Today we arrived in Hoi An, our third city of the Vietnam trip. We got to Hue (pronounced Who-Aye) Friday morning after what seemed like an interminably long bus ride. We became quite familiar with the other tourists on the bus; not that we talked at all, but people were sprawled out in the aisles, draped over the seats in front of them, and generally in the attitude of rather making themselves at home. It's interesting how self-contained the tourist industry is in this country. Each city along the coast is accessible by buses that essentially only tourists ride (there are local buses for the Natives). When we arrive in a city, we are dropped off on streets lined with hostels at rates ranging from $4-20/night. At the hostels, friendly solicitous people (all, seemingly, under 30) in broken English recommend options for excursions and tours of the city and various natural or historical sites in the countryside. I could actually spend my entire 2 weeks in Vietnam without interacting with any Vietnamese outside the tourist industry. This all seems remarkably well-organized; we suspect that all the hostels and tourist companies are in cahouts with each other, and perhaps even just run by the government. It occurs to me that perhaps some smart characters in the Vietnamese government decided a few years ago that they wanted to create a bustling tourist industry, perhaps as a poor-man's alternative to the crazy hustle-bustle of Thailand. They therefore set things up to attract foreigners out here while minimizing said tourists' overall influence on the country. Vietnam is still a marginally communist country, and in typical broken-down communist fashion, they could still be trying to maintain a semblance of ideology while all the same getting their hands in the international touristing cookie jar. Also interestingly enough, just about all the tourists are Europeans... as I alluded to in my previous posting, Americans haven't seemed to have warmed up to Vietnam, just yet.
So we arrived in Hue, rented a couple of bicycles, and spent a day traipsing around the city and countryside. It's pretty fun riding with all the local traffic through the packed streets, though it definitely takes some getting used to. No one really stops at intersections, and doing so would actually potentially cause at best a minor traffic slowdown, and at worst an accident. We are advised to just make eye contact with oncoming traffic, whereupon everyone mutually swerves, and then it's off to the next near-death experience. Definitely a study in organized chaos. It's actually not so bad, since people ride motorbikes here almost exclusively in lieu of cars. So accidents are less likely to involve impacts with/between large metal vehicles. Additionally, since the streets are so packed, the maximum speed limit for any vehicle is usually significantly under that which your grandma pedaling on a bicycle could manage. So it's cool. We were joking that it really seems that most people have a family motorbike out here, and a teenager will ask his Dad for the keys to the bike to take his girlfriend out for a night on the town. But it's also notably progressive; one sees as almost an equal proportion of men and women on motorbikes.
So back to our bike ride. Within 5 minutes of our riding on the street, a woman pulled up to Tonya and started chatting with her. This little mobile conversation continued for some time, as we drifted the streets of Hue. We were attempting to take a ride outside the town to see a tomb/palace place of an ancient emperor of a bygone royal era (or something like that). But this woman said that she lived on a pineapple farm not far from the tomb, and wouldn't we like to have her show us the way? Perceiving a response in the negative to be the pinnacle of rudeness, we followed her along (or rather, I followed, while Tonya and the woman chatted). On a side note, I've found that many people spontaneously approach Tonya out here to chat/take pictures, etc. Just last night, 3 young girls wanted to take a professional picture in front of the Royal palace, and asked Tonya to join them. We've determined that while they're interested in becoming acquainted with a blonde-ish foreigner, I'm far too swarthy (or perhaps just ugly) to pique their interest. Anyway, so we went riding out to the tomb, and it turned out that the woman lived, in fact, a fair distance from our destination. She took us to her little homestead and treated us to fresh pineapple and Ramen noodles. Her husband was particularly excited to chat, as he had learned English while serving with the Americans fighting in the Vietnam war! He fought for a couple of years down in the south, and moved up north to Hue after the Americans pulled out. So all in all, that was quite fascinating.
Now we've arrived in Hoi An. Today's Sunday, so we'll lay low for the day, and tomorrow hit the touristy stuff. Apparently this city is a huge Mecca for foreign shoppers. The local tailors are rather renowned; I'm hoping to get a suit tailored for the tall sum of $40. Sweet.
On a food note, it would be truly impossible for me to starve in this country, due to the overwhelming availability of fresh fruit (including pineapple, mango, bananas, and all things tropical). It seems, however, that I once read somewhere "Man shall not live by mango alone". I feel reluctant to reveal that I've actually moved two sizes smaller on my belt since arriving here. I hope I don't need to emphasize that this is not necessarily the optimal direction for my belt buckle to be moving. But so far, the intestinal diseases seem to be well conquered, so I therefore conclude that my shrinking girth is due merely to water loss. I drink about 4-5 liters a day, but it still seems insufficient. But I'm hangin in there, Mom. Don't worry.
Finally, in response to John P.'s request, my traveling buddy is a one Tonya Tripp. She and I did a little excursion to Mali back in the fall of 2003. She it was who clued me in to the delights of a potential jaunt through SE Asia. She spent last summer in Cambodia working on an internship, which she will continue after I leave in about 2 weeks. She's keeping her own little travelblog updated at
Goodness. That was a lot of writing.