(C) JBoyd 2010
When crossing the road in Vietnam, particularly in Ho Chi Min city (formerly Saigon), walk very slowly. The people will not deliberately try to hit you with their motorbikes but make no sudden moves. With this sound advice from my Lonely Planet, I landed at Saigon airport on a spontaneous trip to meet my daughter who had been travelling there for a month. We rarely get to spend time together at home these days, so this seemed a precious opportunity to both catch up and have a holiday, or so I thought. To my surprise, my trip became so much more – almost a pilgrimage.
After finding each other among the thousands gathered outside the airport terminal – a feat in itself, we travelled into the city on a local bus, much to the astonishment of the other passengers. Two relatively tall, blue-eyed blondes are still a novelty in some parts of the country.
Passing the sign to the CuChi tunnels was the first indication that perhaps this trip would be more than I expected. The horror of a long buried memory of my friend Lawrence who died as a ‘tunnel mole’ there during the Vietnam war, along with thousands of Vietnamese people, hit like a thunderbolt. My first inkling that this trip was to be – unexpected …
Taking the first step into peak hour traffic on the main street of Saigon is like stepping into a vortex. You have no idea if you’ll make it across safely. It’s an exercise in hope. As I stood in the middle of the street, on our way to a history lesson, Vietnamese style, at the Reunification Palace, with thousands of motorbikes swirling around, I was struck by the realisation that Vietnam is a place of survival and memories, and the quirky characters which make the human race interesting. Elegant women, impeccably groomed in their áo dài perched behind wiry men, often with up to four or five children sandwiched between them, or merchandise, or the family shopping, dangling precariously around them; alongside food and furniture carriers. Want to go to a temple on a whim – just jump on the back of a taxi-bike and with a quick price negotiation you’re off to become part of the swirling masses.
The central market is a treasure trove of food, clothing and shoes- as long as you are a small Vietnamese sized person. Searching for size 12 shoes for my daughter’s boyfriend was impossible, though she managed to end up with some beautiful sandals. My guilty pleasure was to have an áo dài tailor made. This outfit was actually created in the 1920s, during the period of French rule, when Vietnamese nationalists envisioned a costume that would contrast with both European clothes and the varied ethnic and status-differentiated clothing that existed throughout the regions of pre-colonial Vietnam. It is incredibly elegant and very comfortable to wear.
A short bus trip found us in the Mekong Delta which is incredibly beautiful, but haunted. A former Khmer Rouge stronghold, it is easy to see how western soldiers would have found it impossible to work there. Now, flat boats paddled by stunningly beautiful young Vietnamese wives while their ancient husbands supervise, negotiate you through the maze of waterways and showcase the enterprising and entrepreneurial nature of the people. Along the Cambodian border, former army generals bark orders to tourists such as ‘you will now enjoy this view’. Peasant farmers hawk their goods in boats at the floating markets while successfully multi-tasking. Rice fields in the dry season become fishing ponds in the wet, while their wives and children make incense sticks and delicious coconut candy to sell.
Dalat, a very bumpy eight hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City, is described in many tourist books as a cheesy town with tacky tourist sites. That was far from our experience. The bus ride is usually 6-9 hours depending on the traffic. Located in the South Central Highlands, Dalat was originally the playground of the French who built villas in the clear mountain air to escape the heat and humidity of the coast and the city. Called Petit Paris, complete with Eiffel Tower replicas, the city spreads across a series of pine-covered hills, with Xuan Huong lake in the centre – ideal for picnics – and surrounded by higher peaks, making for some lovely scenery quite different from the rest of Vietnam. Dalat’s high altitude (1500-2000 m) and fertile landscape make it one of Vietnam’s premier agricultural areas, producing varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers that don’t grow in the lowlands. The French influence is widely enjoyed through food, with patisseries on street carts carrying delicious croissants and baguettes alongside more traditional Vietnamese foods. Known as the food basket of Vietnam, vegetable and flower vendors in markets as far north as Hanoi, tout their “made in Dalat” produce.
Strolling through the market on our first day we were greeted by ‘Hello madam. You are Australian. I am in love with Aussie Eltham.’ The engaging grin caught our attention as he explained the relationship he’d developed with a former Aussie client who he was saving to come and visit with intent to marry her, and the original Easyriders became our guides for one of the most memorable parts of the trip. Now described by the inimitable Lonely Planet as “A witty crew of freelance motorbike guides who were truly born to be wild, whose popularity is reaching cult proportions among travellers seeking an alternative to being herded around on the usual open tour bus trail.”
After introducing himself as Binh, he then introduced his partner – also called Binh, so we promptly labelled them B1 and B2. B1 knew the Aussie children’s characters of the same name and thought it was hilarious. B2 was the older of the two so became my driver by default when B1 claimed my daughter so he could ‘practice moves’. I hoped he meant practice his English.
B2 was quiet and seemed agitated. As we headed out of Dalat, a quiet conversation revealed why. After some gentle coaxing, he reluctantly told me he has a daughter who is blind. Agent Orange related, almost every family in the area has at least one disabled child who they are unable to take care of. She had been put into an orphanage when she was four years old, and she was flying home for her first visit since. She was now 15 and he was justifiably nervous. The only reason he told me was because we rode past the airport as she was supposed to be landing, and he had to stop riding as he was shaking so badly.
Guide books tell you that the area around Dalat was where, 40 years ago, Viet Cong guerillas found refuge in the caves and forests, while the South Vietnamese army held the fort in the city nearby. Dalat and surrounds, however, were spared any fighting during the war by tacit agreement between both sides who apparently appreciated its therapeutic values for rest and recreation. Not believing the tourist spin, I was looking for the real story.
The further we rode, the more B2 opened up. He had been a member of the Khmer Rouge but has never talked about it and gave me a little of the history of Vietnam from his perspective. In return for his confidence, I told him that almost forty years ago, a school-friend, Billy, a poet and songwriter, was conscripted, and had died there the day he arrived. Realising that I was curious and not critical of his history, he offered to take us to the area where Billy had died. Dismounting and walking through coffee plantations to the first of our ‘official’ stops, a silkworm factory I noticed what looked like fire-destroyed jungle beyond the coffee fields.
It was an area devastated by Agent Orange and napalm where the jungle still hasn’t recovered and practically nothing will grow even now. As we stood in silence waiting for the others to catch up, we both became lost in our own memories, and breathing was difficult.
B1, in his inimitable manner, proffered that although nothing would grow in the devastated area, it is surrounded by these coffee plantations which also offer considerable camouflage from the road. If you don’t know where to look you would pass by oblivious to the horror that had occurred there.
Next door to the silkworms we were introduced to another highly entrepreneurial gentleman. He had set up a small cafe on his veranda so his wife could serve morning tea. After eating some delicious coconut cake, B1 asked his friend if he could take us downstairs for a rice wine tasting, and to see the biggest pig in the world. Fed on the refuse from rice wine production it lay in its pen, a huge smile across its snout, content in its drunken stupor as its myriad progeny played in the next pen. The fires for the wine stills are fed by husks from coffee beans being grown on the edges of the devastated jungle. I asked B1 what happened to the coffee. ‘We sell to Brazil. He call it Brazil coffee and sell to Starbucks – call Arabica and Mocha’. ‘So I should tell my friends not to buy these in Starbucks. Is this Vietnamese karma’? I asked. He smiled enigmatically as we headed off to their favourite roadside diner for a feast of frogs legs, and other local delicacies, but no coffee.
Continuing our sublime and ridiculous tour, our next stop was the infamous Dalat Crazy House. Built like a movie set for a Tim Burton movie it was hard to know whether to be bemused, amused or astonished by the architecture and decor which could best be described as tree house meets mad hatter’s tea party.
My favorite memory of Dalat however has to be the tiny Buddhist nun with the meditating dog. The boys had realised early that we had no interest in touristy stuff, so took us to meet their friend in the minority (indigenous) village where she lived and ran her version of a free hospital. Medical supplies could be counted on two hands and they relied on the sale of incense sticks to buy more. Seated serenely in a chair, laughing like the Dalai Lama she would have to be one of the most beautiful and contented people I have ever met. ‘She have dog’ explained B1, and as a dog owner I understood perfectly. ‘I thought nuns didn’t own anything’ I quipped ‘ No, dog own her, 5 dog own her’ he quipped back. As an ancient woman sat beside her, smiling as she hand-rolled incense sticks for us, the nun picked up her smallest dog, a fluffball just like the one I have at home – perhaps with a few more fleas. He lay back on her lap and stayed as still as a statue. Gently she held a lighted incense stick for him to grasp between his front paws (unassisted) as he raised his eyes heavenward and remained that way for 30 minutes. A small furry budda.