Category Archives: Vietnam

Hello from Bill

Hello – it’s Bill here, sitting at the pool of the Metropole on a Sunday afternoon with Paige.

Stephen and Kim put us through hell physically, so a rest before three more weeks at high altitude is good.

Hot Toc - barber

Hot Toc – barber

The photo of me is at the Hot Toc, getting cleaned up for my birthday. Happy Birthday Scott and Kim.

Today I read in the local news that two tigers are terrorizing a village outside Hanoi. 150 elephants are becoming a problem out of Buon Mi Thout. We saw 12 one meter turtles being loaded in a truck down on the Mekong river and people are growing natural medicines right in their villages, because of the terrible snake problem in the jungle.

In Burma, smugglers who take Burmese cobras (not pythons) or illegal teakwood to China (near Dali. Preston-remember Mom wouldn’t let us go?) will take you back on their moto to Katha for $175. one way. This one hundred miles of no road through mountains, rivers and jungles. Why would people want to? Sneak into Burma because of the quality of life? Opium?

At any rate Amelia, it sounds like the WWF has been doing it’s job. However, in Pakistan it is hot, and the corrupt power authority can only supply power for 2 hours in some places. The new PM reacted immediately, ordering bureaucrats to avoid wearing socks. So there is not as much progress on the political front. Think it’s a universal problem?

We’ve been reminiscing about some of the special birthdays I’ve had…..21st and 22nd in Vietnam, later Malta, Baja, two in Chiina, one in Taiwan, San Cristobal de las Casas, Monte Carlo for the F1 gran prix and 60 days in Italy for my 60th……I’m pretty lucky.

So tomorrow we fly to Cheng Du PRC under our phony itinerary to begin the sneak into Tibet. This may be the best birthday yet. Well, of course it is. It’s time for a pink gin at the bamboo bar at the Metropole in Hanoi. That’s a tip of the hat to Robert Ruarke, who couldn’t get out of Africa long enough to visit here. But Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, George Orwell and Ho Chi Minh did so maybe I can conjure up the ghosts and have a talk,

It is my present intent to write again….when there is fodder for the keyboard. It maybe 13 November-Paige’s birthday.

Bill

Train from Danang to Hue

All aboard

All aboard

Soft seats

Soft seats

Hard seat

Hard seat

4 travelers and only 3 soft seats with air con. Bill takes the hard seat with no air.

It’s only a 3 hour trip – what can go wrong? It’s our lucky day.

The soft seats are last in the car. Kim and Stephen take 2 seats together. My seat is filled with a 75 lb. 75 year old Vietnamese women in pjs, knees scrunched up to her belly. I show her my ticket and she slides half way over to the next seat – not bothering to move the travel bags which also occupy her seat.
2 women sit in the 6 inches of unoccupied space between the wall and the back of our seats.
Half way through eating a Ritz cracker my seat mate starts throwing up. Yummy! Her napkin fills, spilling vomit on the floor next to my feet. I offer a plastic bag – Kim offers wipes. The plastic bag is immediately used but the wipes are stored for later.
My seat mate leans over to try to clean the floor and Kim spots a cricket on her back. I brush it away only the have it hop back on her leg. Kim starts shrieking.
Crickets and ...

Crickets

We look to the floor to recon the damage. Under her tiny brown feet there is a card board box poked full of holes and with crickets escaping! Crickets everywhere! Kim’s eyes are huge – she is petrified.
What is really in the box? The conductor passes and I point to the box – a flurry of activity follows.
The conductor quickly removes the box and puts it in a cabinet behind our seats – returns to get a second (unknown) box from under my feet and attempts to get a third box from under Kim’s. She hops out of her seat, eyes big as saucers and tells the conductor not to touch the box until she moves.
Now scared, the conductor leaves the box under her seat! What to do? Kim sat on her feet until there was no feeling left in her legs.
Kim escaping the crickets

Kim escaping the crickets

The boxes caused concern amongst the conductors – one by one they stopped by the cabinet to take a peek. Curious, I tried to join them only to be turned away.
Things settled down. The boxes always in our subconscious.
A Vietnamese woman picked up her 6″ tall plastic stool, placed it next to Kim’s seat and started speaking in rapid fire Vietnamese. Quick to bore with Kim’s limited Vietnamese she leaned over my arm rest hoping I had more to say. Taking out my cell, I taught her to play Angry Birds instead.
Is Bill having this much fun?
What was in the box? I say a snake.

The Catalyst for our Trip

In February 2008 we were in Hanoi for TET (New Years) and ran into the director of the Vietnam Veterans of America Association. We received an introduction to the Da Nang Association for Victims of Agent Orange (DAVA) after asking about volunteer opportunities.

They are, for a lack of a better term, a day care center for children. Thousands of children have been born with birth defects since the country was blanketed with the defoliate Agent Orange, used during the Vietnam war (known as the American war in Vietnam), contaminating the drinking water.

Over the past several years DAVA has opened 3 centers to help alleviate the 24 hour care these children require thus, allowing their families time to work.

Last fall we fulfilled a promise to fundraise for DAVA and with the generous help of our family and friends raised $5,000. Initially, the money was going to be wired to Vietnam but the decision for a personal delivery quickly evolved.

With an extended invitation to all the donors – which Stephen and Kim took us up on (their first time ever leaving the USA) we headed to DAVA’s newest countryside center.

Of the 150 children served by DAVA – center #3 houses 60. These kids were virtually lifeless when they started going – some did not sit up or communicate. After a one year effort they now; dance, sing, sew, make incense, arts/crafts and manage a garden. The best dancers are deaf/mute and have learned to dance to the rhythm of the music by sign language and following a routine – break dancing is their favorite!

The children’s parents insists the center is conducting magic. After a 12 hour day they now return home to help the parents around the house – a miraculous transformation.

A joyous receiving line and several performances later we all danced Gangnam Style. It was a huge celebration. The kids were beaming from ear to ear. There was a distinct dance crew while the rest of the children stayed in their seats to watch, swaying with the music and when the swaying wasn’t enough they popped out of their seats to dance.

Kim and Stephen handed out bracelets that Kim made! Bill, of course, had to pretend he was one of the children. He sat at a desk, crouched down and put up his hand to receive a bracelet. Not sure who thought that was the funniest – Kim or the kids.

We learned that children in Vietnam make the peace sign when their photo is being taken for one of two reasons. First it is their sign of Victory and the number two in Vietnamese sounds like the word hi in English.

We got right down to the kids level and played, played, played. Toured the sewing room where the older kids were sewing clothing to wear and sell – the art table where they were making nylon and wire flower arrangements and the incense building room where they were bagging the incense they made earlier in the day.

Sad to be pulled away – it was time to leave – the center had closed 30 minutes earlier.

That night we entertained the director, her twin 14 year old daughters, 3 staff members and our interpreter for dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Danang River which is owned and run by a girl from the Netherlands. They were so kind in giving us heartfelt gifts, all 10 pounds of them!! We laughed and exchanged “Country” tales.

The Vietnamese gather on the sidewalks in the evening to escape the heat. While weaving through a small field of gathers on the way back to the hotel a 73 year old woman (we later learned) looked up at Bill and said “Hi”. It turns out that she and her husband fled to America after 1975 because he had been an officer in the South Vietnamese army. After he died she return to Vietnam and was just anxious to speak English.

The donation will help everyday operational costs and build a new room for the center. Look out friends we’ll be after your wallets again. Perhaps you’ll join us next time.

17 Hour Train Ride

Soft sleeper with air con, Saigon to Danang. 7 pm (it gets pitch black at 6 pm – there is no day light savings in the tropics) on a hot sticky evening – drenched with sweat. Longing for the air con.

The compartment is small – 2 uppers and 2 lowers. The air conditioner surges – no air. Maybe when the train starts.

4 cold Ba Ba Bas. Hoping for some relief, I press one to my chest. Bill, “You’re going to warm your beer.” What to do? Lower my body temperature or drink cold beer? Cold beer it is.

2 young Vietnamese men hop on the top bunks. It must be 20 degrees warmer up there.

The train moves. The windows won’t open and the train doors are locked – feels like a stifling death trap. Should we leave our compartment door open hoping for air? One roommate slams the compartment door and stares at the air vent. This is like waiting for water to boil.

It is dark outside – we settle into a game of cards, Ritz Crackers, Laughing Cow and warming beer.

The surging air conditioner begins to throw off a little cool air. Is the compartment getting cooler or it is our soaked clothes?

We are rocking and rolling at 30 miles an hour. A sleeping pill and a few hours of restless sleep brings the dawn of a new day. A rooster on board begins to crow. The hallway comes to life. The smell of urine penetrates our compartment (this one is for you Marie).

Vietnam at it’s finest – the old way – rice paddies, water buffalo, field workers in conical hats, every shade of green imaginable.

6 hours to go.

Thanh

Thanh is ready to retire. 5 more years – 55 – here they are 1 at birth (“How can you be here and be zero”, he asks?)

Thanh was born in 1964 in Saigon, the 7th of ultimately 15 children born to a captain in the South Vietnamese army – a helicopter pilot. Thanh’s country, having been divided by strangers in Geneva, was free and free of foreign domination after decades or centuries. Life was good and opportunities abundant. But as is often the case, shadows lurked.

Old friends and countrymen from the North were infiltrating and threatening freedom. Strangers from America were coming to help repel the communists and preserve the new freedoms. Why did the North not just stay home?

Father was gone a lot, but not always, and the war in Saigon was exciting and fruitful for the son of an officer. But in 1972 America left, and on 30 April 1975 North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam.
Thanh is buddhist…..maybe karma. White became black, good became bad, the family was punished. Father became not a prisoner of war, but a prisoner of peace.

Father was imprisoned for nine years of hard labor and “re-education”, to purge Western ideas and foster the tenets of Lenin. After nine years, he was sent to the forest for 5 years to clear jungle and forest for coffee tree planting. Finally cured, America was ready with visa and ticket to fly Mother and Father to Amarillo, Texas and a new life… thanks for his effort and sacrifice on behalf of freedom.

But what of young Thanh?

At age 11 (10) when the world ended and school in nice uniforms stopped, Thanh was sent 150 miles south of Saigon to labor. There was no food or money at home (in fact, there was no home).

Later, when Father was sent to the forest, the new government told Mother that if she left the house in Saigon to go to the forest, she could live with Father and his sentence would be lessened. She left but could not live with Father and the communist officials in Saigon appropriated a new home. To the victors go the spoils.

Thanh became a herder for a water buffalo – a valuable beast of burden. He pulled grass to feed it, he rode it, slept on it and guarded it with his new scary young life. He really knew no one in the Mekong Delta – but maybe some old relatives.

The days and nights ran together for years. There were no roads, no motos, no buses, no post, no electricity, no television. Thanh received no money. He was periodically paid in rice. He kept enough for two hands full a day and the rest was taken back to Mother and siblings to live on in
Saigon, by an older brother and sister who walked/rode/boated down from Saigon to pick it up.
Thanh was scared and confused. He slept on boats and woke up in the water. He slept on the buffalo and woke up on the trail or in the water.

Thanh was under 5 feet tall and weighed less than 8o pounds. But the communists put him
in a work party.

Near him, there had been a lot of fighting in the war and there were graves to honor the South Vietnamese who died. There had been many battles and the victors had records of their hundreds of soldiers who had perished there.

Thanh became part of a years long work party who had to obliterate all signs of a South Vietnamese cemetery and construct a huge monument and fake grave stones to honor the North Vietnamese.

Thus, the collective memory will recall the somewhat revisionist history, but to the victor goes the spoils. Thanh hauled dirt for 5 more long years at the monument.

So what has happened to Thanh? The communist society does not care for him. He cannot work for the government (which is about 80% of decent jobs) because he is tainted by his father, He could go to America, but not his wife and children, since they did not help America… so he stays. Thanh is married and has three children – boys 26 and 14 and a daughter 22

Thanh paid for school as an adult to learn english. He drives a cab 84 hours a week (12×7) during the day, and his son does the same thing (12×7) in the cab at night. They rent the cab. Gas is $4.00
a gallon, so they always query whether they should park or drive around to look for fares.

They may have a few days off every year, but not all at once. Thanh’s wife is sick and cannot work. Thanh pays for medical and dental bills, school and uniforms for all three, food and all utilities – no free lunch in a communist world – unless you are in the party.

So, Thanh gets tears when he talks of his dream – after 10 years of luxury, and 45 years of absolute
toil – he wants to live on one or two acres, in a simple house and grow ducks, chickens, fish, frogs,
fruits vegetables, rice-and a water buffalo!

After all that – he loves the land, the crickets and the birds.

BTW – he reads multiple newspapers every day and and keenly aware of current world affairs.

Leaving Saigon

Bill and I were anxious to leave Saigon – the hustle and bustle of the concrete city,

How fortunate for us to find Thanh, a 50 year old (in Vietnam you are considered to be 1 year old when you are born) taxi driver – driving a taxi now for 30 years – staring out as a cyclo driver, then moto taxi driver.

Thanh’s 14 year old son joined us. Sweet, polite, stocky and lazy. He ate, slept and played video games.

Our car is a 6 year old Toyota similar in size to a SUV. New tires, genuine naugahide leather seats, plastic covered ceiling and very clean. Thanh’s livelihood depends on his vehicle and it shows.

There is so much to see on the road that time passes quickly. It took a small incident for us to get acclimated to the zen of being a passenger – once again. Driving in the fast lane slow as a tortoise here comes a bus kissing our bumper blasting their horn. Thanh keeps crawling along – I look for his eyes in the rear view mirror to make sure he is getting a grasp of the situation – I look at Bill for reassurance – look back at Thanh. “Thanh, hello, this bus is honking at you.” and the lesson ensued… “I berry goood driver, I no get ticket, bus ryver is rong, camera watching.” Cars and busses drive in fast lane, passing in middle lane, motos in slow lane. Sure enough the bus gave up and went around us in the middle lane and at the next toll plaza many cars were pulled over and the police giving out tickets – busted by the cameras! Now we just zen out and enjoy the scenery.

We chose to go to My Tho and Can Tho to see the Mekong Delta. Water is everywhere – rivers to canals to rice fields as far as the eye can see. Fruit trees growing like weeds. The flooding must be horrendous in the monsoons.

We taxied the waterways – muddy brown like cafe con leche. The water makes the scorching day seem just a little more bearable. Marveling at how the water is all encompassing – we can’t drink it in fast enough. Bill and I both nudging each other to “look”. Huge barges carrying sand weighed down to almost sinking, fishing boats, taxi boats, market boats, corrugated homes leaning over the waterways ready to crumble over. People in constant motion; buying, selling, fishing, bathing. Exhilarating for us, common place for them.

We are told that 100% of their lives are spent on the water; working, sleeping, eating, bathing.

Thanh has us board the roof a boat full of pineapples. The sales lady jumps to readiness – gets out her hatchet and skillfully cuts us fresh pineapple. The juice is drips down our chins.

We don’t want to leave – we feel almost cheated by being a tourist.

However, tourists we are – appreciative of our bed, bathroom and air conditioning.

Superficial similarities give way to real differences in design and accessories of the Khmer, Chinese/Confucian and Vietnamese Buddhist temples. Most are ancient but some have been restored by Buddhist congregations from foreign countries. The typical relics are all of antique quality and the larger “life” Chinese warriors are fierce. The incense smoke could be cut with a warriors sword.

The Mekong Delta

My Tho and Can Tho on the Mekong Delta. The boats on the floating market are not only their homes but their stores.

 

Good Morning Vietnam

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Upon stepping into the evening Saigon air 2 nights ago we were instantaneously sucked back into “Vietnam”. The humidity, smells, bright smiling faces and the beeping of horns – thought to be the national anthem.

Oh…..Post Modern world please stay away. We were anxious to stay again at the Rex Hotel made famous by war correspondents and VIPs. Gone is the “royal” Rex replaced by cold decor, Versace, Gucci and all the She-She stores. The traditional tea shop now a TUMI store.

Yesterday we visited Cholon. The Chinese section of HCMC. Today Bill has a walking tour for us and tomorrow we head to the Mekong Delta to the floating markets.

We met a fantastic cab driver yesterday who speaks English. His dad worked with the Americans during the war and now resides in Amarillo, Texas. He and his 14 year old son are escorting us tomorrow. We’ll spend the next 2 days with them touring the Delta.

Tell me what you think of the old lobby (Bill had a brochure from last time we were here) compared to the new lobby.

*Preston the Ba Ba Ba is for you!!!