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.

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