Today is Tuesday April 13, 2010 and we are in Pleiku, Vietnam. We spent the night in the Hoang Anh Gialai Hotel and we are preparing to get under way. But wait! There is a major change in plans! Our schedule, our route, our entire plans for the next few days has been changed by the Government officials who have been our escorts. Allow me to explain the events leading up to this change. We met the two men pictured here (along with a couple others) a few days ago when we picked up our bikes at the Hai Van Pass. The one on the left is Chom. He and I hit it off right away and became very close friends during the ride. Very friendly, quick with a smile, a laugh, or a joke. I found out on this our 4th day of riding that Chom was a police officer, and the man next to him is his boss, the Police Chief for all the territory between Hue in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. They have been traveling with us for the past few days, partly for our protection and to make sure our passage through the countryside was uneventful. We found out later that they were also reporting all of our activities to higher officials in Hanoi. They had witnessed most of our church visits, and became particularly interested when we baptized new believers. One of the other officers carried a small video camera with him and had been recording much of our activities. To make a long story short, this morning before we left Pleiku, we were told to stop visiting churches and to stop baptizing Vietnamese - we were "saving" too many people!
And so we begin our journey, but in a different direction. Our first stop is a cultural one; we are to visit a reconstructed village, an outdoor museum, showing how Vietnamese villagers once lived. Here we found huts made of wood, thatch, and tin. There were animals, such as goats, cows, and water buffalo roaming free for us to observe. There were people there to demonstrate to us how they used to live, communicating thru interpreters. And there were real villagers nearby who suddenly appeared to see the Americans. We spent a couple hours here talking to the villagers and taking pictures. Before we left the village, another change took place. Our Mission Team Leader, Joe Bishman, informed us that the next two days would consist of long, hard riding. He gave the riders the option - ride bikes, or take a break and ride on the bus for a while. Of the 12 American riders, 5 of us decided to continue the ride. The other 7 boarded the busses, allowing some of the Vietnamese pastors to take their place riding. We finally head off once again, heading south thru Pleiku. However, those of us on the bikes quickly realize that the busses are not with us! They have taken another route (and the police escorts are with the busses, not the bikes!) And so the bikers, 5 Americans and about 15 Vietnamese pastors head off into the mountains of the Central Highlands. Did I mention that all of our interpreters are on the busses!! We are off on a real adventure! We ride for about an hour, soaking up the sights of the mountains and the villagers we pass by. We stop for what we thought was a water and stretch break. Suddenly, we are surrounded by a large group of villagers. Seems they are the congregation of a local United Methodist church. Just goes to show that if you can't visit the church, the church can come and visit you! We met the pastor and many of his congregation here along the side of a mountain road. We board our bikes once more and continue our journey into the mountains. About an hour later, we stop once again, this time for lunch. We sit for lunch and are joined by a Vietnamese who calls himself "Danny". (Danny is the short man in red) It seems Danny learned to speak English as a small boy when the U.S. Army was stationed here in the late 60's. Danny is now the pastor of a small United Methodist church here in this mountain village. He informs us over lunch that we are the first white men (American's) to visit his village since 1975! Danny and the members of his congregation have provided our lunch. Then he presents to each of us a gift - a shoulder bag hand-made by the ladies of his church. We have discovered that the Vietnamese are all about hospitality and graciousness. We are embarassed that we do not have gifts to give in return. Danny introduces us to his son, and together with several members of his congregation, we pray for each other and are on our way once again. We are now crossing back over the mountains heading south-west. The ride is mostly uneventfull for the rest of the afternoon. Up and down the hills, round and round the curves we go. The roads are not the best. In some places, the highway is more stone and potholes than pavement, but on we go. The weather is very warm - in the mid 90's and we are dog tired as we journey on. But, no matter how tired we are, we perk up each time we pass through a village or small town. We are energized as the Vietnamese recognize that we are different (foreigners) and they smile and wave and yell "hello" to us! One other note about this particular ride - the five of us (Americans) are really bonding with our Vietnamese counterparts. As we ride beside each other, we are developing a mutual respect and friendship. We may not be able to talk to each other as easily as we wish, but we are still able to communicate. These guys and gals riding with us are amazing, and I would ride with any of them anywhere, anytime! We continue riding, following our Vietnamese guides. We have not seen the busses all day and are not sure where they are - but we continue to ride. The sun sets and our last two hours of riding are in the dark - not fun! In a strange country with no street lights, the potholes and bumps are difficult to see. But we have faith - faith in our escorts, but mostly faith in God, that He will protect us and lead us to our next destination. And lead us He does. Around 8:30 pm we arrive back on the coast of the South China Sea at a resort hotel. Everyone is exhausted, but thrilled at the events of the day. A quick shower and supper, and off to bed. Tomorrow we continue south along the coast.
It is Monday April 12 and our day begins with breakfast at the Central Hotel in Quang Ngai. It is already hot as we continue our journey. We begin our ride heading south on Highway 1A, but only for about 30 kilometers. Today our journey takes us up and over the mountains, so we leave the coast of the South China Sea and head east. Our surrounding change quickly as we leave the coastal area behind. For the next few hours we slowly move uphill. Here we see some farmland, including small fields of corn, and more rice paddies - except the paddies are terraced into the sides of the hills. Here also we have road hazzards, such as cows, goats and water buffalo that are roaming free! Every curve in the road becomes an adventure! We stop briefly to stretch our legs and find ourselves in the middle of a group of children walking to school. They stop to smile and laugh at us. A family living nearby sees and hears the noise of our laughter and peek through the bushes to see what is going on. We give them candy and take a few pictures. Soon we are off again...onward and upward! We make another stop, this time at a small United Methodist church tucked here in the foothills. Here we meet the pastor and a few members of his small congregation. It is hard to describe the feelings we felt as we met these people. They did not understand our words, yet with smiles, handshakes, and laughter we connected. After our brief visit, we continue on and up into the hills. Our next stop is for lunch at a small roadside area. It's not exactly a restaurant, so we share ham sandwiches and cold bottles of water. Also, there are no restrooms here! Its every man and woman for themselves out back behind the building in the bushes! Make sure you take a roll of toilet paper with you, and be careful where you step! As we prepare to leave, our guides tell us that we are just now leaving the foothills and will begin to go up into the mountains! We are cautioned. Most of the roads are switchbacks without guard-rails, so keep your eyes on the road and your attention to your riding. The leader tells us that these are some of the most dangerous roads in all of Vietnam! For the next 4 or 5 hours we ride. Our bikes are 4-speed automatics, but we are constantly changing gears between 2nd and 3rd gear. Up and down and around and around we go. Every curve brings new adventures! We pass cows, goats, and water buffalo as they graze by the road. We pass through small mountain villages, waving and smiling at the people we meet. We pass children as they walk and ride their bicycles to and from school. Everyone we meet greets us with smiles and waves...most yell "hello!" as we pass by. Allow me to make an observation here. Everywhere we go, we are greeted with smiles and waves. We have not seen any anger or animosity directed toward the "American Visitors". Even here in the small mountain villages, we find the Vietnamese are eager to share their friendship with strangers. It may sound strange, but in many ways I feel safer here than I do in some areas of Ohio! It is getting late in the day and we finally ride into Pleiku. It has been an exhausting day riding through the mountains, but rewarding as well. Tired as we were, we became energized each time we rode through a small village. We looked forward to interacting with the people as they recognized the foreign visitors and showered us with smiles and waves. We park our bikes for the night and check into the Hoang Anh Gialai Hotel in downtown Pleiku. We wolf down our supper and with very little coaxing, we are off to bed. Tomorrow, our schedule and our route will be changed by the Communist officials riding with us!
It is Sunday morning April 11, 2010. We left the hotel in Hoi An around 8:00 am and wound through the streets until we came to a small United Methodist church located in a residential area. Here we joined about 60 Vietnamese for Sunday worship. I gotta tell you, these people have enthusiasm! Their worship was joyous and loud! Together we sang Amazing Grace, them in Vietnamese and us in English. One of the members of our group was born in Vietnam, but his family escaped by boat to Thailand when he was nine years old. His name is Sun To, and he is currently pastoring a church near Dallas, Texas. This is his first trip to Vietnam since his family escaped, and today he is preaching! He speaks fluent English and Vietnamese, so he is able to translate his sermon for the entire mixed congregation. I cannot describe the emotion of Sun To or the entire group as we share this moment in his life. After the service, we are back on the road heading south. Around noon we stop at a road-side restaurant, some had rice with fish or chicken or beef. I had a fried egg sub sandwich! After lunch we continued south on Highway 1A.
In the early afternoon, just north of Quang Ngai, we turn off the main road and head off into the countryside. We ride for over an hour...the road becoming less and less paved, more and more gravel and dirt. Eventually we turn off the dirt road and bike down a dirt path into the jungle...we have arrived at a very small jungle village. We park our motorbikes and are met by a handful of villagers (the busses could not negotiate the dirt path and so they park out on the dirt road and the team members walk back the lane to the village). The villagers lead us off into the banana trees, down a hill, and around a corner, suddenly we find ourselves surrounded by over 300 people! There is a United Methodist church tucked here in the jungle and when the congregations in this area found out the Americans were coming, they gathered here in this remote location to wait for us. Over 300 men, women, and children met us in the jungle. Some had been waiting 4 or 5 hours just to see us. But there was more...much more awaiting us. The people had come together from their respective villages to participate in a baptism service. And so the American pastors in the group found a room inside the church, filled a large pail of water, and began taking turns baptizing those who came and asked. They were brought in to the room in groups of 10 or so, and then baptized two at a time. This went on for over an hour as over 100 persons were baptized! One of the most amazing stories we were witness to was about a father who had become a Christian a few months back, and wanted his family to be baptized. So he brought his entire family to this remote location, all of them having walked about 30 kilometers, about 18 miles! It was a very emotional, happy time as the Spirit of God was poured out upon villagers and team members alike. We spent several hours with these amazing people. Together we laughed, we cried, we prayed and we praised God! I'm not really sure who was blessed more...those who came and were baptized, or the stunned Americans who witnessed such amazing faith and grace in the jungles of Vietnam. Over the next few days, several of us would have long, deep discussions about what we witnessed in the jungle. There are lessons to be learned here for all of us, clergy and laity alike. First, God loves everyone, everywhere. It truly matters not who you are or where you come from. I think that here back in the States, we have a tendency to ignore or discount those who are not like us. God, in His infinite wisdom, looks beyond our clothing, our careers, and our stuff and looks deep inside to see what we are made of. The people we met in a remote jungle had the right stuff and God blessed them for it. Second, the love of God will make you do crazy things. How many of us would walk across town much less 18 miles to church? How many of us love our families so deeply that we would be willing to do almost anything to see them saved? Half-way around the world we found God's Amazing Grace!
Reluctantly, we leave the church and the jungle behind. It is late afternoon and we must be back on the road. It takes another hour or so just to retrace our path back to a semblance of civilization. We ride to the coastal city of Quang Ngai. Here we will spend the night and dream of God's Holy Spirit moving mightily in the jungles of Vietnam!
My morning in Hue began at 6:15 am. Like yesterday, a fantastic and filling breakfast awaited. After breakfast, a little time to take pictures along the river bank behind the hotel. Already there is a lot of traffic on the river at this eary hour. As I am standing taking pictures, a woman in her own little boat slides up to the bank and asks if I need a ride to the other side...a water taxi!
Soon, we are back in our busses and off we go. Hue is a fairly large city (the ancient Imperial Capital of Vietnam) and it takes some time to get through town. The city is bustling with activity, and it is warm already, even at the early hour. All through the city we see little markets on street corners, people peddling fresh fruits and vegetabes everywhere.
We have a little detour of sorts this morning. One of our group, Rick Dean, served with the 101st Airborn during the war and spent the better part of 1968 stationed at a small village on the San Bo River about 10 km (7 miles) north of Hue. And so the entire group traveled north a few miles to honor a friend and a veteran. It was a very emotioanl time as Rick and his wife shared stories of combat, the village and the villagers, and of his comrades of 1968...those who survived, and those whose name are etched on the Wall. For the next few hours the busses plodded south along Highway 1A. We traveled through the countryside, watching as men and women worked silently in the rice paddies and fields. As we traveled south, we began moving up into the mountains that seperated Hue from DaNang. We stopped at a rest stop area at the highest point, the Hai Van Pass. When we pulled off into the parking lot, we were greeted by several Vietnamese United Methodist pastors, and 18 brand new Yamaha 110 cc Sirius motorbikes! Before our trip began, the Team had been asked to collect donations to purchase these motorbikes...12 motorbikes at $1,500 each. So we sent $18,000 ahead of us to buy the bikes...but the Vietnamese pastor (Nia) who bought the bikes was able to purchase 18 bikes and helmets with the money! Talk about loaves and fishes!! There were 12 of us from the States ready to ride and the extra bikes would be riden by some of the Vietnamese pastors who met us at the top of the mountain. And so finally, our motorbike journey began on top of a Vietnamese mountain. We riders quickly acclimated ourselves to our bikes and off we went, down the mountain. Around the curves and switchbacks we went, smiling and laughing with our Vietnamese pastor counterparts. At the bottom of the mountain was the city of DaNang...our first experience riding in city traffic on motorbikes...yikes!! We wind our way through the streets of DaNang and eventually we stop at a United Methodist house church. (A house church is a congregation that is meeting is someone's home because they have not been able to raise the money to buy or build a church building yet.) Here we meet the pastor and several of his congregation. There are also a dozen or so members of the Vietnamese congregation present to be baptized...so a couple of the pastors in our group do the honors! As a side note about the Vietnamese churches and their members...we have been amazed at their enthusiasm and excitement. Their worship services are exhuberent and joy-filled. In talking with some of them, they relate that THEY are amazed at our interest and encouragement of THEM. The main request from these small congregations is not for money (which they could certainly use) but for our prayers. As we leave the church we are caught in a massive traffic jam in downtown DaNang. After some skillful (and lucky) riding, we eventually leave DaNang behind us. Miraculously, we do not witness any accidents at all! We continue south along Highway 1A, our next stop is Hoi An, where we spend the night at the Thanh Binh hotel. A quick shower and off to supper. Tomorrow we continue south.
I know what you're thinking. You're looking at the picture of the breakfast feast we enjoyed at the Kim Do Hotel, and you're thinking, "This is Vietnam?" Ho Chi Minh City is very much an international destination, catering not only to Americans but to visitors from around the globe. Yes, our first breakfast in Vietnam was delicious and abundant!
After breakfast, we had a couple hours to do a wee bit of sight-seeing near our hotel. We were greeted by throngs of motorbikes plying the streets and by vendors hawking their wares and an occasional breakfast on the sidewalks. Ho Chi Minh City is a thriving metropolis of over 7 million. I think each one has a motorbike! We didn't have much time to look around as we were scheduled to fly north just after lunch. So, after a brief look around we were off to the airport once again.
After a flight of an hour or so, we arrived in Hue around 4:00 pm local time. There we boarded two small busses and met our drivers, Bee and Nat. These two would be our drivers, luggage handlers, tour guides, and friends for the next 13 days. Both are fun to be around and have a great sense of humor.
Our busses slowly worked north into the city of Hue. All along the way we wound through throngs of bicycles, motorbikes, and foot traffic. So much traffic...every one going somewhere. Bicycles and motorbikes are heavily laden with all manor of goods...fruits, vegetables, boxes, livestock...one guy even had a refrigerator tied down to the back of his motorbike! The weather was warm and humid, temps in the low 90's even this far north. Yet, many of the Vietnamese wore long sleeves, some wearing hoodies and light jackets. All we could do was roll up our windows and crank up the air!
We continued to wind through the streets of Hue until we reached the Huong (Perfume) River. We pull in to the Huong Giang Hotel around 5:00 pm. We are told we have an hour until supper...a river boat supper cruise on the Perfume River. When we arrive for dinner, a surprise awaits us. We are to don traditional robes for this feast on the river! Supper was interesting to say the least. The catch phrase became "similar yet different" at one table and "don't ask, don't tell" at another. The nine course meal consisted of soups, salads using local greens, shrimp (prawns with the heads still attached!) beef wrapped in rice leaves, chicken, and of course rice and fish. Our entertainment was a trio playing traditional instruments to accompany a small chorus of young ladies. We enjoyed this very different music as we floated up and down the Perfume River.
The evening finally came to an end for the weary travelers...so back to the hotel for some sleep. We now spend our second night in Vietnam.
One side note: Hue is in the center of Vietnam, just south of the 17th parallel that once seperated north from south Vietnam. The Communist influence is very strong here. We have been told that restrictions and attitudes towards Americans will ease as we travel south. Tomorrow we pick up our motorbikes and the real journey begins!!