On the Way to Hue – Porper story #11

This travel attraction experience around Hue day is the ninth post in a series of Vietnam experiences storied by Rochelle Porper, for the previous one please read these.

So last night at dinner, Long tells us that we are going up into the rain forest, where it rains 26 feet a year. As a result, there are leeches everywhere. We are instructed to wear tennis shoes and long pants. Because I am a lean and mean packer, I didn’t bring tennis shoes and furthermore, I am not amused at the idea of leeches. I worry about it all night.

In the morning, I am delighted to see that Tasha has dressed splendidly for the hike in the leech infested jungle. She has reprised her chandelier earrings, has on a Tiffany bracelet and is wearing a lovely white gauzy shirt trimmed in black lace. I am hopeful that the leeches will be dazzled by her beauty and galvanize in her direction instead of mine. (I, of course, am wearing the same tee shirt I wore two days ago). Alas, this turns out not to be the case.

So off we go, and I am fretting about my sandals the entire trip. Along the way, we stop at China Beach where the troops first disembarked in 1964 to start the war. It turns out that China Beach is where we hung out yesterday – the beach is over 20 kilometers long. All along the entire stretch of ocean, which is spectacular,  the Vietnamese government is conducting what is called ‘poverty elimination’ but which is really displacing the fisherman and moving them to apartment buildings to make way for 5 star resorts, golf clubs and casinos (which are euphemistically referred to as ‘ entertainment with rewards – I guess the thought of all that capitalism is just too much for the Communists). So those of you who want to come here – come soon before modernization overtakes the charm of the countryside.

Next we stop at a place that is famous for marble statues, and in a moment of weakness, I splurge and buy a beautiful marble statue of a young girl with long hair to put in my garden because it reminds me of Talia and when she goes to college next year, I will still have her with me. We drive through Da Nang, which most of us will remember as a place of fierce fighting. It is so weird to actually be in these places. The Americans had a huge air base in Da Nang, which provided an excellent strategic position from which they could bomb the shit out of Hanoi. This area is known for huge tsunamis which occur almost like clockwork twice a year. When the cold winds from Siberia meet the warm winds from the Indian Ocean, all hell breaks loose. The local people have learned to read the animals for telltale signs of the storms approaching, and Long tells us a few stories about how his grandfather taught him how to read the ants to anticipate really bad weather.

The fisherman literally sink their boats into the water and fill them with sand so that they won’t be destroyed by the winds and waves, and then dig them out later. They also haul huge rocks up to the roofs of their houses so they won’t blow off. Very industrious people, these Vietnamese. By the way, Da Nang is the only city in all of Vietnam that prohibits beggars. You get rewarded if you call the police and report a beggar, and then the beggar gets offered a job and shelter. Not a bad gig.

As we leave Da Nang, we start to climb up the mountains and I won’t bore you with how breathtaking the scenery is. At one point, we come to a spectacular lookout that is brimming with tour buses. Long warns us that as soon as we get out of the van, we will be accosted by women trying to sell us something. He warns us not to speak English, but to speak some other language because then they will leave us alone. I love a challenge, so I hop out of the van singing the 4 questions in Hebrew and I am happy to report that it was remarkably effective. We walk up a hill to look at the view as well as the forts built during the war. They are riddled with bullet holes and it’s eerie to see. Long points up the hill and says we can’t go any farther because there is a red flag up there, indicating where a live landmine is still buried underground. He says there are similar red flags all throughout Vietnam.

We also talk about how in Vietnamese culture, there are no celebrations for birthdays, but rather for the anniversaries of when people die. Families pay homage to up to three generations of relatives who have passed on, and have huge parties for each of them. We then pass a clinic that has a huge poster on the front of the building that says, in Vietnamese, “Families are only allowed to have 2 children”. So apparently, in an effort to curb a rapidly expanding population, the government limits the number of children you can have and fines you heavily if you have more. To incent the use of birth control, they provide free IUDs for women but it’s the men who get the real bonus. If they agree to get a vasectomy, they get two cans of condensed milk, 2 kilos of sugar and $12. According to Long, there aren’t many takers. I thought it was a pretty good deal myself.

We finally get to the rain forest, which is called the Bach Ma National Forest. It takes us almost an hour to drive to the top, along one of those hair-raising roads that are one lane wide with a sheer drop off at the edge. I am only thinking about the leeches so I don’t care what the road looks like. When we finally arrive, Long hands each of us a small bottle of very strong insecticide – kind of like the Vietnamese version of Leech B Gone, and we smear it all over. In desperation, I have borrowed a pair of socks from Long, and then proceed to meticulously wrap my feet in plastic bags from some chatchkes I bought. I have one foot wrapped in pink and the other wrapped in green and I look absolutely ridiculous. I care not. As we are entering the trail, we see one of many Vinglish signs we have noticed since we started the trip. This one says “Forest Fire – disater for the livings”.

So we enter the trail and it’s a beautiful place. We climb for awhile and we come to a cave and we learn that an American helicopter landing strip is directly above us. With typical ingenuity, the Vietcong built a cave directly under the helicopter pad so they could torment the soldiers. We climb up to see where this took place and again, it feels eerie to be a place that you know 30 years ago was a deathtrap for so many .

We also learn that this national forest was once home for almost 140 villas that were originally built by the French and which the soldiers pretty much destroyed. There are only 11 left, and we see ruins everywhere we go.

At some point, I look down at my feet and squeal – there is a big fat honking leech crawling up my sandal. This totally freaks me out and I know I have met my nemesis. I can handle just about anything but this leech undoes me. Long comes over and calmly removes it and says “no big deal’ but I am not pacified. I could not tell you one more thing about that hike because all I did for the rest of the trip was stare at my sandals. And in fact, I had one more leech attempt to summit my foot before the hike was over.

Eventually, we got back to the main building and had a picnic lunch. As we were sitting there, several kids saw us and starting yelling “hallo, what your name?” I went outside to see them and suddenly, they swarmed all over me. There must have been 20 little kids all grabbing my arms and hugging me and yelling ‘hallo hallo’. It was unbelievably heartwarming. They tried to speak English and wanted their pictures taken, and they all gathered around me yelling and screaming as Long snapped the photo. By then, Sam and Tasha came out as well, and they went nuts. When we finally had to leave, they pressed their faces up to the van window and were shouting “goose bye! goose bye!”. Oh man- I wouldn’t have missed that moment for the world.

So we hop in the van and drive the rest of the way to Hue. Along the way, we see some farmers chopping the rice to prepare for market and of course, we have to stop so that we can learn about rice. So this is truly remarkable. You know how I have described the endless rice paddies everywhere we go? It turns out that the process for growing rice involves seeding the land, flooding it, waiting 10 days and then picking every single stalk of rice to carry back to the farmers home to dry out for 2 weeks and then re planting every stalk again. If you could see the vast expanse of rice fields we have seen, you wouldn’t believe it.

So we arrive in Hue and check into a 5 star hotel, the likes of which would knock your socks of. I am used to roughing it (and we have certainly done a fair share of that on this trip) but I must admit, I much prefer lounging in elegance. We are here for two nights, and then rumor has it, its back to standard fare.

Vietnam Discovery - Vietnam Tours - Vietnam Travel Hue

There is more to tell but I am getting kicked off the internet in 5 minutes. Too bad I cant tell you how we all got smashed on rice wine and how we walked along the famous Perfume River, but it is what it is. Manana my friends.

by Rochelle Porper from Boston, Massachusetts, USA

For the next ones among this Vietnam travel experience, you can jump to the following days.

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