Trip to Hue

We arrive in Da Nang around 11:30am and clear customs in 30 minutes. We are on our way down the road to Hue which is just a few miles away. In Vietnam there is only one highway connecting the north to the south of Vietnam and we are on it. Considering that there are 91 million people in this country, it is no wonder that the volume of traffic has our speed reduced to 20mph. The guide tells us proudly that the road is being widened to four lanes which I can see will be a big improvement over the one and one half lanes it currently has, Brave little scooters sandwiched between buses and trucks. You just have to hold your breath awaiting the crash but, they somehow carry on. The countryside is very lush and the flat land next to the Sea of Tonga and South China Sea quickly gives way to steep rolling mountains. Every square inch of available land is being farmed. Rice! and lots of it. Waves of lush green will soon be turning gold and harvested and another crop quickly planted. Central Viet Nam ( where we are) gets two crops harvested per year. South Viet Nam gets three. Viet Nam was the world’s largest rice exporter but Thailand has now taken that honor. The road construction has made a mess of the road with pot holes everywhere. The guide tells us that Viet Nam is giving us a free massage. You cannot enjoy the scenery for fear that your life is soon to end in a crash as buses, trucks, and scooters horns are blaring demanding to be let into the traffic flow. Oncoming traffic doesn’t slow down and dares them to come in. I keep telling myself that the worst thing that can happen to us is a fender bender because no one can get going very fast. We are climbing through a curvy mountain pass which adds another level of excitement. James is telling me that during the war, we had bases in this area and the soldiers would try to keep this road open all the while being shot at from the houses and hillsides. We are really trying to find a reason we spilled the blood of some 58,000 American lives on this soil. You also must recognize the tenacity of the Vietnamese people who have endured a century of horrible fighting and crazy leaders. The current regime is trying to adapt to moderm ways and trying to make capitalism work while hanging on to political power. Their changes have made it possible for the citizens to own their own homes. They can lease the land and build a home which usually costs $50,000 but they only earn $4,500 a year. From the looks of it, I don’t think many of them can swing this so they have these shambles of little shops where they try to eke out a living while they live behind or above it. The hovels are right next to the road and the construction dust and dirt makes it even worse. Thin gaunt people squatting or sitting on small plastic stools all in front of their shops. Everything is for sale here and about every tenth store is a scooter repair shop. Dogs, chickens, goats and toddlers are all wondering along the side of the road. This is just a tragedy waiting to happen. Soon we are traveling next to the sea where vast fish farms are located. Fish on one side and rice on the other for miles and miles.
Ninety minutes later we arrive in Hue, the former Imperial City. No tourist can sightsee on an empty stomach so, lunch first! The restaurant has gone all out with a welcome banner, a band, and a lovely buffet. We are assured they are not serving any dog. The hostesses are dressed in native costume and the band is providing music. It was one of our better group tour lunches.
First we travel to the Citadel of the former Imperial City.It has the basic ” Forbidden City” layout. Some of the Veterans on our tour explain that the US was trying not to destroy the place but, the Viet Cong used the area to fire on our troops. When we had had enough, General Westmoreland ordered it bombed. About 70% of the buildings were destroyed but it is being rebuilt as before. A part of the structure was the living quarters of the Emperor which was called the Forbidden Purple City. For safety’s sake, no man was allowed to enter just Eunuchs. The Emperor had a queen and many concubines. Like 600 or so for his entertainment. His selection for the evening was determined by where the Royal goat went to eat. Outside of each girl’s residence was a garden which she hoped would attract the goat. Why not!!
Next we went to a shrine sitting atop a pleasant little hill overlooking the Perfume River. Many boats with dragon heads on the front are moving up and down. The shrine has monks who are chanting and the people are burning incense. It is an old dark structure that is set off by the colorful monk gowns and the flowers.
Back on the bus, we head to the tomb of Minh Mang the Emperor who died in 1841. He had required the construction of a mountain, a pond, numerous gardens and all the monuments and buildings within 3 years. 10,000 men died getting it done. No one knows the exact location of his grave as the people who buried him were killed. He was a brutal man. He killed men that opposed him by putting them into cannon and blowing the body parts to pieces so the person, according to their religion, could not enter a second life. Keeping the body intact was very important to these people. Even the eunuchs kept their balls in wine until they died so everything could be buried together. The women who earned his wrath were pulled apart by 5 elephants. I have had about enough of this shit.
Back on the bus we have another one and a half hour exiciting bus ride. It is evening and quitting time, it is dark, and all the scooters are out. You would have to see it to believe it. One girl has tied live chickens on the back of her scooter, one man even has a live cow tied on the back on his way to the butcher. Everyone fighting for space on the road. We see a scooter crash site with bike pices and little helmets strown across the road. One bus driver stops half off the road and relives himself against a tree. He later passes us while facing oncoming traffic head on. He was going to stay on schedule no matter what. We finally get back to the ship and I am so distracted that I leave my purse on the bus. What is worse, out ship is leaving the port in an hour. Our crew sprang into action and contacted the bus and our guide who were on their way back to Hue. They turned around and brought my purse back to me with all my valuables intact including $900 in cash. There are still some honest decent people in this world.

Trip to Hai Noi

After pulling into the Bay of Tonkin ( where the Vietnam War Started with the shelling of two of our Navy ships )we tied up at the port nearest to Hai Noi. Near is a relative term here as the roads are very limited and the traffic trying to use them is very heavy indeed. The trip by bus to Hai Noi takes 3 to 3 and 1/2 hours by bus. The ” highway” is a 1 and 1/2 lane road being used by the motorist as if it were three lanes. Motorbikes playing chicken with buses, buses playing chicken with each other and semi tractor trailers. Everyone drives inches away from each other and passing on either side is ok. I sat in the front of the bus so I got a birds eye view of the heroics outside ahead of us. I saw some rusty train tracks along side the road and asked the guide if they have passenger service. He said they did but nobody takes the train. It is too slow and is prone to accidents and breakdowns. I thought how slow can it be since we are unable to get going even 40mph due to the road conditions and the traffic. I posed the question about who owns the land in Viet Nam. He said there was a big change about 10 years ago when the government gave up on Communism as an economic policy.He said they now have Capitalist Communism. OK how about the land? He said the government owns all the land but, the people can lease the land for up to 40 years and do with it what the market will allow. Each farmer gets to keep his produce and sell it for what it will bring.
As we were passing through many small towns on the way to Hai Noi, I noticed that the houses were very narrow and built up close to the road. He said most people operate small retail and other business out of the first floor of the house and live in the upper floors. Consequently, the land is valued by the front foot along the road. Everyone wants to be on the main road to have marketing exposeur. The people here, for the most part, are very poor outside the cities. The farmers’ average income is $200 to $300 per month. People living in the city do a little better but not much. Things are picking up for them since they have left economic Communism behind and foreign businesses have been welcomed here. Japanese, Chinese, and a few American businesses have arrived and installed manufacturing plants.
After more than 3 hours we drive into Hai Noi which is a city of over 8 million people. It is modernizing and a few highrise buildings have been built and more underway. Hotels and office buildings are coming up. We visited the Museum of Literature where Emperors used to train their staff and administrators. There were plaques dating back hundreds of years with names of the students who were first in their class. We had the mandatory awful lunch and then proceeded on to visit the seat of government and the places where Uncle Ho lived and worked during the war. There is even a Stalin style mausoleum with Ho’s body lying in state inside.
Finally we are off to see the Hanoi Hilton where our prisoners were housed during and after the Vietnam War. 2/3 of the structure has been destroyed to make way for a highrise building. Originally built by the French to house terrorist locals during the period when this was a French colony, it was converted by the North Vietnamese to a prison for US prisoners primarly so that we would not bomb near it and thus protected central Hanoi from bombing. It is now an incredible living lie. What a propaganda tool. They just outright lie about what went on there with our guys. Jane Fonda must have helped them create it. Yuk! We are friends now so what can you do. I came away from this visit to Hai Noi convinced that McNamara should have been hanged for treason when he advised Johnson that we could win the war the way we were fighting it. There was NOTHING here to win. It still is an improverished back water. It would have been even worse then. We also passed by the lake where Sen. John McCain’s plane crashed and he was captured and taken to the Hanoi Hilton.
Now back on the road to the ship it is growing dark and the taffic is even more exciting. Half of the millions of motor scooters do not have functioning lights but they are out there on the road inches away from the trucks and buses. It takes four hours to return. Nobody slept that is for sure.

Hong Kong- Day Two

Rosita greets us early the next morning as we are taking the early ferry to go across the harbor to the main ferry terminal where we will take a second ferry to the island of Lantau. This island is where we will spend most of our day today. After a 45 minute ride, we meet our taxi driver on the island. He will take us around the island. Rosita consults with the driver about the possibility of taking us to one of the mountain top cemeteries to see the grave ceremony. Definitely no photos. We watch as hundreds of folks are walking up the mountain roads carrying food, cleaning materials, and their paper offerings. Rosita points out the many things going on among the tombstones. Most of them have photos of the deceased attached to the front of the tombstone. The whole place is hazy from the smoke rising from the burning offerings. The families are speaking to their ancestors as they burn the offerings. We stand respectfully at a distance.
We next travel to a great reservior and then a beautiful beach on our way to a fishing village. Here it is sometimes possible to take a boat out to the edge of the inlet in hopes of catching a glimpse of the small white porpoise. The lady in charge of the boat rentals confesses that none have been seen after daybreak. We pass on the boat tour. Moving on we pass more folks walking up the mountains to where their ancestors are buried. Here the monuments are in the form of a stone “arm chair”. The idea is the dearly departed can sit and view the beautiful sea. We are driving back up another mountain to see the great Buddha. By far the largest we have seen to date. Its location was determined by the monks after much searching for a site with the proper feug sheui.
The Big Buddha was erected from several huge pieces at the top of a steep hill. There are 200 steps leading up to it. Today the stairs are jammed with the people making a pilgrimage. We have a vegetarian lunch in a restaurant run by the monks and then visit the temple which is very colorful and newly painted.
Rosita explains that we will take a cable car back down the mountain to where Sonny, our driver, will pick us up. It is rather confusing as it was a long drive and ferry trip to get here so the cable car does not make sense until we look at a map. I had promised myself that on this voyage I would not take any ferries or cable cars. Now I will be two for two. The cable car, James points out, was made in Austria where they sure know how to make them. I am not reassured. We lift off and travel over 45 minutes hundreds of feet up in the air. We can see several hiking trails along the cable car towers. This is a favorite place to hike for Hong Kong residents. We see the massive Hong Kong airport as it comes into full view. It is built on a dredged piece of land reclaimed from the ocean. We see planes landing and taking off every 30 seconds. The volume of air traffic reminds us of Atlanta. Off in the distance we notice a forest fire burning out of control on the mountainside. It is near one of the cemeteries. We can only surmise that a paper offering being burnt started the fire in the dry mountain brush. We can see fire fighters making their way to the blaze while helicopers are dropping barrels of water on the blaze. Sure was an eventful 45 minute ride! At the bottom we find Sonny is having difficulty getting to us because of road closings due to the fire.
It has been a good day for people watching with the Easter Sunday holiday and the Ancestor Pilgimage not to mention the lovely weather has everyone out and about. The line to go up into the mountains by cable car is a mile long. We head back into town where Rosita is insisting that we stop at her favorite restaurant for some carry out. We do not want to, but we finally give in as the only polite way out. The restaurant is voted one of the best in Hong Kong even though it is only a hole in the wall. The chef had opened the place after leaving the Four Seasons.Rossita orders her two favorites and I must say they are very good. One is a steamed bun, slightly sweet, and filled with pork. The other is a dumpling with an opaque covering make from green beans. It tasted rather like Thai with lots of flavors.
Back on the ship we collapse from exhaustion. The ship departs an hour late so we are able to get a good look at the light show as we leave.