South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: The sun also rises.
Date: May 8, 1995 18:22

22:14 Dong Du Hotel; Ho Chi Minh City-Vietnam :: 1 MAY 95

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 95

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 remain unprotected.

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 pocket.

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 infrequently.

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 it.

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 sight.

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
Hanoi, Vietnam

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.
  graphical element Khantipalo Bhikku
Buddhism Explained