Star Date: March 2007
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
Co khoe khong?
(How are you? Vietnamese Kinh)
"I will never be an old man. To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am."
(Bernard Mannes Baruch, 1870 - 1965
Tet Nguyen Dan, Festival of the First Day, marks the beginning of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year (February 18th in 2007). Families unite under one roof, inviting the spirits of ancestors to join them in the week's celebration. Ceremonies, house cleaning, painting and decorating of family temples with lighted blossoming trees and colorful fruit; climaxes with a noisy midnight cacophony scaring away bad spirits. New Year's itself is a quiet family day, when everyone collapses in heaps around the room, resting up from the whirlwind of activity. It's also everyone's birthday, and surrounded by family and friends, special foods and sweets, lights and music, people of all ages become a year older.
Another year added on to my spirited 82 year old mother, LaVerne, didn't seem to set her back a bit. An inspiration to us both, we hope that we have such kindness and a positive attitude at her age. Arriving after over 20 hours of travel on a flight from Central Wisconsin via Hong Kong to Saigon found her tired but excited about the adventure before her. Following a good night's sleep we went off to explore the bustling center of Saigon, or officially Ho Chi Minh City.
Notre Dame Cathedral, with its twin 40 m. square spires dominating the central skyline, was built in the late 1800's. A cool, quiet place to visit we noticed that some of the stained glass windows have now been replaced, as all were damaged during the war. Walking the shady tree lined boulevards it is hard to imagine that following over a century of French colonialism, Saigon was the scene of many battles during the American War. Ancient Buddhist pagodas filled with praying monks and wafting incense play a game of chess with newly emerging skyscrapers and gaudy department stores blasting music. Parks are filled with elderly watching the world go by from a bench or exercising sore joints and as children play in the grass their older teenage counterparts are doing their best to meld couples into a single entity on their blankets or benches. Actually it's fun to 'play park bench'. With the lure of an improved life in this big modern city, many country folk end up here without the support of their village and some are forced into begging. Saigon is a city of contrasts, old and new, rich and poor, modern and ancient, for better or for worse.
Across the street from Notre Dame is the largest post office in Vietnam; architecturally exquisite, this grand building constructed in 1868 oozes with history. Ho Chi Minh, or 'Uncle Ho' gazes down from the far wall, watching that the mail is sorted correctly or that proper change is given. School girls on bikes gracefully coast by in traditional colorful silk 'au dai' outfits that show off their slight frames and street vendors selling everything from coca cola to jumping paper snakes hope you will be the next customer.
There is a battle of customs and traditions raging between the modern western lifestyle touted on television and in advertisements and the olden ways. Keep in mind that many customs are still observed such as always removing your shoes before entering a temple or home. The traditional Vietnamese greeting is to fold your hands in front of you and bow but nowadays shaking hands is more the norm. Don't leave your chopsticks sitting vertically in your rice bowl because they mimic incense sticks burned for the dead. Don't point your feet towards any sacred images such as Buddha or pat anyone on the head - the highest sacred point of a person.
Some modern ideals are sorely lacking such as women's rights. Women in Vietnam are still often treated as second class citizens and are seen doing back breaking work, lifting loads of 60 kgs, something many western men couldn't begin to do. A new 2-child policy is now enforced in the urban areas (actually the government only pays for the education of the first two children, which has proven effective). This is allowing women to enter the work place and a small emerging class of professional women, mostly involved in foreign business, may be seen charging into battle armed with tailored suits, cell phones and brief cases. With a population of close to 85 million, Vietnam is definitely entering the modern age and this once mainly agricultural society has seen a shift from rural areas into the big cities such as Saigon. Everyone hopes for a shot at a new prosperous life but some end up surviving in poverty situations or reverting to prostitution to stay alive. Daughters are still sold or tricked into sex slavery and a steady parade of older western men with their mini skirted, high heeled 'girlfriends', 20 to 40 years younger, is a common sight. Otherwise respectable Vietnamese women throw themselves at foreign men in hopes of marriage and an 'out' of their current difficult life. Not a day goes by that Joseph doesn't have to inform an interested woman that he and his WIFE are traveling through the country together. Many Vietnamese women do luck out as large numbers become brides to westerners or husbands in other Asian countries. On the flip side a funny newspaper article pointed out that there are a growing number of overweight Taiwanese women, who have been marrying slender Vietnamese men. Why? Matchmakers are prospering and rolling in the dough or should we say in the fat as the marriage deals are based on the actual poundage of the prospective bride. Current price paid to the families of the grooms is 1.2 to 1.8 million VND ($75 to $112 USD) per kilo (2.2 pounds)! Such a deal!
Life in the tiny alleys of Saigon is a subculture worth exploring. We stayed back in a maze of tiny stone alleyways, a quiet haven rich in Vietnamese family life and culture, hiding away from the buzz of traffic on the larger fringe streets. During dinner at our favorite Bodhi Tree Restaurant my Mom was treated to 3 young boys spinning basketballs, then swallowing swords, fire and even a snake. Bicycles rode by piled 8 feet high with festive toys and balloons along with book vendors balancing 6 ft high piles of knock off novels, beggars with babies selling gum and an inconspicuous tiny old woman making her way down the busy lane by sliding from one little footstool to the next, inch by inch. With our table out on the sidewalk, we never knew what would go by next. We even observed several funeral processions with brightly colored hearses taking the departed, and scores of friends and family, for the final ride in style. Near Tet there were thousands of people milling around amid the bright lights, red lanterns, street entertainers and music. Luckily a ban on firecrackers has made the festivities in the big cities less nerve-wracking. You're not in Kansas (or Mellen) anymore Dorothy!
After over 5 months in Vietnam, we are getting to understand the culture and language a little better. With six different tones in Vietnamese Kinh we soon realized that it was mere luck to be understood. The word 'ma' for instance means: ghost, mother, which, rice seedling, tomb, or horse depending on its pronunciation and intonation. Cho Cu Market in Saigon, if not pronounced correctly means penis, and will certainly bring a chuckle to your 'cyclo' driver when you state your destination. When traveling be prepared to be a constant source of entertainment to those around you. Lighten up and laugh at yourself. Life is too short to do otherwise.
We caught our breath as we rode the 4 hour bus to the coast at Mui Ne. A new Vietnamese tourist destination with the usual strip of fancy hotels and restaurants, it reminded Joseph of Waikiki in the 60's. Instead of hanging out with westerners Joseph found us a simply wonderful guesthouse down at the local end of the beach, near the fishing village. Right on the sandy beach, with shady palm trees rustling in the breeze we spent nearly a month soaking up the peace and strength of the ocean. We would walk down the beach or along the sand lane to the local market a mile away and by the time we left everyone knew us, smiling and waving a genuine greeting. People were fascinated by "Mama" and the fact that LaVerne is still open minded, traveling and going strong. We were invited to a wedding across the road complete with large shrimp cooked in beer at our table plus endless drinks and rounds of "Yo, Yo Yo" (cheers and down the hatch!) amid karaoke and lively dancing. Our new friend from Australia got up and sang an ad lib wedding song repeating "Happy, Happy Wedding." As long as it was in English the crowd went wild.
Our merrymaking was in direct competition to the nightly background Karaoke droning on until 10 pm. We would just plug in one of our hundreds of movies (most on 8 in 1 DVDs) and forget that mainly people encouraged by a few beers, who don't have particularly soothing voices, hang out and perform this current ear shattering fad. Have fun and sing, just turn down the volume, please!!
Several times a week we would don our finery and go off for lunch or shopping in the tourist area. The classy hotels with restaurants right on the beach were a great place to watch the kite surfing or beachgoers of all shapes and physiques, from wiry Vietnamese vendors to rotund pink Russians in bulging spandex.
Wrapped up in the middle of all this relaxation, like mint in a spring roll, was a bout with a 5 day flu for LaVerne and a crazy week of dengue fever for me. I just started getting weaker and weaker and by the time Joseph took me to the hospital my fever was close to 102 degrees. Several doctors proclaimed that I in fact had dengue fever and that I should stay in the hospital overnight and go to the International Hospital in Saigon in the morning. Upset at the change of events but writhing in pain with nausea and "broken bone fever"; insult was added to injury when after being prodded, shot and tested I was brought into a room with open windows (the fever is spread by mosquitoes) and a blazing fluorescent light guiding the little beasties in. I was laid out on a sheet less maroon 'nagahide' and chrome cot for the night, with a gaggle of curious on lookers gathered at the door. They sent me for an ultrasound thinking my previously removed appendix was born again and in need of immediate removal. When trying to put a drip in my arm, it swelled up twice it's size and at the 3rd attempt I said, "Sorry sweetheart, you are awfully nice but practice on someone else." The staff called Joseph to come back to the hospital (he had gone home to check on LaVerne) as all patients are required to have a family member stay and take care of their needs. These small town hospitals are strictly bare bones operations, with no English spoken at all. Once disconnected from my I.V. I staggered down the hall and hung on to the desk full of nurses. They laughed as I stated that I wanted to call my husband to come pick me up. They shooed me back to bed. Five minutes later I decided that I would never get any sleep, partly because I felt I needed to keep one eye open for what twist they would throw at me next and partly because of the uncomfortable surroundings and noise. I asked where a phone was and the nurses laughed again. I must have been quite a comical sight to them! A real floundering foreign fish out of water. Someone pointed down a long staircase to the 'cantin'. Three flights down, shakily grasping the railing I found a public phone and cajoled the operator to dial the number of our guesthouse. No luck getting through and he laughed. Wrong answer. I had one nerve left and he got on it! I spied the large entry way in the distance and just started walking out the front door amongst yells of "You can't leave!" "Oh yah, just watch me??" A half hour taxi ride later I walked into our room at the guesthouse greeted by the shocked but relieved looks of Joseph and my Mom. Home Sweet Home. Something is to be said for sleep and loving company.
What a perfect place to rest and recover - lulled to sleep by the lapping waves and gentle breezes. We even treated ourselves to a massage to sooth those aching bones. We started each day out on the lanai with a mouth watering fresh fruit salad prepared by Joseph while listening to a chapter of the thought provoking metaphysical book, The Alchemist, read out loud. Days were filled painting with water colors, writing, looking at photos on my new little laptop (Christmas present) and reminiscing, buying fresh vegetables at the market and getting a refreshing coconut from a friendly family down the road. When we didn't go out to our local little restaurant we would cook in the guesthouse's Spartan kitchen. We prepared an array of tasty international flavors such as ginger stir fried veggies and rice, Tom Ka Thai coconut & lime soup, spaghetti with fresh basil sauce, 'Everest eggplant' and mashed potatoes, or Indian curry to name a few. Late afternoon was time for a walk down the beach, visiting and the nightly ritual of watching the sunset extravaganza; with the village kids swinging and dropping into the water from their rope swing, amid squeals and giggles. Living in the middle of a fishing village there was always something to observe as the fishermen repaired their nets, set them and collected fish, rowed out in their little round hand-woven dinghies to their larger wooden boats or painted and preened their beloved vessels in preparation for Tet. Our favorite event was the daily return of up to 15 little round dinghies or 'duckies' in a row being towed from beyond the horizon into shore. We spent time focusing on our health and we are sure that not having to go to Saigon was due in part from trying to keep a strong immune system, to fight off an occasional bug that gets through. My first major problem in 3.5 years of hard travel. Whatever we are doing it's working. Knock on wood.
Vi and his kind family told us the week we left that they "loved our family". Such great memories. We are thankful daily for good health, for good friends, loving family and our many, many blessings! (and for fast taxis away from well intentioned hospitals!)
And so it goes...........................................................Next the Mekong Delta. Hope all is well with you. The good news is that we will never be old! Just think of it. Simply add 15 years onto your age now and be happy! Take care and Keep Smiling.
Love, xoxoox Nancy & Joseph
$1.00US = 16,000 VND
1 kilo = 2.2 pounds
Thuan Duc Guesthouse, 219/26 Pham Ngu Lao St., District 1, Ho Chi Minh City; Telephone: (84-8) 837 4219. Quiet, safe, new, run by an extremely helpful family. Try for a room in the back, 3rd floor, $8 a night.
Mui Ne Beach:
Lang Cat Guesthouse, 02/2
Huynh Thuc Khang - Ham Tien Ward, Phan Thiet City.
Skip the costly tours to the Red Canyon and the sand dunes. Just hop on the local bus that goes by every 20 minutes and get off when you want, only 3000 VND. The local Xe Bus from the tourist strip will drop you off at the sandy lane to the hotel - 4 km south of the Swiss Inn - show them the name and watch for the Catholic Church on the ocean side & jump off. If you are coming from noisy Saigon prepare to enter paradise!