(Excerpted from Chapter 21: The Ho Chi Minh Trail: The Grateful Unrich…)
We take an 8:00 AM open tour bus to Danang, after finding a great pick-your-beans coffee shop filled with Vietnamese intellectuals.
We pass through the cheesy Marble Mountains tourist trap and are dropped in central Danang. We are excited that this will be the last open tour bus and glad we didn’t opt for the Hanoi option. The drivers seem to get ruder and the hotels further out of town with each stop.
We check to see if the Lao Embassy is open but it is not, so we’ll get our visas at the border. On the way to the train station we buy two huge pineapples already peeled and sliced for 10,000 dong ($.75) and four boiled eggs for another 10,000. The station is beautiful. Second class A/C train tickets are – contrary to what the Happy Tours monopoly told us – just as cheap as the open tour bus.
The train winds around the Bay of Danang and goes through several tunnels on its way up Hai Van Pass. There are stunning views of beaches with rocky cliffs on one side, verdant green jungle-covered mountains on the other. Even the locals are stunned at what we see. Peasants use oxen to plow rice fields in the shadow of the mountains. Water buffalo graze the fields. We order two ice coffees from the smiling waitress. Old men read Soviet-era books and left-wing periodicals. We can’t keep our smiles to ourselves. It’s the best train ride I’ve ever taken.
We arrive in Hue, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and take a very pleasant cyclo ride into town. We bargain the Vong Canh Hotel from $8 down to $6/night. Our room is the nicest we’ve had yet – with A/C, satellite TV, hot shower, comfy bed with two sheets and a comforter, wooden chairs and end tables, a refrigerator, complimentary tooth brushes and toothpaste. We eat a $1 dinner at Brown Eyes Bar down Backpacker Alley and wander to the banks of the Perfume River, where neon lights on the old bridge flash from purple to green to yellow to blue. Here in Hue the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, taking the town momentarily before being massacred by the US-backed South Vietnamese Army. This bloodbath is what turned Western opinion against the Vietnam War.
Today is good until we happen into Mohammed, Asima and their 8-month old baby Fatima piling out of a taxi with their mountains of luggage. We’d bumped into these South African Muslims before. Mohammed walks around for an hour looking for a deal on a hotel, while his wife is left in the hot sun with baby and luggage. He ends up getting the same price we had gotten in five minutes. We eat lunch together and he begins to lecture me that I should never have written my book, which he’s never even seen. He insists to the waitress that he should be charged 1,000 dong ($.07) less for the honey he ordered on his banana pancake. He eats huge plates of food while his wife and baby are doled out tiny portions from his plates. We walk to the river where he lambasts me for not being “man enough” to have children. Suddenly Jill and I both have to use the bathroom. But we don’t escape until he has insulted a boat tour operator and a painter as well. He is arrogant, talks too much and will not be missed. I felt sympathy for them when we first met. I now feel even greater sympathy for his wife and daughter. We spend the rest of the day fending off cynical thoughts about all the rude backpackers we’ve met. Mohammed is the icing on the cake.
This morning we have coffee with Vietnamese workers on the tiniest plastic chairs yet, then get fried eggs and bread at Phuong Nam Restaurant, which the workers recommend. Loc, who served us coffee, comes by our table and chats awhile, glad we took his cue. He doubles as a moto guide (don’t they all) and can’t resist pitching me one last time on his “DMZ tour”. I decline and share some cigarettes. Later we find some Vietnamese rolling tobacco and papers. The tobacco is wrapped up slightly damp in a piece of newspaper. The papers are in one long roll that needs to be cut. A two-week supply of smokes costs $.75 and tastes chemical-free. We sit on the veranda of the Hue train station, flies buzzing, the heat of the day amplified by the humidity of overnight rains. We’ll take the 11:30 AM, TN2 hard-seat to Dong Ha.
We are stalked by moto-drivers and minivans as we exit the station at Dong Ha. From here, we’ll head inland towards the Lao border. Vietnam – the world’s 13th most populated nation, despite its modest geographical size – has worn us out. It’s time to go. One minivan is persistent and is headed for the border at Lao Bao – two hours away. The woman tout says she’ll take us for 125,000 dong. We keep walking. “OK, 80,000”. We don’t even look back. “Ok, ok, 60,000”. We’re laughing now. She breaks out a 50,000 note. I finally stop and turn around. “I’ll give you 40,000”.
Disgusted that we’ll be paying the Vietnamese price, she motions for us to jump into the cramped minivan – loaded with women wearing conical hats, plastic bags full of vegetables and a Styrofoam ice chest reeking of fish. I am the only man, save the driver. Soon a young woman who was sitting in the front seat sheepishly piles in beside me. Instantly the other women push me towards her and away from Jill. We all laugh. This goes on for the next fifteen minutes or so. The van winds its way up the river valley to Khe Sanh. You can see how Charley easily hid in these rugged mountains just south of the DMZ.
Lao Bao, Laos
The driver drops us off right at the border. I smell like fish and am glad to be able to stretch out. We change dong for Lao kip with black marketeer women wearing conical hats and exit Vietnam. We meet a Slovakian headed the other way, but see no other foreigners, which tells me we picked a good off-the-beaten-track route. I haggle with the Lao border official about our visa. We want a 30-day, but he insists that $30 will only get us 15 days. He says I should ask my embassy why, meaning that since 911 Bush put draconian terms on Laoations who want a US visa, Laos is merely reciprocating. I point to my Ho Chi Minh T-shirt and nod understandingly. He smiles.
We walk two kilometers into Lao Bao, grab a Beer Lao immediately and get a hotel. It’s as nice a border town as I’ve seen – with as many cows, pigs, goats and chickens wandering about as people. We meet a nice Swiss/Spanish couple with whom we have dinner and more Beer Lao. Three cute kids at the small restaurant make our day. The hassle and bustle of Vietnam is behind us. Laos is much more relaxed. We love it.
Dean Henderson is the author of five books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries,Das Kartell der Federal Reserve, Stickin’ it to the Matrix & The Federal Reserve Cartel. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @www.hendersonlefthook.wordpress.com