Friday, June 25, 2010

Vietnam Day 9...

It is Fridat April 16, 2010 and today is the last day of our motorbike journey. Our day began at the Canary Resort in Phan Thiet on the South China Sea with another wonderful breakfast. Before we departed, we met again with the police chief, who has been our constant escort since Hue, and his family who lives nearby. I was somewhat surprised that his family spoke understandable English and were very curious about us 'Americans'. The teenage boy was deeply engrossed in a computer game (he had a laptop with him) and the girls quickly found the girls in our group and soon were chatting away. He and his family were very friendly, and I think we could have sat and visited for hours.

We left the resort around 9:30 am on the last leg of motorbike journey. We were approximately 200 kilometers (about 124 miles) from Ho Chi Minh City. We were told that back seat riders could ride with us the first part of this last trip, but only single riders were allowed as we would enter the busy traffic of Ho Chi Minh City. So, for the last time, off we go!

We rode for almost two hours then stopped for lunch at a very large road-side stop. Here the back-seat riders board the busses for the final leg of our journey. It doesn't take long to enter the outskirts of the city. Ho Chi Minh City is a vast, sprawling metropolis of over 7 million people. Traffic is very heavy - cars, trucks, and more motorbikes than you could ever imagine; there are motorbikes everywhere! After about 40 minutes of choked road riding, the car/truck/bus traffic veers of in one direction and the motorbikes in another. Now we are just a small number of 'bees' in a very large beehive!!
As I enter the city, I am amazed by the sheer numbers of people. Streets, sidewalks, and back alleys are literally congested. At a red light (one of the very few in the city) I pause to take a picture of a telephone repairman up a pole. If you look closely, you will see a 'knot' of wires just above his head. I simply cannot imagine how he knew what he was doing or which line needed his attention!

We continue into town - we riders have absolutely no idea where we are - we just continue to follow our leader. It seems as though every motorbike is trying to go in a different direction and all at the same time. Horns all around us, yet no accidents and no one seems upset or impatient. Its almost like a finely timed and orchestrated ballet only with thousands of participants.

Around 5:00 pm we arrive back at the Royal Kimdo Hotel. Yes, this is the hotel we spent our very first night in Vietnam, and now we are back again on familiar ground. But first we park our motorbikes on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. Soon there is laughter, handshakes, and a lot of hugging. Here we are, 12 Americans and several Vietnamese United Methodist pastors, all having survived a 1,600 kilometer (1,000 mile) motorbike ride through Vietnam.

We pause to pray - to thank God for being with us during this amazing journey. We thank Him for His protection, for His provision, and for new friendships. It is hard to walk away from the Vietnamese pastors we have come to know so well. Despite our language barrier, we have drawn very close to each other - brothers and sisters in Christ and on motorbikes. I'm sure that many tears were shed as we walked away from the pastors and the bikes.

One last order of business. Speeches must be made. Recognition must be acknowledged. Our leader, Joe Bishman, says a few words. Our police escorts, Chom and the 'chief' must also say a few words. Ut and Karen, our United Methodist guides must have their turn. One last observation - I was able to say goodbye to the police chief. He gave me a hug, and the last words out of his mouth to me were - "God bless you!" Imagine these words from a Communist official!

Finally, everyone slowly drifts away. The Vietnamese pastors take the bikes and head off into the depths of the large city. The police get into their cars and drive off. One by one, we check back into the hotel and take showers. Tonight, supper is on our own. Believe it or not, we happen to find a Pizza Hut just a few blocks from our hotel. Ahhhh, pizza. But remember, we are in Vietnam - familiar, yet different. The pizza is delicious, but not quite the same as back home. After supper we check out the night-life near our hotel. There is a 4-story shopping mall just a few doors down the street. First floor is expensive jewelry, but stuff gets cheaper as you go up. So up we go and have a blast bargaining with the shop keepers for souvineers. A little food, a little shopping, and bed around 10:00 pm. What an adventure!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Vietnam - Day 8

Today is Thursday April 15, 2010 and our day begins at a South China Sea Resort in Phan Rang Thap Cham. After another delicious breakfast of fresh fruits and rolls, we meet the Vietnamese pastors and check over our motorbikes before we ride. We are told that the ride today will be short, giving us plenty of time in the late afternoon and evening for R & R.

As we were preparing to depart, a small delegation from a local United Methodist church came and met us in the resort parking lot. When these church members found out that we were prohibited from visiting their church, they brought the church to us. In this parking lot, hands were shaken, hugs were given, pictures were taken, and prayers were shared.

We left the resort around 9:30 am and continued south on Highway 1A. As we pulled out of the resort, we watched bright blue-green Mig fighters flying overhead on training flights. Seems there is a very large Vietnamese air base just outside of town. Today was indeed a short ride, with one stop for lunch along the way. Around 2:30 pm we arrived at the Canary Resort in Phan Thiet.
The Canary Resort was very much a foreign tourist spot. Here we met many travelers from England, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and America. The resort was very modern, featuring a swimmimg pool with a swim-up bar, hot tubs, and a spa. Once again, the resort was right on the beach within close proximity to local fishermen. Since we had arrived so early, we made good use of the beach and other facilities.

The late afternoon was spent checking out the local scenery. Here we find a woman gathering sea shells along the beach. She is carrying the supplies necessary to make hand-made shell jewelry, which she sells to tourists to make her living. Down the beach are two other women collecting sea crabs which they too are trying to sell. Several in our group purchased a number of the crabs and had a crab bake on the sea shore that afternoon.

Here a father and son are seen repairing their fishing nets beside their small round fishing boat. All along the shore we can see these small round fishing boats bobbing in the surf alongside the larger fishing boats, or junks. Fishing is definitely a important aspect of life in Vietnam, whether you are doing the fishing or eating the fish.
Once again, we are confronted by contrasts. Here we are staying at a beautiful sea side resort with all the modern amenities one could imagine. In the large lot right next to the resort we find a shack made of wood and tin, surrounded by palm trees and cows. We asked about the shack and were told by a couple resort employees, that the man who owned that property simply refused to sell. The land had been in his family gor generations, and he had turned down a fortune to retain this way of life for his family.

And so, I spent part of my afternnon watching as the wife of this man prepared her evening meal outdoors over an open fire while her husband worked the nets from his small fishing boat. Soon the sun would set over the South China Sea, and we, the tourists, would gather together in the resort dinning room for a feast prepared in our honor.

We had special guests for dinner, the police chief who had been our escort for the past week and his family. Seems the chief lived near Phan Thiet, and so his family joined us for the evening meal. Our dinner was indeed a feast with Vietnamese soup, fried fish, pork chops, sausage rolls, shrimp (prawns), and plenty of fresh fruit. After supper a few of us walked up and down the street in fron of the resort to walk off the large dinner. It is now 10:00 pm and I am off to bed. Tomorrow we finally arrive in Ho Chi Minh City!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Vietnam - Day 7

It is Wednesday April 14 and our day begins in Tuy Hoa, at a resort owned by a retired Russian Air Force pilot. He had flown missions in Afghanistan, and when he retired he came to Vietnam and built this resort. We had arrived at the resort after dark, and had no idea what the place looked like. When we opened the door to our room and looked out, we were greeted with a view of the South China Sea from our front doorstep.
After breakfast, a few of us wandered around the resort. The grounds were immaculate, the scenery stunning. Here we found such a contrast from what we had been experiencing over the past few days. From poverty to wealth. From humble dwellings to a palatial resort. From hungry citizens to well fed tourists. Located on the resort grounds were swimming pools, man-made waterfalls, a small exotic zoo, and an outdoor ice cream parlor!

It was difficult for my mind to switch gears. Just as we were becomming used to the heat and simplicty of rural life, we were suddenly thrust back into civilization. It was a bit of a jolt to the system, as we took advantage of air conditioning, cold drinks, and ice cream! I believe the Vietnamese pastors traveling with us were just as surprised as we were by our surroundings. They seemed (to me) uncomfortable in the air conditioning and the luxurious accomadations.

Hind sight is always 20/20, and looking back now, I wish I would have taken the time to talk with our traveling companions - to get their observations from a Vietnamese perspective. Over the past fw days, we (the motorbike riders) had developed a close bond with our Vietnamese brothers and sisters. But the language barrier prevented us at times from discussing deeper issues.

We left the resort a little after 9:00 am and continued south along the coastal highway. We stopped a few times for gas, water, and to stretch our legs, but most of the day remained uneventful. We continued along the coast, and the view of the South China Sea was spectacular. We stopped for lunch in Nha Trang ( I had a ham sandwich with a bowl of chicken and mushroom soup) then continued south.

Today was a long riding day with a lot of kilometers to cover. As instructed by our "official" friends, we did not stop to visit any churches today. No, today was a traveling day, so we really didn't have much time to even chat with our Vietnamese escorts. Our route took us along the coast, through many fishing villages and small towns. The rest stops were brief, just time to stretch our legs and grab a warm water, then off again.

Again, I couldn't help but notice the contrasts between the people we saw in the mountain villages and the people we were now seeing along the coast. The people here along the coast seemed a bit better dressed and busier. Off course part of that might have been due to the influence of foreign tourists. Here we met people from England, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. Lots of tall, white people here at the resort villages. Lots of big muti-storied resorts hotels. Lots of people rushing around on their motorbikes and cars. Personally, I am ready to return to the mountains!
Finally, around 4:30 we arrived in Phan Rang Thap Cham. Here was another resort right along the sea coast that primarily catered to foreigners. As a group, we were hot, sweaty, and tired, but that didn't keep us from running to our rooms to change into our swimsuits and jumping into the warm salty water of the South China Sea! How refreshing! The warm salt water was wonderful.

After our dip in the sea, we showered and changed for supper. As you can imagine, the menu was heavy on the seafood side. What can you expect when the reort is on the beach. Fish with rice. Fish with noodles. Fish with this and fish with that. Geez, what I would give for a Big Mac!

By the way, this picture is for those of you who enjoy eating shrimp. Vietnamese shrimp are called prawns. There are three prawns on this plate. When served, you must seperate the head from the body and then remove the shell from the tail. Nothing like haveing your supper stare back at you, eh?

Thus our 7th day in Vietnam ended along the sandy shore of the South China Sea. It had been a long riding day, but the warm salty sea had helped to ease our aches and pains. I don't think anyone had any difficulty falling asleep that night. Tomorrow, we continue south along the coast.