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July 28, 1992: HOW MANY MORE!
I sit in the pathetic little terminal waiting for the plane that will finally take me away form Laos. As I sit there, I look at the pages in my Vietnamese Phrase Book:
"THERE are times when you feel like cursing. There are times when it pays to know whether someone is cursing you. Pejorative are part of any language. In Vietnamese, difficulties may arise from using incorrect tones, so some common curses and swear words are included to help you in a sticky situation. The use of discretion is highly recommended.
damn(e): do khon nan
fuck(n): du (s)
jerk(n): khi (n); ca chon (s)
malicious(adj): gian manh
shit(n): chet me, chet cha (literally: your Mother, Father died!)
wretched(adj): knon kiep."
As I sit, two young men sit down to join me. One looks Scandinavian or so, and the other, a nondescript mixture of various Asian and English stocks. Both wear the mandatory European travelers' outfits of backpacks and shorts.
"Do you mind if we join you," the blonde man says in an accent that sounds vaguely British.
"No," I say, "not at all."
As I say this, they both sit down at the table. The dark-haired boy immediately pulls out an ancient book and starts reading.
"Where are you from?" I ask.
"Australia," the first boy says.
"I'm not sure," the dark-haired boy says. "I guess, my passport says I'm British, but my mother was Japanese."
He looks as though he has traveled around a lot.
"Are you going to Vietnam, too, then?" I ask.
"Where else?" he says, "This will be an adventure."
With that both stop talking and concentrate on their reading material, almost on cue. Neither asks where I come from. A moment later, their breakfasts arrive: hamburgers and fries.
"Will you look at this?" the British boy says.
"What is it?" the other one asks.
"Look at the phrases they've chosen to translate here. Oh, God, this kills me. 'Pacification, Americanization, friendly fire, flak vest, military advisor.'"
"When was this written?" I ask.
He glances inside the cover, and chuckles, "1965."
The ancient red cover looks worn, stomped on, and driven over by a tank.
"Well," the blond boy says, "we'd better make one last stop."
"Good idea," the other says, and without another word they both leave the table. After I think about it for a while, I have no idea whether the bathrooms on the plane will be clean, so I go to the bathroom also. As I stand in front of the urinal , I hear them behind the doors having a nice conversation from the two stalls.
"Hey, how much paper do you have over there?"
Despite having a Lao insignia, the 737 that takes us to Vietnam looks rather like any Thai Airline plane, except for the dress of flight attendants, and the journey over the mountains gives few hints of anything interesting to come.
When the plane approaches Hanoi from the air, I expect to see rows of bomb craters and other evidence of destruction. Instead, I see rice fields, shaped like pieces of some strange puzzle, each thirty or so of them surrounding a village. Lines of water mark the irrigation patches. While the arrangement must make sense in some Kommisar's plan book, from the air it resembles an obtuse jigsaw puzzle. As the plane approaches the ground, I can see each village consists of about thirty to fifty red-bricked houses, all relatively identical, placed in the center of these complex river-field networks as though the village mattered less than its crops. In the midst of these intricate webs of water, I spot a small airfield.
One revelation I made about the war after this trip was that the bombing campaign against the North was mostly an exercise in futility. Despite the fact that all the older experts knew that German World II productivity actually INCREASED during the war, they insisted that the North could be bombed into submission and Laos into compliance. In reality most of the Laotian bombs fell on hills and trees while most of the bombs against the North couldn't possibly effect military production because most of the military production was done in the USSR and China anyway. The real effect of the bombs, just like the German blitz, was to increase the obstinacy of the Vietnamese and inspire their greater hatred against the Americans.
Hanoi Airport underwhelms. On a good day, it might service a half dozen planes. Only four or five aged-looking jets with the insignia "Vietnam Airlines" rest within sight, and none of them appears ready to do anything in the near future. To the left, a row of cement bunkers, each about the shape of an MIG 16 (or 21 or whatever), sit empty. I get the impression not of a beleaguered nation, but of a forgotten one.
Once inside the terminal, I can see a grubby-looking group of men in khaki uniforms sitting at a long table, waiting beneath the sign for "customs." As I walk, with my bag over my shoulder, I hold out the previously completed appropriate forms and simply present them to the nearest person . An unshaven, slovenly-looking man looks down at the paper I present and says nothing but stamps them in about a half dozen places or so before returning them to me. He doesn't even point towards the door but leaves it to me to conclude the interview has ended.
As I reach the exit door, I realize, with a start, that that's it. No one questioned my papers or even seemed the least bit interested in them or me. As I walk to the front of the greed-building, it occurs to me that I ought to use the bathroom before trying to secure transportation to a hotel. Besides, airports keep their bathrooms immaculately clean, even in Laos.
When I walk inside the stall, the one stall, however, I smell human feces, and realize that no one cleaned this particular stall in quite some time. The urinal looks no better, and I swallow hard to keep from retching and walk out.
As I get into the front lobby, a crowd of dirty, loud young men besieges me.
"Taxi?" they assert.
"Taxi?" they swarm so close to me so that, for a moment, I fear they will actually steal something.
"Hey, where you go?"
I turn around and watch the crowd of businessmen from the plane disappearing into about ten waiting cars, so that I stand alone in this crowd. As I step to the right, the eager young men follow with me. As an experiment, I step to the left, and they follow also.
"Hey, where you go?"
"Vultures," I say, knowing they won't know the word, and I step back inside the building. I find a man whose uniform looks a big less faded than the others, with a star in the center of his cap, and I ask:
"Is there a bus?"
He scowls, "No bus."
Now, I have little love for taxi drivers under normal circumstances. In rich countries I cannot afford them, and in poor countries better means of transportation always present themselves. Here, however, I see no way to prevent feeding these cockroaches.
As I step outside, the gray morning clouds start to turn to rain. I reach inside my backpack and several of the drivers, sensing a kill, move in closer. Instead, I take out my umbrella and open it. I sit down on the curb in front of the building to give the impression I have all day to waste. This manages to dissuade some who return to their cars for a snooze or to the building, but about five remain. Finally, I sound the inevitable question:
"How much to the city?"
"20 dollar," a man says, about my age.
"20 dollars!" I exclaim, "That's a fortune!" I know that in Vietnamese money it constitutes a week's wages, even after gas. "Five dollars!"
The man sneers and walks away.
I point to the others, "Five dollar?"
The impasse continues for several minutes, and finally, I offer, "get me some others. Each pay $5?" By now, however, the parking lot only holds vulturemobiles.
"Here," one of the older predators says, "go with him."
I see a Vietnamese businessman in a crumpled suit getting into an old Lada, the poor man's Fiat, "$5?" I insist.
"$5." the man agrees. The driver offers to take my bag, but I get into the back seat with it between my legs and my book in my hand. I ask the driver again, a man with closecut hair, making him look vaguely simian, "$5?" He answers by starting the car. With hardly a look behind, he takes off.
The drive from the airport quickly teaches me a lot about Vietnam. The road from the airport runs through a whole section of the kinds of fields I saw in the air. Further, it represents the only the passageway around and through those fields. Consequently, everyone wanting to go anywhere, goes on the road. Peasant women waddle along carrying heavy loads on their bamboo yokes. Bicycling women in tunics and pants, identifiable as women only by their faces, carry ducks, chickens, crops. Men cruise along on 50-125 cc motorcycles, and every once in a while a big, ancient truck lumbers along at about twenty-five.
Unfortunately, the road only consists of a single lane. As a consequence, drivers in both directions constantly encounter obstacles, and their instinctive response consists of hitting the horn and swerving to the left into the other side of the lane. Hopefully, anything smaller, coming the other way, will clear out. In fact, the rule seems that the bigger you are, the more space you get. As I watch the motorbikes scatter before the ancient lorries and peasants almost blown into the fields, it strikes me as ironic that a supposedly egalitarian society has a road system that respects only force and power.
As the taxi speeds along, scattering the slow in its path and constantly honking its horn, I have to cover my eyes from several near collisions. The two drivers, the chimp-faced man and his compatriot, however, continue in an animated conversation, perhaps discussing the weather, and chain-smoking, as the car progresses. Their guest, no more concerned than the drivers about the progress of the car, offers them both cigarettes and joins in for a healthy smoke. I try really hard not to look out the front window.
Finally, we pass a check-point, probably an entrance to the city, and the driver chucks out a couple of crumpled bank notes to the guard. Now the road winds past long rows of yellowish green, French-looking, houses with the rust red bricks.
As the houses start to accumulate, the taxi crosses over a bridge into the city itself, and the greenish-yellow, aging two-stories become rows of almost European style houses, but looking more aged and weathered some German houses of much earlier vintage .
The driver, at this point, finally seems to remember me and asks: "Where you go?"
Being logical, I have a reasonable answer by now: "The train station," I pause, "but first, I have to cash a travelers' check."
I produce the traveler's check and the driver hands it to the co-pilot. Both turn their head slightly. Finally, the car screeches halt in front of a tall building, a white hotel. The driver beckons me to follow him.
The hotel appears the best in town, and a prim looking young Vietnamese man greets me in at the counter. His pencil-thin mustache gives his young-looking face an almost effeminate quality that girls, particularly who have an intense fear of masculinity, always love.
"What can I do for you?" he asks with a slight French accent.
"Can I cash a travelers' check?" I say.
"Can I see your passport?" he asks, and I produce it. He starts to fill out a form and asks. "The service charge will be two percent," he pauses to look at me. "Are you staying at the Hotel?"
"I don't think so. It looks too expensive," I say, "but if you can tell me a cheaper place...."
He looks up at me, "I'm sorry sir," he says, "if you don't like our service, you can go somewhere else. There are lots of banks..."
For a second, I have no idea what he means. Then it occurs to me. "No, no, I'm not complaining about the service charge rate..."
His look of insult increases: "There are lots of 'cheaper places.' You can try the Vietcom Bank for one."
At that point, I realize the man doesn't understand English very well, but, like many people who studied English, he thinks he comprehends it perfectly.
"No," I add, "the Hotel's rate is just fine. It's great."
The frown doesn't disappear from his face as he hands me the $20. As we walk down the steps, the taxi driver makes a face and gestures over his shoulder, mocking the man. After I give the driver the twenty, I ask, "Now, can I have the change?" He answers by opening the door for me.
"The change?" I repeat, but he answers by getting into the driver's seat and starting the engine.
The thin man in the front seat turns to me and asks, "Where do you want to go?"
"I want to go to the train station," I say, "but I want my $15 change."
"Taxi from the airport-20 dollar," he says.
"Oh no," I say, "it was five dollars, and that's a lot of money. You agreed to it. Now, I want the change."
The driver, the chimp, turns around and makes a pleading face, "No!"
"Yes," I say.
We both repeat these remarks several times with increasing emphasis. Finally, they look at the other man's business card. It takes a while to drive him to his location, and when they arrive, it occurs to me that, with the other man gone, if there's a fight, there will be no witness. If I really want my $15, I may need to fight for it. I can feel my teeth start to clinch, and curse the stupidity that made me not bring enough money, but I don't intend to give up easily.
I reach inside my bag and grab my umbrella and hold it tight. I've always said I wouldn't kill myself for $20, but in Hanoi, no US Consulate can bail me out and no second chances. As the other passenger leaves the car, he hands the driver a wad of Vietnamese money and an American twenty.
The chimp holds up the money, and the other man points as if to say, "See."
"That makes no difference," I insist, "that's what he agreed to pay and not me. I agreed to five dollars, and that's it. I want my change," I insisted as we started to return to the territory I identified as "downtown," where the few taller buildings reach all of about five or six stories, interrupted here and there by gray monolithic buildings I guess belong to the government.
"No," the driver repeats, again making the funny face. I wish, at this moment, that I have a banana to stick in his mouth.
The driver turns to me with something in his hand, and I suspect a knife. Instead, he holds out the pack of cigarettes.
I reach into my bag and pull out a pack of Marlboros I bought in Bangkok in order to trade.
"Oh, I've got plenty," I sneer, "but I want my money back."
The car pulls up in front of a crowded building that says "Ga Hanoi."
The second man says, "Station."
At this point it occurs to me they might just drive all the way back to the airport, their usual beat, if I continue to argue, which would mean I might get my money but make no progress towards the city.
"I'll tell you what," I offer, "I'm being nice. I'll give you seven dollars, just because I'm feeling generous, but I want the other thirteen back."
"No," the driver says, pulling out of the station.
"I'm not getting out of the car," I hiss, holding the umbrella tighter, and gritting my teeth "until I get my change!"
My brother has often insisted, and I've concurred, that it's better to give a mugger your money than give him your life. At this point, however, I knew my money situation pretty well and couldn't afford to throw away a whole night's hotel fare. On the other hand, this advice of my brothers is someone tinted by the fact that in both situations in which my brother was threatened, he refused to give the other party a cent.
"No change." the driver says. For about five minutes, the standoff continues as the driver circles warily around the central city block until finally the car pulls up in a driveway. The two up front wait. I feel ready for action, and I can impress imagine the headline: "American Kills Cab Drivers with Umbrella Over Fee."
"If I get out of this *&&^^ car, without the money," I growl, "I'm reporting you to the police."
"No," the man in front insists, making yet another funny face. "No change."
I clutch the bag, "Yep," I grimace, "to the F*&&'n police. I will write down the license plate number on the car and report you to the police."
I back out of the car. "Last chance," I say, holding my bags, "either you give me the money, or I go to the police."
The driver makes one last face, I'm not sure if he means to mock me or plead for the money. It doesn't matter. The co-driver hands me my bag, perhaps not understanding my threat. All my concentration, however, I devote to walking behind the car and memorizing the number just as, inevitably, it speeds away.
As the car disappears, I yell: "29D 78-53 M*&^ F*&&!! The police!"
As I feel my fists unclench, I reach into my bag for my book and find it gone. I remember then that I last read the book in the taxi. I can easily imagine the chimp and his accomplish throwing away the evidence. I realized, then, I have no map of the city worth considering and no hotel listings.
I can also easily imagine myself killing the taxi driver at that point as the veins start to stand out of my neck. Instead, as I stand there, a man rides near to me with an odd kind of samlor. It consists of a bicycle in back and above with a space for passengers in an almost coffin-shaped space in front. He wears green fatigues and a plastic pith helmet, like an army irregular.
"Hey, where you going?" he asks.
"I have no idea," I say. "No idea at all."
As I wander the empty streets of Hanoi, in a falling rain, I still have an umbrella to keep away the rain. I walk to the nearest building that looks vaguely hotel-like with a desk and rooms above. The lady at the desk, perhaps spotting me as a foreigner, waves me away fearfully. The next place responds no better. For the next hour or so, I wander around as a parade of khaki-clad samlor drivers descend on me one after another.
"Hey, you!" they point inside. The bolder ones come next to me and ask, "Hey, where you go?"
"Nowhere," I keep replying. Finally, I turn a corner past something that looks like an opera house and find a building that says: "Travel Agency," but the front counter looks like that of a hotel.
"Is this a hotel?" I ask.
The man at the desk, a man in his forties dressed rather nicely, answers, "We have rooms."
"How much?" I ask.
He appraises me over carefully. "$25 a night?"
I shake my head, "I can't afford that. $15 I could afford."
He turns to a man behind him, an older man, and gestures to him. "Let me see what we can do."
The older man disappears and returns a few moments later. The other man smiles, "We can give you a room for $15."
I sigh wearily, "Can I see the room? I've just come from Laos, and I really need to have a clean room." Then I can wash the mud out of my clothes, hopefully.
The older man stands up and leads me up the back stairs, past a bulletin board, filled with Japanese names, to the fourth floor. He opens the door.
The room exhibits a surprising, faded opulence. Two big beds only take up about half of the space. A refrigerator sits next to the wall while a small air conditioner placed on the far wall. The obligatory tea set, genuine china, rests on a two table near the center. Oak paneling surrounds the room, giving it the distinct European feeling of age.
"This is great," I say. The older man nods. After he leaves, I quickly wash some of my dirtiest clothes and set them out to dry in front of the fan and over the air conditioner. As I look at the little painting on the wall, I remember what I read about the Russian Communists: despite all their rhetoric about hating the propertied classes, the upper level Communists secretly tried to live just as well as any decadent country squire.
When I went downstairs, I ask the man at the desk: "Where do I take care of alien registration?" That part of the book, I remember.
"Normally," he shrugs, "we send the papers down for our guests, for $15,"
"I can't afford that."
"But you can take them down for yourself."
"Well," I say, "some cab drivers robbed me today, and I want to report them."
"Really?" he says, holding back a smile, and I relate the story to him. "You are," he concludes, "American."
As I look at him, I can read what he's thinking: You stupid Americans expect everything to go your way, report everyone to the police; well things work differently here. The implication of my stupidity, that I don't know anything, causes me to add, truthfully, "I doubt they'll do anything to the guys, but I said I'd report them, and I want to do anything possible to get them." I look at the walls. "Do you have a map of the city?" I ask.
"Of course," he says; on the wall behind him I can see an aging map of Indochina. He points, "and here is the alien police."
"What's the word for police in Vietnamese?"
"Canh sat," he returns. He smiles again as he watches me leave. Already, I have this feeling I supply him some kind of amusement.
The drizzle continues as I find the old building. Like most public buildings in Vietnam, it appears French-built with typically bright colors and curlicue fences. After several questions, I find a room full of Vietnamese officials. They hold a stack of papers of various sorts. One man, who speaks some kind of English, says to me:
"Wait in that room until 2:00, and then we can begin."
I shrug and enter the room he points to, which looks about the size of a classroom except four big desks form a wall around the center. The clocks says 1:30, and I start doing some writing.
Over the next half hour, the room fills with a crowd of mostly Vietnamese. They wear distinctly Western style clothes with brand names I recognize so that I identify them as returning Vietnamese or visiting. At about ten after two, an official in a uniform enters the room. He already holds a stack of passports and assorted papers. He glances at the seven or eight empty seats at the desks, adjusts his cap, and sits down at one at random. Immediately, seven or eight of the people stand in front of him, though none seems to want to appear too eager.
As I ponder whether to change my seat, two more officials, unhurried and unworried, fill two of the other seats, and crowds appear before them. At this point, I eye the one other English-looking person present and say, looking at the official desk in front of me:
"Perhaps, I'm in the wrong line."
I start to move over to the nearest crowd. The official sitting there, however, suddenly rises and leaves. The crowd appears hesitant. He reappears, a moment later, only to park his uniform at a different desk, creating, in effect a whole new line and canceling the old.
I stand up and prepare to move to that line when an official sits down directly in front of me. Almost immediately, this man starts to rise, so his eyes avoid mine and he can escape:
"Um," I say, "I want to get registered to stay in the city." I hold out all my papers in order.
He holds off his retreat, "Oh, you can't do that yourself. You have to go through a travel agency."
"That's not what my travel agency said," I reason.
"I'm sorry," he adds, confidence returning with the next phrase, "that's official policy," he says this rather like an American would say "the law," "of the City. If you want to talk with my superior...."
I know exactly where that would get me. As I gather my papers and return to the hotel, I consider my situation. Then it occurs to me: one reason I took this trip was to experience a Communist country. So far I have already learned that a dysfunctionally frustrating paper bureaucracy rules this country. Could I live here even a couple days without killing someone or going crazy?
Back when this trip was still a literary conceit, I told Leonard, a teacherly friend of mine where I was thinking of going.
"I was Communism before it goes out of business."
He paused, and I really thought he was going to try to talk me out of it, which would've left me with a lot of reading to do before packing my bags to go somewhere else.
"Well," he said, "Jenny and I went to the USSR in 1985," and he was working for the Department of Defense then. "It was a wonderful trip, but the one thing we didn't like was all the hassle, all the bureaucrocy, but..." he paused, "but you'll find out if you go."
When I return to the hotel, I find a rather pleasant looking Vietnamese lady waiting along with the travel agent. He asks me:
"Well," he says eagerly, "did you report the cab driver?"
I realize then he expects me to supply something for them to discuss over cocktails, so I don't even bother to answer: "Actually, they won't even let me register for the City. They claim you have to do that."
He nods, "Yes, we provide the registration and the travel papers-for a fee."
I swallow, "How much?"
I pull out the cash and I pause. "Look, I want to stay here a couple of nights, take the train to Da Nang, stay there a couple of days, and then take the train to Saigon."
"Here," he beckons to a moderately attractive lady in her thirties, who wears a drab dress, "why don't you talk to our travel agent?"
She points to one of the seats, "Why don't you sit down?"
I sigh, "It's that bad?"
"Well," she says, "if you want to take the train to Da Nang, you have to take a guide along with you, so you must buy two tickets. That's the official policy."
"Why do I need a guide on the train," I pause,"-to hold my hand?"
"I'm sorry," she says, "it's the Official Government Policy." Her words capitalize that phrase.
"Well it wasn't when my tour guide booked this tour, and it wasn't when they wrote my Fodor's Guidebook. How much would the train be with this guide?"
"Cheapest ticket for tourist, including guide, $110."
"What!" I exclaim. "That's more expensive than the plane."
"Yes, one plane ticket is only $90."
"You mean, I don't need a guide on the plane," I pause. "they think I can use a barf bag by myself."
She misses this one, "No, only guide on the train."
"Look," I sigh, "I only have $260, altogether. If I spend $90 to fly to Danang, and another $90 to fly to Saigon, I'm going to be sleeping on the street in Saigon."
I can easily see myself reduced to this, not a pretty picture.
"No, no," she explains, patiently "you can take the plane from Danang to Saigon by yourself, no guide."
"Can I buy the ticket here?" I ask.
"No," she pauses, "buy in Da Nang."
I hit the chair in frustration: "Then how do I know they won't stick me with a guide in Saigon?"
She shakes her head. "It's only from Hanoi to Da Nang that you need a guide," she explains, "from Danang to Ho Chi Minh it's not official policy."
I grimace, "It was not supposed to be official policy to require a guide ticket from Hanoi, so how do I know they won't change their Official Policy in Danang?"
She chuckles, but I continue. "I mean, I know what they're doing here. They need American currency, ever cent, and they want to get as much as they can before any visitor escapes, and I don't fault them for that. I'd be happy to give them some of my money if I was actually getting for something for it, like food, souvenirs, whatever. Just seeing the government steal it, that's something else."
Looking back, then, I realize in a way I was stating the classic position of capitalism here: Things have value. She was stating the classic Communist position: Labor has value. Paper has value.
"I think," she says, "you do not have sufficient finances for the trip."
"Oh I do," I grimly add, "as long as the government stops changing the rules on me."
"So what will you do?"
I sighed, "I could always just fly to Saigon and wait there six days, but that kills the purpose of the whole trip. I guess, I'll fly to Da Nang, TRY to take the train from there and just live as cheaply as possible."
"So when do you want to fly to Danang?"
"Tomorrow, if possible."
"It is too early;" she says, "there will be no seats."
"The next day, then," I say, "just get me out of this city as fast as I can go."
She finds this latter remark very amusing, and, as I see her exchange smiles with the hotel man, and this increases my sense of frustration.
"Some day you'll be in Los Angeles," I predict, "everyone goes to Los Angeles at one time, and then you'll be in my world. Then it will be a whole new set of rules."
The next several hours, I spend relaxing and taking a jog. After this I wander around the streets for a while, wondering why every man in town wears battle dress: a universal uniform of khaki pants, shirts, and plastic pith helmets. Finally, I go downtown and find out that every clothing shop specializes in all shades of khaki green.
I have, in my hand, a map of the City, showing the big Red River that flows around the city, and a dozen little lakes that host for the various temples, most of them now reduced to museum status. My patience on this particular trip stops far short of going to most of them, but I do enjoy looking at the lakes.
As I stroll along between the street vendors, I hear the same prices over and over again, all cheap. The soup, for example, costs 3,000 dong, about 30 cents. It consists of about two scoops of rice, a serving of vegetables, thrown into a broth of spicy water. One bowel seems pretty filling, and, after this, I look for a bar to have a beer.
"Beer bau new?" I ask, probably mispronouncing it badly but meaning "How much," the phrase I always learn first in any language. I hold out a piece of paper, and she writes: "5,000."
The old lady steps inside and sets a table with stools so low my knees almost reach my chin. The "bar," about as big as my bedroom, consists of a refrigerator and the single table. The old woman doesn't stare but keeps watching the street and stands in the door as though waiting to snatch other customers.
After a few minutes, I finish and go out on the street looking for something else to finish the meal. Ahead of me, I spot a place selling bread. A stoned-looking young man in his twenties stumbles towards the counter and reaches in his pocket. The lady at the counter, waves aside his bills, and simply hands him a loaf.
As I walk over, I ask her, "Bao nghieu?" and hold out the tablet. When she writes "500," (a nickel). I hand her a grubby picture of Ho Chi Minh and take the bread. I get about five steps, just far enough to summon the Ben Franklin image to my mind, when I smell somebody near me.
I look up, and the drunken boy stands not much more than a step away. Through his shirt, I can see a muscular body, and a trim mustache covers his face. Most women would find him handsome, except he smells like a walking brewery.
"How many more?" he implores. As he steps closer, he continues the tirade, only in Vietnamese. For all I know, he could be reciting Marx's complete life works.
"I think you gotta sleep it off," I say, turning in the opposite direction.
I take a few steps, furtively watching him, and then he starts to follow. At this point, there seems no question I can pound this guy into a drunken pulp, but I look at the bread stand and the people walking by, and no one seems to take the slightest interest. I take a few quick steps and cross the street, only to have him follow me.
"How many more!" he repeats pointing, perhaps to the bread and then returns to whatever the subject of his original lecture.
I cross the street back in the original direction, heading towards my middle class room as I hear him call out in the distance:
"How many more?"
I take a few more steps to his final cry:
"HOW MANY MORE!"
When I'm tucked in beneath the covers, looking at the refrigerator's price list, it occurs to me to ask a very important question:
"How many more what?"
July 29, 1992: THE SHORT, DEAD DUDE
When you go to Moscow, you want to see Lenin. When you go
to Hanoi, you want to see "Uncle Ho," and this goal I set for myself after I wake up. I go down to the desk of the Hotel and ask for directions, first of all, to the nearest bank so the at I can cash a travelers' check.
The route seems simple enough, and the bank, when I
get to it, looks like one of those big, monolithic structures typical of Soviet architecture.
When I walk inside, however, I realize the defect of those massive walls as the temperature reaches seventy-five degrees at ten o' clock in the morning. The building, the Vietcom bank, state owned, occupies about four times the interior size of any normal American bank and perhaps eight times the personnel, a veritable army of women wearing the Vietnamese national costume, "the aou dia."
The aou dia looks like a pants suit only with a long extension of the shirt, to form a kind of breechcloth, added to the front and back of the shirt. Only women dressed for tourists, like airline stewardesses, ever wear it these days. It can be an attractive costume because women typically wear the top over tight, white pants, and given the proper lighting, this can make for interesting viewing. The women in this bank, however, pack quite a few pounds, undoubtedly from
sitting around all day, and, as they sweat in front of the many fans that fill the bank, look quite unattractive.
While this female army of attendants man the interior of the bank, the customers sit on seats that line the entire outside wall. Papers and adding machines, a step of advancement from the Laotian bank and its stacks of money, line the desks of the working personnel. The artificial, temporary walls inside the building conspire lock the government bank officials into a plastic maze, while the ordinary citizens, walled off outside, wait. And wait.
A few stray foreigners actually stand in line, expecting immediate service. The local Vietnamese tell the officials they exist, and then sit in these seats, awaiting the word of the Kommisars, with resigned looks on their faces.
After a few minutes in the foreigners' line, I finally get to the front and start to fill out my check. Wanting to save another trip, I sign my last remaining hundred dollar note and hand it to a hefty maiden. She looks at the bill and return it to me.
"We cannot cash this."
I react calmly, "WHAT!"
She points downward, "Didn't you read the instructions. It said, 'do not write down city or date.'"
My head turns, "What are you talking about?"
"See the sign?" She points to a small sign buried under a pile of papers.
"Well," I plead, "that doesn't matter."
"Let me get my superior," she says, turning to leave.
A moment later, she returns with a still stouter version of herself, a middle-aged matron with a no-nonsense look on her face.
"There is a problem?"
"Yes," I state, "your employee here says you won't take my traveler check."
"That's correct," she states, "State Policy. If you write 'Hanoi' on the check, they won't cash the check in Bangkok."
"No," I say, softly. "You don't seem to understand. This is a travelers' check, not a real check. This is like cash. This can be used anywhere in the world. I'm not, after all, actually giving you money from my account, the money's already been spent on the check. This..." I see my explanation being lost.
"I'm sorry," she states, "this is Our Policy. We will not take your check."
"You don't seem to understand. You HAVE to take this check. This is $100. Now, I'm told that this is the only bank in town that takes travelers' checks. If you don't take this, I'm out $100, and I can't afford that."
She turns away, "I'm sorry. Next person in line?"
As I turn away from the counter, one of the foreigners says to me, "Why don't you try the Bank of Bangkok down the street?"
I shrug my shoulders, "At this point, I'll try anything."
As I walk down the street, I find the place, a building about the size of any typical small town savings and loan. As I walk through the door, a blast of cool air-conditioning almost immediately dries the sweat accumulated through a half hour in Vietcom bank. A single well-dressed Thai lady stands at the counter. Over her shoulder, I spot, not a crowd, but a large computer work station.
"Can I help you?" she asks.
I produce the travelers' check. "Can you cash this?"
She shrugs, "I don't see any particular problem."
To be fair, I met other people who claimed that not everyone has a bad time in Hanoi. I recall that I had a conversation with another group of travelers down in Ho Chi Minh City, and I told them some of my worst experience stories.
"If I here of anyone going to Vietnam," I said, "I'll just tell them to skip Hanoi altogether and start in Danang."
"I don't think it's so bad. I mean we have somebody here that really enjoyed it and liked it. Was it Marie, you?"
"Not me," he held his hands out defensively.
"Oh no," he shook his head forcefully.
"I know, it was Robert. He'll be back in a few minutes. I'm sure, he can tell you why he liked it."
In a few minutes, I return to the hotel. I look at the clock: 10:45. I know Ho's tomb closes at 11:00, and I can never get there by foot. Finally, I break down and flag a samlor driver, and get into the coffin-shaped container before the pedals.
Through the half-hour ride from my hotel to Mausoleum, I watch the scenery change around me. The rows of houses become thinner and the lawns and buildings more ostentatious until they almost appear to be mansions. Obviously, the French citizens lived here during their occupation.
Finally, I arrive at a kind of Central Park, an area with fine, green hills and a couple of monolithic buildings in the background.
"Ho Chi Minh?" I ask, and the driver points to both buildings. I pull out the three 1,000 dong bills and hand them to him.
As I get closer, I ask a couple of Scandinavian tourists, "Ho Chi Minh?" For a second, they look puzzled, and I explain, "the short, dead Dude?"
They point, and one adds, "Hurry. It may be closed."
I quickly cross the lawn to the Mausoleum, a building
with tall pillars. I might call it a copy of the Lincoln Memorial except that structure echoes so many classical buildings that I can hardly accuse the Vietnamese of plagiarism.
When I reach the front door, I see the sign:
For a second, I just stand there and look, and then, I turn to go to the second building. It turns out to be a museum, a big white building built in a neo-modern format.
The inside consists of a whole series of exhibits dedicated to the memory of Ho Chi Minh. The usual relics, like pens, papers, boots, etc. have less weight than the words of Ho Chi Minh, in French, Vietnamese, English, and even Chinese writing on big stone tablets and placed and hung all around the room. It goes without saying that Ho, who wrote so much and in so many languages, often contradicted himself
or changed his opinions, but still I see the flocks of school kids reading along on the charts, their minds groping to somehow make all
of the contradictions resolve into a truth.
Ho has been accused of being a Communist ideologue, a tool of the Chinese, a Russian puppet. My meager readings on the man seem to show that if anything, Ho was a dedicated pragmatist, a second tier chess player of the Cold War Era. He played the French against the Japanese, the Japanese against the Americans, the mountain people against the lowlands, all with the single goal of a single Vietnam. If he is a true Communist, it is only in the sense that he believed that Ends justified the Means.
That Ho led a poor, overpopulated people to victory over two world powers results as much from his being Vietnamese than from any political philosophy: Ho knew that casualties would have a much greater effect on his enemies than on his forces because the Vietnamese would be willing to accept letting ten die in order to destroy one of the enemy, IF he could keep his people's faith that ultimately they would win and "be free."
As I make the rounds, I can't help but wonder what I'm going to tell them when they ask if I visited Ho Chi Minh's tomb. What can make up for that loss of irony?
The younger kids get a bigger kick out of the statue, in the front of the museum, of Ho standing and pointing outward. This image, the fatherly man giving all to his country, served the North Vietnamese well enough. In reality, Ho seems to have gotten around quite a bit in the Paris Salons.
As I walk outside, I start to walk back towards the downtown, making my way between parks and lakes. Once, foreign tourists knew Hanoi more for its parks and temples than for its wars. I find a nice quiet place and sit down to watch the waves and have a bowl of Khim. The midweek crowd stares at the waters and not at the nearby statue of some war hero, carved in a blunt realism. The only temple I see has no visitors, and, when I walk inside, I find myself the object of observation. I have to kill three hours this way because I know, as in all Vietnam, everything closes from eleven to two.
Finally, I stroll back towards the main area of the museums and parks towards the military museum, described in my missing book as one of the glories of Hanoi. I sit down to rest in the little park across the street, and I hear a man whistling an American tune. As I start to do some writing, I start whistling along the same tune. He looks at me, startled, and then switches to another tune.
I walk across the street just as a large tour bus of elderly Vietnamese unloads, obviously to go there. I walk through behind the tail, a few grandchildren, of the tour group, and I can't help noticing the children pointing at me. As I pass through, with my
ticket, the message seems to travels around, and little old ladies in sandals and cone hats all start to point at me also.
The book I no longer own seemed to indicate that this museum, build around the old French city's powder magazine, devotes some time to each of the country's wars. Instead, however, by the second room, I find myself engrossed in the Vietnam War. Worse, the museum makes no attempts at presenting both sides. The Americans appear only as "the Imperialists," and the South Vietnamese regime as "the puppet." The Soviets and Chinese do not appear at all. As the rooms progress, and I begin to see more and more propaganda and destroyed equipment, I find more of the tour group stopping to point at me. The objects start to pile up and the images: burned out equipment, bloody helmets, a picture of a destroyed truck.
Finally, as I emerge into a courtyard, intending to leave, I see a Vietnamese colored MiG, resting on the rubble of what was once a B-52 bomber.
Whatever happened to the crew on that ship? Where were the people now who worked on the factories that build this structure? I swallow. Worst of all, I can see American intentions, American dreams, even American hatred, were not invulnerable. From a pillow of Pennsylvania stone, to a pile or rubble to be gawked at half a world away, a Dead plane. I can't stand it any more.
I walk out the gate and onto the quiet streets. Slowly, I make my way towards my hotel, stopping at various places here and there. I can't help but notice that in the north every third street contains a police box. How ironic that the North Vietnamese keep such a close watch on the people they claim to have "liberated." As I walk by one of these guard boxes, a guard emerges:
"Hey Joe," he says.
"My name's not Joe," I cautiously state. He wears a light green uniform and holds a rifle over his shoulder like a toy, and I remember the time I got lost jogging in Korea and the guard practically handed me his machine gun while searching for a map to show me.
This soldier stands, in fact, no taller than me, and I wonder if he intends to hassle the American. My hand goes towards my pocket where I hold all my papers.
"Where you from?"
The name means nothing to him. "You come a long way?"
"Yes, a very long way."
He takes a step closer, "You got a cigarette?"
I pull out one of the packs that I brought for good will purposes. "I guess I do." My unfamiliar fingers take a few seconds to open the plastic seal at the top.
"No," I pause, "I have enough vices in my life."
He waves over his shoulder and starts to turn, returning to his post. He points with his rifle as he lights the cigarette propped in his mouth. "Some day I travel to your country."
When I return to the hotel, I drop off a few things and have one of the Cokes in the room refrigerator. As I start to go out the front steps, I hold one of my books in my hand. When I reach the desk, I ask the night desk person.
"Has the travel agent gone?"
"Yes, she went a few minutes ago."
"Well, I think was hard on her yesterday. I mean, it's not her fault the government has all these silly Policies. I wanted to give her a copy of one of my books." I show him one of my copies of The Plastic Tomorrow; I carry these for trade purposes also.
He smiles, "That's very nice of you."
"Well, I try to be nice when I can."
"I tell you a secret," he says. He looks around: "Promise not to tell."
I shrug my shoulders, "Of course."
"That room they charge you $15 for...."
"Yeah, it's pretty nice."
"They suppose to charge you $45 a night."
I swallow. Who could pay those kind of rates? Only the Japanese businessmen whose names I see still printed on the charts.
"That's very nice of them."
"We try to be nice when we can."
As I walk out into the streets, I walk around for a while, trying to find a decent place to eat. As I pass a corner, a group of younger Vietnamese, boys in their twenties, flag me down. They all wear white shirts and ties, like students.
"You American?" one asks.
"We study English? Can you talk?"
"Sure. What do you want to talk about?"
"We economic students. We study Economic Destructuring?"
"Really," I say, looking at the shops on the streets, "What exactly is 'Economic Destructuring.'"
"We study Vietnam's economy."
I shake my head, "Well, that's good, Vietnam's economy needs some destructuring."
The one looks at the other one. "You are wrong. Vietnam has had a Free Market economy since 1988."
I smile slightly, "Look, my brother is an economist, and I know what a 'free market' economy is. A free market economy is when, say, the bread everywhere doesn't cost exactly 500 dong." (Which it does) They have a short conference in Vietnamese. "If you want to study a real free market economy, go to Europe or to the United States."
With that remark, I leave them and try to find a place to drink a cheap beer and have a couple of loaves of price-controlled
bread. I feel very tired, too, after a long day in Hanoi. As I sit, at an outdoor stall, drinking a bowl of soup and sipping on a cheep Chinese beer (I never can figure out why Chinese beers are cheaper, in Vietnam, than Vietnamese beers, Vietnamese labor must be equally cheap), I see a line little man crossing over, approaching me cautiously.
He says something in Vietnamese.
"I'm sorry," I say, "I really don't understand."
A sad look covers his face, and I shrug my shoulders and take out the Vietnamese phrase book.
"Are you married?" he asks.
"'Fraid not," I answer.
After he asks several more questions, I notice a circle of small children moving up behind him, cautiously. They look at me, and one of them, a boy, says, "Hello."
"Hello," I say, "what's your name?"
The man, looking up from the book, makes as if he means to shoo them away, but instead he says nothing, and the children take a couple of steps closer. Finally, the bravest of them, a girl about nine, steps to within three feet of me.
"My name is Trinh. What's your name?"
"My name is Daniel."
"Are you from America?" she asks carefully.
"Yes," I return, "a long way away." As I say this, I hear a light rain starting to fall. The children move in closer, under the overhang about the table where I sit on my small stool. "Are you studying English in school?" I ask.
Her expression doesn't change. "Yes. I am studying English."
"When you grow up, are you going to go to England?"
She frowns slightly, "No."
"Are you going to go to America?"
She pauses again before answering, "No."
"What's the use of studying English if you're never going to speak it to anybody?"
She doesn't answer and doesn't move a step closer. I can see all the children watching the two of us, and as I look into her eyes, I can see something I hadn't seen a moment before, something that comes from memories, from Mom and Dad's stories of boogeymen and devils that drop fire from the skies.
"Trinh, are you afraid of Americans?"
She doesn't even blink. "Yes."
The rain starts to fall harder. "Listen Trinh, Americans are not all that different from Vietnamese. We all try to do right. We have families, and a lot of us even have little girls about the same age as you. So don't be afraid of us." The rain in hits the roof a little harder in the darkness.
She makes no answer and doesn't move.
"When more Americans come, can you try to not be afraid?"
She looks at me in the night, her body tense, ready to run away at my slightest move towards her.
"Can you try not to be afraid?"
July 30, 1922: THE NATIVES ARE FRIENDLY
When I get off the plane at Da Nang, I feel immeasurably better. Partly this results from having drunk four cups of coffee on the plane and partly from having met Tavey, a temporary traveling partner. She has an immeasurably good attitude and a travel history of going to just about everywhere in the world.
"You have to know Eastern people," she says, combing the blonde hair behind her ears. She has an attractive face, and it's all too easy for me to think that the reason she does better with Asian peoples results from factors other than purely attitude. "Too many of you Americans, you don't know how to act with them. You must talk to them, get to know them, if you want them to get along with you. You also have to realize that they are much smarter than we are."
My eyebrows reach towards my receding hairline. "In some ways," I concede.
"No," she says, "you misunderstand. I mean, they know what we're thinking. They are more clever than we are. They know people better than we do."
I remember the book I read on the Vietnamese in which the author admits, before writing his voluminous 500 hundred page history, that in ten years of traveling the country he could never quite figure out if the Vietnamese were being friendly with him or just laughing at him.
She has a kind face, though she looks more mature than twenty-eight, a fact that I attribute to working as an oil company engineer in Saudi Arabia as well growing up in the frozen wastelands of Finland. She, however, has a nice figure, very apparent in the kind of tights favored by European girls on the road. She also has a Dutch boyfriend, who never accompanies her on trips, and an income probably twice my own.
While waiting in the airport at Hanoi, I saw perhaps an hour of television. The show on the screen was a variety show, with flashy costumes and "all singing, all dancing." The music sounded just like a "cha, cha, cha," and one scene of happy dancers replaced another. The costumes looked like something they would've worn on the Andy Williams show back in the 1960s, and the music dated from roughly the same period. All the time I watched it, the station showed not a single commercial, and the dance continued and continued. When the plane left Hanoi, the same Westernized dance still continued. I have this feeling that as I write this the same dance number is still continuing.
As we leave the plane, I can see not much more of Da Nang than a few houses. The airport, still equipped with cement bunkers and a fair-sized terminal, looks more American than Vietnamese, for obvious reasons.
As we walk towards the nearest taxi driver, and I restrain my impulses to smash their silly face, Tavey tries to demonstrate what she means about the Eastern ways.
"Hello, how are you?" she asks. She proceeds to start a conversation with the driver even before haggling him down to a dollar for the both of us. She asks about his wife, his kids, his marital status, etc. Finding us a nice hotel seems rather a side topic in the conversation as I say to myself:
"Here's the typical sexy blonde, engaging in a conversation that I'd have to describe as 'flirting' telling me how 'friendly' Asian people are. Of course, he's friendly; he's storing enough blonde fantasies to fill his dreams for months to come."
I shake my head, however, she manages to convince the driver to take us down the "main street," a sort of extended crack of cement lined by the inevitable crowds of street vendors, children, and other sorts. Let's see her try that with another woman, I think.
The place that he takes us to looks like a fairly typical third-world hotel, a white slab building with a little patio and the name "Dung Hung Mini Hotel" (or something vaguely similar). We each cough up an entire dollar while the driver goes to fetch the owner. I still wondering whether to feel jealous or grateful when the owner comes out. She looks about my age with a "cute face," a reasonable figure, and stands with a young, dark-skinned man who seems a little younger.
"You have a room?" Tavey asks.
"Double room," she asks pointing to us with a smirk.
Tavey laughs good-naturedly, "No, we are not married. We are just friends. We met on the plane."
The lady smiles one of those "knowing smiles."
I insist: "No, we just happened to be on the same plane." I didn't add my suspicion that the Hanoi officials automatically sat us together so we could talk our barbarian tongues in peace.
"Well," the lady says, sitting us down, "we have only one single room-$10."
Tavey shakes her head. "Oh, but we are just poor travelers." By now, the dark-skinned man circles a little closer. Perhaps I shouldn't call him dark-skinned, as I'm actually darker skinned, but for a Vietnamese, he seems rather dark-skinned.
"Where you from?" he asks.
"America," I say.
"You married?" he asks. The question seems a bit forward to me, but I answer. "No."
"We have double room?" she says, "I give you $15."
I can't say what my reply might be under normal circumstances, but at the moment I feel, perhaps, less interested in sex than at any time in my entire life. Further, the idea of undressing in front of someone in whom I have no sexual interest seems, somehow, an embarrassing idea.
"I could do it," Tavey says, seizing me up, "but I think it'd make you uncomfortable."
"Yes," I say, relieved, "I think it would, too."
"Sometimes," she looks away, "you Americans seem so old-fashioned."
I nod my head, and, at that moment, I can only take this as a compliment.
It would be easy to launch into a discussion of sexual ideas at this point: How the Asians tend to regard sex as something not having much connection to love, how the European mores don't have the Puritanical streak inherent in Americans, but all of this would be to suppose that I'm somehow a "typical American," and that there's such a thing as an American, and I won't presume to have anything to add to such a discussion.
"We could get the single and the double and split the bill."
"No," she says, "I know, you need the money more. You can have the single."
She turns to the owner, who's still trying to figure out how we can travel together without sleeping together. "How much is it for the single-$5?"
"$7?" the owner says, smiling with a look of defeat.
"5." Tavey insists.
"Okay," she surrenders, "But the rooms are fill now. You wait. Have a cup of coffee?"
After two cups, my I'm approaching addiction, "Definitely," I say.
As the hotel manager walks out of the little patio, the man sits down and starts talking to Tavey. He asks about where she lives, what she does, where she comes from...., a playback tape of the same list of questions the cab driver asked. He holds out an arm and makes a muscle.
"Oh, you are very strong." Tavey says, feeding him.
"I work out," he answers proudly. He touches my arm. "You are a desk worker," he says with some contempt.
I feel like saying, "Normally I life 140 pounds," but instead I limit myself to "I usually lift weights, but not on trips."
A moment later, the owner returns with two of the strangest coffee decanters ever designed. They look like giant salt shakers. The coffee sits on top, percolates, and seeps through a strainer below.
"This is coffee?" Tavey asks. She lifts the tops and the grains spill on the desk. Reflexively, the owner takes out her sponge and wipes away the stain.
"Where you from?" she asks me.
"Los Angeles." I answer. She looks at the young man, who returns the empty glance. "Disneyland?" I say. They both shake their heads. Truly, I think, I must've somehow crossed over the edge of the world.
I pull out my Vietnamese phrase book and start to draw them a map. They watch carefully as I explain the geography of about the fifth biggest country in the world.
"And here it is...." I conclude.
Tavey looks down into the plastic cup beneath the coffee strainer and says, "It takes a long time."
I smile to myself as I think of several quotes I can recall about needing patience to deal with the East, but I restrain myself. I shake my cup a little, however, to speed developments.
"Can I have both your passports and travel papers?" the owner says now. I wonder now if this hotel is only allowed to keep tourists or if all the hotels can.
At this point, another Vietnamese lady appears and speaks to the owner, who states to Tavey. "Your room is ready."
She stands up, "Good," (closer to "Guud"), and rises, "I go to take nap now."
I answer, "Well, I'm going to go to the Train Station if I can rent a bike."
The young man answers, "We have bikes here."
I say to the owner, "If I can just borrow my passport and travel papers."
She pouts, a cute pout at that, like a little five-year-old, and obviously a trifle rehearsed, but she looks through the drawers and produces the documents. "You bring right back?" This seems almost a plea, and I have the feeling that I'm taking the wife's chargecard instead of taking my own passport.
"Yes, I'll bring it right back. Now, can I see the bike?"
When I see the bike, it looks typically Japanese with an old-fashioned frame, a basket, and a nice old coat of black paint. I sigh and start to ride out, but before I can get a few feet, I remember to write down the name of the Hotel, just in case.
Unlike yellow and green Hanoi, most buildings in Da Nang have white walls and a single story. Traffic, as in the capital, consists almost entirely of aged bicycles and samlors. While few signs dot the horizon, plenty of shops display radios, tapes, and books, along with the necessities of 500 dong bread and 5,000 dong beer.
At the first sight of tapes, I pull over. As on other occasions, I want to try to buy a couple of tapes of the music of the country. As I pull over, I approach the young girl selling the tapes. She has a kind of pretty adolescent face, marred by some acne scars, and she greets me.
"Hey, where you from?" she sings out.
"America," I answer. "Actually I'm from Los Angeles," blank looks lead me to "Hollywood? Disneyland."
"Disneyland," she answers. As she says this, a couple of other girls start to gather up close.
I want to get down to business, at this point, "How much are your tapes?" I ask.
"You have girlfriend," she answers.
"No," I say, "but I think you're a little too young."
She chuckles but doesn't take the comment as meaning anything. "What do you do?"
"Teacher," I say, "thay?"
"Thay?" she turns to other girl. I sigh and take out the Vietnamese Phrase Book and show it to her. I used the correct word, but with the twenty or vowels in Vietnamese, I undoubtedly said it wrong.
By now a couple of men have joined the club observing the American. "Do you have any good rock and roll music?"
She points to a couple of Western tapes, obviously bootlegs, "Rock and roll."
"No. Vietnamese rock and roll. You know, music people listen to here."
She points to a couple of tapes. "This good music. Pretty music," she pauses, "not sex music."
"But that's what rock and roll is all about: sex, drugs, and revolution," and add, "usually about sex, sometimes about drugs, and occasionally about revolution."
"Well," she adds sadly. "this was recorded before the Revolution." Her comment suggests the way she sees things: there was and could be only one Revolution. "How can you travel all alone? Who do you share your travels with?"
"Well, that's why I write." With that, I reach into my bag and pull out one of my books. I'm beginning to realize that I represent, to her, a rare diversion from the ordinary. A bit of exaggeration would add to their enjoyment. "See." I say, "I wrote this. See there's some songs here?"
She points to the tapes. "You give this to me?"
This took me aback. Seldom can I even give my books away other than to barmaids and school children. "Sure, I can." I say. "Do you want me to autograph it?"
She points to the tapes, "I give you this. Same same."
That means "even exchange." I start writing a long, flattering autograph, and as I do say, she asks. "Would you please put your address?"
I have quite an admiration for Thai Rock and Roll. Even the sexy singer whom I call The General's Daughter because her father participated in the latest Military Coup, can carry a tune, to say nothing of Caribou. Korean rock and rock is something of a mystery, Filipino love songs have a soul wrenching quality, and the even the Guamanians can make good Hawaiian music. I had high hopes for the Vietnamese, I figured their getting cut off from the American mainstream about 1971 could only help them as they'd entirely missed the musical decline of the 70s. These two tapes, however, have not enough character to even be called "bland." I blame this entirely on the Communists. Deep down beneath that atheistic shell is a Puritanical heart that fears any kind of sensuality.
For a second, I feel a sense of alarm. What would the government do if they found her writing to someone on a US Military Base? Then I smile; the address wouldn't show it. The girl at my side taps my shoulder and smiles up at me. She looks about fifteen or so with big, thick glasses that make her look kind of like a bug.
"Yes?" I say.
She holds out a little piece of paper. I shrug. The chance of a fifteen-year-old girl writing to me and, further, coming up with the $1 in postage (a day's wages in Vietnam) seems very remote, although the look on her face seems, I flatter myself, a bit smitten. I write the address for her anyway.
Neither of these people ever wrote to me. I wonder, now, if they ever intended to do so, or if they just wanted to see how an American address looked. Tavey said she gave her address many times in fourth world countries, and never received a letter.
One of the older gentleman puts his hand on his chin. "You an American."
"Yes," I say.
"You must forgive me," he says. He leans on a cane and looks about forty-five. He doesn't wear Ho Chi Minh pajamas. "I've not spoken English in 17 years."
I could feel a rock hitting me in the stomach. "Did you used to work for the US Government?"
"I worked for the US Air Force." The look on his face convinces me of the truth of the statement.
I say, in a low voice, what I promised myself not to say. "Well, I actually work for them, too. I work at Yokota Air Force Base in Japan," as I say this, I qualify though, "but I'm just a school teacher."
"Come on," he says, as he reaches out his hand. "You come see me tonight. I get together my friends, we have some drinks, girls, anything you want."
Alarm bells start to ring in my mind. I'm stumbling into the one situation where I could get into trouble. "No," I say, "I think it's better we don't meet."
He looks genuinely sad.
"But," I stammer, "it's good to see one of our friends." I turn and wave good-bye and get on my bike hastily before the limping man can get a chance to change my mind. I feel smart about this decision but not very good.
As I ride along, I notice heads starting to turn wherever I go. I know better than to attribute this to good looks, but I hear the persistent cries of "Hey, Joe!"
When I finally stop to try to buy a map, a samlor man immediately asks.
"Hey Joe, where you from?"
"Where you go?" he asks.
"Ga," I say. This elicits no response. "The train station?"
"Oh, it's down there. Turn a left, then follow...."
My hand absently traces the pattern in the airs. Finally, he stops and gets on top of a samlor.
"Come on," he says, "I show you."
As I follow him on bike, it occurs to me I must be the only person riding with a samlor escort. After a couple corners, the samlor driver waives good-bye to me with a final:
"Good luck, Joe."
While the Hanoi railway station seemed a big, green featureless building, typically socialist, the Hanoi station has a particularly relaxed appearance. As noontime siesta approaches, samlor drivers sleep in their lorries with the shades pulled down. The few bystanders hide from the sun underneath the shade of umbrellas. A single, dirty governmental-looking restaurant sits by the station filled with men in dragged-out uniforms. A "waiting room" contains about thirty people sitting inside, most fast asleep.
When I get to the front counter, I produce my papers to stay in the country, my passport, and my money and lay them on the counter. The blue-uniformed lady, standing there, waves to a sign that says "foreign ticket sales." I groan, hoping these people won't make me pay for some kind of guide. As I enter the empty office, I place the pile of documentation on the table and say:
"I would like to buy a ticket to go to Ho Chi Minh City."
She totally ignores the paperwork and smiles at me. "When would you like to go?"
A moment later I have the ticket, and I realize I've arrived in a far different part of Vietnam. I get back on my bicycle and make a genuine attempt to return to my hotel, the location of which never quite becomes clear to me due to distortions present on the nice, clean map. As time rolls on, however, I keep getting thirsty and hungry, and each time I stop to buy something, inevitably a long conversation with the locals arises before I can extract myself.
I finally return to the hotel at around two. I ask about Tavey. "Oh," the young man at the hotel says, disappointed. "She is still asleep."
After this, I finally make a concerted effort to use the map. I lay it down on the table. It looks big enough to cover a wall with colorful drawings of the cities major features, like the K.S. Dong Hotel and the long bay that surrounds the city. .
That afternoon, on my bike, I finally discover the sea, the China Sea that carves up the city and makes it a port. I get an old-fashioned port feeling, too, because the ships I see unload actual, real cargoes, boxes and vegetables, not containers, like a ship might've done a hundred years ago. I follow the coastline towards the Cham museum.
The figures at the Cham museum have a quality of their own. The Chams once ruled the whole of Southern Vietnam and had the bravery or idiocy to place their capital within a few marches of Da Nang, too close, as it proved, to the border with the Vietnam Vietnamese. In their day, their armies sometimes mustered the strength to invade the north.
Yet their artwork seems anything nothing like the pseudo Chinese works of their northern cousins because their culture influences came from Indian traders and not Chinese overlords. Their walls feature dancing girls and silly monsters. Unlike the art of India they imitated, Cham structures seem devoid of any ulterior purpose other than having fun. I can easily imagine a sensual people, not a logical one, a strain of the Vietnamese character subsumed, buried....
As sunset approaches, I take a picture of Da Nang's most conspicuous traffic, bicycles. When I finally go into dinner, before going to bed, I find Tavey has just woken.
"Wow," I say, "you really know how to take a nap."
As I fall asleep, I can still hear the cries of "Hey, Joe!"
July 31, 1992: ON THE ROAD FROM HUE
Some things can only happen to me. The steam train clatters along the Da Nang (spellings vary) railway from Hue. Four of five of these Vietnamese gentlemen, dressed in Hawaiian shirts and dress pants, sit in the middle of the train, drinking.
My main thought, at that particular moment, concerns how hard the seat feels. It feels like sitting on a bench because: it is sitting on a bench. With each bottle of beer downed, the men seem to get a little more boisterous.
Finally, I see it coming: the outstretched hands, the empty seat. Everyone wants to see the American have a drink. I look around helplessly at the two blonde Frenchmen and the German I met walking around at one of the train stops, but they look off into space. You understand (they seem to say) "it's an American thing."
The train looks about the dingiest I've seen in my life. Call it an 0-4-0 or maybe a triple 0 with a steam engine. In America, we'd call this train an antique, not a daily.
It chugs along through the thin rows of paddies, up the slight grades of hills, through the dynamited tunnels, along the thin coastal strip that divides the ocean from the sea in this slender part of Vietnam. The French, in one of their typically French gestures, went to all the trouble of blasting the holes into the mountains to carve this railway that runs all the way from Saigon to Hanoi, but didn't bother to make the caves wide enough to accommodate more than a single train at a time. As a result, whenever this ancient little engine receives a signal that another little train comes the other way, one of them pulls off onto a siding and rests its tiny heart for a while.
I can almost imagine the sound of its engine saying, "I think I can. I think I can."
"Come on," they call. All of them wear their best traveling clothes, a curious mixture of dress shirts, dinghy pants, and, of course, sandals. They watch as the rather buxom Vietnamese serving lady bends over with a curious, round piece of metal to chop a couple of dozen pieces of ice from a big block that she drops into their plastic glass.
As I sit down in their midst, I have this vague awareness that what I'm doing is something like upholding the national reputation. The rowdyish man, a big fellow in an open Hawaiian shirt, who looks less Vietnamese than Filipino, hands me a full glass. Fulda, I think, Danish beer. Denmark trades with Vietnam.
"You know 'bottoms up?'" he says. The three watch me closely.
"Yeah, I know her pretty well," I announce and down the glass as quickly as is possible. It helps that I feel pretty thirsty anyway, but, of course, this sets off a cheer.
The hefty man, about fifty, puts his arms on my shoulder and says, "I start to worry about you," he says, "you just drink the Cokes before." He points to the others and, in a gulp, they all empty their plastic cups.
I watch as the glasses start to fill again and mentally calculate how long it will take before the anemic little engine returns to the station at Hue. To kill a little drinking time, I ask abstractly, "What do all of you do, anyway?"
The man nearest me, about fifty, trim and missing a couple of teeth, announces to me: "This is the Fourth Master of the train," the man bows slightly, "this is the Third Master of the train." In other words, these I'm drinking with on-duty government employees. I wonder, then, that their boss doesn't get mad at them for this obvious waste of time. The man in charge, I think, must be taking the day off. I point to the last gentleman.
"This, my friend, is the Commander and Master of the whole train."
It seems simple enough: all I need to do is go some thirty-five miles on the train to get to Hue, the former Imperial Capital, and then go thirty-five miles back. I made going to Hue one of my main goals on this trip.
When I tell my hotelier in Da Nang what I plan to do, she says, "Go to Hue?" and her hand clutches the passport and travel plans with a possessiveness that surprises me.
"Just for the day," I return, and she smiles. While not beautiful, this girl qualifies as cute. I wonder, then, if it's just not wanting to lose the customer or fear of a shakedown that made her so reluctant to let me have the passport even to go to the train station the day before.
When I look at the clock in Hue, however, it already shows 11:30. The ancient engine took an entire six hours to cover the distance. This means a most generous estimate of a roaring 6 miles per hour, slower than a bicycle.
The town looks interesting, but ordinary. The emperors built it roughly halfway between Hanoi and Saigon in a vague effort to centralize the country's administration, but the natural resources of the region by no means rival that of north or south. It looks, with a river flowing down the middle, some French sites here and there, and the mountains very close to the coast, crowding the small plain almost into the sea. Various writers have compared this area to the thin, bamboo pole between the rice baskets (the Red and Mekong River valleys in the north and south). Hue looks rather like a small provincial town.
As soon as I get off the railroad, I go to the station and ask when the last train leaves for Da Nang. It leaves at 1:30.
"1:30?" I reply. "How long does it take to get back?"
"It is a fast train," the lady in the uniform announces proudly, "only four and a half hours." In other words, it speeds along at about 8 miles per hour, still slower than a bicycle.
I swallow and buy a ticket. This means I have a scant two hours to see all the imperial ruins. As I start to walk down the street with my shorts and my Joe Cool bag, the usual crowd of samlor drivers starts to descend on me like flies to a sweating horse.
"Hey Joe you wanna ride?"
"No, I wanna map."
As I pause beside the river, I see some kind of structure and snap a picture of it, vowing to find out what it is later.
"Hey you?" the drivers keep calling.
As I come to the first counter with postcards, I look up the Vietnamese word for "map," yet again. The lady shakes her head. On about the fourth try, I finally find tourist maps for sale.
I produce the 5,000 dong as a man with a mustache and light skin observes me. He sits on a bicycle.
"You wanna rent a bicycle?" he asks.
"You bring back tomorrow, hotel?"
I shake my head, "I bring back today, two hours."
He points to his watch "24 hours?"
I smile ironically, "You don't seem to understand. I leave at 1:00 TODAY."
He shakes his head, "Tomorrow?"
Finally, I give up and start to walk away. I get a few steps before I hear him say. "5000 dong."
After several minutes more of this kind of meaningful conversation, I finally manage to get the bike from him. It's qualifies an oldie, but a baddie, and the moment I sit on the seat, the seat, it tilts back and almost dumps me. Unfortunately, having ridden on the train the whole day, probably the dumbest thing could do is to sit, and before I've traveled even twenty feet, my butt starts to hurt. I look down and, of course, both tires look about 20% inflated. With some effort, I peddle on the two flat tires towards the famed tombs of the Vietnamese emperors.
Hue clusters around the banks of the Perfume River. The main thing to see, the Imperial Palace and citadel, rests on the other side of one of the combination railroad and bicycle bridges. As I start to ride across the bridge, each of the wooden boards that holds the fragile structure together starts to jump. I wonder, then, if the whole structure can support my weight.
"Clump, clump, clump," but after a minute, I cross the ridge and ride towards the flagpole, the center of the French citadel. The building looks typically French, and it's no coincidence that the French built it close enough to unload a nice round of cannon should anything unpleasant happen at the nearby Palace. The flagpole, perhaps the biggest in the nation, defiantly displayed the Viet Kong flag for twenty days during the 1968 Tet offensive, during which time the VC began a "restructuring" of society that killed several thousand local people. As I look at the flagpole, it makes me wonder, then, why everyone didn't fight that much harder in 1976. Didn't they know what was coming?
Looking back, I think the vast majority of the people thought, quite correctly, that whoever won or lost wouldn't effect them much. They stood by and watched the American supports massacred during Tet and then watched the Viet Kong supporters massacred when the Americans returned. What did it matter? The farmers still had rice to be cultivated, and the stores still had wares to be sold.
It takes little effort to find the Palace (Mot Lau Than Hue). It looks like a Chinese palace with fine Chinese writing up front, a Chinese gate, and other Chinese features. Of course, the ideas came from the Chinese. A kind of gray-black paint coats the outer walls and a certain look of neglect hangs over the entire structure. Out front, a four-poled series of sign holds the inevitable Chinese characters. Its three-tiered structure, though derivative, would still look imposing to someone whose entire life revolved around rice paddies, but to someone who viewed Korean or Japanese Palaces, the place more resembles a parody of a parody of a palace than the really thing.
At the Forbidden City, the Emperors lived out their lives of luxury with their food tasters, their concubines, and their six ministries. They also seldom had power as most of Hue era found the Trinh in the North or the Nguyen in the South holding the reigns of power and emperors as mere puppets. Inside, I view the Emperor's throne, an ornate wooden structure surrounded by gold (painted wood walls). For a moment, I have this picture of the Emperors surrounded by a dozen courtiers, people kneeling at his feet, and the whole shot. Then, I remember, however, that the Chinese Emperor lived secluded lives, not public ones, surrounded by just a few women and the obligatory sycophants.
Here I purchase a book called, What's Novel in the Imperial Palace at Nguyen? I really thought the book might be one of those sumptuous romances with the half-naked courtesans, like I see in all the stalls in Da Nang with the smiling girls on the covers, but, instead, it turns out to be a rather boring series of treatises on the lives of the Imperial Emperors; the English translations, as the title would suggest, vary from questionable to abominable. I save the book for future reference on the train.
As I ride out, I see a battery of four imperial cannon supposedly cast at the beginning of Nguyen dynasty. By this time, the Vietnamese knew well the power of the Europeans, so they knew enough to wish to emulate them. On the hand, though, they never quite figured out the science that made the European militaries superior. As a result, these Nguyen cannon, if fired, would blow themselves up, a fitting emblem for the Vietnamese monarchy.
As I bike some more, I make a valiant effort to find the various tombs of the emperors, supposedly "the" thing to see in Hue. I finally determine that these lie on the other side of the Perfume River, and I start to peddle over another raggedy old wooden bridge that crosses the river. As the bicycle hits each of the wooden cross ties below the wheel, the pieces of wood bounce dangerously close to free.
The first temple I see belongs to Chua Ba Quoc, a temple of some size. It's squat structure fronts the Perfume river like a kind of an open-faced sandwich, surrounded by granite walls, making it look rather like a movie marquee.
Quite by accident, I stumbled on "Chua Tu Dam," a death temple of one of the later emperors. The sign out front of the brown and gray structure says "Chua Tu Dam" instead of anything in Chinese. It's not particularly memorable. Chua Bao Quoc, tomb of yet another later emperor, doesn't look all that different. As I pause on the Perfume River, in the ninety degree heat, I look down the river and spy several houseboats, their occupants fast asleep, hiding from the noon day sun.
As I ride away towards the train station, I pass the inevitable tourist hotels, the crowds of ice cream (kem) vendors, and people out for the afternoon. As I see the big boats cruising down the river, it's easy to imagine the Emperor with his royal entourage, dressed in flowing silk, going out on his barge to enjoy a picnic on the slender Perfume River.
As I sit on the train, reading the book, I'm more amazed by what I don't hear about the emperors in the book then what I hear. No one talks about the fact that the entire royal line of Gia Long more or less succumbed to the French and served as puppets.
Instead, the book repeats, in detail, the exact number of dishes (as many as 50) served to the emperor each meal, the number of concubines present, the sad lives of the royal eunuchs, etc. As I look out the train window, I wonder if the focus of the book merely intends to show the wastefulness of the monarchy, or if the author's main interest lies in vicariously living out the imperial fantasy of having five girls to choose from a night and every dish known to man (of course many had to be aphrodisiacs).
"In conformity with regulations, every night the Emperor had a eunuch summon some ladies. Emperor Minh Mang, chose every night five, one for each night watch, so came the saying 'having relations a night with five concubines and three of them become pregnant.'"
Women, however, were women, "Whenever I meet the harem," one emperor complained, "I meet the wicked devils. They quarrel, making violent combats with each other and then come to me for judging. Their cries deafen me...." Methinks the emperor doth protest too much.
"To America," one man announces, slurring the words a little. I have this impression he just spat out all the English he knows.
Another man adds to that, "End the Embargo."
Then, they all look at me. They expect me to second that remark. The fact that I do not yet have an opinion on the Embargo, makes me hesitate. Instead I say, "To good friends, past and present, and peace forever."
That satisfies everyone and someone says, "bottoms up."
"Kampei," I add instinctively. When I drain my glass first, they all laugh a little.
"You drink good," the big man says, and he pours another round into all the glasses, yet the bottle runs out, "but I'm afraid we haven't enough to all drink."
I know the signal, the test. I feel tempted to add, "Well, then I'll abstain," but I know that would have them talking for days about the weak-livered Americans. Instead I say, "Well, then I'll buy another bottle."
"One bottle," big man says. He has an idea of how little that costs me.
"Two bottles, then, so everyone can drink," I say, "but this is good beer. Let's drink Slllllowly, so we can taste it."
When they all get their glasses, some murmur in agreement. The man next to me, with his hand on my shoulder, points to the quiet older man, and says. "He wishes to tell you that we don't want to get you drunk."
"Oh I know," I return. "No, I understand. We just drink for good times," I say, and add to myself, "and to have a little fun with the gringo."
The other man translates and the older man nods, satisfied. By now, the big man has decided to lie down, and it's pretty obvious the party has ended.
One of the men, the Second Master of the Train, comes over to join me. "I am the Second Master of the Train," he states. "Are you married?"
"No," I shake my head.
"You have a girl friend?"
I look out the window. "You might say I'm sort of between women."
"I have a little house, right at the side of the railway, given to me by the government."
I nod, "Where I come from, not many men own houses."
"I am married," he says. "I have a wife, a good woman, but no sons, and I have eight daughters. Eight beautiful girls. The youngest one is," he counts on his fingers, "16, and the oldest one 25."
He hesitates, as though waiting to say for me to say something. What he wants me to see, however, escapes me.
I shrug my shoulders, "You must be very happy."
"Yes," he states, getting up, "very happy." Just then, the train stops, at a little siding. I watch the man getting off. He gets to the door of and then turns. Two girls jump off the train, both dressed in typically Vietnamese polka dot outfits, I can only describe as pajamas, with loads on their heads. They step ahead of him, and he hits a thin stick to the ground, like a man herding his sheep.
As the train pulls out, I look and they seem to smile at their lot, but the man's face seems worried and tired. I swallow, then, as I realize what I missed in the last conversation.
The man next to me, putting his hand on my shoulder, in Asian fashion, says, "Now. I want you to tell me. I'm fifty. My life is over, but my children are young. I have a chance to go to America and live with my cousins in San Antonio. For my children's sake, what should I do?"
I look out the window at the fields of rice and think again of the "four stoops," the timeless rhythm of rice cultivation. In fact, I once heard an entire lecture on this subject. This country looks beautiful in its own way, just as Nebraska looks beautiful to the Nebraskan. Then, I think of the chances for failure in my country and the inevitable results: unemployment, poverty, and homelessness. I look at him again, and, despite his fairly good English, I'm pretty sure that his life in America could be nothing but miserable, but I think he knows that. I say something that's been said millions of times for four hundred years: "For your children's sake," I tell him, "go to America."
August t 01, 1992: YOU MUST MAKE ALLOWANCES
At eight o'clock, I try to convince Tavey how wise I am for waiting for this man I met on the train, who claimed he was going to take me all around Da Nang (for free). At nine o'clock I start to realize that I am, again, a fool. As I walk down the street, I start to ponder the wisdom of it all. Did the man intend this as some kind of joke, did I give him the wrong address, or, worst of all, or does his not showing convey some kind of a hidden message?
Mostly, however, I sit and itch the many bites that cover my legs, my arms, and just about any part of me. I regret that, the last night, I didn't have the smarts to look for mosquito netting. Only around two o' clock, when I could actually hear the roar of the attacking hordes, did I find the netting pinned to the bedboard. As I feel along my neck, I find a place where a particularly vicious insect left some part of itself underneath the flesh. With tweezers I might pull it out, and, trying to use my fingers as a substitute, I manage to rip the skin open.
It was cold running this morning, maybe twenties degrees, but I like it that way. A slight, stiff breeze and a refrigerator wind work better on my complexion than the most expensive soaps, and I can almost feel my heart pumping like a furnace. It must be 70 times and minute. Every step I took warmed, made me feel better instead of worse. It made me thinking of running on Christmas Vacation ten years ago or so, and running around the high school. The snow fell slightly and covered the ground like a blanket, and that big building, built, strangely enough, in a hexagonal shape, surrounded by the reflective snow, looked like a landed spaceship. The more I looked, the harder I found it convince myself this wasn't so. Why couldn't it be a spaceship. I certainly tell myself that I'd ever gone there.
When I finally get up from the table, I search for the manager of the hotel, and I ask her:
"Do you know what these bites are?"
"EHH," she says, seeing the blood on my face, and disappears.
"Wait," I say, but she returns with a small bottle of green liquid.
"Put this on," she insists.
"But I don't even know what bit me?"
She adds, "Or you can go to the doctor."
I look out the window at the traffic: dozens of women of all ages riding along on their matching pajama-like outfits. I wonder, again, how a style like that can continue forever. This shows, I guess, how far I crossed over the edge.
I put a little of the stuff on, and, from the smell, I guess it must contain 90% alcohol and 10% good intentions. As I sit there, at the table, however, I start to worry more and more about what effects the devious little buggers might have on my system. Finally, I gather up my bag, look up the word "Doctor" in my book and start out in search of Vietnamese phrases.
"Bac si?" I say to myself. "I bac si anything." I walked down the street, past the shops, careful not to look like I might be thinking of stopping anywhere.
I glance at the book "Dia cung," Vietnamese for "hard disk" it says. Unbelievable.
After several minutes of walking around the semi-paved streets, I finally find a hospital that looks lime something out of Albert Sweitzer. A long, rectangular building surrounds an open square. A typically patient crowd of Vietnamese waits underneath the glare of the rather forbidding-looking woman at the reception window.
After a while, and several gestures, I indicate I want to see a doctor. The lady raises her eyebrows, perhaps suspecting V.D., and leads me along the inside of one corridors to a comfortable-looking office. Despite the backlog of patients, a single Vietnamese doctor reclines there, looking quiet relaxed.
"How do you do?" he says. "Where are you from?"
I sigh as I contemplate yet another of those long conversations: "Where are you from?" "Are you married?" etc.
"I'm from Los Angeles," I start. "you've heard of it?"
He smiles, "Of course. I've been there several time. I find the traffic oppressive, and the noise bothersome." I'm taken slightly aback, and he continues. "What is it that I can do for you?"
"It's this," I say, pointing to the blood-stained patches around the injury.
"Here," he says reaching into his drawer, "this is the best for it."
Sure enough, he shows a bottle of the exact same herb given to me at the hotel. This doesn't satisfy me totally, so I ask: "But what bit me?"
"We have many insects in Vietnam, probably," he smiles, "a spiiider."
For a minute I have the picture of a black widow or something standing over my neck with its throbbing thorax as it bites me. Why a spider would bite a human, anyway, escapes me.
"Yeah, this will cure it?"
"Yes," he says, "now could you tell me a little bit about your trip here. How do you like Vietnam?"
"Well," I say, "I sure like Da Nang at lot better than Hanoi. They really gave me a hard time there."
"Well," he says, "people here are different. Our experiences in the war were much different. Many of us were not glad to see the Americans go." He makes this statement carefully so his positions remains unclear.
"Well," I shake my head, "what kills me is that in Hanoi they treat us like dirt, rip us off, and then they actually expect us to buy these shirts saying 'End the Embargo.'"
He leans back and puts his hand on his chin, "When do you think the Embargo will end?"
I lean back. "You gotta understand, to Vietnam, America is an important country. To America, Vietnam is not an important country. We see things through the reverse side of a lens."
"But surely, your country sees our many resources? There are many Americans coming to visit now."
"The fact is, Vietnam doesn't have anything that couldn't be found somewhere else in the world. So Vietnam's not vital to American interests. And embargoes can last a long time. We're been embargoing Cuba now for something like thirty years. As for your visitors, I think most are coming because they fought here. Among people my age, there's very little interest in Vietnam-or its problems."
"But what about the election? We have a lot of hope for the elections. Maybe a new president-"
"Well," I try to explain, "it's politics. Both parties can see some kind of gain to normalizing relationships, but no party wants to sign its name to such a policy. Beside, each party has someone with a bad war record. If Bush says, 'normalize relations,' then people talk about Dan Quale. If Clinton says, 'normalize relationships,' they talk about his war record. So it's not in either party's interest to normalize relations. You had one chance in 1977, and your government blew it."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Well they asked for the money that had been promised to North Vietnam before the North invaded the South. There's no way the Americans would pay that; it'd look like 'war reparations,' like we lost the War."
He considers. "You're an educated man. What do you think it'd take to end the Embargo?"
"See you have to remember," I thought about this these past three days, "the biggest thing about Vietnam is psychological. Our country always had this image that we were 'all powerful' and that we were always 'the good guys.' In Vietnam, our military lost a lot of 'face,' but worse than that, the public lost confidence in America. Now, in Iraq, the Military won back a lot of lost face by going in and doing the job. But the only way Americans will ever want to face the question of Vietnam, is if they can be made to think they were really 'right' after all."
He puts his hand on his, "So it's that simple." His tone suggests that nothing could be further from the truth.
I look out at the mud streets, "I mean, you were fighting for your country; Americans only fight for 'right and wrong.'" I ponder, what a luxury that is. "It would take a lot of effort on your part, just to get us to even notice Vietnam, like if you withdrew from Cambodia and stopped messing around with Laos."
If I liked anything about going to college it was the chance to have these long "intelligent conversations" with adults, these debates on everything from the science of learning to the existence of God. A conversation with a learned Easterner is different. They do not try to win an argument. They do not try to express themselves. They do not bother to say what's already known. They leave the conversation knowing more than when they began.
"We've already done that."
"My own feeling is that you did us a big favor in Cambodia by getting rid of Pol Pot, and a lot of Americans, after they discovered about this guy, were secretly happy to see the Vietnamese kick him out."
I didn't add that a lot of Americans felt equal pleasure when the Chinese invaded Vietnam in retaliation.
"I think," I finish, "about the only thing you could do to get our recognition would be to have free elections."
I don't have to say that this would reassure us that, in the long run, we'd been right all along: American democracy triumphant.
"You know," he says, testing my reaction, "we do have elections."
I grimace, and that's a sufficient answer.
He looks at me seriously. "We're not your enemies," he concludes, evenly.
"We're not your enemies either."
After I leave, he promises to call a man with a car to drive me around the city. As I return to the hotel, a single, rather morose seventeen-year-old sits at the table.
"What are you doing?" I ask, and she shows me a book with the title of Practical English.
"Are you learning?"
She raises her eyebrows. As I sit down, I start to write in my journal, and she asks to see it. She writes something:
"What is your name?"
"Daniel Fruit," I write in reply. "What is your name?
"S'm Gom," she writes.
"Do you like working here? Have you been to America?"
"I tol to Atlanta on 5/92."
"Really," I say and write, "Did you like Atlanta?"
"I like," she writes.
"Is the city big?"
"Are you married?" she asks aloud.
"No," I state and answering her frown, "most people in America marry 30-35. Do you like American music?"
"I like music Vietnamese." Then she looks around and writes: "I'm very sad because I am bored."
When I decipher her handwriting, I chuckle. "You and about 15 million American teenagers."
At that moment, a man steps through the door of the mini-hotel. He stands about 5' tall and wears a beret. When he speaks, he has not only a French accent, but a trace of that old French assuredness that everything he says in the world must be correct-if they say so in Paris.
"You-must-be Daniel Fruit," he says, dividing each syllable.
"Yes," I say.
I shake my head, "Sorry no. My folks got kicked out of France."
"I'm here to take you around to Hoi An and the Marble Mountains. My friend, the Doctor, said you'd be here."
He points to an antique of a Japanese car, an old car even in the pre-Corolla era. The driver sits behind the wheel, and, as we sit down in the back seat, the driver pulls some wires out from behind the steering wheel and crosses two of them. The car coughs a couple of times and then starts to move.
"Then we are off," the guide declares. After a couple of blocks, the car stalls. After another cross of the wires, we are off again.
"I was a radar man with the Army, twenty years." he says, "but now, I am retired. I only make 20,000 dong a year. It is not enough for my wife and me, so I become a tour guide, go into business for myself. So you must make allowances."
I wonder, then, if he just made some obscure plea for a tip. Just then, the car decides to die.
The guide says, "A problem with ze car." He consults with the driver.
"It just sounds out of gas to me."
"Problem with le essence."
I shake my head, "Still sounds like it's just out of gas to me," I say as the driver twists the two wires together several times.
My guide gets out and flags down the first motorcycle driver he sees passing by. He talks to the man in Vietnamese and, after a minute, takes out a couple of Dong bills. Then he signals to me, as though I've not seen the transaction, "We travel on MY bike while they fix my car."
I suppress a smile and get on the back of the bike, and the guide gets on behind so that the three of us so overload the little 125 that it careens off only at about 15 miles per hour.
The Purple Mountains look like other places I've seen: rows of scrub pines against the ocean backed by the nearby mountains. The mountains kind of "spring" up out of the plane, reinforcing my belief in their volcanic origins.
As soon as we enter the caves area, a veritable troop of young boys in shorts and shirts starts to tag along with us. Immediately, they begin with:
"You wanna buy a picture? Wanna buy a Buddha..." etc.
Each step we make, middle-aged Vietnamese women, undoubtedly the boys' older sisters and mothers say, pointing to their ice chests, say: "Hey, you want cold drink." At this point, I decide to be very cheap, and I say, "I don't want to buy anything." Still the horde, bored with hanging around, starts to follow us. I begin to feel like the Pied Piper.
Like all little boys, the children can't resist the urge of telling everything they know or think they know. One boy jumps up and says, "I show you Number One Cave."
By now, I walk along and up at a rapid pace. In fact, I move so rapidly, I see my poor guide stop to take a whiz in the nearby bushes. He rejoins the tour only three stops later.
One of the boys tells me, for no reason, "My name means autumn," and he guides me into a cave that holds the oldest ruins, a Cham altar dating from the eighth century. Back in that era, the Chams posed a genuine threat to the north. The image, a simple woman walking looks almost pretentiously Indian.
"Cham people make this."
I touch the lines of the dancing girls, "Well, the Chams were conquered by the Vietnamese. I'll bet all of you have some Cham blood."
The idea puzzles them. In their minds, they are Vietnamese and nothing else is possible. As we enter the caves, I see a couple of caves with the altars and images of Buddha.
The little boy points to the two green Chinese kings, and he says, "See one good-one evil."
"No," I explain, "more like one is a builder and another destroyer." By now, my guide, panting and wiping the sweat off his brow, enters behind us and points to a hole through which a faint light shines.
"In the 1960s, these caved served as headquarters for the Viet Kong," the old man tells me, and he points to the ceiling, "See how the Americans bombed them-in the War." At this point, I realize he never said which side he worked for as a radarman, but, by now, both sides would know everything about it.
As I look around the cave, imagining the scene he describes, I see the whole right wall holds nothing but names, written in a very American-looking graffiti style, but the names are Vietnamese.
After about three caves, the little boy whose name means Autumn points to another cave with a whole in the top, saying, "Here, I take you to Top of the World."
I watch as his little, sandalled feet disappear into a set of steps rising to a small opening through which I can just see some of the blue sky.
"I don't know, that looks pretty tight." A couple more steps, and I carefully pull myself up. I just barely fit through the hole. Down below, I can see all the other children not even bothering to try to follow. The little boy and his compatriot riot guide me up around the outside of the mountain and to the top, several hundred feet about the ground plain. The mountains jut from the sand itself, suggesting a volcanic origin.
"See," the second boy says, "China Beech. Top of the World."
I stretch my arms out, "Top of the World, Mom!"
From the top of the mountain, the two little children, and I look out at "China Beech." It surely doesn't seem like a good place to fight a war with long lines of scrub pines fading to a thin white sand stretch that runs for miles. The ocean looks very blue today, and in the distance, I can see an island. The scene seems more like a vision of the South Pacific, than South Vietnam.
Now the Autumn boy says, "You buy something from your guides?"
I feel particularly generous, "Maybe. Can I see what you're selling?"
He takes out a little state of the Indian, elephant-headed god, Ganesha, a kindly squat little figure about hand-sized.
"How much," I start.
"Too much," as we start down the hill, "3,000."
When reach the entrance to the caves, the last one, we continue to walk along the path towards the front gate, gathering boys as we go. All this time, I don't talk about money, but finally, when we reach the gate, I say to the boy:
"Last offer: 7,000."
"Okay," he says, and, as fast as I can hand him the three bills, he scampers away.
The other boy, whose name doesn't mean autumn, then starts to cry: "Why you buy from him, not me?"
"You can split the money between you."
"Why you not buy from me?" another boy says, a tear starting to run down his cheek.
"I don't want to buy from anyone, but they went with me to the Top of the Mountain."
"I went to the top of the mountain, too;" my other guide declares, between sobs, "I guide you."
At this point, two other boys start to cry also, along with the other one who went to the top. From behind them, I hear a feminine voice, and I turn and see one of the Coke girls, seventeen maybe. She puts her hand on her hip and says saucily "I went to the top of the mountain, too!"
Despite their efforts at tears, the boys can't help laughing at this. As we walk through the front gate, I spy the guide, sitting at the table with his driver.
"You want something to drink here?" he says.
"2000 dong?" I ask. That's about 1/5 the price inside, albeit for lousy Vietnamese pseudo soda, Coka. The woman by the table nods. She brings three sodas.
For a moment, we sit at the table, sipping our sodas. The guide says, "Would you please to pay her 6,000 dong."
"6,000? It's only 2,000."
He points at the three of us, "6,000."
I realize then, at this point, he expects me to pay for them. "Why am I paying for your drinks? I didn't want you to drink anything. That's not part of the deal." It's not the dong at this point, but the principle.
"You must make-allowances. 2,000 and 2,000 and 2,000 make 6,000."
"That," I can't restrain myself from saying, "is true. 2,000 and 2,000 and 2,000 make 6,000." Then I laugh, "Oh Hell. I guess it was cheaper than buying anything inside."
When we go back into the car, we drive to the shores of China Beech Hotel, a rather generic looking place with nothing to distinguish beyond blue waters and white sand. To a G.I., stuck fighting in the jungles several months, however, it must've looked impressive. A crowd of the usual European tourists, blonde-haired and big, lie on the sand in various states of frying.
The guide takes a picture of me standing on the beech. As always, I stand very self-consciously my shoulders and upper body thin from eating too much carbohydrates and not drinking enough liquids. I wear my shorts and yellow shirt, and I really do wonder what it's all about.
From China Beech the driver takes us to Hoi An, a relatively famous small town in Central Vietnam, which began as a trading village for resident Chinese and Japanese merchants. It features a famous collection of Japanese and Chinese temples.
As might be expected, most of the temples come from the Fukkien people, the most peripatetic of the Chinese. One of the most beautiful temples features a pink building with a green roof. Inside, the usual clutter of Gods, incense, and joss sticks fill most of the building.
Another of the temples, Hokkien, features a three-doored front gate with a roof alive with a horde of dragons jumping off of it. Inside sits a scale model of a junk, a fat red boat with a giant forecastle painted with a face. Four or five green at, squared sails sprout from the top. Again, I can only wonder what might've happened if the Chinese ever because interested in being a sea power.
Outside yet another of the temples, I see a strange scene of a dragon fighting with a tiger. The two rest in such stylized positions, in front of a square "frame" of yellow and flowers that they could be mating about as easily as fighting.
As we walk the streets, little children stop and point to us, and I set my pace to match that of the small, little man.
On the drive home, my guide points out the window and says:
"There is the former American Base, the Monkey's Paw."
"Hold it!" I say, "can we stop?"
The guide mutter something in Vietnamese, and the driver grunts agreement. This pause breaks the traffic, and as we pull off, every cyclist and motorcyclist we passed on the road for the previous half hour takes the opportunity to whiz past us.
The thing that strikes me, looking at the buildings, is the condition of the area. The wire still surrounds the whole structure, very typical barracks still line the grounds, and the big oil containers look clean and even washed. It looks, twenty years later, as though American sailors left a few days before.
It reminds of this science fiction story I once read in which these aliens land on the Earth and leave behind a spaceship. All the people circle around that forgotten artifact, not knowing what to do with it, not knowing if the aliens will return, and wondering if they could just pull the right switches and make it work again.
Here an entire navy fleet docked at one time, like they did at Subic Bay or Long Beech. Looking at the neat stacks of buildings, the lawns once freshly mowed, and the shining, empty oil tankers, I have this feeling that I stand here where something faded away. The sun sets an eerie glow on the outlines of the buildings, beneath the clean clouds, far from even the familiarity of Da Nang: perfect weather to see the stars.
August 2, 1992: *&^ BACKWARDS TO SAIGON
Now, according to the goodbook, lost but not forgotten, Vietnamese train seats fall into two categories: hard sitter and hard sleeper. With my usual level of poverty, I find myself entering the dirty train and searching through the rows for my particular seat.
I carefully study the enclosed area, home for the next twenty-three hours, while the conductor moves two Vietnamese teenage girls from my spot. Their anguished pleas have the sound of: "Oh no, Please. I wanna sit with Luz..."
As I sit down, I note that I now have 23 hours 59 minutes to go. A kind of faded silver paint covers the inside of the car, and a set of metal dishes that look like refugees from a school cafeteria. It takes another 30 minutes to get the train moving as parents batten down old sacks, bags, and children. The little old lady next to me asks if I can switch seats so she can be closer to her granddaughter, or something like that. It doesn't matter, I think, and move.
Finally, I feel a lurch that indicates someone firing up the aged steam engine. Only after the first "chug" do I realize: I'm about to travel backwards for 23 hours.
As the train starts moves along, I marvel again at the orderly array of paddies with assorted water buffalo, children, and old ladies at work streaming past the train. It recalls to me a comment I made to Tavey, the night before, about the difference between East and West.
"There's a whole different sense of time, here" I said, "than in the West. Where we come from, you start at 9:00. You work 'till you finish or until it's five. Out here it's up at 7:00, sleep at noon, up at 3:00, and work is never really finished...."
"Where are you going today?" I asked as she ate some sort of breakfast.
"I have one more day to go here, and then I'm flying back to Bangkok. Then I'm going to try to get a plane back to Saudi. My boyfriend is going to have an operation."
She never actually says his name, but he comes from the Netherlands. He works as an engineer also. Despite the fact they plan to marry (in the American sense of "some day"), I never get a clear conception about this guy, his looks, his temperament, anything. Having had the misfortune to be around many attractive engaged or married women, I always get the distinct impression of this significant other hovering around watching us talk, like a ghost or a guardian angel, except in this case.
"Let me get this straight, again," I return. "You never travel with this guy?"
"No," she shakes her head, "he doesn't like to travel very much."
"But," I reason, "he did go to Saudi Arabia."
"That's different. That's work."
"I don't really see the difference. I mean he's Dutch, anyway, isn't he? He could work for Shell or someone, right."
She pauses: "He makes a good salary. He does, better than mine, and he puts the money into a house, a good house." She looks off, "Anyway, let's not talk about that any more. What did you do yesterday? You were gone all day."
I got a telegram from Tavey, several months later when I was finishing this book, with a tapestry of a Persian, or Arabian rug, that didn't look as though it'd gone too many miles. On the back, she'd written a remark:
"See you some time. I read your book. (meaning THE PLASTIC TOMORROW). I thought it was very funny. Was it supposed to be?
"Well, I went off to see the Purple Mountains and Hoi Ann, and on the way back I saw the deserted Naval Base, the Monkey's Paw. It was very, very-strange."
"How did it look?"
"I don't know, I mean, it looked so much like the other bases. That was the weird part. I mean, I'm no big military supporter, but there was something distinctly American, as American as a Chrysler, about that structure, and it wasn't destroyed or anything, like someone just left an hour ago..."
"Well," she pauses. "I saw a lot of US military in Saudi, and now they're gone."
"It's not the same thing, really. I mean, those dorms look like the one I'm living in now. It's like I could come back to Japan, and the entire base might be empty."
"How did it make you feel?"
"I don't know, I really don't. Sometimes, I think I go on these trips just to find out how I feel about different things, not so much to see different things as to feel different things."
"Wait," she looks into my glass, "you're drinking that drink with ice. Don't you care?" She refers, of course, to the many lethal microbes loose in the water.
I shrug. "They wash the food in the exact same water, so you're going to get it either way. The trick is, I think, to bring the right drugs to counteract the travel sickness because you're gonna get it either way."
She looks down at her bottle of mineral water. "I don't know about that."
I change the subject, "What is it like in Saudi?"
"Boring, very boring, especially for women. You know, just to go to the bank, you have to know a lot about the Koran."
"I guess I kept thinking I'd end up going to the Middle East some day. There's a real society of believers."
She smiles. "Believers! They are the most cynical people on Earth. I mean, they have this belief that if they drink in a room with the light off, Allah can't see them."
"I rather thought they didn't drink, at least the Saudis."
She smiles, "Well, not in the light."
"But they have very little crime?"
"Of course they don't, but is that better than the public executions, the stonings, the chopping off the hands? Then there's the smog."
"Riyadh has a million people and factories. And the way they treat women."
"You mean the polygamy?"
"No, that's their own women. They treat them a little better. What I'm talking about are the Filipino girls, the housemaids. I sometimes call them 'angels,' because they are really nice girls, and I really pity them. In their position, it's not easy to be a good girl when your family needs the money sent home."
I remember the happy faces of the girls flying back on Pakistani Airlines that didn't light up until they reached Thailand, and the resigned, grim looks of the girls flying the other direction.
"But the Saudis are nice to you?"
"They have to be. I'm an engineer. I have a job that commands men, but that still doesn't mean it's easy. I still have to wear a robe like their women and wear a veil..."
I remember Leonard talking about his travels to the USSR: 'Well, there's no crime. You can walk the streets at 2:00. Operas and shows are almost free. They have a great subway system....'
"I guess, I'd have to go there for myself to see."
"Well, let me tell you, I enjoy traveling around the world during my vacations a lot more than I do working in Saudi, but it's a job."
"So I guess you're not going to retire there."
"No, my boyfriend and I, we buy a house in Indonesia.
"But I thought you said he hated to travel."
"Indonesia, that's not like travel. That's right, you've never been there, have you?"
"I generally try to avoid countries that have glowing tourist descriptions and beautiful women, instead of naked temples, on the covers of the travel guides books."
"Well, it's not really like going to a foreign country, to my boyfriend, anyway. I mean, they speak Dutch, and the people are beautiful and friendly...."
I wonder if they have no crime and cheap operas. That's right the Dutch paint; they don't write operas.
I never finished this comment: about how, in the way, the work in a paddy must seem so endless as to negate the idea of time. Always something needs to be done, weeding, transplanting, moving water, and yet, never does anything reach conclusion on.....
Even the people on the train itself follow the rhythm, mechanically dozing off at 11:30 and waking up, again, at 2:00. As I look out the window at the small villages, old ladies ladel out a few dozen gallons more of water from one part of the paddy to another, with the same rhythm I see everywhere in the rice-growing countries, even the exact same motions, the sense of timelessness increases.
The seasons differ from what's seen in the West: planting, growing, harvesting, and winter. Here, even as one crop finishes its cycle, another begins. There are no finalities.
About nine o' clock a man sticks a tape into the television-VCR attached to the inside of train car. All the lights went off hours ago. The machine shows a couple of Kung Fu movies, made in Chinese with Vietnamese voice-overs. As soon as the machine turns on a fly, starts hovering around the machine. After awhile it lights, directly over a character's face. After a few seconds, a dragonfly joins its distant cousin. Within ten minutes, flies, bugs, and mosquitoes cover half the screen making the film look sickening, like a parody of a Hitchcock feature. No one in the train seems to notice, but I have this temptation to stand up and kill all the bugs, even if I have to clear away their carcasses afterwards. In the end, however, I know I won't do it, and not just because it would make a scene. I know very well that if I cleared the screen, the light would shine all the more clear, and whole new crowd of bugs would gather to replace the old.
I try to ignore it and look out the window into a darkness unlit by even a flickering candle lit in the houses we pass.
How would a person thinks who lives here? The very idea of progress would seem alien. After all, what meaningful inventions have taken place since the Chinese began to farm this way, 5,000 years ago, in a land where people even use the same motions to transplant rice as their ancestors? The very labors have become ritual; the very idea of putting rice into the fields in a different way would seem silly. Change would be an illusion.
Only death provides variation.
August 3, 1992: THEY STILL CALL IT SAIGON
I can't say what exactly I expected to find in Ho Chi Minh City. What I observe represents a step halfway up the scale of civilization between say, Da Nang, and Bangkok. In other words, they don't have it, but they know they miss it.
As I step out of the train, the usual horde of samlor drivers lets up a cacophony of cries, but in the distance I can hear motorcycles, not bicycles, loose on the streets. I'll admit, I don't feel good. After several days without a bowel movement , courtesy of "New Age" drugs, and an all-night train ride, I feel ready to sleep or something.
As the crowd of samlor drivers departs after my usual act of "Oh no, I love exercising, walking around the city," a lone straggler tries his pitch once again.
"10,000?" I say, "for a samlor ride? That's a lot. I don't even have a hotel. I need a $6 hotel before I can..."
"Saigon Hotel," he speaks, anxiously, "$20."
"I'm just a poor, starving traveler, I..."
"I have another for $6."
I can just about picture this $6 place, but I agree to take a look. After a short, bumpy ride, the samlor arrives. Sure enough, this place occupies the top floor of one of the buildings in the middle of the appliance market where several stores blare out the latest "hits." I can already imagine how quiet it will become at night, but I climb the stairs, past the sign saying: "Backpackers welcome."
"Do you speak English," I ask the man, a fiftiesh guy, who wears a sports shirt.
"I speak English pretty good," he returns, "before, I study in University of Honolulu."
"Really," I ask, "did you ever finish?"
"No," he says, voice falling, "the War." He proudly shows me his two sandals, however, and the tag on them saying, "Honolulu."
When he takes me upstairs, the room seems little more than I expect, a piece of plaster with a bathroom adjoining to another room. As I start to wash some of my dirty clothes in the sink, the other door opens, and I spot two young, gigantic Germans or Swedes.
"You can use it if you want in a minute or so. I was just washing clothes."
One grimaces and clothes the door. A few seconds later, I hear a loud "Snort." The origin or purpose of the sound eludes me. After a few minutes more, I hear one of them grunt, a weird guttural sound, like someone blowing out a hole in his nose. I lie down on the bed, thinking I can just rest a few minutes....
After a few hour's rest, I decide to do one of those activities I have come to hate: cashing a travelers' check. On the way to the bank, I lose my way for a while and stumble into a place to ask directions. When I walk in, I ask them:
"I'm looking for the Vietcom bank."
"You know, the place that has maybe 300 employees?"
"Oh, that place. Let me show you."
Luckily, the owner of the hotel sold me a map of Ho Chi Minh City (for "only" 4,000 dong). Ho Chi Minh City qualifies as "real city," with four or five enormous districts including Saigon, the downtown, and Cholon, the neighboring Chinese district.
When I find it, sure enough a veritable army of hefty maidens in aou dias handle the chores. One line contains all the foreigners (probably in the whole city), and it takes a good hour to get the checks cashed. By now, saving money has become essential, more than critical.
As I walk out, it occurs to me that had Communism lasted through the computer age: networking, modems, data bases, all the information the technocrats want would've become instantly available. In other words, the computer would've made Stalin's fondest dream come true: he could track everybody doing everybody.
Once I start walking the downtown, I see the saddest part of the city: the number of beggars. Worse than their sheer numbers is their persistent interest in only foreigners, usually expressed by pointing a finger at shouting in an accusing voice:
"You! You! You!" followed by various elaboration's on that statement in Vietnamese. The average age of these pernicious beggars averages around 10.
Even at first glance, beggars notwithstanding, the people of the South look fatter, probably the result of eating the exact same diet of rice, bread, and beer only in greater quantities.
As I walk down the street, all the shops say, of course, "Saigon," and not "Ho Chi Minh City," possibly a silent form of protest against the Northern invaders. The streets have, strangely, fewer police than in Hanoi, probably a reflection on the fact that, for centuries, the Northerners lived in a tightly controlled society because of the fragility of that Red River environment where a failure of the social structure directly translated to starving peoples. The South, in contrast, always contained those individuals who possessed the gall to run away from the North, who preferred to battle the and Chams in return for winning their own land. In other words, the North housed the conformists, the South, the individualists.
Though I claim not expertise in Vietnamese history, I think many writers err in thinking of the Vietnamese as a single people. In reality they assemble the leavings of maybe twenty different cultures. Each time, a people came into the peninsula, from dark-skinned aborigines to Oriental cousins, the previous group retreated to the mountains. This process, however, was not orderly as it sounds, for undoubtedly each people absorbed elements of their predecessors through rapes, conquests, and mutual seductions. Consequently, the lowland Vietnamese, the last group, who came from China probably have the most mixed blood of all. It's perhaps natural, then, they came to define their nationhood through their opposition to others, especially the Chinese. This whole process of development, ironically, parallels that at of another mixed race people: the Americans.
Downtown Saigon looks very, well, French, down to the lots of used cars being sold, faded sixties Renault Dauphines. The city culminates in a square formed by the main tourist hotels and (of course) the City Cathedral.
Here, the Communists, in a typical move, decided to erect a Lincolnesque state of Ho Chi Minh. It makes a good scene, Ho standing up, holding a tablet, framed against the red and yellow central train station, rather like Moses. It forms a good enough scene that I spot several tourists taking each other's pictures with Uncle Ho. They come, I learn, from Holland. The Saigon Vietnamese display the same attitude towards this Communist relic as they do all the others: they don't even give it a glance unless it blocks their path.
The Dom looks even more typically French. This "Notre Dame of Vietnam" consists of two red brick spires and a clock tower in the middle. A statue of Virgin Mary out front might make for a rather religious-looking scene, except for the horde of young motorcycle toughs loitering all around the building and covering the lawn. As I approach, another horde of eight-year-old beggars descends on me.
"You! You! You!"
As I walk along with my map, I find another rather more modern Communist work, a big park with some kind of cement monument inside. Even after looking at the monument for a good ten minutes. I still don't know what it represents.
After a couple of more blocks of walking, I find the other main Catholic church identified on the map. It looks more dilapidated than the first, and a laconic sign on the red brick wall maintains: "Center of Catholic Missions: 1864-1951." Outside, a horde of ragged children starts to move in on me the moment they spot me. Several vendors sell ice cream almost from the steps, undoubtedly to serve the more successful of the children who work the territory. If the government intends to discourage Catholic worship, they would succeed with me, but it takes a block to shake the trailing children.
I wish I could describe Chua Vinh Ngheim, the next landmark, as a typical Vietnamese temple, but it looks more cleaned up, modernized. It features a long, two-roofed, orange main hall and a prominent seven-story pagoda. Undoubtedly, it would impress me more, except I never could figure out the purpose of pagodas anyway. Its construction progressed from 1964 to 1971. In other words, it began when the clergy celebrated its power with the ousting of President Diem and finished just in time to be violated by the Communists.
If anything, the temple seems like a kind of concession by the government to remaining Buddhists, but when I go inside, I don't see a crowd of worshippers, but maybe fifteen or twenty gawkers. The inside looks clean, clinically clean, and devoid of much more than a Buddha statue and a place to sit. It does not seem an object of popular piety. I watch the one readily identifiable monk who wears a kind of beige-purple robe and a French beret. He looks at his watch, nearly 5:00 p.m., and gets on a nearby motorcycle to ride away. I get the distinct impression of man who "put in his eight hours."
The material culture of the South, seen on these streets, represents a curious blend of everything Western that could be purchased in imitation of America, without actually buying American. So the biggest scooters come from Taiwan, while for cars they have only antique Renaults. In the restaurants, they serve Singapore beer and Vietnamese Coka, a blend of spices in imitation of Coke that tastes more bitter due to a lack of sugar.
The newer buildings, themselves, possess a kind of formal anonymity. They look gray in the functional, Russian, way but built with a kind of prefabricated early dilapidation. This modern grayness contrasts with the green and gold legacy the French left in the north, the price the South paid for losing. Ironically, Saigon seems far more war-damaged than Hanoi.
As darkness approaches, I start heading back towards my part of the city. As I near the downtown, I spot a hot with a sign stating, "Que Hong," and underneath it, "Liberty Hotel." When I walk into this place, undoubtedly 30 dollars a night now , I ask the meaning of this.
"Name change at liberation." The lady says, "Now Que Vong."
After a short run, I return to my hotel. Although Saigon (I have given up calling it anything else) boasts many nice restaurants I know that I can eat a lot cheaper if I get soap, bread, and beer on the streets.
It was only when I returned from Vietnam, and started to consider what I'd seen, that it occurred to me that Vietnam differed from the Philippines in one important respect. While beggars roam the streets of Manila in the day and pimps at night, Saigon only has the beggars. I've since read that the few "professional women" only work through the offices of a couple of discreet government agencies, catering to a largely foreign clientele and (of course) to government officials.
I think that this, in general, has something of an effect on the way women reacted to me. They didn't see me as some kind of potential customer to be hustled. Again, I think this shows the Puritanical streak in Communism as well as its suspicion on of any financial transaction or emotional transaction not under its control.
As I near my hotel, I see a statue of a man who looks like a cross between Marco Polo and Ghenghis Khan. My instincts say he must be some kind of a hero. Evidently, the locals believe this man deserves a lot of respect: every park bench contains a pair, a man and woman, affectionately observing his memory. My own best guess says he's one of those nationalistic heroes resurrected by the Communists to show how "the people" always struggled against foreign oppressors.
As I go back to my hotel, I feel the weight of that all-nighter on the bus and fall asleep, dead, at eight o' clock.
August 04, 1992: BEGGARS IN THE STREETS
I start out the day with a temple, Xa Loi, a pink, five storied pagoda and complex. Its straight lines with just a hint of Chinese style dip around the outside, and its color (pink with black trim) it more resembles a wedding cake than a temple. The usual assortment of bums and beggars hang around the outside. Inside, I watch as a young novice polishes up an almost sensuously contented Buddha, a big golden one about six times as large as a man. The man cleaning the Buddha seems an irresistible able idea for a photograph. The young man, hearing the click of the camera, turns around and sees me. He goes away and, a moment later, returns with a handful of brochures showing all the temples in the city. Obviously he must mistake me for a honest Buddhist.
I put my palms together and bow slightly, in good Thai fashion.
As I walk away from the temple, I see one of these "People's Art" statues, a cement totem pole of workers, peasants, leaders, their heads all stuck together. "Silly" best describes this particular work of art, though it manages to fill a traffic circle, and it makes me wonder, then, if Communist art won't become very collectable some day, if only for its unintended humor.
From here, I stroll to one of the many Catholic churches identified on the map. It looks about one hundred years old, and a bunch of old men, sleeping and resting, hang around its front steps. The sight of them reminds, how few old people I have seen. As I start to drift away, one of these men in his fifties stops me.
"Are you an American," he says.
"Yes," I answer, "I guess."
"You know," he says, "I know this city well. I used to be in charge of air defense, but that was before 1975-" he pauses. That ends many sentences in Saigon. Then he continues, "I worked for the U.S. Defense command. I was in charge of all the Air Defenses for Saigon." His hand waves, describing the area of his authority.
"Well," I offer, cautiously, "I know people who work for the US Air Force now."
He looks at me quizzically, "How old are you?"
He shakes his head and measures me, up and down, "Too young."
"There's a king of Chinese temple down there, isn't there?" I ask.
"Yes," he says, "that was where Diem was killed."
"I didn't know that," I answer.
"You are," he repeats regretfully, "too young."
The Chua Xa Loi has the distinction of being the place where President Diem, the Nixon of Vietnam, got his final rewards from a CIA supported coup d' etat.
Like Rhee in Korea, Diem used all his powers to try, not to defeat the enemy, such a victory would've lessen his "emergency powers," but to secure himself from his enemies. The one thing that might've saved his regime, military victory, would always elude him because the men who might've achieved it he feared too much to give any authority. The Americans cast him in the role of populist, as they did Magsaysay in the Philippines. An ironic detail of this story is that while Ho courted to image of "kindly uncle," yet had many sexual liaisons, Diem apparently had no interest in women.
It's tempting to see a tragic figure in President Diem, but this ignores too many things done in his name. He was anything but (as Johnson described him) "the Churchill of Southeast Asia."
This part of Ho Chi Minh City, Cholon, once rivaled the main city in size, but the North Vietnamese made something of an effort to make the Chinese, the residents of this section, feel unwelcome here. Now, signs in Vietnamese script front most buildings though the people outside look Chinese enough.
One of the temples in the market district looked particularly interesting, a pink structure with a white gate and a veritable army of dragons on the roof.
When I saw a red and green gate, for Cho Binh Tay, I expected another Buddhist temple. After I walk through the gate, however, I found, instead, a rather attractive little Catholic church. This reminds me, yet again, of the kinds of cultural borrowings at which the Chinese don't even blink.
Cholon's market itself seems strange, even by Vietnamese standards. As I walk down the street, I see everything for sale: chickens, manure, rope, pieces of paper, you name it. And, despite the chaos of the crowds strolling through, some kind of logic guides the arrangement. By no coincidence, the central markets rests quite close to the churches and temples, so merchants can go pray for greater profits.
A prominent statue of Confucius stands in a traffic island near the middle of this subcity. He appears as a wise old man, well rounded and fat. The Chinese of the area, of course, pay absolutely no attention to him, any more than they pay to a statue of Ho.
Another temple stands near the other market entrance with a tall, slender gate of dark brown wood decorated with sea blue roof tiles and yellow and red signs. Inside, I find the usual collection of joss sticks and a prominent statue of the well-fed God of Wealth.
Yet another Chinese temple, on the way back to Saigon, has a more modern architecture with beige columns and red roofs.
As I'm walking away from Cholon, I see a place that sells brand "SPANKING" new scooters with "SPANKING NEW POWER." It looks like an expensive little item. When I step inside the place to take a look, two young salesmen in suits eagerly await me.
"I'd like to ask a question," I begin. One hurries to get the manager, and I know I'm in for a grand performance.
A little man hurries forward wearing an expansive manner and an inexpensive suit, "What can I do for you?"
"How much is one of these?" I point to a big silver scooter with dual headlights and typically Japanese neo-modernist architecture.
"2200 American," he answers.
"Wow, for a Vietnamese that must be a lot of money. Who can afford such things?"
"Are these Japanese models or build locally?"
"They are built in Taiwan." Again, I think not being recognized by the Unites States has certain advantages.
After this I continue walking. After about an hour, I realize I have to go to the bathroom as I haven't gone for several hours. I walk past several outdoor stands, and finally go into a fairly nice-looking restaurant. I ask them for the toilet, and one of three very bored young women waitresses points a thumb. When I emerge a second later, I pull out a 500 dong bill (a nickel) and put it on the counter.
"I'm not going to eat here. I just wanted to use the bathroom."
They start laughing, and I know what they think: the shy American is too scared to just go against the side of a tree or building like every other Vietnamese male. I tried to tell Tavey, two nights ago, why I disliked this particular practice of watering building.
"It's prejudiced against women," I explained.
"Why is that?" she replied.
"As long as men are allowed to do that, they have no incentive to build decent bathrooms for women to use. Can you imagine a woman doing that?"
She looked puzzled, "No. I can't."
From there, I walk to the outside of the former presidential palace, a familiar-looking gray building, like any one of a hundred state capital buildings with simulated metal columns in a kind of pseudo classical facade. A long driveway leads up and inside. At the door, a nice lady in an aou dia calmly asks for five dollars a person. With a price that high, I feel no guilt about asking to take a picture of our guide through the palace, a pretty girl with tanned skin an almost almond-shaped eyes. At five dollars a shot, I feel like playing the capitalist to the hilt.
I look down at the brochure: "Continuing the heroic, long lasting struggles of our ancestors against invasion late last century, and through two holy resistance wars full of hardships and sacrifices of many generations, culminating with the historic Ho Chi Minh campaign, the Vietnamese Army and People have achieved total victory, casting out a new era of our beloved country. At 10:30 on April 30, 1975, the solemn, ever-victorious flag of our Fatherland waived high on the Independence Palace roof, tolling the knell of the former regime."
All of this proves that with the departure of the Americans, the North Vietnamese tried to overcome any lingering feelings of cultural inferiority by trying, vainly, to destroy the English language.
Inside, the former Vietnamese Palace doesn't look so different from, again, any American state capital building, except, perhaps, for its sumptuousness. Looking at the long, cold corridors, I couldn't help but think most of the real work must've been done down in the basement with the CIA guys. At night, they apparently light the long-rowed exterior of the place as they didn't dare during the war for fear of booming. Outside the palace, a nice garden surrounds the building so that, oddly enough, this monument to military victory seems the most peaceful place in the country.
On the roof, two places show where North Vietnamese troops hit the palace with bombs.
The campaign that finished off the South Vietnamese regime was considered, by the North Vietnamese, to be little more than a probe in force. They wanted to see what kind of reaction, the attack would evoke from the Americans. When the battles began, and successes began to pile up, their generals followed their instincts and advanced, but waited for a reaction. They heard nothing from the other side of the Pacific. The South Vietnamese generals, despite having superior equipment, didn't fight much of a fight. They waited too, and still the Americans didn't react. All along the South Vietnamese waited; they hoped that they could get the Americans to do their fighting for them one more time. Like tramps waiting near the tree, they waited, but in the end, they waited in vain, but Godot never did show up.
Inside, I sat through a documentary that tells the history of Vietnamese nationalism. At the beginning, the editors start with a statement:
"The following history is edited from a much longer French history. The government of Vietnam does not necessarily agree with the views expressed and translated."
I learn a few things I didn't know before, that Diem's sister in law, Madame Ngu, functioned as a kind of "proto Imelda" being beautiful and outspokenly for the regime. As propaganda, the movie manages to make the Vietnamese seem like nationalists taking on a world super power, probably not the original French film makers' intentions. My favorite line occurs when they show pictures of American anti-war riots and the announcer says:
"In 1968, all the world was shouting 'Ho Chi Minh.'"
The movie also manages to avoid the entire subject of Tet, in which the Viet Kong bled so white that the North Vietnamese Regulars had to conduct the rest of the war, albeit dressed as Viet Kong, in order to avoid total defeat.
On the way out of the theater, I comment to another teacher I met in my tour group: "Wow, that was really edited. They totally left out the Russians."
As we stand outside the theater, waiting for our tour guide, a school teacher, a prim little Vietnamese lady, systematically answers my every question about the country. We speak for about twenty minutes. My every question seems to bring the same sort of response: she wraps her arms tighter around her shoulders, squares her chin, and pushes the glasses back on her nose, a veritable image of Lenininism in action.
She lives on about $100 a month. To her, Americans are the bad guys, and the Vietnamese were the good guys, end of story. The movie we saw represents to her, not a part of the truth, but the only Truth.
"You seem to know what we Americans wanted to do pretty well."
"You wanted to take over the country."
"But the Russians and Chinese didn't?"
"The Russians and Chinese have nothing to do with Vietnam."
"And how did you learn all this about Americans?"
"I read it in our history books."
"Then you've ever been to America?" I ask, finally.
"No," she says, and she wraps the little shawl tighter around her shoulders. I think to myself: if she and the generation like her ever went to the West, the Hanoi regime would have a Hell of a lot of trouble. Worse than that, when the Government finally decides, like every other government in Asia, to steal American ideas and techniques, they're going to have to overcome a whole generation's instinctive response to America and things American. In other words, they may have to overcome their own propaganda.
From the building, I walk across the seat to an obligatory final stop to any tour in Vietnam:
The former American embassy is a non-descript building surrounded by guards and barbed wire. In fact, that's not so unusual for a Vietnamese building. Its distinctive white, however, stands out among the many gray buildings built since 1975. Many times in the sixties, Vietnamese dissidents, from Monks to college students, gathered outside here for their demonstrations in true American form. At the height of Tet, Viet Kong cadres, on a suicide mission seized the structure. Now, however, in the twilight, I watch as a lone policeman stops to give a man a traffic ticket for parking across the street and think, truly I see the triumph of Communism.
As I look at that building, I wonder if this whole trip through Vietnam I haven't just been searching to see if there was another answer to why Vietnam fell under this regime of paper-pushers. We spent a fortune on this country, to win their "hearts and finds," and yet, they threw it all away or gutted it.
How could a nation with machines like ours and dreams like ours fail so badly?
Why couldn't we SELL them on us?
Here, I stand face to face with the very image of Democracy in Asia, a clean, white building, stocked with the latest gadgets and weapons, and surrounded an expensive barbed wire fence: clean, dangerous, inviting, exclusive; a building that stands out as alien in a neighborhood of bombed out French mansions, crumbling Vietnamese buildings, and gray Soviet blocks.
After I take a picture, I gather my courage together to go find out for myself what will happen if I try to enter, just to look around. At the gate, I'm met, not by a horde of guards, but by a single unarmed, uniformed, nineteen-year-old with a star chipped on his shoulder.
"Can I go inside?" I ask, pointing.
"No go," he says, smiling friendly, but blocking my path none the less.
"Who uses this building now, the Army?"
"Yes, army." and with that he smiles friendily, turns, around, and leaves.
I back off to try to take a last picture, but the later afternoon sun plays all sorts of tricks. I try one angle, then another, and, finally, walk across the street. I have the building barely in my sights when I feel a tug at my arm.
I look down and see a little eight-year-old girl, obviously wearing her best Sunday dress. She smiles at me, but shows no sign of releasing my arm.
"No," I say, "you don't want the camera."
She just looks up and smiles. I raise my arm to take a picture, and she grasps the other arm. As I take the second picture, I hear the little girl rumbling through something, and I look down at her, sniffing the three boxes with the Vietnamese dolls I bought to send home to Christmas.
"You don't want to sniff that," I say, "it's just plastic and cloth."
I reach in my pocket but find no candy. I shrug my shoulders and start to walk away, but the child's arm won't let go. Her hands hold my arm pleadingly.
"Look, if I had to take a little girl home," I say, "it would be you, but...."
I detach her hand and she seems about to cry, and I just leave her there by the Embassy, her face is contorted in a combination of a well-practiced act and genuine pain.
August 05, 1992: THE LAST SAMLOR RIDE
As I sit in the samlor riding up the street, I try to take a final look at the city. When the samlor arrives at the airport, I see it an oddly familiar place with stressed concrete and entranceways that could handle a crowd far larger than the one gathered today.
As I stand in line with my ticket, I see scenes of tearful good-byes. Ordinary Vietnamese women in pajamas kiss, hug, and say adieu to those dressed in jeans and t-shirts, the clothes of the outer world.
I've read, recently, that it's just the atmosphere that gives the light from stars their visibility. I've often heard that outside the atmosphere, the stars all lose their points, but I wonder how we could ever think of journeying to stars with no but instruments. I think the loneliness of blackness would drive us crazy first.
Off to my left, a young girl weeps uncontrollably as she says good-bye with an older woman, to a lady who could be a cousin. I stand there armed with my ragged backpack, two sets of clothes, and a handful of documents.
When I get to the front cover, I look the man straight in the eye. I have, by now, a whole pouch full of papers gathered together to guarantee my release. He looks at me a second, glances at my passport, and waives me right through. I clutch the papers in my hand, not yet willing to believe that the Saigon authorities don't actually care about this paper collection in the slightest.
The plane, an old dirty 737-sized plane, obviously dates from another era, and its gray interior exudes a kind of warmth that makes me immediately identify it as Soviet. The stewardesses, perhaps two of the half dozen attractive women in Vietnam, make a quick pass through once to show themselves and then disappear into the front cabin. As the plane takes off, the heat begins to rise. The plane has no air-conditioning, and, as the flight moves off, the air becomes more and more oppressive and stifling.
After having traveled for three weeks to fly to another city without any money, any contacts, or much of a plan for survival, instead of flying home, seems strange. When I arrive in Bangkok Airport, I suddenly realize I can't pay the 100 baht fee for the airline shuttle service. As the doors of the plane open, and we mount the ramp, I feel glad to taste fresh air again.
"Where can I catch the bus?" I ask the man at the shuttle counter. The man looks at me contemptuously and points to a bus stop a good half mile away.
It takes three busses, each halted for over an hour, sitting there with the crowds, before I finally find my way to Kamfor Road.
This part of the city I'd normally spend some efforts avoiding. The streets look like any other second rate part of Bangkok except everywhere Europeans in ragged clothes, wearing backpacks, instead of Thais, mill around and line the streets an d stands. When I finally get off the bus, I see a whole battery of signs saying "Guest House."
For a good hour, I play the "good friend," looking for the "Friendly Guest House." Tavey claims they let her stay there before without even charging her. When I walk inside the lobby, two rather bored looking women give me the once over before declaring: "Sorry, we have no rooms."
"Can I leave a message for someone?"
"We're not a mail service," the one lady announces. "Leave it up there on the bulletin board."
I sign and write out:
"To Tavey: I was here, but you weren't. See you later, Dan."
After I leave, I wander around, trying to find the absolute cheapest place, the legendary 100 baht a night guesthouse. Finally, I stop at a place call "P.J.s" that occupies the space behind a silk seller. A woman inside seems interested enough to show me a 75 baht room. It occupies about half the size of any room I ever slept in. Air-conditioning consists of breathing real hard, and magic marker messages line the wall.
"It's perfect," I tell the lady. "Where are the bathroom and shower?"
She takes me down a rickety set of stairs past a bathroom with a sign that says, "Out of Order" that reeks with feces to a small wooden room that doubles as a shower, the sole facility for all twenty guests.
As I sit doling out my money, I hear a British guest speaking: "Yes, they stole it all-passport, money, everything."
I add, "You know, at least in the US Embassy, they can issue you a passport on an emergency basis. The only trouble is that would cost money. Where did it happen?" I suspect, of course, one of these corner robberies.
"It happened," she adds, "while I was sleeping in my room upstairs."
I swallow and make a mental note to carry all my valuable papers on my person until I leave the place.
That night, as I sit in the bar that Tavey highly recommended, a typical place playing Heavy Metal Music where rich Europeans dress in torn clothes and other fashions designed to display alienation or something like that. Tavey walks in.
"Come on Dan, you aren't going to the cocktail party?" That's what Sue Ellen asked before one of these teacherly parties we have to go to every year. This one featured wine and cheese. Before I could answer, she interrupted. "You know my mother read your book?"
"Which one?" I asked.
"TALES OF THE AUTO GRAVEYARD."
I only vaguely remember the man who wrote that particular volume: "One my earlier works."
"No. Dan she really liked it. She actually said, 'You know, that young man has a lot of talent.'"
"I should give you a copy of my latest, so she can see how much talent I've managed to dissipate."
"Come on," she paused, "Now, really, can't you just go and sit with us and talk a little."
"I don't really want to go, when they're not even going to serve us any beer."
"There you go, kidding again." She touched my shoulder slightly, "Now, Dan, I know you better than that. You don't need alcohol to sit around and make outrageous remarks."
"You're here!" she says. She has a couple of Caribbean men in tow. They don't look all that hip, but muscular and attractive.
"Yep," I say, "I'm here."
"How do you like it?"
"Well," I admit, "it doesn't do much for me. It's just like any typical serviceman's off base bar, except there are no little girls to hold your hand." I think, "Well, in other words, really, it's kind of like a Japanese bar."
"Are you staying at the Friendly House?"
"Well," I say, "I went there, but they were, let's say 'highly unfriendly.'"
She stares in puzzlement. "Well, this is Sam and Jody. They are musicians. Dan here is a writer."
Just like they're musicians, I think. "Yes, I've written five books."
"Published?" the first man says with a Jamaican accent.
"Yes," I nod as I take another sip, "by Laramie, Whitney, and Barney, a very respected firm. Where are you gentlemen from, Barbados?"
"No," the one says, "I'm from Canada. Grew up in Jamaica. You know where we can find jobs?"
"Well," I pause, "try Japan. They're always looking for musicians of some kind of other."
"Really, man, I didn't know that."
"And they pay really well........................ "
August 06, 1992: TRAVELING ON PAPER.
At this point, I have hardly a dollar to spend. I walk around the environs of Bangkok. I start heading in the general direction of the touristy part of town. After about a mile, I begin to realize: I have no idea where I am going.
As I stand there, looking around the park, a man in a uniform comes up to me and speaks:
"You must be an American?" he suggests.
"'Fraid so. Do you have any idea where the Embassy District is from here?"
"Ah yes," he says, "you must be looking for the American consulate."
I don't bother correcting him, but when he gives me the directions, two or three busses, I think, I make a careful note of them. I follow the route he suggests, stopping a couple of places before I finally find the restaurants where all the foreigners eat, a sure sign the hotels are nearby.
After awhile, I finally locate the Landmark Hotel and find my trusty travel agent. Again, the young girl sits at the desk though her mother seems nowhere around.
"There you are," she says.
She looks pretty, not sexy, in a long white shirt with a gold necklace. I wonder then, if I didn't just imagine her.
"You look very pretty today," I say.
She blushes slightly. "Thank you, Mr. Fruit." Then she pauses awkwardly. In a city full of girls who wear skirts shorter than washcloths, I discovered the one girl who blushes. It's kind of reassuring.
"How was your trip?" she says.
"Interesting," I say, "but expensive. I'm busted. Is there any way I can get out of here earlier?"
"Oh yes," she says, suddenly remembering our earlier conversation. She looks down at the phone and starts to dial. A moment later, after she finishes a final remark in Thai, she says to me, "I have a plane out for you late, the night after tomorrow. You must drive down during the day."
I shrug, "I guess I have nothing better to do, no money, no entertainment." I pause, "What was it like when you went to Vietnam?"
Again, she blushes, "I never went."
"I have never been." her eyes turn down slightly, and I look around at this office full of posters of exotic places and a girl who has probably never left the country. I pull out the present I prepared, the usual, a copy of The Plastic Tomorrow, and I write.
"To a beautiful girl, who helped me see the world."
I hand it to her. "Thank-you for all your troubles."
"Yes, for you alone."
I have a student named Angelika who has the distinction, she thinks, of having read every book I've written (this doesn't count the suppressions and the editions of only a copy). She was at a Drama Club rehearsal, and I was explaining the meaning of one of my plays that we working on called TOD UND VERAKLUNG (Death and Transfiguration).
"It all may SEEM random," I told her, "but that's just an effect, like Frost forcing his poetry to sound natural but keeping it in rhythm. In reality there's not a wasted line in this play, and every line adds to every other. I go to great lengths to make things appear random."
"I know." she said.
"Of course," she said, and proceeded to explain, "it's obvious....."
As I sit trying to kill a beer and two hours at the same time, I think of that girl. She must be in her twenties, damn old for a country with the average age of fifteen, whittling away her life, making other people's dreams come true. There must be some kind of justice that lets me live the kind of roving life that sometimes threatens to kill me to exercise my literary delusions, and consigns her to working in an air-conditioned little shop of paper posters, hearing other people's stories. There must be.
August 07, 1992: OUT OF STYLE
When I wake up in my hole, I think how far I have come in three weeks. I now have hardly the baht to eat breakfast, but I do so anyway.
I know now that I have to somehow get to the airport, and I wander down Samfor Road looking for the absolute cheapest shuttle bus I can find. Finally, I see a place offering the service for only 40 baht (call it $2), and I buy a ticket. I count out the change in my pocket, maybe 100 baht left.
When I get to Tokyo, I know I'll need at least $20 to get home. Translated to baht, this means 450 baht. I think to myself, for a second, surely I can borrow a few dollars from someone once I get to the terminal. I mean, after all, among American ...
Just as I think this, I come to a sign that says: "We buy everything, books, backpacks, etc." As I look, I see a young Thai Man.
"Would you buying jeans?" I ask.
He considers, "like the ones you're wearing?"
I look down at the Levis with the five buttons up the front that I think of as my "Mick Jagger specials."
"Yeah," I shrug, "I guess so. Let me go see, but how much?"
"Two hundred baht," he offers.
For two-year-old jeans that seems a lot, but I go to my room and I get another pair. As I stand there between graffiti covered walls, I look at my old camera. In my lifetime, how many of my cameras never failed me? I can't remember a single one until this one. I shrug, but I pick up the case along with two pairs of the jeans.
At school, I now wear some clothes my mother bought me as a child. In junior high, I wanted to look brown, blue, invisible if possible, but my mother insisted on buying greens and checks and yellows. Now, I find these clothes are well-preserved and actually back in style again. You see she had a vision for me, maybe as being styling, certainly colorful. I can wear that vision, something I never really had.
When I go outside, the man still waits near the door. "Is this what you wanted?" I say pointing to the jeans.
"Let me see." he says and proceeds to look them over. "Yes, 200 baht."
That would get me to Shinjuku without dinner. "Each?"
I hand him the two pairs and then pause, holding out my case, "Will you take this camera?"
He looks at it a moment and sneers a little, "I've got lots of cameras."
He folds the jeans.
"Incidentally," I add, "those jeans are out of style."
As I cross the street, I see another little hockshop with a middle-aged Thai lady standing outside.
"Can you take a camera?"
She looks at it quizzically, "Does the case come with it?"
I smile, "The case...is the best part."
She turns it around for a moment and then laughs.
"Two hundred baht."
"Sounds good to me." Sounds just like a train ride.
July 08, 1992: THE LAST TRAIN TO TOKYO
It's two o' clock in the morning, and I finally see the people filing in for Pakistani airlines. When I board the liner, I see what I expect: a planeload full of Filipino workers back from the Middle East. They talk relentlessly among themselves, in good spirits after living so long away from home.
I find myself sitting near nothingness, an empty seat beside me and a five hour plane ride that will take ten hours. Unlike my usual plane ride attitude, I can't sleep at all, and I watch from the sky as the plane ascends above Thailand on its pathway home.
When the plane finally sets down, I feel a strange sense of relief at being in Japan. Part of it stems from just being able to walk to place in the city and drop in a hundred yen to get a cup of coffee or soda and not have to watch hack away a chunk of ice to put it in the glass.
Finally, I find the military counter, where I hope to catch the bus. The Americans, the young service men, seem like giants compared to me. I take two steps forward and there I see my friend from Thailand, whose husband works at Yokota.
"You!" I say.
She surprises me a little by hugging me (that always surprises me). As I step back, she points to a girl standing by her side, dressed demurely in a blue business suit.
"You have to help me help her," she says.
"What's wrong?" I ask.
Her husband, John, stands beside her, "You shouldn't get everyone involved. Let me go check with United."
"What is it?" I ask.
"They bring her from Thailand, yesterday, and then they take her passport. They say they gonna use her as a waitress, but they make her be a prostitute."
"How did she get away."
"This man at the place meet her there, he give her money to go to the airport."
"Who did this?"
She turns to the girl and asks something in Thai.
"She say 'Japanese man.' He come to her village."
"Well," I think. Just a week before I heard about this sort of thing. Then I know. It must be Yakuza.
"What are we gonna do?" she asks.
"Let me think a second," I say.
"These men are gonna come back and look for her."
I nod. "Yes, this will. Wait a second, I know. Let's try Thai Airlines."
At the moment, her husband, Johnny, returns. He doesn't look in a mood for anything pleasant. "I just talked with United. Her ticket is non-refundable. There's not a thing we can do."
"You mean," his wife says, starting to cry, "you just gonna leave her here, so they can get her?"
"I'm not gonna leave her here," I state. "That would be stupid. This makes me ANGRY. Let's try Thai Airlines. They can at least call the Thai Embassy."
Johnny shakes his head, "Alright. Alright. Let's go."
After three false starts, we finally locate the Airline's office. A man sits at a desk, talking on the phone. When we enter, he looks up.
"Can you help this girl?" I ask.
I tell him the story. When I finish, he looks unmoved. "Then she has no relatives here?"
"Well, we can fly her back and take her to the Embassy in the meantime, but it's Sunday. The Embassy will be closed until Monday, and someone in Thailand will have to pay for the ticket."
"What!" I ask, "This girl's a victim. Surely, the government can pick up the tab?"
He shakes his head, "It is an old story. It has happened many times." He asks something in Thai to the girl, who stares forward as though a victim of shock treatment. "She says she has a brother who can pay and a husband."
"Why would she come to Japan if she's already married with a husband."
Johnny's wife answers. "Her husband no work. She need to feed family."
We leave her there in the Thai Airline manager's office. She holds her hands tightly around the purse, and her eyes stare rigidly into the future, awaiting a trip home. That to me, sums up Thailand, a country making its way in the world, buying, selling, and trading. As for Laos, it's easy to think of three girls dressed on those skirts that haven't changed in a hundred years, shopping at the mall that the Vietnamese built that's going to crumble, and content to just watch the world go buy across the river and on the television screen. But what about Vietnam?
All that long train ride back, I think about what I've seen and try to find something I may've learned. After a minute of intense effort, I set this aside. Did I really learn anything?
Somehow, not learning anything, like forgetting, is the closest I can think of to a sin. To see, to experience, to be, and have it all lost. How many people live their lives that way? How many great songs are not written because no one hears them. I'm not hero, but I'M watching. I'm there, and NOBODY is lost to me!
Yes, there's something selfish about traveling 1,000 miles and bringing back nothing. If I can retrieve something, even if it's only words, if I can put the pieces of somebody together again, maybe.........
I look down at the piles of paper accumulated in my belongings: my pathetic declaration of currency, my one method of retreat from the black market; my temporary residency papers (stamped with a blood red stamp from Pham Ba Duz); the flight schedule from Vietnam, showing the airports usage pattern (about twice a day); and of course, my issue of THE SAIGON TIMES.
One article criticizes those "unscrupulous foreign companies" that violate Vietnamese law. Another suggests that in a certain venture cadres "did not meet expectation." The most amusing, however, details foreign trade. In an entire week, only 30 ships landed in the entire country, unloading only 135,000 tons. Probably more tons flew in and out of our airbase in a single week.
Then I look inside my passport for the Vietnamese Visa, the piece of paper I spent four days in obtaining. I scramble through the pages and see the stamp of Laos, an amusing little picture with a dancing girl and that pseudo Thai script. I turn the leafs over and over again, but I can't find it. Suddenly, I remember: at board gate at Ho Chi Minh airport, the guard pulled it out in a single gesture. Out all my pile, he only wanted that. I look at the page where I stapled the Visa and passport: nothing, as though I'd never been there at all.
These papers, maybe, indeed, these are the souvenirs of Vietnam, the flavor of the country, a bunch of words and rubber stamps....I grasp the whole stack, now worthless, and in a single gesture, throw them into the trash.....upholding the in Red line.
And after all it's a thin red line, that stretches from Moscow to Peking to Hanoi. A line that they hand you because they think you will take it, but red with the color of the blood of the believers and those who refused to believe. A line then that can be wound into a ball or sewn into the fabric of flag-or erased from the face of the page.
It's hard to believe that people died for that, but then it's harder to believe that people lived for it either. But like all ink, in the end, it dries up and fades away to a memory.
That not how I wanted to end this book. I wanted to end this book with a reference back to the beginning, something like: "And it was Wednesday afternoon, when I started to thinking about finishing on Sunday." Then I could make a reference back to Thanksgiving, a holiday of purpose and celebration, a chance to pig out on the American legend before the long, hard winter.
It would be best to end the book that way; it would insert a sense of artistic completion with the ending to the beginning, but I thought of the book ending this way on Saturday morning while eating a cheeseburger at the Burger Thing, but that's not the way it really ended, and I would not write anything that couldn't be believed.
And I want to be believed.
The Thin Red Line, A Voyage of Discovery!
The Vision Thing:
These papers, maybe, indeed, these are the souvenirs of Vietnam, the flavor of the country, a bunch of words and rubber stamps....I grasp the whole stack, now worthless, and in a single gesture, throw them into the trash.....
I reach inside my bag and grab my umbrella and hold it tight. I've always said I wouldn't kill myself for $20, but in Hanoi, no US Consulate can bail me out and no second chances. As the other passenger leaves the car, he hands the driver a wad of Vietnamese money and an American twenty.
"See you have to remember," I thought about this these past three days, "the biggest thing about Vietnam is psychological. Our country always had this image that we were 'all powerful' and that we were always 'the good guys.' In Vietnam, our military lost a lot of 'face,' but worse than that, the public lost confidence in America. Now, in Iraq, the Military won back a lot of lost face by going in and doing the job. But the only way Americans will ever want to face the question of Vietnam, is if they can be made to think they were really 'right' after all."
He puts his hand on his, "So it's that simple." His tone suggests that nothing could be further from the truth.
I look at the woods, and think: Thoreau, you were a jerk. Good
Finally, I see it coming: the outstretched hands, the empty seat. Everyone wants to see the American have a drink. I look around helplessly at the two blonde Frenchmen and the German I met walking around at one of the train stops, but they look off into space. You understand (they seem to say) "it's an American thing."
Twenty minutes later, the man shows up. He wears nice clothes, a dress shirt and slacks, a little ridiculous in the ninety degrees, ninety percent humidity weathers outside, and looks to be in his middle twenties.
"They come to pick you up in twenty minutes," he says, "you wait here."
Again, I wonder where they expect me to go at 8:00 in the morning, in Bangkok.
Well, maybe not romance, but all of the above you'll find in this account of an amazing journey takes you from the familiar and off the beaten path of Asia. Best of all, every word of it is true.
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