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

a little water goes a long way

VIETNAM | Wednesday, 2 July 2008 | Views [475]

hello again.
the sky was sparkling like a sapphire stone set among diamond clouds as i wandered the streets of Hanoi. We had finished a morning tour of the one legged (okay, one pillar but it really looks like a flamingo balancing amid the lotus blooming pond) pagoda, the chilling hoa lo prison- complete with gruesome photos of tortured prisoners as well as John Mccain's air force uniform and photos of him as a guest of the Communist government, the temple of literature- the highest univeristy in the country, and a very decidedly unfriendly (because it closed early and would not let us in) Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The temperature had been steadily rising as though each minute on the clock slid the mercury down into the thermometer's pool.

I was trying to make it to the post office, the bookshop, and find myself a small bag for gifts. Halfway to the postoffice, I was startled by what I thought originally to be a bucket of water poured over my head. In looking for the perpetrator, I saw hundreds of motorbikes screech to a slamming halt followed by military precison rain poncho donning; I understood that I was in for a wet surprise.

The streets were rivers of mud and water, my silk shirt told everyone in town my measurements and birthmarks. But I was grinning ear to ear as I splashed my way through the puddles with the enthusiastic glee of a four year old girl. The ridiculous severity of the rain cloud's anger only made me even more filled with amusement at its tantrums. What could water do to stop my parade? Nothing. I made eye contact with the few brethren of stubborn pride- we all had that same twinkle of someone thwarting nature. I should not have had such plucky defiance- the rain twisted the shape shifting chameleon streets of Hanoi into pretzels that would not let me out of their salty dough-filled knots. I was lost again. And this time, the train was leaving for Hue and I had no choice but to hire a poor old man to cycle me on his bicycle closer to the hotel, so I could scramble out and run in my flip flops for the finishline.

We loaded our packs and then flew about three streets before the entire grid ofthe city was covered with stalling cars. evidently it was more than just a little bit of rain.

As we ran for our train, backs laden with weight, my flip flop decided that he had taken enough abuse in his lifetime and left me running barefoot through the train yards like a native urchin of the streets.

The train was delayed by half hour because of the traffic- but that was okay, we stocked up our little cars with beer and snacks. The cars were dingy little trashbins that had been haphazardly swept of obvious debris but left about as clean as the dumpsters of new york city. there were four bunks per berth in first class (no sitting or dining car, which shocked me a bit)- we split ourselves carefully along gendered lines to sacrifice only two boys to the cohabitation with strangers. The four other young girls took one cabin, I slept with the generations before me, and the boys huddled on their own. The young girls cabin became the place to socialize and bond over the awful conditions together. Our guide kept catching mice in a plastic bag of food and tossing them out the window as we rode through new places for mice to populate (16 tiny little mice total during the night). Then the cockroach parade began and I thought I would go deaf from all the screaming taking place around me. Amazingly , you can drink enough beer to forget that you are grossed out by the rotting smell eminating from the hole in the floor they call a bathroom. And though the sleep was not long or restful- the ladies servicing the train began to fight in the hall about 6am and I was up up up- it did awaken all of us to the reality of leisure travel in Vietnam.

The city of Hue was a beautiful concubine replaced by the king because her face began to wrinkle into a resemblance of the proud but tattered queen. The french columns embracing the graceful eaves of sprawling buildings looked familiar and inviting. After breakfast at the shop of an amazingly insightful photographer that made each of us drool in envy at his honest and uncomplicated artistry, we took a ride up the perfume river on a boat carved into a dragon- a symbol of power and water to the Vietnamese folklore.

The Thein Mu Pagoda told a story of the city with sweeping views, a bonsai garden to rival the queen's, and an astin martin driven to saigon in protest of the persecution of buddhists during the reign of the catholic president in the 1960s which ended in the monk burning himself alive in the middle of the city. we rented bicycles and took to the mad chaos of the streets.

We stopped at the high school of Ho chi Minh (they really do love and admire him here, a most revered leader), the Citadel and fortressed gates of the palace, and the forbidden purple city of the King (much of which decimated by bombs in the American War).

It was all laced wood insets and balanced feng shei confusion symmetry in hues of gold and red. The lotus flower blossoms thrive in the moats that forgot how to protect and serve and lazed about like cops on Segway scooters. The King used to have tournaments facing off an elephant against a pack of tigers. The Chinese tourists dressed in cowboy hats and jeans bet that they could have taken on both and won.

There was a place in the palace for dressing like the royal family (or the royal concubines, in fact) and taking pictures to laugh at for years to come. We elected Rich to celebrate his college graduation with a photo of fu man chu brilliance. And when the two demure girls taking family photos next door were game for posing with him as his concubines, I nearly waxed the marble floor with the tears that my guffaws can't contain.

We went to a nice dinner and followed with a nice drink at the tourist bar scribbled in memorium of all that have past this way (with sharpie). We came away with a souvenier as our sweaty bottoms reacted with the ink of our graffitied barstools.

The next day we were off again without a proper goodbye to the lady grace of Hue. We went to the tomb of king Toc Duc, who was unfavorable to the people in every way so he built himself a sanctuary to reside in that would later become his tributary legacy (kind of like daley, I suppose, hee hee) When trying to listen to the guide while ADHD set in, a local girl admonished me for leaving my white skin to be feasted on by the sun. They wear long sleeves, jeans, huge hats, and even dainty little mouth covering cloths in order to keep their skin a youthful pure whitish glow. Marvelling about how we try to look like the ideal of exotic allure the whole world over, we stopped at more temples, pagodas, and caves that housed statuesque buddhas hidden to the unadjusted eye.

Finally, we stopped at China Beach and I ran headway into the sea, crashing with the waves in a melody of cymbal rolls and rhythmic drums. When the sun had fallen its best reddish hue behind the rice paddies, we arrived in Hoi An, the shopping paradise of Vietnam. As we sat at the local restaurant that serves only forms of spring rolls layered into a double decker taco fashion, the matriarchal patron literally poured the beer down our throats and fed us each by hand if we stopped eating long enough to attract her merciless eye. It was a meal of devastation.

After the meal, we took our first wander to the tailor shops. The tailors of Hoi An made me realize that I had been waiting my entire life for this trip and had not the forsight to prepare for its destiny. They tailor make anything you want- right out of a picture or a magazine overnight for pennies on the dollar value for clothes back home. As I flipped from book to book feeling like a bride without a wedding, I remembered the dress of my dreams- the one in the final scene of dirty dancing. Sally and i raced about trying to find a suitable copy and explain what it was to the tailor, but I didn't end up getting that dress due to a slow internet connection (don't laugh if I try my luck again in Saigon!). The two I did get are fabulous reminders that I am a stunning creature unsupressable in spirit (well, the untouchably cool winter coat lined with dragon silk is anyways!) Less than $100 got me dreams of the future designs that I could bring back to test my experimental spirit. I could be a punk rock queen or a movie star- if only Hoi An would follow me home!

Much of the next few days had to do with shopping. Shopping for the handmade. Even the museums were really just shops wearing mustache glue and fedora hats and pretending they were teaching you history. A city without a soul, taking your money mercilessly and leaving you with visions of chinese lanterns lighting up your neighborhood in a gay celebration of ethnicity, I was happy to have a chance to take a cooking class to limit my time for roaming the dangerous streets lined with seducing wares of consumerism.

Four of us did the class. I almost didn't make it as I scurried from place to place fitting this and tucking that. I had to climb on the back of the hired motorbike and whisk my way along with the romance of the wind sweeping the hair escaping at the nape of my helmetted head. I wanted to keep going on the back of that fellow's bike for the rest of the year, but the class was only about a mile down the road- he had to bust me for trying to keep the helmet as I dashed off without even thinking about the extra weight on my brain.

The class was definitely more of a survey than an academic endeavor. We all sat around chopping and stuffing and nibbling on this and that with the fitly pregnant mother taking us to task. Our delicous meal was finished, and after a few local beers to tidy up the night, I returned to find christmas in the multitude of packages tailoring my girlish fantasies- all awaiting with expectant insecure faces hoping to be my favored treasure.

As we flew from Hoi An to Nha Trang, I noticed among the plethora of plastic rustling from my fingertips that a serious baggage problem had infested my luggage.

Several more pagodas later, (including one of the Champa people who lost the battle for survival to the Vietnamese long before the rest of the world tried to conquer their lands and one honoring the monks who burned themselves for budhist rights) we found ourselves at a mat-weaving house in the country. Filled with playful kittens just wanting to trust the huge giants before them but unsure of how to start, Jon and I found ourselves to be the only volunteers at learning the craft of the villagers. Our work was awful, even under their watchful hands, but I remembered how envious I am of those whose living is made by the strength of their knowledge and the force of their hand. (here I am still having my anne of green gables dreams even in the far east) we topped off our sundae of a day at the mud baths to have a communal session of beautification the Vietnamese way.

We piled into the slippery greased water that felt not so medicinal as dangerously menacing to my balance; we took turns with Three Stooges worthy moments of awkward comedy. The basking rocks to sunbake your skin felt like an iguanas dream, and by the time you rinsed in the water falls, vichy showers, and hot tub, the pool was a heaven on earth waiting for me to come home. My conversation skills went into hibernation as I ggggggggg-ed my way into a state of untouchable zen. The only revival was found among the charcoal fumes of dinner as we cooked our own meal in a grill version of fondue that put us elbow to elbow with the natives.

And when the completely riviera-esque beachside turned us out into a euro club filled with pimps, hookers, and foreign tongues, we found that the night gave way to jugs of rum and dancing- a faster life is always found along the pristine seduction of white sand.

Unfit for socialization until the oxygen of diving cleared my brain, we boated out along the bay to islands protected by the bumper cars of tourist boats all emptying into the water.

Floating along reciting the remembered pieces of quotes translated into wisdom along Budha's walls, i reflected on the sounds that pull us all beyond ourselves and into the world around us. The chants of our religious practice, the laughter of a beloved voice, the siren songs of whales elusive in distance, the musical memories our brains vacation with as we hum along our merry way.

They say that smell is the strongest sense of them all, flooding our emotional sensors with reactions provoking response. As I returned from my dive to bask in the sun and get massaged into coma by ladies waiting to fulfill my every need, I knew that the sound of the ocean will always be the most powerful of all. and I let it roll me off to napping peace.

i love you, let me know how your doing back there in the land without everyday massages and sunshine induced delerium.

love, emily

Tags: china beach, hanoi, hoi an, hue, vietnam



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