Saturday, January 08, 2011

Post Vietnam Velo Syndrome

Olympia seems empty after 26 days in Vietnam. I rode my bike for a short loop on the Chehalis Western and Olympia Woodland trails this afternoon and saw only a few people. Mostly I saw empty pavement. Even working my way back through neighborhoods, the streets were vacant. Just lots and lots of open space. The closest thing I heard to noise was the sound of traffic on I-5 where it paralleled the bike trails. I heard not one horn honk.

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Back in the USSA!

Made it back to The Homeland last night after a very long January 7. The only glitch came when the US immigration computers at Sea-Tac (and nationwide, we were told) crashed about a quarter way through our 747 load of passengers trying to process back in. If we'd been about 10 spaces ahead, we would have gotten through before the crash. Oh well.

After about a 45 minute wait, they finally managed to get something back online to process US and Canadian passport holders. A friend who dutifully waited in the cell phone lot for us transported us back to Olympia which seems preternaturally quiet after Vietnam.

Needless to say, I feel somewhat disoriented after the transition. I have a LOT of material and thoughts to process and will do that here, so stay tuned. In the meantime, here are some photos of what the whole trip was about.

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Monday, January 03, 2011

Mission Accomplished

Yeah, I know that phrase is forever suspect after 2003 but for me, at this time, it has real meaning. Maggie and I finished our volunteer work at the University of Da Nang last Thursday. That experience and the many kindnesses we have received during the last three weeks has totally changed my perception of Vietnam. For four decades, I have remembered Vietnam almost exclusively in the context of war. The past few weeks have added an entirely new context, one that is much more pleasant and positive. At times I even think of Vietnam as a magical place, a land of beauty, friendship and peace. That may be a bit over the top but there's no denying that my experience of war is no longer the defining one of Vietnam for me.

The English classes were a LOT of work. Maggie and I each did 15 sessions with students at various levels of proficiency. The beginning and intermediate students are very shy about talking to a foreigner. When they do speak I must listen very carefully to understand what they are saying and sometimes my interpretation of what I hear is pretty absurd. One student asked me something about Christmas and I head "chipmunk". Another asked me if I was thristy and I thought she asked if I was thirty. For all the difficulties, it's fun to see students eager to learn. I worked with a class of interpreters who were a bit more proficient so I know that the students who work at learning English are able to develop their skills. The teachers have been very complimentary of our efforts and have treated us to all sorts of local foods in restaurants that I would be reluctant to enter since I don't have a clue as to what I would be ordering and they apprear, shall we say, very basic compared to American establishments.

With the daily teaching load(techically we are "visiting" the classes since we are here on a tourist visa), we haven't had time for much touring. Outside of class we mainly explore central Da Nang taking it all in. As I noted in my last post, Da Nang is a busy city with a lot of traffic. But we are now veteran street crossers, maybe a bit more hesitant than locals to step into oncoming traffic but still willing. We also learned the other day crossing the street with some of the faculty that injuring a foreigner is a serious offense here so we may have some form of charm in our efforts. Nothing I would count on, mind you, but it's enough that they very much perfer crossing with us.

Social life in a foreign city has been surprisingly full. We spent Christmas Eve at the grand opening of a cafe' near our hotel, which is located across that Han River from the center city. We had seen the sign from our room and stopped in for coffee during one of our walks about the neighborhood. The owner joined us and told us about the cafe', his plans and extended an invitation to join the opening. So we ended up as the only non-Vietnamese listening to some very talented musicians, including the owner's wife and brother. The owner even sang a song dedicated to us. All this in a country where I was once an enemy! We had Christmas dinner at a western eatery with other Anglo types and a surprising number of Vietnamese. Among our dinner companions were two Marine Vietnam Veterans who now live in Da Nang. One was stationed here during the war and told me that crossing the Han River was once a ferry crossing under the sights of very good snipers. Now the only danger might be the crush of motorbikes.

The bridges here are quite beautiful. The Han River bridge is a beautiful single tower swung span. It opens every night between 1 and 3 am for large ships. the tower, suspension cables and piers are brightly lit each night with changing multi-colored lights. We also learned to our dismay that the bridge is closed to all but motorbikes between 4:30 and 6:30 pm so our taxi cab had to make a rather long and (relatively expensive--$7 vs 2.50) detour to the Than Phouc Bridge farther north. That is a twin tower suspension bridge that is also illuminated with ever changing lights. As far as I'm concerned, the extra cost was for a tour in a part of the city I would not have seen anyway.

On New Year's Eve we joined the English Language faculty for a very lively party with a very extensive buffet, karaoke and dancing. Fortunately for all concerned, all of the karaoke lyrics were Vietnamese so they were spared the torture of my singing and I the embarrassment of inflicting my tone deaf style on them. After two weeks of speaking loudly in class, I don't have much of a voice left anyway.

Our two weeks here have also given us time to explore the neighborhood near our hotel. We are located less than a half kilometer from My Khe Beach in a rapidly developing area. It's still pretty empty compared to the center city but hotels and new houses are rising everywhere. But for now it is wonderfully quiet. We discovered the new cafe' I described earlier, a coffee house, a very Vietnamese internet cafe' and a French restaurant that serves excellent croissants and pizza. There are many Vietnamese restaurants, including one we call the "bar fight restaurant", a story that will have to wait for a later telling.

We spent our last Saturday in Da Nang at a coffee house with a group of students from one of Maggie's classes. They wanted the chance to speak English outside of class and we enjoyed the chance to spend more time with them. We talked of many things: Vietnam, America, culture, music, even the American War, as it is known here. For them and most Vietnamese, that war is past history and doesn't really affect their present. It's quite a contrast with Americans, many of whom still haven't gotten over the war. Or, for that matter, Confederates still fighting a war they lost 150 years ago.

Now we are in Ha Noi. We arrived today for the last leg of the trip. Tomorrow we head for Ha Long Bay for an overnight on a boat before returning here for one last day of touring. Friday will be the long travel day back to the US.

So this adventure is just about over. A few more episodes to play out. As it comes to an end I can say that it has been all that I hoped for.

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