Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sài Gòn Lights

                      Somehow the lights of Sài Gon are different from those of other cities from the air. They are Sài Gòn and I feel the difference when I see them as the KAL 747 descends. I experience an overpowering feeling that I am coming home. I have only been there once since the war and only for a month but I am coming home. Lilith knows not to talk to me until after we are on the ground. Lilith is my daughter who elected to come with me this time.     
 In the airport customs is less of a hassle than it was four years ago when it was pretty perfunctory. You run your bags through an x-ray machine that may not even be turned on and the uniformed attendants are telling you to pick up your stuff and get out of the way.  Thông and Ly are waiting for us on the street and Thông grabs a taxi as soon as he sees us. The taxis have meters now, no negotiation about the price of the ride. There is still the problem of finding an address in a city that is laid out pretty randomly. The driver has to stop and ask directions a couple of times but the $5.20 fare is not inordinate.
The hotel that Thông had arranged for is not the one I had expected to stay in. An internet acquaintance who lives in Sài Gòn had arranged ahead of time for us to stay in a small inn owned by a friend of her family but I was not of a mind to reject Thông's choice because the proprietor there was a friend of his family. So we compromised, one night in that one then 2 nights in Thiên Trang's choice. Hers was a more laid back and better appointed establishment.

                       I called Thiên Trang and left a message because she is a very busy young    lady. She works full time and tutors English and runs some magnificent charity work.  She called back and we went to dinner in a semi-open air restaurant where the food, being Vietnamese, was excellent, and being a good restaurant, was better than excellent. Lilith and I had been looking forward to meeting this dynamo ever since we actually set to planning the trip. She is very much what I expected and Viẹt Nam grows better and faster because of her and others like her that provide tremendous energy to the economy and the society.  Her father is an ex-military officer who could have stood in for Cary Grant in old war movies. 

 Sài Gòn is busier now than four years ago. There is ever more building and  there are many streets torn up as the water system is being repaired/replaced and the work seems to be going forward with determination and even some efficiency. There are no workmen tasked with holding up shovels or guarding coffee cups. There are ambulances that go by with sirens and lights. I count six of them in a couple of days. I saw none four years ago.
 Mornings I am up before dawn and waiting for the hotelier to come down and unlock the doors so that I can go out.  Lilith sleeps a little later but is out by six. We get coffee at a momentary café of tiny molded plastic tables and chairs in the mouth of a 2 meter wide side street. There are badminton games in progress on the wide sidewalk across from us. As the air heats up the nets come down from the poles and it is all packed away until the next morning. I buy a newspaper from a lady on a bicycle and work at reading for a few minutes. The two gentlemen at the other table are scoffing quietly at the foreigner who pretends to read Vietnamese so I smile and say, in tiếng Việt, that I am only looking at the pictures and will read when I have learned some Vietnamese. That gets a laugh and they want to talk now so I answer questions about where I come from and why I am here and when was I here in the war. They never ask what I did in the war. For them, unlike for many Americans and Việt Kiếu, it is over long ago. There are no animosities, no bitterness. It is Fate that things happened as they did and there is no responsibility to nurture the evil that has passed away.  It is easy to do these impromptu conversations with my limited command of the language because it is always the same series of question-and-response. I have it all memorized.
 Lilith is fascinated by the open front shops and the seeming combination of eagle-eyes and trust. We do not buy anything in Sài Gòn, we just walk the streets and eat in whatever café we are passing when the desire for food arises.    
 The owner of the second hotel was a French teacher before 1975 and was unable to find a position after that. When the hard times were ended by the realization that this people works efficiently and energetically when left to its own devices, he was able to promote a sizable loan from relatives in the US and added his own savings to purchase and renovate the hotel. He paid it all back in a couple of years. I would recommend the Mini Hotel to anyone who wants to visit Việt Nam rather than just go there to visit a generic Resort and stay in Grand Hotels insulated from everything but other foreigners. With enough money one can come to Việt Nam for two weeks and live in luxury without hearing a word of Vietnamese or seeing a xich-lô. I try not to be disdainful of such folks. They do leave a lot of money in an economy that needs it and can use it wonderfully well.
Lilith has experienced her first ride on a motorcycle and it is in the scariest looking traffic on earth. But the speeds are low and every move is signaled and traffic keeps rolling. The traffic in the streets of Sài Gòn moves more people safely and at a faster rate than in any other large city on earth.  There are no traffic jams. A hundred motorbikes move more people here than a hundred and fifty cars do in DC.
 Lilith learned to cross the street by watching others do it and doing likewise. My first attempt at crossing a street when I was here before was with some trepidation until I recited to myself the rules and stepped off the curb and miraculously the sea of motorbikes and xe đạp  parted around me. Lilith showed no tension at all. She saw that many other people did it and there were no bodies on the pavement so it must be okay.       

    Thông has got us- Lilith, Thông, and me- tickets on the hard seat train to Nha Trang. I could get the soft seat train for only a little more but the conversation is better on the hard seats

Back to Khánh Hòa

                                                       Vê quê 2007

        Well, not really v quê. I feel as if it is. It is probably the
last time I can go. I am old enough that I should probably not stray far from American Medicine.  My plane leaves in two weeks. I
will meet con gáy út (my youngest daughter) in Atlanta and we
will proceed from there to Incheon and thence to Sài Gòn. Nguyệt's father and sister will meet us at Tân Sơn Nhứt and we will hang around the city for a couple of days then go, probably by train, to Nha Trang. I Think I would prefer to ride the bus- I love the long distance buses in Việt Nam- but I am not sure con gáy is up to the pit stops. She will adapt once we are there and I will send her  with Nguyệt to do some sight-seeing around the country. 
         Nguyệt is the reason, or rather the excuse, for me to go back again. She is my protegé in Cam Đức. I met her there in 2003 the first day I was in the village. One of the sisters in the small convent/school I visited ran across the street to Nguyt's family's house to get her because she could nói tiếng như Ông Mỹ (speak like the American) and was the only person in the village who could. Nguyt was 14 and very impressive. She spoke odd but very understandable English that she had taught herself. All students are required to study English but in the smaller places the English teachers do not themselves know the language so the children learn to say "Hello meeta Meycan! How a you!" and not much more. In our conversation over the next three weeks whatever we talked about, Nguyệt wanted to know how many, what are the dimensions and what is the capacity and how fast, etc. I realized that she had the brain of an engineer.
       Near when it was time for me to go down to Sài Gòn to get on the plane to go back to Florida, I asked her how she liked school and what did she want to do with her education. She told me that she had just quit school that year because she mới lên 14 tuổi (reached age 14) and it was time to go to work to help out her family. I was stunned but realized, of course! this is not Florida. Her father makes his living di theo con bò- he would be called a sharecropper in Mississippi. It is a financial drain to keep children in school up even to 8th grade. I asked her if she would stay in school if it were possible. She said that would be a Heavenly gift because there is so much to learn.
 I made a deal with Ông Thông to send money to pay for Nguyệt's school fees and enough more to cover the value of her services to the family or income she might earn working. We went to market and bought a uniform to replace the one she had grown out of and we bought notebooks and supplies for a year.
    Then Nguyệt said she would need to buy school lunches. So we went to the school and, finding the office open, went in and I paid for a year's school lunches, about twenty dollars.
     Nguyệt has sent me her test completion certificates and scholastic awards these last three and a half years and I have them on my wall. She has received nothing but the best marks and has taken extra classes at night after school and through the summers. She starts at the University in Sài Gòn in the fall in the Math Department. I expect that in a few years she will take her place with others, like Thiên Trang, to xây Việt Nam mới- build a new Việt Nam.

                     SẮP ĐI

                           May, 2007


                       Bäy gi© sáng mai Ông MÏ cùng v§'i con út lên máy bay b¡t ÇÀu vŠ qua ViŒt Nam. Tôi rÃt cäm Ön Chúa và MË Maria vì tôi ÇÜ®c vŠ núi ÇÃt cách NÜóc Trời ít thôi.


From the French


Nguyt gi th này cho tôi b¢ng email. M¶t linh møc Çã nhÆn ÇÜ®c thÜ áy mà không dÎch ÇÜ®c. ChÌ có hai SÖ Công Giáo ª Cam ñÙc bi‰t dÎch tiéng Pháp nhÜng con m¡t không t§t n»a.  Tôi không g¥p låi ti‰ng Pháp trong hÖn ba mÜÖi læm næm thì làm ngåc nhiên mình mà dÎch thÜ ÇÜ®c.

                            GUILTAT, Jacqueline
15 ñÜ©ng ñonzy
58200    (??)

0386 26 7372 (sÓ ÇiŒn thoåi?)
Joseph NguyÍn thân ái,

           Tôi vui nhÆn ÇÜ®c s¿ g†i ÇiŒn thoåi cûa ông.  Ch£ng may mà tôi không nghe thÃy tÓt thì tôi phäi xin ông nói låi tên cûa ông nhiŠu lÀn. Xin l‡i ông nhiŠu.
            ( ?sÙc khoÈ??) cûa Bi Chai ta nhÆn ÇÜ®c chi phi‰u cho trÜ©ng h†c cûa ngÜ©i tôn giáo Ç‹ ÇÜ®c nÜóc rÈ hÖn. Tôi vui l¡m.
           Vì th‰ tôi nghï r¢ng tên cûa em trai cûa tôi ARTHUR  9 tu°i. Tôi Çã gªi nܧc cho nh»ng em bé vì em trai tôi cũng làm tôi rÃt vui.
           Joseph thân m‰n. Tôi không bi‰t ÇÎa chÌ cûa ông. Vì th‰ tôi sang gi thư vŠ nhà cûa nh»ng ngÜ©i tôn giáo.
                          Tôi gªi thÜ cÛng có trí nh§ rÃt ÇÜc s¿ yêu m‰n. Tôi cÛng gªi hôn cho ông cùng cä gia Çình.
CÛng bÙc änh cûa con trai nhÕ - ARTHUR

15 Donzy Street
52800   (??)

0386 26 7372 (telephone number?)
Dear Joseph Nguyen
         I was overjoyed to receive your telephone call, Unfortunately I cannot hear well
So I beg your pardon many times over, Please forgive me.
         Because of Bi Chai’s (?health?) you have received a check for his religious school
For the water (medicine?) to be able to be cheaper. I am very happy.
         Because of that I ponder the name of my young son ARTHUR 9 years old. I sent
Water (medicine?) for the children because my son also makes me very happy  .
         Good St. Joseph! I don’t know the your address,  Thus I send the latter to the Parish office.
                         I send the letter with loving memories. I also send a kissfor the whole family.
Also pictures of my little son ARTHUR   Jacqueline Guiltat

Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Good Man

                                            August 2003

Trần Văn Rừng was a shrimp farmer, relatively prosperous in a very poor town. I met him in the coffee garden that his daughters maintain on the property beside his house. While I was in Cam Đức I walked every day and every day I stopped for coffee in Cafe Ngọc My. Ông Rừng was there when I came in the early morning or in the evening and he liked to talk to the foreigner for a few minutes. On days when he didn't go to the shrimp pens he would insist that I accompany him to one of the little eateries in Cam ̣̣Đức or in adjacent Thôn Tân Thành, a different place with a different specialty each time. In a poor town the menu is usually a sign out front with one thing on it and you go to different places for different meals.

 One evening Ông Rừng asked me to go with him the next morning to his son's wedding and to bring my camera. There was a man being paid to take pictures but he would only take a few of the wedding couple and immediate family. Ông Rừng saw a chance to get pictures of many relatives that he would not see again for a long time. Some were coming from Phan Thiết and Vũng Tàu and some from Đà Nãng and Rừng had no more children for weddings.

Next morning I arrived with camera ready to go and Rừng was waiting for me with his helmet on and he cranked up the ancient Honda 90 as soon as I walked in. He was over eighty years old and still rode it, the same Honda for 16 years. I got on the back and we headed out of town toward Nha Trang. We rode on Highway 1 for a few kilometers then turned off on a paved lane perhaps a meter and a half wide and joined a stream of motorbikes heading toward the beach. We turned from that street onto a dirt one lane that became a path and wound through the trees until we came to a small house beside an inlet
under the trees beside what at home in Florida would be a bayou.

The ceremony itself was in the house. The front of it was open and perhaps 200 relatives and friends gathered around. There was a large canopy erected with tables and chairs and lots of cooking going on over fires. Everyone milled about greeting each other and catching up on the family news for an hour or so then all got quiet and the crowd divided on either side of the path that led from the woods to the house. The bride's party had arrived walking single file on the path with parasols. The bride was escorted into the house and the people resumed their socializing. Then the groom's party arrived the same way.

The ceremony was Buddhist and I do not really understand what went on but it was impressive and beautiful with many rings placed on the bride's gloved hands.

The reception followed immediately as everyone crowded around the tables under the canopy.

The food was exquisite, as it tends to be in Việt Nam and the beer was aggressively served. I found myself putting out my glass for ice every time the boy with the bucket came around so there would be less room for beer and tried to drink very slowly. I got very drunk anyway. It didn't take much. I had not not had more than a glass at a time  in many years.

When it came time to leave neither I nor Ông Rừng could stand easily and it was difficult to get to the place where the motorbike was parked. Ông Rừng truly was in no condition to drive. I worried a bit about how we were going to get back. We were barely able to get in position on the seat and I feared for a moment but then thought that well, he was past 80 and had been driving motorbikes for more than half a century. We would probably survive and it was too far to walk, even if I could walk.

It took several attempts to get the motor going because it was hard to find the crank. Rừng finally got his foot in the right position and poked down. The engine started and we pushed off. Once the bike was moving the old man was in proper control and it stayed firmly on the path without deviating. When we came to the highway I had a moment of quiet panic because of the trucks and we missed one by a centimeter or two, but he missed it and drove straight and smoothly back to the Café. When we arrived I was sober again but Rừng almost fell down getting off and had to be helped to a chair.

Fall 2004

I had kept in touch with my friends in Cam Đức by email, letter, and telephone. In
October I got an email from Trang, Rừng's youngest daughter saying that her father was

in difficulty because storms had wrecked his shrimp pens two years in a row. He had
borrowed money to rebuild in the spring and was getting up and running when a second
storm tore up his business again. He could not repay the last of the loan. He had
borrowed almost $3000 which is an enormous sum in Việt Nam and had paid it down to
a little over $200 but was out of options. No one had asked me for money before. I sent
the money. Shortly, Trang wrote that the debt had been repaid and her father was back
in business without someone waiting to confiscate the production- valuing it at a tiny
percentage of the market. In time my money was repaid. I had not expected that.

Fall 2005

Trang wrote that her father was ailing and that the family had to take care of him, her brothers had taken over running the shrimp farm. She never was able to communicate just what the malady was but I suspected a stroke. Trang did not think he would get any better.

May 2007

My first morning back in Cam Đức I walked the kilometer and a half to Cafe Ngoc My. I almost missed it because the sign was different and the front gate redone. But I found it and walked into the garden. I saw Trang and Điểm and Rừng's wife and there was Ông Rừng seated at the round table at the other end of the courtyard by the coffee counter. I walked straight over to him and noticed that he was propped and his face was slack. I took his hand as if in a handshake and greeted him as an old friend. I kept it up, reverting to English when I couldn't think of something to say, but I kept talking. I talked about going to the wedding and about the duck eggs he had at the farewell meal he had put on for me four years before. He squeezed my hand slightly and smiled with one side of his face, and he said three words, just three and one at a time. Sương, his wife grinned and said he had said no words at all since Tết Trung Thu the previous fall, and he had not smiled for a long time. He either remembered the American or he knew that he knew me without knowing who I am. I went to the café almost every morning while I was there. Some days he was inert and glaze-eyed. Some days he responded and his eyes were clear. He didn't speak again but he smiled and I could feel him squeeze my hand .

September 2, 2007

Trang's email was all in CAPS as it is when she is particularly distressed. Ba (Dad) is dead. She had tried to call me but the system wasn't working well and she didn't get through.
I wrote a consolation note as best I could. I am not so good at that sort of thing normally but I have got to know her pretty well now and knew what I was supposed to write. Her chi-̣ older sister- wrote me back and said it helped a lot. I was Chú (uncle) Mỹ again instead of Ông (mister).

I sent flowers.
First I tried a well-known international flower company that promises to deliver to Lower
Slobbovia or anywhere else. After a dozen email and telephone exchanges with them I felt as
if I were standing in lines in a government office and gave it up. At 8 AM my time-8 PM in
Cam Đức- I found a website for a florist in Nha Trang, a few kilometers up the road from
Cam Đức and asked for chrysanthemums to be delivered As Soon As Possible.

I was roused at a minute before eleven by the telephone and while up I checked email. There was a delivery confirmation on the flowers. That evening when I rose for the "day" there was another all caps email from Trang saying the flowers had been delivered at ten-thirty the night before, less than three hours after my call. That is some good ASAP

Rừng had lived a long life, most of it through war and the starving years after the war. He did his part in the building of a new, rapidly modernizing, Việt Nam. He has left a fine family and sons who will continue to build on the shrimp farms he left. Senior son Minh Trang has been learning about marketing. You may well see their brand in the Publix one day not too far off.

I am glad I knew him.