Saturday, September 11, 2010

Mile 4261 -- Hanoi, Vietnam -- Day 26

I really wanted to title this post Great Communist Mummies of the East, Part 1. I really did. One of the fringe benefits of this trip is getting to view the cryogenically embalmed corpses of famous Communist dictators--Lenin, Mao, and in a more immediate sense, Ho Chi Minh. Each of these corpses inhabits a fine mausoleum in the capital city of its respective nation and is on public display within a glass coffin during certain visiting hours, though one might suppose that receiving so many guests takes its toll on even the most deceased host. As such, Uncle Ho left for his annual spa trip in Russia somewhat early this year: while I'm certain that his crack team of ex-Soviet morticians can keep Uncle Ho looking firm and youthful for many more years to come, I do feel a small sense of loss as I  am unable to complete the entire circuit of Communist mummies my first time around.

Oh, well. As MacArthur said, "I shall return!" With luck, in a month or so I hope to give you a better report of these 20th century mummies when I reach Beijing.

One of the benefits of visiting Hanoi at this time of year is that it roughly coincides with National Day, which was officially held on September 2. The general festivities continue on for quite some time, however, and the city is still decked out in red flags, paper lanterns and that pervasive Communist sigil, the hammer and sickle. There are also many veterans in town: their olive uniforms frayed around the edges and cigarettes dangling between ruined teeth, these are graying veteran units from the American-Vietnam War who have returned to Hanoi with their families to pay their respects to the war dead. Michelle and I encountered a platoon of them outside the closed mausoleum accompanied by their wives in bright silk costumes with waxed paper umbrellas to ward off the mist and drizzle. Their medals glittered as camera bulbs flashed in front of the tomb; some saluted while others simply stood aside and continued to smoke, regarding the gray stone tomb and its youthful honor guard with sharp bayonets and crisp white suits and safari hats with suspicion. Of course, one wonders why they felt the need to visit the tomb itself when the whole of Vietnam is filled with monuments and fields of tiny white headstones--there is nothing akin to the size and scope of Arlington Cemetery, but the graves of fallen soldiers are pervasive throughout the entire country in batches of up to a thousand or more.

Still, I am glad to have visited Hanoi. The city is warren-like, with web-like streets constantly turning circles and changing names. This makes conventional navigation difficult though it does enhance exploration: one never knows what they will find around the next corner (except for more motorbikes, a noodle stand, and perhaps a mattress store; the city is saturated with these). Of course, it is not easy to come and go from the city by train, as I have and yet plan to do. The train is one of the few industries left solely in the grasp of the Communist government, and as such does not offer kickbacks and commissions for third-party ticket sales like the air and bus lines are wont to do: many agents and merchants will simply lie to your face about the availability of berths, or name some absurd price in the hundreds or thousands of dollars for a single ticket. This lack of graft makes train travel all the more enjoyable for me, however, so I am happy to chase down tickets like a bloodhound.

Plus, traveling along the Vietnamese coastline is a truly beautiful experience. Much like California's Highway 1, the train snakes along the coast through jungle mountain peaks that plummet down into the emerald waves of the Pacific and wind their way through rice paddies and irregular karst limestone foothills eroded by rain and natural acids. The passenger can travel in style through these environs, nibbling at a generous portion of boiled pig's feet and rice in the dining car whilst sipping a local brew. (The meat in question was fatty and delicious, if a bit bony--not nearly as good as the brace of grilled rats I dined on last week, wrapped in cabbage leaves with their heads ceremonially served in a dish of plum sauce.)

Michelle and I will depart for Nanning in Guanxi province tonight in a similar fashion. I look forward to moving further north for both meteorological and cultural reasons: visiting China is really my chief purpose in visiting Asia. I hope to determine, among other things, if it the region is sufficiently fascinating for me to study it in graduate school. This is the last time you will hear from me in Southeast Asia, at least on this trip. Don't wait up for me: tonight we'll be turning our clocks an hour forward and breaking gauge as we enter into China by express train.

View Phnom Penh to Hanoi in a larger map

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mile 3925 -- Hue, Vietnam -- Day 21

We had left early that morning from Phnom Penh. The river ferry was a noisy craft, leaving behind it black tendrils of smoke to mingle with the smell of cooking fires in the villages that marked our progress on the banks of the Mekong River. Rice fields stretched away into the far distance roamed by small children and water buffalo as monsoon clouds gathered strength in the sky. After several hours we stepped ashore; chickens scattered before us and a pair of rangy dogs barely looked at us as we approached a group of ramshackle huts. Several men sat at a table smoking, a long extension cord powering a television which just barely played Chinese soap operas beneath the static. This was, of course, the local border post: I held out my passport to the nearest of them and was rewarded with an exit stamp. Cambodia was now behind us.

The next checkpoint was nearly a mile downstream. The Vietnamese immigration office was a stainless steel cube with chrome rails and a single door of spotless glass. The Mekong flowed beneath the structure like chocolate milk and it bobbed up and down on large pontoons. Wide steps led upward into the building where a young woman stood in the neat olive suit surveying us and the ferry with a critical eye.

"Good morning Vietnam, sir. I take your passport, please?"

The girl smiled self-consciously, the sun gleaming off of her hammer and sickle lapel pin. I handed over my documents without argument and she gestured into the next room. "Welcome to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. You wait in gift shop and I bring it back to you. Maybe you buy something?"

It was still before noon. The gift shop was a disappointing bastion of socialism in addition to its free-market implications. The chamber contained the usual Communist kitsch available around any college campus in the United States: Mao hats, Che Guevara shirts and lighters made from shell casings. Another woman in uniform appeared, as if on cue.

 "You want beer, sir? Heineken?"

I declined. Still, if this was all that the Communists were up to behind in Southeast Asia I can’t see why Lyndon B. Johnson was so worked up about it.

As we continued our way down the Mekong, it was further apparent that we were in a new country. Cranes lines the shore lifting steel girders and cement flowed like wine in booming river towns; barges moved vast containers toward the Pacific and industry blossomed with quaint tendrils of smoke replaced by towering chimneys. Our approach to Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, as the government would have it) wound between highway overpasses as the city stained the evening sky with an orange wash of light. There is no skyline over the city yet, though high-rises have begun to make their debut with cheerful portraits of Uncle Ho and scrolls of Red propaganda to decorate their facades. There is an unmistakable sense of commerce and gathering industry about the place.

Michelle and I stayed in a small guesthouse on an alleyway full of small guesthouses; at least a dozen in all, the local families that owned them inhabited the bottom floor while five narrow floors of three rooms each were reserved for guests and foreigners. Each of these structures was identical down to the last nail as they had been built by the government in an attempt to socialize the hotel industry, giving the effect of a vertical subdivision budging skyward. Our room commanded a fine view of the nearby park and promenade: one of the few suggestions of the French colonial era aside from deep-fried crepes and the occasional heel of baguette for breakfast. Scooters abound in the streets, outnumbering cars at least 50 to 1 without any exaggeration on my part. Their riders come from all walks of Vietnamese life, from the elderly shopkeepers selling noodle soup to trendy youngsters in business suits and designer labels clung to by girls in trailing dresses and stiletto heels on Vespa bikes in the scrum of traffic.

I find the Vietnamese to be far more approachable than Cambodians. More English is spoken by the older generation (in addition to French by those who lived through the “American War” as they call it) as well as the very young who are now learning it in school, and there is a very great openness to Vietnamese society, despite an unfree press which chooses to make future predictions about government successes rather than reporting current events and feeble internet censorship (I am in fact working through the expedient of a proxy server as we speak). While the Cambodians are still scarred by the Khmer Rouge years, there is a great resiliency in South Vietnam to adversity that I find fascinating. Among those Vietnamese that I have spoken to at length, those who were born before 1940 regard the war between North Vietnamese communists and the United States as a minor footnote in compared to not only war with the French but particularly the Japanese occupation of Indochina during World War 2. The years under Japanese rule were characterized by famine, disease and a long pause in the conversation with many of the grandparents I have met. We have not encountered any other Americans in Vietnam, but the Vietnamese themselves are quite comfortable with discussing wartime topics and in general bear no grudge toward Westerners. Even the wartime amputees are willing to have a dialog on the subject and will frequently approach one in order to do so.

As a result, some days ago Michelle and I chose to visit some of Vietnam’s wartime attractions: the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi tunnels. I was of two minds about visiting these sites, given their sensitive nature. We chose to avoid the killing fields in Cambodia, but something drew us to these relics of the American War—a sense of history, or perhaps of responsibility. Also, I was interested to see the official reaction to the American intervention in Vietnam.

The museum, opened in 1975 as the “Exhibition House of American War Crimes”, is primarily a photographic exhibit of the American-Vietnam War. It appeared that we were the only other American visitors, though there were many Canadian, South Korean and Australian tourists in attendance. Interestingly, each of these nations fielded combat soldiers and military hardware in Vietnam to the war, though none did so on the same level of magnitude as the American government. While the prints are grainy and the interpretive panels generally unhelpful (reading like so: “Behold the styles in which the American agressives began their provocative fornications across resistant Vietnam!”) the museum does indeed provide mute testimony as to the shattering destruction of the American War in Vietnam. Of course, most of the images are copies from Time or Life magazine and were taken by American journalists, many of whom died in the process of documenting the struggle. The museum is government-run and unabashedly antagonistic to Americans, though I believe that such treatment is probably well-deserved given the vast destruction American bombs wreaked upon the nation. What is suspect about the place, however, is that while it purports to memorialize Vietnamese casualties, it in fact only lists Vietcong fighters among the dead. The nearly 3,000,000 South Vietnamese soldiers killed in the war are merely “American Puppets” and apparently must be better off dead for having not contributed to the People’s uprising.

Cu Chi was a more surreal experience. The region once held a darksome net of underground passages once used by Communist guerrillas to move about the countryside undisturbed by wandering helicopters or pesky free-fire zones. The Vietnamese government has turned Cu Chi village into a very credible tourist attraction, charging approximately $5 to step into its animatronic jungle theme park rendition of the year 1967. A state-approved tour guide will lead you through groves of bamboo and imported eucalyptus trees to view robot Vietcong soldiers going through their daily routines in situ: shooting Americans, writing slogans, drinking and constructing roadside bombs, occasionally at the same time. One of the mechanize dolls in particular caught my eye, however: a female guerrilla soldier, her rifle at her side, brushing her hair and applying lipstick.

I was not the first to ask the guide just what her intentions were applying product on the battlefield.

“Oh, she is to go out flirting,” he responded with a smirk. “You know, she will ask that handsome American Imperialist from over there to go to the village with her tonight,” he indicated an American doll some meters away. “They might sit together, touch hands, and discuss the finer points of proletarian revolution in the rice paddy.”

There was laughter and we continued.

Next was a field of tiger pits and functional booby traps hidden by a thin carpet of grass and set in front of a lengthy mural of soldiers being punctured by various homemade traps in the jungle.

“This is how the Americans died,” the guide intoned with a bored look.

He thrust a long stick into one of the holes, and a spiked mallet shot forward and crushed it.

“They were also defeated in this gruesome manner,” he continued, repeating the performance with a similar deadpan.

In order to liven up the visit, we were then subjected to an interesting film in black and white regarding the “American-Killer Heroes of Cu Chi”, a 1967 propaganda piece produced by the North. I do not exaggerate this point, nor will I try to belabor it, yet despite the serious subject matter it is difficult not to snicker in the aisles at such a wanton butchery of the English language. We were led into a thatch-roofed hut where a television and VCR awaited us upon a pedestal beneath the watchful gaze of Uncle Ho. The television itself was a counterfeit RCA unit purporting to be “Made in California” by a peeling sticker.

The Cu Chi tunnels themselves were purgatorial. Visitors are allowed to crawl through a 100 meter portion of the network which has been especially widened for Western visitors. Despite this, my shoulders dragged against the stone walls as I crawled through the passageway on my belly, watching for the electric candles set into the rock every 10 meters. I do not think I could physically fit into the tunnels as they were originally built, nor can I imagine living in them for days on end as bombs rained overhead: it was suitably hot and unpleasant as to give up a taste of revolutionary life and keep me off any uprising for good, though it was truly an impressive main attraction and there was a certain thrill to having completed the challenge without suffering any serious mental disorder afterwards.

Of course, no visit to the park would be complete without a visit to the live-fire range. Here we were offered the chance to shoot a variety of surplus American and Chinese firearms for approximately $1 per shot ($10 minimum) ranging from the venerable M-16 all the way up to various tripod-mounted heavy machine guns. Hitting various targets granted several prizes, including a portrait of Ho Chi Minh himself. While I chose to pass up this opportunity, several British youth took their chances with the rifles and I became intimately familiar with the sheer volume of automatic gunfire—something that I had become inured to in the movies but is entirely different in real life.

I thanked the guide for the tour as we departed. He was an older man, perhaps sixty years old, and I learned that he had grown up in the region around Cu Chi and had no doubt lived through the bombings he had recounted to us. I glanced at his replica uniform: all brass buttons and red stars. No so good for concealment. He must have caught me doing it, because he returned to the subject later in our conversation:

“No, I know what you’re thinking. I was no Vietcong. You know why?” The guide became animated once more, his face cracking with a smile. “Because I’m too ugly. Look!”

He pointed with his stubby finger to a long banner pasted to the side of the ticket booth near the exit. It was typical propaganda fodder: two revolutionaries, male and female, (with a height, stature and in the woman’s case, bust line that no Vietnamese can yet hope to match) their Chinese guns gleaming with red light as their bayonets pierced an American flag with pink-cheeked children looking on joyously. They were beautiful people, sculpted by the revolution into perfect citizens and physical specimens.

“Only pretty people can revolt, you see? All the ugly ones lived in Saigon!”

We had a good laugh over this, but I saw a bit more truth to it when I returned to the city. The beautiful people are already in revolt in Vietnam—the boys and girls with Gap and Gucci riding their scooters after dark started it, but they aren’t the only ones spending money and opening businesses. Time will tell, of course, but I suspect that a Capitalist revolution is only just beginning in Vietnam.

Talking politics is tiresome, however. Michelle and I are heading northward to Hue and Hanoi in due course, but no more of these barbarous busses: look for a report on Vietnam’s rail network in short order. It’s time for me to be riding the rails and breaking gauge!