Chapter 3 - Detour through Vietnam
Getting into Vietnam was surprisingly much easier than getting out. Despite our heavily laden bicycles and that at the time it was in theory illegal to bring bicycles into Vietnam, the border crossing was surprisingly easy. We departed the border to a chorus of wished luck from the customs officers and began what seemed like a triumphant seventy kilometre cycle into Ho Chi Minh. All the way to the city incredulous stares followed us, thumbs were raised and shouts of “Good. Good” encouraged us.
But it was not an approach without incicdent, for just five kilometres from the border I skidded with a thump to the ground. I had been trying to acknowledge the greeting of a young boy and looking back lost control on the slippery surface. It was a salient lesson learnt early. Fortunately there was no damage done apart from to pride and a few minor grazes, and yet a Vietnamese man leapt off his motorbike and asked in perfect English, “Are you OK? Is there anything I can do to help?” I was touched by his spontaneous offer of help and shamed to think how often I do the same back home. Feeling guilty, I determined to mend my ways.
We caused great amusement by stopping in a basic roadside restaurant for lunch. Such establishments were to become our standard fare for much of the rest of the trip and the reaction that we received en route would vary little. Word quickly spread that the circus had come to town, and in twos and threes children quickly gathered round, coming to stare and marvel. Some were brave and curious and came up close to have a real good luck, occasionally reaching out to touch just to see if we were real. Others preferred the safety of distance, the time to turn and flee. All stared, some out of fascination, some in disbelief, some in wide-eyed horror (the very young whose parents had warned them of big-nosed bogeymen).
As we slurped our noodles, awkwardly trying to work our chopsticks in unison, we were watched and studied, our every movement scrutinised. I felt certain that they were disapproving of our table manners, that we were eating too fast, that we were spilling and wasting food on the table. Or perhaps we were too quiet, not slurping enough when we sucked in our noodles. Sated we stood up suddenly, our stools grating noisily on the concrete. Like startled fish the timid little ones scattered in all directions. The show was over.
After lunch the initial euphoria of being on the road wore off as our bodies began to complain. I wrote in my diary at the time “Sweat pours off, annoyingly stinging me in the eyes. My back is cramped and painful. My neck is sore and stiff. My hands ache from being in the same position for so long; they hurt so much that it is difficult to grip the handlebar. And this is only our first day’s cycling, what tortures await our bodies on the long road ahead?” With hindsight and distance behind us it is difficult to comprehend how we could have been in such a state after what was effectively a Sunday aftrenoon stroll. Our physical state and condition were laughable and it was incredible how quickly we were to harden both physically and also mentally. Although the pain on that particluar day was physical, the mental side of hours on the road, hours of tedium, was to be as big as if not more of a problem in the many miles ahead.
Ho Chi Minh is sprawling and we were soon enveloped by its teeming traffic. Buses poured out filth, dark, noxious, nauseating smoke. Mopeds beeped infuriatingly all around, cyclos impeded with their slow sedate progress. Confusion and chaos reigned not only on the road but in our minds for we did not know where we are going. We homed in on a policeman who we felt would be able to direct us safely to our address.
“Ngo Thoi Nhiem?”
“N-g-o T-h-oi N-h-i-e-m?”
Oh for a friendly bobby on the street, smiling and helpful and able to understand us. It is amazing the thoughts that come to mind when tired and how we become less tolerant and more frustrated the more tired we are. We needed some rest and recooperation, especially as tomorrow we would have to face Vietnamese railways.
Ho Chi Minh railway station is a cavernous hall, which is bare and stark with the stamp of bureaucracy and officialdom omnipresent. Daunted by its echoing size, Ian and I entered with trepidation, uncertain of where to go and how to purchase tickets to Nha Trang. Stern officious servants of the railway brooded behind glass as expectant passengers shoved and pushed past, oblivious to us and the very English etiquette of queueing. After an interminable wait, we discovered that we were in the wrong area and with dismissive disdain Ian was pointed to a different kiosk, the dragon even following him out of her lair to ensure that he did not foul up the bureaucratic machine another time.
This time I stood in the queue, I use the term loosely, Ian standing beside me but not in line much to the displeasure of the watchful dragon. Shoulders squared and standing tall we managed to keep the pressing hordes at bay. Once at the kiosk, the actual process of buying tickets was impressively easy, thanks partly to a colourful computer system that helped us overcome the language barrier. But it all seemed too easy, and so the realist in me asked:
“But what about our bicycles?”
“No, we have bicycles.”
Realising that this line of questioning was going nowhere and armed with the official’s dubious reassurance, we departed, returning later that night with fully laden bicycles. A curt shake of the head signalled the displeasure of the guardian of the platform as we tried to negotiate our way to the train. We waited in stubborn silence. A quick glance at our bicycles and an even quicker shake of the head. The guardian was adamant that we would not be allowed to take our bikes onto the platform. But we had no choice and were prepared to be equally obstinate. Another shake of the head, but less certain this time, our obduracy beginning to reap rewards. Still we waited. The guardian, trying to seek a away out of this impasse, called over a pleasant-looking female official who spoke a little English to see if she could deal with us, these truculent travellers.
“One minute. Wait,” was her peace offering. Further officialdom was called upon and again the initial reaction was a dismissive shake of the head. The original guardian looked pleased with this decision, grinning with “I told you so” smugness. The female official said something in Vietnamese to the third official, arguing our case. We liked and warmed to her. The third official marched off for more consultation with different colleagues and returned with a gruff, begrudging nod. This was the cue for paperwork, forms to be filled in, duplicates to be taken, money to be exchanged, yet more consultation. Then finally our impatient bicycles were granted safe passage. But only after we had shown various guards our reams of paper numerous times, assuring them of our stamp of bureaucracy and that everything was in order. For all my cynicism and horror at the wads of paper that we had to display, it was a system that worked and our bikes arrived safely at their intended destination.
The train was a heavy green monolith that had seen many years of service. It loomed tall, there being no raised platform. We had to step up into the carriage, “Mind the Gap” being a redundant phrase in Vietnam, “Beware the Climb” more apt. Each carriage was attended by a stalwart of the railways, ingrained and embittered with the brusque manner unique to government employees. Our attendant guarded his territory with imperious officiousness and we were denied the choice of finding our own way to our compartment. We were ordered to show our tickets and then ceremoniously taken to our allocated berth. Laden with panniers we struggled awkwardly down the narrow corridor, squeezing past other passengers loitering by the windows.
Our sleeper, which consisted of four beds of a tacky plastic that stuck annoyingly to sweaty skin, was occupied by a crowd of people and heap of luggage. My heart sank. I had been too quick to praise the efficiency of the computerised booking system and there had been a double booking. The attendant barked angrily in Vietnamese and half the people departed leaving a family of four. The attendant, showing signs of human emotion, apologised for the fact that there were six in our compartment rather than the usual four. Smiling timidly we tried to impress upon him that it was not a problem. Concerned, the attendant departed, returning shortly with our bedding as a peace offering. (I have been on trains in China where the attendants refused to put out bedding as this entailed more work for them in terms of collecting it all in and washing it at the end of the journey). The attendant started talking to the father of the family, numbers were quoted and money exchanged hands. I was not sure how much money changed hands, but both parties seemed satisfied, the attendant with this handy supplement to his government wage and the father that he did not have to pay full fare for his children.
Ian and I were also happy. We were pleased not to be sharing with boorish army officers or smoke-breathing businessmen, preferring the calm of this delightful family. The boys, aged three and four (as was indicated with the help of fingers and sign language), were playful and inquisitive, staring out of the window with fascination at the passing scenes. Once the fleeting images had lost their attraction and no longer held their attention, the boys did not erupt into tantrums of boredom, but turned over and went straight to sleep. This scene of familial bliss, the boys snuggling up in the protective arms of their parents, lulled both Ian and I into the rocking motion of train sleep.
Despite the incessant whirring of the fan and the jarring jolt of a sudden stop in the middle of the night we both slept well and thus arrived in Nha Trang in good spirits. Nha Trang has a collection of Cham temples that resemble brick chimney stacks choking with pungent incense and a dilapidated Oceanographic museum that has a curious collection of creatures anaesthetised in alcohol. But above all it has a beach. Palm trees, white surf and sand are what make Nha Trang attractive to the backpacker. As a result the town has spawned a collection of cafes, joint-smoking boat cruises, a diving school and more recently a succession of internet cafes to please the homesick.
Our resolve was weakened by these trappings of tourism and before long we had decided to indulge ourselves - we found ourselves sat in the ‘Sailor’s Bar’. With its wooden floorboards and palm thatch, the decor of the ‘Sailor’s Bar’ was tasteful and clearly done to cater for the tourist. Even the menu was supplicant to the taste of the foreigner: burger and chips, pizza, a wealth of seafood. Reclining in cane chairs and serenaded by the crashing surf I felt as though I was in a resort in the Caribbean. The mayhem of Saigon traffic was more than an overnight train journey away.
If the Nha Trang beach experience had the feel of resorts the world over then it was given distinction by its passing trade. Women laden with hot coals and shrimps offered to prepare a barbecue in the sand before our very eyes. Women, wearing the ubiquitous conical hats, offered their services as masseuses. An amputee struggled manfully through the sand on crutches begging. Next there was a double amputee shuffling through the sand using a pair of battered flip-flops to make it easier on his calloused hands. It looked as though his lower body had been swallowed by the sand rather than destroyed by the ravages of war. A pony-tailed, grey-haired Frenchman was handing out flyers advertising a French hair stylist and designer. The flyer stated “reasonable prices for French work” - the prices might have been reasonable but if his hairstyle was anything to go by I was not filled with confidence about the work itself.
The next day we continued the tourist experience by taking a minibus to Quang Ngai. We sped past fields that were a vibrant green and full of women hard at work; feet waterlogged and backs bent at impossible angles. We passed bridges, destroyed and partially destroyed, ruins and reminders of war. We saw numerous monuments, graveyards, and memorials to war. We passed metal boards that warned in a blaze of colour of the dangers of today, namely AIDS. But we were cocooned in our minibus and I felt shielded from everyday life, divorced and separate. The bus lacked the intimacy of travel by bicycle.
In contrast to Nha Trang, Quang Ngai was a backwater with none of the
hallmarks of the traveller. It was local and untouched. It was clear
from the lack of accommodation and lack of menus in English that not
many tourists stopped here. We were overnighting here because it was
on our route but also because we wanted to visit the nearby village of
The village of Son My was relaxing, its countryside peaceful, the quiet of rural domestic scenes shaded by casvarinas and eucalyptus trees. Delightful birdsong, the singing of crickets and the lazy crowing of a cock disguised the fact that this was the site of one of the most horrific war crimes committed by US troops during the Vietnam War. On 16th March 1968 American troops basically massacred the inhabitants of the village. The worst killing took place in a hamlet called My Lai. The criminal investigation of the Military Police subsequently concluded that 347 people perished at My Lai. CID reports indicated that about another ninety unarmed Vietnamese were killed at a second hamlet of the village by soldiers from a separate company on the same morning. Today the site is marked by the Son My Memorial, which names 504 people killed and admittance is granted with the payment of 12,000 Vietnamese dong.
Whatever the dispute about the amount of people killed that day, the site is full of plaques and gravestones. One plaque states “Do Kys house burnt, 5 murdered” (their ages were forty-three, thirteen, ten, seven and five). Another states that five of Phna Cong’s family was murdered, one of whom was aged six. “The coconut tree of Pham Ching’s remains with bullet holes in its trunk after the massacre” states another sign, the bullet holes in the tree only too visible. Wherever I turned signs, stark reminders of what happened on that horrible day confronted me. “Le Ty’s coconut tree with bullet holes.”
William Calley was the first lieutenant and the senior officer on the ground that day. Calley was the only officer or soldier that day to be convicted of a crime. He was later charged with personally killing 109 Vietnamese, courtmartialled and found guilty for the murders of twenty-two unarmed civilians. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1971, spent three years under house arrest and was paroled in 1974 after the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. It is a controversial case as many argue that Calley was acting on orders and was made a scapegoat. Whatever, it is certain that Calley did not act alone.
Inside the memorial building itself the past all too hideously is given reality by the photos of US Army photographer Ronald Halberle. His photographs hide nothing. Photos of the soldiers burning Tu Cung village reveal a variety of expressions on the faces of the culprits. One soldier looks terrified with fear and guilt, another chilling in his casualness, an evil smile turning the corners of his mouth. Then there is a photo of Herbert Parker who was the only American casualty in the entire operation. He shot himself in the left foot to try to avoid the slaughter. In fact the Americans encountered no resistance during the awful assault, nor did they come under fire at any time. The photos do not hold back, but then nor do the captions of the Vietnamese underneath, “US soldiers with a cold look after Son My Massacre” reads one caption.
Unable to fathom or come to terms with the impassive faces of the Americans, I walked into the next room where I was quite simply revolted by what I saw. I felt sick. The caption in front of me read, “Mr Pham Phuc was shot at the abdomen by US soldiers when he was running out of his home.” The photo above the caption was of a frail middle-aged man lying dead outside his doorway, his intestines pouring out in a sickening and bloody mess. The most gruesome and gut wrenching photo was of Mrs Chin Tau whose brain was leaking out, shattered bone sticking out above her left eye that was caught in a haunting lifeless stare. Next was the heart-rending photo of Truong Bon protecting his younger brother Truong Nam. I do not know how old they were, perhaps eight and five, but Truong Bon was making the ultimate fraternal sacrifice in trying to shield his brother on a path beside a paddy field. Both were shot. It was a photo that was to make the front page of the Sunday Times on 23rd November 1969 when the finally broke.
The memorial did not just consist of photographs but also had the clothes and tools of some of the villagers. For me the tiny floral shirt of Truang Thi Hoa hit home. A large board detailed the 504 names of those brutally murdered on 18th March 1968. On the board I counted one hundred and seventy-eight names that were ten years old or younger. Of those one hundred and seventy-eight, twenty-one were one year olds. I refuse to convert that into a percentage, this is not about statistics but human lives. My mind was unbelieving of such indiscriminate slaughter. It was madness, sheer madness. I was angry and kept thinking, “Bastards. Bastards. How could the bastards have done this.”
Not everyone was insane that day: Captain Hugh C. Thompson a gunship pilot saved many Vietnamese, even threatening to turn his gunships on to US soldiers. But his brave actions were the exception rather than the norm and hence the scale of the massacre. Neil Sheehan chillingly describes the brutal course of the massacre in his book ‘A Bright Shining Lie’. “The American soldiers and junior officers shot old men, women, boys, girls and babies. One soldier missed a baby lying on the ground twice with a .45 pistol as his comrades laughed at his marksmanship. He stood over the child and fired a third time. The soldiers beat women with rifle butts and raped some and sodomised others before shooting them. They shot the water buffalo, the pigs and the chickens. They threw these dead animals into the wells to poison the water.”
Sheehan tries to explain the massacre. “Calley appears to be a sadist, but his personality alone does not explain the massacre. What Calley and others who participated in the massacre did that was different, was to kill hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese in two hamlets in a single morning and to kill them point-blank with rifles, pistols and machine guns. Had they killed just as many over a larger area in a longer period of time and killed impersonally with bombs, shells, rockets, white phosphorous, and napalm, they would have been following the normal pattern of American military conduct.”
If that is not damning enough he goes on to talk of the American attitude. “The soldier and the junior officer observed the lack of regard his superiors had for the Vietnamese. The value of Vietnamese life was systematically cheapened in his mind. The massacre at Son My was inevitable. The military leaders of the US, and the civilian leaders who permitted the generals to wage war as they did, had made the massacre inevitable.”
And yet despite such atrocities and the suffering of the Vietnamese people throughout the war their ability to forgive, accept the past for what it was and get on with the present is disarming. Never once did Ian and I get a hostile reception in our time in Vietnam. In fact the opposite, their generosity and support for us were overwhelming. At the time I wrote in my diary, “How many more shouts of ‘Hello, hello’ can there be? How much more encouragement can these kindly people give us? We are met by a never-ending succession of shouted greetings, waving hands and smiling faces. I try, I do my best to respond to each well-wisher in turn but it is not always easy when a bus is approaching at speed blaring its horn.”
That afternoon we stopped for lunch in an unremarkable roadside cafe that did not look as though it saw much passing trade let alone that of two hungry foreign cyclists. An Amerasian, whose father had been a US soldier, ran the restaurant. In long forgotten English he hesitantly explained his situation and produced a grimy letter from San Diego to give credence to what he had told us. His six children, five of who were girls, giggled continuously at our foreign antics. Ian mistaking the door to the house for the door to the loo was a mistake of hilarious proportions.
The arrival of a motorbike caused the children to jump up and down in excitement, point at Ian and I, shouting, “An! An!” (English! English!). The motorbike rider put his head through the doorway to see what all the clamour was about, saw Ian and I, and drove off in a cloud of dust. We knew that we were a little off the beaten track but thought his reaction to our presence was a little extreme. That was until our host burst into laughter and spluttered, “He English teacher.”
Later that afternoon we arrived in Hoi An, weary and a little saddle sore from having cycled one hundred and forty-one kilometres that day. Thankfully the sleepy charm of Hoi An was the perfect place in which to recuperate. Its narrow streets are free from the deafening blasts of buses and other vehicles. It is a little oasis with its old worn buildings that huddle together between temples stuffed full with the garish objects of Chinese worship. It is ancient, decrepit and quaint, and despite the proliferation of artists’ shops it is relaxed and laid-back. The charm of the town has filled and imbued its inhabitants with a similar attitude, and we were very much left to ourselves. Persistent peddlers did not besiege us. The children did not stare, did not yell greetings, but played amongst themselves absorbed by their own company. A young boy grabbed my arm and I pulled me to the water’s edge. He motioned for me to lower him down so that he could retrieve his ball. A polite thankyou and I was left to go on my way, alone, not followed. A pleasant change.
The early morning light brings colour to the faded yellow ochre of the green-shuttered buildings. Hoi An slowly comes to life and the bustle of market begins. Groceries are bought for the day and the price of fish is haggled over, shoes are taken in for repair. Again I am taken by the attractiveness of this small town. I would love to stay longer but then perhaps I would find another side to Hoi An, see more of the influence of tourism, perhaps discover that its charm is affected. Best to leave with happy memories and not have them spoiled.
Today was to be a day that would test our mettle. Not because of the distance involved, only some sixty-eight kilometres, but because it was to be our first battle with hills, a climb of over four hundred metres up the Hai Van pass. However as it turned out it was not only our mettle that was tested but also our navigational skills. On this we singularly failed due to a combination of our own ineptitude and the Vietnamese loathing of clearly marked signs. As a result we had to cycle an extra fifteen kilometres that our weary legs could have done without.
The Marble Mountains provided an early respite from the numbing pain of our bicycle seats, but did little to rest my tired legs. I am sure that was why Ian, having visited here before, opted for the less energetic option of the shade and his diary. I on the other hand scrambled up and down the maze of stone steps that beat an exhausting path between the grottoes. The Marble Mountains provide an excellent panorama of China Beach, supposedly the beach on which American soldiers indulged in a bit of ‘rest and relaxation’. But far more interesting to me were the number of Buddhas, slumbering in stone, in the cool damp of grottoes and caves. The caves, some illuminated by brilliant shafts of sunlight, were delightful and charming, but much of their mystique was destroyed by demanding women selling cold drinks. Each woman marked her territory with cries of “You buy here” and “Water. Cold water. You want.” The water was deliciously cold but their harrassing cries were not so welcome and I fled back down the mountainside to Ian and on to face the arduous pass ahead.
The Hai Van pass, described by the Lonely Planet as “an incredibly mountainous stretch of highway with spectacular roads”, used to form the boundary between Vietnam and the kingdom of Champa, today Hue and Danang provinces. I liked the thought of the spectacular views but was concerned about the phrase “incredibly mountainous stretch”. Unfortunately the Lonely Planet was not wrong and my fears were confirmed. The Lonely Planet also said that many buses “break down here” and that was very nearly the fate of Ian and I on that scorching day had it not been for the encouragement of the Vietnamese. Truck divers gave us the thumbs up, car drivers nodded their respect and faces peered out of bus windows egging us on. Everyone who passed wished us well, goading us on, but at the same time glad that it was us and not them.
Eventually, after several stops and many litres of water later, we made it to the top of the pass to be greeted by a gaggle of women who all declared “I have been waiting for you.” What a reception, but sadly I did not have the energy. After some twenty minutes and having been shown the “American bankers”, i.e. an old French fort that was used by the Americans as a bunker during the war, and offered “penis”, i.e. peanuts, we felt rested enough to glide the eleven kilometres downhill to the tranquillity of Lang Co.
Tranquil, Lang Co most certainly was, but also deserted. We thus had little problem checking in to the Lang Co Trade Union Hotel, a somewhat dilapidated government hotel that was crying out for a touch of flair and class, as well as bit of attention, to help it realise its potential. Making our way down to the beach through the unfortunate scar of litter, we quickly realised that not only were we the only inmates of the hotel, but also the only occupants of the beach. Miles and miles of endless crashing surf and white squeaky sand all to ourselves and our Frisbee. What more could two tired cyclists want - perhaps a massage and a couple of pretty Vietnamese girls. As if by magic, as we emerged from the sea, we were approached by a couple of Vietnamese women and offers of a massage. It was too good an opportunity to miss so we took them up on their offer.
The relief and relaxation were instantaneous as our flesh was pressed and pummelled by strong, sure hands. Ian erupted into fits of ticklish laughter as sensitive areas were prodded, begging the question from his masseuse, “You no have girlfriend?” On being asked to turn onto my back, one of the girls pointed at my stomach and laughingly cried “Buddha”. “You little monkey...” I began but she was too quick. Picking up on my use of the word monkey she pointed to the hair on my chest, what little of it there is, and smiled, “No, you monkey.”
This morning’s seventy kilometre cycle to Hue we came across two processions, both wobbly and weary, but each of a very different nature. The first was a funeral, a slow moving shuffle of feet, bright banners and a blaring of wooden horns. A melee of straining bearers surrounded the coffin, some with cigarettes hanging out of the corner of their mouths, others in their Sunday best. One man was in his Sunday best, ill fitting and baggy, his tie with an impossibly large knot, an umbrella in his hand, he was a picture of bedraggled respectability. Inquisitive glances were cast at our stationary bikes, nods of appreciation, and the odd smile, little of the sombre respect that dignifies a funeral at home. The second procession was organised out of Oregon and took a similar interest in our bikes. Fatigued not with grief but the exertion of cycling, they were a group of twenty cycling from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, complete with two back up vehicles full of all their luggage. Amongst them was a vain chef from Detroit filming a cookery programme for television, and from his appearance and position at the back of the pack he was obviously more interested in cuisine than cycling.
On arrival in Hue we quickly checked into one of the many small hotels and guesthouses that cluttered the once proud streets. Hue was once the Imperial City of Vietnam, from 1802 to 1945 serving as the political capital under the thirteen Nguyen emperors, and traditionally it has been one of the country’s cultural, religious and educational centres. Today the tombs of the Nguyen emperors and the Forbidden Purple City are the main attractions drawing backpackers and tourists alike, and hence the wealth of accommodation to choose from. Not wanting to miss out on the delights of Hue, we quickly dispensed with the formalities of check-in, dumped our panniers and the paraphernalia of cycling for the accessories of sightseeing.
The Imperial City and the Forbidden Purple City, called the Great Enclosure, were the place where the political activities of the Nguyen Dynasty took place and also the residence of the royal family. Built in the nineteenth century, some four hundred years after the Forbidden City of Beijing, the Imperial City of Hue was designed along the same lines of that in Beijing and there were thus many similarities between the two. The similarities were manifold from the design and layout to the use of one-storey pavilions. From the yellow roofs (yellow being the colour of the Emperor) to the central gate being reserved only for the Emperor. From the fact that the doorways were raised to keep spirits and draughts at bay to the upturned eaves and elaborate decoration of the roofs.
That was the optimistic picture painted by the literature, but standing outside the main gate, Ngo Mon, I was disappointed. There was little of the pomp and grandeur of Beijing’s Forbidden City. No rich reds or splendid yellows, instead washed out colours and heavy walls, a faded sameness. The grey overcast dullness of English skies did little to brighten the drab walls of the Citadel, blackened by moss, war and time; worn and tired they mirrored the dreary gloom. Frangipani trees, flowerless and lacking leaves, stood like grey coral in the bleak courtyard.
On entering the principal gate, Ngo Mon, an introductory pamphlet tried to lift the gloom by explaining that the “Great Enclosure has about one hundred beautiful and magnificent monuments of various types.” I was filled with a glimmer of hope that although the colour might be faded in comparison to the Forbidden City in Beijing then at least the buildings and treasures might retain some of their former brilliance. But the deceit of the pamphlet was unashamed. Virtually all of the Imperial City has been destroyed, devastated by the ravages of war. Ruin and vegetable plots have replaced the former glories of empire. The rhythmic reverence of imperial worship has been drowned out by the scraping of the hoe.
A fertile imagination and the promises of the pamphlet were all that I was left with to try to recreate the size and scale of court ceremony. But I was not and could not be excited by the architecture, instead the grey skies reminded me of home, a long way away. I began thinking about friends and family and what they were up to. Then bizarrely the sounds of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ floated across what was once a courtyard. I was struck by a pang of homesickness and felt despondent. Maybe it was the weather, my frame of mind at the time or simply the destruction and neglect of these once proud buildings, but the overriding impression that I came away with from the Imperial City was one of sadness.
If all went well today was to be our last day in Vietnam. We planned to take a bus to Dong Ha and from there cycle the eighty-three kilometres to the border post at Lao Bao. Getting to Dong Ha was an experience in itself let alone out of Vietnam and into Laos. The bus depot was makeshift, there being no signs denoting destinations, and certainly no concept of timetables. It was simply a space where buses, pick-ups, antiquated Land Cruisers (everyone’s favourite option) gathered trying to entice passengers to a destination that was mutually convenient to both the driver and the passengers. Sometimes vehicles would wait for hours trying to collect a full complement of passengers.
Luck seemed to be on our side as Dong Ha seemed to be a reasonably popular destination and we were told by means of phrasebook and sign language that we would not have to wait too long. Not wait too long, but then how long is a piece of string? As it turns out they were right and we did not have to wait too long as our nondescript mode of transport began filling up quickly. In fact too quickly as it soon became uncomfortably overcrowded. To say that we were packed in like sardines is an understatement, which I ought to try to put it into perspective. There were twenty-one of us, plus luggage that was too valuable to go on the roof, crammed into a vehicle that was no bigger than a Toyota Land Cruiser. It might come as little surprise to you that the journey was an ordeal in numbness, my left buttock and leg losing all sensation shortly after pulling out of Hue and unfortunately long before we got to Dong Ha.
There is not much, in fact very little to Dong Ha, hence no tourist or large buses stop there. There is certainly little point in spending any time in Dong Ha, so as soon as we had some semblance of feeling back in our legs (i.e. we could get on our bikes without falling off) we were on our way. The road to Lao Bao took us away from densely populated paddy fields through quarries and the clicking and chipping of boiler-suited ants trying to break up the stone, then on into rolling hills draped in mist and the rich green of forest. Higher into the hills numbers dwindled, it became more deserted and remoteness quickly closed in. The by now familiar conical hats disappeared and were replaced by tattoos, small pipes and the tiny frames of hill-tribes women.
The scenery was impressive, the road following the soothing beauty of a river at times slow, at other times racing through narrow channels that cut deep into the hills. It was enchanting, but especially so as this was our first real appreciation of the Vietnamese landscape and certainly the first time that we had been alone to enjoy it. Yet despite the remoteness, the seeming lack of inhabitation we would hear shouted greetings of “Hello. Hello.” I wrote in my diary ‘With eyes like hawks, from unseen distances, nooks and crannies, the children seem to have a sixth sense, an uncanny ability to spot us and shout out a greeting. I know that Coke is said to be the second most universally known word after OK, but Hello must come a close third, especially after today’s vote-rigging by the Vietnamese.’
Lao Bao is a frontier town with a wretched huddle of wooden huts and little else. It is soulless and forgotten, as evidenced by the one empty concrete building that was hastily built several years ago in the vain hope of cashing in on the proposed Thailand to Vietnam highway that was due to pass through here. It is supposed to be a hotel, but it is a sad neglected effort at one. Our arrival caused consternation and confusion, and sent various people scampering off to find a key. They returned with a key but it was the wrong key and the whole farce was repeated. Ian and I looked at each other resignedly and the same thought crossed our minds, “I will be glad to get out of here tomorrow.”
In the grey morning light our initial impressions of Lao Bao were not any more favourable. It was dusty and windswept, with litter congregating in ditches and boxes strewn by the roadside. A convoy of blue trucks, bursting at the seams with the goods of cross border trade, waited forlornly for the border to open. A haggle of moneychangers loitered like scavengers at a kill. They were all women, well dressed in twee hats and brightly coloured jackets, plastered in layers of make-up and carrying cheap travel bags full of dong and kip.
Sated by noodles, a tingling sensation in the stomach not due to the spicy noodles but because we were apprehensive of our imminent clash with officialdom, we rolled the short distance down to the border. We were met by a surly officer who gruffly demanded our passports. A shake of his head on examining our visas did not bode well.
“Moc Bai,” he pointed accusingly. We tried to explain that Moc Bai was where we had entered Vietnam. But either he was unimpressed by our explanation or he did not speak English, for he returned our passports with a further curt shake of his head. We tried to reason with him that the Vietnamese consulate in Phnom Penh had told us that we would be able to leave via Lao Bao. He was unmoved and simply gave us that ‘Phnom Penh is a long way away, this is Lao Bao and I am in charge’ smile. Flustered by our persistence he ordered me to stay with the bikes and for Ian to follow him. They disappeared into the concrete building that was the immigration post in search of an official who could speak a little English and tell us in no uncertain terms that we could not exit Vietnam at Lao Bao.
A sombre Ian returned a few minutes later bearing the bad news. We could either pay a fine of two million Vietnamese dong (approximately $140 at the time) at the border post or return to Dong Ha and get a further stamp in our passports for $10 each before we could proceed. Dong Ha was a four-hour round journey on motorbike for $15, thus the choice in monetary terms was clear. But we still had to make the decision of who should go back to Dong Ha and who should remain with the bikes. Time for ‘spoof’. ‘Spoof’ for the uninitiated is a game in which you try to guess the aggregate number of stones, coins, whatever that are held in an outstretched fist. We both had three stones and thus the aggregate could be any number from nought to six, depending on how many stones that we had in our outstretched right fists. Ian lost. His face fell when he realised that it would be him who had to face the bumpy return to Dong Ha and back. I on the other hand was relieved at not having to endure the journey but also felt guilty at winning - why are the British such bad winners and gracious losers?
Several handshakes of wished luck and reassuring pats later, Ian departed on the back of a motorbike and I settled down to my sentence of loud blaring music, determined to catch up with my journal. As I wrote of my frustration at the pettiness of bureaucracy, the moneychangers collected around me, fascinated by my spidery scrawl. They could read little of my script, few people can, but did pick up on words such as kip and dong - they do not miss much. As they counted, recounted, stacked and restacked their bricks of money they talked excitedly amongst themselves. Truck drivers, dressed in wind-cheaters which were battered by miles on the road and a shade of their former colour, obligatory cigarette in hand, came into the small shack for a thimble of tea or bag of beer. I settled myself in for a long stay and a lot of staring. Fascinated eyes filled with curiosity pressed against the wooden slats of the shack as dirty, ragged children ogled at me. Warm smiles of coloured teeth broke out into amusement as I relieved the time by dancing and tapping to the wails of the music, acting the clown. Fingers poked and prodded at the bikes, as one particularly scruffy elder boy confidently explained to the others what all the various accessories were used for. Splayed fingers measured my foot-size.
Yet despite all their inquisitiveness, the kids on the whole left me alone and more importantly did not tamper with the bikes. In many other countries little would have been left of the bikes let alone them not being tampered with. What I found most annoying was the fact that each new diner plucked my book from my grasp without even asking me to stare in bewilderment at the alien script.
As the day wore on boredom set in. Fed up I tried to break the tedium with some dancing. To a jazzed up, rave version of the Beatles I began to gyrate, strutting my funky stuff, trying in vain to get the money changers to dance too. They were adamant in their refusal to dance, not only because they did not want to but also because they were racked by convulsions of laughter. I know that my dancing usually is the source of great amusement, but such hilarity was unprecedented. A crowd quickly gathered to watch my strange antics. Quickly I became a local celebrity so much so that every time a new passerby walked past, the music was switched on and with shouts of “You. You.” I was ordered to perform on demand.
Overkill is an alien concept in Vietnam and it was only after several hours that they tired of the joke and let me rest. But only for a short while, for three girls started to ask me to repeat various Vietnamese phrases after them. From their laughter it was obvious that they were asking me to repeat words not commonly found in a phrase book. Another source of amusement that was played to its death.
But it was not all high jinks and laughter. As time dragged on I became increasingly worried about Ian. Given time to wait, time to think and dwell on matters, my imagination ran rife. Without any means of contact and not being able to find out why it was now eight hours since he had left, I began to fear the worst. When one of the girls turned to me, pointed at Ian’s bike and then ran her finger across her throat it was all too much - much to their delight I broke down in feigned tears. But it did make me wonder.
Uncertainty is awful in the doubt that it fosters
and I was mightily relieved to see Ian’s dusty face grinning
from the back of a motorbike. It had taken Ian nearly ten hours to
get to Dong Ha and back. He had
been through a trial by bureaucracy, an ordeal of red tape. Only one
official in the district had the necessary authority to give us the stamp
that we required and that official was not in the office that day, so
Ian had had to track him down at home. Whatever the doubts and delays
we were glad to see each other again and even happier in the knowledge
that tomorrow we would hopefully be able to cross the border into Laos.