I’m in Luang Prabang, Laos right now and I haven’t posted a blog in a while because my hotel doesn’t have an internet connection and the two internet cafes I’ve been to had such slow connections that I ended up only writing a few emails instead of working on the blog. Considering that I’m in a very important Buddhist town, I think it’s appropriate that I’m learning patience through dealing with poor internet infrastructure and turtle slow connections.
That all being said, tonight (9/18), I’m staying up late in my hotel room and typing up blog entries into my netbook so I can try to transfer them over tomorrow. I won’t have to type the entire entries at the internet cafe, but instead I plan on going to one of the two restaurants that offer wi-fi while you eat, or maybe I’ll try and find a memory stick and just transfer the stories that way.
I’m planning on entering a different blog post for each of the days I’ve missed so that it won’t be just one gigantic post. You’ll need to scroll down to see the different posts because I wanted to get them all posted at once since I don’t know how many chances I’ll have to post again in the near future.
After my first night back in Hanoi I relaxed in the room until just before noon checkout because I’d stayed up until almost 4am. I finally showered and packed up, then checked out. The guy from Especen Hotel was watching me from outside to make sure I checked back in to their hotel. Once I was done checking out of the place they’d sent me to because they were booked I went two doors down to Especen and changed from room 202 (my room before Halong Bay) to room 502.
I left my bag in the lobby and walked back to Cinnamon Hotel because yesterday the guy had said they’d reimburse my $100 the following day when the bank opened, and they did.
Once I’d gotten my money from the Halong Bay trip reimbursed I went to the panini shop and had a sandwich. While I was at the restaurant two guys from outside started talking to me – they were a salesmen team with one selling photocopied books and the other was a xe om driver (xe om = motorbike/scooter taxi). We talked for a long time and I bought the xe om guy 2 beers. He wanted to know what I wanted to see and kept trying to tell me which places he thought I should see but I only cared about seeing Hoa Lo Prison (“Hanoi Hilton”). They wanted me to give them my Hanoi-Halong Bay Lonely Planet book and I told them maybe I would the next morning before I left for Laos, but that I still wanted it for the rest of the day. They also wanted to sell me “The Quiet American” by Graham Greene, but the copy had same pages printed upside down so the bookseller took off to have a new one made up for me.
Eventually after some proding (“we go now, it close soon”), I took my first xe om ride (pronounced “shay ohm”). I’d seen several burnt calfs (Larry the Australian, the New Zealander who rode on the van with me to and from Halong Bay, a Polish girl at the panini shop). All those people burnt their legs on the hot mufflers of a xe om. Anyhow, after a comical struggle to get a tiny German war helmet on my head because helmets are required, we took off. I’d been wanting to try it the whole time I was in Vietnam, and I had several opportunities because guys lean back on their scooters and ask where you want to go every 10 feet along all the sidewalks I’ve been on in Vietnam. On my last day in Vietnam I finally took the leap and it was exhilerating! Fast, wind blowing in your face, swerving around
cars, honking the horn and just pulling out into the insane traffic. I never really felt in danger because he had foot pegs for a passenger and I held on to his shoulder a little bar around the back of the seat.
He dropped me off right in front of Hoa Lo and said he’d wait, so I paid me admission fee and walked around the complex for a while. I noticed the main point of the exhibits was to demonstrate that the French built it to imprison Vietnamese during colonial times and the indigenous peoples were treated badly, beheaded by a guillotine still on site, and they had to live on these long wooden tables with their ankles shackles around the clock. The section where American POWs were kept was only a small exhibit and showed pictures of Americans demonstrating to end the war, the kind Vietnamese release of POWs, Vietnamese leaders meeting with American presidents in the past 15-20 years, the things the POWs had in prison (playing cards, razors, etc). They had a picture of John McCain being pulled from the water where he landed after being shot down, they had his flight suit on display and a picture of him visiting the Hanoi Hilton in April 2000.
When I visited the War Remnants museum in Saigon I mentioned in my blog that there are several sides to each story. Hoa Lo was definitely a Vietnamese view of things – French bad, Vietnamese good, Americans treated well. I’m sure the French did bad things to the people when they colonized Indochina, just like we did to the American Indians. I believe that the Vietnamese people, just like people everywhere, are generally good and just want to live their lives in peace. I don’t necessarily believe that American POWs were treated well by their captors. I know that America has done questionable things even recently to our own captured POWs (Abu Gharab, etc), so I’m sure we tortured and killed Vietnamese POWs and civilians during the war, but I am equally sure that the Vietnamese tortured and killed Americans and committed war crimes themselves. Again it was interesting to see such a different perspective on a major world event that you would think should be cut and dry as far as the facts go, but that just simply not true – still lots of grey areas 40 years after the war…
After I finished with Hoa Lo (45 minutes) I got back on the xe om and he wanted to take me to some pagoda but I told him I just wanted to go back to the panini shop. The round trip ride plus waiting time cost 40,000 dong, but had I bothered bargaining I’m sure I could have done it for 30,000, but saving $0.70 wasn’t a concern.
I sat in the panini shop from ~4:30pm-11pm, drinking beer, watching Bangkok Dangerous (Nick Cage) on tv with the owner, talking with a retired Frenchman who’s there to write short stories and live amongst the people and I bought The Quiet American from the bookseller. The owner gave me his dinner; while I was in the shop several backpackers came in for food but were turned away because they were out of food supposedly. I asked the owner and he said they ran out of bread and he wouldn’t buy more because it was raining and whatever he didn’t use that day would go bad. He had one panini left for his own dinner, but he cooked it and gave it to me and at the end of the night when I went to pay he refused to accept payment for it because he said it was a gift he offered to me. His cousin visited him and brought him some food, and he even let me try traditional Vietnamese home cooking. He asked if I wanted to try it and since it was my last day there and that opportunity wouldn’t happen again I said sure. It was sticky rice with a beef stew that was excellent.
While we talked about Vietnamese food I mentioned to him that I hadn’t ever tried “pho”, which is the quintessential Vietnamese food. There are pho restaurants all over the place in California, especially in Orange County and Little Saigon in LA. It’s a soup. All day long, but more so in the mornings, you see Vietnamese people crowded along the sidewalks all over the place sitting on these tiny plastic stools (maybe 5″-6″ tall), and they’re all eating pho.
The owner asked me why I hadn’t tried it after being in Vietnam for 10 days and I told him because I was nervous. I didn’t elaborate, but I was nervous to sit at these little outdoor sidewalk stalls with all the locals starring at me and not knowing how or what to order. I was nervous about the ingredients being of dubious origin and questionable cleanliness. He told me about the 4 different types they offered and asked if I’d like him to order me some at the end of the night.
I had thought it was just a breakfast thing but he said down the street from the panini shop there’s a late night street stall that sells good pho until late. I figured that today I’d already ridden the xe om that I’d wanted to do but had been too cautious to try and it was awesome, so why not… At the end of the night he left me and the older French guy I’d been talking with alone in the shop and walked down the street. He returned with a piping hot bowl of pho! It was delicious and I really appreciated him sharing so many things with me, but again when bill time came he didn’t want me to pay for the pho, but I insisted. He was such a nice guy and made my final day in Vietnam a memorable one.