"On the Road with the Merciful Buddha"

By Valerie Schumacher

Now how's that song go?

"Saigon, oh, Saigon is a wonderful place
But the organization's a goddamn disgrace"

Actually, that's not fair to say... With that many people and that many motorbikes, there's got to be some kind of organization, even if it boggles the human mind.

The place is a beehive. Glad to get out.

We visited Cu Chi. I'm glad I went, even if it's well on its way to Vietnamese Tourist Heaven. Full of Japanese.

It was fascinating: walking through those woods, seeing all those holes, like a warren of giant gophers. More foliated than I thought it would be. Going down in the tunnels enlarged for us tourists, hard-packed clay like cement and claustrophobia.

There is a firing range nearby, and it was disconcerting to hear all those guns going off. If their purpose is true-to-life sound effects, they have one hell of a sense of humor.

Rotting hulk of a shot down American helicopter. Buy a toy helicopter made of bullet casings, if you want.

Visited the War Crimes Museum by myself while the others toured Cholon. The propaganda was staggering, and I hear it's been toned down. Piles of bombs, mortars, tanks, a helicopter, tiger cages, APC, FAC plane, a myriad of gritty photographs, bottled deformed babies.

My cyclo driver was Ba. He said it means "three" but I told him he was number one in my book. He grinned toothlessly and said, "I am old on the outside, but young on the inside."

Ba is 47 years old, with 10 of those years in a reeducation camp. He knew everything about Saigon, pre-1975. Ba does not like those communists.

A petite, middle-aged woman asked me why I photographed a yellow crysanthemum. I shrugged and told her it was pretty. I asked if I could photograph her; and she giggled, "Oh, no. I am not pretty."

She squeezed my arm and shook my hand hard, and said vehemently, "I am glad you Americans come back." A kitten beat the chrysanthemum to death.

We drove out of Saigon toward Dalat, passing through Bien Hoa where Bob's brother Buddy had been based and where the first two Americans died in 1959. The old airfield and headquarters base is now a power plant and industrial park. Big golf course nearby. Rather incongruous to the Bien Hoa I knew from Buddy's pictures.

Rubber plantations looked just the same, though.

Highway 20 into the Central Highlands, the air thick with the scent of drying tobacco. Passed through a town full of giant volcanic boulders and a huge figure in blue, the Merciful Buddha. She keeps your brakes from going out on the hairpin turns of the mountain passes to Dalat.

We clung to the edges of mountains; and looking out at the green valleys, I pictured Polecat in his helicopter and imagined the echoes of its blades.

Wouldn't even want to think about humping *those* boonies.

Nifty little cafe in the high country--rice-eating rabbits in cages and a monkey clinging to the proprietor.

He tried to steal my camera. The monkey, that is. Real toilets for the men and squatters for the ladies. I opted for the men's, though I'm still not sure I got the better deal.

Stopped to visit an incredible waterfall. They say a Texan in his cowboy boots slipped and fell over, only breaking a leg. An amazing feat. He should be dead by all rights. Female Buddhist monks in saffron robes and shaved heads smiled shyly and walked daintily on the rocks.

Made a picture for your mind, even if you had no camera. I figured the Merciful Buddha would keep them safe. Too bad about the raucous music crackling over distorting loudspeakers and the odd fellows dressed as an American flag, a bear and a duck. Not sure what they were all about.

Dalat. I was expecting a quiet French-colonial hill station and got some- thing like a Vietnamese amusement park. Corny swan-shaped boats on the lake and motorbikes making the street sound like a scene from "Road Warrior". AIDS billboards everywhere. A pharmacy selling "Gecko Elixir" and "Happy Condoms."

The Anh Dao Hotel. Well, I'll say two good things about it - they give you a nice mauve rose in your room and the water is hot and pounding, even if the showerhead is levelled at your belly. The lobby has a most magnificent mural of a buxom blonde in tattered skins, about to be mauled by a ferocious tiger. I looked at it and thought 'I hope tigers prefer blondes, too.'

Streets full of montagnard men in fur caps, montagnard women hawking woven goods. The market is a flower lover's dream come true. Orchids cascading from overhead, the delicate folds of calla lilies, brilliantly hued roses. A market where you slip on crushed flower petals instead of chicken shit.

Of course, if you wander far enough, you can slip in chicken shit, too. Poultry farmers cruise into town with a dozen live chickens tied to the handlebars of a motorcycle, manure on their gas tanks.

The day was sunny and the sky a deep blue. Air so clear you feel like it's been injected into your veins. The town has a happy, easy-going feel - perfect for a resort. The Palace Hotel on the hill is being refurbished and will be quite magnificent when it is done. The elegant old French villas are reserved for party officials only. The winners get all the good stuff.

Valley of Love and the Lake of Sighs. Stir your romantic heart? Think again. Women in glittery tops, tottering on unfamiliar heels. Children in fake fur and pom-poms. Colors assault your eyes. The Dalat Cowboys are hot stuff, urging you to climb aboard their bored, furry ponies, levelling a fake six-shooter at you with a wink straight out of the movies.

I pressed my nose against a bottle full of snakes, fermenting in their frozen grimaces. Felt bad for the bears whose paws were laid out on table tops. Sunglasses and pursed lips, I faked a romantic pose with Viet for a picture in the "most romantic place in all Vietnam" while ladies giggled behind their hands.

Copyright 1995 By Valerie Schumacher, All Rights Reserved