Day 234, Sun, Dec. 24, 2000 (continued) -The flight to Vietnam was very short and it was dark when we arrived. We had each wanted to come here for as long as we could remember - for me, ever since I was a kid and heard my cousin Michael had died when his helicopter crashed into a muddy field. In my aunt Thelma's living room, there was a picture of her son holding a huge machine gun at his waist with two belts of ammunition crisscrossing his bare chest. It was a mythical, heroic picture - like a still from John Wayne’s “The Green Berets”.
To most Americans "Vietnam" was a war, not a country. Thanks to Hollywood, we knew it only as a wet, green, jungly place where our sons, brothers, cousins and fathers were mercilessly killed by the dreaded “Charlie” or “VC”. America got behind the war with typically patriotic fervor since we had "never lost one" and our leaders convinced us that communism threatened our very way of life. The “domino theory” held that if tiny far-off Vietnam went communist, then the rest of Asia would soon follow in the footsteps of Russia and China and we’d have the whole world pointing missiles at our doorstep. In the beginning it was a heroic battle to save the “democratic, Christian” South of the country from falling prey to the “godless, repressive red peril from the North. We were doing them a big favor, traipsing thousands of miles across the globe to defend our poor friends of a different culture and race from their own neighbors who happened to be of the same culture and race. It would be like the Chinese coming to the US to support the Confederacy during the US Civil War because China liked slavery as well. Many Americans opposed our involvement but feared being labeled “un-American” or communist, the worst possible thing you could be called at the time. It was, after all, just a decade or two after the McCarthy hearings tried to limit freedom of speech and thought. Of course the war did not go as planned - it was destined to fail for a myriad of reasons that historians are still tying to sort out. In spite of overwhelming firepower, the Americans never quite got the hang of jungle guerilla warfare – something the Vietnamese had been doing for centuries, defending their homes from Thai, Khmer, Chinese and French invaders. It was also the first war fought in the media age, when daily summaries of casualties (complete with video and photo coverage) made it to the television at dinnertime. Americans started to see the war differently and protests sprang up everywhere, starting on college campuses. The war in Vietnam became the most divisive issue in a generation, the signature cause of the cultural revolution of the sixties. The 3 million or so American warriors returning home did not receive a heroes welcome - they were blamed for the fiasco of the war itself - stuck between the right-wingers who called them soft for not winning and the left-wingers who called them immoral baby-killers. By the time the real domino chain fell - from US policies to “The Pentagon Papers” to Watergate - a presidency had been toppled and Nixon became the first president in U.S. history to resign his office. Thirteen years later I stood at the solemn black marble of the memorial to the war in Washington, tracing Michael’s name with my fingers. His was only one of some 58,220 names carved there – a silent memorial to the 58,220 lost lives and a nation’s lost innocence. I held a piece of paper up to the wall and rubbed a pencil against it, creating a copy of Michael’s name to send to his mother, my aunt. Some visitors were leaning against the wall, offering whispered greetings, prayers or promises – others had left flowers, notes, dog tags, hats and uniforms.
The vast majority who visit the memorial to the Vietnam war (or read the hundreds of books or watch the dozens of movies), will never get a chance to visit the country itself, see the battlefields, talk to the people. We feel very fortunate to be here to see it with our own eyes.
We touched down at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City, the third busiest airport in the world at the height of the war. The former capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the North won the war, as much to honor “Uncle Ho” as it was to eliminate the old French Colonial capital. Unfortunately, most the people we meet still refer to it as Saigon. We took a taxi in the rain to the New World Hotel. We had arranged to stay at a rather swanky place for the first couple days since we had never been here and we could get our bearings. The taxi was stuck for an hour in a thick cloud of motorcycles and mopeds buzzing all around us like giant motorized locusts. The driver told us that this is typical of Sunday evenings, when all the teenagers go “cruising”. It looked pretty much like any US town on a Saturday night, minus two wheels and the beer. We had forgotten that it was Christmas Eve until we got to the lobby of the hotel, where they had a huge Christmas tree in the lobby. On closer inspection, it turned out to be dozens of smaller planted trees on a layered pyramid platform. During the planning phase of our trip “Christmas in Vietnam” sounded pretty cool. The lobby was crowded with revelers and kids (mostly local) and the jarring sight of a Vietnamese Santa Claus – complete with white beard and red suit, but without the traditional huge belly. The holiday is pretty big here, Vietnam being the most Christian country in Asia (besides the Philippines) thanks to European missionaries who preceded colonialists. Unfortunately, like America, the holiday is more commercial than it is religious. After checking in, we went for a little walk outside the hotel, but it took us literally 30 minutes to cross one street, the moto traffic being so heavy. There were many kids wearing red and white hats and vendors selling balloons. The evening was a nice, if hectic, introduction to the country.
Day 235, Mon, Dec. 25, 2000 - Woke in our cushy bed – our Christmas present to ourselves, then long hot baths as we listened and sang along to our new pirated Beatles CD we bought in Cambodia. There is something about the Beatles that is indescribable. Most everyone on the planet knows the words to at least a few Beatles songs, but John Lennon was widely criticized for jesting that they were more famous than Jesus Christ. They spanned the cultural bridge from bubblegum pop to rock to love songs to psychedelic all in just 8 years – the same 8 years that the tide turned in the war in Vietnam as if they were the soundtrack to the conflict. Now 30 years later another Beatles CD collection is number one on the charts, reviving interest in them the way Bill Clinton’s recent trip to Vietnam has renewed focus here. When we checked in last night, we found out that he had stayed in this hotel as well, with some of his 1,000-person entourage. As the first US president to visit since Nixon (and symbol of renewed economic ties with the country), he was apparently mobbed everywhere he went. Clinton is not only appreciated for his opposition to the war in the first place (or “draft-dodging” depending on who you ask), but also because he lifted the subsequent trade embargo in 1994 and signed a trade pact last year. More than half the population of 80 million was born after the war and in the fuzzy post-communist, pro-entrepreneur economy they are all about business. The problem is, the euphoria that followed the 1994 opening and "doi moi" policies was squashed by red tape and corruption, resulting in project abandonment. In 1999, foreign investment fell to a 7-year low. Of course everyone hopes that will change, mostly waiting for the old guard communists to die and young reformers to take their place (sort of like the optimists’ view of China). Although far from western standards, the Vietnamese are still better off than their neighbors Cambodia and Laos in terms of per-capita GNP (US$370), life expectancy, infant mortality rates and people per doctor. The population is huge at 80 million, a result of communist policies that frowned on family planning as a capitalist plot to keep the third world down. Babies were encouraged and “hero mothers” who had 10 or more were given awards.
Anyway, our relaxing Beatles sing-along was shattered by CNN reports of 19 bomb blasts at churches in Indonesia, mutual bomb blasts in India and Pakistan and the site of tracer fire lighting up the Bethlehem sky rather than the legendary shining star of peace. In spite of the hundreds of red and white hats on the motos and kids, and Asian Santa Clauses in the streets, it just doesn’t seem like Christmas to us so far from our home. This is the hardest part of our journey – we really miss the decorations, carols, buying gifts, and viewings of “Charlie Brown Christmas”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (to which our friend Paul knows all the words). But most of all, we miss our families and friends. We would typically be having a large home-cooked meal, exchanging gifts and playing games today.
In an attempt to get out of our holiday depression, we walked to the tourist area for an Italian pasta lunch, deciding to save Vietnamese food for after the holiday. We checked with some hotels and tour companies about day trips and travel to China and Hanoi, trying to sort out the next three weeks. Back at the hotel we laid into a huge Christmas buffet dinner, with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, baked ham, chicken, fish, veggies, salad, pate, 6 kinds of bread and 8 cheeses. All topped off with a chocolate sundae. We felt so gorged (and guilty for our decadence) we could hardly suck in our guts for the Christmas photos in front of the tree in the lobby. CNN had special programming for the holiday - Clinton giving a White House tour, Queen Elizabeth giving her traditional message to her subjects, and the Pope presiding over jubilee services. We passed on going out to the many expat bars and called our families. It was great to hear their voices from so far away – especially the kids. It was nearly 2am before we got off the phone.
We went to sleep with a simple holiday prayer for peace in the minds and hearts of all. We have seen some incredible suffering and tragedy in the past seven months, but also the incredible resilience and strength of the human spirit. We know we are blessed to be two of the fortunate ones in the balance of life.
Day 236, Tues, Dec. 26, 2000 –
After checking out some of the local guesthouses in the area, we moved to
hotel Hanh Hoa to save over $50 (also helps to offset the extortionate phone
calls last night). We’re not complaining though, as we feel better staying at
this level hotel anyway – it’s closer to locals, very clean and central to
the “tourist ghetto” of services and food.
As a bonus, we even get a revolving Christmas tree decorated with blue
On the way back home, we stopped by a place that was on
plan – Baskin and Robbins ice cream shop. According
to the manager, the stop by was planned not just
because our president enjoys his ice cream (like us), but because his shop was the first US
fast food place opened after the US embargo was lifted in 1994.
He waited all day, but unfortunately Bill didn’t show up.
He never heard why, but he’s not holding a grudge. After 14 years of waiting, his visa to the US is finally
approved and he will be moving to the LA area in a few months, so we told him to
look us up. Southern
California has the largest Vietnamese population in the world outside of
Vietnam. He said that things
were looking up in the Vietnamese economy, but it's nowhere near the opportunity
he has in the US, which he has dreamed about since his training there for the
South Vietnamese Air
Force. There is also some lingering
resentment between North and South, which he would rather his family get away
from. On the way back to
the hotel, we walked
through the more upscale shopping neighborhood and refurbished French colonial
hotels - passing the catholic church with Christmas lights against the steel
blue sky. The church had the same millennium jubilee year sign we saw in
Italy and Spain.
On the way back to the hotel, we walked through the more upscale shopping neighborhood and refurbished French colonial hotels - passing the catholic church with Christmas lights against the steel blue sky. The church had the same millennium jubilee year sign we saw in Italy and Spain.
After resting a bit at the hotel, we walked around the tourist ghetto,
which gets decidedly more raunchy after dark, and had our first taste of the
famous backbone of Vietnamese cuisine, Pho Bo (a noodle dish which is delicious,
but not quite the same as a “po boy” sandwich in the states).
On CNN, Taksim was formally indicted for fraud in Thailand although the election is January 6, and Milosevic lost the election in Yugoslavia. The world cautiously rejoices, but fears that he may try to stay in power regardless of the election.
Day 237, Wed. Dec 27, 2000 – Hung out at the sidewalk café for breakfast (a remnant of the French way of colonial life), eating an omelet and strong black drip coffee with sweetened condensed milk on the side. It tastes better than it sounds. We talked to some more tour companies before starting our jaunt around Saigon. We took separate motos, so I could actually see the look on Naomi’s face as we zipped through traffic. It was a wonderful way to see the city, surrounded by young guys in jeans and young women in more traditional long “ao dais” – long white dresses with conservative, but quite attractive, high collars. The guys wore baseball caps and the women wore conical hats, gloves and scarves to avoid getting a suntan. While westerners show off by going to the beach, resort or tanning booth to get that “I don’t have to work all day in an office” tan, most Asians long for that pale white “I don’t have to work in the fields like a peasant” tan. We thought we would see a lot more “Amerasian” kids – the abandoned and often abused children of American servicemen – but we only saw a few blonds and light-eyed people on the streets. There is said to be from 30-40 thousand in the country, but they are no longer children - most would be in their 30's by now.
Our teenage driver got lost, but we eventually found our way to the pagodas we wanted to visit in Cholon, the traditional “Chinatown” section of the city. As in other Southeast Asian countries, a large Chinese population has been here for centuries. China actually ruled the country for some 12 centuries until the 10th century AD, then sporadically interfered all the way to World War II. The temples are very energetic and full of color – the standard red and gold of China dominating. There are dozens of ceramic and wood dragons, lions, horses, and deified kings – many gilded in gold. The incense smoke swirled above us and around the courtyard, before rising through the roof. The interior courtyard roof was lined with hundreds of carved figurines in various scenes from village life, a harvest melding into a market blending into a party scene, some of the figures lost in the haze of a hundred joss sticks. We had to leave after a while because our eyes were not used to it. Outside the temples, white doves were being sold from cages so worshippers could symbolically free them. Apparently, they fly right back afterward.
From the temple neighborhood, we took another pair of motos to the recently renamed War Remnants Museum. The courtyard displays a wide variety of US-made war hardware captured from either Americans or the South Vietnamese forces. A plaque in front of each tank, howitzer, flame-thrower, cannon, plane, bomb, helicopter, etc. explains its function and use during the “American invasion”. As we were reading the plaque in front of the “Huey” copter, a man limped over to us. He had no hands, one eye and one leg. He wore a leather pouch around his neck full of books, postcards and other paraphernalia for sale. He said he was blown up by a land mine in 1972. He somehow deftly pulled out a photo of his wife and two kids, saying he supports them by selling things to tourists – which is also how he learned English. We bought a copy of Bao Ninh’s “The Sorrow of War” from him and gave him about $8 although we saw it yesterday near the hotel for $3. He was probably the most damaged amputee we had met to date, but at the same time the most ambitious. The displays and photos inside the museum are not for the squeamish as they faithfully represent the true horrors and atrocities of war. Unfortunately, the collection is very one-sided and still more representative of its former name, the “Museum of American War Crimes”. There are photos of American GI’s interrogating prisoners, threatening civilians, kicking heads, holding up the torso remains of a mine victim, dragging bodies behind tanks, throwing a body from a helicopter, and in one horrific scene, smiling for the camera with the severed heads of some VC guerillas. Of course, some may have been faked for propaganda purposes; but they looked real enough to get the point across.
The truth is, unspeakable crimes are committed in every war, and the war in Vietnam was no exception. Both sides used torture to further their agendas and were responsible for civilian murder, and both sides could present a memorial to the atrocities of the other. However, in the post-war years, it was more important for the victorious Northern government to magnify the anti-American feeling in the country to solidify support for the new regime. The exhibits are hard to fathom, especially the scenes of the women and children victims of the notorious My Lai massacre, in which 504 civilians were rounded up and murdered for suspected assistance to VC guerillas. The US later court-martialed the officer in charge, but that does little to placate the victims' families or diminish the impact of the photos to museum visitors. The next section of the museum highlights the defoliation campaign to remove the ground cover for the guerilla fighters. There are before and after photos showing the devastation of the countryside and pictures of burned victims of napalm and deformed children of “Agent Orange” and dioxin poisons. The museum also makes liberal (and effective) use of excerpts form the Pentagon Papers, the report critical of the US war effort and the cause of Nixon’s eventual impeachment; as well as selected quotes from US officials and politicians like Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (“Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why”), Senator Barry Goldwater (“there won’t be enough of Vietnam left to grow rice on it”) and Commander Curtis Lemay (“we will bomb them back to the stone age”). From the statistics presented, it appears the US tried to do just that, dropping 7.8 million tons of bombs (nearly three times the amount used in World War II) and 75 million liters of defoliants. Most Americans are aware of the loss of some 58,000 US fighters, but few would guess that 3 million Vietnamese were killed during the war and 4 million others injured. A special exhibit, “Requiem” chronicles the efforts and tragic deaths of war photographers from both sides, with examples of their most poignant and moving images – some of which wound up in Life and other magazines at the time and went on to win Pulitzer prizes. The photographers’ skill and sensitivity put a human face on the tragedy - and the faces are very similar. Any differences between “us” and “them” and “we” and “you” melt in the muddy swamp of war - the anguish of a mother struggling to get her children out of a river looking remarkably similar to the fear of am American GI in a slimy foxhole.
Other exhibits show the “tiger cages” used for VC prisoners; the guillotine inherited from the French and used against the VC; worldwide protests against the war; and US student protests, including the burning of draft cards, the self-immolation of three protestors (duplicating the protest by Buddhist monks in Saigon) and the Kent State University shootings ("what if you knew her and saw her dead on the ground? How can you run when you know" - Ohio by Neil Young).
effect of the museum is overwhelming – most visitors walked through viewing
reading intensely in stunned
silence. Although it may have been initially created for propaganda
purposes, it now stands as a reminder to all of the horrible, dehumanizing
brutality of war, not only for the warriors, but more so for the civilian
population. It is an indictment of
war itself as anything but glorious, regardless of the political objective.
After a couple hours inside, a rainstorm started to pound the ceiling.
We would like to think it was a symbolic cleansing rain, but it will take
a hell of a lot more rain to cleanse this country of the crimes committed here -
by both sides.
Day 238, Thurs, Dec. 28, 2000 – We woke early for the “big breakfast” of eggs, beans, fries and “coffee” at Kim café. We’ve discovered that Saigon is not only the capital of motos, but also the capital of fruit shakes – with a delicious array of fresh tropical fruits on offer everywhere. Our favorite is blended pineapple, banana and mango. After breakfast we joined our tour to the Cu Chi tunnels at 8:00. We had eight other people on the tour, three Swedish girls, two Australian girls, two English guys and an Austrian girl. Our tour guide, Tien, was a college graduate, but cannot find a job even with a degree in engineering, so he does tours. We stopped at a small hut to see how rice paper is made from mashed up rice, then continued through remarkably green countryside for an hour. At the tunnel site, they showed a video of guerilla warfare and tunnel life, diagrams and maps showing the US base in the center.
The tunnels started at 50 km during the French resistance, but reached
over 200 km by the end of the American war, providing the training and staging
ground for the Tet offensive in Saigon in 1968.
The visit indicates that the US had no idea what they were up
against when fighting in the fields and forests.
The North Vietnamese regular army (NVA) was fairly easy to identify, but
Americans also battled the unseen Viet Cong, impossible to track and impossible to determine if (or
which) villagers were supporting them with food, supplies, and information. There was no well-defined "front" as in previous wars and
neither side had ever heard of something called a "no-man's land". A
village could contain poor peasant farmers one day and VC the next, and a little
girl doing laundry one day might deliver a grenade the next. It was no
place for a type of American soldier unseen in previous wars - the typical
Vietnam GI was fresh out of high school, drafted with no escape like his richer
or better-connected friends, separated from those he trained with and sent where
the difference between friend and foe was from the black and white of the wars against
fascist Germany and Imperialist Japan. In the midst of the
Vietnamese civil war, the US would patrol vast areas during the day, but the VC would
control the nights. Some VC even
popped up in the middle of the US base at night to ambush the sleeping troops.
After that, the US knew something was up, but could only find a small
percentage of the tunnels, and when they did, the defenses and booby traps took
heavy casualties, including trained dogs and army specialists called “tunnel
rats”. The US eventually got so frustrated; they virtually blanketed the area
with ordinance, declaring Cu Chi a free-fire zone for unloading any unused bombs
when returning to the planes’ base in Saigon.
We viewed some pretty scary-looking mock-ups of some of the various booby
traps, mostly metal and bamboo spikes which stick mortally in various parts of the
body, from the feet all the way to the head.
We continued to a shooting range were we got the opportunity to see what
an M16 felt like. I fired 4 rounds
and Naomi fired one. I must admit,
I felt a bit odd as the only “American aggressor” in our group and firing a
weapon as the old army guys looked on (which side was he on?).
No matter how active and sensitive our imagination, there is no way we
could ever know what it felt like to hold these weapons and walk this land in
hot, sticky muck and sweat and blood to wait out the possibility of killing
strangers or being killed yourself. The
tunnels themselves are eerie to crawl through – dark and musty. I had to go
down to hands and knees in some sections. Underground
there was everything a small city needed – a hospital, a warehouse, a dormitory, a
kitchen and dining room. They
served us a snack of cassava roots, peanuts and tea and showed us how the smoke
from the kitchen is funneled out a different way so the location is undetected. Outside the
tunnel there were
monkeys, more snake wine, and a pitifully caged native brown bear with huge
claws, slobbery mouth and sad eyes. Capitalism is definitely not a dirty word around
here. In addition to the
morbid concept of profiting from the war remnants and weapons, they’ve also
learned the Disney trick of making guests walk through the gift shop on the way
out. They have an amazingly tacky
collection of war mementos including “original” American dog tags,
“zippo” lighters, watches, shell casings, and figurines made from the twisted
metal of exploded ordinance.
On the way home, we stopped for delicious crushed sugar
cane drink, reminiscent of the “juicy amua” in Zanzibar. The bus dropped us off in a new part of town, where we
stopped at a noodle shop famous for being a hangout of VC spies. We interviewed Lam, son of a South Vietnamese soldier thrown in
jail – he said there is still animosity
between North and South, but not against Americans as they are still admired for their
position in the world. We hope we
hear the same when we head North. He thinks it’s funny when they call it the “American War” since it
was really a civil war with plenty of Vietnamese hoping the communists would
lose as well.
Afterward, we visited the Jade Emperor pagoda, with its incredible wood carvings of the 10 stages of hell. They reminded us of the torments depicted in Italian churches and Katmandu. Of course the imaginary hells bear no resemblance to the actual hells we saw at the museum yesterday. We walked back to the US embassy for photos of the famous site of the evacuation but unfortunately, the guards told us that it was completely rebuilt two years ago – so much for the 1999 version of Lonely Planet. We could just see over the walls to the property captured by the VC for six long hours during the Tet offensive - the
We continued to visit our favorite Vietnamese shop so far, the Baskin
Robbins near the Rex hotel. We
chatted with Hoahn again about his upcoming move
to the US. He said he does have a
love for his country since he was
born here, but he will not be sentimental when
it comes time to leave since he has been waiting so long to see the freedom
opportunities available in the US – his teenage daughter has even fewer qualms
about leaving her home and friends. Hoahn
told us his employees work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week for $50 per month. He is
well aware of the expense of the move, but he has been waiting almost 20 years
since he spent 15 months in jail for trying to escape Vietnam in a boat after
good job is important. If you have
a good job, you have good life – family life, personal life.
I like being able to travel around the world.
I think you can learn many things from different places.
It is a good idea to visit Vietnam. It
is a small country, but beautiful; people are very friendly
We took a cyclo home, through a million headlights and past
night markets with goods cascading down to the sidewalk.
Back at the hotel, we watched the Killing Fields DVD we got from one of
the dozens of local pirates. It
meant much more to us having been to the fields themselves just a week ago.
Naomi cried as Dith Pran tried to memorize the name on the fake passport
he needed to escape the Khmer Rouge and I nearly lost it when he finally made it
to the Thai border, mostly because we kept picturing our guide Vithouy in the
same position. The actor who played
Dith Pran, Dr. Hang
it all only to get murdered during a robbery after settling in California.
We had forgotten that Roland Joffe used
Lennon’s “Imagine” at the end of the film, just as we did for our website
– I guess we’re not the only dreamers out there.
Day 239, Fri, Dec. 29, 2000 - We had breakfast watching the street crowd, starting to see the same cyclo drivers, kids, fruit vendors, newsboys, beggars, and monks with alms bowls. Near the café there’s a guy with mangled legs pushing himself along on a skateboard and two adorable girls trying to convince locals and tourists alike to buy lottery tickets.
We walked around the tourist area and shopped for
souvenirs, pirated copies of CDs, and reproduction paintings.
There’s at least 8 shops in walking distance full of kids painting
reproductions of everything from Da Vinci to Warhol.
We bought a couple of Van Gogh reproductions.
Most people we have met are very polite, with a bright smile that can
mean anything from “Oh, I see, yes – I understand” to “no way- you must
think I was born yesterday” to “I feel so sorry for you”.
We try to smile that innocuous way when we are besieged by a dozen
vendors all selling the same stuff (postcards, donuts, bread, fruit, books,
etc,). Family is very important in
Vietnam, so when people ask our age and how many kids we have they smile that
smile. We read later that being
“barren” at our age is a sign of extreme bad luck and we are to be pitied,
if not avoided altogether lest our bad fortune rub off on someone. That’s OK because Naomi is already bad luck since she’s
tan like a peasant.
While Naomi continued shopping, I met a young cyclo driver, Huan, who took me to some pagodas through some incredible crowds – It’s amazing how the slow, pedaled cyclos blend into the river of traffic with motos, cars, buses and trucks zooming all around - not to mention bicycles loaded down with all manner of miscellaneous goods. Every once in a while we would go down a narrow alley like a step back in time, only to emerge into a cyclone at the next turn. At each stop sign, an uneasy still-life tableaux of various shapes and sizes bursts into a frenetic blur of colors in an instant. Huan said his dream is to own a moto someday – maybe the Honda Dream or one of the many Chinese varieties available now that trade has opened up between the two countries. Some of the motos we passed looked ancient, reminding me of the old 1969 Honda 350 I had in college (although these kids drive a little more crazy then I did back then). Huan gave probably the most honest (and accurate) interview of the trip:
"The most important thing in life: I don't know"
We stopped at an ancient monastery and temple with more
dragon, lion and other beasts carved in and around and the standard “Goddess
of Mercy” in the courtyard, which we’ve seen elsewhere.
The small pagodas in the courtyard had beautiful blue and white porcelain embedded
into the drab gray concrete. Inside there was a prayer service taking place inside and a monk asked us to
join him for some tea. He had been
there for 34 years and expected to be there until he died.
He explained a little of the Vietnamese religion – a combination of
Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian and animist beliefs, heavy on ancestor worship.
Most Vietnamese will say they are Buddhist, but continue many rituals and
traditions of worship unrelated to Buddha.
We can’t pretend to understand it all – it’s even more confusing
than the mixes of Buddhist and Hindu in India and Nepal.
Huan took us to the myriad of CD, VCD and DVD stores so we could look for movies about the war, but the specialty here seems to be horror films, comedies and newer action adventure movies. When we asked for some famous titles, the clerks gave us blank stares – they obviously weren’t brought up on American war movies like we were (since they had the real thing to watch if they were old enough). We wanted to watch some of these again while we were here so we could understand things more thoroughly. Unfortunately, films were our primary means of education back then – especially when you’re too young to take an interest in reading. Fortunately, what started as patriotic propaganda like “Green Berets” eventually became more nuanced, balanced and realistic in the late seventies. It started with “The Deer Hunter”, which included the emotional scars caused by war and horrific scenes of prisoners being forced to play Russian Roulette. “Coming Home” told the story of confused veterans returning home where they are not welcomed as heroes as their ancestors were, but disrespected, ignored or called “baby killers”. Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” told an almost hallucinogenic story of decent into the madness of jungle warfare. It was based on a combination of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and some real rogue generals operating in Cambodia. Then in the eighties Brian DePalma chipped in with “Casualties Of War” about a kidnapped civilian/VC girl, Kubrick added “Full Metal Jacket” about the methodical creation and sacrifice of human killing machines, and war veteran Oliver Stone attempted to exorcise some of his own demons with the trilogy of “Platoon”, “Born of the Fourth of July” and “Heaven and Earth” about the hell of the fighting, the anti-war movement back home, and the effect on a Vietnamese woman and her village, respectively. There have been dozens more, not all of them honest, and some even jingoist and racist like the ridiculous “Rambo” and “Missing In Action” series, made primarily for teenage boys. France also contributed the wonderful “Indochine”. And more recently, the Vietnamese film industry contributed a couple of gems in “The Scent of Green Papaya” and “Cyclo". Of all of these, we could only find “Full Metal Jacket” and “Born on the Fourth Of July". We then had a pasta dinner with some of the local prostitutes working the tables – there was one in particular with at least a 40-year age difference between her and her customer (sort of like a Vietnamese Anna Nicole Smith). In our first six days here we’ve received more than our share of stares and snickers resulting from the legacy of centuries of foreigners hiring locals – from Chinese to French to American. As Lonely Planet says “An Asian woman accompanied by a Western male will automatically be labeled a “Vietnamese whore”. The fact that the couple could be married (or just friends) doesn’t seem to occur to anyone, nor does it seem to register that the woman might not be Vietnamese at all. If she’s Asian, she must be Vietnamese, and if she’s with a Westerner, then she must be a prostitute. It will be difficult to convince many Vietnamese otherwise.”. So far, the most effective method we have found is to make a point of speaking English loud enough for gawkers to hear. This usually results in a nervous chuckle and smile as they walk away.
Day 240, Sat, Dec. 30, 2000 –Early big breakfast at Kim, then said goodbye to Saigon (oops, Ho Chi Minh City) to start our trip North to see the rest of Vietnam. We could have taken the famous “Reunification Express” – three-day train from Saigon to Hanoi. It was originally built by the French, but became a prime battleground during the French and American wars. We decided instead to buy a bus pass because it stopped at a lot more tourist spots along the way and from talking to other tourists, it sounded a bit more comfortable. We boarded our bus at the ripe time of 7:30 AM with a bunch of other bleary-eyed westerners. The first stop was Dalat, the kitschy honeymoon capital of Vietnam. We can understand why many people (who can afford it) escape the heat of the Mekong Delta for the cool central highlands. We drove through landscapes of hills, fields, streams, rice paddies and forests as we climbed to higher altitude. The views are every shade of green – olive, jade, emerald, Kelly, lime, and shades we can’t even name. We had a fairly comfortable A/C tourist bus and the roads were pretty good, particularly compared to the Cambodian countryside. Breaks were taken for a hot Pho lunch and to view a wonderful multi-level waterfall before pulling into Dalat in a drizzle. It was much cooler and we enjoyed the fresh smell of rain through the window. We got a room at Phu Hoa Hotel for $8 and took a walk around the town. This is where the emperor Bao Dai retreated to in 1950 when it was clear he was just a figurehead for the French. He was the contemporary of Cambodia’s Sihanouk, but did not last nearly as long. Bao Dai abdicated in 1945, forced to confer the emperor’s traditional “mandate of heaven” on Ho Chi Minh to help legitimize his leadership. He then lived the fancy life in France until 1949, and was finally deposed for good by the South’s Diem in 1955. His hobbies were fine living and hunting, which contributed to Dalat becoming the tourist and taxidermy center of the South. We decided to pass on the many cheesy plastic and stuffed-animal Disneyesque attractions that many honeymooners visit and went through the hectic three-level central market with its replica of the Eiffel tower. Not many westerners, but among the endless rows of bananas and tennis shoes we did run into a nice Australian couple and their daughter from the tour bus. Dinner was delicious spring rolls next door to the hotel. We’re really enjoying the Vietnamese cuisine – the most delicate and pastry-influenced of Asian foods – even if a main ingredient is sometimes nuoc mam – a fish sauce with a smell that rivals Korean kimchi. It was a great local place – we were the only westerners and two older Chinese guys were entertained by young Vietnamese girls in miniskirts and tons of hair and make-up. Naomi got “the look” again.
Day 241, Sun, Dec. 31, 2000 - Who could have imagined when this “once-in-a-lifetime” millennium year, which started amongst great fanfare, anticipation and pyrotechnics, I would end drunk as a skunk chasing a drunken naked Englishmen into the surf to make sure he didn’t drown himself? But I jump ahead - lets start at the beginning: the day started innocent and innocuous enough as we caught the 7:30 bus to Nha Trang, a beach community downhill and West of Dalat. Along the way we read Lonely Planet, Tiger Balm and Cambodia Year Zero. It was an incredible history to go with the evocative landscape. At each stop we were greeted by the rural life of bicycles, kids and other beasts of burden. The countryside is even more beautiful than the guidebooks indicate – it wasn’t even sunny and the greens were vibrant, with surprisingly little hint that this is the land of defoliants like Agent Orange. We stopped at the Po Klong ruins – probably the best-preserved monuments of the Cham Empire that battled the Khmers for centuries before being assimilated by the Vietnamese from the North. Their burnt-orange stones provided a wonderful contrast to the green rice paddies and swaying palm trees. At lunch we met Ivan, a film editor from Nottingham, now living in London and Helen, a nanny with a North England accent we mistook for Irish.
At one stop for photos Ivan was literally surrounded by girls selling
drinks from little thermos coolers. They
are very persuasive – he and I bought water and soda to last for days.
We eventually arrived at Nha Trang at 3:00 and we all decided to stay at
the same hotel, the Vina, right on
the beach. Naomi and I went for a
wonderfully relaxing cyclo ride along the beach past huge colonial hotels and
war monuments and over the bridge to the Po Nagar Cham
Towers on the other side of the
river. They were interesting, but
not nearly as nice as the ones at Po Klong.
The temples were on a hill -providing an overview of the life built on
the water, including the ingenious “basket boats” woven of bamboo and
covered with tar. We continued to a
pagoda and giant Buddha, surrounded by requisite cripples, beggars, and kids
playing games. Naomi went with
Helen to get her first haircut of the trip (since it was a holiday, after all)
then we stopped for some local Rum (Rhum). It
may be the worst tasting drink we’ve ever had, but the imported brands are
ridiculously overpriced. Gone are
the days of US troop surplus whiskey and post-war Russian Vodka, but we needed
something in order to celebrate the New Year properly.
We met up with Ivan and Helen for a western (Italian) dinner of pasta,
chicken and icy Tiger beer, then headed for the sailing club where locals were
watching tourists happily make fools of themselves on the dance floor. There was a raging bonfire out back in the sand and we
relaxed for a while. At 11:00 the
crowd was still pretty mellow and the music pretty lame, so we walked along the
beach to the Rainbow Bar, which was much livelier with locals and tourists
dancing on the tables to songs we could actually recognize. We joined the festivities with beers and shots of Tequila,
Jack Daniels and the aforementioned nasty Rhum.
The combination proved potent (deadly?) enough to get us in the dancing
mood and we were on the floor listening to various tunes – some of which seemed to be
local party tunes from the 60s with sing-along choruses of
“Saiii-gaahhnn” and “viettt-naaam”.
We can’ really say we followed all of it – the only thing we could
tell for sure was that it wasn’t the national anthem we heard in the
Reunification Palace. The music
turned techno-ish, so at 11:40 we headed back to the Sailing Club where it was
getting more celebratory. We pushed
ourselves onto the dance floor just as a silly Abba song of “Happy New Year”
started the hands waving and the glitter and confetti started to fly, soon
followed by champagne sprayed into the crowd by barmen, waitresses and sloshed
tourists standing on the bar. Abba
was followed immediately by techno music with no stop for “Auld Lang Syne”, which
would have disappointed us if we hadn't had so much to drink.
We pushed and slithered through the crowd to get some air near the beach and
that’s when Ivan got his great idea. We
were amazed at the adroit transformation from mild-mannered shy tourist to
slightly unstable (and decidedly un-shy) party animal.
We thought he was joking about a swim at first due to the steaming dance
floor and our alcohol and sweat- drenched shirts, but we realized he was serious
when the clothes started to come off. Before
we could say “Holy shit – look at that full moon!” his blazingly white ass
was bounding into the surf. It was
the funniest thing we’d seen in ages, but we soon realized the waves were
pretty big, knocking Ivan over with a laugh.
I decided to go in just to make sure he wasn’t too drunk to get back
(OK, maybe I wanted to have some fun too).
I may have been inebriated, but I didn’t quite strip all the way. After being knocked down a few times, I grabbed a floating
coconut and handed it to him to cover himself up as he came ashore.
By now a huge crowd gathered. Many
laughed, but sadly, our foray in the surf did not inspire a massive revolution
against conventional behavior and no one joined us.
Ivan was dressing quickly as a security guard quickly jogged up.
We had visions of spending the New Year evening making frantic calls and
borrowing money to arrange for his release from a Vietnamese prison, but the
guard just shined his flashlight on him and burst
into laughing. After drying off at the fire for a while and enjoying Ivan’s newfound
celebrity, we went back to the hotel to change clothes.
Ivan is already denying that he went “starkers” as Helen says, but we
have evidence – a grainy image of him getting dressed afterward (although it
could be a ghost - or a frame left
on the cutting room floor during editing of “The Full Monty”).
After drying, we wound up at Rainbow Bar again where we ran into the
infamous Mama Hahn of “Mama Hahn’s Green Hat Tours”. She was a riot – a bundle of nervous party energy (or
something else) bouncing around the bar, toasting everyone and sharing drinks
and smokes. She has quite the
reputation with fellow travelers (and Lonely Planet) since she virtually
invented the 4-island boat tour featuring snorkeling, eating, and a floating bar.
Rumors are rampant about the demise of her business over a run-in with a
business rival, the tax man or something more sinister like the police cracking
down on some of the more unusual items she’s been known to dispense from the
floating bar. We asked her
ourselves and she dismissed the rumors with a hearty laugh: “oh, f**k that
crap – I am fine. I will always
have good time. Don’t be
Day 242, Mon. Jan. 1, 2000 – Well, we woke feeling
a lot better than we had a right to feel since we took Mama Hahn’s advice last
night and we weren’t lazy (which is her slang for “don’t stop enjoying
yourself”). We were among the
last sad souls to leave the dance floor – except for the groups of guys
dancing together) and staggered back to the hotel some time after 3:00.
Somehow, we were up by 8:00 for the prearranged boat tour.
We stumbled aboard the bus to the boat wondering if we would see Mama
Hahn again. At the dock, dozens of
local kids and amputees crowded the boat since that’s where the Westerners
hang out. We gave some cash to a
horribly disfigured man standing on one leg near the bow of the boat. It is difficult to enjoy the morning in the face of such
sadness, and a gloom together with the hangovers fell over the boat.
Although the boat had her name on it, Mama Hahn was nowhere in sight.
After an hour ride, we stopped at the first island and snorkeled over dead
coral in murky water with very low visibility.
The scuba dive shops had told us yesterday that they are not diving now
due to low visibility. An hour
later we were at the second island and digging into a huge seafood buffet spread
in the sun on the roof of the boat. The
variety was amazing – demonstrating how Vietnam is completely self-sufficient
in foodstuffs. The next stop was a
tiny cove and the infamous floating bar – which is actually a large square of Styrofoam
with various accoutrements floating on top. We dove off the top of the boat, sat in life preserver rings
and paddled out to the bar. Unfortunately,
the “wine” on offer was the most horrendous liquid ever to cross our lips.
It was ostensibly mulberry wine, but tasted like a cross between corn
syrup and gasoline. The only saving
grace was the sliced pineapple, which we chewed feverishly to mask the taste of
the “wine”. The boat was
playing some great music (Marley, Credence, Stones, etc.) over some
unfortunately not-so-great speakers. If
the fish weren’t scared off by the people, they certainly were by the music.
The tour stopped at another “honeymoon” island that shared Dalat’s
infatuation with nude statues of western-looking women (since Asian women would
never pose in the nude). Back on the
boat, the crew had laid out another incredible buffet – this one entirely of
local tropical fruits. Most were
delicious – pineapples, melons, oranges, mangos, papayas, etc. – but some
were downright awful. Most people
were spitting out a nasty bitter one Ivan nicknamed “shit fruit”.
We had a pretty good group – Australian, English, Dutch, American,
Swedish, German – and we agreed to meet for drinks later.
Unfortunately, we were too tired and just went for a small dinner on the
beach at a local restaurant, complete with Japan’s great gift to modern
civilization – Karaoke. The
opportunities for mocking are endless, but we will resist in the interests of
So the new year is here – it’s hard to believe it was a
whole year ago when the world was talking about the impending Y2K disaster and
we all huddled around the TV at Brenda’s house and stopping the party music just
long enough to watch the celebrations all over the world to see if it was
indeed coming to an end. Well,
we’re all still here (more or less), and the world keeps spinning – out of
control in some respects, but spinning nonetheless.
If you would like to follow our adventure in Vietnam, please click here: Photojournal January 2 - 7, 2001
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