Well, not really. 80 and muggy. We feel icky. It’s hard to believe that it’s Thanksgiving time back home. CeCe’s craving her Aunt Chris’ sourkraut, her Mom’s sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie and I’m despondent that I have to watch my MetroStars/Red Bulls play for the MLS Cup from a computer screen at 3 AM local time. After wishing we were home celebrating the election results with everyone just a few weeks ago, we find ourselves missing home a bit again. But these are just temporary longings and we’re excited at what the next few weeks have to offer. More on that in a bit.
Our opinion of Vietnam has certainly improved. We spent three fun-filled days at Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam’s flagship park. Cuc Phuong is home to all sorts of fun creatures, although far fewer of them compared to just a few years ago as poaching to fill China’s voracious and ever-escalating demand for animal-derived medicines has apparently ravaged all of its Asian neighbors’ wildlife. Cuc Phuong claims to be home to leopards and bears as well as dozens of other species of large animals, but if poachers have pushed its turtles to extinction, I can’t imagine they’ve spared any leopards. On the bright side, the park seems to have loads of dedicated people working towards saving the area’s biodiversity, and there seems to be some hope. After dropping dollars left and right in tourists traps all over, it was nice to know that our money was going to good people doing good things for some crazy animals. (Take a look at this crazy grey-shanked douc langur which is currently being bred at the park’s impressive primate center.) So the park gets a big thumb’s up in our book.
Yesterday was a painful day of travel. Picture 9 people – 4 Vietnamese adults and 3 children (the concept of “inside voices” has yet to cross the Pacific) and 2 Americans – crammed into a antiquated train cabin built for six. Add a malfunctioning air conditioning system, 18 inches of head room, and screaming children and domestic violence down the hall, it made for a very long 11 hours. We didn’t think it could get any worse, and then just at that moment, the piped-in karaoke began.
Somehow or another though, we made it to Hue, the country’s erstwhile capital and home to the Citadel, Vietnam’s poor-man’s version of Beijing’s Forbidden City. It was largely destroyed by any number of catastrophes, not least of which was shelling during the Vietnam War, but it’s been partially restored and boasts none of the hordes that afflict Beijing. We spent most of the day wandering about marvelling at the immense walls, the restored palaces and ceramic mosaics, and at the immense task that lays ahead if the Vietnamese choose to restore it completely. Much of what remains is rubble.
Hue is less than 100 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which means we’re now in what was Southern Vietnam. We haven’t noticed any appreciable changes, aside from the warmer weather, although more people apparently know English here due to the vast American presence here through the mid ’70’s. Tomorrow, we embark on a guided tour (I know, I know) of about 10 sites from American War (as its known over here), including some of the legendary tunnels used by North Vietnamese troops. I should write that we haven’t perceived any negativity on account of our US citizenship – we have valuable tourists dollars after all – but we haven’t had any honest, heart-to-heart conversations with Vietnamese either.
Then, on Tuesday, we will begin our journey by bus towards Laos. We’ll find ourselves somewhere in the middle of the country and then head south, firmly off the beaten track, until we find it again suddenly at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. If I had to guess, we’ll spend Thanksgiving in Savannaket, Laos, looking for some Americans to celebrate with.