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Saigon
Letter #6: March 31, 2002
by Beth Buffam

twins
Two heads are better than one.

Dear Friends,

Today is Easter Sunday -- the end of a week scuttling around by motorbike visiting relatives in the Sai Gon area of my friends in the US. I've visited the very rich and very poor, the bad and the unbelievably sweet. In the process, the rhythms, the music, the quans (districts) and streets and byways of this energetic city are becoming familiar. This is an easy city to be a stranger in ... people in general don't gawk, children smile and wave at you from motorbikes, I walk home in the almost dark feeling basically safe, children are treated so gently that you hardly ever hear them crying, there is almost always helpfulness and genuine friendliness (along with, I'm sure, the desire to be helpful and get paid for it!) And there is an intensity and energy that is catching...

An Irish woman I talked with tonight described the Vietnamese she saw along the Mekong as: full of grit, disciplined, always working, hospitable, the home always open to all for a story, a song, a meal. She said it reminded her of Ireland when she was a kid. And I have found the same thing.

(By the way, you should be aware that this email, along with videos taken in Vietnam, and emails, web sites, etc. is subject to being evaluated for political correctness. I'm trying to use words that will not be found by their search engines.)

I finished my last email visiting Hanh's mother in the lush Long An area west of Sai Gon. This area is still part of the Mekong and has green fields of rice and banana tree-lined roads. Hanh's husband Doan is an Amerasian, who was raised by "Uncle 5". I visited Uncle 5's family also. As I understand it, Doan ran away from his home at the age of 9 when he heard his mother's boyfriend say he was going to kill him. Then apparently, someone kidnapped him, and sold him to "Uncle 5" -- either because "Americans" were worth something, or basically as a slave who could care for the animals. But Doan survived, and Uncle 5 treated him well, and he married the "girl next door", Hanh, and came to the US with her, where they have 4 beautiful children.

But he had lost touch with his mother. Until he advertised on Vietnam television -- and she replied! He hasn't seen his mother for 25 years, and I was going to meet her as a sort of substitute Doan.

I met Doan's mother on Tuesday in Sai Gon. She is an extraordinarily beautiful lady and looks like Doan, and has a husband with a sweet face and lots of laugh lines. They live in a one-room house shack on the river. If there ever was a time that I judged people by the size of their homes or their wallet, this trip has convinced me otherwise. She sent me home with a bag full of wonderful mangos and buoi -- like a sweet grapefruit.

Then on Sunday she convinced me to come with her to Doan's grandfather's place back in Long An district. I really didn't want to spend a second day, but Doan hasn't seen his grandfather for 25 years either, so I agreed -- and am I glad. The family there raises shrimp (nuoi tom). The square shrimp ponds are scattered among raised walkways, swooping palm trees line the walkways, the thatched roof well-to-do home looks like a paradise.

The fathers hang around just holding the babies. One father had an exceptionally pretty chil. When I commented, he said "Co hai dua" (I have two children) and produced an identical twin. I held him for a while, until I noticed a puddle on dad's pants under his boy and decided to pass mine back :).

One man jumped into the shrimp pond and caught a shrimp -- which immediately jumped out of his hand...

And then there are the children!! The 20-odd great-grandchildren of Doan's grandfather are the most beautiful, smart, delightful kids I've seen for a long time. They managed to talk with me in clear simplified Vietnamese I understood.

"O day co vui khong?" (Are you enjoying yourself here?)

"Bua nay co ngon khong?" (Is the meal good?)

This not shyly, but with delightful smiles and a sweetness that just tore at you. One little girl kept saying: "Just stay here tonight and go home tomorrow." I didn't, because I had so many places to go to, but those children (and their mothers) have a special place in my heart forever. Tomorrow they'll be dressed up, but just in their everyday clothes, they're beautiful.

From the one of the best to the worst... On Friday I went to visit a dear friend of mine from DC. She is a Buddhist nun, was in my English class in DC, was sick and is now fine. However, somehow she is now in a temple of nuns with the most ungodly of men (in my opinion) in charge.

As I came to visit her in an extremely expensive and gorgeous new temple, a large and flabby grinning man, whose photo was hanging on the walls, greeted me in a whole body arm shake, and spent the next few hours slapping my thighs and back as he talked about himself. He made me very uncomfortable, and I said "Khong thich" (I don't like) a few times but it didn't daunt his rubbing his hand up and down my arms. He asked how I liked his beautiful temple -- Dep qua (very beautiful)!! Ha! Ha! Slap slap. He leeringly asked if I drank wine -- Ha! Ha! Slap slap. He shouted loudly into my ears about how everyone loved him, and the Catholics came to see him because they loved him, the Hoa Hao, the Cao Dai -- only his temple, not others. And even the ambassador from the US loved him, according to the photo album of his birthday party that he shoved in front of my nose, pounding his chest -- me, me. I finally got the Vietnamese word for Easter -- phuc sinh -- and realized that he wanted me to know that he was going to join the Catholics for Good Friday and Easter.

And meanwhile this loud selfish man was all over me. The nuns didn't seem to think anything was amiss. When I tried to show my friend Thong Phap some photos of a nearby Buddhist temple where blind people are cared for, he summoned some photos showing that he also took care of poor people (who presumably loved him). When I was finally able to turn down his offer to come back the next day and go around with him (for Easter with the Catholics?), and took my leave, he pressed his flabby cheek onto mine and tried to whisper: "You look like 27." His conduct reinforced my opinion that disgusting people who try to cloak themselves in religion come in all varieties.

I came back from that exorbitantly expensive temple, to say goodbye to my friend Co Hue in the Duong Bui Vien Buu Dien, and saw a young man separating out things that could be used in the very smelly garbage cart. What a contrast.

Picking days randomly, Wednesday was a wonderful day. This was the day I went to visit Phuong's 90-year old father and talked about Vietnamese history with him! He's a delightful white-haired soft-spoken gentleman, and made the comment that there is a LOT of Vietnamese history, so where should we start? As translator in the discussion was a young cute Buddhist monk (who had read my website, and surprised me by making quotes about simple living and high thinking from it!). Phuong's sister Mai was there and seemed to be an impassioned expert on historical dates and details. There ensued a debate over whether the wife of Dinh Bo Linh was actually the secret lover of Le Dai Hang, whom she married after her first husband died, changing dynasties. Lots of fun. And I am impressed that in this country where older people are so respected, I would be told to go to a 90-year old man if I wanted to learn wisdom. That wouldn't happen often in the US.

Monday was a day to visit the school of my young friend Nhien, and give oranges and cake and little red envelopes with money to all the students, with Quy's sister Dung (pronounced "Yum"). Nhien's mother in the US had planned a special day for the students, with lots of gifts. Some of the teachers remembered Nhien and loved seeing photos of him as a 17 year old. Dung then took me to a Buddhist temple where blind people are taught and orphans are cared for.

I also reconnected with Soeur Alfonse, a 75-year old Catholic Sister of Mercy, sister of my friend Lieu. She is a Mother Theresa-like lady, still strong and a champion for the poor of Vietnam. She also has a strong two-fisted grip, as she shoveled me through the streets near the monastery to a book fair, where we bought lots of computer and other books (illegally) translated into Vietnamese. Unfortunately, the government of Vietnam doesn't make it easy for religions (or volunteers from other countries, for that matter) to donate time or money directly. They can donate through the government, but if they donated directly, it's the government's view that giving money would convince the recipient to change religion. So any donation that she does, particularly in the North, must be done with permission of the government.

I visited her a second time (at which time I tried to convince her that I could walk better without that iron grip on me!) and went to another relative's home in Sai Gon with the most beautiful garden I've ever seen. I wanted to buy the home until he said it would cost $200,000... Then I bid Alfonse goodbye, with plans for me to visit some of the desperately poor people she knows in Ha Noi -- if the government allows it.

And in between those visits, I've had a few Vietnamese classes with a terrific couple -- he's a Cancer doctor, and have enjoyed getting to know people in my hotel -- a Philippino hairdresser, an Australian who's found a great English teaching job, a young American who writes for the Saigon Times, is interested in street kids, and has been unsuccessful in finding any place to volunteer legally in Sai Gon.

The US must be beautiful these days -- with spring on its way, (except Maine and Lafayette which report snow!) Wishing you belated Passover and Easter blessings ..

-Beth

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