The 1995/96

Rusty Zippo Tour


by Tab Gilbert



(Tab Gilbert is a veteran world traveler who needs to visit only 29 more countries to cover the entire NY Times weather map. Most of the remaining countries are in Central and South America.)



I flew on an Airbus from Hong Kong to Hanoi with a Finnish diplomat who was quick to say he was "not one of those parasites from the Embassy who took money for visas." As a gesture of good will he became my "sponsor." He gave me a handwritten note inviting me to stop by the embassy for tea. Everywhere I went in Vietnam I was "sponsored" by the Finns.

My LP (Lonely Planet guidebook) described Hanoi customs as full of scams for incoming passengers. However, in the red zone -- that's where you go if you have anything to declare -- I was stamped in seconds without even a look in my bags. I knew then the new LP was already out of date.

I hooked up with a couple of Californians for the taxi ride into Hanoi. They made a point of saying, "So you're a redneck" when I told them I was from Alabama. The ride through Hanoi was total chaos. The most I had ever seen, really impressive. No lanes. Bicycles, cars, trucks, rickshaws, pedestrians all thrown together. Wild.

As a precaution, whenever I travel to out of the way places, I carry a few rolls of US money in small denominations: 1s, and 5s. We hit the edge of the cheap hotel section and got out. I gave the driver 7 US dollars, my part of the fare and a buck tip. The two Californians, Devlin and Kathryn, had a 50$ and a Big Ben. Suddenly they were friendly. I laughed. "I'm just a redneck, but I'm not a tourist." I left them behind. Another Californian story. A dime a dozen.

Some kid found me a hotel for 10 bucks, the Trang Tien Hotel. Hot water, comfortable, clean, secure. I dumped my stuff and hit the streets. Up on a corner four guys were seated on footstool height chairs drinking tea. A cop was a few feet away. They invited me to tea and then whipped out the bong. Blew me away until I realized they smoked only tobacco (unlike Cambodia). That's one thing you notice in Vietnam. Tobacco bongs are everywhere.

The next day I went to see Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Min). Uncle Ho is stuffed. He was also in Moscow for some touch up work. I tried to sit down in front of the mausoleum in my shorts but some guy ran me off with a gun. "He's not home. He won't know," I pleaded, but still got run off. Reminded me of being run out of the Vatican for wearing shorts.

It's hard to believe all the bridges in Hanoi were rebuilt in the last twenty years. They look like they're 100 years old. All the propaganda during the war years about the Vietnamese people being mean and devious by nature is BS. It's just another third world country. On the streets the economy is a dollar economy. The local currency is stable and either is accepted. I often paid half and half.

I thought about heading up into the northern highlands and over to Hai Phong Harbor. I regretted that I did not. I regretted it even more now that I hear the echo of some German from a past trip who remarked that you always go to a place when you're there because rarely do you make it back that way.

I hopped the train south to Ninh Binh. They don't have "class" distinctions like first class, second class, etc. They have seat types: hard hard, hard soft, soft soft. I took the hard hard bench seat. The train goes about 15km/hr. The windows have screens to keep people from crawling in. Once I hit the pavement I waved down whatever came by and that's how I traveled down south.

I went to Tom Coc caves, about 8 km outside of Ninh Binh. They were busing in a bunch of French Frogs. The locals even have a little ticket office for organized Frog tours which I bypassed. I made a copy of the nice little map they had out front and started walking. The guy in the ticket office was shouting that I could not walk to the caves (true). I got one of the local girls to take me at 1/2 price in her bamboo boat. The 20,000 dong ($2) made her day. All the way she kept telling the other girls in their little bamboo boats how she got this stupid American to pay her directly.

The Frogs could not figure out why I was the only one not being offered the chance to purchase local handiwork. The tour group boats had 2 people: one to paddle and one to sell. There are only a few places (Iceland, Nepal) that can compare to this trip. Back, at least, to the iron age. Of course bamboo could be used instead of the few pieces of metal I saw. The caves are created by erosion from underground rivers, but the water is still. The locals were out gigging frogs (no French), crayfish and whatever moved. That seemed to be the standard culinary criteria. If it moves, eat it.

No motors. No electricity. Floating around in my private bamboo basket. Great place.

Outside of town every house has a small pond. You can grow ducks, turtles, fish, crayfish, frogs, wash your dishes, take a bath, wash your clothes and use it to water your garden.

Next, I passed through Din and then on to Vinh. I figured to get a bus down to Dong Hoi which is right above the old DMZ, but had no luck. I took the 6:00 a.m. bus to Hue instead. I had planned to move south at about 100-150 km per day but averaged only 50-75 km.

I stayed up all night in Vinh. It's 5:00 a.m. as I write this. Earlier, I hung out with some old woman in a back street and decided to wander on in the hotel in the morning. Definitely no crime as far as I can tell and no guns on the street.

I am getting rather tired of being nice all day long. I have not seen a white person in a week and I think for many of them I am one of the first they have seen. You cannot stop for five seconds unless you want a crowd of between 10-14 people. Pull out a map and you can get about 50 in about 30 seconds.

It is driving me nuts trying to do anything. Yesterday I went to the market to buy some veggies (to cook you can stop in a Pho Com and give them 50 cents fix it for you) and I was joined by some little kid. He made the sellers so nervous I could not buy anything. Even the hardcore sidewalk sellers freaked when I tried to buy something. I have never been any place where so many people just don't know how to handle a white person.

In general, trains are slow and expensive. About 30,000 dong per 100 km. They seem to be passed by people on bicycles. The bus is faster and cheaper. Highway 1 is paved and rough, but has no potholes. Travel is traditional third world which means no rules. While they drive like hell, in reality they max out at 40 km/hr and keep a wide margin from the bicycles and other trucks. They love their horn but don't blow it at the ox carts.

Riding the bus on the way down we came to the end of the road to wait for the ferry. They fired up a stove on the bus. One of the chickens didn't make it across.

Housing is poured cement, two story French looking things, with the bottom floor being the shop. They are long and narrow with very few having windows on the side. Everyone sells something. Every house is a shop selling mostly the same assortment of cokes, cigarettes, beer, and candy. TVs are widespread and from watching the news there does not appear to be the traditional government issue. The small towns have loudspeakers everywhere and they drone on for most of the day and night.


The 1995/96

Rusty Zippo Tour,

Part 2