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Phnom Penh to Saigon

Yesterday caught bus from guesthouse from Phnom Penh to Saigon ($5 USD). The GH owner said and then repeated that we should go straight across border, not stop at a restaurant on Cambodian side. The bus/ride was okay, not especially comfortable, but not terribly uncomfortable - especially after I got up and had the guy who was riding along with the driver (keeping him company?) turn off the ridiculous loud radio. Bus clearly built for less bulky people. When we stopped at the border, the driver s

aid, "You have to wait here for 30 minutes" (at the restaurant, of course). Along with a few other people we just pulled our things off the bus and headed across the border. Got across border okay, though it is never easy. Once across, we had to wait for all the people who thought the bus driver knew more than the GH owner. Oh well - a demonstration of herd psychology, I suppose. Photo: Restaurant on Cambodia-VN border - dog asleep on the floor

When they all finally got across the border we got on another bus - very nice. There was a man to keep the driver company and also a young woman who sang a couple of songs, one of which was pretty, and gave us some incomprehensible, but much appreciated travel tips and lesson in Vietnamese. Bus brought us to the Happy Tour company office in Pham Ngu Lao area of Saigon. Pham Ngu Lao area is kind of like Khao San Road backpacker area in Bangkok, except no dreads and less drinking, etc. Very nice area. We left our packs at the tour place and walked up the street to find a room. When in Saigon, I always stay at the Ly Ly Guesthouse. Actually, this is the first time I've been in Saigon, but if I come back (and we did) I will again stay at the Ly Ly: $12 for 3 bed triple with AC - immaculate, quiet, good AC. Only problem was that our room was on the so-called 4th floor, which really is the 5th floor and in the case of the Ly Ly, 5th and 1/2, as the place starts 1/2 level up. Whew! I'm getting some exercise.

David and I wen

t out for some pho on this rainy evening and clicked into the magic of Asia in monsoon. Yes, it is good to be back.

A lot of travelogues and guidebooks are negative about Saigon, but we like it fine. From what I have read there are a lot of beggers here. There are a few, but nothing even remotely approaching Phnom Penh - or actually the other places we went in Cambodia (though PP the worst). A good bowl of pho runs about $.80 USD with inside stools and a rice plate with pork, tomatoes, and cukes is $.50, also with inside stools. Photo: Pho

Today is Thursday and this evening we'll catch a train to Danang. In Danang we plan to go straight to Hoi An and from there to Hill 55 and Dodge City. After Tuol Sleng, I'm not really sweating my little piece of the action. Photo: Pho & lemon ice in Saigon

Train Saigon to Hoi An

I'm losing track of time, but I do know who I am and where I am. Some internet problems, also. So I'm writing for several days here - beginning with Saigon. It rained each of the several days we were in Saigon. Sprinkling for 30 minutes or an hour in mid/late afternoon, then raining hard for 30 minutes or an hour, and then steady rainfall for an hour or two. Very nice. Next was written on the train from Saigon to Danang. A khrama is a scarf worn by Cambodian men and women. Karma is cause and effect.

Vietnamese lady sharing our 4 bed compartment. She

looks like a grandmother and has her 3-4 year old granddaughter with her saying goodby. Another woman also in the compartment, maybe the lady's sister. They are both crying - I see David hand the other lady a kleenex. The little girl is eating, not crying. Now there is a young woman and a young man in the doorway. On the platform outside the window is a woman wearing a conical Vietnamese hat, standing partly behind a column in the shadows, crying and waving. Periodically, the little girl looks up and sparkles at one of us. The woman on the platform comes to the window and now backs away. I'm wondering who will go and who will stay.

The women and the little girl leave the compartment. The train starts moving. Ahh, the little girl's pink shoes are on the floor of the compartment. I guess they are finding their own space for awhile. Now I'm all teary-eyed too. 15 minutes into the trip the lady comes back into the compartment with the little girl. The lady is crying and girl is eating. Photo: Girl on the train

Being back in VN, so far, gives me joy seeing the strength of these people - tough customers, for sure. Extravagant beauty, land and people. I feel sad for all the suffering of every one of us who was here during the war. The Vietnamese know about suffering. Thao Dam said to me once in his quiet, measured voice, "They suffer silently."

It's late. The little girl is crying inconsolably, sobbing, choking, whimpering. I drift off to sleep.

In the morning ...
Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing
Praise for the morning

Praise for them springing

fresh from the world

Rice porridge with a little meat and onion for breakfast. Tabasco, I have it! We pass the bottle around. The lady digs the Tabasco. Back in my bunk. The coffee guy comes down the passageway. Cafe sua da - strong and sweet on ice. Could it be any finer than this?

The green of Vietnam, so intense, passing by my window ...
Praise with elation
Praise every morning
God's re-creation of the new day

Tears running down my cheeks. I've been waiting a long time. Wiping the tears away with the khrama given to me by my friend, Lance puts my tears into perspective. How many tears have been wiped away by khrama? Oh, beautiful sad lady at Chhoeun Ek.

Sunday ... we're in Hoi An today. Town close to empty today because of holiday related to ancestors. Many homes with altar set up in entranceway, flowers on the curbs, incense set into holes in concrete or dirt around trees, a little candy strewn on sidewalks and streets. Few restaurants are open, except for expensive tourist places. We find a place serving three things: Rice with pork, pork skin, and fried egg on top OR rice with pork and pork skin OR Rice with pork - all with tomatoes and cukes. We had the works.

David and I rented bikes and rode the ~4 kilometers to the beach, which answered the question of where everybody was. There was a huge throng of people coming and going to the beach. The beach was packed, sand clean, water cool - perfect. The last time I swam in the Pacific was about 30 miles up the coast during my 2 days at China Beach. Good to be back.

Mostly families on the beach. Women swimming in what we always called

their pajamas - which is what they look like. Nice PJs. Children in the surf, sand castles, teens promenading. On the way out just at sunset, something extraordinary happened.

We walked to where the beach and road intersect and I put on my shoes, thinking to wear my damp swim suit back to the hotel (I already had on my shirt). Two young men and a young woman stopped me and indicated that I should put on the trousers I was carrying. I didn't want to as I didn't want to be completely damp and sandy. They were insistent, very pleasant, almost concerned. I think they thought I was wearing undershorts. So, I put on the trousers and one of the young men tucked my shirt in for me. They were very satisfied. We exchanged our mutual 3-4 words of Vietnamese and English and David and I left.

As we pedaled back toward the town in the evening and in this amazing throng of bicycles and motos (like you see in photos), I realized that this act of kindness toward what they saw as an uninformed foreigner (can't argue with that) was a perfect counterpoint to acts of kindness on my part to refugees and immigrants. It was as if they cancelled all the karma built up over the years and I was set free! I know, good karma is good, but no karma is, well, what can I say, nirvana. So here I am, glad that it's dark so nobody can see the foreigner pedaling, smiling, crying up the road. Free, free!

Of course I'm bus

ily accumulating yet another load of karma.

Hoi An & Hill 55

OK, for Jeff and me, this was a major focus of this trip - a return to Hill 55, where we were in 1966 & 67. Actually Hill 55 was headquarters for the 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment and we were in C Company, about a klick away from one of the long fingers of the hill. The hill is big, maybe a 2 klicks in diameter, but with several "fingers" extending into the padi around the hill. The Vietnamese name of the hill was Noi Dat Son and that has now been changed to Noi Bo Bo. I rode a moto with a Vietnamese man and Jeff rented a motorcycle and rode alone. The trip started with a long debate among 5-6 moto drivers about where the hill is. Finally we took off for Noi Bo Bo. The ride took about an hour and the man took us directly there. Amazing. Photo: Jeff and moto drivers figuring it out

When we were there in 66/67 the hill had been denuded of all vegetation and had bunkers, hooches, tents, and artillery positions scattered over it. Across the padi from the C Company position were several hamlets, Thuy Bo 1, 2, and 3. These were known as Dodge City and it was here that 1st Bn, 9th Marines got its name, The Walking Dead. We (1/26) took over the area from 1/9. Lots of mines, snipers, and frequent firefights - but not near as bad as the DMZ. Now the hill is planted in what looks to be a tree farm and on top there is a monument to the National Liberation Front (VC). The monument looks to be seldom visited. Photo: River running by Hill 55

We followed a finger down through a graveyard to the bridge where Jerry Georges was killed. 

The river is running deep and brown as it always did. We crossed over the bridge and followed the road to where C Company was dug in on about 8 little mounds in the padi. The empty padi in front of the old post 1 (where I stayed when I was in the camp) is filled in and there are houses there now. Here's the deal: Vietnam is known to be welcoming to veterans, but people in these parts are not city people making money from travelers. Thuy Bo was serious hardcore and neither they nor we took many prisoners. Fighters on either side who got caught got killed.

We walked around, but not back to the old position and people started to gather around. Children were shouting, "Hello! What your name?" Middle aged people were hanging back, but looking friendly and some of the women were amused (CK, the traveling roadshow). A one-armed man brought 2 plastic chairs out for us to sit on. Some old people came by and we shook hands and petted on one another. It was the sweetest thing. It is difficult to describe. My sense is that we were all remembering and we were all glad to see one another. Photo: Hey, CK, can we see your old bald head again - please. Right here, men fought and killed and died. Now it's a new dawn.

For Jeff and me it

was beautiful to see how prosperous the area looks. Almost all the hooches are gone and in their place are stucco houses, most 1 or 2 rooms, and some with more. The woods and groves fronting Dodge City are gone. It's all padi now and the houses are all along the roads (which are maybe 8 feet wide).

Distances seemed a lot greater back then. Maybe that has to do with keeping one's focus on 1-30 meters ahead all the time vs. seeing the entire area. Also, most of the groves and trees are gone now. Very strange to actually see the bridge near Dodge City kind of close to us. It was a hell of a walk back then. 

We hung out in the padi and dikes and along a river. Our last stop was a concrete and dirt floored restaurant in Thuy Bo 3. S

at with an old fighter and had (what else) orange sodas. The old man and I held hands and smiled and talked mutually unintelligibly to one another. That was the sweetest thing too. When we were leaving there were 5 or 6 young men sitting at a table drinking. They wanted a toast and when I lifted my orange soda glass one of them took it out of my hand and gave me a little cup of liquor. What could I do? "To Vietnam!" and we all drained our cups. And Jeff and I rode out. Photo: Two girls in 1966

No big drama, emotion, purging, what have you (been working on that for 30+ years). It was just good to see (1) the prosperity and (2) the way people are moving on. The only way the people we have seen in VN are looking is forward. God bless us all, living and dead. Photo: Dodge City - a very dangerous place back then; now just a pretty place. Here is link to a story about a few minutes near Hill 55.

Hoi An

Thanks to people writing. If I were smarter I'd figure out how to respond. Alas. Following from Hoi An, about an hour north of Danang.

Lonely Planet says (being in Hoi An) "is like walking into a museum piece ... enchants with its beauty and accessible history." We stayed about 8 blocks from the "old town" area - paid $15/night for triple room with free internet service that seldom worked. The old town area is all old (Chinese, French, Vietnamese, etc.) trader's houses of stucco and tile roofs. No space between houses and like other Vietnamese towns, blocks are pretty much solid with narrow lanes cutting through. Some houses are businesses and some are homes.

We had several things to eat that are famous in Hoi An: white rose, which is steamed shrimp dumplings; fried wonton with vegetables on top; and cau lau, a not so fantastic noodle dish. The pho is kind of sweet (like Kevin Dinh said it would be) with undistinguished broth (which, of course is most of the story). Pho in Saigon and Dallas better, for sure. Our hotel (Thanh Xuan) has best banana pancakes, so far. Besides the charming old town - sorry, no photos - there is a beach about 5 kilometers from town. There is a little litter on the beach, but overall, a nice beach with clean water. Ahhh, to be back in the South China Sea/Pacific! Photo: Banana pancakes & café sua da - why is David eating with two knives?

Today was the second day we've been to the beach. We took the little foam football I found near the school up the street from my home in Dallas. David, Jeff, and I tossed it around a few times, and then a man (clearly military) called for the ball. We played four-way catch in the surf for a good while and he drifted away. Then a 12 year-old called for the ball, "Yo! Yo!" and one of us tossed it to him. He tossed it back and another boy shouted, "Yo! Yo!" and pretty soon the ball was going every which way. Meanwhile, David drifted away and was playing kickball (like hacky-sack) with a rattan ball and 4 or 5 other young men. The football game kept going with 10-20 people in and out and by now a frisbee going as well. Major good times. The soldier and I shook hands and we split. Photo: Hue, Perfume River

We rode our bikes back to town, Jeff on the worst bike in the world (I know because I rode it to the beach). When we were about 5 blocks from the hotel a young man and woman rode by on their moto and started teasing Jeff about his bike. Then the girl reached out her hand for Jeff's and they towed him (fast) for several blocks, laughing the whole way. "See you later!" There have been many such moments like this for us in VN - grace notes, so to say. Of course there are annoyances and so on, but on the balance, Vietnam has been very good.

Hue & Train Back to Saigon

David and I headed to Saigon and then Phnom Penh; Jeff staying in Hoi An as he does not want to move around so much - especially to PP. This entry is on Hue where Jeff and I went for a day and a half.

Came over Hai Van Pass (between Danang/Hoi An) where either 1/26 or 2/26 fought some serious battles about 1968. Actually, I realized I had been over the pass in 1967. Different now as there is a tunnel through part of it and highest point no longer in use. Highway 1 is the road from Danang to Hue, named at that time by Bernard Fall, "the street without joy." Fall wrote book on Dien Bien Phu - Hell in a Very Small Place - about the final great battle of the French Indo

china War. Fall was killed on Highway 1 - I have a transcript of his final minutes as he was talking into a tape recorder when he was killed. When I was there the first time the highway (2 very narrow lanes) had a blown up bus every few klicks. Every day another bus or two full of civilians blown to shreds by VC civilian-targeting mines. Like the mass graves of Hue with 1000s of bodies of people murdered by VC in 1968, those details are left out of VN history and the guidebooks. The whole truth is a rare commodity, even in retrospect.

First evening in Hue we walked across the river, then cut into a lane through some houses. We sat on the riverbank and watched river life unfold - boats, woman washing, children playing, people cooking ... exactly where I wanted to be. Back to Le Loi Street for toasted ham and cheese sandwich with french fries - woohoo! Photo above: Perfume River - coffee shop on the bank (am I in heaven?)

Hotel room had balcony overlooking side street and interesting views and early wake-up from street noise. Went up the street for breakfast (Leslie, this one is for you). I ordered omelet with bread and coffee, which turned out to be two cold sunny-side up eggs with a baguette - exactly what everyone else in the room got, though I don't know what they ordered - banana pancakes, maybe. But the coffee was good. Jeff and I headed back across river via 2nd bridge and to The Citadel area.

Hue significantly bigger now than when I was in town in 1967. I managed to get there by myself and walk around The Citadel and Old "Forbidden" City. Lucky I wasn't killed - all I had was a .45. It was a wonderful respite from the war and I have strong positive memories of those few hours. The area remains beautiful with quiet shady streets, old houses and buildings, coffee shops, and so on. Coffee shops have little plastic chairs or stools and serve cafe sua da and tea. The cafe is dripped through a small individual filter onto sweet condensed milk and ice added when mixed.

We had a nice conversation with a man in a coffee shop and then wal

ked into a quiet neighborhood for a long walk through narrow streets. We made a very large loop through this neighborhood and into a large river market. This day was a high point, so quiet. Photo: Walking through this neighborhood in Hue was perfect

Got back to hotel in time for a shower and then enormous confusion re where the bus back to Hoi An would stop. The hotel woman was trying to be helpful, but nothing was happening, so we finally made our own decision re where bus would stop, went there, and there it came.

Back to Hoi An in the evening. When we left Wednesday morning a funeral was starting up across the street from the hotel and when we returned Thursday evening it was still going with steady backbeat of gong and drum: Bonnng, bonnng; Booom, boom.

Back in Hoi An and leaving for Saigon. Bought train tickets a couple of days ago for soft sleeper to Saigon, leaving at 9:00 am. When we looked at the tickets they said 1:27 pm. I asked the ticket person and she said, "Yes, no ticket at 9:00." Hardly anything in Asia is exactly as one expects. Photo below: Pho in Hoi An, Jeff & David

Now we are on the train r

olling out of the station, sharing the compartment with a young woman and her son. The woman made my bunk for me - hey, thanks. Train music system playing what I guess is inspirational communist music - makes me want to be a happy worker (communist music is like military intelligence). The "music" finally stops. A few hours into the trip some different music starts up - sad, pretty Vietnamese music. That's something I noticed a long time ago - lots of sad Vietnamese music. I think they have the blues - imagine that.

I've never been anyplace as intensely green as VN. I'm pretty sure this will be the last time I'll see this beautiful land. I am so happy to have seen it this last time.

The train rolls on through the countryside, the green padi with people working, palms, breadfruit, so beautiful. Green, green, rich green padi.

Train rolling on down the line through the night and Jerry Garcia singing Dylan's, It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

The highway is for gamblers
you better use your sense,
Take what you have gathered
from coincidence

Forget about the dead you left

they will not follow you

And it's all over now,
Baby Blue

Saigon & a Few Random Thoughts

We're in kind of an in-between situation: Appointment in Phnom Penh in a few days and not that much to do in Saigon. Photo: Near Hill 55

The major tourist attractions in Saigon are the Cu Chi tunnels (I've already crawled into a few VC tunnels in the former days - probably not quite as interesting now with nobody around the bend waiting to kill me), a gun range where tourists can fire automatic weapons for a dollar a round (I've done that tour too, except fired 100s of thousands of rounds - probably not as exciting with nobody shooting back), a museum about all the bad things Americans did (I saw the bad of both sides and believe me, we came in a far distant second, atrocity-wise), or the Ho Chi Minh museum (actually, I wouldn't mind seeing that one). So, bottom line, in Saigon this time around I am taking the correct number of showers (2-3xday), eating like a king (market or street king, that is), taking 1-2 naps/day, reading a little, listening to music (CDs are about $.50-.60 each here), even watching unusual TV, and hanging out on the streets. My big planned adventure for today is walking every small lane running through the next block. Should take about an hour. Here are a few odds and ends ...

Got a tall lemon juice (for about $.50) to drink in Saigon. David says, "That's a good deal, even if it does have ants floating in it." 

"Are there ants floating in it?"
"No, just one - but it was probably on the ice." Photo: David at Coffee, shake, etc. shop in Ben Thanh Market. This was a great place for a cold mango shake (no ants here)

Almost without exception, wherever we go - among backpackers/travelers - I'm the oldest traveler and David the youngest. There are a few tourists my age, though.

I've been to SE Asia 5 times before. Surprises this time around include:
- Cleaner than before. Really, very few bad smells or things I wish I had not seen.
- Fewer mosquitos - but we are staying in AC rooms this time around - and there are many more budget AC rooms avail.
- Less dangerous, except for PP, which has a 

distinctly ominous feel - kind of out there on the edge.
- The prosperity and friendliness of Vietnam. In the traveler areas, about 60-70% of interactions are about money. Once out of those areas, the "What's your name?" question shifts from intro to selling something to a friendly means of meeting you. Children are wonderful; adults a little guarded (this is a totalitarian state and these are Vietnamese, after all), bu
t ready to interact. Everyone happy to show off their baby - which fits my agenda perfectly. Vietnam is SO MUCH better than I had anticipated. Photo: From the Zoom Cafe

Saigon turned out to be a favorite place (one of several) for all of us. Maybe, just maybe I can return some day.

Headed back to Phnom Penh tomorrow. Probably out of touch for a few days. Here are some more photos of Saigon and return to the battlefield, Hoi An, & Hue on Worldisround OR on to last days of trip and summary