If someone asked me, “When did you fall in love with Viet Nam?” My reply would be, in Da Nang. I feared being sad of arriving in Da Nang. I know just to much about the events that occurred here in 1974 that would prove to be the early days of the fall of the South Vietnamese regime. At breakfast with Francis before going ashore, I had to catch myself from tearing up as I explained to him the tragedy of those days. The images of fathers trying to hand their sons up to people on ships, ships capsizing from being overloaded killing hundreds, the footage of the World Airlines jet taking off with their doors and stairways still down with people clinging on in hopes of reaching the South. Those were the images that came to mind when I heard the name Da Nang. Those days are gone, and Da Nang is building, and living, and expanding. It is a clean, and bustling town centre surrounded by some amazing history and preserved villages.
The ship was docked at a pier in Chan May, far removed from anything. The first smell that struck us was that of manure and fertiliser, as that would appear to be the piers main function. Large piles of wood chips, and other goods covered vast areas next to rusting cranes. There was an open sided structure where souvenir vendors had set-up, hoping to get a few of the American dollars that were coming off the ship.
Now might be a good time to share what Francis has said to be his favourite greeting, “Hello, buy something.” Some of the others that I have enjoyed include:
“Hello friend, I make you goodly package.”
“Come, come, I have nice things. You my friend. I take good care of you.”
“Come buy, no problem, plastic money.”
Everyone is very friendly, and they are quick to grab you by the hand or wrist. To most Americans, who value their space, this can feel very threatening, but they mean no harm. They will continue to make you offers, even after you have already made a deal. Today, we got a much better understanding of how far a dollar goes here, and it is much further than I would have imagined. This is why they are so very eager to make you happy-every dollar, every potential dollar, is important.
The Irish Tour Guide, Ricky
The cruise line had arranged for shuttle buses from the pier at Chan May to the Lang Co Beach Resort in a nearby town. The ride took about 20-25 minutes through narrow roads bordered by rice paddies and fields with oxen grazing. The same rules of the road applied here as in Ha Long: pick a side, any side, and glide in and out of it avoiding oncoming traffic. The roads are in fairly good shape.
The Lang Co Beach Resort is something to see. It was originally built in the early 20th century by French colonialists as a resort haven. The wood work is amazing, and a garden that had seen better days, but had a remarkable charm. Behind the main lobby building were a series very attractive bungalows. They were charming, and would make a delightful vacation spot. There was also a modern pool, and of course the magnificent beach nestled into a surround of majestic mountains. The starting price for accommodations here was a mere VND200,000 (less than US$10) a night. I really think this is a place that my friends and inspiration for taking this adventure, Jon and Kellie would really enjoy. I might even consider coming back to stay here.
We joined up with two other couples from the crew and arranged a package tour with a driver and a guide. The deal was US$20 per person for 5.5 hours. Our guide was a 48 year old man named “Ricky.” Ricky spoke fairly good English, and wore a T-shirt that read, “Kiss me, I’m Irish.” Somehow, we managed to find the only “Irish” Vietnamese tour guide. Ricky has two daughters, and lives in central Da Nang his entire life. Our driver did not speak any English. His name was Dai (pronounced “die”). We jokingly suggested that was not a great name for a driver.
Ricky informed us that our route would begin by going through the new road tunnel which is almost 4 miles long, cut through a massive mountain chain. This replaced a winding pass road that Ricky informed us was very dangerous. We would then continue through central Da Nang on our way to Marble Mountain, from which Da Nang gets its name. Da Nang means “Marble Mountain.” We would visit a marble sculpture vendor, then continue on to a silk factory in Hoi An. From there, we would visit the UNESCO World Heritage Old City of Hoi An before returning to the resort.
We set out in a comfortable Mercedes minibus with air conditioning. I was not prepared for the magnificent engineering feat that this new traffic tunnel was. It was very clear that this was very much a symbol of national pride. It was large, modern, and unimaginably long. You really don’t realise how long 4 miles is until you are in a tunnel the entire way. This one feat of engineering obliterated every thought I ever had of what Viet Nam was like.
Coming out of the tunnel we could see the city of Da Nang in the distance. Normally, one probably would never notice a low rise city in the distance, but Da Nang is not a low rise city. In the centre was a large gleaming tower. The architecture was stunning from a distance, and even more so once we were close-up. Ricky would inform us that this was the new Government tower, and that it has yet to open. They are just finishing it. It is really a stunning building. I wish that the US was as creative with their architecture as the Vietnamese are.
The centre of Da Nang is very pretty. It is a large, modern city, with bustling traffic. The traffic, at first, appears to be chaotic, a mess. There are virtually NO traffic lights. Cars, scooters, bikers and pedestrians all seem to exist on the road without any care for the others or concern of being struck. Everyone seems to travel inside an invisible driving bubble that protects them. They just all exist, together, and make their way. I could not imagine anything so organised as this in America.
When you travel, you realise that most countries are not as “flag happy” as the US. Americans love to fly their flag. From their houses, offices, cars, pins on their lapels, Americans are fanatics about displaying their flags. I have never seen a country with as much flag pride as the US until arriving in Viet Nam. They love their flag too. Many houses, and businesses have flags displayed. I have seen several cars and scooters also displaying the flag. There is a sense of national pride here. Maybe that is from all the centuries that they fought to become an independent nation. It was inspiring to see a country with such pride.
The Dragon Bridge
There is a combination of old and new buildings in Da Nang. The old appear, in many cases, well kept and maintained, while some of the modern buildings are inspired in their design and style. We crossed a magnificent bridge called The Dragon Bridge. This was truly one of the most amazing bridge structures I have ever seen. It opened only a few months ago. Between the two road ways is the main support structure, which is designed to look like a massive Asian dragon. The large supports rise and fall between the road surfaces in the form a serpent, with the support cables tethered to it, as if the dragon is trying to escape but is tied down to the road. At either end of the bridge are massive heads of the dragon, the mouth open, as if it is prepared to breath fire out on you, daring you to cross his road. The dragon portion is painted a miraculous gold colour that just glistens as if the dragons flesh had been wet by the waters below.
A short distance up river was another modern cable stay bridge. It reminded me of the new bridge built in Boston across the Charles. A large, angular white main support thrusts into the air with cables extending down to support the roadway below. Ricky told us that both bridges opened just a few months ago, both on the same day. There were large firework displays and celebration. Now, in the states, you would be paying a toll every time you crossed one of these bridges, but here, these are the peoples bridges and all have a right to cross them, there is no toll.
American Helicopters, the Marble Mountain, and the swindle
My dad had served in the mid sixties in Viet Nam. He spent most of the war just west of Da Nang in a place called Play Ku. I’m fairly sure that my dad said he was in Da Nang, but not really long. In talks with Ricky, he told me that the US had a large helicopter base in Da Nang. As we drove along the coastal road, Ricky pointed out to me large concrete structures with a few towers. They were rather run down and appeared abandoned. He told me that this was the US Helicopter base at Da Nang. I took several photos from the road, and Ricky had Dai stop for a bit so that I could see better. I’m going to have to check with my dad, but it is possible that this may have been where my dad was in Da Nang. He was a Helicopter Mechanic/Crew Chief. Ricky, not knowing exactly what my dad did on the helicopters, told me that this was where all the helicopters were repaired in Da Nang. Ricky patted my shoulder and said, “See, I show you where.”
During the war, a primary US R&R centre was near Da Nang called China Beach. Many probably remember the TV show by the same name. It is also called Marble Beach and is near the Marble Mountain. Marble Mountain is called this because of the wide variety of marbles and jades that come from it. The Vietnamese here are amazing marble carvers. I mean, they are so incredibly amazing that it boggles the mind. Their skill is jaw dropping. Ricky’s family owns a large shop where they carve and sell a wide range of marble items and sculptures. If I owned a house, I would have bought several things. The cost is incredibly cheap, includes shipping to the US and the quality is outrageously high. They had beautiful large round carved tables, with six stools to go around. The table and each of the stools were solid pieces of marble. I’m not making this price up, US$1800 for the set, SHIPPED. Yes, I’m not kidding, that includes the shipping to your house. These tables would be many thousands back home.
The colour and range of the marbles is also staggering. I bought several items. For US$180 I bought a beautiful emerald green “marble” item that opens to reveal an incredibly carved female Buddha and other figures. I also got a brown, black and cream coloured incense burner, a small white marble dragon, and a beautiful tiger eye bracelet for someone special. All for US$180. Francis is fully prepared to come back and buy items, especially one of those tables, for his home. I may plan to do the same.
Now, you may have noticed that I put the word “marble” in quotes up above. Well, there is a funny reason for that. I got taken a bit. While all the items I bought were marble, that one item turns out is not. They are very good with mixing real items of marble in with items that are not. When you are surrounded by all this incredible marble, it is very easy to get caught up in it all and just assume that all of it is. This particular item appears to actually be a resin. Am I upset that I was taken? A bit, but it is all part of the experience. It also reminds me to be a bit more diligent in my inspection process. It would be very easy for me to get angry and worked up, but the truth is, I have a story for this now. The world will continue to turn and I will have more fun as the trip continues.
Spinning the thread
Our next stop was the silk factory. We drove through this adorable little town, called Hoi An. This was the modern part of town, we would see the historic town soon. We pulled into the silk factory. This is the real deal, and you can watch them growing and weaving the silk. I filmed a nice segment on the silk making process. It is basically this:
The silk worms, once born, begin to eat mulberry leaves. They are tiny things, maybe a quarter of an inch long. They have to chop up the mulberry leaves to make it easier for them to eat. By 15 days old they are the size of our caterpillars back home. More than an inch long and very slow moving. Soon, they will begin to weave their cocoons. It’s then that the silk weavers move them into large bamboo grids. Once the cocoons are spun, the silk weavers will remove the cocoons and put them into a pan of boiling water. This kills the silk warm. The boiling water is placed under the spinning wheel, they pick up a cocoon with a pair of chop sticks, get ahold of one of the strands of silk from the cocoon and fish it up through a series of rings to the spindle. They then begin to spin the thread.
From here, the thread is taken to an 80 year old loom to produce raw silk, OR it will be dyed before being loomed. The loom is an amazing machine to watch. After watching the looming process, we were allowed to see the hand embroidery section. The work that these young women do is amazing. They will take a photograph or image, and reproduce it in a variety of coloured threads. They did not allow photography in this section.
We were then ushered into the sales room. The range of silks were incredible, and I can certainly see why a Fellow of the College, Lucy Rorke-Adams comes to Southeast Asia to buy silk and have dresses made. I bought three silk ties, the cost, US$21 TOTAL. These are ties that back home would have cost me US$65-85. I would love to come back and purchase some of the amazing suits and jackets they have here.
From we, we continued on to the Historic Area of Hoi An. Hoi An was the international trading centre in Southeast Asia during the 16th and 17th centuries. The town is incredibly preserved, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage in 1999. We visited an amazing house where the same family has lived for countless generations. They still live in two rooms while selling wears to tourists in other rooms. We also visited the Temple and it’s associated gardens.
It was now close to 2pm, and I was eager to have a local beer in a local joint while enjoying this amazing setting. Ricky led us to a seafood house, where we could go up to the second floor, sit on the balcony over looking the river and ancient city and enjoy lunch. I did not eat any of the food. I need to be extra careful, and I have no reason to doubt that I would have been perfectly fine. I am traveling with special meds that my Doctor gave me, just in case. I just really do not want anything to ruin this trip. With that said, Francis ordered some amazing egg rolls and other bites. He is perfectly fine.
We also tried two local beers, Red Saigon and LaRue. Both are VERY good, and I would gladly order them back home. There are still several that we need to try. The Red Saigon was in a traditional 12 oz. bottle, while the LaRue was in a 16 oz. bottle. Each cost VND19,000. As you can figure out, that is less than US$1 each. BUT, it was happy hour, so the LaRue was buy one, get one free. Now that is a HELL of a deal. For six of, with two rounds of beers and plenty of food, the entire bill was $22. So, we all threw in $8 bucks and some change. We met back up with Ricky and made our way back to the resort.
A pile of bricks
As we approached the tunnel on our return, we became stuck behind a brick truck. This poor truck was loaded to the hilt with bricks. The thing was traveling no more than 10mph. Well, needless to say, a 3-4 mile tunnel at that speed can feel like an eternity. Now you would think that in a country where traffic lines and rules seem to be only suggestions, that we would just speed up and pass them; but, the tunnel is different. There are large signs that show two cars side by side. The one on the oncoming traffic side is red, and this is all inside a circle with a cross through it. They are serious of this restriction on passing. Ricky told us that once he got caught passing and it cost him VND5,000,000. Thats US$240, a lot of money of here.
We finally reached the resort and explored the grounds while we waited for the shuttle bus to return us to the ship. While here, I purchased some postcards. The going rate over here is about 10 postcards for US$1. I also picked up a Vietnamese map for US$1.
I enjoyed a relaxing dinner on the Lido deck, observing the ship characters before turning in for the night. I’m writing this on what we call an “at sea” day. Meaning we do not dock all day. We are sailing towards the mouth of the Saigon River and Ho Chi Minh City. We are there for several days, and I am really looking forward to meeting up with Lina and Manh, school friends of our friend Cuong Pham. They will meet us at the famous Rex Hotel, where the US generals used to hold their daily briefings which the press had dubbed the “five o’clock follies.”
Soon, I will post a blog about life aboard the Crystal Serenity and why I am DEFINITELY sailing again. This ship is amazing! I never, ever, ever, want to experience a Carnival, Holland-America or other cruise line that is not up to these standards. This line is amazing.