Part I Vietnam
Hanoi September 24
Bob left Hanoi right away on the train for Sapa near the Chinese border to do some trekking among the colorful minority villages and then to spend three days in Halang Bay learning to kayak. It is probably not surprising that the relationship has taken a beating on this trip so we are traveling separately until we join a friend in Hong Kong on November 20 when the three of us will spend two months in China before we go back to the US after the first of the year. I will meet him at the airport on Monday for the flight to Phomn Penh Cambodia.
Flying into Hanoi felt very strange after watching years of television during the “Vietnam” War in the 60’s and 70’s. (The “Vietnam War” is called the “American War” here.) The first night in Hanoi I ate a dinner of pork with pepper sauce and French fries, a wonderful break from the Burmese and Thai food, on the deck of a popular cafe while watching the lights reflect off Hoan Kiem Lake near the Old Quarter.
I stayed at a small charming hotel in the Old Quarter which is full of narrow winding streets with tunnel or tube houses so called because their small frontages hide very long rooms that were developed in feudal times to avoid taxes based on the width of the frontage onto the street. At the time they were only two stories high but over the years stories have been added so the buildings are now very narrow and very tall. My cozy little room had a little veranda where I could stand and watch the busy street scene below. I loved my little neighborhood for the five days I was there…early mornings the same ladies in the same clothes and cone hats came to sit on the street below me with their big shallow baskets to sell small silvery fish and vegetables…one morning a young woman at a street stall angrily chewed the heck out of one of the women for some reason and chased her away…every day in the early afternoon I ate a huge bowl of duck noodle soup for about 30 cents at a food stall down the street…. sitting on a little plastic stool at a two foot high wooden table with my knees under my chin……the same old man and his wife with kind faces welcoming me like old friends each day.
Across the street was the A to Z Queen Cafe which was a kick-back comfortable budget backpacker hotel with dorm beds for $2.50 a night and free internet if you bought something at the bar…otherwise you donated a few dong via honor code in the little plastic boxes sitting on top of each terminal. Every night the establishment showed a war movie to the mostly young males from around the world, many of whom are Israeli by the way. An Israeli guy told me that every young man has to spend three years in the military…and then they take off to travel to clear their heads. It was a kick talking to the kids about their experiences and exploits. Nearby was a street market where the women did all the selling and the men sat on the sidewalks drinking whisky and playing board games. As I walked by, the women laughed when I gestured and said to them…look…you work…they play…
Down the narrow street and around the corner the local street kids pestered you to buy postcards…just buy from me today…I am lucky you are my first sale today so I can buy some food…old ladies glided along in slippered feet carrying two fruit-filled baskets one on each side of them that was balanced like a pair of scales across their backs with a long flexible blade of bamboo who wanted to sell you exotic fruit… pumalos that have to be picked a few days before it is eaten so it has time to “forget the tree,” custard apples, durian so stinky it is forbidden in the hotels, green dragon fruit, guavas, jackfruit, Longan, Lychees, Mangosteen, Rambutan, Starfruit and juicy Persimmons. Then you could escape all this by ducking into the Tamarind Cafe & Fruit Juice Bar where the Handspan Adventure Travel company sold tickets to Halong Bay and Sapa in the back. Here you were sure to find fellow foreign travelers to trade stories with…not just a few of whom…to my amazement…or maybe just never noticed before…were young single women traveling alone. In happy solidarity I invariably urged them on…
Hanoi City Tour
Wasn’t excited by the city bus tours so spent an entire day riding behind a motorcycle taxi guy to visit the One Pillar Pagoda, Temple of Literature and the Martyrs’ Monument erected to those who died fighting for Vietnam’s independence. The Ho Chi Minh Museum, and History Museum was full of propaganda but contained interesting artifacts from Vietna’s hundreds of years of feudal and modern wars against the Chinese, the Khmers, the French and finally the Americans. Could have spent a half a day in the excellent new Museum of Ethnology.
Visited the Fine Arts Museum and loved the compelling feudal statuary with robes flowing…the folds of the bottom hems rhythmically rising into the air. A statue commemorating the victory over the French at Diem Bien Phu in 1954 is not unlike our statue in Washington DC of the men pushing the flag aloft during World War II except that this memorial was of three people including a woman and a child. There were pictures of demonstrations of Buddhist monks who demonstrated against the South Vietnamese Thieu administration…and pictures of the conflagration of the two monks who set themselves afire in the middle of a Saigon street in front of a pagoda…maybe you are old enough to remember that?
The Women’s Museum was arresting – and illuminating. Inside the front door you are met by a 15 foot high Vietnamese mother in over lit blinding gold leaf. It is designed to depict the mother of past, present and future…very feminine and elegant… representing the combination of traditional and modern beauty…strong…her right hand wide open and palm down signifying all that is difficult in her life and a child on her shoulder representing the responsibility and happiness of the mother toward the family and her people…the child with arms raised in the air representing the future generation and a prosperous future. A huge piece of glass stood behind the statue…etched with mountains showing the strength of the father and a stream of water flowing down from the mountains showing the source of the mother’s strength…have to admit I had to swallow a catch in my throat…
After this wonderful introduction to the museum, however, you then walk upstairs to the first floor where you see grizzly pictures of women’s contributions to the war effort against the Americans where they fought equally in all capacities alongside the men…heart rending pictures… one of a nurse who saved a child’s life by nursing it when it’s mother was killed by a US bomb. (I thought to myself, yes, this is what the Communists want us American tourists to see so yes, I shall look at it all and then I thought resentfully…so what?) Another picture was of an agonized mother hugging her son who had spent 10 years in the South Vietnamese Con D Prison. She had just heard he was sentenced to death by the enemy in 1975 after the fall of Saigon because of his rebel activities. There were pictures of Vietnamese film star Tra Giang and ‘Hanoi Jane Fonda taken together during the American actress’ visit in 1972…pictures of women lying torqued on the floor with this caption: “The barbarous tortures women had to suffer when imprisoned by US aggressors and their lackeys.” Another picture showed a militia woman escorting William Robinson, an American Prisoner of War and another of a female artillery unit firing on American warships in 1968-9. More pictures of female guerilla groups…their faces hard. I felt sick to my stomach as I stumbled out of the building and entered the street full of light and noise and people…most of whom were born after the war…not giving the past a thought as they were now concentrating on making the market economy work in their country. Somehow I am not surprised that the people here seem to have an edge on them… quick to flare.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum was the most fascinating…post modern design where you start in the “Past” and walk clockwise through the “Future” to view displays with a message…peace, happiness, freedom…the 1958 Ford Edsel bursting through the wall apparently symbolizing the US commercial and military failure knocks your socks off. I skipped viewing Uncle Ho’s shriveled body at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum next door.
That evening I treated myself at a lovely outdoor garden restaurant where my waiter (who was a university student by day) described the effects of an American bomb that fell on a Hanoi city street… and where the memory of the people killed are still celebrated each September. “I am afraid of war,” he said, but what put the goose bumps on me was his curled lip. Then, I thought he was going to cry as he said “why can’t they sit down and discuss?” But then, apparently feeling bold by my eagerness to hear what he had to say, he said “Mr. Bush lies…Hussein is a good man”…at which point I lost my composure. Don’t know which made me sicker…his statement or the white haired man in his 80’s fondling the legs of the 15 year old Vietnamese hooker sitting at his table. I asked the waiter how he knew this. “But I read in the paper…” I don’t believe everything I read in the paper here or at home…I said in muted desperation.
Sapa Tuesday October 1-3
Took the narrow gauge train to Lao Cai on the Chinese border and then traveled an hour by 4-wheel drive over a torturously slow single lane dirt road to the cool mountain town of Sapa. Spent a couple nights overlooking incredibly beautiful terraced rice paddies carved in perfect symmetrical half circles up the mountain ridges. At the market I had a bowl of chicken noodle soup for lunch but forgot to ask the price first…the first rule…and paid 30,000 dong for a bowl that goes for 5000 dong in Hanoi. Declined the trek into the minority villages where very charming laughing girls and women bat their pretty eyes at you while asking astronomically expensive prices 10-20 times the value for their handmade aluminum jewelry.
The pony-tailed fellow sitting next to me in the internet cafe was from San Francisco…had worked the Green Turtle hippy bus that runs (or used to run) from SF to Seattle and back…eating yogurt and granola in Eugene just south of Salem for a few years before he joined a non governmental organization and is now teaching English to tribal women in an ethnic minority village 15 miles in the mountains from Sapa. I love internet cafes!
Dong Ha and the DMZ October 4
Stumbled off the night train from Hanoi at 6am and found a seat at the outdoor railroad station cafe to dump my bags and have a wake-up Vietnamese coffee that is very strong but with hot water added to it makes a good cup of black coffee. I hear the ubiquitous “where are you from” coming from a table of men having morning tea behind me. An older fellow invites himself to my table…traveling alone I am approachable…my experience is not determined by being part of a couple with a dominant male…I think because of my age I seem to draw out a kind of protectiveness in people. I love traveling alone. I end up spending two days on the back of Mr. Binh’s motorcycle exploring the old American bases in the DMZ (demilitarized zone of the Vietnam War) and the tunnels at Vinh Moc in Central Vietnam. Mr. Truong Van Binh was an officer in the South Vietnamese army during the war and knows this area like the back of his hand.
Dong Ha served as a US marine command and logistics center during 1968-69. In the spring of 1968 a division of the North Vietnamese troops crossed the DMZ and attacked the city that was later the site of a South Vietnamese army base. Mr. Binh takes me miles west down Highway 9, down dirt roads, past rubber trees growing in and around huge bomb craters, rice paddies, banana trees and through tangled jungle to a bunker that sits on what used to be Con Thien Firebase. We cross the Ben Hai River, once the demarcation line between North and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel. Eight km south of the Ben Hai River is Doc Mieu Base, once part of an elaborate electronic system called McNamara’s Wall named after the US Secretary of Defense from 1961-68 intended to prevent infiltration across the DMZ. (Incidently McNamara wrote a book before he died called “In Retrospect” in which he shows how and why the American intervention was a terrible mistake.) Today the area is a lunar landscape of bunkers, craters and shrapnel where the locals come to unearth scrap metal to sell…sometimes at great risk to their lives because some of the ordinance they find is unexploded…until it is moved.
Further down Highway 9 is Camp Carroll, The Rockpile, Dakrong Bridge, Lang Vay Special Forces Camp and just before you get to the Laos border is the Khe Sanh Combat Base, the site of the most famous siege and one of the most controversial battles of the American War in Vietnam in 1968. The outline of the airfield remains distinct because nothing will grow on it. The US MIA Team has visited the area countless times to search for the bodies of Americans but mostly they find Vietnamese remains. Old B-52 bomb casings lay piled up against a shack. It is hard to imagine as you stand in these peaceful, verdant fields with homes full of playing children…watching commerce going on all around you on foot, on bicycle, on motorcycle and by truck…that thousands upon thousands of people, including innocent civilians, lost their lives here.
We stop for a beer at a roadside stand before we visit the Truong Son National Cemetery, a memorial to tens of thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers, regarded as “martyrs” for the liberation of Vietnam who were killed along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. A woman in her 30’s snarls at the others in the roadside cafe… Mr. Binh says she is “confused in the head” because of the orange spray…yes, I said to him, many of our Vietnam veterans feel their cancers and other maladies are due to Agent Orange also…it has been 25 years and the damage is not done.
We talk about Vietnam and America and the Viet Kiew, the Vietnamese Americans that return to visit. He greatly resents these people who come back to visit their families but are too self important to stay in the family homes because there is no air conditioning, hot water or soft mattresses. I try to tell him the story of a Salem Vietnamese/American restaurant owner who filled up two visa cards in Vietnam because her husband was too proud to tell his family they did not have a lot of extra money. After all they had paid at least a couple thousand dollars to get over here, hadn’t they? He didn’t care when I told him she had to mortgage her restaurant when she got back home in order to pay off the high interest visa bills. She had a restaurant, a nice house and plenty to eat, didn’t she?
After the fall of Saigon in 1975 the communists embarked on a disastrous economic plan that left thousands of north and south Vietnamese starving for nearly 20 years. In 1994 Clinton lifted the US embargo on the country (he is loved here because of it) that allowed goods to be imported. The communist government is gradually opening up the country to a market economy but in the meantime the Vietnamese have had it hard. When I try to tell them that not everyone in America is rich like the people they see on TV they don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to hear about the poor and the homeless in America. They say, “why they no work?” I can’t even begin to give them an answer they would understand or accept.
Vinh Moc Tunnels
I freak in the 2.5 km of tunnels at Vinh Moc just a few kilometers north of Dang Ha and beg to be led out of the nearest exit. This maze of underground passageways in the cliffs off the China Sea was home to thousands of families over a 7 year period from 1966 when the North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, the Viet Cong and the Americans all began bombarding the DMZ with artillery….a small 4 foot by 6 foot “room” honed into the rock off the sides of the tunnels would house an entire family. Seventeen babies were born in these tunnels. Larger “rooms” served as kitchens and hospitals. Hundreds of families lived in other tunnels in other places but none as large as Vinh Moc.
It is dark by now and Mr. Binh drops me off at an internet cafe for a few minutes before taking me to my hotel, the Phuong Mai Guesthouse on a quiet side street. Mr. Binh’s friend, a robust gray haired South Vietnamese who used to work for the US Marines, owned the internet cafe and talked just like the US Marines as I remembered them when we lived on 29 Palms Marine Corps Base in southern California in 1969-71. His down to earth raucous sense of humor had me laughing until my stomach hurt. He spent 6 years in a communist reeducation camp for South Vietnamese military after the fall of Hanoi in 1975. I asked him what happens in a reeducation camp and he answered by showing me a pencil and saying that if they show you a pencil and tell you it is a pen then you tell them yes, it is a pen. And that is how the guy, who was basically a US Marine, got out after six years of reeducation. Many had to stay up to ten years and many were killed.
The next morning Mr. Binh picks me up at 8:00 and the hotel owner toasts us with tea before we motorcycle about 25 km south to Quang Tri. We visit the ancient town, most of which was destroyed during the war, and a Catholic Cathedral that was bombed to bits. About 50 yards from the Cathedral stands a statue of a Madonna representing the Virgin that had “appeared” to some of the villagers years and years before…and had “miraculously” survived the strafing of the B52 bombers. A young Vietnamese girl, excited at the opportunity to practice her English, takes me through the museum that sits nearby in what was once the old feudal Citadel. She seems different than the people in the north…more friendly, more open…she loves to meet Americans. She touches her heart and shows me a display in a class case depicting a local love story: during the war a young couple in the village secretly married…but soon after when her husband was killed in the war the family rejected her claims to be his wife because they had not known of the marriage. This woman remained very poor with no help from the family until she finally married again and now lives with her husband in the area. A few years ago she was exonerated… during an excavation some locals found the remains of her first husband and an unsent letter along with pictures of the two of them.
On the way to Hue
Mr. Binh takes me to a small cafe by the side of the road leading out of town where we wait to wave down a local kamikaze minibus that will careen along a bad stretch of Highway 1 to Hue. The bus is crammed full of people one on top of the other, of course, so I sit on the top of some rice sacks until someone gets off and I am graciously allowed to have the emptied seat. A couple of giggling girls behind me give me a small sweet tangerine to eat. I, the foreigner, am the center of attention for awhile. At first I thought the driver was a woman but when he got out to gas up the bus I saw that he was a long haired bad-ass looking guy in his 30’s or 40’s with a very pocked and scarred face. This guy especially loved to put the petal to the medal…this guy especially loved his brakes…this guy loved to jerk the steering wheel back and forth narrowly missing the oncoming trucks…he is having a great time and I am breathless waiting for my life to end. Suddenly he throws a dirty towel to someone in the back of the bus. It lands in my face. He looks back with a grin to see if I am alright. I return his thumbs up with a big laugh. Across from me sits two pretty girls, about 12 years old, dressed identically with black pants and white shirts-must be a school uniform-looking absolutely bored as only adolescent girls everywhere can look.
Friends in Lang Co
I spent the night in a backpacker hotel before boarding an air conditioned tour bus the next morning for Danang. On the way to Danang though, we pass through Lang Co, a small town stretched out along a pretty island-like palm-shaded beach on one side of the road and a quiet bay filled with hundreds of fishing boats on the other. So I got off the bus when it stopped for a break and stayed for two nights…making friends with Mr. Nguyen Thoi Binh, (Binh must be a common name) a dear dear man who took me home to his wife and family and made me promise to write to him from “America.”
Nguyen speaks English and French fluently. He reads a lot, when he can afford to buy a book, and wanted to know what I thought about a hundred different things…the Kennedys…what life is really like in America where his sister lives in Louisiana with her husband who was a Colonel in the South Vietnamese army. He talked about how Vietnamese men give their salaries to their wives (as in Burma) and then ask for a little money when they need it…helps keep them faithful to their wives so they don’t spend money on women, he says. How about it, Bob? Nguyen talks honestly about the Viet Kiew but his experience was quite different than Mr. Binh’s…when she visited him last year, his sister slept in his home, he said proudly. She sends money regularly to pay for his children’s schooling. But he has 8 brothers and sisters so he explains that she cannot send money to him all the time. As we motorcycled along the highway, Nguyen pointed out several nice houses…that one is family money from Colorado… this one is from New York…and that one is a Minnesota house. The brand new shiny hotel I stayed in for $8 a night was paid for by family in Florida. They are probably paying off a loan for the money, I told him, as not very many people could come up with $20,000 cash (not including the cost of the lot) to pay for a new hotel in Vietnam…and the look he gave me was one of incredulity.
After spending a day sitting by the ocean listening to the surf in Nga Trang, I took another night train for Saigon.
Writing from Cambodia…some of what got left out of Vietnam I
I wrote this in the Cambodian Foreign Correspondent’s Club. Most countries have them…It’s a good place to get away from the moto taxis, the cyclos and beggars, the heat and to read a current newspaper. Cambodia has the Bangkok Post and the International Herald Tribune. Nobody here in this country that lost tens of thousands in the 70’s and 80’s seem to think Bali is a big deal…I don’t even mention 9/11 to anyone.
Anyway I have come here to the “FCC” to write this report on my computer while listening to dirty blues music. You may never know how good this feels to me right at this moment…though you may have had same-same moments. And I’ve got to get the rest of Vietnam out of my head before I can even begin to absorb Cambodia’s “Killing Fields” and the War Museum.
Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City but no one calls it that) By the mid 1990’s Saigon already had the fastest-growing economy of any major city in Asia…and the web of problems that come with it. My first night in the city I ate from the sidewalk food stall down the street from the hotel because I didn’t have nerves steeled enough to walk slowly and deliberately at intervals into the street and then stand still while looking sideways in both directions to allow what seemed like a sea of motorcycles, cyclos and cars to weave their way around me..trying not to give the finger to the young guys that invariable love to shoot straight for you and then turn their sexy Dream Hondas at the last possible moment…which is the only way you get across a street in Asia.
The Myth of “Nam”
The male fantasy of Saigon that was nurtured in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” written in the 1950’s is recreated superficially in bars in Saigon with names like Apocalypse Now and B4 75 where, to the pulse of 1960’s music like The Doors, Vietnamese women again run their hands over the backs of young and adventurous American males with a trust fund… love-you-long-time-you-be-my-big-honey…the twenty-something young guy at the next internet terminal says to his friend behind him…only god saved my life last night! “Nam” is a myth bound up with sex, drugs and a rock and roll soundtrack…with images of war, of the smell of napalm in the morning and hookers at night.
First of all, Vietnam is nothing like the mythical “Nam” that is portrayed in most of the post Vietnam literature and film which is that if Americans are caricatures of heavy handed bellicosity, then Vietnamese must be contemplative and peace loving. The jungle was no easier a habitat than it was for the Americans. Bao Ninh, a former North Vietnamese soldier who wrote “The Sorrow of War” (that every young boy in every city tries to sell you) described the forests of central Vietnam through which the many branches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail was carved, as alien: “Here when it is dark, trees and plants moan in awful harmony. When the ghostly music begins it unhinges the soul and the entire wood looks the same no matter where you are standing…. living here one could go mad or be frightened to death.”
Writings on Vietnam, according to Robert Templer in his “Shadows and Wind” published in 1998 in the UK, doesn’t take into account the diverse mix of religious and political beliefs that are evolving and changing. Vietnamese fighters were not all heroic martyrs as the propaganda in the museums of Hanoi would have you believe; many did not understand why they were fighting. But the creation of “Nam” and the concept of “Indochine,” French colonial nostalgia, was not possible without complicity on the part of powerful Vietnamese officials, according to Templer; creating a playground of colonial and war memories was a way for the government to mend broken ties and sell the country to tourists. It also had the side effect of isolating foreigners and distracting them from the widening ideological, economic and social issues that afflicted the country. Guilt and sadness that inflected the writing of American reporters like Sheehan, Morley Safer and Dan Rather who produced books on their returns to Vietnam in the 1990’s tended to offer only the most gentle criticisms of the government. As Templer puts it, “the government ensured that journalists and writers spent more time examining a past over which the government could exercise some control rather than a present that is slipping away from them.”
Tourism Vietnamese Style
From the 200 kilometers of the Cu Chi tunnels, six layers deep just outside Saigon, the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese communist fighters) planned their campaigns on the South Vietnamese and American bases that ringed the city. The area became one of the most heavily bombed, gassed and defoliated sites as US forces attempted to clear the tunnels. Now, controlled by the sports and recreation department of the army, it serves to summarize the war for tourists. Part of the forest has been turned into a complete wartime environment. The propaganda is that it was simple ingenuity that defeated the powerful Americans: the guerillas left shavings from American bars of soap around the entrances to tunnels to disguise their scent from the sniffer dogs and smoke from cooking fires was dispersed through numerous chambers so that spotter planes could not locate it. At the end of the tour visitors are served a VC meal of stringy manioc dipped in crushed peanuts and tea brewed from forest leaves. As visitors leave they can shoot off a few rounds from an AK-47 at a firing range or shop for trinkets made from the brass shells of rifle bullets or model jet fighters crafted from Coke cans. VC uniforms of black pajamas and checked scarves are offered to those who wish to dress up for the occasion. Sick or what?!
The North Vietnamese, especially, are very proud that they won what they call the war against American aggression. This propaganda of heroic resistance is presented in all the museums in North and South Vietnam as the single, unifying theme of Vietnamese history. Well aren’t we proud of our War of Independence…George Washington is our kindly Uncle Ho Chi Minh! What was George Washington REALLY like? I have to admit that with the friendly tour guides-oh so happy to see the Americans react to all this-I bought a Viet Cong hat in Quang Tri only to give it away two days later to an old lady in Lang Co after I had a chance to think about it.
I took a tour of the Reunification Palace where the North Vietnamese crashed the gates of the South Vietnamese government building on that April morning in 1975 that sealed the fall of Saigon. (There is a tunnel system that runs the entire five kilometers to the airport from the Palace.) Some of the pictures on the walls shows the South Vietnamese government officials sitting waiting for the North Vietnamese; other pictures show their arrest. In my tour group was a young enthusiastic German who was here for two months with his wife while adopting a “prostitute baby.” (Abortion is not much of an option here both because of lack of information and money.) As we moved about the Palace we exchanged remarks…we made a big mistake intervening in Vietnam I said…all countries seem to make big mistakes he said…the Soviet Union in Afghanistan…and both your country and mine lost a war…but now my country just wants peace, he continued, and started singing the music from the 1960’s musical “Hair” which he says is very popular in Europe right now. And we don’t want Mr. Bush to go to war in Iraq…if you go to war with Iraq you cannot win!
The enemies of the Communist Party, in the absence of conflict, has become the democracy and human rights promoted by the forces of ‘peaceful evolution.’ Enemy jets unload tourist dollars and foreign investment rather than bombs. Robert Templer, in Shadows and Wind explains: “Local news publications have become a master at inventing new enemies to excite its military readership. In 1996 it located a hidden menace ‘sleeping under trees around Hoan Kiem Lake’ in Hanoi. This undercover force spoke the language and ate Vietnamese food. They were up to no good riding around in cyclos, dressed in shorts and T shirts. Vietnam could no longer ignore the threat they posed. It was ‘too easy in this age of information flow to mistake enemies for friends’, the newspaper told its readers. The country, the army daily warned, was under siege from young foreign backpackers! Doubtless the Vietnamese breathed a little easier knowing who was the enemy in their midst. But the Lonely Planet Legions were not the only security threat. Executives from overseas, the newspapers said accusingly, were attending business seminars because of their interest in information that helps them work out their investments, calculate prices and put pressure on their Vietnamese partners.” Indeed, a BP Oil executive from the UK that I met in a restaurant in Hanoi said that the BP holdings in Vietnam were larger than Vietnam’s national budget.
Catholics have never had an easy time of it in Vietnam beginning with the Confucian elite who opposed the intrusions of missionaries among whom was Alexandre de Rhodes who devised the system of romanisation of the Vietnamese language. Catholics refused to join in or pay for important village festivals; instead they often set up their own villages-a process that heightened disputes over land and water. The religion, seen by a majority of Vietnamese as an uncivilized intoxicant that sucked people in and broke their familial and social ties, often cut off converts from their families. It must have seemed as alien and dangerous as some of the stranger cults do today. The role of Catholics, many of whom acted as spies and guides for French expeditionary forces whom they believed would protect them from the anti-Catholic pogroms, rankles with some Vietnamese even today.
As defeat of the French became inevitable, thousands fled to the south. They knew a powerful and atheist Vietnamese state would not be friendly to Catholicism. To make matter worse South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem gave the refugees special attention and often let them settle on some of the most fertile land, a source of resentment among the majority of the population. Diem came from a deeply Catholic family; one of his brothers was Archbishop of Hue and a nephew would become Bishop of Nha Trang. His brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations by Buddhist monks, some of whom burnt themselves alive in protest against Diem’s policies, and his corruption gave the Communists fuel for their fire and were among the factors that led to his overthrow and assassination, with US complicity, in 1963. In 1975 the seminaries in the South were emptied and many of the men were sent to re-education camps. The Church still arouses an intense suspicion in the Communist Party and the Vatican and Vietnam are something of a match for each other diplomatically, according to Templer.
The Communist Party
People everywhere confided in me, as a foreigner who would not know who to tell anyway, that they hated the corrupt officials in the Communist Party that are entangled in a growing web of organized crime. They hate the police. The Party has a smug stranglehold on the poorest of the people, especially the Catholics in South Vietnam who find it almost impossible to find a job even if they can scrape up the money to “buy” it as do most people. (This is why you see so many jobless men sleeping during the day in their cyclos or on their moto taxis.) Those in the Party get the best jobs…those who work for the government get 10 times the salary of ordinary Vietnamese. Doi Moi, which translates as ‘renovation’ similar to the Soviet ‘glasnost’ or openness, does not reach the lives of these people. But as Templer puts it at the very end of his book “The Communist Party has been coerced to relax economic restrictions but it has not liked some of the results. Unable to regain the control or respect it once commanded, its response has been to clench and release its grip on the economy and society in an increasingly desperate manner as its power slips slowly away.” I told Mr. Binh in Lang Co that this could not last forever as more and more of Vietnam’s youth, like Mr. Binh’s son, become educated and empowered to act. Ten years…he said as he put his finger to his lips. When I left him as I got on the bus, promising to write to him from America, he said “ten years, our secret, ten years.” I made the tears stay inside my eyes until I could find my way inside the bus.
The Other Side: Getting Blessed
Getting into Hanoi late on the train after visiting Sapa, I walked into a hotel down the street from the train station because I was going to leave again the next afternoon on the train for Dang Ha in Central Vietnam. The hotel workers were all sitting around a table in the foyer about to have their dinner of soup and rice and vegetables. They were accompanied by a Buddhist monk who spoke excellent English. The next day the hotel management kindly allowed me to stay in my room for a nap while I waited for my 3:30 pm train when I heard a knock on my door. The monk joined me in my little room and said he wanted to talk to me. He was in Hanoi, he said, to work on his doctorate in education…his thesis was on an idea he had about how to work with the street kids in Saigon. What is your job he asked. I got goose bumps as I told him that my major was education and my last job was developing an alternative education program for Latino street kids in the US. Yes, he said, as if he knew it all along, and then asked if he could bless me. He took out his little brass Buddha and as he screwed off the head showed me what was supposedly tiny pieces of Buddha relic. Then he put the Buddha image on top of my head as he blessed me. We talked some more, exchanged email and mail addresses and then he left. My god, I thought, I was in my hotel room in Hanoi Vietnam with my door closed- alone with this man who I did not doubt for one second was a very good person.
The End of the Rope
There is an edginess here as most families try to deal with the complexities of rapid change in their society. People, especially the children, feel no compunction about laughing at and making fun of the big pink Westerner. But for some reason anyone in a position to be in charge of anything at all is compelled to order around the foreigner (I noticed they use a completely different tone of voice with the locals.) “Please come here and sit down, Please wait here, Please give me your papers, No I don’t want that paper, Where is the other paper” all sound and feel like orders roughly given to a
We’ve been on the road eight months…it feels like heaven to find a hotel in Phomn Penh and crawl, after a cold shower, safe and quiet, into clean crisp sheets. I think we need to take a big rest…I try to remember what it was like to travel without email…no gently encouraging friends…