Vietnam days 16-18: Stumbling into Paradise

(Photos from Wikipedia until I can get mine put up on Flickr.)

Vietnam has been kind to us so far. By pure dumb luck, and for the price of a Herald Square hotel room, we just spent a weekend on our own private island. The trip involved kayaking, solitude, and views so sublime they're on the UNESCO preservation list.

Natacha has wanted to visit Halong Bay ever since spotting it in a travel magazine while planning our honeymoon a few years back. It's a bay full of thousands of tiny, uninhabited, sheer islands (limestone karsts, actually) amongst emerald water. If it hasn't been the setting for a james bond speedboat chase, it should be. (UPDATE: It has.)

there are hundreds of tours offered in the area, where you take a boat for a day and two nights and view the islands, swim on some beach for an hour, etc. But somewhere Natch saw the word "kayak" in relation to the area and that's what we set our sights on.

Our research showed us that there was one reputable agency that had kayak tours, good guides, and we later found out, "the good kayaks" in the area. We signed up with them, knowing that we'd be sharing the trip with 6-8 other kayakers, even thought it was a bit pricier than the dozens-of people-on-a-big-junk tours. We didn't care. We love kayaking and this seemed like a great way to get up close to these amazing structures in a way the big boats couldn't.

So we pry ourselves our of our bed at Hanoi's lavish $20-a-night Golden Buffalo hotel(!) to make it on time for our 6 AM pickup, to discover that we were the only folks on the trip. Which means essentially a private car to the ferry. Then a private taxi to the other boat. Such luxury!

After 4 hours of private transpo, we arrived bleary-eyed and loagy to Cat Ba island the largest island in the Bay and our departure point for the tour. the company came to pick us up in a tour boat--a BIG one, in which we were the only passengers. On the way, we saw a series of floating villages, where people live in houses on pontoons and operate cottage-industry fisheries or oyster farms. they all have guard dogs, too. None of whom get walked, but who I imagine get to pee wherver they like.

After picking up the "good" kayaks, we made it to where we were staying. Which was a small karst. i.e. an island. The place consisted of a dining hut, a relaxing hut, a shower/toilet hut, and off to the side, five or six guest huts. and we were the only guests. Like it was our private island getaway.

And the VIEW. just water and dramatic karst islands, and the odd fishing boat. nothing else. NO ONE else. Lucky? Yes. And, as Don adams used to say, loving it.

By day, we kayaked around these UNESCO-listed wonders, buzzed another floating villages, entered caves and paddled through lagoons. by night, we ate huge meals of fresh fish (like caught-next-door fresh) and slugged rice whiskey with the staff. The best cooked oysters and the bar-none freshest crab i've ever eaten.

The tide moved in and out so quickly that we could walk to the karst across from us in the morning, and by afternoon we would kayak around it & past it to other sights.

We kayaked across emerald waters to hidden lagoons, past floating fishing villages where guard dogs chased us to the end of their pontoon but didn't dare jump in the water (thus saving us any ugly No Country For Old Men dog-chase scenes).

We ate with the three guys who cooked the food and took care around the island. They kept trying to feed us fresh oysters and mussels (picked up from a floating next-door neighbor) after we'd stuffed ourselves at dinner. One of them was a park ranger, one of them didn't speak, and the third guy, and 24-year-old pistol named Lam (which means "dragon," we're told), kept trying to get us drunk on rice whiskey. On the second night, we pulled out our last little bottle of duty-free Glenfiddich and tried to share it. They hated the taste and sheepishly poured their shares back into our glasses, which I couldn't really bitch about. "We like Baileys," Lam told us.

But the real surprise? Going swimming at night to discover that the water has bio-luminiscent plankton. Each swimming stroke bequeathed dazzling below-surface light trails and tinkerbell-like sparkles.

We loved it so much that we asked to stay a second night. Turns out we had the place to ourselves that night too. It's an amazing thing to wake up in the morning and look out on your beach.

After two days, we got another "private" boat back to Cat Ba and stayed in a hotel overlooking the harbor. More boats and floating villages. Turns out we ate something that didn't agree with us on the island (my money's on the funny-smelling potato soup), so we spent most of the time laying in bed, walking to the rain-drenched outdoor market, and looking for new books to read. I scraped up a Sue Grafton thriller (note: not so thrilling) and some Michael Connally book I haven't cracked open yet. But I still think back on our little private island, and the cinema-worthy scenery, and the lights in the water, and I hope I will for a long time to come.

Vietnam Day 3-4: Dow-now-NYEAH-nyow, DOW-now-neyow-now

...Which is guitarspeak for "We're on the Mekong Delta and I can't get 'Purple Haze" out of my head." Call me Ugly American all you want, but I dare you to come from my generation, take a boat up these admittedly gorgeous rivers, and NOT think of every Vietnam War movie you've ever seen.

We've just finished up a two-day tour of the Mekon Delta, primarily so Natacha could get an up-close look at the noted Floating Markets of the Mekong. Pretty great things to see: boats from all over VN and Cambodia carrying all kinds of produce, selling to boats from all over. The good news is we saw two of them. The bad news is that they start at 2 AM(!), and by the time we got to them (11 AM and 8 AM, respectively), they've started to wind down.

(Photos at some point, promise)

But we had some good times nonetheless. The ass-early-morning bus they poured us into at Ho Chi Minh City hauled us three hours to a riverboat, which sped us up the delta. On the way, we saw how people lived on the delta. I'll post some pictures when I have a chance.

We passed one of the (tail-ended) floating markets, which consisted of, well, boats that sold things,primarily produce. You could tell selling boat and what it sold because it had a long pole with the items in question attached to it. I pineapple boat had pineapples on their pole, etc. I noticed no one sold wide-screen TVs.

Although we didn't see too much, I was impressed with the idea of these floating markets. The Mekong delta consists of rrivers, tributaries and islands galore, which means that people come in from miles around to buy & sell at these things, even as far as Cambodia, as the border isn't too far off.

Our 2 day/1 night tour also included yet more gorgeous Mekong river-and-jungle scenery, and stop at a couple of islands. One was a tourist trap where they showed demonstrations of how they made puffed-rice ( like popcorn but with hot sand instead of oil) and coconut candy, a fillings-tugging taffy that was flavor-free and generally horrendous. Natacha and I ditched the demos and found a coconut to drink.

Island #2 was lunch and bicycle rental. We grabbed a couple of bikes and Natch found us a side road where we could bike along the delta and over to some villages not on the tourist path, thank god. Again, it was a pleasure to see how people lived on these tiny islands: bathing in the river, poling longboats here and there, letting their oxen get a cool dip in the waters.

Oh, and did I mention that our guide was a compete tool? Obviously going from some sort of corny-joke-laden guide script with jokes like:

"And remember, when you leave bus, take bag with you. Take camera with you. And take wife with you, because driver single. HA ha ha."

"And remember, make sure you have hotel key. If you lose key, you can come to my room. HA ha ha."

And other relatively misogynist yuks that surely play with the rubes from the midwest.

We also hit a land market with some fantastic produce. And people selling a lot of snakes. To eat, use their venom, and god knows what else. But there they were. Snakes. All kinds. For sale.

By the time we'd hit Can Tho, where we spent the night in an under-construction guest house, we'd developed a little retinue for ourselves: A (slightly) older, terribly attractive French couple living in New Caledonia who adored travel so much that they'd taken their infant children up mountains and what not. Good to know that's possible. Also met an equally adorable young couple, he from Finland, she from Italy, who had been maintaining a long-distance relationship (he in Fin, she in various NGO gigs in various countries) since meeting in an international college program in Malta several years back. I told them my cousin had spent something like seven years in a long-distance relship, and was now living with her man and they'd just had their first child. It's hard to tell if a story that ends in a nice now-they-have-a-baby ending has any sort of positive effect on kids in their early 20's. We had some nice meals with these folks and spent a pleasant evening along the riverside in Can Tho. Where they have a lovely statue of Ho Chi Minh apparently wearing an incredibly thick suit.

Next morning we got up around 6, let's say, and still got to the Can Tho market too late to see much floating-marketing going on. Granted, the market was open. There were boats, and they were selling their pineapples and what not. But it was 9AM, the market had been open for a whopping 7 hours already. Cruising around in our 12-person boat full of gringos, we were just another target for the pineapple boat to sell their wares to at a drastic mark-up.

We also took the boat to a rice factory--a legitimate one this time, with dangerous-looking processing machinery that, were it the West, they wouldn't allow tourists anywhere near. After that it was back to the bus and a too-long trip back to Saigon.

But what was so striking about it was this place we were, that we boated through. The place I'd seen in some of my country's most critically acclaimed movies: Apocalypse now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, hell, even Forrest Gump. And I was IN it, fortunately in a much more aesthetically and politically pleasing context. Well, it just affected me is all. I guess in that holy-shit-I'm-walking-through-Scorsese's-New-York way I used to get in NYC. But Jake Lamotta never napalmed the Lower East Side.

Vietnam Day 2: Cu Chi, Cu Chi, Cu

Has it been a lifelong dream of mine to crawl through old Viet Nam war tunnels? Of course not. But. Some of you know that umpty-ump years ago, I worked in New York City as a comic book editor. One of the books I helped Howard Zimmerman edit was a series of war comics, a revival of the classic war comics series TWO-FISTED TALES, called HARVEY KURTZMAN'S NEW TWO-FISTED TALES.

One of my favorite stories I worked on was written and drawn by a Viet Nam war vet (two tours), the gruff but amicable writer/artist Don Lomax. Don churned out a half-dozen eight-to-twelve pagers for us with lightning speed, each one a note-perfect TFT-style two-thirds-splash-page-with-twist-ending war-is-hell tale about 'Nam.

But my favorite one was "Queen of Cu Chi," a tale about the tunnel rats of the Vietnam war (soldiers assigned to flush out the network of underground tunnels the Viet Cong established to get around the US Army), and the dogs who were trained to support those soldiers. A heart breaker, not least of which because it had a dog in it. And you know me.

But little did I know that I'd get a chance to visit the place where the story was set. Our two days in Saigon stretched into three, and with that our chance to take a couple of tours into the outerlying areas. I saw a half-day trip to Cu Chi and the next day we were off.

cu chi tunnelThe historical background you need to know is this: The Viet Minh dug tunnels in the 40s and 50s in order to hide from, escape from, and otherwise fight the French. In the 60s & 70s, the Viet Cong used them to do the same for the US.

The tunnels were narrow, dark, claustrophobic, and made it extremely difficult for the US Army to find the Viet Cong. So the Army trained soldiers, called Tunnel Rats, to fight the Cong in the tunnels. Grim stuff.

And now, for the price of a movie and popcorn, we took a boat up the Mekong delta, trekked through the jungle, and crawled around the tunnels.

N & I took a motor boat up the Mekong, to the Cu Chi area, where we hooked up with another tour group, led by an oder Vietnamese guy who as it turns out worked with the U.S. agaist his own people. He later came back to Viet Nam (or was he captured? I forget) where he underwent "rehabilitation" --for which he has no regrets--and now likely makes decent scratch as a tour guide with all the cheesy jokes a tour guide is likely to make. Mostly about how all tourists in Vietnam eat hamburgers and drink Tiger Beer. Oh, and he made the obvious "booby trap" joke, which offended my wife to no end.

So our guide led us through this jungle path, on which were a number of exhibits along the way, including:

-A below-ground sniper hole that would freak out even the slightest claustrophobe.

-A display of a variety of spike traps (hence the "booby trap" line)

-Several tableau of VN soldiers doing typical VN soldier activities, like cooking food, sharpening sticks, sawing open unexploded shells for explosives & scrap metal, etc.

-A firing range where you could shoot an AK for something like a dollar a shell.

-Oh, and there was a fantastic VN propaganda film praising the local villagers and soldiers for building the Cu Chi tunnels and killing so many American Soldiers. I'll upload video I took of that, and photos for the above, when I can.

All with lots of jokes from our guide among all the seriousness. So the tour was not without cheese. And the thing I came there for, the tunnels themselves, was of course held until the end.

There were over 200 kilometers of tunnels in this area, and we were allowed to crawl through about 200 meters of them. There were a series of "chicken exits" every 10 meters or so, and most of the tourists bailed out early. Not me. I insisted on crawling every dirty step of the way.

Was I able to "put myself in their shoes?" Hell no. Okay, maybe a little. Those tunnels are pretty scary. Even the big slavic guy who hung on our guide's every word and egged him on at every gory joke bailed out after the first exit.

So it was fun, if touristic in a morbid sort of way. But here's what I realized: after working my ass off on HARVEY KURTZMAN'S THE NEW TWO FISTED TALES and having the publisher pull out after just two issues, maybe it helped me get a little closure on that whole part of my life. Whether it needed it or not.

So I'd like to dedicate this post to my old boss at Byron Preiss, Howard Zimmerman, who edited HKTNTFT and let me cut my editorial teeth on it, and my co-worker at BPVP, Steven Roman...because they were there, man. In the shit.