Monthly Archives: March 2013

16 Mar: Hanoi History

Hanoi has a population more than 6 million, which makes it bigger than Seattle. We observed quite a lot of construction during our 30-minute ride into town from the airport.


Our hotel is in the Old Quarter, full of narrow streets, colonial French rowhouses, and hordes of motor scooters. After lunch we did a walkabout in this part of town, visiting some unique shops. Prices here run the entire range from pennies to hundreds of dollars; that makes for quite a mix!


The national founding legend of Vietnam has a king-Arthur-like plot line involving a hero, Le Loi, a holy turtle, and a special sword; the sword was used to end the thousand year Chinese occupation. We visited one of the turtles today at his temple. This is a small one. There’s an even bigger one still in the lake: 100 years old and 450 pounds when last seen in 2011.


Dinner for our last night in Vietnam was in an old French colonial residence, now a terrific restaurant.

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15 Mar: Hoi An Backroads

It’s time to get out of town! Remember that 80% of the population (80 million, almost as populous as Germany) lives outside the towns and cities. We had seen some rural life in the central highlands near Khe Sahn; but Hoi An is a coastal area.


We set off to explore, first by bike. The rice paddies are sectioned in units of 500 square meters, and a plot that size generates revenue of $300 per year. Many families have only this much. Most are subsistence farms, where there is a small surplus over the family’s needs that is sold for cash. Vegetables would also be raised on the family plot. In this area, with irrigation, they can get two crops of rice each year. It was the introduction of the water buffalo that allowed the heavy work of irrigation system construction and doubled the rice crop; so the water buffalo is revered as the foundation of civilization.


Since this area is so close to the restaurants of Hoi An, one village is specializing in organic herbs and vegetables. Two hundred families have 7 hectares (about 3acres) under this intense cultivation. We visited one woman, watched how she used seaweed as fertilizer, and helped her water her crops.


A bit later, after passing some shrimp ponds under their periodic muck-out, we had an opportunity to ride a water buffalo. I was surprised: these animals are smaller than our big dairy Holsteins, but more muscular. This cow was very sweet tempered, and she really took to that water!


Trading in our bikes, we boarded a boat to get out on the bay and see how the fishermen live. We had special training in the hand-cast net – and an opportunity to practice.


Also we operated the muscle-powered winch net. Our meager catch was added to the pot for lunch, along with some vegetables from earlier stop.


So in the space of less than seven hours, we truly had a hands-on experience of rural life with the farmers and fishers near Hoi An. What an exceptional, memorable, day!

14 Mar: Road to Hoi An

This morning we were sad to leave behind our Peacetrees leader and in-country program director, who needed to go meet up with an incoming group of visitors. Not to worry – we still have Peacetrees personnel with us, one US staff and one VN staff.


Our diminished band left Hue and headed south again, crossing mountains via a Japanese-built 6 km long tunnel at the 1300m elevation, then skirting Danang and stopping briefly at Marble Mountain. This was the site of a major battle during the Vietnam War, involving US Special Forces. It has a major marble quarry, and today a sculpture factory.


We reached Hoi An on the coast in time for lunch. Since China was closed to foreigners, Hoi An was established as the foreign trading post very early on. So there are sections that look Chinese, others look Japanese or French.


Once China was opened to trading and the river started silting up, it became a backwater (literally), a town that time forgot. There was nothing important here, so there was no war damage.


Today the old town center is designated as a pedestrian zone. Well, at least a no-car zone. One can still be mowed down by the ubiquitous scooters.


It’s a lovely place. But all the shops and services are aimed squarely at the numerous tourists. Hoi An strikes me as the Vietnamese version of Carmel.

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14 Mar: Road to Hoi An

This morning we were sad to leave behind our Peacetrees leader and in-country program director, who needed to go meet up with an incoming group of visitors. Not to worry – we still have Peacetrees personnel with us, one US staff and one VN staff.


Our diminished band left Hue and headed south again, crossing mountains via a Japanese-built 6 km long tunnel at the 1300m elevation, then skirting Danang and stopping briefly at Marble Mountain. This was the site of a major battle during the Vietnam War, involving US Special Forces. It has a major marble quarry, and today a sculpture factory.


We reached Hoi An on the coast in time for lunch. Since China was closed to foreigners, Hoi An was established as the foreign trading post very early on. So there are sections that look Chinese, others look Japanese or French.


Once China was opened to trading and the river started silting up, it became a backwater (literally), a town that time forgot. There was nothing important here, so there was no war damage.


Today the old town center is designated as a pedestrian zone. Well, at least a no-car zone. One can still be mowed down by the ubiquitous scooters.


It’s a lovely place. But all the shops and services are aimed squarely at the numerous tourists. Hoi An strikes me as the Vietnamese version of Carmel.

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13 Mar: Hue Sights

This is a big city, with a correspondingly big market. We found many treasures, including boxes made from cinnamon bark and necklaces made from lotus seeds.


Having been the imperial capital for so long, the emperors have their tombs on the hills nearby. We visited two; one from the 1400s and one from 1925. Just astounding.


After lunch we visited the citadel in Hue, built on the model of the Forbidden City in Beijing. This entire part of the city was mostly flattened during the Tet offensive of 1968, but there has been a considerable reconstruction effort underway. Several international organizations have funded the reconstruction and preservation of historically significant monuments.


We visited the Thien Mu pagoda, a Buddhist temple on the banks of the Perfume River on the outskirts of Hue. This was the center of Buddhist opposition to the Diem regime; and they had a relic of the 1963 self-immolation of one of their most revered monks. Fortunately, we were in time for the monastic 4 o’clock afternoon prayers, with the accompanying bells and gongs and chanting.


Dinner was a very special affair, something like a Vietnamese version of those Medieval Banquets. Remember Hue was an imperial city. So we were an imperial court! We had a king, a queen, two gentlemen mandarins (senior civil servants/government officials), and the rest of the ladies were all … concubines. Ahem. Complete with costume.


And of course every court has court musicians. So we did too, with their unique Vietnamese instruments, but I was too busy listening to take pictures. Mea culpa. I can say it was much easier to listen to than Chinese singing.

All in all, a delightful day full of very different experiences.

12 Mar: Hue Finery

The contrast between the upcountry area around Khe Sahn and Hue is like the contrast between the hollers of Kentucky and downtown San Francisco, except the buildings are not quite so tall. Hue was the national capital from 1802 until 1945, and it has major universities. It is also within reasonable travel range from Australia. So – this is a big, bustling place with lots of Caucasians in the mix, lots of hotels and eateries and other tourist services.

Tailors, for instance. Our PeaceTrees leader has a tailor here, so of course we all trooped over to see. She made jackets and tunics and pants for those of us who had not bought ao dai in Dong Ha, and they were delivered the next evening.

And bars. We stopped in one for a cold drink after shopping.

And food! We treated ourselves to a French restaurant located in the old citadel, where we had the option of Western food. I had salad (which we have been carefully avoiding throughout the trip for as a food sanitation precaution) with quail eggs:


And penne pasta with a sauce made from bleu d’Auverne, my favorite French blue cheese:


A truly memorable meal!

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12 Mar: Road to Hue


Today we began working our way south from the former DMZ and Quang Tri province, following the coastline south. Our first stop was at the town of Quang Tri, which had been the provincial capital until the war flattened it. The old masonry citadel in the center of town received continuous shelling for nearly 90 days, as the two sides contested its possession. There wasn’t much left, so it was made into a memorial garden.


Further south there is a pilgrimage site, where the Blessed Mother appeared several times to farmers during the Catholic persecutions of 1798. This too was largely destroyed during the war. The NVA assassinated the clergy, and set up an anti-aircraft battery inside the large brick church. When the Americans bombed it, the ruin was used as a propaganda tool. The shrine has now been rebuilt, and 500,000 people come every three years to the rites. I could feel a real Presence here, I must confess.

Then it was onward to Hue, where we will be for two nights.

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