VIETNAM AND SINGAPORE
A travelogue by Mark Leeper
Copyright 2001 Mark R. Leeper
03/02/01 New Jersey; Flight
03/03/01 Flight; Schiphol
03/04/01 Flight; Singapore Airport; HCM City
03/05/01 HCM City, Mekong Delta
03/06/01 HCM City: War Museums
03/07/01 HCM City; Cu Chi
03/08/01 HCM City
03/09/01 HCM City, Nha Trang
03/10/01 Nha Trang: Island Boat Trip
03/11/01 Nha Trang to Hoi An
03/12/01 Hoi An
03/13/01 Hoi An; My Son
03/14/01 Hoi An to Hue
03/15/01 Hue and the DMZ
03/16/01 Hue; Perfume River
03/17/01 Hue to Sleeper Train
03/18/01 Sleeper Train; Hanoi
03/19/01 Hanoi Shopping
03/20/01 Hanoi Museums
03/21/01 Hanoi and Singapore
03/22/01 Singapore Museums
03/23/01 Singapore Zoos
03/24/01 Singapore and flight
03/25/01 Flight to New Jersey
Choosing a country to visit is an investment. It has short term profits and long term profits. Vietnam is a country that pays off both ways. In the short term it is Asia. That means it is exotic and you will be seeing things you do not understand or expect. That improves the trip. The long term benefits come from how fast the country is changing. As one person put it, every year is like a decade of change. Food is cheap, plentiful, though frequently not quite so polished and good as on gets from Vietnamese restaurants at home. The dollar goes a very long way here. Three dollars for dinner is a lot. $50 for a hotel room and you can expect something very special because the price is unheard of.
There are negatives also. The travel industry has chosen the slogan "Vietnam: Destination for a New Millennium". There are some problems they may have to work on first. Evelyn claims the traffic here is not as bad as Bangkok. Another tourist says the traffic is actually worse here because of the chaos created by the motorscooters. She may have built Bangkok traffic up in her mind. Several people, myself included, do say that India is the standard for problems with the beggars and touts and it is not nearly as bad here. But I may have built up the problem of the India experience up in my mind. India may not be as bad as I remember it in this regard. I would say that Vietnam has a problem in the roads, or lack thereof. Bone-shaking roads in Vietnam are the rule, not the exception. There appears, however, to be a great deal of road repair going on. Another problem is that a Vietnamese accent may be the very toughest accent of any in the world to under English in. "Th" may be pronounced "y," for example. Frequently it is difficult to hear an English sentence and realize it was not spoken in Vietnamese.
I would say that as a travel experience Vietnam is a mixture of India and Thailand. I think Thailand was our best travel experience, India probably our harshest.
But there is an experience that is unique to Vietnam. It is the density of things to experience in some of the cities. One can walk down a Hanoi street and see women yokes and baskets in front of stores that sell DVD players. You can see a thousand years of World History and influences from all over the world. You hear the honking of motorbikes and see the cyclo drivers pushing people with only the power of their legs. You see beggars and Mercedes.
Vietnam has been very badly damaged by leadership that has not been very competent for many centuries. I would like to think they are getting on their feet now. You definitely feel the winds of change.
This log is composed of memories of how things were, facts which are mostly unchecked, and opinions out of my own imagination which has run even more unchecked. This trip was planned and executed by my wife, friend, helper, lover, mentor, and the most capable person I know, Evelyn Leeper.
03/02/01 New Jersey; Flight
Early in any trip log I try to answer the question of why did we pick this particular destination. Since most people do not consider Vietnam much of a vacation place, I will talk about that right up front. Evelyn picked Vietnam knowing that I liked Asia. On the surface Vietnam seemed like a good choice. But the research I did indicated this might be a particularly good time.
It is interesting that that going to Vietnam gets the reaction from people that it does. Americans have a sort of odd feeling toward the Vietnamese people that we have toward nobody else. Not all of us do, but some of us. After all we were embroiled in a long and painful war in Vietnam and militarily we lost, even if politically we won. (I will tell you a little further down why I think we won politically.) There is a sort of a grudge because we were beaten militarily. But if I said we were going to visit Germany or Japan there would not be the same reaction. But there no longer is the feeling that you are dealing with a former enemy in those countries. Not from most people. But then we get a lot of news from those countries. And we can see that they have changed since WWII. We don't get much news from Vietnam so our images of Vietnam come from the 60s. They come from that horrible war. And we think of the whole country as just a 1960s North Vietnam that is now twice as big. And there are certainly forces in Vietnam that want that to be what the country was. But if I read my World Press Review, that is not what is happening in Vietnam these days. Politically the struggle goes on goes on, but the military victory of the 70s became a political defeat in the 80s. Communism in Vietnam is a lost cause. Some Vietnamese pay lip service to socialism these days, but they have to survive in a Free Enterprise world.
When it was just the French or the American military the Vietnamese were fighting, they could use guerrilla warfare, much the same warfare Americans used to defeat the British in the 18th century in our war of independence. And the Vietnamese successfully defeated their enemy that way. But killing Free Enterprise is a different matter. Today there is a Vietnamese stock exchange. It has only four stocks for now, but its mere existence indicates who won the war politically.
There are nearly 80,000,000 people in Vietnam and about half was born after the war. The young people want prosperity, money, and careers. The Communist Party cannot provide that and finds itself outnumbered and in trouble. The symbols that inspired people during the war do not convince the young that Socialism is noble.
The great tragedy of the Vietnam War is not that we were defeated. It is not that we lost so many lives. That is a tragedy, but not the big one. With 58,000 dead Americans lost roughly the same number of lives they lost in three days of fighting at Gettysburg. The tragedy is that we just could not see that militarily we could not possibly win and politically we could not possibly lose. If we had walked away in the first days of our involvement, Vietnam would in all probability have gone the same way. There was in July a trade agreement with the United States cutting tariffs. and things will change quickly in Vietnam after that. That is one reason we want to go now. In 1982 we saw a China that was not there ten years later. The Vietnam we see in 2001 probably will not be there in 2011.
Tourists report that the Vietnamese are surprisingly sanguine toward American tourists. After all we were the enemy in the war. There are a number of reasons why this might be true. For 2000 years their real enemy has been the Chinese who wanted to dominate them. What we consider the Vietnam War was just the punctuation mark at the end of a long war against colonialism. Even during the war Ho Chi Minh told his people that the war was against the US Government, not the US people. That interpretation is further encouraged with the Vietnamese wanting to be helped into the international markets by the Americans. Today their biggest gripe against the Americans might just be "Vietnam is a country, not a war." So Americans are not the ones getting flak from the Communists in power. The Vietnamese who worked with Americans in the war are another story. Until now these people have mostly been kept unemployed. Now the government may be treating them a little better and efforts are being made to attract collaborators who fled the country back. This is just part of the immense changes in Vietnam.
Vietnam is picking up much from American culture including rock music. The standard joke we heard before going was to ask if Hilton had built a hotel near the old Hanoi Hilton POW camp. Actually it is the Hanoi Towers that runs a hotel there. Another account said that things are developing so fast in Vietnam that if you have an office in a building next to an empty lot, You can expect to get the noise of a building going up in next to you. Still foreign investment is not what they would wish. Foreign investors are wary of the traditional Communist bureaucracy.
This is a trip that started having bad luck before it even started. We are doing server transitions at work. Something went wrong. The last day I was not able to get access to my email. I was not able to set up a vacation message for people sending me email. Microsoft Exchange 2000 servers are not getting off to a good start and neither is this trip. Well, a co-worker says she will enter a vacation message for me. But I still missed my last day's email.
We left work at 5pm. The limo was supposed to pick us up at 6:15. Usually they are about 15 minutes early. When this one was ten minutes late I called. I was there about ten minutes while they tried to beep the driver. He's had a flat tire. Without telling anyone he just went about having it fixed. He just wanted to get back on schedule by skipping his 6:15 pick up. The company thought they could get another limo over by about 7. Evelyn did not want to risk being late. We canceled the two limo rides and took our car to Newark airport and long term parking.
We still were there in plenty of time. We wanted Air Singapore in the hopes that they would not have such narrow seats that most international flights have these days. They are known for having better service. Well, what we discovered is that they do indeed have a very high class of service, but they still have a 747 with ten seats across a row. Darn uncomfortable. With ten seats across the aisles are narrow. People keep bumping my elbow.
The first thing new is that everybody gets a little TV screen in the back of the seat ahead. Instead of a few controls in the arm there is a whole remote control unit on a phone cord in the arm of the seat. The passenger has a choice of about 14 different movies or there are also flight status reports and even a videogame or two. There certainly seems to be a recognition that boredom is really what people hate most about air travel.
As soon as you are in the plane they give you an Amenity Kit including socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste. The seats also have a pulldown foot rest like buses often have.
I probably dozed off at the time of takeoff.
I woke for the meal: Braised chicken with pineapple and ginger, egg noodles, salad, cheese and crackers. I thought the food was not bad. They needed a sweet of some sort to finish the meal. A few minutes later they came around with Klondyke bars, basically a very good ice cream bar without the stick. With the meal I figured how to use the controls well enough to watch OH BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU. Sporadically it is a very funny film.
03/03/01 Flight; Schiphol
After dinner I fell asleep on THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE. I was trying to write and watch at the same time and gave justice to neither the movie nor the log. I woke up to a small breakfast of roll and muffin.
After breakfast the film was THE SIXTH DAY, and Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi film, supposedly about cloning. They got the concepts all wrong and ended up with a technological INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. The film never had time to complete. About 77 minutes into the film they collected earphones and we started landing at Schiphol outside Amsterdam.
I notice that Singapore Airlines has taken as their symbol the kris. A kris is a Malay dagger usually with a wavy blade or an angular handle. Their Singapore's magazine is KrisWorld. Their duty-free catalog is Kris Shop, their phone service id KrisFone. But nowhere do they have an image of a Kris.
Evelyn decided to stay on the plane and sleep. I left her on the plane and went to explore Schiphol airport. Might as well do everything we can. It is a pleasant airport. What struck me as unusual were the flower shops. I never see flower shops in American airports. Also there are clocks up. American airports no longer put of clocks, to avoid legal responsibility, I guess.
They hand out hot towels. In the cramped space I had dropped a piece of chicken on my shirt at dinner. The hot towels have other uses after you have freshened up.
As we get east the snacks on the plane get more Asian. They hand out Japanese snack crackers with fried peas and beans. It is just a touch of Asian and it even is junk food, but I am getting anxious. Most cuisines are good, but I have a particular taste for East Asian foods.
Lunch was filet of flounder, salad with anchovies, Gouda and crackers, and creme d'caramel. It was fairly good. All the fish reminds me of AIRPLANE!.
I am living now on destination time and at this writing that makes this 10:43 PM. I watched THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE reading a news magazine at the same time and even dropping off to sleep a little. It is really the sleep I want. I have not gotten a whole lot of sleep. As for watching movies on a plane, I would rather watch a film I have already seen. Even with conditions as good as they are on this plane, it is not ideal. BAGGER VANCE is a mystical parable and is also a bit sanctimonious. That means conditions have to be right for it to work. Watching it on a plane you can see just enough to see what it was trying to do, but not if it did it. I had some misty moments and some moments when I felt it was talking down to me. Would the film have worked in a theater? Now I will never know. I admit I am not that keen on golf or any sport. Some sports films transcend being about a sport. That was true of THE NATURAL starring Robert Redford. It is certainly what Robert Redford, the director, was trying to do with this film. My advice is don't watch a film you might like for the first time on a plane.
Somehow on a Singapore Air flight you eat and watch a lot of movies. It is like a Toronto International Film Festival in which you miss the beginning of every film. And the films are not as good.
Well, so we don't waste this time, how about if I say more about Vietnam. The name is Viet (Distant or foreign) Nam (South).
In the early 19th century the emperor wanted to name the country Nam Viet Dong. This was the name the kingdom had in ancient times. But naming the country required the approval of the Chinese court. Remember for 2000 years Vietnam, whatever its current name, was under the thumb of the Chinese. The Chinese balked remembering that China had taken two provinces of the ancient Nam Viet Dong and restoring the name might lead to restoring the country. They counter-proposed the name Viet Nam. That is the Far South.
03/04/01 Flight; Singapore Airport; HCM City
It is now about 4:45 AM Hanoi time. More time spent eating, sleeping, watching. Breakfast is a choice of omelette or seafood noodles. Guess which I chose. Sadly they have about equal flavor, though I am guessing on the omelette.
A steward asked how we liked the noodles. We said they were OK. I thought I quietly said to Evelyn that they could have had more flavor. He must have had acute ears since he heard me. He said in Singapore the food would be much better. We said we would be there for three days at the end but were going to Vietnam. He has been there often and like it. He liked the food, the price, and the nature. Just talking to him brought back memories of Thailand. Just being on the street is exciting there.
We landed at Singapore at 5:45 Hanoi time. That is 6:45 local time so we must have gone further East than Vietnam and will go west to Saigon. Everybody calls it Saigon, though the current regime officially calls it Ho Chi Minh City. I suspect that like St. Petersburg the name will eventually go back to what people like to call it. The name Leningrad was even easy to say. Ho Chi Min City takes too long to say. Perhaps they should have called it Hoville or just Ho. I doubt that George Washington City would still be called George Washington City. It would have gone back to being Columbia or DC. The name George was left out. Of course the communist regime felt it could not shorten Ho's name. Communism generally represents the victory of the practical and the logical over human nature. The State needs Ho's full name and they need the city name to be changed as a constant reminder of Ho's victory. But whenever you fight against nature, human or otherwise, without vigilance nature starts encroaching back. Eventually the jungle out there will come back. The city will probably be called Saigon again.
We have two hours wait until our next flight takes off. We have been traveling for 23 hours now. There were times I wished the flight was over, but there was not the usual boredom. We currently have landed and people are getting up. I told Evelyn that we have two hours, we can just sit and wait rather than get in someone else's way. Even if we end up just sitting and waiting in the airport, we will be able to stretch out a little. Right now I feel a little tired and a little full.
OK, we are in the airport. No special flavor to the decor. It could be in the US. Now I see a Chinese herb store. In a center section there are some tropical plants. The bookstore is W.H.Smith, popular in English colonies and former English colonies. Our gate is not open yet so we staked out some seats outside of it and I went off in search of a rest room and water fountain. The sign over the restroom says "Drinking water." We are in a part of the world where a distinction is made between drinking water and non-drinking water. I must be careful, though it really is fairly easy.
I see some Singapore Air stewardesses walk by. The uniform is a wraparound silk skirt and a silk blouse. The wraparound skirt frequently shows the leg to fairly high up. It makes the passing stewardess more--shall we say--distracting. A former co-worker said that in Vietnam there are a lot of women half French, half Vietnamese, a combination that tends to make women distracting. Also there are a lot of Indians, the women in traditional dress. But mostly you see Western dress. (I don't mean cowboy.)
I hear over and over the public address system paging tone. It is a chime that is the same three bars and tempo that begin the bittersweet "Karen's Theme" from EXODUS. Since they play the tones every couple of minutes or so, I cannot get the melody out of my head. The way the announcer says Malaysia Airline it keeps sounding like Militia Airlines.
I am reading about possible scams. Apparently there is begging and a lot of people trying to get kickbacks. Hopefully this will not be as much of a problem as it was in India.
I see some people waiting who look distinctly Vietnamese. They are a little darker than Chinese and more compactly built. Frequently there is sort of an intense look.
The flight is not for another hour but there is a lineup for the gate. They let us in and put us through the metal detector. Now we are in the waiting room. I would chew gum, but I am not sure it is entirely legal in Singapore. I am told it is no longer as illegal, but why chance it? The TV seems to running some sort of variety show. Somebody is wearing humorous cardboard cutouts that illustrate the music. A Dolly Parton song is illustrated by a big busty blond on a horse. Earlier there was an image of King Kong on the Empire State Building.
On the plane there is a lot of effort by the crew to get baggage to fit overhead.
We took off about 9:00. Next stop is Vietnam. I nodded off a little and woke when they served breakfast. It was omelette or something with chicken. They called it radish cake or carrot cake. I don't get a lot of comfort from so-called comfort foods and chose the carrot cake. The material they were describing I know better as turnip cake. I have gotten I fried in Dm Sum restaurants where I try to impress the servers by calling it Lo Ba Goh. This is the first I have seen it out of a dim sum restaurant. It is beige and has a consistency closest to jelled cranberry sauce. To me the taste is like turkey stuffing. If that sounds repellent, I am not describing it well. Most people whom I introduce to it at dim sum order it repeatedly.
I knew I was in trouble when I saw the pronunciation of a Vietnamese word. It is spelled with a D. But the note said that the D is pronounced Y in one part of the country and Z in the rest. Nowhere is it pronounced D. Why is the phonetic spelling D? I have no idea. I worked with a Vietnamese man. I always had a great deal of difficulty making out what he was saying. I once asked him to write out a word he was saying. On paper it was a very familiar word. I asked him to pronounce it again and I was totally unrecognizable. I could never find out why he pronounced it that way. Now I know. He would pronounce DEAD as YEAY. I am concerned this will make communication difficult. It was a serious problem with the man I worked with. Nobody could work with him effectively and he eventually had to find other work.
We landed about 10:37 AM. We have been traveling 28 hours but the time just does not seem real. We are sitting on the runway waiting for a gate. The ground around the airport looks like prairie. We see where small building are being built, mostly of utilitarian poured concrete. The runway seems in large part to be under construction.
We disembark. The passport check is slow and controlled by decidedly unfriendly officials. Whether you are single or with a group you come through one at a time. After I have gone through and Evelyn comes and the official tells me I am standing too close to his desk, even if it is on the other side of the gate.
Then we have to turn in our customs declarations. The lines are long. In front of us in one line a tiny attractive aunty from another country fauns over a niece and nephew who struggle to pull away. We find a line that is moving faster. They x-ray our luggage one more time as we leave and we are through customs. Coming out there is a crowd of about 500 people waiting for arrivals. Some hold up signs, some gaily wave to relatives as they come out. We are supposed to be met by a driver from the Giant Dragon Hotel. We look all around for 10 minutes and he appears not to be there. We pull to the side to wait. Evelyn does not want to take a taxi. It seemed to me from the beginning that a taxi is our only choice. I like to quote the factoid that only 37% of all rendezvous work out as planned. I hasten to add that the statistic is a total fabrication. There is no data behind it at all. But nobody ever tells me it seems inaccurate. Intuitively people think it is about the right number. After about 15 minutes of standing in the heat, Evelyn agrees. A cab says it will take us for $10 American. We are obviously over a barrel. It is probably a rip-off, but $10 is certainly reasonable by standards we are used to.
The roads are filled with cars motorbikes, and bicycles, all honking horns. They love honking horns. The loudest honk wins. On the motorbikes and bicycles nobody wears head protection. Two parents and a child may ride one motorbike and none are protected. Some wear kerchiefs over their nose and mouth.
Much of the city looks like a big run-down neighborhood. Buildings look abandoned, some while being built. But the city goes on. You see old women in traditional cloths and shallow conical straw hats.
Any building for something scientific has the name of some famous scientist. There is the Louis Pasteur Institute and another one named for Marie Curie.
We get to the Giant Dragon, sign in, and go to our room. It has a nice couch and a refrigerator. In addition to the air conditioner there is a fan that helps a lot. The plumbing all seems to work. The toilet flushes toilet paper. It is a large room for $40/night. The TV gets CNN and MTV but not much entertaining. The bellboy tell us that $10 was really too much for the cab.
Evelyn wants to take a nap until it cools off outside. She sleeps from about noon to four when I wake her up. I had slept an hour myself. At about 4:30 we go out to walk the streets. With shop-houses, armadas of motorbikes, kids touting on the street, pedidcab drivers offering to pedal us somewhere. While the area looks low-rent it seems to be thriving economically. One tout asks us if we want to buy a string hammock.
I buy a collection of stories by Roald Dahl.
We check out a shop that has tours and then look for a restaurant recommended in the book. It is about a ten-minute walk. It is worth your life to cross a street. The restaurant is the Le Lai. We find it and it is just another humble shop house. It is probably run by one family. There were three people sitting around but when they see us they spring into action. while everyone was sitting around, as we each pick a dish. I have braised mushrooms with squid, Evelyn has chicken braised in citronella and hot pepper. Actually we share both. We ordered Coke. The waiter came back in a few moments trying to tell us something we could not understand. I picked up the words Coke and ended. "They are out of Coke," I tell Evelyn. We tried to order a local brand of soda, but end with 7up.
The problems we have eating the chicken are ones we had eating chicken in China. Bugs and bones. This is an open shop house so the food attracts some flying insects. Chicken is cut up like a loaf of bread without regard to bones. Let the eater beware. That makes the squid a lot easier to eat. Incidentally the rice is really the main part of the meal. The dish is really a topping. It is like vanilla ice cream and hot fudge. The table has a napkin dispenser which really dispenses toilet paper. That saves money. They also have condiments of garlic, scallion, and hot pepper. There is also a sauce, probably soy, but it might be their fish sauce. They serve fruit for desert. Then they put a bunch of extras on the bill. I am not going to get up tight. The meal comes to a total of 64,000D. That is about $4.60 for a complete meal. It is 14,000D to the dollar. That is pronounced "fourteen thousand Dong."
Back near the hotel we book a tour and buy some water and bring it back to room. Back in the room I pull out the Dahl book and fin out quickly it is a brazen bootleg and there are pages out of order. The cover is a complete mess of photocopying a Penguin Books cover. They even cut off the Penguin's head.
I suggested to Evelyn we could put on the news and break out the water. "Let's party." It is now almost 9:00 and the street below is filled with honking cars and motor bikes.
I am trying to stay awake to a reasonable hour but keep dozing off for seconds.
03/05/01 HCM City, Mekong Delta
There are two or three portable lights in the room. They are all unplugged and placed where they are mostly for decoration. If you try to plug them in, and you have to unplug something to do that, the bulbs are burned out or for some other reason they do not work. I say for some other reason because there is a complex scheme of power switches that have to be in the correct position for things to work.
These logs frequently have discussions of what I am thinking as I travel and the thought frequently are negative on problems created by misguided religious beliefs. Let me weigh in on the side of religion on this one. There was a story on CNN about the Weigh Down religious diet. The AMA is negative on it. I poked fun at the concept of a religious diet in a previous log. I have investigated it since and I think that the AMA is being cynical and hypocritical to oppose this one. The Weigh Down diet the world's simplest diet packed with some religious folderol. The diet is simply this, if you are not hungry, don't eat. Mouthful by mouthful, take a new mouthful only of your stomach tells you to. This is extreme common sense but it requires a lot of willpower. The willpower is where the religion comes in. They say that whether your stomach says it is hungry or not comes from God and it dishonors him to eat when you are not feeling you need to. God will reward you in the next life if you just listen to your stomach. But, as I say, the diet requires willpower. One thing I will say for religion, it gives one willpower. In the Crusades it gave people the willpower to march across Europe and get involved in wars they did not understand. That took incredible willpower. Using religion as the motivation in dieting is a smart move.
I slept pretty well. I woke up a few times but got back to sleep quickly. Evelyn was up for an hour.
The big news story yesterday and today is about the Taliban's plans to destroy some colossal Buddha's in their country, Afghanistan. When I was growing up there was a woman who we knew who before Passover would follow the precise word of the law and collect the last chumetz in the house, take it to the end of her driveway, and burn it there. She wanted everybody on the street to see her piety. It may not have been her only motivation, but it made it more worthwhile. The more international attention the Taliban gets, the more likely it is they will go ahead and do the action.
For breakfast we found a street merchant selling soup. There are restaurants everywhere you look, or street merchants. We had a clear soup with noodles and chicken, bean sprouts, carrots and raw greens. The condiments were seasoning sauce, red pepper slices, and limes. The lime juice really transformed the flavor. Price for two soups 10,000. That is about 36 cents each.
We were done in plenty of time so we thought we would top off breakfast with something to drink. I got a mango shake and Evelyn got iced coffee with milk.
As in much of Asia you do see that people are not so shy about when they do in public. You see people on the street cleaning out their noses. You just look the other way. The place we stop for drinks is mostly a tourist stop. My shake will cost more than the soup, but still only about 56 cents. It is quite good even if not authentic Vietnamese. Ah, the shake is good. The straw keeps jamming because there is a lot of real fruit in the shake.
Our destination today is them Mekong Delta. Vietnam is a scythe-shaped country as if someone tried to buy up all the waterfront property on the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea. It widens toward the bottom to form a triangular piece of land jutting into the South China Sea like a small India. This is the Mekong Delta. Whether it is a delta literally or just called a delta because it is triangular I am not sure. The Mekong river does have a delta, but the triangle of land called the delta is much bigger.
The bus came on time and our guide is Pha. (It must be Pha, though he says it is part of the musical scale. Do. Re. Mi. Fa.) He is a bit of a character and since we are right near him in the bus we can throw him lines. He said we had to leave two people behind because they were late. I gave him a thumbs up and said "Right decision." His English accent rates an unusual A- for clarity. Vietnamese have varying degrees of clarity. Many try to speak English and are very hard to understand. Vietnam has very low standards for English elocution. This is NOT to make fun or deride anyone. Some languages are very different from English, some are not. German and Hebrew have a guttural "ch" Americans have to learn. There may be many sounds in English that are not in Vietnamese. In addition Vietnamese is a tonal language and English is not. This makes it very hard. I may not really good at picking out words, but I find native speakers of Vietnamese the hardest to understand when they speak English.
To give you an example of the problem, this string of letters was seen in a museum. "oet mo len" If spoken it would be pretty much the way it is spelled. "o-et mo len". But it is not supposed to be Vietnamese. That is English with a Vietnamese accent. What is it?
I guess I will rate guides as A if I can make out every word they say as well as talking to an American. An F accent is one where you cannot tell for sure that it is English they are speaking. I do this not to make fun of these people, but as a measure of an aspect of the tour that really is important to the consumer, but that just about no tour books talk about. But with Pha it is not really a problem.
Oh, what is "oet mo len?" That was one of their enemies during the war against the Americans. That was the surname of William Westmoreland. But in conversation a Vietnamese will be speaking English and much of the conversation will be that far off. No other accent I have ever heard is so impenetrable.
Pha says that food is now very cheap in Vietnam and that is making for prosperity. He says that after a hot day he goes to a supermarket and just walks around for the air conditioning.
Motorbikes were expensive, about $2000 before. Now they get Chinese motorbikes, $550 and there are so many they are causing a pollution problem. They are taxing gasoline to control the pollution. You see a lot of people wearing surgical style masks, maybe in plaid. This is to counter dust and pollution.
We pass a military statue. I ask about it and it is a statue of Lei Lai, a hero of 200 years ago. That must be why the streets are called Lei Lai. The biggest religion is Buddhism, followed by Catholicism. Cao Dai religion is strong, though not that big.
We have to stop the bus. The air conditioning has gone out. It takes about 20 minutes to get it fixed. I guess in the heat it is important.
Snake wine is popular. 90 proof rice wine with a snake in each bottle.
We see a lot of small white tombs by themselves. They are graves on private property. You put a grave on your own land it makes it easy to visit. Also it is a strategy for keeping the young on farms. The land has much less sale value with a grave on it.
Much of the way we are passing restaurants and public establishments. It takes a long time to get to an area that seems really rural. Eventually we get to some farm land.
As we go through the countryside there are motorbikes on the shoulders and truck ands busses on the roads. As we approach any tight places the bus driver has the horn singing out to warn others that we are a really big bus. We are frequently on the wrong side of the road negotiating the way. A loud horn here and now is more powerful than a traffic law in some book.
Some chickens you see here have really nice plumage. You rarely see that in the states. Here "free range" means all over yards, occasionally the roads, and sometimes under tires.
There was a 20-minute stop at a Bonsai park/zoo/topiary. As we get off the bus there are kids trying to sell postcards, but they take no for an answer. There were pythons, spider monkeys, and several breeds. We talked to an American couple, Mark and Debbie, now living in Japan. Make is a couple of years older than me. He said he was nearly drafted but as he put it his father bought him out. I am not sure how he did that. I had a low draft number and was very nearly drafted. I didn't get drafted because my year of eligibility was 1972, an election year. Nixon kept the draft numbers really low to improve his chances of winning. That was the year he also did other dubious things to get elected. I commented that in some ways it would have been nice to see the world at that time. The other Mark says not to think that way. People really had their minds screwed up by that war. I have known some people who went who did not get screwed up and who clearly held their balance. But there were certainly those who came back a little funny. I think generally we fought World War II honorably. We just were caught off balance by a dirty guerrilla war. Our first responsibility was to win, but we used tactics unthinkable 25 years earlier. Evelyn was telling me about an exchange of commanders. I forget who they were. The American pointed out that the US never lost a battle. The other pointed out "Yes, but that is pretty irrelevant, wasn't it." We won the battles, they won the war, and we won the fate of the country. I guess unlike what will probably happen in Cuba, Communism outlived its founder by some years. But Communism is surviving only by making monstrous compromises to free enterprise.
We went overboard because we were afraid that Communism was going to beat out capitalism. We still are. The truth is it was only half-hearted in ever trying. We built up the threat in our minds. Nikita Krushchev said "We will bury you." He meant only that Communism will still be around when Capitalism dies. We interpreted it he was saying his country's economic power would crush ours. He liked to brag, but I am told he never meant the other meaning, but we interpreted it as a call to war. Communism was aggressive, especially in Southeast Asia, but when we were afraid of the domino effect, we were the ones over-rating it. Systems that turned to try Communism did so because they were rotten on the inside. When we fought Communism we were fighting the symptom, not the ill.
We see a lot of young women in the traditional "ao dai." This is a silk pants-suit. It is silk pants and a floor length tunic split up the side. It is warn with the conical hat. Quite attractive.
You see some Communist posters reminding you that there is still a state ideology, but it is a pretty loose form of Communism. Thank goodness. There seems to be less muscle behind the Communists and they have to loosen their grasp.
We get to the boat dock and get off the bus. We have a few minutes of standing around. I go to the street to take a picture and turn around to find the group is leaving without me. I rush to get a seat as everybody gets on the boat.
We are first going up river to see Dragon Island. Islands in the Mekong river are given animal names, real and fanciful. There is Dragon Island, Phoenix Island, Tortoise Island, and Tiger Island. We go upriver and take a look at Dragon Island, then down to Unicorn Island. Dragon Island is residential and has a large number of houses right on the water. I mean right on the water. Or a foot above it. These are houses on stilts. There is no dry land to build anything on.
The houses look a little ramshackle by most standards. But they hold off the forces of nature. On these islands boats are how people get around and each home has a boat and the ferry is the major form of mass transit.
Continuing to Unicorn Island we find a rendezvous spot and in groups of four are taken by rowers in smaller boats. The path takes us through in-land channels six or eight feet wide, with high growth of vegetation on either side. Frequently the two sides grow together on either side forming a tunnel. It gives a very mysterious mood to the travel, reminiscent of the movies about the war. It felt like we were in something like APOCAPLYPSE NOW. After about 20 minutes we form up again and walk over the land to a pavilion where locals come to here traditional Vietnamese music played on Chinese instruments. The real purpose was to get us to buy music tapes, candy, etc. That we were given samples of. By general consent we missed the point. This is music from a very different tradition from what we are used and while we were willing to clap enthusiastically it was probably more out of politeness. I have a couple of dozen cassettes of similar music at home and I listen trying to get used to it and to understand it, but I have no gotten to a state that I understand much.
After a walk a little further in we went to another pavilion and were served lunch of Spring Rolls, soup, and vegetables. The nifty thing about the meal is that we were unsure how to eat it. It was not clear what went into the soup and what was to be eaten separately.
After lunch we visited another small zoo associated with the pavilion and saw gibbons, turtles, and a cobra. Following that we returned to the original boat and the main waterway of the Mekong.
We went to the side of the river opposite where we started and went onto this Mainland where we trudged on a path through more tropical growth. Our next stop was a coconut candy factory. To say they wanted to show us how coconut candy was made is a bit of an exaggeration. Pha took us around to two or three station and showed us where the coconut milk was boiled down, where the next room where it was poured in strips, cut, and hand-wrapped. And of course there were opportunities to sample the candy, other kinds of candy, and banana wine, and to purchase any of the above. The most interesting piece was the wrapping table. Pieces of candy were hand-cut by knife and dropped on a table like chips at a casino. Five girls sat around the table, each with a straight stick. With the stick they would pull candy to themselves. They would grab a wrapper and with a fast very mechanical motion they would have a piece wrapped in under what must have been about a second. It must be incredibly mind-numbing work.
Evelyn and I had never had had fresh coconut so we bought one. The price must have been under $.25. Coconut milk is well-named. I had had it in cooking, and thought I knew what it tasted like, but this tasted a lot like cow's milk. Perhaps a little sweeter. And there was a lot of milk in the coconut. I think it must have been about 12 ounces at least. When we were done they cut open the coconut and ate the contents. Eaten this way the meat is soft and moist, like a lychee nut. Actually it is also somewhat reminiscent of egg white in a fried egg.
After we were done there it was a half-mile walk to the boats. Motor-scooters came along the narrow path and happy to find something on the road that they outranked, honked their horns loudly. These were motorized boats. It is surprising how many different boat we rode in the tour. And again we went down narrow channels. We hit a branch overhead and the plastic canopy over our heads collapsed and we had to straighten the stiff cable arches that held it in place.
Bee farming is the next demonstration. Most of what keeps this going is the natural fear people have of bees. A boy pulled wooden frames out of a case. They were about one inch by eight inches by twelve inches. Each held a slice of beehive that could barely be seen because it was solidly covered with bees. The boy offered to let us touch the hive and only Evelyn volunteered at first. Eventually we each did and each got a taste of honey on his finger. The boy looked to try to find the queen to point out to us, but could not. I made the comment that these must be masterless bees, ronin. One of the Japanese girls on the tour said something to the other with the word "ronin" in what she said.
They served us tea with honey and what might have been little oranges maybe an inch and a half in diameter that tasted like limes. A bee flew into a cup of hot tea and saving it became the center of attention at our table. People insisted on calling it "he" even though we had just been told that the male bees do not forage.
There was more walking in the tropical area until we got into motorized boats and again when through the channels in the foliage. By now it was about 3:30 and I turned to Evelyn and asked her how long did it feel like we had been in Vietnam. A lot more than a day. 24 hours earlier we had gone from the airport to the hotel room and Evelyn was still napping.
We docked with the big boat that crossed the river and headed back to the dock and the bus. Next stop was the Vinh Trang Pagoda, an old and respected temple. We entered and looked at the carvings and decoration. There was a monk chanting in a way that was oddly hypnotic. Another monk bantered with us. He served us tea. The Buddhists certainly have the Serenity thing down pat. However walking to and from the temple is anything but serene. Aggressive touts, children mostly, try to sell postcards and caps. Back on the bus one of the women says it was like being in India again. I made a face and said the touts were far more aggressive in India.
It was better than a 100-minute ride home on the bus and I must have been tired. The honking of the bus really started to irritate me. Whenever there was anyone around who remotely challenged our bus's dominance of the road, our bus would trumpet a warning.
The whole day exclusive of drinks with lunch and guide tip cost $7/person. Australia advertises the American dollar goes a long way there. Try Vietnam.
The tourist place is just around the corner from our hotel so we went back to room to freshen up. We did get a station that though usually in Vietnamese, picks up movies from HBO and Cinemax. I was not desperate enough to watch a police action film that had Chou Yung Fat on the NYPD.
At 7pm we go to dinner. After looking around we found a small place and ordered nearly identical dishes. I had noodles with seafood, Evelyn had crispy noodles with seafood.
After dinner we went to some bookstores hoping to get phrasebook or tourist books. One place offered us two copies of the Lonely Planet Vietnamese Phrasebook. One was 15,000D one was 70,000D. (Lonely Planet is the most popular publisher of guides to Asia. They have a big thick book on Vietnam and smaller associated books like this phrasebook, or rather the book it was photocopied from.) I was surprised to see how brazenly they showed side-by-side a real copy and a bootleg. I guess they have not signed the copyright agreement and bootlegs are perfectly legal here. The real problem with the bootlegs is on some they use cheap paper and the ink goes right through the page and leaves a ghost image on the other side. They are actually nicely bound in signatures, not pages glued in place like some cheap books in the US.
Back at the room Evelyn zonked almost immediately. I wrote for a while but was really too tired to write well.
03/06/01 HCM City: War Museums
I was up at about 5am. Evelyn had already been up for a half hour and was in the process of going back to sleep. I appreciated the time to get caught up in my log. I do my best writing just after I wake up. Last night it was hard to get a paragraph out before having to shift position or nod off.
About seven we went to the restaurant just outside the door of our hotel. The selection is disappointing, mostly gringo food. Sometimes strange gringo food. Hot dog for breakfast??? I think we have to go a little further afield.
A kid with the party at the next table plops herself down at our table, still facing her mother. Then she sees the computer and that fascinates her for a little while.
The noodle soup comes and it is Raman like we get at home. I am less than impressed. I think we have to walk a bit more if we want decent food. Actually the next table they got baguette and jam. I think I prefer to eat Asian, but that does not look bad. You see a lot of venders selling baguettes.
The people at the table next to us are having a conversation in boisterous conversation in German. As yet we se few Americans here.
The little girl, who may be a little retarded from the way she acts, walks up behind me and puts an elbow on my shoulder and watches me type. Evelyn is more nervous about this sort of thing than I am. As I get older I get more patient with children.
Our first stop is the War Remnants Museum. Evelyn is not sure she wants to go. It promises to be a guilt trip. We walk which is always a bit of a problem in Vietnam. There seems to be very little effort to keep walkways clear. Walking down the street is a process of constant zigzagging and looking for open spaces. it is safer than crossing streets, but still a constant effort. It is however, really dangerous to cross streets. No provision is made for pedestrian crossing hat I can tell. You wait for it to look safe for you. On busy streets it takes some courage. It never looks safe. There is a policeman conducting traffic on one busy street by hand-controlling lights. But there never is a safe time to cross. He watches concerned as we cross weaving around motorbikes. I make a face of relief when I get to the far side. Generally on corners I try to cross with a local and watch his or her feet. If I watched for traffic I would lose my nerve in the middle and be really stuck. Evelyn is trying to decide if the traffic in this city is better or worse than that in Bangkok which for years she has been telling people is the worst in the world. I don't remember Bangkok traffic that well.
So we make it on foot to the War Remnants Museum. This is a strange museum. It was originally designed for propaganda purposes to show how powerful and evil an enemy the Vietnamese people overcame. Then they started accepting donations from the powerful evil enemy to also show how terrible was their experience. They have decided to follow a lead supposedly from Ho to say that Americans as well as Vietnamese were victims of this terrible war and the US soldiers were victims of their own war machine. At times there is almost a GETTYSBURG sort of feel that both sides were noble victims.
As you enter you walk through a garden of nasty looking pieces of American war equipment including tanks, planes, and the centerpiece is a seismic bomb. This looks like something out of a Japanese sci-fi film that you would drop on the Mysterians. All the equipment is labeled with every caption having a propaganda twist. Well this was their war of independence and like our Revolution, they want to make themselves out as the David who slew the Goliath. Hence they make the most of this formidable weapons display. In the indoor portion the first room you enter gives a history of the war against the French and the Americans. The second room is dedicated to war atrocities. Most effective is the photos of deformed babies and actual babies in jars showing horrible birth defects putatively the result of chemical bombing. There are horrific pictures of burns from napalm. Pictures of people injured by fragmentation bombs.
There was a report of atrocities said to be taken from the January 19, 1970 issue of Life Magazine. One problem: that issue of Life Magazine never existed. Life Magazine I remember always came out and was dated on Friday. In any case that was certainly true in 1970. The idea was it was a magazine to linger over on the weekend. They have a cover of a different issue of Life in another room from 1964 and it has a date that was a Friday. January 19, 1970 was a Monday. [Postscript: I have found an ad for a used January 23, 1970 issue of Life magazine confirming that 1970 issues were dated on Fridays.]
The third room was devoted to weapons, mostly guns. This does not tell a whole lot.
The fourth room was devoted to photography of the war. Much was from Life Magazine. By a ratio of ten to one the photos were of Americans. This room is funded by American countries to document the American experience.
On the wall are lists of some of the dead from each side. After being so negative on the Americans the museum's tone becomes one of what a terrible event this was for both sides. It is true that I was negative on the war.
I was part of a generation on the right side of this conflict in large part for the wrong and the most selfish reasons. Sure, if we were sent to Vietnam it would damage and possibly destroy our lives. And that is assuming it did not kill us. But deep down there was also the feeling many of us had that we really were on the wrong side. And certainly that was the reason we claimed we were against the war. We could not distinguish what protest was done for the wrong reasons, what was done for the right reasons. It was convenient to pretend it was all for the right reasons. We could not tell the difference then and we still cannot. In the end all our motives were suspect and we probably should have done more protesting anyway. Chance had made the selfish side the side of good. And I did not protest more because I suspected my own motives.
Next stop is the Reunification Palace. There was originally a palace built here for the Governor General of French Indochina. It was built from 1868 to 1870. In 1954 the French gave it up to the Vietnamese on their exit. It became the residence of President Diem. In a coup attempt in 1962 the palace was bombed from the air and partially destroyed. The building had to be completely destroyed and rebuilt. Diem was eventually assassinated, but it became the palace of the ruling Saigon regime. On April 30, 1975 the forces of North Vietnam had taken the city and a tank crashed through the front gate as a major photo-opportunity seen around the world. A guide with a translucent accent took us around and showed us the sights. I would rate her accent a D.
There are a lot of people who think they speak English clearly who are very hard to understand and I think the problem is worse in Vietnam than other places.
This is nice and reasonably ornate and attractive but except for radio rooms for intelligence beneath the building, there is nothing much out of the ordinary to concern the reader. I mean, do you really need to hear it has dining rooms and libraries? From the roof we could see a small zoo on the side including a bear.
When the tour was over we saw a video recounting in English the war from the current regime's point of view. There was mention on how bad the war was on the Americans.
The Palace closes at 11 for lunch, but we exited somewhat later. We went to a pavilion near the zoo and wrote in our logs for a while drinking soda and taking a time-out to visit the bears and the monkey. These tiny zoos are depressing prisons for animals in small cages. The monkey sits watching the birds as his only entertainment and occasionally gives out a howl of despair. What a symbol of liberation! Small zoos seem to be very popular. this is the third one I have seen. How the world dearly loves a cage.
Our next stop is the Revolutionary Museum. On our way we stop at the Post office to pick up a gift for a friend. On the way out a tout tries to sell us some stamps and I think they will make a nice gift so I get a set. A cyclo driver sees this and decides we are easy marks. He latches on to us and keeps following us, in spite of our repeatedly saying no. (A cyclo is like a rickshaw crossed with a bicycle. They are very popular as a mode of transport.)
We continue to the Revolutionary Museum. We think the museum does not open until 2 PM, 15 minutes away. And we don't want a 15 minute sales pitch from the cyclo driver. I suggest we try to go into the public park. Perhaps they are not allowed to bring cyclos into the park. I don't know what he is allowed but he follows us with a friend now. Are we going to the Revolutionary Museum? It is open, you know. Do you want an hour ride for $2? We go to the museum. Sure enough the driver was right and it was open. In we went.
The Revolutionary Museum is now also a city museum. The downstairs is a city museum. The lower level features minerals, items of local interest, and horribly mis-taxidermised animals. The taxidermy was so bad that if the animal's family sued in the States it would have been awarded millions for malpractice. I stood and cruelly laughed at a poor unfortunate deer who looked like his head had been pulled through a bottle. The problem is that first the taxidermist seems to have changed the shape of the heads, then generations of hands have worn part of the faces away. Across the way was a room of statues of the Buddhas. There were also a nice lion and a tiger, but the pieces were mostly Buddhas.
Upstairs most of the exhibits were more related in one way or another to the wars Vietnamese fought against the US and France. The exhibit starts with a boat made tall with false bottom. That would make it ride high on the water and would be suspicious. It needed weapons as ballast to look normal. This made it a perfect blockade runner.
A lot of the things were perfectly normal objects that were given a war context. There was a sewing machine used for flags. How do we know it was used for sewing flags. Well, you don't. There were some things that were obvious war materials, but a lot probably were not. There is a little display showing hill tribesmen happily and industriously making weapons for the Viet Cong.
(Side note: "Viet Cong" began as a derogatory term. It mutated to "VC," "Victor Charlie," and "Charlie." Eventually the people themselves took it as a mark of pride and it lost all its negative connotations. Museums now have captions that refer to them as "Viet Cong." And to get the terminology right, they are not the invaders from North Vietnam, they are the South Vietnamese underground--sometimes literally--resistance fighters. They are like the people with the funny double-F rings in CASABLANCA, but it is a different war.)
Some city displays went upstairs. There were handicrafts, musical instruments like the "Chinese piano" and local string instruments. We saw also farm implements on display.
In this heat I am pretty constantly thirsty. I wanted to try a local soft drink, Tri Beco. It looks sort of milky. I tried it and found it tasted like a sort of sweet milk or a non-sour lassi. It has a quite likable flavor. It is not as sweet as soda so it leaves less after taste. It may be made from coconut milk.
As we were standing there who should find us but our two cyclo drivers. They had waited for us the whole time we were in the museum. Evelyn had been thinking of looking at a local market, but it would have been an unpleasant walk. We negotiated a rife, each in a different cyclo. 30,000D. Admittedly the ride was a lot of fun.
The market was smaller than we expected but Evelyn bought herself some sandals and I got some tamarind candy.
For dinner we stopped at a restaurant on the way home from the market. The Lotus was recommended in the Lonely Planet. It had a bunch of gringos sitting around. I wasn't so much hungry as very thirsty. I perspire a lot, a family trait. That means I frequently need to replenish water. On our trip to Southeast Asia Steve Goldsmith used to comment on what a good sweater I was. I knew I would get very thirsty, but assumed each of us did and most were able to ignore it better than I did. It occurs to me that if I lose so much to perspiration, I may actually be getting thirstier than other people.
Evelyn got a spicy chicken dish and I got squid curry. If you see a pattern forming, like that I get squid every night, well maybe there is such a pattern. They were pretty good. It turns out that we have been near the Lotus restaurant all along. They are on the corner of the street where we book trips. We have walked by it without noticing it. Before returning to the room we booked our tour for tomorrow, our bus trip for Friday. I bought a book about our destination the Cu Chi tunnels.
We were back early, but basically worked on logs, and did other administativa. Tomorrow will be a tougher day.
03/07/01 HCM City; Cu Chi
I must have dropped off to sleep about 9pm. I have woken up once or twice because of noise. It is now 3 AM and I am up because of a combination of noise and all the water I drank. Somewhere it sounds like there is a large party going on. I guess this is a city that does not sleep. I hear a lot of voices including children's voices. Soundproofing is not a well-understood art and neither is keeping normal hours.
There is a party going on outside out window. People are applauding and laughing at 4 AM. I cannot figure what that is about. Evelyn thinks they are tourists.
The bathroom is actually fairly functional here. The hot water is really hot. At first I was skeptical about how good this room is. Certainly at $40 a day it is expensive by Vietnamese standards. And a lot of the features do not quite work. But I can easily see that we might not do as well elsewhere.
The most powerful weapon that the Vietnamese had was their system of tunnels. In the forties the French used sweeps and spotter planes to find nationalists communicating with each other. To avoid them the tunnel system was built. By 1948 the system was built with each family having a tunnel to get to the center of their hamlet and each hamlet connected to every other. Over the next 25 years the system was improved and extended. It proved to have strategic advantages far beyond its original ones. The wrong tool sometimes can be much more powerful than the right tool. Lieutenant Nguyen Tranh Linh who orchestrated the use of the tunnels said "Thanks to the tunnels we could remain with the [invading] Americans, se how their troops behaved and reacted, watch their mistakes. Our observations helped us decide what kinds of booby trap to set and where to set them." It is the tunnels of Cu Chi we visit today.
We head out for breakfast. There is a shop-house right near us Evelyn wanted to try. I got a really good bowl of soup with a lot of noodles and chicken. Pho, pronounced "fer," is soup and their most popular restaurant item I think. In the Southwest of the US you saw a bunch of Pho restaurants run by ex-pat Vietnamese. They serve a good hearty soup. Probably my favorite breakfast here. The problem is that you have a lot of beggars and cyclo drivers coming by. We have breakfast and then head over to the travel office.
Today we are riding a minibus. These are roads with more private homes than our trip two days ago. Much more is private and rural. The roads are still full but not so many motorbikes. Probably there are more private houses. International brand names are all around: Castrol, Honda, Shell, Coca-Cola, Colgate, DAP, and Pepsi. There are more nice houses. Many have thatched roofs, some have tile, some corrugated metal.
We see some very green rice paddies. They are green just two months a year, but they look lush and verdant.
We stop for a 15 minute rest. Evelyn and I each get an ice cream on a stick. Mine is green and has pieces in it. Evelyn thinks it is Pistachio. Hers is lavender. 2000D each. That is about 15 cents. We looked them up in our phrasebook. Mine was green bean, Evelyn's was Taro.
We pass over a road most of us have seen in photos. One of the most famous shots of the war is of a naked burned girl running down a road crying. It had a very strong emotional effect. The girl survived, by the way, and according to the guide currently is over 40 and works in New York City, though she does come back to visit her brother.
At 11:30 we got to the Cao Dai temple.
Cao Dai religion was founded by Ngo Minh Chieu born 1878 and who founded the religion in 1926. It was an amalgam of just about every religion then in Vietnam. The goal for a worshiper is to avoid the cycle of reincarnation by being good and leading a parsimonious life this time around. You eat vegetarian six days a month. (I probably do that at home. That's not so tough.) While the various governments have officially discouraged it, there are a lot of members in government and it has power out of proportion to its numbers. The name Cao Dai means the high tower or the high palace. It means God in the same way we use "the White House" to mean "the President."
The acolytes are dressed in bright colors. The robes are red, yellow, blue, and white. The white is for purity and the other three are each for a major religion. Red is Taoism; Yellow is Buddhism; Blue is Confucianism. We left our shoes at the side and walked into the temple and around the main floor. The roof was held up by ping and green columns. They represented green serpents curled around the column. At the far end of the hall from the entrance is a large ball with an all-seeing eye. There are Chinese style chairs in front of the sphere.
There was a ceremony at noon so we climbed to the balcony to watch. There was a procession of monks, each in robes of one of the four colors, each with a chest decoration showing the all-seeing eye. To the sound of very Asian-sounding religious music monks marched into the temple. The whole ceremony looked like something from THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING. The music and singing were live. Oh, did I say their Saints were Victor Hugo, Su Yat Si, Napoleon Boneparte, Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur, and Winston Churchill. They didn't get any of these people's permission to make them saints, but then nobody in Vietnam got Lonely Planet's permission to reprint their book. Permission is sort of irrelevant.
I would point out that this seems like one really wacky religion, but 1) everybody's religion but my own seems wacky to me and 2) my own religion has its wacky moments. Did I ever tell you how the fate of the world rest on three white hairs in a calf's tail?
After about ten minutes we had to return to the bus. From there we went to a restaurant where we had reservations. I wanted something I could not get at home so got the one snake dish on the menu. The guide amused us by giving us math puzzles while we waited. Most either I got or Evelyn got. We made excuses to the table that we were mathematicians. By about 50 minutes into our visit everybody had been served except me. I pointed this out to the owner. She said it would be ready in a minute and yelled at the little waitress in Vietnamese. It came out and was mostly deboned (thank goodness. Otherwise snake is really hard to eat.) It was minced with peanuts and spices. It came with shrimp chips. The drink I had ordered, cold chocolate, was already gone by this point. I had to eat quickly and dash to the bus.
Our next stop is Cu Chi. You might expect that in this area there would be a strong resistance movement. From the earliest years babies are indoctrinated to resist. Mothers tickle their babies and say "Cu Chi coup." Actually Cu Chi was where the tunnel system did a great deal to contribute to Vietnamese Independence.
One of the accounts in THE TUNNELS OF CU CHI by Tom Mangold and John Penycate tells of how the Army fortified a rubber plantation. Still snipers seemed to be coming from nowhere. Then there was an explosion from inside the fortification. A soldier reported that Charlie popped his head out of the ground, threw two grenades. After that he reached down and pulled out a carbine and sprayed the area with bullets. Then he was gone down the tunnel before he could be caught. This was an extremely effective form of warfare. It was very intelligent. The only way to control9it is to go into the tunnels and face the enemy on his own turf. You can try carpet bombing the surface to collapse the tunnels, but that is very expensive and you have the problem that there are villages above the tunnel system. It is very difficult, but also a very effective form of warfare. Now the tunnels are a tourist attraction.
We arrived and I went to find a bathroom. When I returned the guide was already showing a documentary about the tunnels. It was terrible. It must have been made by a government propaganda team who did not care about how the result turned out. It consisted of footage about the tunnels, mostly, a narrator telling something, and loud sound effects sound of gunfire. Every once in a while you could almost make out what the narrator was saying if there was a lull in the gunfire. The photography was dully shot and faded. It looked like it could come from World War I and was slightly undercranked. It was a subject that interested me, but the documentary told us very little. Then Our guide got up to explain things, but his accent has only a C+ for clarity. In any case Cu chi is a neighboring province to Saigon, but because of the tunnel system the war was fought entirely differently there. The Viet Cong had the upper hand.
The first stop is to see an exhibit of homemade weapons for the war. These are low tech weapons but very nasty. Most are traps to step in that drive metal into the feet and legs of the hapless soldier who encounters them. Examples of the traps are lined up in a row and behind them is an illustrative mural showing a soldier in American uniform in the process of being maimed by the trap. Various ground traps try various clever ways to drive spikes.
This site is an interesting counterpoint to the War Remnants Museum. You come away from that thinking how barbaric the Americans were to use all these high-tech weapons against a low-tech people. Then you see this museum and it seems nearly as barbaric even if the weapons are of lower technology. Suddenly the people the Americans fought do not seem so much helpless victims. Some of the weapons used by the guerrillas seem no less vicious than the American weapons.
I am sure from the Vietnamese point of view the Americans were using high-tech weapons and so they had to fight back any way they could. From the American point of view they were fighting an enemy who seemed anxious to horribly maim and painfully kill Americans and Americans had to fight back in kind. High technology is not more fiendish, it is just easier to put in place. That mural is ill-considered if Americans are going to be coming here as tourists. It really counters the sympathy for their side that the War Remnants Museum created.
I may be willing to accept that the US was wrong in this war. I am a long way from having positive feelings about these slow motion painful weapons being used against my countrymen. I wonder if I was "in country" facing weapons like these, having friends killed by weapons like these, if that alone might not push me to favor vicious vengeance. The Vietnamese communists claimed in their propaganda that the US military was screwing up people's minds. But just maybe it was this kind of conflict and much of it was what they were doing themselves.
I guess in our own revolution the British thought the colonists were really fighting dirty and there were British advocates of fighting back just as dirty.
The tour shows you more traps including a door fall with spikes. Walk through a door and it swings down stabbing the GI with many spikes. It is hinged at the middle also so if the quick-thinking GI stops the whole thing from falling, the bottom half continues to swing forward stabbing the legs. The points are poisoned so that any stab is deadly.
They walked us through a minefield with nearly invisible tripwires. They had noisemakers with caps instead of mines.
They shoed us a patch of leaves and told us there was a tunnel entrance in there. Even knowing there was a tunnel entrance it took us a few minutes to find it, and this was a patch of leaves no bigger than our bathroom. The entrance itself was a rectangle maybe four by seven inches. He suggests one of our group try it and to our surprise he fit through. They told him to go to an exit nearby. We waited and waited. After about four minutes we sent someone in after him. He thought we all were going to go down. But the guide had really been scared that something had gone wrong.
They took us to a shooting range where you could shoot AK-47s at a dollar a bullet. A couple tried it. Evelyn and I replenished our water.
Next was where we all tried going through a tunnel, a moment I was secretly dreading. This was a widened tunnel and we were going only a short distance. Evelyn duck-walked, I walked on hands and knees. Either way, going down steps underground was not really much fun. You could go a short distance or one about three times as long. I knew I would go only the short distance except for one moment of indecision when the exit showed up sooner than I expected. But I am getting older, why prove something?
We had a chance to try a real tunnel, not one of the widened ones, and only a couple of people were willing.
Other exhibits included an underground kitchen, not quite underground. It had a long table. The heck they had that underground. We were given samples of raw manioc, the sort of food the VC would have. The final exhibit showed uniforms of the VC.
Among other things this was a long hot walk in the woods. We were tired from the strain of going through the tunnel and of just climbing in general.
We come out of the woods and what do they have? They have a small zoo. A bear is I a cage maybe six feet wide. What a symbol of the government's respect for independence and individual rights. The bear paced back and forth from the bars on one side of the cage to the other. His back end hardly had to move. I am not sure I hate all zoos, but if you are going to keep an animal it should be in near natural conditions. If you are going to do this to a bear you should just kill him right out and do him the favor of saving him the boredom.
A billboard on the way out labels a site we visited the "National defense sports shooting range." Since when is national defense a sport?
The ride back was quiet and almost two hours. Just before they dropped us off we passed an Indian Restaurant. It looked good.
Evelyn was watching and we were only ones who tipped the guide. That may have been his accent or they were less than thrilled with the Cu Chi experience. We went back to the room and freshened up. From there we went out to dinner.
We tried to find the Indian restaurant we had seen but failed. There was however an Indian restaurant on the street we were searching and we decided to try that instead. I had Chicken Tikka Masala, Naan, and a lassi. Evelyn had Palak Paneer. I was not keen on my main course, but the naan was pretty good. And the lassi was terrific. Probably it was massively inauthentic, but it was a really good hot weather drink. They thickened it with pulverized ice like a misty. It made for a drink that tasted like sweet yogurt, but it was thick like a sorbet float. It was really cool and refreshing.
Back at the room Evelyn went immediately to sleep. I tried to stay up until 9, but was conking out.
03/08/01 HCM City
I cannot claim that I am actually getting into the proper time swing, but it does not bother me a whole lot. I am going to bed at 9 PM and waking up at 3 AM. That is fine. We are getting back exhausted each day and Evelyn is going to bed at 8 PM so there is not a lot of reason for me to stay up later. It is tough to tell what time I wake up by the signs of the room. It always looks like the sun is just starting to come up. I wake up and by the time I look at the time, I am fully awake. Usually the time I see is between 1 and 3 AM. If I wake up early I try to get back to sleep. But I do my best writing in the early hours when I am rested.
I went back to sleep at 5 AM and slept almost until 7. Two days ago we had tried a not very good food stand just outside our hotel. The one right next to it looked like it had better soup. We try that today, but it turns out the soup was not brought here. They have one dish. Meat wrapped in rice noodle, lemon grass, and turkey loaf. The rice noodle dish is right out of dim sum. We get that and two Tri Because. Tri Beco, now that I think of it, tastes somewhat like chocolate milk. There is an added advantage. This is the first restaurant that chases away touts. Tomorrow is our last day here. That gives us one opportunity for a return visit, but I think we will be back.
The touts are pretty bad here. We walk on the street and you cannot stop them from trying to sell you cyclo rides. The difference between here and India is that they do it only one or (because cyclos are only one passenger) two at a time. In India ten come. The tenth has got to be some kind of optimist to think you will turn down the other nine and pick his cyclo.
Another problem for tourists is the public urination. There seems to be a lot here. You walk by a wall and it smells like a urinal. Vietnam is hoping to become a popular tourist destination. Well, it already is internationally, at least in a modest way. They hope to attract more Americans. They are not doing a very good job of it. They need to control things like public urination. They also have to decide if they want to appear friendly to have let go of the war or if they want to lecture Americans. The Japanese have all their negative on America material at Hiroshima. Elsewhere there is no reminder that they were ever in a war with America. The news stories we have seen say that it is amazing how much Vietnam has let go of the war unlike the US. At least over here it seems they have it backward. The Americans are trying not to think about the war and the Vietnamese keep rubbing our noses in it. They seem to be the ones who are not letting go. In any case, no country in the world ever built a tourist market by showing people the clever ways they found to drive metal spikes into people's legs.
I am irritated at my new camera. It takes a long time to decide to take the picture as it tries to be sure of the focus. I have lost some pretty terrific pictures because it was a second or more too late. It has a setting for "just take the damn picture." I will probably use that from this point forward.
In Ireland I took fewer pictures per day than usual. I figured I just was losing my enthusiasm. That was not the problem. The problem was that there was less to photograph. This is a very different culture from my own and there is a lot I would want to record.
I thought I had seen an art museum that we passed. I suggested we go there today. There is one listed in the guide book, but it is not on a street we would have passed. Could I have imagined it? Anyway we went to the one listed. The book says it opens at 7:30. Naturally when we got there an hour later it wasn't open yet. We asked at the door. 9:00 it opens these days. The bottom two floors contain mostly modern are with unclear meanings. There are some works whose meanings are clear. One shows a protective Ho Chi Minh and it is titled "Uncle Ho, Do Not Sleep Tonight." A sculpture show a younger man being given the Vietnam flag by an older one. It is titled "High Responsibility." On painting shows people rejoicing and downed B-52s. The title is "Ha Noi Win America." I think they mean "Wins Over." Lots of war scenes, pro-Ho, and anti-American art. Maybe one piece of art in ten is propaganda.
Side comment here. Frequently in Vietnamese it does not seem to matter if single syllable words are combined into longer words or not. Is the city "Ha Noi" or "Hanoi?" Is the country "Viet Nam" or "Vietnam." It shows up both ways. But you would never say "Viet Namese," as far as I can see.
You would think that after 2000 years of struggle for independence, much of it at war, that the art would be about peace and independence. Instead you get art like the single woman standing up to a huge armored vehicle driven by faceless Americans. The Vietnamese need to feel fierce. There are also a lot of paintings of gentle Uncle Ho among the peasants. Basically they are updating of Jesus paintings. This is not to imply most of the art is political. Only about one in 20 is political. Many are domestic scenes. Some are abstract experiments. A lot just show military people with guns.
This heat is really oppressive. We have to stop every few rooms to drink water. They have some fans going, but not in every room and I am sweating profusely. This raises the crucial artistic question, "Can art really be appreciated at 92 degrees?"
One medium for art is used frequently A piece of wood is finished, then used as a scratchboard as a picture is scratched in. Then the revealed wood is painted. Most of the political art was on the second floor.
The top floor has ancient art, mostly of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. To be honest, that is the most interesting art. The art museum is just a short distance from the art museum is the Ben Thanh Market. This is the big market of HCM City.
It was a hot and dangerous walk. Dangerous because we have to cross some pretty crazy streets. For the last piece we just stayed next to a passerby who was crossing the same street. You have to just watch his feet. If you look at the traffic you will lose your nerve, stop, and be stuck. We got to the far side and I thanked our guardian. It took him an instant to realize why we thanked him.
I was in the door just a few seconds when I saw a good gift for a friend at home. So the trip was not a loss. But just a few minutes in the sun was enough to make us thirsty. I am hoping we will get some relief up north when we are nearer water and further, well, north.
The have a beverage called a Soda Chanh. It is essentially a do-it-yourself lime soda. It generally sells for less than a canned soda. You get a bottle of soda water into which they or you squeeze a fresh lime and add sugar and ice. Instant 7up without the 7up price. It is good, except it becomes dilute toward the end as you pour in more soda water.
As you sit down you are an easy mark for beggars and touts. They like to work the market and any place they are likely to run into tourists. Vietnam has some of the worst of India and the best of Thailand.
We then decided to walk around the market. It is quite a sight. Particularly where they have the live ducks, chickens, and pigeons in back to be slaughtered. They have live chickens, they feet tied together, thrown in stacks. Even for a chicken it is a pretty horrible way to go. They have live crabs in much the same state. Also squid. And of course they have clothing and kitchen supplies. They have what must be the best deal on restaurant food I have ever seen. A huge assortment.
Evelyn gets a Vietnamese coffee maker, a thing you put on top of the cup and it drips in, as our tchotchke.
It was now noon and admittedly I was not really hungry. I had just had the soda. But I could not pass up trying some of the food. I tried some vegetables on rice. I figured even if I was not hungry they would be healthy. They served them to me with a spoon to eat them and were quite surprised when I insisted on chopsticks instead. They must not get many Westerners here and think none of us eat with chopsticks. The veggies and rice cost 6000D or $.43. There was Tofu, a stalk that was very meat-like, and a bunch of things recognizable and not. I tried various sauces.
On the way out they were selling photovests. I frequently am needing one, though I was wearing one right then. We found one extra large with lots of pockets. 172,000D. That is about $12.30. I should have bought four. We wanted to try a famous ice cream parlor, Bach Dang. Not authentically Vietnamese, but it sounded good. We both got ice cream in coconut. Two scoops in a coconut garnished with pieces of fruit. It was touristy but nice. I felt incredibly Gringo sitting around an ice-cream parlor in Vietnam and not trying to learn anything or do anything constructive. Just keeping cool in the heat. Since the doors were open they could not air condition the place it was a little hot and noisy. They brought around little glasses of ice water with ice in it. Evelyn and I just talked and enjoyed the ice cream. What a wonderful waste of time.
Supposedly there were bookstores around and Evelyn set out to look for them. But they were not where she was looking for them. The heat was really too much for us to do much outside. It must be something like 95F or 35C. The heat is on in Saigon. (Evelyn says it is more like 102/40 and is probably right.)
When we were in India this was the kind of afternoon we would go to a movie. Here they do not seem to have many theaters. We decided to hire two cyclos and retreat to our air conditioned room. We got two drivers and haggled them from $1 each to 10,000D. Under the hot sun I decided to give them extra and apparently Evelyn made the same decision. We tipped them, well, not really well, but enough to make the trip more worth their while. They did drive us through a red light rather than stop.
Well, I just took off my shirt. I think tomorrow I may just pour the water directly on the shirt and stay some place air conditioned.
Channel 5 on the TV in the room is a double edged sword. It picks of cable movies in English. The problem is it seems to switch between cable stations without rhyme or reason. I watched half of an intriguing film called THE BEST LAID SCHEMES. Suddenly it just switched from Starz to HBO. I had seen it do that before, but this was the first time it caught me. The film the cable replaced it with I watched an hour or so and it also switched to another station. Is this any way to run a cable station?
As 6 PM approached we went out for a final dinner in HCM City. We decided that the Lotus was nearby. I ordered Spring Rolls, Barbecue Chicken, and a Mango Fruit Shake. I am not quite sure how some things are eaten here. The spring rolls came with fresh greens and lettuce. I guess you wrap the rolls in the lettuce and dip them. Sprint rolls are not like they are at home they are wrapped in a layer of fine noodles fried crispy. It is almost like eating something wrapped in shredded wheat.
For the chicken they bring a little brazier to the table and a hinged grill. The chicken is already cut up into bite-sized pieces. You take the chicken, put it on the grill, close up the grill and let it cook. After a few minutes you turn the grill over so the other side of the chicken cooks. It is a formula for disaster and I had to remember to eat with the handles of the chopsticks so nothing that touched the raw chicken did I eat without cooking first. The dish came with a disk of wrappers, three inches in diameter. I it turned out to be a pile of translucent paper-like wrappers. I rolled chicken and vegetable, then I dipped it in sauce. It was difficult to eat since the wrappers were so tough in spite of being thin. At times I wondered if they were not plastic sheets that I was misinterpreting. But the meal was still tasty.
As you sit there touts from the street come around to try to sell to you. Popular items are cigarette lighters. They are supposed to be American Zippos captured from the enemy. But as Evelyn points out there are too many of them for them to really be that. Besides a cigarette lighter is useless to me. As they get more tourism they will realize that Americans do not smoke as much as they used to.
Women come around with three-foot stacks of books to sell. All bootlegs. Bootlegs are perfectly legal here, I suspect. Vietnam probably does not have that many authors that other countries are anxious to read, so they do not subscribe to copyright law. Each woman points out the Lonely Planet Vietnamese Phrasebook, probably a best seller. If they were going to bring something to the table that I would want to buy, books are certainly the item. I turned several away. Finally I bought a book from one, TRAVELLERS TALES FROM HEAVEN AND HELL. This is accounts from travelers' logs of how things went extremely well or poorly for them. People who were either treated to a rally good time by the Medellin drug cartel or nearly pulled off a cliff by a rope that had a shark at the far end. We have to get up early so we earned an under-filled day early, going to sleep about 8:30. False clues of dawn woke me up, but as I looked at my watch it was 11:30 PM. That was the first time it happened so early. About one quarter of the trip is over.
03/09/01 HCM City, Nha Trang
We have to leave early this morning. I was up for about an hour in the night. This morning I have a little stomach upset. It may be a pepper from last night's meal. When I first started traveling I would get stomach upset frequently. Trip by trip the problem gets less. I do not expect much of a problem this trip. We shall see.
There are two places to eat right outside the side door of the hotel. One we ate at yesterday, one three days ago. I liked yesterday's breakfast, Evelyn liked the other place more than I did. We each go to our own and sit diagonally opposite each other so we can still talk. My meal is a dish of rice noodles wrapping mincemeat, turkey loaf, bean sprouts, and fried onions. It looks like an odd concoction, but I like cheap dim sum foods and the meat in rice noodle is the good part. The dish cost 10,000D.
Sitting near us we talk to three ex-pats visiting from Los Angeles. One saw my Lucent cap. He used to work for AT&T. That one had been here twice before since 1975, the others were on their first return. Vietnam is changing so fast a one year old Lonely Planet is already out of date.
We pick up our stuff and are ready to head out. Going down to the lobby we check out. Twice they try to undercharge us, but we do the honest thing. Not that we would allow ourselves to be undercharged anywhere, but it would be a substantial loss to them without impoverishing us very much. Five nights is $125. That is cheap for one night in Boston and a huge fortune here. A college professor would take four months to earn that much.
With our luggage on our backs we walk to Kim Travel. The minibus is already pretty full by the time it picks us up, luckily for me. I get the front seat. Better view. Better air conditioning. Of course it is what we call the "death seat" in the US where we have seat belts and air bags.
We sit waiting to leave and beggars and touts come to the window knocking and looking for money one way or the other.
We have a young driver with a natural frown. He looks very serious. Every once in a while he whistles, the only concession he makes to pleasure.
There seem to be a lot of military monument in the city. They are tall statues of approved heroes.
we drive out of the city, but it is a big city and it will take us a while just to get out. It is just solid ramshackle shops for many miles. Not much color. They are made of the different materials but they mostly dirty concrete buildings selling things like used auto parts.
On the roads one sees how people dress. The conical hats that are so much a trademark of Vietnam are a women only phenomenon. They are warned by poorer women. I suspect that they will go the way of the Mao hats in China. Many people wear caps and the foolish wear nothing at all to ward off the oppressive sun. Richer women are into fashionable hats. Most men wear long pants and if not associated with business their shirts are untucked.
I think the rule must be here that you give up your right of way by default. To retain it you have to honk. We are driving through Ben Wa, where my father-in-law was first stationed in Vietnam. It must have created some tension that the American military had a better standard of living Vietnamese civilians.
For years Evelyn has been holding up Bangkok as a standard of chaotic traffic. Now someone in the bus who had been there recently says it really is much worse here. It was awful years ago and perhaps she has built it up in her mind. You see a lot of people using large sheets of utility polyethylene. It is always striped in three inch wide stripes. Red-white-blue-white. I wonder if it is an allusion to Americans. The stomach distress earlier appears to have been a false alarm. Must have been a pepper.
Riding in the front seat is a kick. Not only does the driver go over on the left side of the road to pass, when there are too many people there he goes further left to the shoulder to pass them. My God, what crazy drivers!
Our sunny weather is getting gray and cloudy. Perhaps there will be relief from the heat. We eventually get to small towns and rural area. There are small houses as usual, some close together. There is nothing much that seems to be more than a five minute walk from the road. There are few motorbikes and a new addition is oxcarts. The oxen are given huge loads to carry. I am not sure if they are oxen or something similar. I think they are oxen because they are golden brown. Certainly water buffalo would be darker. Nice looking animals.
Houses are mostly single story with maybe two rooms. The landscape starts to look tropical like Manila or the Bahamas. As we drive we pass a school just letting out. 10:30 seems a peculiar time. Student crossing guards haul ropes across the road. One kid takes a stance with is legs apart. Very dramatic like a Chinese revolutionary poster. I guess at this age children soak up that government party line and want to be good little communists. Teenagers seem to have a different attitude. One of the locals made the odd comment that the teens hate their parents for giving them such a restrictive system. They see prosperity and the freedom to use it in other parts of the world and want it for themselves. The person who told me this is one of the few people who said things change too slowly in Vietnam. He might be right.
One sees a lot of odd religious symbols at various temples. There is the all-seeing eye I mentioned already. Another is the swastika. Another seems to be two of what look like elephant tusks set to the outer boundary forms a circle. I saw a small pair in the reformation palace and larger ones on churches.
The driver takes out a tube from his pocket and pulls out an orange tablet. He drops it into his bottle of water. A while later he drinks from the bottle and it is all yellow. Must be a way to flavor the water. When I was a kid we had a candy called Fizzies. You dropped a Fizzie into a glass of water and if9 it was fresh, which it rarely was, it turned a perfectly good glass of water into a bad imitation of soda pop.
We seem to be driving through a resort area. Nha Trang is also a resort area, but that is still a way ahead. This town is Mui Ne.
We stop to eat at the Hanh Cafe in the resort town. I order something off the menus called a Green Dragon. Of course they don't have it. I order a Pineapple Fruit Shake and grilled squid. A big sign says "There's no strangers here at Hanh Cafe, only friend you haven't met yet." Not too original. The table has the usual toilet paper dispenser used here as a napkin dispenser. They bring a brazier for me to grill my own but they do not bring me a plate or silverware. The shake never comes either. The squid, however, they could not do a whole lot to ruin and right off the grill it is worth all the other problems. Other people told me they were given bread with ants. And could not get much to eat there. I just hope that I don't get sick from the squid. I tried to keep as little contact as possible between the cooked and the uncooked but I was given only one set of tongs.
We got back on the bus at 12:20 and hit the road. We dropped off some people in this town and the driver told me to take a seat in back. I got to know some of the other passengers a little. There is a man, Dutch I think, very erudite traveling with a Vietnamese woman. She has been carsick the whole way.
We pass farmland. Lots of fields with oxen grazing. I try to take pictures when I see something, but generally I am just not fast enough.
We stop for a rest break at a beautiful seaside point. It is right on a beach. Evelyn and I go down to look at the beach. The Swiss man is there. As he looks out he says "The cruel sea..." Immediately I tall him "Nicholas Monserrat." That is the author. "I am going to tell you a story. It is a true story because that is the only kind worth telling." That is the opening of the book. One of the most memorable book openings I know of. It tells you so much about this no-nonsense, no fiction man. The main character tells us so much about himself in two sentences.
Well we have only a ten-minute stop so I go to the restroom. The metal part is ripped off the door and the wind keeps blowing it open. I have to keep the door pushed shut while I use the room, not an easy feat.
Getting back on the bus the Vietnamese woman buys a bag of fruit and gives it to the bus. In return I give some tamarind candy. Evelyn is at first positive on the fruit but finds hers has bugs and a worm. The relationship between the Dutchman and the Vietnamese woman is unclear. Perhaps they are just traveling partners. The woman is so likable and friendly, so happy to see her own country, we can see why the Dutchman would want her around. So many of the Vietnamese seem so serious. Her natural expression is a smile. If she was not smiling so much she would have only average looks. She makes herself attractive by the way she acts.
Some of the rice paddies are such a rich green. They look like green velvet. Finally it does cloud up and we get some rain. We also get a couple of nice rainbows. It rains only for a few minutes.
Finally we get to Nha Trang. It feels very strange to be here. Suddenly I know what it is. This is a town that does not start with an "H". Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hue, and Hanoi are our other stops.
We have been traveling nine and a half hours. As we are finally pulling up to the town we get a flat tire. The driver pulls into some place to get it patched. We on the bus make goo-goo eyes at two little girls who were watching the whole process.
We finally arrive At the travel agency. But the driver says don't worry about finding a hotel part of the service is taking the passengers around so they can see hotels. They will take you to any hotel you choose, including ones recommended in the Lonely Planet. Of course the reason is that the get a commission for bringing customers to hotels and apparently they get it from virtually every hotel, so they are happy to bring people around to see hotels.
The younger people on the tour like the first hotel at $6/night. That leaves just the Dutchman and his friend and us. The Dutchman has a hotel he likes and is holding out for it but is willing to look at others. We take one with a view of the beach, though a little run down. It is the Thanh Thanh, $15/night. I have a feeling that the Dutchman will want his hotel.
We get our stuff in the room and book a tour for tomorrow. Evelyn asks if the weather is supposed to be good tomorrow and the man at the desk says it is supposed to clear up and be nice. What this may mean is that he gets a commission from ticket sales.
Then I offer to take Evelyn out for dinner, like I have a choice. We go out walking. I pass by a couple of people playing Chinese Chess. An on-looker offers to show me how to play, but I say no thank you. I have a board and rules somewhere at home.
Things are changing very fast in this town, due to its nice beach. This will be a resort town. Between our street and the water is a strip of land that really is the beach front and they are building a small amusement park there and new hotels. Some things will change if they get more Americans coming. One thing that will change is the name of the My Dung Restaurant.
We walked looking for a nice place to have dinner. Night was falling and we did not want to search side streets for long. On place had a menu that offered abalone. It has been years since I had abalone. Back when I first was learning to like good Chinese food, abalone was no more expensive than beef. I got a taste for it then, but the price went way up. But food prices are cheap in Vietnam.
We go in and we order an abalone dish and a wild pork dish. After about ten minutes the waiter comes back and says that they are actually out of both. We order an eel dish and a quail dish. There is no eel. We order a quail dish and a shrimp dish. They have shrimp. Their quail turns out to be two very scrawny birds. The total meat is less than one small chicken drumstick. The shrimp dish is interesting. They cut open a coconut, take out a little of the milk, put in a bunch of whole shrimp and steam them that way. Both dishes are very messy to eat. Two dishes, a Pepsi, and two soda chanhs come to $5.57.
On the way back we take the walk next to the beach. Tomorrow the moon will be full. Today it is nearly overcast with a big patch lit by moonlight a way out like something out of the movie COCOON. The water is lapping up on the beach and the palm trees complete the image.
Evelyn suggested the walk and I was enjoying it immensely. Evelyn was for once terrified. When motorbikes come along the path I am not jumping out of their way but letting them just ride around me like the locals do. Teenagers standing around on the beach might be muggers. After a short walk we go back to walk on the main street where she feels much safer. Of the two of us, I am the romantic.
On the way back we buy water and cookies. Then back to the room.
There is a Chinese music concert on and I watch a little. I am gooey from the heat of the day and take a shower.
The bathroom is functional but not like the ones we are used to. It is more like the bathrooms we had in China. There is no curtain on the bathtub and if you hang up the showerhead, which is on a hose, The water goes onto the floor. That is not as bad as it would be at home because the entire bathroom is intended to get we and there is a drain in the floor. There is an electric water heater with a switch right above the tub. There is also an outlet right there where it is all too easy to hit it with the shower spray. I wonder what would happen. There is not a hard wood door to the bathroom but a folding curtain. This makes the whole bathroom like a soundbox of a guitar, an amplifier which sends bathroom noises into the room. The underside of the sink faucet looks like it was dredged from some kind of fungus cave.
03/10/01 Nha Trang: Island Boat Trip
I must have been very tired. I slept from 9 PM to 5 AM.
I am caught up in my log so I have a chance to do some reading. The first restaurant that looks reasonable is My Dung. In spite of the unpromising name we go in. I get rice porridge with seafood. Evelyn orders it with just shrimp.
It is difficult to walk down the street without having a bunch of people asking where we are going. The woman making my orange juice coughs without covering her mouth. People are less worried about such things here. And I do keep a bunch of antibodies on the payroll just to counter such things. Also I will take something else to protect me. Fresh squeezed orange juice.
Speaking of ills, Evelyn has had a scratchy throat two mornings in a row. It is not yet a cold. I hope it does not become one. More reason for me to get Vitamin C.
Today's tour is a very touristy thing. We are going to visit four tropical islands, swimming at two of them. It will be nice to try some of these beautiful beaches.
Evelyn's dish is hard to eat. They did not peel the shrimp. Chicken has bones, shrimp has the shell. Mine was pretty good. Seafood meant squid and shrimp with the accent on squid. As you may have noticed I seem to get squid frequently. It is a lot easier to get here than at home and I like it. My friends claim I want a restaurant called Tentacles R Us. Frankly I am not put off by tentacles. Octopus used to be fine by me. Now I know a little more about octopus and I try to avoid it because they are intelligent and interesting animals. I avoid it like I avoid red meat which is doing something but probably not enough. Any animal smart enough to exhibit curiosity I hate to eat.
On the way back Evelyn picks up cold lozenges. Back at the hotel for pickup I run up to the room and take a large dose of Vitamin C.
It is an overcast day verifying my interpretation of the desk clerk's statement that it would be sunny and nice today.
The bus comes. It is a minibus packed with people. I think they are mostly English. They say our next stretch is one large pothole.
The tour company is Ma Ma Linh. Apparently many different companies offer the identical tour. Right down to the floating bar.
We get to the dock and crowd onto a thirty-foot tourist boat. A balding man with what hair he has pulled back in a ratty ponytail hands out ads for a hairdresser.
It is a lot cooler when we get out into the South China Sea. Wow. The South China Sea was where adventure films were set when I was a kid. Usually they starred someone like Myron Healy. Now I am in a 30 foot wooden boat somewhere on the South China Sea. Sorry, I know I should be more reserved. Maybe I will be when I get back to land. Right now I am on a 30 foot wooden boat somewhere on the South China Sea.
We see at a distance a hotel built to look like a large sailing ship. Kitsch is the word. It towers over the nearby ferries.
The guide gets up with a microphone and rattles off ten minutes of Vietnamese. I ask one of the Swedes, "You getting all this?" A second guide gets up and translates into French. Finally the first guide translates the brochure in a C- accent.
They had an option with the trip. They were going to send divers down for sea urchin. 50,000D for fresh sea urchin in either soup or raw. I have had it at home in sushi. It was very expensive. Throwing caution to the winds I wanted to try it raw. About five people got it as soup and I think I was the only person to order it raw.
We stopped at Mun Island. There was no beach and the water was about 10 feet. The adventuresome went snorkeling. After my Australian adventure I was a little leery and stayed on the boat. Steve and Hanh are Vietnamese ex-pats living in Massachusetts. Steve works for UPS. Hanh is a pharmacist for CVS. He escaped Vietnam in 84 in a boat. Now he is back with his new wife as of last Sunday. They have come back to the old country for their honeymoon. I follow them up a ladder to the top of the boat and we take turns taking each other's pictures and admiring the view.
After a while we just sat and talked. Steve's escape from Vietnam was by himself at the age of 13. He came to the US and somehow was given foster parents. The word Dung we saw this morning is Vietnamese for "hero." That is really Steve's first name and leaving your country on your own at 13 certainly represents heroic qualities. But Steve is thinking he would want to come back to Vietnam when he retires.
When I mentioned my belief that the Communists would lose some of their power when the younger generation started to take power, Steve steered the conversation away from politics. I interpreted that as telling me what I wanted to know. I suspect people are a little afraid to speak freely even if they are not Vietnamese citizens.
I gave him my email address and homepage. Maybe we will continue a friendship.
Sidenote: Steve was not able to give me a derogatory Vietnamese name for foreigners. I like to collect names like gringo and gwai lo. Steve did not know a term Vietnamese called Americans when we were not around.
A little while later and back in the main part of the boat they brought out a bowl of soup to Steve. It was sea urchin soup. They brought me some raw and it was quite good. It was much like sushi uni but it had less of a bitter taste.
The backs of the bench seats were folded down to form a big dining table. They rolled a large sheet of linoleum over the top to form a top surface. They served a lunch of baguettes, spring rolls, rice, fish steak, squid, whole shrimp, and beef strips.
One of the Australians made a dessert of a banana and baguette sandwich. I tried it and it was not bad, but it would have been better with peanut butter. Bananas are as big around as ours, but only about three inches long. They are cheap and plentiful. They are about four cents a piece if you don't get a local's discount.
After lunch the guides brought out guitars and started singing songs. I would have told them not to quit their day jobs, but this was their day job. Initially they said this was going to be very funny. If they had let it go with three songs I would have thought it was a put-on. Their voices were not terrible, but frequently they got the melody wrong. Somehow nearly right on melody is not as good as way off. If you know the melody it is frustrating seem like it is going to do the right thing only to veer off and do something else at the last instant. I could accept three songs on those terms. After three songs you need talent or an audience who loves you, not just nerve. They did a lot more than three songs.
After about an hour of singing people go in swimming again. One of the guides floats out with bottles of wine and glasses. This is the floating bar. People who swim out get a glass of wine.
Our next island was Tam Island. At last this was an island you could walk on. There was a 4000D entrance fee. About ten boats were lined up and the pier. To get to the pier you had to climb through nine boats. We paid our entrance fee and what do we see. You can rent chairs for 10,000D and hour. The beach looks like one would get like if it were abandoned. There is trash and garbage everywhere. The island looks good only from a distance. Everything on the island is pay per usage. As far as an unspoiled paradise, this is not it. We find an abandoned cabana foundation and sit down. Steve and Hanh wander by and we talk to them about the pollution problem. They say people are just not taught in schools to protect the environment. I think I am glad I didn't go in swimming before.
We start walking back to the boat. As we walk by the para-sailing section one of the Australians tell us of an accident before. Two Japanese were in the para-sails. They did not get enough lift and were dragged over the rocks into the water. Both looked like they were hurt. The boat goes over to them and pulls out the parachute. The two Japanese had to swim to shore themselves. Consumer protection is not very far advanced in Vietnam.
Next on the agenda was a fruit party. Basically they set up the table like it was for lunch and laid out a very large assortment of fruit. It went from fruits we knew like watermelon and pineapple to ones we did not like... Gee I never found out what those were. Some was only slightly sweet, some quite sweet and juicy. The best was the pineapple.
Our last stop was Mieu Island. The point here was to see fish farming and to have an option to take a basket boat ride. What they did not say was that seeing fish farming meant you were exposed to an area where fish farming was done and that was about the extent of it. The real point of the stop was to sell basket boat rides. The boats were woven like baskets and are about seven feet in diameter. Each has two old women to row.
After everybody was back on board they headed back to the port we left from. Not a word about the fish farming. I am not sure why it is listed except that other tours listed it. The crew felt more comfortable with the throwing a party aspects of their jobs. They figure visitors are not anxious to learn. I would think that is a mistake. Vietnam is pretty remote. Who wants to come all this way for a floating bar?
The description of visiting four islands for swimming and snorkeling was at best misleading. We actually visited only one island though we got close to three others. Our vision of beaches turned out to be one trash-laden beach that there was an extra fee to get to. On the other had, we did get a decent meal and a decent snack of fruit and we did get to meet some other travelers.
We also met a nice French couple. I did not get names but the wife, like me, does not like tobacco, alcohol, or coffee. I might have been curious to know why not. In my case it was just never worth my effort to overcome the original aversion. They are all acquired tastes that I never did acquire.
We got back to the room and found it warm. In our absence they were having power failures. That turned off the air conditioner. The power failures continued until well after dark. We were both feeling kind of weak and collapsed on the bed. It was not the exertion but the beating of the sun.
I keep remembering Robin Williams's weather forecast in GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM. "Now here's the weather. Today: HOT! Tonight: HOT! Tomorrow: HOT!"
Evelyn and I decided that it might be good to move on to the next town. That involved going to the Hanh Cafe office in town and making reservations. (The travel agencies all seem to be called cafes. I guess they started as cafes and branched out.) I was not looking forward to the hot walk, but by now it was dark and cooler, though still muggy.
Now you would think that the sidewalks were hard enough to navigate. Where the sidewalk is not already appropriated they plant a tree in the middle of the sidewalk. It was OK as a newly planted tree, but it spread its branches at about four feet above the sidewalk. One more obstacle in the dark.
On store we passed sold Lipovitan. It sounds like a health preparation. That was the only product. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of cans of Lipovitan.
As we walked down the street there was a horrible noise ahead of us. Two men were carrying what was probably a CD player on a pole. The music was pretty terrible. The boy saw us and came over to us with his palm out. I motioned no. Angrily he gesticulated we should pay hem. We pushed past. At home we may have to listen to Ghetto Blasters, but at least we don't have to pay for the privilege.
So as we are walking to the Hanh Cafe in town we pass an office of Hanh Cafe. So we go in to make our reservations. The guy gets on the phone and then pulls out a map. He shows us the way into town. They can make the reservations there. Yeah, thanks.
We passed another couple on the sidewalk going in the other direction. In a nearly perfect double-double-take we passed each other by about eight feet and we both looked around. It was our Dutchman and his Vietnamese friend from the bus yesterday. He had found his hotel at $16/night. He had had the name wrong, but he found it anyway. We should have stuck with him.
We continued on to town. We found the Hanh Cafe and made our arrangements. On the wall they had pictures of their version of the same tour we took. They had photos of each event. They really did take people to a fish farm. Ours was a low-grade tour. As the boat was going back they said we should recommend Mama Linh to our friends. Not likely.
As we left the agency there was a cyclo-driver there just where and when we wanted him. We took a cyclo back. In theory it was cooler in the night. I could tell it was cooler since I came back only partially sweaty and only sort of thirsty.
We checked out what do Vietnamese watch on TV on Saturday night. It was a German police show with the hero being a German Shepherd with the intelligence of Rin-Tin-Tin. The bad guy is escaping in a pickup truck so the dog jumps in the back. When the truck stops the dog jumps to the ground, around the side, and in through the window, tagging the bad guy. What a dog! The shows are dubbed into Vietnamese. The original soundtrack is played low and one person, usually female, interprets all the roles.
I think when Vietnamese needs a new word they like to take an old word and just change the tonality or the diacritical marks. There are a whole lot of words that transliterate to "Pho".
One thing in the room we never used is the electric waterfall. That is what looks like a picture of a waterfall when you turn it on. It looks like the water is actually moving and rollers inside make a sound almost unlike the sound of a waterfall.
03/11/01 Nha Trang to Hoi An
We both had alarms set for 5 am and they went off seconds apart. The bus is supposed to pick us up at 6:30.
I dry-brush my teeth. That is a lot easier to do than trying to use mineral water. I suspect we could have drunk Vietnamese tap water. The locals drink it. It is not like Chinese tap water that nobody drinks. Supposedly it is just the different mineral content that bothers Westerners and we have gotten used to a lot of weird water. We have cast iron systems.
We hastily finished packing and went out in search of breakfast about 5:30. People rise early in Vietnam, but there was not much happening at that hour. There were a couple of street venders, but we would have had to eat in the dark.
We found a small restaurant open. We sat down and you could tell from the owner's expression it would be a problem communicating. Unasked she brought us both a pot of tea and two cups of coffee. I gave my coffee to Evelyn.
I had thought I saw pho on their sign so I went to the sign to point it out. No the sign did not say pho. I pointed instead to op la, not knowing what I was pointing to. I thought it might be Vietnamese for omelet. A lot of words they picked up from English or French. Evelyn pointed to something with bahn. She thought it might be something with rice paper wrappers. What I got was two fried eggs and a baguette. Evelyn got a baguette with a wheel of Laughing Cow cheese.
I had thought I had heard the baguettes were very good here, but I also saw bunches of them lines up in stands all over. I doubted that when you got one it would really be fresh. The one I had was excellent. The one I got was very fresh. Soft on the inside, crisp on the outside. Nice breakfast for 25,000D.
Back to the hotel to wait for the bus. The clerk is interested in our HP 200LX palmtop computers. Can we receive email? No. But we could if we wanted to set them up that way. How much do they cost? About $600.
A minibus picks us up and heads out... to a bus station. We get onto a big bus after checking they have our luggage.
We are the last on a full bus. At first it looks like we cannot sit together, but a husband and wife consolidate and a man who looks a lot like the actor Armin Mueller-Stahl moves his bag. Now there is room for us to sit together, albeit over a wheel.
There is something odd going on on the road. At first it looks like a demonstration but there is a hearse and coffin. There are some Buddhist monks. I suspect it is a very fancy Buddhist funeral.
What makes a lot of the houses seem depressing is not that they are made of cheap materials. I have been in several countries with poorer housing. But the houses are not well maintained. Many are just sooty-dirty on the outside. Many look just ugly but with a cleaning and a coat of paint would look nice. Trash is a major problem here. Litter is all-pervasive. You see a lot of piles of burnt trash by the side of the road. Keeping the place neat is just not part of the ethic. Where the houses are better maintained they look like they could be pleasant.
We pass by a tall religious statue. You can tell from a distance it is religious because it is yellow-beige. Yellow-beige is color of religious buildings. It seems like a convention that crosses religious lines.
There are a distressing number of road accidents. Whenever you travel you see one maybe every two hours or so. They have these motorbikes but travel with little protection. Lots of people are getting hurt. The government should be doing something about it but has other things on its mind.
As we go along the coast road toward Hoi An we get some nice views of the beaches. There seem to be no end of nice beaches here, we just have not been taken to one yet. We stop for 15 minutes about 9am to stretch our legs. As we are leaving we see that they ran out of luggage space and put our luggage in the aisle of the bus where everybody has to step over it.
It is a nice little cafe on a beach. There is a beach and an eight foot channel and a sandbar. I follow Evelyn over the bridge to the sandbar. Hawkers came out to sell us bananas. I bought from one and got a sour look from the other.
Evelyn figured she should get more cold lozenges while she could. They were selling for 5000D. Evelyn held out here lozenges to show what she wanted and the money. They took her money and went on with what they were doing. Evelyn had to use sign language to say these lozenges were hers and already open. Finally they gave her some more. I am surprised they did not try to take back the open package. Leeper's Fifth Principle: Simplifying things only makes them more complicated.
The countryside looks a lot like pictures from the war. Low rice paddies ending in this walls of palm trees and ferns. You can almost see helicopters flitting overhead.
My knees are just not up to spending three consecutive hours bent and unable to change position. At a little after noon I trade places with Evelyn.
We stop for lunch at 12:15 at a roadside restaurant. The guy ahead of me trips over my suitcase. I can just imagine the state of the breakables inside. Vietnam is a country without much consumer protection.
We sit at lunch with a Vietnamese from Denmark. He left legally about 1992. I had the Grilled Cuttlefish and Evelyn had soup. The cuttlefish was quite nice but the fork, which was punched from sheet metal, kept bending.
After lunch I wanted to use the facilities. The facilities turn out to be bucket with a water tap, a plastic basin, and a lipless three inch hole in the wooden floor. I am not sure what to do with these. So what did I do? This problem is left as an exercise for the reader to work out. The man who looks like Armin Mueller-Stahl comments that it is a short cycle. The waste feeds the crabs below, then people feed on the crabs who fed on the waste.
We know we are in Vietnam looking at a rice paddy because you can see something this big, this flat, and this green and nobody is playing golf on it. It wouldn't be too good for golf, the green is also a water trap.
It is amazing to see miles of stripes by the side of the road of drying rice.
At about 3:45 the bus pulls to the side of the road. Something is wrong. There is a shop there but it is closed up. Why have a rest stop where we cannot do anything but stand. Soon out come tools and the driver starts fooling around under the front left wheel. Ah, a breakdown. We stand around at take pictures of people raking the drying rice. A few examine the houses surrounding. I comment to Evelyn that the beggars and touts don't have a GPS system to find stranded tourists and beg. Shortly thereafter an ice cream cart pulls up. Amazing. After standing for 20 minutes in the hot sun, ice cream sounds good. He makes a little cone bout four inches high with the ice cream and then takes out a can of chocolate syrup and decorates the top. How much? 1000D. Seven cents. This is not ice cream as we know it. It tastes more like vanilla sorbet. Well worth the price.
Before we are done the bus is again ready. This is our longest ride inside the country. We started about 6:40 AM and it will go past 7 PM. It is much harder than flying from Newark to California.
We have been throwing the peels in the same bag with the bananas. Evelyn thinks this has had a negative effect on the bananas since the ones we are getting now are all bruised and mushy. Maybe throwing the peels in with them has shown them their fate and has demoralized them. Anyway we finished them off during the stop.
The roads on this stretch are pretty bad and we get a lot of jouncing. This is when it is good to have a palmtop. I couldn't handwrite notes and probably could not even dictate them. Bouncing buses are very little worse than buses on smooth highway with a palmtop. The palmtop just jounces with my hands.
At about 4 PM we stop for the afternoon rest stop. There are about six little girls selling from trays they hold. Cookies, crackers and candy. I buy Evelyn a Coke, me a Pepsi and I buy a bag of fruit candy. The candy is like fruit chews in the US, but it includes coconut, soursop, and a number of local fruits. Word goes around that we will not get in until 9 PM. That will make looking for a hotel difficult.
The scenery is picturesque, but it does not change a lot. A lot of bright green rice paddies and peasants with conical straw hats working in them, perhaps with oxen or in rare cases water buffalo. Houses are small by American standards, made of concrete or brick. The rare house is made of wood with a thatched roof. The latter are more often than not in need of repair. The houses do have electricity. For a small country there is a lot of rice grown. It is second largest exporter of rice after Thailand and this year Vietnam hope to pass them. With so much rice, it is amazing that the price does not drop and hurt the farmers.
Night falls and it is dark on the bus. Little we can see outside but shapes in the distance and a few lights. I wish the driver would turn on the lights in the bus.
(People without palmtops can skip this paragraph) I have after years licked the problem that my palmtop has no backlight. For a dollar I bought a keychain flashlight. The lightbulb part rotates in a complete circle. When it is pointing toward the base and the batteries it is turned off, when it is rotated away it is turned on. If I hang the keychain part from a button on my shirt, the flashlight is directable toward the screen of the palmtop which it illuminates. The problem is that the head tended to rotate in my pocket and the flashlight turns itself on. To prevent this I open it up and reverse one of the batteries when not in use.
By the way the bus driver did turn on the reading lights, but they do not reach to the aisle seat.
Dinner was leftover baguette from this morning and cookie, washed down with a liberal chug of water.
From what I can see the town we just went through must be the watermelon capitol of the Eastern World. Every shop had a huge pile of watermelons. They are the size and shape of basketballs here. This town was unloading more and they really didn't need them.
This road is what Harry Truman called a piecrust road. It must have been soft like a pie crust. The whole bus is just vibrating itself to pieces as it tries to drive the road. To fix the road would require labor, management, and materials. Labor is cheap here. Materials are probably not that expensive. What they need is the government to manage it. Even with cheap labor and materials they don't do it. The government may be doing something for the people, but it is not obvious what that might be. They are putting up a lot of nice colorful billboards about how good communism is. They are putting up billboards about AIDS. I suppose the latter is useful but it is not very substantial. They aren't maintaining roads or worrying about public safety. They are not even taking advantage of the cheap labor they have to make life better. We finally stopped someplace at 9:15 PM. Was this then end of our journey? No this was a hotel that had two rooms. Nobody wanted them so they took us to another drop off. This time they said the bus was illegally parked, please exit the bus as quickly as possible. We picked up our luggage. It looked like it had been thoroughly trampled. They said that two waiting vans were for an expensive hotel that would cost $25/night. We figured it was in our price range. OK we took the van. When we got to the hotel we found it was Vinh Hung, an old Chinese trading house. They said they had two rooms, one for $30 and one for $50. We saw the $30 room and it would have been small by Japanese standards. Just enough room for the bed and luggage. But the furniture was interesting. It looked antique. They wanted to show us the $50 room. Like there was a chance we would take such an over-priced room. We had to climb a half story on a stairway that was more a ladder. I have seen stairways this steep only on ships. We got to the room at the top and were suddenly in a James Clavell novel. The room is all antique furniture (except for the refrigerator). The roof is held up by wooden pillars. The light fixtures are all carved wood traditional designs and ricepaper lantern-style. If you want it there is netting over the bed. Everything looks like hand-carved wood. The bed headboard is hand-carved with a dragon and a phoenix.
It is like a one-foot step up to get to the bathroom. Everything in the room says wealthy 19th century merchant in Vietnam for trade. Uh, there is one painting on the wall that looks too recent. But the room feels like it is out of TAIPAN. One gets the feeling of the sea trade via the docks nearby.
Downsides: the room is noisy getting lobby sounds, the air conditioning is as weak as a flea, and there is a four-inch cockroach on the wall. (Well three inches of body plus antenna.) Of course they overcharge for the room and then have a hard time renting it. Who but the Leepers would want such an anachronism? So what if it is three times what other hotel rooms are costing. It costs about what Motel 6 costs at home and it is a genuine piece of maritime history.
Since the air conditioner is a near total loss, I sleep in a wet T-shirt.
03/12/01 Hoi An
I woke up about 3:30 and fell asleep again some time after four. The lights of the street make interesting patterns on the mosquito netting.
I guess I was never very interested in antiques before. I think people like them not for just their age but the adventure they might have seen. Tai-pans may have slept here on these very beds and from here went out and built their fortunes. To most Americans Vietnamese history started with the roots of the war. But this was an exciting county before this century. If there were ghosts, this room would have some interesting ones.
Evelyn's cold is getting worse. I hope it is a short one. I guess also I hope I don't catch it.
I go down and ask if we can extend our stay two nights. Also I ask the age of the house. They have a leaflet. It is over 350 years old. It used to be an herb and spice shop by visiting Chinese merchants. The Chinese came to trade here but then started leaving people here to trade year round and finally set up their own communities. Everywhere in the room is the original wood in the traditional dark brown.
The staff asked if we wanted breakfast here. I thought at first we would eat out, but if breakfast is included we might as well get it hear.
The breakfast we chose was beef soup. I had some orange juice which tasted a bit like Tang. We were about to get up to leave when they wanted to give us more so they brought a big plate of cut pineapple. Pretty good. Perhaps I put a bit too much James Clavell interpretation on the house. The herbalist did not do the sailing and perhaps it is just in a Chinese style I interpreted as being for merchant seamen. Still it is a fascinating room.
Our first stop was the Hanh Cafe to book our trip to My Son tomorrow and to Hue in two days. The guy who runs the office started saying how he likes Americans. He worked for the Americans when they were here. Then he was a cyclo driver for 14 years before going into travel. He now makes 500,000D/month, a little better than a dollar a day. He said that Americans who fought get compensation, but he does not. He wanted me to look behind the shop to see his living quarters. Basically there was a room about three feet wide and there was a bed that took up all the room from side to side. The shop was really his living quarters.
We headed out on a walking tour and two kids asked for pens. We actually had brought pens for this purpose, but these were the first kids asking so we did not bring any today. We gave the kid one of our pens that we had brought for our own use.
You can buy an entrance ticket to see five sites that fall into four categories. For each category there are three or four choices. It is the system familiar from some American Chinese restaurants that you choose one from column A, one from column B, etc. Your fifth ticket is a wild card and opens the way to any site in any category.
We went first to the Temple of Quan Cong, deified general who is the patron saint of Hoi An Port. It was supposed to be a temple ticket but the guard cut off instead a museum ticket, saying you also see the history and culture museum. We had been warned off the latter since it was only a one room display and not all that good, but it was too late now.
Chinese decor is pretty much the opposite of Japanese. In Chinese you seem to have a lot more decoration. The centerpiece is a life-size statue of the general flanked by statues of a guardian and a plump official. There are also statues of his two horses, the earlier white and the later red. The horses are ornately dressed in red with patterns of a phoenix design. Behind the temple is the Museum of History and Culture. It is a one-room museum, dimly lit, showing the results of an archeological excavations and the broken pottery it turned up. The early people in the area were the Sa Huynh and they were replaced by the Cham. Various small discoveries were there, but over all it was not a very impressive display.
Coming out we were at the local market so we thought we would walk through. As we walked through the shoe section several women tried to sell me sandals for only one dollar. I just don't generally wear sandals and have no room to pack shoes. In another section it was Tiger Balm and as I walked by each stand a woman tried to stop me and sell me Tiger Balm. It is beyond me why one of these women would think that I will buy her Tiger Balm when she saw me just turn down two other women offering the same product at the same price. Does she think I will say "Yes! Yes! Yours is the Tiger Balm I have been looking for?"
We continued on through the fish section of the market. Many people with many kinds of fish. I took some pictures. There was one very large fish I wanted to get a picture of. The guy from the bus who looked like Armin Mueller-Stahl said he had spent half his life in the water and has never seen a fish like that. It looked like a catfish with a mouth shaped like that of a shark. We tried to look at it, but there was no way to stand there without women trying to push us out of the pathway. Eventually we left.
We started to wander back to our hotel to get pens, but I said it was not really necessary.
The next thing we went to on the tour was the Fujian (or Phue Kien) Chinese Assembly. This was a nice pavilion of Chinese design built in 1975. It seems the six Fujian families were political refugees from China when the Ming Dynasty fell. They came to Vietnam and founded a local dynasty. It is better to rule in Vietnam than serve in China.
In the garden out front there are several pieces of art, but the one most notable is a piece carved from a tree trunk near the root. Each root that extends is carved as an animal. There is a dragon, an alligator, an elephant, a phoenix, a pig, and a dozen more.
As one enters the main hall one sees the roof needs cleaning. Near the door there are striking reliefs of a horse on one side and an eagle on the other. In the entrance hall there is a very flattering mural showing the heads of the six families as superhuman warriors riding horses as fast as the wind. Facing the mural on the opposite wall is a mural of Thien Hau. I guess she is a goddess or demigod. She protects sailors by running over the top of angry waters to sinking ships which she rescues. The inside is filled with other Chinese art that I will not list in detail.
Walking the streets we run into Mark who was on our tour to the Mekong Delta. It makes sense we would run into a lot of people we have met before. Vietnam is a long thin country. Most people who tour take the cities in the same or the reverse order of what we did and would spend about the same length of time.
Evelyn knows of a restaurant where they have fruit shakes. We stop there and for once my curiosity does not serve me well. She has a pineapple shake, I want to try an avocado shake. I can't imagine what it would be like. I find out. It tastes like thin guacamole with sugar added. The woman who runs the restaurant is also a college professor in Dalat. She says she teaches classical philosophy.
Following the street takes us to the Japanese Covered Bridge. It was built in 1593, built to link the Japanese neighborhood on one side of a stream with the Chinese community on the other side. This is THE bridge. This is the one that killed the monster Cu. Oh, you must have read about it. Something that important should have made all the history books. Cu was the enormous monster living in the earth. His head was in India, his tail was in Japan, and his body in Vietnam. I said he was BIG. When he roused himself there were earthquakes and floods all over Vietnam. I mean this guy was HUGE!!! What do you expect? Anyway science tells us that Cu had only one soft spot on that whole huge carcass of his. Anatomically they don't tell us where it was, but geographically it was in Hoi An. In fact it was right across this stream. Building the bridge killed the monster Cu. This is that bridge.
Our next site on our ticket was the Tan Ky. An old Chinese merchant's
house, built about 1800. It is still in use after seven generations in
the house. I don't think we learned much about the house. The guide told
us little that was not on some sheets hanging on the walls to tell us about
the house. I did get him to translate some of the poems inlaid in the walls
in mother of pearl.
The guide wanted us to know how impressed he was with Evelyn. Everything about her he praised. He tried to sell us jewelry and when I pointed out neither of us wear jewelry or makeup, that too he praised about Evelyn. He bemoaned that there were no good women like Evelyn around and that he was going to give up looking and just take care of his mother and sisters. I think he was making an oblique pass at Evelyn.
The Cantonese Chinese Congregation is our last meeting hall. It has a lot of the same imagery as our earlier Chinese meeting hall. Dragons, phoenixes, peaches.
Outside in the streets life goes on. You see a lot of older women selling soup that they carried here with the yoke and two baskets. I have not mentioned that, but we have been seeing it all along. It seems mostly done by older women in conical hats but they will carry heavy loads by splitting them between two baskets hanging from a yoke. That way they carry the weight on their shoulders. Much the same principle as a photovest. Incidentally we see a lot of those here also, but on tourists. I find them hard to find and expensive in the US. Here you see some for $25. I got one for $15 in HCM City. Lots of tourists have them.
Evelyn saw some bookstores. She was curious to get a copy of THE QUIET AMERICAN by Graham Greene. Just three days ago Michael Caine and Brendan Frasier were in town with a film crew. Philip Noyce is directing his adaptation of this novel. It is a story set in Vietnam and which will be largely shot here. We find a copy. Then it is back to the room.
You know you have been in Vietnam too long when cold water, and perhaps a cookie or a piece of candy sounds like a party. That is what the room offers and to me it sounds like a good time. We are back at the room resting. Evelyn is taking a nap, but still coughing. I think the cold is taking a lot out of her. I just have to give her what care I can and patience. While she sleeps I read the first chapter of THE QUIET AMERICAN. This could be good.
At 5:45 we go out to the Yellow River Restaurant. We order White Roses as an appetizer and fish fondue. I get a bottle of Coke. A bottle of Coke is cheaper than a can. It has a little less fluid, but the big difference is that you reuse a bottle and not a can.
White Roses turn out to be the dim sum dish Har Kow in a different shape. It is ground shrimp and rice noodle except it looks like a white rose instead of a little purse. Fish fondue is misnamed. It is really a soup hot pot served with rice. The only thing you dip is a ladle. We talk to a couple who were in the restaurant when we had our fruit shakes and this restaurant also. They are going on to Thailand in a few days. We also talked to a mother and daughter from London visiting. We had more than enough people to talk to while we ate. Then back to the room to work on logs, plan, etc.
As we walk back we pass a house with an open front door. There is not much to it. It looks like it may be three rooms and it cannot be very comfortable. These people lead a very hard life. They work hard and their rewards are not very much at all. This is why I am somewhat sympathetic to the touts. They have a job to do. They cannot get a whole lot of enjoyment from life. And in Hoi An they are not as persistent as they were in places like HCM City.
Evelyn fell asleep about 8. The room has little to keep me awake. I read a chapter of QUIET AMERICAN, but when I kept dozing for a few seconds and then reading the same page again, I knew it was time to call it quits.
03/13/01 Hoi An; My Son
I was up for maybe ten minutes in the night. Otherwise I must have slept about eight and a half hours. The bed is hard, but it gave be a bit of a back ache nonetheless. As we get up north we get cooler and rainier weather. Supposedly that is what Hanoi will be like, we are hearing from people who have been there. That is not the weather we were expecting.
They used to call this area Indo-China. Yesterday we saw a lot of the China part, today we concentrate on the Indo part. Near where we are was My Son, an important burial site for the Cham people. Their kingdom of Champa flourished from the 2nd century to the 15th. They engaged in agriculture as much as they could but they did not have enough land for it. This is a rocky area as we saw a few days ago. But trading ships passed these waters all the time and they learned to harvest them. Crack one of them open and you found a lot more than a grain of rice. But there was a catch. These ships were usually infested with sailors who wanted to keep the ships contents to themselves. The Chams became expert at separating the sailors from the ships. It did not, however, lead to the stable sort of existence that might be hoped for. It made them a lots of enemies, for one thing. They were used to a constant state of war. the culture they picked up from the people they traded with and occasionally harvested was that of India. Their carvings and architecture, mostly of tombs, are what we will be seeing in the My Son region.
A little background about this town. This was at one time a very cosmopolitan city. Called Faifo it was a port of call for ships from Portugal and Holland in the Western world, Persia and Arabia in the Near East, and China and Japan more closely. Local ships traveled to Indonesia and Thailand. I wonder if this is when they became so frightfully overstocked in clay flutes in animal shapes that the kids hawk in the streets.
In 1307, to bring peace to the region, in a "seemed like a good idea at the time" sort of move, the Cham King married the daughter of the Vietnamese monarch. All was peaceful until he died. His successors did not like the idea he had given away their region as a wedding present. They declared the arrangement defunct, null, and void. So much for peace in the region. The fighting went on into the next century. By then this was a major trading port and remained so into the 1800s.
The winds are southerly along the East Coast of Asia in the Spring but turn northerly in the Summer. Chinese and Japanese sailors would follow the winds down, staying in the city from Spring to Summer trading here. That was how our hotel came to be built in a Chinese style. This house was already used for trade centuries before the Tai-pans. Some of the traders stayed all year.
In the 17th Century it became fashionable for people to notice that other people thought differently than they did. Different thought can be really scary. Japan treated the situation with foolishness and grace. In 1637 the town lost the Japanese trade. In 1637 every port outside of Japan lost the Japanese trade. Japan turned inward to consider only thoughts and ideas Japanese. Other peoples handled in different ways their fears of people disagreeing with them. The French decided that the Vietnamese could be taught to think like the French and sent missionaries to tell the Vietnamese the right ways to think. Catholicism, one of the important right ways to think according to the French, is still a strong religion here.
The town was badly damaged in the Tay Son Rebellion, a revolt against bad government that seized the country in the 1770s and 1780s. It was rebuilt and pretty much undamaged in the wars against the French and Americans.
For breakfast I ordered Vietnamese porridge, copying it to their menu sheet from their menu. Two waitresses puzzled over what I had written. I pointed it out on the menu. (They have a printed menu.) That made things no easier. They looked at the entry on the menu with the same puzzlement as if I had put the listing there from letters in my pocket.
The eggs came. They were just about perfect. Well, one yolk was broken, but they were bubbly fried eggs. Evelyn ordered banana pancake and got something interesting, but not what she was expecting. It was like a fried disk of banana bread cut in six wedges. She ate a wedge and I ate one. The rest went back.
After breakfast we sat down to wait for the bus to pick us up. One of the workers sat with us and we made somewhat strained conversation. He had majored in English at Hue University. We talked about how Vietnam was changing. We talked about how hotels were hard to find when the QUIET AMERICAN was filming. I asked him if he had any questions about America. He seemed reticent to ask.
By 8:22 we were worried that we had not been picked up yet. The hotel clerk called the travel agent and they said they were on the way. They sent a motorscooter. Evelyn had been reticent to ride a motorcycle with a friend, but she had no chance here. Off she goes. I was left waiting. About eight minutes later the motorscooter returned and I jumped on the back.
It was about a four minute ride to the tour minibus. The travel agent said to me we told him the wrong place. It is possible. I mean he knows every hotel in the area and we know exactly one. It may have just happened that the name we gave him was of another hotel that we had never heard of in our lives. And he just may have misprinted the name on the ticket so it WAS our hotel listed on the ticket. Stranger things have happened. Sure they have.
So we ended up holding up the bus for half an hour. Hey, it's not my fault.
I am looking at a mosaic picture of a road. I think when it was laid it was all one piece. Lack of repairs has made the thing a real mess. Driving over it is a jolting experience.
Evelyn is behind me and has found someone from England to talk to. When the subject comes around to film I chime in occasionally over my shoulder. I talk a little about Alec Guinness. We have a common interest in the James Bond films and discuss them.
At about 10 AM we get to My Son. We have driven into the hills. One nice hill has a couple of swirls of cloud around it making it look particularly majestic.
We are told we have two hours to walk around and be back. We go off buying a ticket to get in. We follow a muddy path to a rickety bamboo bridge. On the far side there are American Jeeps to take us down the muddy road. Evelyn says they are probably captured Jeeps from the war. We haven't been selling many Jeeps here since.
To recap: here we were in Indo-China in 30 year old Jeeps going down muddy roads up in the cloudy hills to see some ruins more than a millennium old and now grown over by jungle. Hot damn. I am in pig-heaven. I wanted to do something real with my vacation and it just doesn't get much realer than this. You think Disneyworld is an exciting vacation, do you?
We get to the site. Here carved out of the forest are Hindu temples and tombs. They are out of red-brown stone, generally two or three times as high as they are wide. They do not have spires like the Khemer temples. There are carvings on the outside added after the temple was built. Several of us commented how it looked like some of the sights of the Yucatan. There are nine different groups of stone monuments, some open to enter and see displays. The sight is majestic.
During the War the Viet Cong guerrillas found My Son to be a convenient staging area. This way both the Americans and the Viet Cong could benefit when the Americans bombed it. The Americans got to disrupt their enemies and the Viet Cong could complain to the world that American barbarians were destroying these ancient masterpieces. It was the beginning of modern American-Vietnamese cooperation.
We once again ran into an Australian couple form the Nha Trang boat trip and the man who looks like Armin Mueller-Stahl. Incidentally I can stop calling him that since he told me his real name is Winfried Werzmirzowsky. Very interesting man to talk to. Like me he also collects lots and lots of books.
On the way back on the bus I sat next to a woman from Hanoi whose work frequently takes her to Ho Chi Minh City. It sounded like she works on a TV show called Miller Street or something like that. She seemed very nice but had a D+ accent. I must have picked up about one word in three. She was trying to be nice and it would have been interesting. She was talking about sights to see and about dating and marriage customs.
We got off the bus a little shaken up by the roads. We made arrangements to be picked up at our hotel again tomorrow. I hope it will be more successful tomorrow.
Lunch was our next order of business. We went to a restaurant and ordered Cao Lau. This is like beef noodle soup without the broth. We also got spinach with peanut and sesame. Late in life I am finding I do not dislike spinach and green leafy vegetables, I dislike mushy and overcooked vegetables of all stripes. If spinach is not overcooked it will still never beat hot fudge sundaes (Gad, it's been years since I had a hot fudge sundae) but spinach can be delicious if left crisp. Asian cooking does that.
At about 2:30 we were back at the room. We might have stayed there until dinnertime, but I staged a little revolt. We are resting on our vacations a little more these days, but I cannot help but feel that this vacation we are spending too much time in hotel rooms. Yesterday we quit for the day too soon and today we quit earlier. I coerce Evelyn to go out and walk with me around the picturesque section of town.
We hear what sounds like an ice cream truck as we go out. It turns out to be a garbage truck. As it plays its merry tune people bring their garbage out and dump it in the back. We spend about an hour walking around and see just about the whole tourist sector. Many people call to us to buy. And I do buy. I get one bottle of cold water. Total cost, about 35 cents.
The Vietnamese paint almost all their small boats with eyes. I guess they want the boats to watch over the waters.
I suggest rather than going back to the room we sit in the park and write. I am a little wary of doing this. Will it make us a sitting target? For a while we seem not to be bothered. Then kids see us and try to sell us the popular items of this town, silk postcards and clay animal-shaped flutes. A new on one me is scissors like are used for a sheep shearing. those are no good because they tend to stay open, leaving the sharp blades out.
Some kids just come over to watch us type. Everyone asks the same question about our palmtops: Vietnamese children, other tourists, everybody. Do they do email? If I wanted to download, sure it will do email. I don't have a modem card.
A shoeshine boy comes along. I shake my head no. He comes over anyway. He tells me he gives a very good shoeshine. I tell him it does not matter, you cannot shine running shoes. But, he tells me, he gives a very good shoeshine. "No thank you." "No mother. No father. No shoeshine yesterday." "No shoeshine." "Where are you from?" "America." "Nice shoes." "No shoeshine. You can't shine running shoes." "You, madam?" "You don't shine sandals either," Evelyn says. Eventually he goes away.
Some kids start playing soccer near us in the park. We are OK with that until a ball almost hits me. We move to the other end of the park. Some children come around asking for pens. Now I did bring some pens to give out and that I do. I have never had pens when kids ask for them. In India and Egypt kids wanted pens. This time I do have them to give out.
The shoeshine boy comes back. His name is An. He claims he has not eaten in two days and when he asks people if they want shoeshines they always say "no thank you." He goes a little incoherent on this ten minute tirade. I ask him how much he would get for a shoeshine. He says 15,000D. That is more than a college professor makes here in a day. But I take pity on him. He seems sincere. I give him 5000D. That should easily be a day's worth of food.
Another boy comes over, but when he wants to start fingering my computer and my watch I have had enough. Evelyn says we ought to go and she is right.
We have dinner at Faifoo. We have white roses, a kind of pancake, spring rolls, seafood with noodle, I have two bottles of Coke.
After dinner it is back to the room. I spend most of the evening catching up. Along the way I get a bunch of mosquito bites. Evelyn goes to sleep about 8, but the Coke keeps me up until I can get caught up in my log.
About 10 PM our three-inch cockroach puts in another appearance. I see him run across the floor and then turn around and run behind the refrigerator. A lot of little cockroaches would bother me. This fellow has not grown so big by challenging the power structure. He will be wary of people. I am surprised he is showing himself as much as he is. Just the same they should let a lizard loose in the room. Lizards are even more wary of people and they love eating cockroaches. I would prefer having a lizard to a cockroach. A cockroach is a small minus; a lizard is a plus as far as I am concerned.
It is now past 11 PM and I am caught up. I can start fresh tomorrow.
03/14/01 Hoi An to Hue
Vitamin C has in the past seemed to ward off many kinds of colds for me. It did not war off Evelyn's cold this time. I seem to have it. That means we need to get more antihistamine. I gave Evelyn all of mine.
We hit the dusty trail again today headed for Hue.
For breakfast I had the enjoyably foreign fried eggs, a baguette, butter, and pineapple. They have several exotic fruits here but pineapple is far and away the best fruit. It is not even the best pineapple but even if it were just mediocre pineapple, which it is not, it would still be one of the best fruits available.
Evelyn got drip coffee with a Vietnamese coffee maker that you put on top of the cup. It would not drip. The waiter came out and tried to adjust it. With the back of a spoon he poked around in it like a plumber working on a stopped toilet. Still it would not drip into the cup. Eventually he went away declaring it was just slow. Evelyn poured the coffee out of the top and drank it that way.
We went up and checked the room. Evelyn was throwing out some underwear and used it as a wet rag to clean the My Son mud off her shoes. I hope they don't empty the wastebasket and say "Another American who did not like Vietnamese food."
We got our things and went down to check out. They had two foil-wrapped gifts for us. Remembering my reading I told Evelyn not to open the gifts here, though I was curious as all get-out what they would be giving us. It is a point of etiquette not to open a gift in front of the giver. I never thought I would use that.
There were two motorscooters waiting for us. I got a picture of Evelyn on the back of hers. They took the luggage and we jumped on the back. It is a nice cool way to travel. I linked my hands around the driver's waist. I saw my suitcase strap fall down on Evelyn's scooter and I hoped it would stay clear of the wheel. It did.
We got to the Trade Union Hotel, one of the places we might have stayed in town. They dropped us off and we put down our luggage.
The first thing I thought of was the gifts. Mine was wrapped in foil with a Disney Winnie the Pooh design. Inside was an inch and a half orange and green Buddha statue. Evelyn had one also but hers was all green. I like it. He looks like a happy traveler with a bundle on a stick.
I walk around the hotel garden which has some bonsai rocks.
A French couple is waiting also. We are sitting near the desk. They are waiting at the gate. I tell Evelyn they are probably being sure they don't get the seat over the wheel. Evelyn tells me not to worry about it. The bus comes, a large minibus, and the French couple gets the last seats together. Evelyn gets a seat at the back of the bus and I get the seat over the wheel behind the driver. The driver has a distorted face like the 1943 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. It could be he was scarred for life by something like water from a hot radiator.
I am not looking to a long trip with my knee bent the whole way. The most comfortable passenger seat is still open, the one next to the driver. But they usually make that the last one taken. The driver likes to keep that empty. We stop at one more hotel and pick up a Irish couple. I ask the driver if I can take the front seat. The couple thank me thinking it was me who did them the favor instead of the other way around. It is too complex to explain. I do ask the man if he is OK in that seat, just to be sure. He is happy. Hope he stays that way.
We stop at the travel office and the guide wishes me a good trip. Two days ago he was giving me a warm welcome, yesterday he was blaming me for a bus being late, today he gave me a warm farewell.
I talk to the Irish couple. They are on a seven month trip, a sort of pre-honeymoon. They work in London. They have done Canada, California, Mexico, New Zealand Australia, and have headed back north.
We stop at a roadside stop to take pictures. I start to buy some peanuts from one of the hawkers. Two packs are 10,000D. I give him a 20,000D and he deftly palms it and replaces it with a 2000D. I give him his peanuts back. So let him keep the 18,000D. I give him back his peanuts and buy from someone else. He keeps trying to sell me in spite of the money he has already made from his little game.
I look at the peanuts and discover they may be stale. They are labeled in Vietnamese and Russian.
The road takes us over some beautiful mountains on twisty hairpin roads. This is Hai Van Pass. In short order we pass two overturned trucks. The Irish ask me if it is frightening being in the front seat. Actually it just does not occur to me to be frightened. I am looking at the scenery. I am the only passenger in the bus, it seems who was just saying "Wow! This is great." Even Evelyn was nervous. It just did not occur to me that I might be in danger. I suppose if we had gone over the edge I would have been, well, dead. But the driver had been over this road before.
On 20 miles of road here you could film a remake of WAGES OF FEAR. That is a great white knuckle film about trying to truck nitro-glyceryne over bumpy, unpaved roads in someplace like Guatemala. There are four volunteers who want to do it to earn the money to get out. The little dead towns, the broken down refinery, the unpaved mountain roads. They are all here.
I doze off for a moment and awake to find us pointed at a head-on collision with a tour bus. We miss by about four inches.
We drive over stretch of road that may well have the greatest number of potholes per square meter of any stretch of road I have ever been on. something goes wrong and the engine stalls out and will not restart. The driver pulls up the seat between him and me and there is the engine. He fools with it for a while, gives up, and goes walking across the street.
He comes back a few minutes later on a motorscooter. He runs to a house with a water bottle and comes back with the bottom cut off to use it with a funnel.
One of the men from behind comes forward and looks over my shoulder. "Do you know engines?" I ask. He's on the right track. he gives me some explanation involving the fuel filter. "Worst case is he has to replace the fuel filter," he concludes. Whatever the driver does works and after 15 min we are on our way.
Again they take us around to hotels. A least three parties on the bus say they want Thai Binh, a hotel recommended in Lonely Planet. I hate to see the Lonely Planet get so much power, but it is more reliable than Vietnamese guides.
Our first thing to do when settled in the room is to go out and get reservations for the train to Hanoi. On the bus ride Evelyn talked to two Australians. They end in the room next to ours.
Evelyn figured it was about a kilometer from the hotel. As we walked a cyclo driver started following us, and we talked to him a little after turning him down. Eventually he gave up hope. The weather has been gray, wet, cool here the last few days by all reports. Today it was hot and sunny. The walk is more than a kilometer, though I am not sure how much. There is a hot sun and at the end of it we are sweaty and tired. The walk parallels the Perfume River which runs through the town. Then comes the booking. The train we wanted on Friday is full. We might be able to get a hard sleeper, but not a soft sleeper. They had photographs to show what a hard sleeper was and what a soft sleeper was. With the possible exception of Pablo Picasso, I defy anyone human to get any useful information out of those two photographs. Both were blurry with age and even knowing what I was looking at I thought I was looking at a Russian hair dressing salon from two different angles.
I suggested we stay another day. It turns out if we do that the reservation is no problem. So it will be one more day in Hue. We pay for our tickets and get our change largely in ones. Then money is handed back and the clerk gets money from his pocket involved. Finally it is all straightened out.
The negotiations being over we each have a Pepsi and then each hire a cyclo to Imperial Palace. On the way I notice there is not much personality to the town. There are fewer women with conical hats or people with yoke and hanging baskets. The buildings are modern and not all that interesting.
The Imperial Palace is much like Vietnam's equivalent of the Forbidden City of Beijing. It is a series of empty halls there were the seat of power for the ruling Nguyen Dynasty. Most are not in good repair, but that is changing as much of it is being restored.
The citadel, a walled city with six miles of wall, was begun in 1804 by the first of the Nguyen Dynasty, who renamed himself Gia Long. The signature of the citadel is the flag tower out front with a 37 meter flagpole, the tallest in Vietnam. Decorations come in nines. There are nine decorative cannons and nine dynastic urns. There are several large halls like in the Forbidden City of Beijing, but not so well maintained or restored. A subset reserved for the Emperor is called the Forbidden Purple City. Mostly you can just see what was here at one time though some of the halls are restored and function as museums.
One of the few items in which Vietnam has always had a surplus was Nguyens. In 1765 three brothers Nguyen Nhac, Nguyen Hue, and Nguyen Lu rebelled against the government controlled by the Nguyen Clan (I think no relation.). They came to be known as the Tayson Rebels. By 1773 they ruled central Vietnam and they had the whole South by 1783. Nguyen Nhac became king of the South and Nguyen Lu the king of Central Vietnam. Nguyen Ahn was the only surviving member of the Nguyen Clan. Nguyen Ahn looked for outside help from the Thais and the French. When the Taysons grabbed the North the Chinese sent troops to grab the country. In 1788, Nguyen Hue, who had not had his chance to be a king yet declared himself emperor and marshaled his army to expel the Chinese. He did defeat the Chinese at Dong Da in 1789. He survived that battle by only three years. Things turned against the Tayson rebels. Nguyen Ahn with French-trained troops defeated the Tayson rebels and declared himself emperor and Hue his capital. By defeating the three Nguyen brothers he founded the Nguyen Dynasty. They ruled Vietnam from 1802 to 1945.
We stop for a rest and it is much like ringing the dinner bell. Hawkers come around and want to sell us film, they want to pat my arm. I am not sure how they get in. Much of the palace is under reconstruction. A lot of what is there is in very bad shape.
We take cyclos back to room. I hate riding a cyclo. It is a nice, cool ride, but it makes me feel like freight. We are that on a train to, but the fact it is muscle power moving me seems embarrassing. There are not a lot of cyclos in Hue.
We wrote and rested in the room. We listened to the news. Apparently pushing out the news of the court martial looking into the sub that sank a Japanese boat is the news that as Kuwait is running ads thanking the US for taking the lead in Persian Gulf War, we bombed them from the air. Times are hard for the military what with the Soviets gone and they are desperately looking for someone new to fight. Why do I think they will attack Canada next?
Evelyn picked Xuan Trang Cafeteria, on the same block as our hotel, from the Lonely Planet. I ordered a combination of Chicken Soup, rice, fish, and spring rolls. It is a combination meal. I thought the soup was good. The rice had grit. The fish was just OK. I ate only one of the three super-greasy spring rolls. I tried Evelyn's home-style tofu and thought it was pretty lousy also. It was our worst meal so far in Vietnam.
On the way back to the room a kid stops us with "Hey, you." (Well, it is different from the usually fawning approach which doe not seem to work.) This kid is still not going to get a lot from us, I can tell. "What country you from?" "America." "I have an American pen. Give me American coin." What have they got? A scavenger hunt? "Why would I bring American coins to Vietnam?" That seems to satisfy him. A pen he would have gotten, though maybe not with his attitude.
We went to bed about 9.
03/15/01 Hue and the DMZ
Strange hotel. It looks at the outset to be the most modern and comfortable so far, but the mattress is strange. Also there is something wrong perhaps in their heating system or something. Three times now we have heard a loud explosion. It is a lot like if a door slammed shut with great force. [PS At this writing I had not yet discovered that it really was doors being slammed shut.]
The cold has become a cough. This also is disturbing my sleep. I was only fitfully sleeping and got up about 5:05. Evelyn slept through here 5:15 alarm. They pick us up at 6 AM.
The explosions I have been hearing are the results of bad latches in the doors. The latch does not retract unless the door is pulled shut with great force. The result is a very loud bang that the architecture of the hotel seems to if anything amplify. With a bit of experimentation I find a way to close the door quietly.
The lobby is dark and two clerks are sleeping there. We have to be quiet not to wake them up. A French woman comes into the lobby. "DMZ?" I ask. "Yes." I am not sure why it was not "Oui." I asked in French.
They always fill these tour minibuses to maximum capacity. There are 19 tourists on this bus sitting four across in a narrow minibus.
We stop at a gas station and everybody gets a half-liter bottle of water. We sit at the gas station for about 20 minutes and then head to the countryside an a road that in places offers some of the worst of Vietnamese road paving. Somehow I keep getting the seat over the wheel.
As we get to the countryside we get more of the Vietnamese flavor. We pass a place where there are a huge number of conical hats bobbing. These are peasant women doing their marketing.
Next to me is Japanese maybe in his 20s, perhaps younger. He is trying to sleep and the shaking of the bus keeps flopping him over on me. He is one of a group of about eight, all trying to sleep and all going limp like a rag doll when they do it. All are flopping around as the bus tries to negotiate some horrible potholes. That is interesting. I am not sure why Japanese would go any limper than Europeans, but they seem to do that. It probably means that they rest more effectively.
We stop at a skeleton of a church in Quang Tri province. You are supposed to note that the church has been shot to pieces. The North Vietnamese invaded Quang Tri and the South Vietnamese and Americans used force to get them out. This church with bullet holes pockmarking the walls was apparently a North stronghold. It is now just an artifact about how nasty the fighting got at one point.
In Dong Ha Town we stopped for breakfast. One of the Japanese group sat at our table. In spite of the language barrier I tried to make conversation talking about our trip to Japan. I asked if he knew origami. I folded my Rodan model from a napkin. It was terrible origami paper but the shape could e seen. I said he fights Gojira. He does not understand so I fold Gojira. That he recognizes. The spoons are made of punched metal and trying to cut the eggs with one it ends up rather badly bent.
Our next stop is the Rock Pile. It is 230 meters high and was a base for American artillery.
We passed the Dakrong Bridge, relatively new and not really much of an attraction, but it is a suspension bridge of interesting design.
We stopped at an ethnic minority village called Bru (Van Kieu). Evelyn decided to stay on the bus and she was probably right. Nothing like having twenty tourist swarm a village snapping pictures and smoking. The village people are happy to have the people come and give out money. But people are not a reasonable amusement attraction.
Khe Sanh Combat Base is at the end of a rocky road and all that is there now is just a plateau. Most of the military goods have been stripped for the value of the metal. This was an air base for attacking the Ho Chi Minh trail. It was, however, not really a defensible position. The local hill tribes helped the VC. Eventually the base was abandoned. The locals have planed coffee plants. There is a tiny museum, a monument, and some weapons from the war. Quang Tri and Khe Sanh are names we used to hear a lot on TV news during the war. Now we can picture at least what came of them. Khe San is ringed with mountains. It actually looks rather nice. Now it is also ringed with coffee plants.
They stopped for lunch. I don't know how they pick these places but I always seem to be the last to be served. Usually they take my order with the rest. This time they just kept ignoring our table. Finally he came to take the order after pretty much everyone else had been served. It took 48 minute to get served and by the time I finished eating they were telling us to get back on the bus.
We passed the Hien Luong Bridge over the Ben Hai River. We stopped there but the main attraction was not the monument there (which was never explained) but the grazing water buffalo. There were about 20 water buffalo grazing in the field. We heard what sounded like a kid screaming. Then I realized it was a water buffalo calf looking for his mother. After bleating for about five minutes the calf took off down the road, perhaps back home.
Later, on the road the bus took, we saw a road crew out building new road. What caught my attention was the metal detector. They had to run a detector over the ground before they could dig. You never know when you will run into an unexploded land mine.
The bus turned off of the main highway down a bumpy road. It was not easy telling the difference. A road in Vietnam is where someone put down paving material at some point, but as of this writing most are in a horrible state of disrepair.
We have already seen the Cu Chi tunnels. There is also a tunnel system under part of the DMZ. The Vinh Moc tunnels are another of our stops.
As we arrive beside the bus is a small man, apparently with something like Downs Syndrome who insists on shaking hands with everyone in reach. We are turned over to a local guide who will lead us through 300 meters of tunnels. These are different from the Cu Chi tunnels in that these are not reconstruction but the actual tunnels (now they tell us). They have been made wider and higher. Five of us, including me, are given flashlights. There is also lighting in the tunnels. We can walk through the tunnels upright, though somewhat bent over at places. There are pull-off in the tunnel for a well, a bedroom, and pass-bys. There is even a meeting room. It is a tight walk but we are all making jokes. I guess that is the best way to hold at bay the claustrophobic surroundings. If you want to find if you have cavities, eat baklava. If you want to find if you have claustrophobial walk through a Vietcong tunnel.
We got to the end of our 300 meters and returned to the sunlight. Waiting there at the end was the retarded Vietnamese man and a bunch of children. The retarded man took my flashlight. At the time I thought he might be some sort of employee of the park. Actually he probably was not, but nobody complained so he probably did the right thing with the flashlight. The kids asked for pens. I had brought four to give out. The last one started a real fight as six kids grabbed it at once. I wonder why they love US pens so much. The retarded man asked for a pen and I gave him 1000D instead.
Before leaving we got a lecture on the tunnel system here. The tunnel system of Vinh Moc is part of another disjoint tunnel system from Cu Chi. Cu Chi had the largest tunnel system to the south, this is the largest tunnel system in the north.
On the way back I talked most of the way with the Japanese students. They are seven engineers who are friends just traveling on their own like the five of us Bell Labs people who did SE Asia. We talked about films and culture. They seem like they are very friendly. I guess most of my life the world was divided into two worlds of which we were the major power of one and the USSR was the major power of the other. But our fear of the Soviets was that they had atomic energy and might beat us at our own game. They did not have really different ideas.
That is not what it has been like for me. Not so much as a competitor but from an early age the OTHER culture for me was Japan. I still think that Japan is the other way of thinking. For me as a child they fascinated me as the other source of monster movies. In 1956 I wanted to see this movie Japanese movie GODZILLA and was fascinated that monster movies came from another culture. Roughly age 10 I discovered origami. Age 15 it was Bushido and things samurai. Age 20 I discovered sushi. In this whole time I discovered no ideas intriguing or interesting about the Soviets. Britain was the only culture that seemed to have even moderately different ideas. The world moves toward globalization and thinking becomes homogenized. We have the same brands and many of the same ideas. Our greatest hope for fresh thinking is from that OTHER culture, Japan. Even as they try to create tall office buildings inspired by ours and the Salary man is based on the American businessman, they are doing very different things to get to that point. There are some negative things about Japanese culture also. Or any culture. But the Japanese are always the OTHER culture and I mean that respectfully.
We talked most of the way back and it made the trip more pleasant for me.
For dinner we passed an Indian place right outside the alleyway that leads to our hotel. I got Curried Mutton, Evelyn got Chicken Tandoori. The service was very slow. Most of the food was decent but not great. The Curried Mutton however was splendid. The best Indian I had had since Edinburgh.
I think my father-in-law, who actually spent in Vietnam the last part of his military career as a warrant officer in the Air Force, was surprised that we would want to go to Vietnam. Perhaps that anyone would want to come here. There are still a lot of Americans who would rather forget the war. I have some friends who came back from Vietnam a little strange and some whom it did not affect as much.
Vietnam was about as dirty a war as we ever had to fight. Both sides used tactic that I think they are ashamed of, or should be. We came not intending to concentrate on the war but on pre-1900 history in which Vietnam has an interesting place. Now we are here the war and its remnants are unavoidable. This is what the country has set up for us to see. The war casts its shadow over the whole trip. I guess we cannot avoid it so we face it head-on.
03/16/01 Hue; Perfume River
I was up a little in the night but got back to sleep. I was up and showered and at 7:15 was down to breakfast.
At a little after 8 AM a taxi came to take us to the somewhat muddy dock. There were a series of boats with dragon heads waiting for us. We waked down a crudely made plank to get to the dock itself from the street level. We climbed aboard one of the boats as we were told to do. Then we were told there was another boat for the Thai Binh so took that instead. We filed off and onto the right Dragonboat. The chairs are made out of soft plastic and one collapsed under me, nearly spilling me on the deck. Eventually we were off down the Perfume River.
We go under bridges and watch the traffic go by overhear. The tour itself is only $2 though it takes you to tombs whose entrance fee is $5 each.
Some of the other boats pull up near us with passengers riding in the open section at the front of the boat. I ask Evelyn if she wants to ride outside. She doesn't, but tells me to go. Meanwhile two other passengers have taken their chairs out. I pick up a chair to take out and the woman who runs the boat comes up and says something in Vietnamese and "No." I guess it for two people only. The dragon boats all pull up on shore and the woman who runs it takes a shopping bag and walks out. She returns with another woman who carries postcards and brass castings to sell. I guess we are a captive audience.
There is no noticeable aroma to the Perfume River, good or bad. Of course I have a cold.
We stop at the Thiem Mu pagoda. It is from here that came the first Buddhist monk who burned himself in protest of the South Vietnam Diem regime. Several other monks burned themselves in protest following him. They even have the car on display that the monk took his last ride from Hue to Saigon in. Diem's sister-in-law, Madam Nhu, endeared herself to people around the world by declaring it a barbecue party and saying "let them burn, we will clap." Diem and his family were Catholic and fiercely anti-Buddhist as well as anti-Communist. The latter was enough to get him US government support. Madam Nhu was essentially the First Lady of South Vietnam and apparently cherished her "Dragon Lady" image in the press. It is curious that the Buddhists thought they could get a better situation from the Communists than they could from Diem.
On of the things I saw in the garden was an all-black bee maybe an inch long. Vietnam has such things.
We were back on the boat early and the boat stopped again at Tu Duc's Tomb. We got off and had a pretty steep climb up the river bank and a nearby hill. There motorbikes were waiting at 20,000D to take people to the tomb that cost 50,000D Evelyn had gotten word from the Internet that only the last tomb was really good. We sat in shade and had an overpriced bottle of Coca-Cola instead. 8000D is a lot to pay for 10 oz of Coke here. But so it goes. We talked with another couple.
We did visit the Hon Chen Temple, but it was not listed in the Lonely Planet. Nor was there anything obvious to make this an interesting Buddhist temple. The cost of entry was 22,000D, but it was 22,000D that we could well have saved. If you have seen a Buddhist temple before, this is just one more.
Returning to the boat they had laid out a modest but diminutive lunch. The lunch was rice, noodles, pancake, cabbage, and fried tofu. Only the tofu had much flavor. They had laid out mats on the floor and we took off our shoes and sat cross-legged. I seem to be the only one who had caught on to turning around the chopsticks for serving. The main purpose of the lunch was to serve beverages to go with it. That seems to be the case when a meal is included in a tour here. The meal is not much and its main purpose is to sell beverages.
I don't think anybody on the boat went to see the Tomb of Khai Dinh. It combines Vietnamese and European elements and we did not have to come to Vietnam to see European elements. People on the Internet thought that this one was the tomb least worth seeing. We stayed on the boat and watched kids come down to the river in swim trunks and wash themselves. Some came over to the boat to ask for coins and pens. Perhaps under the influence of the government none but very young children were washing naked in the presence of tourists.
The last of our tomb stops was the Minh Mang Tomb. From the boat one climbs up stairs and then passes a long gauntlet of sellers, all selling the same things: water, pineapple, bananas, beer, and peanut brittle. Somehow each one expects that you will have turned down all the previous sellers and will buy from them. Perhaps they are right because they do stay in business. As you walk by they say "Maybe you buy from me on way back. Remember me." In the hot weather something sweet like pineapple is just too cloying. There is a crescent-shaped pond that occasionally provides cool breezes at the tomb. The tomb is made of several pavilions, some with large bronze incense burners. There were a lot of stairs as each building was raised above the ground.
Before we can see the whole tomb time is up and we have to walk the gauntlet in the other direction. As we walk back we hear, "Remember you say you buy from me." We return without buying anything.
One we get back on the water the cool breeze feels good. Some of us watch the water, some of us doze. I do a little of both. As boats come near us we can get quick looks inside the low-slung Vietnamese peasant boats.
Several people have gotten spilled onto the floor by the soft plastic chairs. The Vietnamese are lighter than most foreigners. The chairs just are not strong enough for tourism. The way around the problem is to nest two chairs.
There is a story in the Lonely Planet that a US war veteran came back to Vietnam and in Hue met an ex-officer of the VC. He commented that the US never lost a single major battle. The officer commented "You are absolutely correct. But that is irrelevant, is it not?" Of course it is. And the Communist side won. But one really has to question how relevant that is. The currency most people want here is not the Vietnamese Dong, it is the US dollar. We go through Vietnam speaking English and drinking Coke and Pepsi. Evelyn bought Chips Ahoy cookies from a vender. There is a Vietnamese Stock Market. As for the Domino Effect, it has been proven. Communism was exported from Hanoi to Hue to Hoi An. Vietnam isn't exporting Communism, they are exporting just rice.
At 3pm we were placed on the dock and we headed back to the room for a fluid change. I am afraid it turned into a cold water party.
We went back to the room. Evelyn is not feeling well. She probably got too much sun. She has chills. We skip going out for dinner. Evelyn has a couple of chocolate chip cookies. I have some peanuts from the drive to the city.
So We will not be doing very much our last night in Hue. But Evelyn should have some time to rest. The road to Hanoi should be a lot smoother or we are all in trouble. I guess that is the point of a railroad. You lay down a road that is so smoothed and just at a perfect width so that a machine can follow it on its own. You don't even give it steering. You let the track do that. That is what switches are for. All it has to do is turn its wheels. Now that you have pampered the machine that much you make it pay the price. You give it a huge load to carry. The engine has many wheels to turn for greater traction. They are all locked together to turn in unison. Then you lay on the cars for it to pull. On some trains over 100. Each one designed to give the least amount of resistance by having their wheels just the right distance apart to take advantage of a road that is just two strips a fixed distance apart. The one guaranteed smooth road is what makes it all work. The general word for a fleet of planes is "air line." Line is like a line of ships. The name refers to the set of planes if taken literally. But a "railroad" then literally does not refer to the vehicles at all. The name refers to that special road made of rails. Even in Vietnam the road of rails runs smoothly.
The brand of fan in the bathroom is Hatari. Hatari is the Swahili word for "danger."
Evelyn has replaced the batteries in her palmtop and we can use them to go to sleep listening to the Walkman. I have brought speakers for the Walkman and some cassettes, but this Walkman does not have an automatic shutdown so if we go to sleep listening it will just keep playing all night until it runs the batteries down. With nearly dead batteries that are no longer enough to run a palmtop we can have something to listen to as we go to sleep.
Perhaps it is time to talk a little about the history of this poignant and strife-ridden country.
Sometime around 0 AD give or take a couple centuries a separate and distinct people came to live here long the east coast of the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. Almost immediately the Chinese decided that this part of the world was their possession to control. They assumed control that lasted until 938 AD. When the Chinese let them the Funan people controlled the Mekong to the South and the Chams controlled the central part of what is now Vietnam. The Khmers of Cambodia eventually displaced the Funan. They would lose it again in the 1700s. The pirate Chams were conquered by other peoples of Vietnam in the 15th Century.
The Ly Dynasty assumed control of the north of the country and picked Hanoi as their capital. They ruled from 1009 to 1225. Their reign was noted for its civic improvements including setting up a postal service. The Tran Dynasty replaced them and ruled to 1400. Following their demise the Chinese were back in force. They were driven out by Le Loi, a great military leader and the founder of a dynasty that had power until 1524. The Le dynasty really improved the legal system, the culture, and education of the country.
In the 1600s and 1700s the Trinh lords in the north conflicted with the Nguyen line in the South. The country was basically split between them. Three brothers, called the Tay Son, reunited the country in 1786 but could not hold it and they were defeated by the last remaining Nguyen lord. That lord then declared himself Emperor Gia Long and ruled from Hue. They ruled to 1945 and abdicated deferring to Ho Chi Minh.
The French had been trying to influence politics and get trading concessions since the 1600s. In the 1850s they decided on a policy of taking what they wanted. By the last decade of the 19th Century they had an empire over Indo-China. Using the example of the Spanish in the New World, the French exploited their holdings. They brutally put down opposition.
In 1925 Nguyen Ai Quoc founded a resistance movement, the Revolutionary Youth League, to fight French domination. Nguyen later would modestly rename himself "Bringer of the Light" or Ho Chi Minh. His Youth League became the Vietnamese Communist Party. In the Second World War he founded the Viet Minh to resist the Japanese invaders. He was funded in large part by Americans. Ho liked the Americans very much and hoped they would support him as a reformer. The US probably would have but he made a terrible mistake. In defining his politics he called himself a Communist.
The US could never support a Communist so instead they supported France's reoccupation of Indochina. The US supported France and after France partitioned Vietnam and pulled out, America took over for them. America could not defeat a guerrilla enemy and pulled out in 1975.
03/17/01 Hue to Sleeper Train
We woke about 7 AM and did some packing before breakfast. We will do some packing and grab the afternoon train to Hanoi. I hope we have decent weather there. Everyone who has come from there has told us that it rains all the time.
Our hotel has three PCs in the lobby for Internet access. Overnight they put four into the dining room. Internet access seems to be very popular here though mostly for tourists. The price is 300D a minute. That is about $1.30 an hour. Fairly reasonable assuming that the connections are fast.
The orange juice tastes like tag, but it has pulp and Evelyn's has a pit so it must be the kind of oranges they use. I have fried eggs, a baguette, hot cocoa, and orange juice.
Near the river it is both hot and humid. Worse than New Jersey in summer, or perhaps just more unavoidable.
After breakfast we go back up to the room and pack. Well we never really unpack so it does not take long. Then we go down to the lobby and check out. We are going to see some museums this morning. We go out to the street and flag a cyclo. He cannot take both of us so he waves for another cyclo. Instead of one two come and say we should ride with them. This seems unfair. They say he should not have been taking fares at the hotel. That is their territory. I look at the first cyclo driver to raise some protest. He looks disappointed but he does not protest.
We tell the cyclo driver we want to go to the Imperial Museum. Off we go. I feel a little guilty taking cyclos, but I should get over that. It really does not look as bad as I feel in a cyclo. That is the local equivalent of a taxi. By walking in the heat we go through a lot of discomfort to save a little bit of money. That little bit of money means little to us, but it means a lot to the cyclo drivers. We should be hiring drivers and spread the wealth. Let the favorable exchange rate trickle down, as I am sure it is intended to do.
The grounds of the museum are dug up and in bad repair as we enter. There is only one building. The building itself is a Chinese-style hall of the citadel built in 1845. Much of what they have to see is behind glass or Plexiglas plastic. The plastic is not clear any more making the objects hard to see. Much of the valuable artifacts were lost during the American war.
Most of the art in the museum is in the Chinese style and that is fine by me. If you look at Chinese closely enough you see fantastical, geometrical, or just beauty. Chinese decoration is full of surprises. From a distance you will see a vase, but if you look closely you will see it is covered with a painting of a placid landscape. Look closely at the landscape and you will see a man fishing, houses, perfectly formed rocks. Or perhaps the vase will be covered with She-lins (lion unicorns) and dragons. Look at the dragons and you will see interesting detail. I am sure we did not see more than half of the dragons in even this small museum.
There are cases of European china, but that is not the interesting stuff. That we can see at home. One or two looks and you have seen the item.
I snap a picture and the ticket seller tells me there is no photography. There is not that much that I would want photos of in any case. The Chinese stuff the photo won't show the detail. The European items are, well, like things we have seen before. I spend my time looking for fanciful animals. There is a nice vase like the one I described above with a bestiary.
We see some nice brass elephants. The art museum in HCM City showed scenes of Vietnam with elephants. I have not established if Vietnam has any elephants. I suspect they did at one point, but I don't see any now.
Places in the hall crude wooden struts hold up the roof. The building has been partially restored.
After the main building I walk around the gardens. They have some decorated French cannons from the mid-19th century. The cyclo driver sees me and tries to point out things about the garden. Most things he says are obvious like "These are cannons."
Across the road from the Imperial Museum is the War Museum. There are children in the main hall, but that is not really part of the museum. Outside is a piece of a MiG and two rows of armored American pieces. Some of the children are in the hall taking a test, some are playing on the artillery. The children use artillery like a jungle jim, crawling all over it in the hot sun. The most popular attraction is the two Americans. The signs in front of the equipment say how it was used by the Americans and the "puppet army."
Whatever piece we are trying to photograph, that is the one they want to play on. One wants me to take a picture of him on his bicycle. I guess this way people far away will see what he looks like. Sort of how I feel about the Internet.
I tell the children America very strong. Vietnamese stronger. Vietnam beat America. That makes them feel good and it is what their school is telling them anyway. Let them feel strong. This is why I always hope the US loses at the Olympics. America has national pride to burn. Let someone else feel powerful. It is good for their self-esteem.
When we finish at the war museum and the cyclo driver wants to take us around to see the city. He cheats us a little asking two dollars. Everyone else who offers asks one.
We ride around the fortress. The driver is the first to ask if we get the Web on our computers. Everyone else has asked about email. Some children we pass apparently are playing with what looks like a very large centipede.
We pass a man in a bright green uniform of the army. We smile at him, but military people are supposed to look very serious here. To look like you are having a good time must be a court martial offense.
My parents have a swimming pool. Back in 1972 I spent the summer living with them. I would swim in their pool. I tried doing lots of laps, but I would get tired very easily. One day I decided to not struggle so hard. I kept moving my arms, but I did not tense them so much. I found I could swim a lot longer then. One afternoon I swam 200 laps. The secret was just not making it so serious and so much work. In Turkey that was how I treated merchants. The first part of the trip I vehemently said no, no carpets. Later I treated them in a friendlier manner and talked to them. That made it a lot easier. Maybe that is what I should be doing with the touts and cyclo drivers. Just treat them like weather.
I snap a picture of a puppy and get a big smile from his owner. In India people wanted to get money any way they could. If they are in your picture, you owe them money. In Vietnam things are quite different. They want to have their pictures taken. Turkey was the same way. Vietnamese seem to be a pleasant people.
It feels a strange contrast to be being taken around via muscle power in a cyclo and passing shops selling Panasonic DVD players. Hue looks a lot like parts of Japan. Not Shinjuku, but parts of Tokyo and other towns like Hiroshima, Nara, or Matsumoto. There are bridges, gardens, and low buildings.
The cyclo drivers not only charged us about double, they end the trip after about 45 minutes, bringing us back to our hotel. Well, go with it.
After the ride we stop in a cafe for a Coke. It turns into an extended stay as we work on our logs. It is out of the sun and we can just sit and write.
After an hour they start rearranging the tables. Two Vietnamese families are getting together for lunch and talk. I may see what they order to eat and just get the same thing myself. In general we have not been getting as good food as we were expecting. Not bad, but I think that restaurants in the US have, on the whole, better Vietnamese food. It probably is just that we do not know what to order.
So far the two families are just getting orange-ades and Heinekens. They do not even get Vietnamese beers. Now the waiter brings out soup. Next comes spinach and what looks like pickled cabbage. Something that looks like green beans scrambled with eggs. A plate of something white. Perhaps squid. Something that looks like it has a bit of meat. Fried Tofu. Something that looks like meat. Finally sliced banana.
Several times we are interrupted by shoeshine boys wanting to do Evelyn's shoes. One looks at her dusty shoes and says "Madam, is no good." But Evelyn will be abandoning her shoes this trip and will not invest in shining them. Men from the party are more willing. While they eat the shoeshine boys take their shoes and give them loaner sandals while the shining takes place.
We decide we have sat here so long we really should order lunch. One of the items looks like Bun Bon Hue. That is beef noodle soup with onions and green onion. We also get green vegetable with garlic and fried squid with garlic.
While we eat they are raising accordion doors to lock up at night. I hadn't noticed what they did until now, but the doors will make things a lot easier for them. The will not have to empty the restaurant every night.
On the way back to the hotel we buy some cold water at 1500 ml for 5000D. We sit in the hotel near the fan. It is not air conditioned, but it is cooler than being out in the sun. The staff is watching soap operas. One is curious about our computers. Other than do they get email one thing people ask is how much do they cost. I used to say, but it is an amount of money they cannot deal with. Really the complete setup with double-speed chip is about $1000. But if I tell then that they will think that large amounts of money mean nothing to me. Instead I tell them that we got them from work. That was Evelyn's idea.
At about 2:45 we pick up our luggage and head out for the train station. Finding cyclo drivers never seems to be much of a problem. Two are waiting by the hotel. As we travel the driver asks "Where you from?" "America." "AMERICA!" He slaps my shoulder like I am the first American he has ever seen. No, more like Americans have to pass a gauntlet of hungry alligators to get here. Like coming from America to Vietnam is like winning the New York Marathon. Oh boy, is it something to be from America. I resist the urge to snap around and bite his hand.
We get to the train station and pay these guys off. We each use what may be the last nearly clean restroom we will see for a while.
In the train station showing clocks of London, Beijing, New York, Moscow, and Paris. It is as if to say that they have a lot of people who pass through this sleepy train station going to or from the great capitals of the world. No two clocks have the minute hand pointing in the same direction.
The train station is as hot and humid as the rest of Hue and here there is a thriving concession selling fans.
One child is running around with shoes that make a squeeze toy squeak with every step. What a stupid idea.
I get some extra water for the train. I always check the seal, though I have never yet had a problem. Checking for the seal is something you should be aware of but it is no cause for paranoia.
The time came for our train and there was an announcement in Vietnamese. There is a mob around the door. When I get up to the front the woman at the door sees my ticket and says NO! It seems our train which is already about half an hour late will be later still. We sit down and I talk for a while with Ky, a Vietnamese policeman traveling to Hanoi. I thought he was a teenager and he turns out to be 30. He asks a lot of questions including some rather personal ones about us. He asks if I have a book I can give him. I pull out an old US News and World Review. He goes through and reads several of the ads trying to make out what they mean. This issue is about retirement. He does not really understand all of the ideas and in the end he puts the magazine back in my briefcase.
Ky has fingernails three quarters of an inch long. I think that is a status symbol. I would have little status by that measure. My nails are kept short.
The call comes for us to go out on the platform. Out I go. Ky comes out and finds us on the platform. I am trying to think of a book I can give him and remember THE BEST OF ROALD DAHL. I have all the stories at home and just bought the book to read here. Ky likes that very much. He asks me to write my address on the book and he says he will write me a letter at home. I say that will be a nice souvenir. I think he thought I was asking for something in return. He starts to look in his bag. I tell him no, his letter will be a nice souvenir.
We are told to stand at a certain position to get on our train. A man walks us to where we should stand. "Where are you from?" "United States." "Wow!" That's the first time I heard a Vietnamese use a word like "wow." His brother lives in Colorado. His brother had been in the American Air Force. He flew out in 1975. Oh, and by the way he has a great place for us to stay in Hanoi. And we should be sure to tell them he recommended it.
Well, the train cam and it was pretty much just where we were told it would be. We got on board and found our compartment. There it was with a dirty pillow and a sweat-stained sheet on each bed. The floor was grimy from the last passenger. An Australian couple from Perth joined us for the upper berths. We talked with them about travel. The steward came around to ask if we wanted to eat and to give us a clean sheet and a sleep sack.
Dinner came and was rice, spinach soup, boiled greens and a meatball wrapped in a leaf. Lots of greens. All was in foil covered plastic cups. We talked and ate.
After dinner we read for a while. Cleaned up the dirty sheets. Put out the clean sheets. About an hour after dinner they came to pick up the trash from dinner. One at a time I handed out the blue plastic trays filled with the plastic and foil cups, the chopsticks, etc. Each plastic tray they dumped out the window holding on to only the blue plastic trays. In Vietnam nobody worries about bio-degradable. The assumption is that trash is what you dump. Period. The steward seemed puzzled that I thought him dumping the trash out the window was funny. Foreigners are strange people.
After making up the beds it was time to try to close the door. But the door is hung at an angle so that it will not latch and while it is closed at the top it is better than an inch open at the bottom. There is no way to keep out hallway light. So hear I am trying to figure how to be comfortable for the night.
03/18/01 Sleeper Train; Hanoi
The train is barreling along beside a road with trucks honking. I have a sort of a sleep comfort kit I carry. In one sandwich size baggie I have an inflatable pillow, sleeping mask, ear plugs, and a flashlight. I didn't use the flashlight but everything else came in handy.
A woman comes by with breakfast and it is something I have never seen before. Between two disks of leaf about two and a half inches in diameter there is a glob of what I would guess to be rice beaten until it is the consistency of sticky marshmallow. Into this they put a piece of roast chicken. (Actually it is chicken loaf with skin wrapped around. The inside is slightly rubbery.) OK, I hate to admit it when I say I almost always like Asian food. I do not like the sticky dough. The taste is OK. Just OK. But it is almost impossible to swallow. You thought peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth? You get part of it to your throat and swallow and it will not break off from the part stuck in your mouth. Involuntarily I gagged on it.
The woman who served this came back. She wants 20,000D each for this thing. I hadn't realized it did not come with the ticket. The Australian gets just chicken and rice and that is 5000D.
We travel along seeing the Vietnamese countryside wake up. Trucks along roads (honking, of course), bicycles, women with baskets and yokes. We see low-lying houses, some with rock walls marking the edges of the property, and large rock karsts. These are up-juttings of stone, most covered with vegetation. And of course there are the eternal rice paddies.
Like in China we see tractors which are stripped down to the minimum. There is no covering for the engine. It is just an engine on a sparse metal frame. It is not raining as people said it usually is this part of the country, but it is nearly overcast.
The Australians are looking at the same hotel brochure the guy gave us at the train. I wonder if he told them he has a brother in Australia.
Compared to people we know at home we are big time world travelers. We keep running into people taking seven months to see some part of the world. Others are taking "until the money runs out." Compared to them we are just weekend wonders. Maybe when we retire we will travel more. Though Evelyn is getting rather shagged out by the heat. She is asking if we should not go to hot countries any more. I sweat a lot in the heat, but I seem to be able to endure it better.
One thing everybody who has been to the Vietnam has in common. They know what a rice paddy looks like. I think Vietnam is one big rice paddy with buildings.
Our compartment is joined by an army man. He buys five chicken and sticky dough sandwiches like the one I had before. For him it costs 15,000D. He offers them around. His name is Quyat Trinh and he was born January, 1973. We exchange pleasantries. He is very friendly. He has a stack of what pieces of paper in his pocket and when he cannot pronounce he writes. When he asks where we are from I draw a map of the US. I put a dot at New Jersey. The Australians, who are Scott and Cheryl get Quyat's picture. I hand my camera to Evelyn to get his picture and Quyat puts his arm around my shoulder. For the most part the Vietnamese seem to be very hospitable.
For once Evelyn seems to stay out of the conversation. She just quietly watches the passing scenery. Quyat asks how many countries I have visited. I tell him 54. He says "Too many." Then he corrects himself. "Very many."
Quyat leaves before the end of the trip. Finally we pull into Hanoi. There is a mob on the platform. One boy climbs on the side of our car and climbs through the window into our compartment. He sees an empty water bottle and takes it slipping out the door. Probably the bottle will be filled with tap water and sold to the unwary.
The train platform is basically a mob of people. Some tourist person found Evelyn and arranged for us to go to one of the same four hotels that the man on the Hue Platform tried to send us to. We had to fight our way to a taxi. The driver took our bags and I told him C'mon. I was not being rude. Really what is was saying was "Cam on." That is Vietnamese for "Thank you." "Sin Chow," really "Xin Chao" is hello.
We were told the taxi should charge no more than 20,000D. As soon as the taxi starts at 14,000D. "Uh oh," I think. But it just stays there a while. It is a minimum fee sort of thing. 20,000D is right. We pass the "My Boss Cafe." That has a Japanese feel.
Hue is a very crowded, very busy city. The sidewalks make HCM City's seem open and easily passable.
We get to the Phan Thai. This is in the Old Quarter of the town. The woman behind the desk welcomes us in an A accent, but tells us the hotel is full. She suggests that the Anh Dao is very close and very nice. She also said they would give us a free cyclo ride to the Anh Dao. We went out and they said we should take one cyclo. Two people and all their luggage piled into on cyclo. In the middle of the cyclo ride I noticed that the driver just was walking and pushing. I am not even sure there was a bicycle part.
When we got to the Anh Dao the cyclo driver said "Ten thousand." I looked around puzzled. He said OK. At the Anh Dao they were going to give us the room. I thought it would be best to look at it. The clerk took two keys. He said there was a nice room on the fourth floor. He showed me a room on the second floor, still dirty, that looked OK and a room on the fourth floor that seemed smaller and less comfortable. I said my wife will probably not be able to climb to the fourth floor. We would take the room on the second floor. So that was decided upon. The clerk tattled to Evelyn saying I said she would not be able to climb to the higher room. "Good thinking," she responded.
We sat in the lobby while they made up our room. They served us coffee. This was the first coffee I had in Vietnam. I am not normally a coffee drinker and besides who wants a hot beverage? But it was pretty good.
The room is small but comfortable. The bathroom is the kind we have been getting with all the amenities but a shower curtain. There is a raised tub and the tile round the outside has a big hole, but not something that get in the way of function and I suppose it is true that our country bombed this city with B-52s.
All week CNN has been saying that Sunday they would run a story about a new production of THE MONKEY KING. They ran it again today. Evelyn commented that we would want to see the story but by Sunday we would be gone. I said, "No, today is Sunday. They will run it at 5:30 GMT. That's midnight:30 at home. That's noon:30 here. That's about 40 minutes from now." We were thinking it was a theatrical film but it is a made for TV. I hope we get a chance to see it. It is based on the great Chinese fantasy novel PILGRIMAGE TO THE WEST whose hero is Sun Wu-Kong the Monkey King. The Monkey King is the beloved Chinese equivalent of our Mickey Mouse. Sun Wu-Kong is the wise mischief maker that is the favorite of Chinese children. The plot is that he is one of three who travel to India for Buddhist writings. They told very little of the plot, but it is being done by Hallmark Entertainment which means there is a good chance we will be able to see it.
We visited Trang Tien, a street known for its book stores. We stop in one or two bookstores and find nothing. The third bookstore was the charm. We found all kinds of souvenirs and gifts. We got abridged versions of THE LOST WORLD and TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. We got origami books for gifts. Lots of other stuff. We spent 136,000D. That's almost $10.
House Sing Big is an opera house built to look like the Paris Opera House. It is not used frequently for operas, but couples getting married like to get their pictures taken on the steps.
As we walk we pass the India Embassy. We also pass the Maison Central. This is a prison in the heart of Hanoi that the French used when they were trying to maintain power. To hear the Vietnamese tell it, they used it humanely to hold Americans during the war against the Americans. Our side questions how humane they really were. Of course this is the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
What sticks out in my mind is that the Vietnamese thought the Americans had gone crazy and would spend hours beating on walls to hear each other beat on pipes. Actually they were sending messages using the "knuckle code" that are used in prisons. The claim has been made that the Vietnamese never realized that the banging sent messages.
A is 1-1. B is 1-2... E is 1-5. F is 2-1. G is 2-2. You take each letter's position in the alphabet, subtract 1, convert to three-digit base 5, and add one to each digit so that some sound is made. F is the sixth letter so you want to encode 5. In two-digit base 5, that is 10. Add one to each digit and you get 21.
Now on the same grounds is the Hanoi Towers hotel. But there are only two towers. You need three. There is an old mathematical puzzle called the Towers of Hanoi. You have three vertical spindles. On one you have a certain number of disks, each with a hole in the center so it can be put on the spindle. They increase in diameter from top to bottom. The object of the puzzle is to move all the disks from one spindle to another moving only one at a time and never putting a larger disk on top of a smaller one. One disk takes one move. Two disks take three moves. Three disks take seven moves. Four disks take 15 moves. N disks take one less move than two raised to the power N. If you have 64 disks and move one a second it will take roughly 584,000,000,000 years.
We saw embassies of Cuba (with a signboard out front and lots of pictures of Fidel) and Algeria.
The locals smoke some sort of pipe that is a piece of tree 18 inches long and about two inches in diameter.
The streets seem to specialize in particular categories of product. Like the electronics district in New York. In the old part of the city we walked down the toy street.
We stopped to get a snack at a place that served one dish only: Rolled rice paper with grilled meat in belostomatid sauce. It was basically the same dish we got from the rice noodle place outside our HCM City hotel.
We ran into Mark and Debbie from the Mekong. The go home tomorrow.
We go back to the room to work on logs. At the desk we tell them that we will be going to the 6:30 PM water puppet show. They say in the hotel brochure they will get our tickets for us free of charge, so we request them to do that.
Up to the room for some rest and cold water. At 5:45 we go down to the desk to get our tickets. They said they would send somebody right away to get the tickets. We would just pay the cyclo charges. So much for getting the tickets for us in advance and for free. That made no sense since we were going right to the theater.
We go out and negotiate for the cyclo. 10,000D each. I get in the cyclo and my driver barrels out ahead of Evelyn's cyclo. We get a half block and my driver slows down. A man comes up beside. "Excuse me, sir. Where are you going now?" "To the water puppet theater." He translates for the driver, who had apparently rushed out but neglected to find out where he was going.
We get to the theater and they ask if we want First Class Tickets (40,000D) or Second Class (20,000D). I am not sure what the difference is but First Class gets a cassette of the music. That may be the only difference.
As we sit waiting one of the women waiting asks about the little computers my wife and I have.
Everyone who goes in also gets a bamboo and paper fan advertising the show. The auditorium is not air conditioned but it is cooled by electric fans which are sufficient. The one problem is the auditorium is not sufficiently banked and Evelyn and I have trouble seeing. Eventually we had to stand in the aisles.
The art of water puppetry started over 1000 years ago and is claimed to be peasant entertainment from the flood season in the rice paddies. There seem to be a lot of secrets kept about how the puppets are actually made to do the impressive actions they do. Water puppetry is done on a stage that is a low square tank representing a rice paddy. Virtually all instrumentation is hidden by the water. As many as three underwater poles control the puppets. But no obvious explanation of how the puppets are manipulated explains the complex cavorting that is demonstrated. A team of puppeteers is eleven people, each with a minimum of three years experience. They work behind a straw mat to hide themselves. In later years they wear protective clothing.
The show starts with an introduction in three languages followed by a purely orchestral piece played on an instrument I would call a single string piano. A sounding box has a hinged bar at one end that can pull the string tighter or looser. One plays the instrument by plucking the string and using the bar to manipulate the stress on the string. The result is an eerie wailing noise.
The orchestra plays traditional Vietnamese music while the puppets fire sparklers and other fireworks, spray water, and dance.
Most of stories do not make sense unless you know Vietnamese, but you watch it on its own terms like Ballet. As they go through the dance numbers you see peasants, noblemen, kings, lions, phoenixes, unicorns, snakes, ducks, fishermen chasing life-like fish, fairies, and other strange animals. At one point we see a mating ritual of two phoenix birds and after a while an egg comes popping out of the water. That sinks and a baby phoenix comes out of the water. Another has babies dancing in the water, stacking up three high, and doing flips out of the water. It is the sort of thing that is reasonable entertainment until you start wondering how it was done and then you realize you saw something pretty impressive.
Our drivers were waiting for us after the show to take us back to the hotel. All for a chance to earn another 10,000D each.
I sort of insisted that we go out to eat after the show. I had eaten very little all day and Evelyn had also. Evelyn does not really get hungry. She gets a general malaise that she cannot quite identify. At the beginning of our Japan trip we went about 26 hours without food with Evelyn always having a good reason not to eat. I mutinied eventually. After she ate she felt a lot better.
We went about three blocks and ate at a place called the Tamarind Cafe. The food was pretty tasteless. I had a Tofu and noodle dish called something like "Three Delights" and they guessed high by two and a half. Their Pineapple Smoothie had only banana flavor. And that is a shame because the fruit Smoothie is a classic here. When mot food was not very good here in the two decades that followed the war, fruit Smoothies were an exception. They combined fruit, man-made snow from ice, and condensed milk. All accounts say it was one of their few gourmet food products during that period and now it has been pushed out by more international drinks. This thing I got fell well short of the mark.
They put a little thin candle on each table. I think they can only get them once a year and have to stock up. They are not sure what "Chanukah" means on the boxes.
After we ate it was back to the hotel. I fell asleep about 9.
03/19/01 Hanoi Shopping
I woke at 5 AM and wrote in the bathroom for an hour.
I asked Evelyn if she would be happy or unhappy when this trip is over. She will be happy. I suppose I will be also. We enjoy the trip, but it is taxing.
Breakfast is the best so far, a decent buffet with a large variety in a cramped little room. But it is nice to pick with we can eat.
There is not a lot we can do on Monday since this is the day most of the museums are closed. We will walk around the old quarter and little enough of that since it is raining.
Yesterday while we were out walking we saw a motor scooter hit a bicycle. Both went over. The scooter driver was angry. I guess in an accident it is the least expensive vehicle at fault. You see a lot of store front where scooter owners are fixing their vehicles. The brightest light in the city is a scooter owner fixing his scooter. You walk along the street and see a lot of people seated at stands eating their breakfast. Some of the food looks quite good. There are large varieties of meat and noodles. Mostly for breakfast people have soup. As you walk down the street you see sheets of phony chicken loaf. That seems to be popular here. You also see whole pig hanging. In the Chinese style the pig will be glazed orange. It looks more like a china pig than a real animal.
We run into the Australians who were on their way to the Army Museum. We tell them it is closed today. We show them the listing in the Lonely Planet.
I have started to carry around small bills for beggars. These are people who really need to put something in their rice bowl. I just wish we had more small bills. I am not sure how little it takes to satisfy a beggar. A boy and his blind grandmother asks for money. I give him 500D and he seems satisfied. That is less than four cents. Later when I pass the boy on the street he waves hello without asking for more.
We pass a shop and I get some red stone Buddhas to give to friends. I would like to think I drive a hard bargain, though I know I am over-paying for some things.
We go down to the lake in the center of the city. Hoan Kiem Lake is where Le Loi returned his magic sword to the gods. The gods had given him a magic sword to drive the Chinese from Vietnam. Time came to give it back and Le Loi went out on this lake. A giant golden tortoise snatched the sword and swam away with it. It is assumed he gave it back to the gods, but that is a matter between the tortoise and the gods. Somehow the lake has a very Japanese look to it. There is an island in the lake and a bridge to it. They have a large stuffed turtle on the island but the face look very unturtle-like. It is more lake a seal's face.
A hawker followed us from the lake trying to sell us postcards. "I we wanted postcards do you really think we wouldn't have them already? Do you know how many opportunities we have had to buy postcards. Eventually Evelyn pays off his persistence by buying a book from him. I think I could have gotten a better price.
Next we walk through a market. Some food looks better here than in restaurants. Perhaps we should be eating in markets. We see cages over-packed with chickens. The chickens are obviously worried and thinking "The funny thing is till now life has been pretty good." Well at least they will go quickly when their time comes. Suddenly having your head lopped off in a meat market is a very quick way to go. I wouldn't mind going that way myself when my time comes.
There is a beep behind us on the narrow walkway. I jump to one side. Evelyn just keeps walking. I have to tell Evelyn to jump. The scooter goes by. After a while all the honking just is taken as background noise. But the best policy is never send to know for whom the scooter honks. It honks for thee. As a souvenir representative of the country I get myself a stack of phony hundred dollar bills. Buddhists buy these and burn them as gifts to their ancestors. For the ancestors they become real. You can also get phony Vietnamese money, but phony American money is more popular. The ancestors like those Uncle Sam greenbacks. The cost is 5000D. Evelyn asks if I have it. Sure, I tell her, I have money to burn.
We are near the hotel so drop off our things and end up with an extended rest of better than an hour before we go out again.
Something that seems characteristic only of Hanoi. You see a lot of people wearing pith helmets. I do not remember that anywhere else in the country. I do remember seeing Northern Vietnamese wearing them in pictures of the war. It seems to be a Hanoi style.
We pass by a street selling paper mockups of valuable things to burn and give to your ancestors. There is a three-story villa about a meter high. Frankly, I would think that it would be easier to just take a piece of paper and draw a stock certificate for a million shares of Microsoft and burn that. That way they can buy any villa they want. If I decide I don't like my family I will fold an origami Godzilla and burn it. Let my ancestors figure out what to do with him. Speaking of with they have a nice 12-inch high plastic Godzilla they sell in the toy section. It would be a mess to take back, but I am still tempted.
Suddenly the sky opened up and rain just poured out. Time for lunch.
We find a restaurant that has been recommended to us. Cha Ca La Vong is one of several restaurants that have just one dish they make for everybody. It is the only dish hey have served for one hundreds years. On a street famous for grilled fish they make a fried fish dish they fry right at your table. You fry greens with it and serve it with rice noodles and peanuts and vinegar. It was quite good, but 60,000D usually buys a lot more here. It is in a dimly lit room on the second floor of a building with stairs almost as steep as our hotel in Hoi An. It made for a nice lunch.
Evelyn tells me that what we ate on the train is Xoi, or glutinous rice. I think it may have been over-glutinous. It is served on banana leaf.
We go through the various sales category districts here. There is a street where everything that is sold is made of tin. Not just tin pipes and ducts. There are tin steamer trunks, tin toys. Lots of tin.
There was a street with glass: windows, furniture with glass, that sort of thing. We passed the street of herbs that smelled very nice but did not get a lot of tourist trade. We passed a street with sheets and towels. We bought a beach towel that was the poster of GONE WITH THE WIND. Hey, I'll tell you, film withdrawal is like coming off drugs. There was a street of electronics. There was even a street of paper items to burn for the ancestors. The old part of Hanoi is just a big shopping center.
A disappointment was the indoor market. I expected it to have the same character as the outdoor markets. Sadly, no. While it had individual stands for different people to use, the flavor was more like a department store. It lacked the character of the outdoor markets.
Evelyn and I were going to walk across the Long Bien Bridge near the market. This is a bridge repeatedly bombed during the war and rapidly repaired every time. We stopped bombing it when they put captured Americans to work on the repairs.
We figured we would walk across and see the other side. Good fun. First problem: the bridge is a mile long. Well, we could do it. But it was more than we originally bargained for. There is a walkway on the bridge. It consists of two parallel rails and inch thick cement slabs placed between them. In between the slabs are crack where you see right through to the land or river below. If the concrete cracks the three of you, you and the two half slabs, all plunged into the river below. I was too dumb to tell Evelyn that in spite of all the people who walk across this walkway every day, I preferred not to. She had the good sense to say she preferred to turn around. I said let's go on at least until we are really over water. That was a distance further. After I was nominally over water we turned around and went back. It seemed a lot less forbidding when we were near the end.
We hailed a cyclo to go back to the hotel. How much to the Anh Dao? "10,000D?" "10,000D for both?" "10,000D." We asked if he knew where the Anh Dao was. Yes, he knew it. Another cyclo come over and wanted 10,000D for one. OK we both squeeze into one cyclo.
Well, to make a long story short he could not find hotel. Evelyn and I said we should pay him extra for the extra effort and he did save us money. We gave him 12,000D. He said it was 10,000D each. We should have turned around and left him there. Evelyn paid him off, even though we both knew he was lying.
We both were fairly sweaty. Evelyn went to take a shower. I put on the TV and the French station had a documentary about the history of the dirigible. It was in French, but I was already somewhat knowledgeable on the subject so got a fair amount out of just seeing the documentary footage. Included was some harrowing footage showing the Akron lifting off with three of the ground crew still holding on to the ropes. Two of them died. Of course they also showed the death of the Hindenburg.
Following that was Larry King and Oscars. He was talking to four of the four of the five nominees for Best Actress. Julia Roberts apparently turned him down. Seeing clips makes we want to see the movies again.
We went out to look for dinner, just planning to wander until we found one. We stopped in a CD store and I got a CD. It should be easy to add to my luggage.
There was a big delivery truck parked in the narrow Old Quarter street and a full sized mini-bus was trying to squeeze past without much luck. This left only a passage for the bus about its width and the way was blocked by a motor scooter and a tree. It took about five minutes to get out. We had to wait for this to happen because the sidewalk was completely blocked on our side. When the bus got through it was like pulling a cork out of a bottle. Cars, motorscooters, cyclos, and bicycles poured out.
I looked at a restaurant for Vietnamese rather than tourists. It looked decent, but we were not sure how to order. They did not have a menu. Rather than try to figure it out we went to a restaurant with self-explanatory, Western-style ordering and with a waiter who was an English speaker. The restaurant was Linh Phung. And the waiter spoke very good if accented English.
One thing that I would not have expected. I think of Hanoi as the less cosmopolitan city and HCM City as more. Yet Hanoi has many more A accents. Accent is much less of a problem here than it is further south. You could mark it down to experience, but I am certain that is not it. Perhaps it is just a statistical anomaly. With the possible exception of cyclo drivers people speak English more clearly here than in our previous cities. Or perhaps as the roads get worse the English gets better.
I ordered an apricot fruit shake and got something that was as clear as a mixed drink and had little apricot flavor. It tasted like it was mostly apple juice. At the bottom were two Chinese preserved plums. Evelyn got iced coffee. For Evelyn's main course she got Sweet and Sour Cucumber. And I got Saute Squid. We shared a cabbage salad. The squid was a little greasy. The Vietnamese are almost all thin, but I wonder if this much available food and their use of fat will change that in the years to come.
There was an Australian couple who sat by the door and had more or less turned the restaurant into a pub. They used it for beer-drinking and non-stop talk to other people who came in. They got other people to drink and talk with them.
We picked up water on the way back to the room.
03/20/01 Hanoi Museums
We both were Up at 6 and as long as I had the time I was packing.
CNN had a story on the making of THE QUIET AMERICAN. Earlier I had been told Michael Caine was directing. Actually it is Philip Noyce who did, I believe, CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER and THE BONE COLLECTOR. I hope he just had a lousy script with THE BONE COLLECTOR. Also starring is Brendon Frasier. Frasier tends to take weird roles, but he showed himself a good actor in SCHOOL TIES. One nice thing about a palmtop is that it makes it really easy to find the place I said Caine was directing earlier and correct it. I guess it is hard to read my log and not realize I love movies and my palmtop.
While I packed and Evelyn worked on her log we put on the Australian TV channel and saw a soap for teenagers called "Home and Away."
When it was over we went down to breakfast. One little buffet table, but after traveling for a while it is sufficient for a very nice breakfast. They even have pate, though I have not tried it.
One taste we may have cultivated from this trip is liking a product that you see in Vietnam more frequently than butter at breakfast. That is Laughing Cow cheese wedges. They have that and a sliced cheese on the breakfast bar. Both look like they are processed cheese but are not. The warm moist air raises the cheese to room temperature quickly and that may be uncomfortable for people, but it is perfect for cheeses. Both look unpromising and have delightful flavor.
Oranges and orange juice is not very good here. Fresh squeezed orange juice is sweet but not tart enough. There are a variety of local fruits, but most have rather mild flavors. Frankly pineapples, bananas, and mangoes are the best local fruits and mangoes are rarely served to tourists because they are so hard to eat. Pineapple is not the best in the world, but even a mediocre fresh pineapple is still one of the tastiest fruits in the world.
The pineapple at breakfast would be a very welcome fruit but for some reason they sprinkle it with red pepper and maybe salt.
We were told it would be cold in the North. That may actually be true. However, Vietnam lies entirely in the South. Today starts out as a very hot and humid day.
Our first stop is the Army Museum. We hire a cyclo. Cyclo riding seems less dangerous than it probably is. Once a cyclo driver gets his machine going, he will rarely stop it. Red lights mean nothing to him, but then they mean little to anyone. Traffic lights are treated more as advisory than anything else. Still it is an enjoyable way to travel since you see a lot more than you would from a car.
At the museum there is military equipment out front. The first section is a tribute to war mothers and is a little heavy on the photographs. This is mostly a tribute to mothers who lost husband and children to the war but also some who actually fought.
The next section commemorates earlier wars. The museum building mostly concentrates on the wars against the Japanese and the French.
Items mixed that seem to be from the distant past are mixed in, but these pikes were probably used against modern enemies.
In the War of Liberation from the Japanese they have some weapons and other thing just odd souvenirs. We see a home-made crossbow from 1941. They have processional musical instruments that were used to celebrate the victory. We see more relics and photos than weapons.
While other people were enjoying peace they soon went into the War against the French. We see mock ups of tank bombs that could be use only in kamikaze suicide attacks. We see more crossbows.
The museum is very hot and there are fans in all the rooms, but turned off. It must be about 35 C or 95 F.
They say "Dolatdotatxinhi" was the commander in chief of the French. In the French his name is Delattre de Tassigny. They say they have a Tomxon submachine gun. That is how they spell Thompson.
They seem to have stopped a little short of where we expected. We walk the grounds and see the flag tower, a symbol of Hanoi. Behind there is a more modern building, still not air conditioned. This is their exhibit on the war against the Americans. The American war building is not at fancy as a museum would be at home, but it is clear that they have lavished more attention than on their other wars.
We see pictures of American commanders. It is here that Westmoreland is called "Oet mo len." There is some of their own weapons and some captured weapons, but much of what we see would not usually be put in a war museum. There are things like labels off of military equipment. There are a lot of photos that mean very little like "Capturing alive enemy-hired killer in 1968." There is a sculpture showing the crest of the Strategic Air Command impaled on spikes. This is kind of a cheap shot. They did not really prove themselves more powerful than our air force. They showed that our techniques do not work against a guerrilla enemy. I am not sure we know how to fight that sort of an enemy even now. They like to quote that people were trying to "bomb them into the stone age." We weren't. That was exactly what we were trying to avoid. I think we were told we were trying to stop the export of Communism. But you don't want to burn down the house to get rid of termites. What were we really trying to do there? Well the people who REALLY knew why the US was fighting in Vietnam have never given a good logical reason. I think it started as a minor action to show American resolve. After a while it was just to avoid the embarrassment of a defeat. It was for National Honor. And staying is the war was about the most dishonorable thing we could do.
The museum had a number of classes of school children. At one point they had all the school children enter a sort of auditorium to watch a film about the taking of Saigon. Most were just not very interested. We sat down and more wanted to look at us than the film. The film was black and white documentary footage poorly done. I have seen World War I documentary footage that was better done. I took a few notes and the children were more interested in my computer than the war footage. That may be a good thing. Their eyes are on the future and not the past. After the North Vietnamese took the South was there the bloodbath we always told there would be? If there was we did not hear a lot about it. That was one of the reasons we were fighting.
As we left we decided that next we should try the Air Force Museum. That is a good distance outside the city. "How much?" Evelyn asked. "30,000D" "Way too much. We take taxi." "20,000D each." We bargained him to 15,000D each. It was a long ride. The cyclo driver asked the usual questions. Where we were from, how long were we staying? He said he was 35 and had two children. He asked about something making a tube with the fingers of one hand and with his other hand slapping the circle he'd made with his thumb and index finger. I sort of got the picture and just smiled. He complained how tired he was at the end of the day. I said his legs are strong. He said his legs were strong but he still could not... He made the tube and slapped it. This guy was going to hit us up for more money, I realized.
Sure enough the time came and he said "not fifteen thousand dong, one hundred and fifteen." Later he tried saying no it was fifteen dollars. He refused to take the 15,000D each. We just turned and walked into the museum. But it was 10:50 and the museum was just closing for lunch. We decided to sit and wait. Evelyn was not sure what to do and I said it should be for the agreed upon figure or just refuse to pay. We sat down to wait and the cyclo drivers came around to argue more. Evelyn said "No more than 20,000D each." So much for the agreed price. They had gotten something for the extra effort of being dishonest so they were willing to go. We went around photographing the aircraft on display. It was mostly MiGs. When we could do that no more we sat to write. The guard came and said we had to get a ticket. They would not sell us one. OK, we will leave and come back. We cannot leave without having bought a ticket, after all we had photographed their MiGs. He said we had to be outside the fence. OK, we will go out and we gave the money to him. He was happy for a few minutes, but he does not sell the tickets. I took out my tablet and drew an arrow away and one coming back at 13:00. No that was no good. He finally took out the money and gave it too us and pointed to the 13:00 on my tablet. Take your money but you HAVE to be back at 13:00. Well, that was what I was saying I wanted to do. What's he going to do, hunt us down?
We had about an hour and a half. I guess we should walk around and find lunch. Even outside the old quarter there are districts. This one seems like a building products district. We walked around and in a garage-like shop-house they were selling food. OK, today we do what we did not want to do last night. We eat Vietnamese style. There were about eight plastic tables with small plastic chairs. Well, in the US it is children's play furniture.
They pointed to some bowls and a warmer with about different dishes. I take some fried tofu and some ribs. We then sit down and they bring out soup, rice, and some empty bowls. Evelyn orders a beer. I order a Coke. They seem to ignore me. Eventually I get up and point to a Coke bottle. "Chawka!" they say taking two 300 ml bottles from the refrigerator. Evelyn tells them only one. I tell her it is OK, both will get drunk.
The place very quickly fills up with people getting lunch. I fill up too. It is a good meal. When we finish I ask for the check. They point me to a young woman collecting money. 13,000D. That sounds like it is awfully little. No, it is a mistake. Our lunch was 17,000D. About $1.21
After lunch we walk around. We go into a CD shop but get nothing. We stop in a used magazine shop and I get a comic book of Jurassic Park in Vietnamese.
We also passed a large Internet Cafe. After walking a little longer we returned to the air museum. The guard saw us and I am sure felt much better. We were there about 12:40. The museum was supposed to open at 1 PM and was about ten minutes late. It was all in one big room the size of a hangar. They showed you artifacts of their air force. They had the front part of a MiG. You could climb into the pilot seat, put on a helmet, and work the controls.
They had pictures of American planes shot down. They had a photo of the ID of a pilot shot down, Claude Clower.
After the war coverage there was a display about a Vietnamese cosmonaut the Russians took up.
There was a section on helicopters. A nice painting of helicopters was water-stained and ruined. There were some offices on the side with a door open. Inside you could see eight or nine employees sitting around and drinking tea. As we went to the exhibits by that door they quickly slammed it so we would not see them goofing off. The rest was pretty much what was expected, a trainer, and some model planes.
Afterward we were trying to figure how to get back to our end of town. No taxis seemed to come by. We didn't want to take a motorbike. A cyclo came by. He wanted 50,000D. He would take both of us. I wrote on my pad 50,000D/2. Yes. I got on and Evelyn got on my lap. It was a little far to go like this. It took a while but the driver got us to the opera house. "50,000D per kilometer," he said half-heartedly. "50,000D," I said showing him the tablet. We gave him the money and walked away. They have to try it, I guess.
We stop for a Coke and then continue to the History Museum. This was at one time the Museum of the French School of the Far East before the French were thrown out. After the makeshift museums of the morning this one is a nice surprise with a really nice collection of antiquities.
Also the museum feels air conditioned, a delightful change. It starts with prehistoric man and the evolution to modern man. They show potters, stone tools, bone, shell, and stone tools. There are bronze drums, four-foot burial jars, and a burial boat. As we get to the coming of Buddhism to the Vietnam in art and design we also get the coming of school groups in busses. At first they just look at us tourists. Then I say hello and, well, one thing leads to another, doesn't it? 0soon they are around me practicing their English, asking me the time, looking at the computer, and exchanging names. Eventually a teacher gives me a dirty look and I stop looking back at the kids. But what a collection of lions, dragons, gerudas, and phoenixes they have. I found myself humming the music to CONAN THE BARBARIAN and hearing Max von Sydow complain about "snakes in my beautiful city." And everywhere there were lions. Are there lions in East Asia?
There was a nice little battle diorama, probably added after the French left, with the battle on the Bach Dang River. A mural showed much the same scene for the second battle. Each time it was small Vietnamese boats setting fire to big Chinese boats.
On some of the floors you have to follow a strange route to go in chronological order. They give you a map on the wall to follow but you can never memorize the route from that.
Continuing we see turtles with tablets on their back, a 40-armed Buddha, and a recreation of the Ngoc Hi battle, and bronze statues. The finish with a mural of the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence which alludes to the American Declaration of Independence. More signs that Ho Chi Minh idolized America. We finished with a walk around the courtyard.
We walked home from the museum stopping at a bookstore. During the walk home I decided to count the beggars and touts who accosted us. I was eight in ten minutes. In India at one point it was 31 in ten minutes. Vietnam is much more laid back. Back at the room we packed and worked on our logs.
At 7 PM we went out for our last dinner in Vietnam. We went to Little Hanoi, which had been recommended by the Australians. I ordered Luc Lac, a beef dish. I ordered a Fanta Orange with it. I must have been dehydrated since it was gone very quickly.
After dinner a walk back and early to bed.
03/21/01 Hanoi and Singapore
This is our last morning in Vietnam. Tonight we will sleep in Singapore. I think that Evelyn is happier to be leaving than I am. Of course Hanoi is not my favorite city. The independent cyclo drivers are too anxious too pull a fast one. You would think that this is where the government would have the most control over them.
We are very lucky with the weather. Other tourists have told us that it rained their entire time in Vietnam. Monday it rained on us lightly when we just leaving in the morning. We had that one downpour at lunchtime that day that was easily avoided. Yesterday it was raining when we went to breakfast. By the time we were ready to go the rain had stopped.
It is now 4 AM. I fell asleep about 8 PM and Evelyn turned off the lights. I woke again at 9 PM and worked on the log for a few minutes, put the TV on timer and went to sleep. The Aussie channel was running a documentary about parrots. What makes a bird a parrot? A hooked beak and a four toe arrangement with two toes going forward and two going backward.
I fell asleep again and we got up about 6:30 AM. We dressed and went down to breakfast about 7:30. Baguettes, which I discovered they cut with shears, and Laughing Cow were my main breakfast.
Returning to the room we got our things and set out for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We got the cyclo man we had gotten previously who did not try to overcharge. For 40,000D each he and another driver he arranged would take us, wait the hour or so and take us back.
Lenin, Stalin, Ho, and Mao all got the preservation and mausoleum treatment. Ho was the one who said he did not want it and wanted to be cremated. Ironically, he may end up the one revered the longest. More so than the others he was a man of the people and chose to live modestly. Just because he was the sort of man who did not want to be revered, he is the one who will be. The government needed a beloved leader to have the public revere after his death.
We got to the Mausoleum and there was a long queue. We were told we could not queue up there, there is a separate queue for foreigners. This is quite unreasonable. The queue for foreigners is shorter and since the two queues merge, the locals get the short end of the stick.
We are told we must check cameras, my computer, etc. Men in short pants are given longer pants to wear over them to be respectful, though they selection of sizes for bigger tourists is small. One man there could not fit into the pants and just pulled his shirt over them. Women in shorts get wraparound skirts to wear over them. Sandals are allowed. Ho wore sandals. We get back in queue. The mausoleum itself looks like the Lincoln Memorial. It is a long queue but moves fairly quickly.
You walk two abreast inside and down and around and up. And there he is bathed in orange and blue light. You start at his head end, walk around his feet, and back to his head. A moment later and you are outdoors.
By all accounts, Ho Chi Minh would have hated this use of his body. He specifically asked to be cremated to avoid it. Ho did not want to become the object of a personality cult. But the regime that followed needed to give the people something to worship and to be obedient to. It needed to be able to lay guilt trips on people by saying they were letting Uncle Ho down if they did not obediently work for the good of the state.
Following this we went to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, basically one exhibit show artistically Ho Chi Minh's life and his work.
One section has three-dimensional representations of Picasso's Guernica. And had sketches representing other fascist atrocities. Among them I noted a representation of the boat Exodus.
One exhibit shows an Edsel and is supposed to represent the failure of the US economy. Ho thought communism would make the Vietnamese economy strong while the US economy was doomed to failure. It will happen any day now. Meanwhile let's have a Coke which you can get all over Vietnam. Of course the Vietnamese would prefer you paid for it in US dollars. Good old Uncle Ho may has just slightly misjudged the strength of the US economy.
The museum ends with a quote from Ho:
All the peoples on earth are equal. Each people has the right to life, happiness, and liberty.--Ho Chi Minh
Now that is a good quote, but it sounds just a bit like a paraphrase of the American Declaration of Independence, a document that Ho liked very much.
The more one hears of Ho the greater the impression one gets that he respected America and loved things American. It had to have been a terrible disappointment to him When America chose to back the French against him and worse when we decided to fight him ourselves. Given the chance he would have been a loyal ally. Both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations blew a really good opportunity.
I was feeling hot and got an ice cream. It was not made as professionally as at home. For one thing the stick was at an angle. But the cost was 1000D and it was pretty good for that.
We went to take the cyclo back and it was exactly were the driver said it would be. We took our last cyclo ride. At the end it cost exactly the amount agreed on. I did something I had been planning to do. This cyclo driver had been helpful in several ways to us and never tried to be dishonest. I took out a five dollar bill and shook hands with him, passing him the bill. He slipped it in his pocket without looking at it. I hope he looks at it eventually. It will mean a lot more to him than it does to me.
We return to the room, drink the last of our water, and write for a little while. We go down at 11 AM to wait for the taxi. The cyclo driver sees us sitting there and give us a big smile and a wave. OK he looked at the bill. When the taxi comes at 11:15 and we go out to meet it, he is there and takes our luggage and puts it in the trunk for us. He shakes my hand and in broken English he says he hopes we will come back to Vietnam and that he will see us again. I guess it does mean a lot to him.
There is a lot of me not happy that the Vietnam part is over. Actually the reason we are spending three days in Singapore at the end is that we could not get a Friday flight out of Hanoi and ended having to take a Wednesday flight.
It is about a half hour drive through the countryside to get to the airport. The price is $10. Heavy by Vietnam standards. We see electronics company billboards and rice farmers. The country is changing fast. I was sorry to get to the airport.
We ran into Scott and Cheryl from our trip to Hanoi. We had established then they would be on this flight. We go through the passport check. Evelyn and I choose different queues. I chose badly and I am still two people back when Evelyn gets up to the desk. She gets through and I am on the other side waiting for her. She can't figure how I got through so fast. Actually the far end station was for diplomatic only, but as long as the guy was sitting there he figured he would help shorten the queues and I was the first one he called.
We get to the gate and I think I might use up out last Vietnamese money on a can of soda. $1/can. So long Vietnamese prices.
The plane left on time and I got my last look at Vietnam close up. I suppose we are flying over it to the South. The odd thing is we are going west, but to a later time zone. Time zones do something funny here. On the plane the orange juice tastes pretty good, much better than Vietnamese orange juice. They do not serve lunch but do serve high tea which includes a salad, choice of seafood pizza or fried noodles with barbecued pork, almond cake, and fruit selection of pineapple, jackfruit, and papaya. The cake looked dry so I put the coffee creamer and some jackfruit on top. That was pretty good.
The film showing was MEET THE PARENTS, a film which with the exception of a few scenes I had no need to see again. I worked on my log. Something was broken and there was no air flow on the plane. It got very stuffy.
Singapore airport is probably one of the best run in the world. At the passport check desks there are bowls of candy. I didn't take any, but the idea is brilliant. They recognize it is the one point you feel vulnerable no matter how nice the surroundings are and they use the candy to put you at your ease. Very different from Vietnam where the official will not even smile.
There was no customs check beyond taking the card.
There is a service in the airport to find and reserve a hotel right there. They have a large list of hotels on a sheet. They were sorted from cheapest to most expensive. Some have X's next to them if they are already filled. A bunch were. This system definitely makes it better to arrive on an earlier flight. We asked for a hotel in the central section, but the man called and it was filled. We tried again and that one was filled. I kept trying to steer Evelyn to nicer places, she kept trying to find the cheaper places. She said none of the nicer places was conveniently located.
The problem with Evelyn and me finding a hotel together is our attitudes on what we want are inspired by our parents' attitudes. I am influenced by my mother's "...And you should see the breakfast buffet!" Evelyn is influenced by her father's "Vamanos a camping."
In Singapore I thought it paid to splurge a little. We found a place with the ominous name Hotel Supreme. It would cost about $60 American a night. It was a very big room the man told us. I had a bad feeling about a place that was that cheap in a good location in Singapore.
We got the airport shuttle. There were five passengers. The driver make two stops letting off the other three. Then he said he had to stop for three minutes to go to the toilet. (Very urbane.) He did, though it was more like ten minutes.
Aver Vietnam Singapore is a very bright city at night. Evelyn commented that there was more neon lighting in one street than all of Vietnam.
We get to the Hotel Supreme and inside it looks pretty tacky. We get our room key and go up to the room. The hallway looks like a dormitory and is watched by a surveillance camera. We get into the Room and Evelyn says, "This isn't too bad." "It's horrible," I tell her. The lights are all fluorescent. They take about six seconds to come on and occasionally come on in flicker mode. There is a highway right outside the window and it sounds like the room is right on the highway. The ceiling is water-stained. The room is big, but the furniture is mostly crammed on one side with the TV at the far end. Lots of space in between for ballroom dancing. No refrigerator so no cold drinks in the room. The bathroom is tiny. This place ranks poorly with what we had in Vietnam.
We went for dinner in a food court in the mall across the street. Then we walked around the shopping district a little, stopping in a grocery store. We only got a small box of Ribena Black Current candy.
Back at the room Evelyn conked early and I worked on my lot till about midnight. I still was not caught up. Evelyn is a couple days behind, but I am trying to get no more than 24 hours or I forget too much. The palmtop becomes a sort of friend I can talk to when Evelyn is asleep.
03/22/01 Singapore Museums
I was up at 7:30 and Evelyn woke about eight. By the bed there is a radio, but it gets only one station. Except for the hosts' accents, it could be an American radio station. The music is all American.
We go out about 8 AM. We walk down Orchard Road on wide sidewalks.
Vietnam seemed to have a lot of dogs and only a few cats. In Singapore I have seen several cats and not one dog yet. It may be in keeping with the city's fastidious nature.
You see a lot of good ideas we could use at home like a countdown timer on green traffic lights.
The streets are nearly perfectly clean. Most of the litter is cigarette butts. Even in Singapore with its rules heavily enforced smokers feel a God-given right to decorate the landscape with their leavings.
We had dinner last night at a food court called Kopitiam. We pass another one and that is where we have breakfast. I pick Yong Tau Foo, a stand where you take a soup-bowl, pick out the meats and noodles that you want in your soup then give the bowl to the man to add noodles and broth. You pay by the pieces you have added. My bowl came to S$5 or about $3. Very filling but a little hot for this weather. I am sweating already. Evelyn got Yogurt, orange juice, and bread with jelly. Better suited to the weather but you don's have to be in Singapore to get it. Each has its advantages.
First stop is the Asian Civilizations Museum. This is a museum that has a lot of holdings and no place to display it all. They are working the problem by building more branches and rotating what is displayed in a rather small museum. Most of what they display currently is of Chinese interest.
The museum has a vending machine to sell tickets. But then they have someone who runs it and has to tear the ticket that comes out, so what is the point?
They have an introduction room that show some Indian temple carvings and introduces the visitor to Chinese history.
They do have some Indian temple carvings including a nice Genesha, whom the sign says is fond of sweets. This is a far cry from Vietnam's museums where even locals get at most a line of explanation. Here there are paragraphs about each object, far more complex than the one-line captions in Vietnam. With computer displays giving many choices
There are also a nice computer display about the history of China. It contains hours of information if one were to spend that much time with it.
There is also a film saying that the art is really the story of Asia. We can piece together the history of the continent by looking at the art.
They talked a little about how the Chinese gave human qualities to jade. Its harness is supposed to be like human intelligence. That sort of thing.
But what really impressed me was something that should be very commonplace under normal circumstances. We started to take an elevator to the next floor when I saw the chilled water fountain. After weeks of getting water only out of a bottle, it was an exciting sight. In Vietnam usually you drink warm water during the day since you have to pay even if you can get freshly chilled water. A machine that shoots out cold water for the taking just struck me as pure heaven. I pressed the button and discovered it was not adjusted well. Cold, drinkable water shot up a foot and a half. I positioned my mouth and filled it with water. I probably drank half a liter.
Continuing on there was Angkor photography by Jardslav Poncar. About then they announced that there would be a guided tour at 11:00.
It was a tour mostly of the second floor of the museum. The current building's history goes back to when the Chinese men came to Singapore and married the local women. Later Chinese women came. The Chinese set up ethnic neighborhoods by provinces. The museum building was built as a school in 1906 by Hakkians, but other communities wanted to send their children to the school so it became very successful.
The guide gave us a quick history of China, breaking it into periods.
She traced it back to the Neolithic period and the earthenware they made.
Next came the Shang Dynasty who introduced bronzes.
The Zhou Dynasty introduced Daoism, which was a sort of return to the simplicity of nature in a time of Civil War. But it also introduced the opposite Confucianism with firm rules for society.
The Qin Dynasty built the Great Wall and the Xian terra cotta army.
Han Dynasty was militaristic and their piece is represented by an earthenware watchtower taken from a tomb. It showed what was meaningful to them in life. I suggested it we preparation to be safe in the next life and the guide thought that was a very possible interpretation also.
With the North and South Dynasties Buddhism came from China. Only 2% are Buddhist now, but it spread elsewhere.
A rebirth and trade came with Sui and Tang Dynasties. This was the age of the Silk Road. Tang porcelain is glazed in brown, green, and cream.
The Song Dynasty's art is celedon green. This was a time of intrigue. Celedon changes color in the presence of poison. The Chinese mass produced jars in a sort of factory system. They also thought jade would keep you safe.
Yuan Dynasty was a short period of unpopular Mongol rulers.
The Ming Dynasty had ceramics and esthetics. There were contacts with the Dutch who loved the Ming blue and white China. The Dutch stole the secrets of Chinese ceramics and made their own blue and white China. They still do.
Finally the Qing Dynasty and its contact with foreign powers brought decay and corruption. It was the last Dynasty.
The entire second floor is currently devoted to Peranakan Chinese in SE Asia, Chinese who lived in Malaysia. They maintained their Chinese roots. Pieces include wooden doors for ventilation like we use screen doors. We see Peranakan kits for chewing betelnuts. They have very fine beadwork. There are special pieces associated with their marriage customs. The intended couple usually did not meet until the wedding day. Arranged marriages were invariably the custom.
Rich women wore tunics, held closed by broaches. The tour ended with a ceremonial alter of blacked. I think Blackwood is the traditional wood that the Chinese like. Our room in Hoi An was primarily Blackwood.
The the exhibits on the top floor start with a look at a scholar's study. They have exhibits on calligraphy, painting styles, particularly landscapes, and bronzes.
There is an exhibit on the different styles of calligraphy. There is Seal: loose and primitive with long strokes, Clerical: formal and tight, Cursive: loose and scribbly, Regular: like clerical with squarish shape, Running: cursive and regular mixed.
Another visit to the magical cold water fountain and we left.
We stopped in the museum store and in the MPH Bookstore across the street, both just to reconnoiter. Nothing was purchased.
Our next stop was the Singapore History Museum. This is actually a very large museum with several temporary exhibits. We were getting in just as a tour was starting. They headed off without us and we had to frantically search for them. The tour guide was Hildegunn, a Norwegian woman who seemed very inexperienced. She had a hard time thinking of what to say about the exhibits. She would show a small part of an exhibit then would go on to the next one if there were a group of the ubiquitous unruly school children or if she just felt she had spent too much time there.
Exhibits we see are of the history of the island from its original peoples, and the coming of them durn furrners. And of course the most famous furrner was Raffles.
They have a room of dioramas showing the history of the island up to the 1960s. They have a display of nature artwork.
The most interesting display is a temporary one about World War II propaganda. They show American, British, and Japanese propaganda of all sorts. Some is to try to convince the other side to surrender, some to convince ones own side to be careful with war information. Other propaganda is for women to work in war industries. They had a Japanese film poster showing Japanese air force pilots and an American plane going down in flames. They show post-war plastic hobby models. The exhibit ends with Japanese documentary footage about the war. They play music in the background. Evelyn asks me if it is SCHINDLER'S LIST. Yup. A while later she looks to me to identify the music. SHAWSHANK I whisper to her.
Another exhibit is about secret societies and gang crime. They tell you things like the oaths and rules these crime families descended from the Triads require.
They have an exhibit about Hainanese traditions and coffee houses.
An extended exhibit is about how Singapore got its independence. Apparently in the 1960s they were severed from Malaysia. They did not want to be severed. Today we know what a success Singapore has been and it seems strange that they would want to be part of Malaysia at all. It sounds like Hawaii wanting to be part of Guam. OK, Malaysia is doing OK also, but Singapore is a high-tech cutting edge country and Malaysia is doing well for a developing country.
Another exhibit was all about jade. It told why it was a popular stone and what the symbols of Chinese art one sees in Jade mean. The final exhibit was again about the Peranakans.
Well, that pretty well filled the day. Not too far away was a recommended restaurant called Fatty's. It turned out to be more of a walk than we expected and when we got to the area it still took a long time to find the restaurant. The food was great. We had steamed greens, fried baby squid, clay pot chicken, and Coca Cola. The squid was crispy like candied walnuts. The chicken had like a creamy curry but too much oil. And the beverages become as important an food when it is as hot as this.
Evelyn is finding Singapore to be something of a bore. Singapore is very modern but at least in the center of the city there are no shop-houses. There is little to see from the street. Much the same was true last time. I think of Hong Kong and Singapore as similar, but Hong Kong is an amalgam of the old Chinese styles and the new. At least that was the way it used to be when we visited it. There may have been big changes since the Mainland Chinese took over, though I believe not. Singapore has not maintained their original cultures side by side with the new. There is little left of the original cultures. It is just a big city. Now I find it more interesting than New York Because its background is Asian. That gives it a different flavor. But admittedly most of that is just background. Restaurants are better here than elsewhere if you like Asian food. I do. But in the part of the city where we are you have to go looking for culture.
Also Evelyn has a problem with the rather Fascist nature of the government. Frankly having laws against people littering chewing gum or leaving toilets unflushed does not bother me a lot. It basically just says that people are not legally allowed to be a pain. I am just sorry they don't go after cellular phone misuse.
Now book censorship is another issue, but Singapore is probably going to let up on that one before much longer. Singapore wants to keep up with technology. That requires a Faustian bargain with the Internet. You cannot both keep up and control information. If people are going to have access to the information they need for technology, they are going to also have access to information the government does not control. This is going to be the death of government censorship. Government criticism and hate literature will be available to the people who want it.
After dinner we walked back to our room. We passed the Bencoolen where we stayed last time. Evelyn says it looks fancier now, though I don't remember what it looked like last time.
We stopped in a mall and discovered it costs S$7 to go to a movie. We stopped in some bookstores but made no purchases. We topped the evening off with Swenson's Lime Sherbet. I prefer sorbet to sherbet. (Yes, there is a difference. Sorbet does not have any milk products and sherbet always does.) But in hot weather sherbet does just fine.
Back at the room we turn on the Discovery Channel. I learned among other things that giraffes give birth standing up. That means that a giraffe starts life falling about six feet. For lots of giraffes that fall is the start, the middle, and the end of life. Think about all the giraffes who might have been great but never lived because they did not have a soft place to fall.
03/23/01 Singapore Zoos
I am up about 6:30 and Evelyn at 7:15. We take getting up a little easy and are not out the door until about 9. My idea for breakfast is go to the grocery and get sushi. That is no stranger than Dim Sum for breakfast. We get to toe grocery and they do not have sushi out. They do have fresh pizza. But Evelyn does not want to just go and eat on a bench. She wants to be able to relax over breakfast. We end up going to a restaurant and having congee. Mine had a little bit of abalone, so I did get some this trip after all.
Someone walking by says "Good morning, sir." I expect a sales pitch after Vietnam, but he was just being friendly. They have people like that in Singapore.
Our destination today is the Singapore Zoo.
The subways no longer have math puzzles the way they did on our last trip. I was hoping to get the answer to the series puzzle they put up in 1991.
There are signs in the subway trains that say "Offer your seat to someone who needs it." I wonder if they offer free subway rides to people who need them.
We switch to a bus. The bus has a TV to keep the passengers entertained. There is a S$1000 fine for smoking, food, littering or bringing onboard a durian, the smelly but much loved tropical fruit. Our hotel also has a no durian rule.
The bus air conditioning is really powerful and welcome. It is a long drive to the zoo. It turns out that is where about half the bus is going. We get to the zoo and get a package of admission for the zoo during the day and night safari. it should be explained that there are two pieces to the Singapore Zoo. The main zoo is for diurnal animals. That is animals awake during the day. There is an adjoining night zoo for nocturnal animals. The day zoo is open during the day, the night zoo is open in the evenings.
Singapore is at latitude only 1.33 so their start time for the night zoo need not vary a lot from summer to winter.
We saw Barbary sheep who were shedding, camel and blackbuck, and a polar bear wishing for snow.
There was an elephant show, showing how nice and domesticated the elephants were. They had them doing all kinds of stupid tricks like laying down on command. Most of the big yucks in the show were having an elephant spraying water on people with its trunk. It is one thing to show the elephants acting naturally in unnatural surroundings. I don't need a show to believe that elephants are intelligent. Frequently they seem more intelligent than their owners. I object to zoos in any case, but particularly the domestication of animals smart enough to demonstrate benevolence. In the wild elephants who find animals in trouble will help them out. Most of us have heard about the gorilla at the Chicago zoo. A mother had accidentally dropped her baby into the gorilla pen. A female gorilla picked up the baby and sat by the door the keepers used to enter the pen and comforted the baby in her arms until the keepers could come and take the baby. This is not an animal who acts funny, this is a moral creature with a sense of right and wrong who treated humans with more "humanity" than humans had given to her. I enjoy zoos a great deal, but I usually end up dismayed by these prisons for the crime of being animals.
The Singapore zoo is better than most. It has no cages. But it still proves too little space with natural barriers. Animals used to ranging over miles are kept in little postage stamp plots of land.
They have Orang Utans of two types. You can tell a difference in the coats. You can tell by watching them that these are fairly intelligent creatures. There are two babies, each holding tightly to Mama.
There are three rather sedentary Komodo Dragons sunning themselves. One of the tourists says they are disappointing. Well I am not sure what to be disappointed about. My only expectation of a Komodo Dragon is that he be big.
There is an otter who is taking full advantage of his opportunity to see a bunch of human who stand up like he can. He come over to stand up and watch us.
The reptile house has huge anacondas and pythons and (wow!) a chilled water fountain where we can fill our water bottle. There are sleepy cobras. In the reptile encounter you can see reptiles up close. They put in iguanas as ringers. Iguanas don't flee from humans. Some of the other lizards are hard to find.
They have what look like huge crocodiles, but we are seeing them in a tank and mostly underwater. They look about nine feet long.
We walk through an exhibit called "The Fragile Rainforest." I almost pass it by since I am expecting it to be didactic. Actually it turns out to be one of the better exhibits. Part of the reason is the animals are seem very fearless of people. They just go about their business ignoring the humans, much like in the Galapagos. A bird ate a piece of fruit just inches from my eyes. On a wooden stairway a lemur was stretched out on his back, legs in the air, apparently trying to sun himself. As people stepped around him on the stairs he would rouse himself enough to watch their passing. I took his picture and he picked up his head to look at the camera, then went back to sleep. I resisted the urge to stroke his little black and white belly.
Two young white rhinos were playfully fighting. Even for small rhinos playing that is a lot of fight. Speaking of large they have big floating manatees in with penguins. And we saw the monkeys having lunch of fruit. For a while I watched a monkey who sat in a tree eating fruit in a very human-like pose.
A pygmy hippo was just enjoying being under water, running along the bottom of his tank with his front legs only and letting his hind legs trail behind. This game kept him endlessly entertained.
At the Kangaroo pen we watched a baby kangaroo trying to get back into mamma's pouch for lunch. Mamma was grooming the baby whom she obviously envisioned would be a great kangaroo some day.
We had about twenty minutes left at the end so we went back to look
at the Malaysian sun bears. Earlier they had been mostly asleep. Now they
were wide awake and absolutely fascinated by a piece of tree stump that
must have had something sweet inside. They were just having a high old
time knocking this piece of wood around or digging into it. They stopped
and all wet themselves down for a few minutes and then returned. I am sure
one tuned to another and said, "I don't know about you, but the combination
of this fur coat and being a sun bear is absolutely killing me."
Well the zoo was closing so we went to find dinner. There are two or three little restaurants right there to serve the Night Safari which started at 7:30. We had duck and noodles.
The Night Safari has a number of trails to walk at night and see nocturnal animals. The trails lead out of two stations and a tram takes people between then and shows them animals. We left the second station and followed the Leopard Trail. That trail includes leopards, lorises, and tarsils.
From the Leopard Trail you can take a side trail called the Mangrove Trail. This is a short walk into a cage full of large bats flying around. They warn you not to go in if you are afraid of bats. So far this trip I had a twinge of claustrophobia in the tunnels. I was about the only person in the minibus who was mot frightened by going over Hai Van pass. Would I be afraid of a bat up close and personal?. I walked through and there I was, staring at 18 inches of upside-down bat. I had seen pictures and from a distance had seen big bats. But I was not prepared for the real thing. You think a race horse is beautiful? I had no idea what a beautiful animal a bat is up close and personal. It had sleek red-brown fur on its chest and face. Where its skin shown on its arms, legs, and wings it was black. It had a vaguely canine face with black bead eyes. You have to be pretty hard up for something to be afraid of to be afraid of a bat.
The Leopard Trail finishes with a golden cat.
After the walk we got back on the tram and saw other animals including a Malay Tiger. The tiger was standing stretching but then did something I never knew cats did. He picked up his front right paw and shook it. Apparently he had been laying on it and it went to sleep so the tiger does the same thing a human does. He shook it until it woke up.
I have to say that the zoo does everything it can to promote the myth that you are following a nature trail rather than visiting a night zoo. When you ride the tram the guide keeps saying things like "we are really lucky tonight. There is a white rhinoceros hunting." If the truth be known the rhinoceros is hunting for a way out of the little postage stamp where he has been marooned. The only way that rhino would not be there is if he had discovered architecture and the arch.
By 9 PM there are so many people on the trails that there is no point any more in trying to be quiet. There were tourist groups from several nations. There were locals. There were yelling kids. There were couples on dates. This was the place to be in Singapore by night. Any animal who had the power to hide was well hidden.
We finished the last of the trails at 9:30 but it took us maybe ten minutes to pick our way through the crowd and back to the bus. Two busses left every 15 minutes and I was surprised there were enough seats that everyone could sit. Clearly the Night Safari was a financial success though less than what we were hoping for.
On the subway there is a little math puzzle. They show what looks like two triangles that cover the same region and are divided into the same set of pieces. In one case the pieces fill the triangle solidly and in one there is one small square that is not filled. They ask "How do you explain the missing area?" The answer is that neither apparent triangle really is a triangle. In one the long side is slightly concave and in the other it is slightly convex. The convex one has to have a square missing inside to make up the space. The concave one is filled solidly.
Back to the room for a refreshing shower. Discovery Channel is running
a show about the coldest town in the world. It is in Siberia. If Siberia
were a separate country, it would easily be the biggest in the world. I
think they said it is the combined size of North America and Western Europe.
This town in Siberia got down to -67 degrees C. That is about -89 degrees
03/24/01 Singapore and flight
Singapore TV is showing MICHAEL COLLINS, a film I have wanted to see again since I visited Ireland last May. But I am exhausted and cannot give it much attention. At 1 AM I shut the room down. I guess that I am not going to stay up all night in an attempt to avoid jet lag. I am hoping to be able to sleep on the plane.
I sleep to 8 AM (with a little time up in the night). The weather has been perfect until now for the entire trip. Hot, but otherwise perfect. Today is rainy.
Breakfast was at Kapitiam near the hotel. I considered having abalone and pigs liver congee for last breakfast, but settled for cuttlefish congee. Well, I guess Air Singapore will serve us a breakfast. Our plane leaves at 11:30 tonight. I pulled out of my suitcase jacket to wear home from the airport. I cannot complain too much about the weather since we have been so lucky to this point. I am not sure if the rain will change our plans of walking through Chinatown. It probably will force us to find something indoors to do.
As you walk along the streets you begin to cherish the blasts of cold air from air conditioned buildings. We swelter in the heat, then you walk by a store with the door open and you get a blast of that air conditioning. They can afford to waste a lot of energy wasting air conditioning, but it is probably good for business.
Fancy stores, even bookstores have long thin umbrella bags by the doors. It prevents damage to the goods. There are malls all over. Some of them some of the fanciest malls in the world.
We mostly walk around. I think we might each be secretly a little glad that it is too rainy to walk around Chinatown. Taking things a little bit easy seems nice. I want to do a lot of travel when I retire, but I wonder if I will have the strength.
We stop in a bookstore that has monitors showing GREASE. This is one I can ignore but Evelyn watches the screen mesmerized. I think she is getting cinema withdrawal also.
What is remarkable is how much these people have bought into American sorts of values. We have fancy shopping malls that you might find in the United States, only fancier. And you find people just walking around and shopping. Most are not carrying purchases, but their entertainment is the looking. The are living the mall life style. Didn't these people see DAWN OF THE DEAD? The malls all seem to be connected to each other. Each leads to more and more ornate malls. We find San, a bookstore that deals in used books, a real rarity here. Each book has two prices. The price to buy the book and what they will pay to get the book back if you return it within two months. If you do return the book within two months, the next time the two prices will be less. We won't be around in two months so to us they were a used bookstore. And that was fine by them.
It is tough to find a given book since as Evelyn discovered, they are filed sometime left to right, sometimes right to left, but always by first name. There were two books that I had seen new in previous bookstores that I was going to try to get my hands on when I got home. They were light reading and if I didn't find them, I didn't. With Evelyn's help I found San had both used. I bought both and will have them for the flight home.
We stopped for a sushi lunch, thinking to leave room for dinner. We got a platter for two and ordered ala carte a pair of pieces of uni (sea urchin) and a pair of pieces of lobster salad. The former was good, the latter not very good and you do not get much lobster salad for the price.
OK, so it was a Japanese restaurant. It occurs to me what I am seeing is no longer American culture. It is international culture. But international culture is 95% American culture. International culture is McDonalds and KFC and Burger King and Swenson's and Ponderosa. And Kinakunia and Heineken and Lindt Chocolate and Ikea. Also American history is now world history. The same is somewhat true of British history, but perhaps not so much any more. We saw a store that specialized in action figures. Some were science fiction and some historical. They had American Civil War figures from North and South. None from British history. None from Southeast Asia history. Perhaps because of movies, but American history is frequently better known in other countries than their own history. There was a public service message in Australia where a kid asks his father who was the first American President. The father quickly answers "George Washington." But when the father is asked who was the first Australian Prime Minister the father does not know. Olaf Stapleton wrote about the Americanization of the world, and it may be happening.
I felt a little guilty that we were wasting our last day in Singapore with nothing more intellectual than going to malls. But as Evelyn points out, a case could be made that that is the real Singapore. It has made good shopping available in this part of the world. It is an outpost of what once was the American lifestyle. The malls we saw could be shopping malls in Topeka, Kansas. You see some regional differences. There are a lot of Moslem women with covered heads. In McDonalds we passed two students reading poetry by Shelley. They no longer go to airports to study together, they go to local restaurants. There are differences on the menu. McDonalds offers a Samurai Burger. I told Evelyn it was a double cheeseburger that comes with only one patty. If you complain the man says, "one patty." One quick swipe with a Samurai sword. "Two patties." They also have something called a McSpicy. They would not have anything spicy in the US. I notice that the younger generation is noticeably fatter than their parents.
Mall after mall we visit is crowded. Our Singapore tchotchke a red stone horse. We were thinking that if we wanted some small thing representative of this culture perhaps it should be one of the ubiquitous cell phones.
We were curious to see a movie theater in Singapore. We have been going to theaters in malls in the hopes they had something we wanted to see. They have all had pretty much the same films and we had seen the ones we wanted. Finally one had an English comedy and crime film SNATCH. They have assigned seating. They fill from the back of the theater. This is kind of for me. I do not like to be that far back and I do not like being too near other people. I like an arm rest. The final straw was when the people behind me kept talking. I moved forward and Evelyn followed. They have a lot of ads and coming attractions. Finally the film began.
SNATCH is much in the style of LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS. It is a violent crime film that starts with a large number of characters, too many to keep straight, and has them all working at cross-purposes for each's own ends. The result is a madcap comedy of errors with most of the comedy coming from the eccentric characters. The formula is really the same one as PULP FICTION, but it is almost unrecognizable in British hands. This film concerns the chaotic results of an attempted theft of a very large diamond from the thieves who had stolen it from Antwerp. There are about eight different groups getting involved, each of different ethnic groups. Brad Pitt stars as a gypsy boxer. I rate the film a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.
After the movie we walk back to the hotel looking at the impressive Singapore skyline. It is hot and we are sweating but as the sun goes down it cools off. I tell Evelyn that is the last of the Southeast Asia heat we will be feeling this trip. That will certainly be nice. The heat and humidity have been a real drag on the trip.
We have some time and Evelyn suggests stopping at Kopitiam for a cool drink. I have lemonade and Evelyn has iced tea. She thinks the tea tastes bad and does not finish it.
We go back to the hotel, get our luggage, flag a taxi to the airport. We have an hour and a half to kill at the airport and we spend it writing and reading. We board the plane on time. (OK, this isn't exciting stuff. The trip is nearly over.)
I alternately work on my log and read my novel. It is, by the way, ICE STATION by Matthew Reilly.
The same system that provides the movies also lets you do games in your seat. Some of the math puzzles are mistranslated to be impossible, but I can figure out what they must have meant. Of thirty questions I miss two. Evelyn misses four. Doing just a bit better than her was how I met her in the first place. I was the top mathematician in the Western Massachusetts Mathematics League. I was the top FEMALE mathematician in the Western Massachusetts Mathematics League. She has been hanging around me going for vengeance ever since. And she has had it many times over. But she still sticks around. Lucky for me.
Dinner was radish cake (elsewhere called carrot cake and turnip cake) and coconut tofu for desert.
I watch WHEN THE SKY FALLS with Joan Allen and Patrick Bergan. The movie is based on a true story about a crusading journalist who goes after a dangerous story about drug traffickers. After being warned off several times she gets her story and then demonstrates that it really was a dangerous story by getting herself killed. All this is done in a thick Irish accent. Now don't get me wrong. It was a brave thing that she did and you should not have to pay with your life for doing what is essentially your job. But she was becoming very inconvenient and dangerous to people who have already demonstrated a willingness to break the law. One needn't be a genius to figure out what their likely reaction would be.
Evelyn was bitten up badly by mosquitoes during the Night Safari. Now the bites are driving her crazy. I have put calamine lotion on my pack list.
Evelyn wants to sleep, but for me this is 5:30 PM. I want to believe the destination time.
THE GUILTY is another complicated crime story. A lawyer (Bill Pullman) being blackmailed for rape involves a released ex-convict without knowing the convict is actually his illegitimate son. When the son gets involved with the rape victim things start getting complicated.
They have been having problems with the entertainment systems. They took them off-line earlier. Now it keeps dropping out at annoying moments.
To the front of the cabin two babies are completing in the Most Annoying Toddler Cry-off.
03/25/01 Flight to New Jersey
At about 11 PM they served breakfast. It was fried noodles with pork. Perhaps it will be our last Asian meal. They were not expecting gringos like us to ask for it. It was better than their snack before of tuna baked in a roll. That was pretty awful.
We are getting ready to land in Amsterdam. We will have two hours to walk around. Luckily we can keep our headphones and not move our luggage. I project that in just twelve hours we will be home. The babies have been crying eight hours straight. I do hope they are crying in Dutch.
We brought to Vietnam a fair amount of pocket money. We way over-estimated our spending opportunities in Vietnam. That is hard to do considering all the people on the street who are trying to get you to spend.
I now have to turn off the computer. I am pretty sure the range that my palmtop puts out RF because my Walkman picks it up. Outside of two feet it is undetectable. Well, it give me a chance to read more. Books do not put out RF at all.
OK we are on the ground in Schiphol. Three weeks ago I thought it looked strange that there was a fly in the urinal. I could not quite tell if it was real or just a decal. I sort of ignored it. Different urinal, same fly. I looked in another. Same fly. It must be Dutch humor.
This time Evelyn will walk in the airport. We go into a music store. They had "Orpheus in the Underworld." I had been looking for it but was not willing to go to the effort to change money. I told Evelyn. "That's what we have plastic for." We got "Orpheus in the Underworld." Evelyn put her credit card someplace easy to find, but in her photovest she is not sure which pocket it was. The Dutch clerk is much amused.
At the gate there is a five person family. The mother is reading a Harry Potter book to the youngest while the others run around and make noise and announce every plane that goes by the window. I keep wanting to hush them so I can hear the reading, but she isn't doing it for me.
There is a big mob of people waiting to go through the metal detectors to get on the plane. A dark skinned South Indian boy sees me typing on my computer and wordlessly comes over to watch. Wordlessly I show him how typing on the keyboard shows up on the screen.
Time comes to reboard. I take off my vest and send that through the metal detector. But the book ICE STATION is an inch and a half thick. Rather than stuff it into a pocket I carry it through. The guard asks to see the book. He riffles the pages to make sure nothing is inside. "Good book?" he asks. I give him a so-so hand gesture.
For lunch I had the fried rice and watched the film DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS. I am not sure which was the worse choice. Both kept coming back to me afterward as a bad remembrance. Even with Jeremy Irons the film had just lousy acting and absolutely no period feel. The script was full of terrible howlers. And the rice was greasy.
Five and a half more hours and I can stretch out. Every time someone passes the aisle they bang into my arm. The aisle is less than two feet wide. This flight also has its own crying baby.
The woman opposite me in the aisle is reading a book. I try to get a look at what she is reading. It is a Harry Potter book in German. The popularity of that series is amazing. They are the sort of thing that look like they would have no market. The more recent books are too dark and long for them to be fare most people would think appropriate for kids, but they are written for children. They seem to have popularity all across the board. Adults and children like the books. They certainly are not the best children's fantasy being written.
I watch a couple of documentaries on the TV. One is about incredible path-finding abilities of animals using celestial navigation, earth's magnetic field, etc. This one I have seen. It is from David Attenborough's Trials of Life series. The other is about the expanding universe and cosmology. They commented that in the one hour that the documentary ran the radius of the universe increased by a billion miles. This is a very impressive figure. I told Evelyn that the program said that they were now able to detect sonic energy from one second before the Big Bang. It is the word "Uh-oh!"
Evelyn spent the same hour playing computer games. She apparently found one that was challenging and Played it three times in the hour. Evelyn has gone to the restroom. It has been years since I went to a restroom on a plane. Even as I get older I don't have to do it that often. I may go standing up in a restroom on the ground when I fly but that is really all.
There is a very attractive Arabic woman across the aisle from me. Well, perhaps not attractive in the usual sense but she dresses with a great deal of taste and knows how to get the most from her looks. She has a lot of poise. Very different from the Islamic women in Singapore who have to cover every hair on their head. They bring her a halal meal. There is a great deal of variation in Islam.
Brunch is fish in a spicy coating. Not very good. Overcooked vegetables. The high point is they come around with an ice cream bar for dessert.
I watched RED PLANET which is a film I did not much care for in the theaters. I figured it would be enjoyable as a last film. I actually liked it better on a second exposure than I did in a theater. I thought it was poorly written at that time. This time the writing seemed better, but there still were some bad errors. There should have been some note that a storm on Mars was at least a new phenomenon. They had been tampering with the environment and that might have made the storm a little more plausible, but they would have at least mentioned it as being surprising. As the last real event of the vacation, it was better than I expected.
The baby in the front row is crying again. I guess that is a sign that we are landing and cabin pressure is changing.
We landed about 10:15 AM. The Passport check was fairly quick. Then apparently we were the only ones on the plane who had only carry-on luggage. That made us the first to the customs check. I don't know what they look for these days. They just glanced at the card and told us to have a good day.
It was 35 degrees F as we left the airport. I guess I was right about how that was the last hot weather we would have for a while that last walk back to the hotel. I think we were looking forward to being home and here it is. It is nice to be getting home early. 0we usually get home the night before we have to go to work. Sometimes the morning we have to go to work. We have an afternoon to unwind. Tonight are the Oscars. That will be our next adventure.
The hardest part about going home was getting out of the parking lot. They were doing construction and had not made it clear how to leave. Just leaving the car in the parking lot cost $184 or 2,576,000D.
America's relationship with Vietnam is like with not other country.
We feel awkward in each other's presence. Like Leonard Wibberly's fictional
Grand Fenwick they would like the friendship and assistance of the United
States. But getting in the way is the fact that they committed the faux
pas of having defeated the United States. But in their case they killed
hundreds of thousands of people doing it. Their awkwardness comes out of
the fact that they do not know what to do with that situation. Our awkwardness
comes out of the fact that we don't know what to do with that situation
either. Japan and Germany have similar problems with the US, but at least
the US winning seems the natural order of things. Vietnam would like to
come to us for economic help and we would like to feel paternalistic and
help them, but neither country knows what to do with the fact of that victory.
Until that is decided and both countries comes to terms with that victory
or relationships with each other will be strained.