Tuesday, May 31, 2011

One month!

Huyen and I will be in the USA in one month!!!!!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Freedom of Religion?

My friend Jessica sent me the following BBC article. After yesterday's post, it seemed a good time to put it on the blog. Besides this article, I haven't seen it in the news anywhere here:

Many Vietnamese Hmong 'in hiding'


Hundreds of Hmong people are still in hiding in north-west Vietnam a week after an outbreak of unrest, a priest has told the BBC Vietnamese service.

Hmong Pastor Thao A Tam said the security forces had arrested more than 100 people over the violence.

Officials said "extremists" had been detained - but gave no exact figures.

Thousands of Hmong people clashed with security forces in Dien Bien province last week, in the worst ethnic violence for seven years.

Pastor Tam said thousands of Hmong had travelled to a small area in Dien Bien province late last month because they had heard a rumour that the second coming of Jesus Christ was imminent.

But the Communist authorities sent in the security forces to break up the gathering, sparking days of violent confrontations.

Earlier reports said the protests by the Hmong were politically motivated, and that their demands included more religious freedom, better land rights and more autonomy.


Pastor Tam - one of the few outsiders to have reached the area where the violence broke out - said at least 600 people had fled into hiding after the unrest.

"There are people in hiding and I still don't know what needs to be done to persuade them to go home," he said.

He said many Hmong returned to their home villages to find that their houses had been looted.

"It will take at least six months for things to get back to normal," he said.

"The Hmong people are in a difficult situation now, especially when it comes to making a living."

The Hmong communities in Vietnam's mountainous north-west are among the poorest people in the country.

They have a relationship of mutual mistrust with the government.

Many of the Hmong fought on the side of the United States during the Vietnam War, and they feel they are discriminated against because of their past.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


(PICTURE: The church in Kon Tum.)

A couple years ago, my friend Nicky made a comment on a motorbike trip we were on. As we passed a few churches in the countryside, he said, "If the Catholic Church is good at one thing, it's building churches." I'm not sure if Nicky is Catholic or not, but this line has stuck with me for awhile now and never more so than on this trip.

In the north, churches are pretty few and far between. There's a couple in Hanoi, a famous one in Ninh Binh and then a bunch of old ones in smaller countryside towns. However, when you start to hit the center of the country, churches are EVERYWHERE.

At one point, Huyen and I were driving through a very back country area, through rice fields, and we saw not one, not two, but three HUGE churches less than a mile apart. I was sort of dumbfounded because seemingly one huge church could have fit all of the local people in it.

The churches are also quite beautiful and modern and almost all have steeples that rise high above anything else in the area. I asked my friend Hien about this and she said that many Vietnamese living abroad send back money to have churches built in their communities.

The only church Huyen and I visited was the oldest churches in Vietnam, located in Kon Tum. The church was built almost 100 years ago (1913) by a French priest. The church is completely made of wood and has some gorgeous stained glass on the inside.

(PICTURE: I think that's a cow but could be a water buffalo.)

When we arrived at the church there were hundreds of people pouring in. By the time we left, the whole outside lawn of the church was filled for a ceremony. I'd say there were probably 2,000 or more people there. Perhaps the coolest thing though was some of the local decoration on the inside of the church as there were lots of traditional ethnic minority handicrafts all over the walls and dangling from the ceiling.

Like in many other places in Vietnam though, this one church couldn't house everyone. Right down the street there were two gigantic, modern churches.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


(PICTURE: Drago.)

Everyone we went to the lighthouse with spoke Russian and worked in the Mui Ne/Phan Thiet tourism industry which caters to 80% Russian clients. Well, in a perfect moment of timing, after we went to the lighthouse we went back to Ngan's house for lunch and Rocky IV was on. Naturally I was drawn to the tv and couldn't stop watching. Well, as soon as the Russian speakers heard some Russian they too were drawn in.

Shockingly NOBODY had ever seen any of the Rocky movies or heard of them. How this is possible, I don't know. Weirder though is something I learned a long time ago out here -- people naturally assume movies are based on real people and events. I've had to explain to multiple people that characters like Forrest Gump are not real. Anyway, these tour guides were all highly impressed with how small Rocky was compared to Drago and how he came out on top. When Rocky and Drago were punching the hell out of each other they were "oohing" and "ahhing" with each ridiculous hit.

On a side note, have you watched that movie recently? As a kid it was one of my favorites but watching it now is kind of weird. For one, Ivan Drago never does anything bad except take steroids. I mean, what professional athlete doesn't do that these days. Oh sure he kills Apollo Creed but they were boxing and he punched him hard. Furthermore, the Americans come off as arrogant a-holes throughout the beginning of the movie. Specifically, Apollo Creed is just a jerk. At the news conference he was talking so much smack and as soon as Drago's trainer says that Drago will win, Apollo goes ape shit. Seriously, if you haven't watched it in a while check it out. The other thing that bothers me as a want-to-be screenwriter is there's only like five scenes with plot in the whole movie. The rest of the movie is just montage after montage. Heck , the whole beginning of the movie is the end of Rocky III!

Okay, that was a tangent I hadn't planned on going on. The point is watching Rocky IV with Vietnamese Russian speakers was interesting.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Visiting An Old Friend

(PICTURE: Huyen and Ngan.)

Besides family, we got to meet up with some friends along the way. While in Da Lat, we met up with Huyen's high school classmate Ngan who is now a tour guide for Russian tourists. Huyen told me that Ngan was the second best Russian student in their class. The best? Well, Huyen of course!

Ngan was just in Da Lat for the day because she's based out of Phan Thiet. When we got to Mui Ne (which is next to Phan Thiet), we met up with Ngan and her boyfriend Hai a bunch of times. They took us to the best local seafood shop which was basically a make-shift restaurant next to some public picnic benches. The food though was as good as promised.

(PICTURE: Ngan and Hai eating seafood.)

A couple of days later, Ngan organized a trip to the oldest lighthouse in Vietnam. We went to the lighthouse with about ten other people. To get there we drove along a beautiful beachside road lined with all new four and five star resorts. Then we had to take a little boat to the lighthouse and then obviously climb up. It was actually quite a trip to get there (we woke up at 4AM!) but worth it. The views from the top were very cool:

(PICTURE: Huyen on top of the lighthouse.)

(PICTURE: Getting ready for the boat to the lighthouse...which you can see in the background.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Visiting Family

(PICTURE: 2 out of 3 Nguyen sisters with Nhat Minh.)

One of the best parts of our trip was that we got to visit some family along the way. At nearly the halfway point of our travels, we stopped in Hue to visit Huyen's sister and her in-laws. We also got to spend a lot of time with Nhat Minh who is now six months old.
(PICTURE: Tan and Nhat Minh.)

(PICTURE: Add a bigger nose and this could be us in two years.)

Hue is one of my favorite cities and in my opinion has perhaps the best food in Vietnam. That is, if you can get it not totally covered in chili peppers. My absolute favorite restaurant is a goat BBQ/hot pot place on the outskirts of the city. Every time we go to Hue we eat there on our first night...and sometimes last night too.

On the tail end of our trip we visited Huyen's uncle and cousins outside of Ho Chi Minh City:

(PICTURE: The cousins, uncle and me.)

The pretty obvious reason for our trip is to say goodbye to Vietnam. However, even more important is saying goodbye to family. After our trip finishes we're going to be spending at least ten days with the in-laws before we take off on the second leg of our honeymoon.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Frontier Zones

(PICTURE: A border belt.)

As I've mentioned many many times, a couple years ago my friends Long, Nicky and I were detained overnight for accidentally motorbiking into a "Frontier Zone." A frontier zone is basically anywhere close to another country's border. In the case of our detainment we were apparently very very close to Laos.

On our motorbike trip, Huyen and I spent A LOT of time near frontier zones. One of the few places we didn't need to have a permit was to visit the cave where Ho Chi Minh's snuck back into Vietnam from China. Ho Chi Minh specifically chose this cave because of its proximity to China in case the French found out where he was he could sneak back across the border.

Well, at the cave, there's a few signs pointing to different sites. The signs were slightly confusing and apparently Huyen and I went on the wrong path. As we were walking, we bumped into this lady:

(PICTURE: We were very close to China...and birthplace of those sweet blue rain pants Huyen is wearing.)

The lady told us that we were pretty darn close to crossing into China and should turn around. She added that "there should be someone at the border to stop you" but she wasn't sure.

Anyway, the cave was mildly interesting. More interesting to me was Ho Chi Minh's desk where he wrote poetry next to "Lenin Stream." I'm pretty sure there is no cooler desk in the world:
(PICTURE: The seat is on the left, the table on the right.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Funny Signs

It's impossible not to have a post every few months with funny translated signs. Here's a couple that I liked in a cave we went to:

I've said for a long time that I'd like to start a company which gets contracted out by Asian governments to fix public signs. For example, there's a huge billboard on Highway 1 about ten miles outside of Hanoi. The sign is from the office of tourism and it says, "Welcome to Hanoi. A beautiful and safety city."

Monday, May 23, 2011

Drunk Assholes

(PICTURE: The big waterfall we went to see.)

I think most people can agree that there are few worse things in the world than drunk assholes. Whether it's at a sporting event, a bar, a wedding or a waterfall, drunk assholes always find a way to make something fun into something much less fun.

On my birthday, Huyen and I went to a waterfall outside of Buon Me Thuot. The waterfall was beautiful and there was another smaller waterfall nearby where people could swim. When we got to the smaller waterfall there were about fifteen teens (I'd say around 15-18 years old) swimming and picnicking/drinking. Out of those teens there were probably six guys who were pretty drunk and yes, acting like assholes.

(PICTURE: The swimming area/apparent outdoor bar.)

It was hot as hell out and all I wanted to do was swim. However, this one guy in particular was giving me a very bad vibe. He seemed like the kind of dickhead who would start a fight to impress his friends. And his friends seemed like the kind of dickheads who would be impressed and then join in the fun. My rationale side perked up (with a solid push from Huyen who quickly didn't want to swim anymore) and we got out of there in about five minutes. Yes, I'm man enough to admit that a teenager intimidated me.

I also must confess that I have a fear of dying on my birthday. You see, as a high school kid I went on a field trip to the New Jersey Vietnam War Memorial. I distinctly remember seeing two names on the wall of soldiers who died on their birthday. I remember thinking how terrible that would be and it has always stuck with me. Being in Vietnam, and this situation happening on my birthday, was a little extra incentive not to get into a fight with a gang of drunken teens.

I'm happy to report though that in three years, this was the first time I ever actually felt uncomfortable and in possible danger. Anyway, I hope that my loyal Ahoy Hanoi readers never act like these guys:

(PICTURE: Ironically it's the guy with the peace sign who seemed to want to stir trouble.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Best Coffee in Vietnam

(PICTURE: Huyen inside the store. Notice the trophies in back.)

Huyen and I met up with Hien's cousin Yen in Buon Me Thuot. Yen took us around the city and showed us where to buy the "best coffee in Vietnam." The next day, Huyen and I went to the coffee store and watched as the owner made his secret blend of coffee using four different beans. On the wall of his shop was a trophy saying that indeed his coffee was the best in Vietnam. Even cooler though was a large plaque on the wall with a letter from General Giap congratulating the owner on being a former soldier who has excelled in business.

You can't actually try any coffee at the shop as it's not a cafe. We bought some bags of the coffee but haven't tried it yet as we're waiting to share them with Huyen's family. While we were in the store though, a cafe owner was also there buying big bags of the coffee. The owner explained to us that most good cafes in BMT use Huong Giang coffee and mix it with cheaper Trung Nguyen coffee, the most famous coffee brand in Vietnam.

(PICTURE: Grinding the secret mix.)

Saturday, May 21, 2011


(PICTURE: This cup of extremely strong drip coffee had no press, unlike everywhere else in Vietnam.)

For most of our drive through the Central Highlands, we were surrounded by two crops: rubber and coffee. I was never a coffee drinker before I came to Vietnam, but became converted pretty quickly over here. I'm not a caffeine addict by any means but simply love the taste of an iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk.

The most famous place in Vietnam for coffee is Buon Me Thuot. When you're there, it's pretty obvious why. Surrounding the city are fields upon fields of coffee. Heck, everyone we met seemed to have at least a couple of their own hectares of coffee. In the city are more coffee shops than anywhere else in Vietnam. Coffee has done well for BMT because it's pretty obvious that it's a very rich city.

That said, the best cup of coffee we had was a few hours north of BMT in Kon Tum. In Kon Tum we had a very strong drip coffee that had no press (picture above). Usually inside the top part of the coffee dripper is a press you can push to make the water go through the grinds faster. Here, they just had double the amount of grinds and nothing to rush the process. The coffee was great and very strong.

(PICTURE: There were coffee farms everywhere and even just random bushes wherever you would stop. This one was at a roadside rest stop we drank coconuts at.)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Dragon Fruit

(PICTURE: A field of dragon fruit.)

One of my favorite parts of our trip was to see all of the changes in agriculture as we drove from the north to the south. Around the beach in Mui Ne were fields upon fields of dragon fruit. This is perhaps the most interesting fruit I've ever seen grow. Basically, the farmers erect a concrete pole in the field and then strap on some dragon fruit leaves. The leaves grow like vines around the pole and then sprout lots of fruit.

(PICTURE: The fruit sprouts at the end of the leaves.)

Huyen pointed out that it is so weird how such a moist fruit is grown in such a dry area. There seemed to be no water anywhere near the fields yet dragon fruit is always very juicy.

(PICTURE: A dragon fruit. One of the more interesting looking fruits in the world.)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

My poor helmet

(PICTURE: A reflection in Cao Bang.)

Nice picture, right?

Well, I thought so. That's why I stopped on top of a hill to take this shot. Per my usual picture inspired moment, I pulled over to the side of the road, removed my helmet, placed it on the side-view-mirror, and dug through my bag to find my camera. As soon as I removed the camera, I heard Huyen make some noise that sounded sort of like, "Whoooaaaahhhhhhh whoaahhh". What she was reacting to was my helmet falling off the mirror and rolling down a very steep hill into the water below:

(PICTURE: My helmet about thirty feet below us.)

There was no way to climb down to the water because it was extremely steep. The only place to get to the water level was about fifty yards downstream. I immediately gave up on the helmet and said that I would buy a new one in the town we were staying in. The road we were driving on was very back road and I decided I could make it thirty minutes without a helmet. However, my wife isn't a quitter like me. Huyen said we had to get the helmet since it was a very good helmet and we wouldn't be able to get another like it until we reached a major city. I agreed to give it a shot and went off to find a long stick. Huyen's plan was to throw rocks at the helmet and help guide it towards the river bank. As crazy as that sounds, it totally was working until it was about fifteen feet away. At that point it started to drift across the river...

...and that's when the only fisherman we saw all day came miraculously to our help. This guy was floating upstream on a bamboo raft and quickly turned course to get my helmet. You should have seen the look on this guy's face. Confusion would put it mildly. The guy kindly retrieved our helmet, gave us a wave and continued on his way.

(PICTURE: The fisherman getting my helmet.)

The helmet was drenched with water that didn't seem to be the cleanest. I drove back for about twenty minutes with no helmet on as to let it dry. Then when we got closer to the town and traffic, I put on the helmet without the drenched insides. That night we washed and dried the padding and it was practically good as new. However, throughout the trip, whenever I'd put the helmet on the bike, mosquitoes seemed to flock towards it. Maybe it was my shampoo...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Highway Rest Stops

(PICTURE: Nothing like taking a driving break.)

You've got to give it to the Vietnamese, they know the true definition of a highway rest stop. Once you hit the center of the country, there's places all over the road that have hammocks waiting for you to take a little snooze. There's really no way to better ail a sore butt and back then to swing in a hammock for thirty minutes while downing a coconut.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


(PICTURE: The Arlington of Vietnam.)

As an American, the hardest place to mentally travel through was the center of Vietnam. It seemed that every road we were on would have some monument or cemetery dedicated to those who died fighting America. It often seemed that the small the town, the more people who had died during the war.

On multiple occasions, Huyen and I were passed by vans filled with family members who had just recovered a body from the war. Furthermore, there were lots of roads we drove down that had bomb craters in the fields. One time on the road, there was a sign that warned people there were still land mines in the area. At another point, a woman told us that the area around us had all been doused with Agent Orange during the war.

Right around the DMZ line is a massive Army cemetery with over 10,000 people interred there who died fighting America. Huyen and I had stopped here to pay our respects and to see if by any chance her uncle's name was written anywhere. The cemetery was organized by provinces and we quickly found Ha Nam but couldn't find Huyen's uncle's name. We ended up going to the center of the cemetery, lighting some incense, placing some sticks on random graves and then leaving. It was pretty somber.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Warning: Beards scare children

(PICTURE: A common reaction to my beard.)

The first time I met Viet Huong, my nephew, I learned an important lesson: Beards scare children in Vietnam. At that time, I had a solid scruff working, nothing compared to the full-on beard I've been sporting during the motorbike trip.

A lot of children have looked at me with pure puzzlement as if to say, "Why isn't that monkey behind bars at a zoo?" Some kids have even smiled at me and waved. However, those responses always change the second I get within five feet. Once I get close, well the fear starts. I can't tell you how many little kids cried on this trip because their mothers tried having them meet me.

The kid in the picture above was at a motorbike repair shop we stopped at to fix a flat tire. At first he was about ten feet away with his older sister. The two of them were staring at me, completely transfixed. I decided to go over and sell hello to them which got this little one absolutely wailing.

I just hope my one day half Vietnamese kids aren't petrified of daddy if he doesn't shave for a week or two!

Sunday, May 15, 2011


(PICTURE: The owner of the restaurant who insisted we were VIPs.)

You may recall that I once wrote there's a funny saying about each province in Vietnam. My two favorites I wrote about in the past were for Hai Phong ("the most beautiful but meanest girls in Vietnam") and for Huyen's province Ha Nah ("9 sweet potatoes become 10 sweet potatoes" about people taking shits off bridges).

Well, I've got a new contender, Thanh Hoa. Thanh Hoa's catch phrase is, "An rau ma, pha duong tau." This translates to, "eat ma vegetable and destroy railroads." Apparently people in Vietnam think that those in Thanh Hoa are only good for those two things.

Well, I've got to disagree. When we pulled into a small town in Thanh Hoa, the locals completely laid out the welcome mat for us. Huyen and I strolled into a rice shop and before we knew it we were directed into the VIP room by the owner. Of course as soon as we sat down, we were given ma vegetable to eat. The VIP room had a nice fan and a heck of a lot of VIP flies. I'm 99% sure the owner threw us back there so that the other restaurant patrons would stop staring at us and eat their food so he could turn over their tables.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Nha Tro

Back to the most bizarre day I've ever had in Vietnam...

(PICTURE: These two things being in the room should have been a sign that this wasn't an ordinary hotel.)

When leaving the village, Huyen was drunk and I felt the tiniest bit of a buzz. I don't like to drive if I've ever had more than one beer so immediately after getting off the dirt road, I pulled over to a little road stop to have a drink of water and some sugar cane juice. Huyen immediately started looking for something to eat and found a bag of chips that suited her appetite. I, on the other hand, started to down a bunch of liquid. Originally there were only three people at this snack shop and the husband couldn't stop talking to me. The guy was most likely drunk and kept saying, "I once saw a tall guy with a beard like you. He was from Cuba. But he was younger than you. Maybe 23." I think he repeated this about six or seven times.

Finally, two other dudes pulled up to the roadside shop and tried to practice their English. They spoke roughly three and a half words each. However, this didn't stop them from trying to speak more. Huyen started to translate and then said with slightly slurred speech, "Please don't make me translate for you right now." I laughed at this and decided it was time to get going especially since one of the new guys lit up a cigarette and was making no effort not to blow it in our face (this is very typical as people generally assume in Vietnam and especially in the countryside that nobody minds cigarette smoke).

So Huyen and I hopped back on the bike and drove to the nha tro in Pleiku (you may recall from two days ago that we had thrown our bags in a room and laundry in a machine before we set out for the hydroelectric plant). Well, when we pulled into the guest house, the owner came out and said, "I'm sorry, but you can't stay here. We're not registered for foreigners." Immediately something clicked in my brain: this was a whore house and not a hotel. You see, when we first came, I think they had assumed we were just going to have sex and leave. In fact, when we left for the dam, the woman came out and said, "Are you leaving now?". We had said no and took off to sight-see.

Frankly, this place was pretty gross even for our standards on this trip, so we said it was no problem. We agreed to pay the woman half of watch she originally asked for and then grabbed our bags and wet laundry. Naturally though, as soon as we got back on the bike, it started to rain. We then drove to the next hotel on the main street and were told that they were full. So we hopped on the bike again and went to the next hotel, a very nice establishment. The owner there too said they didn't allow foreigners. Now keep in mind, on our hole trip this had never happened to us. But in Pleiku it happened at the first three hotels we went to. Finally, we found a very nice hotel in the center of town and paid the second most we've ever paid for a hotel room.

As we checked into the room, I glanced at the clock and saw it was 2pm. So to recap, before 2pm we had nearly had a machine gun in our faces, got a private tour of a hydroelectric dam, drank rice wine with a bunch of drunken villagers and were thrown out of a whore house. And then, to top it all off, I checked my email and found out that our change of schedule the past week had been for naught since Linh's hometown was Pleiku and not Buon Me Thuot. What a day!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Rong House

(PICTURE: A rong house.)

Before I continue the bizarre day story, let me just post about something I find personally pretty cool. In Hanoi is the Museum of Ethnology. In the back of the museum are a ton of different ethnic style houses. I've jokingly said more than a few times to people, "I don't believe any of those houses really exist outside of the museum." I mean, I had been to many minority villages and almost all of them had the same stilt house style. However, this minority tribe had one of the more unusual structures I've been in. We actually had seen quite a few Rong houses while driving around the Central Highlands but this was the only one we were invited into:

(PICTURE: Huyen and the elder in front of the Rong House.)

The town elder told us that the guys usually meet in the house about once a month to drink. Naturally women aren't invited in. If a woman decides to show up, well, she's got to pay a penalty which is usually either a pig or a buffalo.

(PICTURE: The elder showing us how the roof is made.)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Rice Wine and Pig Food

(PICTURE: It was all fun and games until I had to drink two times!)

With the town elder leading the way, Huyen and I climbed up to the porch of a stilt house and joined about fifteen guys who were all boozing pretty hard. There's was a large jug of rice wine to the side and bottles of beer in almost everyone's hands (including a teenager or two). Immediately the scene was a tad bit uncomfortable because clearly everyone was wasted. The only other girl there besides Huyen was the town elder's wife. We asked where all the women were and they explained that the women worked the fields every day while the men drank. With seemingly pride, they told us about a guy who had recently died because I drank wine for 48 straight hours.

And with that story, they invited me to drink from their rice jug. Every part of me wanted to turn this down because the local hygiene seemed to be lacking, but my sense of adventure trumped my sense of logic. I quickly found myself sucking on a long straw and downing pretty potent rice wine. After about ten seconds, I smiled and said I was finished. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy. They then pointed at a bamboo stick on top of the rice jug and said I could finish until the wine was below the bottom of the stick. I was already about halfway there and began to chug some more. I would estimate it was about 8 ounces worth of rice wine. When I finished this time everyone smiled and said, "Okay, now you have to do it again. We've already all done it twice." I think at this point I rolled my eyes internally and agreed to be hazed a little more. While they were reloading the rice wine, they handed Huyen a bowl of food and told her to try it. Huyen agreed and had a bite or two. It was clearly what everyone had been eating but still it felt like a practical joke. Later Huyen would tell me that she's pretty sure what she ate was the same stuff people usually feed their pigs with (I'm not trying to make fun of these people who were gracious enough to invite us to join them. I'm just stating a fact; a fact that happened to us before when we went on a trek a couple years ago. There the people told us that we were eating the same food they feed their pigs with and that they eat too.).

(PICTURE: Huyen eating the pig food.)

When Huyen finished her two spoonfuls, the locals asked her if she wanted to try the wine. Huyen agreed but said she just wanted a sip. The locals didn't agree with this and said she had to drink one time below the bamboo stick. Now, if you're a loyal reader or have met Huyen in person, SHE IS NOT A GOOD DRINKER. After just a little sip she immediately started to turn red. After finishing (which took a solid five minutes) she was downright drunk as a skunk...which made the rest of the afternoon that much more interesting...


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Cemetery

(PICTURE: This is a Gia Rai cemetery, not a village.)

It took us a little while to find the ethnic village because it was down a dirt road and everyone we asked pointed us in a different direction. As soon as we rolled into the village, we met two women. We asked the women if we could drive around and they seemed pretty confused. Vietnamese isn't their native tongue but we did understand is that we were talking in front of the house of the village elder. We looked over at the village elder who was sitting on a porch with a bunch of dudes who were all drinking rice wine.

(PICTURE: This carving means a married couple is buried in this shelter...with about thirty of their other relatives.)

I know that we're supposed to ask permission from the village elder before going anywhere but we decided that we'd just take a peak around the corner to see if there was anything worth bothering the guy about while he was drinking. So we drove about 100 yards and came upon a very very very creepy cemetery. Immediately I recalled reading about this type of cemetery where they carve wooden human figures in front of mass graves. Huyen and I both looked at each other simultaneously and said, "Lets go ask permission to be here."

(PICTURE: The town elder in the middle.)

We rode back to the elder's house and Huyen asked if we could look around. The elder was confused why we were there and went and fetched a piece of paper from his house. The paper was a permit from a past foreigner who had come to the village. The elder explained that we could get in trouble with the police for being there without a permit. This was not surprising news as it specifically says in Lonely Planet that Pleiku is the hardest place to visit minority tribes for this very reason. However, with a little sweet talking, we paid the elder and he agreed to show us around.

He took us back to the cemetery and explained the process of burying people. To be buried in a shelter, you need to ask permission long before you die. The people buried are buried pretty shallow; I think just about a three feet or so under the ground. Each person who is buried there has their own wine jug. You can tell how many people are buried in a shelter by the amount of jugs:

(PICTURE: This grave had over forty people in it.)

When we finished the tour, the elder invited us for a drink. And yup, things got weirder...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hydroelectric Dam

(PICTURE: Huyen and our tour guide/ticket seller inside the hydroelectric dam.)

Huyen had heard about a hydroelectric dam 30K outside of Pleiku that was open to tourists. When we finished at the army base, we threw our bags (and laundry) into a room at a Nha Tro (cheaper than a Nha Nghi!) and drove out to the dam. When we arrived, something was slightly amiss -- we were the only tourists there! We strolled up to the front gate where there were four people. Two of the people were security guards and two were apparently ticket sellers. One of the ticket sellers asked me for my passport and then examined it for a solid five minutes. The guys told us that if we wanted to see the dam, we had to pay an entrance fee ($2) and also hire a taxi ($12.50) to take us out to the dam since we weren't allowed to drive our motorbike there. We agreed and the ticket guy called up a taxi. When the taxi arrived, the ticket seller jumped in the car and said he was gonna personally give us a tour since he wasn't too busy.

The car pulled through the front gate and immediately drove across the giant dam. The ticket seller sat shotgun and told us that we could ask him any questions about the place. My first question was, "How many people work here?" The answer was, "That's a secret." So much for any question!

The taxi drove about 6km to the entrance of a tunnel into the mountain. We got dropped off and began to walk through the tunnel:

(PICTURE: Huyen and I in the middle of the tunnel.)

As we neared the end of the tunnel, I saw a very unusual sign in Vietnam -- a no smoking sign. The ticket seller told us not to smoke...and less than ten seconds later, we saw the only worker in the tunnel smoking! The guy seemed equally surprised to see us in the tunnel as we did to see him puffing on a cigarette.

The tour guide then showed us the turbines and told us a lot about the dam:

(PICTURE: Huyen and me in front of the first turbine.)

This dam is the second largest hydroelectric dam in Vietnam. However, there's another under construction that will put this one at #3 in the near future. He showed us the pipes and explained the process of how hydroelectricity works. Just like in high school science, I was lost.

At the end of the tour, having seen nobody else, I asked the ticket seller how many tourists come every year. He thought to himself for a few seconds and said, "About 40,000." I'm not sure if this was a little bit of an exaggeration or if the weekends are super busy!

Being inside of a dam was very very cool. The whole time I got the feeling that I was somewhere I wasn't supposed to be. Although I also had a feeling I was like James Bond, discovering some sinister plot inside of a mountain.

Right when we were about to leave, the tour guide told us to go visit an ethnic village not far from the dam. We took him up on his suggestion...and that's when the day really got weird...

Monday, May 9, 2011

Army Base

(PICTURE: Vietnamese soldiers.)

After seeing a family recover a loved one's body in Dien Bien Phu, Huyen and I were inspired to do more to find her uncle. Huyen started working the phone and calling office after office. After many many many calls -- which usually went like this: "I'm sorry, that section of Cambodia isn't this office" or "We don't have that information in this office" -- we finally had a lead. Coincidentally, the person Huyen talked with was in Pleiku, the next city we were planning on stopping in. The man on the phone told us to come to his office the next day to talk with him. He gave Huyen his address and we said we'd be there.

This call happened on a Thursday when we were in Kon Tum. Originally we had planned to do a trek and a homestay here but we canceled that to be able to meet the officer. We figured we would do a trek and a homestay instead in Buon Me Tuot since it now looked like we would be arriving early for Linh's wedding (see yesterday's post).

So the next morning we woke up at 6AM and did the short drive to the man's office. Well, it turned out his "office" was a Vietnamese army base just outside of Pleiku. We pulled up to the main gate and the armed guard look surprised to see us. Actually surprised isn't the right word. I'd go with startled. The guy took a firm grasp of his MACHINE GUN and said in Vietnamese, "Turn off your bike and take off your mask." As you might have noticed over the years, my Vietnamese blows. Huyen translated this for me and I quickly followed orders.

The guard's startled look soon turned to one of confusion as Huyen explained why we were there. Clearly, this was not a normal thing. The guy was bumbling around for answers when a large SUV pulled up. Inside was the bases general who wanted answers ASAP. The guard told him we were here to talk to someone about recovering Huyen's uncle's body and the general told him to let us in.

At this point, Huyen took the motorbike and drove it about 100 yards to a small office. I was on foot and not sure what exactly to do. I started walking towards Huyen -- I should mention I'm carrying a large backpack at this point which makes me look extra conspicuous -- but quickly got glances from the guard (yes, the one with the machine gun) who didn't seem to be happy that I was walking away from him. I sort of stopped in my tracks because in the distance I saw Huyen enter an office (we need to work on our communication sometimes). I was now standing on a path between a row of TANKS and ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUNS. One thought began to run through my mind: "We're probably not supposed to be here."

After another minute, Huyen came out of the office and fetched me. I walked towards her and right pass a small group of soldiers practicing marching. Now if you're like me, you imagine that all marching soldiers keep a stern, focused look on their faces at all times when they're marching. Well, not these guys. As soon as they saw me, their marching because completely out of synch and their faces said everything. To a man, they must have been thinking, "What the fuck is this guy doing here?"

Huyen and I ended up sitting in a room for twenty minutes talking to officer after officer until the guy who told us to come there showed up. One dude looked at my passport for ten minutes and then asked me, "Where are you from?" I wanted to say, "Dude, what the fuck have you been looking at in my passport for ten minutes if you haven't figured out where I'm from yet?" Instead I just said, "America." Nothing like telling a bunch of Vietnam war-aged army guys that you're an American.

Anyway, after talking with the officer from the phone we seemed to make a little progress. We gave him a very rough map that the army sent Huyen's family after her uncle was killed. The officer took it and said he would call the man in charge of recovering bodies in the part of Cambodia where Huyen's uncle died. Thus far we haven't heard anything back. However, we've got the guy's number so we're gonna call him soon.

Machine gun nearly to the face, interrupting marching soldiers...this was all before 9AM...and the bizarre day was just getting started...