Day 243, Tues., Jan. 2, 2000 – Started the new year with an absolutely horrendous travel day – second only to our 4-country day a few months ago and my bowel-churning ride from Arusha to Nairobi. We were told to be ready at 6:00 so we had to wake at 5:00 to pack. We were picked up at 6:30, then had to wait until 7:40 at another hotel for some unexplained reason. As we travel north the roads deteriorate rapidly. The saving grace is the beautiful calming scenery - with green fields, grazing water buffalo, and people hunched over rice fields or carrying loads from poles slung across their shoulders.
We passed the turn-off to Son My - better known by the village name My Lai - sight of the famous massacre documented so well in Ho Chi Minh City. "Search and destroy" missions were common in VC-controlled areas, so My Lai was far from the only atrocity, and probably not even the worst, but it was the only one that made huge headlines shortly after it occurred. This was primarily because one US helicopter crew with a conscience tried to stop the carnage and reported the incident. The crew witnessed hundreds of civilians, including women and children, being rounded up and murdered, women and girls raped, huts burned and farm animals killed. Some of the soldiers even took a break for lunch. Apparently, the only American casualty was a soldier who shot himself in the foot to avoid joining in. Once My Lai was publicized, many veterans returning home were insulted by being labeled as "baby killers" by anti-war activists. According to Lonely Planet, there is now a museum, statues and memorials similar to Auschwitz without the buildings. Unfortunately, this was not a part of the bus tour we bought.
We were supposed to arrive in Hoi An at 5:00 PM, but eventually pulled in at 10:00. Of course they never told us anything about the timing and we didn’t even know we’d be late until we asked at 4:00. The guides couldn’t answer in English although we were guaranteed as much in the office, so the driver wrote 10:00 on my hand. The group was entirely disgruntled when we got there, but could not get a straight answer from anyone: -it sounded like the famous “Who’s On First” routine by Abbott and Costello:
“Why are we 5 hours late?”
This went on for a couple of rounds until we finally looked
at each other and just laughed. I
had the odd feeling there were hidden cameras on us to study how we react in
ridiculous circumstances. We were
too exhausted to try anymore so we just gave up and took a room at Thanh Binh II.
Probably the nicest we’ve had in Vietnam, with burnished wood interior
and silk and porcelain wall hangings (plus A/C, frig and TV) all for $20.
Day 244, Wed., Jan. 3, 2000 – We slept well, with some incredible Larium dreams, which is sort of weird since we took our last Larium two weeks ago and switched to a daily dose of Doxycyclene for the particular malaria strain in this part of the world. Anyway, I was sharing an apartment in New York with Arnold Schwarzenegger (yeah, right) and we were doing some kind of deal (movie? charity? politics? drugs?) and as I went to meet him, my life switched to LA where I was living in Venice in a house with an exterior like a Katmandu temple and the interior from our friend Brenda’s house. Snakes were attacking me, but I just swatted them away like I was playing with a puppy dog. Fairly weird dream – I wonder what it has to do with the nightmare bus ride last night. After an OK omelet and sweet strong coffee (which we’re really getting used to), we split up and I went to complain to the bus company while the girls went shopping. The same guy was in the office as last night and he admitted that many of the passengers had already been to see him – he assured me that the next leg would be on the (revised) schedule, but reiterated that there was no refund on the bus ticket. Unfortunately, one-way train tickets were $40 each, so we will probably have to stick it out. Walked around the remarkably well-preserved old town, which was somehow spared from any damage during the war. Centuries-old Japanese and Chinese merchant houses sit nestled amongst tailors, painters, woodcarvers, and lamp makers. Hoi An is a step back in time - the artsy shopping Mecca of Vietnam, like a tiny Asian version of an Alpine, Riviera or Cotswold village - complete with damp green moss clinging to the bricks and stones. It has only now started to attract an unruly amount of tourists, threatening the old world feel of the place. Tourists bring money to the town, but they also being over-dependence – most people were nice enough but you could sense the desperation as in most poor countries. We had ten offers for boat rides and five for restaurants in the first five minutes.
While Naomi and Helen went to one of Hoi An’s famous silk tailoring shops for clothes, Ivan and I took a short boat trip with a 17-year old girl with great English named Hee and a woman named American (we didn’t believe it either). They were very sweet, but as we glided gently down the river, a woman I had turned down for a ride 20 minutes earlier yelled out “you say ‘no’ to me – f--k you!”. I said “that’s not very nice - why say that?” She answered “you very bad man”. Well, she may be right about that, but not because I picked someone else to give us a boat ride. The ride was very peaceful ad relaxing and we couldn’t resist some cheesy photos with Hee’s conical hats and oars.
Afterward, we walked around the colorful, active local market. All goods were represented – fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, spice, hard goods, hats, clothes – and the aisles were heaving with commerce. We wondered what this looked like ten years ago when private enterprise was forbidden. It was busy, but mellow – everyone seeming to be enjoying the day – unlike huge markets in big cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. The images were amazing – the colors and faces showing the variety of life itself: Women squatting over their goods spread on blankets or held in baskets on the street, kids playing badminton, boats with containers tied all over them, happy ducks waddling across the street and sad pigs confined to wire cages. I took dozens of photos and for the first time, used up the Sony “memory stick” completely in 4 hours (114 shots).
A very pleasant girl of about 13 befriended me to “practice her
English” but I felt obliged to stop by her family’s clothing shop although I
insisted that Naomi was the real shopper and promised to tell her about the shop
later. We met up with the girls for
lunch at Tam Tam Club, an old wooden and wicker bar with beautiful old black and
white photos on the walls that reminded us of the Foreign Correspondence Club in
Phnom Penh. We then toured the
Japanese bridge, Tan Ke house, assembly hall, pagoda and shop.
Played a modified game of baci ball played with sandals at a pagoda, then
ro/sham/bo (paper/scissors/rock) with some little kids.
They giggled each time regardless of who won. Unfortunately, one took matters in his own hands when he lost
and shot me in the head with a Colt-45 cap gun.
I sense a worrying trend here. On the way home, I took a detour down an incredibly
moss-covered alley following the unmistakable sound of a basketball bouncing
down an alley and wandered into a pickup game.
They were teenagers and young guys – very energetic, but not that
skilled. I was hoping they would
ask me to play, but they already had ten guys so I made a half-hearted offer to
play badminton with an old guy, but he just smiled. Paper lanterns lit from
inside hang on shop fronts as we head to the river for dinner.
We stopped for a drink at Tam Tam first and chatted with Aussies about
our upcoming trip there before eating at Phuc Hong Restaurant (no kidding).
Day 245, Thur. Jan. 4, 2001 – Woke with diarrhea and had bread and cheese for breakfast before boarding the tour bus for My Son. Our agent, The, was a former soldier for the South whose American slang and swear words indicate the time he spent with the US forces (e.g. “I know those other f---ing guys sell tours for 3 or 4 dollars, but mine is only one and a half and mine is the best f---ing tour”). A gentle rain started to fall, so the trip was a little sloppy. By the time we arrived, the ruins were very muddy and we were transported by 4-wheel drive jeeps through the muck. Sitting in the back of the jeep bumping our heads together we had visions of Wadi Rum all over again.
The ruins are not as well preserved as Angkor Wat, being centuries older, victims of the war, and suffering a lack of refurbishment funds. People were all over them. It appears the government has determined that the best way to preserve the monuments was to allow tourists to scramble all over them. Some of the sculptures were impressive, but the structures themselves only hinted at the former glory of the Champa empire who defeated the Khmers of Angkar to the West but was assimilated by the Vietnamese empire from the North. The ruins were red and gray, dramatically overgrown with dark green moss, ferns and ivy. Contrary to The’s assurances, there was no English guide provided, so we made do with the indispensable Lonely Planet. There was a slight argument with the driver over departure time since we could not get a straight answer to any questions. One French guy was so upset he started screaming (“zees ees fooking boolsheet!!”). On the road back, we passed more brilliantly green rice paddies, swaying palms and wide-branched banana plants. I was reading “The Sorrow of War” which we had bought from the armless man in Saigon. It is a very moving work, written by a North Vietnamese Army veteran and has won acclaim everywhere but here. We’ve seen it for sale in English everywhere, but Vietnam-language versions are banned since Bao Ninh doesn’t necessarily write the propaganda version of the war. The images and emotions show that war is hell for everyone, regardless of which side you are fighting for. Like some American books we’ve read, the passages could have just as easily been written by an American, a South Vietnamese soldier, a German, a Japanese, a French or anyone who ever had to kill to remain alive.
“They were really happy days because for most of the rainy season they didn’t have to fight”
“Victory after victory, withdrawal after withdrawal, the path of war seemed endless, desperate and leading nowhere”
“He just wanted to be safe, to die quietly, sharing the fate of an insect or an ant in the war”
“I’m not afraid of dying, but this killing and shooting just goes on forever, I’m dying inside, bit by bit”
“We have so many of those damn idiots up there in the North enjoying the profits of war, but it’s the sons of peasants who have to leave home. Leaving a helpless mother, exposed to hardships”
“In all my time as a soldier, I’ve yet to see anything honorable”
“It was hard to remember a time when his whole personality and character had been intact, a time before the cruelty and the destruction of war had warped his soul”
“War was a world without real men, without real women, without feeling”
“Many good people have been killed. Those of us who survived have all been trying to make something of ourselves, but not succeeding”
“You will never be normal again. You won’t even speak with your normal voice, in the normal way again”
“When will I calm down, when will my heart be free of the tight grip of war”
By the time we got back to Hoi An, the uneasiness in my
guts had grown to fever, chills and
body aches and we feared I was getting the
flu or something. We hope not, but
we still believe we are very fortunate as this is only the third illness between
us in 8 months. I turned in to rest
and get caught up on CNN news. There is
great news out of Cambodia. The
National Council has passed a law to bring the Khmer Rouge to trial.
This is certainly a political victory for those harmed by the regime
(which was pretty much every Cambodian). However,
some are concerned that the language of the law is unclear on definitions of
purpose and methods. The UN had been encouraging this along for years, but they
are doubtful that Cambodian judicial procedures are structured properly and
independently for fair and just trials. So far no defendants have been named and it is unclear who
exactly they will go after.
Day 246, Fri, Jan 5, 2001 – The bus company called
at 10:00 last night to tell us that the bus had broken down and there would be
no morning bus. We were very
disappointed because the morning bus was the one that stopped at the Cham Museum
in Danang and the Marble Mountains for lunch.
The evening bus goes straight through to Hue.
In the morning I was feeling much better, having sweated out the fever
last night. Since we had the
morning to kill, we walked around town taking more photos and buying more
souvenirs (woodcarving and small paintings).
We also picked up Naomi’s new clothes – I thought they looked
great, but she’s afraid to wear local clothing here in light of the whole prostitution
thing. The town is really lovely
and we were sad it was our last day here. We
went back to the irresistible market area and then through the old French
Quarter near the river. A nice old guy called us into his house, which he shows for a small donation. It was a high-ceiling, exposed beam house with a long balcony
and plenty of character, including Mr. Doung himself. He is the fourth generation of his family to own the house
and his son will take it over when he passes.
He showed us his guest book which went back years with hundreds of
entries and business cards and photos. He
also had a wonderful Confucian quote on the wall near his old family photos.
He said Hoi An was very lucky to survive damage during the war because
the river is very low and warships could not come here.
We were back at the hotel at the allotted bus time of 2:30, but of course the bus arrived after 3:00, then waited at another hotel for 45 minutes before leaving town. When we stopped in Danang, there was a wonderful little mutiny. The passengers were already upset because the crew had precariously lodged all of our luggage in the back seat of the bus since they had the undercarriage compartment full of their own boxes – like they were in the parcel transport business as well. At Danang, 2 people got of and 4 got on - unfortunately, the bus was already full when we got there. People were yelling at the guides to take their own boxes out of the bottom and put our luggage there to free up the back row of seats. The driver yelled back in Vietnamese and started to bring on little plastic stools for people to sit in the aisle – the same ones we’ve seen people all over the country squat on and eat at little sidewalk stalls. This move put one English guy over the edge: “I paid five bloody dollars for a seat – you’re going to give me a proper seat!”. The driver wasn’t getting it, but then he really freaked out when a tall pony-tailed American guy started yelling in Vietnamese. He was shocked at first, like we all were, then huffed off the bus as we cheered for our new spokesman. The driver came back promising a car for two passengers, but they wouldn’t budge until the car was actually produced (smart move). We finally got going, but our travel woes were nothing compared to the soldiers and civilians who tried to leave Danang once it was "liberated" in 1975. TV cameras filmed soldiers and civilians clinging to (and falling from) the landing gear of evacuation airplanes.
On the way to Hue, an American sorority-type girl started a gambling pool to guess the time of our arrival. The bets ranged from 6:45 to 10:30, which means some of us evidently had some experience with this bus company. We passed the Marble Mountains as it was getting dark, so we didn’t see the best of it (or the beaches) and finally got in at 8:20 (we lost the pool by 27 minutes). In Hue, we had a wonderful Indian thali dinner, complete with cat-sized rats scooting across the floor toward the kitchen, before crashing at the Duy Tan Hotel.
Day 247, Sat, Jan 6, 2001 – Had breakfast at Mandarin Café right across from the hotel. It was a kind of a dive that doubled as a booking agency and displayed some incredible photos of the country and its people on the walls. The owner (and amateur photographer), Mr. Ku, had some photos published in a book about Hue by Japanese journalist K. Sawada ( www.jbook.co.jp). He had to keep the book under his desk because (like The Sorrow of War) it is banned in Vietnam since it discusses the barbarities of the North when they captured Hue. It was the only city in the South captured for more than a few days during the surprise attacks of the 1968 Tet offensive. While the South celebrated the lunar new year, the North launched simultaneous attacks throughout the country (the analogy would be if Pearl Harbor was attacked on New Year’s Eve). Although the surprise was perfect and the publicity effect devastated the war effort state-side, the American's eventually won back all lost territory and the North lost as many people in 13 days as the U.S. lost in ten years. During 25 days of occupation, the communists rounded up over 3,000 Hue civilians who were actual or suspected loyalists, intellectuals, monks, Catholics, teachers, etc, and murdered them (predating similar behavior by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia 7 years later). Mr. Ku told us a Vietnamese saying: “when the water buffalo and cow are fighting, the casualties are mosquitoes and flies”. Those not killed only had to suffer through the “revolutionary” songs their VC guests tried to teach them. Mr. Ko’s sister has a manicure shop, Tina Nails, in Santa Barbara. That’s the second person we met with links to Southern California which has the largest concentration of Vietnamese descendents outside of Vietnam.
We did a few errands via cyclo (laundry, train station, plane tickets, internet) before meeting up with everyone for lunch and buying postcards from waifish kids. We took a couple of cyclos across town and over a bridge with thousands of other wheeled vehicles to the Citadel, scene of fierce fighting during the war. There is an enormous flagpole where the VC flag flew defiantly until the fortress was recaptured by the Americans after fierce hand-to-hand street battles. Portions have been rebuilt after sever damage, but shelling damage can still be seen throughout the 10 km-square grounds, which now house impressive gates, rebuilt reception halls, destroyed palaces, gardens, empty fields and at least one wandering water buffalo.
Afterward, we played some soccer and hacky-sack with some kids, then took some pictures of people riding by in motos, cyclos and bicycles. . Hue has a much slower, provincial feel than Saigon and the city’s history as a cultural, educational and religious center earned it status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The people-watching is wonderful here - the older folks are peaceful and serene, even when working, and the school kids laughing in uniforms are adorable. Hue is also said to be the home of “the most beautiful girls in Vietnam”. After watching them glide by on bicycles with their white ao dais flapping behind, Ivan and I couldn’t really argue.
Day 248, Sun, Jan 7, 2001 – We woke early for a
dragon boat tour down the perfume river, which was very
brown and did not quite smell of perfume. There
were narrow sampans,
fishing boats and houseboats along the river and kids were bathing and doing
laundry along the shore. Our boat
stopped at Thien Mu pagoda, one of the most famous sites in Vietnam, with its
21-meter octagon tower facing the river. The
pagoda has a history as a political hotbed of protest and it was from here that
the monk Thich Quang Duc left for Saigon in 1963, where he set himself on fire
the anti-Buddhist policies of President Diem.
Diem’s sister in-law supposedly called it “barbeque party” (no
wonder she was called “Dragon Lady”). The
blue Austin the monk drove is on display, along with a copy of the famous
photograph that succeeded in bringing world attention to Vietnam and resulted in
Diem being overthrown and killed within months.
Our tiny boat carried on to visit several of the royal tombs of the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty. We had joined 6 others, which was about the limit as we had to balance just right while our guide sat in back with the long propeller rudder. The tombs were wonderfully old, musty stone and porcelain structures, each a little different, but all sharing a solemn serenity befitting an emperor at rest - with plenty of greenery, some water and stone elephants, horses and soldiers standing guard. At some of the tombs we had to take a moto ride up from the banks of the river. The breeze was great in the hot sun and it made us miss my bike back home. The drivers were just kids and somewhat rude to one woman in our group who happened to be a little big. They tried to charge her more for the ride, but she yelled in a great Aussie accent: “Piss off then, I’m walkin’!”. They finally relented and Naomi tried to explain to her that Vietnamese consider fat people healthy and lucky (e.g. the fat Buddhas in some temples), but she wasn’t too happy. Our favorite tomb was the large mausoleum complex for Tu Doc, the longest-reigning and most extravagant Nguyen monarch. It was said that he had his morning tea made from the dew collected from lotuses and had meals consisting of 50 different dishes prepared by 50 different chefs. The guy had quirks that would make Henry VIII blush, but the most amazing is that despite having 104 wives and numerous concubines, he fathered no children. This led to all sorts of stories about sterility and/or impotence.
One of our group was a returning overseas Vietnamese girl
who told us about the ironic situation of those like her.
They suffer some bitterness and antagonism for “abandoning their
country and culture for the West”, but they are also begrudgingly admired for
their success and luck and ironically are being courted by the government for
their business acumen and education (not to mention capital).
She reminded me of a girl I
worked with many years ago. She had
escaped on a boat with her family when she was a baby and spent years in a
detention center for “boat people” before making her way to California and
becoming a CPA. Her story was
amazing to hear back then, a sort of immigrant success story, but at the time I
had no idea I would be visiting her home country.
We met up with Ivan for dinner.
He had been on a tour of the DMZ, the “demilitarized zone” separating
North from South after the Geneva conference of 1954. The name turned out to be an ironic misnomer, as the area
became the site of the most horrendous shelling and fighting of the war –
places like Khe Sanh, The Rockpile and Hamburger Hill.
They needed a four wheel drive to visit some of these places while
staying on proper trails since over 5,000 people have been killed by mines and
unexploded ordinance since 1975. Ivan’s
guides showed the sites of recent government-sponsored digs for the remains of
American MIAs (missing in action). In
a bid for reconciliation with the US, the authorities continue to conduct
searches for some 2,000 bodies. Although
this does promote goodwill and a certain amount of "closure"
incidentally a little local economy), some locals are upset that little is said
of over 300,000 Vietnamese MIAs.
After eating, we went back to the huge iron bridge to watch the sunset as bikes, cyclos and carts passed by. The orange light cast a glow on the bridge and we were reminded of another time and place. Afterward, we read that the bridge was designed by Eiffel himself – another of the enduring reminders of the French influence in Indochina.
If you would like to follow our adventure in Vietnam, please click here: Photojournal January 8 - 15, 2001
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