Having shared a harsh and powerful inconvenient truth about The Vietnam War as told from a non-American point of view, I realize my last post may have been a bit much for some readers. Describing the horrific exhibits in the Saigon’s War Remnants Museum, I called it the best, hardest to look at and most important museum in Southeast Asia. And it doesn’t end there. Experiencing a slightly easier historical account of The Vietnam War (known as The American War of Aggression to the Vietnamese government), we also visited the Cu-Chi Tunnels. Another must-see while visiting Vietnam, they’re an immense network of connecting underground tunnels used by North Vietnamese fighters as hiding spots as during combat. Also serving as communication lines, supply routes, hospitals and even living quarters, the tunnels helped keep the Vietnamese resistance going strong despite American efforts to destroy them.
But while the tunnels warrant an entire post to themselves, I thought it best to lighten up the mood a bit since it appears entirely possible that the Orange Ignoramus may lead the USA into another unnecessary war of aggression against a nuclear-armed foe (Iran, in case you’re not paying attention). So let’s jump ahead and talk about a highly enjoyable activity available to Northern Vietnam visitors. About two hours away from the chaos of Hanoi in Hai Duong Province. you’ll find fertile rice fields in a picturesque village called Ngoc Hoa. One of Vietnam’s newest tourism draws, farm vacations give visitors a chance to become a Vietnamese rice farmer for a day. Doing everything from planting the seeds to plowing the fields, you don traditional clothing, get barefoot in the mud and literally hop on the back of a water buffalo. While full day and overnight trips include fishing, hiking and a full day of farming, Diane and I got the short version thanks to our laziness. Easily accessible on the internet with an English website, Vietnam Farm Homestay invites visitors to “experience country life”. But as you may recall, we chose a fully guided tour for our two-week jaunt through Vietnam and like our debacle with unprofessional guides in Saigon, we had some bumps along the way on this half-day trip also.
Unfortunately, I wanted to share some video with you that would give a great perspective of what it’s like to plow rice fields with water buffalo. But the new piece of total shit forced on WordPress bloggers and known as The Gutenberg or “block editor” has basically hijacked my ability to post a video thanks to some sort of technical inability to convert iPhone formats. Understanding many readers know little or nothing about blogging, I won’t spend time on the nitty gritty but will voice my extreme disappointment at yet another big company bowing under pressure to a new generation of dumbed down millennials taking over the internet. As a middle-aged novice that grew up without computers and smartphones, I’m about as technologically challenged as they come. But I do write well, enjoy sharing our experiences and until recently, enjoyed WordPress for its simplistic but reliable editing tools that allow someone like me to craft a readable blog.
Thinking I’m too old and impatient to learn an entirely new editor, I wrangled with the idea of abandoning the blog altogether after taking nine months off from posting. But I buckled down and gave it a shot anyway. Experiencing almost immediate frustration with functionality that either changed or disappeared, I spent hours with WordPress “happiness engineer” in India via online chats. Citing one example, they eliminated a really good writing assistant program that helps make blogs more effective because “nobody was using it” (no surprise considering how Words with Friends take thousands of grammatically incorrect millennial debaucheries). Like many others, I found the new editor painfully stupid and geared towards a generation of Twitter-addicted idiots.
But since I know little to nothing about HTML, CMS (content management systems) or making a living online, I Googled some articles to see if my complaints were unfounded. They’re not. Summarizing it in one article, here’s a great example of what experienced bloggers and techies think of the new Wordpress editor. If you’re curious, read through the comments and you’ll find a general consensus that WordPress intentionally killed its future as one of the world’s most popular platforms for blogging. Having spent a few hours looking at new blogging options, I decided that my early retirement hobby is writing content and not searching for a new platform where I’d be in a classroom environment that I mostly won’t understand, so please accept my apologies for what’s now turned into a video free blog about two middle-class North Americans that chose an experimental early overseas retirement thanks to an unexpected layoff in today’s wonderful new economy.
Picking up the story again, we started the day with a Vietnamese staple known as an Egg Coffee. Traditionally prepared with egg yolks, sugar, condensed milk, and robusta coffee, it all started back in 1946 during French occupation when there was a shortage of milk. Looking as unappealing as possible to me, Diane likes them and was very much looking forward to trying the real thing in Vietnam. Disappointed at five straight days of misty, rainy cool San Francisco like March weather in Northern Vietnam, it seemed like a good time to have a hot beverage before venturing off on a two hour trip in the van. Supposedly included as one of the food items promised in our not so reliable but well written guided tour itinerary, we had to remind our unassuming tour guide that we didn’t get one yet. Seeming slightly annoyed because mornings are the busiest time, we popped into Giang Cafe, one of the most famous places for Egg Coffees in Hanoi and after a ten minute wait, I watched while Diane drank one. She loved it but for me, it ranks up there with durian and innards as things to be avoided by expats living in Southeast Asia.
Venturing off, we crossed the insanely crowded bridge in Central Hanoi in what can best be described as a harrowing experience. Driving fifty times more chaotic than in Thailand, motorbikes criss-cross every which way, drivers are even more inexperienced than traffic-clogged Bangkokians trying to negotiate Chiang Mai’s relatively traffic free roads and passenger vehicles meander their way through it all with absolutely no regard for safety, pedestrians or traffic laws. Even stranger, once you grit your teeth and hold onto the seatbelt for dear life, the suburbs soon give way to a bizarre system of modern eight-lane limited access highways that look like an experiment in some strange Communist nation like Uzbekistan. The photos are not an exaggeration, folks. It’s really like this.
Unclear who the new roads are for, the craziness quickly dissipates as you leave the last modern suburb and the chaos turns into a network of well paved and highly underutilized toll roads. Relating back to my comments that Vietnam is a one-party Communist state where the people fear the authorities, our driver spent almost the entire drive crawling in the slow lane doing about half the posted sped limit while our uninspiring guide chose to sleep instead of enlightening us with any information about the Vietnamese countryside. After what seemed like an entire morning, we finally exited and proceeded to wander aimlessly through a series of back roads. Obviously lost, we asked the guide how they couldn’t know the directions to a place they should drive to all the time and their excuse was the company just added this vendor to the trip. Yes, another shitty example of the Vietnamese tourism industry and how far behind they are compared to the rest of Southeast Asia. Finally, the driver asked about a dozen local farmers and we eventually found the place.
Arriving late, we joined a group of young Europeans that were doing an overnight stay and changed into Vietnamese farming clothes. Enthusiastically welcoming us, the rather outspoken but friendly proprietor introduced himself and led us across the road to a wooden bridge where we carefully walked barefoot to a large rice field. Taking a few minutes to enjoy the beauty, we can say from experience that there’s something blissfully serene about being in a rice field. And if you’ve never seen how rice is farmed, you may be humbled once you see how it’s done and realize how lucky you are not to have been born a Vietnamese peasant farmer. As it turns out, the owner didn’t live there or even own the property. Rather, he’s one of the lucky smart ones that had access to education and recognized a niche to propel him above most others in a nation where 90 million mostly poor people all compete to make a buck.
Once out in the fields, the owner brought out a water buffalo. Unlike cuddly elephants that we’ve had lots of experience with, water buffalos used for work are burly, ugly and stubborn. Raised from an early age to help in the fields, they spend three-quarters of their lives trudging through the mud and transporting equipment. After demonstrating how to mount them, everyone has an opportunity to hop on and take a short stroll. Always the first to volunteer with anything involving animals, we both gave it a shot while the young Europeans looked on without much eagerness to join in.
After everyone had a chance to ride the buffalo, we watched while the proprietor demonstrated how to use a plow and we all trounced into the mud, bent over and picked up rice plants in their infintile stage.
After getting down an dirty in the mud, the real fun starts. Sadly, while I wrote this I tried about six different ways to get my iPhone videos showing both of us trying to guide the buffalo through the mud onto this post. (all unsuccessful). So visualize if you will; the buffalo understands three voice commands in Vietnamese; right, left and stop. Waist high in the mud, we ventured out by ourselves while trying to guide a two-ton animal through the rice fields. Hilariously, it’s much harder than it looks and the buffalo mostly pulls you hard while you struggle not to fall and get a face full of mud. Equally as tiring as crunches at the gym, we both tried one time out and back and then we did it together. For reasons unknown, the boring Europeans all skipped the chance to experience this. Take our word; if you’re lucky enough to make it all the way out here, take advantage and try everything.
After about an hour in the rice fields, we gathered together and said goodbye to the buffalo. Heading back to the lodge, the trip included lunch and we sat down to a traditional home cooked Vietnamese lunch with soup, protein, and veggies. Deliciously filling, we looked forward to the next part of the trip which they wrote as follows:
Back with the host family, we take our bamboo rowing boat to meet and see how local fishermen make their living on the water. We learn how to fish using the fishing net in the unique local way. The breath-taking river, with its banks shaded by lychee trees, will give you an awesome photo opportunity. Bidding goodbye to our host family, we take a short drive to stork island which is only 10km away in the Chi Lang Nam Commune. The island is in the middle of a large natural lake and home to about ten thousand storks and herons and various species of birds such as pelicans and teals.
Given that the guide got lost, we told the driver we wanted time to see the birds but the proprietor seemed mildly insulted so we compromised and said we’d be willing to spend another hour in the area but we needed to go after that since the Vietnamese drive slower than turtles walk. And like much of our guided tour, the description contradicted what was offered. Walking a few hundred feet to a river, the guide led us to the side of a river and showed us some flimsy little dinghy like wooden bamboo boats but there was no sign of any local fisherman showing us anything so we politely declined and walked past a local cemetery and some beautiful countryside.
Meanwhile, the owner told the Europeans they should float downriver to a certain area and come back. After they didn’t return for a long time, he got concerned but eventually, they came walking back. Without the boats. Annoyed, the owner almost yelled at them and had to walk a mile or two and go retrieve the boats. Seeing this would ruin our chance to get what we paid for, we decided to bid farewell to the Viet Farm Stay and walked back to the van. Driving slowly and endlessly, we finally arrived at a small rather dilapidated recreational area and found a bunch of locals enjoying their Sunday afternoon floating around a small island. Hopping into one, we navigated around an island where tens of thousands of storks and herons were perched in the trees. Unable to communicate effectively, we didn’t really understand the guide’s explanation as to why they’re at this remote island but here’s a quick explanation we found if you’re curious. Having been to The Galapagos Islands, impressive wasn’t a word that came to mind and I reiterate the point of not expecting wonders from the Vietnamese tourism industry.
Probably one of the more enjoyable days on our Vietnamese trip despite the shortcomings of the tour guides and drivers, we highly recommend looking into a trip to the rice fields if you visit Northen Vietnam. While we also took a trip to the world famous Halong Bay, two days of non-stop fog, mist and cool weather took some of the “wow factor” out of the trip and normally, we try to avoid the most popular tourist destinations in favor of less visited, off the beaten path ones. Of course, some places shouldn’t be missed if you have the time and means. And next year is our 20th wedding anniversary so we plan on visiting Naples, Italy before leaving Asia for our next experimental expat destination (Puerto Vallarta, Mexico). But we’ll be going in mid-March when the crowds are absent, the weather is comfortably cool and the region begins to open up for the season.
Hopefully, the US Dollar stays comfortably close to the value of one Euro but with President Shitbag in power, nobody knows what to expect from day to day so the only thing to do is enjoy life and not really worry too much about things you can’t control. Here in Chiang Mai, Thailand, temperatures skyrocketed again for the third time since “hot season” supposedly ended according to the rocket scientists at the Thai Meteorological Division. Hovering near 40 Celsius, (104 Fahrenheit), life this year is way too hot for us and we’re barely able to exercise in our semi air-conditioned gym (To Thai people, air con means setting the thermostat to 25 Celsius or 77 Fahrenheit; much hotter than the normal world). I’ll be locked in my air-conditioned room for most of this dry as a bone “rainy season” so please continue to look for The Experimental Expats and cheers for now.