OK. You’ve all been patient enough to read my ramblings. Now here’s some eye-candy for you. These pictures are in no particular order. You can click on each one for a larger version.
I’m flying out of this joint in a few hours, so let’s get to the grand finale.
1. You have to be careful around the more aggressive street vendors here. They’ll do anything to separate a man from his dong.
2. Pam was furious when she found out that I blew my dong at the blackjack table.
3. All my masseuse did for 30 minutes was rub my shoulders. What a total waste of my dong!
Thank you, Vietnam! You’ve been great!
1. The service industry in Vietnam sucks. It has to be a cultural thing. It’s not that the waiters and waitresses are spaced-out slackers. On the contrary, they spend their shifts darting around the restaurant like Gale Sayers returning a kickoff. They just never come to your table. Or any table. Every restaurant in Vietnam is full of people trying to pounce on the waitstaff so they can get another bottle of water, more bread, or their bill. It’s weird. There have been no exceptions to this rule. Low-end pho joints, coffee shops, high-end Vietfusion joints. Makes no difference.
2. As I have mentioned before, traffic in Vietnam could not be more chaotic. It’s almost always a snarling mess. But despite this, I have not witnessed a single incident of road rage during my three weeks here. No dirty looks. No shouting. No middle fingers. If people in the U.S. drove like they do here, our roads wouldn’t be littered with cigarette butts and plastic Mt. Dew bottles. They’d be littered with bullet-riddled corpses.
3. We’ve met more than a few people here whose fathers for fought for the South and were imprisoned in concentration camps for years after the War ended. So to all you 19 year old, gap-year students from the U.S. who are wandering around Saigon in your red “yellow star” t-shirts, don’t be too shocked if your pho tastes like piss.
4. Vietnam seems to be growing and becoming more “modern” at a furious pace. Saigon and Hanoi are already there, but I doubt I’ll even recognize medium-size towns like Hoi An and Hue in five years. This is both good and bad.
5. Any list of general observations about anything will always leave the author sounding like Andy Rooney. Shit.
Every so often I like to take some time and assess how much emotional and psychological damage I’m inflicting on my daughter. It’s a lengthy review, because there are so many different ways to scar her. Where does a useless father even begin?
One item that always comes to the top of the list is, “How harmful is it for Rae to be one of perhaps only six Asian kids living on the entire Western Slope of Colorado?”
We live in a very small, very white town. Rae has a few Asian friends, so she’s not totally on her own. And I’ve never seen or heard of anyone making an issue of her race. The Ouray community is really exceptional. But I worry that her being Asian might bother her internally, like she might always feel different simply because she looks different. The way people act towards her might not even matter.
So part of the reason I was excited to come on this trip was so Rae could simply be surrounded by people who look like her. She actually said to me when we first got here, “Now you’re going to be the one who looks different!” (OK. Definitely scarred internally.)
There’s one problem, though. Even though Rae looks like everyone else here, she’s constantly flanked on one side by a 6’2″ Caucasian sideshow freak with a shaved head and on the other side by blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jew from New Rochelle. Even in the middle of 87,000,000 Vietnamese people, she still doesn’t blend in.
The good news is that people here for the most part have been incredibly kind to her. My guess is that they take one look at me and Pam and are suddenly so overcome with pity for Rae that they can’t help but shower her with affection.
People’s attention to Rae manifests itself a few different ways.
Vietnamese women tend to fondle Rae’s hair a lot. We’ll walk into a store, restaurant or hotel and at least one woman working there will smile at us, say hello, then immediately redo Rae’s ponytail. Other than the fact that it’s sort of a strange invasion of one’s personal space, it’s actually very sweet. This has happened at least half a dozen times already, from Hue to Saigon.
I like to believe these women were all thinking, “What a delightful little girl. I bet she’d love for me to tighten up this ponytail that’s come loose during the day.”
But more than likely they were thinking, “Jesus Christ. What kind of father won’t take 20 seconds to fix his daughter’s pony tail? Bald asshole.”
The Vietnamese men pretty much go for the head, too. When they see us coming, they gleefully pat Rae on top of her head and say, “Hello, bay-bay!” (even though she’s almost eleven years old.)
Then they often look at me and Pam and ask, “She Vietnamese?”
Rae takes all this in stride and seems to actually enjoy it. She’s usually grinning ear to ear when something like this happens.
In contrast to the people asking us if Rae is Vietnamese are the ones who automatically assume that she is.
When we toured Saigon with our Vietnamese guide Duc, we stopped at a real locals’ hangout for lunch. Pam and I sat on one side of the table. Duc and Rae were on the other. The waitress handed us all menus. A few minutes later, I asked Rae what she wanted to eat.
She looked at me and said, “Uh…Dad?”
Then she handed me her menu. The waitress had given her one written in Vietnamese. Pam and I both got gringo versions.
When Rae got an ear infection in Quy Nhon, we took her to the medical clinic. The doctor immediately unleashed a flurry of Vietnamese on Rae for about five straight minutes. Pam and I kept waving our arms and shouting, “No Vietnamese! English only! She doesn’t speak Vietnamese! Stop!”
The doctor would occasionally nod at us before turning back to Rae to continue peppering her with something that sounded like an “Alvin and the Chipmunks” record being played backwards.
Rae just sat there and laughed. (Though she stopped when the doctor suddenly uncovered the set of surgical tools sitting on the tray next to her.)
There was only one time when Rae was approached by a stranger who was somewhat…less than cordial.
We were walking along the street in Hue on our way to the Dong Ba market. We had just arrived in town a few hours before, and I was ready to show that whole market how one motivated American man and his dong can revitalize an entire economy.
As we were heading in, an elderly, bent-over Vietnamese man not much taller than Rae hobbled straight up to her and shouted right in her face, “WHERE DID YOU COME FROM?!”
He sounded like some kind of Vietnamese Gestapo agent.
Rae and Pam took a quick step back, and I turned immediately to make sure this guy wasn’t about to conk Rae on the head with a coconut shell or bamboo cane.
He seemed harmless, other than the fact that he just screamed at my daughter out of the blue.
Now, after ten years I’m somewhat used to handling awkward or inappropriate questions regarding Rae, our family, and interracial adoption, in general. People don’t usually mean any harm when they ask questions about how the three of us ended up together. It’s just that they often lack any grace or delicacy when discussing the issue. This old coot was probably just surprised to see a little Vietnamese girl with two American parents strolling around in the middle of Hue.
And besides, he probably didn’t even know much more English than what he blurted at Rae. He may not have even realized how he sounded. Different cultures, different languages, etc. Part of the reason we go on trips like this one is to help Rae learn to bridge these differences.
So rather than make a big scene, I just took the high road.
Taking Rae’s hand in mine, I leaned over so I was eyeball-to-eyeball with our new friend. Wearing the biggest smile you could imagine, I made sure I spoke slowly and clearly.
Building bridges, man. Just building bridges.
I apologize for the recent lag in between blog posts. To make a long story short, since almost the beginning of the trip I’ve been suffering from one of the most ridiculous allergic outbreaks I’ve ever had in my life. It got so bad recently that I could barely use my right arm to type. Hence, the lack of dong jokes. Sorry, Lee.
Now the long story…
Before coming over here, I bought myself a cheap Citizen watch to wear. I received a very nice watch for my 30th birthday years ago, but I didn’t feel like flashing it around Vietnam.
About two days after we landed in Saigon, my right wrist underneath the watch strap erupted in a red rash very similar to poison ivy. I knew exactly what it was because I had a similar allergic reaction 20 years ago that almost put me in the hospital. Well, it wasn’t really the reaction that put me in the hospital. It was my insistence on treating myself with Tylenol and hydrocortisone cream for three months before seeing a doctor that almost put me in the hospital. But I digress.
Anyway, I’m allergic to…sing along with me…para-tertiary butylphenol formaldehyde resin (PTBP-FR.) It’s an adhesive that shoe manufacturers often use to with leather. And apparently Citizen uses it on their watch bands, too. I haven’t run into it in years, but what great timing I have.
I’ll give you a little piece of advice now. If you ever get a skin rash that makes you feel as though your flesh is on fire and you want to take a power sander to it in order to relieve the incredibly intense itching that keeps you awake at night, come to the soothing, cool, dry climate of Vietnam! You’ll feel like a million bucks in no time!
I put up with it for about ten days adhering to a tried-and-true regimen of Tylenol and hydrocortisone cream. I also ate about a box and a half of Benadryl. The rash started retreating. I thought I had turned the corner when we were in Hoi An. But on the crappy bus ride from Hoi An to Quy Nhon, I was sardined into the back seat for six hours. My bag, which I had to keep on my lap due to space contraints, rubbed against my arm most of the way down there. The rash came back with a vengeance, spreading almost up to my elbow.
Simply typing the word “rash” is bad enough, but it doesn’t come close to describing my arm. The most deranged and sadistic medical textbook editor in the world would have deemed photos of my arm too gruesome to print.
I won’t even go into any further description other than to say that the sea of people on the Saigon sidewalks literally parted before me when folks got a glimpse of my arm. Anybody who says leprosy is a drag never had to cross a busy intersection in Saigon. It’s like I was my own traffic cop.
Yesterday, I finally went to the Centre Medical International in Saigon. The marvelous Dr. Nicholas Lagüe hooked me up with some hardcore drugs that seem to be doing wonders for my arm. They also seem to keep me up 23 hours a day, so I might be able to catch up on some blog posts.
Now, I turn my comments section over to you, gentle reader. I ask you to please combine my itching, burning and completely unbearable rash with my undying love of the dong joke. It’s fertile territory. Don’t let me down.
A week ago, Pam, Rae and I decided to go visit the My Son ruins about 20 miles outside of the Hoi An. (We wanted to visit the My Three Sons ruins, but due to regional codes, the DVD wouldn’t play in my laptop.) Now, any normal family traveling through Vietnam with a ten-year-old girl who the parents claim to love and cherish would obviously hire a taxi to take them to and from the ruins. It would cost no more than $20-30, round trip.
But those parents are called “pussies,” so Pam and I decided to rent motorcycles instead.
There are obviously many, many things wrong with this scenario.
Topping the list is the fact that I’ve never ridden a motorcycle in my life. In fact, I don’t even like riding bicycles, though I at least know how to do it. Secondly, Pam has never ridden a motorcycle in her life either. Another minor problem was that it’s actually illegal to ride a motorcycle in Vietnam unless you have a Vietnamese motorcycle license, which believe it or not, neither one of us remembered to pick up at the airport gift shop. (But honestly, how could a Vietnamese cop possibly know whether or not we’re from Vietnam just by looking at us?) And lastly, the warranty on Rae expired years ago.
Pam and I actually do share some small concern for Rae’s well being, so we also hired a guide to go with us. Rae would ride on the back of his motorcycle, since he would presumably know how to operate one.
Our guide was a cheerful man named “Mr. Tuong.” It’s pronounced “tong,” like the kitchen utensil you use to flip chicken on the grill, or what the Vietnamese EMTs were most likely going to use to pick my vital organs off the highway later in the day.
Tuong showed up at our hotel with two bikes. His was a Honda 125cc, manual five-speed. It looked like an actual motorcycle, like something The Fonz would ride. Rae climbed on with him. Pam and I climbed on the other bike. It was a semi-automatic, four-speed chick bike. You had to shift gears with a foot pedal, but there was no clutch. It was really more of a glorified scooter, but that was fine with me. We threw on our helmets and headed back to his place so we could pick up the third bike for Pam.
I managed to follow Tuong and my daughter with no problem. Traffic is relatively light in Hoi An, at least compared to schizophrenic shit-fest of cars and motos in Saigon. And the bike I was on was very simple to operate. I figured I had a chance of surviving the trip to My Son after all. But when we got to Tuong’s place, he hopped off his bike and handed me the keys.
“You take my bike now,” he said smiling.
I held the keys with two fingers as if he had just given me a dead rat.
“I was actually pretty happy with the bike I just rode.”
“That bike for girls.”
“And your point?”
“You my try bike here,” Tuong said. He was pointing at the street his office was located on.
I hopped on, and Tuong gave me a quick run down of how the motorcycle worked. I forgot all of it immediately but headed down the street any way. I went about 100 yards without killing anyone and figured that was enough of a test drive.
I made an awkward U-turn and started to head back when I realized that Tuong’s office was on a one-way street. In keeping with Vietnamese driving tradition, I said “fuck it” and started heading directly into oncoming traffic.
“I can make this work,” I told Tuong.
After Pam survived her test drive on her chick scooter, we started out towards My Son.
I’d like to say that I was excited about visiting the 4th century Hindu temple ruins that the Champa kings built to worship the god Shiva. It’s an area rich with culture and history, and judging from the photos in our guidebook, the structures themselves are quite awe-inspiring.
But as many of you who know me can probably guess, I was far more excited about acting like a total redneck on the motorcycle. We could have been visiting a 20th century trash dump rich with empty beer bottles and worn out truck tires, for all I cared. I just wanted to open up the throttle on the way there and do my best Evel Nguyen-nievel impersonation.
We started out riding through some fairly empty residential streets. Tuong and Rae were in front, Pam was in the middle, and I pulled up the rear. After navigating a few sharp turns and intersections, we got on the main highway.
Highways in Vietnam are not like highways in the U.S. For starters, they’re only two lanes wide. And honestly, there aren’t really lanes. There is a stripe painted down the middle of the road, but it is strictly decorative. Trucks and buses routinely drive down the road side by side directly into oncoming traffic. Smaller vehicles just dart onto the shoulder, and pedestrians on the shoulder just dive into the bushes, rice paddies or whatever else looks softer than the grill of the box truck coming straight at them.
For some odd reason, this flow of traffic actually seems to work. We had been in Vietnam for about two weeks before we took this ride, and I was somewhat used to the ground rules. But I will say the following in all seriousness for anyone who stumbles across this blog and is thinking about renting their own bike: If you have just arrived in Vietnam and are not used to how the traffic flows, do not ride a scooter or a motorcycle on the roads. I’m not kidding. The best case scenario is you shit your pants in the first 20 feet. (Maybe that’s why there are so many tailors in Hoi An!) Worst case scenario is that you shit your pants then get run over by a bus.
I say this not to brag, as if only I can master the roads here. I just offer this warning because traffic laws as Westerners know them do not exist here, and until you get a little bit used to how things work you’ll just gum up the works and probably cause a giant wreck.
And then a tourbus will T-bone your ambulance.
The main highway, such as it is, took us through a few small towns. The towns are really just a collection of people on either side of the road sitting the dirt and selling pho, sodas and beer, and maybe some automotive supplies. The towns are a little beat-up and grimy, but not totally uninteresting.
I was feeling pretty confident on my bike by now. I had it wound up in fifth gear and was screaming along doing 60. But then I noticed it was taking me two minutes to pass some old coot pedaling a rickshaw. And then I noticed the “km/h” next to the 60. If this was a man’s bike, it didn’t speak very highly of you average Vietnamese dude. I was practically red-lining it and only going about 35mph. I typically go faster than that at a Taco Bell drive-thru.
But I enjoyed it nonetheless. I can totally see how people get hooked on motorcycles. Riding a motorcycle always seemed like a pain in the ass to me before, but it’s very exciting and liberating. I read a quote whose author I can’t remember and whose name I’m too lazy to Google, but it went something like, “Driving a car is like watching the movie. Riding a motorcycle is like reading the book.” That seems accurate to me.
Tuong turned off the highway onto a single-lane paved road barely wider than a sidewalk that snaked its way through some rice paddies and gentle forests. It was like whole other world once we got off the main road.
There were little neighborhoods of small but neat homes tucked into the trees on either side of the road. Each home’s cement patio was covered with either peanuts or red chili peppers that the locals were drying in the sun.
We drove for a kilometer or two then pulled over at what constitutes the local grocery store. It was basically a vegetable stand set up in someone’s driveway. A dozen or so folks were milling around sharing the daily gossip. When we arrived, the topic of discussion changed to “who’re the honkies, and how come the Papa Honky can’t figure out how to work the kickstand on his lame bike?”
We poked around the vegetables while Tuong explained what each one was. The locals poked around us, and Tuong explained who each one was. The farmers don’t see a ton of tourists where they live, so newcomers are always a welcome change of pace. They were incredibly friendly and talked to us constantly, but only in Vietnamese.
That’s actually been a fairly common occurrence for me in Vietnam. I’ve had several lengthy conversations with Vietnamese people where the only thing I ever say is “I don’t know…what the hell…you are saying.” But they just smile and keep on yammering. They’re always very polite and smiley while they do it.
At least now I know how my dog feels when I talk to him.
In fact, the next time some Vietnamese guy on the street who wants to sell me a coconut starts in on me in Vietnamese, I’m just going to turn the tables by scratching him under the chin and shouting in English, “Who’s a good boy? I said who’s a GOOD BOY? That’s right! YOU’RE a good boy!”
After our stop at the grocery store, we continued along the narrow road. I wasn’t really able to pop a wheelie in such narrow confines, but I was able to almost run over two small children and a chicken.
We eventually pulled out onto the main road again and continued working our way to My Son. Tuong pulled over occasionally to show us some of the local culture. We stopped at a mom ‘n’ pop peanut oil factory. It was basically three guys stuffing peanuts into a 12-foot-long hydraulic press and squeezing with all their might to extract a teaspoon of oil.
Next we visited three women working on a peanut farm. They were working under a tarp in order to get out of the sun. Tuong showed us how they used to get the peanuts off the plant in the olden days.
“They used to have to pull them off by hand, like this.”
Tuong pulled the peanuts off the plant by hand.
“Now they do it this way.”
Tuong took a handful of peanut plants and whipped them repeatedly against a weather-beaten plank until the peanuts fell off into a net below.
“Much faster!” Tuong grinned.
Paging Eli Whitney. Eli Whitney to the peanut farm, please.
Next up was a chili pepper farm. Tuong explained how the Head Commies give the farmers a chunk of land and then bestow on them all the freedom to choose between growing peanuts, chili peppers or bitter melons.
Our last stop before My Son was when we almost crashed a local wedding. (For the record, we almost crashed the wedding. We did not almost crash INTO the wedding.)
We had stopped in a tiny village to take a break in the shade of a few trees. (The temperature was in the high 90s. Just brutal.) Two local kids were getting hitched, so we strolled over just to take a glimpse. The mother of the bride came out and said hello to us. (Or maybe she asked who was a good boy. Who the hell knows?) Tuong told us that she was inviting us to the wedding.
Pam got ready to march in and take a front row seat, but Tuong stopped her.
“We cannot stay. At Vietnamese wedding, there are many toasts. You get drunk. We cannot ride bikes drunk.”
My first thought was, “Oh yeah? Says who?”
But remembering the two boys and the chicken I almost killed while I was sober, I saw Tuong’s point. Pam was disappointed that we couldn’t stay, and I admit it would have been fun.
We had run into this same sobriety problem six years ago when we were hiking through the countryside in the middle of nowhere. We walked into a wedding that was in full swing. The bride and groom invited us in and spent five minutes taking pictures with us. Our guide said us the same thing as Tuong.
“We cannot stay. We will have to get drunk, and we can’t do that.”
I swear, the next time I go traipsing around Vietnam, I’m bringing the phone number for the local cab company. I’d love to hit one of these weddings and get lit up with the locals.
Back on our bikes, we finally moved on to My Son.
I hate to be anticlimactic, but the temples really weren’t worth the drive. I suppose they’re interesting if you’ve never seen temple ruins before, but I read every historical plaque, walked through every musty building, and gaped at all the mounds of rubble in less than 30 minutes. The plaques were plaque-y, the must was musty and the rubble was rubble-y.
I did read one interesting plaque and was about to start railing on the French because it turns out they looted all the statues that used to be in the place, but then Tuong pointed out all the B-52 bomb craters that were scattered all over. Better to back off and live to bitch another day…
We grabbed a bite to eat then headed back to Hoi An.
Because I felt that my three-and-a-half hours on a motorcycle qualified me as an expert, I put Rae on the back of my bike for the ride home. It added a new level of excitement knowing that I was now responsible for not killing one more person.
The ride home was similar to the ride up. We stopped at a few local farms, took two ferries across rivers, and ran into some rush hour traffic. It was during this rush hour traffic that I got nervous about killing me and Rae. I thought Rae might get nervous, too, but she busied herself by constantly yelling at me to “stop calling all these people assholes!”
When she wasn’t admonishing me about my language, Rae spent most of the time singing shitty pop songs by Bruno Mars and Rhianna in my ear. I responded with actual good songs of my own. Together we made quite a pair. It was a memorable father/daughter bonding experience that was a nice finale to a day that was the highlight of my trip so far.
I hope Rae enjoyed it, too. She might not remember the My Son temples years from now, but there is no way she’ll forget the way those tiny Vietnamese women dived for cover when I pulled into an intersection going 25mph, belting out Robert Plant’s opening wail from “The Immigrant Song” with an expression on my face that quite clearly said, “I don’t know which one of these fucking things is the clutch and which one is the brake, so you’d better move your ass, granny.”
1. The “pho” craze that is currently sweeping the U.S. would grind to an immediate halt if all the ebony chopstick-wielding hipster twerps in Brooklyn had to eat it morning, noon and night. The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is punch a cow right in the face and throw its whole carcass on the nearest Weber grill.
2. If your sweaty, sunburned husband is draping his arm around a toothless, 85-pound, 85 year old Vietnamese woman so you can take his picture like he’s posing with a chimp in a zoo, and afterwards the old lady asks you for “one dolla,” give her a goddamn dollar.
3. Dong jokes never get old.
4. In Vietnam, I’ve ordered “black coffee with milk” five times and gotten five different beverages. “All I wanted was a Pepsi, just one Pepsi, and SHE wouldn’t give it to me…”
5. Walking through the rubble of the 1,800 year old My Son temple ruins and realizing that many of the small ponds around them are actually B-52 bomb craters is fairly depressing.
6. Yesterday, I went swimming at the beach and forgot to take my dong out of my swim trunks before I dove into the water. I ended up having to lay my dong out along the entire length of my beach chair so it could dry out before dinner.
I live in Ouray, Colorado, a tourist town where the two main draws are driving around on old dirt roads and climbing up and down giant icicles. I visited a town in France that’s famous for the unique shade of red bricks from which every building is constructed. I spent six months living in a Costa Rican town famous for its clouds. Towns can become known for any number of things, and those things don’t always have to be glamorous like natural wonders or serial killers.
Hoi An, a city of just over 100,000 people, has staked its claim as the world’s #1 destination for the custom-made garment tourist. There aren’t tailor shops on every corner here. There are tailor shops lining every damn block. You can’t swing a dead cat in this place without a dozen Vietnamese women measuring its waist and showing it fabric samples.
I have no idea how they all stay in business. In fact, looking at the tourists wandering around the streets, I have no idea how any of them stay in business.
“Look, there’s a 300-pound man wearing cut-off sweat pants, a Red Sox tank-top and lime green Crocs. He’s probably good for at least four or five custom-fitted suits.”
Besides tailor shops, you’ll find the usual places hocking t-shirts and your basic “Made in China” crap. There are a few art galleries and museums that are worth sticking your head into. The rest of the other businesses around here are bars and restaurants, and I figure they’re all in cahoots with the tailors.
“Would you like another dessert, sir?”
“Oh no, I couldn’t. I’m watching my weight.”
“It’s OK, sir. My sister next door can let your pants out another half an inch. I’ll bring another coconut ice cream for your wife, too.”
Hoi An came to prominence in the middle of the 15th century when it became one of SE Asia’s busiest harbor towns. The Japanese and Chinese considered it one of the best places to trade their wares. Merchants from Europe and India also got in on the action.
Things hummed along until the end of the 18th century when various dynasties with names that sound like they were stolen from a take-out menu started crumbling and different powers stepped in to take the reins. Da Nang eventually became Vietnam’s major port, and Hoi An slipped into the background, remaining relatively untouched for 200 years.
And despite people trying to sell you silk dress shirts every time you turn around, much of Hoi An’s charm still shines through. The heart of Hoi An lies in an area called Old Town. I completely fell in love with it. The centuries-old Japanese and Chinese buildings help offset some of the more touristy schlock that’s seeping into town. Old Town takes up maybe four blocks by eight blocks, and the whole place is closed off to automobiles. This makes it an exceptional place to waste the day strolling around, window shopping, checking out the museums, gawking at the fish mongers in the market, or just grabbing a beer and people-watching at one of the many restaurants overlooking the river.
One question Pam and I often ask ourselves when figuring out how much we like a city is, “Could I live here?” In Hoi An’s case, the answer is definitely yes. The heat would drive me bat-shit crazy. (It was 95 when we were there, and it’s much worse in the summer.) So would all the locals constantly trying to sell me boat rides, blazers, and Tiger Beer t-shirts.
But Hoi An is big without being too big. The nearby beaches are clean and fun. There are good day trips to take inland (which I’ll tell you about soon.) The people are pleasant, for the most part.
And while Hoi An is most definitely exotic, if you reach that stage of the journey where you absolutely, positively need a cheeseburger and fries, you can find them.
And after just two weeks of being in Vietnam, trust me–those last two items can count for an awful lot.
Hue has a little bit to offer everyone. History buffs, art snobs, crypt keepers, potheads and pederasts can all have a splendid time in the old capital city these days.
We arrived in town mid afternoon on Saturday. Our driver stopped on the side of the street and pointed down a dirt alleyway about six feet wide.
“You hotel down there.”
After checking into the Hue Holiday Hotel without getting robbed or murdered, we decided to walk to a French restaurant across the Perfume River near the Imperial City. It was late afternoon, and the worst of the day’s heat was over. We had a nice stroll through the parks and gardens that line both sides of the river.
I saw some nine or ten year old boys playing soccer in one section of the park. They were laughing and screaming at each other and really having a great ime. One of them saw me watching and ran over to me.
“Hi there,” I said. “Do you speak English?”
“A little. I learn in school!”
“That’s excellent. Soccer is for pussies. Get a football, dipshit.”
The French restaurant was overrated. My fish was bone-dry, and the greens were a soggy mush.
The next day, we headed out to explore the Imperial City. The Imperial City is a palace/fortress just on the north side of the river. It’s surrounded by a 20-foot high wall and a moat. Inside the IC is another enclosure called “The Purple Forbidden City,” which is where the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty lived. There used to be more than 100 buildings in the IC, but during the Vietnam War our B-52s did some old school renovations. Now there are maybe 20 or 30 buildings still in decent shape.
“Imperial City.” “Purple Forbidden City.” “Nguyen Dynasty.” Temples thick with burning incense. Ornate altars lined with golden buddhas. Ominous vines growing over the the bombed out ruins of a bygone era. It’s all very exotic and mysterious. At least that’s what I thought until I took a closer look at one of the carved stone dragons outside a temple.
“Hey, this thing is made of concrete.”
It turns out the Nguyen Dynasty lasted from 1802 to 1945. My neighbor’s house in Ouray is older than most of the structures in the IC. In fact, the Imperial City has to be the only UNESCO World Heritage Site that features a restoration of a “historic” tennis court.
We left the IC and grabbed lunch at a Vietnamese place owned and operated by a deaf family. Most of them are mute, too. Now, watching Pam try to learn Vietnamese from waiters is always fun. But watching it at this place was awesome. She may not be able to speak actual Vietnamese, but her Helen Keller, deaf-mute grunt Vietnamese is spot on.
After lunch, we headed to the Dong Ba market so I could whip out my dong and watch the locals stare in awe at the sheer enormity of all the dong I carry.
The Dong Ba market is this open-air monstrosity where people sell every damn thing under the sun. Most of it’s crap. Actually, I’m just kidding. All of it’s crap, so I left to go stroll around town while Pam and Rae negotiated the price of plastic drinking straws and bamboo place mats.
Back at the hotel, Pam and Rae collapsed in bed and refused to go outside again because of the heat. I went out and bought them a traditional Vietnamese dish consisting of a flat, round bread covered with tomato sauce, mozzarella, fresh basil and garlic. I believe it’s called a “duch bao bon da.” Or something like that. Then I ventured out on my own to grab a bite.
It was a depressing evening out.
I left the hotel at 7:00pm and walked five blocks to a bar. During that walk, I was approached by four different guys on motos who offered me “ladies–young, clean,” “marijuana” and “boys.” (Seriously, boys? I wasn’t even wearing my Lululemon shirt.) The whole scene was gross.
After grabbing dinner and a beer, I decided to walk around some different neighborhoods. The moto-pimps were more or less nonstop. Part of me wanted to just tell them off. Another part of me wanted to punch each one in the face. Instead, I just told each one “no” and kept walking.
I like to imagine that chivalry is not dead. Maybe these guys weren’t pimps. Maybe they just wanted me to get on their bikes so they could whisk me off to a dark alley, show me a PowerPoint presentation on the chilling effects of the child sex industry in SE Asia, then rob me to teach me a lesson. Maybe there were no actual ladies, young and clean.
What also bugged me is that these guys wouldn’t be out there wasting their time if someone at some point didn’t take them up on their offers. So to all the sex tourist weirdos out there, I beg you to please stop banging teenage girls in Hue. If you need to get laid that badly, just do what everyone else around here does: Go to the nearest tourist bar, buy a beer for one of the 5,000 female Aussie backpackers dirty dancing with her girlfriends, and let nature takes its course.
The following day, we jumped in a cab and went to see a few of the tombs outside Hue. The first was the tomb of Nguyen emperor Tu Duc. It’s set on a lovely piece of land with lily pad-covered lakes, storybook forests, and several temples that are in very good shape. The whole place is actually modeled after the Imperial City. Tu Duc had it built so he could escape the rigors of daily life in downtown Hue, which I assume meant a rough day of working on his backhand.
The best part about his tomb is that he’s not actually in it. After he died in 1883, he had his body secretly buried out in the jungle some place. When the 200 servants who buried him returned to town, they were all beheaded so they couldn’t reveal the location of Tu Duc’s grave. A simple “thank you” probably would have been preferred. To this day, no one knows where his body is. (Interesting tidbit: Tu Duc supposedly used his last words to curse the French.)
Emperor Khai Dinh’s tomb was next on our tour. Khai Dinh was a weird dude. A drug addict who died in 1925 at age 40, he was wildly unpopular. He taxed all the peasants in the country to build his ridiculously extravagant tomb. He sold out to the French at every opportunity. In keeping with Hue’s tradition of underage sex, he had a whole flock of concubines. In breaking with that tradition, he apparently rarely had sex with them. (“He was not interested in sex,” reported one.) Many people think he was gay.
Khai Dinh’s tomb is so enormous, so wildly ornate and so completely over the top you’re almost surprised not to see a “Trump” logo somewhere on it. If I were one of those taxed peasants who paid for the damn thing, I definitely would have wanted to see the blueprints before handing in my 1040.
The whole thing is built up the side of a mountain. From the street, you have to climb about 150 steps to get to the top where his actual tomb is located. There are three or four terraced levels along the way. One level contains stone carvings of elephants and soldiers. Another contains a giant stone monument into which is engraved Khai Dinh’s biography. Another level has a garden with several large, manicured trees.
It’s incredibly ostentatious, but in Khai Dinh’s defense, he didn’t behead anyone to build it.
Overall, Hue was step in the right direction for us. Ho Chi Minh City is a loud, bustling, fairly dirty giant city. In contrast, Hue has only 350,00. It’s prettier, more manageable and is better suited for a country mouse like myself. Pervs and pushers aside, Hue was a perfect place to soak in some culture without having to go live in a bamboo hut and pick rice all day.
We’re in Hoi An now. I’ll get some posts up about this place soon.
And now, because I know Lee is waiting for it…
“I saw Glenn Beck on TV last night explaining how he could help me to turn my dong into gold. It sounded sketchy, though. During these crazy economic times, I’m just going to hold onto my dong with both hands and hang on for the ride.”
On our first full day in HCMC, we headed straight to what is always the cultural epicenter on any large city: the zoo. After all, what better way to immerse yourself in the mysteries of SE Asia than by staring at a motionless python trying to beat the sauna-like temperatures in its cage by submerging itself in three inches of stagnant water?
We lasted about 45 minutes at the zoo before Rae, who while still at the air conditioned hotel had previously expressed her absolute love for the HCMC weather, folded like wet dish rag under the brutal heat and demanded that we go some place for a cool drink.
Again, we jumped feet first into the Vietnamese culture and grabbed a refreshing beverage at nearest Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. A little taste of Saigon, via Brentwood.
After grabbing lunch at a sushi joint located right next to the Saigon Hard Rock Cafe (such a unique culture!), we walked down to Dong Khoi Street. There are plenty of touristy things to do there, and that seemed to be the theme of the day anyway. Rae and Pam went shopping for clothes. I stood around outside asking every man who walked by if he was Psy. When they pretended to not know what I was saying, I began doing the “Gangnam” dance all over the sidewalk to help translate.
Rae finished the day with some brash sandals and a beautiful blue dress that Pam was able to get for 50% off with zero no bartering at all. Talk about your ridiculous mark-ups. Pam didn’t even really want to buy the dress. When the saleswoman asked Pam how much she’d pay, Pam told her “half” thinking she would just leave us alone.
Later that night, we couldn’t find a Burger King so we ate at a place called Cuc Gach Quan. It’s quickly rising up the ranks of HCMC’s best restaurants, and for good reason. The interior is an interesting combination of rustic Vietnamese hipster. The dishes are chipped and beat up. There’s an old reel-to-reel machine playing Vietnamese folk music in one room. But a lot of the art work is more modern and non-traditional.
But like the old saying goes, “you can’t eat reel-to-reel machines.” Lucky for us, the food matched the hype. We ordered fairly simple dishes, but the quality of the ingredients was outstanding and the individual flavors of each dish leapt out. The pumpkin flower salad was a highlight, as was the chicken with lemongrass and chili. Again, they weren’t complicated dishes. They were just exceptionally well done.
The next day, we went out with this cool guide that Pam found online. I have to admit the guide service she found is a pretty good idea. This organization will send you out with a university student who wants to practice his or her English. The guide shows you around Saigon, you show the guide how to correctly say “I’d like a #3 with extra bacon and a Dr Pepper.” It’s a win-win.
Our guide was a young man named “Duc.” In what may be the best example of how difficult the Vietnamese language is, I don’t think we ever once pronounced Duc’s name correctly. It’s only three letters. Just one syllable. And judging from the exasperated look on Duc’s face, we never even came close.
He said his name for us five or six times, and I couldn’t even tell what letter it began with. It could’ve been “D,” “L,” or “N” for all I could tell. It wasn’t until he started flapping his arms like a duck that I at least got a sense of where we were heading.
Duc was a very good kid. He took us to see the Notre Dame cathedral, a pagoda where people pray to Buddha for winning lottery numbers, and the Reunification Palace.
The tour of the Reunification Palace was interesting. It was basically the White House for southern Vietnam until 1975.
I won’t bore (or upset) you with all the details, but let me just say you get a different perspective of the Vietnam War when you come here. (For starters, the locals really prefer the term “American War.”)
The following day, we packed up and flew to Hue. We’re here for two more nights. More on that later.
In the mean time, here’s a fun game to play, especially if you’re a juvenile idiot like me.
Vietnamese currency is called “dong.” The game just consists of making double-dong-entendre jokes. It’s a good way to pass the time when you’re traveling around the country.
Here are some examples.
“A local beggar tried to grab my dong in broad daylight, but before he could get both hands around it, it fell into the street and got run over by a cab.”
“My dong goes a lot farther now that I’ve stopped giving it to everyone on the street.”
“You should really wash your hands after handling dong, because often times it’s covered in bacteria.”