Back in the late 1970′s, I researched and wrote The Tay Son Rebellion, a historical fiction of 18th century Vietnam, which covered a great civil war from 1770 to 1802. After working on the book over 10 years, I failed to find a publisher, so put it away, went to business school for an MBA, got married, and had three children. In 2010, 21 years later, I reread the manuscript, and rewrote it. In November, 2010, I went to Vietnam for three weeks, to visit most of the places important to my story. What follows, in three parts, or chapters, is my journal of that trip. The novel The Tay Son Rebelllion, has gotten much better, but still needs a publisher.
Here is a synopsis of the history. Vietnam was divided into north and south for 150 years, the Trinh in the north, the Nguyen in the South. Both were weak administrators where corruption became normal. The Three Ho brothers start a peasant uprising in the center, in Tay Son, and actually defeat both dynasties. The Ho of Tay Son let a young Nguyen prince escape, and he is helped in his escape by a French Catholic Bishop, who raises a small French Navy in India to help the young Prince Anh defeat the Ho brothers. It also takes troops from Siam, and about 20 years of fighting. Emperor Bao Dai, who the US supported in 1954, was a descendant of Nguyen Anh.
Trip to Vietnam to Study the Tay Son Rebellion, November, 2010, by David Lindsay
Copyright, all rights reserved7/13/11.
Day 1. 11/3/2010 At Kennedy Airport, without free internet.
The CT Limo picked me up at 5 am. I was well prepared and packed, but as I sat in the bumpy van in the dark, I reviewed what appeared as a mistake. I left my cell phone at home on purpose, since it wouldn’t work in Vietnam, and now realized that at 1 am on Nov. 24th, I will really wish I had that phone to call someone on my return for a ride back to my house.
I told the Hispanic Limo driver that I’d written a novel on Vietnam. He wanted to know if I’d like to write a novel on Adam and Eve. He thought it was a good idea; maybe he would buy it. He lectured me in very hard to understand English that the men who write history can not be trusted at all, since they are reporting only the perspective of the victors. Whether he said this or not, it’s a great point, that I heard expressed in a graduate seminar at Yale taught by Linda Orr on French Existentialism and Derrida. The driver reminded me that I do want to write a novel about Jesus Christ. It would be the story of his disciples, and all the family members they damaged and ruined when the disciples just up and walked out on them to follow the Jesus man. Perhaps none of them had any dependants, but that is not my suspicion or hypothesis, people married young back then.
I spent most of my two and a half hours at Kennedy Airport reading a copy of the NYT, to read all about the Tuesday election, where the Tea Party won many seats. Evan Bayh wrote a thoughtful op-ed piece entitled, “Where do Democrats Go Next.” He wrote:
“It is clear that Democrats over-interpreted our mandate. Talk of a “political realignment” and a “new progressive era” proved wishful thinking. Exit polls in 2008 showed that 22 percent of voters identified themselves as liberals, 32 percent as conservatives and 44 percent as moderates. An electorate that is 76 percent moderate to conservative was not crying out for a move to the left…. We also overreached by focusing on health care rather than job creation during a severe recession. It was a noble aspiration, but $1 trillion in new spending and a major entitlement expansion are best attempted when the Treasury is flush and the economy strong, hardly our situation today. “
There was a piece by Thomas Friedman, on brilliant marketing ideas coming out of India. In “Do Believe the Hype,” Friedman wrote: “The brothers had an idea. In every Indian neighborhood or village there’s usually a mom-and-pop kiosk that sells drinks, cigarettes, candy and a few groceries. Why not turn each one into a virtual bank? So they created a software program whereby a migrant worker in Delhi using his cellphone, and proof of identity, could open a bank account registered on his cellphone text system. Mom-and-pop shopkeepers would act as the friendly neighborhood local banker and do the same.” The brothers determined a poor worker would be able to send money back to his family in his village at a greatly reduced cost to the sender.
I proof-read over 200 pages of my novel The Tay Son Rebellion, a historical fiction of 18th century Vietnam on the flight. Most of the passengers were watching several movies, out of a choice of about 30, on little LCD screens in the back of the seat before you. I had trouble not peeking at Salt, on the screen next to mine. Even on a 10 inch screen, Angelina Jolie is acrobatic, deadly and beautiful.
I went to the trouble on Tuesday to call Cathay Pacific airlines. A gentle Chinese gent informed me that all regular meals would be served (which is apparently still the norm on international flights). All liquor, or at least the first drink, including exotic scotch and cognac, was included in the ticket price. Let it be remembered that I turned down a free exotic Scotch to work on my book most of the night.
The plane to Hong Kong is a 16 hour flight. I sat between a lovely English woman named Freya, (goddess of Fertility), who lives near Greenwich, CT, and a Chinese Grandma who spoke no English, but kept offering us sweets and cookies.
In Hong Kong Airport, I waited for 3-4 hours for the flight to Ho Chi Minh City, which all the locals still call Saigon I’ve been told. The flight only took 2 hours. I breezed through customs, no bribe required, but they rescanned all my luggage. This scanning on coming in reminded me that I was entering a totalitarian state, and therefore, it is suspicious of everyone. Later, someone told me that basically all Asian countries do this now; it’s the norm here. I changed some money, the ladies added an unadvertised and unmentioned 3%, so I checked with the desk next door, that had a similar rate and no hidden charges, so I demanded my money back, and went next door, dragging all my luggage. Even exhausted, I do not like being mislead about fees.
I am on this trip largely because of Lisa Carter. She is the lovely office manager at IPA, Innovations for Poverty Action, where I worked until last March. Lisa went to Vietnam last fall for 2 weeks as a tourist on her vacation, and her chutzpa shamed me into getting my own trip on my calendar. Lisa gave me good advice for this trip. She warned, don’t just take any taxi from the airport, many are crooks, get your hotel to send a private driver. Well, I just took a taxi, and he asked for $10, when the going rate is $4-5. I told him $5, or the meter, started at the beginning, and he accepted, but then at my hotel, only 7 kilometers later, he held out for $10, and wouldn’t open the trunk for me to get my suitcase. He also started to whine and pretended to cry, and we resettled on $7, though he dramatically showed he was distraught, since his life depended on $8. In a country where the majority earn $600-$1000 per year, he was full of drama, but I was tired, and surprisingly, not particularly afraid. I’d seen lots of theatrics in Nepal, India, Thailand and China back in 1987. At any rate, hired cars can cost up to $10, unless you know to demand less. The Lonely Planet Vietnam 2009 guidebook says that unless you want to be seriously over charged, you regularly have to bargain, and should always start with about 30% of what they say you should pay as a foreigner. This was excellent advice from Lonely Planet, about our lonely planet.
My hotel room at the My Anh Hotel on Le Lai Street was small, and windowless. The photos on the internet had lied. But it was only $17.50 per night. I couldn’t put the suitcase anywhere but on the floor, and then the only closet couldn’t open. Like all the cheap rooms with showers, as warned Lisa, the whole bathroom is the shower stall, so you soak your bathroom floor with every wash. I noticed that the edge tiles weren’t calked properly, so they will probably have leaks in the ceiling below this bathroom, unless I’m missing something-maybe waterproofing under the poorly calked tile. It is never smart to assume the Vietnamese do not know what they are doing.
I had not slept on the Hong Kong flight, so I was tired. But I was also very excited to be in Vietnam for the very first time. I went for a walk at around 9 PM; Le Lai street was full of traffic and pedestrians. Two western girls I met on the street said there were bars with Westerners on the other side of the park before my hotel. One of them had had her purse snatched in the park. Purse snatching is epidemic in Saigon, which has the worst crime of any city in Vietnam says the Lonely Planet Guidebook on Vietnam (LPGV). Going through the park, I found a busy place, full of Viets relaxing. On a cement pavement, about 12 boys of elementary school age, 5th to 7th graders?, were playing a very fast game of football (ie, soccer) with a softer, rubber ball, since they played barefoot. Then I came to small circles of mostly young adult Viets, kicking a device like a badminton birdie. Some of the Vietnamese were really good at this game which resembled hacky-sack. They could rally the birdie repeatedly, and even by letting it go over their heads, and doing a back kick with their feet.
As I was watching the second group, one of the women invited me to join, and I couldn’t resist. I joined the circle, and then surprised them, since I could usually kick the birdie with either foot. I noticed that they also used their hands, especially on the hard high shots, and I could slap the birdie with my hands also. Three more westerners came by, maybe Australian, and they were invited and joined. Then two more attractive Viet women asked to join, and for a while, we were a big group, with maybe 12 in all. Many members of the original group gradually dropped out, but the game was challenging, and the girls were good at laughing at their failures. Many times we had to pick up the birdie, and start it into play. I asked someone, what is this called, and they said, Sa Cow. Later, someone said it was Sha Ta Ca. After almost an hour, it was just me, and one of the young Viet women, and we kept up the game briefly, then said goodby. As I crossed the rest of the park, I came to two men who were masters, back kicking the birdie back and forth over 20 yards with apparent ease, 10, 20,30 times without a mistake!! A young man asked if I would buy a birdie. I looked at the package, he said it was Sha Ta Ca, the package said, Shuttle Cock. He nodded, pointed to the words Shuttle Cock, and said, yes, Sha Ta Ca. This was my first clue to an observation which grew over time. The Viets do not usually speak English, even though they all studied it supposedly in school. More on this later.
I located some of the bars the girls had mentioned, spoke to two German women, who recommended Halong Bay and the old City of Hoi An, browsed some shops, then returned to the hotel to my cell and turned in at 11pm. ( I later figured out that it was 11 am in New Haven, the same day of 11/24. We are exactly 12 hours behind Vietnam in Connecticut.)
11/25/10 Friday, I was up at 7, and discovered that breakfast, from the woman with the food stall on the corner, was included. Clearly Franco-American-Vietnamese cuisine: fried eggs over-easy, small baguette of fresh bread, and shredded vegetables in vinegar, nuoc mam sauce and hot peppers, and two bananas, each about the size of my index finger. I had tipped the bell hop 20,000 Dong the night before, or $1.00 US, and so now, he cleared the only table in the tiny lobby, and ostentatiously waited on me. I spent the morning walking the neighborhood, and looking for the Sinh Café Travel agency. I found them under their new name, Sinh Tourist, and they didn’t serve Ha Tien, so they sent me to Ma Linh travel, which I walked up and down looking for.
The architecture of the tourist district is reminiscent of what I discovered in Katmandu, Nepal, but all relatively new buildings, so the small storefronts are mostly full sized rooms, in relatively modern multistory buildings, but like Katmandu in 1987, many of the storefronts have no outside wall, so you can look in, and then walk in, without opening a door. They essentially have large garage doors that can be shut at night. Open air stores and offices of course do not pay for air-conditioning, and it was over 90 all day. I was in sandals and shorts. I went into a bank, was instructed to take a ticket like at the Deli in Stop and Shop, and I got an exchange rate of 19,485 Dong to the US Dollar. This bank was taking 3% as well, so this rate was below the 20,140 dong I got at the airport for cash. I tested their ATM, to see if I could access money there, and discovered I have forgotten or never knew my almost never used credit card PIN. This was an upsetting mistake. I’ve emailed to Citibank, and they wrote back that I had to call them.
A woman at the Ma Linh storefront said I must go to Rach Gia, and then get a local bus to Ha Tien, and I must go to the right bus station, West Station, Ben Xe Mien Tay, to get the ticket. For a boat ride down the Saigon River, she gave me an address on the river to visit. I asked the My Anh Hotel to show me a larger room for $20./night, and the room was much bigger, with a desk, and a bathtub. I took the upgrade, losing the breakfast included. I now could open my suitcase, and my laptop, and had two windows, with a view of the skyline. Throughout my trip, I was impressed at the extraordinary increase in comforts, between $10 and $15 dollars per night in the smaller cities, and $15 and $20 in the big ones. $30 to $50 would have put me in two star luxury, if I had reason for it.
I chose to eat lunch at the uppity restaurant next door to the Hotel My Anh, since the manager had been so friendly when I first walked out the night before, and he spoke English. It was awkward, they were expensive, and I was the only customer, but I found a vegetarian dish for 65,000. With a bottle of water and some rice, it came to 91,000 Dong. So the meal with tip cost about $5. The stalls and open air (garage architecture) restaurants on the same street, are selling meals for $1-$3, but without the air-conditioning, or the menu in Vietnamese and English, which means you can’t order from the menu, you have to point to what someone else is eating, and sign with your fingers, how much?
As I was doing internet research later, my computer died, lost all power. I spent the afternoon visiting computer stores about 3 blocks away on Ton That Tung Street. I picked out a homely place. The technician after almost 60 minutes of careful testing which I watched, determined that my 220 to 110 volts transformer from the 1970’s had died, and with a new, smart transforming power cable, I didn’t need it. He charged me $20 for a new power cable that could convert 220 to 110, and also work on 110, and which he carefully demonstrated, if I gave him my HP power cable. I was delighted to get the repair, and even more, for at a fair price.
I had to shop the street to replace my old converter, since I needed it for my Olympus camera battery charger. I was so absorbed in watching the motorbike and motorcycle traffic as I went home that I got lost. Many of the women bikers wear surgical masks against the air pollution. So many women wearing face masks gives the streets an Arab muslim feel. I had to ask various people, before I got back to Le Lai street. Besides the streets with computers and electronics, I found streets with beauty salons, and streets with foot massage parlors, and streets with very expensive clothing and shoes. This mimics the ancient Chinese model, which I saw in Katmandu, of having stores of the same type on the same street.
Passing through a busy rotary, many Viets, in their hurry, rode their cycles up on the sidewalk, wild behavior I’d seen in Paris in 1976, also on a Friday afternoon.
Lisa Carter had said that her greatest anxiety visiting this country, was crossing the streets in big cities, through all the moving traffic, since most intersections do not have any traffic lights. Obviously, it is much safer if you wait until the traffic thins in both directions. American families should probably avoid Saigon, and go straight to a beach resort, or plan on using taxies. The traffic here is out of control crazy. But I forget about all the medicines I took to visit here safely, which suggest that Vietnam might not be for western children yet. I went to the Yale Travel Clinic, and they gave me shots and pills that included immunization vaccines for for Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Typhoid. They gave me a renewal of myTetanus/Diphtheria/Pertussis, which is normal anyway for the USA. I also went on chemoprophylaxis for Malaria, and these pills I had to take though out the entire trip. Then they gave me a small sack with anti-biotics and other medicines, so I could treat myself if I came down with severe diarrhea, which is common for folks who are careless about water sources, uncooked vegetables and salads. I carried very strong mosquito repellent,50% DEET, and Repel Permanone with Permethrin to spray on clothing. In hindsight, I never went into the jungles, and stayed in coastal towns and cities, so I could have possibly gotten away with less, but I don’t know. I was prepared for a jungle trek, if time and weather had permitted it.
Nearing Le Lai Street, I visited a large Catholic Church on the way back to my Hotel. Inside the open gate to the gardens around the building, were several Shinto Shrines with incense to the Virgin Mary and Jesus. The huge church was locked, but the side door to the right was open to a very tall hall, with a circular staircase that went up four flights of empty space and disappeared. I was dying to see the inside of this Church, probably from about 1900, so I climbed the four stories of circular staircase, and found a chapel with a guard, who made me take off my sandals and leave my computer bag. As the guard made me leave the precious laptop by the entrance, I entrusted it to his care. Inside the door, two women were praying devoutly. It looked like a library, with shelves of stacks, but on closer inspection, the shelves contained highly decorated earthen jars, about the size of our cookie jars, with the photo and dates of the person whose ashes were contained therein. This was the Columbarium of this old Catholic Church. I walked around the shelves, and got to look down through openings into the nave of the beautiful church below, which was full of glossy statuary, and a huge carving of Jesus in the front, floating above the alter before the congregation. The pews were of fine dark wood, with fancy, cushioned bars for kneeling. The pictures on the earthen jars were of men, women, old men, old women, and lots of children and infants. I was so tired, I failed to read any dates, but the photos looked like they were almost a hundred years old. Also, it appeared that this columbarium was full. Each handsome jar was almost a foot high, and 6 inches wide, the shelves were chock full.
Finally back at the My Anh Hotel, the wireless internet on the 3rd floor doesn’t really work, so I started writing my journal on my return, and turned in early, around 5pm, and slept until 4 in the morning. The Shower, a French style nozzle on a cable, worked well in the bathtub, but was hung for a people who are over a foot shorter than I am.
This morning, I got up, took my laptop to the lobby, and got online and checked my email, and sent the previous entry to my siblings and a new girlfriend. I crossed the park, looking at adult men now playing sha ta ca, or Shuttle Cock, and a large group of 20 to 30 young and old men in black practicing Tai Kwon Do using the park as their dojo. I went to a coffee house, and decided not to stay, since the expresso was $2.50, but I asked if they served breakfast, and one of the girls said yes, but it was upstairs. I reviewed a menu, that looked pricey but appropriate, went upstairs, and found the room filled with Vietnamese tourists from Singapore enjoying a huge buffet. A gringo told me that this all you can eat buffet was 113,000 Dong, which is about $5.65 (1000 dong equals 5 cents), or the price of just 2 coffees from the menu downstairs, so I found an empty plate, and joined in. I had a nice chat with Ricki Chanh from Singapore. As I paid downstairs, I mentioned to the female cashier that they should put up a sign saying buffet upstairs and she smiled and said it was a private event, organized by a tour company for the use of their patrons.
I prepared for my boat trip down the Saigon River, and took a taxi to the dock. It was mayhem, and all the high speed ferries to Vuong Tau island were filled! I was supposed to have brought suit and towel, since it is a famous swimming beach. Hundreds of Viet families had made their reservations to go to the beach for the weekend. She said, come back Monday. So I took a taxi back to my hotel, but instead of costing 15,000D, or $.75, it was 48,000 D, since the driver had taken me a scenic route past a number of national treasures. I pointed out to him that he had not gone straight back, and he argued first that it was because of all the one way streets, and then that he wanted to show me some sights. I gave him 40,000, and got out saying he had abused me. He pretended to be upset, but he recognized that I was compromising.
I successfully called Citibank in the US, to reset the pins on my two credit cards, and the agent said they wouldn’t do it. I have to find a Citibank branch, or they will mail new pins to my home address, so I will pay 6% fees starting in week two, if I fail to find a Citibank branch when I return to Saigon, instead of a $1.00 Viet ATM charge, and 3% to Citibank for advances.
I asked the gorgeous service desk girl, Quyen, (pronounced Queen), if I could take off for my trip to Ha Tien, and use my third prepaid day when I returned, and she agreed, so I packed up and took a taxi to the West Station, Ben Xe Mien Tay, which was 50 minutes out of town. I was exhilarated to be leaving the tourist district of Saigon, and started taking pictures enthusiastically. On the outskirts of Saigon were some middle class towers, and some slums vaguely like in Slum Dog Millionaire. The meter read 185,000 for a ride that was supposed to cost around 115,000. We went through some really small back roads as well as highways, so I think the driver just took me for a scenic drive. He then refused to give me all of my change, and said I had to pay the toll. I let it go, but told him he’d cheated me. I was confronted with a line of 40 windows, each with a different ticket seller, representing a different bus company, and I lost my head. I was supposed to find the representative for the Mai Linh company, but I let the women hand me to a rep for the Viet Duc. The price was 95,000D for a 5.5 hour trip, leaving in 25 minutes, so I agreed. We left 30 minutes late, and they squeezed 21 men, women and children into a 16 passenger van. I was put in the back with 4 others to share 4 seats, and a shifty, Viet guy next to me couldn’t stay awake, and wanted to rest his head on my shoulder for 6 hours. I kept moving, till he found a more neutral sleeping position. A little girl in the seat before mine started throwing up, and she threw up regularly for the entire trip. A boy in the 2nd row of seats had a hacking cough, like he had croup or tuberculosis. It was great to get out of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) tourist district though, and the constant buzzing of the motorcycles, and I soon saw rice paddies, and eventually, some wood and thatched houses. The country has changed mightily since 1975, and most of the houses now are of concrete or sheet metal. (Or am I confusing the coast with the highlands?) We were on a real highway, which didn’t take long to become like Route One in CT, with shops on both sides of the highway. Repeatedly, we were just on a main street through a town or village, or city. Oddly, we passed hundreds of villages, and they were all named Honda, at least that was the one sign which was displayed the most often that I could understand.
I took a lot of photos to display the architecture, and the boats, and the families with children on motorcycles. I couldn’t get over the number of couples on a cycle, with two small children or even infants, tucked in somehow. The adults always had helmets, a new development, whereas the kids almost never did.
The Viets have a favorite house design, I call the shoe box, which is rectangular, as if the shoe box were put on its side. There were signs of flooding, and as we got further south, the rivers got bigger, and the lands on either side got smaller. Some of the villages we drove through had 4/5ths of each house over the river on stilts. The architecture started to look more and more like what I saw in Nepal, really poor, small dwellings, with ground floors open facing the road, to show what wares the family had to sell.
At one point I had to move my suitcase, which was in the aisle, to outside the van, and then back to the aisle of the bus, and the driver handed me my 2nd wallet, with $100. 00 cash in it, which had just fallen out of my shorts pocket, and he barked at me to be more careful. I was careful to give him a good tip when he let me off last in Rach Gia, a half block from my new hotel, Hoang Gia 2.
I didn’t unpack, since I was leaving in the morning, but took a walk around the neighborhood, and picked out a very humble, Vietnamese eating establishment around the corner from the restaurant. They had a street level room, like a garage space, in which they had a portable kitchen. They put out on the sidewalk little plastic tables and chairs, large enough for a Patty Play Pal. The menu was in Vietnamese, and they didn’t speak much English, so we settled on Chicken and rice, since other ideas like Shrimp, or seafood special, were hard to play out in charades. I ordered a beer called Saigon, and they brought me two opened. The meal cost 63,000 Dong, (63kd), or $3.15. For the rest of this journal, I will assume, as do most Viets, an average exchange rate of $1.00 US = 20,000 Vietnamese Dong (VND). I returned to the hotel and turned in early, around 7:30 pm.
Sunday, 11/7/10 Rach Gia to Ha Tien
I took my first shower in an open bathroom, without a basin, tub or curtain. At least, they had a tile divider, about 2 inches high, to keep most of the water off the rest of the floor, and the shower nozzle was above my head. Outside the hotel, another street restaurant had sprung up, well attended by Viet men, so I asked for a bowl of noodle soup, pointing to what another fellow was eating, and since all the tables were full, I picked up another one from the garage space adjacent to the hotel, and moved it out onto the sidewalk. The owner came and made friends with me. His name was Ty, and he lived in the USA for the last 20 years, but then came back 6 months ago. He had worked his way up in the US to own a nail salon in NYC. I asked him why an old woman at the bus station in Saigon mocked me for wearing shorts. He said that the Viets all wore long pants, because they feel shorts are impolite. I looked around, and only one of his customers besides me wore shorts, and I wondered if I needed to wear long pants in this heat. The day starts at 80 and goes up past 90. He seemed to think I should. He asked why I travelled alone, and I said I was divorced. So was he, and we commiserated briefly, without necessarily understanding each word. He offered me a woman, and I politely declined, saying I had a girlfriend. I smiled to myself, thinking, this will surprise my new lady friend. Anyway, maybe it will be agreed upon sometime if I behave myself.
I walked over to the bus station, determined there would be a bus in about a half hour, and went back to collect my things and check out. The room was 220kd, or $11. The bus to Ha Tien was far more pleasant than the one to Rach Gia. It was leaving in 15 minutes, and was a full size bus. The woman taking the money said I owed her 30,000 Dong for the trip, and pointed to a sign that stated the charge. Then she looked at my suitcase and said it would be an extra 20,000 Dong. I knew this to be false, and told her so. I hadn’t been charged for luggage in the 6 hours from Saigon in a small bus. The whole ride was only 30,000 Dong.
She signaled that she was firm, so I counter offered 500 Dong, or 2.5 Cents. She got dramatic, and so did I, but remembered to smile and argue calmly. A small crowd was listening, and all knew she was shaking down a foreigner. I finally came up to 5000 Dong, or 25 cents, and she graciously accepted that. Then, I think because I lost so graciously, she told me to sit in the very front of the bus, next to the Driver, which means I took some excellent photos of the trip. As we left the town, I looked at all the men on motorbikes, and saw 3 or 4 with shorts on. I feel that in shorts I am setting a good example of common sense, to show my knees in this heat. Besides, a good 25% of the women have switched to capris.
The driver had a soft horn for villages and towns, and a very loud horn, when he thought he was out of a restricted area. I started wishing I had ear plugs, and prayed that he didn’t hit anyone. We edged by a traffic accident, two motos had collided head on. The motorbikes were left in the road, though it was unclear why. The drivers were not to be seen.
I was shocked by how much water there is down here. It is like the pine barrens of southern New Jersey. There is a river to your right, and then you see behind the houses on the left, either another river, or flooded rice paddies, or both. We went over many bridges, as navigatable canals went under our paths. All the river waters were dark brown with mud silt, and there were many hovels, with a few beautiful houses and regularly large government mansions for the local communist committee dotting the otherwise impoverished landscape. In the words of my friend and former room-mate, a gynecologist named Dr. Wang, from the People’s Republic of China, she would point to mansions in New Haven and say, “In China, Party Officials.”
We were held up, it turned out, to get on a ferry, to cross a huge river, that was probably a mile wide. I think it was the Mekong. I was on the local bus, so it stopped frequently to let passengers on and off. We even took on 4 larges boxes of frozen fish. I never tire of looking at the motorcycle and motorbike and bicycle traffic. I have seen 2 adults and 2 infants, or 2 adults and 2 children, on numerous motorbikes. It continues to shock and mortify.
We came up to the Gulf of Thailand, and drove along it, seeing a small, undeveloped beach, covered with litter, and little tin shacks. We crossed the huge, Chao river bridge, past Ha Tien, to the Bus Depot in the outskirts of the town. I looked around for a taxi, and there were none in sight. The second motorcycle cowboy to offer me a ride said it was the only way into town. I asked about the suitcase, he said it would have to go on a second bike, and I said no. He said if one bike, the fee would be 20,000 Dong (20kD), or $1 US, so I said yes. I’d seen others do what we did. He gave me a second helmet, he got on, I put the large suitcase behind him where I should have been, and then I got on next, as the third person. In order to get my big legs and feet on the rear foot rests, I had to lift the suitcase up and hold it on my thighs. Luckily, it was only 3-4 minutes to the hotel, the Anh Van. The Lonely Planet Guidebook (LPGV) said it had some rooms for 320kd with great windows.
The room was OK, spacious, but no window. I asked to see the 320kD rooms with the gorgeous water view mentioned in the guidebook, and the girl said, a new building blocked the view. I asked to see it anyway, and sure enough, the view was so damaged that they had painted over the outside window, to try and hide that the view was of a wall a foot away. I walked around the waterfront, found a stall with a mother and her two daughters serving dishes, and asked for shrimp, green beans and rice, since I could point to shrimp and green beans, and the little girl knew what rice was. She taught me, it is Com. I got several words out of her, and after I paid 27kd, 20k for the meal, and 7k for the pepsi, I tipped her a 500d note for her tutoring. She was ecstatic, and lorded it over her sister, and then handed the note to her mother. The sister came over to me, and pinched some of the dark hair on my arm, and pulled it till I said ouch. She burst into laughter, her sister went into hysterics, and I looked over at the mother, who was doubled up she was laughing so hard. Yes, it is real body hair, and apparently only westerners have it. I laughed to, and said thank you and goodbye, and walked off. God knows what they think of me- a large, hairy armed, almost bald barbarian from the west.
It was 2pm, and I had time to do something. I decided to visit the Mac Cuu Family tombs, since they were built in 1809 on the orders of the Emperor Gia Long, who is Nguyen Anh in my historical fiction, who becomes Emperor Gia Long in real life. I saw a group of Viet tourists with a priest guide, and they came to worship at this temple. They bowed standing, 5 times with their hands to their foreheads, small bows, bending at the waist, hands together, moving up and down to the forehead, then they knelt and kowtowed three times with their palms up, their knuckles against the ground. This was useful to witness for my book, to corroborate most of my choices.
They were quite conscious of me, and many of the women came up to shake my hand or smile directly into my eyes. Then their priest guide asked me to photograph them, and I agreed. Only I misunderstood, one of the women wanted her picture taken standing next to me. Then 4 more women also wanted their pictures taken standing next to me. These were well dressed, middle class Vietnamese women, and I do not know what was going on. Either I was a good omen of some sort, or they couldn’t believe I would go to a temple in shorts. Maybe they thought I was a famous American movie star. Very odd. I then asked if I could take a group picture of all of them, and this was agreed to, and executed. I asked the priest if he had email, and he had no idea what I was talking about. I wrote out my email address on one of my business cards and showed it to him. He still had no idea what it was, so I dropped the idea of getting any of these photos. Since I had my own camera, I should have asked a member of their group to shoot it for me. I have no pictures of these elegant ladies posing with me at the temple. What a loss. I had to wait patiently for another group of devout pilgrims to pass through, so I could go back to the main rooms and take some pictures of the inner statues with no one watching.
The man who had taken me by cycle to this temple for 10kd, waited for me, even though I had said I would walk home. I re-explained that I would walk. I headed out of town, and found the Chu Phat Da Buddhist monastery, and walked about it taking pictures. It had serious statuary to various Buddhas, and gorgeous rooms with ornate furniture. Further up the street was the Phu Dung Pagoda, which dated back to the 1750’s so was there during my time period. Many of the nice Viet homes have a main room open to the street with a fine tile floor, just like in these Buddhist temples. The Viets take their sandals off before entering this main room, which is often bare of furniture, giving it more of the feel of the temples it mimics.
Many children said Hello to me, or, Hello, five dollars. This would produce oodles of giggles, since these children were only amateur beggars, playing beggar out of boredom. The houses stopped, and I came to scrub fields. The moto driver came by again, asking if I didn’t want a ride, and I had to again say no thanks. With the recession, I seem to be the only guest at these moderately priced hotels. I saw almost no other tourists in Ha Tien. When I hired this motoman, he was sitting with 4 others, and I had to pick one. Still walking, I reached the bus depot and checked pricing and times for tomorrow. I continued on, looking for farms, but it got to be after 4, and I was looking at more scrubby fields, with what looked like farm houses a half mile off on the other side of more scrub, so I turned back.
This coastal region is not famous for its farming, but for its seafood and smuggling. On the walk back I found a graveyard with many above ground tombs the size of a coffin, and these were not Christian. The grounds were poorly kept, and run over, abandoned, and I tried to examine a set of these coffin sized tombs, and was struck by a hideous rotten fish smell. I almost stepped on a bed of dead crab shells. The Viets put these out in the sun to rot, and then make their fish sauce, Nuoc Mam, from these dried out shellfish carcasses. The region is famous for its Fish sauce.
I made it to the waterfront, looked at boats and a statue of 7 half naked ladies, watched young men play soccer, and then walked across the town to my hotel, the Anh Van. After navigating the wireless here, I checked my email, and when asking directions, the reception girl suggested a much closer restaurant, Huong Bien, where the young man running it was a college student home from Saigon, who was able to speak English. They even had a menu in both languages, so I finally had a seafood special of shrimp and squid in tomatoes and vegetables, with a tiger beer, for 67kd, or $3.33. I enjoyed talking to this young man Khra, so we exchanged email addresses, and I also enjoyed talking to his younger sister Tien. Tien had the presence to ask me, “what do you think of Vietnam so far,” and I said it was too soon to tell, but I was mildly disappointed. She asked why, and I said, there is so much underemployment that it boggles the mind. Their population explosion, now 85 million people, means trouble for a long time, and since the south is only a few feet above sea level, they are at risk if there is any truth to the danger of global warming, and the threat of a rising sea level.
I had a great meal at Huong Bien, and was able to discuss these ideas with Khra. He said that the government had started a one child per couple policy, but not really enforced it yet. He said there was talk that enforcement was not far away. He thought that in 5 years, it would be in full force. This is news to me, the first I’ve ever heard of such a policy in Vietnam. All the children on my bus ride are proof that it hasn’t started yet. There are young people everywhere you look. I’ve read that 65% of the Viet population is under 30 (Lonely Planet Vietnam, LPGV).
A street person interrupted us. He had a sound system, and from across the street, he was blasting music, while asking through a megaphone for paying customers to come and use his portable karaoki system. It felt like a gangster’s shakedown. He finally gave up and moved on, or someone paid him to leave. I returned to my hotel to type this journal entry. During dinner, I got out my calendar, and decided I must return to Rach Gia tomorrow afternoon, and to Saigon the next day. Then on day 6, find Citibank and take the river trip. Then off to the central part of Vietnam, to Qui Nhon and then Hue. It will take two 7 hour bus rides to reach Qui Nhon, unless I take the overnight bus, which I refuse to do. I want to see the whole country, or at least all the coastal regions.
I returned to the Anh Van Hotel, and since my room had no windows and weak internet, I moved into the lobby, with 5-6 Viets relaxing before the TV, watching Pokeman cartoons, and I downloaded emails and wrote the above. I got sweet emails from friends.
Monday, November 08, 2010. Ha Tien to Rach Gia.
I woke early, around 5:30 AM, which is new for me, but perhaps related to jet lag, or just going to bed early. I went out and walked about, and was surprised to see hundreds of Vietnamese setting up the market a block from my hotel. I found a humble soup seller by the boardwalk of the mighty Chau River, and pointed to her only other customer, since I didn’t know any of the right words. I would eat what he was eating, Pho, noodle soup with greens and the kitchen sink, and a fistful of bean sprouts and a little mint. I sat on a little plastic stool, just 18 inches off the ground, at a little plastic table, across from the old Viet workman, who had his back to the gorgeous Chau river behind him. He turned out to be a boatman, off a nearby fishing vessel. I searched his body for body hair, and he had none. We are the hairy barbarians!
Back at the hotel, men and women were drinking tea and coffee, so I ordered a coffee and fetched my computer, so I could check my email and the weather. One of the Viets offered me a cup of tea from his pot, while my coffee was brewing. One man came over and looked over my shoulder as I was composing an email, I don’t think he could read my correspondence, but it was childlike and rude behavior.
I decided the night before that I needed more Vietnamese Dong (VND), and that I didn’t want to take a wad from the bank to the Mui Nai beach, where it could disappear while I swam, so I made an itinerary for hiring a motorbike driver. To the bank and back to the hotel, to the Tam Bao Pagoda to find the old city wall from the 18th century, then to the beach, (8 kilometers) and back to the hotel. I would need the driver for 2-3 hours, and was prepared to pay up to 100,000 dong, or $5.00. As I approached the intersection near the hotel, there were about 5 drivers there all trying to get my attention and business. One old man waved at me with a big smile, so I picked him. Of course, I chose the one who spoke almost no English at all. He wanted 200,000 Dong, but agreed to the 100kd without any fuss at all. He would have agreed to do it for 50k, if I had insisted.
The bank was across town, and hard to spot, but it was Vietcombank, and they gave me the exact rate on the internet, of 19,490 per USD, but less 10 dong, for changing bills under $100. This was the best rate since the airport, so I changed $80 into 1,558,400 dong, mostly in 100,000 dong notes, or $5 dollar bills. Vietcombank was very professional, and I was back on the saddle behind Thome my driver in about 10 minutes.
I left my main wallet, with most of the new cash and all my credit cards and my laptop locked in the suitcase, and we drove over to the Tam Bao Pagoda. I walked all around, took photos, but wasn’t sure I’d found the old city wall. I found plenty of old walls, but it didn’t make sense. I asked some nuns for help, and they referred me to a gent who also spoke no English. As I was leaving the compound, I found the Old city wall on the far left side of the park before the temple. It was a 10 foot high wall of old stones and mortar, forming an open gate, and then it rose to about 15 feet high. Pleased as punch, I went looking for my driver, no where to be found, so I decided to explore the large Christian Church across the street from the temple entrance. I thought, so Pierre Pigneau de Behain wasn’t a complete failure after all. Thanks to his life’s work, described in my novel, there are Christian churches all over the Mekong delta region. Thome drove up to me, and he took me to the front gate of the Church. I tested the doors, locked, and examine the statuary and flowers. It had a feel remarkably similar to the Buddhist temple next door. The statues in the garden of Jesus had neon light electric halos, that, thank the lord, were not on in the day.
It wasn’t a very long ride to the Mui Nai beach, but I got to see the farms outside the city, and could imagine that Pierre Pigneau’s mission in Tra Tien might have looked like one of these farms. Thome and I agreed he would return to get me in half an hour. I found the changing room, and went down to the famous beach, and waded into the water until it was deep enough to swim. I was conscious of my backpack, camera and wallet on a sand chair on the beach, and decided not to swim far out in the water. I swam back and forth for about 20 minutes. The water was as calm as a lake, and warm like a swimming pool in July. There were fishing boats out on the water before me, and I tried not to be afraid of the unknown, since this was reported to be a safe place to swim. At 10 in the morning, I was the only swimmer at a mile and half of beach.
Thome missed our rendez-vous, so I walked about 300 or 400 yards to the main road back to Ha Tien. Then I walked back to the beach. It was a beautiful morning, and I was enjoying my first real walk in the countryside since I arrived in Vietnam. I took pictures of the all the farms, with their large rice fields, some with foot long rice, and other plots flooded with water. In the background were these beautiful, tree covered mountains that rose like huge earth mounds, reminiscent of Guilin in China.
No sign of the driver, and I had to get back to the hotel and shower, and be out by 12 noon. I walked the circuit to the road and back again, and then a third time. I was still enjoying myself, there were lots of little shacks by the road, with women washing naked children, or doing chores around their properties, but when I reached the road after 3.5 full circuits, I hired the man in the last hut to take me to Ha Tien. He asked for 20kd, and I agreed to it. I felt bad for Thome, but he was unreliable, and maybe had had an accident. I had waited 40 minutes past our rendez-vous time. I found Thome in town at the square, looking for clients, so I guess that he must not have understood me at all. Showing him 30 minutes on my watch could have been understood as saying 6 hours. I gave him his fee, minus what I paid the other driver, which appeared to help US-Vietnamese relations. After a good shower, I returned to the Huong Bien restaurant and ordered the fish meal for lunch, which was excellent though over cooked, and Khra came over with a photo copy of their menu. I’d requested it because it was in Vietnamese and English, and in these little places I like to eat, I need to tell them what I want in Vietnamese.
I returned to the hotel. From the lobby, we called the hotel in Rach Gia, Hoang Gia 2, to make a reservation, mostly to be polite, and then a taxi, which took me to the bus station outside of town. I negotiated with the Mai Linh company rep, for a ticket to Rach Gia in one of their express van’s for 50kd, but they couldn’t let me sit in either the front or 2nd row seats. I found the BX company bus was leaving shortly, and it was only 30kd. However, the man taking money held up a 100kd note, and said this is what it would cost me, to include my suitcase. He was demanding 70,000 extra for my luggage. I offered him 5kd, and he looked very angry. He came down to 50k extra for the suitcase. I said I would give him 10kd, which is what I had paid on the ride up on the same company, and he looked at me in disgust, shook his head, and took my suitcase off the bus and put it on the pavement. I found the driver eating nearby and complained. The driver said, will you be willing to pay 20k extra, which is a dollar, but a ridiculous charge, since the ticket is only $1.50, so I said, I’ll pay it if you let me ride in the front in the shotgun seat. He agreed, and informed his agent that the deal was struck for 20k extra. Now I was paying the same price as the Mai Linh express van, but I would have a fine view of the country and the towns and the cacophony of humanity as we drove up to Rach Gia, 2 and 1/2 hours with all the stops for passengers to get on and off, since this was a local, not an express.
The number of people selling similar items at small stands in front of their house or in a public market area boggles the mind. I wondered if many of these people didn’t have a member of the family with an outside job, since it is hard to believe that these people can support themselves with the few customers they all seem to have.
Back in Rach Gia, and the Hoang Gia 2 Hotel, I had a cup of tea, and then hired a motorcycle cowboy to take me quick to the Rach Gia Museum of History. At the museum I met a handsome young man who had studied history and wanted to practice his English. He offered to give me a tour and I accepted. We walked through the building, and I spent just a little time looking at the memorabilia of the wars since 1945. I told him about my book, and asked about the 1770’s. There wasn’t anything there of that period, but we had a great time talking about the period anyway, and I was surprised that he knew so much about the Ho brothers. He was amazed that I knew their names and correct birth order. I asked if he knew how Ho Lu the middle brother died, and he said he knew something, but it was sensitive, and he preferred not to discuss it. I said, in my novel, I have him dying from dissipation, opium and sex. He smiled, and said, that is about what our historians think. He was impressed, and I was excited. My research was 25 years ago, so now, until I find my old footnotes, I’m not sure what I actually found in records, and what I made up.
Did he know how Ho Hue died. He said that was a controversy too, in that historians disagreed. I told him I had Hue get poisoned. He said, they think he might have had sudden kidney failure. Evidently I wasn’t too far off, since he suddenly got sick and died.
I told him I had seen a section of the old city wall in Ha Tien, dating to around 1750. It was stone and mortar. It made me want to know about the art of mortar in 1770. This young museum worker said that the old mortar was made of five materials, Sand, tree sap, though they are not sure which one now, water, sugar cane—and he never mentioned the fifth. I asked why I didn’t see much bamboo, and he said bamboo is more common in North Vietnam. I saw countless stands of bamboo in Thailand in 1987, but of course, I spent most of my time exploring northern Thailand.
We talked for over an hour, and then he invited me to go out for a tour of the city and to a coffee bar later in the evening. I agreed to meet him after dinner, but it started raining fairly hard, so he offered to drive me to my hotel. Standing in the rain at my hotel, I invited him to dinner, and we ate at a humble place across the street from my hotel. We had noodle soup with a little chicken and assorted greens, and 333 beer. I offered to get a shrimp dish, but he said he was full. So we got on his cycle and he took me into a dark secluded area with almost no buildings, but a hotel under construction, and I started to worry about my safety. Then he stopped and said, there it is, pointing to a dark wall of trees and chairs. What is it, I asked. “It’s the beach, that is the Gulf of Thailand,” he said. It was too dark to enjoy, but I suddenly realized I could smell the ocean. He was showing me the most famous place in Rach Gia. We then drove around a corner, and there were fancy bars and nightclubs, one after another. He took me to a very attractive bar, beautifully decorated, and we took a table in the dark, surrounded by wooden lattice that separated us from other tables, but you could see them through the lattice. We talked about his job and the economy. He told me he makes $70 USD/month, so he feels stuck in his office job and in his country. His father has 6 hectares of farmland for rice cultivation, but he doesn’t want to be a farmer. We discussed a number of topics. I told him about visiting the Tam Bao Pagoda in Ha Tien, and seeing the pilgrims bow 5 times with their hands to their foreheads five times, and then kneel and kow-tow 3 times, putting their heads into their open palm hands. I asked if this is how subjects probably kowtowed to the king or the Emperor in 1770, and he said yes. They are both considered representatives of the gods, so they are bowed to as one would bow to a deity in a temple. I said, I got the 3 kow-tows right, but missed the 5 little bows, which I used only for addressing family alters. For me, it was exciting to refine all this, because I’ve worried for years that I got it wrong, since I guessed through conjecture what it probably was, and guessed almost correctly.
I had paid for the dinner and beers, which was only 60kd, or $3.00. My new friend Mr. Ho insisted on paying for the cold iced Green Teas that we ordered in the bar. I offered to pick that up as well, and he insisted, so I acquiesced. This was the first gift I’ve received from anyone in Vietnam, and it was a pleasant change. Mr. Ho has a BA is management and Vietnamese history and culture. I asked him if he was familiar with The Tale of Kieu by Nguyen Do, and he said no.
I wrote out the question, and he got all excited. My pronunciation was terrible.” Kayou Twuyen By Win You.” He said that the poem was a huge tradition in his family. His Grand-father and his father could both recite the entire poem by memory: all 3254 lines. I described borrowing from Kieu for characters in my narrative, duly credited in footnotes.
I asked him about all the tombs I’ve seen in rice paddies, and which I saw in an old run down graveyard in Ha Tien. Each tomb is the size of a coffin, so it looks like they are putting bodies in these ceramic boxes, but that doesn’t make sense. He said I’d stumped him. As I was staring at these tombs all day today, during the 6 hour ride from Rach Gia to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City(HCMC), it finally occurred to me that they are actually alters for worshipping the ancestors. My guess is that important ancestors are each supposed to have their own shrine somewhere. Ho took me back to my hotel on his cycle, and we had a very cordial goodby. I went to my room and wrote till I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
Tuesday, Nov 9,’10
I woke at 5:15 AM and couldn’t get back to sleep. At about 5:45, someone, probably from the local communist party, started blaring wake up music from a loudspeaker in the new community center across the street from my hotel, and then a loud voice over the p.a. started counting 1 to ten, over and over, so you could do your exercises with this friendly government support. I was embarrassed for the Vietnamese, this was pretty intrusive, paternalistic and unpleasant, and it was very loud. I got up and took a walk around several blocks, and then had a bowl of noodle soup with pork at the corner stand. I then had a coffee, and they brought a pitcher of tea with it, as part of the coffee ritual. I went back to the hotel to get organized, and then hired a young man and his moto to take me to the Nguyen Trung Truc temple. He wanted 40kd, but immediately agreed to my counter of 20kd.
The Nguyen Trung Truc Temple is a full blown Buddhist/Shinto style temple, and I saw people praying and kowtowing to the spirit of Nguyen Trung Truc. He was one of the famous resistance fighters and leaders to oppose the French after their invasion of 1858. He had a number of victories, till the French took his wife, children and neighbors hostage, and threatened to execute them all. He turned himself in, and was executed in their stead. Now, there is a street named after him in almost every Viet city in the country. I’ve told people for years that the Viets see themselves as the people who resist foreign occupation, but this temple confirmed what I knew. The people actively worship their martyrs who lead resistance against foreigners. Resisting foreign domination is part of their national identity and religion. From the door of the temple, you could see the Gulf of Thailand.
My driver took me up to the ferry dock, where boats left for the islands, and we got past the guard to visit the quai side on the Gulf. I took lots of pictures- the sublime and the slimy. The Viets have a beautiful country, but its shores are covered with garbage and pollution. No one has the job of picking all the plastic bags out of the water and off the beaches. I saw a woman at 6am, take her full dustpan, and dump its contents into the middle of the street in front of her shop. She would let the street cleaner women come by later and dispose of her refuse for her. On the ferry crossing the Mekong river, which is almost a mile wide, a taxi driver threw a plastic bag with some corn husks right into the muddy water. I wanted to tell him about the tragic harm these bags cause to fish and fowl, but I knew I couldn’t be articulate in Vietnamese. The country is covered in litter, because neither the people or the government seem to care about the problem. With 86 million people here, the poverty issue is pretty severe. Two to four beggars approach the Viet customers and myself every time I eat in an outside or open air restaurant/food stand. Many of the less pathetic ones are selling lottery tickets, or have a basket of some item for sale.
From my hotel, I walked to the bus terminal just 3 blocks away, and bought a ticket to Saigon/HCMC with the Mai Linh company. The ticket for their large bus is 110kd, or $6.00. this ticket was only $.55 more than the one from the other company, that squeezed 21 into a 16 passenger van, but it was a world apart. It was a full sized luxury bus, though without a head, and they showed MTV type music videos and then sit-coms on a huge LCD up front hanging from the ceiling. I got to sit in the front row, and took pictures of the return drive until my 2nd camera battery ran out of juice. I learned the hard way that you just have to carry your battery charger and converter with you everywhere you go, if you want to use cameras with rechargeable batteries. I was too tired to be alert for the whole ride, but I had two seats to myself. I showed the driver’s assistant my manuscript on the Tayson, and after that his whole demeanor towards me changed. He became polite and helpful, treating me as a honorable scholar instead of a rich dumb tourist, and harvest object.
Stuck waiting for the ferry, I asked when we would see a rest area for toilets, or ve sinh, and about five minutes later he said “WC here now,” and pointed to a hovel storefront next to the bus. We were stuck in traffic before the ferry. I entered, and walked to the back, past the cooking area. A ladder went up to a sleeping loft, and in the rear were two toilet closets with Turkish bowls in the ground. I believe that this humble establishment was a subcontractor with Mai Linh as an emergency rest room, only while waiting for the ferry. The Turkish floor bowl did not flush. It was self-flushed by using a large water basin with a ladle next to it.
We finally stopped at a Mai Linh owned and operated rest area and restaurant, with tables and chairs for about 300, and I was served by a young man who spoke to me in French. I was able to ask his help, and he place my order after I pointed to the items whose words I didn’t know in Viet. After he brought the order, he stayed to chat, he wanted to practice his French, and I was delighted that I could remember enough to make my thoughts clear.
As I stepped off the bus, outside Ho Chi Minh City, a taxi driver asked if he could serve me, and I said sure. He was an independent, not a company driver, but he took me to my hotel, though he took a wrong turn in city traffic, and that cost us a few minutes. His meter read 157,200 dong, but he would only take 150k, since he knew he’d goofed at the end. My ride out to this terminal, which this time was only 30 minutes away, cost 185k before if you recall, and I was fairly sure now that the first driver took me indirectly.
I have been promoted at the My Anh Hotel, HCMC, to the 5th floor, with views of the rooftops from both windows, but no desk, which is why I’m at the only table in their lobby typing right now. I also picked up some clean laundry from the housekeeper. I walked the neighborhood, determining where to eat, and bought some water and beer at a grocery stall. I had an excellent fried fish dinner in a rich red sauce with mushrooms, rice, a large beer and a bottle of water, for 103kd (kd = thousand dong), or about $5.15. In spite of the attention of several beggars, dinner alone is usually the loneliest part of the day, while I study the Lonely Planet Guide. I stopped briefly in the park, to watch men playing hackisack with a Se Pak Ta Craw ball, which I had discovered in Thailand in 1987. Two groups were playing real badminton on marked courts, with nets that they probably brought with them to the park.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010 Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)
Up at 6 AM, I looked for the place I ate last night, and it was not ready to open, so I went next door, and had a cheese and mushroom omelet, small baguette with butter, and two coffees, for 80kd, or $4. I’m back in District 1, HCMC, the tourist district. It was a nice switch from Pho, or rice noodle soup. I walked to Citibank, which is on Nguyen Hue Street. Nguyen Hue is one of the main figures in my novel- born Ho Whey, one of the leaders of the Tay Son Rebellion. The Lonely Planet guidebook says that all the famous military fighters who fought the Chinese or French, have street names in every major city in the country.
As I walked through the far end of the narrow park in front of the hotel, I came to outdoor pavilions, very small, where men were teaching women how to do disco, swing and rock and roll to recorded music at 8:30 in the morning. I can’t imagine seeing this in New York, but then, it gets really hot here by mid day. I was tempted to join in the fun, but I stayed on task. I like to walk to destinations that aren’t too far, because I learn all about new parts of the city by walking. Visiting a foreign country is the ultimate computer game, like my son Austin’s World of Warcraft, where the world is all grey cloud until you go through it, and you uncover what is hidden by clearing the cloud of ignorance. Just like those strategy computer games, each street or park you walk through expands your new world, which starts as tiny, a hotel surrounded by darkness, but quickly expands if you have the energy to walk or ride a lot, with your eyes wide open.
I reached Citibank, a fine new skyscraper, and when I was finally helped, the woman called the US, where I spoke with two people, and the supervisor informed me that Citibank no longer changes Pins by any method other than sending a new pin to the home address of the requestor. Not only does this rule possibly increase security, it definitely increases bank profits. That I could show my passport to a Citibank employee, made no difference to this tower of greed. They allowed me to use their credit cards in Vietnam, so they acknowledged that I was out of the USA.
The Citibank branch in HCMC was only a year old, and they were still setting up their systems, so I couldn’t even get a cash advance on my credit card from them. I had to find another bank. I walked back to the hotel, and then went to Sacombank across the park, waited for my number like the deli, and changed 200USD into 4 million dong, paying $6 usd to them, and another $6 usd (3%) to Citibank CC. Cash costs 6% for ninnies who don’t know their own pins. The woman on the phone tried 5 pin numbers for me, all I could think of, and none worked. So I probably never set up a new pin, since ten years ago, I wasn’t, like today, ever using ATM’s. As I crossed the park with 4 million in my pocket. I smiled and thought, another Vietnamese millionaire is born. It is easy to have a million in Vietnamese Dong, at 20,000 VND to the dollar. You just need to change $50.
I locked most of these new bills in my suitcase, packed for the beach, and caught a taxi to the ferry terminal for Vung Tau, the resort island just outside the mouth of the Saigon River. The high speed hydrofoil cost 180kd each way, $9usd, but I just missed the 11 am, so I had almost an hour to kill. I decided to find lunch, and there was a food and drink bar adjacent to the terminal which I investigated. All they had were egg sandwiches, which I’d had for breakfast, so I moved on, and found nothing close, because the boulevard was all banks and fancy apartment buildings facing the river. A man asked me if I wanted a shoe shine, which made me smile, since I was wearing sandals, but he pointed to my old, beat up leather hand bag and said again, Shoe shine. Well, I guess it did look a little dried out, but I said no thank you, and continued to look for food. He pulled me over to his friend, who was selling prepackaged lunches out of plastic sacks, a fried fish on top of a bed of rice. I was not cautious when I agreed to this meal in a Styrofoam box, of unidentifiable origins. 40kd included extras, a plastic baggie of soup with green leafs, like pet shops sell little tropical fish, and I’m sure there is a trick to neatly getting this liquid out of the baggie and into your stomach. The meal included a smaller baggie of nuoc mam with peppers, and a small banana.
I took a table behind the food stand I had just passed up, and the shoe shine expert followed me to reapply for work. Without being smart enough to think it all through, I caved, and we started to negotiate. He wanted 100,000 dong. I countered with 20, he came down to 50, and then I came up 40 and the deal was struck. After I emptied the bag and handed my cherished handbag to him, he walked away with it, and I suddenly began to feel foolish. I walked after him, and found him by the fish and rice seller, setting out his polish on a park bench, that was also his workbench. Now I was trapped, so I checked in with him, and returned to the other side of the building where my meal sat, and ate fast, so I could keep an eye on the leather heirloom. He was still there when I couldn’t help but check in again, and before I finished this cold, cooked fish, he brought the bag to me, all polished up, and he showed me where the strap had separated for several inches. He held out a bottle of liquid and said: glue? I said sure, and then he charged me an extra 10,000 for the few minutes, and I thought, this guy is good, and my leather saddlebag is happy.
The boat was crowded with Viets and foreigners, especially oil workers and executives, since Vung Tau I learned later, is the center for giant off shore oil rigs. There was one place to port, and another to starboard, where I could stand at an open doorway, and see out one side of the enclosed vessel. The passengers were all inside, with the windows drawn to keep out the sun, watching Viet-MTV singers on a TV screen. Maybe they just got TV a few years ago.
I chose the port side outside space, since the starboard space was already full of smokers, and I stood there for the hour and a half to Vung Tau. I had no idea that the Saigon River was so huge. At HCMC it is about a mile across, and it has plenty of room for full sized freighters, ocean liners and tankers. The river just got wider as we headed to the mouth. The trees were short and scrub for a long ways, then they got tall, dense and spindly, like pines, only not. It would be nice to learn the names of the common trees, if I can figure out how. I kept shooting pictures of small boats, because they are so different looking from our western vessels, and they keep reminding me of baby junks. The water remained dark muddy brown, and at one point a huge river opened to the north, just before we hit the huge bay at the mouth of the river which is many miles wide.
Vung Tau is a mountain, with a necklace of fancy hotels and restaurants around its perimeter. A taxi driver caught my eye, because he held out a map of the place, which showed me where I had to go to swim at the beach. I agreed to go with him, but I let down my guard, I hadn’t done my homework, I didn’t know how far I was going, or what it should cost, and I agreed to pay the meter. The meter, after a 5 minute ride read 80,000 dong. I had just been taken for a sucker. Only the taxis from the big, reputable companies can be trusted. I complained, but paid, since I hadn’t followed the rules of self-protection. In Vietnam, the taxi driver can set the meter to any price per kilometer, and I was still learning that one can read the rate per kilometer in small print at the bottom of the meter.
The beach went on for miles, with giant, deluxe hotels behind the road. As I entered the beach, I met 4 western tourists in bathing suits, with pitchers of beer, who looked Scandinavian or German. “We very little English, we Russian,” they said proudly, I gave them the peace sign and they all laughed—vacationers or off-shore oil workers. Every 200 yards there was a changing station with showers and lockers, so for 30kd, or $1.50, you could be respectable and lock up your valuables. I left my glasses and watch with my sandals and towel by a group of Vietnamese girls reading books. The man who charges for the chairs if you sit in one came over, and I explained I had locked up my money way down the beach. The sand was dark but lovely, with many little holes, the size of a thin pencil, and tiny crabs could be seen going in and out of them. The sand was beaded, into tiny little balls, I’ve never seen this before. I squashed several little balls, and they were soft, of pure sand, about 1/16 of an inch in diameter, and there were millions. I couldn’t figure out what made them.
I joined a group of swimmers, since I had read about a variety of critters in the oceans of Vietnam, but I swam for over an hour, body surfing, and periodically going back to my towel, to make sure I didn’t loose that spot on the long beach, and to check on my very precious and expensive glasses. The two Viet girls now had two very attractive looking males, and I made a joke to them about their being a magnificent security company. I have no idea if they got it, but they returned my smile at any rate. At one point I swam way out, so that I was quite alone, and I thought about how badly I need to exercise more regularly on top of all the walking, which does count. The place, just like Ha Tien and Rach Gia, is full of new, half built hotels, surrounded by cranes. This is not like Mexico in 2006, where the cranes were silent, and the projects were all stopped by a huge Mexican real estate recession. Vietnam is now booming with construction, and the government is worried about inflation. Viet Nam News, an English only newspaper here that I learned about only recently, reported online today that the minimum wage is going up to $80 USD/mo, or to 1,600,000 Vietnamese dong (VND)/month, for high priced areas like HCMC, but it applies only to folks who work for joint venture companies with a foreign partner.
I showered and walked back to the Ferry Terminal. The walk was gorgeous, and the sidewalk was actually of polished marble. The beach was almost immaculate, and I saw a girl who was in uniform, spearing litter with a steel tipped pole. A small island to the south supported a beautiful Buddhist monastery. At the top of the huge hill to my right, a giant statue of Jesus welcoming you to Vung Tau, or heaven, with outstretched arms, showed yet again that one of the main characters of my story, Pierre Pigneau de Behaine, Bishop of Adran, and other Christian missionaries, did not spend their lives in Vietnam in vain.
A motorcycle cowboy asked me if I wanted a lift, just as I decided I might miss my 4 pm boat ride, so I said how much, he said whatever you chose, which the Lonely Planet guidebook says is always a big trap, so I said how much again, he said 40, I said 20, he said fine, and I was so happy to make the boat, I gave him a tip.
On the boat ride coming to Vung Tau, I had a great conversation with a business man named Tran Thuy Giang, a marine broker who deals in large tankers. His English was good, and I asked him a series of questions after giving him the short about my research. Most of the people I deal with do not speak any English, so the questions add up. I asked him about all the coffin like tombs in the middle of many of the rice paddies on the road to Rach Gia. He said they are tombs. With bodies? No, on top of bodies. The body is buried in the rice field, but the tomb, looking like a coffin with a headrest, is put on top of the grave. The top has air holes, and the interior is filled with fine sand and then dirt, so the rain will go through this filter, giving the spirit of the dead person only the finest water for refreshment. He said that all Viet society is plus or minus, and that the above ground was plus, and the body below ground was minus. I asked, is this the same as Yin and Yang? Yes. Above ground is yin, and below ground is yang. I asked if this type of tomb was Buddhist, Taoist or Confucian, or all three. He said he thought it was Buddhist, since Taoism is mostly up in China. However, I pointed out that all of Vietnam was also Confucian, which means ancestor worshipping with attention to the Odes of Confucius. He agreed. This supports the answer- it is all three. The belief system of most Viets is an amalgam, that also usually includes Viet Shintoism, and Feng Shui (Dia Ly in Vietnamese).
Then I asked about the huge fields and lakes of water to the East as I rode to and from Rach Gia and Ha Tien. Were these massive acres of shallow water from flooding, or a part of normal rice cultivation? From flooding, he said, but it is normal, it happens every year. He said the ground is like the low ground of Holland, so it is very susceptible to flooding, and floods during each rainy season, and there is a rainy season in the south through November. He agreed that the Viets are terribly unconcerned about litter and their environment, and he didn’t think the government was seriously considering a 1child per family policy. He said the people in the cities were already moving to small families.
I told him I couldn’t believe how much better I was, if I moved up from 4th class accommodations to 3rd class. My return trip from Rach Gia was dramatically improved by paying 110kd instead of 95kd, and of course, I also changed from a small family run outfit, to a giant, corporate transportation company. He said this was not surprising. He said about 4 years ago, an American originally from India, from the University of California, won the Nobel prize in economics by showing that in class economics, the difference in quality was usually clear and distinct between 1st and 2nd class, but 4th and 5th class tried so often to charge as much as 3rd class that you could easily pay almost as much for lousy service as not in the lower class, because there was so much deception and fraud. My experience certainly corroborates this economist, though Tran Thuy Giang couldn’t remember his name.
On the boat ride back to HCMC, I stayed in the open bay on the port side, and saw the other half of the river bank. At first, there was just a huge expanse of water. A Viet woman came and joined me, and after a while we started talking. She was married to an older American, who was on his way back to the US for medical reasons, but she was having trouble getting a visa for herself and her son due to homeland security hurdles.
Near the end of the boat trip, as the sun was setting, her husband comes out and wants to talk. His name is Patrick, and he has been in Vietnam for 3 years building luxury yachts. We talked about my work, and he offered that the Vietnam war was not about communism, but about oil. This idea was new to me. Apparently, the fact that the Russians came in after we left, and signed 40 year drilling leases with the new Communist government proves the point, but his logic escapes me. I read US State Department documents from the 1050’s in the Yale Library that referred often to fears of a domino theory, and my thesis at Yale referred to a secret National Security Council memo #68 stating that communism was spreading dangerously fast, and had to be stopped, according to the Secretary of State Dean Acheson. It went so far as to say that all Asian Communists were tools of the Kremlin. I don’t recall that US policy makers knew of any oil back then. Patrick also said the US government was pursuing a new lease for another naval base at Cam Ran Bay, and the Viets were not interested. I bet the Viets let us back, since they will probably not win their next war with China, so it should be avoided. I told Patrick about how in 1952 Joseph McCarthy and his House Committee on Unamerican Activities chased all the Asia and Southeast Asia experts out of the government, for saying that Mao Ts Tung was not just a puppet of the Kremlin, but part of an indigenous historical movement, so when Vietnam came along in 1954, after the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, there were no experts left in the US government to argue that taking over for the French might not be well perceived or welcome. We talked about how the Chinese invaded in 1979, and the Viets whipped them badly. The Viets had modern American and Russian automatic weapons. The Chinese had World War I single shot, bold action rifles. My friend Dr. Wang heard of hundreds of thousands of wounded Chinese soldiers, but it was top secret. The Chinese public was not to ever hear about this failure. Patrick said there was another war with China in 1984, but I never heard of that, and he said it was hushed up by both sides. If it is true, the Chinese must have been whipped badly again.
I took a taxi back to the My Anh Hotel, and the driver earned his 80kd, since the traffic was horrendous, and many of the streets were the wrong way. I asked Quyen if I could stay another night, since I needed more information about the flooding to the north, before I took off for Qui Nhon. After checking email, I went to dinner at the fancy restaurant next door and had gourmet oysters and egg with rice, and shrimp in vermicelli noodle soaked in soy and garlic and who knows what, but it was a fine meal to celebrate my first week here. Four well dressed Viet gentlemen sat near me, having a very elegant dinner, with a tall bottle of Johnny Walker Black on the table instead of water.
At the hotel, I moved down to the lobby to work on my journal, since my lovely room had a bureau dresser with mirror instead of a writing desk. I worked till 1 AM, and then retired. (End of week one out of three.) e