Tuesday, June 01, 2004

A Day at the Table
A work of fiction by Domenico Italo Composto

The first thing to hit Nicholas upon his arrival to Saigon was the heat. It was nearly the end of May and Vietnam was bracing itself for the monsoon rains that had yet to come. Saigon seemed to him to be a city of streets filled with an unbelievable number of scooters; none of which paid any attention to him as tried to cross from one block to the next.

He had been in Saigon for five days. He didnt want to leave. He had found refuge in his guest house room. It was clean, pleasant, and most important of all it had an air conditioner. He paid $6 a night for his room.

A door adjacent to his bathroom opened up to a tiny balcony; it was so small that one could only stand on it, to sit in a chair was simply impossible. Although he never used the balcony he loved the fact that he had one. And when given the chance he would brag to fellow travelers that his room did indeed have a balcony, of course he would never mention just how small it was.

He got home most nights just past midnight. The family that ran his small guest house were usually in bed, asleep, at that hour. He would have to ring the door bell. Moments later a head with tired eyes would pop out a window just to see who was rining the bell at such an hour. Moments after that a side door to the guest house would open and Nicholas would enter taking off his shoes while apologizing to the father of the household.

Since he had a TV in his room Nicholas would watch a bit of the Discovery Channel. A program he found interesting to watch every night was about forensic crime scenes. He would have prefered to watch the BBC or CNN but his guest house did not subscribe to those channels.

On the morning of the 30th Nicholas woke up at around 6:10. He had a breakfast date; two in fact. He had to meet Estelle, a beautiful French woman of Lao and Vietnamese mix, at 7 and then he had to meet Jacky, who was from South Africa, and Carmen and Zaira, who were both from Barcelona, at 10 in the a.m.

Struggling to get out of bed and regretful that that morning was to be his last in Saigon Nicholas finally got up. He noticed that his throat was a bit raw. The air conditioner had dried it. He prayed that it would not develop into a soar throat.

After showering and getting dressed and checking the locks on his bag for the third or fourth time Nicholas left his room and descended three floors. He passed the living room of the guest house saying hello to the Vietnamese family that ran it and took his shoes out of a cupboard before stepping out into an alley just off from Bui Vien street. He quickly put on his shoes while looking at the children just a meter or two away in another home watching TV while eating their breakfast.

The cafe he was to meet Estelle in was just a few seconds from his guest house. He walked out onto Bui Vien street and saw Estelle rushing to be on time. He saw that she did not see him. She crossed the street and he called out to her. She looked back, smiled, and waved hello.

"I'm sorry I'm late," Estelle greeted Nicholas.

"No, no don't worry. As you can see the Cafe is not even properly open yet."

Estelle and Nicholas then walked into the French Cafe. Nicholas was disappointed though to see that there were barely any pastries in the counter windows. He wanted Estelle to have a fine selection of pastries to choose from but it appeared that the day's pastries had yet to be delivered to the Cafe. But, Estelle explained that she wasnt feeling well and that all she wanted was yoghurt. She ordered as Nicholas went over what few pastries were left from the previous day.

After ordering both Estelle and Nicholas walked up the steps leading to the second floor of the Cafe. They sat at a table that overlooked the early morning activity of Bui Vien street.

The first and last time these two travelers had met each other was in Luang Prabang in Laos.

Then, more than two weeks later and by shear coincidence, the two ran into each other while on a separate tour of the Mekong Delta. They agreed to meet for breakfast and thus this is how they now found themselves enjoying an early morning coffee drink in Saigon.

They asked each other questions of details and facts that they had remembered from their previous meeting in Laos. The conversation was quiet and pleasant. Anything more than that would have been too much for such an early hour.

After breakfast Estelle explained that she was going to go to the Reunification Palace. Nicholas knew the way and had more than an hour to kill before his second breakfast meeting. He decided to walk with Estelle to her destination. He enjoyed her company, particularly her sweet English accent. The curiosities of Saigon appeared from corners and cracks catching both of their eyes and attention. Soon enough though they had reached the Reunification Palace and it was time to say goodbye. If and when they will ever see each other again . . . the gods only know.

Nicholas returned to Bui Vien street with a slight skip in his walk. He was happy. He had about 20 minutes more to kill before 10 a.m. and so he decided to check his email. 25 minutes in the internet cafe went by and Nicholas had not succeeded in opening a single email. His computer's connection was too painfully slow. He paid the bill for the internet service which did not serve him and met up with Jacky, Zaira, and Carmen outside the Southern Hotel.

He apologized for his tardiness and led the group back to the same French Cafe he had breakfast in with Estelle. They all ordered; Nicholas happily ordered more pastries for his belly.

And there they were: an American gent, a South African lady, and two Princess of Spain. The hours passed as if they were minutes. Nicholas loved the animated gestures of Zaira and Carmen. He most especially loved their relationship. Zaira and Carmen were friends. But, they behaved as if they were a couple. They knew eachother's mind, heart, and spirit. They could read each other. They understood one another. They possessed between them what many married couples dream of, strive for, fight for but never achieve or find. They were free within their relationship to simply be who they were without bending or changing too far out of shape. They had found a pleasant nest to lay in within their relationship. So pleasant that they were free to act and feel like spirited children again; joking with each other and the world they found themselves in and interacted with. Through them Nicholas and Jacky found hope that yes indeed there are two individual souls that can find each other, fall into one another, support the other, and interdepend. They were hope. Yes, indeed. They were hope.

The afternoon sun rose high into the sky and hunger began to pelt their stomachs. They called the waitress over and ordered their mid-afternoon meal. The conversation between the four travelers continued as did the laughter they shared. And all the while Nicholas thought of his past and what his future would bring.

He could feel it. A part of himself beginning to die. Making room for something new, something he had never known before. And he welcomed this death with sadness and a smile. He, at 27, felt old and tired. Solitude so often his friend. So much had he done only to come home to the quiet of night and dark. He could sense that this long journey through the heart of the Old World would be his last alone. Somewhere over the Ocean that would send him back to his home would he begin to find his new life with his future wife . . . whoever she may be.

Monday, May 31, 2004

Saigon Notes from May 27th to May 30th

Im behind on my journal. To make things a bit easier for me Im going to combine all my thoughts and observations on Saigon from May 27th to May 30th into one entry. As a result this will be a long entry. But I will divide it with appropriate headings.

The "Same, Same, But Different" Philosophy of Saigon

My Guest House is on Bui Vien road which as I have mentioned in a previous journal entry is the Khao San Road of Vietnam. Khao San is the most famous - or infamous depending on how you want to perceive it - back packers Guest House road in Bangkok. Bui Vien is a colorful street. If you take a good look at the thin but extremely high (5 to 6 to 7 storey) Guest Houses you will notice that they are painted in attractive colors of light green, pink, or blue. All the shops are located on the ground floor. The majority of the shops are Mom and Pop shops and also double as the entrance into the homes of the families that run these shops. The Vietnamese are opposite to the Japanese in this sense. The Japanese are very private about their surroundings. Their businesses, shops, restaurants, bars, hostess clubs, and homes are all hidden behind walls, tinted windows, and doorways. The Japanese take the necessary precautions to ensure that no "outsider" can see within their establishments or homes. The Vietnamese on the other hand could honestly care less who looks into their places of work or homes.

My Guest House is in an alley filled with apartment homes for Vietnamese families. The ground floor of their homes has a metallic gate that they open and close in the morning and at night. During the day they simply leave this metallic gate completely home. Look and see beyond this gate and you will find that you are looking directly into their living room which for some doubles as a shop selling drinks, food, or some other goods. Every morning I walk through the living area of my Guest House and sit outside taking the time to put on my shoes. As I do so I look around at the activity in the alley and into the living rooms of the homes all around my Guest House. I can see children just a meter or two away from me watching TV, or teenagers playing pirated video games. There is always a small shrine - the shrine looks to be Chinese in origin - used and devoted to the ancestors of the family. No one can care less about who is looking into their home. They are not embarrassed to blow or pick their nose out in public. They, in a sense, are apathetic to what others may think of them and for that I love them all the more.

All along Bui Vien there are Travel Agencies catering to all the back packers living in one of the Guest Houses on the street. There are Italian restaurants and French Cafe's. There was one French Cafe in particular that I spent every morning in. I sort of became a regular breakfast patron who sat in the same chair and table every morning on the second floor looking down below at all the activity on the street.

You will notice on Bui Vien that there are C.D. shops. Walk in and you will find pirated C.D.'s of every musical genre. And you will find pirated computer software and video games for Play Station 2 as well. The prices for these C.D.'s are ridiculously cheap. So cheap that Happy Tours - a travel agency - will give all its customers a voucher after they have bought a tour to pick up a free C.D. at one of these C.D. shops. The tours that they offer cost no more than 5 to 6 U.S. dollars. I should also mention that DVD's abound in these C.D. shops. I met a group from New Zealand who had bought 36 DVD's for under $40 U.S.

This is simply one example of the "Same, Same, but Different" capitalist philosophy in Vietnam that I am finding - funny that Vietname is technically a Communist country. Vietnam is the cheapest country to travel through in Southeast Asia - in my opinion at least. For me it is cheaper than Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. You can stay in a beautiful hotel here for under $10 a night - complete with a TV in your room, Air-Con, even a fridge. You can buy a canned Coke for less than 40 cents U.S. You can have a large delicious pizza for less than 2 to 3 dollars. You can drink a pitcher of beer for about a dollar. And these are the prices for foreigners. The local prices are even lower than that. And today I learned from my waitress at a restaurant that she makes about $1 a day. As a result of the fact that the Vietnamese make so little they simply can not afford genuine 1st World articles such as a DVD, or CD, or scooter. The original brand is way beyond what they can afford. But they want these products nonetheless. So they improvise. They make products that are the "Same, Same, but Different." You can buy a pirated DVD. The quality of the DVD looks no different from the unpirated one. It is the same . . . yet different. And books. There are millions of books that you can buy that have been photocopied perfectly page for page from an original. I have bought a few books here that are the "same, same, but different" from the original. I am sure that 1st World companies such as Penguin Books, Sony, and North Face back packs are up in arms with the fact that Southeast Asia is a breeding ground for entrepreneurs copying and pirating their products for a massize buying market. I am sure that they are loosing billions of dollars as a result of all of this. Do I care . . . honestly do I have any freaking sympathy for these massive conglomerate 1st World Nation corporations??? HELL NO!!!

Countries like Vietnam and Cambodia and Lao and Myanmar are POOR COUNTRIES. They are countries that have been bombed and torn apart by 1st World nations such as the U.S., Japan (W.W. II), and France. And these poor Southeast Asian countries are still suffering from the messy wars countries like France, England, and the U.S. had waged in this part of the world. Rural families in Cambodia, Lao, and Vietnam still run into unexploded ordinances (UXO) that the U.S. or France had littered all over their country. You will see people in Vietnam who have lost their hands and arms or legs to bombs, and you will see babies born with the most horrific mutations imaginable as a result of the chemical warfare the U.S. waged in Vietnam.

I will later discuss what effects "Agent Orange" has had and continues to have on the children of Vietnam.

Since the U.S. never bothered to clean up the mess that the left behind after tearing up a country like Vietnam apart do you honestly think that the people of Vietnam or individual back packers like myself give two s$#ts that big media corporations like VIACOM are loosing millions of dollars to pirated goods in Southeast Asia??? No, I dont give a f**k!!! Let the pirating industry continue to flourish in countries like Vietnam. The Vietnamese today can not afford the high prices of genuine western goods. But everyone wants them due the wonders of western marketing and advertising. Let the Vietnamese buy pirated C.D.'s, DVD's, books, and clothing. They deserve to have them and enjoy them at the cost of the money lost by 1st World corporations. It is the least we can do for them after the fact that we from 1st World Nations (the U.S., Japan, France, and so forth) have ripped their countries apart - killing millions of civilians - and left without botherig to clean up our mess.

Other examples of this "Same, Same, But Different" capitalist philosophy in Vietnam are paintings and scooters. You will find gallery shops filled with hand painted copies of master pieces from your favorite artists - from Dali to Leonardo Da Vinci to Picasso.

I have learned that 5 years ago Vietnam was not as littered with scooters as it is today. There are barely any traffic lights in Saigon and if you find one you will see that the Vietnamese pay little attention to these traffic lights. Cars are few and far between. It is nearly impossible to afford even thinking about buying a car in Vietnam. The next best solution is a scooter. Cheap scooters from China that have been designed to look like its expensive Japanese counterparts have been flooding into Myanmar, Lao, Cambodia, and Vietnam by the tens of thousands. You will see an entire family riding and balancing themselves on these small scooters. You will see men driving on their scooter with a refrigerator strapped to the back. And you will see couples parading their scooters around the round-about where Tran Hung Dao steet meets Le Loi steet. You will also see couples resting near a park near this round-about at night. They are all simply sitting on their small scooter holding each other, talking to each other, and so forth. It is a common joke among Vietnamese young men that they can never pick up a girl unless they have a good looking scooter.

This is an example of the type of materialism that is stereotyped about the people who live in Saigon.

The Cu Chi Tunnels and the Vietnam War

3.5 million Vietnamese were killed in the war that began with the French and ended with the American withdrawal from Saigon. Can you guess how many U.S. soldiers were killed in the war? Do you think the number of U.S. deaths even came close to a million? No. 58,000 U.S. soldiers lost their lives in combat in Vietnam. How many U.S. lives will be lost in Iraq when we finally depart from the country? Why did we go to war with Iraq again? Can someone remind me? Weapons of Mass Destruction . . . yes that's it. Wait a minute . . . there never were Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. So can someone - George W. Bush in particular - please explain to me in extreme detail why the U.S. - my country - went to war with another poor nation such as Iraq? Please, someone. I invite anyone out their to send me an email at thedragonbone@hotmail.com to email me and to tell me exactly why the hell we went to war in Iraq.

My sarcasm is a result of the fact that the last three countries I have been to - Lao, Cambodia, and Vietnam - are all poor nations that felt the effects both indirect and direct of U.S. warfare. After seeing how the people in these countries continue to suffer to this day as a result of the Vietnam War I find it difficult to find any reason to ever support any war beyond the one we fought during World War II.

Getting back to the facts. 3.5 million Vietnamese lost their lives in the Vietnam War compared to 58,000 U.S. deaths. From 3.5 million Vietnamese deaths 200,000 were babies and children. 2.5 million were civilians. 1 million were Viet Khong soldiers. Australia sent 7,000 troops of that 500 died. You may not know this but South Korea, New Zealand, Thailand, and the Philippines also sent troops to Vietnam to fight alongside with the Americans.

The US government sent 6.5 million soldiers to Vietnam and spent 352 billion dollars on the war.

The U.S. killed so many Vietnamese civilians because they simply did not know who was who. A South Vietnamese friend by day could be a Viet Khong fighter at night. This confusion of who the enemy was resulted in the destruction of villages with very little discrimination.

The U.S. dropped 5,382,000 million tons of bombs on Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam making this the historical record for the most amount of bombs ever dropped during any war. The target of these bombs was along the Ho Chi Minh trail which was 16,000 kilometers long and swerved in and out of Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia.

937,300 tons of bombs were dropped in the Northern areas of Vietnam and 4,444,700 tons were dropped on the Southern regions.

A chemical agent called "Agent Orange" was used by the U.S. to detroy all forms of vegetation on mountains and targetted landscapes in Vietnam. This chemical agent poisoned the land and seeped into the ground water and natural food supply of the people living along the Ho Chi Minh trail and other targeted areas. This agent caused severe mutations in adult Vietnamese and their children and newborn babies. These mutations are horrific. At The War Remnants Musuem I saw many pictures and video footage of these mutations that have left the faces of men and women twisted, melted, blind, enlarged, and beyond the ability for anyone to look at for more than a few seconds.

Today ultra-sound is used to detect whether or not a Vietnamese baby has been deformed due to the lingering effect of Agent Orange. If a baby is detected with serious deformities it is aborted.

For more information please click on this link - The Agent Orange Victims Fund @ http://www.vnrc.org.vn/orange_fund/

On the 27th of May I went to the Cu Chi Tunnels which is located about an hour I believe from Saigon, or more specifically 65 kilometers from Saigon. The Cu Chi area was nearly in the backyard of the former U.S. military base - this particular base had 10,000 U.S. soldiers stationed there - during the Vietnam war. It was here that some of the most sophisticated tunnel systems was developed by Viet Khong fighters.

Cu Chi covers 165 square kilometers and had about 300,000 Vietnamese living within it. By the end of the war about 44,145 Vietnamese were killed in Cu Chi. The tunnels built underground in Cu Chi in total were 250 kilometers long.

Getting into the logistics of the Vietnam War. To begin with the Viet Khong soldier was better equipped than his U.S. counterpart simply by the fact that the AK-47 was their weapon of choice whereas U.S. soldiers carried the M-16. The AK-47 I believe was a Chinese - or Russian - weapon supplied to the Viet Khong by China. It can hold 50 bullets and can also fire M-16 bullets. The M-16 can only hold 20 bullets. Just by the choice of firearm the U.S. soldier was out-matched.

The fighters in Cu Chi were supplied their weapons from the North. They got their supplies at the southern end of the Ho Chi Minh trail.

These rebels in the south of Vietnam were all volunteers. They were never paid. They were poor but extremely determined soldiers. Their shoes were made from car tires. The U.S. soldier and the South Vietnamese army were well-payed for their service.

The irony is that during the war many U.S. bases in South Vietnam hired South Vietnamese women to work in the base to cook and clean for them. These women worked from 8 to 4 making about $300 U.S. a month. After work many of these women would return to their villages supplying information about the layout of the base to rebel fighters, or they worked as rebel fighters themselves. At night many rebels would sneek into the U.S. bases with small amounts of TNT explosives and blow up buildings and so forth within the base.

Since it was feared that individuals within the South Vietnamese army were Viet Khong a camera was attached to the planes flown by South Vietnamese army pilots. If upon return it was discovered that the South Vietnamese army pilot bombed U.S. troops instead of the Viet Khong he was immediately shot without trial.

Many dud bombs were dropped over Vietnam. These dud's were then picked up by the Viet Khong and then inserted into a car that would be used to ram itself into a U.S. base or government building set to explode.

Many of the fighters in Cu Chi decided to fight against the U.S. simply because members of their families were accidentally killed by bombs dropped by B-52 air planes. They were simply seeking revenge.

The Viet Khong awarded medals to Vietnamese girls and recognized them as "American Killer Hero" to encourage more women to help in the cause of fighting against the U.S.

Because the majority of the Cu Chi fighters were farmers they resorted to using old farming techniques against the Americans. They used traps that they had once set against animals against U.S. soldiers. They dug elaborate bamboo traps into the ground. The most basic was a pit filled with sharp bamboo sticks that if you fell into it your feet and legs would by spiked by them.

The tunnels of Cu Chi were divided into three levels. The first and second level were used for fighting. The first level was 3 meters deep. The second level was 6 meters deep and the third level - used for living in and sleeping in - was 10 meters deep. The Cu Chi fighters living within the tunnels slept in hammocks so that they could sleep pleasantly during bombing raids that would rock the tunnels back and forth. Smoke from the kitchen chambers would flow into several compartments and then release above ground at a location far from the kitchen itself. The 2nd level was usually used for moving from one area of the tunnel to the other. This level was also full of traps set for any U.S. troops that broke into and invaded the tunnels.

The tunnels were all made by hand with the use of a basket to collect the dirt and a small shovel to dig into the dirt. There were plenty of wells reaching down into the ground water and there was enough available water within the tunnels for rebel fighters to take a bath 3 times a day.

Air holes were made by digging into the ground and placing a hallow bamboo stick into the ground. Over time the bamboo stick would decay but the long shaft of the air hole would remain.

I went with a group to see these tunnels and to be very honest I must say that I was incredibly impressed. We walked into the tunnels and traveled through them. I couldnt imagine living within this underground network but after seeing these tunnels I could not help but feel the strong determination the Vietnamese had in fighting off the U.S. and ruling their own country. Their determination is clearly present in these tunnels and after seeing these tunnels I can only have the upmost respect fot the people of Vietnam who fought to never be ruled by a western colony or nation. With barely anything they fought hard against the French and the against the U.S. to finally win their independence.

The War Remnants Museum

It is a must for anyone traveling to Saigon to go to this Museum. It can be argued - and I will completely agree with this arguement - that the Museum has its own agenda, that is has a propaganda edge to it, but it is completely interesting to see how the Vietnamese themselves portray the war, the French, and the U.S. What you will see here is the other side of the story. We in the U.S. have our movies and history books laced with our own perspectives and propaganda. It is also important for us to see the other side and find the truth somewhere between.

President Ho Chi Minh delivered the Declaration of Independence on September 2nd, 1945. From July 1946 to Jul 1948 the U.S. financed France with 1.2 billion dollars. U.S. aid increased by a billion dollars in 1954. The "Domino Doctrine" explained that Burma, India, and Indonesia would fall to communism thus began the U.S.'s concern for the fate of Vietnam if it fell to communism.

A good portion of the museum was dedicated to the victims of Agent Orange. The toxic chemicals of this herbacide spread that destroyed trees and vegetaion cased deformities in the hands, arms, legs, and feet of the Vietnamese. Children born from parents who had been affected by Agent Orange had facial deformities such as unusual growths around their bodies or overgrown heads. Many were born blind. Some were born with no eyes or flesh completely covering their eye sockets.

The Coconut Camp
From 1953 to 1954 the French built a prison that was later nick named the Coconut Prison. It was built on the Phu Quoc which is the largest island in Vietnam and it was meant to keep no more than 14,000 prisoners. It was 600 square kilometers in size. During its use it housed 30 to 40,000 prisoners.

The torture techniques used by the French varied: pins were stuck into fingertips, snakes placed into women's trousers, electric shock used, beatings from clubs and hammers, etc. Some prisoners were beaten so heavily that they left with arms or legs that were completely paralyzed.

They ate only small portions of food which usually was composed of decayed fish, vegetables, and meat. Only half a can of drinking water was giving to prisoners a day. Very little water was given to female prisoners during their menstrual cycle.

"Tiger Cages" were used for political prisoners. During the hot season 5 to 14 prisoners were placed within one of these "cages". The prisoners ankles were shackled to a long iron bar limiting their movement within the cell.

O.k. I think I have typed as much as I can about all of this. If you are interested in learning more then simply search the internet for more information or visit your local library or go to your nearest book store.

May the Force be With You . . . Always,