Very hungry, very poor, very hungry baby (Yeah right!)

September 18, 2012

Every day in another culture offers the frisson of adventure, even if it is merely based on the fact that I am out of my own. Every day there are such a host of peculiar and unusual things going on the heart and mind are continually refreshed with that sense of wonder we too easily lose when we are caught in our humdrum routines.

A ten year old Chen was the delight this morning. I snuck across to the park after breakfast to read some notes and take photos. Up he strode with his mate Pren and struck up a pleasant conversation in passably good English. Pren had a nylon line and his plan was to go fishing before school. Chen carried a little shoe shine box but the pitch I was expecting took a long time to come. We chatted about Australia, the size of fish in the pond over our shoulder, the going price of a two kilo fish , kangaroos and school before he offered a shine. I asked him “how much” but knew it was not going to be as easy as his counter “You tell me the price.”

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May 5, 2008

cholon-bike-repair390.jpgVietnam is endlessly fascinating. Because it is Vietnam of course. But mainly because its people are polite, energetic, entrepreneurial, curious, engaging and well, just Vietnamese. They are charged up about building their country and raising their standard of living in the pell mell pursuit of the West. Fortunately they are not completely corrupted by that madness and suburbs and districts of Ho Chi Minh City retain their essence. Read more

Soviet Tanks and Japanese Toyotas

May 4, 2007

With Australians having been intimately involved in the Vietnam War there was a certain hesitancy, a cringe even, on arriving in a place that had once been a battlefield and many of the folk around us considered enemies. Vietnamese have no such cringe. They are out there running just as hard and as fast as they can to turn their country around. That, coupled with having the youngest population under 25 of any nation on the globe, means this is a place that has very little concern about, or even awareness of, the immediate past. The rickshaw drivers, former officers of the South Vietnam administration/government, and unable to gain any other living and cut off from any pension support, are the only real visible evidence of the hurt from that period.

Nonetheless any visitor can hunt around without too much effort and find plenty or relics from the war period. And it is always good to go and see the museums that tell the story from the other side. We weren’t angels either.

Down near the zoo there is a lovely juxtaposition of imagery which sums up the current situation rather well. The T-55 tank here is backdropped by the new Toyota dealership in the background – recent political and military history backdropped by more recent commercial history. In turn both are backdropped by the museum building in the background that contains stories and evidence of Vietnam’s prehistory and precolonial history. Of the three it is what the Toyota dealership represents that has the attention of most Vietnamese today. Wring your hands all you like about the war Mr Aussie visitor, but don’t get in the way of us building our businesses. Fair enough. That is probably more healthy than our introspection – which I am happy to say evaporated within days of arriving here.

Learning English the Hard Way in Ho Chi Minh City

May 4, 2007

If you stop for very long [in down town Ho Chi Minh City(formerly Saigon)] – say two or three minutes – chances are good that you will be tapped on the shoulder by someone wanting to practise their English. This has now happened on the steps of the Opera House, on the banks of the Saigon River and of course up the back streets with MK and her family. In this instance the lesson was initiated by Nyugan Van Chung who arrived with a dictionary in hand. My initial suspicioun was that he wanted to sell me a dictionary. That proved not to be the case. Rather he came armed with numerous pieces of paper covered in lists of words which he was trying to rehearse.

On a steamy morning, with the drain stink of the Saigon River in our noses (though boys being boys were happily leaping into its swirling current, trying to catch plastic bottles and ear and throat infections) , in the shade of trees that drop goodness only knows what, we explored words starting with “ex”, which are especially tough for these people. And of course we made a whole lot of conversation, with things around us being the catalyst for the same. The Russian craft which serve as ferries became the subject of a geography lesson hence the hand drawn map here of Asia and Russia. And we had to take care of China at the same time since he had managed to confuse the country with porcelain. Sometimes a dictionary is only a hindrance.

But all in all we made good progress, practising sibilant and glottal sounds while at the same time doing our little bit for good neighbourly relations. Interestingly enough he volunteered that he asks numerous people to practise like this but said they were afraid to talk to him. He was not sure why that was, but we explored some possibilities – from Caucasians not necessarily being able to speak English through to a lack of confidence in themselves to teach. He is a very slight and unassuming fellow, not intimidating in any way and very plainly though neatly dressed. He was very proud of his very battered briefcase/satchel. I got a sense that he was sleeping in doorways.

He is down from Hanoi, looking for work. Born in June 1976, he told me he was the third child, second son, with no girlfriend. I wonder if he is one of those third child pieces of flotsam that get no support and somehow have to make it on their own. There was no evidence of any job. He told me he came down here to the river every day to find people he could practise his English with. I am glad I accepted his offer. It was a morning well spent. Even if he was part of a security detail. Under all that patter, a part of me strongly suspected he was. Though I resisted the urge to test him and try and trip him up on his language exercises. Heck, I am here on a holiday. Relax and go with the flow. I did, and the conversation was doubly sweet for that.

Journal, Banks of Saigon River, November 2004

A Gunner in Vietnam – Killed By His Own Hand

April 27, 2007

Funny how random things can spark random thoughts. The picture of Spud standing in the rain in Martin Place sparked thoughts over the last couple of days about a good friend I used to serve with. He was an Airfield Defence Guard. For those of us serving in relative comfort in the Air Force he was one of those strange few who elected to live rough, cold and wet. A kind of Air Force infantry who were trained to do what their job title says – defend airfields. During the Vietnam War they did just that but also served as the door gunners in 9 Squadron helicopters. They also mixed it with the regular infantry and in the case of my friend he spent some time with a US Marine unit patrolling the jungles.He was one of those guys you share a barracks with who was always boisterous, loud, happy and on the go. A larrikin. Prankster. Knew all the perks. Knew all the senior officers and who to see if you needed half a sheep for a bar-b-que, your car fixed, or a free ride to Darwin for a few days in the sun at the tax-payers expense. He was nearly ten years older than the rest of us so we all tended to defer to him. Trusted with the keys to the troop’s bar, he would always be the one who closed it, long after the duty barman had gone home. Many a time I woke to hear him singing his drunken ditties as he ambled back to the barracks by himself.

It is an evening that seems to get clearer in my mind as the years go on. I came into the barracks one evening and he was on the floor in tears. When he saw it was me he got up and locked the door and swore me to silence. Then he dragged a military issue trunk out from under the bed, wrestled with the padlock for a while and then pulled out dozens of photo albums. He went immediately to one in particular and spread it and its loose photos out over the floor. It contained a series of fading colour shots of him standing on a jungle clearing with the head of a Vietnamese soldier in each hand. He was grasping them by their hair and holding them out from his body like a pair of gym weights. At his feet there were other severed heads. They had successfully out-ambushed an ambush and his grinning face betrayed the relief they felt. So too the US Marines standing around and watching.

He put those photos away (there were others as macabre) and through his tears told me he could not reconcile, even these nine or so years after the war, how it was that he had been able to “play God”. And he proceeded to recount how, from the door of the helicopters he was able to tap a few rounds behind a running target moving across a rice paddy, make him stop by tapping a few rounds in front him, steer him left or right with rounds on either side, and then cut him down with a long burst just as the runner got to the safety of the tree line. Over and over again. With no feeling, except that it was somehow a game and he had complete power. Now he raged against the abuse of that power and I gained some insight into why this friendly, outgoing, very loveable guy was the way he was: it was all a front. A cover-up. A first class act to deceive himself and those of us around him.

Nowadays we like to think we catch these men before they self destruct with these dreams and images rotting their minds. That we get through all that male, macho bullshit that we put up and expect our buddies to put up. That we catch them and encourage them to talk these things out. We didn’t catch Ian. Ten years later he shot himself dead, still plagued by his “I played God” demon. I hope his Mum, who he loved to bits and who was always rescuing his adult boy, never found those photos.

Thanks Spud for reminding me to remember one of your Vietnam Vet colleagues who didn’t make it. Even though he pretended to.

Bonjour Vietnam

December 23, 2006

A remarkably evocative clip. Sung by Quynh Anh, an expat Vietnamese living in Europe. Having been to Vietnam I found it an evocative piece of video and music. All the more so for their disastrous past and their passion for the present. The English words contain none of the magic of the lyric French, or the romance of that language. In any event, best watched and heard, not read.

Nonetheless, the words are below!He

Tell me this name, strange and difficult to pronounce
That I have carried since my birth
Tell me the old empire and the feature of my slanted eyes
Describing me better than what you dare not say
I only know you from the war images
A Coppola movie, (and) the angry helicopters

Someday, I will go there, someday to say hello to your soul
Someday, I will go there, to say hello to you, Vietnam

Tell me my color, my hair and my small feet
That I have carried since my birth
Tell me your house, your street, tell me this unknown entity
The floating markets and the wooden sampans
I could only recognize my country from the war photos
A Coppola movie, (and) the helicopters in anger

Someday, I will go there, someday to say hello to your soul
Someday, I will go there, to say hello to you, Vietnam

The temples and the stone-carved Buddha statues for my fathers
The stooping women in the rice fields for my mothers
Praying in the light to see my brothers again
To touch my soul, my roots, my land..

Someday, I will go there, someday to say hello to your soul
Someday, I will go there, to say hello to you,Vietnam (twice)

Long Tan and Short Memories

November 22, 2006

Yesterday the Australian Prime Minister of Australia laid a wreath at the site of the Long Tan battlefield in southern Vietnam. It is rightly famous for the Australian infantry who beat off more than 2000 enemy.

There are criticisms by Australian veterans about how this battle was forgotten, nay even rebuffed by those in government at the time. That veterans received inappropriate, or worse, no recognition at all for their efforts. They accuse various governments of short memories.

But there are other short memories about that war that we should be thankful for. Visit Vietnam and discover how few are aware of the war. Vietnam has one of the highest under 25 year old populations in the world. And they are all hell bent on securing the materialistic future they see in the Western media. Drink at Starbucks, ride the latest Japanese motorbike, shop for the latest fashions and have the latest accessories. Some have never heard of the war of aggression we call the Vietnam War.

More remarkable is the handful of Vietnamese you might be fortunate enough to meet who hold no grudges despite their losses – material, social, filial, fiscal. And mental. I met an amazing woman we simply called Grandma who had fought the French, fought the Americans, lived in the Cu Chi tunnels, fought the Cambodians in 1979 (she lives on their border near the “Parrots Beak”.) On occasions she helps coach junior diplomats from the US Embassy. They know nothing of her background until the end of their time with her, when she takes them through a review of her martial life.

The impact is dramatic, and was for us too as she laid out her experiences with great pathos and compassion and humanity. What a remarkable thing to discover that in someone who had every human reason to harbour a grudge was a person who held no grudges. Resented no foreigner. Only wanted to build opportunities for her children and grandchildren.

We go to Vietnam today with something of a self conscious cringe, hoping they will not resent our visit. Worried about what they might think about those of us coming from aggressor nations that killed more then three million of their citizens. They welcome us with open arms, great humour, an earnest desire to know about us, to practise their English. And take our money. But through their open honesty and driving passion to build their nation they remove our cringe. A humbling experience, built on their thankfully very short memories.

Cu Chi

November 17, 2006

I have been asked about the reference to Cu Chi in the photo. Cu Chi (“coo chee”) is famous as the site for the tunnels built by the Vietnamese resistance, or Viet Cong, about 45 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Being this close to Saigon they were used to focus attacks into the heart of the South Vietnamese military and political administration, including that of the Americas during the Vietnam War. Earlier they had been used in the fight against the French.

In military history they are infamous for the fact that the US Army 25th Infantry Division set up base right on top of them. They are famous for the Australian and American soldiers (Tunnel Rats) who, armed with only a torch, a pistol and their courage, went into the tunnels to hunt out the resistance. But they are especially famous for the amazing length and complexity of the tunnels. Here people lived and ate and slept, and died. Here they had workshops, hospitals, schools, manufacturing plants, storage facilities, training rooms, generator rooms, kitchens and wells. First dug in the late 1940s and in used right up until 1975 they are a potent symbol of what lengths people will go to in order to secure their own land and take control of their own destiny.

I crawled through a one hundred metre section of these tunnels, apparently widened to accommodate bulky visitors. But they were still a very tight fit. It took some effort to negotiate hard turns left or right or up or down. And I was forced to take a deep breath when the lights went out and our guide vanished into the darkness. Thirty metres underground and no way to back out – and in complete, smothering blackness. And no way to see forward. You only have one choice and that is to feel you way forward until the little lamp of the guide finally came into view around a sudden corner and down a sharp drop into a hole. I made more of an effort to keep up. And did so with a newly inspired respect for those who lived and fought their wars in these places.

Love Lost in District 4

November 14, 2006

I walked out of the Ho Chi Minh CBD, such as it is and into District 4. I discovered later that locals recommended District 4 should not be on any walking tour for visitors, it being too dangerous and violent. Something of a slum, and I suspect that is the real reason why locals don’t want us to wander around in there. As I wandered down a side street off a side street off yet another road I was prompted to stop by the interrogative “Where are you from?” and following my reply, an invitation to have a beer. So I sat on a small child’s plastic chair in the shade of a brown umbrella in the company of four middle aged men, a wizened grandfather and a diminutive girl. Given the choice of Heineken or Tiger (or drinking from dirty beer bottles from goodness only knows where) I elected Tiger and was promptly asked for 20,000 dong. This was then handed to the little girl who promptly ran off up the street and disappeared. Gypped again. She was replaced by an older woman who turned out to be the grandmother of the girl who just did the magic disappearing act with my money. This was getting weird.

Suddenly two beers actually appeared (inside I chided myself for being so mean spirited) and the child was introduced as Mai Khang, a seven year old who has been learning English for two months. Her pronunciation was excellent but perhaps most striking was her enthusiasm to try new words, and to experiment. So we played with words and phrases and used this journal to help write down things we could not otherwise convey to each other. We had a delightful couple of hours with this family. Grandfather had a smattering of English which was distilled to a favourite sound-bite of “number one” accompanied by a thumbs up and a crinkly smile of his deeply tanned face. We toasted each other with warm beer(two became four became six), shifted alternatively out of the sun or rain, practised our colours and otherwise slowly killed time. Eventually the group grew to include other children, elderly folk who climbed into hammocks and swung themselves to sleep. Other adults appeared and sat around. Some just sitting on the periphery and enjoying the afternoon. Others groomed each other in a meticulous manner suggestive of a de-lousing session. To cap it all off a ride back to the hotel with the father of Mai Khang, on the back of his motor bike. Somewhat precarious and initially not in the direction of the hotel, which was starting to put me on guard – maybe this was not a good area to explore after all. But my misgivings were unfounded as he took a circular route back to the hotel, clearly proud of what he had to show me. Delivered safely back to my hotel in the open and trustworthy manner in which the whole conversation started.

His tour took me through the lanes and muddy paths which stretch down to and along the Saigon River. Here were warehouse still with a colonial air. But here mainly were warehouses that were used to house stores shipped in during the Vietnam War. Two conversations are stuck in my mind. Mai Khang’s grandfather was a stevedore for the USN. He said he loved that work, loved the US people he had worked for, loved the opportunities, the money he earned. Still could remember the names of the servicemen he worked with, and wondered where they all were now. A poignant moment and loaded with honesty, severed friendships, long memories but no animosity. Just a sadness at friendships he had no hope of renewing.

A little later in that same warehouse area we met an old, old woman. Actually she was probably only in her late sixties but life had been tough on her and her toothless grin and peasant clothes, unkept hair and bare feet spoke all that needed to be said about the course of her life. You see people like that all the time. But you don’t always hear even the smallest part of their stories. She was different for she gave up all her heart and hopes when she asked if we, the first white faces seen in her lane in thirty years (we had poked down into a very remote area of District 4), knew Paul, where Paul might be. Paul was her US boyfriend who suddenly left thirty years ago when all the US military suddenly left and she could not understand why he had not come back for her. Since then she had not been able to get work but held out a hope that her young knight in green camouflage armour might reappear and rescue her from her District 4 prison. She, a beautiful Vietnamese girl who was all a man could desire. She asked and looked earnestly at us for an answer.

How do you respond to that question knowing that an honest answer would destroy any hope (if it was really there) and a lie would be just that and give her a false hope? How do you encourage her, build her up, not deflate any hope she has in her heart? How do you look her in the eye and tell her a lie when what was probably seductively Asian thirty or so years ago is now wrinkled and dried out, frail and broken, unlovely in the eyes of even her own people? As I stood there and looked at her, with young children laughing and scampering around our feet, trying to pose for photos I thought of the boyfriend. What memory would he have of her then in his minds eye? And what would he think if he met her now? Then I took another mental snapshot of him; no doubt living like a lot of retired servicemen I have met. Probably still has a vision of her and himself as fit and youthful twenty somethings – but who is now overweight, out of breath and living in a trailer by himself with a mongrel dog and two stray cats in the lost blocks of Louisiana somewhere.

We lied. So she continued to smile her toothless grin of hope as we edged back out of the lane through the spilling kids. Silent we were, in the face of a vanquished life.

Puppies and Green Snakes (IV)

November 12, 2006

First day wandering out into the streets, with no map, to see what I can see. Now I am not sure where I am but the general direction I took from the Saigon River was towards the local markets. Past cages of dogs, puppies and green snakes, all stupefied by the heat save for one yappity beast chained to a fence. No one seemed bothered by his noise but its desperate tone caught my ear. Even the snakes, which seem to me to be capable of slipping away through the bars of the cages, seem too whacked out by the heat to even blink let alone stretch a coil.

After making a mistake by taking a map out of my pocket I am suddenly accompanied by a motorcycle rider who offers to take me to the markets. His price starts at 5000 dong and eventually drops to a friendly free ride after I manage to rebuff him and keep walking – the markets were, after all, now in sight. Or so I thought. That rebuff took three blocks to come into effect however – he idled alongside me, kerb crawling, continuing to haggle and not wanting to give up any prospect of making money. His name was something like “Sail”. He also asks me if I like bar girls, perhaps hoping that this will secure a sale. He eventually tires, though his persistence is admirable, and he rejoins the flood of bikes.

People are certainly friendly, calling out “hello” and “hi” and “good morning” just for the sake of it. They clearly enjoy getting a response. I have in my pocket a card from a taxi company, the result of a driver talking to me in the street and telling me his story. I also got talking to a chap this morning who had a little pocket diary he clearly treasured. Well worn, grubby and dog eared, he proudly showed me though was reluctant for me to touch it. A great treasure it seemed. And in a sense it was, for it contained brief testimonials written in the hand of previous customers he had taken on personalised tours – all of these testimonials extolled his integrity, honesty and local knowledge. His thorough grasp of English commended his potential services as well. Testimonials came from all over Europe but most seemed to come from Australia, and those from Melbourne. His is no sampling poll but there were dozens of annotations and Australian visitors seem to be a large demographic coming to this country.

Not only dozens of workers but the police ride scooters as well. One just trolled past with his folding stock AK-47 strapped over his shoulder. A reminder least we forget, thanks to Prada, Western Union and any other numerous Western brands you can see on a walk like this, that things are still done a little differently here.

The breeze, stirs, the sun is melted by a heavy, boiling cloud, the humidity squeaks. Will it rain? No idea? Just as well, since the markets were in fact another five steamy kilometres away. I should have accepted the ride, even at 5000 dong.

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