Note To Self

When visiting the dry cleaners and speaking with the Vietnamese man who runs it (and who left Vietnam in 1975) it is best not to refer to Saigon as Ho Chih Minh City. He frowned. To him it always was and ever will be Saigon. Duly noted.

He did, however, smile when I mentioned Dalat. He, like so many Vietnamese, honeymooned there.

Final Thoughts On South East Asia

ReflectionsI just had duck rice for dinner, which will no doubt be my last duck rice for a while. I’m in my hotel room and the usual packing ritual awaits. I can’t bring myself to do it, just yet.

First things first: this will be my last post for at least a week. I will be on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean and I doubt I’ll see an internet cafe floating by.

I’ve been in South East Asia for almost seven months now, three of which were spent in Singapore. I’m not ready to leave. And I’m not sure why. Is it because I’m not prepared for India? Or is it because South East Asia exceeded my expectations? I would imagine it is a combination of both.

I remember that first Saturday, July 5th, 2008 when I took this shot of Singapore’s Central Business District and it seems like an eternity has passed since then, both chronologically and emotionally. Have I put the time to good use? Yeah, I have. Seeing the things I’ve seen, doing the things I’ve done and most especially meeting the amazing people along the road have made this leg of the journey special. I never expected to enjoy, much less find a facsimile for paradise in South East Asia. If Lake Toba was the highlight, these last two and a half weeks spent in Malaysia have been eye opening and extraordinary.

(Today’s photos can be found here.)

More after the jump.

I mentioned before that most South East Asian countries are very homogeneous–at least the ones I visited on this trip. But Malaysia is the very antithesis of homogeneity. What makes Malaysia work is its diversity. Take a look at the shots from today, especially those labeled ‘faces of Kuala Lumpur.’ There are Tamils, Malays, Buddhist monks, Westerners and Chinese. They are old, young, men and women, covered and not. But what’s most impressive about Malaysia isn’t its dynamism, it’s that Malaysia has done it Malaysia’s way. No ‘Washington Consensus‘ here. Their economy works for Malaysians and the common good, something it shares with Singapore, although Singapore is all about an open-economy, Malaysia’s is just different. And that’s one of the reasons the country didn’t slump as hard and as long as so many others did during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998. Indonesia has never recovered.

Malaysia is relatively clean, cleaner than Thailand, but not yet up to Singapore’s exacting standards. The countryside is gorgeous, palm plantations, wild jungle, tea farms and many, many mountains. All of it is green, tropical, wet and humid. ‘Tropicalness’ is much more pronounced in Malaysia than it is in Vietnam, or Laos or Thailand–but not as strong as Indonesia, although I didn’t get to see Malaysian Borneo–next time I hope.

And Malaysian food has distinct differences between those of the other South East Asian states. It’s much more Indian and frequently ‘halal’ food is de riguer in most places. Sure, you can find bacon in Chinatown, but that’s about it for pork and other haram foods here. However, the Malay’s aren’t hardcore Muslims. They aren’t Saudis, for sure. Women seem to get on well here. I imagine a part of that is because there is such a significant minority of non-Muslims in the country that hard core sharia law wouldn’t work here anyway.

It’s funny to think that I blew right through Malaysia when I left Singapore, heading strait to Chiang Mai. It’s probably a good thing too. I might have wasted a bunch of time here. There is still so much to see. I can’t believe I missed Pulau Perhentian! It’s the one beach I was willing to travel to in South East Asia, mostly because it’s not like Phuket and filled with a bunch of beer swilling hoodlums, or Bali, which is just too overdeveloped for my taste. I found Toba, and for me that is enough.

All the South East Asian countries have their charms. The frank honesty of the Vietnamese, the sweet smiles from lovely Thai girls, glorious Angkor and the mellow Mekong in Laos are but a few. But if it were my choice, I’d recommend Malaysia for the three reasons: prices are excellent, you can see just about anything that South East Asia has to offer in Malaysia and the multi-cultural diversity is just impossible to beat. One never knows what one will see in Malaysia.

Alas, of all the places in South East Asia I loved the most, well, that’s a no-brainer: Lake Toba was simply astounding. But I’m grateful I saw them all, or at least all but two: Burma and the Philippines. Next time, I keep telling myself, next time. And now I am going to go engage in the ritual of packing up, preparing to move on in the hopes that I’m ready for India this time, that I’ll not be too overwhelmed, or get too sick.

I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t a bit anxious. And I’d be an even bigger liar if I told you that I won’t miss East Asia. I will. I’ll miss hearing the languages and the amazing (and sometimes awful) smells. I’ll miss the smiles and I will miss the food. But the first leg of the journey ends tonight and the second begins tomorrow. As the Spanish say, “Traveller, there are no roads. Roads are made by walking.”

The Road To Phnom Penh: On Border Crossings and Bus Travel

Me and the Mekong FerryOne of the best aspects of traveling by bus is border crossings. No, not the bureaucratic bullshit you have to endure, but the chance to see almost instantaneous changes in culture, architecture and politics. Take the Cambo-Vietnamese border for example: one moment everything is orderly, almost militaristic, clean, surrounded by high-Asian Communist architecture of bland, blocky lines. And the next moment everything is immensely poorer–and Vietnam is not a rich country–and dirtier–and Vietnam is not a clean country. The architecture on the Cambodian side is a crazy blend of Hindu and Buddhist, much more baroque than Thai or even Laotian temples. Everything is now a disorderly free for all and as you pass further into Cambodia the houses change from the well mannered small farms with pens for all the different animals and sheds for farming machines to houses on stilts, thatch roof huts, pigs, chickens, goats and humans all sharing the same space. Whereas agriculture in Vietnam is more mechanized than that in Cambodia this means that water-buffaloes proliferate. So do cows, the Indian kind.

House on WaterA lot of the Cambodian countryside lay fallow too. It’s obviously been farmed before but it has the tell-tale signs of two or possible three decades of neglect. Brambles, thatches and weeds cover an older layer of well plotted paddies that now look like swampy wastes. Seldom is my window view broken by a free holder reclaiming the land. It’s obvious, just by the distress in the countryside that Cambodia is still a broken land, whether it’s ‘killing fields’, UXOs, or the memory of Pol Pot’s atrocities. And the widening disparity between wealth and poverty has grown into a perverted chasm of gluttony and suffering.

As one approaches the city the gap widens again, becoming ever more obvious. Large, huge homes, newly built, sit behind great barricades and fences. Next to the fences shanties and lean-tos betray the needs of unemployed men and youths who gather by as Mercedes’ rush by with armed motorcycle guards. As always, urban poverty is much uglier than its rural cousin. Children with one arm, or both mangled from UXOs are an all too common sight on the streets on Phnom Penh. There aren’t many smiles, as the dark wind of history has only recently blown through Cambodia, it lurks just under the surface. I’ve seen haunted places before, but never an entire society.

Phnom Penh is a dangerous city too. Petty crime is on the rise and tourists are advised to leave all their valuables inside hotel safes. Offers to buy ‘little girls’ are almost as common as those to buy ‘skunk weed’ and ‘heroin.’ The runny noses of addicts, jonesing for their next fix are visible on almost every turn. And even though Cambodia isn’t as intense as India it runs a close second here in the capital. It’s filthy and the smells are less than salubrious, a combination of human, animal and vegetable waste wafts over the city.

As for the provenance of all this grief? Some would point their fingers in righteous anger towards Nixon and Kissinger. But like all historical morality tales it’s just not that simple. One must also look to the Vietnamese who started the chain reaction of Cambodia’s implosion by using the country as a sanctuary on the road to liberating the South, in a sense forcing Nixon’s hand to bomb the country, thus further destabilizing it to the point where a monster like Pol Pot could flourish. Sure, America played its part, but it is far more complicated than the one-off ‘black and white’ narratives which dominate the discussion still.

Meanwhile, back in the capital, a barge fights the strong current of the Tonle Sap, creeping slowly upstream with a cargo of bricks. Colorful flags ripple in the breeze along the waterfront and I’ve ordered too much food. I feel ashamed. I leave two spring rolls on the plate, while not 25 meters away a woman holding a naked child begs.

Cacaphonous shouts ring out. “You want tuk-tuk Mr,” yells one young man. Another says, “Motorbike?” And another asks if I want the ubiquitous ‘skunk weed’ on offer. Lots of construction machinery is everywhere. Making a hell of a racket on the riverfront. But the Tonle Sap ignores it all, flowing relentlessly downstream towards its union with the Mekong and then the South China Sea.

It’s a completely dollarized economy–ATMs dispense dollars and everyone takes them. Naked infants, toddlers and young children run amok. The Cambodians, I think to myself, resemble the Mayans. They are short, stocky, stout and dark. Even the architecture reminds me of some of the big lipped, big eared Olmec statuary of Mexico.

The language shares clear affinities with Thai and Isaan and sounds very, very little like Vietnamese. Words have many more consonant clusters and syllables than Vietnamese, which has a morphology based on mono-syllables.

The Hindu influence, as I have already mentioned is extremely prevalent. Much more so than in Thailand, Laos or Vietnam. It’s like parts of the country have been preserved in amber since the fall of the last great Hindu kingdom in the 14th Century.

Every country has its travel rhythms. Those in Thailand are laid back. You go to the bus station to move from place to place. No hard sell. It’s similar in Laos–except mopeds are difficult to rent in many places. The buses and roads in Laos are atrocious as well. About as bad as Georgia and Ethiopia.

Vietnam was pushy, aggressive–they want to get you from one place to the next, especially as there is always a commission involved. They pick you up at your hotel and take you to the bus. And the buses are nice–comparable to a Greyhound back home. The buses in Thailand run the gamut from awful, as in Laos, to plush, like the VIP cruisers in Mexico. Three rows, a TV and they recline almost like a bed.

In Cambodia, however, travelers are guarded. The fear, while not palpable, isn’t too far from the surface. The buses that make the main travel run, Ho Chi Minh City-Phnom Penh-Siem Reap-Bangkok are nice. They come equipped with a toilet, unlike those in Vietnam and Laos where you are at the mercy of the driver’s bladder not your own. They also collect you at your hotel. All in all, buses are a nice way to travel here in South East Asia, especially with the closure of Bangkok’s airport.

Finally, getting around Phnom Penh is rather easy. The tuk-tuk drivers are always in your face, but as supply way outstrips demand haggling is a breeze. If you walk away they melt, immediately. You can then climb in and drive away to whatever site awaits your attention.

Off To Cambodia

Alrighty then! Saigon, it’s been fun. But not that fun, as I spent most of time here recovering from a stomach bug. But that’s no biggie. It’s a cool place with a great atmosphere, although the air quality needs a little help. Will I ever come back? Doubtful. But hey, I’ve said the same thing about a lot of places and ended up there once again. How about a top Ten List for Vietnam?

10. The countryside. Stunning and gorgeous.

9. Being 38 and actually getting catcalls. (Yeah, I know, they were from working girls, but a guy can hope, no?)

8. Freshly made spring rolls.

7. Pictures of Ho Chi Minh everywhere!

6. The people.

5. The ruins of ‘My Son.’

4. Hoi An.

3. Seeing Da Nang and the place my Uncle Paul died.

2. Da Lat and nice fall weather, even though I’m in the tropics.

1. Cafe Sua with ice. Nothing beats the heat like a good Vietnamese iced coffee. Starbucks be damned!

And with that I bid Vietnam adieu and head off towards Cambodia.

Two Months Today

Saigon by NightHas it already been two months? I realized it just a few moments ago sitting in a sidewalk cafĂ©, sipping cafe sua, that wonderful Vietnamese concoction of strong coffee, condensed sweet milk and ice. Two months have passed since I walked away from the world of corporate America into the real world and I haven’t had a serious bout on loneliness or with ‘the darkness’ as I call it yet. I’ve only been sick twice–once was just a minor cough and I laid in bed all day to make sure it stayed minor, and the stomach bug.And if you count my time in Singapore I’ve been gone almost five months. The longest stretch since I lived in South Korea in 1994-95. Thirty-eight years old with a not-so-good back and I’m doing it. I’m actually surprised I’ve lasted this long. But you know what? I feel good.

Earlier I walked down the street here in Saigon just marveling at the fact that I was here, happily trudging the road one step at a time. I remember when I was making plans in Singapore for this quest I am on. I did make backup plans–there is a flight out of Singapore on the 24th of December just in case; just in case I got worn out, or tired, or lonely. But I feel good, ready for whatever comes next. And what’s even more surprising is that I’ve met several people around my age doing the exact same thing.

So what country is on deck? Well, this morning I bought a bus ticket to Cambodia, Asia’s Heart of Darkness. I’m leaving in the morning for the capital. There I will do some digging around and report for the Young Turks on Cambodia 15 years after the Peace Accords of 1993 were agreed to. I hear strange things about Cambodia and am curious to see what the place is like.

Two months? Amazing. It does look like I’ll be heading down to Indonesia to see Frank’s cousins after all, the teaching gig in China, well, they just couldn’t be flexible with a short-term contract. So, I’ll do Indonesia, then swing back up to Malaysia and catch a January ship out of Port Klang to Chennai. After that who knows. I’ll let the road rise up to meet me.

Women In Vietnamese Society

Women In Vietnamese Society

Ladies At WorkOne aspect of society I always keep an eye out for is the role and place of women where ever I may be traveling at the time. As I noted about Singapore, women there seem to have the best lot in all of East Asia, even Japan and South Korea. As for Vietnam, well here is what I wrote in my journal back on the 12th of November:

I wonder what the status of women is here in Vietnam? I see many working, but I haven’t seen any but one running a restaurant. Normally the restaurants, or the front part of it is where the food is prepared and served. The back half is where the family lives. The women, I assume because I don’t see them, are cooking while the men take the orders and the money. The women, usually young women, late teens, early twenties, serve the food and the disappear. Obviously this is a porr anecdote to generalize from so I will wait and see what it’s like in Saigon before pontificating any more.

What I’ve seen in Saigon has done little to alter my first impressions. All the restaurants are the same. So are the hotels, except for the one I am staying in, as one young lady seems to be the manager. As a general rule, the women do menial, shit work. Sometimes I’ll see an older women running a kiosk or bodega, but that’s only because her husband is sitting in the shade drinking beer with his buddies

When I visited a government office for visa reasons what I saw was pretty much the same. The women, all young, do the menial work and the men sit around, collect the money, boss them around and pretty much seem useless. There are no women police, as I’ve seen in South Korea and Singapore. And there are tons and tons of them that fills the bars at night, ‘bar girls’ is what they are called. But that’s just a euphemism. They don’t have any formalized representation in what passes for Vietnam’s parliament, either. The only woman I know who’s managed some national respect and success is the architect of the Crazy House in Da Lat. She has an interesting story. Her name is Hang Nga and her father was president of Vietnam in the early 80s. That goes a long way towards explaining the opportunities she’s had. But still, she’s an accomplished architect and she’s earned the respect of her countrymen. It’s a start, I suppose.

All in all, I fear the lot of women here in Vietnam is not very good. Job opportunities don’t seem to be particularly fulfilling, nor do they pay very well. There are tons of pregnant women here in Vietnam and loads and loads of infants and young children everywhere. In that sense it is a healthy society, but I prefer to see women in places of real influence. Singapore, in my opinion, is the model for East Asian women to aspire too. Let’s hope the future is better for the women here. They certainly deserve better.

Food, Language and Chaos In Vietnam

Downtown SaigonVietnam is a phenomenally loud place–horns are used all the time here, in a defensive fashion, a way of warning those you’re behind that you’re coming and they need to get out of your way.

The people, as I have mentioned before, are far less aggressive than I was led to believe. I haven’t seen a Seven-Eleven, McDonald’s or any other multi-national in Vietnam yet, except for one KFC.

The Vietnamese are a proud and fiercely independent people. They don’t like the Chinese at all and unlike many places in South-East Asia there are zero overseas Chinese here. Plus, their language is, so far as I can tell, devoid of any Mandarin influence. I’ve a damn good ear for cognates and loan words and I’ve not heard many at all. I also flipped through a grammar-cum-dictionary and found little of Chinese influence there either. (Although there is a passing resemblance in some of the structure and tonality with Cantonese, but Cantonese is so different from mainstream Mandarin that I hardly consider them in the same language family. Yes, you linguistics folks out there can slam me all you want, I am an amateur, I confess.) As a side note, I’ve found the tones here in Vietnam much easier to speak than those of Mandarin. As there are six in Vietnamese I find this odd. But they are easier to say than the four ‘ma’s’ of Mandarin. Go figure.

Vietnamese numbers (mot, hai, ba, bon, nam, sau, bay, tam, chin, muoi) unlike those of Japan and Korea, bear little resemblance to Mandarin either. Mandarin-putonghua from one to ten: yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba, jiu, shi. Korea from one to ten: il, i, sam, sa, oh, yuk, chil, pal, ku, ship. See the resemblance? If not, eat me! (The Koreans also have a second set of native numbers, but they are less used and infrequent; the Sino-based numbers being much, much more common, especially in commerce. You’d never hear a merchant using native Korean numbers in price negotiations.)

But the language, like all in the region, with the possible exception of Bahasa Malayu, is tonal. And it does seem to bear a passing resemblance to the levels of politeness and formality with slight leanings in a masculine or feminine direction, exceptions that are found in Royal Thai, and Isaan, also known as Lao. Like most East Asian languages there are no plurals (now you know why your waitress at your local Sichuan Diner says such outlandish things: it’s called Engrish.), no tenses (Korean, however, has simple past, present and future), and all questions are answered in the affirmative. For example: “this rice doesn’t have peas in it?” The answer is invariably, “yes.” Contrary to what most people believe, this isn’t about a supra-Asian distaste for saying, “no” and thus saving “face.” It’s actually a quite logically answer to the question, as opposed to how we answer in the West. “This rice doesn’t have peas in it?” The answer is, “no.” How does that make sense? Although it leads to lots of frustrations when ordering food at a Chinese takeout joint back home! Call me a wanna-be anthropologist, as I can now count in Vietnamese, ask for the check, ‘dun ting’; say OMG, ‘cho yoh’; ask for the salt ‘muiou’ like the Spanish muy, with a slight rise in tone; say excellent, ‘huan hao’; and say hello, ‘xin jao.’ Hell, I’m going native aren’t I?

But enough about the nerdy shit, right?

One wonderful thing about traveling in Asia and Europe is the quality and tastiness of the vegetables (my recent stomach episode notwithstanding). Unlike our industrial corn-based food chain in America everything here is organic in the truest sense of the word. All is small farm grown. The tomatoes actually taste like tomatoes, as opposed to cardboard boxes as they do back home. Just the other day I saw carrots so huge, orange and fat that would make an American carrot farmer blush and would give massive wood to Bugs Bunny. I love markets here in Asia, especially the meat and seafood markets. Here you can pick the live animal you want to eat. It’s butchered right before your eyes. You pick the choice cuts, and in seeing the animal die before you, you are brought into communion with its sacrifice. This is right and good, in my opinion. We are too detached from our food in America and it shows.

Fish of all kinds, squirming black eels, darting elegantly painted tiger shrimp, oysters, crabs, lambs, chickens and other meats are all there for the picking. (They don’t eat dogs or cats here in Vietnam as they do in China and Korea.) Everyone, for the most part, is healthy. Everyone works. I’ve seen men with one arm, or a leg missing, working in the food markets, or at kiosks. I’ve seen even fewer beggars here in Vietnam than in Thailand and Laos. It’s all a part of the communal Vietnamese need to ‘get ahead.’ It’s a national obsession. They also happen to be excellent hagglers–giving way only at the end and then only a very little, just to close the deal.

There are a lot of hawkers, however. Oftentimes in other countries I’ve pretended not to speak English when approached by them. I’ll fall back on my Russian and it usually works. But in Da Nang I was approached by one hawker and when I shot back something in Russia he let loose one of the foulest barrages of ‘Mat’ I’ve ever experienced. He said things that would’ve embarrassed my ex-wife, and a sailor’s mouth that one had! I slunk away in shame, not daring to let him in on my duplicity.

So far it is safe to say I like Vietnam much more than any other South-East Asian country I’ve been in yet. There is an energy and purposeful chaos here that I much prefer over the smiles of Thailand and the laziness of Laos. Did I mention the women were gorgeous? Oh, sorry, I forgot. Well, let me tell you: they look good.

Malaysia, at least what I saw of it, was nice, but not overly impressive. But I will be back there at some point (maybe even visit Sarawak) so the jury is still out. And Singapore? Ahh, my Singapore. Wonderful. Clean. Orderly. Modern. Antiseptic. All good and wonderful and there will always be a special place in my heart for that lovely gem of sanity on the Straits, but give me crowds and chaos, curious stares and a little filth over order and fixed prices any day. It’s too easy to live outside the moment otherwise.

Frank’s Cousins Or Han Gao-Tzu?

Penguins!So, I’m in Saigon and the stomach bug seems to have experienced its Waterloo yesterday. Now that I’m feeling better it’s time to start thinking about my next moves. I’m definitely going to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. That goes without saying. But as to what comes next? I’m actually rethinking my plans. It seems the boat from Singapore to India is pretty regular, running every twenty days or so, which makes this method of travel reliable and relatively cheap. It also means I can put off the journey for any amount of time to see some other places in the region I really want to see.

One of those is the Komodo Islands in Indonesia. I’ve always wanted to see a komodo dragon up close and personal (although not too close, as one bite would lead to massive infection and quite possibly death). I’d love to see one of those six to eight feet bad boys eat a live goat. That would be cool. And besides, it would give me a chance to visit East Timor and do some reporting on the place for The Young Turks. But it’s a damn long haul down there. I’d have to backtrack all the way down the peninsula (I’ll have to anyways to catch the Tiger Breeze) and then travel down Sumatra, Java and catch a ferry to an island in the Flores Sea. Add to all that, a new country, new bacteria, and more damned heat. I know to you winterbound folks up Minnesota and Canada way that’s a pretty babyish thing to whine about, but I’m sick of the rain. The 75 degree weather in Da Lat was a nice reminder of what fall should be like. And it is November, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now in this steamy South-East Asian metropolis they call Saigon.

Which leads me to option two: I’ve been offered a short-term teaching gig in Xi’an, China. It’s only for one semester, mid-December through late April. It’s part time, includes housing and the pay is reasonable. The benefit is that it is Xi’an–the imperial T’ang capital, a place I have visited twice and written about in my book. And it would afford me some time to explore the battlefield where the Xiongnu beat back the great Han army of Han Gao-Tzu two thousand years ago. It was a pivotal battle in Chinese history. And any chance to explore the arid Ordos Loop is a chance I’d really like to take. I’d also be able to experience some cooler weather, maybe cooler than I’d like, but still. It would also give me a chance to brush up on my Mandarin and Xi’an is the absolute best springboard into Central Asia. It’d be quite easy to take the Khunjerab down into Pakistan as soon as it thawed and then into Afghanistan.

We’ll see what happens. I’m still waiting on some more info from Xi’an, but I’m really leaning that way right now. But it would mean no komodo dragons. And I think it would make Frank very mad!

The Sleeper Bus

A Sleeper BusEver wondered what a sleeper bus looks like? Well, wonder no more. This photo is from the bus I took from Hoi An to Saigon. (I’m just not going to type the whole frigging name anymore.)

I’ve taken them before, but only in China. One time I took a sleeper bus for 47 hours between Golmud in Qinhai, China to Lhasa, Tibet.

It was sheer hell.

Most of the trip was spent at 4,000 meters or higher in a bus full of spitting, vomiting and farting Chinese. There were plenty of Westerners on the bus that got sick from the altitude as well.

But as buses go, sleeper buses are great. You’ve got enough personal space to be comfortable, the windows open and they stop frequently for food and other necessities.

All in all, not a bad way to travel. Besides, a flight would have cost $80 to $100. The bus? It cost $6 for a twenty four hour trip.

Besides, I got to see countryside roll past me in the window of the bus that I would never have seen on a plane and that is what really counts.

A Vietnamese Pastoral

WaterYesterday I drove out into the jungle to see the ruins of ‘My Son’. Along the way I recognized how true it was that Vietnam is still largely a rural nation. It’s currently the 13th most populous nation in the world and in a few decades is projected to become the 10th. There are babies and infants everywhere and pregnant women are a common sight as well. Similar to Iran there is a huge under-30 cohort in the country. This group has come of age in an era of rapid economic growth and reform. But Vietnam is still rural and it was the land, the countryside to which I was drawn. (I grew up on a farm and find rural areas quite fascinating.) The Vietnamese countryside did not disappoint.

In this part of Central Vietnam the flat farm land is found in a very narrow strip–40 to 50 miles wide–between the mountains and the sea. It is land of thick, fertile alluvial soils. As I drove inland from the coast we passed several rivers–it’s no wonder Swift Boats played such an important part in the war (my uncle died on one), but it’s only until you get here and see for yourself that you realize this. Fisherman in conical bamboo hats waded in the shallows along the banks and the islands in mid-river, while many long canoe-like boats paddled upstream and down.

Then came the rice paddies, fields and fields of them–all just recently harvested–with water buffaloes languishing in the muck left behind. Egrets sitting atop the big, strangely calm and silent animals, herons hunting in the muddied waters of paddies, ducks, geese and moor-hens were everywhere. Often I caught the reflection of the mountains in the distance in these semi-stagnant pools of water.

The roads were clogged with bicycles; school children riding home, others with parasols jerry-rigged for shade from the withering sun and women wearing the elegant ‘ao dai’ blowing gently in the soft breeze.

Sometimes a farm house sat in the middle of an immense field of rice paddies, raised up on a dyke-like formation. Shaded by banana trees and other palms, the thatch-roofed houses were made of red-bricks, fired from the luxuriant red soil of the region. Some were surrounded by water-cress fields, and cabbage patches and melons and orchards. And even though it was the heat of the day and all the beasts of the land were laying in the shade the Vietnamese were hard at work. Ceaseless. One man patched a roof with his friends. Another fixed a flat tire on his moped. Women cooked lunch on a front yard grill and the children separated the rice from the chaff or tended to the animals.

The population density here is intense. It’s hard to travel more than a kilometer without passing through another village, much like rural China. Even in the empty spaces farm houses pop up out of the paddies, dotting the landscape all over. Rolling green hills, terraces, duck ponds and pig pens were everywhere to be seen. Humanity has placed a giant footprint here and it was only when I drove on into the mountains that the jungle closed in–and fast.

Soon I parked. The canopy overhead, dense and disturbing, darkened the path forward. Warning signs punctuated the path at key points. One read: “Caution! Unexploded ordinance in the area. Stay on path!” Such portents were a common, if grim reminder of a darker time in Vietnam’s recent past. I continued on for another kilometer. The shade provided by the canopy overhead provided little relief from the heat and amplified the humidity to a stifling level. I continued climbing upwards but my slight pant and heightened heart-rate were soon greeted by the ruins of ‘My Son.’

The bricks looked as if they were fired yesterday–the same hue of ochre as the farm houses further down the mountain. But the architecture was stunning–so very Hindu. The sensual ornamentation of full-breasted Hindu goddesses and the sleek elegance of Hindu warriors graced each temple and building in the ruins. They filled the site with a strange feeling of displacement–as if I were off some untrod path in Kerala instead of in Central Vietnam.

But the jungle rules here, hanging as it does from the tops of temples much as it does at Caracol in Belize. Unlike Central American sites the water is plentiful here. Streams, brooks and small rivers criss-cross the 12 square kilometers of the site. ‘My Son’ was inhabited for close to half a millenium and it is no wonder. ‘My Son’ is strategically placed in an emerald bowl of jungle clad peaks with only a single, narrow, valley entrance. In an age of swords, horses and the bow it was easily defended and not easily besieged. The surrounding land, although cratered and littered with UXOs now is fecund. Farms must have been plentiful then and with plenty of water ‘My Son’ could withstand any attempt at a siege, wholly self-sufficient as it was.

Sadly, like most of South-East Asia and China, excepting parts of Indonesia, the landscape is denued of any large wildlife. The Indo-China tiger is all but gone from the area and so is its prey. I heard half a dozen different song birds, but the jungle canopy prevented seeing any of them. Little is more frustrating than hearing a haunting bird-song whilst unable to see the singer. Loud croaking from frogs echoed all around me but I was unwilling to hunt them out–for leaving the path was too dangerous.

Driving back I watch the country-side pass before me. A lone figure pulls out weeds from a rice paddy. Another tosses a fish net into a river. A black dog tramps through rows of carefully cultivated cabbage, sniffing something out. Pigs wallow in the mud. Water buffaloes are ever present, as are cows. Banana and palm trees fill the low, flat horizon and the green is everywhere except in the sky overhead, pastel-blue, studded with thick white clouds and the sun breathing life into everything.