“Are you awake,” the soft voice said. I’d been up an hour, working on my laptop, watching the sun come up. I didn’t know anyone else was up. “Do you want to go to market?”
The voice came from Xe, a sweet Vietnamese woman from Denver who traveled with our group. I was about to become one of the initiated of the group, one of the people who has gone to the market with Xe.
Markets in Vietnam are similar to most any market in a rural, agricultural-based area – lots of people, lots of produce, lots of stuff from motor oil to paper toys.
“I’ll meet you in half hour.”
The market in Hue was across the river, quite a walk, so we decided to take a cyclo. Now I’d avoided cyclos up to this point, primarily to save these scrawny cyclos drivers from having to cart me around. Particularly in the south and in rural areas, cyclos are the taxis of Vietnam, half bicycle, half cart, driven by wiry men with toothy grins eager to take a tourist for how many Dong they can get. Regardless of their rumored predatory bent toward tourists, I still hesitated against using these feeble forms of transportation.
So, trepidation mind, we set off to find a robust cyclo driver and a partner willing to take us across the river. We passed a couple who seemed more interested in dozing on their carts that garnering any business. One came up to us, “Cyclo, madame, cyclo?” Xe talked to him about going across the bridge and he nodded, no problem, but there was only one of him and we needed two so we kept walking.
A block later we came upon another cyclo driver. Xe and I looked at each other, shrugging, and then the first driver rode up behind us, calling and gesturing for me to get in.
“Are you sure,” I said, spying up and down his somewhat bony frame.
“Yes, yes,” he said, motioning for me to get in.
OK, I thought, here goes nothing as I straddled the cart and leaned my ass back into the seat. Xe climbed aboard hers and off we went with nary a grunt behind me.
The view of Vietnam from a cyclo is decidedly different from a tourist bus or even on foot. You’re in the middle of the fray, albeit moving more slowly than the motorbikes or even bicycles. Still, they pass you back and forth, to and fro, sometimes looking at the strange white woman in the cyclo, sometimes glancing in sympathy at the driver, sometimes ignoring us both as they went about their day.
We passed the first bridge across the river, the one built by the French in the early part of the century. It was before 8 a.m. and cyclos weren’t allowed on the bridge until after 8 a.m. because they slowed traffic – a traffic jam of bicycles and motorbikes. So we had to go even farther down to the second bridge crossing the Perfume River, the one built by the Americans during the Vietnam War. We crossed this bridge and headed back up the roadway to the market.
Some of the stalls were just opening at the market, primarily those with goods such as jewelry and toys. We wandered through the warren, some people motioning toward me, not quite into full hawking mode for the day. Mostly, as the only white person in the area, I got stares. We passed the aisle for paper clothes and dolls, the only place to buy such items which are burned to remember the dead. We passed stalls with toothpaste and shampoo, clothing and shoes, statues and knickknacks.
Finally we came to the produce, located at one side of the market. And, in a lot adjacent to the fixed market, was the real market, the place local farmers brought their wares for local people to buy. Baskets of vegetables and fruits of every variety lay on the ground spread out on almost every inch. Some sorted through flowers. Some cleaned up after already selling all their produce.
Xe bought a trio of cooked corn cobs to snack on later in the day. I didn’t buy anything, primarily because I didn’t see anything I really wanted to cart back with me on the cyclo.
We headed back soon after 8 a.m., using the same cyclo drivers who had waited for us. They smiled and chatted a bit – “Where you from?” “California.” “Ah, America.” Then we arrived at the hotel, well within time to finish packing and get on the bus to head to DaNang.
I paid the driver 100,000 Dong, about twice the going rate because he worked so hard. That was about $6 for a taxi ride that lasted about 45 minutes. Not too bad.