Sunday, June 25, 2006

Day 4 - traveling to Indochine... and beyond!

June 25th. Today up and out by 8:15am. Our first stop was a gorgeous old rickety bridge. Lucky for all of you, my notes are getting a bit short hand 'cos there is too much stuff to remember so i'll make it a wee bit shorter - hence much sweeter to all of you, right! Lets just say there was a lot of traffic on this bridge, of all varieties!!! Loved this shot!

Next we visited a traditional "long house" of the Ba'Na tribe; for those of you interested, this is a totally different group from the M'nong tribe we had met before('member there are 54 ethnic minority groups here in Vietnam). The house (think its called a "Nah Rong Va Hoa??" could be wrong here) is used for celebrations, community events etc. When we were there, they were killing two pigs, apparantly for a celebration - the pigs were trussed up on a stick and the squealing was horrific. We didn't see it (phew!) but i think they cut the insides out while it was still alive -eewww- then they lit a fire and roasted it on the fire. Honestly, if you ever hear the description the "noise would make your blood curdle'.... this was it. Poor pig - what a way to go but hey, different cultures do different things, not for us to pooh-pooh! Some of the children were quite curious about us; they love when you show them a picture of themselves ... it usually means "yes, more more!".. its so great to see their wee faces light up and hear their giggles when they see the shots! Wish I had a portable printer so they could all get a copy there and then!

After this slightly jarring experience (the pig issue not the kids of course!), we visited another part of the village and the chief elder living there - what a sweetie! He seemed so delighted to meet us, and still likes to speak French; a leftover from his time working with them before the wars. As well as playing traditional Vietnamese music for us, he explained that everything was hand made from materials from the land, and he loved to play.. then he made us all take a shot to see if we a) liked it and b) could actually play anything tuneful! I did the scales which he said i did quite well (hmmn ole' smooth talker - who can get scales wrong!). So we all sat and chatted in French for a bit.. to him and his wife.. their faces had such incredible character... He explained that he is worried that alot of the traditional practices will disappear as none of the younger men in the village are interested in keeping them up - what a shame!

They invited us into their home; they were Catholic, but also believed in the God of fire and water. The people in this village have lived in the same houses for over a hundred years. Luong showed us one house with what looked like a large log underneath it.. It was a coffin, which are typically made from trees, picked especially from the forest and carved out for this purpose. They are kept under the house for the elderly in the family, while they are still living and get it ready for when they die (hmmn not so great to see that every day as you go out to do the shopping!). These people believe that when someone does die, they put them into the river and let the coffin float to wherever it stops. At that point, they take the coffin out of the water and bury the person next to this resting place... close to the earth and the water. And not in a traditional cemetary...

After this lovely visit, we headed out (as Luong had promised as it is Sunday!) to a wooden Catholic church, built in 1912. There were so many ethnic people at mass with their babies - we all noticed that babies don't cry here for some reason... they are very chatty and smiley but very few whiners around!

Then it was on to a tapioca farm to see how this vegetable (i think its a vegetable?) was put through a process that ended up with it in hard, white chunks (that looked a bit like chalk actually) then was pummeled down into powder and sold all over the country.

At this point it was time for some more history of war, so we headed out to Diem Cao 601 also known as Tank Hill and Skeleton Hill.. Eeerie names for this place, which had beautiful views of the surrounding area; hence it was of such a strategic importance! The memorial, although looks a bit worn, was only put up a few years ago to commemorate this area, which was a VC base that saw a number of very famous battles played out, with over 800 soldiers dying over 10 days around here. We saw bunker holes and the remains of a trench. Without sounding shallow, the more we discussed the details of the war, and saw the actual places where big events happened, it really made me realise i would be a terrible soldier (I'd be terrified the whole time and try to hide - i know i would!).. These children were playing up here and took a shiny to Jackie - they were too funny, especially when one of them tried to pull off her engagement ring.. no harm done although that child does have exquisite taste as Jackie's ring is quite lovely!

Then it was off to the remains of Phoenix Airport (that's what it was called folks) and Charlie Hill, where the Southern Vietnamese fought for over 40 days. Some gruesome stories about catching VC soldiers, tying them together and then electrocuting them all. Horrific. Don't know how Luong keeps all this info straight in his head - he knows so many details.. so forgive me any Vietnam scholars out there if ive gotten some stuff wrong (which im sure i have..).. too much to remember!

Just before we jumped on the bikes and headed into town, we saw this funny sight! Yup - here the motorbike is king of the road! It can carry people (whole generations at a time sometimes), animals (chickens are a favourite!) and now exercise equipment! Fantastic!

Time for lunch and then the excitement - we got to see the crossroads of Indochine. Amazing to stand in one spot and look around seeing Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos all at once. This land is so lush and green, its hard to believe there has been such heartache in all three of these countries; Vietnam and its wars, Cambodia and Pohl Pot and the Killing Fields and then Laos, apparantly one of the most bombed countries in the world! Lots of people do overland trips to both Laos and Cambodia from Vietnam but when i was first organizing this trip, I wasn't too sure about my plans so even tho' I'm so close, I'm flying to Bangkok first; doing some of Thailand then heading into Laos overland that way instead! Aah - its all the same in the end really!

Unfortunately, because it was a complete scorcher today, we didn't really stand around and contemplate too much here, although it was so beautiful! We needed the open road, the next stop on our exciting adventure and most importantly the wind in our hair - phew!!!

Later we visited another ethnic minority tribe - the H'long people - and walked across this scary suspension bridge, which the kids enjoyed running behind and in front of us, making the bridge wobble - ahh!! This lady invited us into her house to meet her family.... she was just lovely! (I know ...i overuse that descriptor and have to come up with another one - and quick smart!). One of the family members explained to us that if you do three years service in the army, you get a free TV, so in this wee house where everyone basically lived in one room, with the animals to the side, and the fire on the other side, there was this big TV in the middle of the room! Definitely felt a bit nervous we were being a bit exploitative again, as these people had so little and were so open with us....but they seemed happy enough and smiled and were curious about us, and asked where we came from.....sooooo I think it was all ok?

Then it was on to the "piece de resistance".....the Ho Chi Minh Trail! Everytime i said somewhere was really beautiful, Luong would say "it gets better than this... just wait and see". And how right he was. The area we drove along was quite close to the Cambodian border, at other times right next to Laos. It really was incredible.. so lush and green, very jungle like rain forests, tons of mist everywhere.... and so quiet. The HCM trail (as it was previously called; now its a brand new highway that spirals down through the jungle and takes place of the original "trail") was so quiet. There was literally no other traffic on the road except the odd motorbike, certainly no other tourists. It was so beautiful.. and so great to see how excited Luong gets taking people through this area, even tho' he has done it a ton of times before. I absolutely loved it here - it was really quite felt so lucky you could see all this; definitely more than off the beaten track and by far the highlight of our trip so far! The skies were picture perfect; blue with cotton clouds, mist over the jungle, you could really imagine how life would be for the American soldiers who realised the only way they could find the VC was to enter the jungle - wow, i wouldnt want to go in there. Even the VC sometimes got lost so the Americans wouldn't stand a chance! And just as luck would have it, when we were all standing admiring everything and saying how incredible it was; a rainbow appeared! What can i say - perfect, just perfect!

After this, well, nothing could top it .. well, ahem, nothing except dinner of course! We checked in; our last night together - what would we do without these guys? And then it was round the corner to dinner, at a fabby place the boys had already picked out, as usual! We all got chatting, and the rice wine came out, and the Dalat red wine, and then the black eggs. I'm sorry yes i said black eggs.. we had to try them of course, on a cracker with some shrimp and spicy sauce. Not bad although they looked awful! The night just got better and better.
Lew and Dave kissed (as you can see - they had become very close on this trip!); Luong went out during dinner after we had been talking about how much we liked the Vietnamese coffee and bought each of us a big bag of coffee and a traditional Vietnamese coffee filter - how fab is that! As I went around hugging the boys to say thanks I got more than a wee bitty tearful ("no, Stefanie tomorrow, tomorrow" they cried!). More rice wine was drunk - that stuff is like petrol but i have to admit, I had a few wee sips myself tonight as it was our last hurrah! As you can see the boys had more than a few!

After this we had to rush back to watch the football - did i tell you many Vietnamese are heavy gamblers. I had asked Luong if it was just a stereotype about Asian men specifically and he said no, and especially in Vietnam, people live in hope that they will win the lottery - mind you, i think that is true everywhere right! Anyway there was much money and anticipation riding on the England game (i think it was England vs Portugal maybe??) so we had to rush back to watch it over a few wee Tiger beers! Definitely a brilliant night out and just sad to know this is our last night together as tomorrow we head to Hoi An where we end the trip. What can i say - its been brilliant!!! Absolutely brilliant!


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