The sun also rises.
8, 1995 18:22
22:14 Dong Du Hotel; Ho Chi Minh City-Vietnam :: 1 MAY
On April 30, 1975 US (and Australian) efforts to keep South Vietnam
free ended in embarrassing defeat as the last American in Saigon clambered
aboard an Army helicopter while the Viet Cong stormed the embassy gates.
On April 30, 1975 the North Vietnamese completed the liberation
of their southern brethren from western control and brought them into
the benevolent peace of Communism.
The sun sets and the sun also rises, once each in the same day.
On April 30, 1995 Americans (and Australians) relived those agonizing
moments, remembered the tragic losses, and asked themselves again, "Was
it worth it? Was it even the right thing to do?" It seems that each
time the questions are asked, a few more of the responses come back, "No."
On April 30, 1995 thousands of Vietnamese flocked the streets
of Ho Chi Minh city to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Vietnamese unification
and the end of the long, terrible war that won it. While the Communist
party still controls both government and press the economy has been open
to the free market for the past seven years; ask the Vietnamese on the
streets and they will tell you the pace of granting political and intellectual
freedoms improves as the country's literacy improves. Remarkably, the
Vietnamese have forgiven the Americans (and Australians) for their transgressions
even as American (and Australian) self doubt grows.
0:14 Dong Du Hotel; Ho Chi Minh City-Vietnam :: 2 MAY
I knew we were in for a different experience when, on approach
to the Ho Chi Minh airport, we crossed over one of the local highways:
1000s of scooters; few of anything else. After 1 hour queued
in Customs, we engaged a taxi for the trip into downtown. Apparently there
are no buses. A couple transport vans, some taxis, a few public transport
buses, several trishaws, the rare private car. Everything else is two-wheeled
with scooters and motorcycles predominating.
On the way into town there are two lanes of traffic in each direction
with 8, sometimes 10, scooters abreast. The taxi pulls over the double
centre-lines, into the oncoming lanes, to get around them. Oncoming scooters
and taxis give way, without the expected blaring of horns: BREEEEEEP!
Get out of my way you idiot! Unusual, since horns seem in constant use
as sonic locators: Meeep, meep, meeeeeep, here I am!. In all of SE Asia,
I cannot recall a single incident of honking in anger.
In spite of the cabby's efforts, traffic flows pretty much at
scooter speed and so do we.
In the city itself hammer-and-sickle emblazoned red banners hang
beside billboards for Panasonic, Konica, Aiwa and Coca-Cola. The icons
of once warring cultures stand at ease in each other's presence.
Two Americans stand amidst two transfixed groups of Vietnamese.
Questions are asked and the Americans respond earnestly, then ask questions
of their own. For awhile I wonder what religion or product they're selling
but shortly I find myself the star attraction of my own fan club. The
Vietnamese are friendly and as curious about us as we are of them.
We talk politics, economics and culture within earshot of sharply
uniformed police. Another stereotype dies.
10:34 Grand Hotel; Nha Trang-Vietnam :: 3 MAY 95
Some scattered thoughts.
In SE Asia it is not common to see a
family of four all astride a single 125 cc motorcycle. It is not typical.
In SE Asia it is not even worthy of note. It is a fact of life. But to
a westerner's eyes it is an exclamation point. I wonder why the Japanese
don't market a line of 'family scooters'.
It is common to see a family of 5.
Unless legislated to do so, none will wear helmets. When helmet
laws exist Dad, and sometimes Mum, will comply, two or three young heads
Within Vietnam the aforementioned exclamation point is one of
progress. Seven years ago the family of four would have been astride a
bicycle-or two if were the family affluent.
I am told that to accomplish anything in Vietnam one must exhibit
two virtues, patience and perseverance. We are trying to catch up with
Tom & Nancy, friends of mine a day ahead of us in Nha Trang. A snag,
no an iceberg, has come up and essentially sunk the car and driver they'd
hired for five days. In Ho Chi Minh I attempt to retrieve some of the
$225 US they paid. It is an agonizing cycle of negotiation, agreement,
renege. Complicating the situation are the facts that Katrin & I have
a 10 hour drive yet ahead of us and our deal for car and driver involves
the same people who one moment politely agree to cough up $100 and in
another suggest that it is Tom who has reneged on the contract and that
no refund is forthcoming.
Tom has just completed his law degree at UBC. He has connections
within the Vietnamese judiciary. He has a written contract signed by Din,
the principal business partner in the transaction. He says, "If I
have to come back there to straighten this out, Din, I will fall on you
like a ton of bricks."
16:18 Grand Hotel; Nha Trang-Vietnam :: 3 MAY 95
When I left Ho Chi Minh City it was with Tom's $100 US in my
I hold a BSc in computing science. I have no connections in Vietnam.
The agreement between Din and I for hire of car and driver is verbal.
That is, I am a tourist of feeble countenance and little significance,
lacking any documental clout. What's more, my position as Tom's agent
has proven to be an irritating thorn. What could Tom have done were I
not there? Fly back to Ho Chi Minh City to demand his refund or continue
on and suffer the loss.
When the air-conditioned car finally arrives at 2PM, it is a
mini-van. The air-conditioner- inoperative. I expected the driver to speak
no English, and he does not.
22:15 Grand Hotel; Nha Trang-Vietnam :: 3 MAY 93
On the way out of Ho Chi Minh City we stop, pick up a second
driver and two passengers. Explanations are not offered for the passengers.
Not that there's a common language for explanation.
As we drive along the highway, fringed with food stalls and retail
hawkers, the second driver appears to ask people standing at roadside
for directions. He shouts, points ahead. I don't see the responses but,
since shouting and pointing continues, they can't be helpful. Great, I
think, we're lost. Not surprising since road signs appear at intersections
Then, after pointing and shouting at yet another roadsider, he
says something to the driver who pulls over. Oh, that's just swell, I
think wondering at how lost we can be. The back door opens and two people
clamber into the luggage compartment. It dawns on me, the car is not a
mini van. It is a bus. I don't think about it at the time, but one of
the two uses our bags as a cushion. His seat is probably softer than mine.
I wonder then how many passengers this van with three bench seats
and a luggage compartment will carry. Fourteen. Four in the front seat.
Katrin, myself and a third in the next, four seated behind us and three
in the luggage compartment. The second driver is careful to point out
to the passenger in our row that the two white-folks are privileged travelers
and their space, a little less than ¾ of the row, shall not to be
infringed. This is the only concession our $100 earns us.
We stop for dinner at a roadside truck stop. Unremarkable food
but for the toughness of the chicken. A couple our fellow bus passengers,
University students from Ho Chi Minh, speak a little English and with
their help we communicate our menu selections by pointing at line drawings
of chicken and the word 'soup' on the menu. The Vietnamese cook with none
of the verve or panache of Thais, Malays, Indians or even the Chinese.
While waiting for the bill we purchase from an old woman vendor two mangoes
for 3000 Vietnamese Dong, 3300 Dong would be 30 US cents. The wholly forgettable
meal comes to 53,000 Dong, just under $5 US. One of our student friends
comes over to assist and chastises the old woman for trying to unload
substandard mangoes at standard prices. They would turn out to be the
best mangoes we've eaten since those sublime Australian Mangoes. Here
they are at least juicy, and a little sweet.
Other than to drop passengers, there are two more stops. One
so we can all urinate on or behind bushes and another so the drivers can
stoke up on coffee.
6:47 Grand Hotel; Nha Trang-Vietnam :: 4 MAY 95
Let me explain a little about Vietnamese coffee. One can order
it black or white. Unless you are fond of bitter sludge, I suggest white.
If you opt white, a ½ shot of sweetened condensed milk will be sitting
at the bottom of the small glass tumbler that arrives along with a thermos
of hot water. On top of the tumbler will be a beat-up aluminum strainer
dripping thick black ooze. Wait until the drips cease, remove the strainer,
top off the glass from the thermos and thoroughly mix the bitter black
sludge on top with the sweet yellow sludge below. The result, if you are
a lover of rich, sweet, creamy coffee, as I am, is marvelous. If chewing
on chocolate covered coffee beans is not your thing, I don't recommend
I should expand a little further the transportation scene in
Vietnam. With a little more experience I would now have to use the word
'mild' when describing the mayhem that was the taxi ride from the airport
into Ho Chi Minh City. For utter mayhem one need only leave the city environs.
Where in the city there are centre lines and sidewalks guiding the opposing
traffic, on the highways there are none. The only concession to order
is that slower moving vehicles occupy the road more toward the right.
Generally, bicycles pass ox carts on the left, scooters pass bicycles
on the left, trucks, minivans and cars pass scooters on the left. Left
often means hanging one whole side of a vehicle over the left-hand shoulder.
It may also mean opposing traffic being forced onto the shoulder.
17:14 Vietnam Airlines FLT 268; Nha Trang->Hanoi-Vietnam
:: 4 MAY 95
While you're considering this, remember that no one lays on the
horn in anger here.
Driving under these conditions requires not only the normal patience
and perseverance but complete vigilance and a functional horn. Think of
it as a game of highway chicken with a continuous stream of opponents.
Busses, lorries, minivans, scooters: all will challenge you for that little
bit of highway between those two slow ox carts. The laws in Canada require
passing vehicles to clear the oncoming lane before oncoming vehicles are
within 100m. There is no such law here; there is no concept of a traffic
lane; it is sufficient to simply miss the oncoming vehicle but best executed
after passing the ox cart.
Ox carts often use truck tires rather than wagon wheels-an odd
Driving at night is a real hazard. Consider this. When I drive
at home, even the dimmed headlights of oncoming vehicles leave me essentially
blind to whatever's ahead in my own lane. I drive on with the deductive
reasoning that if there are no bright red tail lights ahead, then there
is nothing in the lane. Such thinking represents logical fallacy here.
Ox carts have no tail lights, not even reflectors, nor do bicycles, many
scooters and an unusually large number of cars, vans and lorries. The
danger is heightened by the fact that oncoming vehicles commonly use their
high-beams, perhaps in hopes of illuminating that blind spot. In our van
I'd have felt alot more comfortable had the driver bothered to clear the
grimy film on the windshield. Kinda like driving with a veil.
At 2AM, we arrive at the Grand Hotel in Nha Trang, head straight
for the room and after scrubbing off the road grime, flop into bed. In
the morning we discover that somehow there is paradise in Vietnam. Coconut
palms, sandy beach dotted with umbrellas and chaise lounge, warm clear
blue water. Though abused and deteriorating, over the past 7 years Vietnamese
free enterprise and foreign investment have propped up the infrastructure
somewhat. The scaffolding is rickety, prone to collapse, but the beach,
ocean and countryside set an inviting scene.
But with investment comes also major development and the future
'Vietnamese Waikiki' is visible already in the high-rise construction
underway. Where 13 years of repressive communism failed to crush the kernel
of peace and beauty perhaps 13 years of rampant capitalism will succeed.
Before that ever happens someone's going to have to do something
about the food that, except for a single experience, is best when only
unappetizingly bland but is more often simply awful.
Leaving the Post Office
Patrick. -- Responses Sought --
At the present, there is no doubt that human beings
are very clever at controlling exterior factors of the world due to our
scientific progress, but we may doubt if we are advancing fast in the
direction of purity of heart.
|| Khantipalo Bhikku