Here I sit in a tiny cubicle at an internet shop. There are 16 computers jammed in to a space that is 15′ deep by 10′ wide. The end is open to the street and every computer is in use, mostly by young men I would guess were 15-18 years old. Many are playing games, and the one right next to me is a good game player as there are many kids crowded around him watching. Plus they like watching me too. My cube is about 15″ wide, but I am reduced to about 18″ because my game playing neighbor is so good at reaching new levels. Plus he smokes! More than a few flies too.
We are with 2 Vietnames people most of the time. Our guide is Khanh and our driver is Mr. Cuong. We ride in a Russian jeep, a rather noisy and large vehicle from the days before Glastnost, when Vietnam was buddies with the Soviet Union. Now they are friendlier with China. The Russian jeep is good as I feel safer in it, although I am sure that is an illusion. Mr. Cuong is an excellent driver, driving in this country requires some unique skills and sophistication with the horn.
We left Hanoi and ventured southeast to the Red River Delta. Our first stop was Cuc Phuong National Park. We visited the Primate Rescue Center, the only one of its kind in the country. Gibbons swung on their long, long arms from the bamboo trunks that lined the top of their very long cages, as they rehabilitate from injury. Langurs live in Vietnam, 22 different types, but they are in danger of being wiped out. The Chinese are huge buyers of animal parts and people hunt everything to sell to the Chinese for big money. The center is an attempt to protect and release animals into a protected area. People still hunt illegally in the protected areas, but not as much and the Vietnamese are succeeding a little in this endeavor. Langurs are sweet, sweet things and fun to watch. We hiked extensively through the park, up and down over limestone mountains. Khanh took us very seriously when we said we wanted to bike and hike all over the countryside. We are logging 10-15km per day on foot and 20km by bike! Be careful what you wish for is the lesson, but we are loving it. It feels good and really does get us into the heart of the countryside.
We learned yesterday that Khanh has three definitions for movement: there is walking which means level ground, there is hiking which is rather intense up and down mountains and then there is trekking. We will be trekking but don’t quite know what that means. Maybe something like our climbs of Katahdin!
All of our biking and walking is done in the delta and we traverse the dikes and levies that separate rice paddies. It is incredibly scenic, the limestone mountains of this area are surreal and filled with shrines and pagodas. We visited a pagoda to the tree god, a Taoist or Daoist deity. An old man read my ‘fortune’ for lack of a better word. Translated from his Vietnamese to Khanh’s english meant my fortune was very abbreviated and sugar coated. The woman who was standing behind the old man was very alarmed by my fortune, but Khanh claims it was good! Khanh’s father had gone to the pagoda last year and his fortune was bad, and he died within the year. I seem to be successful at making contact with the women, but language is a huge problem and my contact is by eye and with pantomime a little. Another day we visited a shrine dedicated to the god of the mountain and had tea with the caretaker and his family. Each of these close contact experiences are very powerful and even though Vietnamese do not touch, the woman there wrapped her arms around me and walked holding hands for a long time.
Little girls as a rule are rather shy, and it is a brave one that calls HELLO to us as we walk or ride by. Boys on the other hand seek contact and call out every English word they know. Some children begin learning English when they are 8 or 9, but most start when they are 10. By the time they are 12 or 13, they can ask how old we are, where we are from, our names, and on rare occasions, we actually discuss the number of people in our family and whether we are hot or cold. We have a little album with photos of my family, Toby’s family, Orion and Marian and our house. It is a big hit always.
For the last two days, we have spent time in Khanh’s village. They are having a festival to honor the founding fathers of their village, which was formed more than 500 years ago. There are 15 family lineages here and yesterday there was a procession through town with 7 sedan chairs with memorabilia of those 7 familes. Not all of the founding families have chairs and Khanh’s does not. Today each family makes an offering at the shrine and Toby is there photographing and interacting with part 2 of the festival. I will join him shortly for the afternoon program which involves sports. Wrestling and a stand up chess game as well as other activities.
We create excitement wherever we go. Children flock around us and it is great fun. Children in particular want to touch my arms. Once in a while, a baby will be frightened and scream at the sight of us. We have children’s books with us and they are very popular and help us communicate.
The food is excellent, the meat a bit gristly but the vegetable dishes are outstanding. The fish is excellent except they serve it bones and skin and all. That is OK, I just pick what I want out. That does not offend anyone apparently. People cannot understand why we want more vegetables than meat, as it is a great honor to serve meat to guests. Goat is a delicacy and the first month after TET is when it is served. I don’t like it much but Toby eats it. Dog is served the 2nd half of the lunar month for good luck and is purported to be excellent. We have not had any, but I guess I would if it were presented to me. It is a sign of great honor to be offered dog. There are many dogs raised, cute little pups are everywhere. We cannot help but think that cuteness is not the goal here, but they are sweet little things.
The dikes around the rice paddies are living and filled with ducks, chickens, and birds. We ride around water buffalo and oxen all day. These creatures are sometimes tended but mostly seem to know where to go. Farmers are granted land to farm and each 20 years their use of it is evaluated by the government and their land grant renewed if they and their family are still farming. As is true in many rural areas, children are becoming better educated and then leave the farm, creating problems for food supplies.
Khahn’s family raises rice and vegetables, pigs, chickens and dogs. Their compound is made of cement, and there are 3 rooms in the main building. A separtate row of connected 2 rooms is where grandma lives and cooking is done. Another row of stalls has 4 pigs, dogs and a squat toilet that actually has running water to it. Electricity is everywhere, running water is not.
We are here in planting season, here in the Red River there are 2 per year. After 2 weeks, the fields are fertilized and then pesticides are applied. Organic farming does not exist.
Because we are Americans, the war is a huge topic that at first made us somewhat uncomfortable. But everyone wants to discuss it. We have met many veterans. Towns of 2000 people lost 50 people to the American war, 80-90 to the French war, another 10 to the Chinese war (1979) and another 15-20 to the Cambodian war. We are welcomed, there is NO animosity here at all. These people were successful in their quest for unification, that may be why.
The Ho Chi Minh trail is 22,000 km long and stretched through Laos and Cambodia. It took a soldier 6 months to get to the south. The son of Khanh’s grandmother died in 1969 in Hue, during an American ambush. He was 16. She is a herioc mother. There was no conscription here, and families were not expected to send all of their sons but many did. A heroic mother is one who lost all of her sons. There are 2 heroic mothers in this village. She is 82 years old. There are war monuments in every town.
We are getting used to the questions about the war, especially because most are wishing to express that they are happy Americans are coming to Vietnam to visit. Many more Australias and Germans and French come here than Americans.
Well, I have now been sitting here for nearly 2 hours and Toby has returned to pick me up. I have all of the navigation skills of an oyster, but I do think I could have found my way back. It is about 2 km back to the village through the rice paddies.
Much love to you all,
Barb and Toby