Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Trip So Far

You've had bits and pieces along the way. Here's an overview and update. Greetings from Da Nang City, Vietnam. We arrived in Vietnam 11 days ago, flying into Saigon and quickly traveling to Vung Tau, a beach resort on the southern coast. Vung Tau is a much quieter place to get oriented. Saigon, these days known as Ho Chi Minh City, is way too intense for a new comer who does not speak the language. We spent a few days there and made arrangements to travel to Cat Tien National Park for two nights. 

The drive up to Cat Tien took us near some of the areas were I was during my first visit here as a soldier. I'm pretty sure I saw some of the mountains we patrolled back then. This visit is much, much more pleasant. We took a biological tour of the park, which had me walking through the same kind of jungle I remember from last time, the difference being that this time I'm on tour. At times I felt a bit uneasy but as long as I remembered what year this is, it was actually a lot of fun. 

The park is pretty impressive for a developing country with a growing population. It's 72,000 hectares of lowland jungle and home to elephants, rhinos and tigers (none of which we saw) as well as several species of primates. The park has a primate rescue center where primates, mostly gibbons formerly kept as pets or performing animals are rehabilitated for eventual release. There is also a bear rescue center as well. We saw the gibbons and bears. 

After Cat Tien, we returned to Saigon for a night before flying to Da Nang. We will be here for two weeks volunteering in the English language program at the University of Da Nang. Siice Monday, I've worked with eight classes. It's very hard. Vietnamese speak softly, the acoustics are poor and my hearing is not that great so I must listen very carefully. It's an education for me as well. Despite the effort, I'm having a good time. The students are also shy about asking questions and equally shy when I ask them questions but they are very curious about the US and our customs. I offer pretty straitforward responses, refraining from my usual smart-ass commentary, so I think they are getting a relatively accurate picture of American culture as I have experienced it. They are often confused about Washington the state and Washington the national capital. Most classes I end up drawing a US map. And since it's Christmas, students usually ask me to sing a Christmas song. Maggie is also doing the same in other classes. One class last night gave her a Christmas card! 

Da Nang is a good place to experience Vietnam. It's a good size city but manageable for a foreigner. Traffic here is heavy but nothing like Saigon with its rivers of motorbikes flowig around autormobiles, trucks of all sizes and bicycles. Crossing the street in Da Nang is an adventure. It requires stepping into a small opening between vehicles and moving through whatever comes at me. The key is not stopping. It's unnerving but somehow it all works. I would take much longer in Saigon to hazard a street crossing, I am sure. Some intersections have crosswalks but these seem to be nothing more than paint on asphalt. Traffic does not stop. Even the sidewalks are tricky. Vietnamese live and work on the sidewalks which are also filled with parked motorbikes. It requires some dilligence to get around them. And I also have to watch for motorbikes coming into and out of doorways. 

Sidewalk enterprises are everywhere. One food stand has incorporated a defunct phone booth into its operation. Sidewalks are often staging areas for construction materials. Zoning here is eclectic, if at all. My impression of Vietnam after eleven days here is both the same as before and very different from my last "visit". It's the same in that I see the Vietnamese in the south as very, very industrious and hard working. Commerce seems almost non-stop. It's well underway early in the morning and seems even busier at 8:30 pm when we leave class. Vietnamese use just about every space for some commercial purpose, whether it be a street vendor or the gypsy motorbike repair guy with his tools and air compressor. The difference is that no one is fighting and there uncertainty of war is long gone. Vietnamese culture does not dwell on the past and most of the population is too young to remember the war. 

What amazes me most is how little evidence of Communism is visible. I see plenty of posters celebrating the victorious revolution and Ho Chi Minh but they seem like strange artifacts in a busy capitalist economy as do the hammer and sickle flags that fly adjacent to the national flag on many official buildings. What I've seen so far reminds me much of a third world Hong Kong, where people are too busy making a living to care about ideology. Our drive from Cat Tien to Saigon was amazing for the number and size of Christian churches (Roman Catholic, I assume). The big cathedral in Da Nang is preparing for quite a bash this evening for Christmas Eve. Buddhist temples are everywhere. If this is Communism, it sure isn't godless. Christmas decorations are everywhere. Da Nang is amazingly lit at night and quite stunning. Maybe when we get to Hanoi in a in 10 days we'll see something different but here in the south, it looks like the Communists only won the war, not the economy. 

Of course, all this is my limited perspective as a foreigner, so take it for what it's worth.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Back to the City

Cat Thien was pretty amazing. The fact that a third world nation with a growing population can set aside so much land for conservation is inspiring. We had a guided biological tour, vitisted the primate rescue center and went out for a night wildlife viewing tour. Didn't see much wildlife (a deer and a bird) but we did see a meteorite streak across a moonlit sky.

The park is not far from my old AO (area of opration) with the First Cavalry. Driving up from Vung Tau, I think I saw some of the ridges we climbed back then but can't be sure. Seeing the park was enough though, an activity of peace and conservation rather than war.

We drove back to HCMC on Saturday through some of the most intense traffic I ever saw--a river of motorbikes alongside nearly bumper to bumper cars and trucks as we neared the city. Our one night in HCMC was enough. We must have been approached by five or six vendors while we ate dinner. They don't take "no" easily. If you refuse one item, they always seem to have another. Maggie did by a folding fan which has come in handy.

Now we are in Da Nang. It's definitely a busy city but not as much so as HCMC. We are still learning our way around. We did manage to find this internet cafe so we are not hopelessly lost yet.

This afternoon I go to the university to assist in the English language program, which is the whole reason for the trip.

More later.

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