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Don’t Mess with the Monkey
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Cruising the Mekong. (From left:
Jon, David, our tour guide,
me & Darrell)

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Brick factory along the Mekong
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Typical Mekong Canal
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A Divine Meal!
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Fruit Drying at Popped Rice Factory
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Popping Rice on the Mekong
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And Then There Were Five:
Rebecca Arrives

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See Ya, Saigon!
Darrell @ The IndoChine

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Buon Ma Thuot: Propaganda Central
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Me & Luke and our M’nong Driver
Riding Elephants in Yok Don National Park

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Fresh Coffee, Yummy!
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Buon Ma Thuot Cuisine:
Skunk Anyone?

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Medicine or Dinner? You Decide:
Preserved Baby Goat

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A suspicious, but delicious meal.
The baby goat above is to our right.

Vietnam 2006
Part 2: My Posse Gets Thicker, The Mekong & Buon Ma Thuot (11/20/2006 – 11/23/2006)

It’s taken me way longer to wind up my posting about my visit to Viet Nam than I thought. Holidays, work and life took over and I lost track of time. But as promised, here is part two of my three part write-up on Viet Nam. You can scroll down or click the following link for the first entry. For a visual tour of my trip, clock the flickr stream, or watch the YouTube videos (here, here and here [more to come…]).

In the previous episode, I arrived in Saigon, was met by two of my traveling partners Jon and Darrell, toured the city, met my third fellow journeyman David, saw Cu Chi, and generally rocked the hell out. In this episode you will be introduced to the notorious R.E.LEE and cool-hand Luke, and get a glimpse of life in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

In that earlier post I also talked a bit about the impact that Cu Chi had on my trip and my impression of Vietnam, both from a broader historical perspective and from the perspective of an American visiting a place that has been a mythical and mis-represented place. Those sentiments were not hyperbole. Even now, over a month after I left that country, I still think about Cu Chi and Vietnam generally, and how eye-opening my experiences there were. Our visit to Cu Chi was really just a metaphor for our trip as a whole: amazement, respect, shame, pride, humility, fear, frustration and curiosity.

So one can imagine my mindset as I arrived back in Ho Chi Minh/Saigon after our visit to Cu Chi. I was charged and exhausted at the same time. Fortunately, we had picked a great time to leave Saigon, as our loathsome “leader” had flown down to Saigon from Hanoi (he was there for the APEC meeting) to survey the city he avoided visiting in the 60’s and 70’s. His presence, as one could imagine, caused total traffic mayhem in an already hectic city.

We missed Bush’s entourage but did get hit by a massive storm as we returned to the city. We stopped at a lacquer manufacturing shop where I picked up some cool lacquer-inlaid boxes for family members, and we headed back to the hotel. That night we visited our local beer joint, and then prepared for the beginning of our guided trip.

The Mekong Delta

The portion of the Mekong we visited was about 2 hours south of the city. Our plan was to visit some of the factories that line the small canals, the Saigon and the Delta generally. Our first stop was a brick making factory. This may sound boring but it was actually pretty cool.

Next we cruised along a small canal, through residential areas and shores thick with jungle. I couldn’t help but think of those poor Navy bastards that had to patrol these waters during the war. They were literally sitting ducks, as NVA and Viet Cong fighters could easily hide and stalk their ships and ambush them at will. Like I needed another reason to not join the armed forces.

We stopped for a delightful lunch at some tourist trap, where we ate elephant ear fish (or something named like that), drank some local spirits and had a delicious and luxurious meal of fresh spring rolls, pork and shrimp.

Afterward we continued along the River until we reached the popped rice and candy factory. Again, this might sound boring but it was incredible to see the skill and precision used to make this candy. The whole operation was run with flawless efficiency, each person doing a discrete task.

To polish off the Mekong portion of the trip, we cruised through a floating market and saw some crazy Mekong coffins. The Mekong excursion was fun and educational and a nice introduction to the rural life of the South Vietnamese.

When we arrived back at our hotel, we found the venerable Rebecca Lee, PhD sitting in the lobby working on her tiny computer. I lack both the time and the words to describe the good doctor, so I will simply say that her presence portends unprecedented conspicuous consumption of beer, a probable ingestion of burritos if at all possible, generally entertaining banter and hopefully not a late night trip to the hospital, although this has been known to happen. I’ve traveled with on two occasions in the past, and she’s a great travel partner.

Within an hour the entire entourage had descended on our fav. local Bia Hoi to stun the locals with our mad beer drinking skills and crazy American women. After some food, some beer, some funny stories and even an arm wrestling contest (that I won) with one of the locals, we all headed back to the hotel to meet our final traveling companion, Luke, who was scheduled to fly in from Beijing that evening.

With impeccable timing Luke arrived and the posse was now complete. It’s always entertaining to watch completely different people get to know each other, and I was pleased to find, after a day or so, that this group would get along famously.

That night we tried to check out a bar a top one of the hotels, but it was a highly touristy spot so after just one drink, we high tailed it out of there and found a more suitable location to welcome our friends to the city that I was coming to adore.

Drinking on roofs is big in Saigon. Most hotels have rooftop bars, the most famous of which is probably the Rex. It’s not surprising that it’s such a popular pastime for tourists in particular, since every book I’ve read that takes place in Vietnam (granted that’s only about 3) has a rooftop scene. The Quiet American (Greene) and Up Country (De Mille) both have rooftop scenes (at the Continental and the Rex respectively). There is a real attraction to it – the views are gorgeous and the air is cooler up there – but with all of the tourists and such, it feels like a theme-park version of the real Saigon bustling and teaming below. I wouldn’t say avoid the rooftop bars, but choose them carefully and be sure to visit the local joints as well.

The next morning we bid farewell to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. What a glorious city. Beautiful trees, architecture that blends colonial French with Asian and Vietnamese styles, lovely shops and of course the crush of humanity, which somehow doesn’t overpower but rather feels like a warm embrace.

The Central Highlands: Buon Ma Thuot

We reached the Central Highlands after a 1 hour flight aboard a little 2-prop plane. Buon Ma Thuot is south of the DMZ and was heavily bombed during the American War.

Buon Ma Thuot is known for two things as far as I can tell: the various ethnic minorities, some of whom were bussed in by the government to be ‘assimilated into Vietnamese population’ as we were told repeatedly, and the booming high-quality coffee production business. Oh, and elephant rides if you want.

It’s a very interesting place for several reasons. Americans aren’t supposed to visit this area without a ‘permit’ (read: Guide) and our passports were taken at the hotel when we arrived. It’s customary throughout Vietnam for hotels to hold ones’ passport (a practice I find discomforting), but in Buon Ma Thuot your passport is taken down to the local police station and registered there (or so we were told). In brief, it feels quite like you are under surveillance in the Central Highlands.

Without going into detail, the ethnic minority situation is perplexing: while the minorities are diverse in their cultural heritages, mostly Montagnards but also Ede, M’nong, Cambodian and Laotian, they are packed in together in what seems like theme parks with little regard for differences among them.

Our guide said the groups were all perfectly fine with this, but it seems from my perspective that they were but into a centralized location to better monitor and control them. I base this assumption on the fact that many ethnic minorities have been known to help enemy forces during the centuries of war in Vietnam.

Propaganda is at full tilt in the Highlands. You can see propaganda everywhere in the country, but in BMT, there were enormous posters reminding ethnic groups that they were communists before anything else. Also, and this was the clincher, there is a ‘news’ announcement 3 times a day piped over loud speakers to the population. When we inquired with our guide what was being said in these announcements, he made it sound like it was NPR or some such. Yet, in Saigon, we had several folks tell us it was straight propaganda. Without knowing Vietnamese, I can’t say one way or the other, but I believe the latter.

The dining in BMT was not remotely the caliber we found in Saigon or would find in Hoi An, although the food at our hotel was really good. But on the town, it was mostly local fare. Not surprising, really. In the photos along the right of this posting, you see a menu with all kinds of things on it — the sorts of things you hear about eating in Viet Nam, like dog, weasel, java, skunk, etc. The place we dined had a section “Assorted Forest Animals” on the menu. We stuck to the fish, which was quite good and fresh. The oddest part about our meal wasn’t the menu. It was the preserved baby goat floating in a tank next to our table. Not delicious. Next door to the restaurant was a traditional medicine shop, and I think the goat was part of that shop, not our restaurant. I think.

All in all, the best part about visiting the Central Highlands for me was that it made the remainder of the trip — and particularly our first couple of days in Hoi An, truly exceptional by comparison. I wouldn’t have changed my time there — it was enlightening and fun. But it was also the low point of the trip. High points in Buon Ma Thuot: we saw some crazy stuff, rode some elephants through the jungle, and acquired some of the best coffee I’ve ever had. We also saw how it was grown, harvested and treated, which was pretty cool.

That’s it for this episode! The next time you hear about Viet Nam, the posse will be en route to having an extraordinary time in Hoi An, near Da Nang. My description of Hoi An is short and sweet, and I’ll end with some general thoughts about what I encountered in Viet Nam, and my favorite things that I still think about when I’m feeling that itch to see something I’ve never seen before. Check back in!