Saturday, May 08, 2004

Among H’mong

Yeah, I know that I have been out of touch for a while, but first I was on a boat, then trekking near the Sino-Vietnamese border, then hotmail decided that working in Asia wasn’t a priority, so it didn’t. I will try to keep this to the highlights:

Hanoi, Part I: Hanoi was pretty quiet the first day I was there. The true highlight was getting to the guesthouse at 6 am and being able to watch a YANKEE game, LIVE, on the satellite TV. Pure bliss.

It was Reunification Day, so most things were closed. I did see the Ngoc Son Temple on an island in Hoan Kiem Lake. Eh, another day, another temple. Getting completely lost in South Central Hanoi and sitting in the guesthouse watching MTV Asia (It seems the only videos they have the rights for are Usher…) took up most of the rest of the day, and then I hit the World Famous Water Puppets that night. I found it interesting in the way I found Chinese opera interesting, good to see for the cultural aspects, not super enjoyable. I guess if you are living somewhere without books, television, or radio (i.e. a 12th century rice paddy), then it would be pretty darn good. I think being able to speak Vietnamese and understand the monologues would have helped too.

Halong Bay: Halong Bay is on the east coast near China and stupid beautiful. Limestone cliffs rise out of the blue-green water, there are caves to explore, and, when the guides have enough Sapa Beer, they let you jump off the top of the three story boat and go swimming in the water. “JUMP BIG” to clear the bottom deck. The boat was an old school wooden one with cabins on the bottom, then the dining rooms, then the sun deck. And the food was delicious, shrimp and squid and delicate salads, and, for a girl that hasn’t eaten anything that wasn’t sold at a street stall in a month, a one-way ticket to gastro-intestinal hell. As a precautionary measure, I will only be eating at the dirtiest street stalls I can find in the future.

Sapa: Sapa is the center of the hill tribes of Northern Vietnam. And again, stupid beautiful: terraced rice paddies and H’mong people who still wear traditional dress all the time. As I was hiking, I keept looking in people’s windows to try and catch them in western clothes so I prove it was all done for the tourists. No such luck, but I did manage to scare the bejezus out of a number of (traditionally dressed) children and old ladies.

Also on my hike were two guys from NYC. I was a little worried when in the first five minutes the phrase, “back when I was on Dead tour . . .” came out of one of their mouths, but they turned out to be cool guys. Our guide was an earnest little guy named Tiens. (That is the French word for “here you go,” leading me to wonder if perhaps there wasn’t some slight miscommunication in the delivery room of the French clinic…) The first day we hiked down to Ca’t Ca’t waterfall, past boys walking the family water buffalo and girls headed to market with big baskets on their heads: idyllic scenes of life in rural Vietnam. At the bottom, we watched the little boys fishing for a while. Awww . . . . Nothing like innocence and bilharzias to warm the heart.

The second day it poured. This was a particularly inauspicious thing for me, as I had left the newly sink-scrubbed contents of my backpack outside to “dry.” I spent the first part of my morning trying to prop various soaking wet articles of clothing in front of various fans in an attempt to dry them.

The hike started out okay, we were walking down a paved road in a light drizzle, then the rain picked up, the pavement ended and off we went downhill 14 km through the rice paddies. I spent most of the mud skiing (which is roughly like snow-plowing in all-terrain sandals) while the guide tried to keep me from falling into the paddies or water buffalos etc. He was mostly successful. And to capture the true essence of backpacked Americans in the rice paddies, they were blast mines right in the next pass, so it sounded like we were continuously getting shelled.

We had lunch in an embroidery shop in village of Lao Cai (village being defined as one shop that sells water and a slightly higher concentration of trinket sellers), complete with a shell-shocked vet ranting outside the door (I guess that America hasn’t a cornered the market on those.) Then the guys smoked tobacco out of a traditional water pipe, which looked suspiciously like a giant bamboo bong. In order to get back up the mountain, we took a refitted Army jeep that fishtailed all over the place on the mud roads. We actually partially lost a back wheel of the cliff once, but luckily the jeep was front wheel drive so I didn’t plunge to a horrible fiery death.

The next day it was just me; so, after a disastrous morning visit to a people zoo (WTF is that? Explain?), the guide took me to another village, Ta Phio, on the back of his motor bike (which he apparently decided was safer than me tumbling through the paddies). The ethnic village was cool (couldn’t find any Western clothes there either) and my guide was a cute little 12 year old girl, who spoke flawless English and only came up to my elbow. We went around the town where she pointed out the Red H’mong, Black H’mong, and Black Zai houses, then she took me to see the “sacred cave.” Every town has got one, usually a stone? Buddha in there somewhere. This one was pretty unremarkable except for the lighting system. The place was lit by a swarm of small boys carrying bamboo sticks stuffed with kerosene soaked rags and lit on fire. These kids barely made my waist, so I spent most of the time trying to keep them from lighting my hair on fire as they ran around, jumped off rocks, through streams etc. I thoroughly suggest this method for your next formal occasion.

Hanoi, Part II: So after Sapa I grabbed the night train back to Hanoi to a bit of sightseeing before I headed out to Laos. First stop had to be Uncle Ho. He is embalmed and laid in state. I had to wait over an hour to get there, but it was worth it. Now I only have to see Lenin before earning the Embalmed-Communist-Patriarch-Hat-Trick merit badge. And I got to see the Chinese tourists in front of me on line talk to the Vietnamese school children next to them, in English. Common border, linked heritage, shared language of a people 5,000 miles away. Then I went to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Really, the only way to describe this is “What the #^$@?” It takes Social Realism to a place that it was never meant to go. Half of the museum is things from Uncle Ho’s life: his glasses, bicycle, favorite manifesto pen, things that one would expect to see in a museum. The other half was “art” of the revolution. The one that sticks out in my mind the most was one, in front of a room-sized mound of melted red plastic, with a plaque that said, “the Cu Chi Caves, which Uncle Ho used as a base against the French, depicted here as the human brain . . . .” The place gave me a headache, though the bowl of soup containing 80% MSG I had for breakfast might have had something to do with that . . . .

After that I hit the Hanoi Hilton. Certainly an example of history as written by the winners. It was full of stories about what bastards the French were and how nice the Vietnamese were to the Americans. Hey, it could be true. And they dropped John McCain’s name more than John Kerry in a swing state stump speech.

Laos: So I really wanted to fly to Laos but the flights were booked up so off I went on the 25 hour bus ride from Hanoi to Vientiane. The bus I took was relatively empty, except for the hundreds, nay thousands, of deer-skulls-with-antlers that were tied to the top and overflowing the back. It made the bus easy to find though. “Which one is ours?” “Pet Cemetery, row three.” And they made the whole bus smell like Gim Chi, making me really suspicious of Korea all of a sudden . . . . The only real excitement of the interminable voyage was the crossing. The government was nice enough to build a bran’ spankin’ new bridge over the river, but the bastards slapped a toll on it. Damn the Man and his Bridge, this bus is taking the ferry! And the French were kind enough to leave us this ferry, rusty and disabled as it may be. I know, we’ll use wood planks to get the bus onto the ferry, it’ll work if we really gun the engine, then lash this tug boat to the side and sail across. It took a couple goes to get the bus up on the ferry, then off again, but we made it, without using the bridge, and were off again. Slowly. After only a few more stops, including ones to off-load rice at a thatched village (they apparently weren’t interested in the antlers) and re-attach the front bumper, we arrived in Vietiane.

Vietiane: Vietiane has more NGO workers per capita than anywhere else in the world. And prices to reflect this phenomenon. I was only there 18 hours, nine of which I was sleeping. I took local transport (taxi brousse, how I missed thee!) out to “Buddha Park,” which—had I not been to HCMC’s museum a couple day’s earlier—would have been the strangest thing I’ve seen in Asia. I guess some slightly unscrewed old monk collected a bunch of concrete Buddhas doing very strange things. I’ll send pictures when I get back. Apparently they are scenes from the life of Buddha and accompanying mythology, but, as a product of the American education system, I have a complete dearth of knowledge on the subject.

After that, I hit the cultural highlights of the city, including a cement Arc-de-Triomphe rip off, that even the official state-installed plaque calls it a “monster of concrete.” And you know where all that concrete came from? You! It was a gift from USAID to finish repaving the runways at the airport. I don’t know if the runways ever got finished. Then the local golden stupa, That Luang, then the bus to the country.

I am currently in Vang Viene, where I will be spending tomorrow spelunking and floating on the Mekong, and just generally taking a break from all this nonsense. Now if you all will excuse me, there is an ice cold Beer Lao with my name on it.

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