2010 Viet Nam

January 1: Hong Kong Airport

Vestige of Colonialism, or Early Globalization?

After an uneventful 14-hour flight I arrived at the Hong Kong Airport. It’s the real thing—PA announcements in Mandarin, billboards in various Asian alphabets, security personnel Asian-only—meaning insistently young, businesslike, and mostly masked.

I managed to ignore the odd Jingle Bells playing in the background. What I couldn’t ignore (literally—watch your feet, please!) were the people-movers on the left, rather than the right. Yes, it is “one country, two systems” here in Hong Kong—the only city in China with the British system of driving and walking. It’s as if a Californian would fly to Hawaii and suddenly need to drive on the other side of the road.

I wasn’t expecting this, so I hadn’t researched in advance: when the Chinese took over in 1997, did they consider changing the British tradition of driving on the left, or would that have been too jarring and dangerous? Do they plan to change it in the future? Or do they explain it as a living testament to colonialism?

Like most progressive Westerners, I think colonialism has outlived any usefulness or legitimacy it ever had. That’s why it’s so sad to see China’s determination to absorb Hong Kong, left-side people-movers notwithstanding.

Just A Day In Saigon

Having finally settled into the luxurious Caravelle Hotel about midnight, I slept through the humid tropical night and awoke to the sounds of a city already on the move.

Actually, this city of 9,000,000 hardly ever stops moving.

The Caravelle is quite luxurious, so the food, service, and towels are wonderful. Vietnam is one of those countries with far more young people than jobs, so there’s always someone around to do whatever you need. In fact it takes a minute or two to get used to the constant “let me do it for you” attitude.

Are they looking at me and thinking, “oh, one of those AMERICANS”? I’m still getting used to that whole thing.

The streets of the city are filled with motorbikes—maybe 300 for each passenger car. And none of the prissy one-motorbike-to-a-lane custom we have in the U.S.. Instead, the motorbikes take up the width of the street. A narrow street might have 3 or 4 motorbikes abreast. A wide street might have 6 or 8. A grand boulevard like Dong Khoi or Le Loi, 20 or 25. I am NOT making this up.

And unlike India (proud plug—see http://www.MartyInIndia.com!), the traffic is fairly quiet. There’s very little honking, no shouting, and no screeching of tires. In Delhi, a similar amount of traffic was deafening. Here, it’s far more benign–although it takes a while to get anywhere, of course.

Everyone is so YOUNG—it’s a demographic phenomenon that’s absolutely unmistakable. Do the math—people in the 1960s and 70s were killed in the American War. People in the 1970s were killed in the war with Cambodia and in the famine created by the Hanoi government. People in the 1970s and 80s left in droves—remember the “boat people”? Result: a nation of 23 year-olds, with a bunch of 65- and 70-year-olds hanging around shaking their heads.

The American War

It’s my last day in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, and it’s time to talk about the American War.

Evidence of the war is everywhere here—monuments, demographics, personal stories, government narratives, souvenirs. On display around the city are downed American helicopters, tanks, and fighter jets.

That said, life goes on. Americans are completely welcome here, there’s no bitterness in the air, and if living well is the best revenge—well, Hanoi won the war. So they get to feel right, they get to write the history, they can afford noblesse oblige.

Today I drove 2 hours to see the Cu Chi tunnels, 150 miles of underground passageways, meeting rooms, and kitchens. The Vietnamese fighting the U.S. aerial bombardment dug the tunnels under the jungle floor to escape the continual rain of death from the sky. Now sections of the tunnel system are open to the public, and one can marvel at the low-tech ingenuity of the guerrillas: air shafts disguised by termite mounds, cooking fires operated so their smoke disappeared into the morning mist, weapons made from bamboo animal traps. The site boasts plenty of captured U.S. ordinance and an old propaganda film about “crazy American devils.”

I’m observing my own curious reaction to several days of this. On the one hand, I was actively against the war. I entered college in 1967 and, shoulder-length hair and all, spent my fair share of time protesting. On the other hand, I hate what the Communists did as they gained power—torture, revenge, concentration camps. Their collectivist ideology and disdain for the Southern political system created a famine that killed a million Vietnamese. With a government like this, who needs bourgeois enemies of the revolution?

And I cannot forgive what they continue to do—run a totalitarian system that controls how 84 million people live. Unlike North Korea’s or Zimbabwe’s, it’s a modern totalitarian state: everyone in the cities has a motorbike and color TV. People go to university. Women are no longer property.

But the internet is censored, the news media are controlled, and the words of Uncle Ho—or his ghostwriter—are on billboards everywhere.

I don’t want to come off here as some patriotic sore-loser American. I’m not against the Communist government because they aren’t American. I’m against the Communist government because it lies to its people and tramples free expression. I’m against that in America, and I’d be against it on the moon.

My First Day In Hanoi; Some Thoughts About Sex

After an uneventful flight in a completely full huge Airbus, I arrived in misty, overcast Hanoi. A bumpy, hour-long drive took me past miles of dilapidated roadside markets, corrugated metal shacks, motorbike repair shops, smoky industrial buildings, and noisy traffic. Finally, I arrived at—wow!—the incredibly luxurious Hotel Metropole.

The Metropole was built in 1901. Situated between the Old Quarter, the French Quarter, the Opera House and Hoan Kiem Lake, the grand hotel has hosted Charlie Chaplin, Graham Greene, Jane Fonda, and more recently Thomas Friedman. It’s mind-boggling—white-gloved doormen, velvet-dressed ladies-in-waiting, and a butler in a waistcoat with a cold drink as we arrive. Quite the contrast to the depressing drive in.

And while the rest of the city isn’t quite so plush, neither is it the gray, stern, unforgiving citadel of brainwashing we Americans have always pictured. Instead, the people have been welcoming, the city charming, the many crafts beguiling, and the food inviting, healthy, and satisfying.

The day’s highlight was a performance of the world-famous water puppets. In a theater with 300 seats, imagine off to one side of the stage an 8-piece orchestra with traditional Asian instruments and several singers. The rest of the stage is actually a large pool of water about 3 feet deep, with scenery at the back and around the perimeter.

Invisible behind the scenery, a troupe of 8 people standing in the water operates large puppets in the pool using long rods under the water. The colorful puppets reenact classic stories of love, war, and nature in the most enchanting way imaginable. The subtleties of movement the puppeteers accomplish is quite extraordinary.

This day I also met my hosts at the Institute of Social Development Studies. We discussed various issues regarding sexuality, gender, and marriage. While I was full of questions for them, they were full of questions for me, so we had quite the lively conversation. More on this tomorrow after my first day of teaching.

Some observations and thoughts as I walk the streets of Hanoi:

* I learned from the newspaper that adultery is against the law, although the penalty is under $100 and not usually enforced. I speculate that this echoed the policy during the “Vietnam War” (they say American War), when adultery by men or women left on the home front was considered treason, often punished severely.

* As in Saigon, most women under 40 here are dressed quite stylishly, in form-fitting outfits and very high heels. In trying to reconcile this with Vietnam’s conservative sexual norms, I realize that this dress is a statement of both personal independence and of modern fashion far more than one of sexual availability. In the West, by contrast, we tend to equate these for women: independence + interest in fashion = sexual interest.

* While it is common to walk in public with a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse, there is very little affection shown in public. Hand-holding is done almost chastely, and there is absolutely no kissing or erotic embracing in sight.

Teaching Counseling Skills in Hanoi

Today I began my two-day seminar in Hanoi. I have 2 days with 20 professionals, teaching both general counseling skills and sexuality counseling. It’s quite a challenge, as the group is heterogeneous in terms of experience and background—some hotline workers, some physicians, some long-term clinicians, etc.. Only 4 of them are over 30 years old. And only 3 are men.

As in many non-western countries, a lot of their concept of counseling involves telling people what to do—either from a well-meaning place of advice-giving or from an old-fashioned idea of medical superiority. So my first job has been to establish a new concept of counseling. We talk about how to listen, how to ask questions, the difference between empathy and agreement.

We talk about how clients speak in metaphor, how they will push whatever boundaries we set up, how they often demand answers to questions that aren’t helpful to them, while avoiding questions we think will be helpful. And we talk about the delicate balance between being clinically powerful and being respectful.

They aren’t used to my informal style of lecturing, of course (I’ve never taught a group outside the U.S. that has!), nor to my continual inquiry about their experience with me—how’s my English? Do my examples—which often involve eating and sports, since most people can relate to that—make sense? How would they apply the material I just presented?

And I have to beg them to ask questions. They don’t want to be “disrespectful,” and don’t want to “interrupt.” So I ask them—how would it affect the counseling if a client feels the same way?

In Vietnam people rely on family members for guidance far more than in the U.S.. This has many consequences; one is the weird power dynamics involved as parents pull their children one way, while their siblings or younger aunts/uncles pull them another way. How do you follow your own heart if it means disappointing your family? How can you enjoy your “selfish” choices when you know you have disrespected or dishonored members of your family—who, after all, want what’s best for you?

It’s an age-old conundrum, still alive in most parts of the world (as well as ethnic communities in the West). The introduction of technology such as mobile phones and the internet complicate the situation, adding powerful new influences on decision-making.

Sexual decision-making—already complicated in cultures that discourage premarital experience, sexual communication, and marriage-for-love—is getting even more complex with these new influences. When people can no longer rely on traditional norms (or no longer want to), how do they make choices? Having sex in order to be “modern,” or to compete with others in a newfangled relationship marketplace, or to establish a sense of independence, doesn’t always serve people. Add a huge dose of sexual ignorance and mythology, and sex can be the source of great emotional (and physical) pain.

We should know—it’s how we’ve been doing it in America for a while now.

On Vietnamese TV

Last night I was interviewed for an hour on O2, Vietnam’s independent lifestyle TV channel.

The set was pretty familiar, as was the three-camera setup, spike-haired makeup guy, and sound guy who threaded the mike cord under my shirt with a nonchalant air of entitlement. Eventually it was 3-2-1 and we were rolling tape.

The interviewer had clearly been to my website, knew my books (a happy contrast to American TV!), and asked very intelligent questions. We discussed differences between U.S. and Vietnamese ideas of gender, love, and marriage; I talked about how technology affects sexual culture, and will presumably continue to do so in Vietnam; and I talked about how increasing Vietnamese women’s economic independence will presumably increase the country’s divorce rate.

I also compared the sex-related policies of our respective governments. In Vietnam, adultery is illegal; in America, the government has spent a billion dollars trying to discourage teens from having sex. Both countries regulate abortion and contraception. Both countries have inadequate sex education and premarital counseling.

The hour show flew by, and my host was quite pleased. She gave me a lovely silk scarf as a gift, and soon I was back out on the street.

After a quick bowl of steaming pho (noodle soup with beef or chicken, which can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner), I headed back to my hotel. I can’t wait to see what I look like dubbed into Vietnamese.

Hanoi, City of the Future

Hanoi is a perfect example of a new kind of Third World city.

The country is growing rapidly, and the Vietnamese government wants to establish manufacturing and export facilities just about everywhere it can. So it’s taking over the rice fields in the outskirts of Hanoi, giving people a one-time housing stipend (which, being country-folk, they usually blow, but that’s another story), and paving the rice fields—the better to build new factories, houses, the power grid they need, and the roads to get to them.

But there’s only so much “outskirts” near the city, and so the government is taking land that’s many miles and many, many hours outside Hanoi and building new towns from the ground up: brand-new luxury apartments, chi-chi stores, and the smaller commercial merchants needed to support them. We might call this the “suburbs,” but the development process here is very different, dramatically telescoped in time. What took 100 years to shape say, the New York or Boston metropolis is taking less than a single generation here.

It’s a self-perpetuating process: the countryside is cleared or paved, people are thrown off their land, they move to the big cities which lack the infrastructure to handle their basic needs, and more established people move outside the city. This creates pressure for more paving of agricultural or forested land, and the cycle continues.

That sweat suit or scarf that’s “Made in Vietnam” is way, way more complicated than it looks.

Looking Back on Hanoi

After almost a week in Hanoi, I’m leaving—with very mixed feelings.

It’s hard to describe the chaotic intensity of the traffic there—and I’ve been to both Delhi and Istanbul. So forget about getting anywhere in under a half-hour. And because the sidewalks themselves are so crowded (with street vendors and parked motorbikes, among other things), it’s impossible to walk anywhere without paying a great deal of attention. In short, there’s no relaxing outdoors anywhere in the city except for the handful of rather small parks.

But the positives—let’s start with the food. An incredible variety of seafood is cheap and deliciously prepared: a dozens types of prawns, clams ranging from petite to grotesquely large, prehistoric-looking creatures resembling fish, squid, and lobsters.

Noodles—pho—are available morning, noon, and night. And although winter temperatures here plunge into the 50s, the tropical fruits are everywhere—mango, papaya, dragonfruit, pomelo, jackfruit, and several things they vaguely call “melon.”

And although the streets are a nightmare if you’re trying to get somewhere, they are a treat if you’re not in a hurry. Craftspersons, food vendors, repair-people (shoes, motorbikes, teeth), and souvenir sellers are shoulder-to-shoulder-to-shoulder. Bewilderingly, just one block over are calm and elegant Fifth Avenue boutiques—Hermes, Vuitton, Ferragamo, Cartier.

And did I mention the traffic? You haven’t lived until you’ve been in a bicycle rickshaw heading against traffic during rush hour. This is one town in which it’s reassuring to have an old taxi driver. It means he’s survived the mean streets—at least so far.

I bought some silk shirts here, visited the peaceful gardens of the thousand-year-old Temple of Literature (a working Confucian University when Europe was struggling through the Dark Ages), spent a boring 15 minutes in the “Hanoi Hilton” (the French-built hell where John McCain and other American pilots were imprisoned), and had my beard trimmed by a Goth-looking stylist for two bucks.

Farewell, Hanoi. Glad I got to know ya.

Leaving the Cities Behind—For the Water

After 3 days in Saigon and 5 days in Hanoi, it was time to leave the major cities behind and explore the countryside.

An absolutely interminable 4-plus hour drive past factory after factory (and sagging roadside market after roadside market) east of Hanoi eventually ended at Halong Bay, a gorgeous little body of water 100 miles from southern China. Dozens of small boats bobbed on the smooth bay in all directions—some carrying tourists from around the globe, others for working stiffs who were fishing, carrying goods, going to or from their jobs, or visiting neighbors.

My “deluxe junk” (a perfectly accurate description which sounds hilarious in English) sailed out of the harbor, and I was soon surrounded by ghostly limestone formations as much as 200 feet high. It was a great luxury to see the land recede behind me. I had had enough motorbikes to last me a lifetime, enough people shouting into mobile phones (Vietnamese is a tonal language, so 15% of their everyday vocabulary must be shouted to be spoken properly), enough air that was hard to breathe. I was going to eat and sleep and drift on the little craft in splendid comfort for an entire 24 hours.

After a few hours of putt-putt-putting through the calm water we stopped and I was loaded into a rowboat. We rowed (well, not exactly “we”!) further out into the bay, eventually through a low-hanging natural tunnel in the rock. Ten minutes after we emerged—the silence broken only by the repetitive dipping of the oars and the periodic intrusion of Japanese, American, or French voices from other tourist boats—
we came to a little floating village, several dozen little houses, shops, and places to store normal household stuff. Accessible only by boat, the houses and shops had electricity, bottled water, rudimentary cooking facilities, and easy-to-clean front porches. We sidled up to a few, I waved at the inhabitants, the exchanged friendly words with my oarswoman, and off we went, back to my deluxe junk.

The rest of the day passed peacefully. Except for the inevitable early-morning awakening, it was a little slice of heaven. And in heaven, I suppose, I’ll wake up early each day and not mind one bit.

The next day was the exact opposite—another grueling 4½-hour drive back to the Hanoi airport, to board a flight for the ancient riverside Imperial City of Hue, 35 miles south of the 17th parallel and the DMZ.

Hue—the Imperial City

Sexual Intelligence continues reporting live from 3 weeks in Vietnam.

After an uneventful flight, I arrived in Hue, a peaceful city (population 300,000) of lakes, gardens, and the Perfume River. I was delighted to find that my hotel room faced the lovely wide river, so close I could see and hear the water taxis and miniature barges from my balcony.

The river here is everything—a source of transportation, food, poetry, and, less tangibly, the emotional heart of the area. Upstream, the river valley passes through hills crowned with old mausoleums and other royal monuments. Downstream, the river carries commerce to the sea, connecting Hue with China, Hong Kong, Cambodia, and the rest of Asia as it has done for centuries.

I spent a day touring the traditional sites. First I visited the lovely Thien Mu Pagoda, a 400-year-old Buddhist monastery (religious school, temple, burial site, and garden) on the site of a 2,000-year-old Cham Temple. By the 1930s it had become a hotbed of Buddhist opposition to French colonialism; in 1963 one of its monks became world-famous when he drove all day to Saigon’s downtown, sat down in the street and set himself on fire to protest the corrupt Ngo Din Diem regime the U.S. was supporting. The burned shell of his car, and the well-known photo of his self-immolation, are on display here.

Next I went to the gigantic 19th-century Citadel, a small city that was home to emperors, their hundreds of wives, concubines, and mandarins, and thousands of workers supporting them. A walled compound with spectacular buildings in various condition, it’s a showcase of Vietnamese architecture, religious practice, and a 200-year-old ruling dynasty that only ended with the Communist “liberation” of Vietnam in 1945.

The next day I went outside Hue to visit the mausoleums of 3 different emperors. Each contained the traditional elements (giant ceremonial gate, mammoth stone staircases, giant stone obelisks and inscribed stalae, life-sized stone soldiers guarding the tomb), although each was executed differently. In addition, each offered a carefully designed lake, lovely formal gardens, thousands of trees in their natural setting, and grounds for royal meditation. Meditating on the grounds of your own future burial site must be interesting, if a person can stand it.

In addition, I had a few more prosaic adventures. At the end of a country lane, I found the small temple dedicated to the elephants which sometimes died battling tigers in the Royal Arena. My guide was skeptical that we’d find it, but we did—the first tourist-free place I’d enjoyed in the whole country.

I then went to a workshop in which a dozen half-naked men sweated to make enormous bronze bells weighing tons each. The fires (over 1,000 degrees) roared as apprentices fed hardwood into or around various clay molds. I also watched old craftsmen, sitting barefoot on their heels or a single brick, carve delicate designs (backwards!) into the molds. There was still plenty to see and questions to ask, but with my hair and clothes reeking from smoke, I finally ran out of the hot, dark, noisy—and wonderful—place.

I was really eager to see a Vietnamese train station. Access inside them is strictly limited, so Saigon and Hanoi were out; Hue was my big chance. Of course, the petty bureaucrat in charge firmly dismissed my idea, asking for an actual ticket going somewhere. Finally, I had my guide push the guard really hard on behalf of the famous professor from California, and I was allowed to see…tracks! Unused trains standing still! A few workers “examining” things and even pretending to repair stuff.

It was a long day, capped by a bath, room service, and writing this blog. It was easy to go to sleep. I was sure I’d dream about driving south to Danang, Hoi An, and the South China Sea.

South From Hue—Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

As planned, I drove south from Hue today. But the day was nothing like I’d planned. It was, in fact, amazing—a perfect example of why even a great book or video about a place can’t match the experience of being there.

It was drizzling when I left Hue at 10am, and within an hour it was raining—the only thing that could, er, dampen my anticipated enjoyment of Hoi An’s famous beaches.

I drove south along a gorgeous coastline, past an airport built by “the Americans,” bunkers left by “the Americans,” and demographic changes driven by the war. In this area just south of the DMZ, in the narrowest part of the country, the U.S. military had tried to interrupt the north’s supply lines supporting the war in the south. Tens of thousands of people living here died or fled.

We eventually ascended into the mountains and switchbacked our way through the drizzle, up past the clouds and power lines. Thousands of feet below the bay glistened.

Just a few minutes later we began our descent, on a serpentine road that varied from blacktop to muddy trail. The occasional posse of farm animals stopped or accompanied us. At the bottom of the mountain we drove a few minutes on a nicely paved road through several villages, when I saw a big crowd of people spilling onto the road. Following the travel principle “stop for crowds, they might be doing something interesting,” we stopped.

It was a Buddhist military funeral.

We spent over two hours watching and participating.

It was all there—the altar with the guy’s photo, incense, and offerings (food, cigarettes, tea), monks in gray chanting and leading the group in call-and-response, guys in black playing simple haunting music on a gong, flute, and drum, about 40 mourners in white on the ground, a dozen old men in military regalia, and about 60 or 70 men, women, and children standing around watching, talking, laughing, smoking.

Apparently, I was welcome to hang around and take photos as much as I wanted.
I put a few dollars into one of the donation envelopes, and was immediately urged to light a stick of incense and offer my respects, which of course I did.

The people seemed as interested in me as I was in them, and a few even smiled for photos. Once they saw me taking pictures of the young children (well-know travel principle  number 2), some even brought their kids near for a shot. Meanwhile, the funeral chanting continued.

Finally it was time to move the coffin itself. The altar was moved aside, and about a dozen young men lifted the thing, carried it through the crowd, and placed it on a bier made of large red wooden planks.

As they struggled to get it out onto the road, various people offered increasingly loud advice. Eventually the whole thing—altar, mourners, musicians, coffin, soldiers, villagers—headed down the road toward a hill about a half-mile away. Interrupted by the occasional truck or motorbike, the procession of several hundred people was more or less dignified—with plenty of talking and smoking along the way—until it turned left. Then, coffin, altar, and old people alike half-scrambled, half pulled each other up the unkempt, stony path.

It was a perfect replica of the common traffic pattern in Vietnam—no lanes, pushing and shoving, noisy, the occasional injury, old and young mixed together.

We finally reached the top, sort of, and there was a resting period. Then the military veterans did a little ceremony over the coffin, draped it in the Vietnam flag, and then relaxed a while over smokes. Meanwhile, several people started digging the actual grave, while the Buddhist monks, dressed in gray, chanted in unison.

That took roughly forever, but there was plenty to look at on the crowded little hill. There were 3 or 4 other burial sites, a few little altars, and of course the various people giving advice to the grave diggers. A few hundred yards beneath us a freight train rolled slowly by.

Finally it was time to carry and then slide the coffin into the hole, which of course wasn’t quite big enough. So that was the next temporary delay.

The coffin was finally slid into the grave, and then the widow, barefoot and dressed in white, started wailing and proceeded to faint. It was quite dramatic, and seemed a bit choreographed (note of cultural sensitivity: I say this without any judgment whatsoever).

People started throwing flowers and handfuls of dirt onto the coffin below us when a loud argument began. Apparently, the people from Hanoi have different burial traditions than those of this area, and the two contingents were struggling over some procedure. The argument got louder and erupted into some shoving. The widow—suddenly recovered from her fainting—charged over and loudly berated the apparent leader of the northerners, who shouted right back at her.

Then the widow tried to hit the guy, he tried to hit back (remember, they’re both standing on soft, unstable earth on a little hill, surrounded by people paying various degrees of attention), and soon bodies were moving every which way. A few guys finally had to take Mr. Northern Ritual away from the widow, order was restored, and we finished the burial.

People started straggling down the hill, cigarettes were smoked, food was prepared (which we skipped, thank you), and people appeared to congratulate each other on a job well-done. I snapped a last picture or two, climbed into my car which had magically appeared, climbed in, and continued south to Hoi An.

Life, indeed, goes on.

Before Leaving for the Mekong Delta…

Tomorrow begins the last leg of the trip—a 40-minute drive north to Danang (yes, the old Danang Air Force Base you may have heard of 40 years ago), a 1-hour flight south to Saigon, and then a 3-hour drive southwest to the Mekong Delta. I’ll spend 3 days there, exploring fishing villages on stilts, rice fields, floating markets, and a few large cities on the river.

A few words about the Central Coast before I leave:

* 70% of the people here are Buddhist. In practical terms, this means they go to one or another pagoda to worship Buddha, and one or more temples to worship their ancestors. And they really mean it: the little decorative shrines that look so kitsch in the U.S. are in daily use here. People burn a huge amount of incense, and leave offerings of food, all over.

In fact, when we were at a tailor shop getting some shirts made, I asked them to shut the TV—no problem; asked them to use the bathroom in their home behind the shop—no problem; asked them to stop suddenly lighting incense, which was making it hard to breathe in the little shop, and they didn’t even answer—just turned on an overhead fan.

Even Vietnamese who move to the West continue worshiping their ancestors. When they visit Vietnam, they go to a temple, buy a spiral of incense 24 inches across, attach a list of their ancestors to it, and have it hung and burned. It burns continuously for 21 days (for about a buck a day, honoring a dozen people, that seems a pretty good deal).

* The beaches here are world-class. Unfortunately, many are fouled with a depressing array of just-begun world class hotels and luxury residences. Come to central Vietnam now, folks, because in 3 years it will be nothing but Hyatts, Sofitels, and assorted Korean and Japanese resorts.

I understand that Vietnam wants cash this second—ostensibly for building its modern infrastructure and providing jobs, though I remain skeptical about where the money will end up. But as in every other country with a coastline, the Hanoi government is making short-sighted, selfish, dare-I-say bourgeois choices with dramatic long-term consequences. A small part of the planet’s seashore patrimony has been entrusted to Vietnam, and they are pissing on it. As a result, we’re all a bit poorer.

* Here in Hoi An, a port city hundreds and hundreds of years old, the original (and continuing) Chinese presence is palpable. When the Ming dynasty was conquered by the Tangs over 400 years ago, waves of political refugees came here from various part of China—each area resettling in its own separate enclave (Fukian, Hunan, etc.). To this day one can visit the assembly halls and temples each group built, its political history clearly visible in the old original murals and poems (in Old Chinese) on the walls.

Walking the narrow little streets of Hoi An, amidst the smells of street food, the unending sales pitches from the open storefronts, and the pointed elbows of little old people rushing to unknown destinations, it was easy to imagine the cacophony of Chinese dialects and the smells of late medieval life here.

In fact, with modern China’s steady, unyielding pressure to buy up Vietnam’s
resources and real estate, I wonder if they will one day use the old presence of these Chinese groups and their linguistic artifacts to justify a territorial claim to Vietnam the way they’ve done with Tibet, Macao, Hong Kong, and other places.

* The Vietnamese are great tailors, and their colorful silks, delicate brocades, and baby-soft cashmere wool are exquisite. They turn out dresses and jackets, slacks and suits, overnight. The good news is, they make the clothes to your measurements. The bad news (for me at least) is that they have to take your measurements. My tailor gently commented on my “nice Buddha belly.” That may be a compliment here, but not where I come from. When I frowned good-naturedly, she responded with, “and you have a charming smile.”

Well, one out of two isn’t bad.

Life on the Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta was already hot and humid at 8:00 on a winter morning.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After driving south from Hue I checked into the Golden Sands Hotel in Hoi An, and was ushered into a suite about 35 feet from the South China Sea. I spent the next few days walking on the beach, looking at the beach, and thinking about the beach. In between these important activities I also toured ancient Hoi An.

The Golden Sands Hotel is exactly the kind of resort that I don’t think should be built. But now that it’s here, is it sinful to enjoy it? I came back to the question again and again. It’s a question I’ve also asked myself at resorts up and down the California coast.

I started the trip’s last leg at the Danang Airport, where I was told my confirmed seat didn’t exist. Vietnam Airways had three more flights out that day, all overbooked. There was no way out of town—shades of the chaotic evacuation of Danang in 1975!
Fortunately, my generally-inept local guide Mr. Jiang did some fast talking. Or bribing. He disappeared for about 5 minutes, then returned beaming with a business-class boarding pass. OK, Mr. Jiang gets a tip.

From Saigon we drove southwest into the Mekong Delta. The Mekong River is over 3,000 miles long, starting in China and winding its way through Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia before crossing the border into southern Vietnam, where it splits into 9 tributaries—the Nine Dragons. Like most major river deltas, it’s extremely rich farmland, very crowded, and prone to annual flooding.

After more than two weeks in other parts of the country, I can see the people here are ethnically different. Many are Khmer, taller and wider than their Viet counterparts. Their ancestors are immigrants from Cambodia—some from a century ago, others fleeing the insanity of the Pol Pot regime after 1975.

Life on the delta, of course, revolves around the river. I agreed to a very early wake-up call in order to see the large floating market while it was busy. We putt-putted some 4 miles toward the ocean, viewing the riverbank activity—people washing clothes, cooking, bathing themselves and their kids, along with an enormous volume of commercial movement—loading, unloading, shipping, building.

Suddenly the floating market came into view—several hundred old flatboats hawking every kind of produce imaginable, from garlic to grapes, lettuce to lemongrass, coconuts, mangoes, dragonfruit, on and on. Our boat drifted up and down the “aisles” of the market, and we watched—practically touched—farmers, restaurant buyers, and other locals doing the day’s business.

Eventually we sailed past the market, turned off the river onto a small canal, and drifted lazily through patches of farmland. We got off and walked along the bank, stopping in strangers’ homes, ogling their lives. They were unfailingly nice, offering us food and explanations of what they were doing.

At one home a lone woman stirred a pot of rice over an outdoor wood-burning flame (it certainly wasn’t a “stove”). When we admired a stack of coconuts she expertly hacked one open, pushed it toward us and said “drink.” It was amazingly sweet and fresh-tasting.

A quarter-mile down the road there was apparently a big death-day anniversary coming up (“bigger than birthday,” we were assured), so one group of women was slicing up bamboo to make the string to tie around the sticky-rice cakes all those attending would take home. Over 100 sticky-rice cakes, all home-made. Oh, and a feast for 100 as well.

The soundtrack to this was a gentle cacophony of chickens, birds, the occasional insistent child, and the chat between the women. Except for the insistent click of my camera, it was perfect.

Seeing the Story of Rice—From Farm to Philippines

Today was a satisfying day on the Delta.

Rice is the principal form of food for half the world. And we saw its entire life cycle in just a half day.

We started by taking a boat to a small village. We gingerly walked the edges of a rice field, admiring the beautiful green plants, row after row, as far as we could see. We also saw the vegetables grown to the paddy’s side, with three women on their haunches pulling weeks. The two young women were the niece and daughter-in-law of the older women. I was dripping with sweat (it was, after all, nearly 10am!), but the women, covered from head to toe (including the face masks that almost everyone in Vietnam wears out of doors) didn’t betray signs of discomfort.

Having seen the rice growing, it was time to sail to a different part of the village. Here we saw the “broken rice”—rice grains that were less than top grade—made into noodles. Young men and women mixed the rice with water, let it sit for hours, then fed it to simple machines that mashed, squeezed, and mashed it again. Eventually the mush was dried, reconstituted, then ladled onto red hot griddles for just a few moments. The sheets, about 2 feet in diameter, were set out to dry in the sun. when ready, they were fed into another machine which cut them into rice noodles. In a local version of Chicago slaughterhouses’ boast that “we use everything but the oink,” the fuel for the stove is discarded rice husks.

For convenience of travel, we had looked at the process slightly out of order. So it was back into the boat, to a more industrialized part of the river. Scrambling ashore, we went into a factory where large, noisy machines took the rice from the field and separated the rice from the husks. In another factory, we saw the rice sorted by size and quality, using virtually the same rudimentary technology we’d seen in a tea plantation two years ago in India.

The “broken rice” was headed for the noodle factory, the better-but-not-best rice was headed for working class markets, and the best rice was headed for high-end restaurants, people, and export. We saw it all bagged, sealed, and stacked. The noonday sun made it easy to say goodbye to it all, so we headed back to the boat, visions of cold mango juice and air conditioning dancing in our heads.

But then I saw something that changed this absolutely perfect plan: 20 yards away, a cargo ship loading bags of rice. I couldn’t pass it up.

I walked over to the conveyor belt, and watched strapping, shirtless young men (if you can call anyone 5’6” “strapping”) load bag after bag onto the belt. I followed the moving bags to the ship, where a chute was disgorging the 100-pound sacks, which were taken away and casually dumped in rows by a dozen guys who were smoking and talking while they worked.

With my guide’s help I found the supervisor (twice everyone else’s age, the only guy wearing a shirt). He was a part-owner of the rice shipment. Some 2,000 tons—40,000 bags—were headed to Saigon, where they’d be transferred to a much larger ship and sent to the Philippines. He actually let us scramble onto the ship for a better look—mostly at the sweaty young men loading sacks, stealing glances at us.

“Do you own the ship?” I called out to the rice owner through my guide/interpreter. “No,” he laughed, “it’s owned by a company.” “A private company?” “No, the government owns the company.” Aha, actual Communism at work.

“Are all the ships owned by companies owned by the government?” I followed. “No, there are private companies, too.” “So how do you decide which shipping company to use?” “Well, the government companies are more expensive,” he said, “but they make the paperwork and permits easier.” Aha, actual corruption at work.

It may seem simple and straightforward to the people I met today—you grow it, you process it, you bag it, you ship it—but I don’t think I’ll ever look at my rice bowl the same.

And that, I think, is one reason I travel to places so far from home—to make the familiar amazing.

My Last Night in Vietnam

It’s after 9pm on Tuesday night here in rainy, humid Saigon. I should go to sleep soon, because in 6 hours I have to wake up to catch a 6am flight to Hong Kong and San Francisco. I’ll land Wednesday before most of California has had its coffee.

Inevitably, my mind is awash with images and thoughts:

* I can’t count the number of people here who apologized for the complexities of the Vietnamese language. More than one local has told me that even natives have trouble with some of the tonal variations that create entirely different words out of the same syllable.

* Here’s my preliminary report on the West’s “exotic sexy Asian female” thing: traditionally, women here are trained to lower their heads and raise their eyes when they speak. Their voices are often soft to the point of inaudibility, they are told to defer to men in most things, they traditionally wear very sensuous fabrics and styles, their hair is always worn long, and they are dramatically smaller than Western women.

Traditionally, the West has coded each of these things as highly feminine, and therefore sexual. There’s no reason to think that Vietnamese (or Asian) women are more sexual than any others. But their traditional “feminine” displays fit a certain traditional Western image of female sexuality perfectly, which helps explain our traditional stereotype. In reality, I found young adult women here to be extremely modest, often chaste. Once they become mothers (and often responsible for the family small business or finances), they gradually lose that public face of innocence, although it is generally not replaced by an overtly sexual persona.

* Unlike in the West, men here still smoke far more than women.

* Tonight I had a drink with Truong Thi Kim Chuyen, professor and Vice Rector at Vietnam National University, faculty of Social Sciences. She weighed in on the female-virgin-at-marriage question (rapidly changing, she said) and oppressed daughters-in-law becoming oppressing mothers-in-law (gradually changing, she said).

We talked about social science methodology, and the role of political ideology in academic freedom and scientific transparency. I’m not naïve about the limits of either in America—just look at our government’s ideological overrides of science in areas such as medical marijuana, sex education, the morning-after pill, and needle exchanges for drug addicts. But I did say that when government requires research to serve the public, science suffers—and so does society.

“Well,” she asked sincerely, “how do you suggest we balance the need for social order with the need for accurate scientific research?” “Ah, that’s not a question I would answer,” I told my colleague. “I’m not nearly so concerned about creating or protecting social order. I’m much more concerned about stifling individual development or expression.”

And there you have it.


Next Tuesday, I start a much more challenging adventure—turning 60.