Saturday, June 24, 2006

Day 3 - lots to see, and even more to think about today!

June 24th. Another bright day on the Easy Rider trip! So how about a new Vietnamese phrase, everyone? It's not that hard honestly so here's one we here a lot from the boys...Enjoy your meal (yes, it's all about the food!) is "chuc an ngun". Anyway back to today's activities!

We visited a war memorial this morning in a small town we were riding (or driving?) through. There are so many war monuments all throughout the Central Highlands. No surprise of course, but the sheer number makes you realise how the war impacted absolutuly everyone here; in fact those people in this region were almost hit harder than everyone else because although they are technically in the southern part of the country and therefore "technically" had to abide by the Republican/Southern Vietnamese govt. and troops, many of the villagers felt more affinity to Ho Chi Minh and the soldiers of the north, who were more like themselves, Buddhists and working farm people, rather than Catholic and more bureacratic southerners (huge generalization here obviously but there is some truth to it!). Saw this truck passing by and had to take a pic - didn't mean to but see my camera in the mirror taking the shot - pretty nifty eh! So these people were stuck in the middle and kind of got hit by both sides. Reading a really interesting book right now "When heaven and earth changed places" by a woman called Le Ly Hayslip. It is a Vietnamese woman's journey from war to peace. Really thought provoking and incredibly sad - by the time she was 16. she had suffered near starvation, imprisonment, torture, rape and the deaths of many of her family.. definitely heavy stuff but so compelling, I can't put it down. She is an amazing woman who returned to Vietnam 20 years after she went to America to escape a Viet Cong death warrent.. but anyway, read it for yourself. It is amazing!

After that we had a visit to a noodle farm to see how the local people make the noodles, from scratch and then dry them out in the sun on wooden batons, then wrap them around and into baskets or bags for people to buy! Again a simple process but very effective! And the whole family is involved, similarly with most of the small farms we visited, that seems to be the case! Then it was on to a black pepper farm (another key crop for farmers in the Central Highlands) and close by we visited a black bean farm (they looked like our green beans, only black, in case the photo doesn't do them justice -ok, like you care...). Local people here believe that when women who have just had babies are having trouble feeding, if you boil up these beans and make them into a sugar-syrup like consistency, it helps bring in the milk... interesting stuff, especially knowing that this and other "remedies" like it, have been handed down through generations to these people and they swear by them, even today. Hey, if it works, dont knock it, right! So wow - what a day for learning about Vietnamese agriculture! We also managed to fit in a visit to a cashew tree farm (very cheap nuts here 'cos so plentiful); we explained to the boys that cashews are actually quite expensive where we come from and they couldn't believe it, cos they are so common in Vietnam. After that (ok i think my timing is a bit off here today - not sure if we saw all this stuff one after another, or in the morning and afternoon, so bear with me please - hey, its alot of stuff to remember and its not like i can jot it all down as the bike is going whizzing along!). Anyway, i digress as usual! We also visited a rubber plantation that went on and on and on for miles. It was so massive; very peaceful to walk through. Apparantly one family covers a whole hectare; tapping the trees for their sap (and that's a lot of trees!) just like the way they tap for maple syrup in Vermont; these folks do it, once a day, every day. Actually seemed quite a peaceful job compared to some others we had seen; you are in the countryside, enjoying the fresh air, being at one with nature. OK im sure it is very hard work too....got carried away there for a minute!

We then drove quite some way, until we arrived at an area Luong explained to us was a key site from the war. There is a strategic hilltop near here. close to the Cambodian border, where there are still many land mines not yet cleared (some of the farmers use their metal detectors themselves to find them... a tad dangerous but no-one else is out there doing it, and they get money from the metal if they do manage to find something!). We saw a few farmers out doing exactly this while we chatted near the roadside!

After this we drove on towards Pleiku where we would stopped for lunch; this is a town most tourists don't visit but of course the boys knew a good restaurant so that's where we went! Plus big "Communist" presence here, tons of red flags with sickles (correct spelling?) and Vietnamese stars - I mean you do see these everywhere, but there were many more here than i'd seen before. Luong said it is a party stronghold and people are pretty gungho here about their communism so...

Leaving town, the weather was so weird. It was blazing sunshine, and so i took a pic of the big move - when Jackie and Dave changed drivers.. didnt last long as Jackie's bike was too wee for Dave so they had to change back "toute suite". Anyway, we got so far, then suddenly these black clouds were glowering at us and then we got caught in the most amazing rainstorm - it really was like a monsoon, or what you imagine a monsoon being. Incredible - there were literally hot and cold paths of air as we drove through it - Luong made us put our waterproofs on (yes, he had those for us too!). What a guy - although i did have to tease him about the "ponchos" as we call them; his term would be "the body condom" which we all told him was rather unappealing! Thank goodness i had my own rain jacket - and don't we look good! Anyway, this was amazing, I loved it!!


As this was going to be our longest day of biking (around 220km today i think) we had lots of fast driving; which of course I loved! It kind of goes with my love of roller coasters and skydiving etc. I had told Luong to go as fast as he could, especially around corners - yahhhh seriously i want a motorbike!! The thing was, Luong's bike is the most powerful of the three, so we wound end up miles ahead of the others, and when Ton and Lew caught up they were like "What are trying to do - break our bikes".. .. Luong laughed his head off; think he liked going fast too so it was a fab afternoon!

After lunch (or was it before, oh, it doesn't matter!), we drove to a road, and surrounding area called "Dead Mans Alley' because none of the soldiers wanted to go there during the war (as they knew how dangerous it was, and that they probably wouldn't return!). How sad is that! Check out the wee boy we saw along the way! Don't think he was too sure about us at first but he smiled a little later so all was good! Luong said once a year, this area is full of people returning from different parts of Vietnam to give sacrifices and prayers to their lost ones, and it is covered with flowers and candles.. a very sad place indeed! Luong also told us about a very strategic move the Viet Cong made during the war in the triangle of countryside of Kon Tum, Chu Pa and Pleiku and the capital of the Central Highlands, Buon Ma Thoat. The Viet Cong spread a rumour that they were going to take Pleiku by storm; this was a ploy to get the Southern Vietnamese troops out of Boun Ma Thoat, the most heavily armed city in the Central Highlands at that time.

So all the Republican troops left Buon Ma Thoat, and headed to Pleiku to bolster troops there, leaving BMT unarmed and empty. The VC took this city in 7 hours and the Southern Vietnamese troops, realising their mistake, tried to return asap, but most of them were attacked and killed in ambushes around this area we were standing in....There is also a Remembrance Day on August 10th every year, to commemorate and remember the first time Agent Orange was dropped in 1961 on this date. This war is so much more than just Vietnam and the US; there are so many complexities of loyalty at the beginning of the war, and near the end when the Vietnamese just wanted to be one united country under Ho Chi Minh. Luong's father, who was from the South, joined the Viet Cong late in the war, as did Lew's father. His father died when Luong was 19 months old...so very sad..you just wanted to sit and talk all day about their own stories, but the boys said they would tell us more over dinner so we headed off to our hotel!

The six of us went to a vegetarian restaurant for dinner, specially chosen by Luong, for Jackie, as she is veggie and has been a bit of a trouper lately regarding dinner options (hey, yes, that's fine to add the beef and seafood together and just pick out the fish for Jackie, no problem! teehee!). Wow - we had the most amazing dinner...seriously the tofu is incredible here and the guys are so sweet - making sure we all try all the different dishes, helping me with my chopsticks as I'm useless but getting a little better ! Definitely one of the best meals i've had in Vietnam without a doubt!

Although we had been discussing some really deep stuff earlier, we ended up having a brilliant laugh over dinner and joked with Luong about who his best tourists have been - "duh us obviously" we tried to nudge.. But in true Luong style, he was very professional; he talked about becoming very connected to the people he traveled with on his trips and even people crying when they said goodbye! What! OK, you know that's going to be me, of course. I had to share this pic with them about my room and the rules of the house.. hmmn so under certain circumstances, the hotel can help out with a prostitute if need be (wonder what those special cases would be...?). Later, as we sat in a little cafe down the road, having the most amazing fruit shakes for 20c (ridiculously cheap!!) Luong told us more about his family life when he was a child and the obstacles he has overcome to bring him to where he is today!!! Absolutely incredible - we all said he should write a book, but as he says, so many people have the same story in Vietnam and all they want to do now is live in peace, and make a better life for their families!
Luong explained that when his father died, their mother who was only twenty three at the time, had to run from the village in case people thought she was a Communist sympathiser! She carried two babies all the way through the forest to Natrang, a town further down the coast and away from her village. Eventually, they left the city and went back to the family village, where life was very difficult for them and they were very poor for a long time. Ten years later, Luong's mother remarried and in keeping with customs of those times, she had to make the heartbreaking decision of choosing between her new husband and her children.... Although it is hard for us to understand, she chose her new husband.... we talked about this with Luong. At the time, it was obviously very difficult for him to accept, and family and neighbours looked after him and his sister. Luong continued school and ended up with a scholarship to a choice of Communist countries - Russia, China or Germany - the East at that time. He chose Germany and lived there and took his degree in mechanical engineering IN GERMAN (he is amazing at languages, obviously!) - for 11 years - returning in 1990 to a very different country that had changed so much and was well on its way to becoming a growth economy with tons of foreign investment ... so he felt it was the right time to come home!

Without waxing too lyrical here, Luong, and Lew and Ton really are quite extraordinary. They are so low key about their experiences, and want to share without showing off in any way. Luong believes you have to heal the heart first before the mind - and he has done so with his mother and has moved on and has a lovely family of his own now! They truly are just the sweetest people these three guys.. i can totally understand why people feel so strongly at the end of the trip, how could you not when they have shared so much of their country and their passion for it (all Vietnamese feel this way apparantly), their people (could they be any more smiley whereever we go!) and their culture... and of course themselves with you. This trip is incredible; everyone should do it; as its definitely the highlight of my travels so far!

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