Pointed Sticks And The Delta Blues
“Pointed sticks! Ho ho ho! We want to learn how to defend ourselves against pointed sticks do we? Getting all high and mighty, eh? Fresh fruit not good enough for you? When you’re walking home tonight and some homicidal maniac comes after you with a bunch of loganberries, don’t come crying to me.”
–John Cleese in “Self Defence” from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
The people of Vietnam are more forgiving than I might be under the same circumstances. If I had had so many people going into my backyard killing trees, shooting at relatives and blowing up my fishpond, I can’t say I’d be too friendly to their relatives, friends and acquaintances. While I might not necessarily want to kill them, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to hang out with or even talk to them, and I fully expected that most Vietnamese would feel the same way.
To my surprise, many Vietnamese not only liked Americans, they were proud to have assisted advisors during the war. I took all these claims at face value until I heard a 10 year-old say he, too, had provided assistance to U.S. military advisors. I expect that if I researched the issue I would find there are plenty more people who say they were on the military’s payroll than there were Americans who fought there. It’s kind of like the 50,000 or so New Yorkers who say they saw Lou Gehrig gave his farewell speech even though the stadium only seated 12,000.
Immediately after his speech more than half of them went to hear a concert called Woodstock.
The guide seemed like the genuine article. On the 35 km trip to an area known for a network of underground tunnels that the Viet Cong used as a base for their attacks against South Vietnam, he regaled us with war stories and pointed out roadside relics. The debris ranged from old tanks to pieces of planes shot down during the hostilities
If the North’s victory over South Vietnam is a triumph of will over superior firepower, the Cu Chi Tunnels are the heart of that victory. The Vietcong may have had only rudimentary tools, but they were able to dig four feet into hard soil to create subterranean passageways less than three feet wide, 1.5 meters tall that held up under the crushing weight of multi-ton tanks and howitzers. In addition to being passageways that allowed Northerners to harass soldiers and then fade away, they were also undeground villages with hospitals and shelter where people lived for days at a time.
These days, there are two sets of tunnels. The ones that have been modified so taller tourists might can comfortably crawl through and unaltered tunnels that may not have been comfortable for much shorter Vietnamese people to slither through, but were far easier for them to negotiate than it would have been for the standard-sized, Army issue American. I opted for the real McCoy. None of those wimpy caves for me.
I’ve never been afraid of cramped spaces, but the tunnel would have put me in that frame of mind if I had to crawl through more than 100 meters of it. The conditions weren’t so bad when I first scrambled down the ladder and had to hunch over just to make it through the first series of passageways, but the ceilings quickly dropped until there was barely enough room for me to bend and squat-walk without scraping my head. The 100-plus degree temperaturs, the limited space and the 20 people trying to get through the tunnel at the same time made the slightly-better-than-block-long walk hot, sweaty work. It didn’t help that I had a pounding headache and was sweating profusely. I thought it was because I hadn’t had enough to eat, but I later learned it was because I was had a 100 degree fever. Ever the optimist, I took comfort in knowing I wasn’t claustrophobic. At the precise moment the thought popped into my head three people in the group realized they were. Fortunately, they were able to get out early without jangling the nerves of the people around them.
The caves are only part of Cu Chi’s story. There are also the portable booby traps that the VC used when enemy soldiers went looking for the caves. All of the traps were diabolical and often involved pointed sticks. As the tour guide showed, all were buried under leaves and dirt and took little weight to activate. In one of the examples he demonstrated all a soldier had to do was set foot on a light wooden mat and the platform would fall out from under him, spinning around, and depositing him into a pit filled with strategically placed sticks which all pointed upward. When the mat spun around its forward motion would push the victim onto poison-tipped spikes as he ducked out of the way.
The only thing more diabolical than the traps were the ways restaurant owners found to charge for items that are typically free in other places. By the time I went on the tour I had already been in an eatery that charged for napkins, but I had never been charged for something that was free before.
It may sound confusing, but the situation was straightforward. I ordered fried rice and a baguette for 9,000 Vietnamese Dong (the exchange rate was 11,000 dong to the dollar, making it possible to be a Vietnamese millionaire for around $100 and giving a new twist to the phrase “Is that a lot of dong in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”). As the meal ended the waiters brought pineapple wedges (which are much less painful than pineapple wedgies) to everyone in the group without asking if we wanted them. Since I’d already been in a couple of restaurants where waiters would bring rice with a dish, then charge extra, I wasn’t falling for that trick again. Just as the thought occurred to me someone else asked how much it cost. I took one when the server told him it was free. Unfortunately, it shot off my fork after only a few bites, landed in my plate and skated across the table, so I laughed about it and gave it up for lost. Seconds later, a waiter rushed to the table with another.
When it came time to settle the bill the waiter told me I owed 11,000 VND. Shocked, I asked how he came up with the total and he itemized the bill with 1,000 for each wedge. This was news to me, I said. Being a guest in someone else’s country usually acts as a calming influence, but this really chapped my hide.
“You told this man they were free. Are they a different price for each person?” I shot back, archly.
I split the difference and paid 10,000 VND, walking away muttering. I didn’t begrudge the restaurant the money: it was only 10 cents. It was the Mickey Mouse practice that bothered me. If you insist on charging me extra for something that should be included in the meal write it on the menu or say so first, don’t bring me something without my asking, then charge. At least they didn’t charge me for silverware usage or a chair rental fee.
The tour also featured a side trip to the Caodai Temple between Saigon and Cu Chi. The stop was almost enough to keep me from booking a seat on the tour because temples don’t do it for me. I feel the same way about synagogues and churches. After spending months wandering through European cities just filled with cathedrals, Mark Twain wrote they all pretty much look the same after a while, and I had to agree. So, whenever I visited a new country in Southeast Asia my attitude was, “Sure, I’ll see a temple while I’m here, but it better be a good one because it’s the only one I’ll visit.”
The Caodai Temple Great Temple was a good example. Although I don’t want to sound chauvinistic, the building looked like the result of a head-on collision involving a pagoda and a carnival hall of mirrors. The structure, long as a city block, was painted bright yellow bordered by a darker yellow and had what appeared to be typical markings (I’m not sure, though, I can’t read the language the words were written in). In addition to the usual multi-level slanted roofs of a pagoda the building had French colonial architecture thrown in for good measure. A series of 10 highly ornate columns wrapped by flower-clad dragons ran the length of both sides of the structure’s great hall. To this day, it not only defies my ability to describe, but also still puzzles me how anybody can pray in the building without getting distracted. I mean, all it takes is the sight of an attractive woman walking into a synagogue during high holiday services to throw me off my game, and that’s in a really dull building that I’ve seen numerous times before. I’d hate to think of how hard it would be to concentrate in such a visually loud place.
The prayer service was interesting enough, but nowhere near as interesting as the scene on the main street when we arrived. As is typical, once we left our bus we were beset upon by hawkers who wanted to sell us cookies, fruit, cigarettes or soft drinks. No big deal there, but we were all shocked to see a woman who had been standing on the opposite street corner charge the group at full speed with the fury of a militant fundamentalist storming an embassy compound with a car bomb, only she didn’t have a car. It happened so quickly she was in our midst before we could get out of the way. Before we knew what was happening, she began wailing on and verbally abusing a hawkers in a way that reminded me of a battle between shoeshine boys for a prime corner in a big city. Apparently, our hawker had encroached on her territory.
Who says the Vietnamese don’t understand capitalism?
Peace on earth, goodwill towards men. As long as you don’t stand on my street corner.
The moment I arrived at Guest House 72, the family-owned guesthouse where I spent my first week, I noticed an attractive young woman sitting on a motorbike out front. Her room was only a floor above mine in a small building, but we didn’t talk until I saw her in a restaurant a few days later. A native of Belgium, Celine was tall, thin, young and exotic. Sadly, at 19, she was too young for me. But we hit it off, so on the night before my Cu Chi trip (which sounds like an illicit afternoon spent with a ticklish massage parlor girl), we both decided to travel to the Mekong Delta together later in the week. We had both been going solo for a while and thought it would be nice to have someone to watch the other’s back for a bit. We then went to a bar where she ended up shooting pool with the owner, a sleazy Englishman who leered at her and let his hands roam her body without resistance. I could have cared less until a woman warned me to watch out because things had a way of turning ugly fast when the owner was around. Celine dismissed the warnings saying she could handle it.
I’m not a parent, but I have learned that when 19 year-olds say “it’s under control” and “I can handle it,” it isn’t and they can’t. By 3 a.m., even she saw conditions were headed south and asked me to think up a creative excuse to explain why she had to beat a hasty retreat. She was not impressed with the story I dreamed up involving Prozac, but what do you expect on short notice? It wasn’t my neck on the line and she hadn’t listened to me earlier. Fortunately, he got a phone call and we slipped out when he wasn’t looking.
This did not bode well for our trip to the Delta, but it was too late to back out. Fortunately, we weren’t going alone. We had bought tickets on a group tour offered by Kim Cafe, a gathering point for backpackers and budget travelers. An advantage of such trips is that they’re great refuges for traveling companions who aren’t speaking. There are always lots of people to meet and plenty of things to do besides talking to your partner. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t expecting things to go bad, but Celine’s handling of a dicey situation showed me she was a high-maintenance traveler requiring constant attention.
Of course, the disadvantage of group tours is their focus on doing lots of things and making lots of stops along the way. This one was no exception. The stops included a tour of a mat-making business, a family-owned noodle-making company, a tofu factory, and a market before we ever got anywhere near the Delta. In fact, I can’t recall spending more than an hour or two on the river before we got to Can Tho, our stopping place for the night.
Another disadvantage of package tours is that the guides determine where the group eats. It makes sense because the guide visits several times a month and knows the place better than tourists do. Sadly, many guides take kickbacks from restaurants in return for their business. I don’t know if our guide was on the take, but if so, he raised the scam to a whole new level by saying he was taking us to the best fish restaurant in town and convinced everyone that the most expensive dish on the menu was the best in the place. Instead, it was greasy, overcooked and over-priced. It was so bad that Celine and I sought refuge and a meal at a restaurant across from the hotel.
As we waited for our meal the owner insisted we promise to eat breakfast at his restaurant, not next door. I refused, but finally said I’d consider it just to get him off my back.
I thought a trip to the Mekong Delta would ease nerves jangled from spending three of the last four weeks in some of the world’s loudest, dirtiest cities. I was wrong. Can Tho was smaller than Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok, but it was just as bad. In addition, our hotel room faced the street and we heard traffic noises, insomniac roosters and a guy who had just discovered a drum kit in his basement at 1 a.m. and was competing for the “Loudest On the Block” award. Since we had to get up at 6 a.m. just to see two floating markets before the end of the day, I was not amused. Add to this mix the fact that Celine had already loudly begun not talking to me for no apparent reason and you had the start of a perfect day with the perfect travel companion.
I was even crankier at 6 when I opened the door and heard someone on the ground floor jockeying for my attention. It was the owner of the restaurant standing in the street waving up at me, yelling, “Don’t forget, you promised.”
Normally, the ridiculousness of the situation would have made me laugh, but my sleeplessness, an unsettled stomach, a headache, and what felt like the start of a low grade fever were enough to put a Vulcan Death Grip on my sense of humor.
At Celine’s insistence, we went to the cafe we’d visited the night before, but even this was a problem because she wanted Milo (chocolate milk) without ice. (She wasn’t being finicky, though. Drinking tap water in most Southeast Asian countries–except for Singapore–is iffy at best. As LP points out, much of the ice in restaurants comes from factories that must meet some minimal health standards. Unfortunately, the route the ice takes is problematic. There are no bags of ice here. Instead, large slabs of ice are typically put in a filthy sack and strapped to the back of a bike or strapped to the back of a shirtless delivery man. The request may have been sensible, but it seemed silly because the menu listed it as “Iced Milo.” Although the owners told her it was possible to get the drink without ice they repeatedly emphasized that the menu called it “Iced Milo.” The misunderstanding blossomed into a full-blown argument and I got up and walked to a table at the restaurant next door. This, of course, so angered the original owner that he stood at the imaginary line between the eateries and yelled in at me.
How do I manage to find these high maintenance women?
I was so caught up in feeling miserable from the night before and so frustrated from dealing with a difficult travel companion that I almost didn’t notice my surroundings. The snake market snapped me back to attention.
I know I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the Snake Market. After all, it was on the itinerary when I purchased the ticket. Still, reading about something so bizarre and experiencing it is as different as sitting in an armchair reading a travel book is from getting a passport and going overseas.
What made the experience so surreal was that all of the shoppers acted as if this market were the most normal thing in the world. They were right, of course. In this part of the world a Snake Market is normal. To be perfectly honest, it looked like any other Southeast Asian market complete with merchants hawking wares from booths about the same size as those found at flea markets throughout the U.S. The big difference is many of these booths didn’t have antiques, Beanie Babies or comic books. Instead, they were selling snakes in cages, snakes in jars of tea, snakes in jars of wine and some even displayed freshly skinned snake coiled in the same haphazard manner that a home owner might have left a hose if the phone had begun ringing and she had to drop the hose quickly so she could answer an important call.
Most hawkers do not display the meat of skinned snakes, however, preferring instead to seal the whole corpse, skin and all, into jars filled with tea and wine like just so many jams, jellies or preserves. Our guide said the drinks had medicinal value, but never said what illnesses they could treat.
As we stared at a 14 foot-long skinned snake, a group member took flatbread out of her bag and offered it around. Having heard so many stories of people being drugged on the road by short-term acquaintances, I was hesitant to accept food from anybody I didn’t know, even a fellow traveler. Celine quickly accepted the bread and passed it around to the rest of our 12-person group. As I finally took an infinitesimal piece of bread, I realized I couldn’t recall having met this woman before. Sheer math should have been enough to indicate a problem, but it took the booth owner’s yelling and screaming at the guide to figure it out. Apparently, she wasn’t a tourist at all, she was a pickpocket working the crowd and the snake seller had just recognized her. By the time the guide could translate her message into English, our would-be assailant was long gone, but not before she had impressed me with her ability to blend by adopting the not-so-protective coloring of a tourist. She was wearing the standard-issue shorts and t-shirts of backpackers everywhere, was carrying a small white Vietnam Airlines souvenir bag slung over her shoulder and had the same half-inquisitive, half-empty facial expression of tourists the world over.
It was such a brilliant disguise that it was only in retrospect that I realized she looked Vietnamese.
I’d like to think of myself as being smart enough to outwit a garden-variety pickpocket, but the truth was we were lucky. Days before, a traveler on the same tour lost several hundred dollars and didn’t discover the theft until he got back.
Once we survived that particular trauma we were on our way to the floating market, which is exactly what it sounds like: a market on the water. Instead of being a floating building filled with booths, it is a gathering place where the booths are boats. As we cruised into the thick of the market, I saw a small boat with a deck laden with bok choy. Others were filled with all manner of merchandise ranging from vegetables to household goods.
There wasn’t room enough on our boat for Celine and I to sit together, but that didn’t bother us. She sat toward the front of the boat with a few guys she had been hanging out with and I sat two rows behind her on the port side feeling so miserable from a fever and the humid, 90 degree heat I was just thankful to not have to talk to anybody. It did not help matters any when the tour boat pulled up alongside a merchant’s boat, bringing my section even with its speaker. All the other passengers howled when the neighboring craft let loose with a blast of its horn, but not me. Not only did I have difficulty hearing for 10 minutes, it also gave me the type of Excedrin headache not mentioned in the pain reliever’s ads.
I was in such misery I just wanted to go to sleep and not get back up again.
Looking back on it, I now realize that the experience helped me understand an old Pepto-Bismol commercial. In the ad, a husband and wife standing under an umbrella during a downpour in a Mexican plaza stare at the camera with their best “a street-vendor-just-sold-me-a-cat-meat-burrito-and-I-enjoyed-it-immensely-until-somebody-just-told-me-what-was-in-it” look and say the immortal words: “Diarrhea. It’s not nice in weather like this.” (In his stand up comedy act, Jay Leno used to reply, “Does this mean if you get up one day and the sun is shining and the birds are singing you should roll down your window and yell, ‘Hey, what a great day for diarrhea?”) It’s never great to be sick, it’s just that there are some places and conditions which make being under the weather exponentially less festive than staying at home and riding it out. On the Saigon River in the Mekong Delta crowded into a small boat with 12 other people during a humid 100 plus degree day with no refuge from the sun is exactly one of those places.
I may have been ill, but I was aware enough of my to see how beautiful the Delta is. There’s much squalor, but it’s of a likeable sort. On the way to the market the boat passed through the river’s equivalent of a residential neighborhood with houses that were little more than shacks half on land, half on stilts over the water. Although this portion of the ride was relatively short, the boat’s proximity to shore gave us some unexpected glimpses of family life in the delta: young children taking baths in the river, teenage girls washing dinner dishes and old men sitting under roof eaves seeking relief from an already blazing sun long before noon.
I’m still not sure if it was the result of a fever-addled brain or not, but the mangroves and the palm trees reminded me of the Everglades. Although I’ve never really liked Florida much and I spent little time in the swampy national park about two hours south of my hometown, I couldn’t help thinking the only major differences between here and Florida were the number of people who lived here, the width of the river and the mode of transportation we were using. Back home, I would have been riding in a swamp boat (a flat bottomed boat with a big-ass fan attached to the back so that it can maneuver through the swamp in as little as an inch of water).
We were supposed to get back into Ho Chi Minh City around 3 p.m. but we didn’t even reach its outskirts until around 5 p.m. and then we were stuck in traffic for another two hours.
By the time the bus stopped, I just wanted to get back to Guest House 72, get a thermometer, check my temperature, shower and sleep. Celine had other ideas. She wanted to join the other people on the bus in looking for a cheaper place to stay. I don’t know why, but she wanted me to join them and I agreed. I was so cranky that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time standing around while everyone figured out where they were going, though, and I eventually pitched a fit because it was taking too long to decide. Celine wasn’t happy, but she was getting impatient, too, so we decided not to wait.
First, we ended up at a cheap guesthouse where the owner had a $5 room with a fan and a $6 room with an air conditioner. I had been generous most of the time we were in the delta, giving Celine the best seat and the best view whenever we had to choose, but I didn’t want to be nice this time. If I was going to be stuck in bed sleeping off illness in the middle of the hottest, noisiest, most polluted city on the planet, then air conditioning was the only way to preserve my extremely frayed sanity. When I explained all this as nicely as I could and Celine still wouldn’t budge, I walked out. The manager ran after me, asked what the problem was and took me to another guesthouse where there were two air-conditioned rooms for a few bucks more. I took one and was shocked to hear Celine say she would take the other because I didn’t even know she had followed us.
Once we were settled in she asked if I was ready to get the luggage we’d left at GH 72. Initially, I said no but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made so I went and got my stuff. When she went to the guest house and saw me, she had a fit saying she couldn’t trust me because I had avoided her all day, then I had lied to her and had been angry with her the entire trip. I wasn’t angry, I was sick and I’m not real fun to be around when I’m ill, I explained. She accepted this explanation, but I didn’t care because I just wanted to take my temperature, make sure I didn’t have heat stroke, shower and sleep.
Despite my explanation, she wanted me to promise I would join her and go drinking after my shower. Apparently, she must have gone to the “starve-a-cold, drown-a-fever” school. I said I’d do my best but not to count on my showing up.
The last thing I had to do was buy a thermometer, no easy task. The pharmacy clerk didn’t understand what I wanted and my phrasebook didn’t have the word for thermometer so I had to draw one. The clerk took the picture into the stock room and came back with an ear syringe. When she finally found what I needed, I was so happy, I paid without checking to make sure it wasn’t a rectal thermometer. Fortunately, it wasn’t. I hurried back to my room, unwrapped the thermometer, stuck it in my mouth and waited.
After 2 minutes, I pulled it out and learned my temperature was 37 degrees. Unfortunately, the reading was in Celsius and I didn’t know the Fahrenheit equivalent.