Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bike Ride to the Beach

I was so excited when I woke up this morning. Today was the day that I was going for a trip through the highlands and down to the coast--on the back of a motorbike! Many families have bicycles, but motorbikes are the number one method of transport in most of Vietnam. Families like them because they don't use much gasoline, are easy to fix, and are a quick way to get to wherever you want to go. And because private cars are almost nonexistent in Vietnam, motor bikes rule the road. My guide, known to everyone as Titi, handed me my helmet, and we were on our way! We started out in Dalat, in the central highlands of Vietnam, where it is cool and foggy. As we traveled down the mountain we were treated to some beautiful scenery, groves of pine trees, serene lakes, and spectacular waterfalls. It felt wonderful to be riding out in the open air! Titi also took me to visit several small factories, which were very interesting to me, because although there are some large plants in Vietnam, almost everything is made by hand in mom-and-pop operations, and for the most part, people buy what is made locally. We saw carpenters carving elaborate chairs by hand, silk being unraveled from cocoons and spun into thread, tofu being pressed into molds, and even a nun in a Buddhist temple rolling sweet smelling incense onto sticks, with a young novice of about 11 years old looking on and smiling. As we got farther down the mountain we saw a family in traditional black robes and conical hats harvesting rice. As they moved through the fields cutting the rice, tying it in neat bundles, putting the rice in bags and carrying it on their heads so gracefully, it looked like a beautifully choreographed dance whose origins reached back thousands of years. Farther down the road we saw other families transporting rice on ox carts. On this part of the road there were cows, goats and ducks, but very few people. We went over one last hill, and from far away, I could see the South China Sea and Mui Ne beach, our destination. As we rounded a curve in the road, my jaw dropped open at the sight of the sand. It was red! I felt like I had landed on Mars, and expected at any moment to be greeted by little green men, like in those old science fiction movies. Instead, I was greeted by the local children who encouraged me to rent a toboggan and slide down the dunes, however, after seven hours on a motorbike I had a serious case of "numb bum" and declined.

Mui Ne Beach
We got back on the motorbike, rounded another curve, and drove into a funky little town. The road, which Titi explained to me was only three years old, was lined with piles of coconut shells, fruit and snack stands, seafood restaurants, and a few hotels in between. And what was that smell? Fish sauce! Mui Ne is famous for making that condiment that Vietnamese cooks love, and all along the road I saw ceramic crocks chock full of the fishy stuff. Early the next morning, I sat by the ocean and watched the families set out their nets, paddling out in their perfectly round wooden basket boats. I kept expecting the boats to capsize, but they never did. In the evenings, the families would form a perfectly straight line and work together to pull the nets in, looking like they were playing tug-of-war with the ocean. The tiny silvery fish they caught would then be loaded into baskets and made into fish sauce in the local factories. The South China Sea holds many other treasures, too. Squid, snails, sea urchins, clams, mussels, shrimp, oysters and octopi are all caught by the local fisher families in pretty boats painted a light blue. Needless to say, barbecued, stir-fried, stewed or grilled, the fish here is absolutely yummy. I found pretty shells of many colors sizes and patterns washed up on shore as well, and if I sat perfectly still, shy little crabs would come scurrying out of their holes in the sand. I really enjoyed swimming here because the water is warm and calm. When it was time to leave the beach and head for Ho Chi Minh City, it was very hard to tear myself out of the water, and I could here my mother's voice very clearly, saying, "Catherine Mary, you come out of the water right now!" Some things never change.

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