Wild, Wild West in the Far, Far East

 

All this talk about Vietnamese food has made me a little homesick for Vietnam. Although we immigrated to the US way back in 1975, there’s not a single April 30 (the day Saigon fell) that I don’t count how many years we’ve been away from the first home that I’ve ever known.  The first time I went back to VN all of my childhood memories were challenged by my adult eyes and Americanization. I’d worked and lived in Hong Kong before that trip, but I was still in total culture shock.  In my own country. That was no longer mine.

 

I had all these romantic notions of French villas and breezy afternoons under a Flamboyant tree (cay phuong) but instead walked through shabby streets frozen in time.  At the time, it felt like Vietnam was stuck in a time warp, never having progressed past 1975.  The buzz for a new VN was simmering though, especially in anticipation of the lifting of the trade embargo.  When VN finally got its groove somewhere in the 90s, it reminded me of the gold rush days in California.  Lots of real excitement and (un)founded hopes from both the civilian and business perspectives.  I remember talking to lawyers who set up camps in this brave new world about their trials and tribulations.  It was very much like the wild, wild west in the far, far east.

 

The population got younger and younger on each of my subsequent visits and soon the American war was just something they read about in history books. I was a child when the war ended, and I hope the children of the next generations continue to enjoy being Vietnamese in a time of peace.  This is a selfish wish because I still have so much to see and do in VN. The pictures that you see here are from a recent visit to Cat Ong Island in Ha Long Bay. We trekked around the island and saw the verdant countryside…

 

on a very warm day with just enough humidity for me to be uncomfortable in my own skin. Even the water buffalo were looking for cover…

 

and yet I went ahead with the steep 2-hour trek to the highest point on the island, drenched in a lovely mix of bug-repellant spray and my own perspiration (who said traveling was glamorous?):

 

This is what I saw from the top (pardon the deja vu as I might have posted this picture before):

 

I reluctantly left the peak after the tour guide bribed me with a delicious home-made lunch he’d planned for me. It turned out to be at a private home of someone in the village who also had a teeny tiny convenience store set up in her living room. We had a wonderful 5-course lunch, and then I was ready for a nap:

 

That’s my tour guide in the striped shirt. He looked so scrawny and yet he was as strong as an ox. He carried my heavy suitcase over his head, wading in water to his chest, when our boat couldn’t be pulled to shore because of high tide. This was the same kid who, besides hiking with me on this day, also led me by kyak around the bay the day before and on a mountain bike around Cat Ba Island the day after. During the few days with him, he was always curious about the places I’d seen yet never expressed a desire to travel outside of VN.  He told me he was contented to show his country to tourists from around the world; why go anywhere else when I have all of this, he asked me when we were at the top of the island.  Some people can search a lifetime for a place to call home, and others wake up knowing they are already home. I envied his certainty.  I hope he gets his wish to one day open his own travel agency. In peace time, all dreams can come true.

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