Asia | South East Asia | Vietnam – Buffalo Moon
The bus almost ran down a herd of water buffalo at 2am en route from Hanoi, Vietnam to Vientiane, Laos.
Luckily the driver was awake and alert. We swerved in time. I had fallen asleep feeling somewhat dispirited by the rampant commercialism and aggressive demeanor of the endless stream of hawkers, beggars and group tour salespeople throughout Vietnam. Sadly, it felt like there were only two days in the trip where I was not hourly entreated, supplicated, begged, or cajoled to purchase scissors, balloons, lighters, t-shirts, postcards, dinner, taxis, etc. etc. etc. It felt as though Vietnam had defeated me in a way, blunting my natural curiosity with so much furious selling.
The jolt from the missed water buffalo opened my eyes to fertile jungle mountains lit by a hazy half moon. The mingled scent of rain and wood, and the lush green foliage took me back to the other Vietnam I had seen, a place of unrivalled natural beauty and people (both travellers and locals) so kindhearted it moves me, in memory, to tears.
My last night in Vietnam was spent in Hanoi’s Jazz Club, which is not famous for its poster collection of Frederick Slovacek’s Big Band (no, I’ve never heard of him either). The Jazz Club is located only 150 yards from my hotel in Hanoi’s old quarter. However, negotiating those 150 yards required playing a game of human Frogger (a video game where a frog has to cross six lanes of roaring traffic) with two directions motorbike/car/bus/bicycle/pedestrian traffic sharing a road wide enough for a Yugo. I managed to keep all limbs in tact (thanks to a few friends), and the music was good too.
The day before, I had dressed up (no shorts or tank tops allowed) to visit poor pickled Ho Chi Minh, who is kept inside a glass box in a Madame Toussad’s like state of preservation in Hanoi’s mausoleum. Unfortunately, Uncle Ho, as the Vietnamese affectionately refer to him, stood me up (while lying down) and the mausoleum closed before we could get in.
Luckily we made a date for the following day, and our group joined the queue of hundreds of Vietnamese waiting to see the leader of the Vietnamese independence movement. The line wound around palaces and gardens before coming to a charcoal colored concrete three story mausoleum, situated on a parade ground, like a smaller version of Red Square without St. Basil’s. Inside the mausoleum, there were four guards stationed with bayonets around the glass enclosure, which held Uncle Ho. The viewers were arranged into two parallel lines and there were signs reminding us that we had to keep moving, no pausing allowed. There was an odd moment as our throng passed the front of the coffin. The elderly Vietnamese man in front of me stopped, turned to face Uncle Ho, placed his hands together as in prayer, and bowed respectfully. Such a gesture is usually reserved for temples and other holy places. No one hurried the old man along, the respect he felt for the dead leader was obvious. I had thought of the whole thing as just another tourist spot, but as I looked past the old man into the crowds, it was clear that the people who had come to pay homage were quite poor, quite thin. In the adjoining museum, I learned that Uncle Ho used to be a waiter in London’s posh Carlton Hotel in the 1920’s before he founded the Vietnamese Communist Party.
Vietnam has a long history of independence movements. In 40 AD, two women, the Trung sisters, led a rebellion to overthrow the Chinese, who had been ruling Vietnam for two centuries. Legend has that the sisters used only female generals. Nineteen hundred years later, some of their tactics were used to fight the Americans.
In the group of about twenty touring the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), I was the only American. The famous battlegrounds of the area are mostly overgrown, but the bomb craters and bits of shrapnel are visible. They are even building a national highway through part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. At the Rockpile, our guide, who grew up in the DMZ during the war, showed us 60’s era photos of his American soldier friends while describing the horrors of napalm and agent orange and the lingering effects on the population.
The guide’s explanation helped me to understand the dual nature of Vietnamese attitudes toward America and Americans. Of course, this just goes for the Vietnamese people that I talked to, mostly former soldiers in the South Vietnamese Army (SVA – America’s allies in the war). They hold very little animosity toward civilian and military Americans, and are full of questions and enthusiasm for all things American (cars, lighters, fashions). However, there is a tremendous sense of ethnic pride among north and south Vietnamese, even among the former SVA soldiers, taken in the fact that Vietnamese people were able to defeat such powerful foes. This attitude is mingled with a mild resentment at being left in the lurch by the Americans, because so many of the SVA soldiers continue to suffer for their alliance 30 years ago. They are still routinely denied residency and work permits. The perverse result is that those who were highly educated and can speak the best English in Vietnam are often motorbike-taxi drivers or rickshaw drivers. Because of the poverty this work involves, the children of these men are unable to attend school or university.
For me, this situation provided an excellent opportunity to ditch the group tour atmosphere, which is as pervasive as water in a rainforest, throughout Vietnam. The group tours can be informative (like the DMZ tour) but usually involve 10 hours of driving in a tandori like cramped bus only to be herded into overpriced restaurants with bland food and caged live monkeys on display.
In Saigon, Mr. Diem pedaled me around the psychotic city traffic in his three-wheeled bicycle rickshaw thingamagig. The skyscrapers are hugged by shops where you can find everything from the latest mobile phone to a jade statue of the Virgin Mary in a Buddha pose with a light up lotus flower behind her head.
Mr. Diem took me to his house, where he lives with his two children, and nine (or was it 10?) family members. His father, a former monk, showed me the family shrine and his mother made a delicious corn soup with sautéed mushrooms. For desert we had jam made from candied tomatoes. She even gave me a jar of tomatoes to take on the road.
Saigon was intoxicating, like capitalism on speed. I did not see one street without at least 5 shops, 3 drink stalls, and a wandering hammock vendor. Motorbikes day and night race down whichever side of the street is less crowded – one guide told me that 2 to 3 people die each day in motorbike accidents in Saigon. Mr. Diem lost his wife last year in just this way.
‘I am unlucky,’ he said.
Mr. Tu, a former 2nd Lieutenant in the SVA, and his HONGDA (not a typo) motorbike guided me through the ancient capital of Hue. Mr. Tu had served two years in a communist ‘reeducation’ prison camp after the war. He had wanted to serve three years because former soldiers were eligible to emigrate to America if they had served three years in the camps.
‘Two years was enough,’ he said. His brother served five years and now lives in California. Mr. Tu took me to visit the emperor’s tombs, nestled in the green hills and shallow canals crisscrossing Hue’s countryside. The tombs are really vast garden and temple complexes, with separate quarters for advisors, wives and concubines. At the tomb of Minh Mang (19th century emperor of Vietnam), the sculpted bonsai and wisteria trees blend with the perfume of frangipani flowers to create a harmony evoking another world. Of course, the hundreds of picnicking schoolkids and scores of other tourists, conspire equally to pull one back into this realm.
Mr. Tu took me to his home to meet his family, and though it was only 9am, etiquette demanded that I share a beer with him as his guest. Two glasses later, he told me that he was a law student before the war but could not work or continue his studies afterward because of his SVA army status. He hopes that his daughter will be able to marry a foreigner, thus improving the family’s fortunes.
In the very south of Vietnam another friend told me that the going rate that a Vietnamese born girl must pay to marry a western born Vietnamese man is $10,000 USD. ‘To marry a non-Vietnamese foreign man, she just has to be lucky,’ my friend said.
My first stop in Vietnam was in Chau Doc, near the Cambodian border, in the fertile rice growing area called the Mekong Delta. A few days after I arrived, I was cycling through a market area in the south and I felt someone jump on the back of the bike and throw their arms around my waist. I was just about to topple off when I heard a female voice call from the back of the bike ‘Number One!’ I turned around and she jumped off, giggling, before I knew what happened. I kept cycling, shaken. The incident left me quite puzzled because in nearby Cambodia, Number One is the national brand of condoms. I don’t think the girl knew about the condom coincidence, instead, I think she was, in her way, welcoming me to Vietnam.
The next day I received a more mellow welcome from some women in a beauty shop while I was waiting for my rented bike to be repaired. They invited me for lunch and then dinner the next day. The next day, I returned and somehow through the discrepancies of gestured communicating, I was soon lying flat on my back in the living room while a woman in matching frog print pajamas produced a straight razor and began dry shaving my face. You have to go with your instincts in these situations, and something in the swoosh of the frog pajamas told me I was safe. After the shaving, the host’s daughter massaged a tar like mud mask into my face and we all sad around laughing and munching salted corn.
The next day me and my new face went for a palm reading from the hotel manager’s mother. She was the town’s top English teacher, having been educated in a French boarding school in Vietnam before the war. Her bearing was regal as she traced my lifelines in red ink. The red ink was meant to fool the gods into granting me a longer life. She offered to take me to a tattoo parlor to make the red ink permanent. Her reading was mixed: lucky in money, unlucky in love. There are worse things, I suppose.
Somewhere in the middle of the very south and Hue, I had the great fortune of meeting fellow travellers who were itching to escape the tour group route. We rented a van, after a spirited row with the hotel management who were trying to charge us double the agreed upon cost (among other hassles). The driver piloted the van toward Bach Ma National Park, a jungly mountain area spanning almost the width of the country, bordered on the east by the South China Sea and on the west by Laos. The park used to be a getaway for leading French colonials and the bombed ruins of their villas are scattered near the summit of the park. The park run guesthouse, where we stayed, is housed in the one of these restored villas. The gray stone walls and white cement gave the dining area a medieval feel. From the verandah, we watched a lightning storm dance across the treetops of distant green peaks. As the storm drifted away, the nearly full moon sat on a perfectly round stage of starry night sky, and the clouds became the audience, approaching, but never breaching, the circular stage.
‘It is the ring around the moon, caused by the humidity in the rainforest,’ the park ranger explained.
‘Screw that,’ I thought ‘its magic.’
Take care everyone,