09 July 2009

Heidi đi đến Việt Nam! (Heidi goes to Vietnam!)

Having Aike pick me up from Da Nang airport on a motorcycle after last time we saw each other six months ago on a pier in Southern Thailand was quite a special treat! Especially considering that on that particular island we actually had an accident before the whole adventure on two wheels had even started.

I did not have many ideas about what Vietnam would look like before I came here but realised with mild excitement that this was actually my first time in a non-European former socialist country. Then again, there is so much more about Vietnam - its history, its culture, its people, its nature - that it would not be served right by stereotyping it into a socialist context, even if the olive-uniformed people at the airport fit very much into that image.

Aike has to teach later that evening, so we have some amazing beef noodle soup (famous Vietnamese speciality) with basil, soy sprout, coriander and onions. Vietnamese cuisine so I have been told, uses less spices (apart from chili sometimes) and loads of different herbs instead, probably because of its availability due to the quite humid climate. The sun is maybe three to five degrees hotter than in Malaysia and the combination of mountain forest range along the Western border of Vietnam and sea winds on its east make for a quite wet weather sometimes, despite the heat (especially during the rainy season from May to September). Thanks to that though, Vietnam is the world's third biggest exporter of rice (which only costs 10 000 Vietnamese Dong or 41 €-Cent a kilo over here!). Having lived in approximate conditions in Malaysia for a while though, I probably fare better than the pork-eating Austrians who get struck down by the sun far more easily.

Da Nang, a buzzy city of 750 000 inhabitants right at the centre of Vietnam and subsequently the country's fourth-largest city lives mostly on its major industrial port and tourism. There also used to be a big and important US Air Force base during the Vietnam War.

The Cham Museum is quite interesting, not just because its (French) architecture. The Cham were a culture that ruled southern Vietnam for about a thousand years and has produced some impressively detailed carvings of (mostly Hindu) deities:

"Concertinaed between the Khmers to the south and the clans of Vietnamese (initially under Chinese rule) to the north, Champa's history was characterised by consistent feuding with the neighbours. [...] Wars raged with the Khmers in the 12th and 13th centuries, one fateful retaliatory Cham offensive culminating in the destruction of Angkor. [...]

Champa's economy hinged around agriculture, wet-rice cultivation, fishing and maritime trade, which it carried out with Indians, Chinese, Japanese and Arabs through ports at Hoi An [...].

Though Buddhism flourished for a time in the ninth century, Hinduism was the dominant religion in Champa, until Islam started to make inroads in the second half of the 14th century. Orthodox Hindu gods, and in particular Shiva, were fused with past kings, in accordance with the belief that kings were devaraja - reincarnation of deities."


Aike in fact considers doing PhD research on the topic of lingering Cham elements in religious practices in central Vietnam...!

Tired though that I am from spending the night awake at the airport, I decide to at least have a look at a Catholic church where a group of Vietnamese women (and a few husbands?) are chanting a litany in Vietnamese and some men pray at the other side of the aisle. The church is quite simple but very nicely so on the inside with fresh white flowers around the altar and a statue of the Mother Mary with a blue neon halo. The side of the church is lined with doors and playing children are running past the open wooden blinds. There also is a small grotto outside with a Mother Mary inside and a lot of plaques of people who thank her.

I then walk back to "Bread of Life", a really good cafe-restaurant managed and run by deaf people. It's kind of a small-scale project led by a US-American woman and they provide training in sign language and job training, so it's a sustainable work place and the people working there are quite having fun! It serves really delicious food, too!

On our 40-minute ride home to Hoi An (30 km South of Da Nang), we dash past kilometres of really big upscale resorts, some already finished, some still under construction. It looks as if Da Nang really wants to develop tourism over here. There are security guards, no matter if there's a house on that ground yet or not even a wall. You see them sitting on the roadside on a folding chair, perhaps reading a magazine. Once we cross the provincial border, the already dimly lit street turns completely black (for no street lamps anymore) and if your light breaks down you'd be stupid to drive and become a risk for other drivers too. Sometimes, you see shadows in the distance - children who run home across the street after playing/hanging out in the area. Quite dangerous for them. And oncoming cars like to keep their high beam lights on, interfering with your own lights and reducing visibility. You also see into the odd living room right next to the street with its front wall (instead of door) completely open and people comfortably lying on the tiles on the floor, watching TV.

Eventually, we reach the countryside. You can guess in the darkness at the smell of manure over large open spaces (rice paddies) and a brief whiff of fish sauce that is locally produced. It is maybe 11pm and already most houses are dark, window blinds closed and hardly any people or motorcycles on the street. So different from KL where you can find food stalls open until midnight or early morning even but then I kinda like that, a rural town is exactly where I wanted to get away too.

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