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It's a long climb, to get to the bottom of things

there is something about this place.

VIETNAM | Wednesday, 2 July 2008 | Views [453]

The night was a solitary predator on my mind. whispering about the perfect day, the perfect dream, the perfect future, the perfect past. And I was a solitary figure dressed as a reflection of the features of the night; the people lining the streets took little notice of the stranger in their midst as they laughed and shouted and lived their lives in the full volume of a sunday afternoon without responsibility. As I reflected on how strange it is that I have accustomed myself to the comraderie of my group to the point that I am actually lonely wandering on my own; I headed as far out of town as possible leaving the european feel behind and taking up the grit of local culture in my teeth. The carnival.
I am always a sucker for a carnival. Perhaps a tether still attaching me to the summer nights of paradise in my childhood when I would stay every waking hour at the carnival until my mom would come and collect me home. The people wore smiles like shining sequined accessories, and the children were excited residents of hypersville. There was a whole area set up with little cars and motorscooters so the children could ape the madness of the streets. As I laughed at the hundreds of accidents within the first whistle of the start, I noticed that the ferris wheel was calling my name. For only .50 I breathed in the magical lights spreading in every direction but the sea. Not the computer chip glow of the airplanes, but the reaching arms of bachelorettes each trying to catch the wedding bouquet- a little mad in their desperation for me to choose them for my future stop. I am used to being on my own when I come to these destinations, but with the fresh friendships blossoming around me in a group of amazingly like-minded travellers, I longed for my miscreant brethren to play air hockey with and join my dance dance revolution face off challenge.
On my way back I decided to jump into the street food experiment. I stepped up to a cart, smiled shyly and pointed to what looked somewhat like duck. The old woman clucked a little bit at my choice, and after staring deeply into my blank face, started to whip me up a concoction like a mad chemical scientist deciding the fate of the world. My roommate had stayed out on the town, so I finished my day watching fast times from ridgemont high while trying to decipher what exactly could have been in that bucket of sauce she put on my rice.
Luckily the mad scientist brew ingested was peaceable and not hell bent on hiroshima, I woke up feeling refreshed and ready to take on our night of roughing it in the villages of Lak Lake. The drive was a seven hour bus ride over roads that imagined that every pass was a systems test for shock absorption capabilities. It went by surprisingly painlessly as I traded music players with Jon and we investigated the subtle differences in style and release of artists who try to bridge the pond between us, and discovered the treasure of new artists unheard of at home. We stopped periodically at scenic overpasses where the girls all huddled together to avoid the demands of the roadside ladies hoisting wares at lightspeed pace from bus to bus.

I think I have a new Vietnamese name for this journey ""buy sumthing"" is a cheerful greeting the my friends call out to me everywhere I go.
We arrived at the tiny little hamlet in the central highlands just about evening time. Time enough to wander about clucking in response to the chickens and ducks, and playing the little piggies game with as many little potbellied piggies as you could possibly send to destinations around the globe. No little piggie could finish off the verse and go all the way home, however, because the people here build their houses on stilts to stop the wild animals from harming the women and children who stay at home unprotected throughout the day. We stayed in a communal room, mattresses lining the floor and mosquito nets ready to string their way up like lanterns in a paper moon festival.

As the lake spread an inviting calm before us, we saw the people boating to and fro pedaling their noble tree-trunk thin crafts with oars attached to their feet- ingenious! The sunset- the first one we have really gotten to see in its glory, was a magnificent reminder from the earth that we are lucky to have the gift of sight, lucky to have this moment to enjoy together, lucky to be alive.
The electricity here is as fickle as the rainfall, so we ate our dinner by candlelight. feeling really back to the simplicity of life before modern convenience, we went to a music celebration of drums and dancing. A big part of their tradition was the refreshment, worthy of Appalachian moonshine. Firewater is poured into a huge earthen jug, diluted with water poured from the bamboo canteens and then offered first by dueling straws to the ladies of the group (matriarchal society) then to the group in entirety. Ever the guinea pig, Jo and I went first.

As the taste of fermented apple juice mingled with charred ashen grit reached our mouths, we stared wide eyed at each other and looked for a way out- unsure that matriarchal was really a priviledge in this scenario.
As the night progressed and those around me nodded off to snore in symphonies of uncomposed brillance, I kept dreaming that the chickens were terrorists who suspected I was the enemy. As they pecked my eyes out in my dreams and clucked in my ear as a sleep deprivation torture tactic, I wondered if anne of green gables ever faced anything like this. Cracked out eyes belied my excitement as dawn awoke the rest of our tribe and we prepared our berths for the day's festivities.
AN ELEPHANT RIDE THROUGH THE JUNGLE!!!!!
Hooray! Sally and I paired up on our speedy gonzales pachaderm fit for two. We debated many names between us. I was a fan of nefi- short for nefarious, sally's favorite word. He hardly seemed so nefarious, however, as he carefully bobbed his way beneath the surface of the lake, trying to find a path that would keep us from blowing bubbles with the fishies. Poor nefi was up to his eyeballs in murky water, but he never resented us for having that extra bite of omelet at breakfast. As we caravaned along, the morning sang a perfect head bobbing beat with a cinematic progression of scenery perfect for our pulitzer prize attempts at photography.

Any activity booked after an elephant ride is forgotten like the closing band following the rising superstar. Not even a resurrected elvis could have really rivaled for remembrance in my log.

That said, we took a hike through the jungle; and by hike I mean that easily at several points, we could have all broken major appendages because the "trail" was formerly a snake's path trough the overgrown brush. It was fun to challenge our fitness after so many days of riding a bus. And the stops surveying mountains pushed back to the horizon by the green lush softness of the growing rice weren't bad to look at neither. and really, I felt a beaming pride to have escaped unmudded and successful in the wake of our tightrope act through the thin paths of the rice fields.
that afternoon, everyone went for a canoe ride out on the lake, but a few of us (especially those plagued by terrorist chickens) decided to nap instead (not that terrorist chickens cannot strike by light of day, mind you, I was just trying to wear them down a bit for the next victim).
As the flooding began in earnest that evening, and the frigid water supply ran dry without the generator supplying power to the pumps, our worst fear was that our flight to saigon would be cancelled and we would have nowhere to go, homeless hillbillies dirty and beraggled.
Our tiny little propeller proved fearless in the face of lighting aggression and we made it safely to the madhouse of Ho Chi Minh city.
This journey has taught me about the over hyped necessity of sleep. Everyday now I wake at 5 or 6am after staying up till midnight with my friends. Faced with the silent peace of the morning light, I find my thoughts much clearer and my heart more open to reflection. I think often about how I miss the meditating practice of my college days, and how I should try to take better care of myself when at home. Saigon (okay, technically it is now Ho Chi Minh city, but I really like the name Saigon better anyways) was the same way. In the slight hush of morning, the people were calm and docile in their slow preparations for the day. No one rushed about, no stores hawked their wares, people even played badmitten in the normally congested streets. By the wake of day, it is all a forgotten promise made from good intentions built in rehab, but lost to the fast urban pace of life on the streets.
We were off again by 8am to the Mekong Delta, to do our second homestay.

First we stopped off at the Chu Chi tunnels- the systems of underground crevices in three levels used by the viet cong during the war as everything from hospitals to rabbit holes to win against the americans. As we toured the blown up remnants of unlucky land-mined tanks, i felt a bit self conscious at my nationality. Luckily, it was a place for playing war, which was another childhood familiarity. I posed amid the tanks, flexing my muscles, chased phantom guerillas through the narrow dark tunnels, and even shot my first AK-47. It was a really intense game of testosterone machismo, and it was an exciting day to win.
After calming lion's roar with yet more hours on the bus, we arrived to a welcome drink of coconut juice served right from the nut. Our riverboat ride took us to a crocodile farm which took my memory back to scenes from Jewel of the Nile/Romancing the Stone. After we counted our fingers and toes and survived the pulsing speed of the predatory lizards, we slowed the speed down again to a pirogue for three paddled by a little old lady who I am sure could bench press arnold schwatzenager.

We got to peek into the treehouses built along the tadpole creeks, and the children here were bursting with excitement at a recipient for their enthusiastic "hello!!!"s.

When we glimpsed our treehouse mansion pimped out with a bar and connecting passageways to several communal mushroom huts, we breathed a sigh of relief that perhaps this would not be as exciting a stay as the farm.

We took walks along the dirty roads circling the one road island. Not much hazard of getting lost. My favorite resident was the little old man jetting about on his scooter decked out in matching pajamas. The dogs were a little fierce in their protest of our foreign scent, but we found our way out of harms reach soon enough. We cozied up in our wicken hut and snacked on snake grilled up for hor d'orves- paired with what they like to call lipton iced tea which is really vietnamese whiskey made with rice wine and jackfruit.
As the night progressed it became more apparent each hour that this place is filled with the magic that is only found in small towns and sentimental memories. The bushes were filled with fire flies who blinked in chorus as the originating muse for the inventor of the christmas lights.

The stars, oh, the stars. They sounded the call for a mecca to the heavens as they twinkled with a coquettish wink that we had met before. As we all sat together on the tiny little cement dock and prayed that the tide would not swallow us with river, we bonded in that dreamers way of trying to figure out which constallations were the stars that spelled out our futures, and which were already taken by the past.

In the faded haze of morning light and yet more chicken alarm clocks, I found myself as a party of one watching the magnificent slumbering beauty of the earth turning her face to the sun to stretch gracefully upon waking. As she tried to convince me that the sun rise will surpass the sunset as the bearer of my heart, I was taken to places of awe that I had been holding in reserve for life changing moments yet to come; my communion with the sunrise was saturated with wisdom and secrets that I shall keep until my dying day.

My reflection was not disturbed until the high heat of the morning roused the troops to evacuation, we were off to return to Ho Chi Minh.
We returned to a whirlwind tour of the city that proved to be somewhat less than climatic. The Reunification palace- a 1960s splendor that could really use a spiffer of a PR genious and a good interior design makeover (but the government that built it was a casualty of the war, so the current regime has little interest in that investment).

The War Crimes Museum- an excercise daring me to gaze into the eyes of the dragon of war and see what our country is capable of causing around the world. Photographic exhibits of death and torture, children whittled like rubber dolls by the agent orange warfare inflicted by our bombs, communist propoganda celebrating our eventual defeat. Helpless, not even able to speak a coherent sentence when all of this took place, I wanted to be able to do more to protest the wars that are still plaguing the world because of our American ego. I wanted to be able to help and make it better, by doing more than just being a good individual person. And I feel that those images will stay with me long beyond the stain of sweat from the heat of Saigon. It will be a reminder to me that it is not enough to object, it is a call to try to understand the aftershocks that follow war long after the fighting day is done. Remember the victims, the civilians, the veterans; remember the need for peace.

And the grand Finale, the Post office. pretty yes, colonial at its best. but ultimately not quite the tourist attraction that captivates and provokes your mind.

Done with the business of tourism, I changed into my Hoi An dress for a fancy dinner and found that I was the only duck dressed up in swan's clothes. It was alright though, as the compliments on my dress eased my embarrassment and made me feel like maybe I had class after all.

Our last day together was filled with sentimental wanderings and last souvenier expeditions spreading our wings throughout the city. Souvenier is a funny little word. To remember in French. As though a tiny little momento will make the memory stay sharper as the years dull the colors of each sunrise and sunset we have cherished here.

The time marched resolutely forward, no matter how hard we tried to fool its callus face. It was time for us to part. I have no idea how I changed from a loner to lover in such short time. But these people are ones I will hold forever to be friends of a common soul. Its more than just Vietnam about us, its a common understanding of the world, a lost language remembered in the presence of ones who have no reason to understand your lexicon. Twelve people got on a bus, and one got into a taxi.

But that is not where the story will end. When Duy, our Vietnamese guide called to interrupt my moping saturnine complexion, I hopped on the back of his motorbike and sped through the city in search of my resurrected dreams of that one elusive dirty dancing dress.

It was a nice distraction to walk my way home among the people parading and celebrating their saturday evening with games of chance and stiltwalking in the park and a huge live concert that put millennium park to shame.

And as life trudges on with plans and travels, I start to say my own silent prayer of thanks to Vietnam for enticing me and inviting me to discover that which I had forgotten about myself with the rusting weight of responsibility. In the quiet dawning of the day, in the clinking glasses of the night, I will souvenier these memories much longer than the fabric of that dress will fit me. and for that, i am filled with gratitude.

i miss you all, and value your love and support as I keep wandering my way back home. I will see you fairly soon, until then, write me!

Tags: chu chi tunnels, elephant ride, emily predny, hochiminh, lak lake, mekong delta, predny, saigon, viet cong, vietnam

 

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