Ninh Binh and Ho Chi Minh hometown- Porper story #14

Tam Coc

The visit to Ho Chi Minh hometown is the fourteenth post in a series of Vietnam experiences storied by Rochelle Porper, for the previous ones please read these.

This morning we wake up and the sun has re-appeared. Yeah! But with it has come the heat again. I don’t know which I prefer more. Yesterday was the first day in 11 that wasn’t sweltering.

I was too tired to tell you much about last night so I will do so briefly now. We are in the town of Vinh, which is primarily known for smuggling. Goods are smuggled here from Laos and Vietnam and then sold very cheaply. Because we are really not in particular need of a refrigerator or a toaster over, we will skip the market. Last night when we pulled into town in the pouring rain, what was immediately obvious was how bizarre this town looks because it is completely decked out in Christmas lights. Like really gaudy lights,  and it all seems out of place. We are only here because logistically it makes sense and there is nothing really to do. 

As I mentioned, the hotel is not so good. We ate dinner here because the rain was pounding and we were worn out, but it was not a stellar experience. We ate fatty pork, some eggs and ham and noodle thing that I thought was disgusting, calamari in chili peppers and chicken with cashew nuts only they had run out of cashews. Or so they say. Tasha swears she saw a rat running across the back of the room and I don’t doubt it. If we were in Hanoi by now, it would have been on the menu.

The most entertaining part of the evening was the karaoke. To our right, there was a huge room filled with raucous and drunk Vietnamese men and women singing at the top of their lungs. On a good day, I am not a fan of this form of music, but just imagine what it’s like in Vietnamese. It was so loud that we were literally shouting at each other across the table. Finally Long had to go over and close the door. Sam said he is definitely voting for McCain because he thinks anyone who might have been subjected to that for 5 years deserves a shot at the Presidency. Later in the lobby, one of the revelers hurled dinner on the lobby floor and there it sat until someone finally came and mopped it up.

Our first stop today is the birth place of Ho Chi Minh. The scene is hysterical. We climb out of the van and it is really hot. Long tells us to wait as he runs off in another direction. The four of us huddle in the only square of shade and suddenly we are bombarded by women who are shoving things to buy in our faces. I mean they completely encircled us and it actually got kind of scary. When Long came back to rescue us, he said the hawkers were really bad here but it came out sounding like hookers. He had a bouquet of flowers with him and when we asked why, he said it was compulsory for Westerners and handed the flowers to Tasha. Ho Chi Minh would have been rolling over in his grave at the site. There was booth after booth of paraphernalia all engraved with HoChi Minh’s picture. There were dishes and tee shirts and toy tanks and hats and fake marble busts and candy and jewelry. The only thing they didn’t have, which I surely would have purchased, was a HoChiMinh bobble head. A lost opportunity for sure.

The actual house is very interesting mostly because it has been kept intact since the 1800s. Clearly this is a place of pilgrimage, and there was a young woman with a megaphone telling the story to a gaggle of native Vietnamese. At one point, we got to the room with the family alter and Tasha laid the flowers next to the other offerings. Apparently, you don’t take the plastic off of the flowers and every hour of so, they come around, gather all the bouquets, take them back to the shop and re-sell them. The Vietnamese have perfected the art of re-gifting, it would seem.

When we get back in the van, we had a spirited discussion about communism. Long believes that America is much more communist and should be re-named the Communist Republic of America because we provide so much aid to the needy. In this country, there is no free or subsidized health care, no free education, and no free employment insurance. He enjoys the irony of this. We also discussed how the divorce rate is so low here and the importance of collectivism vs. individualism. The Vietnamese culture focuses on adapting to problems while the West focuses on fixing them. It  is a very different approach and I wonder if it helps to answer why these  people are so peaceful and generous compared to the West.

The scenery has changed again, as has the architecture of the houses. Ever since we crossed the DMZ yesterday and entered North Vietnam, things have been different. You can see the French influence and even Eastern European influence in the way the houses are built. We see several houses with onion domes – it seems very out of place. The hats that the men wear are different as well – in the South they wear the conical hats but here they were rounded military looking hats. There are red and yellow propaganda posters everywhere, which Long calls sloganiques.

We see an old man on a moped that is carrying two huge stacks of baskets behind him – they are so tall that the whole bike leans to one side. We learn today that it’s ok for men and women to pee in public (but not ok for them to kiss in public). We know this because as the tour buses pull off to the side of the road, the women go to the left and the men go to the right and then we look away. 

So as we are tooling down the road minding our own business, we get pulled over by the police. This is the second time this has happened so we know the drill. Routinely, the police will pull cars over and manufacture a bogus reason to assess a fine and then the driver and the policeman negotiate the fine, it gets paid and off everyone goes. This happens so frequently that the tour company has a special fund that provides bribe money to their drivers. It’s called the “smoothing the road fund”. We call it “the lining the pockets fund”. This time our driver was accused of speeding, which is so ridiculous because we were practically tailing a cow. Anyway, the fine is paid and we drive off. Just outside the town of our destination, we blow a tire. I tell Long that this wasn’t on the itinerary and he says no worries, it’s complimentary. When it turns out the spare is low on air, he says that is complimentary as well.

There are many toll booths along the way today, and the system for getting through them is worthy of description. You come to the first toll booth and there is someone sitting behind a desk. This person hands the ticket to another person, who walks around the desk to the window to take the money and hand the ticket to the driver. The driver takes the ticket, drives the car, say, maybe 20 feet to another booth where someone else takes the ticket. Then a fourth person lifts up the barrier so you can drive through. Communism at work.

 We finally arrive at the town of Ninh Binh, which is famous for goats, and also for spectacular mountains. After a lunch of snail, goat, stir fry beef and veggies, pork, pumpkin soup and sautéed morning glories, we head off for a boat ride. I have to try and describe this place. The mountains are really like tall slabs of rock that shoot out from both sides of a long river. We hop on a sampan (a small boat for two guests and two  rowers) and take a 2 hour journey up and down the river. It is beautiful. I have never seen anything like it.

We travel through three natural caves that go through the mountains and are just high enough to pass through. The only sound you can hear is the sound of the oars hitting the water and bouncing off the cave walls. There are fields of flowers and plants on either side of the river. The boats are rowed by women using their feet instead of their hands. All too frequently, the ‘refreshment’ boats row over to us and try to sell us drinks and food. Long had warned us this would happen, and told us that we would be pressured to buy drinks for the women rowing. He said if you buy them drinks and don’t physically open the cans, they will turn around and sell them to the next sucker who gets on the boat.  It was really quite an experience.

When we got back to the van and checked into the hotel, we decided to rent bikes and ride around the mountains looking for good photo ops. (note: for description of spectacular sunset, please refer to previous emails). My bike, and I kid you not, was covered in leopard skin wallpaper. Along the way, we saw people tending to their ducks and children playing along the river. At one point, we heard a tremendous bellowing and squealing and it turned out to be some farmers weighing their pigs before they haul them off to market. We got there just in time to see the cart with the four fat pigs tied up in knots, driven by some young kid, as it left the house.

All in all, it was another wonderful day. We just can’t get over that everyday seems to have something magnificent attached to it. The terrain is always changing and there is always something new to ponder and the places we have been are astounding. It feels like I have been gone so long that when I get back, Talia will have grown up, gotten married and had her own kids.

So sports fans – listen up because we are nearing the end of this journey. There will be no email tomorrow because we will be on the overnight boat through Halong Bay. I promise I will try and capture, as best as possible, the beauty of that experience. However, we are buying a bottle of rum and more rice wine for the trip, to it’s a dicey promise for sure.

More on the other side of the Bay….

by Rochelle Porper from Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Eager for the next posts of Porper’s Vietnam trip? You can see here.

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