For some strange reason, we have a good connection this morning in Hanoi! Not that I expected it–we are staying the same hotel we have been in twice before and never had great access; but it was meant to be today, apparently.
Ending our trip independantly was very important for us both. We refreshed and reinvigorated and kept our own timetables. This meant napping in the midday and early afternoons; waiting for the intense heat to pass us by. Both Hoi An and Hue were hot–Hoi An was hottest, partly because of a weather system that was passing over that part of the country.
We met many Australians and a few Americans in Hoi An. It was their favorite spot in country. Most had been to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and the Mekong, some also Hanoi, HaLong Bay, and SaPa. Those are the places most people visit. I must say, irritating as it became to have a guide and driver with you so much of the time, they accomplished their mission, which was to remove us from the tourist trail. While I might travel a little differently next time, I would not revert to the usual tourist hot spots. Hoi An was kind of like visiting Provincetown in the middle of the summer; except here everyone knows who is local and who is not. No hiding.
Opposite magnetic poles attract and identical poles repel. We were attracted to the old town in the early morning, when it was cooler and few tourists were out and about. By late morning and early afternoon, we were repelled by the hoardes and the behavior change in the otherwise gentle Vietnamese. In the afternoons, we left town, renting bicycles, riding the rice paddies and tiny villages filled with people who rarely see tourists. They were always pleased to see us, talking to us, sometimes getting on their bikes and riding with us, practicing English. Whenever we stopped for a beer or a watermelon slice in a tiny yard with 2 tables and 4 chairs, everyone in the neighborhood came to talk. Whichever house we selected to stop at became a momentary celebrity and the host (usually a lady) spent the entire visit beaming. One sidewalk dinner place and several small restaurants in Hoi An earned our repeat business because they treated us fairly by not jacking the prices up and serving good healthy food. Most sidewalk vendors serves a single dish, only a few offer more. But it works well and as long as that is what you want, everyone is happy. Our particular favorite in Hoi An served a rice noodle with greens and beef soup, and tableside she offered a kind of steamed sausage wrapped banana leaf that you unwrapped and put in the bowl. When you were done, she counted how many you had unwrapped and charged you for the soup accordingly. Each sausage was 2,000 dong (12 cents) and the soup with beef, greens and noodles was 10,000 dong (65 cents). If you wanted a beer, water or a coke, she walked across the street to a vendor and bought them for you and charged you 6,000-10,000 dong depending on what you wanted. That same vendor charged us 12,000 for the same items, we know because we went there once!
Hoi An was a shoppers delight. Capitalism in all its forms was practiced and we were able to shop, much as we tire of such activity. We brought back some beautiful handcrafts we have not seen in other places and had to buy a large satchel to bring it all home in.
The Chinese buildings, temples, and assembly halls in the old town were exquisite. Carved wooden dragons, phoenixes, turtles, and other important symbols of the afterlife were incredible. Many homes have been restored and are 200 years old.
This region of the country was home to the Cham (aka Chaum or Champa) culture. Not dissimilar to the Angkor people in Cambodia and Thailand, they worship many of the Hindu gods, in particular Uma and Shiva and Ganesh. But they blend these religious beliefs with Buddhism and the amalgam makes for some interesting ancient sites. Whereas the Angkor people lasted for about 300 years, the Cham people were dominant for more than 700 years. They carved enormous stone temples fully decorated with gods and goddesses throughout the region. There are at least 50 fully developed sites, at least as dramatic as Angkor Wat. Many were damaged during the war, but the French had begun extracting some of the best examples early in the 1900s and putting them in a museum, the Cham Museum in DaNang. This is a good thing, because the Vietnamese people have little respect for these things and happly removed artifacts and make the carved stones into walls to contain their pigs and as cornerstones for the cement homes. The Americans bombed only a small part of the largest site, My Son, and when the French petitioned Nixon to stop, he did. But most of the best work was long pillaged, although there is lots of partial stone work still standing.
Yesterday, on our way to Danang, we visited the Cham museum and enjoyed it. The carvings are exquisite, but we can well appreciate why the French removed as many as possible from their original locations to protect them. Many western countries have taken criticism in recent years because they rob artifacts and put them in museums. However, we can still see them today and perhaps when they can be appropriately protected, they will be returned to their country of origin. In the Cham Museum, there were many signs saying DO NOT TOUCH THE OBJECTS in both English and French. I never did see the sign in Vietnamese. The museum was full of Vietnamese and they touch every part of the statues, climb on them, put their hats on them, etc. No one ever makes the slightest attempt to stop such activities and the most interesting ones are black from finger oils. We were glad to have visited the museum, but I do wonder how long these works will hold up under such rigorous handling.
I would like to mention that we have indeed taken many, many photos. More than 1000. Once we discovered that people were anxious to have their photos taken, we used the camera whenever it made sense. They will be randomly floating across my screensaver for time immemorial and we will also put them in the special Brassco photo gallery where some of our other photos currently are displayed. This is not a site that is connected to the Brassco’s regular website, so if you want the address, just let us know. Currently, we are displaying photos from the Vanayana Mountain School, a wonderful pre-school in South Africa; Orion and Marian’s wedding, Orion and Marian’s honeymoon, and ultrasound photos of Orion and Marian’s about to born son.
Last but not least, it is interesting the choices governments make. My experiences are limited but they are all I have with which to make comparisons. Several people have asked about why there is no safe drinking water anywhere and whether that is due to Dioxin (Agent Orange) contamination. No, I don’t think Agent Orange has anything to do with it. Yes there was contamination from defoliants, and there are many who exhibit physical deformities. But the water situation (I think) is unrelated.
Countries have to make choices. This is particularly true as they attempt to modernise and become more developed. Some choose to electrify first. Some choose to educate. Some choose to make safe drinking water available to all. Some don’t choose, but instead do some things some places and other things in other places. Resources are limited always and these choices, whether deliberate or by default are never easy. Botswana has an interesting goverment and one we learned quite a bit about while there. They made very specific choices and had an extra advantage. The president of Botswana was president for about 30 years, so any programs he instituted had time to develop fully. He chose to make water that was safe for drinking available everywhere. Botswana is a country with the Chobe River and possibly only one other, possibly no other (I can’t quite remember). To provide safe water was a daunting task and he did it successfully. His next priority was education and many, many children go to school. What was sacrificed in their modernisation efforts was electrification and sewer.
Vietnam chose electrification and education over water and sewer. It may be that in order to provide safe water in this country, electrification is necessary. It may that wells (as were dug in Botswana and Madagascar, for that matter) cannot be dug here and water may need to be pumped from big reservoirs. It may be that the groundwater has been brackish and polluted due to centuries of agriculture and population and that clean water is an unaffordable concept. I don’t know what the future plans are but it seems to me that long before safe drinking water will come from a tap, people will need to be taught not to throw everything they don’t want on the ground, and taught to dig pits for latrines instead of burning waste or allowing human and animal waste to run into the agriculture irrigation system. They are masters at irrigation, and I suppose that the water quality is far less important when compared to the need to feed their population. No matter where you go, you see bamboo water pipes running adjacent to streams and for miles and miles, eventually ending in a cement ditch and diverted from this rice paddy to that one. Masters at water control. It is a wonder.
My comments are not to imply that the water is not clean. It is not safe to drink but it is generally clean. A bathtub full looks crystal clear, no sediment, no cloudiness. Vietnamese people are immaculate. They wash their clothes in streams that are certainly not crystal clear, but they wear long white silk garments that are spotless and brilliantly white.
This trip has been one of the more wonderful experiences in my life. I could not be happier at this moment. Normally, after 6 weeks of travel (sometimes sooner), I am ready to come home. That is not true today. I am in many places at once, work, home, and here; but I could stay longer. That is a first. I am so grateful that my life is such that I can do these things.
See you all soon, this is the end of my Vietnam diaries I expect.