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Letter #5: March 24, 2002
by Beth Buffam

Smiles for everyone!

Dear Friends,

Hello from Sai Gon, aka Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh. This city is the commercial heartbeat of Viet Nam, and home to most Vietnamese people that I know. It's big, noisy!, sweaty, modern, primitive, beautiful, ugly... but never dull.

'Tis certainly not the city in which to engage in quiet introspection! As I TRIED to read The Tale of Kieu -- an irritating Click click click click click click CLICK click sounded loud outside my window. I saw it was a little boy hitting a metal tube, and thought he just had nothing better to do with his time, or maybe it was an old Vietnamese marching beat that kept one's blood going. In addition, a lady next door was having the loudest fight with her significant other that I have ever heard. It went on and on, and this lady was kowtowing to no one! Well, I did find out 1) the noise made by the boy is kinda like the icecream truck -- he wants to let people know that he has cooked noodles for sale, and 2) some one was arrested last night for having cocaine, and who knows, perhaps the lady was screaming over that, and anyway, I mercifully haven't heard from her recently! This info was given to me by a young American at my hotel who's writing for the Saigon Times, has been in a few Asian countries, and enjoys the honesty and forthrightness of the Vietnamese culture more than any other.

Slowly but surely, the byways, streets, wards and districts of this city are becoming familiar.

Cultural skills learned include:
- ability to litter without guilt
- ability to walk across Duong Tran Hung Dao without breaking out in a cold sweat (a hot sweat maybe, but not a cold sweat) WITH the green light.
- I'm an old hand (now) at making phone calls at the buu dien (post office), going to the Mien Tay bus station in a little 3-wheeled vehicle called a xe lam (from lambretta), even buying long distance bus tickets.

Skills still to be learned:
- what really should one pay a xe honda or cyclo driver?
- using the local bus system
- crossing streets that don't have lights

One of the most unexpected pleasures of the past week was a sort of a "date" :) A sweet young man with a student-like satchel over his shoulder (those of you who know a Tale of Kieu will recall a description of Kim like that) whom I met on a crowded bus trip to Ben Tre, said he would show me around the city when we got back. And one evening, he took me to his high-school hangout for a supper of bun bo hue (spicy beef soup) and yaourt (sweet yoghurt and ice). Then drove me a bit around the city, including to a book supermarket, gave me an explanation of some of the big red and yellow signs (Communist inspirational slogans). Then parked his motorbike and we walked around Park 23/9 (yes, that's its name) and enjoyed the warm Saigon evening, children flying planes, and young people playing ca dau (a game of kicking a badminton shuttlecock from behind your back). It's been a while since this almost 60-year old has had such a sweet evening!

The first part of this week I took it easy, walked around, tried unsuccessfully to send emails, enjoyed the luxury of reading in my room, started Vietnamese lessons with a great couple (he's a doctor), and fought with the honda om (hug on a honda) drivers about money.

And then, I started to visit the people that are one of the main reasons I'm here.

First, a young Buddhist monk named Chuc Phu, nephew of my friend Bong. The highlight of my visit with him was to use his fast computer, while he smoked outside (so much for stereotypes, huh?) And, let me not forget to mention, the marvelous an chay (vegetarian) food. Fortunately not eaten in silence, but with lots of laughter and semi-serious discussion with him and his fellow monk (I'm trying to find out what Hoa Hao Buddhists believe, but still don't quite get it.)

Then, the next day I was headed for a village 20 or 30 miles (I think; I'm not good at kilometer conversion) to the west of Sai Gon in Long An province. Here lived the mother of a friend, Hanh. Hanh and her husband Doan have 4 beautiful children whom they have raised while the young couple held down 3 or 4 jobs between them. And Hanh's mother has never seen these children. I don't know why I want to see people's parents so much; maybe it's because so few people I know now have ever met my own parents, and I feel that's a great loss. So I wanted to meet Hanh's mother, and tell her what beautiful grandchildren she had.

But to get there was complicated. I wanted to get to Long An province, Huyen (?) Duc Hoa, Village Tan My. I took my handy xe lam to the Mien Tay bus station (and always have good conversations on the way). But turns out, no bus left from there to Long An. So I made it to the Cho Lon bus station, where no bus left for Duc Hoa that day, but one left for Duc Hue and you could get off at Duc Hoa, then rent a honda to Xa Tan My. So several hours later (during which time I was lucky enough to get my choice of seats, in the front) the bus left. All the wonderful sights and sounds of travel in Vietnam -- bicycles hoisted onto and off of the roof, live chickens got put there too, people exiting out of the window (which was much faster than moving the dozens of people sitting in the path to the door). And almost always I run into very sweet helpful friendly people. (Allah be praised, I have yet to run into those who want to practice their English on me, but I know that's coming...) Turns out I could stay on the bus up to Tan My.

This area seemed to have more than its share of large red banners, sporting, I'm sure, inspirational Communist slogans. Statues of heroic youth, cemetaries.

Then I got off, and the phone # didn't get anyone. But a showing of my photo album did immediately. Hanh's mother was a short little lady who looked just like Hanh. She insisted on carrying my backpack... In a small simple literally "tarpaper" home, I saw the way Hanh -- the mother of Ja Linh who is at the top of her Grade 1 class -- grew up.

I think on that note, I'll give my readers a break. We went on to visit Chu 8 -- Uncle 8, who raised Doan, the Amerasian, when he ran away from home. But Doan's story can wait for next week, when I visited his mother also.

Wishing you all happiness -- congratulations to Matt and Darlene on their new arrival!


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