Mom shrieks intermittently and squeezes her eyes tightly shut. Ezra is sitting bolt upright, staring with wide eyes as a huge grin lights up his face. As for myself, I am sitting precariously in Gabe’s lap as our cyclo (pronounced see-clo) rolls slowly down the street, dodging traffic and swaying dangerously. “Happy Birthday Hannah!” Mom calls across the space between our bikes. With two riders per cyclo, I can only hope that we all end up at the same destination.
At this point, anyone who has never been to Asia is probably wondering what a cyclo is. Imagine an oversized tricycle that has been turned backwards and equipped with a rickety seat. The driver sits behind the passengers and pedals them wherever they wish to go, for a small fee of course. These rather dangerous and extremely exciting vehicles are used by people of all ages and ranks all over Vietnam. Dad had treated us to our first ride as my birthday treat.
May I just say, my sixteenth birthday has been one of the most entertaining I’ve had yet.
We rode the cyclo’s to the Old City of Hue. There was a huge palatial residence there, where the Emperors of Vietnam lived successively for many generations. Sadly, it was bombed pretty harshly during the wars, so some of the buildings are largely decimated. The palace was within the de-militarized zone, and many of the works of art and buildings were marred by shrapnel. Major restorations have taken place since then, and most of the complex is intact now.
The architecture there is incredible! The Emperor’s throne room is known for being one of the only ones of its build. It’s actually made of two large buildings, which are covered in paint and mosaics. They are connected by a single waterspout that runs the length of the roof. Many of the buildings were painted red and gold, and featured pillars decorated with dragons and clouds. As it turns out, the dragons represent the Emperor, the clouds represent the people of Vietnam, and the two together are a sign of the Emperors goodwill towards his people.
The grounds were well kept, and we enjoyed walking around outside. At 85 degrees Farenheit, today was the coolest day we’ve had here yet. We did run into one rather distressing sight. At the front of the palace complex, two elephants were chained to thick trees. They strained against their confines, reaching to find food outside their small circle. They were thin and bony, and I was upset to see that the food pile for each elephant was about a quarter of what we’d seen given to the elephants in Pai. As I watched the elephants, a group of tourist cut across their space to get to the path. Suddenly, the larger elephant lunged at them, straining at the end of it’s chain to swing it’s trunk viciously at the tourists. Luckily, they were able to stay out of the way, but I think this goes to show that the elephants at The Old City are not being well treated.
My birthday experience also included a special treat from Dad:
For the first time in my life, I was measured for clothing and had a dress custom-made for me. An elegant black, with green flowers and vines embroidered down the front, it is a traditional Vietnamese styled dress. Over the course of the day, many of the Vietnamese have complemented me on it. They seem to get a kick out of the fact that I’m a foreigner, but I’m wearing Vietnamese clothing!
I have been constantly amazed at how generous the Vietnamese people are.
This morning, I was given an entire cake by the hotel management, with a little gold box. Upon opening it, I found that they’d given me a plastic belt. Although I’ll probably never wear it, I thanked them many times over for bothering to get me a gift at all. Whenever I walk through the hotel complex, I’m wished a happy birthday many times over.
Dinner tonight was another great example of how generous the Vietnamese are. When the waiter learned that it was my birthday, he scurried away to the dark recesses of the kitchen, to return a few minutes later with a huge basket of flowers. I was amazed. In every other country, my birthday has been met by others by a polite congratulations, and maybe a slice of cake. Here, it’s as if the entire population wishes to celebrate as well!
There was a large group of Vietnamese businessmen seated at the table next to ours. They had been toasting eachother with cheap beer for almost an hour. As a result, they were all extremely excited and ready to celebrate anything and everything. A few of them wandered over to wish me a happy birthday. They shook my hand and toasted me gleefully in broken English. Eventually, they pulled up a seat at their table for me and the entire group of twenty or more Vietnamese businessmen sang a version of the English birthday song. I say “a version” for two reasons. For one, they only knew the first line of the song. Blissfully ignorant of this, they sang it over and over about six times, ending with a cheer and a clinking of many beer bottles. For two, my name seems to be near impossible for Asians in general to pronounce. Here, I am known as “Ham Ma Meeyer”. Listening to these men singing their version of my name joyously, I laughed. It was a good moment.
When I was little, I never guessed that my sixteenth birthday would be spent in Vietnam, among some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Now, I can’t imagine it any other way!