With a sigh of relief, I received my passport and visa today. Most fortunate as I leave for Hanoi on the 2nd. I just love these last minute little details..
On the plane at last...Hanoi bound. It has been a long way to getting here. I left Texas for New Orleans and Christmas with Sarah and Mitty. Christmas this year was "slim pickins'...plane tickets and eating out were the gifts and that is darn expensive in New Orleans. The girls and I had some good "quality bonding time" before I had to leave.
From there went on to Atlanta to visit with the rest of the family..specifically Mom, but also , brother Jim, sis Ann and assorted nieces and nephews. They fed me fried catfish and put me on the plane. ..boarded Korean Air for Hanoi via Chicago to Seoul (8 hour layover), then Vietnam Air to Hanoi and it was suddenly Sunday. Saturday never happened. That is still strange.
As I was filling out the appropriate forms to enter I discovered the number on the visa permit was different from the # of the visa stamped in my passport. Hope it doesn't matter. My inclination was to point out the discrepancies and decided silence was probably best. Passed right through customs - videos and all. Grabbed a cab and knew for sure I was back in VN "Chicken" is still the favorite road sport. and in the dark it is a real thrill. However, either the driver was more careful or I have been desensitized as my life flashed before my eyes only once, so certain we were in for a head on collision - but hey, an inch is as good as a mile!
Hotel Viet Long is as I left it - sort of run down but now know to appreciate it anyway. I'm in the same room as before - felt strangely at home. Someone else had felt at home here, her lip print was on the wall beside the bed.
As I unpacked and settled in for a few days, thoughts of the coming experiences floated to the surface. This would be a different experience than the first trip. I felt more comfortable this time. I knew the people I would be seeing and interviewing. I was alone. Well, alone with the interpreter and the government guide in the south.
Called Kevin Bowen (Boston group in town) at the Huu Nigh (pronounced "who knee") Hotel. To meet them all for breakfast in the morning. Kim Hoa called. She still has not received the letters or the film...sent ages ago. Glad I brought some extra videos.
Breakfast with Kevin, Grace Paley, Lady Borton, and Chung as well as the publishers from Viking, Cambridge and Curbpress Presses. Interesting folks to talk with. Hope to have more contact with them upon returning to the states.
Returned to the hotel and called my Mom and brother. Jim was to send messages to the vvhp crew and the girls.
I've been trying to call our embassy but no answer (?). Hope they are wired for phones.
This evening I am having cocktails and dinner with Sandy Northrupp and her husband David Lamb. Sandy has been the producer of the Memorial Day Concert Live for PBS the past 8 years. David is the Correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Hanoi Bureau. Sandy, a Stanford graduate, ran into an alumni tour group and invited them for cocktails. A truly American moment in the middle of Hanoi. Then the Vietnam Writer's Assn. had given me many invitations for the poetry reading tonight. They were finished before we were so missed that.
Hate to admit it but this afternoon I "cratered" and took a much needed nap before the evenings activities. Then I walked around the corner to the writer's assn to say hi to Kim Hoa who is the public relations person for the assn. I think her job description must be pages long. She does everything.
The Stanford group of 20 were very interesting people. Enjoyed talking with them. I do regret missing the poetry reading. Maybe I'll hear from the ambassador tomorrow.
Jan. 6, Tuesday
This morning I went to Writer's assn. meeting with the publishers of both countries. The agenda of the meeting was to search for compromise on copyrights and to find ways of training interpreters who understand the cultural context and have "soul" in their interpretations.
After afternoon session had a "tour" of publishing office for their magazine. Then were invited to dinner by their assn for a "King's Feast" dinner which is traditional for Tet. There were 15 courses ending with green tea and black bean sweet soup. We were entertained by traditional VN band and music. Some of the Vietnamese writers knew the performers and were invited to join them on stage. They have wonderful voices and knew the words to the songs sung. I think the songs must have been traditional songs.
RE: the widows and sons and daughter's trip:
Finally heard from the embassy folks today. The ambassador's office referred me to Mike Eilend who is in charge of Science and Technology. We couldn't gather the connection there, but after a brief visit we discovered mutual friends - Roger and Norma Donlon..Norma being one of the widows I've intervied. I have an appt. with Mike on Thursday afternoon. meanwhile, he referred me to Bill Boch with Foreign Relations. Bill said I had to be sponsored by a Vietnamese organization. So back to the VN Writer's assn., Women's Union, or Veteran's Assn. The Foreign Press (Mr. Tam) would be involved only if a journalism crew traveled with us as when Mitty and TJ were along on the first trip.
Hanoi is growing!! There are many new modern buildings - high rise! The Hilton Towers or Hanoi Towers now stands where once was the Hanoi Hilton. Sandy and I tried to visit the old prison but it opened only in the afternoon. Abject poverty is still at street level and very evident. The beggars or street women and children are still here..not as obvious or insistent as t hose had been in Saigon. Today I fed an old woman and a young girl child. It takes so little to provide a large nourishing bowl of pho..about a dollar a bow. The vendors along this block are very friendly to me. Those who speak English want to visit. Their stories are interesting though I miss a lot because sometimes they don't know how to say something in English and goodness knows I can't say anything in Vietnamese - I try and they laugh! Still it is fun to walk down the street and have them smile or call out a greeting with a friendly wave.
Wednesday Jan.7, 1998
Was a bit slower this morning on getting out. Made it to Sandy's by taxi. From there we went to the Temple of Literature. I expected to see a building with literature in it. Instead it is a monument temple commemorating Vietnam's earliest doctorates (I wonder if Our Lady of the Lake would do that for us?) The grounds and buildings are ancient and so peaceful with enormous Banyan trees and ponds filled with Lotus blossoms. At one pool 3 young boys were fishing. In some of the buildings were items for sale..silver animal shaped boxes, wood cravings of Budda, art work, jewelry and musical instruments. There was a traditional music group performing. After the peace and tranquility of this magical place we returned to the loud confusion of the streets.
Sandy assured me there was order in the confusion..the horns are to be certain they are seen. It is safe to walk through the traffic as long as you are seen and see them and keep moving. If you stop it creates havoc. The expectation is that for the next 50 ft things will move along and one can judge how to maneuver - no matter that the distance is speeding by at a common rate of 30-40 mph,
We stopped by a craft shop - wonderful hand made items. the stitchery reminded me of the things from Mexico and Guatemala. From there we wandered in and out of art galleries, so many wonderful examples of VN talent. Colors both strong and muted, motion or total serenity. The ones I particularly enjoyed used strong bright colors and emotions of activities. It was interesting too to see the Vietnamese interpretations of Gauguin's Polynesian period - woman washing hair. some of the works reminded me of the festive whimsical Patricia Nix combined with techniques of Nieman. I itched to bring something home with me, however money and wall space were my deciders - not enough of either.
From there we looked at cameras. Sandy is a professional photographer. The prices here are only slightly better than and the instructions are in everything but english.
I had my first unpleasant encounter with a street vendor. A teenage boy wanted us to buy postcards and such. He became very angry when we did not. He reminded me of the Saigon beggars only worse. He followed us around yelling "Fuck you", "Bastard American Bitches" and of course giving the international flip off. Since we basically ignored him after telling him "no" he became even angrier. Finally he left. That was unusual for Hanoi.
We ate lunch at a wonderful little place - it is a training facility for Vietnamese street kids. They spend several months or a year learning from the bottom up, the restaurant biz. Food was Cheap and delicious. Lunch for 2 was less than $10.
Sandy had a meeting at 1:30 so we parted. I left in search of a hair dryer and found one. hailed a cab and tried to come home...but we got lost..this was a good thing because we came upon the street I had been looking for - the street with the glass and crystal ware. Sandy had explained to me, as I had learned last year, that particular streets have particular stores for things. My street is know for the Pho - soup. This is because at one time - perhaps still - the unions were given different areas to set up shop. Today we had walked along "glove" street, "paint" street, hardware, jewelry, and appliance areas. I was searching for a glass or crystal miniature dragon for mom...So finding glass street was a boon! And only 3 streets over from my hotel. I will go back before I leave.
I got back to the hotel around 4. So hot (who said Hanoi was chilly this time of year?) and dehydrated all I could muster was the energy to climb to 3rd floor, gulp a bottle of water and lay down...I woke up when the telephone rang at 2 a.m. It was my computer person calling to tell me it would cost $75 to send the power cord to my laptop and it would arrive in Hanoi the day after I left or Saigon, just before I left. I think not. I'll bum the use of a computer from Sandy in Hanoi and Lan in Saigon.
Thursday, Jan. 8
Very hot and Humid!!! Spent most of the morning in the hotel writing. Hotel concierge made my air reservations on Vietnam Air to Saigon for Sunday. I know the flight number and departure time but have been unable to understand the arrival time. I hope Lan can figure it out. Poor Lan must be ready to "fire" me. I asked them (concierge) to fax info to Lan and also a list of names and addresses she needed.
I met with Mike Eiland and Ambassador Peterson after lunch. I feel most fortunate they were able to "squeeze" me in as there are 3 congressional delegations in town. I was all dressed up in the one dress for "business," and of course, I was dying in it..so hot. Who told me it was cool in January in Hanoi? They gave me an hour of their time. The ambassador was very interested in my plans to bring a small group of widows and sons and daughters. He commented it was very much in keeping with his plans of Reconciliation. He offered to put in writing the "Blessing" [my word] of our American embassy to the project. I thought we had taken pictures of this meeting, however when I had my film developed there were no pictures. I was glad to return to the hotel in order to cool off.
Dinner was once again with the VN writer's Assn. and the publishers. The meal as anticipated was delicious and very long. All during dinner there were toasts to the new year in which the whole table would stand and all glasses had to be touched and then there was gift giving as is the custom. Traditional Vietnamese food included of all things...flan. I felt a bit of San Antonio was there. Of course there was a lot of picture taking. We prepared to leave. There were a lot of hugs, handshakes and such as the former enemies said good-bye to new friends. It was a lovely evening. We ALL waddled out of there.
The Boston bunch and publishers leave for Hue tomorrow. I will meet up with them in Saigon on Monday.
Jan 9, Friday
Spent the morning with Sandy using her computer. Hope the e-mail went out ok. While I was doing that, Sandy went to the market and then prepared lunch for us. She is a VERY good cook. We enjoyed the view from her windows (actually, glass walls) facing the "little Lake" where John McCain crashed. She has what may be the most spectacular view in all Hanoi.
After leaving her, I taxied back toward my neighborhood and then just prowled the streets. I love watching these people..they have such energy and are constantly "doing" something or they are at a full stop and appear to be serene. Hanoi has a different kind of energy than I remember in Saigon. Saigon felt frantically energized, while Hanoi is more relaxed with a great reserve of energy. Late afternoon I came in to relax and cool off before walking up the street for pho..but slept through dinner, got up showered, and went to bed.
Jan 10, Saturday
I've been down for breakfast, the regular staff is off tomorrow so I took my camera and poloroid for pictures - gave them the Polaroids . All this while eating breakfast of O.J., caf‚ sua, and the wonderful French bread with butter. The manager, a lovely lady whose name I cannot pronounce, much less spell, sat with me forcing jasmine tea and something that sounded like "soy ho" - it had suspicious brown things fried but taested like scallions, and something that looked like mashed hard boiled egg yolks but wasn't - tasted way too good for that!! I'd take a bite and she would replenish my bowl. She left to answer the phone..an opportunity to escape back upstairs..she caught me and insisted I finish the "soy-ho" - it was good - I was just full. But finish I did. She said it was good for me!
I walked over to the "glass street". It was further than I thought. I think I may have walked through a "bad" neighborhood..men were squatting in circles (have you ever tried to squat flat footed the way the Vietnamese do?) with money being laid down. Very few women were visible which was strange - so I stuck to the middle of the street taking my chances with the cyclos, bicycles, and motorcycles. I was invited to come and sit down several times! Finally reached the street with the glass, found a dragon for mom. Wondered around looking at "stuff" and walked back (different route) to the hotel. It is very hot and humid!!
Le Thi Que came for lunch. I loved visiting with her again. It has been close to a year since meeting her in Boston. Her English is vastly improved (which is a good thing as my Vietnamese is non-existent). She is interested in helping with the project of the widows and will write one of the chapters for the book on the women of the men who fought. We ate at a Hue restaurant. Need I say the food was delicious. Que is with the Center for Women and Family culture. She has done a lot of research on the women here and agreed to help when I bring the widows and sons and daughters over next year.
Sunday, Jan 11
Walked around the streets taking pictures this morning. Sunday does NOT slow down the traffic or the street vendors. The color and the energy in the face of such drab poverty continues to intrigue me. For the most part the people on the street are smiling and friendly.
I left Hanoi at noon or somewhere around then - departure time was a rather loosely arranged affair - and when boarding was called it didn't matter if you were leaving on the Vietnam Air or the Pacific Air, everyone went in the same bus and then sorted themselves on the tarmac to board the right plane...I was on pacific Air. I had the good fortune of sitting by a man who reeked of beer, nuc mon, and an over heated body. He soon fell asleep. On the back of each chair was a small T.V. screen - Choices were interesting - songs/videos in French, an anthology of Michael Jackson's music, a view of the clouds both in front and to the rear..this was interesting when we landed because it gave a view of the wheels when they came down and then touched down. And of course there is always the option of watching the plane move across the map.
The fun began after we landed. Lan picked me up and we talked non-stop to the hotel. Rossie, you rascal, you are one fortunate fellow!! Lan is delightful, but you may have your hands full. Of course, I think Lan is fortunate, too. After dinner we went over the schedule and the cost...schedule was great. I now realize how much cost was absorbed by the press on the last trip.
Bad, sad news from home. My cousin was killed in a car crash. We had been raised together along with our siblings. I couldn't make it home for the family or the funeral. Suddenly, I really wanted to go home .. Sort of circle the wagons and make sure everyone was ok. I talked to Lan and we condensed the next 2 weeks into one week. So I would be home by the 19th.
Tuesday, Jan. 13
This morning we left around 7:30 for Cu Chi. First stop was at the veterans committee. Col Tran (the tunnel man), Mr. Deut and 2 women from the women's union met with us. The obligatory cup of green tea ( Oh, for a good cup of Jasmine or Lemon blossom) and we were off to see the widows.
First stop was my dear friend most fondly referred to as the "pig Lady." We drove down her dusty lane and stopped the van. As we walked toward her home she came out, arms spread wide in welcome. Her daughter Betty followed close behind on crutches. Her other daughter was in HCMC. She wanted to know if I was going to spend the night "in her bed" as promised last year. Lan explained we were unable to get a permit for me to do that. Hopefully next time I will be able to stay with my friend. In truth, I had been more excited about spending 24 hours in the home of a farmer (or simple people as some were called) than just about anything on the trip. Communication of course would have been a problem, but sign language is sometimes enough.
We talked about the year past asking about our families. They wanted to know about Sarah and Mitty and sent them many hugs and greetings. I asked if she had thought about our conversation from last year and if she had anything she would like to add about her experience. She just said that after her husband and children had been killed, then she herself had been terribly wounded, and her two remaining children had been wounded all at different times. It had been hard, very hard; they had all worked hard to survive. Then after the war her government had built her house because she is a Mother Hero. Her medical is also paid for.
Betty sat next to me. She kept squeezing my arm - sort of like squeezing fruit to test for ripeness. Then she and her mom started comparing their softly rich tan colored arms to my fish belly white skin. Lan explained to me the touching and squeezing was a way of showing affection. They are still curious about my light skin and my hair.
I presented them with a video of the trip before and pictures from before. They planed to rent a VCR in order to watch it while I was there...but the electricity had failed that day and they were not sure when it would be back on (this happened a lot). I have such warm feelings for this little family and it was time to leave them again. We went through the picture taking routine and hugs and more hugs goodbye.
Last year as we had prepared to leave, she had given us a huge bag of raw peanuts and some fresh roasted ones. This year watermelon was in season and she had a bumper crop. Those are the sweetest tasting melon! She gave us several melons and a Jackfruit. Now we all know about watermelon, but a Jackfruit is something entirely different. It is very large, about the size of a 5 to 10# bag of flour with green bumpy skin. It is ugly. She also gave us a huge bag of stacked paper rice. Now paper rice is like a tortilla only made of rice, so thin it is transparent, and dried on flat racks along the road. I was to take these gifts back to the states for Sarah and Mitty. Needless to say I didn't want to tangle with the USDA in customs, so Lan and the driver inherited these goodies. Lan and I ate one of the watermelon right away! It wasn't until later I saw the inside of a Jackfruit. First, you have to know that the Jackfruit smells worse than anything I've smelled. But when it is cut across it resembles a pineapple with a few almonds placed in it. I would have liked to have seen one cut lengthwise. I didn't taste it as the one I saw cut was in the market. I'm told that if a person can get past the dreadful smell, they are really quite good...once you've developed a taste for them.
From there we drove to the home of the woman who had lost her husband when her only child, a daughter, was 3 months old. We presented her the gifts of video and photos. Her daughter came over with her now year old baby. From the looks of baby's nose, learning to walk has had it's challenges. The neighbor kids came over and I gave them the pictures I had taken of them. Such grins!! I was struck by the lack of obvious growth in these children. True it has been only 9 months, but they had changed very little. One of the very old women came over. She is a relative and is also a Mother Hero. I was shocked to learn she is only 74. This day was the anniversary of her son's death. She and the woman I had come to see were going to a ceremony commemorating the anniversary. My own schedule did not allow me the time to attend with them.
While we were visiting, I learned something more about her experience. Mrs. Sinh (the widow) had been arrested when her husband was killed. She had been beaten but lied about her husband. She had to deny he was her husband and said her husband was a doctor with the Saigon forces. She could never show her grief and had to visit his grave at night. Naturally she couldn't claim his body. Today she remains guarded with her feelings, reporting only what she did, the experience with no emotion. She never remarried because, "she would have more babies and it was too hard to support even one."
As we prepared to leave, she invited us back again and was glad we had come back. The old woman asked me to take her picture so she would have something to leave behind and be remembered.
Our last stop was with Mrs. Gom, the widow who had lost her husband and 11 children. She is the one who "hated, but didn't know who to hate." Last year we had gone to the cemetery with her. This year she said it was too hot and humid to go, so we stayed at her house and visited. How very different this was, she had greeted us with a smile, looked at us, and even gave us hugs. We sat in her house, held hands, and talked. She chided me for not returning in July. She had waited for me then. She was glad I had finally made it. I presented her with the video and the photos. She said last year we had held each other and cried, now she wants to go into the future and leave the war behind. She did not want to return to the cemetery! However, she did want a promise that I would come again. I promised her I would but that I couldn't be sure when it would be.
We drove into Cu Chi to a "place" for lunch..a most welcome break in the day. I'll try to describe this "place." We parked the van under a concrete carport looking thing, though it looked a lot like what we would see at a filling station in the states. We left the van there and walked into a small caf‚. It looked like a small drug store caf‚. Some of the jars sitting around on the shelves looked like something from a biology lab or Uncle Fester Munster's basement. There were several one gallon jars with snakes wound around inside and a liquid..snake wine. Yum! This wine is made with 10 varieties of snakes. It is for men only to help with "man problems." There were also jars of loose tea and herbs and bags of food stuffs - the one that gave me a start was filled with what looked like dehydrated maggots. It wasn't, it was filled with sweet, shaped, crackers.
Lunch was very interesting; First came a platter of heaping greens, some of which were recognizable as edible, such as bib lettuce, shallots, mint, but the other looked like our basic garden variety weeds.. I'll have to admit though the "weeds" were delicious. Lan took some of the paper rice (the Vietnamese answer to tortillas) and wrapped it around the thin sliced pork, pickled onions, and the greens. Then it was dipped in a watered down, sweetened up version of nuc mon . After that came the Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup), and then dessert. I'm not just in love with the desserts over there (except the flan, of course). This was really strange looking..like a "cauliflowerett" in a clear sweet water gel. Somehow I just couldn't get past the sweet water jell even though the "thing" in it was so tender and had a nice flavor. I'm told it was a sea vegetable. We returned to the van...it had been washed!
Our next appointment was at the Cu Chi hospital - merely a coincidence, not a necessity. Lan is a good friend of one of the doctors. We met with the director and her friend. The hospital is supported by the government and the Mennonite Initiative which is working with them on primary care programs including community education and involvement. They have 100 beds for pediatrics, surgery, and general needs. I asked about mental health..it took some experimenting with hand signs and words (nothing like rotating your finger in a circular pattern at the temple) before I found the right combination to convey the meaning of mental health. They have one room for the mental health patients. Severe cases are transferred to one of the two facilities in HCMC. The process is fairly simple; the patient is brought by the family who then describes the behavior about which they have concern. After family interview, there is a patient interview. There seemed to be no English translations for the assessment instruments used. Depression is the primary cause for treatment. If it can be managed with medication the patient is sent home; if not, they go to HCMC.
We returned to HCMC in time to take a quick shower and a short nap. After that bit of refreshment we went upstairs to the Vietnam Writer's Assn poetry reading. I continue to be impressed with the interest and focus on literature, art, the culture of the country. The poorest of the poor write and/or talk poetry. They know the leading authors, past and present. Now, I'm not talking about Daniel Steele type authors (though she is very popular here). I couldn't understand the words of the poems, but I enjoyed the rhythm and the voice inflections of the readers..that was poetry in itself.
Wednesday, Jan. 14
Another hot and humid day! Cosmetics are a lost cause..I've gone native! Lan stays cool and dry. This morning Lan and I met with Mrs. Nguyen Tuyet Van, who is director of the War Remnants Museum. We talked about the possibility of a combined exhibit - both American and Vietnamese experiences, photos, stories, poetry, and art. I told her about the Vietnam Veteran's Home Page and our openness to having Vietnamese authors contribute. We agreed one primary objective of a combined exhibit would be to show people are just people regardless of government. The emphasis will be on the efforts to make meaning or sense of the individual war experiences. By doing this we hope for greater understanding of the other's culture and life experiences. We share a hope for healing and a reconciliation of men and women who were so affected by the war from both countries. Mrs. Tuyet Van wanted to watch the video while we were there. The interpreter spoke for the people (we were in an office with several people, phones were ringing and kept ringing, but the people watched and listened. Many tears. Then of course it was photo opps time.
Now I am at Lan's so I can use her computer. Rossie might appreciate the full meaning of this next comment: Lan is upstairs cooking lunch. She said she is a "bad" cook. I found otherwise. Rossie, lunch was wonderful!!
Our afternoon was free, so after a quick refreshing nap, we went shopping! We went to a shop the girls and I had gone to last year. The shop owner recognized us and lit up like a Christmas tree. This year she was terribly disappointed. One small purchase and we went in search of something cool to drink. We ended up in a little "mom and pop" shop around the corner. There is nothing like iced caf‚ sua. Lady (Borton) was there! We had a wonderfully interesting conversation with her. She is so knowledgeable about Vietnam and it's people. I loved her book After Sorrow. She describes her experiences as the first American allowed to stay in the home of a native after the war. Not only that, she speaks the language like a native.
Tonight I must pack. Check-out is early in the morning. Lan, Vo Tran Nha, and I are going to Ben Tre province. Then to Dong Thap province, catch a boat in Cao Long and ride up the river and canals until we reach Thank My where Bill died.
Thursday, Jan. 15
I checked out of the hotel in Saigon. We headed out to Ben Tre, Lan, Vo Tran Nha, the driver and me. The drive was more like the "Magnificent Game of chicken" I remember from the last trip here. Buses past us going way too fast into head on traffic. A 3 (yes, three) wheel little "truck" with a flat bed went past with dozens of ducks..not in cages. Apparently they were secured some way, but their heads and necks were craning forward as though they were excited to be going to market! Little did they know they were "dead ducks!" Motor cycles with strange oblong and long baskets stuffed with a squealing pig evident only from the squeal and its big pink rump and short curled tail.
We ate breakfast at a road-stop caf‚ - that means a kitchen serving Pho and skinny, begging cats and dogs under the table. Those animals were the scrawniest animals I've ever seen. One cat looked like a character from a Disney movie or a cartoon; scrawny, torn ears and it's tail was truely crimped in several places and it's tip was missing. A lot of flies, of course. After breakfast we returned to the road where nothing had changed.
We crossed the Mekong on the ferry into Ben Tre. The vehicles (vans, buses, trucks, bicycles, motor cycles, cyclos) and the people (with pigs, dogs, ducks, whatever) sit along the sides up stairs. Have to watch where you step. Seating or standing at the bow front has fresher smell.
Once in Ben Tre we checked in at the Dong Kaoi Hotel. I had the same room as last year, sad to say, no change..there are still wires hanging from the ceiling where once might have been a ceiling fan and a light. This time I had the good since to apply "Jungle Juice" and sleep under a mosquito net!
After settling in, we then took off to the Veteran's Association. I was eager to see our friends from the last trip. Gen. Vi, Mr. Long, Mr. Cang, and Mr. Tica were there to greet us. Gen. Vi and Mr. Long wanted to know where "their" daughters were. They were surprised I had returned to Ben Tre to visit with them. I gave them gifts of the photos from last year and the video. Mr. Long (last year I kept referring to him as Mr. Cong or Trang) still wants to take care of me. For about an hour all of us including Lan and Mr. Vo Tran Nha had a lively conversation, New Year's greetings, asking about family, the video and just visiting. Mostly they teased me about my efforts to speak their language. However, they dubbed me "Sweetheart" and then we left.
After lunch and an all too short nap, we went to visit Gen. Bay Cao, ret. and his wife. They have moved from My Tho as Mrs. Ben Cao has been ill. They live in an apartment for which they pay $15 a month to the government. It is over a shop in the market; 2 very small rooms. Now guys, I don't know what your military pensions are or how you are living, but it has to be better than this was. In spite of their obviously poor circumstances, they served us tea and fruit. We took many pictures, giving them gifts of photos and the video, and spent a couple of hours visiting. When we prepared to leave, they gathered the left over fruit for us to take; No small gift.
The day had been long and hot. We freshened up for dinner even though I was filled with fruit and green tea. I was ready for bed!
Jan. 16, 1998 Friday
This morning we drove out to Ben Tre Charity school. I asked for my little friend, Chu, which I now know is spelled Kieu. They brought him in. He wasn't sure who I was until we gave him a picture of himself wearing the necklace I had been wearing. He grinned and gave me a hug. He immediately asked about Sarah and Mitty! (Actually, everyone has asked for them - even the maid at the hotel in Saigon) The young blind boy with the beautiful voice had "graduated" and had been sent to school to learn how to teach the blind. I hope he is being encouraged to keep up with his flute and voice, he has such an amazing talent.
There is another student, Phu, in the school who is also blind and has musical talent. He sang for us and then he played his "instrument." He used only his mouth, nose, and hands and "played" a Japanese song. He sounded like the actual instruments! I was amazed! He is apparently a very bright kid. When he was introduced to Mr. Vo Tran Nha, he knew immediately he was a writer and what he had written. He had listened to the book on cassette tape.
The school has 160 students, 36 of whom are blind. They are taught living skills, braille, and a regular curriculum. There are only 2 braillers at the school for the 36 students. The young boy, Phu, was slow on the machine but could whiz along using a guide and stylus. A young 19 year old girl came in and demonstrated the machine. She was very fast on it. The school needs more braille machines. The braille guides and stylus are from Japan; Just two sheets of plastic with holes and punches cost $100.
From the school we drove out to Mrs. Duyet's. She had died about 4 months earlier at the age of 95. We gave her daughter the pictures and the video. Then we were shown to her altar in the house and were shown the albums of her death and the funeral photos. This was very interesting. The daughters and granddaughters prepared her hair, make-up, and dressed her. Her sons and grandsons placed her in the coffin, then family photos were taken. It may sounds a bit morbid, but actually it is a loving way to say good-bye.
From there we went to Ba Tre district which is Mr. Nha's "fatherland." We visited his home which is still there: a thatched hooch and dirt floor and coconut shell roof. Inside the beams were solid "water coconut" timber. His grandparents and parents are buried there. He is one of 8 children and the family had many rice fields. After the war the land was "redistributed" by the government (after they figured out the people wouldn't put much effort into growing crops that ALL belonged to the government. He kept his home, but lives in Ho Chi Minh City in a rather large but bare and drab apartment. I think he actually has 6 rooms.
"His friends" had invited us to stop in for dinner. I kept asking who his friends were and he was evasive with his answer, "Just friends, they are chairman." I was soon to learn they were chair and past chair of the district communist party. Now that was interesting. They were less than certain about me and more than a little surprised than an American woman would sit and share stories with them. They served dinner and some kind of special rice wine. It was like sipping on diesel fuel; once it hit the lips it spread like fire through the mouth and down the throat. I knew I was in a heap of trouble if I drank that stuff. I had a mental picture of me under the table and possibly before passing out, retching up my toenails. Mr. Ank (sp?)(past chair) was at first a bit antagonistic toward me. Seems as how he had sat out the war in a prison on some island for 16 years. I asked when he had been released. He said in 1975. I asked who had put him there. He replied the Americans had.
After some discussion back and forth, he finally said the French had put him there "but the Americans supported them." I laughed and said I was glad he finally got his story straight. And then came the toasts. At some point we drank a toast to friendship and no more war. Mr. Ank looked me in the eye and said if we drank to friendship it had to be done in one gulp (jigger doesn't leave the mouth until empty!) Well, now, toasts had been going around the table and I was barely sipping (that stuff was strong!) And the steward was filling after each toast so my glass was rim full. But it was such an obvious challenge from this guy...I thought, well, here's one for Bill and all the vets I've come to love, and those who died here. You guys would be proud - I knocked it back and didn't fall on my face. After a stunned silence the man stood up and shook my hand. (I'm glad he's the one who had to stand up!) After a bit we moved to another room and drank tea. They had a new year's gift for me..a 5 gallon container of "the wine." That wine even has a name. It is called "Vietnam's Tears". They also had a huge stack of more paper rice!! I was so glad to get back to the van. I don't do much drinking and if I do it is usually not a pretty sight. I believe the spirits of the men who died in Vietnam were busily taking care of the spirits in me. Thanks, guys.
We gratefully retired to bed as soon as we made it back to Ben Tre, about an hour and half drive.
Saturday, Jan. 17, 1998
After breakfast in Ben Tre we drove to "Central City" of Dong Thap. Arriving at noon, we ate a bite then at 2pm we drove to the local TV station to see the man who had accompanied us last year.
Now if any of you work for television, radio, and newspaper or journals, let me just say, "count your blessings!" This place was among the street shops; on the bottom level were the bicycles and motorcycles. This could be closed off from the street with a sliding grate door. We walked through this 1st room toward the back where a laundry was located. There were some stairs we walked up; I wondered if these stairs had been swept or mopped since the war. The stairs led to another back room on the second level where the bathrooms were located. Unfortunately, something had broken and water was backed up in one corner of the landing. The odor spread itself around. We hurried through a door which led into a hallway with many doors. This could easily have past for the station in "Greater Tuna, Texas," only not so clean and really hot. We gave the man at the station some pictures and the video. He promised to send a video from their station.
From the station we left for Rach Ronnu River (probably spelled incorrectly) in Cai Bai (at least that is where I think we were.) The last time I made the trip to Thank My community where Bill was killed we were in a motor boat, but not this time. We made the boat trip in a wooden dug out, no seats, had to sit on the bottom of the little thing. I nearly swamped it! The boat man helped me settle into the bottom and off we 5 went, the boat man, Mr. Diep, Mr. Nha, Lan, and me. A truely beautiful ride up the river (or it may have been down river). This place is way back in a province. Occasionally there would be a house with electricity and a precious few had television antennae. The people on the river were very curious about us, we didn't look like river folk. When I aimed my camera at them they would grin and some would turn away. People were bathing..with their clothes on! One woman was sitting in a boat washing her hair, leaning over the side to rinse it. Most of the buildings along the way were thatched hooches on pillars to be high enough above the water. Some of the people were digging in the banks gathering clams I suppose. After about 45 minutes we arrived at Thank My.
Getting out I nearly swamped the boat again. I'm a dry-lander, I don't have sea legs!! The people who are in the boats all the time can race back and forth on them hardly creating a ripple in the water.
We were met by the villagers and the veteran's association for that community. The children have grown some, though I could still recognize them from the pictures! Last year's babies are toddling around. Everyone talked at once. Poor Lan was at a loss in trying to translate to English. We were speaking the international language of friendship. Real words were not necessary. I passed out the little framed pictures to the people I recognized and the video from the last trip, and of course took more pictures! They all asked for Sarah and Mitty!
The District Chief of Police said we couldn't walk out to the site of Bill's death. He said we could come back tomorrow only the committee doesn't work on Sunday. Lan swung into action as only Lan can! The reason given for the delay was it was too late for the boat to go and come back before dark: no one uses lights on the boats and the tide goes out dropping the water level so that even the little wooden boats are stranded. While Lan and the committee were having a serious discussion, I was surrounded by the women and children, all touching and squeezing my arms, playing with my hair, asking my age; the answer is "nam muoi nam" and sounded like "lum e lum" making "55" sound absolutely delicious!!
Meanwhile, Lan's serious discussion ended. She won I might add! We return tomorrow morning and the committee will be there. I guess it was a compromise. So it was back to the little boat. The villagers laughed at my graceless efforts to board and sit down. And we were off for the return trip.
Now during the day we had seen no less than 5 wedding processions on the highway. Each time Lan said it was bad luck to pass a wedding procession. I choose to think of the return trip as an adventure rather than bad luck. But the villagers certainly knew what they were talking about when they said it was "dark fast and low water."
We were able to watch as the sun set on the river. The people who lived along the river were pulling in and folding their nets, some were just relaxing after a hard day. Then our boat driver said "oh, oh." and we coasted to a stop. The good news is we were near a dock and able to paddle over to it.
Lan and I sat in the boat slapping mosquitos. Lan was a little nervous about being out there after dark. She whispered when she spoke. We talked about what it must have been like to be on the river during the war. I think we made both of us nervous talking about the men who would cross the river by walking under the water with a reed in their mouth. Eventually Mr. Nha, our driver, and the boat man returned with the van.
The boat man is to pick us up tomorrow morning at 8A.M. in Cai Bai for another run at the village. Indeed, the adventure may turn into a mis-adventure. From the place where we leave the van, it is 7-8 hours to Ho Chi Min City. I have to be at the airport by 9P.M. Hopefully we won't pass anymore wedding processions along the way. If so, well, that's life..
Sunday, Jan 18, 1998
Up early, checked out and on the road to Cai Bai by 7:30 this morning. Humidity is incredible as is the heat. Teo, the boat man, met us at 8A.M. as arranged. The river is very high in the morning. People were in the market making purchases for the New Year. In keeping with Vietnamese tradition, I purchased paper money, josh sticks, gold, flowers, and "paper clothes" to take to the rice paddy. I made my usual graceful boarding and sitting. Poor Teo by now is convinced I'll fall in or swamp his little boat, so he stands behind me, puts his arms uner mine and hangs on while I flop down. I attracts a lot of attention as a blond foreigner; I have endured a lot of laughter at my expense. Finally we are under way again. Scorching heat and humidity as I've never before experienced.
Brown, dirty, and the drainage place for many "shit creeks," it, never-the-less is beautiful. Even the ducks are a dirty brown. I suppose if you have never had clear running water you wouldn't know the difference. We stopped for gas and picked up Mr. Hain (Chief of Police) and continued on.
We arrived in the village at the dock of the old farmer. He wasn't there but uch of his family was. We learned Mr. Phoum wasn't expected until late afternoon and had been gone since the morning before. So we were led back through the area we traveled before. Teo was being very careful I didn't fall on my face or in the water and rice. He met the challenge gallantly!
Out in the open, the heat was very intense and once again I thought of our veterans who had carried a full pack in this heat. The rice was high and green. The paddies were filled with water and going out to the spot was not possible. So a pleasant area on the mud dike of the rice paddy was selected. There was a pitiful little tree growing there. Mr. Nha said, "Mr. Bill would appreciate the shade of a tree." So, under the sparse shade we set up the flowers, lit all the josh sticks, wrote Bill's name on the "gifts" and I signed my name. This was so no other spirit could claim them. The paper clothes were actually patterns. Lan said he would have to have them "made." Then the bag of candy was passed around and the money, gold, and clothes were burned.
One of the men commented that Mr. Bill could live in Viet Nam 10 years for the amount of paper money. Lan said it was American money so he could travel home. The josh sticks were passed out to the villagers standing around. They placed it near the burning gifts and spoke to Mr. Bill. Most wished him safe journey to America or told him of the honor paid him by his most wonderful wife to travel so far for him. Then it was my turn. I told him Tom and Sandy, Chuck and Zandy, and his brother and sister and families sent their love. I told him about the villagers and how the veteran's association of the community had been so helpful. Our former enemies were now our friends. Then pictures were taken, Teo and me, Lan and me, Mr. Nha and me, and so on through the villagers and members of the veteran's association. We returned to the old farmer's hooch. I gave his family a copy of the Sunday insert Images with the man's picture in it. We passed out to his family photos taken from the last trip. We took more pictures and prepared to leave.
Mr. Phoum, the old farmer, arrived. He had awakened early that morning and had a feeling in his chest that something was happening at his house. He came home immediately. Mr. Nha said Bill had sent him the message. We visited, drank tea, took a lot of pictures. I sweated, they didn't. They followed us down to the dock to watch us board and wave goodbye. I assure you, we left them laughing.
We returned to the market area where we had once again parked the van. There was a dreadful odor. Lan explained it was Jackfruit. Then the smell came into view. Jackfruit when sliced really does look like a huge pineapple with almond seeds. Based on smell alone, I declined the offer of a taste. It looked good, but Lan explained it was what we would call "an acquired taste.
After some cold soda, we headed back to H.C.M.C. A bit down the road we stopped for food. Now, I haven't mentioned a bathroom story this whole time..but this one was really different..I hadn't seen one like this. It gave new importance to the shower shoes provided at most places.
I found the "convenience room" out back behind the kitchen. When I stepped in it was just a square room with a tiled floor, a small trench along one wall, a faucet and a couple of aluminum bowls. There were a couple of dresses hanging on the wall. I had obviously found the wrong room! I returned to the table, spoke with Lan. She asked a server to escort me to the correct room. Well, I was taken back to the empty room just described. Now a room like this presents a couple of problems for a woman..there is no way we can manage the trench against the wall and it was plenty obvious the "ever-ready" kleenex in my pocket couldn't be used. The woman who had shown me the room was no help.
I opened the door and with body language asked again if I was in the correct room. I was. This was the only day I had worn jeans instead of a skirt. Well, I want you to know I overcame the more obvious challenges to this situation, but it was hard to break all these decades of potty training! Growing up on a ranch in West Texas, there had always been "alternatives" when we were in the pasture, but a tiled floor! Well, I just couldn't close the journal without at least one "bathroom" experience.
From there we drove on to H.C.M.C. Lan and I checked e-mail, ate watermelon, and ripe mango. I showered, changed clothes, bagged my very dirty jeans and shoes, repacked and it was time to leave for the airport.
Leaving this time was sad. I know I'll return to Vietnam. I don't know that the friends I found will be there. Mrs. Sinh died this past year. My friend, the pig lady, is old. Vietnam is changing rapidly. Their strong commitment to the culture and country defeated larger and stronger countries. My concern for this determined people is that they will be lured and seduced by the American and European money. Their economy is in a shambles; the line between their culture and their economic need is a fine line indeed. It will take an astute leader to keep the one from undermining the other.
Jan. 19, 1998
A very long day. Coming home leaves me disoriented for a few days and very sleepy. The plane trip was uneventful and inspite of being a little tired I was unable to sleep, so I watched the movie - G.I. Jane, news cast in Korean, listened to music, read and am writing. Sleep does help pass time.
I'm home! In L.A. I was able to take an earlier flight to San Antonio. Home a whole 3 hours early! I called my friends telling them no need to go to the airport. Took a shower, washed my hair, found a clean gown and fell into bed with clean sheets. In case you haven't guessed...clean is the operative word here!
Jan. 20, 1998
I woke this morning from a dream. It was so real I could still feel it. Bill was here. In the past, I had dreams of Bill, but this was different. In the past it seemed we were out of cinque; he seemed to me cold and indifferent and I was angry and very hurt that he would leave me again. This dream, well, it was different. In this dream we loved, we cared, we knew he would leave again. I accepted and let go - finally. It was a good-bye dream. When I woke my face was wet with tears. I could still feel his arms around me. For the first time I felt sad, just simply sad, at his loss. It almost feels like a new loss. Maybe it is the clean, clear feeling of truly letting go that is new.