Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Off the Beaten Tourist Trail...

In the previous post, I described our harrowing journey to Quy Nhon. Upon finding a place to stay, we walked the beautiful beachfront of the town where the wind was blowing fiercely inland and the ocean waves were massive. After an entire day in buses, it felt fantastic to stretch our legs at such a beautiful stop. We eventually worked our way towards the town center, and on our way, we saw numerous locals partying at a restaurant. Our stomachs grumbled so we decided to see what the locals were excited about. We walked into the full restaurant and a young lady ran to collect a folded table with two plastic chairs. As we sat, she handed us an untranslated menu. Laura and I scanned the menu with our "Lonely Planet Vietnam Food Conversation Essentials" open wide. Having spent some days in Ho Chi Minh City and Dalat, we had picked up basics like fried noodles, soup, and rice; the issue was what they were coming with. We placed an order or two fried noodles with squid/shrimp and one rice porridge with shrimp. The great thing about the entire experience was the anxiety of the family running the restaurant. As soon as we walked in, they all watched our every move. The slightest eye contact and smile from us sparked exciting conversation amongst themselves. After our order, the son, about 10 years old, had the unfortunate luck to walk in while we were there. The mother ever so proudly dragged his butt over to our table and repeatedly demanded something from him. Seeing the poor, tortured soul suffer, I decided to initiate simpled conversation with the child. A simple "Hello, how are you?" calmed him and raised his confidence to carry on with "What is your name?" and "How old are you?". The mother beamed with joy at hearing her child converse with farang and once he was done, he was grilled thoroughly regarding the information he had received. That evening, we enjoyed a tremendous meal with beers for five dollars and all the while, we felt like rockstars. The family monitored our every move and reaction. Other clientele visited our table to shake our hands or test their minimal English skills. This was the start of "off the beaten tourist trail".

The previous evening sparked an early morning start. We walked the amazing two kilometer stretch of coconut grove parks along municipal beach.

We had missed numerous details on our evening walk such as a hilltop statue giving China the finger, hundreds of fishing boats anchored in the ocean, and locals fishing nets waiting to be dropped.

The park ended with a war memorial plaza.

Uncle Ho's victory is used relentlessly to gain government support.

As we moved from the beachfront to the town center, we passed an elementary school that had just rang the recess bell. Children aged 5 to 10 bursted through a thin door into the streets. Screaming, yelling, and running, their wild energy was a joy to watch until suddenly, one of them saw us. "Hello...Hello...Hello..." The wave of children took a sudden turn towards us and before we could save our lives from the munchkin mob, we were engulfed by the wave. We shook hands, responded to "Hellos" and "What's your name?", and questioned them in English. Everything went cordially with the munchkin mod until I* suggested to Laura that we pull the camera from the backpack to take some photographs. As soon as she tried to open her pack, the mob moved in for the attack. Surely hoping to quell their sugar addiction, the mob separated Laura and I as she was forced against a wall and I was pushed further down the sidewalk. Laura quickly realized she needed to change plans; she closed the pack and began to distract the mob with English questions. Her plan worked perfectly and after a few hundred more handshakes and questions, we were able to free ourselves as the mob dispersed to their homes.

Looking for peace and quiet, we decided to visit the unique Tam An Buddhist pagoda in Quy Nhon's center. The pagoda is run completely by female monks. Vietnam's Buddhism is different from its neighboring countries; female monk orders either don't exist or are very rare in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. As we entered the pagoda, a lobby had two large tables set with food and dinnerware. At least twenty people moved about the lobby until they noticed the two farang. For a split second, movement in the lobby came to an abrupt halt as everybody's eyes met ours. Feeling like we had intruded on an important occasion, I pointed upstairs with an inquisitive look. A woman I had made eye contact with nodded yes and as we walked towards the stairway, a man shockingly asked "What would you like to visit?" We explained that we had just come to visit and photograph the pagoda. He translated to the woman who had nodded yes and proceeded to lead us on a tour of the pagoda. The man was from Singapore, spoke English well, and was visiting his uncle who was a worshiper at the pagoda. In a few moments, the worshipers were joining together for their biweekly luncheon in the lobby; the luncheon is what had brought the 24 year old Singaporean to the pagoda. Feeling a bit awkward, we visited briefly and returned to the lobby to leave. As we put our shoes back on, the worshipers invited us to join them for their luncheon. We ended up gorging ourselves on a vegetarian feast at the male worshipers' table.

Via our Singaporean friend, we were able to ask questions about Quy Nhon life, temple life, and Buddhism. Each of them came to us with questions or to touch us or just to make eye contact and smile. It was extremely inviting! Like all good hosts, they forced us to try all the foods and made sure our plates were always full. At times, new foods were placed on our plates just to see how we'd handle the food with chopsticks; often, it was a daunting task but it made for great laughs. At the completion of the luncheon, we were invited back to photograph the worship ceremony at 2 pm. We left elated from the experience.

As we walked through Quy Nhon, everybody wanted to greet us. It almost felt as though we were being challenged as to how many times we could say "Hello." That's why one encounter with a local as we returned to the pagoda was strange. I made eye contact with the stoic-faced man from about five meters away. Our stares locked and feeling uncomfortable, I grinned and nodded as if to say hello. After that, the man briskly pointed at me, then waved as if to say "GO AWAY", all with a stern look of anger on his face. We passed by each other without further incident. Perhaps a former North Vietnamese soldier or the son of one?

Back at Tam An pagoda, we weren't greeted by anybody until we arrived to the worship room.

We were in full traveler gear: camera around neck, 1.5L water bottle in hand, backpacks, etc. We planned to photograph the worship for some minutes and then leave them in peace. The plan changed as once at the doorway, a woman took Laura by the hand, removed her backpack and camera, and had her stand on a bamboo mat; I followed suit. At least twenty others were already on their mats chanting while a speaker blasted the chant of the ceremony leader. For the next hour and a half, we stood, bowed, chanted, meditated, etc. in full participation of a Buddhist worship session. The worship ended with a group march to another worship room and was our only opportunity for a photograph.

Afterwards, we thanked everyone profusely and they did the same to us. It is a highlight of this trip.

After the worship, our English was once again well-exercised on the Quy Nhon streets.

"Hello, How are you?"

"Hello. What is your name?"

Giggles and hysterical laughter often followed our responses. We made our way to two 12th century Cham towers in a small garden on the outskirts of town. While we examined the tower architecture, a 50 to 60 year old man came in on his scooter and approached us. In heavily accented English, he introduced himself. He had come to the US as a South Vietnamese war refugee and had made his home in Tacoma, Washington. He proudly showed us his drivers license and later, he lifted his pant leg thigh high to reveal a scar from a bullet he received during the Vietnam war (known in Vietnam as the "American Aggresion War"). He had served in the South Vietnamese army fighting at the side of American GIs. He asked, "Today, I watch news and see Obama, Clinton, and McCain. Who do you like?"

"We both like Obama very much."

"US President very important. Obama very young. McCain lot of experience and former soldier. I like American GI, very good men. Believe in freedom. I support war in Vietnam, Gulf war, Iraq war... good for freedom. McCain good because former soldier, understand war."

This was an interesting approach to 2008's election. I believe this man was thinking about how hard life became in Vietnam after Americans abandoned the war and before the communist regime opened the country to foreigners. He seemed concerned that the same would happen in Iraq if US soldiers were pulled out; to him, McCain was the leader that wouldn't let that happen again. It was a differing opinion than my own but a fresh perspective on the approaching election. Better than the opinions offered by the FOX and CNN talking heads...

This next story requires a bit of backstory. When I was in high school, the two nextdoor neighbors, my brother, and myself would often play basketball in my parents' driveway. At times, a curious 8-year old neighborhood youngster named Alfred would come by to annoy us. Just his presence and girly voice were enough to rile my brother and on this day, Alfred was taunting my brother from a distance, yelling "You can't hit me. You can't hit me." After missing with the basketball, my brother resorted to the driveway rocks and hurled one in Alfred's direction. DIRECT HIT!!! Alfred fell stunned, then sprinted home crying for mommy. Shocked by the fact my brother actually hit him from 20 meters away, we all went into hiding in my parents' home. Surely, Alfred's parents would be out soon to confront us. Nothing more ever came of the events but I knew karma had to come into play someday. We were returning to the guesthouse along the Quy Nhon beachfront. We passed by a group of teenagers who were playfully pushing around an 8 year old boy. The boy was tormenting another youngster and the teenagers would chase him away. As we approached, the boy yelled "Hello!" We responded with a smile on our faces. He then stuck his hand out, yelled something in Vietnamese, and followed us with sorrowful eyes. My guess was a request for candy or money. We ignored him and walked on. He shouted a rude comment at us as we walked away. We were twenty or more meters away when something smashed the back of my skull. After the painful impact, I glimpsed the culprit, a rolling rock on the sidewalk. Laura and I stopped and looked back where the entire group was facing the opposite direction. Surely, the 8 year old bastard had hurled the rock and amazingly, he actually hit me in the back of the head. Karma has a strange way of working things out; shouldn't that have happened to my brother?

The following day we woke at 6 AM to cover the 400+ km distance to Hue. For 15,000 dong/person, we got a moto ride to the bus station. When we arrived, a 14-passenger van was exiting the station and one of its operators ran to us.

"Where you go? Where you go?"

"Quong Ngai...Quong Ngai..."

Before we could even react, he had our backpacks in the back of the van. One lesson we've learned in the third world is that you must agree to a price before getting into any form of transport. I went to the back of the moving van and attempted to retrieve our packs when the operator blocked me at the door.

"How much? How much?"

"You get in. You get in."

"No. How much?"

I forced my hand by him to a backpack and pulled. The operator didn't know how to say any numbers so he pointed his index finger to indicate a one (100,000 dong). That was an extortionate fee! I put up five fingers (50,000 dong). He shook his head No and showed me seven fingers. This time I yanked hard on the backpack and pulled it to the door; I was determined to get the packs and find out the posted price at the station. Then, to my surprise, he said "OK. OK." and showed me five fingers. We got in and we were off.

Never once did Laura or I pull out our reading books. This wasn't due to them being uninteresting; it was due to the insane driving methods of our driver. Only in my confrontation with a Yosemite black bear did I feel so close to death. We passed everything on the road and picked up anybody who needed a ride. The van was packed like an African dala-dala, 24 people for a 14-person van. Along the way, we passed an accident where a bus had smashed into an old US military jeep. The bus was off the road and had bashed in a concrete wall of a house. The military jeep's front end was crushed and a lifeless human body was crushed between the driver's seat and the steering wheel. After getting through the accident onlookers, the driver was unaffected by the accident and raced insanely northward. The Quong Ngai disembarkment point was a refreshing place to have lived to see.

Quong Ngai was the jumping off point to see the Son My Memorial (aka Memorial for the My Lai massacre). The memorial is often visited via tours from the tourist cities; however, we had gotten our driver to drop us off since he was going through. Upon exiting the bus, the motobike wolves engulfed us; none of them spoke a work of English. We easily got them to understand we wanted to go to My Lai; the problem was the price. Our guidebook had suggested the price for a ride to and from the memorial should not exceed 50,000 dong. Unfortunately, once a price is published in Lonely Planet, inflation hits it immediately so most won't agree to the book price. They raised their index finger indicating 1. This seemed to mean 100,000 dong but was it for both of us and was it to and from the memorial. We came up with a signal that everyone could understand meaning to go and come back so that was clear. The price quoted, however, was for one person, not for two. So, the initial price was double the guidebook price; this was definitely not a fair price. We walked away hoping they would budge, but they didn't. We decided to grab a bite at a local restaurant. The motobike wolves kept their watchful eyes on us from a distance, and I could see they were interested in what we were going to do. When we got up to leave the restaurant, two wolves rode over and re-quoted the same price. We had had enough of these guys and were heading to the town center where the price would hopefully be more fair. This was a pain because we had heavy backpacks plus we still wanted to catch another bus to Hue as soon as possible. As we walked, finally, one of the wolves signaled 7... we negotiated further and although I thought he would budge to 60,000, we accepted his deal of 70,000 dong/person. We were off to the Son My Memorial.

The memorial isn't a popular tourist stop, but I was compelled as an American to pay my respects here. On March 16, 1968, American soldiers invaded the village of Tinh Khe (aka Son My or My Lai). Their orders were to shoot to kill anything that moved. The result was 504 villagers killed, most of them elderly, women, and children. Nothing was spared as even pregnant women and livestock were killed. The massacre was photographed by an American and his photographs along with others fill the museum where the story is told. A plaque listing the victims is at the entrance of the museum.

The most moving section of the memorial is the central statue of a woman holding her dead child with lifeless villagers at her feet.

The rest of the memorial is left over to foundation with placards describing what family lived there and the names and ages of the household members that died that day.

One of the foundations had been set up as to how it looked before the massacre

and another was shown as after.

American GIs burned all the homes. The military bulldozed the site in hopes of covering up evidence. The story wasn't all bad for Americans. One soldier shot himself in the foot to avoid participating. One helicopter pilot saved some villagers being chased by GIs. Eventually, the ground commander of the military operation was court martialed and became the figurehead of blame for My Lai. Needless to say, this wasn't a site I felt proud to be an American.

We asked the motobike wolves to drop us off at the bus station and they ended up taking us to the roadside where we were dropped off. Guess this is the bus station. As buses stopped, we shouted "Hue" to the operators and within 10 minutes, we were discussing price once again, using fingers of course. This bus was an empty 14-person van and the operator wouldn't budge from a 70,000 dong/person price. We were determined to get a 60,000 dong/person price and Laura wasn't too keen on getting in another van deathtrap. No deal! As we waited, a young lady who spoke English told us the bus price to Hue was indeed 70,000 dong/person so we should have taken the van. It didn't matter as a large passenger bus arrived and using fingers, we arrived at 50,000 dong/person. We knew it was possible!

We sat at the back of the well-used bus where the operator eventually came back to collect the money. He showed us seven fingers; we showed five. We finally determined to relieve ourselves of the headache and pay 70,000 dong/person without much of a fight. So much for the bargain!

We relaxed in the back of the bus even though this driver was driving as insanely as the previous one. At least it was a big vehicle. Everything was fine until a loud metal clank and the bus swerved into the opposing lane. Instead of swerving back and causing the bus to rock uncontrollably, the driver swerved off the opposite side of the road onto a walking path. We came to a stop on the side of the road facing opposing traffic. What the hell happened? The operators got out of the bus with wrenches and bamboo mats and after ten minutes, we were rolling again. This happened once again during our trip and it seemed to have something to do with the brakes. It seemed that maybe brake pads on one side of the bus would stop working. If the driver broke hard, something on the right side of the bus would break causing the brakes not to work on that side. I'm not sure but it threw us briefly out of control each time. To have survived this journey, God must be on our side.

We reached a point where it got rainy and of course, the operator came back to tell us this was our dropoff point. There, via hand motions and numbers, the operator seemed to indicate that Hue was not right there and we would need to take motorbikes. WHAT?!? Would this day ever end? He described a fork in the road where Hue was one way and the bus route was the other. Normally, one would argue they had paid to be taken to Hue, but with the language barrier, what was the point? We looked at each other with disappointment and then, as we exited the bus, we let it pass. Let the adventure continue!

We were let off at a small restaurant stand where we started negotiating with local men to get to Hue. The prices seemed extortionate, 200,000+ dong/person, and we weren't sure how far the town was. Negotiations weren't going well and there wasn't much else to choose from. We discussed walking in the rain towards Hue thinking a bus would surely pass by on the road. Suddenly, like an angel from heaven, a woman who spoke decent English came up to us to help. She explained that Hue was 24 km away. She interpreted negotiations with the motorbike drivers and we arrived at a 60,000 dong/person price. We blazed away on the motorbikes in the pouring rain towards Hue. Both drivers went so fast, noone ever passed us and this was in a strong rainstorm. We survived all those harrowing busrides to die on the final motorbike ride to Hue. At one point, crossing traffic entered our lane and my motorbike skidded a good 20 meters before stopping. When we finally set foot on the sidewalks of Hue, we had reached the tourist trail once again. The adrenaline rush was cut off and we crashed at a nearby hotel.

Had we taken a tourist bus from Nha Trang to Hue, we would have missed everything written in this post. We would have been charged 128,000 dong/person to make the journey. Instead, we payed:

Two people to Nha Trang bus station: 30,000 dong

14-person van for two to Quy Nhon: 130,000 dong

Motorides to Quy Nhon from bus station: 36,000 dong

Motorides to bus station from Quy Nhon: 30,000 dong

14-person van for two to Quong Ngai: 100,000 dong

Motorides to and from Son My memorial: 140,000 dong

Bus for two to outskirts of Hue: 140,000 dong

Motorides to Hue city: 120,000 dong

Total travel expense from Nha Trang to Hue: 726,000 dong

Two days traveling off the Vietnamese tourist trail: PRICELESS!

Sorry, no break from the travel blog today... my hands hurt!


Anonymous said...

this story is too much to believe; you made it up with your overactive imagination. a good story, but unless Laura will swear to the truth of these incidents I'll have to believe they are the result of boredom in southeast asia. If there is truth to the way you describe the driving over there, I don't think your mother will let you guys register your cars until you take a drivers ed course here at Lake Region. I do remember the tragedy at Mi Lai and the terrible pictures of the carnage. a very low point in U.S. military history. DAD

Greg said...

This blog entry is full of big stuff. I planned to use only "We left elated from the experience". as my comment. Cuz it kinda says it all. EH?

But then I read the "Worship ceremony -at Tam An pagoda. It is a highlight of this trip." And next the Vietnam fellow's comment on our election "US President very important. Obama very young. McCain lot of experience and former soldier.", which caan not go without comment as it is a pretty good match to here on Lake Road. And then this comment about another bus ride "To have survived this journey, God must be on our side." Tears of laughter and joy here I am telling you.

Finally news from NEK:
VT State Division Boys BB Champions: Lake Region Union HS 56 over Winooski 42 last night. Police escort and 300 fans welcoming home the players. Principal's comment at the late night ceremony in the LR gym was "Boys thank you for making this 59 year old fat guy fell like a kid again." First such Title for LR.

Sunday 3/2/08 2015

Anonymous said...

the 50-60year old man...do you remember his name? or any other details? His story seems all too familiar and you may be able to help me out a lot/find someone who has been missing for 22 years. I hope you read these comments and you can comment/respond back on my blog.