Triplogue - Vietnam I

6-9 July, Savannakhet, Laos to Hue, Vietnam (a)

Oh! The glamour of travel! A nasty five-day flu had kept me in bed and put us behind schedule, so we opted to take the bus the four-hundredish kilometers from Savannakhet to Hue. Following the advice of Madame Phouthavy, we arrived at the dusty station at eleven p.m. –an hour ahead of departure time— in order to get a decent seat. But when someone indicated the bus we were to take, we peered in and discovered there would be no good seats. Our home for the next fourteen hours was a clunky old communist-made thing, with five seats across and no legroom at all. Our fellow passengers were overwhelmingly male, and they all seemed to know each other for some reason. We suspected they all worked on some construction project together (indeed, many wore hardhats the whole length of the ride), but this was never confirmed.

Just getting out of the bus station was a bone-rattling experience, a harbinger of things to come. We did our best to wedge ourselves into sleepable positions, but I ended up spending most of the trip looking out the window at the moon-drenched landscape. The first thirty kilometers (which we had ridden upon ten days earlier) were relatively smooth, but beyond the scungy town of Xeno the road turned into something unsuitable for oxen. As the bus screamed and jolted and lurched into the night, I began to wish I had brought a hardhat too. Every two or three hours the bus would come to an abrupt stop, the lights would come on, and everyone would clamber over those sleeping in the aisles to exit the bus for a pee. My first lesson in Vietnamese culture was that the people here (at least the men) pee with utter impunity, letting loose anywhere they please. The few women passengers, on the other hand, meekly made their way through the multiple streams to more discreet quarters.

When the sun finally rose we saw that we were once again in an area that was grindingly poor, poorer than anything we’d seen elsewhere in Laos. The huts were shabbier; the kids were dirtier, and everyone seemed to be engaged in extremely heavy labor at dawn. Women pounded grain, men plowed fields with yokes over their shoulders, and filthy little kids ran around naked or stared at us listlessly as we bounced by.

Not too long after sunrise we were at the Vietnamese border of Lao Bao, where we spent three pointless hours heeding the border guards’ every whim. To kill the time, we changed Lao kip for Vietnamese dong with a fresh-faced Dutch couple crossing into Laos. With typical Dutch cheerfulness (highly irritating at six a.m.), they told us that the road to the coast was good. I feebly tried to convince Fred that we get on our bikes and ride, but he reminded me that I was still in a weakened condition and ought to take it easy.

As it turns out, we made the right choice. The Dutch couple must have been hallucinating, or trying to play a cruel joke on us, because the road from Lao Bao to the coast was nothing short of nightmarish, a construction project on a massive scale, and perhaps the biggest source of dust and grime I have ever witnessed. Discomfort notwithstanding, I found the view out the window to be fascinating. The instant we crossed the border (finally) it became apparent that we were in a new and wonderful country, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. In marked contrast to Laos, there were people everywhere, all engaged in some sort of activity. Flocks of cone-hatted women carried ridiculously cumbersome loads on their bicycles; policemen talked animatedly with village folk; houses and other structures were going up everywhere. And the houses looked way different from the ones in Laos, made of concrete, adorned with geometrical gee-gaws and painted in a multitude of bright colors. Public buildings and flags were everywhere, especially in the town of Khe Sahn, about twenty kilometers past the border. Khe Sahn (so it says in our guidebook) was the site of the worst battle in the American War, and today the inhabitants were celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of their liberation. Music was blaring out of loudspeakers; banners were flapping; and locals were milling about and stuffing their faces with a variety of snacks.

We passed through a rugged landscape of scrubby-looking, denuded hills (defoliated by napalm or Agent Orange?) and over innumerable partially finished bridges as the temperature continued to rise.

By the time we reached the coastal highway at Dong Ha –the capital of Quang Tri province since American forces obliterated the actual town of Quang Tri— sweat was pouring off our bodies. I had imagined the infamous Highway 1 to be a nightmare of hurtling steel. But in reality it more resembled a meandering country lane than the main thoroughfare of a country of sixty million souls. As we bumped slowly along through an eerie landscape of bomb craters and graveyards, I tried to imagine what kinds of battles were fought here.

A lunch stop was imposed upon us after a half hour or so on Highway 1, which was a little frustrating with only a few kilometers to go to Hue. It was our first stop since the border, which we had left five hours before. I wandered into the pig- and chicken-filled yard out back in search of a toilet and found the other passengers of the bus peeing everywhere with reckless abandon, mysteriously avoiding the numerous toilets and pissoirs provided. Our first meal in Vietnam was extra nasty, two bowls of flavorless oily broth with rubbery chicken and undercooked noodles. We hoped it wasn’t an indicator of meals to come…

Another fifteen minutes of bus hell ensued, and then the driver’s assistant was telling us to get off the bus. "Here Hue city," he kept saying, even though we appeared to be neither in a bus station nor any kind of urban area. We protested for a moment before loading up our bikes. When I took mine I noticed two much-valued items missing: my mileage counter and the small Buddha that Fred had epoxied to my handlebars. Travelers we had met had warned us that Vietnam was full of thieves and this was rather sobering after only a few hours in the country, putting us on our guard.

Pedaling alongside the Perfume River into Hue felt surreal. Bicycles were everywhere, and many of the cyclists pedaled alongside us and engaged in simple conversations. The Vietnamese, we learned quickly, are not a shy people. We penetrated the massive walls that delineate the Citadel –Hue’s historic center— through an ancient gate and my feeling like Dorothy arriving in Oz intensified. Absorbed into a sea of bicycles, we crossed lotus-filled moats directly in front of the "Purple Forbidden City," the imposing palace of the Nguyen emperors. The town had the look of a huge park, full of trees, birds and flowers. We found a little hotel down a quiet street, had a quick and highly necessary shower and set out to explore the town.

Hue –at least the intra muros part of it-- is perhaps the most attractive Asian town I’ve ever seen, leafy and relaxed, almost rural in aspect. People raise animals and vegetables in the many moats and lakes, lounge in the countless courtyard cafes, and play soccer alongside the massive walls. The serenity of the place and the slow yet purposeful pace of its inhabitants made us feel like we’d entered another time, another dimension.

A late afternoon nap almost killed me. Dragging my sorry ass out of bed for dinner required a monumental effort –one that wasn’t warranted it turns out. Just outside one of the old city gates, in the newer and more bustling part of town, we stopped at the first place that caught our eye, a restaurant that catered to the backpacker set. While the food was almost edible, the overall cleanliness of the place was appalling. Will every meal be like this, I wondered? The best part of the meal was the cyclo ride back to the hotel. I hadn’t been ridden in a cycle-powered taxi since Java, and it felt great having someone else doing the pedaling for a change.

The following two days in and around Hue were blissful. I, for one, had lost my heart to Vietnam and I think Fred quickly began to share my sentiments. Our first two meals in the country notwithstanding, we had no more problems finding decent food, and our haphazard explorations of the countryside were delicious.

Our first day took us across the river in search of the Imperial tombs, Hue’s biggest tourist draw. We, however, were only half-hearted tourists, more interested in absorbing the flavor of this new country. We spent the day getting lost in the sticks, playing billiards, drinking numerous cold drinks and chatting with the friendly folk who sold them to us. We did manage to visit one tomb –that of emperor Minh Mang—and it failed to impress either of us, so we skipped the rest, preferring to pedal aimlessly through the forests, villages and religious centers that surround Hue.

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of the whole experience was that nearly everyone was getting around on bicycle. Xe dap is the first word we learned in Vietnamese. Meaning bicycle, it is painted on the many businesses and dwellings that double as bicycle repair shops, and we frequently hear it uttered in astonishment as we pedal by.

In the golden light of the afternoon we explored the citadel some more, discovering it to be surprisingly vast. We found a funky place to eat in a lopsided wooden pavilion built over a pond and gorged ourselves on spring rolls and other delicacies while watching a thunderstorm pass over. Later, we checked out the nightlife at a bar called Apocalypse Now, where we chat with members of a tour group from Australia and… the Yale Whiffenpoofs. We had housed some of their predecessors when we lived in Paris, and now they were on their first-ever tour of Vietnam.

Returning across the river to our hotel by cyclo in the silent sultry air I felt overcome with happiness. I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be than in this magical land.

The following day we got onto our bikes again, staying on the left bank of the Perfume River this time. First stop was the Thien Mu pagoda, a beautiful spot and a working monastery. Somehow the many monks that live there manage to retain an aura of calm while being snapshotted by hoards of sweaty pink tourists. Further upriver we stumbled upon the less impressive Temple of Literature, where we caught a few moments of solitude –a very rare thing in people-filled Vietnam.

The heat drove us inside for the hot part of the day, which was followed by our now-customary pedal around town. Today we headed along a canal full of thousands of houseboats –perhaps not Hue’s best neighborhood, but indisputably picturesque. Later we found a popular café and hung out there for a while, drinking iced coffee and sweating under the curious gaze of dozens of other patrons. With time to kill before dinner, we found another more peaceful café by the riverside and played many rounds of backgammon as we watched another thunderstorm approach in the fading light. Dinner also had a commanding view of the river, from the top floor of the fanciest hotel in town. While the food wasn’t bad, the service was execrable. Our waiter totally disappeared for at least an hour, and when he still didn’t show up after we asked his colleagues to hunt him down, we did something very brazen: we dined and ditched. Never before have I left a restaurant without paying the bill, and we both felt a little guilty as we mounted our bikes and headed back to our place. With a possible APB out for our arrest, maybe it was a good thing that we were leaving Hue the following morning…

Imperial Hue


Village butcher shop


Pedaling along the Perfumed River






Looking back from atop Hai Van Pass


Helpin' the banana man

10 July, Hue to Danang, 108 Km, (f)

Dawn seemed to come early in this part of Asia. I’d been awake for some time before the alarm went off and watched the sky turn from black to gray through our window as the clock approached 5 a.m. Sounds from the busy streets of our neighborhood percolated up into the hotel room and past the white noise of the air conditioner. Motorcycles whirred, chickens crowed and kids practiced soccer on the street.

When the silver clock started to beep we roused ourselves and had a spartan breakfast of Cliff Bars and yogurt. When we began loading the bikes that had been resting in the hotel dining room we woke a few of the staff who’d been sleeping on the floor there, no doubt exhausted after an evening (or should I say morning) of World Cup Soccer. We crept out the door and joined the throngs of two-wheeled vehicles starting their day in Hue. It was refreshing to be again in a country where the people rose early and took advantage of the relatively cool temperatures. Even more revitalizing was to be somewhere where a bicycle is transportation and not sport.

Though Hue is a pretty big town by any standard (around 600k inhabitants) we were in the country after just a few moments of pedaling. I was worried about riding in Vietnam; everyone had warned us that the traffic was abysmal, the people were rude and cloying and that it would be too hot to enjoy our ride. Surely there was a fair amount of traffic, but the bulk of it was on two wheels and the majority of that was using the same power source that we were. I admit that the motorized traffic that we had to contend with was annoying but it was far from the most dangerous we had encountered. And, lastly, the heat was bearable. At least at 5:45 when we set out.

On our way out of town we did have to interact with more bicycles than I am used to. Which is, for the most part, pretty easy. Most of the cyclists fear breaking a sweat so they saunter along at a less then breakneck pace. The girls and women who were cycling sport a rather elaborate riding costume. They all have wide brimmed hats that are often adorned with synthetic flowers and full length gloves. Most also cover their faces with a medical mask-like thing that might look more at home on a bandit. Why? To avoid getting tan of course.

We wove our way in and around the throngs around us. Intersections become just a little more hectic. Almost all of them are completely uncontrolled, so the chaos that ensues at any of them is overwhelming at first. Imagine nearly continuous lines of four bicycles and two scooters converging at right angles, some shifting directions while others hold their path and you have some picture of traffic in Hue --and I’d suspect most towns and villages in Vietnam. I wondered if we’d find intersections littered with bent bicycles and motorcycles and broken people wailing and shouting. To my surprise there is some harmony in what really occurs.

Though there is a chorus of motorcycle horns (and the occasional vehicle with more than two wheels) there is a zen-like peacefulness about how easily the slow moving vehicles pass, most often without incident. Usually everyone makes it through with care and respect for those around him or her and everyone pays attention. It isn’t unknown for a youngster, almost always male, to thrust through at great speed and clip someone, or for someone to space out and hit someone else with a disconcerting clatter of bicycle fenders. I only witnessed one such problem between a cyclist and a motorcycle. It occurred at low speed, there were no injuries and the two shuffled off to the side and settled the matter very peaceably --though the bicyclist seemed a little irritated.

We passed just a few intersections before urban Hue gave way to agricultural territory. We headed south on Colonial Route One. Built by the French with barely room for one car in each direction it is the primary artery that connects north to south. Knowing this we approached the ride to Danang cautiously, fearing a day of being run off the road by careening busses and trucks. What we found were slow careful drivers accustomed to multiple modes of transport sharing the road. There were, of course, some butthead (does one have to capitalize this since the character appeared in the popular cartoon?) drivers who passed too closely or sped through villages too quickly. Many of these came in the form of big ol’ shiny tourist busses and minivans stuffed with European and American urchins on summer holiday.

Sharing the roadway with the brand spanking new tourist busses were trucks of all sorts, carts, pedestrians carting all varieties of loads, and us brats. The most surprising companions on the road were the public busses. Renault constructed most of them in the first half of this century. By the looks of them I’d guess that they were from the early 1940’s. Painted in bright colors and heavily loaded with bikes and all sorts of goods roped on top and stuffed with people inside they traveled at nearly the same speed as we did. There are two annoyances that make riding in Vietnam a challenge. The first is the Vietnamese love of horns. It seems that from the moment they start any motorized vehicle their hand moves to the button that activates this warning device and punches out a little staccato tune that doesn’t cease until they leave the vehicle. This can sound charming if you are well above a city street looking down at the passing motor vehicles below but can be deafening if you are riding your bike and a convoy of dump trucks pass. Once you get used to it the annoyance is on the scale of a fly, albeit a fly with an airhorn.

The second annoyance is encountered less frequently. I experienced it only twice en route to Danang. It is a little complicated to explain the where’s and why’s of it so be patient. Many of the trucks and busses are aging to the point of decay and if you’ve ever owned an older car or truck you may remember that they tend to overheat. In Vietnam this is even more grave a problem given the heat and humidity. To battle the problem most decrepit vehicles sport an auxiliary water tank on their roof. Erase the image of that little plastic bottle that sits under the hood of your modern beast that contains a gallon or so and think 55-gallon drum or a child’s swimming pool mounted on the roof. The driver controls the flow of this cool water into the engine via a spigot in the cab. Even though most of these trucks and busses have leaks in their cooling system the extra water still must pass somewhere. Here is where it becomes an annoyance. The very rusty warm water sprays out the (usually) driver’s side front bumper into the center of the road, onto passing cars or onto the BikeBrats’ knees as the truck passes another vehicle into the oncoming cyclists.

The landscape was strikingly beautiful. Vast coastal plains abutted steep mountains. Rice paddy covered the flat bits and villagers tended the crops with great diligence. It had not been since Indonesia that I’d seen such agricultural industry. In fact I commented to Andrew that the scenery and activity was "Java-like" as we pedaled along. Another commonality with Indonesia’s most populated island is how much activity occurs roadside. Not a moment goes by that you are completely alone. Still the motorized traffic is so limited it is not uncommon to see someone sitting or even sleeping on the roadbed.

A headwind buffeted us as we traveled south but the road was flat for the best part of the ride. Unfortunately there were three rather challenging passes to ascend where the coastal mountains come close to the sea. The first came early in the morning and was little more than a hill, providing a little relief from the monotony of riding flat coastal plains. The second was just a little larger and left us drenched in sweat for the day had grown warmer. The last rise was a mammoth 560 meters over six kilometers. Far from the largest hill we’d ever climbed, it still represented a significant challenge because our climb began at 11:15 a.m. We huffed, puffed and perspired our way up. At one point a truck struggled to pass me and as it did I reached up and grabbed its tailgate and had some help for half a kilometer of the route up before letting go guiltily.

At the last hairpin on the way up a truck careened around the corner, avoiding another that had tipped over on the way up. The driver of the overturned truck grimaced as I shot a photo of his misfortune. His hulking blue Russian truck hissed and broken glass tinkled as it fell from the windowsills onto the highway. Just another 500 meters of road and we’d reached the pass. At the top huge bunkers sat as testimony to the conflict that rocked this part of Vietnam. Yet another army attacked us as we crested. A legion of children selling this and that tugged at our sleeves for our attention. They tried to sell us everything from cold drinks to Zippo lighters, communist pins and other war memorabilia. Andy broke down and bought a cold water for three times what we should have paid while I held out until I halved the price (only paying 50% more than I should have and feeling vastly superior).

We escaped the commercial kids and began whizzing down the other side, essing down the hill and constrained only by the speed of the other traffic. One of the vehicles we encountered was a one-speed bicycle with a huge load of bananas precariously balanced on back. The man riding it was smoking a cigarette and straining to keep his bike from tumbling down the hill. He had no coaster or cantilever brakes so he’d attached a board to one pedal. Forcing the rubber-footed board to the ground with his shoe he slowed the bike until the load broke loose and slumped to one side. We were passing just then and stopped to help him balance his load. He seemed more intent on keeping his cigarette lit than fixing his bike.

It wasn’t long after speeding down the pass that we started into suburban Danang. More and more activity crowded the road and traffic increased commensurately. More and more bicycles appeared, many carrying odd loads. At one point our paths crossed a cyclist who was hauling two massive truck tires on his bike. He seemed to have had too much to drink, wobbling down the street. The tires were balanced around his body resting on his handlebars and back over his luggage rack. His body was threaded through their center and his head and shoulders barely peeked through the tires.

We stopped now and then to check out city life in Vietnam or to look at our map. Each time we did so we found friendly Danangers waving and saying "hello". Many adults brought their children to the street to look at us. Some waved and screamed with glee while others ran crying back to their houses. Danang was bigger, cleaner and more interesting than I’d anticipated. I was anticipating a chokingly large city, ugly, overcrowded --in short, a nightmare to navigate. We found just the opposite. Though there are more than a million folks in this city it was very civilized. One of the more civil aspects is a little restaurant on the riverfront called Christie’s. Run now by an Australian named Mark Procter it serves a great mixture of European, Australian and Asian specialties. We made our (disgustingly sweaty) selves at home there and nearly moved in. Mark was amazingly accommodating and helpful. Interrupting his business lunch he stopped over at our table to greet us and give us advice about our stay in Danang. Mark, also a cyclist, pointed out proudly the photograph on the wall of him with Greg Lemonde. They rode together when Greg was leading a group of American Vietnam vets on a ride from south to north.

After a very satisfying and copious lunch we followed Mark’s advice and took the ferry across the river to the beach. Andy and I were both shocked at how empty the beach was. Here was a strip of sand several miles long with a big blue expanse of clean water on a sunny day without a soul on it. Upon checking into our hotel and cleaning up we decided to have a look at the aforementioned mystery. By then the sun was beginning to set and the beach was now swarming with people. 15-50 year-olds kicking around soccer balls, hitting shuttlecocks or bouncing volleyballs overran every inch of the shore. We were made all sorts of propositions as we walked conspicuously down the beach. Shuffling through the sand we were offered glasses of what looked to be deadly pure rice alcohol, invited to kick soccer balls, hit badminton shuttlecocks and eat picnics. A skinny unhealthy druggy-eyed tattooed boy made improper advances in the guise of inviting us for a swim. We shrugged off all of these offers in order to get a good survey of what was going on.

So satisfied with the luncheon meal at Christie’s we were back again for dinner after our foray into Vietnam shoreside life. We were disappointed not to find Mark in attendance. Didn’t he live and work there? We asked the staff about him and found that he would be calling in. We asked him if we could connect Connie (our computer) to his phone line and update our site. He agreed and helped us post our writings and photos of Laos the next day.

While we were hanging out at Christie’s the next day we met up with another cyclist. I’d actually met him in Hue the day before briefly. Dan was riding home to the UK from Shanghai (via Singapore, Australia and Alaska) and qualifies as the craziest cyclist we’ve met to date. He hadn’t yet discovered sunscreen and was sporting some pretty serious lesions on his arms and face from this oversight. He told us he was riding a full-suspension mountain bike and liked to sprint for twenty kilometers at a time before resting and going at it again. He’d recently begun to ride at night to avoid the heat and had ridden the same pass as we had the day before in the dark without a light. We tried not to berate him for his foolishness and only gave him some polite advice about riding.

We’d really grown to like Mark, his restaurant and his hospitality. I dreaded leaving the comfort of our adopted home in Danang. Before heading off to Hoi Ahn we found out that Mark would be heading up to Hanoi in a few days for business and we made arrangements to rendezvous there later in the week.

Before departing we went in search of train tickets for our trip north to meet Wendy in Hanoi. We’d forgotten the map and were wandering aimlessly when we met our unlikely guide Duc (pronounced sort of like Dick). He’d lived just outside of Paris for ten years and addressed me in French as he rode by on his one-speed. After just a few cranks I knew the abridged version of his life story and he was guiding us to the train station. He was our age but looked a bit older. Apparently he hadn’t had the advantage of western dentistry, medicine and cosmetics. He invited us for coffee after the train station and told us more about his life as a tailor. Somehow the conversation kept circling back to his interest in Swiss army knives and his want for one. When he came by for dinner later that night again the conversation returned to pocketknives. Andy took the hint and gave him one of ours as a "gift". I couldn’t help wondering if the next person would be asking about a TV or washing machine.

Whatever the cost in chattels, our evening with Duc was well worth it. Not for the conversation or the company (he brought along a friend who worked as a mechanic for a Japanese concern in Danang). Duc did bring us to a beach side restaurant to enjoy some Vietnamese seafood. The foodstall on the beach was just about to close when we arrived but the waiters gladly seated us and served us some tasty shrimp, cuttlefish and sea bass while Duc and his friend looked on. They’d both said they’d eaten and weren’t hungry but their eyes betrayed them. We finally coaxed them into eating something along with the beer. We were simply happy to have someone help us get through a challenging Vietnamese menu successfully.

We retired early, though there’d be no rush to leave the next day. Our ride was to be but 30k. Thus we could afford the luxury of a late departure. "The Guide" (Lonely Planet) dismisses Danang as a place without interest save the Cham museum. Sadly thousands of tourists are biased by their insufficient appraisal of the town we’d become rather fond of.

12 July, Danang to Hoi An, 29km (a)

With our day’s destination only thirty kilometers away, I was afforded the unusual Brat-treat of a morning stroll. At five forty-five, the beach was in full swing, teeming with Vietnamese of all ages, all engaged in some sort of frenzied activity. Do these people ever sleep?

On our way out of town, I was once again impressed by the seemingly indefatigable vitality of the Vietnamese. The road to Hoi An –which didn’t even figure on our maps—was jam-packed full of bikes, most of them hauling something or other. At one point we were riding behind a couple of brightly festooned cyclists. Fred shouted out, "Look, tribal people!" But in fact the pedaling pair proved to be traveling brush- and broom salespeople.

Ugly concrete suburbia quickly melted into fields of newly planted rice and a world of hallucinatory green. Even here, people were everywhere, busily engaged in the business of growing more food. The misnamed "Marble Mountains" came next. Our excellent road led right through these bumps on the landscape. A nearby village was abuzz and a-clink with the efforts of marble carvers whose product line ranged from tombstones to gigantic lions of dubious taste.

"Hoi An" announced a sign after less than an hour and a half of pedaling (today can hardly qualify as a riding day). This ancient trading town beguiled us immediately. While swarming with tourists –Westerners and Vietnamese alike—the place retains a feeling of authenticity. Many of its beautiful houses date from the seventeenth century and are remarkably intact. We rolled past the colorful little river harbor before being forced to get off and push through the throngs at the swarming market. It didn’t take us long to find a decent room with a view of the river and we were cleaned up and exploring the town in the scorching heat in no time.

On our way back through the market (on foot this time) a small person accosted us, urging us to come to his stall. In excellent English, he said his name was Bu, and I couldn’t help noticing how grabby (not to mention effeminate) he was. Only five minutes in town and we’d already found a sister. Fred was dead-set against following our new friend, but I thought it might be amusing. With his remarkable powers of persuasion, Bu coaxed me into ordering some silk boxers, and was especially thorough in taking my measurements. He was very eager to fit Fred for a pair too, but Fred steadfastly refused. Our new friend said the shorts would be ready later in the day, but we told him we’d pick them up the next day, since we planned to go to the beach that afternoon (after two nights at My Khe, we’d become addicted to the Vietnamese beach scene). When Bu heard this, his eyes lit up. "What time will you be there? What side of the beach are you going to? I’ll bring a friend and we can all go swimming together."

Sure enough, when we showed up at the beach (an hour earlier than we’d told him, in order to do yoga), Bu was there. He and his bitchy friend followed us up to a shaded, relatively peaceful sand dune and watched us sweat as we did yoga for an hour. It was a little disconcerting, especially with their impatience growing visibly by the minute. By the time we had finished and I was ready for a swim, all of Bu’s energy was focused on placating his friend. I think he might have promised his friend more than he could deliver, and now the friend was pouting that Fred wasn’t paying more attention to him. Bu ended up having to shuttle the friend home to avoid his throwing a giant hissy fit, but not before promising to bring us back to the beach to watch the full moon.

We had dinner in a beautiful place run by a friendly Frenchman. The food, drinks and service were all excellent. The owner, Christophe, invited us to come back later to watch the World Cup final, but we both doubted we’d still be awake at two a.m.

The slow-paced dinner had made us late for our rendezvous with Bu, but our miniature friend was faithfully waiting for us on his motorbike when we got back. Fred, pleading fatigue, elected to forego the nighttime beach scene –which turned out to be disappointing. I had expected there to be bonfires and revelry, but in reality the beach was practically empty. And hot. The wind had died and the temperature had risen, causing me to sweat from the mere effort of drinking a beer by the seaside. Adding to the disappointment was the fact that the moon never rose; the clouds obscured it totally. Redeeming the whole experience, however, was Bu’s fascinating life story. I found him to be refreshingly straightforward and articulate. He told me how he came from a large, poor family and that his mother died last year. His father is a cyclo driver and Bu himself had to earn his own living from a very young age. "When I was little I was selling the lottery tickets, and then later, when the tourists coming –five, six years ago—I sold postcards. I hated it." Then he met up with an older Vietnamese homo (the details were fuzzy here) who lives in Saigon. Bu moved to Saigon and studied English for awhile before coming back to his hometown and running a tailor shop for his friend. Now he supports both himself and his younger brother, whose schooling he pays for, and dreams of moving back to Saigon. "This is no place to be gay," he said, "but in Saigon there are many places, many gay people. What I really want is a boyfriend, a Vietnamese boyfriend. I like the foreigners, but not for a boyfriend." When I asked Bu if his family knew he was queer, he told me they did, but he preferred not to talk about it with them.

"Do you find it difficult being gay in a small town like Hoi An?" I continued my interview. With a decidedly defiant tone in his voice, Bu declaimed, "I don’t really care what people think about me; No one can tell me what kind of person to be." Coming from a four-foot tall, twenty-one year old Asian boy living in a communist country, this remark really impressed me.

5:30 A.M. at My Khe Beach


Beach boys


Hoi An's riverfront market

Home Page Contact Andrew and Fred About their adventure

© 1997 Frederick Felman and Andrew Broan, All rights reserved. No part of this web site may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means without permission in writing from authors or their agents.