The One Less Traveled By: a chronicle of my yearlong sabbatical

Vietnam Part 2 (Dalat to the Mekong Delta)
December 23, 2009, 7:35 am
Filed under: Vietnam

From Hoi An I took an overnight train down to the coastal city of Nha Trang, where I immediately grabbed a small local bus to Dalat in Vietnam’s central highlands.  Along the way I met up with a British guy named Adrian who was also traveling that way, and we found ourselves the only foreigners on the bus. The road up into the mountains was very bumpy and windy and hot; pretty soon two or three of the other passengers started hurling.  This being Vietnam, the bus didn’t stop or slowdown; instead, plastic bags were distributed and we pushed on.  I smelled things that day I will never forget.   

Dalat’s clean, cool mountain air was welcome relief.  Adrian and I stayed only one and a half days there, as there is not a lot to do.  After walking around the main city the day we arrived, the next day we rented motorbikes to check out some nearby sights.  The first place we stopped was the famous Valley of Love, perhaps the single cheesiest place in the whole of Asia.  Built, incredibly, not as a joke, it occupies a gorgeous lake and surrounding hills but is peppered with fake animals (lions, zebras, crocodiles, dinosaurs, etc.), fake statues (Venus de Milo, Romeo and Juliet), and Vietnamese dressed as Native Americans and western cowboys.  Because the lake would be too beautiful and serene standing alone, they blast Vietnamese love ballads over loud speakers across the lake.   

The Valley of Love surroundings

Adrian and I being manly

Totally lifelike nature scenes (the T-Rex is just out of frame)

After that we headed to XQ Silk Embroidery, which was absolutely astounding. The embroidery is a large complex of buildings and courtyards arranged in a very Zen-like fashion.  It was the most mellow, relaxing, serene place I’d been in ages.  The embroidery work itself was amazing:   the detail, color, and beauty of the works rivaled any classical painting; some were over a dozen feet long.  We enjoyed it so much there that we headed back that evening for dinner, where we listened to music and were befriended by a Vietnamese girl who wanted to practice her English (she was, incidentally, moving to Washington D.C. in a week to study) and who made sure we ordered all the best dishes.     

Lady at work at the XQ Silk Embrodiery

One of the hundreds of finished works

Detail from one of the works

The next day we mountainbiked from Dalat down to the coastal town of Mui Ne, a 79km trip, with a company called Phat Tire Adventures.  Along the way we passed through a couple of small mountain villages (what the Vietnamese call minority villages), where the kids toppled over each other as they raced to the street to wave at us and yell hello.  One 10km stretch was all downhill on a narrow, windy road with banked turns and hardly any cars at all, so we were able to go top speed for ages.  That stretch was some of the most fun biking I’ve ever done.  The last 30km was flat, so Adrian, the guide, and I took turns leading the pack and drafting as we kept a punishing pace.  Our little pelotan got lots of attention.     

Adrian and I after the long descent down the mountains from Dalat

When we arrived in Mui Ne we traded our bikes for our bags and headed to a little hotel right on the beach.  Mui Ne is famous for being windy – perhaps the most consistently windy place in Asia – making it a mecca for kiteboarding and windsurfing.  I ended up taking five hours of kiteboarding lessons spread over two days.  The first few hours I spent learning how to rig and launch a kite and practicing flying a small practice kite on the beach.  Then, after practicing on the beach flying a full sized kite (anywhere from 8-12 square meters with about 20 meters of line from kite to person), I went into the water with the instructor to practice using the kite to drag myself, headfirst through the water.  After several times with the instructor dragging behind me on my harness, I went it alone several times.  The five hours was just enough to get me comfortable body dragging, but not yet up on a board.  The power of the wind in the kite is absolutely staggering and pretty damn scary.  Several times I got picked up out of the water (only my ankles touching) and slammed back down, not to mention dragged along the sand.  Horror stories abound:  one Vietnamese guy who now owns and operates a kiteboarding school in Mui Ne (and lived in San Francisco for 30 years), once was in an induced coma for 2 months after a kiteboarding accident that left his lungs filled with sand.  While not kiteboarding, Adrian and I explored the nearby fishing village on motorbike, sampled some delicious seafood, and paid a visit to the nearby sand dunes.      

Mui Ne has an active fishing village

Mui Ne at dusk

Roadside ban xeo - seafood pancakes folded over with bean sprouts inside served in a bowl of sweet chili broth

Practicing levitating at the dunes

After four days in Mui Ne I headed on to Ho Chi Minh City (fka Saigon) while Adrian stayed put for more kiteboarding.  I arrived in HCMC/Saigon pretty late and after checking into a guesthouse went out for food and beer.  I decided to head to a spot recommended not long ago by the NY Times, and flagged down a motorbike taxi.  Saigon is a big, sprawling city, and after driving for a while, dodging and weaving other motorbikes and cars, we arrived at the address to find the building had been demolished.  This became a common sight:  there are massive cranes littered around the city putting up new, glossy buildings where old ones had stood.  One development is named Times Square.  After driving around for a bit more, I told the extremely friendly and accommodating driver to take me somewhere he recommended.  This started a bit of an adventure, as he took me way out of the city center tourist area to some seriously local spots.  But, as it was nearing 10:30pm, most of the places he took me to had stopped serving dinner and were just serving beer (over ice, as the Vietnamese drink it).  It was a great way to see the city, though, and we ran into a group of about 100 teenagers watching other kids drag racing their motorbikes down a quiet street.  After about a half-hour of riding around, my driver took me to a riverside restaurant either run or owned by his sister, I never could quite understand.  He ordered for us, and we had a feast.  The first thing he ordered, which I thought were going to be chicken wings to go with our beers, were whole barbecued chicken feet, bones, cartilage and all.  To be polite, I ate one, starting at the toes and working my way up to the ankle.  But it got better from there, and we ended up staying there until about 1.      

Tuan, my motorbike taxi driver, and me eating dinner

The next day I rented a motorbike to see the sights, most notably the War Remembrance Museum, formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes, a more apt description for what lay inside.  Outside there is an impressive display of captured U.S. military weaponry (planes, tanks, bombs, sub-machine guns, mine).  Inside is where the heavy comes.  The photos of the human effects of Agent Orange and the Napalm bombs are among the most distributing photographs I’ve ever seen; they are the sorts of photos that don’t make it into U.S. texts on the Vietnam War.  Those photos are just the tip of the icebery. The museum, also pays tribute to the about 17 photographers from all over the world who were killed while documenting the war.    

Big ole bomb

Saigon's Opera House

The following day I paid a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels.  These tunnels, lying only about 60km from Saigon, were part of the network of tunnels that the VC built..  That network stretched all the way to the Cambodian border, hundreds of kilometers away, and helped the North win the war.  The tunnel system is amazing: it includes everything from boardrooms, to hospitals, to kitchens and homes.  Something like 20 children were born and raised underground.  The tunnels themselves are incredibly small.  Those portions where tourists can go in requiring near crawling and are barely wide enough for my shoulders, and that is after being enlarged.  Going down several meters into the dark, cramped tunnels was definitely anxiety-inducing.  At the tunnels there is a firing range where, for a hefty fee, you can fire live rounds from all sorts of guns – AK-47s, to M16s and M60s.   I chose the AK-47 and squeezed off several rounds.  The noise created by those the guns is absolutely deafening and painful on the eardrums.  I don’t know how people actually handle it in live combat (I don’t think you can fight a war with two fingertips in your ears….)     

Our guide showing us one of the hidden entrances to the tunnels - this one has been widened for western tourists

Getting ready to defend democracy with a live M60

 As the final weeks of my trip approached, I had no time to linger, so I headed on to the Mekong Delta.  I stayed in Can Tho, the largest city in the region, for two days.  On the second morning, at about 5am, me and a German guy boarded a little wooden boat motored by a little old Vietnamese lady and took a 5 hour trip along the river to visit the two nearest floating markets.  (They were not particularly far away, but this boat did not move particularly fast.)  It was a great way to get an upclose, unhurried view of the Mekong Delta.  Other than that, there is not a whole lot to do in Can Tho, so I again rented a motorbike to explore the backroads.  I was surprised when I came across one short stretch of river lined with enormous gated mansions, only one of which looked occupied.  That and searching out the best coffee joint pretty much kept me busy my short time there.  Next I headed to Chau Doc, another city in the Mekong Delta which lies near the border with Cambodia but I had only a day there as Cambodia beckoned… 

Sunrise on the Delta

Dragonfruit vendor bringing her wares to market

One of the floating markets near Can Tho

We stopped here for breakfast (BBQ pork and rice) at one of the floating markets

A vendor in Can Tho - the large orange bags are dried shrimp

The Mekong Delta's backroads


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yo andrew, it’s robby and brian. We are enjoying the holidays up in cupertino. Your far east adventures sound quite entertaining, and we both wish we could be out there with you. take it easy and have a good time in the mountains back in Cali! later, brian & rob

Comment by Rob Rinsky

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