Friday, June 23, 2006

Day 2 - mortar, mushrooms and the madness of war!

June 23rd. Up for sunrise today. Well... not quite. Up at 5am tho' and went down to walk about the lake.. seemed like the sun was already up! Jackie joined me (Dave was still feeling a bit fragile from the rice wine shots last night!) so we walked up and around the lake for a bit..already so hot! So gorgeous here - everything is lush and green; and of course everyone is up and about, busy with work or doing exercise! In fact, we saw Luong as we were coming back from our walk. Apparantly, he goes for an hours jog every day in life - in flip flops no less! What a guy! Chatted to some children who were curious as to why we would be taking pictures of boats with no-one in them....oh yes, and you may have noticed that i love taking photos of bikes... i've got tons now and might have to have a bike only photo album someday but i digress as we need to get on the road! Said goodbye to my wee friend Phuong, who had taught me some Vietnamese last night and practiced her English on me - what a sweetie!

First stop today was a brick factory. This was run by local ethnic people, and in a way the process here was so simple, yet so clever! The best way eh! Everyone had their own specific job... two guys basically pushed the clay mud through this simple machine that was a bit like a spaghetti maker. The mud came through the other side as perfectly formed bricks. These were then moved to another section to dry in the sun, then when they were dry, they were put into big kiln houses where they were fired and then ready to use. Fantastic.. only downside here was that as it was a family/tribe working here, that meant everyone worked, including children who looked about 8 or 9 years old, carting massive big amounts of bricks at a time to the kilns. In a way it breaks your heart that they are working so hard at such a young age and not getting to be kids, but as Ton said, they are proud to help their family, and that is just the way it is. I asked about school; it is school holiday time right now but sometimes work takes precedent here so some children don't get to go to school although the government is trying to change that. Will be interesting to see what happens over the next 10-20 years here.. if things change dramatically due to new govt. pressure and a further rise in tourism.. or not!

After this we headed off to chat to a couple of guys in a small quarry.. and when i say small, i mean small because they are carving it all out by hand! Apparantly this is a really profitable business, but again talk about really hard work! These men can make up to $180 a week, which is def. a big salary here but when you think of the machinery we have at home to do the same job, it is really impressive that they do it all by hand. Luong explained that there is still a very big culture of handwork in Vietnam; it gives lots of people jobs, they are very passionate about their work and their country, so for now it will probably stay like this but is it wrong to think a few machines would make their lives a wee bit easier.... although at this point, none of these people could afford the machinery, so the govt. would have to buy it! So sweet, as we were leaving one of the men working in the quarry came running after us, and gave us a wee crystal-like rock as a memento - its in my purse right now! How lovely is that!

Then it was on to Giang Son hamlet, where we got some perspective on the war - see, we get it all on this trip! As we stood on the bridge, Luong explained that the church we saw in front of us has been left as a memorial to the people who died within it during the war. It was bombed in 1972 by the Americans because they thought the people living in the hamlet were all Viet Cong sympathisers. Actually most people in this area were Catholic, even tho' they were ethnic minority too (very strong Catholic presence in the Central Highlands due to the left over French influence in the 1800's; tons of churches, many more churches than temples actually!), and these people were not Viet Cong allies at all. As an aside, President Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic who hated both Buddhist and ethnic minorities in Vietnam (although he was the first democratically elected leader of South Vietnam, his autocratic, nepotistic ways began to be hated by many Vietnamese because he and his family were so brutal in their dealings with other religions and ethnic groups). He clearly valued power more than either his relations with the Vietnamese people or progress in fighting the communists. Diem had originally come to power by legal means, appointed prime minister of the government that had existed in 1954, (with American approval and friendly advice when required) and he had then consolidated power through a series of military coups, quasi-coups, a government reorganization, a referendum on his leadership, and finally a couple of staged presidential elections. Diem styled South Vietnam as a republic and held the title president, but he had banned political parties other than his own and he refused to permit a legal opposition. From 1954 onwards the Americans had been urging political reforms upon Diem, who repeatedly promised such reforms would be made but never enacted any. (Saw this little girl close to the bridge area.. isn't she just lovely! In case you can't tell by now, i'm in love with all the children here; they are so beautiful, but alas back to history!)..... Although initially somewhat of a US puppet, America began to distance themselves from him in later years when they felt they couldn't control him and many say the US and President Kennedy were involved in the coup that led directly to Diem's assassination in 1963. America's participation in the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem was to commit Washington to Saigon/HCM even more deeply. Having had a hand in the coup America had more responsibility for the South Vietnamese governments that followed Diem. That these military juntas were ineffectual in prosecuting the Vietnam war then required successively greater levels of involvement from the American side. The weakness of the Saigon government thus became a factor in U.S. escalations of the Vietnam war, leading to the major ground war that the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson opened in 1965. Wow - i've learned alot.. hope this makes sense (and that I've gotten my facts straight)! Anyway, back to the church - incredibly sad. Over 50 people died here when the church was bombed, including the priest who had told everyone to come here and shelter from the bombings. The local people wanted to keep the church as a monument to the war, and had their new church built further down in the valley. All of this really does make you think about the personal realities of war, and the effects on people in the throes of war, made by decisions in board rooms millions of miles away. The way Luong explains it makes it more real and alive than just reading about it; it the fact that everything was so recent too, just 30 years ago, yes, it really is all so sad!

So phew.... from heavy history back to culture.. we visited a vase making factory and were shown exactly how the vase starts off, with clay in case you are interested, then covered in cement then fired and then painted.
Tons of different kinds of pots and vases, and ceramics here; the paint they use is pretty potent stuff, but they make some really pretty ceramic ware here. And there is more! This time it was on to a mushroom factory.. now for our biology lesson! This was really interesting. You take sawdust to start with, made from sticks of the tapioca trees, leave it for a few days then stick mushroom bulbs (i think they are bulbs?) put them in the middle, then they all go into a dark room and are watered constantly. The mushrooms - white in this case - then grow out of the sides of the bags..amazing stuff!! And check out the children who lived there.. love the Prada t-shirt! That's Vietnam for you! We played with them for a while; you know the game where you grab an arm and a leg and spin them around! they loved that, but after a wee while, I was feeling decidedly dizzy and we had to leave, so after lots of goodbyes we headed off!

Later in the day we arrived at our hotel - think we are in Kon Tum today! Very nice indeed! After checking in we went into town to sort out our cameras (downloading photos as we have all taken so many!) then off for lunch! Yet again another gastronomic feast.. seriously the food is incredible - thanks Luong!

After lunch it was time for our exercise, so we headed out to a national park that used to belong to an old King as his private park,and the government only recently made into the national park that it is today, for everyone to enjoy. Lew showed us a lovely swimming hole, so while he, Ton and Luong had a wee break from us, Dave, Jackie and I gladly jumped in for a swim - did i say it was hot today! The pool looked gorgeous when you were in it, but a tad scummy when you get out.. hope we don't catch any dreaded lurgy here! We decided to go for a scramble around the rocks and had a great time in and around the forest; we found the giant waterfalls the boys told us about, and could see fishermen out there, in their tyre tubes, busy at work with what looked like just a string and a bit of wood. At one point it bucketed it down hence us looking a little drenched but it was lovely actually; quite refreshing from the almost oppressive heat here! And you know it has to be really hot, cos i like the heat! Amazing! Had a beautiful walk back to the boys through a rainforest - then we met these two really annoying Dutch people (the ONLY annoying Dutch people i have met in all my travels, cos usually they are incredibly sociable and friendly!). Anyway, they were so damn negative about everything. They thought Easy Riders were too commercial and it was all just a tourist path - ok, they were the only tourists we had seen so far in 2 days so i dont think its overrun with foreigners, and yes, if you pay for a tour, that is commercial, but as tours go, its the least commercial one ive been on! We all agreed we were a little uncomfortable with the boys giving sweets to the kids (of course we were and we talked to Luong about it), but we felt that way before the damn Dutch made a big deal of it. Not to sound too defensive but Luong changes his routes quite often so that the local people a) don't get or feel exploited and b) so it doesn't become like a tourist attraction..
The Dutch didn't have a very good guide apparantly and he didn't speak English that well, so fair enough they were bummed out. But don't bum us out! We were all really annoyed by our encounter with them; our trip was fantastic, how dare they burst our bubble!

Anyway we shrugged it off and met the guys then headed into town again! Checked out an internet cafe for a bit; ok this was very funny. After say 5 minutes, we began to realise that everyone in the cafe was taking turns to walk up and down the aisle, checking out what we were doing online. Now hotmail and blogger aren't really that exciting let me tell you, but for some reason we were definitely the entertainment that night. Quite strange but gave us all a giggle! We went for dinner on our way back and had the most amazing fresh veggie rice parcels you can imagine, and roast pork and oh, it was gorgeous! Then back to the hotel, where all of a sudden, our rooms were being attacked by these freaky bugs that would run at you, then if you flicked them away and their wings fell off, they just kept wiggling around like caterpillers - ahhhhhhhh! We headed out quickly to get away from them - me, Jackie and Dave, braving the town without our intrepid guides. Could we manage it.. Ahemn,, well clearly I'm not the only directionally impaired person in the world! We did find the town centre no probs, and i got ripped off buying grapes of all things (who knew they were imported and one of the few fruits Vietnam doesn't grow - not the big grapes anyway!). We then found a cafe where we had a beer, and watched some of the World Cup football (did I mention Vietnam is obsessed with it, in every wee village, in every ramshackle wee hut, there is a TV and everyone, i repeat everyone is watching it. It's quite a scene to watch.

Then we got totally and utterly lost trying to find our way home - we asked for directions a few times, ended up in a few dark alleyways, asked again this wee guy; who we spotted a few mins later as he circled us on his bike - "just making sure you are ok" - how nice is that eh! Finally got home - phew seemed to take forever - so much packed into today again.. late night for us partyers.. nearly midnight! Another busy day tomorrow, i'm sure!


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