Archive for April, 2008

Apr 21 2008

The Killing Fields

Published by under Cambodia

You are sitting in your apartment, making breakfast and reading the newspaper, about to head to your office. Suddenly, screaming armed soldiers storm in your front door. They force you to abandon your home and join the swarming crowds of people on the street. Everyone is forced to march. Where, you don’t know. You see people beat and killed for nothing—reluctance to walk, or showing signs of intelligence. You dress like a peasant and feign ignorance to protect yourself. Days later, you arrive at a commune, where you will work indefinitely. You have no idea if your family and friends are safe or alive. Most likely, you will never see your loved ones or your home again.

During the 1960s, an ultra-Communist insurgency movement began gaining momentum in remote Cambodia, aided by Viet Cong troops. Increasingly frustrated with American bombing of Vietnamese-controlled Cambodian countryside, the party had no trouble recruiting a large peasant army. They called themselves the Khmer Rouge and they were led by a man named Pol Pot.

A disclaimer: this is not a happy history. Ben and I witnessed graphic depictions of life, torture and death in Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime. We chose to subject ourselves to it; you do not have to.

On April 17, 1975, Khmer Rouge troops stormed Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and Pol Pot became head of state. Art, religion, literature, and education were all abolished. The postal service ceased. Currency was eliminated. The year was declared Year Zero.

Pol Pot’s goal was to transform Cambodia into a radical “agrarian utopia.” He forced a mass exodus of all urban centers, marching the entire population out to the countryside to work on farming communes. Here they would labor, without enough food, separated from their families and homes, for the next four years. Of course, many of them would never make it out alive.

What Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge actually created was one of the cruelest genocidal regimes in history. They killed. You were killed if you were educated. If you’d traveled, or showed signs of Western influence. If you were smart. If you didn’t cooperate. If you objected or complained. If you ate too much food. If you spoke a foreign language. If your hands were too smooth. If you wore a wristwatch or eyeglasses. If you were suspected of wanting to escape. If you were deemed a traitor to the party.

Ben and I had come to Phnom Penh to experience two notorious vestiges of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime: the Killing Fields and the S-21 Prison. We’d heard from other travelers that it was a difficult, emotional experience, but not wanting to shelter ourselves from the cruel realities of history, decided to make the visit.

That morning, we hired a moto driver to take us through the dusty Cambodian countryside to the Killing Fields (officially the Cheoung Ek Genocidal Center), an area of land outside of the city where a large number of Khmer Rouge executions occurred. Almost immediately upon passing the small ticket booth at the entrance, we were confronted by a shocking site: a giant glass tower, packed with skulls. This stupa, erected as a monument to the victims found buried here in mass graves, contains shelf upon shelf of skulls—more than 8000 in total. On the floor lies a pile of discarded clothing, heaped haphazardly, just as their owners had been forced to shed them before death.

Around the grounds, signs demarcate the former buildings and sites where atrocities occurred: this is where the prison once stood, in which victims awaited their imminent execution. Here was the chemical shed, where they kept chemicals they sprinkled over mass graves to dispel the smell (to prevent suspicion from the neighbors) and kill anyone who may have been buried alive. Here was the killing tools storage room (not wanting to waste bullets, the Khmer Rouge used other implements, such as axes, hammers, bamboo poles, and garden hoes, to kill most people). Here was a mass grave of 166 victims without heads. Here was a mass grave of naked women. Here is the tree against which executioners beat children.

As we walked around the fields, unsuccessfully trying to comprehend such horrors, we noticed we were surrounded by strange craters in the earth. It took us a moment to realize that these were the remnants of shallow mass graves. A posted map denoted the areas where mass graves have been exhumed, as well as the area – nearly twice as big – where they have not uncovered the graves. So most of the victims’ remains are still underground, unknown, a jumble of bones.

From time to time, we were approached by groups of Cambodian children. They’d engage you in conversation for a while, as best they could, before asking you for money. “Just a dollar, mister,” they’d say, “for us to share.” Or, “for food” and “for school.”

It’s hard, but you have to say no. There are so many reasons for tourists not to give money to begging children; in fact, advertisements around Phnom Penh implore tourists not to.

The presence of these children makes the experience all the more heart breaking. This is a country ravaged by war, and the effects of Pol Pot’s reign are felt thirty years later. These people still live in severe poverty.

A moto driver took us to our next stop in the city, the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum. In 1975, Pol Pot’s security forces took over a high school in Phnom Penh, converting it into Security Prison 21 (S-21), also known as Tuol Sleng Prison. S-21 soon became the largest center for detention and torture in the country. At its peak, over 100 people died there per day. Some died while being tortured, others from malnutrition or disease. Even more were sent to Cheoung Ek for termination. Less than a dozen of the 14,000 people sent to Tuol Sleng survived.

What first struck me upon entering the complex is that it looks disarmingly like a high school. You can imagine students sitting behind desks aligned in rows on the checkered floor. Or students walking through the courtyard to make it to their next class. In fact, Ben pointed out that it was strikingly similar to our university’s dorms, which made the experience all the more disturbing.

Larger rooms of the high school were crudely divided into tiny, dark prison cells – so small Ben and I could hardly fit through the doors. The chains that had held the inmates remain attached to the wall. Rusty torture devices, such as whips or electrocution boxes, remain strewn on the floor. A layer of thick, twisted barbed wire cover the fronts of the buildings to prevent escape or suicide.

Other rooms of the Tuol Sleng Museum have been converted into galleries. Several rooms display the inmates’ mug shots. Others display pictures of the inmates as they lay tortured and dying. One gallery contained posted interviews with survivors of the regime, telling their story of survival, or the story of a family member who was not so lucky.

Another room contains artistic depictions of the various methods of torture and murder the Khmer Rouge employed. Pictures of water boarding, victims being covered with poisonous insects or having body parts removed. One particularly disturbing painting depicted a Khmer Rouge soldier ripping an infant from his mother’s arms by the ankle and flinging its body against a tree.

In 1979, the Vietnamese marched into Cambodia, overthrowing the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot in about two weeks. Pol Pot lived in exile until 1998, when he died of “natural causes” on the very day the UN announced he would be held accountable for his crimes.

No one is exactly sure how many people died under Pol Pot, although 1.5 million, or about 25% of the Cambodian population, is a conservative estimate.

The Cambodian people have come a long way since the Khmer Rouge, but Cambodia continues to be fraught with corruption and poverty. Ninety-five percent of the population remains in the countryside, too impoverished to seek a better life. Nor are they unaware that the current president is a deeply corrupt, former Khmer Rouge officer.

After walking through the museum, we sat for a while in the courtyard, trying to process what we’d seen. I am unable to convey in words how heart wrenching and emotional it is to visit these sites. Simply reliving my experience in order to write this blog entry has brought back the tears. It’s impossible to comprehend the depths of evil people are capable of. Nor do I attempt to understand why such horrors occur. And how some people, like myself, can be so fortunate, while others suffer horrible fates, for no reason other than the random location of their birth.

The only thing that kept me from sinking into complete despair was the museum guestbook that people from across the globe had signed with messages of sympathy, hope, and assurance.

If you’d like to see pictures of our experience, visit our Flickr page.

2 responses so far

Apr 20 2008


Published by under Travel

We have (finally) added restaurant reviews to our Trip Planning section! It is incomplete, like most of the other sections, but thanks to the expense and irregularity of internet access around here, we’ve reluctantly realized we’re going to have to wait until we’re back home to update the sections completely.

Secondly, we’re excited to bring to you AWESOME EUROS ATE MY DOLLARS T-SHIRTS. We’ve been working on a logo since Greece, but only now getting around to doing anything with it. Combining my rockin’ computer skillz and Ben’s love of vintage video games, it officially makes us the least cool people you know.

Visit our CafePress store to check out the tees … we hope to offer more products in the very near future!


8 responses so far

Apr 19 2008

The Motorcycle Diaries (Conclusion)

Published by under Central Highlands,Vietnam

Day 5

Riding to Nha Trang, VietnamLast night, Mr. Hoa indicated that he was feeling sick to his stomach, which suggests that my intolerance to eating wilted leaves for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is actually contagious. Our wake-up call this morning was at 5:30, and while Brittany, Mr. See, and myself dined on fried eggs (“omelettes”) Mr. Hoa sat sullenly at our table, shaking his head at the thought of trying to eat. Today was the fifth and final day of our motorcycle tour, and given Mr. Hoa’s present condition, our guides were suddenly eager to get us to our final destination, and begin the journey back home to Hoi An themselves.

“Final destination” originally meant Da Lat, back when we signed up for this tour. But sometime during the past five days, Mr. Hoa convinced us that we should instead go to Nha Trang. Nha Trang is only slightly farther down the road than Da Lat, and Mr. Hoa insisted that we would like it much better. (“Very beautiful! I’m sure!”) A little bit of online research one night this week showed that Nha Trang has another advantage over Da Lat: a train station. Now, we had originally planned to spend several days in Saigon and the Mekong Delta in the far south. But over these past few days, it’s begun to sink in just how little time we have left on this trip. Today is April 1st, and therefore, the first day that we can say: “we go home this month!” This prospect is equal parts happily relieving, and frighteningly disappointing. But most importantly, it’s a reminder that every day spend in Vietnam and Cambodia from this point on is one day fewer on the Thai beaches. It took about a second for this realization to sink in before Brittany and I simultaneously suggested cutting the rest of the Vietnamese south from our itinerary, in the name of making it to white sands that much sooner. Looking back, this may go down as the easiest decision of the trip.

Nha Trang’s train station links to Saigon, and Saigon links to Cambodia. Despite being lost in Vietnam’s Central Highlands this morning, getting to Nha Trang would mean that we could be in Cambodia tomorrow. A quick look at the scribbled itinerary we’ve been working from reveals that such a decisive move would add four days to our alotted beach beach vacation. Who ever said anything about Da Lat? Nha Trang, here we come!

Riding to Nha Trang, VietnamWith Mr. Hoa leading the way, we went FAST this morning. Weaving through traffic and flooring it on straight-aways, Mr. Hoa was a man possessed. Possessed by conflicting needs: first, a need to finish this trip and find a bed, and second, a need to pull over every hour for dry heaves. While Mr. Hoa relieved himself in some coffee fields at one rest stop, the rest of us drank tamarind juice and ate steamed corn. Hmm, I wrote that as a good thing, but I can see that it sounds sort of gross. I trusted Mr. See on it, and now you should trust me. But in the interest of full disclosure, my perspective might be slightly askew at this point in the trip. During the rest stop, I found myself peeing out in the open, facing the coffee fields, with my back to corn eaters in plastic roadside chairs, motorcycle drivers speeding down the road on my right, and a traditional spirit house fashioned from a broken TV shell sitting in a tree trunk on my left. And somehow finding all of this completely normal. It’s times like this I wonder: is returning home going to be a culture shock?

At around 11:00am, during another pit stop, Mr. Hoa motioned for me to come squat in the dirt beside the road with him. I did, and he began to draw a diagram in the dirt with a stick. He explained that in 50km, we would reach a fork in the road. There, one road would take us the final 30km to Nha Trang. The other would lead back to Hoi An, and home for the Misters. Mr. Hoa didn’t think he could make it all the way to Nha Trang and back, and he asked me if he could get us on a bus bound for Nha Trang once we reached the fork. That way, he and Mr. See could begin the return journey home with the 60km round-trip to and from Nha Trang. Just as I was saying “no problem,” a van came down the road with NHA TRANG written on a sticker on the windshield. Mr. Hoa flagged it down, and asked if they had room for two more. They did, and Mr. Hoa quickly paid them from his wallet for our passage. And in this way, our time with the Misters came to an unexpectedly abrupt end.

Last picture with the Misters!We got the van driver to take one last picture of the four of us before Britany and I crammed into the already-packed van (see right). The SE Asian idea of “room for two more” varies from the Western concept. We passed (and were passed by) the Misters a couple of times on the last stretch of road leading to the fork, but we lost them forever when the van stopped for lunch at a roadside dive. The last thing Mr. Hoa asked us was to mail him a copy of our photo of the elephant penis. We’ll miss you too, Mr. Hoa.

Explore the Vietnam Central Highlands on Motorcycle: Misson Accomplished!

The rest of our trip to Nha Trang was strange. For reasons we still haven’t figured out, the driver of our van passed Brittany and me off onto a different van driver a few miles down the road. Once again, money exchanged hands between drivers, and we were passed off like cargo. We didn’t mind the switch, because this latest van’s karaoke system was mercifully broken. While our Vietnamese co-passengers rode in disappointment, we experienced our first peaceful van ride in this country. It’s a given that the vans and buses in Vietnam never have A/C (this is doubly true for the ones touted as having A/C at the booking agency) but no ride is deemed road-worthy unless it has mounted TVs and blaring karaoke. Stepping into the van to find a broken karaoke system will always be one of my happiest memories of Vietnam.

In the end, we did make it to Nha Trang, where he headed straight for the train station and bought two tickets on the overnight train to Saigon. When I told one crazy British woman where we were headed, she looked around in fear, as if I’d just confessed to being involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the national government, and then urgently whispered: “it’s Ho Chi Minh City!” Lady, NOBODY calls it Ho Chi Minh City. Not the southerners, not the northerners, not anyone. If Ho Chi Minh himself reanimated tomorrow, and heard you walking around calling it “Ho Chi Minh City,” HE’D think you’re a psycho. Of course, he’d still eat your brains, because zombies aren’t picky like that.

Our accelerated gameplan went off seamlessly, and the next morning, we departed Saigon on a bus bound for the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. But not before being ripped off one last time before escaping the country. On the way to the Cambodian border, bus company employees came around to collect our passports, and money to pay for our Cambodian visas. We knew from prior research that a Cambodian visa costs $20 US, so we were surprised when the employee held out his hand and asked for $24 each. We both resisted, insisted that the price is $20, and I tried to hand him $40 for our two visas. But he wasn’t having this. Acting like he didn’t understand me, he simply stood there with his hand out, repeating his price. By now we’d attracted the attention of the passengers around us, especially those who had already shelled out $24 each. We continued to insist that we would pay $20, and when he continued to ignore this, we said we would wait and pay the officials ourselves at the border. But when his response was to refuse to service other passengers until we’d paid our $24, he slyly turned pressure from our fellow travelers onto us. We finally paid him his $48, but when our bus finally arrived at the travel agency’s office in Phnom Penh, Brittany instantly marched inside the office and demanded to know why we’d been overcharged. Their response: “take it up with the bus drivers.” Back outside at the bus, the drivers’ response was: “take it up with the office.” Then, the bus pulled away once more, and our $8 was never to be seen again.

We sought a moral victory by refusing to use the agency’s affiliated tuk-tuk drivers, who were eager to ferry us to our guesthouse in the city. Not that they were ever going to get more money out of us at this point, but they didn’t help their cause when they watched me walk in the direction of an independent tuk-tuk driver parked down the block. They jeered, “Why you want to go with him? He is a stupid farmer. He not even know English!” Like many SE Asian tuk-tuk drivers, the older man WAS clearly a farmer who had been forced to abandon his fields in search of better income. I showed him where we wanted to go on a map, and he knew enough English to quote me a much better price than the evil company vampires were demanding. As we smugly rode off in this tuk-tuk, the farmer turned around to look at me, and pointing to the company drivers, disgustedly drew one finger across his throat. I said, “I feel the same way.”

BONUS: Although we were only in Saigon for a matter of hours, we did manage to get a good video of typical traffic in the capital city. This is pretty much the same scene you see every day in Hanoi as well. Notice the complete absence of traffic signals and painted lanes. Rule #1 in Vietnam: every man for himself!

Afternoon Traffic in Saigon from Brittany & Ben on Vimeo.

One response so far

Apr 18 2008

The Motorcycle Diaries (Part 2)

Published by under Central Highlands,Vietnam

Day 3

Mr. Hoa had made it clear he was not looking forward to day number three of our journey. Day three was the hard push: we had to cover 300 kilometers of ground today in order to have any hope of reaching our destination within five days.

on hammocks, central highlands, vietnam
Taking a much-needed break at a roadside drink
stand … on hammocks.

What Mr. Hoa doesn’t realize is that, aside from the burning butt, riding is my favorite part: the beautiful scenery, our quick stops at juice stands and rice stalls, our brief but enlightening interaction with locals. Kind of feels like we’re observing something special, something few outsiders get to see.

We’d been riding for a couple of hours this morning, and I’d managed to find a position, wedged between my luggage and Mr. Hoa, that was only mildly uncomfortable as opposed to actively painful. Lulled by the hum of the wind in my ears and the sunshine on my face, my mind began to wander, and I started to nod off. Scents recall places and memories for me more than anything else. So when I caught a whiff of something distinctly familiar, my attention was called back to earth. “Smells like home!” I exclaimed.

Mr. Hoa responded with a “good driver!” and a thumbs up.

Only then did I realize that we’d turned off the main street onto a dirt road, flanked on either side by dense woods. But they weren’t banana or coconut or rubber or mangrove trees. What I smelled was pine.

Although I tried to explain, I don’t think Mr. Hoa ever understood why we were so excited by trees.

Turns out that the pine forest surrounded a massive lake, and Mr. Hoa pulled over for photos and a cigarette. We noticed a raised observation pagoda on the water’s edge. As we approached the pagoda, however, we realized that no one was looking out at the beautiful natural scenery. In fact, every person on the platform was turned away from the lake and was staring at one thing: Ben and me.

As we uncomfortably climbed the stairs of the pagoda, we realized they were not only staring, they were snapping pictures of us with their camera phones. Most notably, a group of giggly high school girls. Ben and I don’t really know how to respond to this, but he offered an awkward “sin jao” (hello) as we reached the top and the crowd parted to let us through. This elicited a chorus of “sin jao”s in response and more laughter from the girls. As we walked over to the railing and I began snapping photos of my own, I figured the crowd must’ve gotten over the anomaly of two white people in their midst, until I turned around and realized that the entire group was still unabashedly gawking at us. Ben later told me that, as I had my back turned, some of the braver girls had snuck up behind me and had their friends take a quick photo of them with a giant American girl.

group picture

We were soon approached by a shy Vietnamese girl, who said something to us in (surprise) Vietnamese. Apologizing, we said we couldn’t understand. Eventually she made it clear that she and her boyfriend wanted to take a picture with us. So we followed her to where she had a professional photographer set up and ready to take a picture of the four of us. As we followed her, the rest of the crowd atop the pagoda followed us, and formed a semi-circle behind the photographer to watch. When Ben reached out to hand our camera to someone so we could have a picture, each girl he approached ran away, giggling. A boy from the group stepped forward, eliciting more giggles and a round of “oooooohhhh”s from the girls.

When we walked back to the parking lot to find the Misters, the same couple we’d taken a picture with motioned for us to come sit with them. Since we couldn’t understand a word the other said, we mostly just stared at each other. They did offer us some of their coconut, and showed us a copy of the picture we’d just taken. They’d printed them out at a nearby photo booth.

We are deep in the heart of the Central Highlands now and draw attention wherever we go. Even as we ride, busloads of people will hang their heads out of the windows as they pass, flagrantly staring at Ben or me. Social norms back home dictate that whenever someone catches you staring at them, you quickly avert your eyes. Not so here, I’ve found.

When we stopped for lunch at a roadside com (rice) joint, I commented to Ben that I was started to get really tired of being made into such a spectacle. At that moment, the owner came up behind us, grabbed the back of my head and pivoted it such that I was facing her daughter, who stood at the ready with their camera phone. They continued to snap pictures as we straddled our bikes and drove away.

We later asked Mr. Hoa why everyone wanted pictures of us. He responded with a vague, “good girl, good boy, very beautiful, I am sure.”

We stopped this evening at a small hotel (really, a cluster of electricity-free bungalows) situated near a river. We saw signs advertising a nearby waterfall, but were too exhausted, and our butts far too sore, to do any exploring. We instead sat in a bamboo hut, drinking Cokes, talking with Mr. Hoa and (as best we could) Mr. See, and watching the far-off flickers of fire from the burning rice fields on the mountains.

The most notable feature of this hotel is the horde of cicadas (“yeah-yeahs,” in Vietnamese) that reside in the treetops and/or writhe around on the ground. They are LOUD. The noise got so bad tonight I had to nearly scream to make myself heard at dinner. I don’t know anything about the life cycle of cicadas, but it must be dying time for them, because as we walked through the hotel grounds, we’d occasionally get smacked in the face with one falling from above. They fight death valiantly, though. Throughout the night, in addition to their deafening buzz, we heard thumps as they flung their bodies against our door, refusing to simply lie there and die. Thank God for earplugs.

Day 4

Had to suffer through pho again for breakfast this morning. What I wouldn’t give for a donut.

Waterfalls are common in this part of the world. We even see them on the side of the road as we drive down a highway. Mr. Hoa excitedly told us that our first stop today would be the largest waterfall in the region. We’ve seen several big waterfalls during this leg of our trip, and I can’t say my excitement matched our guide’s.

waterfall, central highlands, vietnamBut this waterfall was a little different. In fact, Ben might describe it as “epic.” It was more along the lines of Niagara (I could feel the spray before I even saw the falls) than the small-mountain-stream falls we’ve seen before. What’s most striking about truly large waterfalls is how powerful they are. Makes them as scary as they are beautiful.

We’re reaching the end of dry season now. I can’t imagine how massive the falls will be in the rainy season.

We paused up at the lodge to pick up some water. It’s hot already, even at 9:00am, and our thirty-minute hike had me sweating through my clothes. I try to dress conservatively, as S.E. Asians do, to be culturally sensitive, but it’s hard to opt for long pants when it’s a hundred degrees outside.

As we sat there, resting, we noticed a large family enjoying bananas. We asked a staff member if they had any bananas for sale, but they did not. Evidently, the family overheard us, and we were surprised when, a few moments later, a woman approached us with a gift of four bananas. She must’ve been a nun of some sort, as she was wearing a gray habit-like head covering. She spoke perfect English, which shocked us. We haven’t heard English in this part of the country, aside from Mr. Hoa (we’d even had to mime “banana” to the lodge staff). Not only was she fluent in English, she knew where Virginia was. “Oh yes,” she said. “Virginia, Washington, Maryland.” We were blown away. On the rare occasion that anyone over here has even heard of Virginia, they’ve never, ever known where it is.

Before they left, they brought over more food so that we would have snacks “for later”: a long loaf of bread, and some strange, lumpy, oblong vegetables. She described them as Vietnamese sweet potatoes. We asked Mr. Hoa, who confirmed them as tamarinds. We’d had tamarind juice, but never tried the real thing. They really do taste and feel like sweet potatoes, only sweeter (thus, better).

nice family that gave us bananas

THIS is why I love this tour so much. I’ve come to associate Vietnam (and travel, in general) with people trying to rip me off. But these small moments, when you connect with a local, despite language barriers or vastly different perspectives, change everything instantly. It reaffirms my faith in the kindness of humanity and inspires me to see what else the world has to offer.

Okay, enough of the sappy, cliché diatribe.

We got back on the road, but, thankfully, did not have very far to ride today, as my butt started hurting earlier than usual. Our destination was a resort, strangely located in the middle of nowhere, but enough of a tourist attraction that we saw other white people for the first time in four days.

We decided to take another elephant ride (because who can resist, when it’s offered?). THIS time, we were elephant riding through a river. Apparently, the elephant had been worked too hard that day, as when we reached the middle of the river, he decided he wasn’t going to continue. Despite our mahout’s whips, yells, and banana bribes, the elephant would not budge. Granted, the elephant was huge (quite a bit taller than our first one), and with every step he took, his leg would sink down several feet into the river mud, making it even harder for him to walk. Once the mahout finally got the elephant moving, he exited the river at first opportunity. As this wasn’t his typical route, he was unaware that low-hanging electrical wires, strung between two bamboo poles to provide electricity to the villagers, crossed the path. The mahout had to gingerly lift the wires with his whipping pole, yelling at Ben when he attempted to help for fear of electrocuting poor, unsuspecting tourists, to allow the elephant to lumber through.

We were then dropped off at our hotel by the elephant, which was a novel and unexpected experience, particularly when we had to maneuver around a water buffalo that had somehow found itself on the lawn of our hotel. Where am I??

elephant penis
Elephant penis. Sorry, couldn’t resist posting this one.

Even though we wanted to nap this afternoon, Mr. Hoa’s endless energy insisted that we drive further up the mountain to a scenic overlook. Instead of actually enjoying the beautiful views, he ended up spending most of the time laughing over a picture he’d captured of the elephant’s penis. Oh, we also taught him the word “penis,” upon his request. I’m sure future tour-takers will appreciate this.

A local hill tribe comes to the resort nightly to perform traditional dances for the tourists, so come sunset, we made our way to a bamboo longhouse to watch the show. We were able to partake in traditional hill tribe wine, made out of tapioca, that apparently Ho Chi Minh made in the wilderness when he was a soldier. Both Ben and I enjoyed tonight’s music more than either of us thought we would (since I don’t typically enjoy music described as “traditional” or “tribal”). To Mr. Hoa’s delight, we were invited to dance with the tribe during the last song. Once again, he grabbed our camera and started snapping pictures, laughing the entire time.

Dinner at this hotel was better than our typical tour fare (the highlands don’t have the culinary variety of Vietnamese cities). As tomorrow’s 5:30 wake-up call looms ever-closer, we called it an early night.

Tomorrow: The Last Day

No responses yet

Apr 17 2008

The Motorcycle Diaries (Part 1)

Published by under Central Highlands,Vietnam

“Good driver! I’m sure!”, Mr. Hoa shouts, pointing to himself, immediately after steering the bike around another pothole. I can’t hear him over the roar of my own bike, but I see Brittany’s shoulders bouncing in laughter as she clings to Mr. Hoa up ahead, and I know exactly what he’s saying. Vietnam’s Central Highlands provide plenty of opportunities for Mr. Hoa and Mr. See to show off their hazard-dodging prowess, and given the oddly proportioned luggage we’ve had them strap on the back of the bikes, they’re both doing an admirable job of keeping us upright. As we honk and weave our way through a herd of water buffalo plodding across the highway, I can only wonder… how did I get here?

Vietnam Central Highlands Motorbike Tour
Brittany and Mr. Hoa

We’d spotted Mr. Hoa’s sandwich board advertisement while bicycling around Hoi An one afternoon. “Central Highlands Motorbike Tours” it promised. With “MR. HOA – EASY RIDER!” The Easy Riders, as they call themselves, are a loosely organized group of motorcycle drivers, offering guided tours through parts of Vietnam not serviced by the well-beaten tourist trail. We didn’t know much about the Easy Riders, mainly because we’d written off their services as too expensive upon learning that they charge $60 US per passenger per day. There are really no words to describe how much money $60 is in Central Vietnam. At those rates, an Easy Rider could work five days a year, and have the rest free to concentrate on blowing up small planets with one of his Death Stars. But just in case, we put the kickstands up next to the sandwich board, and poked our heads into the shop. A shirtless Mr. Hoa greeted us, and cheerfully pulled a plastic table and chairs off a stack, and into the center of the room. Thirty minutes later, we walked out with an agreement for a five-day tour, with two drivers, at $35 per person per day. We had sealed the deal with a handshake and a “Cheap price for you! I’m sure!” from Mr. Hoa.

So, at 9:30 the next morning, Mr. Hoa and Mr. See showed up on their motorcycles at our hotel, ready to pick us up. Us and two backpacks, two small rolling suitcases, and one newly acquired giant duffel bag, packed full of tailored clothes. Despite having seen one biker carrying a TREE on the back of his bike in Hanoi, I still had my concerns about whether all of this would really fit on two motorcycles. The Misters had no such concerns – they brought heavy-duty rubber straps for the job, and they got to work constructing a small tower of luggage on the back of each bike. The towers turned out to make nice backrests for Brittany and me, especially after our drivers added a couple of duffel bags of their own.

We had five days stretching out ahead of us over the winding mountain roads, and absolutely no idea what to expect. These are our motorcycle diaries.

Day 1

Today’s mission: reach a small town called Phuoc Son, 200 km south of Hoi An. Just getting out of Hoi An’s influence and into the highlands took a couple of hours this morning. But once we did, the green mountain scenery was beautiful. We were lucky to have beautiful weather today as well, although it does get hot on the bikes, baking in the sun. The wind from our speed helps, but we both managed to get a little sunburned. I am riding with Mr. See, and Brittany rides with Mr. Hoa. Mr. See doesn’t speak any English, but Mr. Hoa talks enough for more than two men. His English is broken, but he impressed us both when he told us he learned it simply by listening to the tourists!

In addition to being our driver, Mr. Hoa is also our local guide, translator, and photgrapher. He is constantly stopping our caravan to show us a photo opportunity that he thinks we need to capture, or urgently motioning for our camera, and capturing it himself. He has a passionate interest in photography – our photography, to be precise – and he is always looking over my shoulder to ensure that I capture a particular scene the way that he wants. And speaking of looking over shoulders, I think he has become a little nervous about undercutting the typical Easy Rider price: he made us promise today, that if we meet any other Easy Rider passengers, to tell them we’re paying $50 each.

We made a stop today at a pineapple farm, where Brittany and I were both shocked to discover that pineapples DON’T grow on trees! They grow in the center of spiny plants on the ground. Who knew? I guess the Misters, because I have never seen two men laugh as hard as they did when we confessed to our belief in pineapple trees. Mr. Hoa told us that he used to work on this pineapple farm as a kid, after being orphaned during the war. An American bomb killed his parents and all NINE siblings, when he was only eight months old. With no parents to foot the bill, he never even went to school. He noticed the guilty look on our faces when he told us about the bomb, and immediately tried to reassure us with: “Is OK today, no problem. I’m sure!” accompanied by high-fives. Mr. Hoa asked the lady who owns the farm to cut us up a fresh pineapple, and we ate it dipped in salt.

We made it to Phuoc Son early in the evening, with enough daylight for Brittany and me to do some exploring on foot while the Misters showered before dinner. The difference between this small town and the cities on the tourist track is amazing. We draw stares everywhere we go, and people are constantly happily greeting us with the one English word they know: “Hello!” Especially the children – they love to come racing out of their homes, screaming “Hello! Hello! Hello!” as they follow us down the street. The friendly interaction with people is is so refreshing after Hoi An’s incessant “buy someting?”

We were greeted by one man during our walk who seemed to be working on a house. He asked where we were going, in perfect English, and whether we would like to go see an “ancient airport.” It turns out that he is former English teacher, and Catholic seminarian. He is currently working for a humanitarian organization, helping the poor in this region. He accompanied us to the “ancient airport,” which turned out to be a trash-strewn field that the Americans used as a landing strip for a few years. I took his picture with Brittany, but at his insistence, only from the waist up. He was a little embarassed to be wearing neon yellow running shorts. At dinner, Mr. Hoa made fun of us for thinking pineapples grow on trees.

Day 2

Woke up a little later than intended this morning, causing us to be twenty minutes late to our scheduled 7:00am breakfast meeting with the Misters. Breakfast was pho, a typical Vietnamese dish that’s very much like chicken noodle soup, and I found eating this for breakfast to be more unsatisfactory than I could have imagined. Also, I guess it didn’t mix well with a potent Vietnamese coffee, because soon after hopping on the bikes and hitting the road, I began to feel very nauseous. This was unfortunate timing, because we had to cover 250km today. So between my aching stomach and aching butt (the motorcycle seat is wearing thin already!) my day was slightly more uncomfortable than I would have liked.

But we did visit a beautiful waterfall before lunch, which lived to the hype Mr. Hoa had been heaping on it since we set off yesterday. Lunch was the standard rice + wilted leaves + unidentifiable meat, but I was not feeling well enough to partake. Mr. Hoa didn’t seem to understand at first (“No! Eat now! No other restaurant all afternoon! I’m sure!”) but he did catch on, and he’s currently asking me how I feel at every stop. His interest in my health extends to monitoring what things I do try to eat to soothe my stomach. He has jumped in to prevent me from trying a couple of different snacks today, by snatching them from my hand, making a sick face and rubbing his stomach in agony.

Vietnam Central Highlands Motorbike TourAfter taking so much amusement from our pineapple plant revelation, Mr. Hoa made sure to extend our agriculture lesson today. We made several stops to see rubber trees, coffee plants, and pepper plants. The sheer number of rubber trees boggles the mind. We saw them planted in precise lines for farther than the eye can see, in every direction. The farmers strip a section of the bark each year, and collect the rubber cement-like goo that secretes. Next year, they will strip a different section, and in this way, the tree will be able to heal and produce rubber for years. After each plant introduction, Mr. Hoa looked at us expectantly, I suppose hoping that we’d reveal our belief that rubber grows on beanstalks, or coffee grows on puppies. We disappointed him each time, but his laughter any time we see a pineapple plant hasn’t really diminished, so I don’t pity him too much.

We visited the village of an ethnic minority people late this afternoon, where we saw old women carrying handicrafts into town in large shoulder-slung baskets, and naked children bathing in communal outdoor tubs of water. While we were walking around, it suddenly started to rain. Hard. Mr. Hoa had us quickly duck into a village home for shelter, and I can only assume that he asked for permission later. The home consisted of one room, formed out of 3 1/2 wooden walls covered with a leaky sheet of aluminum. In one corner stood a rasied wooden platform, serving as both bed and sitting area, depending on the time of day. The only other piece of furniture was a foot-powered sewing machine, until the house’s resident elder pulled in a torn leather stool from beneath an overhand outdoors.

The home-owners did not, of course, speak a word of English, but they were very kind to share their shelter with us for half an hour. “Thank you” is one of two things I know how to say in Vietnamese, so I said it again and again when the rain died down and we prepared to leave. But it elicited no response other than confused looks, which seemed less like the “WHAT the devil are you saying?” looks that I’m comfortably accustomed to, and more like “why would you thank me for letting you take shelter from the rain?” I tried to imagine a foursome of strangers barging into MY home on no more pretense than “hey, it’s raining,” and I’m fairly sure that my reaction would somehow involve the police. So thank you, people from the tribe I can’t pronounce, for your naked babies, your dry footstools, and for not calling the cops. I appreciate the gesture, even if there is no phone in your house. Or your village. Or the police station.

Vietnam Central Highlands Motorbike TourI didn’t eat at dinner either, until Mr. Hoa insisted that the waiter at our restaurant bring me an omelette. Why an omelette, I have no idea. I don’t speak Vietnamese, but I speak body language, and I watched the waiter make it clear that his restaurant does not serve omelettes. Resistance to Mr. Hoa is futile however, and ten minutes later, I was served an omelette that, if I COULD speak Vietnamese, I would have told the waiter I didn’t really want in the first place. For the sake of clarity, I was actually served fried eggs, but that’s what the Vietnamese call an omelette, and we stopped arguing that one back in Hanoi. Surprisingly, the omelette turned out to be the first thing I was able to fully stomach since breakfast. I guess resistance to Mr. Hoa really IS futile…

Next time: The Motorcycle Diaries, Part 2

2 responses so far

Apr 15 2008

Hoi An: Hello, you buy someting?

Published by under Hanoi,Hoi An,Vietnam

“Wake up! We are in Hoi An. We would like for you to get off of the bus now to look at this hotel. This hotel has pool, bicycles, is your home away from home. It is very cheap, very nice. The places in the center of Hoi An are many more expensive and very bad.”

I woke up from the brief nap I’d been enjoying on the bus ride from Hue (say it: Hway) to Hoi An to find that the rickety bus had stopped in front of a large hotel just outside of the old city center, and a bus company representative was starting his sales pitch. Unfortunately, along with those friendly convenience store stops you have to endure when riding a bus in SE Asia, you also have to put up with stopping at some hotel that has bribed the bus company.

“Seriously?” I said to Ben, groggily. “We have to deal with this crap again?”

“Madam,” a hotel employee said, walking up to our seats. “Have you booked hotel in Hoi An?

“No, we haven’t,” I replied.

“Please, come see a room in this hotel. Just a moment, that is all.”

“That’s okay, we would like to check out several guesthouses.”

“But do you know that they are not as good and more expensive? Many people in the center try to sell you bad hotels. This hotel is very nice.”

“No, thank you.”

“Just come see, if you no like, you no stay, get back on the bus.”

Thanks to his unwavering insistence and Ben’s realization that we could hop off the bus here and easily walk to other guesthouses in the area, we reluctantly agreed. It was a fine hotel and a fine price, but because I’m so tired of people pushing stuff on me and I do not want to encourage this sort of behavior, I refused to stay. Ben, who was more tired and is generally more reasonable, did not agree. But he indulged my righteous indignation, the patient man he is, and we set off to check out other hotels. (Although the bus company refused to let us actually disembark at this hotel – they insisted that if we were not going to rent a room, we would have to re-board the bus and be taken to the actual bus stop in town.)

We found a room relatively easily, thanks to a guidebook recommendation, that turned out to be cheaper and had wifi – painfully slow wifi, but wifi nonetheless. Plus it had pink, ruffle-y mosquito nets, instead of your plain, boring white ones!

We’d read that Hoi An has its own regional culinary specialties, and since “culinary specialties” are our specialty, we sought out a restaurant about an hour after arriving in the city and ordered every single one.

As we sat on the outdoor patio waiting for our food to arrive, a woman walked up to us carrying… one of those things. You know, those things. You don’t know? I just realized I have no idea what they’re called. Let’s call them flibbertigibbets. It’s a long bamboo pole with woven baskets hanging from each end that a person hoists on one shoulder – they are ubiquitous in SE Asia, and a very popular way for women, in particular, to transport items or sell their wares. Here’s what I mean:
the streets of Hanoi

So ANYWAY, a really old woman carting a flibbertigibbet walked up to our table. “Hello, hello!” she said, loudly.

“Hello,” we replied. She stared at us for a minute.

“HELLO,” she said again, motioning to her baskets, full of an unidentifiable small, brown fruit.

“Uh, hello, no thanks,” we replied, shaking our heads.

“HELLO, HELLO,” she said again, as she picked up a bunch of these fruits and shook them in my face.

“Hello! No, thank you!” I said, and she resignedly walked away.

“Pretty convincing sales pitch she has,” Ben noted.

It was a fitting start to our days in Hoi An. As the city is smack on the well-defined tourist trail of Vietnam, the merchants of Hoi An have learned a little English to help them communicate with us tourists. Unfortunately, their vocabulary consists of four words: “hello, you buy someting?”

You cannot walk down the street in Hoi An without hearing “hello, you buy someting?” from nearly every Vietnamese person you pass. I one day hope to find the English-speaking tourist who decided to educate the citizens of Hoi An so I can give him or her the giant slap they deserve.

Because it doesn’t even make sense. It’s not “welcome to my shop” or “please have a look around.” After about a dozen “hello, you buy someting?”s and a dozen “no, thanks,” in return, I’d shout “Look, the fact that you have this cart/stand/store/flibbertigibbet set up indicates to me that you indeed have goods available for sale. So ‘hello, you buy someting?’ is annoyingly redundant. If I want to purchase anything, I will browse your wares. Maybe, then, I will ‘buy something.’”

To which they reply, “hello, you buy someting?”

We were both feeling irritable, sniffle-y and sore throat-y during our first days in Hoi An, which we used as an excuse to stay in bed, drink banana shakes, and watch satellite TV. Aside from MTV Asia, which plays awesome Asian boy band videos, there was one English-speaking channel option on our guesthouse TV – a channel called Star Movies. Apparently, to make it into Star Movies’ rotation, it is required that a movie have a budget of less than my monthly salary, star as many D-list actors as possible, and have been seen in theaters by no more than a couple dozen people worldwide. Bonus if the movie went straight to DVD.

We watched Vin Diesel’s “The Pacifier,” a movie starring the Duff sisters (Hillary AND Hayley), a movie where they make a really big deal out of Kirsten Dunst boinking a Hispanic guy, and a movie about a vampire baby. Over and over and over again.

But, honestly, we enjoyed it anyway. ‘Cause some days you just want to do nothing and gorge yourself on junk food.

Speaking of which, the tourist industry of SE Asia has determined that Westerners need two food items in order to survive: Pringles and Oreos. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a vendor selling Pringles and Oreos in any SE Asian city that’s remotely touristed.

I don’t even LIKE Pringles or Oreos, and have no idea why they’ve decided these are the mainstays of the Western diet. But you know what? They’ve starting to convince me that, yes, in fact, I really do need those Pringles! I’m not going to lie: meal after meal of rice or noodles makes those American snacks start to look pretty darn tasty, my friends. You can try to resist, but your efforts are futile. I find myself actively craving something I don’t think I’ve ever in my life bought at home. I’ll be lying in bed at night cursing myself for not picking up a package of Oreos at the minimart.

When we finally got around to exploring Hoi An, we discovered that it is a beautiful, charming coastal town: crumbling colonial-style yellow buildings line a waterfront crowded with colorful fishing boats. It’s been an important port town for centuries and, like so many places in Vietnam, is a UNESCO World Heritage site

Of course, none of that is why anyone comes to Hoi An. People come to Hoi An for one reason: its the best place in SE Asia to buy cheap, custom-tailored clothes. The citizens of Hoi An have taken advantage of their reputation and every other store in the city is a tailor shop.

Ben and I were wary, as usually, and unlike everyone around us, hadn’t come to Hoi An expecting to tailor clothes. I didn’t want to get carried away and end up ordering a bunch of clothes that turn out to be junk – we’d heard many a horror story about bogus tailors, or just shoddy ones.

I had to admit, though, that the idea of it did intrigue me. Thanks to my gangly limbs, I can’t ever find clothes that fit me. Could they actually make clothes here that go down to my ankles and wrists? How novel!

So one afternoon we reticently stepped into a tailor shop off of the main street – one we’d heard was reputable and, even from the outside, seemed more legit that its colleagues. As I suspected, it didn’t take long for us to get swept up in the process, as we perused catalogues, marveled at the hundreds of gorgeous fabrics lining the walls and watched as many happy customers came and went with their beautiful, perfectly-fitting clothes. I couldn’t help myself: I ended up ordering a winter coat and dress pants. Ben, who’d been sitting quietly at a table, leisurely flipping through catalogues, surprised me with the announcement that he was going to order a suit. So he spent the next hour browsing various fabrics and fits and dictating exactly how he wanted his new suit to look. His custom-tailored, Italian wool/cashmere blend, pinstriped suit ended up costing a whopping $130.

Ben being fitted for a shirtThanks to their incredible one-day turnover, we turned up at the shop the next afternoon to find our clothes were ready for our first fitting.

I can’t describe the feeling as I pulled on my new pants. I nearly cried. They didn’t tug in any places, they didn’t bunch. They went all the way down to the floor, they didn’t squeeze my waist. They fit me perfectly. It was like they were made for me.

I know what you’re thinking: DUH. That’s what custom tailored clothes are all about! I know, I know. But actually experiencing it was, after a lifetime of wardrobe frustration, a near miracle.

So I ordered another coat, three more pairs of pants, a business suit and a dress. Oops! Then Ben realized he could order ties at $4 a pop from any material that struck his fancy. Yeah, we spent the majority of our day at the tailor’s. We had to buy additional luggage to carry our purchases home from the enterprising young women selling just that in the local markets.

To get around town, Ben and I had rented bicycles on our first day in Hoi An (at less than $1 per day). We didn’t have the guts to rent them in Hanoi, even though it’s a popular local way to get around, but we felt safe in Hoi An, which is notably quieter, quainter and less trafficked.

bikes in Hoi An Rented bicycles in Vietnam come with two fun features that you don’t find on bicycles ridden by those above the age of ten in the States: baskets and bells. I enjoyed carting things around in my basket probably more than most healthy 25-year-olds should.

Ben and I decided to adopt the local horn-usage technique when riding through Hoi An. That is, honk incessantly to alert others of your presence. They, in turn, better get out of the way or be run over! The tinny ping of a bicycle bell doesn’t have quite the same effect as a blaring car horn, but it worked nonetheless! We received strange stares from pedestrians and moto drivers as we careened through intersections ringing our bells like crazy, but every one of them paused to let us pass.

By the end of our time in Hoi An, Ben and I were desperate to get off the tourist track, a surprisingly difficult proposition in this country. We have experienced our most challenging culture clash yet in Vietnam. We’d had several other frustrating incidents, including one with a cobbler in which I had to get all in her face and sassy, which I really did not want to DO, but I’m sorry, I’m not going to pay for shoes I did not order! Tired of being seen only as giant walking dollar signs, we hired two drivers and two motorbikes, piled our luggage on the backs, and decided to head for the hills!

8 responses so far

« Prev - Next »