Saturday, February 16, 2013


I cannot be in Vietnam without thinking of the Vietnam War, which was such a big part of my teen and college years.  It is called the American War here.  The people here are very friendly and you would think we had not been at war with them for 25 years,  pretty much destroyed their country and left a whole lot of orphans, as well as unintended offspring of American soldiers.  

I visited the War museum, which is slanted to their take on it, of course.  There are pictures of people protesting the war all over the world.  I knew we were protesting in the US, but it did not really sink in at the time how unpopular the war was in other countries.  The exhibit on war photography featured pictures by western news media and I had seen many of them before, but it doesn't lessen their impact.  It also noted that 73 Western photographers died in the war.  There was writing on the wall with quotes from various people, such as General Curtis LeMay's "Bomb 'em back to the Stone Age" and President Eisenhower's statement that the tin and tungsten in Vietnam was needed for security reasons (like oil in Iraq?).  They also had the part of the Geneva Accords (1954) up that stated that no foreign powers would intervene or establish a base in Vietnam.

War Remnants Museum

On another floor was an exhibit about Agent Orange with pictures of the damage it caused, as well as of many children born subsequently, in Vietnam and the US, with horrible birth defects.  This actually made me feel worse than the museum in Hiroshima, because I felt some personal guilt that I didn't feel about the bombing in WWII, probably because I wasn't alive then.  Did the Germans feel this way when they learned the full extent of the Holocaust?  Why do things like this keep happening?

At the end I saw a video made during the war of villagers trying to cope.  It was definitely propaganda, but broke my heart seeing the children going to school in trenches.  They had to carry a homemade first aid kit and made straw hats to protect themselves from bomb blasts.  No wonder those kids became soldiers and sympathizers when they got older.  Their country was under siege, whether they lived in the North or the South.

The next day I visited the Cu Chi tunnels, about an hour and a half out of town in a rural area.  The tunnels are famous for hiding thousands of  Viet Cong during the wars against both the French and the Americans.  They extend 200 kms and go between the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Saigon River.  There are three floors, a cooking room, areas for munitions storage and manufacturing, a school, a hospital, and a deep well (the above ground water was contaminated with Agent Orange).  We saw examples of the hidden entrances, the pit traps for the enemy, and leafy trenches for above ground protection.  The people were farmers by day and soldiers by night.  They could launch attacks then seemingly disappear.  They were tenacious and clever.  A video showed teenage girls getting medals for killing multiple Americans.  

Model of tunnels

Hole too small for most Americans

The tunnels are very small but some have been enlarged ("Burger King sized", according to our guide) for tourists.  They also had an area where visitors could pay extra to shoot an AK47, and M16, or an M60.  I have experience with the last two from my time in the Army, but some of the guys took advantage of the opportunity.  Only one girl, though.  Guns have always been a fascination for guys and I don't know why.

At the end of the tour we sat at outside tables and had a "soldier meal" of cooked cassava and a sugar/salt dipping mixture.  After that we went back to Ho Chi Minh City and had lunch in a Vietnamese restaurant including tempura spinach, boiled spinach, rice paper wrapped vegetable rolls, chicken and onion, sticky rice with mung beans, and custard pudding.  Not as good as the cooking school food, but still delicious.

Rice at lunch came in a nice package

Finally, a pic with Desmond Tutu
Vietnam SAS stats:  Zero people drugged, 35 robbed, 18 credit cards stolen or lost, one passport lost (later found), 5 people hit by motorbikes (no serious injuries), two leg burns, many cases of traveler's diarrhea.  Twenty nine cell phones were lost or stolen phones, 100% of which were I phones.  These seem to be an incredible target.  A lot of people get them whisked out of their hands by people on passing motorcycles while standing on a curb looking at their phones instead of their surroundings.  Hopefully this statistic will decrease, especially as the passengers are running out of phones.

Friday, February 15, 2013


I don't know what it is about Vietnamese food, but it tastes different from anything else.  The main thing I think of is freshness, like nothing came out of a box but straight trom the farm or sea.  And it always tastes good.
Tools to get started.  Chop, chop.

I took a cooking class at Hoa Tuc restaurant in Saigon.  Instead of just watching the cook prepare food, the 12 of us each got our own cutting board, knife, etc and repeated everything he did.  We used some vegetables I was not familiar with, like mustard leaves, lotus stems, bon bon, tine vua, kumquats, and mung beans. We stir fried, deep fried, barbecued, mashed, cut, diced, etc.  In the end, we made three dishes:  mustard leave rolls with crunchy vegetables and prawns, fried sticky rice fritters with pork and carrot, and rice noodle with BBQ pork and vegetable salad.  I will give you the salad dressing recipe:

8 tablespoons kumquat juice (we used the fresh fruit and squeezed)
2 tablespoons water
5 tablespoons fish sauce
6 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons chopped garlic
4 teaspoons minced red chili (medium spicy)

Mix all ingredients, stirring well until sugar is dissolved.

Mustard leaf rolls with prawns and vegetables.  Yummy!

I learned that fish sauce comes in different strengths, and a higher number is less water and more fish sauce.  He used number 60, which I think is the highest strength.

If you are really lucky, I will make some of these dishes for you when I get back to the US.

Teacher/chef shows us how to deep fry rice balls
Enjoying the barbecued pork salad

The next day my roommate Susan and I took the shuttle to town and wandered around the Ben Tranh market for about three hours.  This is an indoor market about the size of two Walmarts.  On one side is food, from fresh fruits and vegetables to fish, meat, snails (the French influence), etc.  The meat is butchered and hangs on hooks, but the chickens are alive and the fish and shrimp are still wriggling.  This is fresh!  We also went down the narrow aisles looking at clothes, art, hats, shoes, etc.  Whatever else you can think of, it was probably there.

I bought a shirt from these girls in the market

Fresh prawns, still wiggling

We stopped at a few tailoring places to see about getting some clothes made.  I love the aio dais, those sleek calf length, long sleeved tops slit up to the waist over long pants.  Unfortunately, I don't think they were meant for me.  I settled for buying a new silk shirt.

We went back to the ship for lunch, but I returned to town later to get a manicure/pedicure for $12.  My friend said she got both for $8.  One thing I noticed is that they don't use lotion when they do the hand and leg massage, which I didn't like.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Getting from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City (the locals still call it Saigon) involved three days and then several more hours sailing up the Mekong Delta.  The skyline of Saigon probably looks similar to what it did in the 60's; nothing like Shanghai, where they seem to put up a new skyscraper every week.  Of course, we did such damage to the country that a lot had to be rebuilt before they could think about skyscrapers.

They obviously had a severe inflation problem, since one US dollar equals 21,000 Vietnamese dong.  It makes you feel like a millionaire until you actually try to buy something.  When I got 10,000 in change I felt pretty good, until I realized it was only about 50 cents.  They do not even have coins.

We are here during the Vietnamese New Year celebrations (Tet).  This is good in that there is much less death defying traffic, but bad in that many places are closed.  They use a lot of flowers to decorate for New Year's, so the city looks very festive.  It is like seeing Rose Parade floats all over.

Water puppets
I took an all day tour of Saigon.  We went to the History Museum and got an overview of Vietnamese history.  Hanoi is 1000 years old and Saigon is only 300 years old.  We learned that the Vietnamese have always been good at guerrilla warfare and were able to repel the Mongols three times.  They were taken over by the Chinese for 1000 years, so many of the artifacts seem Chinese in style.

The History Museum also had a water puppet show, supposedly put on the way it would have been done in the 12th century.  The front pool is filled with water and the puppeteers behind the curtain manipulate the puppets with long rods.  This was not as good as the water puppet show I saw about ten years ago in Hanoi, where the puppeteers wore black suits and actually got under the water and swam around with the puppets, but was still entertaining.

The Reunification Palace was built by the French but rebuilt after being bombed in 1962.  The French controlled Vietnam from 1858 until the Japanese took over in 1940.  The latter are not well liked since they exploited the Vietnamese and 2 million people died, mostly of famine.  The British liberated the Vietnamese but the French stepped in and reclaimed Indochina until being defeated in 1954.   The subsequent Geneva Accords declared Vietnam independent and forbade interference by third powers.  UN monitored free elections were supposed to be held in 1954 but the US stepped in and halted them because the Cold War was going on and they were afraid the country would become Communist (Wikipedia says the Soviets halted the elections.).  Thus the whole region would become Communist according to the domino theory.  Ho Chi Minh, a popular leader in both North and South Vietnam,  admired the US Constitution and reached out to America but got no response because of the fear of communism running rampant in the US at the time.  The US supported President Diem in the South, a Catholic who apparently persecuted people of other faiths, particularly Buddhists.  After ten years he was assassinated and the US propped up some other dictators until the government in the south fell in 1975.  Of course the tale is very slanted toward the Vietnamese viewpoint, but they don't overplay the American aggression the way they could.  The statistics range from 3 to 4 million Vietnamese killed in the war, and about 58,000 Americans.  This is terrible whichever side you are on, but we were destroying their people and their country, not the other way around.  Those millions of dollars and thousands of young men could have been put to better use.
Reunification Palace

1960's era radios
War room

Helicopter on roof for quick getaways

President's meeting room.  Note raised chair for him, which  our President Washington had refused.

We then went to the Notre Dame Cathedral, a stone edifice built by the French in 1880 and looking like it belongs in a city in Europe.  This was closed, but we went across the street to the Post Office, also colonial French and looking like an ornate train station.  They have the names of famous inventors along the front and include Benjamin Franklin, a former American ambassador to France who was apparently quite a favorite there, especially with the ladies.

Post Office

Cao Dai Temple
Our next stop was the Cao Dai temple, built in  Chinese-Vietnamese style with a variety of other architectural influences. The nave has columns decorated with dragons and many statues.  The colors are unusual, with a lot of turquoise, pink and yellow.   Above the altar hangs a giant sphere containing the divine eye of Cao Dai with an eternal flame. Cao Dai's religious philosophy is a blend of Asian religions (Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism) mixed with Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, as well as animism and Theosophy.  It originated in Vietnam but is practiced in many other countries, including the USA.  A service was going on, with all of the participants dressed in white from head to toe.

Electrical system-which wire goes where

We stopped for lunch at Dong Khanh Restaurant in Chinatown.  This was supposed to be a typical Vietnamese lunch but seemed Chinese to me.  I tried the local beer, "333," which was quite good.

Cha Tam Church
After lunch, we stopped at Cha Tam Catholic church, where President Diem sought refuge and prayed right before he was assassinated in 1963.  Our President Kennedy had been withdrawing from Vietnam but was also assassinated around the same time and American intervention escalated.  I sat in the same pew that he had and said a prayer for all the dead soldiers on both sides.

Our next stop was the Thien Hau Temple, the oldest Chinese-built pagoda in the city, dedicated to the goddess of the seas and protector of fishermen and sailors.  After that we walked to the Quan Am Pagoda, a Chinese-style Buddhist temple featuring beautiful courtyard, gardens, a pond and a Jade Emperor.  Incense was intense at both temples.

Our final stop was the Central Park, where it was the
final day of the Flower Fair, a Tet tradition.  They had kiddie rides, a lot of bonsai, and flowers everywhere.  They played "Gangnam Style" on the loudspeaker and I watched the little Vietnamese kids do their best Psy imitations.  The best and worst of international culture pervades the planet.