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Harmonious Transmissions From A Small Blue Planet Inspirations, reflections, creations, and spontaneous ramblings as my soul permeates all time and space.

Hanging Around the Ho Chi Minh Trail...Part 1

VIETNAM | Thursday, 13 March 2008 | Views [1304] | Comments [2]

If I had a Vietnamese dating network profile, it would read some thing like: enjoys motorbike rides through the countryside, sipping fresh highland coffee with a good book, and watching sunsets silhouette fishermen sliding by in small teacup boats. Actually, there's dozens of reasons why I love this coutry so much, and I've made it my home for the last few months.

I'd be lying to say I wasn't a little apprehensive of America's history in Vietnam...but the warm smiles and friendly interest quickly put my worries to rest. Hanoi provided my first impression of Vietnam...with more sights, flavors, and culture than I had time to discover. Among some other personal highlights, the 2,000 dong glass of Bia Hoi served with ice streetside probably tops the list (translation: about 15 cents for a pint of ice cold beer). The shopping in Hanoi couldn't be more logically organized...need a new pair of shoes, walk three block to shoe street; maybe a new guitar is what you're in the market for, in that case walk a block and hang a left to music street...that simple.

A visit to Hanoi's museum of ethnography supported my decision to immerse myself in the capital of Vietnam's ethnic minority, Sapa. Unfortunately, typhoon season prevented my first attempt to live my Motorcycle Diary fantasy. In Sapa, the women advertise their age, marriage status, and ethnic tradition in a symphony of colorful and exotic beauty...including indigo-dyed long dresses with intricately embroidered patterns, hand-crafted metal and stone earrings, and blood-red headresses...in the market, one could describe a new catalog of color for Crayola, between the people and produce.

During a homestay with my friend, Pan, of the black H'mong people, I experienced a small piece of a farming family's life in northern Vietnam. I spent the day there "working the land" during the new rice new harvest. However, I have to sadly report that after six hours of the most strenuous labor I've ever tried, I was physically wrecked and depleted of energy. I gained a new appreciation for the rice farmer (whoever said it was the simple life?), who devotes his time and care for the sole purpose of feeding his/her family...Did I mention Pan's older sister was running laps around me with her baby strapped to her back.

Dinner that night in the family's log-cabin style home was a memorable experience in itself. I said my parting words to the unlucky chicken that was picked for dinner...its life up to that point must have seemed so simple, running free around the beautiful rice terraces all day without a care in the world...I said "hello" again to my unlucky friend as his piercing gaze stared out at me from my soup. Actually, I had a food epiphany in that moment...I felt an appreciation for the life that was being served for my own well-being, while simultaneously feeling the notion of how previously detached I had been towards what I eat...all the hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and strips of bacon consumed without any awareness or appreciation. Up to that point, I'd never even seen my meat slaughtered...and it was a stirring sight that I'll probably remember, if only for a moment, every time I eat chicken...and I definitely have never eaten ALL the edible parts of my meat like I did that night. On the other side of the food pyramid, the rice and vegetables were freshly harvested and deliciously prepared. Eating at the dinner table with all men, while the women shared their meal at a separate table induced a flashback on a middle school skating party. The entire family seemed in high spirits upon the completion of the rice harvest, and the rice wine (Vietnamese moonshine) was poured around the tables accordingly. I dropped out of the drinking exhibition after the 5th or 6th round in a half hour, curiously spying the H'mong style smoking device propped in the corner of the room. One rip from the bamboo-carved bong (combined with the hill-tribe moonshine) almost knocked me off my stool...I wasn't sure the smoking mixture was only tobacco like the family convinced me it was...I choked, they laughed, and I was forced to sit in a corner of the room in exile while my friend nursed me with sips of water as my sober-consciousness crept slowly back. I slept like a baby on my cot that night.

My friend, Pan, joined me on my next excursion to Ha Long Bay, the otherworldly karst seascape in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese legend explains the formation of the limestone towers by a giant ancient sea dragon...I felt the mystical presence of the sea dragon as our tour boat drifted through a fantasy labrynth of karst towers and floating villages, while the saltiness of the sea permeated not only my sense of smell but my entire being. When our vessel stopped for a break, women paddled rickety hand-crafted boats out of sea caves to peddle exotic fruits I'd never seen before. Pan and I spent the rest of our time together in the magical area on the protected Cat Ba island, exploring the bay by kayak and playing on the quiet beaches in the meantime.

Departing by night bus from Hanoi, I left the city for the third time, again as a solo traveler. I arrived in the ancient capital city of Hue, in one of the central coastal provinces of Vietnam. Unfortunately, like many other historical relics in the region, the central palace has been rebuilt (partially) since the devastation of the American war. Actually the tour of choice in the region is a collection of historical buildings, VC tunnels, and museums that commemorate the struggle the Vietnamese endured during that dark era of war. The Americans called the region the DMZ (the Demilitarized Zone), an imaginary line that separated the territory of conflicting political ideals. I visited the area on a cool, rainy day and the weather made the experience feel more visceral. My imagination transported itself four decades into the past...a time when I, like thousands of other American men in their mid 20s, would have been dizzied trekking through a land of the unfamiliar...smells, plants, sounds, and terrain...all contributing, in those circimstances, to an impending and suffocating sense of danger and fear. The Dave Matthews lyric danced through my mind, "Don't you ever wonder...could I have been someone different?" I warped back to the present moment...driving by motorbike with my friendly, Vietnamese guide, Hung...dry (thanks to the technological achievements by our friends at Gore-Tex), with the oppportunity to stop at my discretion for a hot cup of coffee. I thanked the universe for my good fortune in this lifetime. A forty year shift in time seemed like a parallel universe, the difference between heaven and hell.

I felt my soul needed a jumpstart after the DMZ tour. I found a revival of inspiration at the former monastery of spiritual leader and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. Ironically, instead of a garden of enlightenment, the monastery, temple, and garden resembled many of the other run of the mill Buddhist temples I'd visited in Asia...quaint and quiet, and of course not lacking the typical koi pond. I took a walk through the peaceful gardens with my friend Hung and reflected on one of Thich Nhat Hanh's most notorious mantras...Peace is every step. Here, at this home of such a world-renowned and venerated guru I imagined peace as the geographical location of paradise, or maybe possessing a community of saints which could telepathically diffuse enlightment to the average spiritual pilgrim. Instead, in that moment, peace seemed to be the frame of mind we carry with us on a daily basis...a cultivated awareness complete with patience and appreciation of life's everyday subtleties...a breath of fresh pine air in that forest grove or the feeling of human comradery when sharing a walk and a laugh with a new friend. I took this lightness of spirit for the rest of time in Hue, enjoying some bike rides around town and listening to traditional music with my friend, Katie.

What came next was the motorbike trip to inspire all future rides...the journey through the central highlands...a unique and remote region of Vietnam possessing some of the country's most stunning landscapes and profound historical heritage. Along the way the forests seemed to change from tropical to alpine, with the occasional oasis of a dusty one-horse farming village. Sadly, even in this quiet, remote corner of Vietnam, every village we stopped at seemed to possess some symbol of cultural imperialism...a captured Republic Army tank on display in the center of the town square or a 3-story church steeple dwarfing a sea of traditional thatched-roof houses that surround it. But the motorcycle trip for me was less about the history, and more about the RIDE! Riding along the original Ho Chi Minh trail I absorbed the uplifting sense of freedom that motorcycle touring instills...a cool breeze across the face, no traffic, open road, smiling farmers hauling their daily harvest on their backs, uniformed children yelling and laughing on their bicycles on their way home from school, and random coffee stops in small villages where conversation with the locals is conducted in charades.

Driving up, up, and up into the crisp, alpine air of Dalat, I knew I was in for a special treat. How can I resist its charm: perpetual sunshine, city streets lined with beautiful French villas transformed into cafes and museums, and enough hiking and mountain biking trails to keep me occupied for years. Here in Dalat, I was welcomed with out of the ordinary friendly hospitality at the Phuong Thanh family-run guesthouse. And it's been here in this guesthouse where I've enjoyed the Vietnamese family life for the past few months. The traveler's lifestyle seems to take its toll, if one isn't cautious enough to slow down and take it all in. Everyday I feel bombarded with sensory stimuli of sight, sound, smell, taste, language, and culture...to name a few. It seems that Dalat has been the place where I can just stop and process the last whirlwind of a year of travel...and to recharge the battery for the adventures to come. I've found travel for me is not a list of sight, cities, or countries I can just check off my "to do" list. Instead, travel is the opportunity to reflect, learn, grow, and ultimately transform oneself with insight one gains during his/her travels. I'm starting to understand Lao-Tzu's little piece of invaluable travel wisdom...

"A true traveler has no fixed plan, and is not intent on arriving"



I enjoyed the post. Thanks.
I particularly understood the time travel sensation.. the knocking off 40 years... the awareness of gore tex. Great description.

  allwelcome Mar 15, 2008 12:19 AM


I really appreciate what you said: "I've found travel for me is not a list of sight, cities, or countries I can just check off my "to do" list. Instead travel is the opportunity to reflect, learn, grow, and ultimately transform oneself with insight one grains during his/her travels. I have been trying to convey this too my ex-boyfriend and family for a long time and have never found a way to express it quite right. They always ask, "how do you think you've changed, you were only in each place for a couple weeks" but I feel that any time you go somewhere new, speak a new language, and spend time in a different culture you're bound to change. So thank you for expressing poetically what I never found the words for!

  Shannon Jan 21, 2009 9:32 AM

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