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Day 5, Border Crossing

September 27th, 2012 No comments

 

We slept in today, skipping the morning expedition to a small village in the northwest of the Mekong Delta. Travel weariness finally overcame the excitement of the exotic locale, I guess. That, and most of the drinks at the sun deck bar were complimentary.
Perhaps a few words on our vessel for most of the trip, the Saigon Pandaw will illuminate the appeal of drinking late and then sleeping even later. Travel by river ship, particularly one as luxurious as ours, wouldn’t have been how I’d have done this trip if we were on our own, but hey, it was mostly free. Maybe I’d rather be spending my day writing, but the travel industry does have its perks.

The pandaw ship layout harks back to colonial era river steamers. It’s a design originated by a Scottish river shipping company: open top deck, 2-3 decks below, berths for up to 60 travelers plus crew, and a flat bottom that allows mooring in very shallow water for a ship of its size. Ours was absolutely gorgeous: brass railings, decks and wall paneling everywhere of teak, a canopied upper deck with nice furniture, traditional carvings and textiles in the staterooms, a large dining room, and movie and massage rooms on the lower deck. The only thing I could have asked for was an exercise room — especially given the superb food.

The officers in the wheelhouse, the deckhands, and the engineers were all Vietnamese, save one Burmese engineer. The service staff were all Khmer, save again for a guy from Myanmar named Peter (“I’m Christian,” he said by way of explanation; I spared telling him that I’d probably be Buddhist if I believed in anything). We also had a few managers from the Pandaw company traveling with us. It was an early season cruise, so we had a hospitality guy, a chef, and a couple other managers concerned in a general way with quality control aboard. Several times during the trip we returned to our berth to find that they’d been at work, adding new art to the walls and the like.

One of the Pandaw execs, Alex, gave me a tour of the area below decks — the engine room, stores, water systems and the like. I’ve become a bit of a river boat ops nerd from my time in the industry, and the specs on Pandaw’s ships are impressive, necessitated by the environment in which they operate. The diesel engines are and bow thrusters are much more powerful than you’d need on a ship of similar size sailing a European river to compensate for the Mekong’s stronger current. The water treatment facilities were the other cool part, capable of supplying the ship with water drawn from the river despite high turbidity (floating sand and such) and local parasites that would give American travelers a serious case of the runs. They advised us not to brush our teeth with the water in our cabin taps, but after seeing the water plant I started drinking it — with no ill effects.

From the Delta, we headed upriver. The border crossing into Cambodia took over three hours. We anchored at the border while one of the deck hands got a ride from a local to the border station to have our passports and visas inspected and stamped. A Khmer policeman stayed on board after the crossing, not debarking until we reached Phnom Penh the following day.

After lunch, we watched The Killing Fields. I then spent the afternoon reading about Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge era. The story of Cambodia’s political genocide is just big numbers until you get close to it and begin to see the evidence. You don’t see a great many old Cambodians, and not just because of the low life expectancy of a developing country.

Later in the journey, one of our Khmer crewmen proved willing to talk a bit about the Pol Pot era. The subject is a delicate one, but individual Cambodians may choose to discuss it, given time, in more depth than the recitation of history generally given to visitors. The genocide is, after all, in the background of everything about their country, constantly present and undeniable, a jagged scar bisecting their history’s face.

In the case of our crewman, he was 28, born after the worst of the Khmer Rouge nightmare. But his generation does remember the aftermath, the long process of rebuilding, and the period during which it was feared that the remaining Khmer Rouge might return from their jungle strongholds and take power again.

We’d been seeing him every day for a week, and so had gotten to know him a little on a personal level, before he opened up about those times. For older Cambodians who actually lived through it, I expect it might take longer. Any Khmer accustomed to dealing with foreign visitors will discuss the history as such, but prying into how it affected them personally isn’t the done thing. My sense is that if they give you personal stories, it’s a show of some trust. More than that, though, they want the world to know this story — because it’s still a huge part of who they are as a people.

Day 4, Cai Be and Sa Dec

September 27th, 2012 No comments

 

The Mekong is a busy river, and few were the times during our trip when other ships or boats couldn’t be seen. Even at night, there were always other vessels out on the water. Unless you live or work right along a major waterway like the Mississippi, it’s difficult to understand just how important the river is. It’s infrastructure, it’s a natural resource, and for many Vietnamese, it’s also a home.
The Cai Be district of the Mekong Delta and its principal town, Sa Dec, bring this importance into relief. Our visit to this area was conducted entirely aboard a sampan that docked with our anchored ship and brought us to various places ashore. During our time in this region, supplies for the ship arrived by sampan, as did a troupe of traditional singers who came by night from somewhere ashore — in heavy rain, while the ship was underway — and left the same way. Apparently if you want to be an entertainer in rural Vietnam, you’d best be a passable river sailor as well.

Boats in the Mekong Delta come in all sizes, from the big tugs, barges, and dredgers that move sand and silt for concrete and fertilizer, to the little 12′ sampans that serve as everyday transportation. One thing almost all of the traditional designs have in common, though, is a long, thin, shallow form factor, and, painted in red on their upturned prows, eyes. Explanations for the painted eyes range from a harking back to when there were crocodiles in the river (the crocs are now gone due to hunting), to a folk belief that the eyes can help the boat see its way home, to another folk belief that a boat with eyes gains a sort of life force, making it faster and more vigorous. How seriously anyone takes these beliefs is hard to say, but the people of the Delta do keep no shortage of customs that we’d deem superstitious (snake blood moonshine, anyone?).

Our sampan had an inboard engine and forward steering wheel, but typical work sampans have a tiller mounted directly to an unenclosed engine block, which in turn sprouts a drive shaft housing that ends in a perpendicular propeller. It’s a design that looks strikingly odd and jury rigged, until you realize that almost everyone’s boat is like this. Part of this is improvisation with limited resources, but it’s also a practical design, a natural evolution of the long poles or sculling oars that would have been used to propel these boats before the advent of engines. The engine/tiller is operated from a standing position, the boaters maneuvering with them much as they would with an oar. The unenclosed engine block probably both helps with cooling and makes maintenance easier. I was surprised by how little rust most sported; the boaters must keep them well greased.

Sa Dec, the main provincial town of the Cai Be district, has been gifted by the river with dense banks of clay, and as such does a brisk commerce in bricks. But Sa Dec’s many brick factories owe their existence not just to the clay, but to another local resource — the delta’s innumerable rice farms. The big, conical brick kilns in factories lining the river banks use abundant, locally available rice husks for fuel. Bricks produced by this relatively low-tech method take 55-60 days to fire, and another 10 to cool. It takes about 150 tons of husks to bake a batch.

Rice husks fuel local cottage industries, too, such as the salt boiling and candy making shops we saw in one of the nearby villages. Any industry where a slow burning, low heat fire works uses the husks. At about $6/ton, the fuel to get them where they’re needed often costs more than the husks themselves.

Provincial Vietnamese are about as family-oriented a people as you’ll find anywhere. Even workshops and factories have small shrines. In the Sa Dec brick factory we visited, the tombs of the factory’s founders are actually in the factory, behind a stack of cement bags and other supplies! If the factory owner wants his father’s counsel on an important business deal, or if he’s just having a rough day, he can walk over and talk to his tomb.

The willingness to make sacrifices for family goes beyond funereal tradition, and may seem even important now that Vietnam’s two child rule has begun to reduce family sizes, which up until recently were quite large. Vietnam is starting to have the same male/female imbalance problem as China, made worse by illegal matchmakers who go to the villages trying to find brides for Chinese and Taiwanese bachelors.


Our guide, Thinh, though, was the youngest of ten. He was the only one in his family to finish high school and go to Unversityi. About 40% of his family’s rice harvest went to supporting him at school in Saigon, while the rest of the country, living in the Delta, lived off the remainder.

We finished our visit with a walk through the Sa Dec street market to the home of Huynh Thuy Le, the eponymous paramour of Marguerite Duras’ novella, The Lover. Amid the constant flow of foot and motorbike traffic, I spotted a kid wearing an old American GI helmet yo ride his scooter. The Vietnamese draw on some protein sources westerners would turn their noses up at, from frogs (even the Frenchman in our group cringed at the sight of these being skinned alive), to river fish (being killed and gutted right there; the air was redolent), to rats (which, skinned, look like small birds until you get a closer look).


I was a bit embarrassed by some of the faces pulled by my traveling companions in the market. It’d be rather like if you were trying to shop at the supermarket and a group of foreigners were pointing and making disgusted faces at the stuff in your cart. You’d like to think travel industry people would have better etiquette, but so it goes… And to be fair, they weren’t warned.

The house of Huynh Thuy Le wasn’t what I envisioned from Duras’ novella. I suppose I’d expected something bigger, situated on a hill. Chinese, mostly from Fuxing, were a large minority in colonial Indochina — politically weak, but wealthy. The house is in the style of Fuxing province. I can’t say it looked like a comfortable place to live, but the collection of antiques was interesting. The large family shrine at the center overwhelms the space, making me wonder if Le’s indiscretions had anything to do with the oppressiveness of his father’s home.

After the Communist victory, the house was confiscated by the government — the fate of many Chinese merchants’ homes under the new regime. For a time, it was a governor’s house, then later a police station. Now it’s a tourist attraction. If you visit, read Duras’ book first. It’s worth reading, and I’m not sure the house is all that interesting if you haven’t.

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Day 3, Saigon & Cuchi Tunnels

September 7th, 2012 No comments

To us Americans, Vietnam was one of our longest wars. But for the Vietnamese, it was one of their shortest. The American War was but one episode in 30 years of conflict with the French, the Americans, the Chinese, and the Khmer Rouge.

Today we toured the tunnel system near Cu Chi, a network of underground strongholds running to the Cambodian border and  used by the Viet Cong as a jumping off point for attacks on Saigon.

A map of South Vietnam from ’65-’66 showing zones of American and ARVN control brought to mind Daniel Ellsberg’s contention that the war in Vietnam might never have been winnable. Pockets of American control in the countryside surrounded and in some cases even riddled with VC tunnels meant that American forces could be surrounded or infiltrated by an unseen enemy that might even be under their feet.
It’s worth noting that the term “Viet Cong” was an American coinage. The VC never used this term, instead referring to themselves as the Revolutionaries.
Today the area of Cuchi, on the far outskirts of Saigon, is peaceful farm country. We saw cemeteries with well built, covered tombs. The Vietnamese, unlike many Asian countries, bury their dead rather than cremating them. The positions and facing of the tombs are decided upon with the consultation of geomancers who take into account many factors, including the astrological chart of the deceased.
Consulting geomancers is still a common practice overall — another example of a local belief that communism couldn’t ever get rid of. Country people consult them not just to place graves, but also to decide which direction their houses should face. The practice is very similar to the Chinese reliance on feng shui.
We didn’t visit it, but a but farther up the highway from Cuchi is Trang Bang, where the famous photograph of a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack on her village was taken. The woman in question now lives in Canada. Many years later, in a gesture of reconciliation, she met the American pilot who carried out the attack.
Cuchi was a free fire zone. Frequently American pilots who couldn’t drop their payloads due to weather or other difficulties, and couldn’t land safely with a payload of ordnance, simply dropped their bombs on the Cuchi area before returning to base. The area is still dotted with bomb craters.
At the Cuchi museum, we saw how the tunnels worked. Claustrophobic passages, many too small for big Americans, were concealed under piles of leaves, bushes, and even termite mounds. Smoke chambers contained cooking smoke, which would then be released with the morning fog to avoid detection by Special Forces tunnel rats. To throw American dogs off the scent, chilies and, later, the familiar smell of captured American uniforms scented the tunnel entrances.
Inside, deadfalls full of pungi sticks and other vicious traps guarded the tunnels. Dung was used as a simple poison to make pungi sticks even more deadly. The effect of this form of warfare was intended to be as much psychological as anything else.
The museum included a display of weapons ranging from improvised flintlock rifles to captured American M-60s. There was even a live fire rifle range where I got to try out an AK-47.
Takeaway: never get involved in a land war in Asia. Especially against the Vietnamese.
On the return to Saigon, we stopped in an area of rubber plantations. Due to past bombing,  most of the rubber trees, originally imported by the French from South America, are only 20-3o years old. The trees drip latex mostly in the morning, at which time workers on motorbikes gather the outflow in large buckets, and, when they’re full, bring them to a foreman, who pays them by weight.
Speaking of latex, the Vietnamese call condoms “raincoats,” and they’ve become quite important in a country with a 2-child policy. Men hoping to have sons — for Vietnam, unfortunately, is beginning to have the same male/female imbalance problem as China eat drink snake blood rice moonshine and eat snake meat. The heart is most sought after, and poor men will often share a meal, dicing for the most desirable organs such as heart and gall bladder. Served raw, the hearts will sometimes beat reflexively when touched with chopsticks.
We spent the rest of the day back in the city. A few more random observations on Saigon…
  • Scooter helmets are fashion! In a city where most of the population get around on motorbikes, and many go masked while riding (both to keep pollution out and to keep their skin pale, for women), helmets come in a riot of colors and designs. Some remind me of Japanese fashion, with seemingly naive use of slogans in English a major feature.
  • Saigon is a city of tall, thin buildings, built on tiny lots. Some blocks put me in mind of Amsterdam, although the architecture is much different.
  • In the markets and malls, “Look sir, look sir ,” was the refrain as I walked through the cheaper places. But we found other places with a boutique style and American prices selling hip Singapore labels like Mphosis.
  • Our guide loved the word “flexible” to describe most aspects of Saigonl life — but especially the traffic, which looks like a chaotic mess until you figure out how to cross the street and realize it’s all one big, crazy ballet.
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Day 1.5, Saigon. Communism: Now with Ads!

September 3rd, 2012 1 comment

 

We hit Saigon bleary, emerging from that temporal non-space that is 24 hours of airplanes and airports into a night of celebration. It’s Vietnam’s Independence Day, and the streets are choked to the curbs with cruising scooters and cycles — some holding three or even four people — and taxi cabs flying little red flags.


I’ve been trying to figure out from the moment I stepped off the plane what, exactly, is socialist about this country, what the menace was that made my grandfather’s generation willing to risk their sons on invading this place. Sure, Saigon ain’t the rest of the country, not by a long shot, but this isn’t a country in the grips of Stalinism, either. Our guide was pretty frank in discussing his views on politics, with nary a cautious glance over his shoulder.


The first impression of Saigon is one of constant, roiling activity, yet all of it at a relaxed place. Everyone is constantly doing something, but they’re not in a hurry about it. Too damned hot for that. The sea of motorbikes and scooters at every intersection and traffic circle is a ballet, not a roller derby.

Some random impressions:

  • The architecture reminded me of Amsterdam in its use of space. Many buildings occupy narrow lots, so they’ve built upward. Buildings not much more than ten feet wide, but three or four stories tall are common, as are riotous, terraced rooftop gardens on the same.
  • Storefronts with their interiors completely open to the street are common. Some streets give the impression of niche after niche of commerce overhung by ledges of apartments.
  • The smell of burnt fuel hangs in the air strongly in some places. Little surprise many of the scooter riders wear filter masks, although this is less common by night when the people tend to be dressed up and women doff their sun-defeating flap hats and gloves for heels and mini-skirts.
  • Buildings sometimes seem to exist in only two states: rusted and peeling, or sparklingly new.
  • Our mini-bus driver’s skill in not killing the scooter riders who constantly cut him off and made sudden left turns in front of him was impressive, if scary. Our guide got a kick out of my assessment that scooter riding is Vietnam’s martial art.
I spent today touring the tunnels built by the rebels we Americans called the Viet Cong (never a term used by the Vietnamese themselves, it turns out), seeing a bit of the city, and shopping. Tomorrow we sail up the Mekong for Cambodia. Probably won’t get to post more before Siem Reap.

See you on the other side of the river.
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Day 1, Airborne, South China Sea

September 2nd, 2012 No comments

 

I’m several hundred miles southeast of Guangzhou (whence the iPad on which I’m typing probably came), enjoying French wine and a Duras novella aboard an American run, Japanese crewed airliner. We’re headed for Ho Chi Minh City, a town part Vietnamese, part French. Had to steal the iPad back from my Pinay-American girlfriend, who was playing a German board game. I’ve spoken three different languages today, and practiced on two others. The world feels very small right now.


This, of course, is deceptive.

I’ve traveled Europe and glimpsed Africa from Spain, but this is my first time coming all the way west. The Japanese are too much like us, and perhaps too familiar to me, to offer many surprises (Narita Airport isn’t Japan, but all the same… Japan feels very safe, not at all threatening. Hell, you can choose from three styles of toilet — pit, western with auto-bedee, or straight up western, T-P and all. For the record, I wasn’t feeling adventurous).


In a few hours, I’ll be in something more like the real Asia, albeit with a heavy filter of tour guides and catering to American tastes.


I want to get back to Duras’ The Lover  right now (in a few days, in Sa Dec, there’ll be a chance to visit the eponymous Chinese gent’s house), but a few random impressions…

  • I’d no idea — or maybe I’d just forgotten — or maybe constantly sounding like you’re apologizing is just odd to a North American — how much the Japanese use the word sumimasen. It’s something like the English “excuse me” or “I’m sorry,” but where a Frenchwoman would say bon jour when you enter her shop, a Narita shop girl says sumimasen. You’re sorry you’re here, bothering me while I shop in your store? Yup, the legendary politeness of the Nipponese is no joke.
  • Everything is new — glitteringly new. The plane I’m on from Narita to Saigon isn’t just new equipment — it’s spotless. Not a scuff on the overhead bin doors or a fabric pill out of place on the seats. I never want to fly on a dingy friggin’ American airliner again.
  • Mobile infrastructure like whoa. It’s no joke how pathetic our wi-fi and cell access is in the U.S. standards are higher in Japan. I was in a bus on the tarmac when I realized I hadn’t synced Evernote before boarding. I flipped open my iPad, immediately found free, open wi-fi, and got synced up while driving from the gate to the plane. This would never have happened in an American airport. I’d have lost the signal while waiting for my credit card to clear.
  • The Japanese are very nice about letting you try to speak their language. Unlike the Dutch and Québécois, who take one look at you and switch to English, or Berliners, who suspect you’re having a go at them if your accent sucks, the Japanese will let you make the attempt before helping you out.
  • Did I mention you can choose from three different types of toilet?
  • If you’re ever in Narita and have a few minutes to kill with a clear view of the tarmac, watch the baggage truck guys work for a few minutes. Their OCDness in the way that they arrange the trailers they’ve been towing is charmingly, almost enthrallingly Japanese, and they pull off some precision driving stunts in tight spaces, with full trains of baggage trailers, that you’d never see their American counterparts even attempt.
We land in Saigon — Ho Chi Minh City — in a few hours. As excited as I am for the journey ahead, I really must spend more time in Japan. Y’know — outside the airport.
Update: Arrived safely in Saigon. Not sure how much wi-fi access I’ll have during this trip, but I’ll attempt to keep blogging it where possible. Today is Vietnam’s Independence Day, celebrating Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of the Republic. Wonder if they’ll think it’sfunny tomorrow when an American comes around looking to buy a little red flag…
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