Thursday, January 20, 2011

Halong Bay and Bye Bye

 I don’t know too much about UNESCO, but they seem like a pretty together bunch of people. They’ve resurrected the town of Hoi An, creating a tourist destination that admittedly has its hokey moments, but has also put a bunch of down and out people back to work and given them some pride in their heritage. One of the northern Vietnamese provinces has been known for its hauntingly beautiful folk songs. As the area industrializes and goes commercial, the oral history is being lost. UNESCO managed to get wind of the music and has designated the tradition of these particular songs as a cultural treasure. The music has been recorded and it would not surprise me to learn that destination visits to the area by folkies from all over the planet will soon be available. In a related gesture, the outlying Vietnamese who have been required to hunt wild and endangered animals for a living are being offered alternatives. While it is easy to pontificate and sit in judgment from the comforts of our societies (emphasis on comfort), a father with 5 hungry children does not have the luxury to evaluate the global effect of capturing a monkey and selling it to a restaurant to earn $20 to feed his family for a month. Likewise the farmer who cuts down a mahogany tree and gets enough cash to buy medicine for his mother is more concerned with his survival than the planet’s. I am pleased to report that preliminary baby sized steps are being taken to end this seemingly hopeless cycle. Farmers are being taught the benefits of sustainable tourism. Instead of killing the pangolin for its meat, being able to point out the animal in its natural habitat to a Dooney & Bourke clad tourist is something that he will be able to do seven days a week – for more money than he’d get for the carcass. And – here’s the good part – you can’t kill the same pangolin 7 days in a row. It’s the beast that keeps on giving. And on top of that – they will not become extinct!! What is the downside to this deal? None that I can think of. If the pangolin population runs wild and start forming triad gangs and Mah Johng clubs, come back and criticize me then. There is a future; it will require time and work but the perplexing question as to how to replace forestry and hunting income has an answer.

UNESCO is also in the process of identifying seven new natural Wonders of the World. To that end, Halong Bay has been put on the nomination list. Halong Bay is situated in the Gulf of Tonkin. You may dimly recall that name; it was the location where the USS Maddox warship was supposedly the victim of an unprovoked attacked by the Vietnamese in the early 60’s. In response the US Senate passed a resolution, cleverly entitled the Tonkin Resolution, which permitted the introduction of direct US military force into Vietnam. The vote in the House of Representatives was 417-1; the senate was 98-2, proving that there was a modicum of sanity in the government at the time. A very small modicum, but a modicum none the less. The entire story surrounding the attack, however,was fabricated to justify intervention. On top of that, US soldiers had been fighting illegally in Vietnam since 1960 or so. They were assigned to bases in Korea, but were given false ID tags and bivouacked in Laos and Cambodia, participating regularly on missions into ‘Nam. This was not propaganda fed to us by one of the museums in Hanoi. A few months earlier some golf buddies and I were in Orlando and had a few minutes of a backlog to get to the first tee. The starter , a Vietnam vet,was a retiree in his 70’s. During the wait, it was he, as one of those first  illegally posted US Army Rangers, who recounted the story to us.

I digress. Halong Bay is a magnificent archipelago consisting of 2,000 limestone peaks protruding from the Gulf.
They are situated quite close to Haiphong Harbour, another famous waterway mined by the US during the war. I digress. The water is a shimmering shade of greenish-blue. Well, I would imagine it to shimmer should it ever have the opportunity to reflect the sunlight. It doesn’t shimmer cloud cover and mist so well, and that is what we were exposed to for the 24 hours or so that we were there. Weather aside (and it was cold too), the setting is idyllic. Lori and I found ourselves on a two level junk
sharing living quarters with three other families and two other couples. All told we were 16 together, almost all Australians, and we again had a delightful guide on board with us. The cabin was more than adequate, the food delicious and there was a bar open all day. What could be bad?

The boat cruised between the various Pinnacles; the crew was Top Flight, never more than a Call Away. For exercise, we docked at a small islet known as Titov Island, named in 1962 when Marshall Titov of the USSR accompanied Ho Chi Minh on a tour of the region. The renaming was supposedly an act of friendship, but I interpret as either a giant suck up to the Russkies by Ho or a calculated swipe at the Americans. Likely both. There is also a sandy beach at the base of the mountain. Usually people opt to swim rather than climb, but climatic conditions dictated unanimous upward adventure. 461 steps later we arrived at the summit. There were a few trinket sellers on the way up, offering the usual supply of carvings, cigarettes, fans, key chains and the like. I’m ready to open up my own stand but I’d be selling oxygen and insurance policies.

The view from the top was spectacular, offering a panoramic vista of junks and a sprinkling of islands of all differing sizes. It was splendid. I suggest you go on line to check it out. My wife’s talents, as great as they are with her Nikon, was not able to capture the full glory that I’m sure is issued forth courtesy of a sunny sky. I would suggest a visit to Halong Bay, actually, but check the weather conditions prior to booking. If you’re not that adventurous, at least go to the UNESCO site and ring in a vote for the Bay, even if it is only based on our say so.

Once back on board, we set off in a different direction. The afternoon session was divided in two options. One could either visit a floating village
or kayak into a Bat Cave. All but 3 opted for the village people. I chose to Go West. My reasoning was solid – better exercise, no chance of being harassed to buy more souvenirs, and I was hoping to finally meet Bruce Wayne and Robin. The kayaks were 2 seaters. 
On the first one sat Joey and his father Graham. They represented 40% of a delightful Ozzie family that we became friendly with quite quickly. One of their daughters was celebrating her 17th birthday that day and her mother, Amanda, was tall, beautiful with an engaging smile and a twinkle in her eye. The whole family was a delight to watch interact. The other Ozzie family was a husband and wife with 2 kids, also delightful. The only problem, Lori and I realized, reviewing the events of the day as we got into bed, was that we were a good decade older than the parents of the families. We felt totally connected to them and their offspring as well, but the reality of the situation drove itself home unmistakably. It’s tickin’ and it’s tickin’ LOUD.

I kayaked with the guide for about a kilometer until we reached the cave. The cave was actually an opening through one of the peaks. 
It led into a small lagoon that was surrounded by mountains and was alarmingly still and silent. When we stopped and raised paddles, the silence was palpable and engulfing. There were sea urchins and coral in the shallows and I also spotted a red starfish. It looked strikingly in line with all other political symbols we’ve seen since we’ve arrived in this country and my hat goes off to the breeders who have managed to extend the party vision to sub-marine life forms. There was nary a bat to be seen going through the cave, although mercifully, one had the good manners to fly in and cling to some dark surface as we returned back through the cavern heading to the ship.

Lori and the rest had a chance to be exposed to the village, which may house the largest known floating crap game in existence. There was a school, a market, a family structure and all of the other accouterments normally associated with building a village on terra firma. Basements excepted, of course.

Evening consisted of another meal, another demonstration of decorating food and some general small talk that is the focus of so many a pleasant holiday. I had the chance for some one on one time with the guide as we sat on the deck discussing life and again I feel lucky to hear of ambition and desire to move ahead. Quon became a tour guide after leaving a job at the nearby casino where he had started off as a dealer and graduated to pit boss. The Chinese owners raked millions out of the establishment but seriously underpaid their local staff. Quon was also a trainer of new dealers. When they arrived from the Philippines or Thailand or Laos looking for work, Quon taught them their jobs. Within a few months, they were earning 10 times the pay of the Vietnamese. It was demoralizing working in that environment so Quon chucked the job and began a career on the tour boats. He was not making much more money but had more time off to spend with his wife and baby son. Again, I was witnessing the seismic generational shift. Twenty years ago opting for family time over work was unheard of. This is the start of a value shift which is only one element leading to a social change the likes of which Ho could never imagine in his wildest dreams. Another manifestation of the change in generational values is seen in the clothing worn by the post-starvation generation. Today it’s all about style. Whereas a dozen years ago, a child received a shirt, or if very fortunate, a pair of pants as a gift to usher in the Tet New Year. The garment was the only gift of the year and was expected to last well beyond the upcoming 12 month period. Now the 50 and below generation prefers a cheaply made flash garment, disposable at the end of the current fashion season. Where as once an article of clothing was valued for durability, today’s vestments have the lifespan reflecting the sartorial equivalent of a fruit fly. One season and out.

Our last Halong Bay activity was a geological eye opener. A cave had been discovered a decade ago by a couple of French women who were touring the region. A quick boat ride, up a hundred steps and we were staring into a yawning crevasse that yielded natural wonders at every juncture. A subterranean cathedral, built by millions of years of water dripping through limestone; each drop containing a microscopic deposit of residue which resulted in hundreds of stalagmites and stalactites spread out over acres of underground plains. They soared twenty or more meters in height. Mostly in earth tones of yellow, brown and ochre, the cleverly arranged lighting produced hues of red, green, yellow and other tones that added to the magic of the environment.
I had never been inside a real cave and the firsthand viewing of petrified giant icicles was a true add-on to my life experience.

As we headed back to Hanoi for our final evening, I casually mentioned to Duoc that I had seen this magnificent piece of antique pottery that had been dredged up from the bed of the South China Sea. It was part of a private collection in Hoi An. Duoc, showing off his knowledge of the local area, suggested that the piece originated from this little town called Bat Trang, situated just outside of Hanoi. He explained that families had been there for generations and supplied emperors with finely crafted ceramics for over a millennium. Getting there would not be a problem, I was assured and since the afternoon was wide open, I said what the heck, or whatever the Vietnamese equivalent of that is.

We arrive in Bat Trang, a sleepy little town with numerous emporiums. By this time I was becoming fixated with antique Vietnamese pottery. I breezed through the customary row upon row of ceramics hankering for a look at the good stuff. The tea pots, intricately decorated plates, and planters were lined up nose to tail on the shelves. Each one was perfect and identical to the other. The display called to mind numerous visits to Davis Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, where hundreds if not thousands of military planes are positioned so precisely that a row of 50 planes looks like one plane if you are standing dead center in front of the first aircraft. I was going to mention the likeness to Duoc but remembering what Charlie had done to the US airbases in ‘Nam a few decades back, I felt that the US has enough of their own problems without a bunch of guys in black PJs sneaking onto the base and destroying more jets, just for old time’s sake.

It turns out that these cranked out tea sets and plates are actually tossed on the wheel, trimmed, glazed and painted one at a time and each by hand. What seemed like an indictment of modern assembly line automation was actually a celebration of individual talent, skill, perseverance and a steady hand and good eyesight.

Eventually, Duoc got me into the inner sanctum. The owner showed us the locked cabinet which contained pieces that traced their origin back from 200 to 800 years. As is often unfortunately the situation, one piece called out to me. I heard my name clearly spoken with an ancient Vietnamese accent. Two jars and a tea cup and saucer later,

the owner, her husband, the store manager and I are hard at work negotiating the best price. After an hour of haggling, I explained that my infatuation began with a viewing of relics in Hoi An. I went on and on about this shell encrusted one of a kind magnificent vase that I saw there. Apparently, the grandfather of the store owner, unsurprisingly, was a bit of a collector himself. The girls excused themselves and within 15 minutes had brought samples of Grandaddy’s loot to the store.
Included in the collection was the brother of the piece that we had seen the previous week in Hoi An. The only difference was where the crustaceans had chosen to affix themselves. So much for one of a kind. Maybe coincidence, maybe they were given away in cereal boxes (puffed rice?) way back when, but it didn’t matter. Seeing these pieces rekindled the same sense in me and I was grateful to relive the moment. While Grandpa’s collection was not for sale at any price, within 20 minutes, I was offered the famous jar for a measly $5,000. If I were made out of money, I’d have bought it, but having seen 2 such pieces within a week, I felt that my next visit to any of the myriad antique shops on Notre Dame Street back home would likely turn up a couple of dozen of them to choose from.

In the mean time, the final chapter on the antiques is not yet written. I’ve paid for them plus $103 for air shipping. They were to be here in a week and that was last week. I hope to have a better souvenir of our side trip to Bat Trang than being ripped off by a lovely family who may have been in the tourist fleecing business since Marco Polo showed up.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hanoi - a town named by aggravated Quebecois tourists?

As we kept heading north the weather degenerated. We were picked up at te airport by our final driver/guide combo and were informed that we had arrived too late to get access to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Apparently, they close at noon daily. I’m not sure why; it’s not like they have to pay Ho time and a half for the extra hours they’d be open. We were told that the magnificent structure houses the physical remains of the shriveled up leader of the great revelutio9n. I am told he looks so natural, having been embalmed using the same process that was used to preserve Lenin. It appears that he is not dead, just resting; I suggested a small mechanical pump be installed in his chest to increase the realism. Rejected. Ho grew up in a poor family; his father was an unsuccessful revolutionary who fought against the French Colonialists early in their occupation. His two siblings also joined the revolution and interestingly none were married and the lineage ended at Ho’s generation. I find it ironic that a culture that attaches so much value to ancestral worship has a leader that left no one to say Vietnamese Kaddish for him. When I brought this up to our guide, he indicated that all Vietnamese consider Ho Chi Minh to be their father and therefore he has tens of millions paying their respects.

Ho’s history is studied in great detail and forms the intellectual and educational cornerstone of all Viets. He was educated in Europe and took on all kinds of odd and low end jobs to sustain himself. To be able to leave Vietnam, he signed up for a job of cabin boy on a French Luxury liner that had made Vietnam its port of call. Were I to return to university to obtain my masters in Political Science, my thesis would be based on examining the youth of leaders who have changed the world in order to uncover the determinants to their motivation and behaviour. The idea crossed my mind many years ago watching certain members of an elite golf course at which I am a member, heap a ton of abuse on the wait staff, the caddies and the like. It made me cringe to see a total lack of respect for an individual of lower socio-economic status heaped upon him or her by somebody who should know a lot better. It made me wonder if Hitler ever worked as a waiter in a Jewish golf club as a teenager in Germany. Him having done so would help to explain (but obviously not justify) the Holocaust. Same deal for Ho. I can only imagine the snooty, obnoxious, dismissive French clientele aboard the liner, addressing the future leader as ‘boy’ or ‘garcon’ or ‘you little yellow slanty-eyed worm’, or something equally endearing. Perhaps the Asian movement toward communism owes its origin to abuse of a cabin boy.

The mausoleum apparently has references to Marx and Lenin inscribed inside it. I never realized until that minute how similar Ho Chi Minh’s influences were to mine. Groucho and John should be proud. The Canadian government should be very proud. Our embassy is situated in close proximity to Uncle Ho’s Ice House. Our guide found it essential to show us the place and we obliged him by agreeing to be photographed in the shadow of our flag.
As another Canadian aside, one morning at the resort, one of the servers, upon hearing that we were Canadian began to gush about the delicious honey that is apparently unique to Canada. I tried to explain that there was nothing special about our bees until she explained that what makes our honey unique was that it did not come from bees, rather – trees. So if you’re ever in a remote part of the world and would like to explain to the locals what Maple Syrup is all about – there’s your metaphor.

Our new guide, Duoc, or Donald as I was tempted to call him, brought us out to the Museum of Ethnology, a huge modern structure courtesy of the French Government , built in the mid-90’s which celebrates the ethnic diversity of the 54 tribes which make up the cultural mĂ©lange that is Vietnam. The Viet people, one ethnicity, make up 90% of the population, so as a mosaic, the picture would have a lot of yellow in it. Nonetheless, the display of artifacts (looms, ritual costumes, utensils, instruments, etc. 
) provided a well organized and nicely displayed insight into 2,000 years of diversity
Outdoors, the government had gathered about 16 homes from various parts of the country and had them reconstructed on the grounds. The architectural divergences which reflect the geographical variances provided an anthropological sampling that would have made Margaret Mead happy. One of the tribes constructed a community hall that was at least 20 meters high. The reasoning behind the jungle skyscraper was to allow the local hunters who strayed too far from home and got lost to climb a tree, locate the superstructure and find their way home.
Another tribe had a very interesting ritual when it came to being dead. Upon expiring, the body was schlepped out to the death house where it sat around and rotted. When enough corpses piled up, the family invited the villagers to a feast which ended with the igniting of the tomb. The wealthier the family, the more frequent the burnings. Surrounding the tomb were a serious of statues engaged in various forms of sexual activity. A number of the statuettes were pregnant. The theme apparently was the great circle of life. You die, you come back, you die, you come back. Seems like a lot of work for nothing.

Next stop was the single pillar pagoda, built by an ancient king who was sonless. In a dream Confucius came to him and presented him with a son. Nine months later, Ruler Jr. was born. Kingo built the pagoda to reflect the building as it appeared in the dream.
There’s that cross- cultural thing happening again – The Annunciation, featuring Gabriel, Sarah’s miracle birthing to Isaac. Many stories based upon unexpected of unusual births seem to be at the basis of history and legend. Draw your own conclusions.

Second to last stop was at a large outdoor university that served as a source of education to a thousand years of students. The gardens were magnificent and 87 sculpted turtles carried large stone tablets on their backs engraved with the top student from each graduating class dating back millennia.

There wass also a large shrine to Confucius, whose teachings, along with Buddhism for the basis of religion, philosophy and the moral code of the region. Somehow, I can’t helpbut draw a link between Confucian and Confusion. They seem too close to be purely co-incidental. Nonetheless, his viewpoints were adopted by royalty in the region for hundreds of years. Not surprising, really. The fundamentals of the concept place the king above all, then the educators, and finally the parents, with the wife bearing a pronounced subservient role in the overall scheme of things. I see why this structure would appeal to any aspiring despot. I know that it does to me.
Heading to our hotel for an evening check in, we passed a road sign for the Hanoi Hilton. I enquired if a tour of the famous prison camp built by the French to hold the Vietminh insurgents and ultimately commandeered by the Viet Cong and converted into a hell hole for downed US fighter pilots would be on the tour. It turns out that the Hanoi Hilton is exactly that – a 4 star hotel catering to western visitors. My, how far we’ve come.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Hoi An - More than an anagram for Hanoi

Our final Hoi An day was fairly tranquil and without significant incident. One of the most important axioms that I’ve developed as a traveler relates to the two overriding elements which significantly affect one’s perception of the visited place. Enjoyment is directly related to the people that you meet in any particular venue and by the weather that you experience while there. Other than the Vietnamese massage girls, I have not been terribly drawn to too many of the tourists. They’re nice enough, mostly Australian and very family oriented. The weather continues to be a serious psyche drain as hurricane-like conditions continue to pummel the resort. We paid extra for an ocean view and all that I am able to see are sheets of rain powered by blasts of wind. I think that we are hearing the roar of the surf but it could just as easily be the sound of gale force winds rushing through the palm trees which have not succumbed to the monsoon and are still standing. 

Our first massage was such a delight and so well priced that we decided to spoil ourselves and go back for a second heaping helping. Lori had a mani-pedi (what a silly sounding name) and I went for a Vietnamese massage which was more or less a regular massage with some additional attention paid to pressure points and was a truly delightful experience. The notion of getting 3 or 4 massages a week is probably one of the greatest indulgences one could treat oneself to. Once season tix for the Habs, 8 rows up at center ice has been procured, of course.

We were supposed to spend the first half of our last full day doing another cooking session, including a visit to the market that would teach us how to select the choicest mackerels for the main dish – fish head soufflĂ©. After rat and cobra, mind you, it didn’t sound so bad. The monsoon had upgraded itself to a Class 4 hurricane by the time 6:30AM rolled around. We decided to eschew the market visit in exchange for another hour of shut eye, called our guide and advised him of our change in plan. He did not fight too hard; or at all for that matter. We also decided to be driven to the cooking lesson rather than take the boat to the destination along with the rest of the great unwashed who were scheduled to do the  Vietnam Gourmet thing with us and instead rolled up to the front door of the place dry and just on time to watch the rest of the group alight from the boats looking like river rats in various stages of drowning. 


Our host chef was an affable and amusing dude who spoke a very solid English with some serious muttering and aside comments that though well rehearsed, were refreshing and very funny. He was also a pretty talented cook. The work station was set up at the front of the display room which was a thatched hut. Behind our chef was a mirror angled at about 40 degrees which afforded us an unobstructed view of the prep. He referred to the mirror as Vietnamese TV. 

That’s the kind of guy he was. The first dish called for the making of a rice paper pancake. It involved spreading a rice batter over a thin cloth that was stretched over a steaming pot. Once somewhat coagulated, it had to be removed using a thin bamboo spatula. I totally screwed up my crepe; Lori aced hers. 

This result was radically different from the previous day’s cooking session in which we made mini egg/rice pancakes with shallots in the batter and stuffed with bean sprouts, shrimp and pork (the Vaad would be a bit difficult to convince on this dish, maybe a double payoff). Mai, one of the sisters who ran yesterday’s farm-food experience was hugely impressed with my style and technique, up to and including flipping the pancake sin mid-air, to the point whereby she confided to Hao, our guide that she had never seen a Western man handle a meal prep as well as I. Lori, upon her turn, managed to spill most of the sprouts out of the pan, with them landing in an almost unreachable location behind the pot. To avoid mincing words, her pancake was an abortion. Mai stated that Lori would not be particularly high quality bride material in Vietnam. After I picked myself up off the floor, undoubling myself from laughter, I tried to explain that my darling wife had plenty of other characteristics and a whole host of qualities that rendered her a tremendous catch, but the die had been cast and I was facing an unwinnable argument. So I took the compliment, traded her for a sickly water buffalo and we were on our way.

Lori continued to acquit herself admirably at cooking session 2 and following yet another feast we wandered through the village, visiting the famous Japanese covered bridge which was replete with tourists not interested in vacating the site to enable Lori an unobstructed view.
I pulled a 20,000 Dong note out of my pocket that displayed the bridge on its reverse side and showed it to her, explaining that an unencumbered picture was unnecessary. The argument held about as much water as was passing under the bridge but was to no avail. Crossing the bridge, we hit tourist alley including a visit to the House of Phung Hung, a historically conserved home that reflected Japanese, Chinese and Viet architecture. It has been inhabited by the same family for 8 generations. They had made a fortune trading spices, silk, and gold prior to the Thu Bon River silting up in the 19th century rendering the town an instant anachronism. The six daughters living in the house are now resorting to a heartless soulless 2 minute tour of their ancestral home, which is now replete with tourist geegaws top to bottom. This once proud family have been reduced to trinket hawkers that I find both sad and pathetic.
Vietnamese versions of Larry Curly and Moe (actually Long Life, Happiness, and Prosperity)

The family altar still dominates the second floor and contains pictures of their venerated predecessors. If in fact, they are still looking down on the most recent generation, I do not think that they would be too pleased with the new entrepreneurial direction that has been generated by this generation. 


Now for a little educational piece for all of you who have wondered why incense in burned in all Asian temples and alters. Communicating with the dead is a vital part of the daily activities. Commemorating the departed is an essential aspect of their life. Birthdays are almost irrelevant in this culture. You age is determined by the year that you are in. For example, February 3rd is the Tet New Year. On that day, all Vietnamese will consider themselves a year older. If you are born on February 2nd, you are considered one year old the next day. The day of one’s passing is marked and becomes an indelible date in the family. When trying to communicate or put forth a wish to the departed, incense is used since once lit, the smoke starts off visible and as it dissipates, the sense is that it has transcended to the other side, carrying the message of the living to the departed. Sort of like fax meets e-mail.

A final fitting followed at Yaly with the suit being delivered to the hotel at day’s end. I figure that the retailoring cost to fix the deficiencies when I return home will approximate the cost of the suit. I will also be bringing my newly acquired North Face, purchased in Hanoi jacket to the tailor when I get home. The jacket is superb and purchased at a price about ¼ of what it would cost at home. Once a non-working snap is repaired along with a slight repairing to an interior seam is completed, I will have scored big time. I look forward to checking out the same jackets at home to see if they display the same Made in Vietnam labels as they have here.

We finished off our day relaxing at the resort, packed up and headed off to Da Nang Airport the next morning, bidding a fond farewell to Hoa, who insisted on trading his guide cap for Lori’s Wildlife At Risk hat, which she parted with reluctantly until she realized that if Hoa is wearing that hat, other tourists might be inclined to inquire about the organization (web site embroidered on back of hat). It will probably do more good in Vietnam that TMR.

Silkworms eating Mulberry Leaves; no we did not eat them

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Hue to Da Nang and Hoi An

Our stay in Hue was a two night affair, which involved one full day of touring. Hue, the original capital of Vietnam, has a deep and colorful past and is centered around the Perfume River, named for a particular type of aromatic flower that used to grow on its banks prior to being herbicided into extinction. Our tour started off by hopping onto a dragon boat which has become the home of numerous displaced farmers who left the countryside during the war seeking safety from the combatants and a better life, which degenerated into having their wives and daughters servicing the US soldiers on their boats in order to eke out any form of subsistence. Numerous boat people were Viet Cong sympathizers and lured unwitting GI’s into their boats for a session which sometimes resulted in an eight inch spike being hammered into the skull of the unsuspecting customer. Happy Endings are obviously quite subjective in this country.

We cruised the river with the boatperson hostess stopping off at a police checkpoint mid-river to offer the required $1 bribe to continue the tour. A quick visit to the local pagoda,
hampered by some rain and we were off to The Citadel, which served as Vietnam’s answer to China’s Forbidden City. It was the home of the local emperor and his court. The parts that were not destroyed by the French or the Americans impressed us in terms of scope and beauty. There were areas for the concubines, for the queen, the king’s mother, a working area and a general palace. The king was surrounded by the best and brightest administrators who were required to pass an exam that was offered every three years. The three top applicants, who were able to offer up the most creative answers to local governance issues, foreign trade, administrative planning, local development questions, etc. were appointed as Mandarins. There was no room at the top for Tangelos, Clementines or Seedless Valencias.

Speaking of seedless, other than the King the only males allowed on campus were the court eunuchs. All other inhabitants, including the king’s 300 or so concubines were of the female persuasion. He was not big into sharing or competition apparently. Again, rain made the excursion a bit less pleasant that it ought to have been, but no big deal, it was like water rolling off a tourist’s back.

Lunch was followed by a visit to the tomb of Khai Dinh,
the second to last emperor who died in 1925, and was the last one to have a tomb made for him. The hillside location took 13 yers to find. The king sent out a small army of geographers seeking the appropriate spot. It ended up being about 10 kilometers out of town and had a view to die for. Construction began 5 years prior to his death and took 7 years of keeping him on ice to complete the job. Pictures say it all. The mist caused by the low hanging clouds added a surreal and ethereal mood to the experience.

Lori found a new friend in Hue. Mr. Cu ran a local restaurant across the street from our hotel. In addition to his main gig, his walls were covered with photographs he’d taken of various scenes in Vietnam. Obviously, the two got along like a house on fire, exchanging pics, ideas, apertures and the like. He signed a couple of shots and presented them to Lori as birthday gifts. A delightful man and a pleasure to spend some after hours time with drinking ubiquitous tea together.

Hau, our tour guide, picked us up bright and early the next morning; well, not so early, around 9:00, and we headed south to Da Nang. The drive along a large lagoon was inspiring as we got to see how the locals have created an industry raising oysters in the shallows. As we left Hue province, we had to climb a mountain pass that hugged the edge of the coast. When we reached the peak, we were able to look back at the China Sea and forward to Da Nang, with Monkey Mountain looming in the foreground. The peak of the pass was a strategic location for both the French and the US. There were concrete bunkers and brick bunkers with slots to fire out of. All were pockmarked by countless rounds courtesy of the Viet Cong firing back from the next hill

Lunch followed in Da Nang, which was the first incursion point of the US. In addition to a large naval base, they also built a radar station and a landing strip. Both are currently in use by the Vietnamese, as are many other landing strips all over the country which, including Hue, have been turned into local airports. You’d think the VC would be appreciative, but not even a thank you card.

Da Nang has evolved from a sleepy port that had seen more than its share of grief into a hugely successful development town. To its south is China Beach. Named by the US soldiers and a subsequent hit TV show, the gorgeous sandy tract is being turned into one long strip of hotels, condos, and casinos. One of the leading developers is a company called Vina Capital, a real estate firm owned and operated by the daughter of the President of Viet Nam. Pure co-incidence apparently. Lori noted that the development in the area seemed similar to the changes we have observed over the past decade or so visiting my parents in Palm Desert, CA. What was once undeveloped scrub is now a cacophony of strip centers, golf courses, gated communities and condominium projects. I’m talking about both Palm Desert and Da Nang, folks. The growth is explosive and, given the financial issues facing the two different markets over the past two or three years, the smart money is on ‘Nam.

Going back to Vina Capital, The Imperial Hotel in Hue, and the 5 star resort in which we are presently ensconced, I would have to think that the national symbol of this country should be the washing machine, given the level of laundering that is evidently happening in every sector of the economy. Government officials, who earn very meager salaries all, seem to have friends who own huge mansions and allow the officials to live there for free. Or they have brothers who own hotels. Or they have friends who run large factories. Odd.

We arrive at Hoi An, a sleepy little town that’s been on the map for the past 6 or 7 centuries.  
A trading town/port situated on the South China Sea, the town has been populated by the Japanese, the Dutch, the French as well as a plethora of other nations taking turns playing Conquest a Milton-Bradley board game available to despots wherever they may be. People would remain stuck in this town until the Trade Winds showed up at which point they would be back on board and heading home with their lucre safely on board. Marco Polo was apparently an early visitor. All went to pot when the river silted up in the 19th century and Da Nang became the port of choice. Fast forward to 1999 when UNESCO put Hoi An and its old town back on the map by designating it on its World Heritage List and look out mama, the tourists are back. The streets are teeming with travelers. Everything from the nomadic backpackers staying at $5 per nigh hostels in the middle of the old town (God, I miss those days) to high end five star resorts such as the Palm Gardens where we are presently camped out (OK, a reasonable offset against my old knapsack days).

Stop one was Valy’s, a high end tailor shop where I’m in the process of realizing a lifelong dream of having an off-white linen suit being made to measure for me at a price that I’ve previously paid to buy a tie. I am desperately seeking formal invitations for this upcoming summer. If you are anticipating holding some type of fancy party, please make certain to invite us. I will amuse and amaze whilst wearing my Robert Morley circa African Queen/Sidney Greenstreet circa Casablanca outfit.

We checked into the aforementioned and sumptuous Palm Garden Resort for our longest single repose of the lux portion of our holiday and, after unpacking, hit the bar and knocked back a few (OK, several) Long Island Iced Teas while talking it up with Hank and Michelle, an Ozzie couple on holiday with 3 of their 6 children. Dinner was sumptuous and we retired for the evening.

Today began with an 8:30 pick up. We headed to the farm/home of a well respected member of the Tra Que Vegetable Village, a local tourist destination
where Lori and I got to don those brown Mao looking tunics, conical hats, 
and hoed, raked and planted a couple of rows of Morning Glories after being given a tour of the farm (each family gets 200 square meters to raise their crops, which get sold to the high end restos and hotels that dot the neighbourhood. The focal point of this tourist project is a family dwelling and business that processes tourists by the dozen. It is a well oiled machine. The place comes equipped with a seventy year old matriarch who served the Viet Cong, was captured, interrogated and tortured to the point where she’s lost her mind. She wanders around the homestead, reading nationalistic propaganda poetry off of a virtually blank piece of paper and rolls the smoothest looking cigarettes in the palm of her hand. Imagine Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies were she to come from Vietnam and be a lunatic and you get the idea. It seems that the government shows a great deal of respect for those who fought the good fight back in the day. Missus is nuts and her husband lost his hearing as a result of being too close to one too many bombardments. They have been selected as the ‘go to’ farmers for the regional tourist attraction in recognition of their sacrifice. They are now doing well financially, very well. The business is run by one of the sons and he and his wife have carved out quite a niche for themselves. Picture Ava Gabor and Eddy Albert from Green Acres and there you have them.

After the hoeing sand planting session, which was led by Thieu, a cute, perky 22 year old attractive cousin who spoke a delightful English and has ambitions beyond the family farm, we were given sumptuous foot massage, with a bit of Tiger Balm on the temples action, followed by a cooking lesson, given up by various sisters, cousins and associated meshpucha. Picture Petticoat Junction and there you have it. Naturally I was a star when it came to making this delicious crepe type pancakes filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts, up to and including mid-air flips that landed squarely in the pan.

We ate all the food we prepped and then headed back into the village where we wandered the streets, caught some of the local culture, I had my first try on, and we finished the afternoon attending a hokey folk song, local instrument production that, as Lori accurately pointed out, if they were going through the motions with even a modicum less verve, they’d be catatonic.
Check out the jugs
Our last stop involved a visit to a collecxtor of artifacts. She was a colleague of our tour guide who seems to have half a dozen varying businesses going on, one being a cataloguer of national treasures, a portion of which end up in his private collection. Apparently one of his confederates is a researcher too, also with a stunning collection of antiques. We were privileged to get the opportunity to view the collection, a portion of which is apparently available to a select group of visitors of which I am apparently one. To access the collection, we entered into one of the many innocuous tailor shops on the main drag, we went through the curtain in the back and then up the stairs. I half expected to see Napolean Solo and Ilya Kuryakin there, but we seemed to be alone. The only piece that I really wanted, a 16th century vase recovered from a local shipwreck, was not available and had it been, I doubt that I could afford it. All in all, it was a fun afternoon and we headed back to the resort and signed up for two of the most sumptuous massages imaginable. As it turned out, Lori and I were being worked on in the same room, with two Vietnamese masseuses doing the honours. I spent the better part of the hour trying to figure out how to turn the session into a serious advantage for me, but nothing worked out. Oh well, had to suffer.

Tomorrow is another cooking lesson, a final try on and who knows what else. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

We fly up to Central Vietnam

Hue. No Hue. Yes Hue. - Wayne and Garth

Here’s why travel is so cool. No other activity in all creation affords the opportunity for certain kinds of miracles to happen, in both major and minor keys. As Lori and I left Montreal on the first leg of our flight a couple of Fridays ago, we ran into Robert Josephson who was just coming home from a grueling week in Toronto. We exchanged a few words and I indicated to him where we were ultimately heading. “Oh, Jimmy Garfinkle is heading to Vietnam to visit his son”, he informed us. “I’ll be sure to say hi from you when I see him” I threw back. He wished us safe travels and that was that. Fast forward to yesterday. Lori and I were concluding our overnight stay at a guest house on an island in the middle of the Mekong Delta. We visited the floating market,
where purveyors of all kinds of foodstuffs gather together daily, selling their wares (wholesale) to shop owners who come down from as far away as Saigon to pick up a truck full of pumpkins, coconuts, and turnips and drive back to sell them at their roadside stands.

Next stop for us was the mainland where our driver had headed to earlier to pick us up for the return trip to Saigon and what was to be the end of Phase I of our post-volunteering tour. We idled 10 minutes at the dock, waiting for 2 other boats to fill with tourists and head off on their own expeditions. Eventually, it was our turn to tie up. I hopped onto the jetty and walked up toward the parking lot when lo and behold, there stood the Garfinkles.

“Robert Josephson sends his regards” I said to a bemused Jimmy. We stood around, exchanged various highlights of our respective tours and they were off. Understand – we were standing on the docks of Vinh Long, not in Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. There was only one person from home who I knew to be in the country. If our boat was not held up by other traffic; if whatever events got them to the pier at that exact moment did not occur precisely as they had, our paths would not have crossed. What are the odds? Well, given my 30 plus years of traversing strange corners of the planet, I’d say about 50-50. This type of stuff happens all the time! And the feeling never goes stale. It is always a hoot to run into a friend – and the more remote the locale, the larger the hoot factor.

Two hours later, we are back in Ho Sai Gon City eating Pho with Quon and saying our good byes. He drives us back to the hotel, we check in, drop off our luggage; he drops us off at the War Remnants Museum, we hug and say farewell.

Located in the former US Information Services building, there stands no greater monument to pure propaganda. They really do it so well. The courtyard contains specimens of the defeated US War Machine. An F5 fighter jet,

 an M-41 tank, a Chinook helicopter, a Huey chopper, and other implements of death and destruction that Goliath heaped on David Nguyen. Adjacent to the ordinance was a small stone building with full coloured wall mounted story boards that described in words and pictures, the various atrocities visited upon the freedom fighters by the American backed South Vietnamese. Barbed wire ‘tiger cages’ measuring 6’ x 3’ x 2’ that simultaneously housed 3 or 4 prisoners as well as a guillotine were part of the permanent display. This was all before we walked into the main building. Once inside, the main banner indicated a temporary photographic exhibition of the effects of Agent Orange, from those wonderful people at Dow Chemicals (proud sponsors of the Bhopal disaster) and the folks at Monsanto. Now, nobody who knows me would ever refer to me as a Commie sympathizer, but the effects of Agent Orange, a powerful defoliant that served to turn jungle to desert overnight and altered the DNA of those who came into contact with it gives one pause to ask – even in war, should there not be a limit? Parenthetically countless American Vietnam Vets have either died early from cancer related to ingesting Agent Orange or have produced a statistically significant percentage of offspring with severe genetic birth defects. The manufacturing companies, in response to a lawsuit launched by the former soldiers, without any official support from the military (Isn’t it great how the US Government did such a wonderful job in providing absolutely no support to those poor US kids who came home to no parades, were considered social pariahs and evil child killers, and were subsequently found to have physical and psychological scars that never went away?), ultimately admitted guilt and have offered restitution to soldiers and their families. The Vietnamese have been awarded similar damages from the
World Court
, but it seems that Dow and Monsanto have misplaced their cheque books. They were in the top drawer on the right side just yesterday, but nobody seems to know where to find them now.

Realizing that photos of barren lands and kids who looked like they belonged in circus sideshows wasn’t powerful enough, the Vietnamese government had three or four of these unfortunate deformed, maimed, retarded children in wheel chairs on display next to the exhibit. They all wore orange shirts just in case the connection was too subtle for the average visitor. The level of exploitation was physically sickening and repulsive. It served to underline the fact that there were no limits self-imposed by either side during or after the war. Ask John McCain. He spent several years as a guest of the Viet Cong in a prison known as the Hanoi Hilton. To this day he is unable to raise his arms above shoulder level as a result of the tortures inflicted on him. Then there were the bamboo traps that were just large enough to contain the average American soldier. They were kept immersed in water up to their chests for several days at a time. The water rats were particularly pleased with the chance to nibble on the occasional toe. I did not see much in the way of reference of northern atrocities anywhere in the exhibition and could not find a sympathetic looking guard to go to with any questions that I had which required answering. Bottom line – the whole thing was a massive fuck up. The level of inhumanity is incomprehensible. Nobody was right, nobody deserved exoneration, and I just get sick and embarrassed as a human being that our species can act in such a barbarous fashion. Not only do we kill for stupid reasons (greed, money, power, the other guy is taller than me), but the sickest part of all that I am having great difficulty dealing with is the creativity humans find to maximize the infliction of pain and torture on fellow humans. Having never been exposed directly to warfare, I have no right to comment on what happens to a person’s sense of reason, justice and propriety under such stress. That said, why anybody should have to be exposed to such a damaging surreal mindset such as war? What will it take to get past this? Education, huge geophysical disasters, a visit from outer space? We need a serious mid-course correction here, folks.

Today we are in Hue.
We flew up to the middle of the country and after checking in to a supposed 5 star hotel (only worth 4, but compared to where we’ve been putting up for the past 2 weeks, it’s an 11), we spent a couple of hours chilling out on the beach
with an occasional plunge into the South China Sea. 
She followed me home. Can I keep her?
Chilling being the operative word since it clouded over and dropped about 5 degrees within half an hour of our arrival. Julian, where are you when I need you? Nonetheless, the quiet time was lovely and, it being Lori’s birthday (93)
, knowing how much she likes the seaside made it that much more special.

Coming back from the seaside, we stopped at the local market.
All they had there was everything.
You want shoes? They got shoes.
You want fruit? They got fruit.

 You want spices? They got spices. I picked up about half a pound of saffron (I’m just wild about saffron) for about fifty cents. Don’t buy any, come over and take – I have plenty.

Our new guide is just a few years younger than us. He is from the south. His father was a doctor with the ARVN during the war, as was his mother. When defeat came, his father was sent to the countryside in order to be ‘rehabilitated’. As was usually the case, that meant imminent death. His mother died of a broken heart soon after. Orphaned at 18, our guide had hoped to follow in his parents footsteps and attend medical college. As a result of his parents association with the south and the US, all doors to highest level advancement were completely shut. He was permitted to attend university and graduate as a chemist. He is the first person that we have met who has provided a different perspective on the war and its aftermath. Apparently there were two sides to the conflict. My understanding is that what had ostensibly been an agrarian society became radicalized as they took the next generation off of the farms and sent them to universities. The allure of political theory, taught within the vacuum of academia presented a compelling and positive argument for societal restructuring along egalitarian guidelines. Look at Quebec, look at Iran, look at France; it happens all the time. There is a compelling argument not to force education on elements of societies that are unprepared for it. The trouble is that the gap between theory and reality is cavernous and, by the time a revolutionized socio-political intelligentsia wakes up and realizes that people are starving, hundreds of thousands have died and the nation’s cultural history has been wiped out, it’s too late. Fortunately for the vanguard who are in charge of the whole shootin’ match (literally), they’ve been ensconced in positions of power and are able to continue to line their pockets with graft and bribery, and become the only group to financially benefit from the wholesale destruction they have visited on their nation. With a single party system, accountability goes out the window and they become gross caricatures of everything they preached against in their earlier years. On that depressing note, I think I’ll get a gun and shoot myself. It’s been fun.