Hoi Ann, Vietnam Elephants and Tigers Fighting to the Death

I’m in room 206 of the Vinh Hung hotel in Hoi Ann, the room Michael Caine stayed in while he was here shooting The Quiet American. It’s decked out in antique French colonial furniture, complete with a great big four-poster bed in the corner. After months of cheap, bland hotels, it’s a nice change of pace.

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This is the 30th hotel I’ve stayed in on this trip, by the way. The 45th bed I’ve slept in. I’ve been counting.

Hue was okay. My favorite thing about it was the name.

"Welcome to Hue!" "I hope you had a great time in Hue!" "Please come back to Hue!"

Nobody said that, but if they had it would’ve been fun. And if they’d shouted it in the voice of Al Pacino from Glengarry Glen Ross, that would’ve been even better.

Hue was the capital of Vietnam for a few centuries, so it has lots of important landmarks and blah blah blah. We were tight on time, so we decided to skip the endless pagodas and temples that dot the area and instead ride bikes out to Ho Quyen, an ancient battle arena where they used to make tigers and elephants fight each other.

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Okay, I’m sorry. I know it’s mean and all, but come on. Elephants and tigers fighting to the death. I’m a guy.

The arena was at the end of a residential street. There were no signs or markings or tour guides or any indication that it was an interesting place to visit. There was a kid’s birthday party going on next door. They were singing karaoke.

I stopped to take a picture of this eerie public service message…

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…and was soon up to my knees in screaming children wanting their pictures taken.

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We caught a bus down to Danang and got a hotel on China beach. It’s where US soldiers used to go for R&R between tours of duty. Of course, we all know this already because of the TV show.

It looks more or less like any other beach.

A group of women latched onto us the moment we arrived and insisted on taking us wherever we wanted to go on their motorbikes for free.

This is what I look like on the back of a motorbike.

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I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, and eventually it did, but it wasn’t so bad. They were from the nearby village built around the Marble Mountains. The village is a street lined with dozens of shops that specialize in carving marble sculptures. In return for chauffeuring us around the area all day, they wanted to take us to their shops and sell us some marble stuff. That was fine with both of us.

So they waited while we ate, they waited while we checked email, they waited while we went into temples, and my driver even paid to fix her rear tire after my fat ass flattened it. She refused any money I tried to thrust at her.

Watching the tire get changed was interesting. There’s usually a guy crouched by the side of the road every couple blocks with his tools in hand, waiting for someone to get a flat. In about three minutes, he takes the inner lining out of the tire, finds the hole, scrapes it with a metal file so that the rubber melts over the hole, spreads an apoxy over it, covers it with a patch, puts the lining back in the bike, then inflates it good as new. This costs a little over a dollar.

I finally found out what they pay for gas out here. The motorbikes run on this stuff that costs 550 dong per liter, which works out to about $0.14 USD a gallon ($0.06 AUD a liter for you Australians). I can only imagine it’s something like refined dog pee, but it gets the job done.

We visited the largest Cao Dai temple north of Saigon. Cao Dai is a really cooky religion that started in Vietnam in the 1920’s. It’s a good indication of how much crap these folks have been through with everyone bursting past their borders trying to sell them their versions of God.

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The five saints of the Cao Dai religion are, from left to right: Mohammed, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and Confucius.

The idea is that they’re all pretty much peddling the same message, which is pretty astute.

As if blending together five of the world’s great religions wasn’t a neat enough trick, the Cao Dai priests hold séances where they contact their many saints. Their saint list is an even weirder mix that includes Louis Pasteur, Victor Hugo, Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, and Fran Drescher of TV’s The Nanny.

I can’t imagine what they’d talk to Louis Pasteur about. The Vietnamese don’t even drink milk. It must be really awkward when he shows up.

…I was kidding about Fran Drescher.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that this religion’s places of worship don’t have your typical solemn, churchy aesthetic. No siree.

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Out with the stained glass and wooden crosses, in with the giant all-knowing eyeball and light bulb candles.

You’d think they’d have their weirdness quotient filled with that stuff, but no, they had to include the swastika in their religious symbology.

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Brad says a reversed swastika is an Asian symbol that signifies a temple. Be that as it may, this is not a reversed swastika. Two crossed S shapes. That’s the real deal.

After this fun excursion, we headed over to the marble village to check out their stuff. It was a neat place, but with the dozens of shops cranking out sculptures every day, I don’t think the Marble Mountains are going to be around for very long.

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There are five mountains, named Water, Fire, Earth, Wood, and something I’m not clear on but I think they said it was Meadow. It’s interesting how that parallels the Elizabethan quintessence. They’ve both got that weird fifth element that they can’t really explain.

For years I’ve been wanting to buy myself a chess set. My fantasy is to one day have a really nice chess set, a really nice globe, and a really nice bible. I also want to smoke a pipe and host a show on PBS. Anyway, I finally found the first of my three snob props.

It’s made from black and white marble and hand-carved by the indigenous people of wherever.

The marble was mined from the Water mountain. That’s it on the left.

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And here’s the workshop where it was carved.

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I wanted to get a picture of the guy who carved it, but he was off bathing at the beach.

And then of course I forgot to take a picture of the actual chess set. Ah, well.

It went back to Australia in Brad’s luggage (thanks again, Brad) and he’s going to hand it over to Sophie when she comes to meet me in the states (thanks, Soph).

They get the marble for $2 a kilogram. It took about five days to carve my set. It cost $20.

We went up into the mountains and I got this picture of a place they call the Abe Pagoda.

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I guess Barney Miller was big here.

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Once again, I really don’t think these mountains are going to be around much longer.

The next morning Brad and I parted ways. He had to catch the train back to Hanoi for his flight out, and I had another day before my flight that I wanted to spend in nearby Hoi Ann.

Hasta luego, Monkey Brad!

Hoi Ann is a beautiful town that reminds me a bit of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was a major trading center back in the day, so it had a lot of French influence. Fortunately, it was spared from bombing during the war. The big thing they do there now is sell custom-tailored clothing at insanely cheap prices. There are about two hundred tailors squeezed into every nook and cranny of this small town, and they sell really nice, stylish stuff to the hordes of tourists who descend on the place.

I ended up getting a nice winter jacket. I chose the style, the color, had them take my measurements, and picked it up the next morning. They also took my pants in a bit, cause I’m shriveling up and can hardly wear them anymore. Once again, the whole thing cost $20.

The only problem is that Brad’s gone and now I have to lug this thing around with me until I splurge on my next shipment home.

The young women in South Vietnam wear these amazing dresses that are as white as white can get. I don’t know what they signify, or if they’re just the style. It might be a student uniform, I don’t know.

I took this from the back of a motorbike, so it’s a bit blurry.

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Jeez, taking pictures of schoolgirls from a passing vehicle kind of sounds bad, doesn’t it?

It wasn’t like that. Honest.

I’m a couple days past Hoi Ann now. I’m back in Hanoi and my flight to Delhi, India leaves in just over an hour. The train was full, so I had to take a chicken coop room back up here.

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The train reached Hanoi at 5:00am and it was pouring rain. I caught a motorbike to the nearest hotel and took one of their $2 dorm beds to rest until my flight. It’s up on the 6th floor, which is about as high as you can get in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

Here’s what the view looks like.

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I ended up learning a fair amoun t of Vietnamese on this trip. I can now proficiently say "No, thank you," "I don’t want it," "I have it already," "I’m sorry, please go away," and "Fuck off!"

I can also count to 10.

That’s about all you need to get through the day.

This is the end of my fourth leg. The next one will hopefully take me through India, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Mongolia, and Russia with my cousin, Thomas, who I’m about to meet up with.

Thomas just graduated college a week ago with highest honors. He’s a smart fella.