Postcards From Vietnam – Part II

( Writings from my recent Southeast Asia travels )

HIHO, HIHO, it’s down the Ho Chi Minh Trail I go!

The journey south began on an overnight sleeper bus. Picture a train sleeper car, equipped with bunk beds, only inside a bus; a dorm on wheels. China’s overnight buses are very similar.
Since I was picked up after Hanoi, the more comfortable individual beds were already taken, thus my remaining choice was the very back of the bus where four people are aligned in an overly cozy row. I mentioned to the Vietnamese man next to me that I felt cheap since he didn’t even buy me dinner. He didn’t get the joke but the German fellow nearby chuckled.

Our route was on the main highway, the only highway in fact, that linked the elongated nation from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, connecting some 80 million people in the process. Financial news stations lauder Vietnam’s burgeoning economic engine. Chief exports include rice, textiles, coffee and people. Yet, coming from the western world, I find it difficult to envision this growing economic powerhouse while our bus drives a maximum forty miles and hour speed down a two lane road; a two lane road where the interstate buses and trucks must honk their horns and slow down for motorbike traffic and little old ladies crossing the street. Even road construction is accomplished mostly through manual labor, with men using crowbars to break up old tarmac.

Today, Vietnam’s northern and southern regions are unified, cultural differences side, into one singular Vietnam, so our sunrise crossing of the Ben Hai River, the physical boundary that defined the DMZ, held little fanfare. The only activity I saw that morning on the river were several fishing boats and some sleepy-looking fishermen.

Of course, the region was the center of the bloodiest battles of the conflict (DON’T MENTION THE …!). Situated throughout this Central Vietnam region are places like the Vinh Moc tunnels, DMZ, Hamburger Hill, Hue, Danang and China Beach; names that I only vaguely recall as a child and are more recognizable to me through movies and television. Poignant reminders of a troubled period, today, with a touch of surrealism, these former battlefields are remembered through day tours offered to international tourists. Hue has been rebuilt and China Beach is soon to go condo. Living history…yet still history.

I stopped for a few days in Hue before continuing on to Hoi An. Hue is famous for establishing the ubiquitous surname Nguyen, a name you find among the majority of the Vietnamese population. Long ago in a place called the Forbidden Purple City, the imperial Nguyen Dynasty ruled the land from their fortress in Hue. Funny, I don’t recall any Smith and Jones Dynasties back in the States?

Hoi An is a very charming town. Whereas Hanoi is a good place to leave, Hoi An is a place you want to stay awhile. Designated a World Heritage Site, Hoi An’s attributes are many. A very laid-back riverfront town, the colorful French colonial-style architecture is reminiscent of New Orlean’s French Quarter or the Portuguese influenced narrow streets and plazas found in Salvador Do Bahia in Northeastern Brazil.

The town also boast colorful characters and delicious food. A few riverfront characters I have given names to such as FuManChu, Hoi An Princess and Gold Tooth. There’s also the jolly gentleman who operates the Easy Rider Danang branch, a group of Vietnamese bikers who take tourist on motorcycles, offering them a Born to be Wild travel experience through the Central Highlands.

Some favorite food dishes I enjoy eating while I’m watching the riverfront world walk by are Cao Lau, a local noodle favorite, spring rolls dipped in fish or chil sauce, a variety combination of yellow noodles with beef, chicken or shrimp, fresh vegetables picked straight from the garden or local lily pond, and hot Vietnamese coffee.

in particular, there’s a food stall canopy I frequent, where each bench area represents a different entrepreneurial cook; a placard designates who is cooking for you. Let me introduce them to you: Mr Son, Ms Bay, Mr. Com Ga, Mr Tung, Ms Nam, Mr Rin, my favorite Ms Quyen, and of course, MR DONG.

Hoi An also serves as a travelers’ harmonic convergence vortex for seeing past travelers. Here, you have a more relaxed opportunity to begin conversations and make friendships with those passing faces you saw on prior buses, street corners, and hotel lobbies.

Sweet dreams are made of this
Who am I to disagree
Travel the world and the Seven Seas
Everybody is looking for something….

(Song verse from Eu rhythmics Sweet Dreams )

Sipping a Vietnamese coffee at a Hoi An cafe served well as a proper respite for reflection, reviewing fellow traveler experiences thus far into my journey.

The vibration or energy a lone traveler must transmit seems to attract and resonate with other like souls for those I’ve conversed with the most have primarily been other independent travelers.

Their stories and reasons for travel ring familiar: people displaced and disillusioned with modern societies gone wrong, whether they quit their jobs in Quebec and Vancouver or were laid off in New York City. Individuals reevaluating their lives, discovering new ways to live, including living with less. Discovering old ways to live before our personal world became awash in unfulfillable stuff acquired through burgeoning credit. These “everybodies” are looking for something, something better in their lives like happiness and sweet dreams…….

An Englishman born for music, continuing a tradition established by his father and father’s father. An accomplished guitarist, he lost his way as a young adult, consumed by rage in a blue collar English city that was consumed by rage. Today…no more. A wife that would not follow, ten year marriage over, he lives contented, peaceful in Thailand learning Buddhism and playing beautiful music with an equally accomplished Thai musician.

An Italian gentleman who teaches meditation and lives half his year in India and the other half in Italy.

A Canadian who bought raw land years ago on Prince Edward Island, built his home, became small town postal delivery man, worked as an NGO volunteer, is an accomplished drummer, has traveled the world and lives life large.

A Dutchman who balances seasonal housesitting and personal apartment rental for lodging and cash flow until he’s ready to get creative, inspired through travel to return home and sculpt.

Then there are the American Vietnam Vets returning to Vietnam, revisiting a land and people they knew long ago during a time of war: today a time of peace. A personal journey for reflection, reconciliation and renewed respect.

To see my Vietnam photography, my travel books, and more, please visit www.michaelmcguerty.com

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