Monday, May 22, 2006

Vietnam/Thailand Part I: "Glowing Pineapples and Sea Urchins"

"Life is funny...One year we're bombing them and the next we're fighting to buy their t-shirts."
Carol Blacklaw, Canadian

May 22, 2006
North Vietnam

Ambition goes out the window in the tropics...flying into Hanoi, the air is misty with humidity. We drive past glistening fields of rice and farmers biking along the highway and wearing pointed woven hats. Aside from the occasional hammer and sickle communist flags, Vietnam appears industrious and firmly rooted in a private market economy, despite its communist title. We spend the first day just trying to acclimate to the heat and shaking off the jet lag...stumbling from cafe to cafe, umbrellas in hand to ward off the unrelenting equatorial sun and chugging on several liters of water each. I'm determined to come to terms with the heat.

Hanoi's streets bustle excitedly to the point of being overwhelming. We stay in the Old Quarter where Asian design meets French sensibility. Large shuttered windows and French doors with magnanimous balconies. Flourishes of ornate bannisters and hanging bird cages with singing canaries. Shops spill out into the street advertising their selections of unrivaled silks, lanterns, and smooth lacquerware. Women stoop on the sidewalks over charcoal fires stirring cauldrons of soups and stir-frying noodles, carrots, and greens. Barbers cut their clients' hair on chairs pulled out onto the sidewalks.

The streets--too narrow for cars and too busy for pedestrians to cross safely--are clogged with a constant stream of motorcyles, scooters, and bicycles. Large families straddle tiny motorcyles, their babies propped against the handlebars, as they come inches from the bumpers of the occasional taxi and hoards of other motorcyles going in the opposite direction. Many intersections have no traffic lights whatsoever and the scooters flow into one another like waves, ebbing and flowing brushing against one another and miraculously missing collisions more often than not.

We book a three day trip to Ha Long Bay with a reputable adventure company that's come highly recommended and buy two large loaves of fresh french bread and a large shiny apple from a street vendor. All for less than a dollar.
"My brain has melted into the sea and it's just wonderful."
Bobby Beal, Austin, Texas (Ha Long Bay)

Ha Long Bay, a world heritage site, is located along the northeastern coast of Vietnam, several hours away from the bustle of Hanoi. Mom and I always wonder at the beginning of a trip who it is that we'll be meeting on our journey, knowing that several fellow travelers from past trips have become our lifelong friends...this trip is no different and the individuals in our group are an extraordinary and an unlikely mix. The Blacklaws are a Canadian family from Vancouver who are traveling through Latin America and Asia with their fifteen-year old daughter for five months. Their aunt, Bobbie, is from Austin and is one of the classiest, funniest, most charming, AND well-dressed women I've met in a long, long time. Sandy is an actor from New York now living and teaching in Korea and Ludovic is a young and easy-going Belgian guy embarking on his last vacation before his first real job as an adult begins in Brussels.

We board our boat, which by American standards, is up to four-star standards...made of polished teakwood and hosting as many staff as there are guests in our group. The crisply-dressed staff meet us with trays of fresh orange juice and wet tea towels for washing our hands. Mom and I struggle with our ever present mammoth-size backpacks and nearly fall into the sea crossing the plank.

There's nothing that can prepare you for Ha Long Bay....its muted colors, the phantasmagoric shapes of the islands, or the constant chirring of cicadas and the pirate-like look of the old junks sailing between the vertical limestone cliffs. I've never seen anything like it and the smell of the warm saltwater, the cool breezes that come across the water in the early evening, the burnt color of the sun as it melts into the horizon takes a hold of you like a magic spell.

I'm convinced now that the only way that mom and I ever truly relax is to be taken away from the city either by trekking or on a boat. We were spoiled to death and will never fully recover from the luxuries of this trip.

On our first evening, we jump from the top of the boat at sunset. The water just salty enough to make our skin tingle. Women from the fishing village row up to us trying to sell us boxes of Ritz crackers and Oreos. Dinner is a staggering orchestration of dishes...plates with giant prawns, grilled fish, steamed morning glory stems, stir-fried squid with onions and cabbage, heaping bowls of rice, omelettes, and a bowl of water with freshly cut limes for washing our fingers of all the juices.

Suddenly the lights go out on the boat and from the kitchen emerges a glowing pineapple "floating" towards us. The wait staff has carved the inside of a pineapple and lit it from within by a candle. Circling the glowing pineapple are battered, deep-fried pork with sesame seeds. We eat by the glow of the pineapple until the candle flickers out and the staff turn the lights back on.

The next day we kayak between several of the islands beneath archways which have eroded from the sea and changing tides. Although the islets are vertical and severe, thick patches of vegetation cling to the rock with admirable fecundity. We can't help but think of the latest "King Kong" movie and the lush mysteries held around each corner. In one lagoon, the water is so shallow we can see soft red coral beneath our boats, waving in the current like small arms. Schools of fish, black sea urchins, and sea anemone populate the water beneath us.

We kayak through a floating fishing village of 1,000 people near Cat Ba Island where small families live in even smaller wooden homes perched on floating docks. Women crouch down breaking open mussels for meat, men clean nets, and dogs run along the floating platform barking protectively. Small boats bring home young children from their school on the islands. All of the people are either ambivalent or welcoming to our small group of kayaks passing just yards from their " front doors." Just a few short hours among the fishermen and women is enough to make me admire their tenacious work habits and graciousness and thank god that it's not the life I was born into. Especially since I hate eating fish. :)

After a few days exploring Ha Long Bay, we return to Hanoi and take a night train to the inland mountains around Sapa (near the Chinese border). From here, we'll be doing a two-day trek through the hill tribe villages of the H'mong, Zay, and Red Zao people....

Sapa, North Vietnam

It's drizzling outside and the mountains are obscured in the mist. Dozens of H'mong women, tiny as dolls, are lined across the street with their woven clothes for sale, persistent in their aggressive sales to hapless trekkers who walk by. Mom thinks they have instant radar for "fresh meat" and they zero in on us as soon as we step outside.

One thing is for sure, Vietnam is more than the sum of its wars. The "American War," as they call it, seems a distant memory here. Over the past thousand years, the Vietnamese have successfully fought off the Chinese, the French, and the Americans from claiming their land. It's a rich, diverse, and beautifully complicated country that has only heightened our curiosity and we can't wait to see more...