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

there are places I remember... long after culture shock fades

VIETNAM | Wednesday, 25 June 2008 | Views [352]

So last we left Thailand, the land of smiles and buddha bellies lying content in the arms of tourist heaven. The day after cooking class, I went on a trek into the hills of the north. I was following the whisper of the trading winds to Chaing Rai and the Golden Triangle, the land where three countries joined together in sheltering a noman's land the chinese opium dealers used to swallow for their pirate runs and dens of indiscretion. It is not much more than a sign now, unless you pay extra for the boat ride that will pull you between thailand, the huge vegas casino that is Mynamar/Burma, and an island that oh yes, you pay more for-to land in laos, and shop (which indeed costs more than that). But among the king cobra elixer of testosterone fortitude, I found that this much of "laos" was probably not a true representation of visiting the country. After that we journeyed to the hilltribe villages, which are really refugee camps of tribes that fled burma and now make their living having: you guessed it tourists pay to enter into their camp and take pictures of them and then, yes, pay more to shop their handicrafts of silk scarves.

There was not one man in the camp, and five tribes all blended into one little group of huts as though their traditions merge in a friendly implementation of peace. There was the Akha- the men start saving silver pieces and when they are ready to get married they melt it down and produce a silver hat for the woman to wear. As the modern world has gobbled up the resources of silver, they now pass down the hat from generation to generation- a treasured pice of history for the women in the tribe. Then there is the long eared and long necked Karen. They insert metal tubes into their pierced ears to stretch them into big loops that drag the tips of their shoulders, or wrap brass around their necks until the weight of the metal displaces their shoulder bones to droopy downward curves making their necks look like long giraffe worthy limbs. The theories of why they do this are 1) to protect the tribe from tiger attacks, as the tiger kills by going for the neck, the metal prevents the tiger from reaching those precious arteries of life. 2) the men of the tribe decided that their women were the most beautiful and wanted to prevent them from marrying outside of the tribe, so they began this tradition. They were very shy but gracious people. (I can't remember all the other tribes) Their children ran about, giggling and creating a scene of life vibrant among the roughest of circumstance. But the overall experience was a tourist "attraction" the likes of which I cannot fathom to be organic, nor manage to be proud of seeing other than to support a failing people.
A few massage trips (I like to try a different place each night) and jaunts about town exploring every nook and cranny I could find (including an embarrassing encounter at a starbucks when I bought a drink strictly for the right to use the toilet, and as an american, I still cannot properly order a drink in the right jargon, which made the poor girl so flustered that she called in three people to help her discipher the order in which to say no whipped, tall, whatsamajeez).

And before I knew it I was on a plane to Hanoi, ready for the next part of my adventure. Entering the dingy sqwall of terminal hallways that could only manage to land about three planes simultaneously, I was ready for the beaten path to be a long forgotten memory. The visions of rice paddies and french colonial architecture transported me to a place that is simulateously exotic and familiar at the same time. Memories of Madagascar float to the surface. Both are a people who have lived with the dichotomy of serenly beautiful and violent base humanity at the core of each days journey. Here, the serious face of communism peered out from forgotten smile lines in the wrinkly old faces lining the streets. Posters toting public safety and moral lessons from the goverment face off against the easy joyful smiles of the children who are the treasure of these people, a friendly, loving, vital force refreshing the memory of an existence with no war to age and cynicize the mind.
The rest of my travel companions did not arrive until later in the day so I hopped in a taxi and got to my hotel by 9am, only to find quite predictably that the room was not ready. I left my bag and steeled my will to wander the streets alone and see the town. The way of life is very rough here. Streets lines with tiny little pho shops, the people crouch on the ground sipping hot steaming bowls of noodles that I believe follows my childhood theory of eating ice cream in the winter to equalize the inside and outside temperature. After all, just stepping outside feels like you are being cooked for the dinner of some vengeful god determined to boil you until you are a lobster feast for his guests. I felt that familiar distension of culture shock. I eyes thought everyone was staring at me, some blatently laughing and I couldn't tell if it was malice or folly. I am twice the size of any man or woman, about ten times the sweat. My cotton teeshirt was decimated within moments of hitting the sunny curb. Feeling self conscious and unsure of myself, I found haven in an internet cafe. When I tried to leave, the price was 3000 dong. The us dollar is 16000 dong. the atm gives out 100.000dong notes. he didn't have change, so i tried to pay in dollars (most transactions they prefer to be in dollars US) but flustered, I could not make my brain wrap around the math of 3000 into 16000. so i gave him 3$, and he was still not so happy, finally the two of us were rescued by a 16yr old girl, who gave me two dollars back as well as a bunch of change in dong. whew. as laughter erupted from all the children as I left, I had to smile as well, there is something about being a clueless foreigner that really humbles your spot into the world and solidifies your compassion for all those who live in a world different from the one they understand as home.
when I got back to the hotel, my roommate had arrived. Sally from britain. she is definitely my speed and a quality roomate. Naps to quell the heat of day are a must by 1pm. After a 3pm meeting, we were off to explore the city. The group is larger than I had anticipated, and much more diverse. 13 people mostly from britain, scotland, and ireland, including one family of four with the two sons having graduated college. However, there is also much more free time to do as your please, which is nice. We did attract quite a bit of attention "WHITE PEOPLE, WALKING" as i like to subtitle any journey together.
Then we had a free hour to wander the new neighborhoods alone, and one person got so lost that she was half hour late to meet us again. We all laughed and anticipate following suit at some point along this journey.
The next day, we got on a bus to go to Halong Bay, a world heritage site of thousands of limestone cliffs jutting proudly out of the ocean to protect the shore and hide the pirate ships playing cat and mouse with the fishermen and warships in the bay. As our bus bumped along the road, the scenery kept changing so dramatically that it was impossible to peel my eyes from the parade of beauty we passed. We stopped amid the peaceful serenity of the rice fields, and finally after years of imaginative musings, I learned the secrets of the rice harvest and what each step is to finally producing a huge sack of rice for a family to take home.
The boats in halong Bay are old chinese "junk" ships. teak wood the likes of which are long forgotten treasures either eliminated from existence or protected from abuse by this day in age.
they were beautiful; I felt like an lady at the turn of the century waiting to board the exotic cruise to a new land in a world filled with dangers at sea. the irony is that the boats are so aptly labelled "tourism" and the trip is a masse fleet of ships all huddling together for protection whilst visiting the same sites.
there are caves hidden on some of the islands, huge stalagtite wonders with stalagmite refrains. they are all colored quite like a circus show with sparring hues of green, blue, pink, yellow- every swatch in the gel book of colors a random stop- yes! that is the color for section 6 of cave 3!
and of course, there is the long revered (hee hee) symbol of male virility- a boulder with a certain rising attraction to the sun that the guides like to show the ladies and watch them blush and look away.
After the caves was time for kayaking. Every one paired into pairs, but I was left the odd man out. At first, I was going to go it alone, confident in my kayaking abilities, but then a guide went with me and I was glad because the directions they gave us to finding the hidden lagoon were very rocky and the lagoon was hidden well from our untrained eyes.
we formed a good team, he stopped at a boat floating in the middle of the inlet to boast to his girlfriend that I was a suitable replacement. she was definitely used to such harassment, asking me my age and if I was married to gain ammunition in her barrage that he had no chance. He gave me candies that he stole from her floating store, and whisked me off in a race against the rest of our group for an invisible finish line he makes in his mind. The lagoon was tranquil floating but all the exertion in the heat left you wanting to gulp in the salty sea and float yourself off into oblivion. He told me to rest for while and gondola man style, paddled me about while singing soft vietnamese lullabies to soothe the spirit. When we reached the boat, the entire crew was splashing in the wake of the boat, doing machismo jumps and somersaults off of each level of the deck. We naturally joined in the fun. Only myself and the british boys were brave enough to try to kloofing off of the top deck- about 12 feet high. I think I earned my vietnamese stripes with such a daredevil feet. the crew definitely cawed and smiled at me from that point on.
the best part of the day was floating on my back, arms outstretched with the sounds of the world silenced by the water in my ears. I kept wondering about the luck I have in life. floating along the vietnamese shore, sun set rays caressing my face and telling me that the world is filled with love for those who follow the promise of an adventure. and the gentle rocking of the ocean lulled me to sleep with a smile on my face. As we breakfasted on rice and noodles, I felt a certain fulfillment of childhood foreshadowing. My mother always used to laugh that I preferred cold chinese food to cereal. Now i know I am not alone in this preference. The crew found my chicago postcards, and enjoyed ooing and awing over the american city and the boats dotting the lake. We had a chipper exchange of vocabularies as I gave each of them one signed like a miniature rock star, that I am.

We stopped on our way back to Hanoi at a facility made by a rich man to support that people with disabilities in vietnam. about 500 people live there, 57% disabled by birth or by bombs. they make handcrafts and charge exorbitant prices for them, but as they limp around showing you their achievement, you would rather pay twice the price to know that they are taken care of and loved so well.
Back in Hanoi we went to the well advertised tourist attraction of the water puppet show. A true achievement of theater history, the band sings mystic songs of historical significance while the puppets appear beneath the water and dance about portraying the folklore of vietnam and the daily life faced by each farmer and animal.
It was kitschy and fun, and truthfully, we all nodded off at some point like true lovers of the theater.
After dinner, everyone decided to take a cab except for me and jon, one of the british gents. in our heated discussions of life, travel, and politics, we got completely lost amid the market streets that all look the same; each street promising to know the way back to our hotel. the drizzling rain made a cooling respite from the day, and we each voiced our willingness to tough it out and refused the many offers of taxi cabs. we ended up making an hours journey out of a fifteen minute one, and most of that time circling the same street only four blocks from our hotel, but as we were greeted with cheers in the hotel bar, we laughed and smiled and I said, beer has never tasted quite so good.
We board a night train to Hue this evening after visiting the entombed body of Ho Chi Mihn.
More adventure awaits....and thank you for the supporting voices from home.
love, emily
p.s. sorry if this is rough, very short on time here, writing before breakfast!

Tags: emily predny, golden triangle tour, halong bay, hanoi, predny, water puppet theater


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