On the way to Hoi An Ancient Town – Porper story #8

On the way to Hoian Ancient Town is the eighth post in a series of Vietnam experiences storied by Rochelle Porper, for the previous ones please read these.

I wake up this morning (at 4 – it was a pretty good night), and look out the window of the hotel. My room is on the 5th floor, over looking a river that is winding down the valley. In the distance, the hills are shrouded in low clouds but you can tell the sky is going to clear and it will be another scorcher. There are long wooden boats tied to the shore, and a few floating down the river. They look like they are transporting goods but I am too high up to really tell. On the bridge below, there is a long row of men and women doing tai chi to greet the day. It’s seems like everywhere I turn, there is a photo op and now I am wishing I had sprung for the 4gig memory card.

Last night we ate our first real street food, and it was memorable. Not to mention my favorite meal so far, and a steal at $1.50. Two women are cooking over an incredibly hot stove in a kind of tent like shack covered over by a plastic sheet and it is really hot inside (a shocker, I know). There are a few tables in the shack, and each has a plastic container of chop sticks and napkins. Real ones. There is one other western couple in that tiny place and we laugh because its the same couple we saw eating at a different restaurant for lunch. I guess everyone eats at the same places because there aren’t that many choices here. This isn’t exactly a roaring metropolis. There are only a few things on the menu but there is no menu (maybe its passed down by oral tradition??) so Long orders for us.

You have to go down the street to buy drinks. We eat a bowl of noodles with beef and spring rolls and peanut sauce and some leaves and something else in there and it was fantastic. Then we eat a rice cake pancake (which tasted an awful lot like a latke) that was stuffed with bean sprouts and shrimp and then fried like an omelet and served with some sweet chili sauce. I would say yum, but I have learned that this work is incredibly insulting in Vietnamese (like worse than whore but along the same lines) so I will just say that I wish I could eat it every day (which, when you think about it, is probably exactly what the word yum is referring to).

Anyway, after breakfast we pile into the van for a marathon day of driving to Hoian Ancient Town.

Before we leave town, we go to the local farmer’s market, and I mean local. I am sorry to say that I will fail miserably in trying to describe this place. Think Haymarket plus Whole Foods times 100 minus 150 years surrounded by today. There is an outdoor and an indoor part of the market and we start with the indoors. There are literally hundreds of stalls piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables all laid out in old woven baskets. There are egg stalls with 20 kinds of eggs and basket after basket of dried fish. Sometimes it smells of salty dried fish and sometimes of fresh fruit.

There are tables of women eating breakfast and chattering away. There are so many buckets full of live fish and eel and crabs that you can’t count them. The fish are crammed in to the buckets so tightly that when they flap their bodies in protest, you get splashed with water. There are stalls and stalls of all different kinds of noodles and rice paper and grains. The colors of this place just grab you. People are pointing at us because we are an oddity. Well, honestly, they are pointing at Tasha because she is so exquisite and light skinned (the lighter the skin color, the more desirable you are in this country).

They are practically howling at the sight of Sam, who in his size 15 shoes, looks like a giant. This time, the women come over and measure themselves against him. They barely come up to his pupick. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming and they invite us into their stalls us to check out their supplies. This is where the women come every day to sell their specialties and buy food for the day. It’s hard to believe this happens every day.

We get to the end and walk outside and it’s even more unbelievable. The street is packed with people and countless mopeds which are expertly negotiating their way around this mayhem. Both sides of the street are lined with more stalls selling belts and clothes and shoes and live chickens in cages. There are rows of flat woven screens piled high with fish that is drying in the sun. There is so much activity that you can barely move. There are young girls who are from the villages we visited yesterday with a single basket of fruit that they carried on their backs all the way to the market. We can’t get enough of this place. Long tells us that there are thousands of these types of markets all over Vietnam. They are the clearly the lifeblood of the villages they support.

We finally leave and get back in the van and we pretty much stay there the rest of the day, except for various photo shoots and lunch at a rest stop that hasn’t had electricity in 3 months. The scenery along the way is nothing short of spectacular. We are still in the highlands, and what we see looks exactly like you would expect rural Vietnam to look like. Never ending rolling hills of coffee trees and other vegetation separated by valleys of rice paddies. I am not kidding you – it is a scene out of a movie. We see more people working the rice fields with water buffalo grazing beside them.

Occasionally, we see long lines of school children – either on foot on doubled up on bikes – carrying ancient looking hoes. School starts in two weeks and it’s their responsibility to clean up the grounds of the school yard. Some are wearing the official school uniform of Vietnam – dark blue trousers, a white blouse and a red scarf. Long asks us to guess what the red scarf symbolizes, and I take the easy way out and say communism. In fact, the scarves symbolize the blood of the soldiers who have died for their country and by wearing them around their necks, the children are always supposed to remember to respect their country’s history and become honorable people.

There are so many different shades of green along the way that it’s hard to take it all in. Eventually, we come to an area that was devastated by Agent Orange and the vegetation changes. Mostly only tapioca plants can grow here because the poison has pretty much washed away from the topsoil, but it’s still present in the deeper soil so trees cant grow. No one knows how long, if ever, it will take for the Agent Orange to dissipate. Over 3 million people died of cancer as a result of Agent Orange, in a country of 40 million people. Sobering.

We drive along the Ho Chi Minh trail, which is now a highway. We have a lot of time in the van and Long starts telling us stories about the war. Women and men who were not eligible to be in the army for whatever reason were taken from schools, universities and villages to help in the war effort. They were brought to the forest or to towns either to help transport food from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, or to participate more directly in the war effort. Moving supplies from the North to the South was a huge challenge. Women lived in caves near the roads that were most often bombed, and after each attack, they would come out at night and smooth the road over with dirt so that trucks could pass with supplies.

Because the American’s fire power was superior, and we had the ability to detect truck movement during the day from surveillance planes, most activity occurred at night. But our ability to detect truck movement was so good that the Vietcong had to rely again on their own ingenuity to keep supplies moving southward. Because bridges were always the first things to get bombed, they literally built bridges under water so that trucks and soldiers could cross over to the other side undetected. They would use woven baskets to scoop sand from the bottom of the river and build it up until it was 3 inches below the water level and built a narrow bridge that was undetectable from the air.

Everything was done at night and since it was impossible to use any sort of lighting that would draw attention, women dressed all in white would stand in line at either side of the bridge so that the soldiers would know where the underwater bridge had been built. After the trucks slowly passed through the water to the other side, the women would scatter back to their caves to sleep. When the Americans started using heat seeking missiles to detect truck movement, the Vietcong started filling trucks with gasoline and driving them down the road as decoys. The Americans would bomb them and, thinking they had hit their targets, would fly back to base and call it a night. The women would then come out of the caves, fix the road and the supply trucks would continue on their journey. While the women were fixing the roads, the men were used as human transporters of food. They would carry up to 100 pounds of rice on their backs, walking for up to a year, to get supplies to the soldiers in the South.

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Sometimes they would push bicycles loaded with guns and other supplies the entire way. In villages all throughout Vietnam today, children still search the land around them with metal detectors to find old bombs, or bomb fragments, to sell as scrap metal. When they find an unexploded bomb, they take it back to their house and the bomb is cut in half to collect the gunpowder. Sometimes the bombs explode.

We finally get to Hoian Ancient Town and check in to a spectacular hotel. Hoi An is where the silk trade began in this part of the world, and this is where we can have hand made silk clothing tailored overnight. And I believe that is exactly what we will do.

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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