Subject: Flying high in Việt Nam…
Greetings from NorthWestern SouthEast Asia— or the mountainous community of Sapa, Việt Nam, and home to Việt Nam’s most colorful tribal people.
I actually crossed into Việt Nam two days ago (2-20-04 — Border crossing in the early AM.) The crossing was a rough one for me. Getting to the border involved 24 hours of nonstop travel and entailed a train and an all-night Chinese sleeper bus. Envision a can of sardines rolling around the Santa Cruz mountains at about 65 miles an hour— a dirt road with potholes that is. To top it off, I had diarrhea. I don’t know why it always happens on these marathon trips, and I won’t get too specific here, but let’s just say that Chinese bus pit stops involve communal restrooms where everyone sorta crotches together and simultaneously socializes while relieving themselves. What’s privacy? The plumbing is simply a white tile-lined trough that runs the length of the room. I had the misfortune of picking the drain end of the trough, and I was startled as someone did the “big flush.” As I sat there with the best of them, I simply thought: Why me? It was definitely a low point.
We eventually get to the border at dawn and arrive to the sight of elder Chinese doing healing TaiQi stretches against the backdrop of a muddy river and Việt Nam on the other side. The peaceful air is ruined by propaganda being spewed via loudspeaker across the river into China. It is bizarre, to say the least. The TiaQi goers simply ignore the noise; I am astounded by it. Then it starts raining and everything get muddy. Shit, where is that plastic bag for my guitar? I step in another puddle and mud balls on the souls of my shoes. I cross the river bridge and am in Việt Nam.back to top
Suddenly there are about 100 diesel trucks that I have to slalom through and my cough gets worse as I inhale the gray fumes, I get more muddy, and all the while these pushy Vietnamese touts are asking me “Where you go?” “Change-a-money?” Luckily African borders taught me all the patience I would ever need in these situations. I sorta just flow through it. Deep down, though, I am panicking— but never let ’em see you sweat. I do have one advantage, in the form a fellow Japanese traveler I met at the border moments before. Although he speaks little English, we stick together, manage to change money at the bank, and get a minibus jam packed with local Vietnamese to Sapa village. Thank goodness. 2 hours later, after endless switchbacks and an ascent of about one vertical mile, we arrive to Sapa and are welcomed by the thickest split-pea fog I have ever seen. My god? What the heck? Where am I? No sooner does this wild tribal woman emerge and walk up to me and shows me her ware.
“Buy? You buy?”
Then there are two more, and then suddenly, I have half the H’mong tribal group following me and my mud around town the whilst trying to find a hotel. This is where things suddenly turn up. Myself, being a big fan of tribal folks, am suddenly in my element. I gesture with them, joke around a bit, and produce some smiles. We suddenly find a great hotel, I take a long, hot shower, and the fun begins. The next day the fog clears, and just in time, because it is market day. Villagers arrive from up to 20 km away, all deck out in their latest tribal fashions. There are mostly Black H’mong (mostly dressed in cool colors of blue, purple, black) and Zai with their red turban hat things and silver multi-beaded necklaces. I also meet several elder women who died their teeth black. Jet black, blacker than night, blacker than a Sudanese in summer, these teeth looked so bad, yet in their eyes, it was mere beauty. Strange. The day ended in a sunset hike and an outstanding French-Vietnamese dinner.
But it was today that topped it all. I find myself in a “whitey” foreigner tour group going to see the flower H’mong, friendly rivals of the Black H’mong tribe I’d seen in Sapa. The 3-hour bus ride takes us to the remote village of Bac Ha, where it is seriously outta control. Just think of anything and it was there, but what caught my eye the most was the colorful dresses of the flower H’mong women whose dress rivals that of the fiercest African tribes I saw in Kenya. Yet these women were not fierce, they just tromped around town draped in layers of multicolored fabric with bell ringing, smiling, and mostly ignoring us “strange looking pale people.” The great thing about it all is that if none of us tourist where here, everyone would still be wearing the same outfits. I took some of the best people photos of my life and am eagerly awaiting the time when I can place them on my Web site. But judging by the slow Internet speeds here (and hate mail from my web hosting company for too much CPU usage) that won’t be for a while. Well, its time for another papaya juice. Stay tuned…
Gosh, I miss you all…
With love, Brian
Subject: In Hà Nội
Hà Nội is a wild, in your face kind of place. Really loud, yet alluring and romantic. I will be going to Hạ Long Bay (dramatic karst landscape in the ocean) on a two/three day tour and then to Huế and then south to the beach for a bit. I am by myself now, but am meeting some local people. I ate some snails (local food) tonight with a local girl and then she instructed me to drink the broth that the snails were cooked in. Absolutely disgusting.
Hạ Long Bay, Việt Nam
I’ve realized that in this rare case, my Vietnamese visa has 31 days, as opposed to the 30-day norm… why? This February is Leap Year! And I get an extra day. Hạ Long Bay, in all its might and glory was a slight disappointment for me. Simply because it was foggy and colorless. Having been to several karst formations in the sun, I know the difference. On that note, if it had been sunny, the place would be an absolute masterpiece. Limestone outcrops jutting out of the turquoise water. The mighty mountains, slowly eroding back into the sea looked like a child giant sandcastle paradise. There were grottos (caves) everywhere, and the few we went into had stalactites and stalemates the size of buildings. Bats, too. The tour was outstanding, and again, had the weather been nicer, we could have swam, lingered and completely chilled. Instead, I relaxed on deck in a sweatshirt anticipating the time I would be one with the sun and sea.
Huế: And so I’ve finally made my triumph (and long awaited) return to SE Asia proper. Probably one of my most favorite places on Earth, enchanted SE Asia continues to live up to expectations. So how do you know you are actually in SE Asia?:
Geckos on the walls and ceilings eating those otherwise annoying insects
Aromatic food and night markets brewing everywhere
Now, Huế really is my favorite city in Nam. The women wear these traditional silk blouses that flow in the wind as they ride their bikes with perfect posture. To compliment are silk pants, often different and more exotic in color, also drooping in the wind a split-second behind their bike. Get three of four of these together and it would make anyone’s heart yearn. The Nguyen Tombs have been sensational, as was the citadel enclosure complete with temples, imperial pagodas, gardens, ponds, arches, etc.
Now talk about your motorbike accident.
Hi there! Just a quick note to let you know that I am in Hội An, Central Việt Nam on the coast. This is the town where they filmed “The Silent American.” It is very small and traditional and the people are some of the most graceful I have seen in my travels. I would have to say the Huế and Hội An have been my highlight of Việt Nam and have really helped me to appreciate this place. The North was a bit hectic, and now, I am finally able to relax. The food is outstanding and the weather is finally tropical. I was basically in cold weather for the last 2.5 months (other than Yunnan Province, China) and it is great to not have to wear the layers anymore.
Things are speeding along here and I will go to Nha Trang next and then Saigon/HCMC. I will then take a brief tour of the Mekong Delta region and then on March 10 I will exit into Cambodia and go directly to Phnom Pen for about 5 days. I have been rushing a bit here, as to avoid the rainy season that is coming up in May. I should be in India in June. Jonathan will be there as well and hopefully we can meet up. In the meantime, I am really achieving exactly what I want to be doing right now. I am very proud that I worked and saved diligently and that I am doing what I set out to do. I know that when I return to the states, it will be no problem changing gears and working again, however, I have to say, that I think I will miss it dearly here. SEAsia, other than California, is my most favorite place on the planet. I am sure many people would agree.
Quick one: The girls in central Việt Nam are some of the most sublimely beautiful women in such high concentrations that I have ever seen in my life. And they are all smiles. They ride their bikes (everyone rides bikes here) and wear these long silk gowns that blow in the wind behind their bikes with their black hair. I am in Hội An where they filmed The Silent American, and it still looks the same as it was portrayed to look in the 1950s. Flashback. You all, get over here to Asia, sooooooooooon. This is my new home away from home.
I am now in Nha Trang, Central Việt Nam. It is a beach town, but it has been a bit overcast. Việt Nam has really opened my eyes. It is a bit difficult being an American here. Most Vietnamese don’t have any animosity, but we still really aren’t their favorites. But some Europeans really can be cruel. I have to run and catch an all-night bus to Saigon.
Việt Nam was outstanding in entirety— beautiful and quite culinary— a definite gain weight country. Some of the people dealing with tourists did manage to give me the occasional headache and I think I did yell once, but all and all, I know I will return. Being a long and thin country, I spent a lot of overnight bus rides traversing from North to South. One highlight was the small fishing town of Hội An— the place where the movie The Silent American was filmed. (Great movie.) I remember renting a bike for several days ($0.30/day) and cruising around ultra-green rice fields in complete bliss. Other outstanding times included partying in the beach town of Nha Trang at the legendary Sailing Club. With me were several mischievous Brits and Americans and together we wrecked havoc on the scene and upon ourselves. Thank you Ryan, Sam and the American girls for the wonderful daze. Unfortunately, my visa ran short and after 23 days I left the country late. No problems though, just a quick $2.50 fine at the border and I am in Cambodia.back to top