Posts Tagged With: war

Cu Chi Cu Chi Cool

If you are old enough to remember the war, you may recall that the region near Saigon was bedeviled by the ease with which the Viet Cong were able to move around and disappear from sight via a network of tunnels. The largest and most elaborate of these by far was the Cu Chi tunnel network, only about 20 miles from the outskirts from Saigon. Total length of the tunnels in the complex was, amazingly, close to 100 miles, which as you might suppose took some time to accomplish; the work began years before the Americans showed up, when the French were the bad guys. (And make no mistake: they were.) The tunnels were built in an elaborate multi-level structure to protect against bombing, flooding, and gas attacks; the Americans and others knew about them but their architecture and extent were so elaborate that despite deliberate flooding and gas attacks, large sections remained intact and operational.

Life in the tunnels was claustrophobic, dark, badly disease-ridden, literally suffocating, and generally exceedingly nasty.  Air was supplied through vents poking up to the surface, disguised as anthills and termite mounds. And surface exits were very well disguised trapdoors. Here’s our tunnel guide doing a disappearing act; he popped up again through another trapdoor about 100 feet away.

And here I am following him because, well, that’s what we’re here for, right?

It was rough going down there, strictly hands-and-knees territory. There were side branches into rooms that variously held supplies or medical facilities at the time. But it was all very primitive, dark, and grungy. It is amazing that thousands fighters spent long stretches of time down there; injured fighters requiring extended medical care could be underground for months. At any given time half the tunnel denizens had malaria and 100% had intestinal parasites.

Some of the tunnels were less cramped than others, and these have been tourist-ized — lit, dried out, and the floor sort of semi-paved — so that everyone could get through without a debilitating amount of crouching or crawling. Here’s Alice emerging from one section.

The region around the tunnels was heavily booby-trapped during the war, and a display area at the tunnel exit contained some samples of these, mostly trapdoors in the ground in the form of disguised rotating or swinging panels that dumped you onto assorted kinds of extreme pointy nastiness. The idea was not to kill, but rather to maim, thereby not only taking the combatant out of action but forcing the enemy army to spend time and resources taking care of him.

So not your typical tourist attraction. And in keeping with the surreal theme, once you exit the tunnel areas you can buy ammunition and rent various weapons to vent your frustration at a nearby shooting range: M-16’s, AK-47’s, and heavier stuff as well so you can get all that pent-up hostility out of your system in a big way. (I can imagine “Build Your Own Booby Trap” workshops as well, but they don’t actually have that.)

Speaking of catharsis, our visit to the tunnels was followed by lunch with two former Viet Cong officers, a major and a captain, at the major’s beautiful home. (He is now in charge of veterans’ affairs in this part of the country.) Neither spoke English; our tour lead Phil interpreted.

Both readily answered questions, the most obvious one being “Aren’t you, like, pissed off?” But they aren’t, which may not be too surprising since they both ended up in very comfortable situations. But the major (on the right) has a son who was disabled by exposure to Agent Orange, and if he is bitter he is hiding it well. He stated (through translation) that they weren’t looking for regret or apologies; they were looking for science and technology, and medicine, and tourists, and investment. All very politically correct, but no doubt true as well.

We had three veterans in our tour group, though only one of them was at this lunch (the guy in blue at the end of the table in the above photo). And at the end of the afternoon, as we shook hands with our hosts, this is what he and the major did:

I asked Phil later about this and other war-related personal encounters. In keeping with OAT’s cultural immersion orientation, we met a number of former Viet Cong and South Vietnamese fighters on this trip, and the meetings were all “kumbaya moments” of one sort or another, all sincere I’m sure, but nonetheless planting a seed of skepticism in my cynical soul. So I laid it out to Phil: we killed roughly a million Vietnamese and basically laid waste to the country for a dozen years. Surely there must be a significant contingent of locals out there who, speaking honestly, would say, “Yeah, Americans killed half my family, and I hope you all die.”

Phil’s answer was enlightening. He agreed that yes, surely there are still some Vietnamese that feel that way. But Americans were only here for a dozen years and despite all the violence that happened during that time people feel that we were basically a historical blip in the grand scheme of things. Before the Americans there were the French (for a century!), and before them there were the Chinese, and before them there were, well, each other. There has long been significant enmity between the northern and southern parts of Vietnam; the relationship mirrors in several eerie ways that between the American north and south, with the latitudes reversed. Southern Vietnam is much more economically developed, technologically advanced, and outward looking; they view the north as backwards, and the people as yokels. There is even a distinct northern regional accent which when heard in the south marks you as the Vietnamese equivalent of a redneck. Phil cited all this, and said it was a civil war, one that had been going on for centuries and which in some ways — very low-key, and without the shooting — continues today. The Americans made it worse, everyone felt, but in the end they were just part of the mix that was a much larger and longer conflict. Which in the end makes it much easier for them to forgive us; better to forget the whole thing and get America to help Vietnam move forward. And if that actually happens — which it seems to be doing, at least in some areas — then those officially-counted 58,220 American deaths might possibly have been worth something after all.

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Don’t Miss Saigon

“Saigon” means “cotton trees”, possibly referring to the kapok that used to grow in the area. Now, of course, the official name is Ho Chi Minh City, or HCM, though the river that flows through it is still the Saigon River and people use the city’s two names interchangeably. By either name, it has 14 million people and looks like New York on motorbikes, only bigger. It’s a powerhouse of a city, the beating economic heart of Vietnam. Saigon’s GDP per capita is twice the national average, and its various industrial parks account for 25% of Vietnam’s entire GDP. This is not a city that you visit, it is a city that you plunge into.

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The view from our hotel balcony.  The spaceship-like building in the center is the tallest in Saigon.

We arrived at around 9:00 this morning after a short flight from Dalat and were immediately struck by the contrast with Hanoi. Saigon is very substantially and very obviously more modern, more Western-oriented, more orderly. (The drivers actually obey traffic signals here, at least most of the time, unlike everywhere else in the country.) Our hotel is right in the middle of District 1, the most upscale and busiest part of downtown; the streets around our hotel sport Dior, Louis Vuitton, and similar establishments.

But our first stop after arrival was a grim one, and of course a requirement for anyone coming to Saigon on an organized tour: the War Museum. (Technically, its name is the War Remnants Museum.) It is three stories of everything about the war, needless to say from the winner’s (i.e., Vietnamese) perspective.

Saigon IMG_9023-PanoYou might reasonably expect such a place to be a full-court propaganda press, but it’s much better than that, quite compelling and affecting. There is the required dose of propagandistic vocabulary and rhetoric — the North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong are invariably “patriots” — but the displays for the most part let the facts speak for themselves: statistics on how many tons of bombs dropped, how many dead, and so forth, all copiously illustrated with photos and artifacts captioned in both Vietnamese and English. There is an entire room dedicated to the ravages of Agent Orange, particularly among children; I lasted about 10 seconds in there. There is a large gallery filled only with archival photos from well-known war photographers such as Robert Capa; there are many American weapons; and there is a gallery dedicated to documenting the American antiwar movement, including a lot of information about resistance among the American soldiers themselves. There is a replica of the infamous “tiger cages” where VC prisoners were held and tortured.

Saigon IMG_9038I was both impressed and moved. Unfortunately it all makes a very compelling case for how criminally stupid and cruel on a massive scale we as a nation behaved in that era.

More happily, the French influence on Saigon’s architecture is visible everywhere, and there are some very beautiful buildings. Among the more famous of these is the opera house and, unexpectedly, the Central Post Office. Here’s the former:

Saigon IMG_9060-Pano…and here’s the interior of the Post Office, which was built about 1890 and whose interior inexplicably resembles a train station (which it never was):

Saigon IMG_9048It’s a popular destination for visitors — people even get married there — so there’s a constant hubbub. You can see a souvenir marketplace in full swing in the foreground, with the actual post office counters at the back.

After a lunch of pho and some afternoon downtime at our hotel, punctuated by a ferocious thunderstorm and two-hour-long downpour, we went out to dinner and walked around the neighborhood with Phil. This included an amble through the conveniently located red light district, which is probably not part of OAT’s official itinerary. But it was well worth the diversion for its weird entertainment value. The area is a few square blocks, narrow streets full of restaurant and massage parlors with names like “Happy Spa”. The clientele is primarily visiting Japanese businessmen; there was quite a lot of Japanese signage. And the women were all clones, or so it seemed: every one had long straight hair, wore an ankle-length diaphanous dress in a monochromatic pastel shade, and sported voluminous pneumatic cleavage. At one point as we walked down a narrow back street, lit by Japanese lanterns fronting restaurants and “spas”, a phalanx of these women — at least 15 — came marching down toward and past us. It was like some shift change had happened and the clones were all going home, or maybe it was some kind of Macy’s parade, in either case displaying enough silicone to caulk every plumbing fixture in Vietnam. It was quite a sight, and I wish I could show you a photo of it, but taking a picture of them seemed like a really bad idea.

Tomorrow we head to the Mekong Delta, and after we return we are scheduled to have a Vespa tour of the city at night. That should be a blast, at least if it doesn’t rain. It will also add to our list of “non-standard forms of transportation” that we have used on this trip. So far that list includes, in no particular order:

  • Funicular tram
  • Cable car/ski lift
  • Car ferry
  • Motor scooter
  • Tractor
  • Junk
  • Rickshaw
  • Dragon boat
  • Golf cart

Tomorrow we should add “sampan” and “Vespa” to the inventory.

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Rice Paper and Russian Jeeps

Yeeee-hah! The oil pressure light is blinking angrily on the jeep dashboard and our driver swerves left to avoid running over a moped that’s just gotten knocked over by a car coming out of a side street. I’m standing up in the seat, snapping away, as whole families on motorcycles weave by us, waving and shouting Xin chào! (“Hello!”) at me. The cops are whistling like mad trying to clear the lane — the locals call them “Pikachus”, probably because of their yellow uniforms — and we cut right across a lane of traffic to barrel down an alley crammed with vendors selling bootleg auto parts, squeezing by with barely inches of clearance on either side. Then the heavens open up.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Yesterday was an interesting day.
It started with a visit to a local military cemetery, of which I infer there are many, given the number of casualties in the war. (They call it the “American War” here, by the way.) It looks pretty much like every other such cemetery that you’ve seen, dominated by an obelisk at the front with a commemorative engraving. Many of the headstones have pictures of the deceased. There is even a section for Gold Star Mothers who lost sons and husbands in the war; one, I note, lived to an astonishing 109 years old.
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The caretaker is a small man about my age who as a teenager fought in the Viet Cong. He guides us in lighting some incense sticks at an altar in a small side building, then we all sit down to tea and he — through our guide, acting as interpreter —  relates some war stories. There are a couple of Vietnam veterans in our group, who as you imagine listen with considerable interest. And then it gets interesting: the caretaker tells how he was a scout, and that one of his big assignments was scoping out the defenses of a particular air base at Da Nang, preparatory to a huge attack. They launched rockets and brought down a bunch of incoming planes, including a C-141 cargo plane. “Wait a minute!” says Dave, one of our vets. “When was that?” The caretaker tells him the date, and Dave’s eyes grow wide. “I was there! We were in the bunker! I saw the C-141 go down!” They gape at each other. Welcome to Viet Nam tourism. I infer that this sort of thing happens a lot.
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“Nice to meet you! Sorry that I tried to kill you!”

People are happy to talk about the war here. In fact, they’re happy to talk about just about anything, including how corrupt their government is in the traditional rapacious way, heavily influenced by China and generally illiberal despite the so-called “Red Capitalist” economy.  Because so many people speak freely, it is easy to get the mistaken impression that this society is much more open than it really is. We’re harmless tourists, though; printing the stuff they say to us on a leaftlet and handing it out on a street corner would get them a very long prison sentence. It is a less repressive government than China’s, but not by much: Vietnamese can use Google and Facebook  and even watch CNN and BBC on TV, but when there is any controversy afoot the TV broadcasts are delayed by an hour to let the censors edit them before airing.
We moved on from the cemetery to the village of Tho Ha, known for making rice paper. You get there by crossing an unattractive brown river on a flatbed metal ferry nearly as long as the river is wide; it pulls away from the dock, then does a three-point turn to basically rotate in place. Then you walk off the other side, accompanied by a dozen school kids on mopeds.
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Rice paper is pretty much all that anyone does in Tho Ha. There are 1000 households there, and 600 of them make rice paper. (Another 200 work at the nearby Samsung factory.) The narrow alleys are lined with bamboo frames of drying rice paper, each about the size of a window shutter. There are piles of them on rooftops, stacks leaning against the outside walls of peoples’ homes… they are everywhere.
Nothing goes to waste, of course: the scraps around the edges — from the rectangular sheets that get cut into circles — get mixed with chilies and garlic and sold as snacks. (Highly addictive snacks, I can report from personal experience.)
Our immersion in rice paper culture included trying our own hand at it; rather than using one of the machines that paints the liquid goop over the frame, the family we visited had us go old school, using a ladle and a hot surface, exactly like making a crepe. Here’s Alice in action.
Our hosts served us a truly glorious lunch that included about ten different dishes, all outstanding. Turns out he is a musician who gives lessons in a number of unfamiliar-looking stringed instruments, so he gave us a little impromptu concert, playing one piece on what he called a “short banjo” (shown below) and another on a violin-like thing.
Hanoi IMG_7077 Tho Ha-11
His closing number, incongruously, was “You Are My Sunshine,”, and we all sang along. Then it was back to the hotel, and a brief interlude chatting with Phil’s family, who live in Hanoi and stopped by to see Dad at work. He has two daughters, 15 and 9, and a very pretty wife, a former stockbroker. (How non-Communist can you get?) None spoke English, so Phil interpreted as his wife expressed her various welcomes and gifted us with some traditional small glutinous celebratory rice cakes. The 9 year old was a firecracker, prancing around and teasing her father, while the 15 year old managed a wan smile that clearly communicated that she would rather be somewhere else, e.g., a pool of boiling lava.
Then the jeeps showed up.
Phil has an entrepreneurial friend who set up an offbeat local tourism business two years ago and has enjoyed a lot of success by tooling small groups of tourists around in old refurbished Russian jeeps, taking to them rather non-standard locations around the city, e.g., the bootleg auto parts market I mentioned earlier. We were in three open jeeps, a copper-colored one and two gray ones, and we bullied our way through densely cacophonous Hanoi rush hour traffic to visit a tame little demimonde. It was an utter hoot, immersing you in the adrenaline of the city in a pleasantly visceral way.
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That’s Phil in the purple teeshirt. And here we are in Hanoi traffic, which could be fairly described as “nutso”:
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We got out in one of the alleys to visit a tiny little bakery of sorts where they were making the ceremonial cakes that Phil’s wife had handed out earlier. It was there that the monsoon finally showed up — it is that season here — but our jeep drivers handed out ponchos and we managed to avoid being utterly soaked. Still, splashing through those dark, wet, and generally filthy-seeming alleys while getting poured on was sweaty and not especially comfortable. The storm lasted less than 45 minutes.
Next jeep stop: Happy Hour at The Most Dangerous Restaurant In The World. That would be this one:
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Yes, the table is sitting on a train track. What a cute gimmick! you are thinking. They’ve set up a restaurant on a decommissioned railroad track! And you could keep thinking that until 7:05 PM, when the staff moved the tables off the track, so that this could happen at 7:10 PM:
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This is a significant incentive for the trains to run on time. Also not to linger over your pho.
After that thought-provoking happy hour, we were once again taken to an outstanding zillion-course meal, then brought to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum to witness the daily lowering of the flag. As you probably know, “Uncle Ho” (they actually call him that) was pretty much the father of Vietnamese independence, and is revered in much the same way that George Washington is in the US. The US never really understood that he was a Communist mostly by convenience; the Communists in the north didn’t really get nastily assertive as long as he was strong enough to hold sway, and it was largely as he sickened and died in the late sixties that things got nasty and the US went crazy. But in any case, he has quite the mausoleum, and the flag ceremony is performed every night with much goose-stepping and martial music.
Hanoi IMG_7225-24
You can actually go into the mausoleum to see his body, or you can try to: it is open for three hours in the morning, five days a week, so you can stand in line for an hour with (literally) ten thousand other people to get in.  Apparently, few of OATs past travelers felt that it was worth it, and so it was not part of our itinerary. Phil concurred that it wasn’t a good use of anyone’s time. I can’t say that we were disappointed.
And that was yesterday.
Today we visited the town of Bat Trang, known for its ceramics, and had a rather more conventional tourist experience that I may write about tomorrow. (“Here we are doing an extremely terrible job of making a clay bowl on a potter’s wheel!”) We leave Hanoi tomorrow morning, and will be spending tomorrow evening sleeping on a junk (the Asian boat, not a pile of debris in an alley) on Ha Long Bay.
I’ll close today with a photo of one of the many back-alley eateries one sees here and throughout Asia. Nothing remarkable about it — I just like the shot.
Hanoi IMG_7189-21

 

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Rickshaws, Wet Marionettes, and a Prison

Fun Fact, revealed to us this morning by our tour lead Phil: 49% of Vietnamese carry the surname “Nguyen”. It’s like “Smith”, “Jones”, “White”, “Brown”, and “Black” combined. The reason, as you might suppose, is historical rather than genetic: Nguyen was sort of the Kamehameha of Vietnam, a strong king who united the country and who was greatly admired both at the time and after, so much so that large swaths of the population adopted his name. He took power in 1802 in the city of Hue, which remained the capital until the end of World War II. Vietnamese autonomy lasted until 1857 when the French moved in and things got ugly. (The French, of course, hung in there for nearly a century until being driven out in 1954 after Dien Bien Phu.)

This genealogical wisdom having been imparted after breakfast, we set out on the day’s adventures. Yesterday I mentioned with just a soupçon of implied contempt about the tourists traveling around by rickshaw through Old Hanoi’s street market area as we ourselves explored it more virtuously on foot. I wrote that, of course, not knowing that this morning we would be those selfsame tourists, 15 of us in a slow-motion convoy of rickshaws, cameras clicking away. And that’s OK… we covered a lot more ground than we did yesterday. So here we are gearing up. 

…and here is the wagon train underway.

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The street scenes were much as they were yesterday, of course, so here are a few selected images. (They should appear on your screen as a slide show.)

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But the still images don’t really convey the sense of pervasive motion and noise. To help you along in that direction, here’s a one-minute video that I shot from the rickshaw:

Now you have a much better sense of what the streets of Hanoi look and sound like. (A more complete impression would require you to smell all the spices, foods, garbage, and everything else. But I can’t help you there.) The bad news is that rickshaws do not have a very promising future. There are something like 350 of them operating at present but the city is trying to cut that number by about 75% because it considers them both obsolete and hazardous. The “obsolete” part I get; but since they are being forced into near-extinction in part by the ubiquity of motor scooters — of which there are nearly one per person  — then to my mind someone has gotten his “hazardous” designations a little confused.

Our next stop was to the studio of Mr. Phan Thanh Liem, an internationally-famous craftsman and practitioner of a vanishing traditional Vietnamese art that I will admit right up front I had never heard of until now: water puppetry. (No, you idiot: you can’t make puppets out of water. You make puppets and operate them in the water.) Here is the 55-year old Liem — the seventh generation of his family immersed in the craft — in his puppet-making studio.

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The performance venue is a small indoor pool, a little bigger than a child’s backyard swimming pool. Liem and his assistant stand behind the backdrop, dressed in waders or even a wetsuit if needed (if performing outdoors on a cold day) and manipulate the puppets via attached rods that are held invisibly below the surface of the water.

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Notice that the water is reddish brown. That is by design, local red mud having been added to the basin water precisely for the purpose of rendering it opaque and thus concealing the control rods. The puppets move around, flail their arms, spritz water, and generally animate in various ways for dramatic effect as the puppeteers present various scenarios to music: a boat race, a fight, or pretty much anything that involves a lot of thrashing and splashing. Here are a pair of peacocks, the one on the left having just extended its neck.

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At the conclusion of the performance, Liem emerged to reveal both his assistant and the mechanism, and then we were allowed to play too. It’s harder than it looks: the puppets are heavy fig wood, so it takes a lot of torque to move them around in the water at the end of the meter-long rods. A puppet that is used regularly in performances only lasts about 5 months.

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Of course, what you really want to know is what the performance itself looks and sounds like. I’ve got you covered: here’s the video.

 

You will be unsurprised to hear that in the age of smartphones it is difficult to get young people (which at our age is almost everyone) excited about this. Liem has two teenage sons whom he is getting involved in the work, but it is unclear how many more generations will find enough of an audience to prevent the art from extinction.

We moved on after lunch to Hoa Lo Prison, best known by its war-era sobriquet: the Hanoi Hilton. (There is in fact an actual Hanoi Hilton as well, or more accurately a Hilton Garden Inn. The difference is that Hoa Lo never put mints on anyone’s pillow, and the Hilton staff are not in the habit of torturing their guests.)

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The original main gate of Hoa Lo

Hoa Lo is of course best known for its 1964-1973 wartime role, but its actual history goes back a lot further, and no less grimly. It was built by the French around 1890 at the height of their colonial subjugation of the region; called Maison Centrale, it was intended to house up to 500 political prisoners, i.e. anyone advocating for independence. It was notoriously cruel even then, with banks of prisoners shackled together and two onsite guillotines.

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It never really shed its provenance as an instrument of political repression, housing a number of prominent independence revolutionaries in the 1930’s and 40’s. These included the wife of Gen. Võ Nguyên Giáp, who scored some serious payback by later masterminding the battle of Dien Bien Phu that drove the French out of the country altogether.

The museum display, needless to say, makes much of the Communist victory over the Americans and the subsequent normalization of relations (though the latter took 25 years; full relations were only established under President Clinton in 2000). It is alas presented in cringingly stereotypical propagandistic terms, very 1970’s Soviet in its gestalt: “brave revolutionary patriots fighting imperialistic aggression,” etc. etc. Lots of photos of bombed villages juxtaposed with images of captured Americans being very humanely treated (medical exams, trimming a Christmas tree, writing letters home). A single sentence remarks baldly and with suspicious ambiguity that US captives were treated as well as circumstances allowed.

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I found this whole tone very unfortunate. Stripped of the propaganda tropes and self-congratulatory vocabulary, much of what they are saying about America’s behavior toward them is true. We as a country were phenomenally, incomprehensibly cruel and stupid to no useful end whatsoever. (Good thing we don’t act like that any more, right? RIGHT? <throws smoke bomb and runs from room>) But having been ceded the high moral ground by our own hubristic foolishness, they kind of throw it all away by denying any and all of their own human shortcomings (e.g., torturing American captives). It seems not to be enough to paint themselves as the good guys, which in many senses they were; they seem so insecure in the role that they deny anything short of moral perfection for themselves (which they most emphatically were not). In that sense the museum seemed to me like a lost opportunity for an honest dialogue. I left the place dissatisfied.

But I guess all those years of comradeliness with the Russians gave the Vietnamese government a propaganda habit that’s hard to break. En route to dinner tonight, we were distracted by an unexpected multimedia event in a city square: an over-the-top schmaltzy song-and-dance, sound-and-light show exalting Ho Chi Minh, the city of Hanoi itself, and, judging from the images projected on gigantic screens, elaborate highway overpasses and construction equipment. Singers and lithe dancers emoted all over the stage at high volume as the fog machines cranked out the ethereal mist; hammers and sickles waved. It was utterly surreal, like some satire of a holiday celebration in the old USSR commemorating increased production of tractor parts by more than 30% over the most recent Five Year Plan.20190919_181937

They call the economic system here “Red Capitalism” and judging from the proliferation of gleeful consumerism that is taking hold here — we passed a Rolls Royce dealership today — that sounds like a pretty good term. But seeing the unabashed embrace of Westernism on the streets juxtaposed with this evening’s bizarre performance is still a little difficult to process.

So that was today. I’m off to bed now to get some rest for tomorrow’s activities. Those tractor parts aren’t gonna weld themselves, you know.

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Vietnam on the Horizon

  In about three weeks we depart for 17 days for a certain long, skinny Asian nation that was the focus of an awful lot of people’s attention — and an awful lot of bombs — from the early 1960’s till the mid-1970’s. I turned 18 in 1971, during which time Vietnam was the place to avoid going to for my demographic cohort (and just about everyone else). The war’s peak years — as measured by the number of American soldiers deployed there — were 1967-1969; that era saw roughly a half million US troops on the ground.  By 1971 that number was down to about 150,000, which was pretty good news to me and my fellow 18-year-olds. The draft worked on a lottery system based on your birthday; you were assigned a number between 1 and 366 (for leap years!) and each year Uncle Sam announced that everyone with a number below some threshold would be called up.  In the peak years the highest number that they reached was 215, i.e. nearly two-thirds of 18-year-olds! But by 1971 they were only getting down into the 80’s or so, and my number was something like 126.  So I did not come particularly close to being declared cannon fodder and having to get out out of it by limping into the draft board on my non-existent bone spurs.

(Fun personal historical fact: when I registered for the draft upon turning 18, I did not have my own car and so my mother — who was dead set against the whole thing — drove me to the draft board. The registration office was on the 3rd floor; I took the stairs and Mom took the elevator. A few minutes later I hear an alarm bell ringing. Mom is stuck between floors on the elevator, and the fire department has been called. Thus did my introduction to the Selective Service System become a Marx Brothers comedy.)

Anyway, these days there are still tons of Americans on the ground in Vietnam, only now we shoot money at them and they don’t shoot back, which works out pretty well for everybody. And oddly, the numbers echo 1969: in 2018 there were roughly 600,000 American visitors to the country. It’s one of the leading tourist destinations in Asia now: 2018 saw 15 million international visitors, about half of them from China and South Korea. (For reference, the population is about 95 million.)

As we have five times in the past seven years, we are once again traveling in a group of 16 people organized and led by Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), who do this sort of thing awfully well. They’ll be taking us pretty much down the whole length of the country, as you can see by our route, marked in blue on the map. (The blue line is a little misleading since some of the legs are by air; the country is about 1000 miles long.)

Our itinerary is:

  • Hanoi
  • Halong Bay
  • Hué
  • Hoi An
  • Nha Trang
  • Dalat
  • Ho Chi Minh City (neé Saigon)

There are assorted side trips to villages and such along the way, and our stay at Halong Bay includes an overnight boat cruise. I’ll provide details about all these places as we come to them, internet access permitting.

This, of course, is assuming that we get there at all. One additional fact that I have not yet bothered to mention is that in order to adjust to the 11-hour time difference we are currently scheduled to spend 3 nights en route in …. wait for it …. Hong Kong, currently the site of more than a little unrest as everyone attempts to piss off the Chinese jus-s-s-s-st enough but not too much. At the moment I am content to let OAT sort that all out, either by (1) sending us straight to Hanoi; (2) diverting us to, say, Singapore instead of HK; or (3) adding a special Tear Gas Cultural Event to our itinerary.  Stay tuned, and we’ll all find out together!

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Whirlwind Windhoek

See, “Windhoek” actually means “wind corner” in both Afrikaans and Dutch, and today was a whirlwind tour, thereby compounding the cleverness of my title and, oh forget it.

As I mentioned yesterday, Windhoek is about a mile above sea level, sitting on Namibia’s central plain. But it is on a plain within that plain, basically a bowl defined by the encircling Auas Mountains. (That’s pronounced “ouse“, in case you were wondering.) So here’s the view from our hotel restaurant.

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Recall that the neighborhood surrounding the hotel is an affluent one, filled with clean if somewhat boxy-looking houses as you can see here. Come down off the hill, however, and things are markedly grittier. The main downtown streets are about four lanes wide, lined with slightly down-at-the-heels looking businesses and some more prosperous looking banks and financial firms.

Downtown is also home to the National Museum of Namibia, whose main building is a bizarre structure donated by South Korea, and resembling some kind of postmodern water storage structure, i.e.:

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That’s national founder and first president Sam Nujoma standing out front. The perspective of the photo is a little misleading: Sam’s statue is about 20 feet tall including the base, whereas the building is about 10 stories high including all that empty space at the bottom (which, by the way, channels the wind in most spectacular fashion).

The actual museum part of the building is on three floors and is a more or less hagiographic accounting of the battle for liberation and Sam’s role in it. There are a number of informative and dramatic photos of the war and the people at the time, liberally interspersed with propaganda and neo-Stalinist art like these inspiring tableaus:

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Now there is more than a bit of irony here, astutely noted by travelmate Steve: we have here a museum celebrating a successful Communist-supported national liberation movement, built and paid for by… South Korea. What’s wrong with this picture?

Adjacent to the main building is an old German fort that has been repurposed a few times, most recently as part of the museum. But between 1904 and 1907 it was a German concentration camp for the native Herero and Nama tribes, whom the German colonists were determined to extirpate. Chillingly, the fort includes a plaque from that era helpfully explaining that the purpose of the facility was to house tribespeople as part of an effort to aid communication and ease intertribal tensions. Which it certainly did, since it is hard to argue with someone when you are both dead.

Several years after the attempted genocide, the Germans erected in town a memorial to the dead from the 1904-1907 slaughter………. the German dead.    The statue is of a German soldier on horseback, and in a further display of sensitivity the builders oriented the horse so that it faced Berlin. The locals reacted to this with all the enthusiasm that you’d expect, and the statue was removed from its home in a public square and relocated to the fort, where you can see it to this day.

We walked around downtown for a while, past the seedy little casinos, past the bare-breasted Himba tribeswomen selling handicrafts. Then we reboarded our bus and headed to the edge of the city to Katutura, one of many all-black so-called “townships” just outside the city. The townships were created as part of apartheid policies spilling over from South Africa; they were basically enforced suburbs, since blacks were not allowed to live downtown. Indeed, the word Katutura is Herero for “we have no place to live”. It is a downscale suburb, thick with single-story simple residences and small businesses such as barbers, car repair shops (used tires are a big business) and shebeens, the latter a sort of a hybrid gathering place, sundries store, and speakeasies for sometimes-illegal liquor.

But among the townships, Katutura has a particular draw: the Oshetu Community Market. Oshetu is a big tented farmers’ market offering everything from haircuts to wholesale freshly-killed sides of beef. It is a combination marketplace, business center, restaurant, and social hub.

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The beef business is of some note. At one side of the tented area are the beef wholesalers, standing by their tables piles high with huge slabs of meat, and the occasional flyblown cow head and legs lying on the ground nearby. They sell to the retailers, barely more than an arm’s length away, who then grill it and sell it in consumer-friendly quantities.

01 Windhoek 2017-083This we ate. We took small strips of barbecued beef off the grill, dipped it in seasoned salt and chili pepper proffered on a paper towel, and ate by hand. It was quite delicious, as long as you could avoid thinking about the likely bacteria count. A typical lunch, which followed, included this plus a loaf of polenta, chunks of which one would grab by hand and dip into a tomato salsa, also delicious. It is a communal activity: we all shared the same loaf of polenta (called “pap” locally) and bowl of salsa. So I am desperately hoping that no one in our group of 15 (including Lloyd) is sick, because in that case we all are, or will be shortly.

The grocery part of the market offers all the usual produce and staples, the former including a number of fruits that we had never seen before, e.g., a “monkey orange”, which is a variety of orange with an astoundingly hard rind, almost like a thin coconut shell. The staples included a variety of beans, dried vegetables (such as a spinach “cake”), sardines, dried worm skins, and…wait, what?

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Yes, those are dried worm skins in the front (and no, they do not come in a can of Havoline motor oil). You take a worm, see, and squoosh out its guts like squeezing toothpaste from a tube. Then you dry the remaining skin in the sun, creating (in effect) worm jerky. When you’re hankering for a snack, you put it in water to rehydrate it, then pan fry it with salt. It has a mild taste (yes, I ate several), slightly chewy and a little salty. I mean, come on, you pan fry and salt pretty much anything and it’ll be perfectly palatable, right? Stop making that face.

Our final stop of the day was the Penduka Women’s Collective, a combination school (for children of both sexes), restaurant, and craft center, where local women produce pottery, batik, and bead jewelry for public sale.

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The women make their own glass beads individually, starting with empty bottles, which they pulverize and take through an elaborate and very hand labor intensive process. We were served lunch, and as part of our visit were presented with some traditional dances by some of the women.

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And that was our whirlwind day in Windhoek. Tomorrow we fly in small planes to our desert camp in Kulula, there to behold a whole lot of sand — notably the Namib Desert’s famous dunes — and, I hope, a spectacular night sky. I expect that we will be altogether off the grid for the next several days, so I will resume posting when connectivity allows.

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Not The End of the World, But You Can See It From Here

This will be a short post (postscript: apparently not), and definitely our last for at least 5 days and possibly longer since as of tomorrow evening we will be aboard ship rounding Cape Horn and heading up the Beagle Passage to the Patagonian ice fields.

We flew today to Ushuaia, at 55 degrees south latitude supposedly the southernmost city in the world. It is a town of 65,000 people squeezed in between the bottom of the Andes and Ushuaia Bay. Here is the view from our hotel room:

This is one of THREE mountain ranges separating Ushuaia from the rest of civilization

It might have struck you that “Ushuaia” is not a very Spanish-sounding name. That’s because it isn’t: it means “westward-facing bay” in the language of the original indigenes, the Yanama. And where are the Yanama now, you may ask? Silly question: remember that the Spanish colonized this place. The natives were wiped out by imported disease, conflict with the settlers, and over-hunting by the settlers of the sea lion population, which was the Yanama’s primary food source.

After another dramatic flight over the southern Andes we arrived at about noon today and started exploring the area. The town itself as you can see from the picture looks sort of like a ski resort from the Pacific Northwest, and there is indeed a ski resort here (though the season is just over, it being early spring here). We got lucky on the weather, at least for today: it is partly sunny with temperatures in the low 50’s. We are assured that this is unlikely to last. The wind is extremely gusty, which we are told is typical.

Our hostess exhorts us to share, and pretend to enjoy

Our first stop was lunch at a private home, a beautiful chalet-style house on the hillside overlooking the town and the mountains on the other side of the bay. The hostess and her family (husband and two small daughters) prepared a wonderful lunch — lentil stew with achingly sweet tres leches cake for dessert — and gave us the run of the house so we could chat with the family and admire the view. Afterwards we were presented with the Argentine equivalent of the Japanese tea ceremony, in this sharing the communal pot of Yerba mate. In case you have not heard of it, mate (pronounced MAH-tay) is a very bitter herbal tea made from the Yerba shrub that grows in the northern part of the country. There is a whole social ritual and vocabulary associated with partaking of it; our gracious hostess explained all this whilst preparing it, and we passed around the communal cup while pretending that it did not taste like pencil shavings soaked in motor oil.

Good grief, St. Charlie Brown!

Our first stop after lunch was at a bizarre collection of shrines along a roadway just outside of town; the prevailing style seemed to be Snoopy Doghouse, as you can see at left. Some are much more elaborate, though: as a bastion of a particular idolatrous form of Latin American Catholicism, Argentina has a couple of favorite saints that seem to generate a proliferation of shrines and legends. The

Don’t kill Gil

 first is “Gauchito Gil” who lived a virtuous life in the north as a landowner and sort of  Robin Hood figure, fighting against the evil Paraguayans and corrupt local sherriff. When finally captured he warned his killer-to-be that if he (Gil) were murderd then the killer’s son would also die. The killer reconsidered and checked up on his son, who was indeed suddenly gravely ill. So he prayed to Gil, his son recovered, and the lesson learned was Don’t Mess Around With The Gauchito. So now Gil’s got big roadside shrines about the size of beach cabañas, all draped in red, which was his symbolic color. The deal is that you offer him some wine by pouring it out of the bottle while making a wish. I’m not sure where any of this occurs in the Bible but we did it anyway. Julio warned us not to wish for good weather because that was probably a lost cause, so Alice wisely asked to be protected against seasickness. At right you can see her making her offering in front of the Big Red Shrine.

Arguably even more bizarre than Kill Gil is the shrine to La Defunte (“Deceased”) Correa, a woman beatified for breast feeding her baby while she herself starved to death in the wilderness. The child survived, and her shrine consists of many, many statuettes depicting her corpse cradling a baby. You make an offering of drinks to her too, and her shrine is copiously littered, both within and without, with hundreds if not thousands of empty bottles, mostly one- and two-liter soda bottles. Tell me that this isn’t an inspirational scene:

Becoming a saint really works up a thirst

OK, I think I’ve spent enough words on the local religion, at least the supernatural one. The other local religion — more accurately, one of several national obsessions — is obsessing over the 1982 Falklands War. But you damn well better not call it the Falklands War: those islands are the Malvinas in this country, and no substitute name is accepted.

“Yep, we lost.”

The Falklands/Malvinas were originally colonized by Argentina but conquered by Britain in 1833, and Argentina has been pining for them ever since. Problem is, under standards of international law once you own a place for 150 years it is well and truly legally yours, and the clock was running out. So at the 149 year mark — this is all true — the Argentine government decided to increase its abysmal popularity by making a grab for them, figuring that (a) Britain wouldn’t respond militarily, and (b) the US would support Argentina. Wrong on both counts; Margaret Thatcher wanted to increase her abysmal popularity too. Final score: the British lost about 230 men, plus 100 or so taken prisoner; the Argentines lost 649 men and 11 thousand taken prisoner; and the Falklands are still owned by the UK. Thirty two years later, Argentina is still gnashing its national teeth and trying to think of a clever comeback.

And so it came to pass that our last event of the day was an interview with a Malvinas war veteran, a pleasant 50 year old man who served on a naval vessel during that war when he was only 18 years old. His ship was sunk, and 300 men were lost out of a crew of about 1100; he survived in a covered lifeboat for 44 hours with 22 other men, huddled together for warmth. He related his experiences through our latest local guide, Laura, who acted as interpreter. It was interesting to hear, but in the end (a) he was only 18 at the time and (b) c’mon Argentina, get over it already.

Dinner tonight was a serious treat: King crab is found in these Antarctic waters, and so we went to a seafood restaurant where you can pick live ones from a tank for steaming, just like lobsters at home. If you have never been to either Alaska or Patagonia then you have probably never had fresh king crab, which is wholly unlike the frozen stuff you get in every store or restaurant or home. It’s like a transcendent experience in your mouth. Dessert was a stroll into a local ice cream store; remember that Argentines do a really good job on ice cream. So all in all a great end to the day.

So that’s been our introduction to Patagonia, here in Ushuaia. We’ll be off the grid and o’er the hopefully-not-too-bounding main starting late tomorrow afternoon. I’ll keep up my notes offline and post the batch of them the next time we have Internet access. Till then, our best regards to everyone!

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