Day 249, Mon, Jan. 8, 2001 – Having lost patience
(and time) with the tour bus company, we decided on a flight to Hanoi, which was
the longest leg of the journey up the coast anyway.
The aerial view was nice over the green fields and jungles.
Despite a few bomb craters here and there,
we could see how Vietnam
became a dominant rice exporter (in Vietnamese, the word for food and rice is
the same). In Hanoi, our taxi took
us to the bustling Old Quarter North of the lake, which is where most tourists
stay. Ivan and Naomi went "house hunting" while I crashed in a lobby and watched
the scene pass by. The sidewalks
were full of motos, plastic stools, food, vendors, etc. and guys in green
jackets and hard military hats with a red star in the front.
This is the first we’d seen of the remnant of the war, but not
surprised as Hanoi is the home of the victorious communist party.
Red flags are everywhere, with many more featuring the hammer and sickle
logo in addition to the yellow star.
After deciding on Hotel Anh Dao, we took a leisurely cyclo
ride along wide tree-lined boulevards.
Hanoi is more green and relaxed than Saigon, but has just as much
commerce going on, although not the high-end mall variety.
Like elsewhere, women do all the carrying, with two baskets suspended
form a poll across their shoulders. The city was dominated by tiny stalls and
storefronts less than 10 feet wide, with colorful goods spilling out onto the
sidewalk and food cooking on the street. We asked the cyclo
take us to Maison Centrale, site of the infamous Hoa Lo Prison.
It was built by the French in 1896 to house 450 subversives and
independence fighters, but was home to over 2000 by the 1930’s.
It would later be called the “Hanoi Hilton” by American prisoners of
war. One of them was US Senator and
former presidential candidate John McCain and another is Pete Peterson, who
became the first ambassador to Vietnam when diplomatic ties were re-established
in 1995. Most of the prison was
destroyed to make way for a skyscraper, but a portion has been preserved as a
museum. The exhibits highlight the
inhumane treatment and torture meted out by the French on Vietnamese prisoners
and their heroic struggle to cope and escape.
Chains, leg irons, and other tools are on display while dingy cells house
mannequins of skeletal prisoners, and emotional sculptures show beatings and
tortures taking place. When the
prison was used by the Vietnamese, they tell a completely different story.
According to one sign in broken English, the US prisoners were treated
with the utmost humanity, allowed to write home, go to church, play volleyball,
eat turkey dinners and sleep on nice mattresses. This, or course, is contrary to physical evidence and the
testimony of the prisoners. They
tell of horrendous torture, deprivation and mind games.
The only thing they did not use that the French did was the guillotine.
When put before a camera for “confessions” and propaganda photos, some
prisoners would slyly flip a middle finger and one prisoner used his eyelids to
blinked out the word “torture” in Morse code.
We left and walked through the business district, buying
our first Time Magazine and Herald Tribune in ages, then continued to the
elegant French opera house and the real Hanoi Hilton, the most luxurious hotel
in town - now sporting a hundred red
flags. Near the lake, young guys
played badminton, older guys sat on benches or played chess and kids sold ice cream and candy.
We tried to interview some people, but there were fewer English-speakers
here than in Ho Chi Minh City. Someone
told us there was a statue of "air pirate" John McCain where he was
dragged out of the lake after he ejected, but we couldn't find it. We
looked for some more VCDs about the war, but could only find comedies and
science fiction crap. At dinner,
the Indian food was delicious, but we were interrupted when some pots and pans
fell to the floor behind us. We all
thought Naomi was joking, when she said she saw a rat, but 5 minutes later the
little bastard scooted across the floor and out the door.
We left shortly thereafter.
Day 250, Tues, Jan. 9, 2001 – We woke to the
horrendous screeching noise from public speakers, as if there was a hurricane or
bombing raid in process. It could have
been the president for all we knew, or a special discount at the local squid
market, but we
speculated that it was just some anachronism from the past when the party
broadcast propaganda to the masses to start the day off on the right foot.
Inspired by the patriotic fervor (and the omnipresent flags and
portraits) we headed off to see the man himself. When Uncle Ho died in 1969, the Vietnamese followed in the
footsteps of their ideological cousins to the North and gave him the
Lenin/Stalin treatment – namely, embalming his corpse so people could continue
to view his actual body for eternity rather than a mere grave, headstone,
monument or statue (although there are plenty of those things too).
When we had been to Russia and China, the lines had been too long, so we
never got a chance to see Lenin or Mao, so we thought we better visit Ho.
The place of pilgrimage is a huge stone structure dominating a long wide
boulevard, which was closed for traffic. We
had to leave our backpacks and cameras with a guard and walk single-file along a
walkway escorted by unsmiling military types who shushed every noise.
Inside was very spooky. Ho
was encased behind glass and laid at a slight angle so you could see his face.
He looked like wax, but at the same time seemed like he would open his
eyes at any moment. It was all very
sad and creepy, especially with armed guards around to enforce the reverence.
Nearby is the traditional wood stilt house where Ho lived until his
death. It is much more serene and
calming than the mausoleum. We could tell by watching the visitors that Ho is still held
in high reverence as the revolutionary that won independence from
France and defeated the Americans. Apparently,
the subsequent failings in government are blamed on his underlings and successors
(no wonder he’s the only face on all the currency bills).
There's a gift shop with dozens of posters, books and marble busts of him, like
a Vietnamese Graceland.
There's a gift shop with dozens of posters, books and marble busts of him, like a Vietnamese Graceland.
Outside, cyclo drivers jockeyed for position and fought for
our business. We hired the two mellowest guys to take us to the Temple of
Literature, a collection of pavilions, gates, courtyards on the site of the
country’s first University, opened in 1076.
Some of the pavilions house stone
steles recording the achievements of
graduates. It is a welcome reprieve
to stroll the grounds amidst the trees and flowers and young students sitting in
circles on the grass. We had a
delicious lunch of thin pancakes, fish and dumplings at a restaurant that
specializes in training orphaned kids in the “culinary arts”.
After lunch, it started to rain again, which changes the
whole character of the city – we felt the dampness that prompted Graham Greene
to write “you can rot comfortably in the damp of Hanoi”.
When the rain let up, we walked through the narrow alleys of the
fascinating 1,000-year old quarter. In the 13th century, the city’s
36 trade guilds set up shop on different streets.
To this day, you can still have the odd experience of walking whole
blocks dedicated to jewelry, silk, shoes, lacquer ware, paintings, flags, candy,
headstones, or plumbing supplies. We even found one corner with more
types of liquor than we'd seen in ages. We encountered our own version of this in our
neighborhood – Tour Guide Street. We tried to book a trip to Tam Loc for
tomorrow, but it was hard to pick from the 6 Sinh cafes, 3 Kim Cafes, and 2 Queen Cafes,
so we went with Love Planet partly since there was only one of these and partly
because we liked the name.
Day 251, Wed., Jan 10, 2001 – Awakened again by
the screeching morning broadcast, which added to the rainy gloom that only
strong coffee can counter. We
boarded a minivan for the two-hour drive through the green and damp countryside
to the area known for the huge limestone rock formations similar to those in
Guilin in China. Naomi napped while
I read the new Time Magazine filled with bad news about Philippines, Indonesia
and Jerusalem. At Tam Coc our
driver helped negotiate for two small boats before darting inside for a smoke
and tea. Our boat was maneuvered by
a tiny lady pushing it along the river with one oar while standing in the back.
It was much like riding a gondola in Venice, but the scenery was natural
and there was only one direction to go – up the stream, through a few tunnels
and then back down to the dock. We
thought we were freezing throughout the ride, but some poor guys had to work in
the shallow rice paddies, building dykes, planting,
raking, and working
irrigation pumps. One guy was up to
his chest wearing a floppy Russian fur hat.
The ride was peaceful until vendors rode up next to us hawking embroidery
and sodas, neither of which we wanted to bother with in the freezing cold.
The advertised serenity is also broken by the constant chatter of the
women boaters, who seemed to pass gossip and stories along the river to everyone
they passed – one of the ladies maneuvered miraculously around the back of the
boat on stylish 4-inch heels. We made through three amazing limestone caves
and back to the dock without any major incident.
After a lunch at which Ivan’s chicken looked a hell of a lot different than my chicken (and more like man’s best friend), the tour continued to Kenh Ga, which was billed as a floating village much like those in the Mekong Delta. Unfortunately, market day was yesterday, so the village was very quite. This is off the beaten track, though, and it was wonderful to encounter smiling waving people who don’t appear to encounter many strangers. The kids were sweet, hamming it up for the camera.
On the boat, we talked to our guide, Ning, about the future of Vietnam. He sees it as improving, but it still very rough on those who cannot find work. Like most people we have met, he said there is no longer any resentment toward Americans. On the way back, I finished The Sorrow of War.
“My memories of war are always close by, easily provoked by random moments”
“A human being’s duty on this earth is to live, not to kill”
“No – the ones who loved war were not the young men, but the others. Like the politicians, middle-aged men with fat bellies and short legs. Not the ordinary people. The recent years of war had brought enough suffering and pain to last them a thousand years.”
“We were trapped in murderous firefights, in fighting so horrible that everyone involved prays to heaven they’ll never have to experience any such terror again. Where death lay in wait, then hunted and ambushed them. Dying and surviving were separated by a thin line.”
“Why did people claim that life was always better than death? It wasn’t so.”
“As we had won, he thought then that meant justice had won, that had been some consolation, or had it? Think carefully; look at your own existence. Look carefully at the peace we have, painful bitter, and sad. And look at who won the war”
“Why heaven allowed him to live he would never understand”
“But then again, even if I do bathe, even if I peel my entire skin away, I’ll be just as unclean.”
Day 252, Thurs., Jan 11, 2001 – We check out of Anh Dao for our next excursion in tour bus heaven. They told us to be at Helen’s hotel, but a guy came running over saying we were supposed to be at the office and the bus was leaving now. It’s funny how the guides freak out and rush us when we’re 5 minutes behind after they had us waiting 8 hours and responded with a simple “no problem”. Anyway, the sky was gray and dreary the whole way out to the coast as we headed to Halong Bay – the dramatic coastal waters of the South China Sea inhabited by thousands of craggy limestone peaks and islands. On the bus we read, finishing A Season in Heaven about Nepal (2 months too late), and at Halong City all 20 of us were crowded into the tiny basement of a small restaurant for a set meal of fish, chicken, salad and fries (we think). Our group included two Danish women, an Australian family with a precocious 10-year old, two Russians with local whores, and a few Americans. We started a tour of the Bay, passing hundreds of fishing vessels and houseboats. We immediately realized why Halong means “where the dragon descends into the sea” by the sight of the many humps and crags poking from the water like multiple crocodile tails. In 1994, the natural wonder was named Vietnam’s second UNESCO World Heritage site. We tried to stay up top to watch the rock formations come out of the fog, but it was too cold most of the time (funny that didn’t stop us from drinking ice cold beers).
Our first stop was a huge cave with mineral deposit
formations all around. The inside
was lit with decidedly unnatural green, red, blue and yellow lights creating an
eerie, otherworldly atmosphere. Outside the weather was clearing a little, but
still too gray for any decent photos – just milky white sky backing the craggy
limestone cliffs. We arrived at Cat Ba Island, had the pre-arranged dinner at
Thang Long hotel, then had a walk
around the small town. It is very laid-back, probably the smallest town we’ve
visited in the country. Most
people earn a living from the sea, although the majority of the island’s
fishing fleet was lost during the exodus of “boat people” after the
communists won the war. Ivan got a
fifty cent shave, but I wasn’t going near the place – something about a
rusty straight edge razor and an 18 year old girl just doesn’t instill
complete confidence – there’s a reason they called the other type of razors
“safety ” when they were invented.
Naomi continues to get the questioning stares from locals and accusatory
stares from tourists – the Russians with hired help on their arms didn’t
help matters much. She often feels like the Elephant Man - tempted to scream “I am not a whore! I am an American Tourist!”
Day 253, Fri, Jan 12, 2001 – Today we finally got
a chance to ride in one of those monstrous soviet-era truck/bus things we’ve
seen all over Vietnam (especially in the North).
It was another organizational riot as they stuffed 30 tourists from three
different tour groups into 20 seats or so. The terrain is hilly on the way to Cat Ba National Park, so
the driver climbed hills with much grinding effort, then coasted down the back
side laying on the horn the entire way. His
constant blaring was not so much for “pardon me, may I pass” as it was “if
you want to live, get the hell out of the way!”
After a half hour we
arrived at a huge natural cave in the limestone mountains that was converted
into a field hospital during the American War.
Apparently, Cat Ba held significant strategic importance as a foothold on
the coast region and a base to control the Halong Bay region and the adjoining
Tonkin Gulf. Tonkin was where the infamous “incident” took place that
Lyndon Johnson used as an excuse to escalate US involvement (historians still
debate the circumstances of the incidents, and according to Lonely Planet, the
resolution Johnson had drafted for congress approval was written before the
incidents took place). Inside
the cave, a 300-bed hospital was unknown to the Americans and was only opened up
last year as a tourist sight. The
caretaker inside is a hilarious 70-year old former gunner who defended the
hospital from aerial bombardment. He
seemed to enjoy his new job as guide and raconteur although we think he didn’t
receive the memo from his boss on the new “friendship” with America since he
seemed to have great pride in having shot down numerous American aircraft “by
his own hand”. He said Vietnam
must be a rich and important country because they kept getting invaded by the
Chinese, French, American, Cambodian, and then Chinese again. He did allow however “although Vietnam is a small country,
it has a big heart, and all is forgiven - everyone is a friend now”.
He demonstrated his gunning technique by yelling a thunderous “Boom!”
which echoed through the caverns and a karate chop showing the descent of the
stricken enemy plane. All of this was more interesting because we heard it first in
Vietnamese, then translated to English by the bus guide.
He finished with a rousing revolutionary song and energetic rendition of
the National Anthem – with everyone clapping along to “Viet-nam, Ho-Chi-Minh,
Viet-nam, Ho-Chi-Minh!”. It was
like a flashback to the old vaudeville days - he shook everyone’s hands on the way
The bus carried on to the national park itself and we started a long (12-KM) hike through the craggy misty green mountains, past tiny villages with thatch houses and villagers carrying goods and tending buffalos. The hike was not that arduous, but a little tiring for our group. It went up and down a lot, over 6 small mountain peaks with more rocks and tree trunks than paths and steps. Whenever we headed up again, we had harrowing flashbacks of the torture in Nepal. Thankfully, we were at lunch within a few hours, then continued on flat ground through a small village waving and playing with some kids, and into a perilously overcrowded wicker boat that had to be baled for the entire 15-minute journey to a bigger boat. Ivan accepted the offer of a beer if he tested the waters and froze his ass off after jumping in the lake. The combination of ice water and icy beer probably added to his illness today.
Unfortunately, the weather was still gray and gloomy on the 90-minute boat trip back to the main town. We had a spring roll, pork, vegetable and rice dinner at the hotel before heading out for massages to ease the pain of the day-long hike. We picked a place across from Ivan’s barber and negotiated for 5 people at once. The place must have been looking for clients all day since the girls abandoned their hairstyling and nail work and came out of the woodwork when we walked up. We went upstairs past the kitchen and into the owner’s bedroom, which also serves as a mass massage room. I lay on a bed between Naomi and Ivan while Helen and Eva (from Denmark) laid on two others. The others got female masseuses, but I was the only client to get a guy because I was the biggest one. Having a guy masseuse made for a little rougher, but pretty good massage, with cracks all over my spine and neck – I’m not sure my chiropractor in LA would approve, but it felt pretty good nonetheless. We spoke no Vietnamese and the masseuses no English, so the best we had was “Shen-hao” (hello) and the National Anthem. We surprised them with that one and they burst out laughing. We also tried to sing some Beatles, but the best entertainment was to listen to Ivan alternating rapidly between laughter from being tickled and screams of agony from having his nose and ears yanked off – exclaiming “what was that for? I thought massages were for pleasure not pain!”. Somehow, we suspect he was thinking of another type of massage. We had to have beers afterward to chill out, so we stopped at the Flightless Bird pub, run by a Kiwi (of course). He had many NZ travel brochures around and gave us advice for our upcoming trip there. You know a country like Vietnam is really on the way to open markets and tourism when the Aussies and Kiwis can open pubs freely, especially on this island.
Day 254, Sat, Jan 13, 2001 – Unfortunately, another gloomy gray day, denying us any sunny views of the bay. Started after a lame hotel breakfast. Ivan finally got a hot shower in a different room. On these types of tours, there’s no one to complain to since we keep getting handed off from booking agent to tour operator to bus driver to boat driver to hotel operator, etc. etc. We would’ve rather done this tour ourselves, but we didn’t have the energy. Besides you meet more people this way – Scots, Danes, Aussies, etc. on this tour – even one guy who fancies himself a James Bond, keeping to himself and taking plenty of photos with a fancy miniature camera. I stayed on top the boat to take in the views as we glided past the limestone monoliths with only the sound of the engines and water lapping the rocks. The milky white sky cloaked many of the rocks in a haze, making them appear as ghosts in the distance. The shapes went from faint outline to gray lump, to craggy green rocks as our boat approached, then passed. Every turn in the bay revealed a new set of shapes, sometimes, you could see through the caves and grottoes carved under the rocks by thousands of years of wind and waves. After a while it got a bit breezy so I moved back down where Naomi was napping. We bought some snacks from a boat that came out of the mist like a pirate ship and tied a rope to our boat. It was a family of vendors, with the little kid laughing and dancing in the front of the boat.
In three hours we had rounded Cat Ba Island and arrived at Halong City for lunch. The food was incredibly greasy, deep fried stuff, not up to usual Vietnam standard, so we held off. We had to wait for our bus in a small street which provided wonderful people-watching as life carried on around us. Two motos had smashed together and several cops and witnesses were standing around the wreckage chatting about it - they seemed fairly nonchalant as the crowd gathered around. A working crew was tying bamboo logs to a rope to be pulled to the third floor of a hotel which was adding a floor. We couldn’t help being reminded of the recent nightclub fire in China that killed dozens due to inadequate building and safety standards. Another guy was slamming a sledgehammer into a metal wedge held by a partner against a steel cable – much sweat in place of a metal saw. A woman in conical hat and face scarf was shoveling sand against a screen to sift it. The work being done reminded us that we have a dozen tools for everything in the West, but here they find a dozen uses for each tool. While waiting and watching we had some ice cream and chatted with the numerous postcard and book vendors, most of whom were kids. One beautiful teenage girl in a floppy hot approached me.
"You buy postcard"
She just frowned and walked away. For some reason I was reminded of the kids who shot me with
the fake gun and the woman who yelled “f--k you!” in Hoi An.
I imagine the feelings are even stronger amongst those who were around 25
The bus finally came and we were on our way back to Hanoi through the rice fields and paddies. Halfway there we stopped for a toilet and snack break at a crafts factory that supports handicapped people. We bought some stuff and played with the kids from the neighborhood across the street. At first they were reluctant to hand over their ball, until I headed it back to them like a soccer ball, then they realized I wasn’t going to run away with it. When we got out the camera the reaction was just like the kids in Africa – pandemonium. They loved to see their faces reflected in the screen, laughing, making faces and sticking out their tongues. They were adorable. In some shots, you can see us reflected in the kid's eyes.
Back in Hanoi, we checked back in to the Anh Dao, where the construction continued – paint smell, dust and all. The wonderful staff welcomed us with smiles. We had one of our best Vietnamese dinners at Soho Café and then took in the famous water puppets show. This type of puppetry was created in the 11th century by farmers to entertain the King during the rainy season. The puppets are made of wood and painted in glossy vegetable-based colors and controlled underwater with sticks from behind an elaborate bamboo façade. It is really an amazing and funny show with fire-breathing dragons chasing a ball, kids swimming, fishermen pulling in a big fish, a hunter chasing a leopard up a tree, a royal procession on horseback, boat races, a rice harvest, and even mating swans that produce a baby chick. It was all very cute, accompanied by live music of flutes, gongs, drums, xylophones, and the amazing one-stringed dan bau, which twangs and hums different notes as the player adjusts the tension on the string We even got a hand fan and a cassette of the music for the $3 entrance fee.
On the way back home, we passed a small shop with the unmistakable sounds of football (soccer to you Americans) blaring from a TV. It was turned up all the way because the guy watching must have been 80 years old and stone deaf. He smiled to us when we leaned in his doorway and Ivan wound up watching the rest of the game with him, cheering together into the night in two different languages. I thought football mania it was just an English character tick, but apparently not.
Day 255, Sun, Jan 14, 2001 – Since we had spent
the holidays in Vietnam, Naomi and I were feeling a bit guilty that we did not
have our traditional Christmas party in which we collect toys for needy kids.
It’s the first time in 6 years we didn’t do it.
Of course, the kids here are more needy than those in Los Angeles, so we
decided to go shopping for gifts and look for an orphanage to give them to.
The hotel helped us find a place and Helen and Naomi led
the shopping charge. You should
have seen the face on the cyclo drivers and people on the street as we
progressed across town with three huge plastic bags of toys and gifts.
We found the home, but it was closed (oops, it’s Sunday, huh?).
Fortunately, one of the kids saw us from an upstairs window and a teenage
kid came to let us in. According
to Nguyen, 20 kids aged 4-18 live there because they have no parents.
As we came inside and they realized what we were there for, the kids
started appearing out of nowhere. Nguyen
couldn’t speak much English, so he gave us the name of the adult in charge who
will be back tomorrow and we left the gifts to hearty (although confused) smiles
We walked back toward home and stumbled upon a Western-style grocery store. It was really amazing; having seen the poverty we’ve seen around here – they had Starbucks Frappucino, Hellmann's fat-free mayonnaise, Dr. Pepper, Hagen Dazs ice cream, Chips Ahoy cookies and the English equivalent McVities Boasters. We hadn’t indulged in so much chocolate decadence since the Hob Nob jamboree in Katmandu. We felt guilty due to the disparity, but on the way back the mood was lightened somewhat when a little kid relieved himself on Ivan’s leg.
We continued home to take a break, write and download before going out for Helen and Ivan’s last night celebration. We hooked up for dinner with them and with another couple, Keith and Gail from England. They all had a blast bashing George Bush as a complete incompetent and I told them not to hold it against all of us since most people voted for somebody else. We had dinner then headed to the Spotted Cow bar where we met some guys from Ohio and Notre Dame. Afterward we headed to Polite Pub, a small American-style bar owned by a guy who had a barbershop in Arlington, Virginia managed by his brother. We played foosball and shot pool with some Australians and English folks. We somehow got an interview out of Ivan before things got out of hand:
"Happiness. Being honest. Finding someone special to share your life with. Also, as I've seen here in Vietnam - a country at war for hundreds of years - their ability to forgive and smile and get on with life is amazing. I think that's the same for everyone."
We had been hungering for some good loud Rock n’ Roll, and got a fare dose of James Brown, Stones, Cream and a new English group called Morcheeba. The bartender even let us behind the bar to peruse his CD collection. This resulted in Doors and Pink Floyd (by way of Ivan) and Beatles and Don McLean (by way of Naomi). We had somehow resisted karaoke thus far throughout Asia, but in recognition of Helen and Ivan’s last night in Vietnam, we finally succumbed to a rousing sing-along. Unfortunately, it was the legendary opus that strikes fear in the hearts of bartenders and waitresses worldwide – the full 8-minute version of “American Pie”. Although the alcohol made our decision to sing a lot easier, it didn’t help with our memory. We slogged along with everyone looking at us like we were crazy, which we obviously were. What really amazed us was that most of the English and Aussies knew just as many of the words than we did. Music is truly one of the great unifiers (as is alcohol). We had a crazy cyclo ride back at 3:00 through eerily deserted streets in the pouring rain. It was an odd feeling after the crowds during the day, but it was freezing. Our driver mistook our frightened screams for squeals of joy and swerved even more, creating a bumpy circus ride all the way home.
Day 256, Mon, Jan. 15, 2001 – We really paid the price this morning as the day’s blaring wake-up party speech was augmented by construction noises at the hotel – all happening inside our heads. This isn't the first time on the trip we were reminded that we aren't as young and resilient as we once were. We needed aspirin, coffee and a heavy Italian brunch to line our stomachs. The museums are closed on Mondays, so we hung around our neighborhood taking in the scene. It was still cold and drizzly for the 8th day in a row. The markets have changed a little since we got here, getting more lively with traditional decorations in shops and kumquat trees on the backs of motos. We did our last minute shopping before leaving tomorrow – I couldn’t resist getting some more pirated CD copies. I suppose my love of music pre-dates and trumps my job with largest intellectual property company in the world. Hey, I quit anyway. I also made a final search for DVDs of movies about the war, but saw nothing good – just silly Rambo and Chuck Norris crap. We’ll have to watch Platoon and Apocalypse Now again when we get back home. We wanted to talk to some people, so we asked the travel consultant at the hotel, Nguyen Van Bien to help us. To date, we’ve had great difficulty finding strangers who spoke English (and there are unfortunately no Servas contacts in Vietnam).
Nguyen Van Bien: "You must have good friends and relations with the world. And you must have a good job. You must work hard and try your best. You should also travel, if you can to see the different people and culture and see how beautiful is the world you live in."
During the interview, we discovered we have the same birthday, although he is eleven years younger. That makes three people with odd connections: the Romanian gypsy boy with Indiana sweatpants, the Mauritian celebrating his birthday also named Jamie, and Bien. He agreed to help translate for us and we headed outside to talk to people in the street. For these, I also wanted to ask whether there was any anger or animosity left towards Americans.
Nguyen Thang Duong: "My family - to have good relations with my grandparents and parents and children, and good relations wit the neighbors and community. Money is important, but it is not everything. The war caused much sadness, but it is in the past. Now we don't care where someone is from.
"People need to have good relationships with others because if we do not, than we are like animals. Also success in my job is important."
There was an uncanny Stepford-like unity to what everyone said.
No one would say anything negative about Americans, even when I assured them I
wanted the truth. As Ivan said, the ability to forgive and forget is
astounding. They each had a similar take on the relationships between people, as if
they took a peek at our mission statement (or more likely the influence of
Buddhism). This, just 30 years after US Secretary of Defense
wrote to President Johnson: "There may be a limit beyond which many
Americans and much of the world will not permit the U.S. to go...The picture of
the world's greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,0000
noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into
submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed is not a pretty one"
This, just 30 years after US Secretary of Defense wrote to President Johnson: "There may be a limit beyond which many Americans and much of the world will not permit the U.S. to go...The picture of the world's greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,0000 noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed is not a pretty one" .
Visiting here has been an incredible whirlwind of ghosts and smiles - a bag of emerald fields, misty mountains and mixed feelings. It is sometimes hard to believe what happened here just one generation ago. Political reforms continue to trickle from the old timers in government at the glacial pace, but the younger folks, who are in the majority, keep pushing to the future as fast as they can. Within a couple generations, returning war veterans may not recognize the place - locals may not either.
If you would like to follow our adventure to Laos, please click here: Photojournal January 16 - 24, 2001
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