Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hoi An

Hoi An – Day 1

Anyway, when we rolled into our five star hotel, the Palm Garden, on the beach in Hoi An, we felt like we had finally arrived. This place was gorgeous, with a gigantic, many environments pool with water at least body temperature. The grounds were beautiful, with sculpture and antique fishing boats used as planter boxes littered tastefully all around. Hoi An is famous for the silk clothing that can be custom made in 24 hours. After Joe dropped us off in old town and we finished dinner, I went across the street just to see what kinds of clothing all the talk was about. The young woman there said a wool gabardine suit, 2 piece, would be $70 US and a silk suit would be $85. Joe was returning soon and I did not think the prices would be any better, so I had her measure me. I picked out some “silk”, silk blend, fabric, and said I would be back for an initial fitting the next day. This was just the closest of many fabric shops. I might have gotten a better fit/fabric etc., if I had shopped a little, but…..

Hoi An – Day 2

Next day the plan was to bike back toward Da Nang, to visit the famous Marble Mountain. This is a large limestone karst, with caves, which has been used as a religious site for centuries. I was soaking wet from the heat of the ride, and there were many tourists already there when we arrived. At the foot of the mountain are dozens of marble statuary shops where they sculpt marble, no longer dug out of Marble Mountain. We climbed the tall carved steps up to the series of caverns which are now temples for various beautiful, ancient statues of Buddha in his various forms. Incense was burning, offerings were made, people were praying, and two French girls were rappelling down one of the faces onto one of the central areas where all this other activity was taking place.

We then took the van to look for Freedom Hill. I told them, as I recalled, it should have been a pretty straight shot inland from the air base, maybe 10km. We worked our way west, gaining altitude, and found a Vietnamese army base on one side of the road, a military cemetery on the other, and a huge digging (just for dirt) operation northeast of the cemetery. We asked around, and people were saying that indeed there had been a large American base up there. Looking down, I could see the lay of the land, some flat areas of rice that had not succumbed to urban sprawl that looked very familiar, down to a small, colorful pagoda that looked like one I had seen back then. As I said previously, Da Nang and Freedom Hill were not as meaningful to me as Bastogne, so I was not too disappointed that we could not find the exact spot where I used to sit and pick ticks off of the unfortunate dogs that wandered around the neighborhood of hootches.
As we descended back into town, we stopped for another hotpot and a few beers before heading back to the life of luxury. We told Joe that we were too full to eat another seven course meal that night, so not to bother coming back to pick us up for dinner.

Da Nang

Sunday, April 5 - Reentry

I could see light through my eyelids this morning, wiggle my toes, and feel a pulse in my carotid arteries, so I knew I had survived. I felt like shit when I came home in July, 1972, but that was from a lousy diet, bad habits, and no exercise. That was less intense but lasted longer (six months or so) than this. I think I'm turning the corner, but since leaving Taipei on the second leg of the journey home, I have felt the struggle for Hamburger Hill being reenacted in my gut. Traveler's Diarrhea? Uncle Ho's Revenge? I don't know...I have not had diarrhea, just stomach cramps and fists of gas grinding right at the bottom of my sternum. With the stomach stuff, I didn't want coffee, so I had caffeine withdrawal headaches, and coupled with a biological clock a date line out of synch, it has been a lousy four days. Like I said, I think, with the help of Cipro, green tea, very little food, and some TLC, I'm about to normalize, so I need to finish the description of the last few days of the trip.

When the little road south out of Hue merged with Highway One, Joe had us load the bikes onto the van. Not only was there a lot of traffic and no shoulder, but we were headed up toward the Hai Van pass, a series of three steep climbs overlooking the South China Sea to the east and agriculture to the west. We were glad we weren't climbing this. I know a lot of people have done it and written about it, we saw one western woman pedaling up, but trucks, cars, and motorbikes were having a difficult time making the grade. At the very top of the third and highest point is a rest stop where travelers are surrounded by pearl and trinket hawkers. The stuff looked nice, and the women selling it told us, "You buy from me and I will never forget you," so John and I dropped a wad of dong up there. The prices are low, and the quality is not bad, so it is very difficult to say no. We took the bikes out of the van and rode down the 5-7km descent into Da Nang. John passed a tourist bus on a blind curve, so I did not see him until we hit the flats. That end of Da Nang and the suburbs leading into the city are somewhat barren and littered, not very attractive. We stopped for lunch at small cafe and had the first of several table top sterno cooker seafood hotpots. They brought out the fish, squid, scallops, oysters, and vegetables to dump into the broth once it reached temperature, but John, thinking the plate of oysters was there for the eating, sampled a couple. I told him that's how I contracted Hepatitis in Vera Cruz, in '74, and he said, "Oh, shit," and then Joe did start adding the oysters into the hot broth. I told John to wait 12 hours or so, and if his stool turned white and his urine turned bright orange, he would know. Luckily, these oysters were clean. We put the bikes back into the van and continued south on the coastal road. We were heading for Hoi An, the ancient town that acted as the primary seaport for Vietnam before the 1800s. Along the way, we passed the remnants of the old American air base, with hardened, bunker-like hangars for F4s and helicopters, still there. I told Joe that I very much would like to see if we could scout the hills above Da Nang to look for remnants of what was called Freedom Hill, the large base where hundreds of thousands of GIs mustered out, before heading home from the Da Nang air base.

Freedom Hill is where I spent the last four months of my tour in 1972. When A Battery stood down in late January, 1972, we packed up the guns and vacated Bastogne, heading south to Da Nang. In Da Nang, while the guns were decommissioned (turned over to the ARVN) and the clerical work was done to determine who stayed and who went home, we hung out on China Beach for a week or so, not doing much but partying and a little swimming. Back then, the beach was littered with concertina barbed wire which you had to navigate through to get to the water. My orders came through to report to HQ & HQ company of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. They put me at a radio in a control center, surrounded by starched uniforms, big brass, spit and polish. I was to take reports from the field and compile records of what was being reported, body counts, wounded, various actions. After living underground and in the mud of Bastogne and Barbara for four and one-half months, with no brass, no protocol, no bullshit, just a job to do, I did not fit in to the clean and orderly environment and political correctness of that post. I'd had all the radio communications with forward observers, reports of damage and death and destruction I needed. I asked my CO for a reassignment. He made me the company mail man. Behind the command post (his office) was a little room where mail was sorted and handed out once a day. This gave me access to a jeep and three-quarter ton truck which I had to drive to the other side of the hill to pick up mail, and to the air base to deliver bags of outgoing mail. So many of the intended recipients of this mail were gone or reassigned, that it was a difficult job. More than 70% of the in-coming mail had to be returned, there were no records of where to forward anything. On Freedom Hill we lived in a sprawling field of half-plywood, half-screen, tin-roofed hootches, with a decaying, cockroach infested sandbagged bunker between every two shacks. We had hootch maids who did laundry, shined boots, cleaned up. It was a very boring four months.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Coming Home...April 1, 2009

We fly out of Tan Son Nhat (Saigon airport) in a few hours...second time I've lifted off in a wide-body from this airport.
Saigon is a bustling, but from what I've seen, somewhat more orderly than Hanoi, metropolis. More western looking dress, fewer Ho Chi Minh pith helmets, fewer political banners. It seems like it would be a fun place to spend a few days..but the air is worse than Hanoi or Da Nang. More people, more buses and motorbikes, worse air. We found a place in Frommer's where we ate last night. A set menu for $12 US, included spring rolls and four other appetizers, before the hot pot sterno cooker was put on the table. The waiter slowly added shrimp, squid, fish fillet, vegetables, mushrooms, and finally beef (for just a few seconds, for it to change colors) which we added to the bowls of noodles in front of us. It was all delicious, and due to the flight from Da Nang, we had missed lunch, so I ate heartily. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a local place for a massage. We took off our shoes and put clothes in lockers, donned the house baggy shorts and tee shirts downstairs, and followed the hostess upstairs. This was a big room, lined with massage tables with all but the last two filled with mostly Vietnamese men with girls walking on their legs and backs, or bending their bodies in ways I had not seen done before. We greeted the young women who were to work on us, and lay down on the table on our backs with our feet in individual tubs of warm water. They worked on the feet for a few minutes and then wrapped them tightly, individually in towels, and moved to the head of the table (reclining chair). They then applied thin slices of raw cucumber to cover the face, while they giggled about our facial hair, pulling it, commenting to each other in Vietnamese. Then they moved back to the feet for more foot massage, then applied oil to the calf and worked the calf for quite a while. They turned us over on our stomachs and applied hot, hot, rock packs to the bottoms of our feet (too hot for comfort), and worked the calves and thighs some more. Then they used hot rocks dipped in oil to massage the back, all the time slapping and clicking their fingers as they chopped the muscle. Then they climbed up and started applying knees with full body weight to the gluteus maximus, hamstring, and standing and walking on the legs and back. They lined hot rocks up the spine and covered us with a towel while they went back to the feet. Finally, there was torso twisting, arm bending, neck cracking, and scalp massage. You get the idea....a great massage for 180.000 Dong (less than $10 US, for 80 minutes of pure pleasure/therapy).

But I need to fill in a few gaps from the last few days.

After our search for FSB Barbara, we got back to Hue for a shower and another great meal. After dinner we went to the top of our hotel and watched lightning and the lightshow of the Eiffel bridge changing colors. Very nice temperature, after the steaming, dripping of the bike ride through the hills.

The next morning we did the Forbidden City, a citadel which (not the first Nguyen emperor, but the first head of what they call the Nguyen dynasty) built in 1802. It is a huge collection of temples and living spaces, with three levels (layers of walls) through which to enter. The first entry area was for commoners, the second for mandarins only, and the third for royalty only. This citadel was the royal residence until Bao Dai abdicated (I think to Ho Chi Minh, after WWII). The stories of the Nguyen emperors are stories of hundreds of concubines, hundreds of children, young princes taking the throne and not living long, puppets to the French, etc. The walls of the Forbidden City are pock marked with scars from the fighting with the French and the Tet offensive of 1968.

After that we bicycled several miles out of town, past several royal burial sites, to visit one of the most famous, the tomb of Minh Mang, the second of the Nguyen dynasty). This place was at least 140 acres of gardens, lakes, bridges, temples, etc. Joe said the actual burial site is kept secret, to avoid looters digging up the corpse and the jewelry that adorns it.

We walked back to the entrance area, where lots of hawkers are out selling water, trinkets, or just panhandling, the first time I had seen that in three weeks.

We loaded the bikes into the van that had followed us out, and boarded a dragon boat, a standard tourist attraction in Hue, these motorized shallow draft boats with a carved and brightly painted dragon’s head protruding from the bow. The trip down the Perfume (Hu’o’ng) River was leisurely, passing many mom and pop sand dredgers, pumping up sand from the bottom, screening it until their boats were ready to sink, before heading back to the place that bought it. On the dragon boat you are a captive audience, and the captain’s wife had her way with us, as Joe napped, selling us silk scarves, bamboo book marks, etc. She had a good day.

Another evening in Hue, drinking a couple of Tigers on the roof top, before getting up early for a long ride to Da Nang the next day.

We left at 6:30, driving a few miles out of town before mounting the Treks. We followed a spit of land that separated the South China Sea from the outlet of the Perfume. This was one lane, little traffic, and lots of greenery and Buddhist cemeteries. We passed a stone cutter shop which was mass producing gravestones for unknown soldiers, VC, killed during the war. Joe said the local officials got a percentage of what the government paid for these tombstones, and he thought sometimes the numbers might be inflated. We lunched at a young couple’s home/cafĂ© and spoke a little English with their primary school aged children. After about 50km, the little road we were on merged with Highway One, and we loaded the bikes into the van.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Search for Barbara...March 29, 2009

We left Bastogne and headed back to Hue. Joe had reserved us a table at another restaurant that catered to mostly what they perceived as the western palate. It was very good, with a pineapple half hollowed out with a candle burning underneath, lighting the sculpted carrots and other accoutrement, making it look like a peacock, with a dozen skewered little spring rolls sticking out of its back. That was followed with some fish, shrimp, beef, rice, etc. There was a live traditional group playing a long zither, two different lutes, sticks for percussion, and tiny, teacup castanets. Two of the women would alternate standing and singing. It was very mesmerizing music, but the table of French loud speakers next to us made for a major distraction. I said shhhhhh, and pointed to the stage, but they ignored me.

The next place I wanted to revisit was a hill called Barbara, north of Hue, and inland where half of A battery and two guns from Birmingham spent Thanksgiving, 1971. Intelligence expected a major push from the North, and they wanted a forward presence to knock out some suspected ammunition caches. We loaded two guns on flat-bed trucks and our personnel on the open back of deuce-and-a-half ton trucks, picked up two guns and their crews at Birmingham, and headed east toward the river and Phu Bai. Through Camp Eagle and onto Highway One we rolled through Hue. Of course I did not know anything about the ancient capital, the beauty of the Perfume River, the Forbidden City, and had only barely heard of and remembered the Tet offensive of 1968, when Hue was a Full Metal Jacket war zone, with many American, VC, and civilian casualties. Not a clue. People lined the street and watched us roll through without any sign of resentment, protest, or anything. We were a presence that by that time was just there, and, if possible, ignored (at least by some of the population). Maybe about 20km north of Hue, we stopped at a base camp called Evans, on the west side of One. We spent the night drinking and sleeping in abandoned hootches and left early the next morning. Just a few more km north, we turned onto a dirt road and followed it on a winding course through some wooded, some planted countryside, until we came to a very big, high hill with a road leading up. On top was an abandoned, run down and rotting fire base with above ground bunkers, a terraced perimeter with many bunkers staggered around, and a tall look out tower at the top, above where we set up the FDC bunker. Climbing up into the tower I could look down at an ARVN battery of 105mm guns, laid out very neatly, with the place swept clean. Our side of Barbara, especially after a couple of days, was a garbage dump, muddy, and like I said, had not been occupied for some time. We ate C rations for two weeks, except for Thanksgiving when they flew out some turkey and dressing in the insulated, military food containers. We had missions every day and every night, and twice I heard the rolling thunder of B-52 strikes north of us.

Anyway, I was this close, had sent Joe maps of the area, and he had told me he could get me there, so that was on the agenda for Thursday. We drove up One and planned to take the van in as far as it would go and then get on the mountain bikes. The van went to the end of the dirt road, somewhat populated, and we had to ask somebody about the American hill. The man in the last house we could access invited us in to his two room concrete house, very sparsely furnished, with curtains separating the spaces. He was nodding and pointing in the direction the road would have gone, but he said it was washed out and never repaired years ago. There were other fire bases in the area, so I'm not sure if he was talking about Barbara or some other place. We headed back to One and turned north, looking for a road west. Roads entering One from the west were few and far between, but we finally found one (I think it was too far north) but we drove in for a couple of miles and got the bikes out. The road was typical one-lane, partially paved, with lots of kids coming and going. Fairly densely populated. I kept telling Joe to ask an old fart if they remembered. We finally found a tiny little house with a display of liquor and cigarettes in front, and some plastic tables, with a few men sitting around. One of the men was about my age, or a little older, and he said he had been an ARVN soldier and indeed there was an American installation up the road. We ate some soup with ramen noodles, and had a bottle of water. This was one of the diciest meals/places we had eaten. This guy kept saying something about McNamara and pointing up the road, but I thought he was saying Barbara and it sounded like McNamara.

We rode on up the road, climbing higher, through what looked like logging (small trees) country. The road was dirt and clay with many streams and run off creating deep, muddy bogs to ride through and hope you made it through without touching or falling down. It was mostly uphill and did not have the feel I remembered from 1971. After several km, we started seeing remnants of old asphalt which had been a road way up there in nowhere land. I don't recall any asphalt leading up to Barbara or on top, but I need to check with some guys who were there with me. I forgot to mention that two young guys from the place we ate came as guides, riding their motorbike. When we got to a place that felt like the top we hopped off the bikes to look around. There was lots of this asphalt, broken, grown-over, but the topography did not feel like the hill I remembered. We continued on a few km and the motorbike guys got off again and pointed up to another high point. We stopped and walked around. There were lots of long slit trenches, grown over bunker-like cavities, and we found an unexploded mortar round. I looked and looked and tried to imagine that area being what I remembered as the top of Barbara, but could not get the feel of it. Like Bastogne, it was totally grown over, so the shape was difficult to discern, and the asphalt meant that something had been there, but who knows what. John later said he had read something about McNamara's Eye, which was a network of listening devices set in the jungle to track movement. Back then I did talk to one person who was down on one of the perimeter bunkers who said his job was to place listening devices and then listen.

We walked around and finally hit the road back down. It was a fast ride down, a lot of fun. We loaded the bikes back into the van and headed back to One. A sign post as we hit One said Hue - 37km, and I think we were about 12-15km west, so I have something to compare to maps.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hue and Bastogne...March 27, 2009

Friday 27/3/09

It has been a busy three days and I need to catch up.


The train rolled into Hue about 11:00am on Wednesday. Joe had a driver waiting to pick us up and take us to the hotel for a quick check-in before lunch. The hotel is the Park View, about two blocks from the Perfume River. From the cafe/bar on the ninth floor, I can see the river, the forbidden city on the other side, the famous Eiffel bridge built in 1890 (now used just for motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians),and a more modern bridge for cars. The Eiffel bridge changes colors span by span continuously every night for a very nice light show. The Park View is luxurious, four star, with a great buffet breakfast with all the exotic fruit, cereals, french style pastries, Vietnamese style rice and noodle dishes, and standard fried eggs, bacon, crepes, etc., if one is so inclined. Everyone here but us and the staff is French. Hue was the capital of the Nguyen dynasty beginning in 1802, and the French made it the provincial capital when they colonized Vietnam in the mid-19th century. So, there is a lot of French influence here, and therefore, a lot of French tourists. There are just under one million people here, so about one-fifth of the motorbikes, and there are stoplights that people pay attention to, so it is a much more relaxed environment.

The Road to Bastogne

I came here for several reasons, but one of the main goals was to visit a hill called Bastogne where I lived in an underground bunker for about five months back in 1971-72. Bastogne is west of a town called Phu Bai, which is just a few miles south of Hue. Back then, Phu Bai was on the east side of Highway One, the main North-South artery from Saigon to Hanoi. On the west side of the highway was a huge sprawling base camp called Eagle. The few times I was at Camp Eagle, to get back to Bastogne, we would exit the back side (riding in the back of a deuce-and-a-half), and follow a winding dirt road to a large river. The river had a pontoon bridge which we would drive across, while local people poled shallow boats up and down, fished, and washed clothes in the river water. On the other side we would pass through a Montagnard village, local, ethnic people who lived in thatched huts and had a water buffalo or two, some rice fields on the south side of the road, and not much else. We would see these women carrying baskets of firewood on their backs. I remember a stone fence that looked very old on the south side of the road and always wondered if there were some kind of monastery back there. A few km west of the village on the north side of the road was a hill called Birmingham, where B Battery was stationed. Ten or twelve km beyond Birmingham, also on the north side of the road was Bastogne. Like I said, we lived underground. The top of the hill had been bulldozed, and holes big enough for bunkers to hold about 16 men had been cut and lined with timber and plywood. On top, from about calf height, there were sandbags stacked to about waist height. The entrance was a half round of metal culvert material. There were four of these crew bunkers, FDC (where we figured the shoot data and had radios to talk to HQ, forward observers, and the gunners), the command post, the XO post, and a mess hall, all underground. Twenty yards or so from each crew bunker was the gun pit where the 175mm cannon sat, with an above ground powder bunker and an above ground shell bunker. On the north side of the hill, out several meters, was a chopper pad, covered with asphalt. That was our side of Bastogne. The other hump of the saddle belonged to an ARVN 155mm unit, but we never communicated. All of Bastogne was barren, no green, all red clay mud.

So, I don't know what I expected to find. I thought we could sort of find where Eagle had been, find an old dirt road and follow it out. We drove to Phu Bai which now sprawled on both sides of the highway, with a large Vietnamese army base on the west side in many concrete buildings that looked like they might have dated to the French period. I had never been to the south side of Eagle, so I thought it was possible that those buildings might have been there. My old map of the region showing the locations of fire bases and base camps showed that the road we followed to Bastogne was number 7. Road 7 was now a double laned concrete road headed west past the Vietnamese army camp and just did not look right, so we went back to Phu Bai to look for someone who might have some recollection of Camp Eagle. We stopped in a little store and drank tea while Joe talked to the owner, a fifty year old woman who said her sister used to work at Camp Eagle. Her daughter jumped on a motorbike and came back in a few minutes with her English speaking aunt who seemed glad to see me. She said this whole part of town used to be Eagle, and if I knew Colonel something back in the states to please have him get in touch with her. She did not really know where Bastogne was, but was helpful in confirming that indeed we were sitting in what used to be a small town of plywood and screen buildings, mud, jeeps, trucks, all kinds of soldiers, and Vietnamese helpers.

We got back into the van and headed back to road 7 and kept following it. It was pretty well developed, with lots of houses along the road. We came to the River, but the pontoon bridge was a huge, modern, concrete span. The other side had no thatch village, just typical houses, lots of concrete walls, wooden doors, lots of kids and motorbikes. There were a few animals, but not like the areas we had been bicycling through. The land was much hillier than I remembered, and much more wooded. But the trees were not old, mostly 10-15 years, and all along the road there were piles and piles of logs of the skinny trees bundled up for transport somewhere. I did see an old stone fence on the south side of the road that looked like the one I used to see. Joe had a GPS and a laptop with the old military map I had sent him, so when we came up to a wooded, bushy hill on the right side, I said, "That looks like Birmingham." He checked his GPS and said he thought I was right. We kept going, farther than I recalled, still past very wooded country, but with lots of people living along the road.

Finally, we approached a hill on the right side of the road that had the shape of Bastogne, but it was so wooded and bushy that I could not be sure. We stopped at a house just at the base to ask. A man my age came out with Joe, and even though I could not understand what they were saying, the man was nodding and pointing at the hill. Joe said this guy had been a local ethnic villager who had joined the NVA during the war. He escorted us up what was now at least a partially paved driveway, where there were a couple of small houses. I could see a couple of women farther up cutting plants. We turned up the hill and found remnants of truck tracks in the bushes. It was totally covered with thigh high weeds everywhere, and the skinny trees in clusters in various areas. The man pointed out cavities in the earth which could have been bomb craters. After we left in '72, the NVA attacked the ARVN and took over the hill, but were bombed heavily by US air forces, so a lot of the holes were due to that. Given the shape and the complete overgrowth, I could not be sure if this was Bastogne. We worked our way to where the chopper pad should have been, and found an asphalt covered mound which was exactly where it should have been. I knew this was it, and standing on the chopper pad and looking back at the hill I tried imagining where the bunkers should have been. John got a picture of me with the NVA soldier standing there like long lost buddies. The other guys wandered back up and I tried to locate some bunker cavities. I found what would have been the bunker for the crew of gun 4, and poked around a little. Then, as they kept going, I fell into a pit up to my neck, and quite large, in the area where either gun 1's crew bunker or the mess hall was. These holes were not visible at all due to weeds growing up from the bottom and all around the edges. We found some remnants of sandbag material, but nothing else. The guy said that after the war everyone was so poor that they would come up to these places and scrounge every ounce of scrap metal they could find. I know there was a lot, metal canisters that had held powder lined the perimeter of the hill when I was there. I would have liked to stay, but it was getting late and I could have easily fallen into something and broken my leg or my neck. So, we headed back down, thanked the NVA veteran, gave him 100K Dong (about 5 dollars), and headed back to Hue.

I know none of the pictures would mean anything to any of the guys who were there, because it does not look anything like it did back then. Nature has a way of healing scars. I'm afraid a local villager or a farm animal is going to fall into one of those holes and hurt themselves. I fantasized about getting a crew of guys with gasoline powered weed whackers and going back and locating each bunker cavity, cleaning the weeds up, spend a few hours remembering the teeming activity and the gut-wrenching explosions when we fired the guns. Luckily for us, while I was there, it was all out-going, and I don't think we were doing much damage to the NVA or VC. They knew the range (15 or so miles) and stayed far enough away, most of the time. Then we could fill in the holes somehow, making it a safe place for goats, or cows, or water buffalo.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ninh Binh #2...March 25, 2009

10:00 Tues night in the Hanoi train station. We're scheduled for an 11:00pm all nighter to Hue. Joe said we'll have a sleeper, but with him, John, and me, the fourth berth is open to whomever gets it.

Riding out of Ninh Binh this morning we rode out to an ancient Buddhist/Confucian temple from the 13th or 14th century. Hieu said it was one of the largest and oldest in the area, and therefore a major attraction for daytrippers from Hanoi, local and foreign. The day was grey and misty, which was a welcome reprieve from the heat of the last few days. Continuing after the temple, we took a small metal boat, just big enough for the woman paddling, the woman poling, and two passengers, down a canal system created when they built a dike to prevent flooding. The canal was just wide enough for a couple of boats, and shallow. The canal led to a cave in the bottom of a limstone karst. They paddled through it, with us needing to duck our heads to avoid the stalactites, and out the other side to a quiet spot surrounded by karst. We sat in the silence for a minute before they started the return trip through the cave. The land here is very wet and green, with very few houses, but all the land seemed to be being worked. A young woman was taking our pictures on the way out, and when we got back her boyfriend tried to sell us the very bad photos. We said no thank you, and they seemed really displeased.

After the boat ride I had a flat tire and found a local guy with a bike shop in his front yard who patched it in short order. While he was working, we were surrounded by 8-9 year old boys who showed us their whistling skills. I showed them my eyelids inside out, and one of them showed me that he could do it, too. We headed back through Ninh Binh, on a heavily populated dirt road, no cars but dozens of bicycles with mostly jr high students in their blue and white uniforms, either going home after a morning session, or going to school for an afternoon, crowding the road. They were all yelling hello, giving high fives, and giggling. This road was the old main road from the temple mentioned above and the ancient Le dynasty capital, Hoa Lu. We were going to visit the old capital complex, but Joe said it would be dirty and crowded (we were already surrounded by hawkers) and suggested we skip it. We thought we had seen enough temples, so easily agreed. The air conditioned, two hour ride to Hanoi sounded pretty good.

We arrived in Hanoi at about 4:00pm and did not need to meet Joe for dinner until 7:00, so we had time to shower and try a massage place that the Dutch couple on the junk had told us about. We opted for a two hour massage for $23 US. This felt great after five days on the road.

The train left right on time and the sleep came easily. At 7:00 this morning they rolled through with carts of coffee and rice soup, which had some chicken and herbs in it and tasted good and healthy. We stopped briefly at a little town just on the northern edge of the DMZ. The view from the train is similar to that from the bike on remote roads, lush, green fields, farm animals, and people working hard. We will be in Hue in 30 minutes

Ninh Binh....March 25

Mon 23/3/09

Corrections: It is languer, not lenguer. The NVA floated down the Ma River, not the Da River. The Ma is a tributary of the Da.

These machines are slow and the connections are slow, and most have 3 versions of malware blockers popping up all the time, so the typing at these hours gets sloppy.

After breakfast (white bread, fried egg, laughing cow cheese, banana, and Nescafe - this is the food the guide provides, easy road food) in the dining hall at Cuc Phuong, we had the bikes in the van and drove about 18km into the park to another guest house looking complex. By chance, we met a California (near Chico) woman a little younger than we, her two adopted Vietnamese kids(about six, who she has had since they were 3 1/2 months), and her mother. They are here to take the kids back to visit the orphanage where she found them. We rode back down the paved road, mostly downhill, toward the park entrance. We stopped at the Cave of the Prehistoric Man about halfway out. This cave, when discovered, held remains of three people, tools, and other artifacts dating back about 8,000 years. There was a truck full of German tourists just entering the cave when we got there. They were cyclists, too, and had done two weeks from southern China and northwest Vietnam (Dien Bien Phu, Sapa), and were just about to finish their trip with two days in Halong Bay.

Once out of the park, we rode through very remote country with new, small, concrete houses for the farmers to live in. It was dusty, humid, and hot. I'm glad it's hot and I'm sweating so much, because before beginning the ride, with such a salty diet, beer, no exercise, my ankles were beginning to swell. The ankles are back to normal, but the waist will need some work once I stop eating these 5-8 course meals. I don't think I have ever eaten this much. It is all delicious, but fatty - they don't trim the fat or gristle from the pork or goat, you just eat it. Today we had beef with morning glory leaves, green papaya, barely sauteed, goat in pumpkin flowers, and some kind of soup which I think was turnip.

Ninh Binh is a busy place, so for our safety, the van stopped several km out of town and picked us up. The room is nice, and we are on the edge of a canal system. We saw lots of fisherman, lots of duck farms, and lots of water hyacinth floating on the water, so I’m going to try for some fish tonight.