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War And...

Seeking Peace In Vietnam, and Finding It In... Me

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View Asia '08 on Bwinky's travel map.

I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

For Americans of three generations, there is possibly no country on Earth that has left as deep an imprint on the psyche as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The images of our military involvement there -- a Viet Cong guerilla with a pistol to his head, Jane Fonda sitting on a North Vietnamese cannon, a little girl running naked from her burning village, the last helicopter leaving the roof of the American embassy as Saigon fell to the communists -- are indelibly burned on our imagination.

Only thirty-three years ago

But what is Vietnam today? This narrow strip of a nation with over 80 million people, stretching from the mountainous Chinese border in the North to the delta of the mighty Mekong in the South; is it still the jungle quagmire where America lost such a huge piece of its innocence?

In a word, not even remotely. OK, that was actually three words. But Vietnam today defies easy description. The old coexists with the new in Vietnam in ways that are immediately apparent to the visitor.

Duality in today’s Vietnam

For starters, like its giant neighbor to the north, Vietnam has chosen a middle path that maintains authoritarian governmental control while jettisoning communist collectivism in favor of a market economy. And the Vietnamese people, entrepreneurial to the core, have embraced it whole-heartedly; witness the taxi driver with a faulty meter who ripped us off for a 5km ride costing $30.

We arrived in Hanoi, the former capital of communist North Vietnam, from Shanghai. We had heard wonderful descriptions of the French colonial Old Quarter, and came with visions of quietly crumbling cafes, breakfasts munching crispy baguettes with espresso, peaceful Buddhist temples amid misty lakes, and locals in conical hats on bicycles.

The Hanoi of our dreams

Well, there are bikes on the road in Hanoi, but the vast majority are motorbikes -- swarms of them. They are everywhere.

Adventures in crossing the street

Now, credit where credit is due: the baguettes in Vietnam are actually the best I’ve ever tasted, even better than in France. But truthfully, Hanoi’s Old Quarter was a bit of a let-down. Oh, the faded elegance of bygone colonial days is there, but it’s mostly plastered over with billboards for Levis, signs for travel agencies and cheap backpacker guesthouses, and awnings for silk shops.

Gallic goodness... it’s in there somewhere

The biggest black mark for Hanoi, though, was that it was incredibly stressful to walk around. There is the constant buzz of motorbikes, the drivers of which all consider it their moral duty to beep their horn incessantly whenever there is another person in the same time zone. And furthermore, you have to walk around in the street because the sidewalks are full of... parked motorbikes. And whatever sidewalk real estate isn’t being parked on is taken up by little impromptu sidewalk restaurants with locals sitting around eating pho (light and savory Vietnamese soup with slices of beef -- quite tasty) on little plastic chairs.

There is no longer a war in Hanoi, but there certainly is no peace.

So we bugged out of town for Halong Bay, which is one of the natural wonders of the world -- we know this because of the billboards all along the highway leading there encouraging you to go to a website and vote for it to be so declared. Halong Bay is definitely very beautiful; sharp cliffs of limestone thrust dramatically out of the water, creating a misty wonderland that Dr. Seuss would envy. Locals ply the waters in little boats, ekeing a meager existance from the sea.

The cliffs of Halong Bay

Unfortunately, every visitor to Hanoi makes a side-trip to Halong Bay just like you, so it is nearly impossible to find any solitude, or even quiet away from the drone of dozens of boat motors.

And you thought you were going to be here alone?

Oh, and those meagre-existance-ekeing locals? Their living is mostly pulling up beside your tour boat and calling, “You want cold driiiink?”

It’s like a floating 7-11, but without the Slurpee machine

So we decided to high-tail it way off the beaten path, up into the mountains of northern Vietnam along the Chinese border, to the land of the hill tribes. The H’mong, Dzai, and other tribes live here, in small villages in the misty mountain valleys, tending their rice paddies and water buffalo much as they have for hundreds of years.

Like Middle Earth, but with rice

Dubbed Montagnards (“Mountain People”) by the French, and just “the ‘Nards” by the CIA, they were recruited by the Americans to fight the communists during the war. Many H’mong were resettled in the USA to avoid government persecution (shout out to Mrs. Xiong, our tailor back home in Milwaukee), so their culture and history are familiar to us and we were really looking forward to a few days of trekking among their idyllic villages.

What we found, however, was a very-developed backpacker tourism industry in the town of Sapa. The hotel we stayed at had seven stories, though to its credit it had great mountain views and was locally owned. But there was no peace in Sapa, thanks to the little girls we semi-affectionately dubbed “The H’mong Purse Mafia.”

Oh sure, they look cute, but watch out -- they’ll ambush you when you least expect it

You can’t set foot on the street in Sapa without being accosted by these entrepreneurial ten-year-old girls with embroidered purses. Their English and their business accumen are flawless. They’ll walk with you for an hour, lulling you into a sense of false security that they are just along for the ride, and then when you least expect it... “You buy from me? Five dollars? Please? Maybe later, OK? Promise?”

Vultures. Adorable little impossible-to-resist purse-hawking vultures.

This poor guy is toast

Best line of the trip... Upon telling one maybe, but I had to go check with my wife because she keeps all the money: “OK, but you come back five minutes -- I no got all day wait for you!”

But then, when we least expected it, we found our peace in Vietnam -- in Me, our H’mong guide who led us on our treks into the villages.

Me, in her traditional H’mong costume and new purple Wellies

Me is from the Black H’mong tribe, is 24 years old, and has been married to her husband Vang since she was 15. Originally traditional animists, she and Vang became Christians four years ago. She has a 7-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, and her family lives in a village three hours’ walk from Sapa. She has been leading treks for several years, and catches a ride on a motorbike each morning to get to the hotel.

Hair that hasn’t been cut since she was a girl

With a sunny disposition and an infectious smile, Me was a delight and a wonderful companion for a few days. She led us along narrow mountain paths and through tiny villages of tin-roofed houses, teaching us about rice growing and indigo dyeing.

The village of Lao Chai

Always quick to laugh and crack a joke, even in the face of a life most of us would consider very difficult, Me had a quiet contentment about her that I sincerely hope and pray was contagious. She found it bewildering that we had been married for 17 childless years -- “No babies?” But she accepted our choice even if it seemed unnatural to her. “Maybe next year!”

We asked her about the increased tourism in the Sapa region over the past ten years, and whether she felt it was a good thing for her people. “Yes,” she said pragmatically. “We can earn money and buy what we need. Sometimes we have bad harvests. Price of rice has gone from 40,000 Dong a kilo ($2.50) to 120,000 Dong in a few years. I have to buy phone to be tour guide. Very expensive! But maybe a few too many tourists, you know?”

Ring ring -- surreality calling!

With economic and political uncertainty (today is election day), a house still not sold, and jobs in Houston not yet secured, I would like the same inner peace and simple trust in God’s provision. I found it in Me; I hope that I can find it in me.

Posted by Bwinky 17:25 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

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