I leave San Francisco late on a Sunday night and arrive in Saigon/HCMC on early Tuesday morning, having “lost” an entire day - the plane flying westward ahead of the rising sun on the eastwardly rotating Earth never out of darkness. Air time twenty-one hours.
HCMC was originally swampland inhabited by Khmer people for centuries before the arrival of the Vietnamese. It reminds me of Bangkok, only smoggier if that is possible, and with more motorcycles. I have a room in the backpackers’ section of town and take certain odd pleasure in saying I’m sleeping in an alley, which I am. On New Year’s Eve I go out into a crush of people and motorcycles that would make Times Square proud. And although it is mostly young people drinking beer and being loud, I do manage a few touching encounters, including the only young person to greet me directly – a quite beautiful woman in short shorts and bright red high heels with a tiger tattoo on her ankle who intentionally walks over to where I am seated at an outdoor restaurant, perhaps conspicuously alone, clinks her beer bottle with mine – no she was definitely not soliciting me - and says, “Happy New Year, uncle.” And a much older man - standing at the entrance to “my” alley as I walk back to my guesthouse - who raises both his hands at about shoulder height with his palms open and reaches out to me as I approach him, grasps both of my hands which have come up to meet his, and holding our palms together and fingers entwined raises our hands high, looks me in the eye, and says, “Healthy New Year, sir.” I am touched. I bow. I walk up five flights of stairs. I sleep well.
I spend my first full day in the city walking around seeing the sights and being exploited by street vendors whenever they can, paying too much for a short rickshaw ride, a cold coconut drink, and a man who gives me directions, but chased half way down the block by a bakery shop employee who I have mistakenly given a 200,000 dong note to (approximately 10$), instead of the 20,000 dong note I meant to give for what my pastry cost. The large numbers of zeros are confusing to me. One million dong equals 50$ and the Vietnamese joke they are all millionaires. One dollar is over 20,000 dong. There are 10 million people in Ho Chi Minh City. There are seven million scooters and motorcycles. The museums that attract the most visitors are the War Museum and the Museum of National Reconciliation, not much to see at either venue, but clearly a source of immense pride for the Vietnamese. Red flags with golden stars or hammers and sickles are everywhere.
On day two I pay less than 10$ for an all day bus tour to the famous Cao Dai Buddhist temple and monastery in Tay Minh, about three hours out of HCMC, and a visit on the way back to the famous Chu Chi tunnels, where Viet Cong sympathizers and villagers dug 200 miles of very narrow three and four meter deep passageways beneath the claylike earth to take refuge and hide as American B-52 bombers dropped their deadly payloads and American troops roamed above the underground villagers with heavy armor and tanks. It is the second set of defensive tunnels I have crawled through on my hands and knees in less than twelve months, the first being last January, 1,000 meters up Mt. Kilimanjaro, where the Chagga people sought to protect themselves from the Masai raiders and I wrote about in my Africa travels blog.
Next day – for again for less than 10$ - I take an all day tour to yet another Buddhist temple and monastery – and then an afternoon series of boat rides on the Mekong. The Mekong is really quite remarkable … and immense … running over 2700 miles from its origins in Tibet and forming part of the international border between Myanmar and Laos and Thailand and Laos before emptying - at places over 2 miles wide - into the South China Sea. (Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, and Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, sit on its banks.) Of Vietnam's 90 million people more than one fifth live in the delta southwest of Ho Chi Minh City, yet the villages I see seem sparsely populated.
I love the way the people here have made the river their home. There are fish being fattened in cages descending twenty feet beneath the floor of floating homes, where 1,000s of tiny tilapia and catfish are raised from when they weigh less than an ounce to when they have been fed and grown to a full kilometer in weight – twenty-five tons of fish at some family farms concentrated in a big net ready for sale and slaughter to factory ships that come to the farmer’s door.
Islands dot the river, thousands of islands, almost all inhabited, every inch utilized, farmed, irrigated. One particularly compelling sight for me on the delta islands is the omnipresent pamelos growing on trees where the fruits have been draped with small white cotton sheeting to protect them from insects and look like little ghosts hanging from the tree branches, a bit like Halloween decorations in the states.
It is while looking at these tiny ghosts that I feel very intensely the energy of the Americans who perished here decades ago for nothing more than a corporation's profit, a general's ego, and an imperialist's paranoia about the third world ... and a sudden sadness overwhelms me, a grief heavier than mere recognition or acknowledgement, something resonant at an energetic and cellular level as I wander away from my group to sit quietly among bee hives and smoke.