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 Created: 08/16/04


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–  V I E T N A M : Part 3 – 

August 16, 2004 – After my little adventure in the jungles of northern Vietnam with the screeching creature and little green men (see last week for conclusion to story) you'd think there had been enough excitement for one day. Not quite, as it turned out.

Summer 2004 Voyage


ALASKA: Sitka & Kodiak

RUSSIA: Petropavlovsk

KOREA: Busan
Part 2: Photo Gallery

CHINA: Shanghai

CHINA: Hong Kong
Part 2: Photo Gallery

VIETNAM 1: Ha Long Bay
VIETNAM 2: Cuc Phuong
VIETNAM 3: Hanoi

Coming Next: Taiwan

Red River Flood
After we packed up and bid a fond farewell to Cuc Phuong National Park and the park ranger, we began our long drive back to Ha Long Bay, via Hanoi. It was monsoon season in Vietnam and very wet and rainy. We drove away from the park on narrow roads that were bumpy and slick. After an hour or two we reached a detour, the same one we'd encountered a day earlier. A bridge spanning the Red River flood plain was under reconstruction and our motorcoach had been forced to use a crude road that had been built up along a makeshift dike under the bridge. No problem then, but now the river was at flood stage and the rapidly rising water had swallowed a large portion of the temporary road. We could see pedestrians and people with bicycles and motor bikes piled up on the other side, trying to figure out how to best get across. Our driver stopped the bus and climbed out to have a better look. We sat on the bus and waited. Meanwhile some small sampans arrived on the scene and started ferrying the stranded commuters across the water, no doubt for a modest fee. (Capitalism is alive and well in Vietnam.) In due time, our driver climbed back onto the bus and started the engine. He had decided to drive across the flooded road. Oh, boy. As our motorcoach eased into the flowing water, I opened a window and started taking pictures of the traffic going by. (See above.) The most interesting sampan was rowed by a man who was manning the oars with his feet, as shown earlier.

The road dipped and water swirled around us. After a few minutes the river water began seeping into the bus from under the door. Fortunately the road started to rise before the water reached the top of the stairwell. Ferrying across the flooded Red RiverOur driver stopped for a few minutes on a small "island" that bisected the submerged road. We had made it halfway across. After most of the water had drained off the vehicle's undercarriage, we slowly reentered the river and made it safely across. Everyone clapped when we reached dry land.

Revenge of the Leeches
We made it to Hanoi without further incident – except for the leeches. While we were driving along, a few students found some Cuc Phuong leeches they'd missed earlier. After they pulled them off their legs there was some stubborn bleeding due to the leeches' strong anticoagulants. Fortunately a little pressure and a few band-aids took care of the problem. For what it's worth, I always thought leeches were aquatic, but according to Dr. Becky Houck (and our experience at Cuc Phuong) there are certain species of leeches in Asia that are terrestrial. In order to survive, these terrestrial leeches require a lot of moisture in their environment. They have the unique ability to climb into bushes and trees, where they patiently wait for an opportunity to feed. Blood is their only source of food. Eventually, when something passes by (human or otherwise), they drop off and cling to their unsuspecting host. They can also slither up from the moist leaf litter on the ground. Because these terrestrial leeches are small and their bites are painless, you have to do a careful self-examination after a walk in the rain forest. Otherwise, you're dinner.

Bat Trang
Landing at the ceramics workshop in Bat TrangAfter enjoying a delicious multi-course lunch at a fine restaurant in Hanoi we piled into the motorcoach to continue our trip back to the ship. We had one more scheduled stop, a tour of Bat Trang, a pottery village located on the edge of the Red River not far from the city. The entire village is made up of a collection of families that produce intricately crafted ceramics by hand, mostly for export. We were looking forward to wandering Bat Trang's narrow streets, meeting the artisans, and perhaps buying a few pieces. As we got closer to Bat Trang our guide, Kien, started shaking his head. We were driving along the Red River and it was overflowing its banks. Kien was sure the village would be flooded, but we asked to go there anyway, just in case we could get in. As the bus approached the village gate, we could see that most of the road into the center of town was already underwater. Kien jumped out of the bus and disappeared for a few minutes. He came back grinning and told us he had figured out how to transport us to a particular workshop that had been expecting us. Artisan at the ceramics studio at Bat TrangHe had commandeered an old flat bed truck and persuaded the owner to drive us through the water to the workshop. The twelve of us clambered onto the back of the truck and held on tight as we chugged along through the muddy water. We were deposited onto the front stoop of the shop, but just before we reached it, the truck lurched precariously as its left rear wheel slid into an underwater rut. For a moment I thought we might tip over. Happily we didn't, so we were able to make it into the workshop without getting wet.

The shop itself was amazing! The first three floors were packed from floor to ceiling with racks of beautiful VIetnamese ceramics of all size, type and description – all for sale at exceedingly low (by American standards) prices. The upper two floors were reserved for a small collection of craftspeople who were shaping ceramic bodies from raw clay, embellishing them with brilliant glazes and then firing them. Artisan applying a decorative glazeAfter a brief tour of the production facility we were turned loose to wander amongst the merchandise and, if so desired, purchase some items.

Red River Raging
I was down on the first floor when I noticed a few workers scurrying around the back end of the shop. The Red River was continuing its rapid rise and muddy water was beginning to flow (not seep) into the rear of the building. Merchandise was being moved away from the water, but everyone seemed pretty calm about it, so I went back to examining the wonderful collection of pottery. I was up on the third floor when I heard a loud crash. Evidently all of the pottery on the first floor was being moved to the second floor due to the escalating influx of water. One of the workers had slipped and dropped a tremendous ceramic vase. Shortly thereafter, Kien put out the evacuation call. We had barely ten minutes to complete our purchases and get into the blue truck, otherwise we wouldn't be able to drive out of the village. Instead, we'd have to slog our way out on foot. We all climbed back into the bed of decrepit truck and hoped for the best. The driver carefully steered the vehicle to the main street and drove us back up to higher ground at the village gate where our bus was waiting.

Workers at Bat Trang, waving goodbyeAs we drove away from the village in the relative comfort of our motorcoach, Kien told us that the first floor of the workshop would probably be underwater within 24 hours. There wouldn't be a single business in the village that wasn't flooded. He told us that more years than not, Bat Trang is flooded by the Red River during monsoon season. Evidently the villagers have learned to cope. Unless the flooding is particularly bad, they just move everything to a higher floor and continue to conduct their business as best they can.

Street vendor in HanoiMore about Vietnam
I would urge anybody with an adventurous streak and a love of travel to visit Vietnam. It was the most undeveloped and poorest country among those we visited this summer, but everyone on the ship loved it. If you ask, most people from our shipboard community will tell you that Vietnam was their favorite port. The Vietnamese people possess a vitality, energy and optimism that is very engaging, if not inspiring. The Vietnam War greatly damaged the country's rich natural heritage. Flora and fauna were devastated by the use of defoliants containing lethal toxins, and Vietnam is struggling to regenerate its jungles and inter tidal zones through eco-conservation. Rehabilitation is a slow and painful process, but progress is being made. Vietnam's greatest asset is its younger generation –  those under 30 – who make up 60% of Vietnam's population. They are highly literate and highly motivated. Politically, Vietnam is not a conventional communist country. Capitalism is thriving in Vietnam and the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) will have to be flexible and responsive if it is to survive and prosper well into the future. The pressures of globalization and the rising expectations of the Vietnamese people will put increasing pressure on the party and push it toward more democratic reforms. The Vietnam we see today is not the Vietnam we'll see tomorrow.

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