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Date: 16-12-04
Subject: Vietnam: Trial by Fire

Hi you guys..

I wanted to start writing to you all today, and ended up having to screw around with my computer...been pushing to many buttons. But....ferret, or fool that I am, I refused to be daunted by the failure of the familiar, and moved on to try and fix the problem. And I did! took hours,tired, but glad to be able to do this now.

Some of you may know that I have been sort of toying with the idea of traveling to Viet Nam. So..After four months of driving around the U. S. and sort of looking for a place, a job, somewhere to land, I hit the coast of California, and nothing was coming together. As it was, I had a great time visiting friends, touring the U.S., saw my remaining relatives, formed a closer bond with my nieces and nephew and my sister-in law Bobbie. Left for Viet Nam to the parting words of my niece, my beautiful niece Germaine..'Robin, you are crazy.' True enough. My response...'So are you...aren't all the best people you know.' So not knowing really what else to do, sort of needing to get a job, hoping to teach in Viet Nam...I booked a way....I sat in the airport the day I left, and asked myself... 'WHAT the FUCK are you doing? Never really sure what the answer was, but the short version is 'Going to Viet Nam'....had rented an apartment for 2 months, got a job interview set up... all via the web, and headed out...away...forward...onward. Some part of me needed the security of the apartment...some part of me was convinced I could explore from there, some part of me wants to relax and center in one place, some part of me thought that HCMC was the beginning of that transformation from my current state of wander. Well BIG mistake. I hadn't been in HCMC twenty minutes before I knew I had to get out of there. But not knowing who the hell is running my life at this point, and trying to be at least a little like a grown up, I perservered...for about five days before I bought a train ticket north.

From day four......

So...I'm in Ho Chi Minh City, listening to the sounds of a jackhammer at 11:15 p.m. These people work day and night, this city teems, gushes, bursts forth endlessly,a cacphony of sights and sounds and smells. I've been here four days...and I'm starting to at least feel it's manageable, liking it is actually far to strong word for how I feel about this place. I like it that I'm not dead! At first the rush of getting here, being here, was a bit overwhelming. Always the mistress of the understatement....a bit! I'm calling this Trial By Fire because if you decide to come to Viet Nam, and arrive in Ho Chi Minh City for your first third world, SEA experience, and survive... it seems to me the rest of it will be easier. It's way way intense. Being more of a country girl, I didn't know if I could take it. I mean way way intense. But...I've learned where to shop for food...sort of...I bought a can of something that said chicken and mushrooms on it in English to dump over some rice, and when I opened the can, it had a small, whole chicken in it with the head and feet still on it and everything. Enough to make me go back to being a vegetarian if it wasn't for that thing that the Shaman advised. Have learned how to get around some, how really far a smile will get me, and how good it feels to get one back. The people here are mostly really nice...but where I am, there are few anglos, and I get stared at alot, and followed around some, and stared at some more, but it's really just curiosity, not offensive. Some of you know just how much I like to be noticed... there's no way to blend in, I stand out..... maybe if I get one of those cute hats the women wear.....get my hair straightened...dye it black.....

HCMC is...god, how does one describe it...

Ho Chi Minh City, the preferred name for this city is just the kind of environment you'd expect me to hate... I could barely walk the first time I tried to leave the apartment it was so unsettling. I had my first conversation in English today, after four days of trying to say please and thank you, hello and good bye, and pointing to things in this useless dictionary I bought. Useless because it's a tonal language, and I reckon the only way to learn it is to listen, and speak. I tried my dictionary on the cab driver from the airport, she didn't understand a thing I tried to say, much to my chagrin, but we did count to ten together eventually, she had almost no English, and was very encouraging, and helped me with my pronunciation. It's not anything like it looks. YOU try and use O fourteen different make it sound like 'er' but shape your mouth like O, or try saying 'th' with your tongue behind your teeth instead of in front. I'm fascinated with trying to get it though, and the more I try, the more funny English I get out of the natives. Forget about the Loney Planet Dictionary. It's good if you want to get to a disco, make a date, get the 'pill', know the word for cocaine, and addict and various other useless information. It doesn't however give you the word for 'good', or 'tea'. Hard to find 'where'. What's up with that.

The guy I rented the apartment from had told me.. 'It's a new building.' This, I believe, means... it was built after you guys stopped blowing the shit out of our country. It's pretty beat, as is most everything here. Things are under repair all over, cobbled together with strange materials. The buildings, and the sidewalks ( where there are any), and the roads are a mosaic of bits and pieces of stuff that has been hauled in, reformatted, salvaged, built out of something that it wasn't intended to be used for, but it looks nice all thrown together, and it's mostly functional. The people are always fixing something, or making something, right in the street. Sidewalks (where there are any) change every ten feet into some other material. You're often compelled to walk in the street because of the street vendors, the motorbikes which are parked anywhere and everywhere, or just some lone woman squatting on the sidewalk selling some kind of food. Try to picture a city the size of New York, with ten times the activity, and then throw in third world poverty, and filth. I hate to say it, but it is filthy, and smelly, and probably the most unhealthy place I've ever been. Men pee in the river in broad low tide it really stinks, there's trash everywhere. It sounds so mean...I'm in culture shock....and the flip side....the women clean everyday in front of their squat, place, home whatever...they sweep and wash their space everyday...breaks your heart.

At street level, it's chaos, constant chaos, and every nook and cranny is filled with some kind of shop, everything from gutted hanging pigs to bike parts, lots of guys repairing bikes, bike parts everywhere, they are determined to keep these things going.These people try to eke out some kind of living any way they can. People move from the country to the city thinking they will have a better life. But it's hard in the city also...really hard. But there is a look of stoic perserverence on their if they just keep showing up, things will get better. Showing up with fruit, or postcards, or cooking in the street, or trying to sell something...anything. They sometimes implore you with their eyes...they tell you stories about their families hoping you'll buy something...they touch you, not aggressively usually, but sometimes...just touch, trying to tell their story somehow, how they hope you will give them something...anything. I've given alot of money away, and sometimes, like today, I just wanted to give them anything, everything, just so they could look/feel better, safer, like they could rest for a minute from their constant striving for sustanance of some kind. It hurts this place, these eyes sometimes. Sometimes I just close up, 'don't bother me please', and that hurts too.

If you look up, there are really interesting facades on tall skinny buildings that were once housing for the wealthy, or at least the middle class. One story up are elegant buildings with colorful Art Deco, Spanish, French,and Art Nouveau influences, decorative iron work, interesting balconies, and windows. I couldn't figure it out initially, then I realized that all these very loosely termed 'store fronts' at street level were the garages for the prewar tenants/owners. The former elegant suburbs still rise up above the chaos in the streets. I can tell that HCMC once had graceful quiet suburbs where people would sit on their balconies in the evening and enjoy the city. It's pretty weird...the dichotomy. Now, I can't find the grace of this city....or any charm, or any reason to stay. I can't take the pollution, it hurts my eyes, my lungs.... my skin feels like it's on fire, it smells bad, I have headaches everyday, and I can't drink the water out of the tap without boiling it. I don't even trust that. One of my e-friends told me they were sick for about two weeks after they got drink alot of water, and you get used to it....I don't think way, no how. And's hot...and it's one of the cool months, I'm don't want to be hot.

When I walk, the challenge becomes not being intimidated by the 'cyclos' or 'psychos' as I call them in my mind. The preferred mode of transportation in HCMC are these small two stroke motorbikes. There are eight million people here, and they all ride two stroke motor bikes that spew smoke twenty four hours a day. It's way intense. And everyone thinks the best thing to do in the traffic is blow their horn. There are no rules of the road or traffic devices that anyone pays any attention to,no stop signs, few lights,( no one really stops at them anyway), or concern for which way you're going in which lane. They drive in and out, weaving, blowing their horns, playing chicken with the buses, and the pedestrians, and everything just seems to work out. Intermingled in this morass are bicycles laden with all sorts of shit from construction materials to bags of fish, live fish, going somewhere for some reason. All sorts of stuff carried in baskets, on poles, on bikes by people in those conical hats. These people carry everything on pedal bikes or cyclos all over the city. So far I have seen a refrigerator, albeit a small one, but not that small, a yard of bricks,(no kidding),a guy with eight foot lengths of 4" PVC pipe filled with smaller and smaller diameters of pipe, four wide on both sides of the driver piled up as high as his shoulders, four people on one bike, one guy hauling at least a dozen full size tires, and on and on. These are right in amongst all the other traffic, nobody seems worried or nervous, they just keep going, and use their horns alot. This is where most of the pollution comes from, the air is so polluted from the bikes that everyone wears masks. Like that's gonna help. If you are a pedestrian, you just step into traffic, keep walking at a steady pace, and the bikes go around you. Don't flinch! Really, you just HAVE to keep going. Sometimes I just close my eyes, and keep walking. I took a couple of walks into some off main road areas...the city is divided into neighborhoods if that is even the term to use...just making a turn off a smallish thoroughfare gets you back into little alleyways where the environment is completely different. Neighborhoods within neighborhoods within neighborhoods...really small alley ways barely wide enough to get a bike through. But neighborhoods.....It's like that maze game with the dividers that you tilt and try to get the ball to drop into the hole. The city feels like that...unsteady...on tilt, the ball rolling back and forth not finding the end to the game. And off the main streets, the people are friendlier, and things get less expensive, and you can have a squat with a woman selling fruit, and she'll pick the best ones for you, and you can smile, and be on your way. They'll cut the tops off coconuts for you and put a straw in them for a drink, and be so pleased you are willing to try it...surprised, and pleased.

When I wanted to broaden my perimeter, I started using the cyclos. The cyclo guys are everywhere, and they will take you anywhere for some where between one and three dollars. You just ask how much, and point at a map, or an address, and they nod, and you write down the price to avoid confusion, and they nod again, and you climb on and go. You have to be very clear about you intentions or you might get stuck with some guy following you around waiting outside for you everywhere you go. If you walk, someone will stop, and ask if you want a ride, like every ten feet. There don't seem to be many street signs so I have to trust they know where they're going.... going is easy, getting back is harder. I've had to show two guys how to get me home, ha, this from a person who has practically needed a GPS to find my wallet sometimes this trip..ah survival skills. My building is tall, thank god/goddess, so I can see it when we get even a little close. When we ended up not home twice, I could see it, and point to it, and direct them to the bridge, and this way and that way wending through the streets, not streets to the front of the building. Once, I got on the back of a bike, and this guy started running me all over town, pointing at this and that, going way to fast for my liking, and I'm not really a weeny on a bike. I kept saying stop...and he wouldn't. That was a little scary, but I ended up somewhere I knew, and managed to get off the bike. We had a small argument about the fee, and I ended up stuffing some money into his shirt pocket and walking away. This is not the best way to get around. Nor is is good to argue in the street. Something about 'face'. I never did get to the temple that day, but I had a nice papaya shake, some German folks to talk to, and I was in the backpacker ghetto where I could get something to eat and there was enough English spoken to simplifiy my life a bit. This is where I bought my train ticket north. You need cash to do this, as I waited in line for about 45 minutes at the main station the day before to find out.

I know most of this sounds really negative, but it's not so really, just my view reality....some people really like HCMC, just not for me. The good parts version, is that the people are nice..after they get past their curiosity, we became sort of friends, like neighbors in a few days.. As I walked around, I found a smile goes along way in any language, people helped me, and were friendly, not just curious, but friendly, genuine. And the food is wonderful, once you figure out how to get it, and unrecognizable fruits really sublime. I think alot of the scary things I read about HCMC are possible, but I didn't experience any of them except the huge mass of humanity, and the pollution. Unbelieveable pollution. The only place I felt comfortable here was at a temple where it was quiet, and there were birds.... most of the smart birds live elsewhere, like me, and I saw some butterflies in the garden that were colored like andes mints. Lime green and brown stripes. Some others with really nice markings and colors I hadn't seen before. I took food with me for the children the second time I went. They follow you around and ask for money...or very little boys will say 'gimme a cigarette'. Like five or six years old. So I took p-nuts, and cookies, and strawberries, and bananas, and had a picnic with these really beautiful children at the temple. Best day I had in HCMC. Then this really nice cab driver brought a plate of fruit to share, and we tried to speak....couldn't say much. Stupid dictionary!

My so called English conversation happened the first time I went to the temple....the temple was good, and I prayed there...unfortunately...if you are anglo, even at the temple, there will be someone who will want you to give them money. Any pretext at doing something for you requires payment, whether you want this service or not. It's often easier just to give them money, and hope they'll go away. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. If you give them money, they feel they have to perform their so called service, and if you don't they'll keep following you till you do...catch 22. So I've been hassled at the temple, but I found some moments of peace and so called self-appointed guide at the temple was kind enough to let me pray.... I also met Louis from Madrid. I was in the garden, and I was a bit annoyed by his interloping into my interaction with the children...A woman who spoke English was interpreting for me, and more and more children kept showing up, and they asked me for candy. I didn't have any with me, and promised to return the next day with some for them. I had spoken briefly with Louis earlier,about some of the monks burial tombs, and he showed up again. I just don't know how to extricate myself from these situations without seeming rude, so I patiently listened to Louis, hoping he would just go away soon. The woman waited awhile, and then started to walk away....I wanted to say 'tam biet' good-bye to her and thank her for her help, 'cam on'. She then asked me why I wore shorts to the temple....that it was disrespectful...I knew this, and told the cyclo driver I didn't want to go to the temple that day because I was wearing shorts. He said 'no problem', and against my better judgement I went confronted and embarassed, I expressed my abject sincere apology, graciously accepted. Don't do this....don't go to a temple dressed's insulting. Still talking to Louis....couldn't figure out why he was still hanging around...supposed he was hungry for happens when a common language is so rare...trying to be compassionate. Louis told me a very weird inappropriate story... made my face form an expression I haven't been able to repeat. Someone has to say something so completely untoward to you in order for your face to do this....I've decided not to include it here, I'd have to be drunk and I'm not drinking...If you're curious, ask and I'll fill you in. Suffice it to say that I was so grateful to go back to the children, when Louis went to crawl back under his rock.....English, who needs it.

I told my landlord I was leaving, and then had to negotiate the return of some of my money. I didn't do to badly, but it cost me. Here's a tip...never rent an apartment in a strange city without visiting it first. I've done it twice now,once in the U.S. and once in SEA....I'm a slow study. So anyway....I bought a train ticket for Hanoi..yep...Hanoi. Crossed the DMZ. Piece of cake. We tried for years to do that with weapons, and all you really have to do is buy a train ticket.

The trains are good in Viet Nam. There are many types of tickets to buy...get a sleeper...hard or soft is offered. This means that the beds are little softer, but 'hard sleeper' is good, I like a hard bed. You also get a pillow, and a blankie... The compartments are air conditioned. Who really cares, but it doesn't come any other way unless you take one of the older trains, like Viet Nam War era, with heavy wire screens on the windows to keep the munitions thrown at them out..... the screens block the view. They bring you food, but I would recommend checking out the dining car. The train food is pretty weird...the dining car food is pretty good, you have to pay extra, but it's nothing.

In Viet Nam, men and women sleep in the same car, whether they are traveling together or not. Like strange men in the car sleeping with you. I tried to clarify this with the first she said 'no', much to my relief as I looked at the two guys across from me. Then she said 'yes' when I pressed her further, I said 'O.K.' and smiled at the two men. It was pretty strange. This is a thirty hour train ride with two stange men, who have no English, or even the really useless Lonely Planet dictionary. But we managed....we smiled, they made fun of my attempts at Vietnamese, I kept trying, and in the end we became friends, and I was sorry to leave them. They were gentlemen, and gentle men. I guess I was wearing that 'deer in the headlights' look that is recognizable in all cultures, 'cause they treated me like I needed to be treated, talked to me with their eyes, and I felt comfortable with them, they took care of me. The sleeping times were funny, they woke up early, and napped alot. When I woke up really late that night, they quietly and gently offered me food,and some really good coffee. just pushed some in my direction and nodded, and invited me with their eyes. I tried to bring some food, but I had to fly out of there.... dealing with my way to much shit was more complicated than I had hoped, I ran out of time. This might be the place to mention to you coffee afficianados, that Vietnamese coffee is the best in the world. At least my world so far. Ooooh, it's really good, kind of spicey, with a back beat of mocha, not added, it's in the beans or the roast. Really strong, really really good. And some really good fruit of the unrecognizable kind. But really good. They taught me how to say the names of the fruit, and wrote for me in really big letters like for a child, and I drew pictures of them and wrote them out phonetically, and they applauded my successes. It was nice, I felt like a child, a safe child with friends. They were soooo kind to me. I know now how my students have felt. It will make me a better teacher.

I knew very soon that it was the right decision to leave, as I began to relax and Vietnam started to change as we made our way north. Trees, and mountains, and beaches, and rice paddies, and water buffaloe, and small temples and graves in the fields, and unusual boats and fishing apparatus. There are burial places interspersed in the fields. Little places to worship their ancestors. They bury them near their homes, or in the fields so they can visit. In Viet Nam a good place to live or be buried is where there is water, mountains, and things growing. So they bury their family members in the nicest places they can find close to home so they'll be comfortable, and stay around. Unlike us, their ancestors don't go away to someplace better, but stay with the family, and are visited daily as they work in the fields. The temples and offering places here are very brightly colored. I want them to be austere, dignified, ancient looking or something. They want them to be celebrations , and they are. Heavily ornate multi-colored. I might have called them gaudy at some time, but not now. They stand out in this extreme poverty at a testament to some kind of faith. Some kind of joy. The air was getting clearer, I was so relieved to be out of the city, and into the country.

The Asians are not shy about asking 'How old are you?' It's like the first question, followed by 'Are you married?', followed by 'How many children do you have?' Answering honestly, 53/no/none will bring a look onto the faces of your new found friends that's, a sort of a sympathetic, stoic look. In Asia, an unmarried, older, childless women is a not something you want to be...and you thought it was hard to age in America. None of your successes matter. The only thing that matters as a woman here is married with children. I'm going to start to lie. will make us all alot more comfortable. I tried to explain, showed them 'free' and 'happy' and got polite nods but the eyes were sympathetic in a way that made me feel like I was what they were feeling about me, like I was already lying. Didn't feel so good...A boy told me in the park to dye my hair...'Not good for Vietnam.' he says..I tried 'natural' on him...someone else asked me how many kilos I weighed..couldn't do the conversion for them, and someone else said, 'You're not fat like most Americans.' YAY!

Back to my friends on the train...the men in Viet Nam are warm and affectionate with each other publicly. They touch alot, sit really close to each other and hold hands as do the we'd suspect they were gay...the older of the two kept looking in the dictionary....looking for something. One useful thing that was included in the 'stupid book' as I began to call it, as we one and all kept searching it for a way to communicate, was a small section on 'returning veterans' or something like that. So he looks at me and points, and I read 'I am a Viet Nam veteran.' I just looked at him for a minute. What do you say....then he wrote 1972. First I pointed to some branches of the service, and some ranks that were listed in the stupid book. Got 'army' no rank, ours are different than theirs. Then I came up with 'north' and 'south'. He said Hanoi and Saigon. I tried to clarify, found some more words, and realized he was in the North Vietnamese Army. I just looked at him, and he just looked at me, we shook hands and smiled. I came up with sorry for your suffering, he waved his hand a little, and smiled, and then I started to cry. Shit, I have been looking at South Vietnam, and the people, and the reparations they are still making, wondering where the bombs fell, and what this place was like before we got here, and seeing some of the beauty that remains amongst the rubble, and looking at wounded people with withered limbs,or no limbs, and empty eye sockets, and wondering if it's still the affects of Agent Orange,and those lovely anti-personnel weapons. Abject poverty doesn't begin to describe this place. I have been waiting for someone to hate me because I'm an American, and they don't, I have been wanting to do something worthwhile here, and realize they don't need me. They are doing just fine, they work and work and work, and they hold no grudges. As the train went north, I kept thinking this place is so beat, the deforestation was horrible, and the land is still recovering from it. The country side looks tired and wounded, and washed out. Everywhere I look, I see people working hard, day and night, like really hard, they do anything they can to make money or feed themselves. They call it an 'improving' country, not a developing country. It's hard to see it. I feel responsible somehow as an American, because I didn't stop the war soon enough, because I am rich to them, I have so much. But this man....this man was so peaceful and kind. The people here look peaceful, their faces relaxed, their eyes clear...not just resigned. And he was proud. He wanted to tell me who he was, and through the stupid stupid limited book, I found that he was in the army from 1972-82. That he came to Saigon in '74, that he was wounded 4 times, both his knees, his hip, and a dent in the top of his head that he took my hand and rubbed the spot to show me. That he was 18 in 72, that he didn't really want to talk about the war, the fighting. He had been to a reunion in Saigon to see his friends from the army, that the younger man was his son in law, and he had 2 more children, and a grandson. He had a picture of himself in his uniform when he was twenty, and he pointed to it and said 'VC" and smiled. I said 'handsome', and he knew he was. He was happy to share this time with me. He gave me his address and phone number...I gave him mine.. Funny to think that these people kicked our asses out of their country. I mean really kicked our asses...and they are gracious winners...they won, and no matter what we do in the world now, they know it... they kicked our asses. They fought off the Chinese, the French and the Americans....think about it...these people have fought and fought and fought for their independence....and they kicked our asses too..Good for them.

I went to a pagoda today...the Viet Namese cherish their remaining holy places.. we blew most of them up.... there are very few left.

Vietnamese money is called 'dong'...I'll let you to make your own jokes. 15,700 of these will make about a dollar. A man will carry a hundred pounds 2 klm. up hill for 2000 dong... paid by the bag, does it all day.

I'm in Hanoi now....tell you about it later....I'm fine....hope you all are well....I'm not having a good time, but I'm having a time.

As I have read over this.. it sounds so negative...but in spite of it all, despite it all, there is something here when I can get past the strangeness. I smile at these people, and they smile back...they approach me some times so gently...hoping for something...they are gracious, and we have commonality....they are as happy for my kindness as I am for theirs..... While I was waiting for the train, a woman came up to me and told me it was time to go...I hadn't spoken to her, or even knew who she was, but she was looking out for me...Another older woman and I shared some time together on the curb...she held my hand, and we knew we had some older woman sameness in this world...I gave a woman a blank notebook to write in, and some kids books to help her with her English. She acted like I had given her the best gift...she lit up... I now teach English in the street, the park...they are hungry for our language. They think it will help them improve..always improving. I have laughed and cried with these people, and shared food, and we have communicated the best parts of our humanity without words....even in the chaos there is a certain quietude of shared humanity.....I've been here about ten days, and it seems like years...honest

I'm going to send some pictures of the best parts of Viet Nam so far...

Love and love and love to you all


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