A sleep world away. None of us — all experienced travellers — imagined we would be so jet-lagged when we got home. We could have been dancing on the ceiling at 4 AM for a week. Maybe we just wanted to….it was hard to leave — each other, the landscape, the people.

So many of you have been to Vietnam and Cambodia, there is probably little I can tell you that you do not know, nor that you did not experience yourselves; but I hope my impressions will give word pictures to those of you who have not been, and bring remembrances to those of you who have. We had a unique perspective, biking in both countries for most of our sightseeing.

What I thought I would see, and experience, and think turned out to be quite different. Everything positive I imagined turned out to be even better. But I felt an underlying anxiety I did not expect. I’ll deal with the latter first.

It helped to be reading David Lamb’s Vietnam, Now, although it was written a little over 10 years ago. A journalist who covered the war in the late sixties for 3 years, and then returned shortly after Bill Clinton normalized relations with Vietnam in the late 90’s, Lamb has a knowledgeable perspective. He was welcomed with smiles and openness, as were we.

WHY, why, why do they/can they, like us? A visit to the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City hit hard on the atrocities we committed. Although exaggerated (I could find no media back up that Bob Kerry, as the museum claimed, disemboweled children when his navy SEAL team mistakenly killed 13 civilians), there was enough there about our use of Agent Orange and what it did to children and the landscape to feel guilty and disgusted forever. I found it hard to look any Vietnamese person of our generation in the eye. I did not expect to feel so sick about our own country. Despite all the thrills and joys of the trip, my malaise was not far beneath the surface. Could we have done more in 1970? Did our demonstrating against the war make a difference? I think it did, but not enough. So in the face of the devastation we wrought, why do the Vietnamese like us? Is the warmth feigned, because they want our dollars? I don’t think so. Combining David Lamb’s and our guides’ points of view, here are some reasons:

~They always liked our GIs, and blamed our government, not our soldiers, for what happened.

~We were actually less inhumane than the French and the Chinese, their former enemies.

~ Way over half the population is under 40 — this was their father’s and grandfather’s war, not theirs.

~ They have been at war for hundreds of years — always confident they would win (after all, they beat back Genghis Khan twice). War is a constant in Vietnamese history.

~ My favorite reason: This is a Buddhist culture — all welcoming, all forgiving, all loving. Although most Vietnamese do not formally practice their religion, the traditions and feelings are inculcated and strong.

Now for some of the wonderful/funny/thrilling pictures in my mind when I close my eyes and think of Vietnam.

CROSSING THE STREET: So here you have a gentle Buddhist culture combined with an industrious entrepreneurial obsession about work. I think this dichotomy is reflected in Vietnamese driving. There are very few traffic lights in the cities, and even the few that exist are barely acknowledged by vehicular traffic. People drive their motorcycles and scooters at Mach 2-speed and stop for nothing, not even people. So how do you cross the street? Trusting to Buddha, you step into the oncoming traffic and walk at a steady pace across the street — you do NOT run; you do not STOP, for if you do, the oncoming vehicles cannot judge your position. If you walk steadily across the street the vehicles part around you as you progress. A comparable, but more benign experience is swimming through a school of fish — they part to let you through but never stop moving. It is the same here, but of course if anyone — either you or the motorcyclist miscalculates, you are dead. Even having mastered the technique, I decided I never need to skydive….I have had the experience, just stepping off the curb in Vietnam.

EATING: Not only was the food delicious, it was perfect for me, having celiac disease. No soy sauce — usually the bane of my eating in Asia. Noodles with everything, but only made of rice, not wheat. We have eaten Vietnamese food at home, but as you all know, eating food in the country of its birth is so different — it’s as if the food in America is made on a 3-D printer (I have read about this!), and this is the REAL thing. What we never did find out is: Were we served humongous portions of food in an endless array of dishes because they thought us hefty Americans could eat that much? Or was every meal celebratory, prepared just for us, and hence, everything was shown off? By the way, this was not the case in the upscale hotels, but rather at local restaurants, be they regional fancy spots (still thinking of the one where we drank the local rice wine…amazing I can even remember anything at all!), or truck stops. How our guides found the latter for us astounds me. Picture a sparsely furnished open-air dining room along a country road with 20 bare tables, 10 hammocks and a 10-course delectable lunch!

BIKING GUIDES: I see them in my mind’s eye in their bright jerseys with their smiles and earnest sense of responsibility for us. “Low gear, low gear,” they would shout as they led us over the many tiny, arched, wall-less bridges that spanned the canals of the Mekong Delta. Why were they so adamant? The idea was that when we approached the peak of the arch, we would not have to downshift and momentarily wobble. How right they were. We met a woman at our hotel in Siem Reap who had been on a similar biking tour, but her guides had not been so protective…..over she went into the canal!

And then there was Mike Smith, our star leader and inventor of Bike Vietnam, gliding back and forth among us as we pedaled. Picture him amongst the Vietnamese — a 6’4’ senior citizen with pale skin and bright white hair pulled back into a ponytail. He appeared to be twice the size of his bicycle, which he rode sitting completely erect, and of course, with no effort. The people in the countryside liked us — they adored Mike.

TREES THAT WALKED: I don’t think Tolkien was ever in Cambodia, but his walking trees do not only exist in Middle Earth. To me, the most magical of the temples and palaces at Angkor Wat was Ta Prohm, where the roots of the trees have become entangled over the past 900 years within, around, and on top of the crumbling walls. Remember the childhood game, “Statues,” where everyone would run around and then the person who was “it” would yell STOP, and you had to stay motionless in the position you were in, no matter how awkward. The first person to move then became “it.” That’s how I pictured Ta Prohm’s trees: lumbering around (too big to run) all night and then having to stop the minute light dawned each morning in whatever position they were in….

MONKS: We have been blessed. In Vietnam, we “enjoyed” a traditional water blessing. The men took off their shirts, but we girls got doused in all our clothes. We sat on the stairs of a temple, with a monk standing above and behind us chanting and tossing buckets of cold water on us for hours….well, not hours…but at least 15 minutes. What made it less than spiritual was that you had no idea when the bucket was coming your way…to your left, to your left, to your right, and then directly over your head. The pattern was not discernable, so I was always tense, waiting for my deluge. There was no avoiding it…we were all drenched.

One other monk stands out in my memory. We were hiking up a temple trail to a holy spot in Cambodia. Halfway up we came to a gaudy altar, and sitting cross-legged in front was a monk in his saffron robe, ignoring our existence. Almost trance-like, he was placidly eating his lunch surrounded by bottles of orange soda. Orange soda? It seemed un-ascetic, but we guessed his abstinence from real world pleasures allowed for an orange soda obsession.

DANCING: As all good tourists do, we chartered our own luxury junk to cruise overnight on Halong Bay. The land/waterscape lived up to its reputation. To compensate for lack of sun, we told ourselves that the sheer island mountains we cruised by were even more mysterious and dramatic as they emerged through the eddying mist and the rain. But we did not get the experience of lounging on our upper deck at night viewing it all by starlight…it was just too wet. SO! Instead we moved aside the dining room furniture, Susan brought out her playlist, hooked it up to the PA system and we danced like crazy Americans. With Susan and Jeanne choreographing our moves from the “stage,” Helen dervishing ON the table, and Ernie “involved” with a pole as his partner, we were inspired by music rather than scenery until very late at night. The diffident crew, wide-eyed and grinning, peeked at us around the kitchen door. Each time we motioned them to come on in, they disappeared, giggling.

ALLEN’S WIVES: We only had two days in Hanoi, and one had already been designated for sightseeing. Should we go on the last bike ride just north of town, or wander around fabulous Hanoi on our own? Half of us could not resist the charm of Hanoi. So 6 of us girls hired 3 pedicabs, and Allen followed us in his own, for a close-to-ground tour of the old city, winding up at a shop called Tan My we thought might be the place to spend some dong. As the 6 of us shifted into a frenzy of shopping, Allen settled in its café on the first floor and had the following conversation with a man sipping coffee beside him:

“Are you here with all these women?”

“Yes, I am.”

“How do you know them?”

“They are my wives.”


Neither cracked a smile.

Allen’s formerly bruised ego was soothed by the fact the other fellow believed he could handle all 6 of us, because here’s what happened when we first arrived in Vietnam.

We stayed with Wally and Helen for two days before the official trip began for a two-day idyll at a tranquil boutique hotel on the river just outside of Ho Chi Minh City. On the first day we followed Helen and Wally for a “couples massage.” The lead masseuse was jolly and outgoing, with a not-so-slight resemblance to Bloody Mary. She did the boys. Her partner was sweet and shy, and she did the girls. As they bustled about setting up the room for us, Bloody Mary began:

“That Wally, he very nice man. He so sweet and kind. You lucky you friends with them. They both really nice, but I especially like Wally.”

“Oh we know how nice they are. We really like them too.”

As Allen disrobed and lay down on the table, Bloody Mary looked him over and continued, “That Wally, he a bit mo’ handsomer than you.”

Allen needed six wives to get over that!

A GOOD STORY: Speaking of wives, we visited the stunning and fascinating Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi, which focused on the many tribal groups in Vietnam, whose traditions are fading. Our guide pointed out a photo of one woman from a tribal group that originated in China. In her hair, tucked into her bun, she wore a large hairpin, about the size of a chopstick. We presumed it was decorative. “Oh no,” said our guide. “In these tribes there is no sex before marriage, and because it is such a big event, the man often faints after his first time. The woman uses this hairpin, handed down over the ages from mother to daughter, to press on the vertebrae of his lower back to revive him…otherwise he could die.” He swore this was true…(I have a vision of him going home that night and telling his family…”You won’t believe what I told the tourists today!!”)

LEARNING AND WISDOM: Because our group were all members of the Aspen Room To Read chapter (an NGO fostering literacy in the world by building libraries in schools and supporting teaching and learning), we visited several schools and met with students in Vietnam and Cambodia. All were inspirational, but two memories stand out in my mind. In Cambodia we joined a class of first graders. One teacher and seventy children! We learned about the “O” sound…how it was used in words, how to write it on our chalkboards. All the children paid rapt attention to their tiny skinny teacher with a big voice who taught them with clapping and rhythmic repetition. Our young desk-mates helped us make the sound and form our letters. The “O” lesson was followed by a story. As she read from the book, she donned the Minnie Mouse headband of one of her students, and more than reading, she acted and laughed and kept 70 children enthralled. No misbehavior discerned. Of course we wanted to take the children home and the master teacher too. She was probably no more than 26 years old.

After the classroom experiences in the two schools we visited, we met with administrators — the local principal and regional managers. Of course they extolled Room to Read, and talked to us of their needs. In both cases, it was easy to see who the big boss was from his attitude and physical demeanor. In both cases, I could not help fixating on the big boss who had one long, long, long hair extending from a mole on his jaw down to the bottom of his neck. NOT attractive. One instance could have been careless grooming; but two had to be purposeful. Looking up this phenomenon, I found two explanations: One, that in Thailand and Vietnam, a long whisker extending from a mole is considered good luck; two, that this long whisker is a sign of wisdom. I think I will stick with the second explanation, and hope these men have the wisdom to help their children attain 21st century skills without losing their gentle and kind cultures.

I could go on and on, but I also am imagining the changes 20 years from now…..everyone driving a car instead of a motor scooter; rice paddies harvested by machinery; paved roads everywhere; supermarkets everywhere. An article I recently read about Hanoi captured progress in Vietnam: When the author first went to Hanoi 20 years ago, he loved watching the old ladies practicing Tai Chi in the park early in the morning. He still loves watching them, but the ladies look very different. 20 years ago they wore traditional peasant pajamas, and now — they wear Nike. We saw them too.

November 2014

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