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The Not-So-Quiet Americans

October 5, 2008

On Vietnam and Cambodia

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A couple months ago, Dave and I sat down to prioritize places to visit while we’re in Asia.  Vietnam came out on top, and since you can’t fly direct to Cambodia from Hong Kong, we decided to do a joint trip to both countries over the course of 10 days.  So yes, as my darling cousin puts it, we chose to vacation in the Killing Fields.  More on why Cambodia is about so much more than the Khmer Rouge later.

We flew into Hanoi on a stifling Saturday morning, and our guide, Ha, oriented us to the city on the 45 minute drive from the airport to downtown.  A Hanoi native, Ha chattered on about anything we showed interest in—and more.  J  So we learned that in August, the city expanded to include the area previously known as “New Hanoi,” bringing the total population to 6 million.  Foreign investment is still a big part of the economy, and indeed the city feels like a well-stirred melting pot of both Western and Eastern, ancient and modern influence.  Ho Chi Minh’s portrait is on all the currency, the language and alphabet is Romanized but sounds much closer to Chinese than anything Latin-derived, the architecture is predominantly French colonial, the most significant religious influence is Buddhism, the preferred method of transport is motorbikes (2 million registered in the city), the foliage is lush and tropical, and all these disparate elements immediately impinge themselves upon you within the first few minutes of your arrival.

As is typical of our experience here so far, though, the intrusion on the senses doesn’t even register on the same scale as the obsession with Simon.  For lunch on the first day, we ate at a very nice Japanese restaurant in our hotel.  Simon had endured a long morning, and was starting to fray around the edges; however, attention tends to revive him, so the doting waitresses were not unwelcome.  Sensing her advantage, the hostess scooped up Simon…and disappeared around the corner with him.  I choked on my miso and gestured to Dave to follow.  He gave pursuit and reappeared a few minutes later with a chuckling Simon in his arms.  “What was she doing?” I asked.  “Oh, she had just taken him into the kitchen to show the cooks,” he replied.

That afternoon we checked out the lovely hotel pool, where a Speedo-clad tourist informed us that Hanoi is a casual dress sort of city.  Dave looked at me triumphantly, although I informed him under my breath that I’m not in the habit of taking fashion advice from men who wear brief-style swimming suits.  We went out that night and had the best pizza since we’ve left the States, I in my skirt and Dave in his flip-flops.

Our first excursion took us to the Perfume Pagoda the following day, a Buddhist shrine set back in a remote limestone grotto.  About 2 hours outside of the city by car, we transferred to a small aluminum boat rowed by a forward-facing man in the back.  Before we boarded, we stopped for refreshments at a roadside restaurant/café/hotel, where Simon gathered a new fan club of grinning Vietnamese children.  The kids couldn’t decide what was more exciting—playing with Simon or looking at the pictures of themselves playing with Simon on our digital camera.

The boat trip took 45 minutes and was breathtakingly beautiful and serene.  On the way, our guide Ha told us that the Perfume Pagoda is actually a cluster of shrines.  The most significant one is devoted to the Buddhist goddess of mercy and wisdom, Quan Am.  During the “high” season, thousands of people make pilgrimages—no small task, given that the only way to reach Quan Am’s shrine is by boat and then a vigorous, 2 mile hike straight up into the mountains.  Simon grudgingly did the trip up in our hiking backpack and finally fell asleep after wailing his disapproval for the first 15 minutes.

Ha pointed out various items of interest along the way, and we also managed to pick up a volunteer, Kim, who actually followed us in her own boat from the restaurant near the boat launch.  (She’s the one in the photo with the kids, holding Simon.)  She carried along a bag of beverages, which she clearly expected us to buy at some point, and whenever she could, she entertained Simon.  I was alternately charmed and cynical about her presence.  By the time we were within half a mile of the main shrine, Ha wanted to take a break, but because Simon was sleeping, Dave and I decided to seize the opportunity, so we left Ha behind and forged ahead with Kim as our new (and let me state again, volunteer) guide.

The shrine itself consists of a yawning, cavernous opening decorated with tacky streamers that still can’t offset the pure, magnificent solemnity of the place.  Coming down a steep set of stairs, you enter the cave and continue down the slick stone steps into the heart of the grotto.  The air reeks (in a good way) of incense.  The golden statue of the goddess is surrounded by offerings, mainly fruit and flowers, although I’m sure that tourist money is happily accepted.  Fortunately, we had almost five minutes in the cave by ourselves—a not too common occurrence, I would think.  Kim prostrated herself while we stood by the side, really wanting to take a picture but not sure that we should.  Eventually Kim encouraged us, dismissing the “no photos, please” sign with a wave of her hand.  I turned off the flash and figured that was a good compromise.

On the way back out, we picked up Ha and started to head down to the boat.  Simon had long since woken up, so Kim swooped him into her arms and charged down the steep path, half-woman, half-mountain goat, apparently.  I was literally running to keep up, but I didn’t relish the idea of a perfect stranger disappearing into the wilderness with my first-born son, so I jogged along.  Once she finally realized she wasn’t going to lose me, she slowed up a fraction.  Dave caught up and insisted on taking Simon himself, to which Kim replied with her best imitation of charming, “I don’t understand your language” gestures.  Eventually we got it sorted out.  Sure enough, at the end of the trip, she asked Dave—out of our guide’s hearing, of course—for payment.  Funny how well she spoke English by then!  Hey, everyone’s got to earn their daily bread.

The next day we secured tickets to the famed “Water Puppet” show in Hanoi.  Simon was captivated by the music and action for the first 15 minutes, but then a sudden movement—I think it was just a cat-puppet climbing a tree—startled him.  I had to take him out, but Dave assures me that the rest of the show was really cool.  I’m not too worried about missing it, because I definitely want to come back to Hanoi at some point.

After the performance, we wandered around, Simon made some more friends, and we enjoyed our favorite meal of the trip.  The restaurant is called Cha Ca, which is really just the name of the street, and they only serve one dish: fried fish.  The waiter brings heaping bowls of fresh herbs and cold noodles to the table, and then the fish arrives, perfectly cooked cubes of flaky white catfish still sizzling in the pan over a small clay pot, which contains a flaming burner.  You throw in as many herbs as you like with the fish, stir it all together with the delicious, oil-based cooking sauce, and spoon it over your noodles.  Mmmm.

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That covers the first 3 days of the trip.  More photos to come—and say a prayer, because we lost the camera on the last day in Cambodia.  We’ve got the pictures that we already transferred to Dave’s computer, but the rest are still floating around somewhere in Siem Reap, hopefully still planning to surface at some point!

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