Exploring the Wonders of Vietnam

January 18, 2006
Skipping School

Today was pure fun. We skipped school. Travelers who stuck with the itinerary and went to the former Demilitarized Zone are to be commended for their stamina, but about half of the group-some younger, some more elderly-decided to stay in Hue and take a day off. Each of us will have had a memorable experience because this is a very memorable country. I cant wait to hear what those who toured Quang Tri and the DMZ will have to say at dinner. Although we have been traveling in a group, everyone has a personal tale to tell about this adventure in Viet Nam,

Our day started early, as usual. Waking up at 6 (Koof was already stirring), I headed out into the street before breakfast, looking for an Internet cafe that was cheaper and faster than the three computers in the hotel lobby. The delay in postings from here to the Swarthmore Web site is partly caused by my own ineptitude with Microsoft Windows-especially the ancient versions of Windows that are running Viet Nams street-side computers.


Yesterday, I sent in a bunch of file names from one of Windows maddening directories rather than the photos I intended to attach. So the Jan. 16 post had no photos and didnt go up right away. I could have asked for help on this end, but I speak neither Windows nor Vietnamese. Imagine my surprise when I learned today that, in addition to the three computers in the lobby, theres also a very fast wireless connection.

Yet Im glad I didnt know this until nearly noon today because having easy access to the Net in the hotel would have caused four of us to miss one of the richest connections we have had with people in Viet Nam. Thats because, when I went out both yesterday and today to search for a good Internet connection, I met Phan Gui Dong, motorbike driver and entrepreneur. He helped me find a cafe yesterday when I was quite lost, and, by chance (or maybe not?), I ran into him again on the street again this morning.

Dong (pronounced "Hoong") is a friendly hustler. He asked me whether I wanted him to drive me around today on the back of his bike to visit Ho Chi Mins boyhood home or to the Citadel. No, I said, but four or five of us had been talking about going to the beach at Thuan An, east of Hue. I thought we would need a car, so I smiled at Dong and went into a nearby Internet store to do battle with Windows. I had to wait for a computer, so Dong caught me outside and started to talk about taking motorbikes to the shore. How far is it? I asked. About 15km, he said, "Easy." I saw a free computer and went back inside.


By the time I was done, Dong had written a proposal in English for individual motorbike transport to the beach and had found a brochure to show me about an onsen (Japanese spa) that we might want to visit on the way back from the beach. How much? "$5 per person." And Uncle Hos boyhood home was out that way too! I told him I would have to go back to the hotel and see how many people would be interested. How could I get back to him?

He wrote out an e-mail address on Yahoo.com and we agreed that I would e-mail him by noon, which I did. Four of us-Koof Kalkstein, Anne Saisselin '79, and Gwen Miller-had decided to go. I got the desk clerk at the hotel to tell me how to request, in Vietnamese, that they bring helmets. (Few people wear them when riding motorcycles here.) At 1 p.m., Dong and three compatriots showed up around the corner from the hotel. We hopped on and headed out of town.

It was a grand afternoon. Being on a motorbike instead of in a bus puts you at street level, where all of your senses come into play. Hue rapidly gave way to beautiful countryside, as we passed through rice paddies and several small villages on the way the Thuan An. Wanting to take a picture of the paddies, I asked Dong to stop in one place, where we encountered an enormous water buffalo tethered behind a small home. Riding behind our drivers was easy and comfortable, and they seemed to take pains not to scare us. Dong and I kept up a steady conversation in English. He was difficult to understand sometimes, but he had a good vocabulary and we could communicate pretty well.


In the town of Thuan An, just before we crossed over to the barrier island and the beach, Dong stopped the caravan quite unexpectedly at his brothers home. A large extended family scurried about to set up chairs for us, and several bottles of beer were produced. We were offered a meal but declined the food and just enjoyed the hospitality and the beer. Dong kept up a steady conversation with us as we sipped beer and looked at the familys spirit houses-a shrine that all Buddhist families have outside their homes.

I asked Dong how old he was and how many children he had-two questions that come up quickly in any conversation with a Vietnamese, a mark of polite conversation. He is 52 and has four kids. The oldest (a son) has graduated from the university in Hue, a second (a daughter) is in medical school, a third (son) is studying to be an engineer, and a fourth (daughter) is a senior in high school and will go to university next year. He said he regretted not having been better educated himself, although he speaks both English and French, skills that allow him to ply his trade quite effectively.

Another few minutes on the bikes brought us to a glorious beach, where other enterprising people took care of our needs. Beach chairs were produced, and four vendors hurried up with pineapple and snacks for sale. We set up under a thatched shelter and stripped to our bathing suits. The South China Sea was just the right temperature, and we spent about an hour at the beach, enjoying pineapple and nuts after swimming.


There was no time for the onsen on the way back, but we made two other stops. I had seen a Buddhist graveyard on the way out and asked Dong to let us see it up close. The family tombs were relatively new, and Dong was a little surprised to see his family name, Phan, on one of them. (Its fairly common, so he didnt know whose graves these were.)

The other stop was at Uncle Ho's boyhood home on the outskirts of Hue. Ho (he changed his name several times in his life) was the son of a mandarin-a scholar who had passed the imperial examination and was a government official in the court of the emperor. His father lived at court in the Citadel, but after the death of his mother, Ho went to live with an uncle. The house is a simple three-room Confucian home, nicely restored by the local authorities. There was no admission fee and no other tourists there at the time, so we spent a few minutes, signed the guest book (I wrote, "I am humbled to be in the home of a great man."), and headed for the hotel.

It was our last day in Hue-a lovely city of tree-lined streets and a slower pace than Saigon or Hanoi. And what a good day it was.

About This Site

In January 2006, a 40-person contingent of Swarthmoreans is traveling to Vietnam as members of the Alumni College Abroad. The trip, led by Associate Professor of Religion Steven Hopkins, will focus on the history, religion, and the vibrant culture of contemporary Vietnam. A smaller contingent will accompany Hopkins to Cambodia, including a tour of the famous temples of Angkor Wat.

Jeffrey Lott, editor of the Swarthmore College Bulletin, has joined the trip to write about it for the magazine. This site is a series of reports filed by Jeff from Vietnam and Cambodia during the trip. Your responses are invited.

Vietnam 2006 Itinerary

List of Travelers

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Blog Entries

Leaving Tomorrow: Jan 9, 2006
From 35,000 feet: Jan 11, 2006
Ho Chi Minh City: Jan 12, 2006
Museums of Vietnam: Jan 14, 2006
Temples and Tunnels: Jan 16, 2006
Stories and a Poem: Jan 17, 2006
Skipping School: Jan 18, 2006
Dateline Hanoi: Jan 19, 2006
Three Days in Hanoi: Jan 20, 2006
Winding Down: Jan 26, 2006
Poor Phnom Penh: Jan 27, 2006
Chuc Mung Nam Moi: Jan 29, 2006