EXKLUSIV


       : Happiness
Deep in the Heart of China.
A Travel Report
by
Linda Wasson
Table of Content:

Shanghai, January 2005
Kunming, China to Da Nang, Vietnam, Feb. 2005
Da Nang to Saigon. March 15, 2005


Shanghai, January 2005

 
It didn't take long to notice the difference between China and
elsewhere. Our plane landed but then taxied away from the airport out
on the tarmac, surrounded by police and we were all bused into the
terminal rather than depart directly into it. Was so strange and
odd....welcome to China...

 
Shanghai airport is as big as LAX, Kennedy, Houston Intl., or any
others, but no tourist info anywhere to be found. Info on the 1st floor
sent me to the 3rd floor, who asked tourist, what is tourist? go to 1st
floor, but they sent me here, we are not info, we are flight info only,
ok, where is tourist info? tourist what is tourist? go to 1st
floor....3 times of this abbott and costello routine and I of course
gave up, which is probably what it's designed to do...welcome to
China..
 
Finding a place to buy a local phone card I thought to try and call my
hotel directly, the directions I had didn't seem that clear and I was
wary of jumping on the bus w/o exactly knowing what to do next
...that's what I needed to know. bumbling around the pay phone a man
asked to help and then pointed me to a counter w/ a sign something
about "Traveling Workers Party Assistance" ahhh of course, tourism is a
capitalist term...welcome to China...
 
This was what turned out to be my first of what would be several
encounters with what I am terming the she devil communist true
believer...wow...they are really mean!! Imagine a woman on PMS1, who's
never had good sex (or maybe sex at all?) hates everybody and
everything, including children, puppies and flowers (probably eats
puppies, steps on flowers and makes children run screaming for their
mothers) anyway, this woman, after letting me know clearly how much
trouble it was, wrote down something in Chinese she declared were
directions to my hotel (the English ones were on the paper I held). She
insisted I "Go!! Now!!!" to the bus and give them to the driver and it
would be all right....
 
Sigh...only it wasn't, I did get on the bus and then into a tax but
after being screamed at by the taxi driver and finally getting out of
his cab in frustration, I found someone who spoke English who told me
she only wrote down the NAME of the hotel, not the ADDRESS!! Welcome to
China... :)
 
Things were looking up, I'd made it this far, wasn't to be deterred, it
wasn't like it was raining or anything, well, actually it was starting
to! But Shanghai was shrouded in fog and dampness which in my opinion,
only added to its mystique and intrigue. The architecture was amazing,
european gothic, asian influence, different time periods all blended
together...a little Chicago and NY and Asia all rolled into one...
 
Finally finding my hotel - which was actually supposed to be a hostel -
once more I encountered the she-devil...who screamed "NO!! NO!!" when I
asked about restaurants, food, anything in the area nearby. turns out
nothing but seedy dark streets and a busy highway next to the river, oh
well. would check it out the next day.
 
The next day was better, the seedy nabe2 was clearly seedy, the streets
scary as hell, but the people were so photogenic and didn't mind me
taking shots at all...The next day I'd shoot chicken carcasses hanging
from the laundry poles of an apt bldg down the street...hmmm wonder if
Col Sanders3 has heard of this method.
 
Turned out there was a really fantastic shopping district about a half
hour walk away, and the river had a huge brick boardwalk I followed one
day, in the drizzle but all the same was interesting, everything from
rusty iron barges to huge tankers, across the river more skyline, lit
up at night was great. The shopping district had amazing stores of
course, zillions of people and incredible traffic lanes for bikes and
scooters with gestapo traffic cops to make sure no one stepped off the
curb...new yorkers beware :)
 
What turns out to be the most fortunate piece of information I'd
received about traveling in China was to make my train reservation
before going to the station. My hotel had a desk just for this and I
made my reservation on Friday to leave on Sunday. They said they'd call
when they had my tkt, they did, on Sat. I didn't come down immediately,
and when I did, they were gone but the main desk said just come back
Sun morning.
 
Sunday morning I returned, after packing up and getting ready to check
out, only to be told ticket? What ticket? We have no ticket for you!
And when I try to explain about being called, etc., and making my
reservation, etc., the lady turned to another lady behind the desk and
they argued w/each other in what clearly sounded like a couple of birds
scolding each other for having dropped the baby bird out of the
nest...or something...I interrupted as politely as possible saying what
can we do, I still need a ticket...this happened about 3 times and
everytime I tried to explain I'd made a reservation, was called for my
ticket, they'd turn and start arguing again!
 
As it turns out, the original ticket wasn't going to take me very far
anyway, so this clerk seemed a bit more skilled at making reservations
and when I show her my map of China where I want to go, she manages to
make my reservation clear across China for Yunnan Province, which is
just north of Vietnam. It's 2 days on the train, she arranges for a
sleeper, and assures me it's the "soft" class which is supposed to be
the better seat.
 
Arriving at Shanghai Railway Station you can't imagine how happy I was
to have a ticket!! Wow...imagine Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and all
those people waiting in one spot the size of an average parking
lot....patiently, to be sure, but all the same, was a zoo! I found the
lounge area people with "soft" seats are to wait, was really very
decent and there were other foreigners there also whom offered tips on
traveling. Only when my train arrived and I boarded was I to find
out....too late...the entire car was beds, stacked 3 high and 3 facing
each other so in groups of 6...and I guess the clerk back at the hotel
got a laugh out of this one...she booked my seat on a top bunk! And
apparently I was the only female to have a top bunk....well, I wanted
to travel like everyone else (but NOT that extreme!)...fortunately
there was a man who spoke English, who also was a teacher, him and his
wife were traveling to Kunming also (where I was going) and explained
about the train...did make me feel a little better. There were sort of
pull down seats along the windows, but they didn't have much back
support, but top bunk people didn't really have places to sit because
they had the least room of all the beds (like maybe 2 feet if that
much?)
 
Wow...I gritted my teeth and reminded myself my little one person tent
was also small and I endured it thru 2 days of pouring rain once on a
camping trip in Canada..surely I could do this.
 
Only I did imagine a smoother train ride, was recalling the bullet
trains of Japan and how fast and smooth they are...this was more like
the Long Island railroad which always reminded me off those little cars
you ride in amusement parks, slow, loud clacketly clack and bumpy...and
the top bunks shook interminably!! After a few days my joints were
screaming, my stomach was beside itself...and my nerves were so far
gone there just wasn't any point of being angry, there was obviously
nothing I could do short of jumping off at one of the stations and I
wasn't going to do that..tho don't think the thought didn't cross my
mind!!
 
But the people were all so great...as soon as we boarded the women were
unpacking and hanging up little towels on poles by the windows,
breaking out the tea pots and dishes?, toilet paper ? uh oh... and
snacking began in earnest! well I did bring a bag of peanuts and a
bottle of water...and some tissues but not toilet paper...
 
Turns out there was no place to change so one slept in one's clothes,
no place to bathe or wash except for rudimentary sinks to brush teeth
and wash your face and hands...and the bathrooms, well, they weren't...
the second day I jumped off the platform at one of our many many MANY
stops to buy toilet paper and oranges from the multitude of vendor
carts who lined up to sell to travelers.. Our stops lasted anywhere from
3 minutes to about 10...Then the second day around 5 am my toilet paper
was hit by a breeze because the window was open and went flying down
the hole in the floor....that was the toilet...
 
Oh yes, my oh my...asian toilets are not always what we wish they
were...and these were no exception...just a long drain and then a hole
made of stainless steel with a properly placed bar to hold on to while
the train jerked and snaked along its path...a memory I won't soon
forget.
 
But again, the people were great, I met some female students from
Romania who studied Chinese at a university in Shanghai, they also
spoke English and we had some good conversations. I took many photos
which I hope turn out well, people mostly got used to me and didn't
seem to mind. The one scary time was the first nite when a military
type came thru and I was on the top of the ladder trying to arrange my
bunk, he was talking to me in Chinese and I of course was clueless what
he wanted, thought maybe he didn't have room to pass beneath me but
seems he wanted my passport. Another passenger spoke up who translated
and explained of course they needed to know where I was going for the
record and all... of course...but he was actually very nice and didn't
seem angry I was an American and as I was to learn later, then it
seemed everyone on that train knew about me. They heard me and the
students talking and thought we were all traveling together, even tho
we weren't in the same car...and we all know how dissident students
are...actually made me a little nervous but was all right.
 
As the countryside rolled by it was like pages of National Geographic,
the farms, the communities, the strip mined mountain sides, by the
second day we finally left the cloud cover behind as we entered Yunnan
Province and its picturesque landscape. Sharp pointed mountains, rock
formations, green hillsides much like California and the American
Southwest. Gradually the sky cleared and as we rolled into Kunming it
was warm and sunny like south Texas or California, a nice breeze
blowing, NOW I know why people leave cold climates for warm ones in the
winter! hmmm, kinda nice...!
 
It's hard to describe the Chinese countryside but am told there really
isn't a cross-country highway system, hence so many people traveling by
train or bus. The little communities were clearly undeveloped with oxen
visible, hand and push carts, people carting water and other items on
poles, little or no electricity and maybe little or no indoor plumbing.
But there were other signs too, of recently built housing and newer
communities and highways being built. The anger I've felt for many
years about Chinese imports and the loss of jobs gradually dissipated
as I realized no matter how hard I'd had it or others I know, we had
never had to deal with what people here have had to deal with. Maybe I
and some of my friends have known hunger before, but not famine. Maybe
we've had trouble getting adequate health care, but no one I've known
has ever died from a simple blood infection or a preventable disease
(except maybe smoking!) or lack of a childhood vaccination....there was
little or no farm machinery which did surprise me actually. So many
people were hoeing in the fields, large fields, not small gardens...
 
By the end of the trip some passengers had actually approached me and
wanted to speak in English, was kind of them but by then I just wanted
off the train like everyone else I suppose, all the same, addresses
were exchanged and all, I think the Chinese people are very kind and
gentle, but don't get me wrong, am not giving any credit to their govt
for that, I think that's just the way they are.
 
So here I am in Kunming and just resting up...was very lucky in finding
a decent hotel for about 15 dollars which actually had a bathtub and an
incredible view of the city and all the traffic and people below (am on
the 10th floor). It has a great picture window which lets in lots of
sunshine, and after soaking for maybe an hour in the tub! then washing
my hair many times!! ha ha...was ready to see this part of China except
I promptly fell asleep!! Oh my, to have the energy of the young!!
 
Anyway, will be here for a few days, the train goes straight to Hanoi
and will most likely take that, the Vietnamese Embassy is just down the
street, tomorrow I'll see about my visa and then as I continue heading
southward, the journey continues.

======================================================================

Kunming, China to Da Nang, Vietnam.
February 12, 2005
 
Kunming is the largest city in Southern China, Yunnan Province but
still some distance away from the border. Because it's the Lunar New
Year in Asia, everyone is traveling home to visit relatives and there
are masses of people moving around. Here was no exception, virtually
everyone is looking to go somewhere. Kunming also happens to be sort of
place where many travelers stop on their way to Vietnam, so I wasn't
alone in seeking transport across the border.
 
My hotel was bustling with activity and the streets outside were
seething with travelers, the local populations and what I saw for the
first time in large numbers - the extreme poor. The first nite I
crossed the street from my hotel, gingerly, as there were no gestapo
crosswalk cops here and it was every pedestrian for herself, looking
for food that didn't involve noodles or rice, which after 2 1/2 days on
the train, well, you can imagine....on the corner was an open air cafe,
ok, some walls were knocked down, chairs and tables obtained somewhere
and a fire was going, anyway...I saw fresh veges laid out and they
looked entirely edible, and real roasted chicken... I picked out some
food and sat down, only to be immediately confronted with a begging
child, when he went away, more came...and more, and more, even an
adult, who literally shook his amputed limb in my face....wow....
 
After walking around and over the next several days i'd see more of the
same, twisted limbs, signs of desperation, young people sent begging by
their parents, even the mexican border wasn't like this, I simply never
expected it...wasn't china supposed to be taking care of their own? I
was puzzled but didn't know who to ask about this....maybe that's why
I'm taking photos?
 
Someone told me Yunnan Province has some 50+ minority groups in it,
because of its close proximity to so many countries, Vietnam, Laos,
Thailand and of course Tibet. It was clear from the different faces I
saw on the streets, this was an ethnic mix of many different peoples
and it was clearly an international city. The landscape of Yunnan is
vastly beautiful, with mountains and gorges and enormous rock
formations, it is a huge tourist location and I do hope to visit it
again...am only wondering why China doesn't do more to develop its
tourism business, and then maybe there wouldn't be so many poor? sigh,
I know that's idealistic, but anyway..
 
Trying to find a way out of this metropolis, however, wasn't going to
be easy. Everyone I asked had a different story about the train to
Hanoi, yes, there's one no there's not there was one but it's stopped
there's one to the border only yes there's one but you must go to the
north station...on and on...I finally gave up and decided to try the
bus, not willing yet to venture into the train station which was too
much like the one in Shanghai. The bus station sold me a ticket which I
was assured was the city I wanted to go to if I wanted to go to Hanoi
(because it turns out I couldn't go to Hanoi directly), but I was
really clueless as to what city it was and since the person who sold it
to me didn't speak English and I was just using my phrase book and
forgot to bring my map to the bus station.... They wrote down the time
for the bus and said it was 10 hours and that was that...
 
My last nite in the hotel, packed up, go to bed, excited for what was
to come next...I awoke in the middle of the nite to paper rustling,
thinking that's awful loud to be outside my room? hearing it again and
knowing in the pit of my stomach, only one animal makes that sound,
it's when there's something in the trash can....not getting up but only
sitting up in bed and peering thru the only light coming thru the
window, I glance towards the door and in a few seconds, yes, there it
went, sauntering across the carpet from the bath to behind the
dresser....a rat!! Ok, should I scream now and wake everyone up? more
disgusted than anything, I continued peering, hoping for please let
there just be one!! no more!! and it sort of sauntered back into the
bathroom? why?? did it leave the towel on the floor??? then maybe heard
me plotting its demise it actually scurried this time, quickly as rats
can do so well...behind the dresser....I turned on the light, my
stomach churning...a plastic bag with peelings from a mango I'd eaten
earlier had been dragged out...I picked it up, put it back in the trash
and shut the bathroom door, leaving the light on....then laid out
another sack near where he'd run off so I'd definitely hear it if it
dared to return, my boots placed strategically by the bed...as all good
new yorkers do, we toss boots or other heavy objects at rodents when
they appear at nite...hey it was my last nite, did I really want the
entire floor of the hotel in my room and the entire staff all jabbering
in chinese about this horrible exposure of imperfection which I'm sure
they would insist on maybe moving me to another room or something? it
was 3 am and I was going to be up in a few hours, hell, I was ok, just
repulsed and that was nothing new...
 
Morning came I ran to the embassy and picked up my visa, back to pick
up my bags, and even tho I looked up the word for rat in my phrase
book, the smiling clerks and the kind "thank you" was just too much, i
didn't have the heart to tell them, and figured someone would
eventually...if they didn't already know?...to the bus
station...another foreigner was on my bus, I immediately asked him if
he knew where this bus was going? and was he also going to Hanoi? yes
to both, and I was on the right bus so time to settle in...this was an
excellent bus, ac, no smoking, an attendant on board (as it seems all
buses in china have), they even handed out free water and little
plastic bags which I thought were for trash?
 
Not 2 hours out and we began climbing what turned out to be the first
of 3 mountain ranges we would cross, the 4th we'd enter but stay
in....was all so magnificent. having lived in the rockies and traveled
the smaller mountains of ny state, I was used to mountain roads and
their twists...but not everyone else was, like the guy in front of me,
poor man, now I know what those plastic bags were for...he also used
mine...
 
The other foreigner was from London, we spoke a bit during stops, he
said he'd set out a couple of weeks prior to "see the world" but was
puzzling, everytime the bus started up again, he opened a book or
started writing, while outside was this incredible landscape of
mountain villages, rice and other crops on steppes that covered entire
mountainsides, all carefully tended by human hands and the help of
cattle for power...no tractors anywhere, no farm equipment at all that
wasn't hand made...was absolutely breathtaking how hard people would
work...was this why China failed to develop its countryside? did it
fear these people would leave for the city?? couldn't it see that's why
so many did leave for the city and why so few wanted to be on the farms
once they learned of other places with more opportunity? is it really
so difficult to imagine leveling the playing field in education and
other simple improvements such as plumbing and electricity might
encourage more people to stay in agriculture? some of the homes in the
villages appeared as individual and unique as any vacation home
designed by a very expensive architect in the U.S., yet were clearly
simply the style that had been around for generations in the area. They
were charming, quaint, and lovely to look at, close together for energy
efficiency, usually had vegetable gardens nearby or w/i yards, with the
background of the huge rice fields in the mountains, it was all
unforgettably beautiful, at least to me, I wondered what part of the
world this other traveler was expecting....
 
We continued climbing the 4th range, it grew dark and a little cold
outside, we were clearly at high altitude as the water bottles were
losing air and people's ears were popping, the last time I could see
clearly I saw peaks above timber line, which I think is maybe around
9-10000 feet, so we were pretty high. We came down a little bit but not
that much, it was getting close to time of arrival and people were
starting to get off the bus, but in nothing more than little hamlets,
the vegetation was dense, most of the entire trip we'd been on roads so
narrow if a truck or bus was coming the other way one of us would have
to stop and wait for the other to pass, I just looked the other way and
reminded myself this driver surely had been on this road many times
before...all the same, was getting nervous about where the last stop
actually was going to be? I pulled out my small flashlight, an item I
considered a necessity and now was glad to have along...were we just
going to be dumped in the middle of nowhere?
 
Then we pulled into a small town, many lights and clearly a border
town....we were at the border of China and Vietnam....wow....very very
dense vegetation, a river (the Red) running alongside. I found a cheap
hotel on the China side, not having any Vietnamese money and not having
been able to buy it in China (one can't buy any foreign currency in
China I was told).
 
The next day I entered the border station and passed thru what must
have been 5 different officers checking my papers but all were as nice
as could be, then directed to the border which was a bridge over the
Red River, one walks across. It was so emotional to me, I didn't expect
this, tho all during the bus journey I'd had many thoughts about
Vietnam and what in the world our country had been thinking to come
here and get involved in a war. I began taking photographs of the
farmers bringing their produce to market, goods bought over the Chinese
border and brought back to Vietnam, friends and family simply crossing
over, and the river running below, very shallow and twisting here, with
sand bars visible. Could have been any river anywhere in the U.S., all
so ordinary looking...a third of the way across I was overcome with
emotion at the thought of all the lives lost and the blood which must
have flowed into this river, from all the countries involved in the
war, not just americans....I felt so much anger and pain at the
senselessness of it all, and how all over again it's happening in Iraq,
the same senseless war, the same senseless violence, the lies, the
nonsense about democracy, the same old story they tried to tell people
then...25 years from now will Iraq be a tourist destination?
 
Jack Munson (now deceased), a man I knew many years ago, was a
demolitions expert in the Vietnam war. He'd grown up in Louisiana, been
drafted and gone with little knowledge about what awaited him. He
talked to me a lot about his experiences there (here). He said, "they
were farmers, just farmers who only cared about their crops and fields,
why were we making war with farmers?" I saw what he was talking about
and understood...this entire region is just farmers, for untold
generations...yet lay in a region that has seen conflict after
conflict... I knew if Jack were alive he'd have wanted to come back and
I was glad to be able to do this, for him and others.
 
Lao Cai, the town on the Vietnamese side, was a sleepy, dusty little
town with charming french provencial architecture still evident, both
old and new. I'll say one thing for the french, at least when they
invade a country, they do it with taste and style. Their presence was
in the buildings, the decorations, the food, and more cats than I've
seen since I left nyc! was funny....It seemed there was no way to get
to Hanoi until the next day so I asked about tours in the area, it was
so mountainous, surely there must be something to see.
 
Much to my surprise, there are various ethnic minorities in the area,
including the Red Dao and the Black Hmong, both which had migrated down
fleeing China in the past. They'd grown rice on mountainsides maybe
forever? I don't know, but was interesting because it was quite cool
and even cold in some of the higher elevations and I always thought of
rice as a tropical crop, not a cool weather, high altitude one.
 
Anyway, the method of transport for my tour was to be motorbike, hmmm,
ok, and then my driver was this young 20 something who had an english
degree but I could barely understand :) was typical...he was friendly
enough and considering the proliferation of bikes I felt he had as much
skill as anyone, so climbing on, and off we went...you should put your
arms around my body he kept saying, hmmm, yes but it makes me feel like
I'm committing a crime I wanted to say :) so one arm gingerly around
his waist the other on my camera we sped up the mountain rodes....
 
Alas, just as we were climbing higher and higher and the most
interestingly dressed individuals began appearing as we got closer to
their villages, my camera decided it'd had enough and stopped working
then and there! noo nooo nooo!! oh yes yes yes!!! A photograph's
nightmare...my guide was peering at me as I fiddled w/it and tried to
psycho-kinetically get it to work again...much to no avail....so
probably some of the prettiest pics I would have a chance to take
weren't..we went into this village where people lived in clapboard
houses w/dirt floors, some electricity but no running water, simple
room dividers, more like primitive barns than actual houses, but their
clothes were more like costumes, the local govt sought to assist them
to attract tourists and I asked later about their relationship w/the
Vietnamese govt and was told they are a fierce people who the govt
decided to leave alone.
 
that made sense, can't be easy to get people to come work in rice
fields at high altitude, w/no simple amenities like running
water....they probably felt it was best to leave these people alone and
let them do what they've always done...but I was to learn later the
govt of course allocates land distribution, while these people clearly
grow enough rice for many people, they aren't allowed to keep any
profits...they do extremely fine sewing and embroidery work and sell it
to tourists for hard currency which seems to be the best they can
do...ironically, I felt like I was visiting an indian reservation in
the U.S.
 
The motorbike ride was exhilirating to say the least and coming down
the mountain we sped up, the air was cool and fresh, and altho I know
longer felt like a dirty old lady for holding on to this young man's
body (it was that or possibly fall off!) (and never mind if our sexes
were reversed, that is a young 20 something driver and a man my age on
board!) I was glad to get back in one piece, and happy to have seen
these people whom i'd never even known about....and of course furious
about my lack of pics, but all the more reason to come back some day...
 
I still shake my head about the number of different ethnic groups in
the vietnam region, don't recall ever hearing about them before but
they are of course well known in this area. seems virtually everywhere
in the world there are ethnic groups who govts decide to either exploit
for tourism or attempt to assimiliate or just remove altogether, every
country it's the same damn story! we see it again and again, it never
changes...
 
But I still needed to get to Hanoi, the hotel promised a ticket for the
train, soft seat they swore. the next morning I discovered there were
other foreigners, 2 russians and 1 japanese man with dreadlocks - and
now my camera was working again (of course, I was back down the
mountain and no longer viewing images of a lifetime!) (nikon you suck!)
we were headed to Hanoi and went to the train station
together....hmmmm.....so did all of Lao Cai, it seemed. ok, they left
the chickens and dogs at home....this made Shanghai look like a well
organized school trip...I made it out the door of the station to the
platform and kept saying where is OUR train??? this can't be it??? it
seemed to be one of the ones they saved from germany they shipped the
jews in, no I'm NOT exaggerating.... chicken wire over the windows,
horrid green color, people squeezed, yes squeezed against the windows
for air? what? to say goodbye? to whom, virtually the entire town
seemed to be getting on this train?? the other foreigners were men and
were trying to be polite, saying go ahead but I kept hesitating, like,
do I have to? I mean, really? get on this train? isn't there another
way???? the jp man went on ahead of me, brave soul that he was, and i
stepped on up, or climbed rather, as there were no real steps, just
some sort of ledge...
 
And where were our promised soft seats? when one could see past the
multitude of bodies, it was clear this was not the train we'd been
promised...but at least, this time I could lament w/others we'd all
been screwed together...literally...hard wooden slats for seats,
benches really, and people crammed into them, the aisles, those chicken
wire covered windows, well I wanted a realistic experience, but this
was a little too real, it made the Shanghai to kunming trip look
positively luxurious. at least it was early in the morning and we'd
arrive that evening sometime...hopefully...
 
I was actually lucky as it turned out, having a seat next to a tiny
little grandmother who didn't take up much room and was really sweet,
and across was a husband and his wife, very nice also who didn't mind
my long legs stretching out in different directions...over the journey
we all managed nicely...the grandmother and I even shared oranges and
stuff. across the aisle a young mother had her infant, who was his
grandfather's pride, quite visibly, and our entire group set about
entertaining the youngster whenever he was awake (or perhaps it was the
other way around?) it didn't take much for me to ask to hold him, which
sent gasps of awe and amazement among the passengers next to us, but
really, he was just sooo cute! his mother was very obliging to share
him, clearly proud of him (as she well should be!) he slept a lot,
often at his mother's breast, as she nursed him unabashedly, fixed him
cereal and his grandfather would sometimes get up and walk him,
bouncing him on his shoulder....it was better than anything I could
have imagined.
 
There were food hawkers up and down the aisle, sometimes stepping on
top of each other, pilling up at the door, more came on board each time
we stopped, which after I started counting was about 3 times an
hour...then of course, the drug dealers, yes, I kid you not. there were
2 of them, carrying huge water bongs, people would pay up, he'd set the
pipe and they'd all start puffing and blowing...I started shooting
photos and one got angry at me and I'm like, you get on here w/that and
you have the nerve to be angry w/me for taking your pic? of course I'm
going to take it!! ha ha...was either opium or hashish, maybe both,
don't know but the smoke made me high and gave me a terrible headache,
I wanted to throw them both off the train and almost did, many other
passengers clearly disapproved as well. the train conductor walked by
once saw them and turned his head the other way, was a joke, they
could've cared less...
 
We pulled into Hanoi early evening, I found a hotel after several
tries, hung out for a few days in the muggy torpid weather. I headed
for the Hanoi hilton not once but 3 times and it was always closed for
the holidays, was sorry for that. I did photog the outside, some barbed
wire at the walls, hopefully will turn out ok... Hanoi was like
kunming, lots of very poor people living on the streets everywhere. was
amazing, tho, how the american dollar was in total control, isn't this
supposed to be a communist country? didn't they celebrate kicking the
americans out? then why do they want the dollar so much? i've never
seen people so eager for dollars and so reluctant to accept their own
currency, don't know why.
 
I left Hanoi on another train, this time I bought the ticket myself,
was an overnight one, but more comfortable, at least air conditioned
but just seats like on a bus. as dawn broke Thursday morning, we were
just coming thru what was once the DMZ4, and my mouth hung open aghast
at the number of graves, headstones, markers, cemeteries, all in
fields, rice paddies, everywhere we passed....far too numerous to
count...this was where Jack had fought, here and Da Nang, where he told
me sometimes they hung in their foxholes for days, just pointed their
rifles up and shot out, not knowing who if anyone they hit....he
acquired jungle rot in his feet, a common ailment of the army infantry
due to the prolonged wet boots. of course he was lucky just to come
home with that and a pot habit...
 
Looking out at the rice fields and imagining how it must have been to
have died there, or fought there, I thought of another friend, Noel,
whose duty had been called towards the end of the war. he said they
drove around in a truck, looking for bodies and dog tags. I said how
did you do that, that is, how did you find them? he said we just
followed the smell, it's a stench you'll never forget...after 9/11, I
thought of him a lot and understood. he was a quiet man, we worked
construction together, he wrote poetry in his spare time...I don't
remember him smiling much and always a deep pain in his eyes.
 
Finally pulling into Da Nang with sultry breezes from the ocean, dryer
air and blue skies, it was much easier to put this war behind, I'm
still so very sorry it happened but see so much hope and energy in the
people here in the southern region. they seem much more happier than
the northern area and it didn't take long to make friends with a young
woman who cooks in the western-style cafe across from my hotel. her
english is excellent and she loves to come out and talk to foreigners.
already she's told me of her village and how over 24,000 graves are
there, not all from her area; they buried the bodies as they fell. now
joint teams from the u.s., working with the vietnamese govt, come every
year to reclaim those who are americans...other areas come to bring
remains home from their areas, in the meantime the people of her
village tend to the graves and care for them until someone comes to
claim them.
 
There is definitely a new generation here but the war is anything but a
distant memory...it's face is evident everywhere, only now there is
hope for the future....

===================================================================

Da Nang to Saigon. March 15, 2005

 
I left Da Nang rested and refreshed, having had to
stay there a couple of days longer than planned, again
because of the lunar holiday, known as Tet in Vietnam.
The cleaner air, sunny skies, and warm weather was
definitely refreshing. Altho I didn't relish the
thought of entering yet another steamy city, one that
was even hotter and more humid, and no doubt also
teeming with motorbikes as in Hanoi it was time to
move on.



To that end, Saigon was similar to Hanoi as far as
numbers of motorbikes - zillions of them, swarming
like bees, flocking like birds, honking like geese -
for a city of 8 million it seemed impossible how
people could function like this but cars and trucks
were few and far between. People loaded whatever they
could on their motorbikes, entire families even - it
was not unusual to see the husband driving with a
youngster in front of him and his wife on the back
holding onto an even smaller child between them!
Parents picked up youngsters at school on motorbikes
and older children rode their own to school.
Grandmothers hung on to grandsons' who drove and
working women in dresses and suits rode them to their
jobs. If one eliminated the taxis, which are the
predominant cars, there would be very few automobiles
left. In Saigon the weather is so pleasant year round
perhaps it is ideal for the motorscooter but all the
same, one can't help imagining the rainy season.
 
People's attitude in Saigon was palpably different
from the northern parts, especially Hanoi. People
just seemed so much friendlier to foreigners, waving
and saying Hello constantly, especially children who
are quick to try and speak English. Because most, if
not all, children learn English in school now, they
are not as afraid to speak to a foreigner and are
often eager to try. I found a hotel in the
backpackers' district where foreign travelers almost
seem to equal the population. Restaurants with
western foods were abundant and so many people spoke
English I found hardly a need to use my phrase book
anymore.
 
One of the first items on my list was to see the War
Remnants Museum, named and renamed several times; at
one time it was called the War Crimes Museum. Housed
in several different buildings, divided up between
resistance, photojournalists of the war, and other
acts of aggression, exhibits mostly consisted of
photographs. After visiting other museums which also
consisted of mostly photos, I realized it was because
that was mostly all that was left, the Americans
having destroyed everything else with their (our)
bombs.
 
Of course it's been said that this museum is very
one-sided because it concentrates on aggressive acts
of Americans, emphasizing how many tons of bombs were
dropped, how many tons of agent orange was used to
destroy thousands of hectares of forests, how many
billions of dollars were spent to fund the war and how
many Vietnamese died or were injured compared to
American soldiers. However, those are indisputable
facts and walking through this museum I have to say,
the reality of what happened here and how immense it
was, how tragic, enormously destructive and how very
very wrong it was finally started to impact my
thinking. Traveling throughout the country from north
to south I had witnessed a poor country which could
have been like many other poor countries. Though now
the bomb craters and burned forests have since been
plowed over or replanted; visible evidence of a war
was not evident. One could easily dismiss the chronic
poverty to other reasons.
 
However, when you start thinking about how it is for a
country with an established population successful with
agriculture and trade, destroy their communications
systems, their roads, their hospitals, their schools,
their electrical grid, even their water supply....one
has to wonder how these people even managed to survive
at all. What's even more amazing is that this little
country of rice farmers and business entrepreneurs
managed to resist the incredibly powerful military of
the United States. It's absolutely astounding!
 
I just had never thought of it this way, but again, is
that any surprise? All we ever hear about in the U.S.
is how we "lost" the war, or how many Vietnam veterans
are having problems with drugs and homelessness, or
how Vietnam was "taken over" by the Communists. There
have been documentaries which mentioned how the
Vietnam War to the U.S. was referred to as the
"American War of Aggression" by the Vietnamese but
little more than that statement ever gave even a hint
of just how absurd the entire situation was. AK-47s,
B-52's, flame-throwers, grenades, etc., all to search
and destroy against people with no aircraft, no
sophisticated weaponry, they lived in simple homes or
even thatched roofed-huts, had no advanced technology
comparable to our communications systems, etc, etc.,
yet we treated them as if Kansas City, Kansas was
going to wake up one morning and be overrun with
Vietcong!!
 
Our soldiers were young and naive and easily misled
into the Vietnam War. It was not a war so much as it
was an invasion. We went there as if God herself was
on our side, killing babies and mothers alongside
their sisters and grandmothers, explaining it away as
a casualty of war.
 
And this little museum (space-wise) held only a few
well-placed photos and a minimal of artifacts yet with
these testimonials told of the tremendous power the
Vietnamese people were up against, the terror,
brutality and horror inflicted upon them by a people
mostly larger in physique, fire power, air power,
technology and economically yet were overcome by a
people who fought with nothing more than their
knowledge and faith of the land they were born upon,
where their ancestors were buried and where they had
lived for countless generations.
 
This, too, weighed heavily on my mind as I realized,
Vietnam, such a small and beautiful country of
brilliant farmers and mountain people, managed to
stand up to the most powerful country and its
military, forcing their withdrawal. Surely not since
the British left India was there such an act of
victory!
 
This, too, is something we hear little or nothing
about in the U.S., the fact that Vietnam may very well
be the only country who has ever managed to
successfully stand up and defy the U.S. But then
again, has it?
 
Maybe on military grounds, yes, it has. But
everywhere I traveled people asked for dollars, U.S.
dollars. Restaurants regularly posted prices in U.S.
dollars on their menus, or provided your bill already
converted. Street vendors offered prices in dollars,
maybe they couldn't read or write but they could tell
you how many dollars something was! Talking about
this at length with a tour operator, he expressed that
Vietnam was very poor and needed U.S. dollars to
expand its economy. Unfortunately, what I saw at work
were citizens who were being bought out by their own
government, one who was handing contracts out to
western corporations, allowing western investors to
import goods such as sodas, liquor, of course
cigarettes, and other items and all the time being
told their own country's currency was "no good."
 
Can you imagine if people in the U.S. or Canada or
Britain were suddenly told to start accepting, say,
Korean won (dollars); that their currency was no
longer any good?
 
So rather than instill new pride in their country, and
rebuild the infrastructure for those who had fought so
valiantly to survive, the govt is as corrupt as it can
be, while non-profits take the initiative to fight
such chronic problems as the huge numbers of street
children, drug addiction (I saw 2 guys openly shooting
drugs intravenously on a busy street); crimes against
tourists - my second camera was stolen right out of my
hand the last nite in Saigon. It happens all too
often, some passerbys called the police but they just
shrugged...and what else could they do? maybe have a
visible presences but they probably aren't paid a
decent wage...
 
Wages and working conditions - I talked to several
Vietnamese workers and all said the same thing, they
worked 12 hours a day (or more), seven days a week,
with 1 week off for the Tet (new year) holiday every 2
years...this was typical. and they didn't earn much
at all...I felt more than pity, immense frustration at
how much disparity there exists in the world.
 
Another interesting museum was the Museum of Southern
Women. This is dedicated to the women of South
Vietnam who fought against the Americans, considered
invaders. It was interesting because it included
clothing but also mostly photos, but explained how
women were tortured and brutalized along with the male
soldiers in supporting the Vietcong. To them they
were only fighting a foreign army in their midst, who
could truly fault them for that? Once more I wondered
why in the U.S. we rarely ever credit women with such
heroism as an entire museum; surely American women
must deserve such honors?
 
While in Vietnam I managed to read the Quiet American
by Graham Greene, which was later made into a movie
with Michael Caine. Greene lived in Vietnam for some
years working as a journalist, and while there one of
his regular haunts was the Majestic Hotel in Saigon.
On the 8th floor (top) is a terrace bar, that is, much
of its space is open to the sky, with a sweeping view
of the river and streets below; far enough up to
stifle the endless cacophony of honking and thunder of
motorbikes.
 
I perched myself at the edge of the railing in a
comfortable table more than one night, reveling in the
cooler, cleaner air and mellowed out at how Greene
must have truly found his solace in this building so
aptly named. One could gaze down at the river, lazily
flowing towards the sea with slight twists in its
banks the way a woman's arm may bend over her head as
she welcomes her lover to her bed; the city lights
coming on slowly with a strong and determined twinkle
as precious electricity is used to hold back the dark
for a little longer.
 
Watching the moon rise over Saigon and the river below
in its black and murky waters I couldn't help but be
amazed at how this country, and Asia in general,
continues to innovate and develop itself in efficient
transportation; exploiting bicycles and motorbikes to
their utmost, making all available to everyone; yet in
the West, where technology sometimes has a steep
pricetag, more and more are shut out as bigger and
faster cars overtake the highways, wasting fuel,
polluting the air and destroy our environment. It
also wasn't hard to see just how isolated the West is
becoming as many young activists have been telling us
all along (and older ones too).
 
I rented a bike for 4 days in Saigon, wanting to
experience for myself the method of transportation
most popular for one time, before the motorbike took
over. Bikes were still in large numbers but no where
near the number of motorbikes. Pedaling out in
traffic was indeed risky, especially at intersections
where there were no traffic lights and bikes moved
together like swarms, slowing down, daring others to
go first or get out of the way, me inching my way
slowly along the borders of streets or trying just to
make a turn. It was indeed hairy, and more than once
frustrating as yet another motorbike cut me off, or I
was squeezed between 2 of them, forced to breath the
exhaust of the one in front of me (or dozens in front
would be more accurate).
 
The last nite of my bike rental I was heading back to
my hotel, hugging the center line to make a left turn
and pedaling slowly for the opposite lane of bikes to
pass, when they did I started to turn only to be
slammed into by a bike behind me!! did he want to
turn? no, he was going to pass into the other lane to
pass me!! because we were both going so slow, as is
usually the case, neither of us hit the ground, but as
I was wearing shorts, his exhaust pipe hit my leg and
left its fiery burn on my flesh, leaving a physical
scar that no doubt I'll always remember where it came
from.
 
I guess I could consider myself lucky, it could have
been worse, he could have run me down!! but again,
like the dreams we sometimes have of things in slow
motion, the bikes go so slowly most of the time
serious accidents are usually avoided tho I'm told the
statistics are enormous for fatalities. oh well..
 
The other way people would get around was by ciclo.
These wonderful 3 wheeled devices offer a seat in the
front for the passenger, and behind sits the driver,
higher than a bicycle, yet pedaled the same, the
wheels like a bike. There are shade umbrellas like on
a baby carriage, pulled over when the sun is too hot.
One bargains the price ahead of time (or should
anyway, I certainly did) and if I wasn't in any hurry
and it wasn't too far these became my preferred method
of transportation. Often the drivers spoke at least
some English and were eager to practice; one young
driver spoke especially well and was happy to know I
am an English teacher. When I didn't have proper
change to pay him and I offered to go into a store to
get change, he took my small bills but less than the
fare, smiling and saying I had a big heart but poor
pockets because I was a teacher!! how right he was!
 
Finally the next to the last day before leaving I
managed to book a 1 day tour on the Mekong Delta ($12
was all it cost); we were to travel by 3 different
boats. The Mekong Delta conjured up visions of war
movies; marines climbing muddy banks, armed boats
floating down brown watered rivers. Indeed, once on
the tour, it was not hard at all to imagine all these
things and even more, like snakes!! yes, they were
there, we were shown not 1 but 2 pythons, large boas,
one over 6 feet long, maybe 4 feet the other one,
yuck! Our boats went down narrow canals and across
the Mekong River which really seemed like the
Mississippi Delta region, even East Texas, tho the
crocodiles were few and far between (we didn't see
any).
 
Tourists were taken to small villages along the way
where tables were set up under thatched roofs, very
tropical, one such place had fruit served so we could
taste it fresh from the area. Villagers had arranged
for traditional music to be played and one of the
first women who sang made two of the other tourists
start laughing. They were 2 Vietnamese, altho one was
a young woman raised in Australia as her parents had
been refugees. She was fluent in both Eng and
Vietnamese and someone asked what was the song about.
When I heard them laughing I said "she's probably
singing about the foreigners and telling them to leave
her country." turned out I was right!! she was
singing in Vietnamese, thinking no one would
understand her! later children sang, others played
instruments and then everyone came and all performed
together. Their final song was the same one- they all
stood there and sang the song to the tourists in
Vietnamese "foreigners get out of our country!!" it
was really funny, but the look on their faces was NOT
humorous at all...! oh well...
 
We came back to Saigon via a 3 hour boat ride past
many kinds of boats, fishing boats, transporting
boats, passenger boats, many colors, mostly wood
except for the tankers, all over the muddy waters of
the Mekong, a river which had been used for maybe
centuries or even longer for transportation. A great
similarity was the eyes and faces painted on all of
them. Apparently once there were many crocodiles in
the Mekong, and the faces were to warn away the
predators, protecting the fisherman. Seeing these
painted boats, riding in these waters, all in all was
a great way to end a journey.
 

[Epilogue]
Even tho this was technically a vacation of sorts, it
was necessary to establish a new contract back in
Korea so I'd have a job to return to. I was offered a
contract at a school near Seoul, in Ilsan, where I am
now writing this last and final chapter of my online
journal. During my last days in Saigon and Vietnam, I
became almost friends with the people who ran the
internet cafe I visited every day; the manager at my
hotel spoke to me at length and his wife and baby
seemed familiar after over nearly two weeks staying
there.
 
But what all must realize is quite simply this: the
entire time I was in China and Vietnam it was
considered high risk, even dangerous, for me to tell
anyone I was a journalist, much less an independent
one. Discuss of politics was even more risky and it
was acknowledged that cafes frequented by foreigners
would be monitored visually and electronically or even
both.
 
While in China one night I witnessed the police
surrounding a young man who was standing with his head
bent down in a defeated sort of way. Walking further
I saw someone down on the sidewalk, scrubbing at some
writing in chalk on the sidewalk. I photographed it,
saw them looking my way and quickly departed. Later,
I returned to photograph the freshly scrubbed marks,
evidence most likely of an attempt to make a statement
about the govt? probably...
 
In Vietnam the one time I saw police on the street he
was standing with his hand out, taking money from a
guy with his motorbike parked next to him, no doubt
had been pulled over by the cop for some infraction,
yet had been unlucky in being singled out, for surely
so many bikes commit many infractions on a regular
basis.
 
Also in China were the scary warnings on using the
internet, clearly stating monitoring was being done
and certain websites being prohibited.
 
In Vietnam people needed permission to travel to
certain areas outside their own "designated"
zone...when I took a tour of the Mekong Delta the
operator stood up and told us about how he was living
illegally in Saigon because it was so much trouble to
constantly visit the police station and renew his
papers; each time he'd have to pay a "fee;" no doubt a
bribe. I was told it took as long as 2 years to leave
if one married a foreigner, it was extremely difficult
to get permission to leave Vietnam.
 
My own experience mirrored this; the Korean Embassy
wanted 5 days to process my visa when K. Embassies
elsewhere could do it in 1; I had to wait over a week
for a flight out and when I finally got one much to my
surprise it was in the middle of the night.
Apparently all flights leave Vietnam around midnight!!
mine left at 12:50 a.m. We went thru no less than 3
x-ray machines, yet the attendants were nonchalant
about it all and I was even wondering if the machines
actually worked.
 
While to their credit they are building a new airport
in Saigon, the one there now is so small and
primitive, crowds of people flocked around and inside
to such an extent it was next to impossible to find
signs pointing to where one must go. Security was
totally absent outside, and sparse inside. Yet on the
faces of those waiting it was clear, not joy at the
prospect of a vacation, this was passage into another
world, escape was written all over their faces.
 
I was both glad to leave Vietnam and sad at what
became a very personal experience. Yes, I found
closure the day I threw the rose into the ocean at
China Beach, both for the loss of Jack Munson and
others I knew and did not know; it was informative to
visit the museums and heartwrenching to see so many
graves. But overall I felt how just very wrong this
invasive war was, not just because of the loss of life
and destruction but also because of the way it was
represented; there simply was no reason for it to have
ever been what it was; it was worse than a mistake, it
was a heinous crime against humanity. Those who
continue to insist we only made mistakes in Vietnam
only prolong the lie; justice must be served, those
guilty must be held accountable. How all this will
happen, I don't know, but I do hope, for both our
country's sake and the sake of Vietnam, as well as
other countries who dare to call themselves civilized,
this will happen someday.

 
What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless,
whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of
totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy? ~ Mahatma Gandhi
 
There is no instinct like that of the heart.~ Lord Byron


THE END

 

©Linda Wasson is a staff member of NATIVEWEB.ORG,
"Resources for Indigenous Cultures around the World"       

__________________________________
1 PMS: pre-menstrual syndrome

2 nabe: neighborhood

3 Col. Sanders: founder of the restaurant chain "Kentucky Fried Chicken"

4 DMZ: demilitarisized zone






 



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