Back to Civilization (Hoi An, Da Nang & Hue, Vietnam)

I have only a few hours before I leave Vietnam and enter China, where the internet is heavily restricted and censored.  Therefore I must type as much as possible before I change countries, drop out of the blogosphere and embark on new adventures

I intended to do all this writing at a leisurely pace while I relaxed in Hanoi, but my here has been surprisingly stressful as I have had to deal with visas, permits, red tape, small print, immovable bureaucracy, banks, insurance agents, travel agents…in short, I got backhanded by Reality once again.

But not to worry, I have dealt with Reality.  Once again, Reality tried to invade my realm – the realm of dreams, hopes and imagination – but I pulled out my Red Tape Cutting Scissors and put that faceless messenger of pessimism back in his place.  Take THAT!

I am free to wander once again, at least temporarily.  But let me delve back into my story, back to those days of Pure Freedom On The Road.   Yes, reminiscing about those days will bring peace to my troubled mind.  But where was I?

Oh yes, yes, yes… I had just followed the Ho Chi Minh trail to Nham Duc.  Well, thankfully it was a rather eventless hop, skip and a jump from there to the seaside trading town of Hoi An.  I descended from the cool air of Central Highlands once and for all, back down to the ocean and back down to the Humid Heat of the Tropics.  I had forgotten how hot it was in this country.

By the time I rolled into Hoi An, the Vietnamese were staring at me with a mixture of surprise and disgust.  My clothes were in tatters and my shirt, jeans, and shoes were muddied from five days of riding through the rain and stained black from motor oil stains.  The sole of my right shoe had torn off from too many failed attempts at starting the Minsk.  I looked like a bum and I smelt like a yeti.  The Vietnamese pointed this out repeatedly, shouting Yo’ pants ripped!  Yo’ shoe broken!  Yes, yes, I know…

Thankfully Hoi An was a town famous for its surfeit of tailoring shops.  There must have been 500 tailors within a one mile radius.  I threw away my ruined clothes and summoned the nearest tailor.  I had a new wardrobe made to measure and shipped it all home.  Button down shirts ($10), pants ($12), suits ($30-$120), silk ties ($5), winter coats ($40), custom shoes ($15-$30) – everything was available, and it was all tempting.  I felt so haggard and the allure of fresh, sharp clothes was difficult to resist.  I got by without spending too much money, and I spent 4 days in Hoi An, relaxing and soaking up the comforts of civilization I had been missing up in the Central Highlands.

The town was quite charming; every building in the old town was painted mustard yellow and topped with orange-brown ceramic roof tiles.  The architecture was heavily Chinese-influenced, often adorned with ancient Vietnamese writing (which is written in Chinese characters), and at night Hoi An’s denizens hung multicolored Chinese laterns in front of their stores and homes.  Hoi An was an important trading town in the 17th and 19th centuries (much like the Portuguese colonies of Melacca in Malaysia and Macau in China), and the influence of European, East and South East Asian cultures could be readily felt.

I befriended Jamie, a fellow Minsk-rider from England, his brother, Richie, and Carina and Maria from Denmark and Canada, respectively.  The five of us wandered the ancient streets together, exploring the nearby ruins of the ancient Champa civilization (some of the oldest in SE Asia) and sipping on 20 cent beers at night.  Ahh, those were good nights with good friends and a welcome respite from riding The Minsk all day.

But after four days it was time to move on.  Jamie and I rode our bikes through the important seaport of Da Nang (where the first US troops landed in 1965) and continued to the former imperial capital of Hue.  The drive was incredible – jungle-covered promontories jutting out into the sea, the road gently tracing their contours and winding up a steep mountain pass with each successive switchback delivering increasingly staggering views.  It was hard to concentrate on the road.

We made it to Hue, located the rest of our posse (who had taken the bus) and set up camp for a few more days.  We toured the Hue Citadel, the former imperial palace of Vietnam under the Nguyen Dynasty.  Opulent palaces and serene pagodas sat within the protection of massive stone walls.  I was impressed.  Then I went to the Thien Mu Pagoda, one of the most famous pagodas in Vietnam.  I was impressed again.  Hue, I have concluded, is impressive.

I spent the afternoon wandering the tranquil gardens of the pagoda and observing the novice monks in their training.  I sat outside the pagoda and observed the child monks as they chanted Buddhist scriptures while tourists stared at them, took a picture, then turned around and jumped back on their tourist bus.

More and more tourists came, snapped, and went.  The monks chanted faster, louder, more resolutely, with each chiming of the pagoda’s gong.  Gongggggg! Louder.  Faster.  Gongggggg!  Louder. Faster.  I found the tourists’ behavior more intriguing than the monks’, because when I looked at these monks I saw their imperfections, their fallibilities, their human qualities.  I realized that they are not semi-divine beings; they are humans just like us.

Then I realized that these monks were just blocking us out of their minds, ignoring the tourists, the cameras, the materialism we represent, the itch on their feet, the heat in the room, the sweat dripping down their cheeks.  Buddhism is simply a healthy practice of ignoring the ugly aspects of human nature, of trying to find peace and meaning in a world that deprives us of both more often than we would like.

We take pictures of monks because we want to be like them, maybe because we think that we can never be like them.  We feel like their peace of mind is unattainable in the West because we must give up too many things to achieve it, so we just take pictures.  But I am beginning to see that we can find mental peace everywhere: in the flowers in our garden, in the silence of the early morning, in the orange hues of a brilliant sunset.  But our downtown apartments have no gardens and no flower, we often sleep through the morning, and we spend many sunsets stuck in rush-hour traffic.  This is easy enough for me to say while I am traveling; I just pray that I can find this peace again once I lay down my backpack and settle myself at home.

Hue was a glorious city, and I really wish I had more time to spend there.  But, alas, my visa would expire soon and I still had half of Vietnam to traverse, so I had to cut my cultural and historical lessons short and hop back on The Minsk.  After two nights I packed up my bags, said goodbye to my new friends and prepared to travel from Hue through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and north to Hanoi.

Everything went downhill from there.


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