Immortal porpoises…

I feel a little like a porpoise lately when it comes to blogging. Between the Chinese government, our Yangtze River boat trip, our boat trip to Ha Long Bay, a train ride from Hanoi to Hue (our present location), and our current hotel promising WiFi and not delivering, I have been bobbing up to send a message, then diving out of sight without internet access. Right now, I am sitting in the un-air conditioned seventh floor hallway of our hotel (our room is on the third floor) because here is where I found someones unsecured internet signal. I have no idea who I am leaching off, unless it is the restaurant on the eighth floor. Of course my memory for details takes a hit the longer the time between postings as well and that hurts the interest level of the few postings I do get out.

We are both in a state of perpetual sensory overload. I have long admired pictures of limestone formations, covered with trees, sticking out of the sea. I could not have told you where they were located until I did research for this trip. I discovered that these were the famous islands of Ha Long Bay off the coast near Haiphong harbor in Vietnam. So imagine the joyful satisfaction I had three nights ago when I was swimming in the warm salt water from the back of a 20-stateroom cruise boat anchored amidst these spectacular formations. It was hard to believe that what we were experiencing was actually real. These islands are of comparable visual impact of a Yosemite or a Yellowstone and have been designated a World Heritage Site in recognition of their singular beauty. To top it off, we were traveling by luxury cruise boat with an eager to please staff. The boat holds forty five passengers, but there were only fifteen of us on this trip. Needless to say, we were waited on very attentively. If you want a taste of Ha Long Bay vistas, rent the Catherine Deneuve film Indochine, which the tour boat showed in the evening after the sun went down. The film is, ultimately, a chick-flick, forbidden love, tragedy, but is beautifully filmed, and there are some visual treats for the testosterone laden.

My overall impression of China is that Thomas Friedman is right. If you haven’t read his books and you want to see into the future, do so now. In Beijing, Xian, Chongqing, Yichang, Shanghai, and Suzhou, we were visiting the most developed parts of China, of course. But the Chinese are pumping billions into infrastructure improvements. The airports were as good, as clean, as efficient or superior to any airport in the United States. The highways were in excellent condition and well marked in both Chinese and English. In fact, virtually everything we saw was bilingual, Chinese and English though it was rare to find anyone who spoke excellent English. Scare mongers in the US are painting China as the real cause of global warming and they do have a real pollution problem. But in both China and Vietnam, I have yet to see an incandescent light bulb. Asa country they have all gone to compact fluorescents and LEDs. As we traveled from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, we saw new housing construction and the south facing windows were virtually all heat-blocking glass. So, yes, they have issues, but they seem to be working on them. Why haven’t we done this?

I am a little less optimistic about Vietnam. They have opened their economy to the capitalist system, but the central government does not seem to have anything like the resources (proportionately) to the Chinese. So, Vietnam seems to be returning to a pre-communist system that is not developing much of a middle class. I hope they can find a way to bring up everyone’s standard of living.

Yesterday we visited the Citadel in Hue. The Citadel is modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Vietnamese having been ruled by China for a thousand years, ending about a thousand years ago. So the Chinese influences are very strong. Hue was the capital of the last of the Vietnamese dynasties, the Nguyen dynasty, that was co-opted by the French during colonial times. The Citadel is being lovingly restored and is already quite impressive (and also a World Heritage Site). Surprisingly, I was haunted by the TV images of Hue I saw as a teenager at the time of the Tet offensive. Since I was not really close to being drafted, i did not expect to have an emotional response connected with Vietnam war. Hence my surprise. Our guide was an eight year old resident of Hue at that time and told us of how frightening an experience it was. Fortunately, her family lived on the outskirts of Hue and were spared much of the horrors. But between the heavy fighting, including shelling and bombing, to retake the city and the summary executions of some 2500 Hue residents deemed to be collaborators with the US and the South by the Vietnamese forces, some 10,000 civilians died in that battle.

Despite the US involvement in the war, the Vietnamese we have met have been very hospitable to us. They explain that what is past is past and they must look to the future, and right now, the future is tourism dollars. Many express a desire to visit the US. I am grateful that the Vietnamese are so forgiving so that I have had the opportunity to visit this beautiful, historic, and energetic country.

Tomorrow we take a car trip from Hue to Danang and Hoi An. Maybe the hotel in Hoi An will have an internet connection that actually works!

Tim

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