Vietnam Experience

2003.11.12

Here we are in Saigon, Melanie. We left on November 10th and arrived on November 12th. November 11th never happened. Missed it completely.

I like being here with you. To feel your smile and laughter and excitement. I know there is a physical divide but I am still seeing the never ending stream of motorcycles whiz by and the women dressed in their conical straw hats with your eyes as well as mine. Seeing the colours. Hearing the noise. Watching the movement and the life of the city. And appreciating it all the more.

We arrived with that familiar feeling of a new adventure, that mixture of apprehension and anticipation that comes when we venture into the unfamiliar. We book our hotel at the airport, probably getting less and paying more than we need to, but it gives us a destination for the taxi driver into town and a place to start. The Asian Hotel in the centre of the city, a good location. We venture out to a sidewalk café for a Croque Tuna and a cold Vietnamese Tiger beer to get our bearings. Before we have walked a block after our lunch we are approached by a cyclo driver

The government is phasing out cyclo drivers. I am not sure whether this is a social and historical decision or whether it is because they impede traffic, but it becomes an easy decision to start our exploration of the city with this historic means of transportation which appears to be used by locals as well as visitors. We agree to his rate, which is twice what the guidebook suggests because, as he says, we can afford it. It is a good decision.

He takes us to the War Remnants Museum, the oldest pagoda in the city, through various markets, to the grandest pagoda in the city, through Chinatown and the area where live chickens are sold and illegal cockfights take place, all through the most chaotic motorcycle, bicycle, and car traffic we have ever seen.

There are 2500 new motorcycle licenses issued every day, he tells us, to add to the millions that are already on the road. Honda is the most popular motorcycle. The most popular authentic Honda model costs $1500 US but the Chinese make an exact replica which costs $500 US. The motorcycle traffic is fuelled by the illegal gasoline black market visible on most streets in the form of plastic bottles filled with gasoline and placed on the curb in a paper bag in front of all kinds of retail establishments.

We see no accidents but we see bikes, motorcycles and cars moving in all directions, and us among them, passing at breakneck speeds within a few inches of one another and through and across intersections where the flow of four directions of traffic mingle and find there way through one another to where they want to go. It works.

The rain starts. We are some distance from the hotel. The awning goes up over the seat. A cover is fixed over the front of the cyclo to the frame of our awning to cover our legs, and we cycle through the rain, dry and protected back to our hotel as night starts to fall. A little damp, we are about to go into our hotel when the warm light of a cozy looking patisserie on a nearby corner beckons us for a piece of blueberry cheesecake. And after that, to bed, and a welcome twelve hours sleep of beautiful dreams, soft thought, and loving memories. Nice to have you with me.

2003.11.13

The next day we start feeling a little fresher. We were a little dizzy after thirty hours of travel and made dizzier by the whirl of traffic and the cacophony of horns that engulfed us when we first arrived. The only rule on the roadway seems to be to get where you are going mindful of everyone else on the road and being careful not to hit anyone. By the end of the day we are boldly braving the traffic to cross the road anywhere trusting that no one will hit us as we are not going to hit them or walk in front of them unfairly.

After breakfast we wander out through the centre of the city absorbing the eclectic mix of retail, – street vendors sitting on stools having their morning tea, small local businesses, and the usual expensive Western branded stores all waiting and hopeful for business. Lots of sellers, few buyers. We wander down to the river, a muddy industrial highway that offers little appeal for a ferry ride or a boat tour, and then back around the city to let the place wash over ourselves.

Finally, after several offers we decide to take a ride on a motorcycle taxi, selecting a woman driver that we feel will be safer, and travel around other corners of the city and asking to be set down at the Reunification Palace, the historical icon of the end of the last Vietnam war and the victory of the people’s republic over the South Vietnamese regime and the aggressive United States government. An eerie place, sparsely decorated and used only occasionally for state functions. Between this place, formerly known as the Independence Palace after the expulsion of the French Colonial Government, and the War Museum it is difficult not to feel a little overwhelmed with the brutality of U.S. imperialism. And yet the people of Vietnam seem to be so friendly, peaceful, and forgiving. We continue to wander through the sights and sound and people and the traffic until darkness falls and we return to our hotel for a nap, or is it bed, after a long day.

At nine o’clock we awake, hungry, and venture out to find a traditional Vietnamese restaurant for a set menu meal of very good food. I am feeling a little lonely and lost and disconnected for a moment, missing Melanie’s presence, and go to Saigon Saigon, the rooftop lounge of the Caravelle Hotel to look out over the city and have a cold beer at the bar. There is a live six-piece band playing old songs. The bartender, seeing me looking a little unhappy, asks me if I have had a long day. I can only fall into my mood until I fall asleep later at the hotel, a place we have come to warm to. I know I will never need to travel alone again. Thank you Melanie, for your beautiful smile and gay laughter and bold spirit, – and your wonderful company and observations.

2003.11.14

The day opened with sunshine, the first we have seen since we arrived. We think about where we are and contemplate the day over a leisurely breakfast and decide to go to the central market and the area known for budget accommodations and services for backpackers. The market is unusually clean, and the produce, meat, fish, and other foodstuffs all look fresh and good to eat. It is full and busy and everything is beautifully presented.

We book a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels and one to the Mekong River Delta and wander around the streets and alleys full of urban Saigon life. We are struck, once again, with the sea of people waiting to exchange what they have acquired or created with others who might like it or need it, some actively enticing others to want things. In neighbourhoods of people who appear to be living small limited lives are schools with children dressed crisply and cleanly in school uniforms playing and laughing and exercising in school yards, and alleyways and courtyards being operated as parking lots for the sea of motorcycles that carry the sea of people around the city. The city is no different than hundreds of others, and the people are no different except in their particulars. They smile, they talk with one another, they take care of themselves, they take care of one another.

It is hot. We have walked a long way. We decide to visit the Contemporary Art Gallery, – an older and once more grand building now in need of some loving care. The permanent collections are sad looking in their condition, in their presentation, and in their content, – less colour and joy and vitality, – and some very tired and older work from many years ago. The featured exhibition are textile expressions of Vietnam by a Japanese artist, sponsored largely by the Japanese government and Japanese companies presumably in the interests of creating trade relations with Vietnam. In the lower street level, below the three floors of galleries, are three private galleries all displaying well-lit contemporary art for sale that far overwhelms the public gallery’s work in presentation and quality. It seems to be a good way to support and attract more people to the public gallery. A simple idea that could work everywhere.

I have a lunch and an afternoon more alone with myself and missing Melanie. I find an internet café and a connection with how I am feeling, – a little sorry at not being at Melanie’s funeral service and trying to feel good about that. Melanie was more to me and gave more to me than I have yet fully appreciated. She made me feel good about myself, who I am, what I think, how I feel about things, who I like to be. She is a good muse. She has such an appreciative and positive and loving outlook on life that I come to appreciate more every day. She has a love of life. I know I will carry her love with me. My heart is full and my eyes are clear. I am so lucky. And I miss her. But I have her smile and her laughter and her joy to lift my spirits and it is with that comfort that I find my pillow and my rest to dream beautiful dreams at the end of the day. Thank you, Melanie. You are good to me and good for me.

2003.11.15

A tour day. A trip to the Cao Dai Temple, a strange new cult and religion that combines Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and a number of other religious influences. It apparently has 2 million adherents in the area and many other temples but we travel to the Holy See, the heart of the religion, and watch the noonday service with everyone in the congregation weaving red, blue, yellow, and white robes in a surreal Salvador Dali-like temple with music played by musicians and singers that support the surreal environment created for the worshipers.

People living in a somnambulant simple state worshiping a god and a set of ideas symbolized by a Dali-like depiction of the left eye and a church leader who escaped to Cambodia years ago and whose presence is maintained in the temple by an empty chair at the altar. Eerie and Disney-like. What are we seeking? How weird and frail are we? What do we have in common?

And then after lunch at a roadside Vietnamese restaurant we visit the Cu Chi tunnels. No wonder the Americans lost the war. Trying to take a bigger view of the failure of overwhelming firepower, it is apparent, historically, that we will always in some way or other fail to suppress one another, but we will never stop in one way or another to kill, and destroy, and punish one another in our never-ending attempt. And no wonder people simply try and escape to a mindless trance and buy into some crazy promises of a better state held out by an ideology that canonizes Victor Hugo.

An interesting juxtaposition of images of humanity created by the same people in the same place. Cu Chi guerillas fighting for Communist ideas to their death and Cao Dai worshipers submitting to prescribed ritual and the ideas of one man’s idea of a new religious institution. Perhaps we will never be oppressed by physical force but we will allow ourselves to be oppressed by ideas. An interesting day with interesting history and I am left with the image of the “Black Mountain Lady”, the end of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the defoliated landscape of Cu Chi with booby traps and hidden bunkers, tunnels and air holes, and the crazy madness of our efforts to rule others with our own ideas.

On the other hand, we found it quite amusing to wander into Sheridan’s, an Irish pub in Saigon, with an eight piece Irish band playing traditional Irish music on traditional instruments where the musicians appeared to come from every culture in the world except Ireland, and to overhear for hours the incessant conversation about Australia’s win over New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup semi-final. Perhaps the only thing we really need are some icons we can rally behind and some rivalry with one another to keep the adrenaline flowing. Why fret about it? Let’s fret about whether or not Australia will win the cup in the final.

2003.11.16

There are about seven and a half million people in Saigon and about three million motorcycles, most of them on the road most of the time. Many of the people in Vietnam have been doing what they are doing, and in the same way, for most of their lives. In this, Vietnam is no different, just more free-enterprise.

In a small house on the shores of a tributary of the Mekong River we meet a woman who has been sitting over a fire making rice paper every day for fifty years. Seven or eight hundred pieces of rice paper a day. It is how she lives and how she makes a living. She laughs easily at my first and only unsuccessful attempt to make a piece of rice paper. She appears and feels to be happy.

The Mekong River Delta is full of family sized businesses making rice paper, puffed rice cakes, coconut candy, and ceramics, an economy that is easily destroyed by corporatism. Independence and freedom of enterprise replaced with enterprises of others and for others. Corporatism crushes free enterprise.

2003.11.17

We are sitting on the deck of a new eighteen-cabin Chinese sailing junk in Halong Bay at six-thirty in the morning. There is a light warm breeze. The air smells fresh and perfumed. The rock formations are all around us, near and far stretching off into the horizon. The sea is dotted with boats, fishing boats, transport boats, exotic boats. The stillness is broken with the puttering of motors coming and going periodically as the sea becomes alive for the day. A blue sky is beginning to fill a large area between the morning clouds, brushed brightly by the rising sun. This is a beautiful moment in a beautiful place. I am so lucky.

We have been on the water since mid-day yesterday. Misty and overcast for the most part, it has enhanced the softness and colours and beauty of this peaceful and powerful place. Nature, awesome and calming.

The caves created in these islands over millennium have been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. It raises my interest in UNESCO’s interests. The cave we visited yesterday was huge and surreal. People lived here in these caves 20,000 years ago.

The Dragon’s Pearl is a new boat built in the old style with workmanship and materials that give the impression that the boat was eighty years old and has been well maintained and refurbished. The eight and ten course meals are served in a cozy dining room with five wines available and are delicious, made even more romantic with Diana Krall and Cesaria Evora playing quietly in the background. Melanie loves every part of this beautiful experience. Nothing could feel more perfect or exotic for this place and this time.

2003.11.18

I am impressed with Vietnam. I feel safe here. I like the people. They work hard, are friendly, and appear to enjoy life. I particularly like Hanoi who deserves its sobriquet as the Paris of the Orient. Everything is very human. And very cozy at night, warmly lit, with everyone out on the streets, eating, socializing, enjoying life in their neighbourhood communities in the old quarter, walking in the park around the lake, sipping tea and coffee, and having fun. No sign or sense of an authoritarian government, few police or uniformed people present, traffic chaotic but respectfully polite and orderly, and a feeling of safety even walking in deserted streets at three o’clock in the morning.

We visit the Temple of Literature, the Revolutionary Museum, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, and wander through markets and the animated streets of the old quarter, each known for their own kind of merchandise. Our hotel is on shoe street. I go to the glasses street to buy some more glasses, passing along the silk street, and in the area known as the French Quarter we find cafes and an environment that feels a little as if we were in a Parisian neighbourhood with its own little cathedral.

Vietnam is about 70% Buddhist, about 10% Roman Catholic and the rest of some other denomination, Cao Dai being part of that 20%.. The days pass easily as I explore the sights, sounds, and food of Hanoi until it is time to gather with the members of the annual hike assembling to watch the World Cup Rugby final amidst a crowd of Australian and British fans and never ending pitchers of beer. The game could not have been better scripted and we all, in great high spirits, crowd into the little Hanoi restaurant around the corner for a great meal of traditional Vietnamese food. A great kickoff to the 2003 Vietnam Annual Hike.

On Sunday, we gather at the Handspan offices for a briefing and then leave for Lào Cai on an overnight sleeper train which turns out to be a more comfortable experience than we had imagined. A bus takes us to Sapa on the next day where we begin our hike into the hill country and the homes of the minority hill tribes of Vietnam. 87% of the population is Viet people. The other 13% are made up of the other 53 ethnic groups that live in Vietnam, most of them in the northwest Sapa region of the country where they live a largely rural, agricultural existence. The Hmong and Zao people supplement their living making clothing, blankets, and crafts for visitors.

Sapa, a place in the mountains, appears to have once been where the French colonials would escape to from the steaming heat of the cities. It is now a frontier town rapidly developing as a major eco-tourism and cultural centre. It has been a centre for tourist activity for about five years and will probably be unbearable in another five. But for now, it gives us a jumping off spot for our hike out to the two villages we will stay in over the next two nights. But before going, Henley, our group ear, nose, and throat surgeon, operated on me at the local hospital to remove wax from my ear to the amusement of the resident medical staff who had difficulty coming up with a syringe needed for the procedure. A fresh pair of pants acquired at the local market to replace my now drenched khakis, and we were underway, hearing clearly once again.

The first night we stay in a Dzay village where our tour guides and porters cook our dinner, the Hmong hung around trying to sell us merchandise, successfully for many, and we drank cold beer until retreating happily to our lofts to a much welcomed sleep. The next day, after distributing four large bags of clothing to the villagers, we hiked out through a Zao village, where a few of us were forcefully introduced to rice wine at a local wedding we found ourselves in the middle of, and on through rice paddies and up and down hills to a Tay village. It was a good hike. Just enough challenge to make it interesting but not too much to detract from the pleasure of the experience. A lot of downhill into the valley which we knew we would be hiking out of the next day.

There are nineteen in our group. Grown up boys enjoying one another’s company around an adventure. Everyone different. Everyone enjoying and respecting one another for who they are. Everyone real, polite, and considerate. I feel fortunate to be included in the group.

Our homestay experiences are comfortable, sleeping on foam mattresses on the floor under mosquito nets. The temperature is comfortable for hiking, the scenery magnificent. The people welcoming and friendly, their costumes and dress exotic, always a smile. Waterfalls power small generators for electricity. Oxen and pigs share the space around the homes with their families. UNESCO and the government are creating reservoirs and irrigation systems so farmers can create a second crop of rice each year. Each family has a land holding with three parcels and three different levels of elevation and arability. The land cannot be sold but is passed on to the eldest son. Farmers are not taxed to encourage farming and Vietnam is now the second largest exporter of rice in the world after Thailand. Each village has a school. Things seem to work. There is no visible state or police presence. There appears to be a class system around different ethnic minorities but everyone generally appears to be happy and get a long with one another. people are polite and respectful. Life is good.

We return to Sapa, check into a hotel for a hot shower and a shave and take an overnight sleeper back to Hanoi where we have a celebration dinner at a fine French restaurant called Cafe des Artes and a late night drink at the Jazz Club. The next day we fly out to Bangkok and take limousines to the Cabbages and Condoms Resort in Pattaya where we are generously and sumptuously hosted by Mechai Viravaidya, a living legend in the development of Thailand, who is attributed with dramatically reducing birth rates and the spread of AIDS with his family planning and sex education programs, and who operates the Cabbages and Condom businesses as a not for profit organization that generates funds for the Population and Development Agency that works to raise the quality of life for rural Thais. A wonderful success story.

He has arranged massages for everyone, followed by a sumptuous dinner and a live musical performance and the launching of condom hot air balloons on the beach that float off into the night sky. Most of the group leaves the next morning for flights back to their homes. I stay on for one more night enjoying the quiet relaxing luxury of the resort and fly home the next day. A most enjoyable and refreshing trip.

Remembering Melanie Gold