Learning to Love Vietnam
... a trip to Ho Chi Minh City.
A while ago, I was living in Chiangmai, in Northern Thailand, while writing a book. Every three months, I had to leave Thailand to renew my visa, so I'd take a trip to one or other of the nearby countries, stay a week or two, then come back. These visa runs were special - a quick infusion of the new to break up my routine in Chiangmai
One particular trip I made was to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now called. It was quite a trip.
When I first got there I hated it, but that might have been because of the usual collection of disasters that seem lately to happen whenever I step out the door of my apartment. With my head inside my book, I'm dangerous to be around, because I forget things - particularly little details. Thankfully, I have an angel looking over me, who leads me back to lost tickets and passports, and impels strangers to seek me out to return dropped credit cards, lost bags and passports.
That angel worked overtime on this particular trip.
I was due to fly out on that Monday. So on the Friday before, while messing about in an apartment in Chiangmai, I happened to wonder how much a ‘visa on arrival’ might cost at Saigon airport.
Or if, indeed, I could even get a visa on arrival. I'd gotten so used to the seamless entry into countries like Bali, Malaysia and the Philippines, I'd not thought about the possibility of stricter protocols in other countries.
It was just a casual thought, but it was enough to sit me down in front of the laptop and check online - and, shock horror, I found there's no ‘visa on arrival’ for Vietnam. If you don't have a visa already in your passport, they won't let you in.
It was Friday night before the weekend, before the Monday I was flying out, and there was no Vietnamese consulate in Chiang Mai. How the hell was I going to get a visa?
Agh!!!! The consequences began piling up.
With no visa in my passport, I would not be allowed on the plane. But I had to be out of the country because my Thai visa was finishing on that very day. I thought, maybe I could buy a ticket to somewhere else at the airport, but it would be extremely expensive. Added to which, I’d already booked a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.
What a disaster!
Then I thought, there must be a lot of people in situations like mine – no visa, no consulate to get one. So I went online … (I don’t know how the world ever functioned without the net).
After an hour of trawling through traveler’s forums, I found out if I got a ‘letter of recommendation’ from Vietnam immigration, I would be able to pick up a visa at the airport when I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. Then I found out I could buy one of these letters online at this obscure traveler’s site.
Because it was urgent I rang them straight away. I was told the letter could be issued by email at 6 pm on the Monday (it being Friday afternoon by now). That was no good to me, I emailed back - my plane was leaving at 3 PM … I needed it before then!
So, after much too-ing and fro-ing and an extra charge of $20 they sent a motorbike over to the immigration dept specifically to get my letter, then emailed it to me an hour later.
Phew … another near miss. Whoever said life was boring?
I get to Bangkok by Monday morning to catch the sleeper to Bangkok, the plan being we’d arrive at 7 AM, and I would go straight to the airport to be ready for my 3 Om flight. So I left the apartment on the Sunday and caught a tuk-tuk to the train station.
But as the tuk-tuk careened through the traffic, the tuk-tuk driver told me that the train wasn’t going today, or any day soon, because one of the bridges on the line had collapsed the night before because of increased river flow from the recent rains.
Again the consequences piled up. If I wasn’t in Bangkok the next day I’d miss my flight, overstay my visa and be fined.
We got to the station and sure enough, there was a big sign saying ‘TRAIN CANCEL – TICKET REFUND’.
What the hell was I going to do? Catch a plane to Bangkok? With the trains out they’d all be booked out. Same with buses. Rent a car? It’d cost a fortune and I’d be driving all night … … alternatives flitted through my head as I stood in the queue to collect a refund from my ticket.
Then I heard a German guy at the other window asking when the bus was leaving.
I leaned over and asked him where the bus was going.
“There is a bus to pick up the train at a town further down,” he said, his face glistening with the same adrenalised sweat that was glistening on mine.
I plucked my ticket from the fingers of the attendant, who was just about to process it for a refund. There was no point asking him why he hadn’t told me that there were buses to connect with the train – this is Asia. Things happen or they don’t. To question ‘why’ only drives you mad.
After an hour’s wait, the bus came and everyone piled in. We drove for two hours with Thai country music pumping on a HUGE hi-fi system the driver had installed in his bus, with his wife and two kids singing along at the front, and sullen passengers crammed like cattle in the back.
We pulled into a dusty little town where the train was waiting at the station. All good – with my ticket in my hand I climbed aboard and sat in my allocated seat, waiting for the ticket inspector.
Thank god, I was on my way!
I ordered a beer off the serving woman and propped my ticket behind the drink holder by the window sill so I would know exactly where it was when the ticket inspector came. When the inspector came clicking his clippers and shouting, ‘ticket pliz’ I was feeling pretty good about things, sipping beer and fiddling with my iPhone.
Smiling up at the inspector, I reached over for my ticket.
It was gone. The place where I’d propped it behind the drink holder was now empty.
As the ticket inspector clipped the ticket of the Irish girls in the other seat, I stood up and began hunting for mine.
Down the side of the seat? No.
I got down on my knees and looked under the seat. Not there either. In my pocket? No.
I thought I was going mad – I knew I’d put it on the window sill just behind the drinks holder. I saw myself doing it. I put it there when the woman brought the beer.
The ticket inspector turned to me – I looked up at him from the floor where I was kneeling, looking under the seat.
“Tsk tsk,” he said, smiling bemusedly. “No ticket?”
“Yes, I have a ticket! I had it before,” I said, pointing to the window sill. “I put it there.”
He leaned across to check, then shook his head.
“No ticket,” he said, grinning at my confusion.
Yet again, I looked beneath the seat but there was nothing there.
The ticket inspector laughed and, with the toe of his shoe, he poked at my pack, suggesting in Thai that perhaps I should look in there. I knew it wasn’t there, but I needed time to think. So with the inspector peering over my shoulder, I unzipped my pack and began hunting through the mess of t-shirts, underpants and two laptops in my pack.
I turned and looking up, I shrugged with that bewildered smile that travelers in difficulty all over the world know so well. The inspector wagged a finger at me. He mimed perhaps I should keep looking, then wandered off up the corridor.
By now the two Irish girls in the opposite seat and a young Thai guy who had been watching this little pantomime had joined in looking for my ticket – on our knees, shining torches under seats, riffling through old garbage, asking people in other seats if they’d seen it.
“Will I be thrown off the train?” I asked the Thai guy.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I have never seen anyone with no ticket before.”
“Fuck,” I muttered, again contemplating the disaster of me standing on a deserted platform in the middle of Thailand as the lights of the train receded into the distance, as once again, my life went up a chaos of missed planes, Thai immigration officers, and evaporating money.
Right then I noticed the seats were not attached to the wall – they slid out when the attendants came around to make up the beds. It was my last chance – maybe the ticket was there. The gap between seat and wall was only about a millimeter, but who knows, I was ready to try anything. I grappled with the seat and pulled it out, and there it was – stuck flat to the wall with some kind of static electricity thing. You couldn’t have hidden it in a better place.
Again the angel, just in time.
I was shaking with relief when the ticket inspector returned. I held it up and he laughed and everyone in the carriage who'd been watching this little drama cheered. All was well…again.
Came time to sleep, the attendants came around making up the beds and I was exhausted – I don’t mind a little stress, but this day had been a little too intense. I climbed into the upper bunk and tried to sleep. But with the heavy rain, the train kept stopping and starting, as the rail-line was intermittently checked for water damage along the way – each time jerking to a halt with a cacophonous clanking of chains and couplings, all of which made sleep impossible.
It was 9 AM when we got to Bangkok. I immediately caught another two trains to the airport, then hung around for a few hours eating bad food, writing and fiddling with my iPhone to stay awake (why is there never anywhere comfortable to sit in Suvarnabhumi Airport? I wondered if the seats had been made uncomfortable on purpose, to keep people from falling asleep and missing their plane)
Finally, we boarded. I was hanging out to collapse into my seat and close my eyes. I’d asked the ticketing woman to give me a window seat so I could sleep with my head propped against the window, and she was wonderful – she gave me a whole row to myself so I could lie down.
But just as I’d settled into the seat and was lifting all the armrests so I could to lie down, a young Vietnamese guy shifted over from a full row to sit in one of the vacant seats.
Remembering the traveler's creed - accept what must be accepted - I sat back in my seat and closed my eyes and fell instantly asleep. I didn’t even feel the plane take off.
I’d been dozing for maybe ten minutes when a finger tapped me on the arm. I opened my eyes. It was the young Vietnamese guy. He was smiling at me.“Excuse me for waking you,, ” he said softly.
“Yep,” I said curtly, rubbing my eyes.
He cocked his head playfully.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” he said in strangled English.
“Are you gay?
What the hell? A pickup? Here on the plane?
Now I’m thinking, what is it about me, that wherever I am, gay guys start flirting with me? Is there some weird pheromone I emit that they're picking up?
“Sorry, but I’m straight,” I said, smiling to soothe the blow.
He looked crestfallen for a second then cocked his head playfully and said, “Have you ever tried mek love with man?”
“Actually, yes,” I said. “But I didn’t like it. I like women. I like women very much. Perhaps too much.”
He nodded, thinking.
“Oh well, lucky women,' he said. "But no good for me.
Then he looked at me and smiled.
"I think women like you very mu because I was watching you in the airport. You are very sweet.”
“Thank you for telling me,” I said, smiling. "You've made my day a little better."
"No problemo," he said.
With neither of us able to think of anything else to say after that, I closed my eyes to go back to sleep – to find we were already landing in Ho Chi Minh City.
I waited an hour in the airport for my visa, and found I was not alone in my complicated arrangement - a large crowd of other travelers jostled about the visa counter.
It appeared there was a hold-up - we all mutely listened to the frantic pleading of a Maori New Zealander who had just been told he could not enter the country. He’d had his passport stolen in Bangkok and arrived in Saigon with a temporary embassy issue passport and a letter of recommendation like mine, picked up from the internet – but they told him they were refusing admission in because his passport was ‘irregular’.
“But the embassy told me it would be okay,” he was saying.
“Sorry, no good,” came the implacable reply.
It was a done deal. They’d already sent someone to collect his luggage. The poor bastard would have to take the next flight out - to anywhere.
“But where will I go?” he was saying over and over again to anybody, maybe to himself. And we all watched him suffer, no-one saying anything, as each of us secretly thought, “I’m glad it's not me.”
And as I walked away, gazing at my visa stamped in my passport, I wondered at the strange detachment one gets when traveling, where other people's situations, which might normally trigger a response, or empathy at least, do not. Traveler’s mind is quite pitiless in that way.
It occurred to me then, that maybe it's because you know in a minute or so you'll be walking away to continue your journey. And you'll never see that person again. So no consequences.
I took a taxi to the hotel (Hang Hoc Hotel in District 1) and checked in. For 20 bucks a night the room was small but okay. A bed, television, fridge, conditioning and a bathroom. It was clean. Good enough for my purposes.
But when I started up one of my laptops, I found the wifi signal unworkably intermittent. Not good. I needed it to do some urgent business in Australia.
Then I noticed that, as well as my hotel’s wifi signal, I was picking up signals from three other hotels alongside, and ALL of them were unsecured. So, surfing the waves of these overlapping wifi signals I found I could pick and choose.
I love Asia.
Why the signals were all unsecured, I don’t know. I wondered if maybe it was so the government could look in on whoever they chose. Or maybe it was a socialist thing - share your wifi.
Whatever it is, I’m all for it.
And Ho Chi Minh City itself?
Well, in the tired, and very jaded frame of mind I was in, when I ventured out for food, I hated the place – a grimy, squat city full of rude, sullen people - a hornet’s nest of aggressive motorbikes. I could see why Thai friend scathingly remarked that the Vietnamese are ungainly peasants – unlike the Thai’s, the Vietnamese, with their guttural, glottal language, are loud and pushy, and there’s this constant resonance of ruthlessness everywhere – I felt as if, were I to collapse in the street, they’d simply take my wallet and walk away.
The city itself is no comparison to the towering, glassy inferno of Bangkok – a few interesting skyscrapers among an expanse of grimy French colonial architecture – sort of like being in a decrepit tropical Paris – exotic, but in the exhausted frame of mind I was in, uninspiring.
I went down to the market to wander amidst a fury of screaming Vietnamese and found bunches of street kids plucking at my sleeve, all wanting to clean my shoes.
“I have no shoes,” I said, pointing at my plastic crocs (yes, I know, I was wearing crocs – bright orange crocs).
One kid bent down and looked up with a grin,
“No problem sir, I clean, I clean.”
"No, no ..." I said irritably and walked away with him doggedly following, I managed to keep ahead of him until I stopped at the lights, and he got down and started scrubbing at my crocs with a toothbrush. Sighing resignedly, I let him finish the job, though there was nothing to do - then I handed him 10,000 dong (about 50 cents).
Yes, cheap I know - but seriously - cleaning my crocs?
He looked at the note with disgust.
“No good!” he yelped. "You gib me 50,000 dong!"
I laughed and said, “But I never asked you to clean my crocs.”
He held up his hands,
“I cannot live on 5,000 dong! You gib me 50,000!!”
“No ... buggar off and find someone with shoes, and clean them!” I said and walked away. He followed, nagging me in machine-gun Vietnamese, and trying to drum up support from the stall holders looking on, but they just laughed.
Yes, mean, I know - but I was exhausted. It brings out the worse, being tired like that.
I bought some dried fruit and nuts in the market and looked at fake watches – but wherever I went, some hustler would be picking at my sleeve wanting something, so I went back to the hotel and watched a cable movie on television, then went to sleep.
Not a good beginning and I must admit - all my fault.
The next day, after sleeping deeply, I walked to the Thai embassy to apply for a new visa, and Ho Chi Minh City began to unfold - and I began to like it.
It’s not so cramped as Bangkok – and away from the market stalls, it took on an exotic grace I found quite beautiful. The Vietnamese live in their city with a wonderful sense of possession and ease – groups of them everywhere squatting on the pavement playing cards or board games, sitting around drinks stalls where they serve beautiful sweet coffee and tea (real coffee – beautiful coffee – one thing the French left here was a taste for good coffee), or sitting in outdoor cafes in the parks or the gardens of the ‘Independence Palace’.
The city is grimy but clean – chaotic but orderly in that peculiarly Asian way. And though the traffic is chaotic, as if usual in Asia, it all works. It’s a bit like China in that way – being that, they don’t bother with road rules as much as the beeping of horns and keeping an eye out for each other to make it all work. So it would be quite difficult to get run over here because everyone is watching everything that happens.
After I completed my visa application at the Thai Embassy, I dropped into the ‘War Remnant’s Museum’ on the way back, and it was there that I began to understand the incredible spirit of the Vietnam.
In that place, I think the heart and soul of Vietnamese people, which is so hidden in the fray of life, is on display, and it is indomitable, courageous, and beautiful.
Basically, the entire museum contains a story – the story of the war with America.
And the story is not told in a histrionic tone, nor does it focus entirely on their own plight, nor is there any chest beating or patriotic diatribe. The story is told quietly and reverently over three floors of artifacts and captioned photographs.
It tells of a people who were desperate to own their own country – having been colonized by the French for the last hundred years, then invaded by the Americans when the French left.
It's the story of a people who, without the fancy weapons and technology of their opponents, fought wholeheartedly and with incredible stamina, wits and courage. Who pretended to be communist simply to access the aid and weapons they needed from Russia. Who didn’t really understand what the hell the Americans were trying to do with this invasion in the first place, with all their tanks, planes and guns, and their heated, lusting hearts.
When I saw the statistics, I realized that, though I had demonstrated against that war, I really had never had a true idea of just how horrifying it was. Here are a couple of the numbers that shocked me:
6,727,084 tons of bombs were dropped over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, as compared with 2,700,000 tons of bombs dropped on Germany during the entirety of the Second World War.
19,000,000 gallons of Defoliants, the effects of which will last 100 years, were sprayed over the 3,500,000 acres of Vietnam.
There’s so much more, but I won’t go on. The statistics of any war are always horrifying - but these were so ghastly, as they slowly collected in my head, I found myself close to tears.
But here's what makes this museum so much more than a horror show.
One would reasonably expect, if any nation had have been invaded, slaughtered, maimed and abused to the degree that becomes obvious in this museum, that the tenor of the rhetoric would be loud, accusatory and calling for sympathy – not to mention crowing to the world about their amazing victory over the most powerful nation on the planet.
Not at all.
There is no mention of victory here. No breast-beating or finger pointing. There is only a quiet sadness that it all happened, together with a determination that it should never happen again.
In fact, the first floor, before all the other floors, is not about the Vietnamese at all. It’s totally devoted to all the people around the world who supported them during that terrible time. Hundreds of photos of students and draft dodgers in America, particularly the demonstrating students who were shot dead at Kent State University in 1970. Reverent stories of Americans who refused to fight, bomber pilots who were court martialed because they refused to fly any more missions over Vietnam and Cambodia. Lists of European peace organizations that gave them support and lobbied for them. A photo of Daniel Ellsberg who stole the Pentagon Papers which showed the ineptitude and stupidity of the war, for which he was imprisoned.
The entire ground floor is devoted to these people – not the Vietnamese.
It’s only as one climbs the stairs, to the next two floors that the story of the war slowly unfolds – always matter of fact, with statistics and descriptions and photos – and it is utterly heart-rending - all the more because at no time do they ask for sympathy, or try to make you rally to their cause. The story is always told in the same matter of fact tone - the voice that one reads in all the captions beside these awful photos of the war is always calm and composed.
It’s the images that tell the story. First of the war itself, and the vicious weaponry being used – nail bombs designed to shred anything close, cluster bombs designed to maim rather than kill … the horror of these weapons and the minds that thought them up was mind boggling for me, who has never had much to do with the machinery of war. I could not imagine the kind of mind that would invent such awful machinery.
Then there was the photos and documentation of the torture inflicted by the South Vietnamese and CIA - and photos of victims of torture, and their courage in many cases, as they defied their torturers.
Then on the next floor were hundreds of photos of the after effects of Agent Orange spraying, both on the forests and on the people - in particular, the deformed children who are still being born to this day, and will keep being born for the next century to come.
Now, okay, I accept that war is war. Torture, weapons, death and so on. It's always been horrifying and it always will. But what made this war so horrifying was the stupidity of the war itself – the false premise it was perpetrated on - America invading to stop Communism, the domino effect and so on. There WAS no communist threat in Vietnam – they just wanted their country back from the French who had been terrible administrators over the century before. So, as I said before, they posed as Communists to get aid and weaponry from Russia because no-one else would help them. So the notion of Communist threat was a lie.
The truth was, with the Korean war finished, the American arms Industry needed another war - and Vietnam was perfect. And for me, it this that makes the horrors inflicted on the Vietnamese so awful, and the atrocities that were committed in their country so mind-bogglingly evil. I rarely use that word ‘evil’, because I don’t subscribe to it as an idea, but with regard to the cynicism of the minds that cooked up this terrible war and the weaponry that was invented to be used in it, I cannot think of another word.
Anyway, after three floors of this, near tears, I had to get out and compose myself. I walked out into the sunshine and was headed for the gate, where I paused to look at my map. A young Vietnamese man came up to me.
“Are you lost sir?” he said in very good English.
“No, I'm just looking for where my hotel is.”
“You have been in our museum?” he said.
“Yes, I have …”
He smiled and we stood for a second, me staring at my map, him looking off into the distance. Then he reached out and touched my arm.
“Ah sir, I am glad you know the truth now," he said quietly. "But all of it is in the past."
He smiled, then said, "Now we live.”
And in that moment I fell in love with Vietnam.