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Where's Noah when you need him - Hoi An & Hue, Vietnam

 Greeting from the flooded central highlands! 

It was a dark and stormy night. A bad omen for what was to come. We wanted to spend our last night in Saigon in style, sipping cocktails atop the famous Rex Hotel. During the war, it was the de facto home of foreign war correspondents, and many a journalist typed out dispatches from the rooftop overlooking the city. We arrived, sans umbrella, drenched and proceeded to have the worst cocktails of our lives (a sidecar and a frothy pineapple juice-how do you mess up a juice?) cowering under the small canopy of the bar. The electricity flickered, the wind blew, and the drinks SUCKED! On that note, we left Saigon on a 24hr journey to central Vietnam. En route, the sky changed from blue to grey to downright black.

A Vietnamese sweetie watching celebration parade in Hoi An

On a good note, we arrived in Hoi An, checked into a great hotel, and discovered that the previous day, the old town of Hoi An had been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, along with the nearby Cham ruins of My Son. In celebration, a parade was to be held and all the historical 'sites' of Hoi An were free for the day. Not one to let that slip by, we put our slickers and tevas on and braved the increasingly worse storm to see the wonderful sites. Hoi An is famous for being a wonderfully preserved seaport town of the eighteenth century and is full of incredibly intricate architecture of pagodas, community halls, and private merchant residences. But it rained on their parade. Literally. An impromto parade had been organized and many of the older dignitaries of the town were driven around in cyclos but couldn't been seen for their ponchos. And their signs were illegible as they bled away in the rain. The town was full of grandiose community meeting halls, well preserved homes of wealthy merchants of yore, and temples and shrines on every corner. And all of it free, for our good timing. The people living in the homes today were in a chatty mood, and talked non-stop about living in a museum.

The next day dawned dark and rainy. We had hired a minibus to drive an hour away to the Cham ruins of My Son. Not quite sure what we were thinking, as the skys rained down on us, we pluged on determined not to let a little bad weather stop us. Once there, the guards told us that the bridge to the ruins was washed away, and that we should hurry back to Hoi An before those roads became impassable as well. It was only then that the gravity of the situation hit us and we all as a group decided to head back immediately. Our driver, who was contentedly getting on with the task of sloshing himself in a bar while we toured the sites, was completely oblivious to any such danger and was surprised that we wanted to hurry back. 

These schoolgirls were trying to cross what was left of the road

It was amazing the difference an hour made in the road conditions. What was previously a few inches of water was now a foot and rising steadily. Our driver just plowed through until we reached the lake, or what was formerly the road we needed to take. The locals were wading through, pushing bikes and motos, but no cars were attempting to cross. Our driver stopped and scratched his head for awhile. Next to us, a large army vehicle was just about to cross. They hatched a plan, and soon a tow was rigged up. The huge truck would pull across our small minibus. To lighten the load, we decided to wade across ourselves. As we plunged in, we realized the water was hip-deep and more difficult than it seemed. We tried to follow the pavement below us, but through the muddy waters, we kept falling into the uneven terrain edging the paved road. 

Half way across, we noticed a little boy struggling as well. He was heaving a large fishing trap and a small basket of fish. On him, the water was up to his chest His fish were in danger of swimming away to freedom. We gave him a hand and he was most grateful for the help. Then we saw the truck coming but no minibus behind it. The tow broke and we waded back to figure out what to do. Finally the driver decided to chance it. He opened the hood, removed something and then drove through the water like a crazed man. He barely made it across. But once on the other side, he pulled over, lifted the engine hood and proceeded to replace the large fan that he had taken out to prevent water from splashing the engine, at least that's what we guessed he was doing. 

Once back in town, we spent the rest of the day relaxing in a restaurant watching the continuing rain and making plans to get out.  

Boat Taxi anyone?

We went to bed in Hoi An and woke up in Venice. Outside on our second floor room balcony (thankfully) we looked out at the newly flooded canels of Hoi An. Anxious to explore and see what this new development meant, we headed to the riverfront and found that it was gone. The water of the river had swallowed the first two streets running parallel to it and was now threatening the third street in. Cashing in on these new canels were the locals with boats. 

People moving belongs to the second floor to escape the floods

We took one to see what remained of the restaurant we ate at the previous day. As we floated past it, the only visible sign of it was literally it's overhead sign. The water was now about 10 feet above street level. As we floated down some of the inner streets, we saw what daily life in a flood zone is. Looking into one private home, we saw a man, stooping on the top step of his stairwell, brushing his teeth into the flood waters. In another, people were rushing around, moving items to the safety of the second floor. Outside another home, we gave a lift to a man who needed to be evacuated. 

the flooded streets of Hoi An

We headed back to the hotel to see if any buses were leaving. The ground floor reception area thankfully half a flight up was a madhouse. People were scrambling to book flights out of the nearest airport as word leaked in about flooding throughout all of central Vietnam. Others were just enjoying the chaos. We discovered that a bus was attempting to make the journey to Hue, five hours away. But first, we had to get to the bus, parked on high ground about a mile away. What a sight: a line of tourists, evacuating through waist deep water, our big backpacks over our heads getting drenched anyway from the pounding rain. But I have to compliment the service. They had dry towels waiting for us at the bus. The journey turned out to be rather uneventful save for stopping once while road crews reinforced a bridge deemed precarious due to landslides.

Boat anchored to a tree root off the Perfume River in Hue

We arrived in Hue, which was flooded as well, but not nearly as bad as Hoi An. Streets with a foot of water were no big deal to them. You might remember, about a month ago, Hue and the surrounding area was swamped by record-breaking floods. Many people died and the area is still recovering. The restaurant we ate at that night had just reopened a few days earlier after rebuilding everything from ground up. We chatted with the owner and he told us about checking on his restaurant during the flood and having to dive under his rooftop sign to get inside. He said that because so much of Hue is flat, the floods were particularly devastating as there was no high ground to retreat to. The Perfume River just up and swallowed everything. Many residents had to take up shelter in the third floor rooms and above of the hotels in town.  

Through this continuing deluge of rain, we tried to visit the beautiful sites of Hue, which were curiously devoid of tourists. Hue was previously the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty of Vietnam, prior to French colonization. We visited the ancient citadel and royal palaces and it was actually a very interesting experience to wander these vast courtyards and palace grounds and see no other human beings. But the rain did stop us from seeing other things. A popular excursion from Hue is a visit to the barren landscape of the DMZ just north of town and many war sites, much of them left as they were in '75. But the roads there were completely washed out. 

Instead, we met Lac Thanh, the deaf-mute owner of a small restaurant and he, through pictures and pantomimed sign language, arranged a moto-scooter tour of local pagodas and Royal tombs of the emperors just outside of town. That's different. We clung to our drivers as they whipped through town in driving rain and flooded streets, and saw Vietnam traffic head-on. They took us to the beautiful Royal Tombs of the Emperors. They built lavish monuments to themselves to cement their fame for eternity.

After that, we decided enough with the pruny toes! We are outta here. We booked a night bus to Hanoi. First, the bus is late, and when it arrives, it's too small. So they reassure us that another one is on the way. That's a 35 seater but only 8 can go on it. When we asked why, they said "bad brakes" This is absolutely NO JOKE. We camped out at the sidewalk determined to get on the small bus instead and we finally took off. The other bus was filled with Vietnamese. Apparently, 'bad brakes' was not a problem for them. We took off, two hours late, with luggage filling every available aisle space. For some reason, the company decided that we needed four drivers and when there wasn't enough room for four, one decided to nest in our luggage. If that wasn't enough, he spent twenty minutes pushing, pulling and rearranging our luggage to fit his body's nooks and crannies.

We finally fell asleep and awakened when we realized the bus was no longer moving. It was about one in the morning and the land around us was dismal. We realized we were stopped before the bridge crossing the actual DMZ. Here, no plants grow, the ground still scarred from Agent Orange and countless other environmental horrors. We got out to see what the fuss was about and discovered that the bridge in front of us was actually being rebuilt after portions washed away. After three hours, a rag-tag patch was in its place, and we were cleared for crossing. Our driver raced ahead, driving at top speed for the bridge, only to slam on his brakes as we started across the clappity-clap of the bridge. We heard yelling and screaming and peeked out over our luggage and saw a large semi-truck staring us down. Seems that this new bridge was only big enough for one and they cleared both sides for crossing at the same time. So here we sat, in the middle of the bridge as each driver tried to outhonk the other. A shrill women's voice rose above the clatter, screaming at each driver. Finally our bus cried uncle and we slowly backed away til the other side could pass. What a journey. It took 24hr instead of the scheduled 14hr and we were not happy campers when we finally arrived in communist paradise of Hanoi.

Til next time, may your journeys never be as torturous as ours,

over and out

ann and doug


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