Rusty Zippo Tour
by Tab Gilbert
Well, it is a day later. I'm in some Pho Com along with my new friend. I am a new addition to this rag tag army and have gained a measure of acceptance cruising around.
I finally ditched the kids at the police station by acting like I was lost. By magic they split. Speaking of magic, I really wish I had taken a book of simple magic tricks. I do the few tricks I know, pull out the guide book and the map and that about sums up the conversation. Yesterday some guy made a big deal of using a tape measure on one of my boots. I took it and showed him long I really was. The women loved it.
Doing a lot of travel by boat. You get to the end of the road and hop a boat. In a rural village a few days ago I was "forced" to visit the elder statesman. He pulled out a bottle full of pickled frogs, snakes and lizards. The whole house and courtyard was full of people as we took great detail in the fact that we were at the little dot on the map that I was pointing to. We drank. The liquid tasted like gin with a touch of water buffalo shit. He then pulled the out good stuff which was a jar full of critters I have never seen before mixed with some insects. He offered me a cup that looked like it contained fresh blood. I took a sip and nearly puked all over him. After a short bamboo boat trip back to the main path he hit me up for a $1.50 so I gave him 5000 dong (about 50 cents) and called it good.
As I write, every 30 seconds I have some someone I have never seen in my face (no sphere of personal space here) and am just tired. There is noise all the time. The dogs, while spending the days in a curl live their own life at night. The air is rather bad and I have a chronic dripping nose.
Their war is over. Half the population was born after the big American event. You can see little from that period except for a few round ponds (bomb craters) and pill boxes around bridges. Hanoi had nice tree lined street, but as I said the traffic is deadly. Ho Chi Minh City is suppose to be worse.
You really know you are not in Kansas when you hear the gentle sound of those bamboo hats hitting each other in a crowded market. Women sing as they work in the rice fields. My guide book is useless. Things change every day. A Spanish guy told me that all the hotels take your passport. I have yet to give it up. My handwritten note on Finnish Embassy letterhead asking me to stop by the embassy for tea seems to be ok. The ID cards I fill out every day give the Finland Embassy as my sponsor.
I have a new crowd and I guess I will pull out the map again and push on to the south.
Dong Ha is the 17th parallel, the former DMZ (demilitarized zone). The name is more exciting than the place.The city is semi-industrial and anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 people live there. It's hard to tell for sure. I did meet an older Vietnamese man who spoke some English. He said some American tracked him down, but the Vietnamese man didn't recognize him and didn't seem all that impressed one way or the other. A lot of the Americans who were here for the war and return come in tour buses, go to several sites, maybe track down somebody, and then split.
Ka San, another DMZ site, has an old rock pile that was used for a lookout. Ka San is disappearing fast. Soon it will be nothing but coffee plants. In this area they are convinced there is money to be made in coffee.
Hu Way is the old Imperial City. It was part of the diversion tactics during the Tet Offensive. It is an old city, but really like two cities. The old part of the city is on one side of the river and the new part of the city is on the other side of the river. It proved to be one of the nicest cities I visited. The bridge spanning city flies the Vietnamese flag and is one of the biggest flags I have ever seen. In the old city there is actually a moat around the wall. They charge money to visit parts of the city. The money is used to rebuild and restore the buildings and the gardens and not to line someone's pocket.
There are quite a few libraries around as well as ponds.
Saw the "Ho Chi Minh Trail." The trail was more symbolic than an actual route. The Vietnamese came down the rivers at night bringing supplies and holed up during the day in tunnels. I visited some of the tunnels. The tunnels are small and hot as hell.
Going over the mountain pass to Da Nang I met a British guy who had convinced some German to be his vassal. The German guy waited on the British guy. It was hilarious. The relationship was completely symbiotic and is one of those strange things you occasional see among travelers out on the long road. At this point I fell in with a group of travelers to catch a van going across the mountain pass. We stopped for coffee at the pass and used our bulk buying power to renegotiate the price for coffee.
In Da Nang, with a couple of Canadians, hired a car off the street to go to Marble Mountain. At one point we stopped, lost, and began looking in the LP guide book. A group of young girls started laughing and said "256, 256." And by damn, right there on page 256, the map to Marble Mountain. So the guidebook was not totally useless.
Unlike, The Imperial City, the place is becoming a tourist trap. Here there are caves and grottos and buddhas. The new buddhas have metal plaques. There are many trinkets for sale, but nothing was of interest to me. A couple of the local girls kept following me around, calling out, "Cheap Charlie. Cheap Charlie." I told them, "No. You Charlie. Me American."
Next, I visited Hoi An which is a fishing village next to the river but very near the coast. Hoi An reminded me of the Caribbean. I would go there again. It is very laid back. I did meet a Vietnamese who was crippled from the war. He hated the communists.
I caught a mini bus to Quinhon and it was the proverbial ride from hell. The guy was pissed that he had to make the trip with only one passenger. We went flying down Highway 1, which here, is more or less a wide one lane, where bicycles, water buffalo ox carts, buses, trucks, etc., vie for space. We picked up a couple of Vietnamese along the way and even they were unnerved by the experience.
I went across the Central Highlands with its gentle rolling hills and came to Da Lot, my last real stop before Ho Chi Minh City. It was here I finally cornered a Vietnamese to ask a question which had been ignored during my time traveling south. Da Lot is a mountain resort. During the war no fighting occurred here by mutual agreement of all the parties. Bao Bia, the last King of Vietnam, still retains a palace here, though he lives in France. The train station is European. I found a place for 4$ which had hot water, a balcony, clean pressed sheets, a comforter. I ate a great cauliflower, broccoli, snow pea soup.
The Vietnamese love to have their picture taken. Entrepreneurs dress up and work the crowd. Previously I had seen a cowboy who did quite well. Then there was a penguin. He was new to the business and didn't do well. Da Lot featured Santa Claus and he did quite well. One Vietnamese man who spoke English kept trying to get me to hire him out to drive around on the back of his motor scooter. I walked to every spot he wanted to take me to. Finally one day I paid him the 2$. He was, after all, a business man. I did not want to ride anywhere and told him so. I just wanted to talk. I figured Da Lot, because of being spared from the war, offered the best opportunity to have my question, if not answered, not ignored. We went to a quiet little place where I bought him coffee and we talked for a while.
Finally I asked him what had happened when the Communists came down and took over South Vietnam. He answered the same way everyone had answered as if everyone had agreed on the one answer. "It is nice we have peace. I am glad we are united," he said. I rephrased the question and asked it again and again and always the same answer and always the same response -- the blank stare. Finally he asked me what I thought had happened. I told him. There was no response. He stared off over the mountains.
The next day I went to Ho Chi Minh City. All the locals still call it Saigon. I stayed in a house for 3$ a night, glad to be away from all the hustlers. All business occurs here. Countries have an embassy in Hanoi, but all the consulates open here.
I am a veteran when it comes to playing dodge car to get across the street, but here I was so intimidated I went ahead and rented locals to carry me around. The boulevards are wide and instead of intersections they have roundabouts like the British. The streets are a river of movement and no lanes.
I made the obligatory stop at the Apocalypse Now Cafe (the name more intriguing than the place), but wound up at Kim's Cafe most of the time. I took in the War Crimes Museum, and the museum commemorating the Buddhist monk who set himself on fire to protest the war, and the fancy in a British way, Rex Hotel.
It was time to leave for Cambodia but I discovered my exit visa listed the wrong location so left a day early to see if I could get across anyway. At the border my 20$ bribe failed, then my 50$ bribe placed inside my passport was returned with no acknowledgement making a return to Ho Chi Minh City necessary. A nerve wracking night and day finally yielded the correct exit visa. I sat at this little desk with a stack of the visas right in front of me and no one there for hours. I knew if I took one there had to be some little stamp or information that would be flagged at the border. I had heard stories from others describing the nightmare one could go through for over staying your visa. It proved difficult not to grab one and go. I made it to the border just as it was closing and was one of the last to cross over. There were no buses, no cars, nothing to flag down for a ride. Most everyone was gone. I started walking down the trail.
Next: Cambodia, the Heart of Darkness