Sunday, May 11, 2014

Forbidden City

Jenny and I stand outside the imposing brick walls of the Imperial city Kinh thanh Hue, the former capital of  Vietnam and the home of the Nguyen Dynasty, the last ruling Emperor Family of the country.  We have just been scolded in Vietnamese for attempting to enter through the exit gate and are having a little difficulty understanding the guard spitting directions of where we're to go.  As hard as I try to blend in, redheaded, soaked in sweat, holding a map in one hand and the Lonely Planet in the other, I scream Western Tourist!!! like a beacon on a dark night.  Standing still for more than ten seconds invites the zealous haggle of cyclo drivers.  A stout Vietnamese man, with a broad smile and a cigarette hanging out the side of his mouth approaches.   

Hello, where you from?  Cyclo one hour, I show you all of the city.  You buy from me.  Where you go?  I take you!

I respond that we are American and politely decline the offer, telling the driver that we are exploring by foot and prefer to walk, but with this interaction his bid only becomes more zealous.

Very cheap, five dollars one hour.  You hire one hour I show all city, take you back to hotel.  

No thank you mate, I again respond with calm; I feel Jenny's irritation meter maxing out as she tries to orient us by unfamiliar landmarks and strange street signs to the entrance of the ancient high walled city.  

Why you no help me?  I very poor.  I have many children very hungry. You hire me, very good tour.  You rich American, I poor Vietnamese, you help me.  Five dollars, one hour, I show you whole city, we go now!  He smiles, as if expecting his doggedness will wear on my endurance and I will eventually give in; I suspect that his strategy has been effective in the past.

I begin to calmly, yet sternly decline his offer again, but after weeks in Vietnam and the nearly constant stream of people trying to hawk you things that you neither need or want, the hot sun beating down on our heads, and just trying to concentrate for minute,  Jenny has had it and interrupts.

Look, it isn't about you!  We just want to walk and we have said no more than once. Please leave us alone!

The intensity is one I recognize from the few times Jenny has been really pissed at me, and our would-be tour guide has obviously heard the tone in the past.  He snarls something unpleasant quietly in Vietnamese, turns and leaves.  Jenny and I quickly depart and find the entrance gate to the palace, pay our 50,000 dong ($2.50) and enter the ancient city among hoards of Western, Chinese, and wealthy Vietnamese Tourists, free from the haggle of street vendors.

The Imperial City was largely destroyed in the Tet Offensive of 1968 and as we walk through what remains of the the intricately designed structures built with elaborate lacquered beams, sweeping roof lines, golden thrones, and ornate ceramic mosaic walls,  I can't stop thinking about our interaction with the cyclo driver and the how the function of these massive brick walls hasn't changed much in last two hundred years.  Just  as they once separated the elite ruling class of Vietnam from the lowly commoners outside, they now allow Jenny and me, elite American tourists, to be away from the hassle and harsh realities of life in Vietnam, even if just for a moment.

Vietnam is a quickly changing place, but make no mistake, it is still a country emerging from the third world.  Despite the fact the even the poorest people have cell phones, flash cars like BMW's and Mercedes are not an uncommon sight, and Wifi is better than the U.S.,  the economic portrait for most Vietnamese people isn't very rosy.  With a per capita GDP of less than $2,000 USD, I likely carry more money in my pocket than most people earn in a month.  When a cyclo driver pleads I am poor, my children our hungry, why don't you help me, it may be a well-delivered emotional plea to help separate from me from some of my money, but it is also the truth.  If I were in his shoes I would likely be saying and doing the same thing.

I  also carry a burden of knowing that my county dropped over 7 million tons of bombs on this land during the Vietnam conflict, and that the people who suffered the most never picked up a gun and were far to poor to tell the difference between a capitalist and communist government.  When bombs quit falling, thirty years of economic isolation stepped in to finish the job.  Things are improving in Vietnam, but with a population of 90 million, and an economy largely dependent upon tourist dollars, there just isn't enough to go around.

Traveling the world is meant to challenge you, make you feel uncomfortable, and question your beliefs and ideals.  Long have I preached the virtues of simplistic living, shrinking your footprint and rejecting the materialism that is harmful to both our souls and the planet we live on.  Being in Vietnam has made me realize though that sometime things are not all that black and white.  Values get compromised, hopefully for right reasons.  

In a few I'm weeks coming home with a backpack of shit that I really don't need;  trinkets, t-shirts and some good handmade clothes.  Before I leave this country that I have grown very fond of, I am also going to hire a cyclo driver and let him pedal me around a city that I would rather walk, hell I might just pay him to let me drive, but he'll make some money on the deal.  At the end of the day, I guess I decided that best way my visit to Vietnam could have a net positive impact on the people who need it the most is to spend a few more of my greenbacks than I might have originally intended.  I haven't abandoned my belief that consuming less is the only path for a peaceful and sustainable future, I just realize that sometimes it's more important to make someones life better today than stand on my soapbox of minimalist austerity and hold tight to my money, especially when a guy who desperately tries to sell bicycle rides all day for a living puts his kids to bed at night with an empty stomach.  

Kloshe konaway

Kloshe nanitch


The Imperial City of Hue, built by the last Emperor Family of Vietnam was almost completely destroyed during the Test Offensive of 1968.  Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, the Vietnamese Government is slowly restoring the city to it's former glory.

The former combat base of  Khe Sanh is now little more than a barren strip of land with a few bunkers and and captured US military hardware.  There is however, and interesting museum that explains the significance of the battle of Khe Sanh in the Vietnam War.  Just a few kilometers south of the the Demilitarized Zone and near the the Laos boarder,  Khe Sanh was literally smack in the middle of the Ho Chi Mihn Trail, a network of roads and paths that carried arms and supplies into Southern Vietnam, much by bicycle.  Between January and July of 1968 Khe Sanh was under nearly constant ground, artillery, mortar and rocket attacks.  The US responded by dropping over 100,000 tons of bombs on the  area surrounding Khe Sanh, which still scars the landscape today.  Thousands of American and Vietnamese lives were  lost on this chunk of ground that America abandoned shortly after successfully defending the five month siege.  

 The Vihn Moc Tunnels, located just north of the Ben Hai River in the DMZ were built to shelter villagers and solders from some of the heaviest bombing sorties of the Vietnam War.  The 2000 meters of tunnels were dug by hand up to 30 meters under the ground and contained wells, living quarters, kitchens and hospitals.  They are testament to the strength and resilience of the Vietnamese People.

 The City of Hoi An is one of the oldest ports in SE Asia and has a long and rich history of trade and textile manufacturing.  Jenny and I spent a bit of time and money with the nice girls at Shop 41 in the market and got some pretty flash cloths to bring home for the effort.

Orange Matt.

 The City of Nha Trang was a bit of a disappointment with it's high rise hotels and Western & Russian Restaurants.  The Temples and Pagodas were some the best we have seen though.

 Not Portlandia.

 Po Nagar Temple dates back to the year 781 and was originally constructed as a Hindu worship.  Today Vietnamese and Chinese Buddhists come here to pray and make offerings.


  1. A wise commentary, my man! And that first picture of Jen in the Forbidden City--fantastic!

  2. Thanks Sir Tom! My photography skills are mediocre at best…sometimes I get lucky though!



  3. matt, i can always count on your to remind me that my worries of this hour are just first world worries, and i needn't spend any more time fretting.
    matt alford for president (although he'd never take the job)

    1. Maybe President of Greenwood…

      Yeah, of all the things you learn while traveling, that you have it pretty darn good is the most important.

      See y'all in a couple weeks.