoy (or, given the quantity of durian for sale in the Mekong's floating markets, suffer through). This tour wasn't that interesting, except I got to try snake meat, so I'm going to skip describing it. On my last legal day in Vietnam, I went to the top of sacred Sam Mountain, which is more like a hill, but lined all the way to the top, Chinese style, with souvenir shops and noodle shops. At the top, anticlimactically, is another noodle shop. From the top, though, you can see the Cambodian-Vietnamese border stand out starkly in the countryside: the Vietnam side appeared green and flourishing while the Cambodian side was brown and parched. Getting to Sam Mountain was something of an adventure in itself. Not because it was so far from my border town hotel (love those border towns!), but because not one person spoke one word of English there. Let this be a lesson to the would-be travelers among you: when you want to accomplish something in a foreign land where you don't speak the language and they don't speak yours, just keep frantically gesturing at people and repeating the same words until they give you what you want. Never fails (because they eventually get annoyed and want you to go away).

I woke up on my last morning in Vietnam, before taking the boat to Phnom Penh, to a strong and familiar odor. Stepping into the lobby, I saw that the hotel owner had made an offering at his little family shrine, naturally, to me, the most offensive and disgusting offering possible: a giant, spiky, stinky durian.

Ah, Vietnam.

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