Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Highlands Recap

While waiting to change buses two nights ago, I noticed a portrait of Lenin and Marx hanging over the ticket counter – the first indication I’ve reached the north. Since then I’ve noticed more hammers and sickles and Uncle Ho’s face seems to be more ubiquitous than down south.

In the south when I told people I was American, I mostly got smiles. “Ah, the land of opportunity,” one lady said. In the handful of times I’ve been asked up here, my reply has mostly been met with a neutral nod, as in “I understand what you’ve said,” as opposed to “good for you!” One young guy responded with what sounded like “Nhhaa, Vietcong!” Yesterday I was scootering around and stopped to ask for directions. The gentleman holding my map asked where I was from and when I told him he shook his head and laughed, “Canadian!” For you, guy who is about to tell me where I am going, I’ll be whatever you want me to be.

Currently, I’m in Ninh Binh, which is a nondescript town a few hours south of Hanoi, but the surrounding countryside is all brilliant green rice fields dotted with beautiful limestone formations. I’ll have photos of those to share later, but first I wanted to finish recapping my Easy Rider tour.

So when I said in my last blog my guide used to be a hunter, what I meant was poacher

Here he is lighting a cigarette off a flaming plate of rice liquor
He’s been a tour guide for 20+ years, but before that, and before the Vietnamese economy opened up, he used to go into the forest looking for “whatever Chinese people want.” Tiger, monkey, elephant, various plants. I didn’t have the guts to ask him if he actually ever killed an elephant. 

He studied history and English in college but was discouraged from continuing to study because his teachers told him it was pointless: he had family that fought for the south, so there was no way he was going to get a good job. He was angry. And didn’t have any good options. So, in an ostensibly Communist country, he went where the market matched his qualifications.

My guide has a big family, and had relations fighting on both sides. He had an aunt who carried supplies on the Ho Chi Minh trail. And his brother was a helicopter pilot for the south who flew over that trail, and told him how “the jungle looked like it had come alive,” because thousands of people carried foliage as camouflage.

The brown hill in the distance was deforested by Agent Orange.
Surrounding hills are just now being replanted.
An old bridge in an area close to a major battle zone.
He told me about how soldiers from the north would hike through the night in groups of three, taking turns with one sleeping in a hammock while the other two carried him onwards. He told me how they dug long tunnels for their cooking smoke so as not to alert planes overhead where they were camped. 

The brother who was a helicopter pilot for the south had a standing invitation to move to the US, but declined and instead spent 8 years in prison. This brother had American friends he kept in touch with, and they pitied him for having a tough time in Vietnam while they got back to their regular lives. But in recent years, coffee has taken off in the highlands and the brother is doing very well now with a sizable farm. 
Lots of coffee farming in the region.
Requisite silk factory stop
Waterfall. And bad hair. I'm too cheap to get a haircut, so
I will just remember myself as having bad hair on this trip.
Big Buddha
Hill tribe boy with puppy
Fishing homes on lake created by giant dam
More hill tribe kids 
This is a tomb. So, when Mnong people die, that pipe sticking out
of the top? My guide tells me it goes to the mouth and family
members continue to feed the newly deceased for several weeks and then also
on special occasions for years to come. I find this, not to put too
fine a point on it, horrific. 
Pretending to drive the ferry
More hill folks 
Brick factory. Would not want to work there.
Then we made it to the coast!
Halong Bay and Hanoi are all that's left on my Vietnam itinerary. Next week, I'm proooobably going to Laos.

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