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Lovin' the Nam
Rating: ( 4.8 )

Hoi An, Vietnam
Jul 14, 2003 21:19

Pros: modern infratstructure, friendly and self-sustaining locals
Cons: none

So much to tell (and show - this country is so rich in eye candy as to consistently make a mockery of the camera. Great pics abound, but alas, in the absence of the necessary compression technology, they may just have to wait until we return stateside)...

Last time we wrote, we had established a comfortable base camp in Hanoi and were on our way North. An uneventful overnight train ride out of Hanoi and some hairy/hilarious local bus-realted moments behind us, we arrived in Sapa, a post-French colonial gem in the northern Vietnam highlands. The black hmong, red zao (the women in this tribe shave their eyebrows and some of the front of their hairline and wrap their heads in bright red cloth) and other ethnic minorities who fill the local markets on the weekends and occupy the serene rice-producing villages surrounding Sapa add vibrant color and rich cultural texture to the daily life here. A young Hmong girl was our official guide on a day-long trek around the area, which included a stop in her family home. The hand-made loom that her mother used to spin the hand-picked hemp into hand-made cloth, which she dyed in the locally grown indigo before fashioning the traditional garments her people have worn forever - all this was a living lesson in self-sustainability. These people gracefully redefine wealth as simply having everything they need. But of course there is money to be made, and the portentous push for profit and progress seems to improvrish the hmong, who work as guides and hoteliers for people like us, changing their regal traditional garb for knock-off Nike tank tops and threadbare t-shirts emblazoned with often incomprehensible logos designed to look like something they could only have bought in the West. The more you have, the more you want. Who are we to say what they should want - we know, but it's hard to watch all the same. Unrestrained capitalism notwithstanding, the overall feel here is resolutely positive, and we had a great time hiking to waterfalls and drinking beers with a group of ex-pats who, like so many people we have met in Vietnam, got a taste of the life here and decided to stick around for seconds. Tough to blame them. Some teach English, others work for NGO's doing good things. These folks are living large for pennies with lots of leisure time, and (icing) ostensibly helping the Vietnamese people. Vietnam put the "developing" in front of country, building its infrastructure and future prosperity before our eyes.

Vietnam has, in a startlingly short period of time since the doors opened to this country a decade ago, rendered herself the perfect host. But there is a price to pay. The people, who are almost without exception gracious and friendly, sharing their ready smiles playfully with the hordes of western travelers (they say it is empty compared to pre-SARS times, but Vietnam feels pretty full of us), are always looking for a way to make a buck twenty-five for something they will sell you for 30 cents if you break down under their persistent pursuit and buy something you really don't want. It gets pretty crazy on the "you buy from me" front, but we figure it's the price we pay for the hospitality we wouldn't trade for the world.

Anyway, the days melted away in Sapa and we finally admitted to ourselves we had to move on, back to Hanoi for more bia hoi and a trip to Halong Bay. Wow. Check this place out on the web - no way we could begin to do it justice. En route to Halong we hooked up with Ed, a fun-loving New Yorker cum San Franciscan with whom we have traveled since. We spent the first night on the main boat (pictures forthcoming), jumping off the roof into the phosphorescent water under a soon-to-be-full moon. After an exhausting day of kayaking amidst the other-worldly limestone formations and floating villages, we crashed the second night on a pretty remote-feeling and miniscule beach with just enough room for a central dining hut and a neat row of sleeping shelters.

The evening's soft sunset glow receded into a starry night punctuated by flashes of lightning that danced in the distance, and the sea rolled rhythmically in and out all night, lapping languidly at the rocky shore. The night's thick curtain raised on a steel-grey dawn, and a warm breeze rustled through the palms that fringed the thick jungle behind our huts where the cicadas' haunting lullaby became a raucus revelie - another perfect day in Halong Bay. This was a serious dose of vacation, which differs significantly from traveling. India is adventure - daily difficulties give you the feeling you have earned it, whereas Halong Bay, Sapa, Vietnam in general have all been so easy - comfortable, clean and friendly and again, were it not for the constant peddling of things nobody buys, essentially hassle-free. A very easy place to BE.
With our group solidly formed, the three of us spent one more evening enjoying Hanoi and have spent the last few days making our way south - through quaint Hue, where we toured the DMZ. The history came alive as we crossed the 17th parallel and crawled through the tunnels where hundreds of villagers lived in hiding for 6 years in order to avoid the bombs raining from U.S. planes overhead. The Ho Chi Minh trail is starting to look like a freeway, but with the aid of our encyclopedic guide and his pictures from back in the day, it was easy to imagine this path in its previous form. Our last stop was the Khe San airbase, where we learned about the beginning of the end of the U.S. hopes for success. The museum's exhibit of war relics and graphic photographs brought it all home - war really is hell, and the Vietnamese people have had more than their share of it.

From hell to heaven, and the resort mecca of Hoi An, where we now recreate with abandon. This place is Thailand meets the French Riviera, with fragrant flowers bursting forth from balconies where restaurants serve delicious food for next-to-nada. Hoi An also happens to be THE place to have clothes made, so we spent the morning perusing fabrics and taking measurements. More to come on the final products...

Well, that should more-than do it for now, no? We are playing around with the various options for the next phase of the trip - Cambodia is a sure-thing, with Laos hanging in the balance as we continue to balance leisure and ambition in the measely month even less for Mike - ouch!) that remains. We'll let you know when we are in Saigon. Until then...