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, and I will publish it in the next year.
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
Week 2 in Vietnam, November 11, 2010
Week 2 started today, but I stayed in HCMC to get more information about the severe flooding in Binh Dinh Province, where Qui Nhon is located. I woke early at 6, even though I went to bed at 1am, and got up. I did some exercises and took a shower with hot water. Found the buffet again at the Coffee House, and sat with Kjetil Engen from Norway. He is here chasing a Vietnamese girl he met on a previous vacation, and it was pleasant to have someone to chat with while we enjoyed omlettes with meat, fruits, toasted French bread with butter and marmalade, and unlimited coffee. The meal didn’t hold up on a second scrutiny, most of it was just a little inferior, but it was comfortable and copious.
I wandered over to Singh Tourist, and talked with two lovely young ladies. One was almost fluent in English, she is an American over here on an internship from California, My An Ngo. She told me the road to Qui Nhon was open, but I doubted their expertise, since they seemed unaware of serious flooding. After some back and forth, I booked a ticket for tomorrow at 7:30 AM to Mui Nei, 5 hours, then Saturday, going to Nha Trang at 1, another 5 hours. Cost, 202kd, or $11. Since their only bus to Qui Nhon is an evening and night affair, I will find another company to do the last leg to Qui Nhon, if it turns out to be open, and go up into the highlands and around to Hue if access is flooded. I returned to my hotel, then took off for the Museum of HCMC, a big old French colonial building. I took notes of facts of interest to me. The museum had lots of information in Vietnamese and English, such as, The dry season for the city is Dec-April. The Rainy season here is May through Nov. The average temperature is 27 degrees C.
The ecology is evergreen and deciduous, and swamp forest. Date palms, shrubs and dune vegetation of salt marshes. There were several rooms of ceramics, from 10,000 years ago to the present. I took many photos, there was an entire floor of stuff about the resistance to the French, and then the war against the Japanese, then the French, then the Americans.
By 1:00 PM, I found a place down the street for a meal of Pho with chicken, noodle and beansprout soup, and sat next to a nice Viet Kieu couple form Las Vegas, young, attractive and wealthy, and it was pleasant to have company. He had been a pilot in the US air force, then a police officer in LA, then a business man, building and then running dry cleaning stores. He thinks global warming is a hoax, and that Al Gore made it up to sell his book and movie for profit.
After lunch, I walked 30 minutes to the Botanical Gardens, which I walked about, noting the names of the trees from their signs. There were gigantic African Mahogany, Huile de Bois, Sandpaper Tree, Wal Gona, Prunier de singe, Sudu (Idda, Plalay), Java Plum (Jambal), Alexandria Laurel. The Botanical Garden was the only place to see great, old trees during my travels through the coastal regions. In three weeks of travel, I saw no large trees surviving outside the Garden.
I wandered over to the 3 Asian elephants, they seemed very small for elephants- seven, not fourteen feet tall. Near the far entrance, I found the Museum of History, in a large building that looked like it was once a Buddhist temple, or was built to resemble one. I learned that Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups, many Malayo-Polynesian languages. It had a metal age 4000 to 2000 years ago, during the period of Van Long, Au Lac. There was a bronze drum from 2500 years ago.
Writings on the walls said, or reminded me, that the Tran Dynasty defeated the Mongols in 1258, 1285 and 1288. The Tay Son were victorious over the
Siamese aggressors 1784-85, including the Battle of Rach Gam- Xoui Mut in 1785, at My Tho. They defeated an army of 50k Siamese.
There was a mention of the Tay Son Dynasty.
Nguyen Nhac 1778-1788
Nguyen Hue 1788-1792
Nguyen Quang Toan 1792-1802 (Hue’s son)
The Tay Son Insurrection was dated at 1771, over the Nguyen Lords. They defeated the Siamese Aggressors, over through the Trinh Lords, then wiped out the Le Dynasty, and annihilated the Qing aggressors.
There were some beautiful scrolls behind glass, full of Chinese calligraphy, and red chops, the first was Emperor Quang Trung’s Royal Order on Agrarian Policy, 1790, on agrarian taxes, 1790, and a third by Quang Toan.
The wall also said that Quang Trung routed the Qing Aggressors in 1789.
I came out of the museum after buying a Viet phrase book, and found a motorcycle cowboy, or he found me, since he was standing in a group of them, and he gave his price as 50kd, I said 20, he said 30, and then he wouldn’t budge. He said it was too far to go for less. I caved, first time with a cowboy, and he drove across the city like a madman, at one point it was so busy he couldn’t get through a mob of cycles to turn left, so he drove at the oncoming traffic, slowly moving to the right as oncoming vehicles swerved to miss us. I told him twice to stop rushing, or he would kill us both. I had walked much farther than I had realized, and he was right, it was a good distance back to my hotel. I met with the gorgeous reception clerk, Quyen, pronounced Queen, and reviewed my bill, which I paid using my credit card. $51 covered $5 for the upgrade for 2 days, two days at $20, and about $5 for three small batches of laundry, and 3% for using the CC. It started to pour outside, so I took my computer downstairs and reviewed emails, and proofed my journal, to send out to a short list of people, including my 3 children, who I haven’t heard any news from yet. I walked around the corner headed for a restaurant, but got interested in a little open room place that was serving fried open mouth white fish. It was fabulous, with rice and iced tea, for 45kd. Further up the street on the next big boulevard, I found a doughnut shop selling ice cream, and for 38kd I got two scoops of fancy ice cream that was good, but different. Probably not cow’s milk, and less sugar that we use in the States. I was invited to take my plastic bowl up upstairs, where you took your shoes off on the stair case, and the loft had low tables with red pillows the shape of doughnuts, and had 5 teenage couples. I felt like the Old American, but I slipped out quickly.
Friday, November 12, ’10
Where was I this morning, Saigon-HCMC. I woke by myself at 5:45, and was getting dressed when the wake up call came. I took breakfast with the two old woman at the left corner just outside the Hotel front door. One made me a two fried egg sandwich with pate and vegetables, and the other produced dark thick sweet coffee on ice with condensed milk, all for 32kd. I dragged my suitcase across the park, saying no thanks to the usual host of taxi cab drivers and moto cowboys, and had time at Sinh Tourist to change $100 in travelers checks into dong. The teller refused to give me the full amount. She kept 900 dong owed to me, she was determined to keep all amounts below 1000. I mentioned the shortage, and she just looked stupid, pretending she had no idea what I was saying. It is strange. It is only 4.5 cents, but it is still stealing, and mistreating a foreign guest. I almost started shouting at her for the fun of it, a trick I learned in India, but she guessed right that I wouldn’t escalate over 5 cents.
The bus was large and clean, but my window in seat two behind the driver was dirty. Later, when I tried to clean it at a pit stop, I discovered that the window was clean both outside and inside the cabin. The films of dirt, like little rivulets, were inside the double pane of glass, and was due perhaps to a manufacturing error.
I had seat 1 and 2 to myself, and it took two hours of going north to get out of the industrial parks north of Saigon center, and into farmland again. We passed many factories, and outdoor lots filled with say, 200 bulldozers, or 30 giant cranes. We past several miles of parked industrial machinery. After two hours, we pulled into a gourmet rest stop, with a fancy gift store with bottles of Johnny Walker Red and Black, and oversized Cadbury chocolate bars for 160kd, or $8 US. I ordered a hot coffee, to help me stay awake.
Farms, villages and towns moved by, and I was certainly less excited than I was just a few days ago, seeing all these sites for the first time. The land quickly changed. The rice fields were less organized, and there were more handsome, middle class shoe box houses than in the Mekong delta region.
At about 12 noon, I realized that I was in good shape, and could regain a day of lost time by staying on the bus at 1pm, and going a 2nd 5 hours up to Nha Trang. Mui Ne might be one of the finest beach resorts in the world, and one of the finest places in Vietnam, but it wasn’t on the map of my story of the Tay Son Rebellion. I grabbed a bowl of Pho, noodle soup with shrimp, some spring rolls, in a handsome restaurant we used for the bus station, and moved to seat number 4, with right side window and right in front of the large window to the right of the driver. A young Canadian woman squeezed into seat number 3, right next to me, and I smiled and said, people will think we’re married. She smiled barely, but we chatted on and off for the next 5 hours, and it was pleasant having the company. I got her name at the very end, Kyla, and she is a modern dance, hiphop and jazz dance teacher from Vancouver, who sold her life’s savings account, and all her furniture, to spend 6 weeks in Vietnam and Thailand. She has a boyfriend up in the Yukon, waiting for her return. Her mother, now 66, became a widow 4 years ago, and there is an old high school classmate on her horizon.
We had a long discussion about her finances. She cashed in her retirement account of $7k Canadian to fund the trip. She said she didn’t negotiate with motor cycle cowboys, she paid them what they asked for. She felt that the extra 50 cents was so much to them, and so little to her, that there was no sense in not letting them overcharge a little. There is a reason why this woman is a poor as a church mouse, since the the overcharges are usually several dollars. I don’t think she uses the motorcycle men every day, to meet a schedule of museums and historical sites, the way I do. I do try and not demand their lowest amount, but something reasonable, and sustainable.
I took many photos of the mountains which came down like fingers, almost to the sea. It looked as if we would not be able to pass, but each huge finger of hills reduced to nothing just before the water’s edge. Leaving Mui Ne, I saw miles of sand dunes, and sandy soil, and then miles of dark red clay lands. Then mountains made of thousands of boulders, like a giant moraine, the size of a mountain. Many cattle went by, and I saw a herd of cattle playing volley ball. At least, there were say 25 cattle all grazing on this nice volleyball field. I made observations, such as, an 18th century army could easily move up this plain, we haven’t seen any mountains yet that would make a march north or south difficult.
At Nha Trang, I said good bye to Kyla, and I got into a taxi that couldn’t find the Pho Bien hotel, and when he did find it, I thought he was taking me for a ride, since the address was different, but after driving about, we decided it was right. He called the hotel and they confirmed it, and I spent 38kd, when the hotel was actually one block from where the Sinh Tourist bus dropped us off. I thought the driver was trying to make me go to his friend’s hotel, when actually, the guidebook put the wrong location on its map.
The room is disappointing. There is no writing table, and the air conditioner goes off with the lights, when you remove your key from a keyholder required to be filled to get the outlets working. I found a cute little place around the corner, and had a pot of seafood and onions and tomatoes soup. Then I walked around the block, looking at all the fine stores and restaurants, and came back to the Pho Bien to work, at about 8:45. Just outside the hotel, a moto cowboy asked if I needed anything, like a woman, and I just said no thanks and kept walking. He was a dark faced, hard looking man.
Saturday, November 13, ’10 Ups and Downs, Nha Trang to Quy Nhon.
This was a difficult day, partly because I made some weak choices. I slept in, till 6:45, even though I had woken at 6. I walked to the other side of my block, to a cute open air restaurant with a dual language menu, and ordered black coffee for 10kd, and bread with butter and jam for 25kd. Vietnamese coffee is magnificently strong, and they brought it in a little one cup straining device, with a steel thermos of extra hot water. The butter was from New Zealand, and the 8” baguette could have been produced in Paris- great breakfast. I called Mai Linh Express, and the only remaining express bus to Quy Nhon was at 3 pm, for 4 hours. My hotel lady suggested I go to the town bus station on a motorcycle ride, and buy a ticket for Quy Nhon from one of the local companies. The girl at the bus station said that the buses were every half hour till 2:30, which turned out not to be true.
I renegotiated with my cycle driver, for 100kd, to take me about 5-6 killometers further west to the Thanh Citadel, cua Dong, cua Tay, to see sections of the old town citadel built by the Trinh in the 1600’s, and rebuild by Prince Nguyen Anh in 1793 during his offensive against the Tay Son. The wall was about 12 feet high, but the top was wide, maybe 8 feet, and the gate in the middle had a large arch, with a pagoda type set of double ceilings above rooms making a tower. I took a bunch of pictures, and wondered why mounds of dirt rounded out the walls on both sides. I think the dirt mounds came much later in history, after the citadel no longer functioned. It makes no sense to let your attackers scale your wall up a dirt mound. In 1773, that mound was probably a moat, bristling with bamboo staves pointed at both ends and driven into the moat bottom.
My driver was excited by the fact that I was so excited, and he insisted on taking me further west, which worried me, but he kept saying Tay Son, Tay Son, so I let him drive me west a half mile, and there was the other wall and gate, exactly like the first one, since these fortresses were usually square. The East and the West gate survived. I think cua Dong, cua Tay means Gate East, Gate West.
I asked the driver, Thome, if we could stop at the Long Son Pagoda, since we had past it, and it is huge. He agreed, and I spent a good 20 to 30 minutes exploring a very large complex of buildings, statuary, art, and a variety of scam artists pretending to be Buddhist monks or their fundraisers. One decrepit old lady wanted to get paid for watching my sandals while I explored the main temple, a giant rectangular building with a ceiling almost 3 stories high. I caved and gave her 2000d. I passed on the adult orphans with the post cards, the priest who wanted to show me around and take my picture, and the little girl who wanted 50kd to buy her plastic fan. It was amusing at dinner tonight to read in the guide book about all three scams, I got hit by all three, and fell for none. Thome took me home, and earned a small tip, even though 100kd is over a day’s wage.
I visited the beautiful beach, and then returned to my Hotel, and dressed to swim, leaving even my glasses at the hotel. I swam in the ocean for about 7 minutes; the water was about 7 degrees cooler than at Ha Tien, in the gulf of Thailand, and it was cool enough to be refreshing. The undertow as I left the surf was strong and a little violent, but not dangerous to adults. Since I was past the 11 am check out, I hurried home, showered, packed and checked out. Here is where I goofed. I found a little open room restaurant, and had rice with beef and tofu, and lost track of the time. When a taxi dropped me off at the bus station it was 12:28, and the 12:30 had just pulled out. After 12:30, the buses are only hourly, so I had to kill an hour, loaded with luggage. The ticket master of the 16 seat Ford van said I could sit in the front seat. Just before we left, a couple shows up and demand my seat, since their tickets said seat 1 & 2, and mine said seat 3 behind them. I acquiesced graciously, wondering why the girl didn’t ask me which seat I wanted, since I was an hour early. This became the bus ride from hell. We drove half way out of town, about 5 minutes, and the bus pulled up to a small open restaurant to pick up a woman and her children, and there was an argument about the price, and that the seats were already taken. The driver and the ticket master sat at the restaurant and ate lunch. I was so angry, I wanted to show them my imitation of Jesus thrashing the money changers at the temple. By the time they finished their lunch, 3 more men showed up to board the van. A cute Viet girl joined me and two ladies in the 2nd row of three seats, so now there were 4 of us sharing. We chugged along, and the bus kept jamming more folks in. I counted up to 27 bodies in this van for 16, and for the fourth hour, I was jammed against 3 people. For several hours I was pushed up against the cute Viet girl, who spoke some English, and who gave me her name, Nguyen Thi Hong No. No means something like throat pin. We were close enough physically to feel married. For that 4th hour, 3 men were crammed into the slot between me and the sliding door, so I could no longer see out my window to the East, as we were going up one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. There were many signs of severe flooding, and there were many potholes in the road which slowed us down, but the driver was a bloody maniac, and we are lucky to be alive. It was a two lane road, Route 1, with a cycle lane outside each car/truck lane. Our driver insisted on passing everything in front of him, even when the road was bending to the right, and he would pull out to pass a huge 18 wheeler, with no visibility of the oncoming traffic. He and the ticket master both chain smoked, and both talked repeatedly on their cell phones.
For the first 4 four hours I did get to see the beautiful country and coastline- my god what a country. Huge mountains would appear to come down to the sea, but we would skirt around them, with the ocean and islands to our right, and find a huge valley to proceed north on, only to repeat the process. Near the end of the light, we hit some mountainsides all the way to the beach, and our road was cut into the side of the mountains. I was just furious with myself, that by not starting earlier, I had these punk maniacs, in a circus van with too many clowns, and missed the final hour of geography into Quy Nhon, because it was too dark to see. Sitting there in the dark for most of an hour and a half, I had plenty of time to realize that I could of left my hotel and gone straight to the bus station, and then bought a sandwich at any number of shops. It was pitch dark when we pulled into Quy Nhon at 6:30 PM, and pitch dark was my mood.
I took a taxi to the HAGL deluxe resort the guide book recommended, because they had single rooms for $22, but that was last year, now those rooms were $45. But for me only, $35. I left, and the bell hop recommended a place, as did the desk clerk. I went across the street to the Hung Dong, which is $6.US a night, but the room smells of smokers and mildew, and I will move tomorrow morning. I picked a restaurant for fish from the guidebook, Que Hong, and it was at the north end of the strip, so it cost a $2.50 taxi ride to have a $5.00 meal of fried cut fish and rice with assorted seafood bits, an orange drink and a beer, and justified the ride.
My guide book said that up in this north end of the strip, was a place called Barbara’s Kiwi Connection, hotel and free travel advice in English. I walked a pretty mile, in a part of town that was mostly closed for the night, but I met Barbara, who is in her late 60’s, and she gave me great advice. Just hire a motorcycle driver, she said, to go to Tay Son, now called Phu Phong, 51 kilometers to the west, so I can look at the countryside while someone else watches the road continuously. She said she might have a driver for me who was fluent in English. She lost her hotel to a developer, but she sent me next door to the Lan Anh 01, at Dong 102 Xuan Dieu, Qui Nhon. I looked at a room on the 4th floor with a balcony overlooking the entire bay, and bath tub for the shower nozzle. It was 250kd, or $12.50/night, I said I will take it tomorrow morning. Barbara appears to be a treasure trove. I caught a taxi outside the Lan Anh, and though the driver seemed gentle and nice, I had to remind him to turn on the meter. The charge was 48,600, and he did not offer me back my change from a 50. I wondered if he wanted to leave the fare off the meter so he wouldn’t have to report it, but I would have had only a vague idea of what the drive should cost.
I don’t care for the smell in this room, but even the new place I move to allows smokers, and has a dank quality, due to the fact that it is 70 yards from the ocean. Tomorrow, I will change hotels, go to Phu Phong to the Quang Trung Museum, explore Tay Son, and then think about how much longer to stay here versus going to Hue. I’ll weigh going to Hue.
Sunday, November 14, ’10 (yesterday)
I woke late, around 6:45, and walked over to the park, café and beach outside my Hotel, the Hung Dong. There were two old neglected tennis courts, one net was down, paint flaking. Must be public courts, or belong to a failed business. It’s possible they belong to the fancy resort next door, which let them go from lack of interest.
I packed, checked out and took a cab to the Lan Anh Hotel, took a room, and met Barbara Dawson, of Barbara’s Kiwi Connection Café. Their establishments are connected by an open passage way with no door or gate.
Barbara is a lively and vibrant woman and we talked, then I ordered breakfast, and we talked more. I had a great breakfast of 2 pots of plunger coffee with milk and sugar, and two large banana pancakes the kiwi (New Zealand) way. Looks exactly like a French crepe. She made a phone call on my behalf, the Quang Trung museum in Phu Phong, the new name for the old village of Tay Son, was open on Sunday after all. She had her motor cyle man on standby, so I packed up and Fie took me on a two hour ride up very small roads to Phu Phong. We went to a noodle shop and had Pho with beef, all while a horrible US war movie was on the TV above us. I used the WC, or Water Closet, or Ve singh, and it was a shower stall with just a drain in the corner and a tub of water with a large cup, and a pile of excrement against one wall. I studied the situation, and figured out that this was the original Water Closet, before it became the Turkish toilet, a basin on the floor with two places for your feet, so you squat. I peed into the drain, and wondered if a woman just pees on the floor- you use a scoop into a bucket of water to flush the closet floor.
Fie would not enter the museum with me, in spite of my pleas, so I went through it alone-so much for my expensive, English speaking guide. Several gold statues maybe 15′ high presented the viewer with the three brothers. I took notes, but most of the texts, all the big scripts on the walls were in Vietnamese only. I was done in 2 hours and 15 minutes, because I knew what interested me, and 4/5ths of the writing I couldn’t read. I noted that in the Temple of Quang Trung, where you took off your shoes, I was ordered by a guard? Or beggar conman, not to take photos, so I didn’t in the temple. I noted that Ho Hue’s top mandarins wore the traditional caps of ancient china, skull caps with roofs on the top, and ears out the back parallel to the ground. There were some great paintings of Hue on top of his war elephant. In one, he stood on a platform, pointed with his sword. In an other drawing, he sat on a throne on his elephant, and gave his orders.
Fie and I decided to go to one of the Cham Towers, since it was nearby, and we’d be home by 6. The towers were being restored, so they were covered in steel scaffolding. They were tall, 3 to 4 stories high, and needed a lot of work. To my horror, we went home a more direct route, but full of idiot truck drivers playing leap frog, and the road was full of exhaust pollution, and Fie took me to the other Cham towers, since his English is almost as bad as my Vietnamese. This cost a half hour, and as we left the 2nd batch of towers, it started to rain, then pour, and we had a miserable last hour driving home in the pouring rain, and in the dark to boot. Still the dam trucks and buses were playing leap frog, so to pass each other, they would be driving right at us in our lane. Today, I came up with a moniker for my idiot bus driver from Danang to Hue, Pig Bus Driver.
Back at my hotel, I showered in cold water, and I had to redress and get help. The young man showed me an electrical switch, unmarked and outside the bathroom, which turned on the hot water heater. I checked in with Barbara, she couldn’t have dinner with me since she was on duty, and so I went next door to the fish restaurant, and stupidly ordered crab. It takes a while to dissect and eat a hard shell crab, and I wanted to get back to talk to Barbara. I ate that crab in record time, but she and I had only 15-20 minutes before she went home at 9 pm. I asked if she wanted to read my novel, she was interested, and we discussed my leaving my manuscript, since I was tired of lugging it around. Later that night I reviewed all the rewriting in the first 230 pages, and decided I couldn’t risk losing all these rewrites I’d done, so I threw the book onto a thumb drive, so I would have something to offer her. I packed, and went to bed, knowing I’d ordered a wake up call for 5:30, since MaiLinh Express was picking me up at 6:30, for their 7:30 bus to Danang. I paid my bill that night, and the woman wouldn’t give me back my passport until she’d inspected the room. She didn’t believe I hadn’t used the mini bar. I apparently took the larger bag of Mango Chips, belonging to the hotel, by accident, and I handed them to her, since I hadn’t eaten them, in exchange for the smaller bag, which was a freebie in another hotel. The surf of the ocean made a wonderful, rhythmic clash that penetrated the wall and window of my room. The north end of the bay was full of complex circular fishing nets, that stuck out of the water.
Sunday November 14, 2010, Quy Nhon
5:30 AM came quickly, and I washed, shaved, and moved next door to Barbara’s for coffee and baguette with butter and jam, all served by Fie. He was cheerful, in part since I paid him $20 US for 6.5 hours of work the day before, including a two hour break, which his girlfriend had insisted was the price, and Barbara had said it was the normal rate. I should have insisted he translate in the Museum.
Barbara sat with me while I finished my breakfast, and said she was looking for a buyer for her café, and had three nibbles. I questioned her, and she wants $100,000 US, to replace what she has sunk into the business. Her income is negligible though, maybe under $5,000 per year, so I’m afraid the business might be worth no more that 50,000. 5/100,000= Return on equity of only 5%, when it should be 20%. If 20% is your goal ROI, then the business is worth only $25.000. If she took 10 or 20 % of each job she set up, she could make the numbers.
My suitcase would not fit in the back of the Mercedes Benz 16 person van, so I had to put it in the aisle, blocking in the last 2 rows of people. I had to sit in the middle of the last row, but got to talk to an attractive polish couple, and the views were spectacular through the side windows. Lots of mountains coming down to the sea. We were stopped by a police man, on a trumped up charge probably, and we saw the driver give him several bills. The young Poles will travel the world with their backpacks for over a year. They loved Tibet. A little Viet Grandma asked me if I would like to switch seats with her, she was in the 2nd row by the door, and I sat next to her daughter in the back. I readily agreed, and suddenly I had leg room, and the whole front windshield to look out of. I lost my Polish couple, but they had no interest in Vietnamese history, so our conversation had ceased long before. They had said that Ireland was on the brink of going under, and they discovered in Spain that the Irish all came to the same resorts there, year after year, sticking with their own crowd, and knew almost nothing about the world beyond their own. Americans are also quite insular and ignorant of the world, I said, and that was how we became instant friends in the beginning.
We stopped at 11:30 at a Mai Linh cafeteria and gift shop, and I had fishy fish, like mackerel, with rice, soup and vegetables, in a plastic tray with little compartments, all for 25,000d ($1.25). They probably fed over 100 travelers in that one half an hour. I noted rice fields that were submerged, into mile wide lakes of water. The flooding of the region had been severe, with 24 reported deaths.
It started raining, then pouring. It was pouring at the bus terminal in Danang. I caught the local BX bus to Hue with 10 minutes to spare, it left 15 minutes late, and the fat woman charged me 50kd. I got off the bus and checked at the ticket counter. The ticket was 40kd. It’s a buyer beware sort of place. I was another minor victim of the let’s bleed the tourist frenzy that affects most in the tourist industry here. I should have recognized the trap, when she acted like the bus was leaving, and I had to hurry, when it wan’t, and I didn’t. You should never approach a Viet ticket master, without knowing the posted price. The extra 10,000d is only 50 cents, but it is the principle. And if it was an extra $50 or $5000., the principle would remain. The fat lady did invite me to sit in the seat right behind the driver. The bus was almost full when we left, and they added 10-15 more before we left town, so the aisle was full, and the engine block, and the door way. I was jammed in, and it was raining hard, so it was hard to see the world go by. We entered my first tunnel, and it went through a huge mountain. I got a chance to see up close what an idiot our driver was, passing two or three trucks, going up a huge hill, unable to see what was coming at us around the bend, and trying to get back into the right lane in front of the vehicle he was passing, before hitting straight on an 18 wheeler coming right as us. We saw one large truck turned over on its side, and 3 others sitting dead with engine trouble. This was when I coined the term, Pig bus driver. The flooding on the road to Hue was impressive, eapecially after Danang, and it rained hard for several hours in the afternoon. There were rice fields turned into lakes with electrical poles marching across the lakes, each perhaps a mile square, over and over many times.
The bus stopped to let someone off, and a guy jumped out to pee right by the side of the bus in full view of the passengers. I jumped out and joined him, because it was time. 20 minutes before we reached the Hue bus station, we stopped at a big gas station and many folks used the rest rooms. Apparently one of the women had signaled she needed to stop. I picked out 4 hotels in the guidebook, and rated them 1-4, and wrote down the address on the first on a piece of paper. In the pouring rain, I ran out in my raincoat, wrestled my big suitcase out of the back, and got in the second cab. He made me take my rain coat off in the rain to keep it from wetting his car. The Binh Minh Sunrise Hotel is lovely, and I went next door for a dinner of Indian food, after checking email. Nice to hear from my daughter! I came back to the hotel and wrote emails to my two Viet contacts in Hue, one through Professor Quang Van Phu of Yale, and the other through Barbara Lamb. I started my journal, and an hour later Truc Linh called me at the Hotel. Quang’s friend wants to meet tomorrow, and take me to libraries where I can read more about the Tay Son. I’m afraid my desires are more basic, I want to see the Citadel and the Spring Palace and the Imperial Enclosure.
Tuesday 11/16/10 day 13. 7 remaining to get to Hanoi and see it, and it is 12-15 hours away by bus.
I need to describe the geography of the trip to Tay Son yesterday. I will make brief comments, then look at my pictures and possibly write more. We cycled into a very small road, passing a land of sand dunes. The coastal region is on top of sand. Coming into Quy Nhon, I saw huge hills of boulders, like giant piles of granite pebbles and rectangular stone. Some mighty glacier had been here before.
We passed many fish farms on the right, and pine trees on the left. There were many pine trees, looking like white pine, but spindly- like Japanese paintings. The forest was never very dense, but there were many villages, many people. When we got to Tay Son, in Phu Phong, it was at the end of a plain of rice fields, at the base of the central highland mountains. This is important, because the Tay Son used the highland ethnic groups as allies, says George Dutton, in his new history, the Tayson Uprising, that came out just 2 years ago. A relief map in the Quang Trung Museum shows that the mountains go on and on, they start just beyond Tay Son.
After we left Danang, which is surrounded by big mountains, we entered a tunnel, that was over a mile long, into a huge mountain, and then we climbed up and down a series of 3 or 4 more very big mountains. The driver upset me, because he was a Pig bus driver, and was risking our lives, to cut a few minutes off the trip, by passing trucks, when he couldn’t really see what was coming in the other lane from the other direction. I took pictures, but just for reference, since you see the inside of the bus in most of them.
Waking up 1l/16/10 in Hue. I was at the Binh Minh Sunrise Hotel, and I slept in on purpose, till 7, when the phone rang, and Truc Linh cancelled our date for 9:30, it had rained all night, and was still pouring, and his home had become an island, and he didn’t have the stomach to motor bike 8 kilometers in the deluge. This was good for me, since I wanted to see the Citadel of Hue, and the Imperial Enclosure, and the Halls of the Mandarins, and the Forbidden Purple City. I enjoyed the hotel breakfast, included in the price of the room, which at $20 is as expensive as HCMC. The coffee was good, but the toast was like over toasted wonder bread- crouton material. I walked to a bank, and changed my remaining travelers checks, $150. US, into 3 million Dong. 2,882,100.d. The commission was $2.20, about 1%. so this was the best rate I ever got for traveler’s checks, I wish I’d brought a $1000., not $250 of them.
It was tricky leaving the Hotel, because of flooding, you had to get your feet wet, there is about a foot of water in the street here, so it has run up onto the sidewalk of our hotel. I locked away most of my 3Million Dong in my suitcase, and decided to just wade in the water out front, since the smell in my room last night turned out not to be the desk, but my sandals, so I splashed about in them crossing the steet, and planned to shower in them tonight.
I found the street to the Perfume River, which is substantial, almost half a mile across, and I purchased a small umbrella to keep some of the pouring rain from hitting me. The Citadel wall was just a block in, but I had to argue with a number of pushy cyclo drivers (bicycle rickshaw), who desperately wanted my business. One guy kept saying we should tour about, because the ticket office for the Imperial Enclosure was closed till 1:30. The guidebook said it was open all day, but I offered the poor wretch 40,000d to take me to the entrance, after he’d followed me for 10 minutes. He took me to an entrance that was closed, but had no signs, so I realized I was with a con artist, but I gave him his 40k, out of a growing pity I have for all the bicycle men. They are losing most of their business to the Motorcycle men, who can do any distance much faster. They are so pushy, because they are starving. You can tell that they are desperate. Many of them come from families that supported the Bao Dai (Nguyen) regime, the French and or the Americans, and they are not allowed most other kinds of work by the communist government, which Barbara says employs about ½ the population. I walked along the wall for a long time, it is a big Imperial Palace, and came to the main entrance, where I paid my 55kd, and entered.
It’s big. The Citadel of Hue, is an old city behind a wall that is two stories high, and 2 meters wide. The Imperial enclosure, Phu Xuan, or the Spring Palace, is enormous in that it is like the Forbidden City of Peking. It is 2.5 kilometers squared, and it is just palaces and gardens for the Emperor and his ministers to meet and rule, and for his family and concubines to live. The emperor had four long dormitories for his concubines, a large palace for himself, another for his wife, and others for the grand-parents. My immediate question is about the Thai Hoa Palace, the Palace of Supreme Harmony, built in 1803, ( just after my book ends), by Nguyen Anh, the victor of my story. It has a large throne on 3 levels of dais, but infront of the throne, is a large table, and 3 large sculptures. I wonder if visitors, who are expected to kowtow, have to stay 30 feet away, with the table and objects between them and the throne. You would have to speak loudly and clearly for the Emperor to hear whatever you had to say.
The Lonely Planet guidebook 2009, says, “The enclosure was badly bombed by both sides during the American war, especially the vicious battle of Tet in 1968, and only 20 of its 148 buildings survived. “ It goes on to say that while the government is restoring some of the buildings, it is ambivalent about the royal Nguyen Imperial past, and is not pouring any resources into the job. In this huge monument, I found only two toilet stalls, unkempt, and unmarked. I could spend a lot of time describing each section that I identified, but much is in the guidebook, and much I couldn’t figure out. By the end, and after listening to a Viet tour guide speaking in French to 30 customers, I learned that the big empty space behind the giant audience hall was where the Emperor’s private living palace was. It is a bare courtyard now, with a few pillars sticking into the sky, all that’s left of one of the finest palaces ever built in the country.
I had some nice exchanges with other tourists, there were hundreds at the site with me, but it wasn’t crowded. There was a traditional theater, that confused me, since it had a stage, with a small dais, and throne, at the back of the dais, and there were red chairs facing the stage. I raised my concern with a guide speaking in French to his clients, and he said that the chairs were for current performances, but when the Emperor used this theater, where all the chairs were placed was actually the stage, where the dancers and opera singers performed. The emperor and his family were on the dais, and other guests were up in the balconies. Sometimes I learn very small details. In one of the halls for the Mandarins to prepare their appearances, there were items on display, including very old photographs. In one, it was of officials eating at a royal banquet in the huge assembly palace. The long tables were on both sides of the head table, assuming the Emperor even attended such a banquet, and the mandarins all sat on only one side of the long tables, so they all faced the emperor while they ate. It was not a cozy, friendly, informal arrangement.
I went back to the great model of the all the 148 buildings, in miniature, and listened to another Viet guide speaking in French. I followed along. He pointed out a palace for each import family group: the parents of the king, the parents of the 1st wife, the 1st wife herself and her children, the 2nd wife and her children, etc.
I’m stunned by how big this place is. In one photo, there are about 50 court officials, all in official robes, attending the Emperor. This style of government was destroyed by revolution in China, because it was expensive and rulers seemed out of touch with the ruled. The Viet government system was modeled almost exactly to follow the chinese model, and had a similar fate. It was destroyed by a revolution. I wonder if the Bao Dai government was doomed from the start, by emerging from such an antiquated and inefficient and systemically insensitive system. Servicing 4 dorms of concubines would sap the energy of any vigorous leader. At one point, I was so tired, I bought a warm Coke for a dollar, to get the caffeine and sugar. When I reached the opposite wall, there was an open gate, and across the street were houses and noodle shops, across the moat of the Citadel. I asked the guards if I could run out and eat, and then reenter on my ticket. They said sure. I’m getting good at sign language, since most of these guys speak little English. I had a great bowl of Pho, Noodles with chicken, and two coffees, for 60kd. It was expensive, but it was raining again, and my feet were getting sore from walking in wet sandals, and it had outdoor tables under a roof. The guards had changed, so I had to act out the whole drama, and produce my paid ticket in order to get back in.
I left the Forbidden Purple City, where the family and concubines and eunuchs all lived, then left the Imperial Enclosure, which I think is called the Spring Palace, though the ancient Spring Palace was 8 kilometers to the north.
I was adopted by the homeliest cyclo driver, who was desperate, and followed me around like a dog, since I looked footsore to an experienced eye. I visited the decorative cannons, sad testimony to the arrogance of the Viets, making giant, 15’ decorative cannons that didn’t really work. He wanted a 100kd, then 50. I realized that my feet, in wet sandals, were so sore, they were almost bleeding, and I stopped to put on socks, but had forgotten to pack them. So I negotiated a ride. For 40kd, he could take me to my hotel, no excursions, and he was delighted. He should be able to care for a family of 4 for a day on 40kd.
In the shower, I soaked my smelly sandals in hot water, and then scrubbed them with hand soap. The pleasant restaurant staff were all sitting down to take out food, and I asked where they got it. The girl said they had to travel 2 kilometers out of the tourist district to get prices they could afford. I went to the Viet restaurant next door to see their menu, and stayed for a meal of mushroom soup, fried shrimp and beef with vegetables, bottled water and beer for 70,000. ($3.50)
During my late lunch at the noodle shop just outside the far wall of the Imperial Palaces, I witnessed a beautiful moment. A woman on a motorcycle wearing a bulky black rain poncho went through the puddle of water in front of the restaurant, and suddenly, a little girl, 10 or 12, threw up the poncho she had been buried under behind the woman, looked out with delight, so pleased to not be sitting blind in the dark anymore, and yet she also looked surprised or scared also, by the bright light and the traffic. And then they were gone, and I just remembered the young girl’s smile of excitement when she threw off her plastic veil. I thought it would have been a great photo, but it was before me for only an instant, and was gone.
My cheerful cyclo driver pedaled me slowly over the Perfume River. We passed by a woman on a motorcycle, and I thought she looked nice. The streets were all flooded with water, and she was wearing a rain poncho, and she didn’t look properly dressed for the weather. She was dressed up for a dinner party. I looked down, and noticed that she was wearing stockings and very high heels.
Wednesday 11/17/10 The beginning of week 3. Last full day in Hue.
Today was a great day. I slept for 8 hours, and then lay in bed for 30 minutes and got up at 7:30. I had a long leisurely breakfast downstairs, baguettes with butter and jam, a vegetable omelet, banana, and 4 or 5 strong cups of coffee with fresh milk. I brought down my laptop, so I was checking email, the NYT, and Viet Nam News: severe flooding just to the south of us. I was smart to get out of Quy Nhon and move and not stop at Danang. The waters are receding here. At breakfast, most of the street was visible, now it is all clear. I needed to think hard about priorities, travel decisions, and Professor Quang Phu Van’s friend and historian, Mai Khac Ung wanted to have me over for an interview and a meal, but our go between was locked in up north in a house surrounded by flood waters. So after careful deliberation, I wrote an email to Mai Khac Ung directly, saying,
Dear Mr. Mai Khac Ung,
I hope we can meet, and I was wondering if it could be today. If you send me your phone number, I will call from Binh Minh Sunrise Hotel, tel 84.54.382-8362.
I will go out shortly to investigate buses and trains to Vinh, and then Hanoi. My goal is to travel during the day, so I can see the country. If I leave tomorrow morning, I will have 2 travel days, and I will have 3 days in Hanoi to see 18th century sites and museums, maybe I will need only 2 days, I’m not sure. I’ve heard the museums of 18th century are very small there. I must catch an airplane to the US next Tuesday morning the 23rd.
I hope we can meet today, and I can certainly come to where ever you wish to meet.
This note had the effect I desired, and I politely copied Truc Linh, who wanted to postpone a few days, till he had better boat service. But first, I walked to the train station, which the reception girl said was ½ a kilometer away, and it was a spectacular walk along the Perfume River, with the Citadel wall on the other side, but is was actually 2 kilometers, and took 20 to 30 minutes of wondering. The train would leave at 10, and cost 99kd, take 9 hours, and this was without explaining whether I was getting a soft seat, a hard seat, a soft berth, or a hard berth. I’m sure I wasn’t quoted a bed for a day trip. A quiet older guy, I’m afraid to say, my age, probably a vet, offered me his services, and I said I wanted to go to the Bus Station, then back to my hotel, and gave him the card for the Binh Minh Sunrise Hotel on Nguyen Tri Phuong Street. How much? 30,000 dong. I looked at him with shock. Really, that’s the right price. OK I said, and look at him again. He was lean and dark, and laid back, thin as a rail. He was the first moto driver to just give me the going rate. He had an oversized helmet that actually fit my head. First one large enough to fit. We went out to the Bus Station, and most of the ticket sellers were out to lunch. The few remaining said over and over that there was no bus here to Vinh, and they gave my driver a card, saying here is the bus. We followed the card to a travel agency back by my hotel, and they had a night bus only for 230kd. He still got a 33% tip.
I went back to my hotel, and I found a Sinh Café Services, where a nice young man said I needed the North Bus Station, since they handled buses going north. I had an email from Mai Khac Ung, giving me his address, and asking me to call his neighbor, Ms. Oanh. She was his translator, and she said I was welcome, but not for lunch, but after. So I said between 2 and 2:30 and went next door to a little Viet Restaurant that I hadn’t tried yet. It was overpriced at 60kd, but I got a great shrimp and vermicelli, with stale chocolate pound cake and strong coffee. I packed carefully, taking the contents of my novel, and the new Dutton book on the Tay Son. I bought a flask, a 175 ml bottle of Wall Street, Blended Scotch and Vietnamese Spirits, for 100kd, in case I needed a gift after all, and searched out a moto man who’d groomed me earlier for his business. I needed to go North Station, and then Nguyen Phuc Nguyen street, next to the famous Thien Mu Pagoda. He wanted a hundred, I said it was only 30. He said 50, I said, its only 30. He said no. I said I would look around, and the other guy at the corner took the job. I think he regularly took business away from his corner mate, who only wanted big fish. The North station was way up the road, and my driver went 60 kph to get there, which means any accident would have killed us, but the roads were not too crowded, and I found out at North Station, Ben Xe Phia Bac, Bus Station Direction North, that there were buses every hour from 6 to 10 am, for 100kd. I’ll shoot for 9. My racing car driver took me to Nguyen Phuc Nguyen Street, and it was far out, and hard to find, we went by it at first, and passed the Thien Mu Pagoda, but retraced, and went up an ally, and there it was, a small new mansion. While I was paying the driver, a spry looking wild man was walking about. Mai Khac Ung is a mixture of my cousin Peter Lindsay and Yoda. He seems at first to be near my age, but he told me later he was 77, and very proud of it.
The house is spacious, and gorgeous, and full of fine tiles and precious dark woods. The kitchen is almost American, large and modern, with all the conveniences. I took off my shoes, and left them inside the front door, with all the other shoes of the house.
Mai Khac Ung speaks very little English, but he worked for many years as a museum curator, and he has had numerous books published in Vietnamese. He is an expert on the Tay Son, and especially on Emperor Ming Mang. Ms. Oanh was an English teacher in an elementary school, and her English was sometimes hard for me to understand. It appears that the commitment here to English is somewhat ambivalent. But she was attractive and charming, and at some point, Mai Khac Ung said mischievously, that he really wanted an American husband for her, and for some reason, I didn’t think he was entirely joking. We talked and talked, and I asked questions, and described my book, and always, Ms. Oanh had to translate both ways. Before long, Ung was running up to his library, and pulling his books off of his shelves, to show me his published works. Most were in Vietnamese only, but one “Emperor Minh Mang’s Mausoleum” had a companion book with abbreviated translations in French and English, and he immediately presented me with an old stained copy of one of these as a gift, already inscribed by the author. Then he asked me to carry a book to Quang Phu Van, who is really Van Phu Quang, since in Vietnam it is in the order of Family, Middle, First name. I couldn’t refuse, all though my suitcase it already heavy. I showed him the George Dutton book, and I made Ms. Oanh explain that I was writing historical fiction. He agreed that this gave me a great deal of freedom and license.
I showed him my sketches of the Thai Hoa Palace, the great reception hall, or the Palace of Supreme Harmony, and I wondered how people met the Emperor, since infont of his dais, was a large table, and before that were sculptures of lions and urns. It took a while, but he finally made it clear that the Emperor only met his Mandarins in this hall, and they stood on either side, in long ranks, in 18 rows, since there were 9 grades of Mandarin, and 2 levels in each grade. While still in real power, the Emperor never met with ambassadors, they had to meet with his minister of foreign affairs, equal to equal.
We had a big discussion about the size and dimensions of the Phu Xuan Palace complex, inside the Citadel. He drew a picture. The Citadel was 2600 meters at each wall. The Palaces of Phu Xuan were inside walls of 600 meters. The Purple Palace for the women and children was inside walls of 300 meters. Outside the citadel, a house was built for his minister of foreign affairs to meet with ambassadors. They were not even allowed inside the Citadel, or walled city.
I showed him my sketch of the Thai Hoa Palace. I reviewed with him the 5 standing bows and the 3 kowtows that I saw worshippers do in a Buddhist Temple in Nha Trang, and he said: The mandarins had to do 5 kowtows to the Emperor on their knees. Sons and daughters, when their parent dies, they do 4x to the shrine of the parents. Buddists are expected to do 3x to buddhas. The standing bow with the hands raised is less formal. The hands symbolize the heart, or the Lotus. Standing bows are about communicating ones deep feeling, showing appreciation.
Very soon after I presented Ung with the small bottle of whiskey, he invited me to dinner, and I accepted, and his wife soon got up and spent the rest of the afternoon preparing a home cooked meal of 2 dozen or so pork spring rolls, fried beef and chicken dishes, rice, and fresh mint from his garden. Before dinner, I used the bathroom, and Ung and I went outside the backdoor and toured his garden, which was extensive. He picked some herbs for the meal. He had slipped on toe thongs to go outside, and as we came in, he asked me to go into a side room and wash my bare feet. There was a stool by a shower drain, with a tub of fresh water and a scoop. I was embarrassed, and I noticed that the floors in his house were immaculate.
The Ho brothers father was named Ho Phi Phuc. His father or their grandfather was Ho Hung Dat. We finished the small flask of whiskey, Ung kept making me clink glasses, but he had to correct me. Since he was my senior, I had to hit the rim of my little cup under the rim of his. Our clashes demonstrated the natural pecking order of the Confucian society. He told me that Van Phu Quang calls him Uncle out of respect, ( since he is the elder). He would return the respect by calling the younger man nephew. Before dinner, Ung would go off looking for another book to show me, so I made conversation with Ms. Oang. She teaches English to grade 3, for example, for just 70 minutes/wk. Her students, grades 1-5, only go to school from 1:30-4, or 2 and 1/2 hours per day, five days a week. Most middle schools, grades 6-9 allow for full days.
Ung showed up with a handful of his books. In Vietnamese, they were: Agriculture in the Ming Mang Period, Tu Lien Ve Nguyen Cong Tru, Backgound of the Nguyen Cong Tru ( a famous poet of 1778), tham cua Thien Mu Pagoda, the Pagoda next door. He mentioned a book about the Tay Son, and Back to the Source, which he presented to me as a second gift, on the folk arts of the Hue region. Khiem Lang Va Vua Tu Duc, his book on Emperor Tu Duc.
I told him about how I used the tale of Kieu, (Keeow) Kieu Truyen, in my novel. He wanted to know if I knew about Pierre Pigneau, and I talked about his biography. He mentioned with excitement that Pierre has a tomb in Saigon. It is not mentioned in Lonely Planet! They should take note, since he helped engineer the Nguyen victory over the Tay Son, and for over 20 years, was Nguyen Anh’s military advisor.
I wanted to know what happened to the original Phu Xuan palace. He wrote that the first was built in 1687, the second was in 1804, and Nguyen Anh, took apart the old palace,which was a thumb print inside the new place, after he built the new Palaces, since he felt the old was too small and decrepit.
There were not 4 dorms for the harem women, the concubines, there were 6.
At some point, he asked if I would drink more alcohol. Our little flask was empty. I said, I will if he will. He got out the , that I’ve read much about, the Viet white lightening. He said it was 100% alcohol, and I suggested that it was probably100 proof, since it had taste. He said it was made with tiger bone, and I said that was too bad, since I think tigers are an endangered species. My translator couldn’t handle this, so I drew an X And Y axis, and graphed a tiger population over time disappearing, and they both understood. We each had a small cup or two anyway, the tiger was already dead, and then he chugged the 3rd cup, and bid me do the same. This was a signal that the evening was over, but I didn’t realize it till he was explaining that he’d called a neighbor to take me back to my hotel by Moto.
His neighbor was clearly an amateur, since his tires were under inflated, and he had no 2nd helmet. Lonely Planet says I am responsible for the fine if my driver doesn’t have a 2nd helmet. The police go after where the money is. He couldn’t find my hotel, and asked for directons 4 times. I knew where it was, but he wouldn’t listen to me. I gave him 20,000 dong, as instructed by Ung when I asked his advice.
I will cherish my visit to Mai Khac Ung, his wife and Ms. Oang, as the high point of my travels through Vietnam on this trip.
Hue has been a fascinating place to visit, inspite of the rain and flooding. I really liked the Binh Minh Sunrise Hotel. It is the best place I have stayed in Vietnam, and it was an “our pick” in Lonely Planet that I agree with. Tomorrow is another moving day- on to Hanoi.
I reluctantly left Hue this morning. I would have loved another day there to visit some of the Pagodas. I had a good breakfast at the hotel, finished packing, and took a taxi to the North Bus Station. The taxi took me for a ride. His meter was set at 12kd/kilometer, when the going rate is 8kd, so it cost 82dk for a pretty short ride. The bus stations create agita, since they are always hard to maneuver and decipher. It appears that there was only one bus, a big deluxe sleeper with bunks, and it didn’t go anywhere, since it wasn’t leaving till 10. I was quoted 150kd, but learned from a phone call to clarify schedules, that the fee was 130kd, so that was what I paid. I used the WC twice, and a young lady kept hollering at me that I owed her money for using the public toilets. I just walked away from her. Then I saw the bus driver pay her, and I realized that these might not be public toilets. I asked the ticket lady, whether we were supposed to pay, and she took a key and unlocked the public toilets, which were unmarked and were pretty disgusting. These were the toilets now just used by the ticket people probably, so I returned to the young woman and paid her with apologies.
I took a top sleeper, with the back up in a sitting position, in the very front, and was pretty uncomfortable for most of the 7.5 hour trip. I took the fewest pictures of any day, since it is hard to see a picture when you are looking out the side windows. I should have taken the train today. A young girl next to me, offered me hard candies twice, and she was very pleasant. She is a second year college student, but her English was negligible. A man on the other side of her kept encouraging me to take more pictures, and near the end he presented me with a warm corn on the cob, which I felt obliged to accept, and it was pretty awful. It had been cooked so long that the corn kernels were like mush. It was inferior to what we are used to, but I ate the whole thing, since it was my first Vietnamese corn, and it was filling and healthy. We stopped twice next to trees, and people piled out to pee by the side of the road. This company was avoiding the fees if they used a big reststop with giant restrooms. I was surprised that the women just went 10 or 15 feet from the men and pulled down their pants. Many of them put on their smog face masks. You could see their butts, but not their faces. The Viets are discreet though, and they tend to not look while others are relieving themselves.
We did pull into a lunch place at 1, that had toilets without toilet paper, as usual, and I was charged 30kd for Pho Bo, Noodle soup with a little beef, only to find out from a woman that the price was 20kd. I would have said something to the man who took me, but he had disappeared as we left. My college girl bunk neighbor threw up into plastic bags two or three times, she was very discreet, but not travelling well.
We went through and over some really big mountains, but I couldn’t manage any photos sitting up on the top bunk. The houses seemed to have a slightly different style. Many had two or three doors to the road, but all to one house, so they were like giant windows. I saw a lot of hovels and shacks, and new mini mansions, all with satellite dishes. It was hard to focus on the world outside. The 3 young men who ran the bus were playing rock videos with gorgeous teenagers singing, and then a Jackie Chan movie, and then several very violent martial arts film parts. There was a female assassin who killed a lot of oriental gangster men.
I had to make myself study the rice paddies. Can I get a good picture of one of the magnificent water buffalo. I saw many more buffalo here than anywhere else. There are a lot trucks carrying pigs, and today I saw two men on two motorbikes, with live pigs, all hog tied, on the back of their cycles, as they were being taking to a restaurant or small butcher.
We finally got to the industrial center of Vinh, and it is a big city of about 300,000. It was bombed to smithereens by the Americans, so now it has many grim, modern, office and apartment buildings built with the help of East Germany, and parts of it look a lot like a dismal, Soviet city.
At the train station, I took my suitcase over to the WC, and a girl there was charging people to use the public toilet, but at least she watched my luggage for her 2000d. I got picked up by a young man who wanted me to check out his new hotel across the street for 200,000, not in the guidebook, because too new. I looked at a room, and took it, but after standing in it for 2 minutes alone, I realized is smelled of smoke, there was horrendous traffic outside, and it and the lobby had no place to sit and type. I left, and took a cab to the APEC Hotel, on Ho Tung Mau, and it is lovely, with a Christmas tree in the lobby, but the set up for writing is minimal, and I’m trying to concentrate while a very violent American movie about convicts taking over an airplane is blaring in the corner. The Viets like violent movies, and use them as background music. I asked the girl behind the counter to turn off the film, and she said sure, and then didn’t. The movie was gripping, and I finally relented, and watched the ending.
Earlier, I walked out the alley to the boulevard, and sat at a little, open air, noodle shop, but under a roof, and had trouble ordering, because we couldn’t communicate. Finally a customer asked if she could help me, and informed me that they were out of chicken, and had no fish. All they had was some beef, and she recommended a beef noodle soup called Bo Don Nhung. First it would be 100kd, then I found it in a menu for 60, and after I’d made friends with one of the waitresses, and gave her an English lesson which she sorted of initiated by sitting with me and asking unintelligible questions, she charged me 35kd, which I think was the going rate. The food was good and hot, with Nuoc Mam, but no soy, and I got up to use the toilet. I had to walk through the kitchen, a dark narrow space where the young women were cooking on three or four woks, over small gas canister fed burners. The water closet had a toilet bowl, without a seat, which was not flushing, so there was a large bucket of water with a scoop, so you could dump some water in it.
My hotel reception girl thinks there is a train leaving for Hanoi at 10am, and I’m tempted to give up on buses, for a change.
Friday 11/19/10 I worked last night till almost midnight, so slept till 7:15. I was out of the hotel by 8:30, and found a handsome youngster to take me to the train station for 8kd/kilometer, proving that it can happen. It was also just a few minutes away. The guidebook says, there are no tourists in Vinh, because there is nothing to see there but ugly East German architecture. The train station, unlike the bus terminals, was organized, and Lenin like, with a huge display in a large courtyard, of a real, antique steam engine, set on real tracks. The next train was at 12, though I’d been told on the phone one every hour, and the guidebook said every hour. It would cost about 120kd, but it was only 9 AM. I decided to ride out to the bus station and see what was running up to Hanoi.
I was greeted by hustlers who literally dragged me to a big bus nearby, with a big Hanoi sign, and it was exactly like the horrible sleeper bus the day before. I watched them put my suitcase in the baggage box, and I removed my shoes and tried a few seats, legs out flat or bent, like a beach cot, still didn’t fit, and then I realized that all the side windows in the front had been shattered, so you couldn’t see out of any of them. That was why all the curtains were pulled. I decided I would take the train if necessary, though at 6-9 hours, I could be in the dark for 3. The driver and his agents were quite upset with me, but I had told them my concerns before trying out the bus, and I pointed out the broken windows, and said I couldn’t see.
My getting off the bus and demanding my suitcase caused something of a sensation. I decided to tour the lot, that had 20 to 30 buses in it, and way down at the end of that row, was another sleeper bus, only much bigger, also going to Hanoi, though at 10, and it was, on inspection, very different. The bus was so clean, that it seemed new, and the glass was clean, I could see all around clearly, so I agreed.
I was waiting outside for the assistant to show up, to stow my suitcase out of harms way, when a pompous young uniformed security agent of the bus depot came over to harass me, probably since I’d abandoned a bus run by his kick-back buddies. He spoke English very well, but he treated me like a criminal, and I felt my temperature rising. After I explained the whole history , though it was none of his business, he said something accusatory about, I didn’t buy my ticket in the ticket office. He was wearing a dark green uniform with red epaulettes. I told him I knew very well I could pay the driver’s assistant directly, had done it just yesterday. He admitted that this was true. He ordered me to pay this new company the 130kd immediately, as if I was trying to cheat them. I said that was unnecessary, since they collect the money when they choose to. Why was I standing there?, he said suspiciously. I was just waiting for the assistant, to stow my suitcase so I could further inspect the bus. We were in a standoff of sorts, but he started yelling for the assistant, who put my suitcase in the crib, and I started smiling at him, which had a positive effect. I then tried the seat beds, and that’s when I realized that this bus had great viewing, and the seat beds were bigger, and I actually fit in them. So I paid the Ticket taker, a slip of a female who materialized, and now the big bully had nothing more to do that he could think of, as I had been hard to intimidate, so he drifted away.
I had 30 minutes, so I left the driver and his staff, and found a great breakfast about 20 yards away in an open room restaurant. I ordered the omlette, bread and coffee for about 50kd, but the charges came in at 35? Probably because I complimented the owner, and they don’t see many foreign tourists in Vinh. The omlette was served in a small, hot, frying pan, it had two fried eggs, only half cooked, and scallions and greens and spices. The proprietor noted my confusion, and he signaled I was to scramble the eggs with the provided spoon, and this provided a perfectly cooked scrambled egg with scallions etc, which I ate with the bread, since they obviously didn’t have butter. The coffee was cold, and thick, and served in a double shot glass, with a dousing of condensed milk, which added cream and sugar. I had learned to my delight that the deluxe bus had a real head on board, so I indulged in a second glass of this wonderfully strong coffee concoction.
Another man had moved my backpack and taken the seat behind the driver. I confronted him and he showed me his ticket, it had the seat number, so he’d purchased the seat fair and square. Knowledge is power, and I laughed and moved. I wanted the left side, because that is where the most mountains are. I took his picture, and asked him to take mine. This seemed to dissolve all tension.
We left the station, and I was quickly in heaven. The berth was comfortable, and the views in 3 directions were excellent. You get to see a lot of a country, when the windows are large, unobstructed and clean. We left the industrial Vinh, and rolled up
Route 1 through rice and vegetable fields, and occasionally moved between beautiful hills.
There were a few small LCD flat screens set up to view DVD’s, and the driver’s assistant put on a very serious, professional looking martial arts movie, apparently made recently in Thailand, about ancient Vietnam, and prodigy boy martial artist.
I watched the film selectively, and learned that the choreographer of the fights thinks that the ancient kung-fu had all the aikido techniques that I chose to use in my novel. This was satisfying, to see how clearly the aikido moves fit into a Viet martial setting, costumed and choreographed for antiquity. The name of the film was Ouyen Thai (Win Tai), and there was a logo that said Kantana.. Next came on a modern gangster film, featuring a young prodigy martial arts student, who was only about 11 years old, and I managed to watch mostly Vietnam instead. I saw a lot of nice big houses and towns with better infrastructure. It seems in a quick tour of the entire country, that the north is bleeding the south of resources, like a victor and its colony. There seems to be noticeably less poverty, and fewer huts jammed together up here along the main road.
Next they put on the film, The Gods they must be Crazy, and I jumped down to move around to the other side, to take pictures of some gorgeous mountains, with limestone hump formations like in Guilin, China. The ticket assistant was in the back sleeping, so I plopped down in his big chair, next to the driver, and facing the giant front wind screen, and now I couldn’t be distracted by the movie screens, and I watched the country roll by, and took pictures. The driver got excited by my choices, mostly mountains and rocks, and soon he was pointing out good shots I should consider. I got cold, since the air-conditioning was blaring, and I took a lovely cotton quilt blanket, which was white, maroon and burnt umber, my favorite colors, and wrapped it around me like a shawl, and now I felt like a prince or a lord, entering the Hanoi region in my $200,000 dollar deluxe sleeper bus, my staff doing the driving, a porto-potty on duty, and I riding in the throne, in the shotgun seat with my camera.
As we got closer to the real Hanoi, since there are 5 or 10 towns right before it on Route 1, there appeared a divider, with pruned bushes full of red flowers, that went on for miles. I never saw anything like that in the south. One whole town was full of little mansions, each the shape of a shoe box on its side, but like Mai Khac Ung’s house, with fine woods for the doors and shutters, and fine tiles for the porches and main rooms. I remembered Dr. Wang, who stayed with me years ago, saying confidentially, “If someone have such a house, you know they are Party Members.” She was describing red China (PRC), but you get the gist of my conjecture.
We stopped at a lunch place for tour groups, and I ordered Mi Ga, not recognizing what it was. It was Chicken soup with yellow egg noodles, what we call ramen at home in the US. It came with a bowl of fresh greens that you submerge into the hot water, so you eat the vegetables barely cooked. I sat with my new friend, who had won my seat, and he drank a Red Bull, which my son likes, so I tried one, knowing it has caffeine. It was ridiculously sweet, so I’ll return to diet Coke. I kept asking him what things cost; the staff wanted me to pay 60kd for a 30kd meal.
My new friend for the trip proudly showed me his lunch. He’d bought bundles of something wrapped in green palm leaves. This was the type of food that the Viet Minh and Viet Cong carried into war zones, and lived off of without cooking, like C rations. He opened one to show me. It was mostly leaf wrapping, 3 layers, and inside, in airtight plastic, was a porc sausage. He offered me one, and I lost all my good sense and tried it. I was extremely curious, since this food is historically important. I asked him if the meat was cooked, after I ate it, and he said no , it was raw, which made me feel extremely stupid and irresponsible. But after thinking about how slowly I would die, I realized he was just wrong. It had to be cooked, or it couldn’t be an unrefrigerated meat product for very long. Summer Sausage in Wisconsin is also not refrigerated all the time. My stomach started doing summersaults, and 2 hours later I needed to try out the head, but I seem to have kept my health, knock on wood.
The bus station for Hanoi was outside, in the next town, Giai X? The taxi ride to the hotel center in the old quarter was long and hard, since the roads were crazy jammed with traffic at 5pm. With almost no traffic lights, as in Ho Chi Minh City, if you have to cross a busy road, you just plow into the traffic, and it slows, and moves around you, as you slowly wade through the flow of traffic. The ride took a while, and cost 245kd, or $12.25. I was 20kd short. The driver refused to give me proper change from a 500kd note, and when I pointed out he was a hundred short, he produced all but 5,000, but now I was pissed so I told him I wanted my change. He got in his car and drove off. It’s important to carry plenty in small bills. He could have driven off with 255,000. D. I probably should have required the change before handing him the note.
I had called 4 places this morning, from the Vinh hotel, and they were all full. The Queen of Heart Hotel said just show up, and they would send me someplace, so I did. Their cheapest room is now $25, but all full, and they sent me to the Hanoi Spark Hotel around the corner, where the cheapest room is $30, but my god is it a beautiful room. New building, new everything, Shanghai-Mitsubishi elevator, holding 6 people, and the room has dark oriental teak furniture and a glass wall to the bathroom, with a glass door to the shower. The nice hotel in Hue was the first and only one I’ve stayed in that had a shower curtain. I decided at 6:15 PM to take this gorgeous room for at least a night, and then walking back to get my suitcase, I checked in two other hotels, and both started at $30, and one was full. At Hanoi Spark, breakfast is included, and best of all, they have a room off the foyer for breakfast tables that is elegant, and where I can type at a real table with an outlet.
I made them show me how to turn on the air-conditioner, and set up in the breakfast room to check email, which is almost like having along friends and company- virtual companionship.
I locked up my computer in my suitcase out of habit, and because I just can’t risk losing it, and walked out into the night traffic noise in another great metropolis, to find dinner. I walked up the first corner, and there was a crowd of Vietnamese eating at tiny plastic tables, sitting in tiny plastic stools, and I looked at what people were eating, and it was snail clams, big clams, little clams, crabs, other crustaceans, and fish. I went over to the cooks, working at a cart with two propane tanks, and there was a portable display of a small fish market. I didn’t realize that there were so many types of clams.
I ordered the snail-clams, that looked like small walnuts, and were as hard to open- called So, and a beer, and sat with a friendly young couple, professionally dressed, and apparently on a date. The head waiter brought me my small dark clams, and sauce, and spices, both heavy with lime juice, and a bowl of fresh greens, heavy leaves, and light gentle leaves, stuff I would call weeds, but here, its salad. The guidebook says such dishes are a big no no, because they are washed in tap water, but I am starving for raw green vegetables, and wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t a risk taker. The head waiter carefully showed me the utensil, like a tire wrench in a bike kit that was run over by an earth compaction rolling machine. It came to a sharp point at one end, like a little spear. You held the sharp other end of the tool against the little clams shell, and forced it open. These clams do not open when you cook them! They were delicious plain, and fabulous dipped in the sauce and then the spices, which I also used as my salad dressing. One clam wouldn’t open, and after numerous tries, I enlisted the waiter. He took the tool sideways, so the entire edge of the tool caught along the clam, and it gripped and opened. I laughed so loud that all the girls behind the cart, who had been carefully watching with amusement anyway, all started to laugh, as did the couple I was sitting next to. I felt pretty stupid, but it was funny. I saw the couple eat a whole plate of cucumber sticks, so I asked them what they were called. Dua Tchua? (Zooah Tchua). After this fabulous dinner, maybe the best of the trip, for 95kd, ($4.95), I walked around, and found the Queen of Heart Hotel, and interviewed a rude and surely young man about their expensive $38 one day tour of Halong Bay. He was disgusted with me for not wanting to go tomorrow, but Sunday, and it’s not what I really want. It is more recreation than research. I want to see the Red River down to Haiphong and back for my book research. Everyone I’ve met who has visited Halong Bay said it was the highlight of their trip: Lisa Carter, Barbara Lamb, the girl from Canada- it was an option to sleep on.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
I slept in till 7, though a communist diatribe through a giant sound system woke me at 5. I took a short walk, then had breakfast, which was terrible, bad eggs, bad toast, bad service, and then I showered. The drain in the new glass enclosed shower is so slow, that the stall began to fill like a tub. At the end, I tried to turn on the cold water, and it was hot too. The plumber had screwed up, so there was no cold water option. I called two cheaper hotels, got through to the Prince 1 Hotel, 51 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, and took a short moto ride over to check it out. I negotiated 20kd, and it should have been 10, the blocks in the old quarter are short, and I should have walked. The driver had asked for 60, then 50. When I gave him a 50, it looked like I wasn’t going to get my change, but then he reminded me I still had his second helmet. I said I needed my 30kd change. He huffed and puffed, but the helmet was worth a lot more.
At the Prince 1 Hotel, I didn’t care much for the room for $20, it was fine, but dark, with no window, and depressing after the wall of windows at Spark, but I took it anyway, to move on. The moto ride had been so short, I walked back to Spark Hotel, packed, paid, and then walked, with all my luggage, suitcase rolling, the 6 or 8 short blocks to the new place. I looked at a much nicer room, with a window, for $25 US, and asked if I could have it for $22 if I took it for 3 days. The young clerk checked with his boss, and said no, and I took it anyway. I have a fine room, with a lovely writing table. I don’t have to use the lobby tables to type.
After organizing, I went out to look for lunch, and found a place the travel agent in the lobby said had spring rolls, and they were good. It was a room with a garage door open, and the spring rolls seemed more like pork sausage to me, not all wrapped in rice paper like I expected. It came with hot soup, and cold rice noodles, and a basket of weeds: parsley, mint, watercress, bean sprouts, and one or two leaves of lettuce as the garnish. The guide book said to stay away from salads from non western restaurants, because the greens are washed in tap water, but even though my bowels are getting shaky at last, you miss the Vietnamese experience of their cuisine without the weeds wrapped around the spring rolls- and I have always been willing to die for delicious food.
I left my hotel again, with only my shoulder bag and camera pouch. It is best to travel through the crowded streets, with the occasional bag grabbers and pickpockets, with as few bags as possible. Also, I think the rainy season has ended up here. Vietnam has 3 completely separate climate zones, so no time apparently is perfect for the whole country. Hanoi had great weather in mid November.
I decided, poorly with hindsight, to walk way down to the History Museum, looking first for the Red River, which is behind highways, and byways, and I couldn’t get to it, and then I walked to the Hoan Kiem Lake. There were many wedding couples, in full white wedding gowns and tuxes, with their professional wedding photographer. I crept up and snapped pictures of these handsome couples, for pleasure.
Then I got lost, walked 4 blocks too far, had trouble finding the history museum, and then its entrance. I paid my 20,000 at 3pm, with only an hour and a half till closing. The Lonely Planet says it’s a lousy museum, and here the Guidebook is just wrong. It’s a relatively small museum, with the best collection of Vietnanese historical artifacts in the entire country. Many of the other exhibits I’ve been to, in Ho Chi Minh City, and the Quand Trung Museum in Phu Phong for example, had what I think were copies of items in this museum. The gold crowns and swords and tea sets of the Nguyen dynasty were simply not to be seen anywhere else, and same for the jade and gold weapons, or the furniture and paintings of fine blackwood, teak?, in mother of pearl inlay instead of paint, like wood cuts, only these were pearl inlay paintings of scenes, with people and animals and dragons. There were paintings of ministers at work in the Court at Hue, Fine wood book boxes, meaning, cases for scroll books. A wall of intricate bronze incense burners, and another wall of bronze bells, some the size of bureaus, though thimble shaped. In a room full of artifacts from digs from 2500 to 2000 years ago, there was a large 3.5 foot high bronze jar for cremation ashes, and on the lid, were figurines in bronze of naked men copulating with naked women, though the figurines were small and primitive, each the size of an index finger. They made me think of the sculpture Steven Lindsay’s flying astronauts.
It was great to see real treasures from the Hue Court of the Nguyen Dynasty. There were hardly any such object to see at the Hue Citadel and Imperial Palaces. I took a bunch of photos, quickly, since photography is absolutely forbidden in any of the museums for or of Ho Chi Minh, and the modern revolution. The communists are, however, not so concerned with respect for pre revolutionary dynastic treasures. The guards here were lounging or sleeping.
Unfortunately, I needed a rest room, and the History Museum actually had real toilets and toilet paper, and soap for the sinks. First public toilets I’ve seen in 16 days here with either toilet paper or soap. Maybe there is hope for the rest of the country. As I left the museum, I passed a park with badminton net. In Vinh I saw a park with maybe 10 badminton nets in a row. In Ho Chi Minh City, the folks put up their own nets, or often, play in the parks without them, pretending nets. Two men here were kicking a shuttlecock over their badminton net, droping the shuttlecock after just one or two kicks. They were yellow belts compared to the circus performers I saw backkicking the shuttlecock back and forth, almost endlessly in the park opposite Le Loi Street in Saigon.
I decided that since it was only 4:30, I would walk all the way back up to my Hotel, maybe 1 or 2 miles, but I was driving the underemployed bicycle rickshaw men and cyclo drivers crazy. They swarmed me like beggars, and some followed me, almost harassing me. I was tired, and my left foot started to hurt, but, I wanted the exercise, and to learn to navigate the Old Quarter of the City. Tomorrow I will visit sites way across town, and give plenty of motormen some business.
Back at my new hotel, the Prince 1, I took a shower, and organized my clothing to have some laundry done. I went out early, and walked back to my old hotel, and found the fish restaurant, on the curb by 77 Nguyen Huu Huan Street. I deliberated between all the bins of shell fish, and decided on some really ugly critter, sort of like a small lobster without the claws. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it turned out to be jumbo shrimp, the biggest ugliest ones I’ve ever seen. Of course, I never seen them with heads and full of armor shells. They grilled up a pair of these for me, I reordered the skinned cucumber stalks, and I went very lightly on the weeds, and drank cold ice tea instead of beer. Meal was 182,000 or $9.10. I might have paid a premium. The head waitress quoted me 450, then 720, after weighing a jumbo shimp. I took her calculator and put in 72,000., and she nodded and said yes. I wonder if she was adding a zero to see if I would pay, $36.00, because the abbreviation here of 72,000 Vietnamese Dong, or VND, is 72.
As I was walking through the most intensely crowded streets in the Old Quarter, around 5:30 PM, with motorcycles rushing past, honking at you, as if you didn’t belong there, and you are walking in the street, because the sidewalks are completely blocked with either parked motorcycles, dozens of them per block, or 10-20 customers eating at an outdoor food stall restaurant, I wanted to kick some of these honking cycle drivers right off their bikes. At one point I had to pivot, as one came right at me and pushed me off the line, and he was going the wrong direction on a one way street. I can’t really recommend Vietnam, or at least, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, to other travelers. This place is absurdly crazy with congestion. You have a city of many millions of people, and only a few dozen green and red traffic lights. So few, that many Viets, when confronted with one, ignore it, because they know how to plow through traffic, with it, against it, or going across it. I know that my friend Lisa Carter, who came here last fall, and inspired me to get over here myself, was terrified about crossing an intersection in this City. She learned to wait for a Viet, and shadow them.
One of the drawbacks of the outdoor restaurants, is you get approached by independent sales people and beggars several times each meal. During my dinner, sitting on a plastic stool, a foot of f the ground, a poor woman came up selling what looked like doughnut holes. I turned these down several times today, but now, I thought I’d find out what the little balls were, so I brought 4 for 4,000. A nickel a piece. They were sweet, moist and delicious, and obviously a fine confection- Viet doughnut holes.
Then I walked back to my hotel through the hordes of people fighting with cars and motorcycles, so many people, that some of the smaller streets were almost like they were closed to vehicles, there were so many people out walking in them. A woman asked me to buy her yellow fruit. I shook my head and walked by on auto pilot, but then, returned to ask her politely what was she selling. She took a knife, and cut piece of the fruit off, and gave it to me. It was wonderful. I asked her how much, she said, 100,000. I looked at her funny. She said, for a kilo. I said I wanted two nodule, each the size of 3 fingers. She said 30, I said 20, and she accepted. I walked down the street marveling at this great mysterious yellow fruit. It came out of a big green roundish gourd, like a watermelon, with spines on it like a cactus. I saw a young lady sitting in one of the hundreds of tiny travel agencies in the city, trying to sell overpriced tours, and I asked if she spoke English, she said yes. I said, can you tell what is this fruit, and I held it up. Certainly, she said, it is mit.
I feel I should end the day right there, but vdict.com says that mit is jackfruit. I feel great about discovering mit, though I probably paid triple the going rate. In this exchange, perhaps I was the jackfruit. It is even pleasant to let the street people gain a small advantage, since their 200% overcharge is often 50 cents.
I couldn’t sleep last night for really the first time on the trip, so I took two sleeping pills, diphenhydramine 25mg, and read the guidebook from 12:30 until 2. Lonely Planet says that the Viets are deeply into geomancy, or feng shui, which they call phung thuy. “The orientation of houses, tombs, dinh (communal meeting halls) and pagodas is determined by geomancers. …..Westerners planning to go into business with a Vietnamese partner will need to budget for a geomancer to ensure the venture is successful.” P.49. This is part of Vietnam that I think I missed. There are currently no geomancers in my novel.
I knew that Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism had fused with popular Chinese beliefs, and Vietnamese Animism, but not that the Viets had a name for this amalgam, that they call Tam Giao, or Triple Religion. Of course, Christians also worship their own version of Triple Religion- the Trinity.
I had a late breakfast from 9:15 to 10, and then walked East, trying to get across several 2 lane highways to see the Red River. Motomen told me I’d have to use a vehicle to get to the river. My GI tract is better, and I walked down to the Hoan Kiem Lake, and went to the Ngoc Son Pagoda, which turns out, is a temple to worship none other than General Tran Hung Dao, who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century. There are also statues to recognize La To, the patron saint of physicians, and the scholar Van Xuong. I looked carefully at the incense burners and oil lamp statues. I wonder how the latter worked. There is a bowl for the oil, but they must have dropped a wick into the bowl of oil, perhaps weighted, so the wick went to the bottom of the oil, and stood erect. Who of my readers knows how this worked?
I had some time to kill till the museum ticket taker returned from his or her 2 hour lunch break, so I walked down to the museum, actually, it is called the Vietnamese National Museum of History, and on the way I found a barber for a $3 haircut, and a street stall for a 20,000 Dong plate of fried beef and shrimp on top of rice, with cooked cabbage- good meal for a dollar. I then found a coffee shop, and drank thick black coffee while enjoying several doughnut holes from a woman encountered earlier. The woman had wanted 50kd, but readily took 5, for 5 balls. Then she said I shorted her, it was 6,000. I disagreed. She opened my little bag. She has slipped an extra ball into it. I made her take it back, not to save a nickel, but to defend my waistline, and the principle of honesty, and perhaps a hunger for fair treatment. Traveling alone in a foreign country where you do not speak the language is about the loneliest thing I’ve ever done. I figured out that these 5 cent balls are made of rice flour and sugar, and are loaded with oil- not a good daily practice.
I spent almost 3 hours back at the National Museum of History. I kept trying to leave, and then would rewalk one of the rooms, and find something new, even if it was looking at items I had already studied. I retook a bunch of photos, since last night I uploaded my new pictures onto my laptop, and many pictures that I cared about had the flash of the camera as a big white blob in the middle of the picture. So this time I stood to the side of each valued treasure. There are ancient books as well as scrolls, that look just like western manuscripts, though read from right to left. I found an old manuscript of the Tale of Kieu, “the Story of Kim Van Kieu”.
The photos of the 6 great resistance leaders of the last 150 years included:
Phan Dinh Phung, who led the Huong Khe Uprising, 1885-1896 in Ha Tien Province;
Hoang Hoa Tham, who led the Yen The Uprising 1887-1913 in Bac Giang Province;
Phan Chu Trinh 1872-1926, advocated non-violent resistance to the French,
Luong Van Can, who established the Dong Kinh Thuc Movement in Hanoi, 1907;
Phan Boi Chau, 1867-1940, preached violence, and established the Dong Du movement in 1904,
Nguyen Thai Hoc, 1904-1930, founded the Vietnam National Party, and led the Yen Bai uprising. He was executed by the French in 1930, which helped guarantee that the resistance would be led by the communists led by Ho Chi Minh going forward.
When I set out to write an historical novel, it was originally supposed to be about Hoang Hoa Tham, or De Tham the tiger, but I never found much about him in English or French, but one short French history that said he was a monster and a baby killer. While researching De Tham, I found the story of Pierre Pigneau, Nguyen Anh, and the Tayson, and decided to completely change centuries.
I befriended a pleasant young Frenchman, and we looked at bunch of objects together. I conversed with some lovely and elegant Japanese women, because they kept studying the same artifacts that I was interested in. There was a fancy gold and jade container, covered in jewels and stones, possibly an incense burner. It had a lid, and stood on legs, made of solid jade and gold.
The Japanese women and I discussed one of the paintings of the Hue court, the Secret Council, and they were quite sure that the Emperor was not present. He would have been behind a curtain, or farther off, as in Japan, and as in China. The Vietnamese, as did the Japanese, borrowed much of their government practice and Imperial practices from China, one of these women insisted. I think she is right. But the Emperor, as an institution, was doomed, if he couldn’t see or hear clearly what his cabinet thought and discussed.
I left at 4:15, toured the outside gardens, took pictures of the giant Banyan trees, and found a motorcycle man who quoted me 30kd to go to my hotel, and I didn’t even argue. His fee was just 10-15 off from the Viet rate of 15-20, so I smiled and accepted with a big smile. I took pleasure in meeting a man with a fair price.
I checked with the young men who work the desk, and they said the items in the mini bar are each a dollar, so I walked across the street and bought a cold Tropican Orange Twister and and a BIA Hanoi Beer, each for 50 cents, and at a liquor stall I picked up a flask of mystery whiskies for $1.50. It is nowhere near as good as the Wall Street brand that I presented to Mai Khac Ung.
I went to dinner to a real restaurant out of the guidebook, just down 3 blocks in the old Quarter called Five. It was elegant, table cloths, and I ordered the spring rolls for 75kd, which I’d been looking for. I passed on the drinks for about 100kd. (100,000 VN Dong=$5.) What arrived was a plate with mystery meat pate and white chicken, and cut vegetables, and short stack of fancy transparent rice paper, so thin I at first thought it was plastic saran wrap. The waitress took away my wine goblets and full set of silverware, and set down a pair of chopsticks. The finger foods came with a small 1 inch diameter bowl of mild hot sauce, and another of something that was sweet and sour, which I’ve seen before, and it might be a very gentle version of nuoc mam. Making the little spring rolls took some time, eating them was quick. The guidebook praised their desserts, so I ordered the cake of the day, a chocolate cake, and a decaf, the first decafe I have met here, and left some of the cake uneaten it was so terrible. That terrible cake with the coffee doubled the price of the meal. I’m so used to being off the gringo trail, that it feels foreign when I visit it.
I did some Christmas shopping, and negotiated with a woman for only one small bag of her fresh pineapple. She wanted 50kd, which was annoying, since I’d bought a full lunch today for 20,000, so I just looked at her. She dropped the price to 40, and I started to walk away. Then I heard 30, then 20. “How much,” she begged. I came back to her, to be polite, and to allow her to keep her face, or dignity, and looked at her seriously. I looked at the little bag of fruit and said, 10. She looked annoyed, but said OK. It was still probably 2 or 3 times the going rate. In this country, a lot of things still go for 1,000 vnd, or 5 cents or less. The woman made me uncomfortable. She wasn’t interested in selling to her own people, she wanted dumb, rich tourist margins. Or was she like Amahl’s mother in the Menotti opera. To her, was I was one of the kings from afar.
As I was walking back to my hotel, I was hugging the side of the street, since the sidewalks were taken with parked motorbikes, and a young man on a motorbike ran over the back of my heel and didn’t stop. I yelled at him so loud, that I got a small cheer from toss-pot tourists who were on the opposite sidewalk drinking beers. The young man looked at me, and drove off. The pain quickly subsided. He hadn’t hurt me, just scared me. And I was mad. I had a moment of regret, that I didn’t assault him, and then realized, it was good that tomorrow is my last day here.
Now that I’ve calmed down, I realize the young man didn’t hit me from behind on purpose, he was going too fast and he goofed. But I do not recommend this country to everybody. The traffic has become a daily grind, and accidents waiting to happen. The congestion here in the big cities, and on the highways, with one lane going each way, and a 1 meter safety lane for bicycles and cycles, is like every day riding on a powder keg and waiting for someone to forget where they are and lighting a match. At least two of my bus drivers drive with reckless disregard for life.
Since I walked to the wonderful National Museum of History again today, past many communist government buildings and perhaps several embassies, I noticed that amongst these big fancy buildings, surrounded by fancy 5 star hotels, that there are traffic lights. The communist bureaucrats in Hanoi are not stupid, but they err in providing for themselves services that are elitist, since most of the city has no traffic lights, just many, many drivers and pedestrians, some trying to weave through each other carefully, while others bully their way through the congestion. It is extraordinary, that Vietnam is trying to run an entire road system with just a few simple rules, such as: over taking vehicles keep clear, and when a police officer stops you, with or without cause, you pay him his bribe price to continue on your journey.
As discouraging as the corruption here is, I remind myself that in the book, “The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens,” Steffens proved in a series of articles for McClures Magazine around 1915, that the police in every major US city at that time ran the organized crime in those cities for their own enrichment. It is possible, that Vietnam is going through a developmental stage that most every modern economy hits in an early part of its development. What I do not understand, is if all this corruption is preventable. Vietnam has had an economy since before 1000 B.C. The corruption of petty officials and law enforcement officers was an epidemic in the ancient regimes of the Vietnamese Emperors. One of the reasons for the communist movement, was to counter the excesses of the Imperial dynasties. The communist government will lose the mandate of heaven, if they are seen to be as venal and base as the government they defeated militarily. They have blocked a few western web sites, like Facebook, oddly enough, but the whole country is online on the world wide web. Still imitating China, century after century, the Viet Communists are riding a tiger. Just like China, they want the benefits of capitalism in a totalitarian state, and for now, with a 5.3% annual growth rate, they are staying on the tiger’s back. Index Mundi says that their estimates of the Viet economic growth are 8.5% in 2007, 6.3% in 2008, and 5.3% in 2009. Those are healthy numbers, if they are correct. Index Mundi says the numbers come from the CIA World Fact Book. I found the numbers at: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2003.html
For comparison, the US grew at 1.97% in ’07, 0% in ’08, and -2.6% in ’09. Maybe I should be looking for work in Vietnam.
Monday 11/22/10 Last full day in Hanoi and Vietnam.
This morning, I augmented the Pho downstairs, (noodle soup), with a fresh croissant from the bakery down the street for 27,000, and a mini baguette from a street lady for 5000. As is often the case here, the 5 cent baguette was 5 times better than the $1.35 croissant. I was about to check my email when the building lost all power, and the router to the internet also went dead. It was 10 AM by the time I went out armed only with my handbag and camera.
I found a motorman to take me to the Temple of Literature about 2 kilometers to the west, and to drive around parts of the Hanoi Citadel, still an active military base, so I could see what it’s walls looked like. The Citadel walls were modern, and painted yellow, and were a cement or brick base for a modern iron fence with sharp points to discourage climbers. On the western side, up 5 or 10 blocks, we came to what was obviously a section of the old wall from the 1700’s, and the cycle driver pulled up to it and pointed. I got excited and jumped off and took some quick pictures. There had been a massive old fortress here once, and I wonder how much of it is inside the huge military base, that is off limits, and protected by armed guards in dark green uniforms and red epaulettes at every entrance.
The Temple of Literature was crowded, with both foreign and Vietnamese tourists. On Monday, most of the museums in the City are closed, so this was the place on Monday. Van Mieu was started in 1070, and it is one of the most complete and well preserved sites of old Viet architecture in the country. Founded by Emperor Le Thanh Tong, the temple is dedicated to Confucius, and was the first university in Vietnam. It was expanded to have shrines and a bronze worship statue of Chu Ban An, added in just 2003, in a pagoda behind the one for Confucius, and the nationalistic emphasis is clear. This Viet scholar, who was a very famous Director of the University in the 14th century, is now the biggest statue in the fanciest building, at the very end of the series of 5 courtyards. The third courtyard is full of long open pavilions filled with 82 stelae, huge stone slabs on the backs of giant stone turtles, with the names of thousands of famous scholars and mandarins carved into the stone slabs. After 1442, entrance to the University changed, from being just noblemen’s sons, to include any in the country with the highest examination scores.
Remember the container of jade and gold at the Musuem that I couldn’t figure out. Well, each worship statue had certain sacred objects in front of and behind it. In front was a large incense holder, candle sticks, and three covered vessels the exact same shape as the jade and gold object. I found enough French to ask a guide with a French group what the 3 covered vessels were, and he said that they were for: incense, water and oil. He said the one for incense is now and has been for a long time redundant, since before the three covered vessels, was a lovely, wrought iron or bronze stand for hanging an incense coil. These Viets are all just like high Episcopalians, they love smoke and gold.
Several of the information plaques on the walls were in English, and one said that the three Le Emperors were largely responsible for introducing Confucianism into the government bureaucracy, and were therefore responsible for bringing a strong code of ethics, order and propriety to Vietnamese government.
I took pictures of the temple, but also of the teenage girls, all dressed up in festive Au dai gowns, who came in large groups, apparently, to take pictures of one another next to the sacred objects revering higher learning.
Upon leaving, I found a motodriver, and had him take me up north about 2 kilometers to the south side of the very large West Lake. The Lonely Planet said there were many seafood restaurants there, and you could get a good meal of seafood for under 100,000. I found the shoreline, and a restaurant with customers in it, but they ran to another restaurant to get a Menu in English, where all the prices had been crudely scratched out, and now, all the fish dishes were 400,000, or $20. I tried to get the young lady to serve me for 100kd, but she refused, so I got up and left, and went to the place across the street. There, I saw the Viet menu and picked it up as I walked by. They were owned by the first place, I found out later, and I got the same menu, brought back across the street. She recommended Fish Spring Rolls, for 400,000. I read the Viet words, and found the same item in their Viet menu, for 95,000. She said, that is for only one spring roll. I said nonsense, and ordered the dish. I was pretty upset, and decided that if she brought me one spring roll, I would walk out, but a waiter brought a plate of spring rolls, and bowls of weeds, cold rice noodles, and light nuoc mam based soup/sauce to dip everything in. I asked her how you were supposed to eat this food, and she balked, but a gentleman at the next table instructed her to show me, and she suggested that you take the sprint roll, and wrap it up in a large leaf of lettuce with some noodles and weeds, to then dip in the sauce. Her lesson was so terrible, that I would have been lost, if I hadn’t remembered someone once describing this process a long time ago. The food was fine, but cold rice noodles are not my favorite, and the best part of the meal was the spectacular view of West Lake. I was the only customer in the place to not get a cloth napkin, but I got up and took a cup of paper napkins form an adjacent table. I left without saying a word of thanks. Outside I recorded the name of the restaurant, as Nha Hang, Vong Ba Lan, So 4 Thuy Kue Street, and the other place I’d walked out of was Nha Hang Van Boc Laa, of the same address, in case I could figure out who to effectively complain to. They were the same restaurant.
I found a moto driver, and had him drop me at the Long Bien Bridge, where rumor has it, you can walk across the bridge and see the Red River (Song Hong). I had trouble finding access, the road in front had a big sign, no pedestrians. After persisting, I found a staircase up to a railroad station, and walking across the tracks, though the building and out the door, I found access to 2.5 foot wide sidewalk next to a motorcycle lane, next to the railroad track on this narrow bridge. A female railroad official was gesticulating to someone as I emerged from the building, and she smacked me in the head with her hand, but it was just an accident. Next time I do this, I will find and approach from Hang Manh St.
It was such a long walk across the little sidewalk, that I started to wonder if I shouldn’t have just had the motorman drive across and back. The bridge went over about ¾’s of mile of farmland, and then a mile of river. In the middle of the river was a huge sandbar, or an island, and the second channel was the main one, with all the huge barge boats. I didn’t see any really big ships, but I could feel that they could have managed the river, but not the bridges, which were too low. So the port for the big ocean going ships must have been to the south out of sight. Almost half way across this long bridge, I came across 20-30 women and men all selling corn. People over here set up shop just about anywhere. Walking back, I noticed that most of the farmland below were corn fields, and these people were probably the farmers, and they probably had regular customers pick up baskets and bags of corn on a daily basis.
Finding the egress on Hang Manh Street, I couldn’t agree with the a motoman about the fee to go back to my hotel. It was 8-10 blocks, and I was at 10, and he was at 20. So I walked a little farther, and asked a different driver to take me down to below Hoan Kiem Lake, to the women’s Museum, which might be open, and time was running out to see it if it was. We agreed to 25kd, but this was 4 times farther than my hotel. He dropped me off, and a guard told me cheerfully that the museum was closed on Mondays. It was just an oversight in the guidebook not to say so.
I strolled north, with nothing else on my list of things I needed to do, and found a coffee at a small shop. I then wandered up the west side of Hoan Kiem Lake, and visited the monument and temple to Le Thai To. “Legend has it that, in the mid- 15th century, Heaven sent Emperor Le Thai To (formerly Le Loi) a magical sword, which he used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. One day after the war he happened upon a giant golden tortoise swimming on the surface of the water; the creature grabbed the sword and disappeared into the depths of the lake. Since that time, the lake has been know as Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Restored Sword) because the tortoise restored the sword to its divine owners.” (LPGV)
I wandered up to my hotel, in the heart of the Old Quarter, and discovered that the internet was back, and I had mail from friends and finally, my brother.
Going downstairs to settle up, I was informed for the first time that the room wasn’t $25, but $27.50, because of a 10% VAT tax. I responded, you quoted me $25, not 27.50, and so, the tax is yours not mine, it was never mentioned. He looked hard at me. He said, OK, and crumpled up the paper, and started the receipt over again.
I had carefully asked the other desk man yesterday, if they could provide me with some cash, by my putting extra onto the credit card bill, and he had said, sure, no problem. This man said they couldn’t, and that it was against the law, (which protects the government owned banks), so I have to be careful about spending tonight. I could have gone to a bank today to get cash off my credit card, but now I have to survive till the airplane, on 143,000 dong, and $23 in greenbacks. It is frustrating to be in a country, where you cannot trust the information you are given. Luckily, I have done almost all of my shopping, and the two fares to the airport should come to about 100,000 dong. It would be ironic if I missed my plane because I bought Christmas presents last night and today.
I went out at 7 pm to find the shellfish stand at 1 Dinh Liet Street, and they were closing up, so I wandered around, and came across a very humble street stall, a small gas burner kept a pot of soup hot, and the woman had one plastic table in front of her, with 3 or 4 little stools around it. A relatively well dressed couple was eating her soup, which on inspection was Pho with porc. I asked how much, she got out 25000 in notes and showed them to me, and I said OK. Her daughter and I were able to communicate in English a little, and it turned out I was enjoying Bun Bung Thit. Noodle Soup with Porc. It was intimate, I was sitting with the other couple, with the woman across from them, mostly staring and smiling at me. In the middle of my meal, she pointed across the street, a Viet man with a large telephoto lens, was taking my picture- a big white man sitting on 8” plastic stool, at smallest pho shop on Dinh Liet Street. The mother sorted through her porc pieces with her bare right hand, pulling out the ones to drop in my bowl, soon to be covered with hot soup. She added salt, and later, I added some red hot pepper, and some dark pepper paste, which imbued the entire stock with flavor and zest. The daughter asked me my age, and I told her, 58. I asked her her age, and she told me she is 20. She agreed to take a dollar bill, and 5,000d, increasing my dong horde for taxi and shuttle van to the airport in the morning. I said goodbye to this sweet lady and her lovely daughter, found my hotel, and climbed the 4 flights of stairs. Taking my laptop, I put on the Spyglass Waltzes CD, with Rodney and Elvie Miller, and started to pack again.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010 Last Day.
I woke at 6:10, and started to wash and finish packing. There was no wakeup call from the young men downstairs, so this was a good morning to wake up. I walked around outside, not many people up, after a huge weekend with late nights. There was a bag of mini baguettes hanging on a hook by a street corner, but the vendor they were left for hadn’t arrived yet, so I just admired them. At the hotel, I had an omlette, toast, coffee, mandarin oranges and a banana. I asked the young man to call a taxi, but when I got down stairs, he was just making the call. Outside, a taxi went by, and I hailed it. Somehow, the time had slipped away, and I watched with helpless anxiety, as the cab moved slowly through very crowded streets of traffic. Under the protection of the local genii, I caught the Vietnamese Airlines shuttle van, with only 5 minutes to spare, and got the last real seat in the vehicle. A woman said she was saving that seat, but the driver, a military type, told her to give it up. When the woman’s companion showed up, it was her daughter, a petit 20 year old . Patriarchal Confucian society was asserting itself. I guess I was being treated as a senior citizen as well as a male. Also, I was the only non Viet in the Van, and several taxi men offered to take me personally to the airport for “just $10.00.” The driver collected money from everyone, and I noticed that the fare was 40,000 d, and I triumphantly handed him my last 100,000 dong note, and he gave me the correct change promptly- a professional.
The van moved so slowly through the dense commuter traffic, that I again regretted taking the 8am shuttle instead of the 7:30, but I still enjoyed the long ride. We headed north, past the Hanoi Citadel Military base, and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum on the right. We finally climbed onto a 4 lane highway, but our second lane was for motor bikes, so we moved at about 30 miles an hour for the longest time. We crossed a very long bridge, that went over farmland, and then at least two branches of the Red River, so I took pictures. I was impressed by seeing farmland 30 minutes from the Old Quarter, squeezed in between industrial buildings and storage sites.
Suddenly, we were at the airport, and I got out, because everyone else did. I paid my respects to the rest room, at the far left side of a huge cavernous room, and then found the ticketing for DragonAir. I had no problem getting through the passport check and security. Near the gate, it seemed like a small airport. I could see about 3 medium-small sized jets. I went upstairs to the restaurants, was refused entry to the Business Class restaurant, but was admitted into the public one, which was pretty fancy. Mostly men, sat mostly alone, at large 6 person tables, with their laptops in front of them. Coffee was $2.50, but I was prepared. I had a 50,000 dong note that would be worthless in just a few minutes, so I splurged, only to find out that their free WIFI wasn’t working on my HP laptop.
Sitting before the gate, a nice Viet business man answered my question: where is the Hai Van pass mentioned in The Tay Son Uprising by George Dutton, which I will read all the way home – Answer: between Danang and Hue,. This same gent told me that DragonAir is Chinese. He then presented me with his business card, so I gave him mine.
I requested and received a nice window seat on the Airbus 320. We took 30 minutes to get airborne, but after all the waiting, the jet roared its engines, we gathered speed and lifted into the air in what felt like 15 seconds. These big birds have thrust; they know how to fly. I watched Vietnam get smaller and smaller, first the airport, then the farmlands. Suddenly the grid of small houses, roads and farmlands looked like it could be almost anywhere in the US. Soon after, there was nothing but clouds.
DragonAir provided a fine lunch, seafood or beef, and it was surprising that they would leave out salt and pepper, after doing such a good job on the shrimp, squid and scallops.
The Hong Kong Airport is big and beautiful, and the free wifi works. The mountains of Hong Kong were hidden in smog. I took care of email, but was asked to move by security. Ten guards in white shirts with black epaulettes arrived, and now, a crowd is going through a second, surprise baggage search of all carryon luggage, before boarding flights to Singapore, Los Angeles and New York. I’ve read that Homeland Security is also using this technique of random change, to confuse our enemies.
I spent a fair amount of energy at both airports, trying to price fancy Scotch at the duty free shops, even though I’m carrying too many books and computer, to want to lug a big bottle of Scotch home. The prices are so high, that there seems no saving from Vietnam, and from Hong Kong, the savings is not impressive, although they do not add 3% for using a credit card. In Hong Kong, a female, retail clerk, asked me where I was going. She pointed out to me that Americans and Australians are no longer allowed to take any liquids over 100 milliliters on any plane, The sacrifices we make for the motherland. I wonder if Homeland Security isn’t just helping raise the tax participation of international travelers.
For the plane ride back to NY JFK, 15 and a half hours, I sat next to two cheerful Chinese grandparents from Hong Kong who spoke almost no English. He watched karate films, while I read the George Dutton Book, The Tayson Uprising. Half way through it, I think my novel will not have to be rewritten because of this motherlode of research. I got the general background facts right, or close, most of the time.
I had trouble sleeping in the upright chair, so I worked until midnight, after a big dinner with 12 year Chivas Regal compliments of Cathay Pacific. Dutton discovered that the Ho brothers were real operators and opportunists. They convinced local peasants that they were supported by supernatural powers by staging faked supernatural events before them. I came across a few gems, like:
(Nhac) smuggled some drums and gongs up the hill and secretly arranged for them to be sounded and accompanied by flashing lights on the night of a local festival. Feigning surprise, but also curiosity, Nhac gathered a group of adventurous locals and led a procession up the hill. In the mists a the top they encountered a wizened old man who summoned Nhac by name and then read from a bronze tablet on which were inscribed the words, “The Jade Emperor orders Nguyen Nhac to serve as the country’s Emperor.” After reading it, the old man handed the tablet to the Tay Son leader, and vanished into the night. The old man was in fact Nhac’s teacher, Truong Van Hien, who, according to some versions, had advised him in arranging this stunt to enhance the rebel leader’s mystical aura.
At one point I went to the head, and through a window opening, I saw snow fields and mountains of northern Canada for miles and miles. It was night on the airplane, but midday outside in the bright sunshine. The stewardesses fed us lunch at 6 AM Vietnam time, because we were on the ground by 8 AM on my watch, which was 8 PM in NYC. The baggage took over 40 minutes to come out the shoot, which on almost no sleep felt like an eternity. I breezed through customs, a character of no immediate interest to the government, and caught the CT Limo to New Haven. The black female driver drove faster and faster, till we were screaming 80 mph up CT I-95. I borrowed the only other passenger’s cell phone, and a friend picked me up, and I was home at midnight, or 12 noon, now the next day in Hanoi. I had now recouped the 12 hours lost in the flight over to Ho Chi Minh City. My teenagers were with their Mom.
Eldest son was driving down from the University of Connecticut at Storrs, having forgotten that he had agreed to pick me up. The cats, Dolly and Rolly, were surprised but pleased to see me, as were the neighbors, I soon discovered, since I would put a stop to 2nd son’s unauthorized and illegal parties.
My credit card bill arrived. I had charged $432 in Vietnam, and used up $350 in cash, and $250 in travelers checks. So the trip cost about $1030., plus $1345 for airfare and limo, and $200 for the Yale Travel Clinic, totaling about $2600. At home, 2nd son confessed that a boy with his friends who’d crashed one of his larger parties had all been ejected, and they had sent rocks through two basement windows, which took me about 5 hours to re-glass and glaze this week. Probably connected to these 5 unauthorized but large parties, the washing machine started to back up. The main sewer line in the basement was clogged, and cost $370 for a plumber to fail at clearing, and then a professional drain man to snake clean. On the other hand, I have some great pictures of my trip to show you all, which I can’t wait to edit down from 1000 to 100. I look forward to returning to Vietnam, one of the most beautiful and interesting countries in the world. -30-