Seems like every time we hit the road we pass cemeteries. Oh, not the big ones with rows and rows of plots. These are clusters of caskets embedded in the ground, usually in the middle of rice paddies. Up in the north there's another added twist to the death ritual in Vietnam.If someone dies the family buries them in the ground under a mound of dirt with a simple, not the large stone tombs you usually see. After three years the family digs the person up, in the dead of night (pun sort of intended) because they believe if the sun hits the bones it will hurt the person who has died. The family cleans the bones and then puts them in a small ceramic box and then buries the box, this time under the large monuments. They never move them again.
It's something brought up in almost every road trip, perhaps because death is something that passes before your eyes every time you hit the street.
Driving here is a very egalitarian sport. Everyone has a right to the roadway, cars, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles. Even pedestrians have a position on the road. Of course, the trick is to make sure no one tries to take up the same space at the same time.
At first it seems like a nasty game of chicken, who's going to make it through the intersection first, who will slow down, who will speed up. But it seems everyone here is very considerate, very accommodating to others on the road. And while there are accidents, it does seem to work.
Our first view of the roads in Vietnam came from the height of our tour bus, a quite elevated view that kept us safe and kept us separate from the people of Vietnam. We were the king of the road, with the sea of vehicles often parting for us. But not always. Like snapping Chihuahuas, honking motorbikes would take us on, vying for space, sometimes winning, sometimes giving in.
Walking gave us a different view. You strode along with purpose, dodging vehicles in the street and people and parking motorbikes on the sidewalk.
And then there was the cyclo ride. This contraption, half bicycle, half ricksha, puts on person on the seat of the bicycle and one person in the seat in front, with the first driving the second all around town. Cyclos are apparently the lowest on the totem pole of vehicles, even below bicycles. Traveling that way gave you clear views of your imminent death, running red lights at a snail's pace, oncoming traffic with little regard to lines or logic, motorbikes and cars and buses honking, always honking, not an anger but just to let you know they're there and they're coming your way. The cyclos didn't have horns. They had little bells appropriate for a 5-year-old's banana bike with training wells, which really didn't make a masterful sound in the ongoing cacaphony of the road.
There are road rules, though. Well, road suggestions, I'd said. There are lines in the road, lanes, but no one pays attention. Folks generally drive on the right side of the road. That is, except when they don't. Even divided highways have a few independent souls who will drive on the other side just because it's more convenient for them. There are stoplights, even pedestrian crossing lights. And sometimes, on rare occasion, drivers pay attention to such lights. We found more people pay attention as you move north. I don't know why.
It all seems to work. But it is the first thing that overwhelms you when you come to Vietnam.
The second thing is the food. Eating is somewhat of a ritual here. Meals have many courses, each served with a bit of time in between. The south had more egg rolls and fish, the north more sauces and French influence. Rice came with almost every meal. And foreigners were all seated in the same room.
The eyeball fish daunted me the most. I'm not an eyeball eater. But some of the roasted fish tasted wonderful. One person in our group devoured every shrimp or prawn available, and we also had squid and crab. Well, they had squid or crab. We got a lot of vegetables, papaya salad, banana leaf salad, steamed leaves. One odd meal we got a dish of sauteed beef and french fries, which was strange on a Vietnamese table. We got a lot of pork, some stewed in coconut shells, some fried in milk. Beef and chicken also appeared periodically. The Avian flu, we were told repeatedly, is over here. No problem, no problem, they said.
The best part is dessert, usually fresh fruit. The pineapple is magical. Of course, we also get a few more flamboyant options such as flaming banana. This is just what it sounds like, bananas soaks in alcohol and then set on fire. Supposedly the alcohol all burns off but not in my experience. Just what you need when you get back on the road, a nice little buzz.