• Nov 1, 1999 LA Times article on Vietnam -- Delay Rattles Certainty of U.S.-Vietnam Trade Accord
  • Nov 8, 1999 LA Times article on Vietnam -- 'It Was Like the Sky Was Falling In; Torrential rains in Vietnam sweep away lives as well as livelihoods

    Trip to Vietnam

    August/September 1999

    Howard Besser

    Hanoi Area (north) 8/26-8/29
    Hué Area (central) 8/30-9/1
    Saigon Area (south) 9/2-9/6

    Hanoi, Thursday 8/26/99

    Surprised at how small the Hanoi airport is. Kind of like Rigaís. Parking lot is far smaller than Charlottesville or Urbana. Airport is really out in countryside. Countryside really looks like photos of Vietnam War. People along roadside walking or riding bikes stacked with sticks, reeds, etc. Cows wandering onto highway (which is really just one lane in each direction between airport and Hanoi. People along road and in fields are herding small groups of cows or pulling their own cow by a leash. Even see either oxen or water buffalo plowing fields.

    Hanoi looks much more Third World than I expected. Reminds me a little of Delhi. Was expecting more of an urban feel (maybe like Bangkok), but it really still looks like countryside. When we first get to town buildings are kind of ramshackle and almost invisible behind the tiny storefront shops that line the entire street. Looks much more like a country lane (or a a tiny village in rural France) than a city.

    I am absolutely amazed by the number of bicyclists and motorcyclists. They totally envelop the road. Hardly any cars compared to them. And an incredible amount of horn-honking. There are so many bicycles that foreigners donít know how to cross the street, which really takes some time to get used to. The pedestrian needs to just walk across traffic at a constant pace so that the bicycles can anticipate where you are going. Pedestrians need to rely on the bicycles to swerve rather than swerve themselves.

    Everyone seems to be running a scam. I take the airport mini-van in to town, and both the bus driver and the ticket-taker continually try to press me to go to a different hotel. It appears that thereís at least 2 that give them kickbacks, and they finally convince a couple of people in the van to go for it. When they realize that theyíre not going to convince me and another couple, they demand an additional dollar from each of us to take us to our hotels.

    I end up staying in the "backpackers" district. The term "backpackers" is really a misnomer ó it doesnít refer to people who hike and backpack; instead it refers to people who carry backpacks. So itís mostly young people (20-somethings) living on the cheap. The "backpackers district" is where thereís a large congregation of cheap guesthouses and cheap hotels, lots of Internet cafés, and lots of vendors selling postcards, T-Shirts, and souvenirs.

    My hotel (the Win) first tries to get $25/night for a room (thatís more than I paid in Bangkok!), but they settle for $23. Monsoon rains start, incredibly hard. People on the street constantly follow me around and hassle me, trying to sell me something or get me to take a cyclo (peddle-cab) ride.
     

    Hanoi, Friday 8/27/99

    People continue to hassle and follow me, trying to get me to buy postcards or maps or to take cyclo rides. Really nice cheap T-Shirts (about $1 each) and 50 cent ice cream cones (exotic flavors, small scoop, big sweet cone).

    Apparently, Vietnamese government workers only make about $40/month, and that is a very respectable salary by Vietnamese standards. That means that just $1 is a huge amount of money to a Vietnamese person. And that explains why I am often followed for 15 minutes by a 3-wheeled bicycle ("cyclo") driver trying to convince me to let him haul me around for an hour for only $1. Even heavy pedaling in this hot heat is worth it to him because $1 is worth so much.

    But the number of people hassling gringos for money is absolutely incredible. "Reforms" in the so-called "socialist state" of Vietnam have pretty much done away with social welfare. Iím approached by a large number of begging little kids and elderly people who are seriously hungry -- so much so that theyíre really excited about finishing things off my plate.

    I sit for a couple of hours talking with a 20-year-old who initially approached me trying to sell me T-Shirts. Both she and her husband come into Hanoi from their village a few days a week, hoping to sell enough T-Shirts to feed themselves. She says that thereís really high unemployment and no job prospects. And nothing like unemployment insurance or the dole. And now families have to pay to send their kids to school, and still thereís not enough school supplies. Kids are constantly approaching me on the street begging for me to give them a pen.

    I wonder how Vietnam can consider itself a "socialist" state. It seems to me that, above all else, socialism should offer people the necessities of life, and no one in a socialist state should go hungry.

    Museums

    Museums are really interesting. Really poor conditions for conservation/preservation. Most are not air conditioned, and at most only have fans. Items displayed are a weird mixture of original documents (some of which show such bad light deterioration that theyíre barely visible), and document photocopies (many of which are really poor photocopies).

    Museum displays are a mixture of technologically advanced and quite primitive. The War Museum has a number of dioramas. Most intricate is a huge one on the Battle of Dien Ben Phu. A 40-foot wide diorama shows the valley where the 1954 battle took place defeating the French. It has a 4-foot wide video projection of a documentary film (oddly projected onto a white and blue sky portion of the diorama, not onto something white and made for projection). There are several colors of lights within the diorama, and these are keyed to the video. So as the video explains the battle, the lights show what itís explaining (encampments, troop movements, attacks, etc.). Thereís also a set of spotlights that highlite portions of the battlefield at appropriate times. Reminds me a lot of the civil war diorama at Stone Mountain (?) outside of Atlanta. Thinking back over it, it seems that maybe the audio and the diorama lights are tightly synched to one another, and that the video projection is almost supplementary footage that doesnít need to be tightly synched. The Ho Chi Minh museum also has one interesting technological item -- a large display that lights up when someone approaches it (but I couldnít figure out what triggers this).

    I actually found the War Museum moved me. I think of the Vietnam War as one of the last wars that could be won against technologically superior forces. They had a special display on mothers who gave their sons to the war, and this made me think of how any war effects family and friends on all sides in a similar way. Other interesting displays included punji stick traps, and a sculpture made of shot down enemy planes.

    The Ho Chi Minh Museum was really something else. Total deification of Ho. But lots of other interesting things. Clearly the Vietnamese see their "revolution" as linked to others that came before and after it. One room was dedicated to other revolutions that considered the struggle of the Vietnamese as inspirational. Another room had an incredible set of images etched into glass, arranged in a kind of glass maze that you could get lost in. The images were all focused on the turn-of-the-century ferver in France that supposedly influenced Ho. They included: the surrealist manifesto, paintings by Henri Rousseau and Picasso, a photo of Ernst or Duchamps, stills from the earliest films, a model of the Eiffel Tower, etc. Still another room discussed Hoís anti-fascism by focusing on Picassoís Guernica, including: models of images from Guernica, as well as other odd things (like a reproduction of an Ernst painting).

    Another very revealing item: The French CIA-type organization had been tracking Ho (who then went by another name), and arranged for Hong Kong police to arrest and charge him in 1931. Interesting that there was such international spying and cooperation between superpowers at that point in time.

    Northern Vietnam, Sunday 8/29/99

    Spent the day with a tour to the Perfume Pagoda. About a 2-hour bus trip out of Hanoi, then another 90 minutes being rowed up-river (3 gringos to a boat), then a long steep climb up the mountain in incredibly heat and humidity. The countryside and views are beautiful, but the hike is a little much in that weather. On the way we passed lots of huts where people live, and these were all trying to sell us something. Some of these had dogs that were just lounging around (unaware of their eventual fate). One of the places had 2 monkeys in small cages. I felt so sorry for them. One of the monkeys seemed so upset, and with nothing else to do, he was sucking himself off. The Perfume Pagoda is a pretty incredible sight, constructed in a cave full of stalactites and stalagmites.

    The guides on this trip are really great. But theyíre kind of revealing of the muddled Vietnamese politics. Weíre visiting a holy Buddhist shrine, and the guide tells us that something like 3/4 of the Vietnamese population is Buddhist. I ask if thereís any conflict between religion and communism (remembering in the back of my head Marx saying that "religion is the opiate of the people"). The guide launches into a muddled 20 minute talk trying to explain how the Vietnamese communist party made some mistakes in the past, but now their on the right road. I think he was half talking about embracing capitalism and only partially about letting people believe in myths.

    Weíre also accompanied by a bunch of kids about junior high school age. These kids do most of the boat rowing, and haul drinks up the mountain with us, periodically trying to see the drinks to us. On the way back down, I buy a bottle of water from the kid who rows my boat. She wants 25,000 for it (the regular price is 5,000), but I give her the asking price because she says sheís trying to earn money for school. But, after rowing back to where the bus is parked, she asks for more money for her rowing, money she can use for school. I tell her I already gave her extra money when I bought the drink, but she gets really upset. After about 10 minutes of periodic arguing in a group, she gets so upset that she storms away misty-eyed. I follow her and try to press money in her hand which she refuses, but I eventually make her take. I feel really bad about it.

    But more than that, Iím really pissed at my fellow travelers, and pissed at the tour company. The tour company lets these kids do all the rowing and all the hauling of drinks up the mountain, and doesnít pay them a dong! And thereís something very fishy about the fact that the kids didnít start rowing until we were out of sight from the village we left from, and on the way back they handing over their rowing to someone else as we approached within eyesight of the dock. But the only people really bothered by this in our tourgroup of about 20 were this French couple who complained and me. Later that night I complained to the guy who sold me the tour, telling him that they really shouldnít use child labor like that. And that it would be better to just charge a few more dollars for the tour and be able to pay people for work like rowing.

    But I was really upset at my fellow travelersí reaction to this sordid affair. It was this typical type of "backpacker" mentality -- "Iím poor, donít ask me for more money". These poor kids had worked really hard rowing and carrying our drinks, and my fellow travelersí just told them "I already paid for the tour, and Iím very poor." Comparing their so-called "poverty" (in wanting to go around the world for $1,000) to the poverty of the people here in Vietnam is absolutely absurd! But they really do think of themselves as poor, even when faced with such extreme poverty of starving people!

    This is related to quite an interesting issue. People who are tourists in Vietnam are almost exclusively people on the lower end of the income spectrum in developed countries: primarily young people who have middle-class earning potential but arenít quite earning that now. The Vietnamese look at these tourists (who would probably be lower middle-class in the west) as representatives of the westís wealth. But what will happen when much wealthier tourists discover Vietnam? Will Vietnamese change the way they approach tourists? Will they adopt the kind of bifurcating of rich tourists from poor tourists that goes on in many western countries (where street hawkers often snub poorer-looking tourists)?
     

    Hué, Monday 8/30/99

    Took a plane from Hanoi to Hué. Itís amazing how small the Hanoi airport is. And the Hué airport is even smaller. Ours was the only plane there. In fact, the Vietnam Airlines crew comes from town to the airport just to meet the few flights that come each day. I was the only one buying a ticket on the Airline shuttle into town from the airport, so Iím riding with the Airline crew.

    I stay at the Mimosa Guest House, on a small alleyway near a very large hotel on the river. The teenage daughter at the Guest House convinces me to rent their bike ($1/day). Bicycling is great, and I start to really like Hué. Itís a little less humid here than Hanoi or Bangkok (though still very humid). But at least I donít break out into a stickiness as soon as I leave my room. And the bike is absolutely great for the heat -- feeling the wind as I ride really seems to cool me down.

    Ten minutes after I start riding, a guy on a motorbike pulls beside me and starts to talk with me in English. His name is Vø Kieu, and heís maybe a little older than me. He invites me to his house. He loves Americans (as well as other English speakers), and shows me a collection of photos and letters sent to him by english-speakers heís met. I sit with him in his tiny rural home for more than an hour, and his daughter serves me lunch. He wants his teenage daughter to practice her English with me, but sheís really too shy.

    He drives around tourists with his cyclo, and his wife is a kind of butcher at the big open-air market. They have trouble making ends meet. It costs so much to put their kids through K-12 school. He says they have to pay $80 for school (which I think is something like 1/4 of the average annual income for a Vietnamese).

    Again, I wonder why school isnít free in a so-called socialist state. It seems that they would want both the education and the socialization that goes with school.

    The guy wants me to take a tour with him the next day, but I really want to take a boat trip. He makes the convincing argument that seeing the tombs is easier on motorbike than on boat, but Iím much more interested in the actual boat trip than in the fact that the boat goes to visit the tombs. So this guy accompanies me with his bicycle all the way across town to the Walled City, and wants to wait until I get out. I loved his honesty and his hospitality and wanted to repay him, but I didnít want to take his motorbike tour. So I just handed him a large bill (about $4) and thanked him, and told him to definitely not wait for me. I continue to have these traumas of people being really nice to me, and kind of expecting a particular thing in return -- but what they expect in return is something that I really donít want to do.

    In the evening I end up in a pretty touristy café. Itís called the News Cafe, and probably just be chance theyíve hit on what has become trendy in the US -- having recent newspapers available for people to read while they eat and drink. The proprietor (who sells food and tours) really likes Americans (as does just about everyone Iíve met here), and urges to me see the Vietnamese countryside, as well as some of the sites from the War. He pulls out an issue of Vanity Fair with a very good article on the Zippo Lighters that Gis had engraved during the War. And he shows me several books on Vietnam History, particularly on the War. He spends lots of time with me, telling me how Iíve got to see the real Vietnam. Instead of taking the plane to Saigon, he wants me to take a bus through the countryside. Heís not really pushing me to take his tour and genuinely wants me to see the countryside, but I feel guilty not taking his tour. Iím feeling a lot of this. I finally resolve this the next day by deciding to rent a motorbike from him and seeing the countryside that way.

    Almost every day on Vietnamese television Iíve caught this striking dramatic program. Itís set during the Vietnam War, and mainly about the relations between one group of Viet Cong liberation fighters. Itís amazing to see this soap-opera type drama with heroic machine-gun toting women, and the group hanging out in caves and tunnels. And itís periodically interspersed with them hiding in foxholes while American troops walk above them, as well as occasional funkily-staged battle scenes. Social realism soap operas! These go well with all the social realist billboards around every town.
     

    Hué, Tuesday 8/31/99

    Took a boat trip on the Perfume River, heading for several tombs. Iím not particularly interested in the tombs, but in the boat ride itself. Someone who I met on the trip to the Perfume Pagoda warned me about this, and the tour books donít make the tombs look all that interesting. And itís very clear that you have to pay extra to see the tombs themselves. And after all, we only paid $2 for the all-day boat trip, and that includes a nice lunch! With me on the trip are 3 Brits and a retired French guy.

    At our second boat stop weíre told that we have to pay for motorbike rides from the dock to the tomb, then pay to get into the tomb itself. My attitude was "I donít really care about either; Iím just here for the boat ride". The three Brits on the boat donít want to go either, but they start a line of disrespectful grousing about the "damn Vietnamese" and how theyíre all conspiring to rip us off. They seem to be blaming our poor boat-people who only charged us $2 for a long boatride including lunch! These poor people donít have much money at all, and live on the boat. And Iím starting to fume at these Brits about their attitude. Again, itís as if the Brits are really poor and being taken advantage of by an organized conspiracy of the entire Vietnamese population.

    A little later we all decide to go to another tomb, and I end up exploding at one of the Brits. We bargain down the motorbike people to 15000 dong for a round-trip to the tombs. They want to be paid when we get to the tombs but the Brit refuses, and starts into a rap about how "all these Vietnamese rip you off"; he doesnít want to pay until they take us back because heís sure that they wonít come to bring us back. I start yelling at him, and then calmly try to explain the difference between bargaining and honesty. He eventually gets what Iím saying (or at least says he does).

    We ended up getting back early because we missed one of the tombs. And we find that the electricity has been off the entire day in my neighborhood. This means no air conditioning and even no fans, no cold drinking water, etc. Suddenly, I decide that some parts of the technological industrial world are worth having!

    I get my first email message from Lynn. She did get to Berkeley ok, and has rearranged my kitchen.

    Around dinnertime I run into the French guy from my boat trip, looking at the menu in the News Café, where I ate the night before. We decide to eat together, and have a lengthy and relaxed meal. At one point he tells me a story about meeting a Vietnamese professor who told him that the French had fought a clean war, but Americans fought a dirty one. According to him, they still havenít gotten over all the napalm, herbicides, agent orange, and other horrible things that the US had done to Vietnam. That is the kind of attitude that I had expected to find here, but this was the first exposure I had to it (and it was second-hand). Everyone I come in contact with really seems to LOVE Americans, which I find really strange.

    We end up talking with 3 20-something women (from Toronto, Montréal, and New Zealand) who didnít know each other before, but met in Thailand and are partially traveling together (on $10/day). They seem to have a pretty good attitude about things, and sympathize with my story about the Brits on the boat and their refusal to try to even understand Vietnamese culture. They invite me to go bicycling in the countryside with them the next day. But this causes another dilemma for me, as I had promised the cafeís proprietor that I would rent a motorbike from him for the day. And I do want to practice riding a motorbike. But I think it would be really fun to bike around with these folks.

    I have long talks again tonight with the proprietor of the News Café. The previous night he had pulled out an article from Vanity Fair on the Zippo lighters from the Vietnam War. He had tried to convince me to go to the DMZ because the War needs to be remembered. And heís insistent that I get out of the cities and see the "real" Vietnam, so heís pushing me to go to Saigon by bus instead of by air.
     

    Hué, Wednesday 9/1/99

    I end up doing an all-day motorbike ride through the countryside around Hué with a group of 8 other westerners: the 3 women I met the night before (from Ontario, Quebec, and New Zealand), 2 French guys, a Spanish guy, and 2 guys I didnít talk to much (from Holland and England). We also have a Vietnamese woman who serves as a driver for one of the motorbikes.

    Just as we start renting the motorbikes, I crash and total mine (before I even get into the street)! But Iím amazed at how everyone gathers around me, all of them asking how Iím doing. Iím particularly touched by the shoeshine boy (maybe 13 years old) who immediately rushed off to get some rubbing alcohol, which he then dubbed on my raw knee to help clean it out. (This kid was so incredibly cute, and spent a lot of time hanging around with the core of our group when we were at the News Cafe evenings and mornings. He joked around a lot in both English and French, and was just such a joy to be around.) It seems like quite a while before anyone even bothers about the bike. Thereís a bunch of major problems with the bike, and I end up paying someone $10 to fix them.

    The trip through the countryside is absolutely incredible! We see all stage of rice production: cutting and gathering it, bringing incredibly heavy bales of it in from the fields (which Benjamin actually tries and gets a large sore on his shoulder), using either machines or the wind to "separate the rice from the chaff", and drying it out on hot asphalt roads.

    We end up at the beach, where thereís a motorbike parking lot and people who want to charge for parking. One of our guys (the Dutch one) gets irate ("these damn Vietnamese try to trap you into paying everywhere") and says heís going to refuse to pay the 10 cents and take his motorbike onto the beach (which is illegal). [His response to it being illegal, "What are they going to do about it?"]

    Iím getting more and more upset at this "backpacker" mentality. Most of the "backpackers" seem to have no cultural sensitivity whatsover. I really wonder why theyíre traveling in this far-off place. It seems that their entire goal is to get by as cheaply as possible. Thereís even a kind of macho competitiveness about it, with people boasting about how they got something for a fantastic price by talking a Vietnamese way down from their asking price. Sure, the Vietnamese initially ask higher prices and hope to get them (which, of course, feeds this backpacker feeling of getting ripped off), but several important things get totally dropped from the interactions and attitudes. The question of what something is really worth completely disappears, and is replaced by "how little can I pay for this". And thereís absolutely no thought given to the fact that the dollar that doesnít mean all that much to the traveler is an entire dayís salary to a Vietnamese. I find it really troubling that, even those these "backpackers" donít have much money right now (or at least donít have much that theyíve allocated to their travels), their earning potential is staggering compared to any of the Vietnamese! Any of these people returning home are likely to be able to pick up even a menial job in which working for 3 hours will earn them more than a Vietnamese earns in a month of hard labor.

    And, of course, Iím not immune to this myself. I do try to get better deals, and do involve myself in bargaining. But I assuage my conscience by periodically giving food or money to people (particularly people who look like theyíve been maimed by napalm), and by periodically ending the bargaining by recalling that the item in question is actually worth a whole lot more than Iím trying to pay.

    And certainly a few of the backpackers have more cultural sensitivity than the others (for example, some of the women I went motorbiking with). But itís almost like the "things are cheap and people bargain here" is a set-up for cultural biases and mis-understandings. And this is something that I find really upsetting.
     

    Hué, Saigon, Thursday 9/2/99

    Today is Vietnamese Independence Day, but you almost couldnít tell that it was a national holiday. Leaving for the Hué airport before 7 AM, the streets are bustling with people. Iím on the same plane to Saigon with the 2 French guys I motorbiked with yesterday: Sylvain and Benjamin. The Hué airport has billboards for western products. And itís so small and the planes are so close in, that our checked baggage goes directly onto a pick-up truck that then drives about 100 feet out to the plane. But Vietnam airlines is flying very modern, new, western planes: Iím on Airbus 320s on international flights, and Folker 70s on domestic flights.

    Something else at the airport surprises me: even though itís doubtful that they have more than 6 planes come in there on any given day, they have 2 planes arriving and leaving at close to the same time! It looks funny having the 2 on the tarmac together, and a few people are confused as to which plane they should get on. My plane is scheduled to leave about 10 minutes after the other, and as Iím climbing my planeís staircase, the other plane (which is no more than 100 feet away) starts its engines and begins taxiing down the tarmac!

    But I must say that Vietnam Airlines, at least as far as I can tell, is really good. All my flights have left on time. Their plane fleet is all modern (mainly Airbus 320s and Folker 70s). And the flight attendants are really sweet (though all females in slinky traditional dresses), and thereís quite edible meal service even on hour-long flights.

    Saigonís airport is the first one Iíve seen in Vietnam that looks like a real airport, but itís still dinky. We share a cab, going to our hotels in the "backpackers district". Saigon streets are even more crowded with motorcycles and bikes than Hanoiís, but thereís decidedly more cars here (though thereís still very few cars compared to a western city).

    We pass one Independence Day celebration, where there seems to be some kind of fair going on around the Reunification Building (and theyíre taking tickets to get into the grounds). Most shops seem to be open, but many of those that are closed are flying Vietnamese flags in front. In the evening we see an incredibly large celebration at the Municipal Theater. Apparently the symphony and ballet are performing inside (for $5 tickets), but thereís a dance performance going on a giant stage constructed in front. Traditional dances and costumes are part of the performance, which is mixed with all kinds of special effects (including periodically engulfing the stage in colored smoke!). The streets around the stage are packed pretty solidly with people, but amazingly most of them are sitting on their motorbikes!!! So the several streets approaching this plaza are jam-packed with stationary motorbikes with people sitting on them (and quite a few of them still have their engines running!!).

    Walking around that evening with Sylvain, Benjamin, and a French woman they had met in Hué, Karine, we see that largest congestion of motorbikes Iíve ever seen in my life. On this large boulevard, every time a light turns red, thereís many hundreds of motorbikes backed up before the light turns green again.

    We first go to an incredibly western place that looks like an ice cream parlor but serves all types of western food (hamburgers, pizza, spaghetti). Then we end up eating a genuine (bourgeois) Vietnamese meal at one of the "best" restaurants in town -- Lemongrass. It was a delicious meal, but outrageously priced for Vietnamese -- about $7 each (including drinks).

    As we walk around, I notice (and start acquiring) a large number of renditions of trademarked western characters, particularly Disney.

    Iím staying in the "backpackers district". This one block of De Than Street is almost nothing but hotels, tourist cafes, and shops catering to young, cheap, western tourists. More than half the faces one sees on this block are westerners, but by the time you get a couple of blocks away from here, you see few western faces.

    Iím staying at the Hong Hoa Hotel, which offers a room (for one or 2 people) and 2 hours of Internet connections for $9 a night. Getting into it from the "backpackers street" is kind of bizarre: you have to walk through a small grocery/sundries store, then through 3 Internet rooms before you get to the small hotel lobby (the main entrance is from the alleyway behind).
     

    Saigon, Mekong River, Friday 9/3/99

    Spent the whole day on a trip along the Mekong River, on the same tour with the french woman Perrine. Took almost 2 hours just to get out of Saigon (itís so big). Went to the area of My Tho, and tooled around 4 large and small islands around Ben Tre Province. Went in a combination of 3 sizes of boats (from medium to rowboats). Tooled around the river (which, in places, seemed large enough to be a bay), then went up small streams. At time I felt like I was in Apocalypse Now.

    Passed the "Floating Fish Market", where they sell fish right off the boats that have just come in. Had lunch on Phoenix Island. Visited a beekeeping farm (which was really tiny, and way out in the middle of nowhere; even after going upstream by boat, we had to walk about a kilometer up a small path through the jungle) where they make honey. The Vietnamese bees donít sting people unless theyíre angry (the bees, that is), so we could stick out hands through the bees into the hive and pull out a fingerfull of honey to taste without being bitten. Drank some honey wine (which tasted like very strong hard liquor).

    At the beekeeping farm they had a large python-like snake. Because it had just eaten a duck (whole), and we could see the bulge in its body, people could pick it up without being attacked. So loads of people picked up this huge snake and lifted it around their shoulders. One said that she could feel the parts of the duck inside it. I thought that this was pretty cruel to the poor snake, and was happy when the snake vomited up a bunch of liquid; after that people were reluctant to lift it up.

    We also passed areas where the coconut trees had been clear-cut, and where they had planted new growth seedlings, probably to replace them.

    We took a lot of paths through the countryside, as well as boated along riverbanks where we could see small huts where people lived. What was really amazing was the proliferation of television in these rural huts where people must have just recently gotten electricity. TV antennas everywhere, and even on a small path through the jungle, far away from even water transportation, I saw kids so transfixed at their TVs that they didnít notice the parade of gringos passing by.

    I saw a bunch of wild turkeys, which surprised me because they are native to North America. The turkeys were really scrawny, not benefiting from all the growth hormones used to fatten up American turkeys. When I asked our guide about them, he said that, while Americans eat turkeys at holidays like Thanksgiving, Vietnamese instead eat dogs on those festive occasions. So itís almost like theyíre the opposite of us: they have turkeys for pets, but eat the dogs!

    We also visited a "coconut candy factory", which wasnít much of a "factory" by western standards. It was another small old house on a medium-sized path in the jungle. We saw all the processes by which the candy was made. They seem to be resourceful in using all their resources, even using the coconut shells as fuel for boiling the rice-coconut mixture for the candy. We saw the people (almost a dozen young women) wrapping the individual pieces of coconut candy, then packaging them. It was clearly a sweat-shop, and they were working at break-neck speed. Theyíre paid by piece-work which our guide explained "gives those who want to earn more money the opportunity to work faster so they can earn more". So much for a proletarian state!

    The tour was pretty well-run and well engineered. It clearly makes a lot of money for the tour company, Sinh Cafe, which is all over Vietnam. Whatís really interesting is that almost all their clientele right now is ultra-low-budget travelers (mainly youth). It will be interesting to see them ramp up their offerings for the flood of higher income tourists that are bound to descend on Vietnam in the next few years. They stand to make huge amounts of money when that happens.
     

    Saigon, Saturday 9/4/99

    Walked around the town a lot, taking photos of billboards and of people selling things. Visited the War Remnants Museum, which I found extremely moving. Unfortunately I was kicked out for lunch before I got a chance to see more than 1/4 of it. But from what I saw, it didnít seem nearly as biased as the books would have led me to believe. I saw a room devoted to the atrocities of Agent Orange and similar herbicides, and I found this really moving. Sure, they didnít talk about herbicides the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong used (which they probably didnít!) or about atrocities they committed (which Iím sure were quite numerous), but often there arenít too equal sides to a story. It really didnít seem all that biased to me.

    The exhibit was quite up to date. The included both excerpts from McNameraís recently published book, as well as a huge blow photo of the bookís cover. The book, by the US Secretary of Defense during most of the American involvement in the War, couldnít have come out more than 6 months ago, and already itís part of the display. I think that the museum stretches what he wrote a little, but again, given what the Vietnamese have gone through at the hands of the American government, I donít think itís very biased at all. And it was very interesting that several of the display panels talked about Agent Orangeís effect on US soldiers. This goes at least a little way to helping me understand how the Vietnamese today can really like Americans, after all our government did to them. But they seem to both make a distinction between our government and the American people, and they seem to have gone on with their lives and let some skeletons just lie in the closet.

    I also went to the Revolutionary Museum. It wasnít particularly interesting, except in the sense that it was strikingly different than the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi. From the Ho Museum, youíd think that Ho fomented revolution all by himself. In the Revolutionary Museum, you get a sense that since the 1930s there has been a significant Vietnamese communist movement with quite a bit of popular support. In fact, from the Revolutionary Museum, Ho looks like just a bit player (though an important one). There were two very interesting panels in this museum. One talked about how the helicopter next to it had "contributed to liberate Kampuchia from Genocide of Pol Pot. The other discussed and illustrated how the Americans had corrupted the youth of South Vietnam with short skirts, music, and pornography.

    Again, both of these museums contained a mixture of original documents and photocopies. And again, the light and heat damage to some of the documents was visible.

    The rehabilitated former South Vietnamese Army people all seem to have a positive attitude; a perspective on how the American influence on the War was bad, but hope that theyíre moving forward to something better.
     

    outside Saigon, Sunday 9/5/99

    Went on another tour with the Sinh Cafe. Morning in the Cao Dai Temple, afternoon at the Cu Chi Tunnels. Cao Dai was really ostentatious and is actually very new (this century). Itís an amalgam of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Christianity. And one of its saints is Victor Hugo!! But it was pretty silly to spend the morning looking at some cult group, even if they have 2 million followers. And watching people pray is about as interesting as watching them sleep. Next time Iíll go to a Moonie Temple in Korea!

    The Cu Chi Tunnels were really interesting. Unfortunately it started to rain as soon as we got there. So I felt like a soldier during the War, tromping through ankle-deep muddy trails through the jungle, with rain pouring down around me.

    There were something like 40 kilometers of tunnels (on three levels) that the Viet Cong used both to hide in and to move people and supplies in from the Cambodian border. The tunnels were absolutely amazing, and we got to crawl through about 1/2 kilometer of one. They periodically go up to a different level then down again. The original tunnels were ultra-narrow at the entrance to keep the larger Americans from getting in (if they ever saw through the camouflage). In some interior spots they also narrowed, to trap Americans if they ever got that far.

    On display there were also a wide assortment of punji sticks and other home-made traps, all of which were pretty gross. But thereís no comparison between these "peoplesí weapons" and the weapons of mass destruction that the other side had.

    There was a small museum-like display that showed a very useful mock-up of one section of tunnels and various levels. They also had a video they played for us that was abysmal! It contained documentary footage plus voice-over, but the voice-over kept being drowned out by the noises on the documentary footage.

    The worst part of the tunnels is that at the end of the trip we end up next to a small cage housing 3 poor monkeys, as well as another one housing a bear. It was so sad to see them in there!