Ó Copyright 1998 Kevin J. Coughlin. All rights reserved. No part of this document may be copied, faxed, electronically transmitted, or in any other manner duplicated without express written permission from the author.
RETURN TO VIETNAM
July 20/21/22/23, 1998
July 20-23, 1998 Back to the Leper Colony for more rice and more education; Vinh Long; More horticulture and agriculture; an unfortunate, but almost inevitable clash with my guide; more observations of culture and technology clash; My departure.
Last night was great! Tiep had arranged for us to go by pedicab to a huge outdoor restaurant where we had a delightful meal. His 18 year-old daughter, Phuong, who calls Phil and Vera “Grandmother” and “Grandfather”, joined us. She is very bright, and is most helpful in ironing out a few miscommunications during the evening. According to Vera, she is also a little rascal on a motorcycle.
Afterwards, we went over to the hotel where we were originally supposed to have stayed. The French couple that I had previously met was there. They are in their late 30’s. She is half-Irish, and stunningly beautiful. He is quite strikingly handsome. They have been here on an adoption, and are finally successful. As he puts it, “I have now been a father for seven hours.” I collect mail that friends have sent to this address, unaware of my change. It has taken one birthday card over three weeks to get here. It accidentally went to Bangkok first. The proprietor treated us to some “American Ice Cream Bars” which were yummy. They were chocolate and very creamy, and very cold, which was delightfully refreshing, after the sweltering heat of the day.
One of the delightfully civilized customs they have in the restaurants, even the small roadside stands, is to serve you a chilled, scented, cloth that comes in a plastic seal because it is impregnated with some evaporative substance which really increases the value as a refresher. A brisk rub of the face and neck with this little jewel, and one feels whole and new. One little table game that folks like to play is to see who can make the loudest “bang!” in smashing open their plastic bag.
This morning we go to a friend of Phil’s to drop off some packages that were sent by relatives from the U.S. He is a delightful man, whose face is aglow, and who has a very big heart. He welcomes us warmly and treats us like old lost friends. It is a beautiful time.
This afternoon we revisit the Ben San leper colony to take more rice and to allow Phil and the good Doctor to get reacquainted, and for them to carry on more substantive discussions about future projects. The Point Man Ministry efforts here have been ongoing for the last 7 years or so, and Phil took time to highlight for me some of the changes that have occurred. It is really phenomenal.
I had a brief chat with the lady who makes the pillows. She has finished her latest one and is about 80% done with making a blouse for one of her friends, several of which are clustered around her wheelchair chatting as we arrive. It is so sad to know that even thought these people have been medically cured, they are still ostracized by their families and neighbors, out of fear, so they have no place to return to. They will be here for the rest of their days.
One woman in her late thirties or so has had a child. Fortunately for the child, the woman’s disease had been stabilized before she got pregnant, so the child is not a t risk. The child will not be allowed to be near non-stabilized patients, so there is no fear there either. However, there is no official support system here for her, and the society outside does not want her, so, according to Dr. Truoc, they’ll just find a way to keep her. Vera just wanted to scoop her up and take her home with us.
We also got to see something I had not seen on my last visit. Vera and Phil asked, based on their prior knowledge, and we went to the wing where the leprosy has affected the brain. These pathetic people are in isolation, for the damage they do to themselves and others. It is really pitiful.
Now that Phil is here to give me the history, I better understand why this very qualified man is in this place at such a pathetic excuse for a salary. He was a doctor for the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam. Now that the Communists are in charge, they are punishing him with salary. He has a heart for these people, and does a job far superior than could be imagined with a decent salary. The fact that his wife and children and grandchildren are still here provides the Government with an assurance that he will return from the conferences that he goes to. I believe this is called extortion in other lands! Fortunately, as I have already described, this man has a heart that transcends the petty bureaucracy, and sees only the patients and their needs.
On the way back I stop for a photo of two Brahma’s in yoke plowing. It involves a precarious perambulation of paddy dikes. WOW! Talk about emotional upheaval!
There are three young men in their late teens working this field. They are getting a real laugh out of this overweight, overage guy keeping his balance on the narrower dikes. I finally reach them, and they are chatty and agreeable. On the way out, I notice a startling contrast with the past. When I was last here, the women used to work the harvest in a ragged line, chatting as they went. In this field the line is perfectly straight and perfectly silent. There is also a man in a half-uniform and a clipboard standing behind them! My stomach curdles, and I want to throw up.
July 21, 1998
Up early for a walk through the neighborhood. Terrible sleep. Woke several times from dirty, oppressive, ominous, scary, painful dreams. Back in time for an early start through Vinh Long, where Phil previously served, to Rac Gia, on an errand of fellowship for a friend of Vera’s back home. In Vinh Long, the Communists have taken over the base. Photos are not permitted, even of the gate. The man with the AK-47 looks serious. We pass.
Rac Gia, or as Phil and his crew used to call it, Rock Jaw, is on the West Coast of Viet Nam, near the Cambodian (Campuchean) border. We meet the relatives of Vera’s friend, and get taken to a very nice dinner. This is some 500 miles South of where I served, so the accents are noticeably different. The woman catches mine after having the first few phrases repeated by our guide, and understands me from then on. She is very pleasant and very happy to have heard from her daughter, who was in Saigon when it fell, and was ushered out of the country by other relatives without having an opportunity to say goodbye. She is also very eager to get to the Sates, as is being worked on by her daughter, and is underwhelmed with the current Government.
As a general observation, the closer one is to the Government, the more there is fear and consternation. The further removed the more jovial and unconcerned with their machinations do the citizens become. For instance, it is illegal to have more than 2 people on one motorcycle. As has already been related, they casually ignore this. Until such time as one of them spots a “Khan-Sat”, or policeman, and then they laughingly dismount until out of sight.
The total trip is nine hours, including two ferry rides, the first one of which entailed a 30-minute wait. During that time we were literally besieged with vendors and their wares. Tiep bought us some local treats. One was very nice, the other was not. The one that we enjoyed was a sesame seed and crushed peanut wafer sandwiched between two thinner wafers that strongly resembled Communion wafers, only a lot larger in circumference. The other was something resembling a soft taco shell, only very tough to chew, and carrying a rather rancid taste to make up for it. He said his daughter, Phuong, loves the stuff.
Meanwhile, saddle sores abound.
The temperature at 8:00 at night is in the high 80’s or low 90’s and we are on the water, so the humidity is insane. There is no breeze, so we decline lodging in a Hotel that has no air-conditioning. Getting soft, I guess.
Paying higher rates for a hotel is no assurance that there will be more than one water temperature, the air conditioning will work, nor that the room will not have a musty, mildew odor. Nor is it protection against a sink drain that drains on one’s shoes. However, there seems to be a run on hotel rooms in Rac Gia this evening, and it is very late, so we’ll just “rough it”.
It is the 25th anniversary of the birth of my youngest, Melissa. That was an adventure! We got to Kaiser Oakland 20 minutes before she made her appearance. Going upstairs to the delivery room almost yielded a spontaneous delivery – the elevator was rickety, and the uncertainty of our safety was playing havoc with Kathy’s composure.
We are now “out in the sticks” and removed from any high probability of a good phone call home, so a postcard will have to suffice for now.
Our return route carries us back through Vinh Long, and we pause for photo opportunities on single-pole bridges across the river. The air conditioning in the van has four speeds. They are all the same. As a result, it is either stifling hot or freezing cold. We all have sniffles from the flip-flop of temperature extremes. When we get out to take the photos, all the glasses and photo lenses fog up, and it takes a while to adjust. This gives the locals and traffic a chance to slow down and gape at the sight. Two overweight, gray & white-haired white men and a white woman with reddish hair standing outside a van, wiping their glasses on their shirts.
We have now had several iterations of going through toll plazas and the disparity of workload that struck me on the first one seems to be repeated. As one approaches the plaza, one must first pay the toll. Your money is taken by a young civilian, maybe a teenager, who is sometimes accompanied by younger siblings or possibly their own children. This may take a while, depending upon whether or not one tenders correct change, or feels the need to argue the amount of the tariff, based on who thinks the vehicle is classified as what. The difference in tariffs is less than 10 cents, but our erstwhile guide argued for several minutes with the young woman and eventually lost. There is only one booth for this function. One receives a receipt, and travels another few dozen yards to one of several gated lanes with or without booths. Several uniformed, armed people staff each of these. They relieve you of your receipt, and open the gate. Naturally the traffic backlog is at the money booth. Where is the accountability? A time-and-motion study would have a field day here!
Something very interesting happens in this country with toilet paper. First let me explain that the majority of the toilets I encountered were of the eastern variety. This is to say that the basic concept is a hole in the floor. It may or may not have plumbing attached. It may be augmented with raised pedestals for the feet or even with something with which to wash. If washing is supplied, it may be something as rudimentary as a larger bucket full of water, and a smaller bucket with which to dip. There may or may not be a hose nearby, and it may or may not have any form of flow control such as a nozzle. In very rare cases, one might get something as fancy as something resembling a bidet.
Now for the interesting part. There is something to be said for comfort, and there is something to be said for aesthetics. The paper that is supplied in Water Closets (as the Brits and others call ‘toilets’), and very few are supplied with paper at all, is of the single-ply, coarse, rough, chunks-of-wood-still-floating-in-it-variety. If one sees something as nice as 2-ply cotton weave, it is in a conical dispenser on the dining table! This is so that you have nice paper with which to wipe the accumulated grime from the silverware that has been sitting in a plastic bucket on the table since the shop opened.
After having been in the same van with my ever-hovering attendant for the last few days with little respite, I am close to strangling him. We are finally back at the Hotel, and I leave tomorrow. Tonight is dinner with his family. This afternoon I proclaim the need for a walk, and bid him farewell for three hours, and made the mistake of responding to his querulous inquiry, telling him my destination. I walked several blocks to the nearby Post Office, mailed some postcards that I have written over the last few days, and bought a “uni-phone-kad” with which to place a belated birthday call. The phone does not accept the card, so I go back to the Post Office, and am told there are some booths around back that are attended and they will help me there.
As I walked around the corner, Tiep was just pulling up in the van, beckoning me to enter, so that he could take me to a “better Post Office”, (several miles away) to make my phone call. For the previous few hours we had each been complaining of “saddle sores” and I had stressed my need to walk, and not sit in the van any more. I politely declined, sent him on his way, and went inside.
I struck up a conversation with a Vietnamese who is living in San Francisco and visiting family here. We chat for a few minutes, and he goes into a booth to make his call. The next thing I know, Tiep has entered the Post Office, and is telling the clerk I am working with that he is responsible for me, and that he will help. I tell him I am doing OK, and that he can go about his errands that are necessary for dinner this evening with his family. He is very hurt, and wants me to know that he is trying his best to insure I have a good stay. I tell him I appreciate his labors, but I must at least be able to pick up a fork or a telephone without assistance, or I have not experienced anything during my stay except being mothered.
He literally pushes me towards the van, insisting that he knows what is best for me, and I blow! I will not be pushed, prodded, and herded like some cattle! I am so angry I could scream, but I do not. I tell him in no uncertain terms to leave me alone, and I will see him back at the Hotel at 5:30 as per prior arrangement. After spending a few moments trying unsuccessfully to assuage his hurt feelings I leave him and make my phone call. I have a pleasant, uneventful stroll back to the Hotel.
“Dinner with the family” turns out to be very awkward. It is not dinner with the family at all, but a sumptuous feast prepared by his sixty-eight year old mother and enjoyed by the four of us, Phil, Vera, Tiep, and myself, alone. The remainder of the family stays in the back of the house until we are finished. Tiep keeps insisting that we eat more, long after truthful protestations of “enough” have been aired. I finally could not force myself to eat another grain of rice, and I just sat there watching Tiep pile more on my plate, telling him I hope his dog enjoys leftovers. He laughs.
The leftovers go to the back of the house where the remainder of the family is. Fifteen minutes later they join us on the front porch where small talk is made. I have a few exchanges with “mom”. She tells me she walks every morning for one hour at 6:30, after having washed and put away from breakfast. She wants to know the numbers in my family, so I run them down for her. She informs me that she has lived here in Saigon all her life, but at this house only for the last few years. The only thing she would say about the Russians was “they are foul”.
July 23, 1998
Tiep arrives promptly and I guide Phil to the bookstore so he can get his own dictionary. We have a delightful meal of Pho Heo (Noodle soup with pork) which has a wonderful addition of shrimp. That is, wonderful for all but Vera, who is allergic. On our way out to the airport, there are simultaneous groans of dismay from Phil and Vera. A Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise is spotted. A brief discussion ensues. I ask if they plan to import or use the local product. Phil opines that costs will force them to use local product. Too bad. The local chicken is tougher than either of my mothers-in-law. One still breaks horses, and the other was an Army sergeant!
We pass a rather large new building that contains, among other things, a sign advertising the presence of A.C. Neilson, the TV Ratings company. Atop the building, as is true for a few other buildings in this megalopolis, are huge microwave antenna dishes. I am struck by the metaphorical representation of the contrasts in this place. Dishes are on the roof, but the dishes on the table don’t have enough to fill them.
The Ton San Nhut Airport is crowded! The Vietnamese bring everyone within a 5-block radius and up to 8th cousin to see someone off. Tiep, Phuong, Phil and Vera pause for another round of photos, hugs, and handshakes, and then off into the terminal solo, the way the security folk like it.
There is a $10.00 “Service Charge”, and a highway robbing $95.00 “overweight” charge. WOW!, am I ever glad I am toting some extra U.S. Dollars! Bye-the-way, the dollar is the standard. Little signs in tiny corners say that the price is so many dong, or so many dollars. This has been true wherever I have traveled. It used to be that the price was in three currencies; local, dollars, and pounds. Now it’s just listed as “Equivalent of ‘X’ US Dollars”.
I meet a most delightful young French woman from Lyon, Virginnie, the approximate age of my daughters, whom I predict will have her first million by age 30. She is a bright, cheerful, clear-eyed, heads-up, alert individual who was interning with a French company while studying international business. Her boyfriend, a Czech whom she met in a British “host family” while in school abroad, is an international wine merchant.
Then there were CP and his wife, Michaela. Warm, wonderful folk! He and I have “been to the same school together at different times” according to Michaela. They have already been to Katmandu, and give some tips. They have also adopted Vietnamese children. I very much enjoyed their company! Too bad there was not more time.
It has been a long time and a short time -- way too short in Loc Bon; way too long in the car. I figure as I have for a few years now, that Tony’s admonition is a good one. Whenever I would pose a “time” problem to him, his response would be, “I dunno. Are you looking at your clock or God’s clock?” I guess that’s about the best way to sum this up.
It has been perfect!