Murmurs from behind me
Our guide in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) says his Catholic family moved here from Northern Vietnam in 1954. His father was killed in 1973. We don’t ask how. After the war, the family didn’t move back. Living in a small communal village is good, he says because everyone helps each other, everyone shares what they have, but…there are always murmurs behind you.
Saigon is huge, with wide streets. Women wear shorts and T-shirts in addition to skirts. There’s more diversity of appearance and attitude than in Hanoi. Our guide says the young people in Ho Chi Minh City are heavily influenced by Korean celebrities and fashion while Hanoi is influenced more by China. Our hotel is on one of the long sides of a huge open rectangle with the Sai Gon River at one end of the rectangle and the Hotel de Ville at the other end.
There are no signaled intersections despite the thousands of scooters and cars and buses. We want to cross the street to get to the river, but the hordes of scooters are intimidating. A young Viet girl next to us steps out into the road and we follow her like hungry baby ducks. She puts her hands out to the side, as if she could hold the mass back. Miraculously, the horde does slow, it maneuvers around us as we walk quickly to the river. Our crossing guard disappears before we can thank her. Later, we watch as teenagers escort groups of tourists across the road, collecting a toll fee tip from the grateful survivors.
The Sai Gon River here is filled with ships and garbage. Not much to see on this side of the street so we prepare to cross back. We wait until we see an older Viet man preparing to cross and we scoot over behind him. He doesn’t acknowledge us exactly, but he does motion Bob to move back from the traffic. Then he launches out into the street, holding out his arms and motioning for motorists to slow. Another traffic miracle occurs. We dog our unknown guide’s heels. When we reach the curb in safety, he lopes away—perhaps it was a deed of merit for Buddha.
We drive to the Cu Chi Tunnel complex to visit the remains of some of the extensive tunnels used by villagers and North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Termite hills disguise air vents, the jungle looks sparser than I expect. All the debris left by US troops seems to have been turned into useful items—tires into sandals, bomb fragments into knives or tools. There is a display of traps used by the villagers, adapted for use against American soldiers. I can’t imagine how an American soldier of 18 or so would feel on patrol, knowing that traps and snipers could be anywhere, unable to tell friend from foe or trust what anyone in a village is saying to you and with everything seeming to want to kill you.
We hear a succession of gunshots—is there a reenactment of combat? No, this complex also boasts a modern swimming pool and a gun range right across from one of the gift shops. It’s a multi-use park.
Our guide takes us to the Post Office in Saigon later. We don’t know why we are going to a Post Office, but when we go inside the yellow stucco building, we are greeted by an enormous portrait of Uncle Ho at one end of the cavernous building. Wooden phone booths from a by-gone era line the walls with clocks giving the time for various parts of the world hanging above them. The booths no longer have phones in them; instead they are festooned with advertisements for electronics. Across from the Post Office is Notre Dame Catholic Church, currently being remodeled, and right next door to the Post Office is a McDonalds.
In Hanoi, I didn’t see billboards of Uncle Ho and except for the mausoleum and the park, I didn’t see much of Ho Chi Minh. But in Saigon, there are billboards, and pictures of Uncle Ho everywhere. Guess they need the reminder. The “Hanoi Hilton” is now a venue for showing the cruelty of the French government and for displays of the Hilton’s most distinguished prisoner-Senator John McCain. In Saigon we visit the very modern-looking Presidential palace with its clever concrete louvers before each long, narrow window—for protection. We see the war maps. It’s nice to get outside where there are plants and trees.
December 01st, 2017
My Trumpatorium was successful. My mind and spirit are still mostly in Southeast Asia where I found the people, the land and most of the food to be congenial, beautiful and calming. Back at home, I was able to listen to Trump making uncalled for and childish remarks about “Pocahontas” Elizabeth Warren when presenting the Navajo code talkers with medals for their service in WWII without wishing for a meteor to obliterate Our Fearless Tweeter.
Being in Southeast Asia a week ahead of the Teflon President’s arrival helped with my month-long Trumpatorium. In Hanoi there is an unrestricted flow of constantly moving life. In a city with few marked lanes and very few signaled intersections, gazillions of scooters flow purposefully, maneuvering around each other, turning in front of each other and yet not colliding. Older women in peaked bamboo hats wheel bicycles laden with products to sell through the flow of scooters. People make room for each other. Even the houses encourage flow—tall, very narrow, multi-storied houses, pastel-stuccoed and French provincial in design where families live together with grandparents on the bottom floor, the next generation on the second floor and the newest generation with their babies and strong legs on the top floor. They help each other, flow upstairs and down between floors and generations. Doors in buildings, like our hotel, don’t face each other across the corridor. Instead, according to tribal custom, they are angled away from each other to prevent arguing. Living together and yet making room for differences. So different from our country.
Unlike the cities in China, it’s quiet in Hanoi—quiet in the airport, quiet in the streets despite the scooters which dispense a constant drone of sound, quiet voices everywhere. If someone is talking loudly, they are probably Chinese tourists, not Viets or Thai. Most of the scooter riders wear cotton masks in colorful prints over their nose and mouth. Out of the Hanoi gloom comes a scooter bearing a woman shrouded in headdress, mask, long sleeved flowing top and long skirt—all in the same white cotton flowered print. Despite the flowers she looks like a ghost.
Tony, our guide, takes us to see Uncle Ho’s mausoleum, which is closed at this time of year, every year, for repair. The modern, spare lines of the mausoleum face ornate yellow stucco French-influenced buildings across the rectangle with some Zen-type gardens thrown in the mix. We go to the Presidential Palace park where another, ornate, yellow stucco building announces its use for government. But Uncle Ho didn’t like using the former French governor’s palace and the cement, almost windowless building he preferred, is behind the palace. The wooden stilt house built for Ho fronting the lake, has a clean, minimalist look too, but much more welcoming. Lots of windows. I like it very much, even though it’s connected by a tunnel to a bunker. I like what I’ve learned in the past month at home about Uncle Ho too. Idealistic, simple, focused.
On the flip side, we visit several pagodas and the University of Literature, first college in Vietnam. The altars are heaped with bananas and tobacco, soft drinks and packages of sweets. Buddha likes bananas, Tony tells us and most of the bananas grown in the area are for Buddha, not for eating. There are tiny birds imprisoned by the dozen in small cages for people trying to earn merit to purchase and set free in the temple area. The people who catch and imprison the birds are not doing a merit worthy thing so I would expect their karma to be awful as compared to the people who set the birds free.Seems counter productive to me. Definitely greed inspired, not Buddha-inspired.
I write for a newspaper. I write to tell stories that might otherwise be forgotten. I write to process my world..