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Hitchhiking Vietnam
DESTINATIONS
Highway 1

"The trip was at a crossroads. On the map the thin strand of Highway 14 continued directly north to Kontum and beyond, deteriorating into a trail fit only for mountain bikes and water buffaloes. A second, thicker line ran east from Buon Ma Tout to the coast. In my mind's eye I conjured up the blessed vision of the sun rising over the ocean. It had been raining without end for twetny one solid days.

The next thing I knew I was barreling down the paved -- paved! -- road to the coast, scattering flocks of ducks and phlegmatic pigs sleeping on the warm tarmac.

I reached the intersection of coastal Highway 1 just in time to see the sun cut briefly through the clouds and disappear below the horizon. I was immediately surrounded by beggars and children hawking ID tags and inscribed lighters. A woman tried to wrap my fingers around a cheap imitation switchblade. Another hauled at my arm, shouting the charms of her private guesthouse into my ear. I was back on the tourist trail."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

map DIRECTIONS:
You can't miss it. It's the only paved road connecting Saigon to Hanoi. If you're really stuck, stand facing the sun early in the morning. It will be over your left shoulder if you're in Saigon, your right shoulder if you're in Hanoi. (If you can't see the sun then you must be in the Central Highlands. Just go downhill until you hit the coast).

GEOGRAPHY
It starts off flat (from either direction). You'll be pedalling along, enjoying the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other, and WHAM! you'll hit a steep pass. You slog up it, past the broken-down trucks and buses, until you reach the other side and it gets flat again. Just when you've decided that that mountain was some sort of geological abberation, WHAM! another pass.

Don't trust this road.

HISTORY
I don't know who commisioned the construction of Highway 1, but just about everyone has tried to deconstruct it. The Americans bombed the living daylights out of the road north of the DMZ and the Viet Cong guerrillas did their level best to take out the road south. Given present-day road conditions, it looks like the Americans did a better job.

Although cratered with potholes and plagued with crumbling, pre-war bridges, Highway 1 is the only paved road that runs the length of the country. It has thus become the beaten track in an off-beat country, for tourists eager to experience exotic Vietnam but unwilling to stray too far from English menus and travelers' checks. The standard, two-week itinerary begins in either Saigon or Hanoi and proceeds, via mini-bus or express train, through the familiar guide-book stomping grounds: Nha Trang; a city of copycat Mediterranean beaches and old women plodding the high water line, hawking rough massages and grapefruit halves; Hoi An, once a great trading port for European and Asian ships alike: and Hue, with its recently renovated Imperial Palace and dozens of lesser monuments and its brightly painted dragon boats cruising up and down the muddy Perfume river.

THINGS TO LOOK FOR:
ALONG THE WAY:
Waterfalls, temples and pagodas, views from the mountain passes.

The rice seedling beds along the roadside, a green so bright and concentrated that all other colors faded to gray. The wind blows through them like a hundred burrowing animals, or gentle swells upon an odd-colored sea.

DESTINATIONS:
Nha Trang:
Hire one of those round woven boats to get a closer look at the lovely, color-coded ships in the harbor.

You can get massages on the beach for about $4 per hour. Just don't tell them you're Russian... (WARNING: sand + massage oil = sandpaper) You may be able to talk your way onto one of those lovely blue-and-red fishing boats if you're willing to stay out at sea for a few days (and you happen to be male).

Sa Huynth:
This lovely little seaside village isn't on the express train route and therefore gets overlooked by most foreigners. I liked it better than Hoi An.

The pearly beach and crystal blue waters are stunningly beautiful. Swim only at the end furthest from the village or you may get a rather unpleasant surprise...
"I walked down to the water, away from the mob of two hundred children vying for the attention of an unexpected Westerner. Several pink Baler shells lay just above the high-water mark, their graceful curves filled with fly-blown excrement. I had stumbled into the village latrine. I picked my way past an old woman squatting in the sand, carefully averting my eyes from her morning's toilette. She grinned suddenly, made a thumbs up sign and shouted, "America number one!" before sinking back into her reverie."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

Lovely pink baler shells and other natural delights are scattered over the entire beach.

The village itself does a lot of boatbuilding. They are happy to let you clamber around on the unfinished boats.

The children in the village delight in tagging along with foreigners. You may have as many as 100 of them entertaining you at full volume.

Take a stroll down the beach where nets are mended, squid cleaned, and baskets repaired.


Central Highlands

Halong Bay

Hanoi

Highway 1

Mai Chau

Mekong

Saigon

Sapa

Sapa Valley

Son La

Tafin

The Loop

Hoi An:
This place has a lot of history (once known as Faifo, it was a major international port that traded in everything from silk, tea, pepper, mother-of-pearl, to Chinese medicines and elephant tusks. It was also apparently the first permanent European colony. Parts of Hoi An still look like the move set for a Columbus film.

You can find pizza at some of the outdoor restaraunt cafes. It isn't really pizza -- more like ketchup and cheese smeared onto a piece of deflated bread -- but the cheese is real (sort of) and they'll even sprinkle fresh basil on it for you.

Not everything in Hoi An is as it first appears...

Hue:
The weeds growing in the Palace moat are edible. The renovated buildings in the Imperial Palace are impressive. The rest of the place is exceedingly run down. I spent a lot of time wandering around, pulling creepers off of carved stone dragons and fantisizing about planting flowers.

For some reason the yogurt in Hue was really good (that may be because I had the flu and it was the only thing I could get past my tonsils). The pastries aren't bad either.

Hue has lots of monuments, pagodas, and tombs. There's enough of them that you can just go for a stroll and stop in wherever you hear chanting or see a ruin/temple. Who knows what you might find...

North of the old DMZ:
Although the political differences between north and south seem to have been smoothed over, the road itself tells another story. The highway north of the DMZ had suffered intensive bombing and hasn't been properly repaired in twenty years. Potholes have developed potholes on the buckled tarmac. But the condition of road is nothing compared to the lives of the people trying to scrape a living out of the rocky soil along Vietnam's barren neck...

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