I was going to a wedding – and I was going to get dressed up. In fact, I was not only part of the wedding, but I knew folks would be looking at the big American in his ào dài. (say ow yie) I figured a haircut was in order.
So, I asked Mr. Cu to take me to his hớt tóc (barbershop.) As always, Cu had his camera.
Barbershops are not necessarily in a business part of town. This one is in a neighborhood, at the end of an alley and is part of the barber’s house. Nice place for the local kids to get a glimpse of the stranger.
I keep my hair fairly short – and I asked for my hair to be cut short – but when I saw the first bit of hair come off my head, I realized the barber had a different idea of “short” than I did. But one of the things about a haircut is that it grows back. I can deal with short.
To answer some questions before they are asked: No, I did not ask him to clean my ears, though he had the requisite little brushes to do that. No, I didn’t get a “massage”, meaning the beating around the shoulders and neck that suffices to be a massage. No, I didn’t have to engage in the usual barbershop chatter – the man had never heard of football.
If one were to read most of the posts on this blog, one would think we are here in Việt Nam to just see the sights, go to a wedding, eat good food and ride a motorbike.
That may be true for me, but not for Cindy. She has work to do, though she will be the first to tell you that it is not work for her – it is a labor of love.
Since 2006, Cindy has been teaching a course in English medical terminology to the medical professionals of Huế. In the world of medicine, as in the world of business, aviation and many other fields, English is the standard. Research reports are written in English. When Vietnamese physicians go to conferences in Singapore or Japan, the language will be English. Visiting specialists will use English to converse with their Vietnamese colleagues. A group of Cindy’s current students will be going to Finland to study – and they will use English. And it just won’t do for a doctor or nurse to point to her left arm and say “This bone right here.” She needs to know the correct medical term for it.
These are motivated students. They already have passable general English skills, but now they need to add correct medical terms and names of procedures to their vocabulary. For a non-medical person, the entire class is gibberish, but to a medical professional’s ears, they are just learning the English term for words they already use in their practice of medicine and nursing. These two members of the nursing faculty are preparing themselves for overseas training.
For this class, Cindy’s students have new textbooks, all donated by the generous members of St. Peter & St. Paul Episcopal Church in Mission, Texas. The books will be a resource for them long after Cindy has returned home. Of course, such a gift creates a good relationship between the peoples of America and Việt Nam. It also continues to grow the work of MEDRIX, an excellent Seattle area group that has been doing health education work in central Việt Nam since the mid-1990s. These books will be well-thumbed during the next few years.
And it is a joy to watch my wife teach. It is a joy to watch because teaching is such an obvious joy to her. She loves working with these students – and her devotion to their learning is felt by the students. Questions are asked and answers given and the questions are not always just about English terminology. They may be about a procedure or condition the students would like more information about. As with any good teacher, if Cindy doesn’t know the answer, she will tell the inquirer that she will have an answer by the next class meeting.
One last photo for all you nurses out there. In Cindy’s classroom was a bust of Florence Nightingale. While seeming a bit strange to see in this Asian country, it was also nice to know that the spirit of caring for others transcends cultures. Love, not English, is the true international language.
I love to ride on two wheels. In the US, I ride a scooter – no, not a little putt putt like Audrey Hepburn rode around Rome with. Mine is a road-going 400cc Suzuki , and I’ve written some stories about my rides on it.
In Việt Nam, people ride for a different reason. Whereas most bikes in the US are ridden for recreation, the bike is used for regular daily transportation in Việt Nam. And riding is done differently too – very differently.
But first -to my riding friends in the US who are all saying “Hey – what’s with the shorts, t-shirt and sandals?” They never see me on my scoot unless I am fully swathed with protective clothing – mesh pants and jacket, gloves, boots and full helmet.
(Be sure to click the photos to see a larger version.)
I admit that to some degree, I have to say that it’s easier to just go with the flow – nobody wears protective gear here. But there are some other reasons, not the least of which is speed. You seldom go very fast here. In the videos below, it looks like I am going fast, but actually, I am only going 20 miles per hour – 25 at the most. Obviously, one can still get hurt at 25 mph, but the road rash would be significantly less than it would be at 70mph in the US. With heat in Việt Nam, it would just be too much hassle to take in on and off just to go to the next block for coffee, then again to go to the store and still again at the market.
The scooters and motorbikes in Việt Nam seldom leave town – the vast majority of the riding is done going to work, to the market, running errands or to meet friends. People ride around town in the rain and at night. When one does ride outside of town, it is not for fun either – it is because you have an errand. I few days ago, I rode down to Lăng Cô to see Trang. It took me about two hours, riding comfortably at 30-40 mph and stopping to take photos. Route One is the major north-south artery of the country. In and around Huế, it is a four lane road, but it narrows down to two lanes just south of Phú Bài, where Huế ‘s airport is located. As expected, the road carries heavy trucks, inter-city busses and cars, but it also carries motorbikes and even bicycles.
While the road is in good condition (an improvement from even a few years ago), the variety of vehicles make things “interesting.” I might have to pass an old lady on a bicycle while being passed by a large truck. And not all passing is done on the left either. Most traffic laws are just suggestions here. A bus might cross the center line to pass a truck even though there are motorbikes in the oncoming lane. The bus driver knows the motorbikes will get out of the way. Notice that there is enough room on the shoulder for a motorbike – barely enough room. Going through small villages, the local residents have built market places right on the road. Now you have heavy truck traffic barreling through local motorbike traffic and people walking across the road – with children thrown in to the mix. Is it dangerous? You bet it is – and Việt Nam’s traffic accident death rate is one of the highest in the world.
But the two-wheeled rider boogies along. Việt Nam is upgrading from the motorbike (similar to a motorcycle with manual transmission) to the scooter (which the Vietnamese refer to as a motorbike even though it has a step-through design and an automatic transmission.) Helmets were required beginning in 2008 and that is enforced by the traffic police. Laws against carrying more than two people were enacted, but it is not uncommon to see a family of three on a moto.
A few days later, Cindy and I rode north of north of Huế to spend some time with Trang and her family. They live in a small village off the highway. I’d forgotten the way from the main road to their home, so one of Trang’s brothers rode out to meet us and lead the way. This is a different kind of scootering – you don’t need an off-road bike, but the pathway is narrow and bumpy. My speed was about 15 mph – maybe a little slower in the narrowest places.
(My laptop lacks the horsepower to edit video – this is right out of the camera.)
And riding through the city is different, mainly because of the traffic rules – or lack of rules. At the beginning of the video you will see I make a left turn and ride on the left side of the road for a bit. That scares the hell out of an American rider, but is standard practice here. You just hug the curb until a hole opens in traffic, then slide on over to the ride side. Not a big deal. Notice too that before I make a right turn, there is a van with the right turn signal flashing, but the driver is not in the right lane. Also normal. Traffic is crazy in Việt Nam until you get used to it.
And remember, American riders – this is all much slower than what you are used to. The largest machine that can be bought and ridden with a regular license is 150cc, and most bikes are 110 or 125cc. Anything over 150cc requires a special license.
And oh yeah – the reverse of licenses is true in Việt Nam – one gets his motorbike license first; the auto driving license is the special license you get later.
Those who know me well also know I am never at a loss for words. I am either lecturing someone on a topic they care little about or writing some exhaustive tome to nothing.
But Ái Nhân got to me today. She made me speechless.
Cindy and I didn’t just attend the wedding of Ái Nhân and Kien – we were in it. She asked us to wear ào dài and be part of the bride’s family. We were very literally honored to be there.
It is one thing to go to a wedding – I have been to many over the years. But Ái Nhân is one of my Vietnamese daughters, and when she appeared, my heart skipped a beat. Every bride is beautiful, of course, but this daughter of mine was the most beautiful woman in the world.
The two parts of the wedding are over and the party will start later this afternoon. Cindy will have a better report than I, but for now, I am so proud and happy for both Ái Nhân and Kien.
Yes – Việt Nam is in the throes of dramatic change. Yes – if you want to see “the Real Việt Nam”, you had better hurry up. Yes – the old ways are disappearing, but less so in the countryside than in the two large cities of Hà Nội and Sài Gòn. The typical village marketplace is still exotic to western eyes – enough so that care must be taken not to fall into the trap if thinking no changes have come to the villages. Many homes have high speed Internet connections and all the market ladies use a cell phone, but the market is indeed a throwback to older days.
So read this, then check back and reread Ten Years After and look at the pictures of the Vincom Center.
Few village homes have a refrigerator, so going to market is done twice a day to be sure food is fresh. This is a great way for the ladies to get the latest news (and gossip) as well as buy the ingredients for the next meal. Most of the villagers have a small plot of land devoted to growing food – the market is where you go to buy what you don’t grow. The vegetables this lady is buying were harvested only hours before they were bought – much fresher than in an American supermarket – or in a Vietnamese supermarket.
(As always, be sure to click on the photos to see a full size version.)
The same is true of meat – most of it is very fresh. These chickens were pecking in the yard only a short time before. If you want chickens that are even fresher, you can often buy them alive and slaughter them yourself. The Vietnamese diet uses meat as a flavoring agent rather than as the main part of the dish. In other words, the Vietnamese do not sit down to a steak dinner, but rather have bits of meat added to a soup or other dish. Chicken, pork and fish are all local.
Notice I say “Most of the meat is very fresh.” The possible exception might be beef. While there are cows in the countryside, they are not as common as chickens or pigs. Việt Nam does not have large grazing areas as we have in the US. Often the beef will come from another nearby village. For that reason, beef is usually the most expensive source of protein. In this case, the lady was charging 190,000 Vietnamese đông per kilo. That would be almost ten dollars for a kilo. Since a half kilo is a little over a pound, you can see why the average Vietnamese dinner does not have a lot of beef – it is expensive. Vietnamese beef is not the best. If the Carl’s Jr hamburger joint in the Vincom Center wants top notch burgers, the beef will most likely come from Australia.
The market is a busy place when it’s open, but it is not open all day. After the morning session, each vendor needs to go home to do her own domestic chores, then return to buy and sell again in the afternoon. Each person returns to her own small stall – everybody knows where different products are sold and where each person’s stall is located. Notice the bananas on the right – we are in the produce section. Each vender only sells one product or a small number of similar products – she may sell four or five different vegetables, while another lady sells cooking oil and still another sells different kinds of fish.
Of course, cooking requires cutlery. These knives are not fancy, but they work and they are inexpensive. I was told these were not made locally, but rather came from the Hà Nội area. I doubt they keep a keen edge very long, which probably explains why I saw the meat vendors use a sharpening steel rod frequently.
As I wander these rural village markets, I always see little old ladies, usually squatting by the side, trying to sell some pitifully small quantity of something. They no longer have to vigor to be able to do their own gardening, so they sell something that requires little care to grow, such as the three small squashes this lady has. She is eighty six years old, yet still comes to market. Being careful of her dignity, my friend Mr. Cu slipped a few đông in her hand. Her expression didn’t change - her mind may not have been able to comprehend the charity extended to her. I noticed she was clean and her clothing well mended, so her family is caring for her as they try to give her some feeling of worth by bringing her to the market, knowing the village women will watch over her.
I know the Vincom Center in Sài Gòn is an indication of economic growth and progress, but I also know you will never see a little old lady trying to sell her squash inside the posh shopping mall.
In my last post, I showed you the “new” Việt Nam, with all the trappings of an emerging consumerist culture. Now let me take you to a more traditional side of the culture – one which Ái Nhân (say eye nyun) graciously invited us to be a part of. She brought us to a very intimate family event that involved ancestor worship. Before reading further, I invite you to read a paper written by one of my former students back in 2005. "Ancestor Worship at Home." It will give insight into the day we spent at Ái Nhân’s home.
Ái Nhân’s father passed away last spring. It was hard enough to be on the other side of the world at that time, but she also missed some of the culturally obligatory events intended to honor and worship her father after his death. But, she was home for the 100th day after his passing, and that day is marked with a family gathering.
And – she made us a part of the gathering. We were very honored and pleased.
The 100th day is less of a formal ceremony than it is a time for friends and family to have the opportunity to stand in front of the family altar with incense in hand and pray. Cindy and I, as practicing Christians, believe as the Vietnamese do, that the spirit of a person lives on after death, but, unlike the Vietnamese, we do not believe that the soul has any power – all power belongs to God. Ái Nhân knew of our beliefs as we stood before the altar and prayed to God for the soul of her father. After all, the sixth of the Ten Commandments instructs us to honor our mother and father.
Once that formality was out of the way, it was like a family reunion - a time for folks to exchange news and enjoy each other’s company. The house is fairly typical – a small three room stucco-brick house that has the inevitable rooms added on – a kitchen, and in this case, Ái Nhân’s old room. As you enter the home through the front door, the family altar is there to greet you, fronted by a low table. A patterned paved courtyard, well shaded with big trees, all tucked away on a narrow kiệt (alleyway) make for a comfortable place to sit and savor the world. Yes – there are televisions inside and cell phones in the pockets, but this day was for talking.
Kids romped around (politely), while the men gathered in one area and the women in another. (Another trait shared with Americans.) Ái Nhân and her fiancé Kien made sure Cindy and I were comfortable and had a translator. I was asked to be in this shot of Ái Nhân, Cindy, Kien’s mother and Ái Nhân’s mother. These ladies chatted over tea while the younger women did the work of food prep and serving.
As for me, I wandered out into the courtyard where the men had gathered under a tree. Most were older men – my age. The amateur historian in me wanted to ask them questions about the difficult decade after 1975 when the war was over and Việt Nam was reunited. Even Kien’s father, who was a teacher and could find work, found it necessary to make whatever other money he could make to feed his family. Another of the men was a farmer, and he told of how he been forced into a collective farm as part of the new socialist system. Kien’s translation skills were put to the test, but he was saved by the call to eat.
I will spare the reader any description or analysis of Vietnamese cuisine – you can read about it elsewhere. But I can say that anytime food is served to guests in a Vietnamese home, you can be assured of two things: the food will be delicious and there will be huge quantities. Nobody leaves a Vietnamese table hungry. This was no exception – the table positively groaned under the weight of the dishes. As is custom, the older people sat at one table, while the younger people and their children sat at other tables. In this case, the exception was that Ái Nhân and Kien hovered around us as translators, but did not sit at the table with us. Though Cindy and I speak no Vietnamese, the competent translations of Ái Nhân and Kien allowed us to keep a lively chatter. I also noticed that Ái Nhân had one plate of shrimp taken back to the kitchen where the shells were taken off. The Vietnamese eat shrimp with the shell still on (I have eaten them that way – when well cooked, the shells are quite soft) but Ái Nhân had the shells removed for the two Americans.
One dish is a special note – the sticky rice cakes. Sticky rice is just what it sounds like – glutinous rice that can be molded into balls or cakes, and then wrapped in banana leaf. One special rice cake is made by grinding rice into a paste and mixing it with the ground leaves of a certain plant that imparts both a dark rich color and a sweet taste. Inside the little cake is mung bean paste – also sweet and delicious. Folks – this is good eating. That is Kien’s father in the background, getting a smile out of my enjoyment. As in many tropical countries, the hottest time of the day is not a time when people are out and about. As the heat of the day approached, the gathering wound down. We said our goodbyes, with many a word of “cám ơn” (thank you), and headed back to our hotel.
It wasn’t a good day – it was a great day. Thanks to the entire Ngô family for their wonderful hospitality on a significant day. I also want to thank Ái Nhân’s brother Đê for the photos where I was included. A photographer himself, he made better use of my camera than I did.
And, in the manner of old folks, we say that it seems like only yesterday since we returned to Việt Nam for the first time since the war. As I write this, I am sitting in the domestic terminal of Tân Sơn Nhất airport, gazing across the tarmac at the old aircraft revetments left by the Americans, I recall the anxiety and fear Cindy and I both felt in 2002. Now, returning to Việt Nam is akin to slipping on an old pair of shoes. The only anxiety we have now is having to wait until we see our friends and former students.
We spent two days in Sài Gòn. It gave us a chance to see friends who live there. Mel has lived in Sài Gòn for seven years and makes the occasional trip back to the US. He speaks Vietnamese and is more comfortable in Sài Gòn than in San Francisco. Thanx for the breakfast, Mel – and for helping us find SIM cards for our phones.
Dinner was at the home of Hanh and her baby – or more exactly, her in-law’s home. Her husband Phu was sent off to the US by his employer for six months, but technology means they can stay connected. It least he will be able to see Nho taking her first steps, even if it is only by Skype.
(Be sure to click on each photo to see a larger version.)
The second day’s breakfast was with Thanh, another of our former students. She earned her Master’s degree in America and returned home last year. Was it really seven years ago you were my student, Thanh?
All of which focuses me back on today’s Việt Nam. Since the publication of “Same River, Different Water”, my focus has been on Vietnam the War. Most veterans think the book is another war book – and I have a hard time getting them to understand that it is about today’s Việt Nam. Once they understand this book is different, most veterans have a very hard time coming to terms with the idea that their memories have no relation to the country of today. With the constant swapping of emails and Facebook postings, the veterans are focused on the war. For me, this going back and forth between the war and the Việt Nam of today is very difficult.
Each trip back to Việt Nam brings more evidence of the rapid changes in the country. The span between a veteran’s memories and the reality of today’s Việt Nam keeps widening.
As an example, can any veteran tell me where this photo was taken?
“Doug – that doesn’t look like any ambush site I ever saw.” “Doug – is that place air conditioned?” “Where the hell did you take that picture, Doug? Japan? It sure as hell isn’t The Nam.”
But, of course, it is in Sài Gòn, across the street from the stately old Notre Dame Catholic Cathedral. It is the Vincom Center, a tall office and apartment complex with six floors of premium retail spaces that are at street level and below. Why below ground? It’s in anticipation of the subway system being planned with the help of Japan.
I can’t say that I am a Versache kind of guy. Besides not having the money to buy clothes there, the place is just not my style. I also wondered if any Vietnamese would shop there.
I found the answer was “Yes.” The same guy who I saw get out of his chauffeured Lexus earlier in the day has the money to shop in exclusive stores. Thanh was with us and I asked her if she hoped to be able to shop in this very high end shopping center. I was surprised, knowing she is just starting out, to find out that she might shop at Vincom Center now – it would be a place where she could find cosmetics and other luxury items of high quality. Or she might shop for a few fancy clothes for her own child in the future – or buy kid’s clothes for a friend’s baby. As I said earlier, I still grapple with how fast this country is growing.
On the bottom level – what will someday be subway station level – is the food court. Want some Korean barbeque? Cream puffs? How about some pasta? Yes, you can get the usual Vietnamese foods, such as phở (found at the ubiquitous Phở 24 restaurant chain) and you might want some ice cream.
How about a hamburger? Not a problem.
And I will answer your next question – no, McDonald’s has not come to Việt Nam yet, though Starbucks just opened a store. Pizza Hut is all over the place and Kentucky Fried Chicken is booming.
But there is one thing that is very distinctly Vietnamese about the Vincom Center. Yes, there is underground parking, just like you find at many big-city malls in the US, but the vehicles parked at Vincom are different. With the taxes on automobiles in Việt Nam at 150% of the selling price, most folks get around on a motorbike.
I Wonder where they will park all the cars when I come back in another ten years.
I’ve been living with the thing for almost two years - there were times when it came close to overwhelming my life.
Well - that may be a little too much hype, but still, it was a lot of work.
I am speaking of my first (and last) book - “Same River, Different Water: A Veteran’s Journey from Vietnam to Việt Nam”. It is finally at the publishers. I am waiting for the copy editor’s feedback - I suspect there will be a lot of rewriting to do - and that will take time - but at least I can see the end of this thing.
Thanksgiving saw three Vietnamese in our home - and it has become the norm to have Vietnamese share and learn about this wonderful American traditional celebration of excess in food and football. But this year, we had a couple join us whom we had never met. Being our age, the husband was a Vietnam vet. He enjoyed being around the Vietnamese, but he could not imagine himself going back to the place where he had created so many bad memories.
I’ve had that reaction from veterans so many times since we returned in 2006 that I expect it - and whats more, I understand it. Knowing why they are mistrustful of a place that had such a negative impact on their lives is the prime reason why I deal with the topic early in the book - in the first few paragraphs of Chapter One.
Trying to decide what stories to tell and what not to tell has been one of the more difficult decisions while writing the book. I wanted to concentrate on describing today’s Việt Nam, but as my editor kept reminding me, the only association Americans have with the country is the war - there would be no connection otherwise. But I also did not want to write another “My Year in The Nam” book either - there are a lot of those out there, and most of them written better than anything I could write. I had to figure out how to combine my two views - my time in the country when there was a war going on compared to the very different country it is today.
And that took time - a lot more time than I had anticipated it would take when I first started writing the thing two years ago.
Here’s one of the 123 photos in the book - part of the skyline of today’s Saigon.