Wednesday, January 12, 2011

My Son - Lara Croft Strikes Again!

8 January 2011:
Last night, the girls had actually convinced me that there was no way that Curry and I could go on the motorbike tour to the Champa ruins at My Son (Mee Son) today. The rain lashed down with relentless ferocity all day yesterday and they were worried that I would catch pneumonia if I went out in similar conditions. I was absolutely gutted, as I’d really been looking forward to this activity, and had been excited about it for months. There are almost as many motorbikes in Vietnam as there are people in Australia, and to not see Vietnam on the back of a motorbike is akin to not being there at all. Also, I have never been to Angkor Wat, and in case I don’t get there, the ruins at My Son are the next best thing. 

We had compromised and agreed that we would wait to see what the weather was doing and make our final decision at 8:00am when we were due to be at the Hoi An Motorbike Adventures office.

When I woke up, the weather was overcast but it wasn’t raining. This was a good sign and I had everything crossed that it would remain that way. Everything has been going so well so far and the best laid plans have mostly come to fruition. I sincerely wished for this state of affairs to continue. Anyone who has ever met me for longer than five minutes knows that once I’ve made up my mind to do something, not even nuclear annihilation will change it. Despite my many charming qualities I am a stubborn bitch of the first order and rarely back down from a decision. Unfortunately I have put myself in harm’s way on many an occasion, but I’m still here to talk about it, so go figure.

Curry and I had breakfast, and as usual, the chocolate croissants didn’t disappoint. I can actually eat the pastries in Vietnam without too much worry, as the Vietnamese don’t use wheat in anything and make most of their flour with rice. The Cua Dai (pronounced goo die) Hotel is world renowned for its chocolate croissants and I didn’t feel like missing out, regardless of the consequences. The beautiful staff also make us fresh omlettes every morning and they are delicious. The girls who work at the hotel are so very charming and delightful and we are grateful that we’ve been so lucky to have had this experience. After our breakfast and a cup of tea, we go to reception to check out what other options there might be to get to My Son today if we have to cancel the bike tour. Apparently we can hire a driver to take us there for about $30. This sounds like an attractive proposition, so we’ve covered all our bases.

We grab a taxi into town and head into the office, where five other hopefuls were waiting patiently. The staff at Hoi An Motorbike Adventures are also delightful people, and their faces lit up when they saw us walk in. As I am want to do, I make the split second decision – bugger the weather, we’re going. We’re here and if I don’t do this, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life (or until I get another chance to come back to Vietnam). I’ve heard it said that it’s better to regret the things you did do in life than to regret the things you didn’t do. Curry was happy with whatever decision I made, so we were good to go. The staff confirmed that they carry appropriate wet weather gear and that we would be taking things carefully along the way. We were all bundled into a taxi and taken to the hangar where all the bikes are stored. We met Pete, our guide, who is originally a Kiwi but has been living in Brisvegas for many years. He and his wife operated some swim schools down on the Southside, and they’d recently sold them all and come to Vietnam to set up swim schools for the government. Pete told us that in Australia, on average each year there are 50 drownings. In Vietnam, the average is 40.....per day. Asian people are notoriously bad swimmers and it’s tragic to hear how many lives are lost during the monsoon season. People are swept into rivers at a moment’s notice and yet the locals just accept this as being part of life.

We were given our helmets and those who were riding their own bikes were taken through the essentials. Curry and I had elected to be driven as passengers. Those of us who serve a more decorative rather than functional purpose in life must know our limitations and I certainly know mine. I cannot even ride a bicycle, let alone a motorbike, and I wasn’t taking any chances on the dirt tracks. Experience has taught me that my most abysmal judgement has been reserved for choosing entirely unsuitable men.  I’d rather lie bare-assed naked on the footpath and be trampled by American tourists than be responsible for steering a two wheeled vehicle through the jungles of central Vietnam when I’m not familiar with the roads or the locals. I really do love motorbikes and would love to learn to ride one in the future, but today is not that day. In talking with the locals, they will say that one thing they despise about foreigners is when said foreigners overestimate their abilities and insist on riding motorbikes in Vietnam when they’ve never ridden one before.

I was assigned my driver and was very pleased to see he was an older Vietnamese gentleman by the name of Mr Hien. He is a contract rider for the company and he brings his own bike, a nice black Honda. Mr Hien helps me put on my helmet and secure it into place. He is a gentle and quiet man and I suspect his English isn’t exactly fluent, but he has enough to get by.

We take off and head out into the outer areas of Hoi An towards the My Son ruins site, which is approximately 55km away. As we head out of the town, we come across large plains of rice paddies, and they look just beautiful in the early morning light. The green of the fields is just beautiful, and we can see the women working in them, bent over plucking the rice stalks from their watery beds. We pass through small villages, where we see lots of children, elderly people and adults working hard or sitting in their yards. There is also the usual assortment of sleeping dogs, chickens, people on scooters, people on bicycles, people walking along with their conical hats and laden baskets hanging from planks like the scales of justice. There is a sense of calm over the areas and we pass people going about their daily lives, completely unconcerned by the tourists whizzing by in a convoy. Occasionally people would wave, but usually they just watched us with impassive faces. They know that the tourists will come and go, whilst their own lives will continue on just as they had before.

Before too long, we turned into what seemed like a small paddock, where a solitary Champa tower stands guard over it surrounding area. The site is eerily quiet, yet signs of recent activity are present – burning incense, fresh flowers and fruit, and a packet of biscuits had been deposited at the shrine outside the tower. The jungle is doing its best to take back this area, with vines growing over everything in sight. We go inside the tower and again there is evidence of recent worship. We take in the atmosphere, take our photos and soon we’re on our way again. We pass through more villages, more banana trees, more rice paddies, more houses and more beautiful scenery of daily life in rural Vietnam. The sky is still very overcast, but there doesn’t appear to be any rain threatening. All good so far!

We see many fields with graves rising up out of the mud and water and it seems strange to see such things in the middle of rice paddies. Pete explains to us that ancestor worship is very popular in Vietnam. The graves are holy shrines to the ancestors of the families living on and working the land around them. I am reminded that it’s left to us still living to miss those who aren’t and to remember them as best we can. The Vietnamese believe that their ancestors provide guidance and protection over their crops and the graves are beautifully tended.

At one point our convoy comes to a screaming halt as we arrive at a railway crossing and have to wait for a train to pass. It’s headed to Hanoi and while we wait I look around at all the other motorbikes, cycles, trucks laden with fruit, and pedestrians waiting to cross the tracks. A garbage truck, remarkably similar to ours at home stops periodically to collect rubbish. We pass by lots of construction work, motorbike repair shops, shops selling tyres and all things associated with motorbikes, vegetable and fruit stalls and all manner of village life. We cross bridges and pass Catholic churches dotted in amongst the houses.

Potholes covered the roads like minefields and some were the size of lakes. There had been some serious floods here only a few weeks ago, and the scars were still visible.

We eventually arrive at Dai Loc, where there was an important American base established during the War. Dai Loc is in the heart of the Viet Cong country – it is surrounded by jungle and hills. Apparently the Viet Cong would hide in the hills during the day and then sneak into the villages at night to obtain food and supplies and lay traps for the Americans. They would then disappear before dawn back into the hills at which time the Americans would recommence hostilities and try to come after them. It was a deadly game of cat and mouse and the Viet Cong were much better at it than the Americans were. The 7th Marine Regiment was stationed at what was called Hill 55 (because it is 55 metres high). The site is now a memorial maintained by the Vietnamese. Nothing is written in English and it is a monument to the victory of the Communist North over the American led South. Pete told us a dreadful story about how the Americans came to have a falling out with their South Vietnamese comrades. Apparently when digging the latrines at the base, the Americans chose a spot right near the sacred gravesites of the ancestors. As mentioned earlier, ancestor worship is very important in Vietnam, and for the US forces to choose a spot near the graves was insulting to the South Vietnamese (and quite understandably). When it was pointed out to the Americans that the latrine site was near the graves and they were politely requested to move the latrine site to another spot, the Americans, clearly choosing to remain ignorant to these particular societal customs, refused and proceeded to dig the latrines right on top of the ancestors. As one can imagine quite vividly, the South Vietnamese were furious. In retaliation, they set trip wires and explosives in the latrines and what followed was rather unpleasant. The Americans were horrified and couldn’t understand why their comrades suddenly didn’t like them any longer. The South Vietnamese realised that they couldn’t win in the face of such arrogance and ignorance and chose to pull out of the base entirely, leaving the Americans to it. The Americans decided that it would be a great idea to round up all the local people and put them into a kind of concentration camp near the base. Again, the cultural sensitivity was astonishing, and again, they fought a losing battle. One simply cannot remove farmers from their land, their crops and their livestock for any period of time without dire consequences. The Viet Cong eventually captured the area and the Americans were defeated. It is a beautiful spot now, and it’s eerie looking around at all the hills surrounding it and imagining how many pairs of Viet Cong eyes must have been on the area at the time. We spent some time there appreciating the surroundings and taking pictures of the religious icons and honour roll of the Northern Vietnamese dead. All the Southern Vietnamese graves have been removed – the Northerners didn’t want any ‘uprising’ of the dead and wanted the area to be a tribute to the North’s victory. It is beautiful yet sobering. Like everywhere we’ve seen, the jungle is trying to reclaim its rightful territory, however it’s having a bit of a difficult time of it in this place. Agent Orange was heavily used in this area, and the poisonous chemicals remain deep in the subsoil. The trees and vines all still grow quickly thickly, but they have very shallow root systems. As soon as the trees try to put down deep roots, they die after coming into contact with the toxic soil. Consequently, landslides are all too common here and much devastation is still being caused, all these years later. It is a continually toxic reminder of a toxic conflict.

We ride on again, passing through more rural villages and scenes of village life. It’s just beautiful. I’m astonished at how many children there are in Vietnam. The future of this nation is firmly secured in its young people. The children are just beautiful – so happy, always smiling and full of joy, despite the fact that they are living one slim rung up the ladder from abject poverty. They run out of their homes and choruses of “hello, hello, hello!” greets us as we pass through their villages. They wave and jump up and down waving and yelling out to us, and one would need to be made of stone to be unmoved by such displays of delight on their little faces. Some of them stand perilously close to the road, holding out their arms and hands so that we can high five them on the way past. It’s an unbelievably joyous experience.

The lunar new year, or Tet as it’s known in Vietnam, is approaching, and people are painting their houses, refreshing everything around them and restoring the graves in preparation for this sacred time. Billboards depicting Ho Chi Minh are everywhere and I’m reminded just how iconic this man remains in his nation’s hearts and minds, long after his death. I wonder what Uncle Ho would make of the new Vietnam with its blinding vulgarity of capitalism in the South and invasion of tourists everywhere. I suppose at least the irony is that the rest of the world must now ask for permission to enter the country, rather than waltzing in and taking it for themselves as some kind of colonial prize.

Pete stops our convoy on a huge bridge and we admire the beautiful view all around us. I’m reminded very much of North Queensland and the Atherton Tablelands in this particular spot. Vietnam is a tropical country and its vegetation is very much like the area near where I grew up as a small child. It’s just gorgeous and I commit these scenes to memory.  Pete points out to us a line on a house where the recent floods came. Apparently the house was built at the very peak of where the annual floods normally come to, and this year was no exception.

We don’t go too much further before we’re at our first stop destination. It’s a very small ‘café’. Rustic would be a generous description. I am desperate for the loo and am shown out to the back where there is the hole in the ground type of facility contained in a small concrete room. I can do nothing but cringe inwardly and hope my quads are up to the task so I don’t disgrace myself. I’ve been gripping the motorbike with my thighs for the whole journey so far so that I can have both hands free to take my photos along the way. I manage my task with success and set off back inside to have morning tea and drown my hands in anti-bacterial hand gel.

We eat some absolutely delicious bananas and have a soft drink. Pete points out that there are some Australian gum trees just outside and we duly take photographs, as is our moral obligation.

We head off again and go through more large puddles and more pot holes. Mr Hien is wonderful and takes great care to go around as much as he can. I look down at my jeans and shoes and am surprised at how clean I’ve managed to remain, whilst some of the others are rather muddy. One of our party manages to lose her bike through a large mud tract and she comes off, sliding through a big puddle. She’s in great spirits though and her boyfriend helps her right the bike and get back on track. The mud is so unbelievably slippery and everyone needs to pay close attention to the roads. It’s another reason why I’m grateful to be a passenger rather than a driver.

Before too much further, we come to another grinding halt – this time at the bottom of a fairly steep hill. Directly in front of us is a river and I briefly wonder what on earth we’re going to do before I spy a large flat boat heading towards us. We’re going to ride our bikes onto the boat and be ferried across the river. Sensational! Now I really feel like Lara Croft. This is beyond cool. We get all the bikes on board and huddle together, as there’s only millimetres of space left all around us. We reach the other side of the river and need to be helped off – the gangplank consists of two narrow pieces of timber and the mud is so slippery that the planks slide around and separate. It’s a bit hairy but we all manage to get off. Emily, a lovely Dutch girl who is joining the company as a guide, has trouble with her bike and it won’t start. We need to leave her behind with the mechanic and he will get the bike going again. The mechanic is actually Curry’s driver, and so she hops on behind Pete on his bike.

We keep proceeding along the narrow paths until we come to a spot where the mud is such a quagmire that I’m certain that entire civilizations have been lost in it. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if Harold Holt was somewhere down there too. Most of our party has a fair degree of trouble getting through the mud and they are all wretchedly filthy by the time they reach the other side. Mr Hien waits until everyone else has gone through before carefully guiding his bike through the horrors of the red tar pit. He momentarily loses his traction but manages to save me from being tossed unceremoniously into the mire. We make it through safely to the clapping and cheers of the rest of the party. It was momentarily scary, but fun in hindsight. Had I ended up face down in red mud I may have retained a different view.

Our next stop is a place called An Hoa (An Waa), which is the site of a huge airstrip used by the Americans during the war. It is now eerily quiet, with just local farmers and loads of buffalos wandering around. We take more photos and head off again. Peter is anxious to have lunch and get to My Son.

We stop at another café for our lunch, and by now I’m absolutely starving. The lovely lady who owns the café has prepared a delicious lunch for us. It consists of the national soup, pho (pronounced fer), together with a pappadum looking thing that’s so big it could gag a fully grown hyena. It has seeds in it and is very coarse, but tastes delicious. It’s a shared experience and we all break off bits to dip into our soup and noodles. We are also given some ginger tea which is soothing and tasty.

We are faced with another hole in the ground situation as far as amenities go. The toilet is in complete blackness and the floor is wet, so all of us girls have to borrow an iPhone to use the in-built light so we can see. I hold the phone in my mouth whilst using all the dexterity the Good Lord bestowed upon me to get myself sorted. Holy Horrible Task, Batman!!!! We’re very grateful for the small comforts and the sooner it’s over the better. Thank goodness for anti-bacterial hand gel, which I use again by the gallon as soon as I get out of the literal black hole. It’s times like this I truly wished I had that Y chromosome and could make use of the nearest tree outside.  While we are having lunch, Mr Hien finds a stick and lovingly cleans his bike, removing all the mud from the wheels before he permits himself something to eat. I’m deeply moved by this and realise that in Vietnam, their bikes are the key to their livelihoods. Without their bikes, none of these people can make a living. To lose their bike would be to lose everything. I’m humbled and enormously grateful.

Just as we’re ready to leave, Emily arrives. The great news is that the bike has been fixed, and as soon as they’ve had their lunch, they’ll follow us to My Son.

We arrive in My Son and go to the visitor centre, which is really interesting and very modern. The weather has closed in by now and it is raining, but not too hard. We’re wearing our Chinese Drizabone ponchos which seem to be doing the trick for now. Pete and Mr Hien can’t come with us into the My Son sites, so they remain behind whilst we walk towards the relics. All the maps are in Vietnamese and there aren’t any signposts along the way, so it is somewhat a journey of self discovery. We all head off together but along the way we separate and go in different directions.

The ruins are just beautiful and no amount of literal description can do them justice. Curry and I wander around drinking in the marvellous construction and I touch the stones, hoping to absorb some of the rich history by osmosis. We latch onto a couple of small groups which have an individual guide (mostly Americans) and eavesdrop on the information being given by the guide. I learn some interesting things and we try not to look too obvious as we’re lurching from one group to the next. At one of the sites we loiter near a family of Australians who have the most beautiful Vietnamese guide. It turns out he was a press photographer during the war and I could have stood around all day listening to the fascinating stories he was telling the group. He’d been injured and spent some time in hospital recuperating. He and his party also became lost in the hills for 5 days and were in real fear for their lives. He explained how they’d get their film to the newspapers so that the pictures of the war could be printed almost as quickly as the war was unfolding. He pointed out that the large hole next to one of the relics was actually a bomb crater. The Americans heavily shelled the area during the war and some of the relics were destroyed. It’s heartbreaking to think of such antiquities being lost forever.

The jungle is thick and dense around the relics and it seems to be almost winning. As we’re wandering through, the words to Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through The Jungle” swirl through my head and I find myself mentally singing the song, thinking that nothing could have been more perfect.

Eventually we all meet back at the visitor centre. We are running behind time so Pete wants to get on the road as quickly as possible. More heavy rain is coming and he wants to be back in Hoi An before it gets dark. Luckily we’re taking a different route home and don’t have to go back through that dreadful field of mud. The rain does start coming down thick and fast, so we stop and don our heavy wet weather gear. I am so grateful for Mr Hien. He has looked after me beautifully throughout the day. There is almost nothing of him. When I put my hand on his shoulder from time to time to steady myself, all I can feel is bone. He’s about the same height as me. Each time I’ve gotten off the bike today, he has gently removed my helmet for me, and has helped me get my poncho on and off. He treats me with the same loving care as one would a small child or a delicate bird. I think he’s wonderful and count my blessings that I’ve been given such a driver to look after me. Again, the rest of the group marvels at how clean I am compared to everyone else. It is entirely down to Mr Hien and how much he’s protected me from the elements.

The trip back is just as interesting as the trip up. We only make one stop, and that is to see the wet weather rice, which is a little different to the normal rice. Unfortunately we don’t have time to stop at the silk making village. Apparently there are weaving machines there that are over 300 years old and are still being used. I’ll have to see those next time!

Again there are more children greeting us and running out for high fives. We also pass the obligatory plethora of chickens, pigs, dogs, cattle and buffaloes. Every home seems to have livestock and a vegetable patch. I’m absolutely revelling in the simple, inelegant beauty of our surroundings.

We arrive back at the hangar and have a celebratory drink. I tip Mr Hien, thank him profusely for looking after me, and leave him to clean his bike meticulously.

A taxi arrives to take us back into town and we are deposited back at the offices of Hoi An Motorbike Adventures.

We’re a bit overwhelmed, rather wet and quite exhausted, but I can honestly say that this was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I would do it again in a heartbeat and pray that one day I’ll be given that chance.

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