Saturday, December 10, 2005

I've Been Everywhere, Man

My most humble apologies for such a lag in writing time. I wrote a fantastic piece in October about the essence of bullshit, and its relevance to my most recent experience of planning a major event in a Communist country. I ended the piece with an imaginary scenario that started out with an American child playing peacefully with his Vietnamese counterpart. Playtime, however, degenerated into a pissing contest between the two children about who’s country’s form of government was superior. If I recall correctly, the Vietnamese child won when she brought up Dick Cheney eating toddlers for breakfast. It was a good blog, she was. Unfortunately, I foolishly misplaced the paper on which I had written the blog, as Luddite-me likes to write everything out by hand (okay, in truth, I dictate it to Duke), then type it into the computer.

That Pulitzer-prize winning piece is lost forever, but here’s an update on life in the last few months:

Work: Work continues and I continue to show up. Questions from students and educational administrators continue to baffle me, this week’s what-the-bleep question being, “Do you know of any Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in English around Ho Chi Minh City? I have a friend who is an alcoholic coming to town to visit.”

Travel: My sister and her friend came to visit for two weeks—our first visitors! We took them around HCMC and some nearby sites for the first week, then did Angkor Wat and Ha Long Bay for the second week.

Angkor Wat: A&W is one of those places constantly featured in National Geographic magazine or on the Discovery Channel, so it’s pretty amazing to actually stand in front of AW proper and see it in person for the first time. We spent three days walking around the various temples and cities that were built over hundreds of years. There was one question we couldn’t shake: Why in God’s name do we learn about the great “western” empires and completely skip over the Khmer and Cham and Siam Empires in school?

The beggar children we saw at all of the temples were heartbreakingly adorable, savvy, depressing and quick-witted. They had their sales pitches, we had our answers, and they had their counter-responses…they didn’t miss a beat. Their skilled sales pitches could make any Cutco or Amway representative blush. We ended up buying many a useless item from them that will probably end up at your doorsteps as this year’s Christmas present. Just kidding. But not really.

For the uninitiated, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves (http://www.flickr.com/photos/hochiminhtale/), so that I can spare the readers the formulaic and uninspired descriptions that plague the usual accounts by novice writers.

Ha Long Bay: Our next junket was to a bay in northern Vietnam that spills into the Gulf of Tonkin. It is an area of 3000 incredible islands made of limestone, scattered around emerald waters under hazy skies, so says Lonely Planet. We spent two days and one night on a boat in the bay, which was a great experience. There were tons of other boats and lots of tourists, but we still had a great time exploring a (Disneyland-like) cave, canoeing (in circles), watching the sunset and sunrise, catching our dinner (just kidding), and explaining to our French shipmates that not all Americans call them “Freedom Fries.” After all, we said, some of us know that Americans can’t always claim to have a monopoly on freedom. Sure, some of the time, heck, even most of the time, but certainly not all of the time. He, that would be silly. Moreover, we applauded them, first, for their resolution to stay out of Iraq (as Jon Stewart says, “why go all the way to the Mideast when you can fight Muslims in your very own suburbs?”) and second, for not surrendering Paris even after a week of heavy rioting.

We even managed to squeeze a day of touring in Hanoi, including Uncle Ho’s mausoleum (he was getting a tune-up in Moscow, however), the Lake of the Restored Sword, the Temple of Literature and the famously narrow streets of the Old Quarter. My sister and her friend were able to see the interesting array of characters that gather at the lake each morning, including aerobicists, badminton players, tai chi masters and calisthenics diehards. We even saw someone who looked suspiciously like Suzanne Somers leading a thighmaster session.

Despite the autumnal weather in Hanoi, we couldn’t get out fast enough—we grew tired of the taxi drivers, painfully narrow streets, and seemingly less friendly attitude. Coming “home” to Saigon was refreshing. It’s hard to explain, but Hanoi lacks the emotional range, the fire in the belly that Saigon seems to have cultivated.

On our last big day together, which was Thanksgiving, we had an especially tough day at the spa. We subjected ourselves to massages, facials, manicures and pedicures in the name of beauty. “God curse this beautiful face,” I was heard to have said numerous times throughout the ordeal.

Then, we had American-style burgers and fries—rice does wear on a girl, sometimes—at a restaurant where pictures of Tom Selleck and yellow-eyed, crazed looking stuffed tigers co-exist on the wall in a friendly, but somewhat tense manner. While the burgers were excellent, the restaurant’s atmosphere has an unholy mixture of Polynesian décor and Gary Glitteresque horror. Friends, if you don’t know who Gary Glitter is, type in “Gary Glitter” + “Vung Tau” into Google and read away.

Before dinner, we had a swim and a Jacuzzi break. I tells ya, life is tough here. For Thanksgiving dinner, we ended up eating a hodgepodge of food that was anything but American at an Italian restaurant owned by a Frenchman. The Frenchman, whom I’ve met several times, likes to give unsolicited wine recommendations, answer questions in the most elliptical manner possible, and open his eyes widely like a hamster being squeezed too hard, then squint them so tiny you can’t even see them anymore. Again, we complimented him on his countrymen’s restraint to surrender Paris, or France for that matter, to the rioters. We also offered to send in American troops if necessary.

We left the restaurant only to find HCMC was experiencing its own “riots” after a FUTball win…but unlike their University of Maryland counterparts who set cars on fire after even pre-season games, these young FUTball fans were happily riding their motorbikes up and down the center of the city, Vietnamese flag in hand and victory-sloganed bandanas on head. We managed to seek shelter on the rooftop bar of the historic Rex Hotel, famous for entertaining journalists during the American War.

Safe among the plasticine statues of elephants, tigers and crocodiles—a visual simulacrum of Barnum and Bailey-like delivery—we had a few refreshments and watched the excitement from above. After an hour or so, things died down and we were able to resume our discussion about Fibonacci numbers and Germain primes. But, we were distracted again by the party of 12 next to us who broke into a French version of “Happy Birthday”. Convinced that they were speaking in tongues and starting their own riots, I sprinkled some of my mojito drink on them, yelling “avaunt thee, Satan!” My sister took her cue and guided me away. I conceded that it had been a long day and the fun had to end.

Two days later, Duke and I said a sleepy, but tearful, goodbye to our guests as they checked-in for their 6:00 a.m. flight. We were left alone to ponder the highlights of the visit, such as the tail-less gecko sightings, running away from the aggressive CHICKENS! that gave new meaning to “free-range”, paddling through the rain-swollen streets, trekking up the hill to see the giant Jesus statue, and revealing that joining the Foreign Service (hell, we found this out when we joined the Peace Corps) gives you a chance to get in touch with prejudices you didn’t even know you had.

1 Comments:

At 2:46 PM, Blogger tandemadventure said...

during my last day of freedom here, i typed in “Gary Glitter” + “Vung Tau” - icky! good to hear he is now in a Vietnamese prison - hopefully he will stay there for some time and get a good feel for the justice system.
thanks for the update - love the blog as usual.

 

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