Looking into Cambodia

Lunch on the road

Mekong Delta region

Making Incense

Walking Charlie's Trail In The Delta


Monday Morning - June 16, 1997 - Report #1


Random Observations from Vietnam - Report #2

Well, It is now the evening of the June 17th ...... so much for the improvements to the streets. I walked around the neighborhood to admire the work. I saw that about 80% of the new pour had not been screened when it was put in. Also, the mixture used about 2-inch aggregate, like heavy road base. So all those stones are sitting on the surface and already have begun wearing off. The road should be good for most of the summer, I suspect.... if that long.

That inspection was just before the first major downpour of this season's rains. The drainage system is not adequate to handle the downpour. Since the surface of the road, behind the nicely made curbing, is higher than most of the doorways..... well, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what happened. The water that came into Lan's house mostly ran in a direct flow to a bathroom drain, once it had coursed through the main office and past a bedroom. Luckily, the floor on this level is tile, not carpet. I'll try to get some pictures. Ah! What grand thoughts, these mice of men.


More Random Thoughts From Asia - Report #3

Some Asian languages sound harsh to the western ear. I find that to be true with Vietnamese. It does not sound like a language conducive to gentle conversation. At least, not as I hear it on the street. It always sounds like an argument when two people talk, even what should be a normal business meeting. It also doesn't help that there seems to be a common practice of not waiting for the other person to stop talking before the other begins. I asked about this, and was told it was OK to express your opinion while the other person is still talking. It helps keep the conversation going ???

What hasn't added to this picture of harmonious communication is the fact that, for the past several days, I have been dealing with government offices and bureaucrats. There's an old saying that government workers are the same everywhere..... mostly indicating a negative characteristic. I believe Vietnam is perhaps the worst example of this.

Quitting time is advertised as 4:30. I needed a document Notarized. I got to the office at 4:15. All three Notaries refused to Notarize the document because it would take too long. They spent 20 minutes trying to explain to me that they got off at 4:30 and didn't want to start something they couldn't finish. By the time they stopped arguing the point, they were 5 minutes overtime. The document could have been processed in about half that time. What a zoo.

The government offices were filled with people holding papers and cowering in corners, afraid to approach the desks. So they sat there, hoping someone would notice them and call them forward to process their document. Directly approaching the desks, my documents would be snatched from my hand, stamped begrudgingly, and I would be hurried off as a nuisance to the system. I wonder what they think they're getting paid to do? Government employment is a global mentality.


More From The Heartland - Report #4

Vietnam is a very poor country. As I look around, I can see reasons why this is so. And why it has always been so. And why this poor country may pass through history and blink out of existence as still a poor country.

Key indicators point to the fact that Vietnam is still mainly an agricultural country. Food products come directly from the fields to the food stands and market places, many with the dirt still on them. A large percentage of every day is still spent on acquiring food. The market is visited in the morning for breakfast. The market is visited in the afternoon for lunch - and again for dinner. Everything is relatively fresh and most people don't have the means of cold storage. Or if they do, it is only for very small amounts on a day-to-day basis.

This, of course, is a necessary phase for any society to go through as it develops. If it is allowed to develop. In this case, there may be other factors preventing Vietnam from ever advancing beyond this stage of immediate survival-oriented thinking and activity.

The police as the social focus of the government keep a strangle hold on the people. For instance, everyone must have in their ready access a biography that details their lives from age 16 onward. This must be reviewed by the police on a regular basis, and updated with whatever facts the police deem appropriate.

Here in this crowded suburban section, there are many houses which are licensed shops, offering repair for motorcycles, sewing services, carpentry, masonry - just about anything you can think of.

In order to have a shop, however, you must have the permission of the police. This often includes regular payments to the police to keep the shop open. If one refuses to pay this bribe, the police have the power to close the shop. All of this information regarding general cooperation with the police is written into the biography and becomes a permanent part of that persons life-record. If the police think the shop is dirty, that may get entered also.

When the shop owner goes to the government offices for a business license, they take along all the notes made in their record. If there is negative information, the government offices may choose not to issue a business license.

A few other things I found interesting regarding this record keeping: If a citizen has visitors, especially foreigners, that can be written in the book. If a certain foreign nation falls out of favor with the government, having an entry indicating that 10 years prior, one had visitors from this foreign place could easily subject them to intense social discrimination and even ostracization. That is a harsh reality of this system.

The process of obtaining licenses and permits is especially ludicrous. One is charged money for every step in the process. Each form costs something. Each answer costs something, even if it is incorrect or of no use. Every step of the way, it is a system designed for failure. For this reason, Vietnam will always remain poor. It steals from the poor to support the corruption within the system. To steal from the poor is fruitless, since the poor have no money. And yet, the cycle continues. And will continue until changed.

Even More from the Heartland - Report #5


The Internet is so far beyond the concept of the ordinary person here that it may never catch on. The concept of computing is something not often heard of. Or, in the extreme case, only just that - heard of, but not experienced or even grasped.

Yet there are users of The Internet - the students and intellectuals; the larger businesses; those with an eye to international affairs and not caught up in the game of day-to-day survival of the agrarian mentality. But the Internet still only means E-MAIL. The WWW is talked about, sometimes read about. It was promised for August of last year, 1996. It was mentioned again in February, 1997. It now MAY be available by the end of July, 1997. That will no doubt be pushed out. The blind and infinite patience and trust of the citizens is pathetic and disgusting.

[I reviewed this in Sept, 97, and the Internet is still not available.]

Right now I am land-locked in Saigon. I can send e-mail out through Lan's account. Lan can receive email in return. But I cannot telnet out beyond the controlling server in Hanoi. I cannot access my own email accounts in other parts of the world. Or so I am told by the service providers.

There is no UNIX prompt available to me; only a PPP connection registered in my friend's name. Do they really grasp what they are missing? What they are being deprived of?

They have already had cases of spamming of pornographic picture attachments to email. They are afraid it can only get worse. They do not see that it can get better unless they learn a way to control it. Better to control the wind.


Reports from Saigon - Transportation 1

Ah, yes. Transportation. Asian style. A very important part of the day. A very important element of survival. Transportation.

I think, to do this justice, we need to step back a bit, a couple of weeks, several months, and discuss the theory of Controlled Chaos. That has to do with Bangkok. Bangkok and transportation. If you've never driven or been driven in Bangkok, you've never experienced true Chaos in Motion. Yes, I know. Being the limited world travel that I am, I'm sure there are places that are just as bad or worse. But from my limited experience, Bangkok is the epitome of Controlled Chaos when it comes to traffic systems.

New York has its cross-town snarls. London and Paris have their death-trap traffic circles. California has its crowded freeways and frustrated drivers. But Bangkok.... Bangkok has true Controlled Chaos, with a totally unique perspective on the concept of travel, driving, ownership of the road, and all associated elements.

New York cabbies curse and honk and flip the bird. Londoners and Parisians have their diabolical means of smuggly keeping you trapped in the inner lanes out of pure spite. But Bangkok has a no-holds-barred, no-rules-written, entirely freeform yet totally benevolent game of traffic.

Drivers in California (and elsewhere) shoot you when you cross them. Drivers in Bangkok smile and nod out of respect for their opponents of the pavement. Bangkok traffic is always snarled, always crowded, always bumper-to-bumper, fender-to-fender. If there's any possible way to change lanes, or if there's a slight gap in a line of traffic, Bangkok drivers have an unwritten but universally accepted requirement, possibly obligation, to fill the empty space with their vehicle before another driver does. And when someone out-maneuvers them, inching into a seemingly impossible spot, they are not honked at; they are not scoured at; they are not condemned. They are honored for their cunning and dexterity. The other drivers seem to know when a particular maneuver of excellence is accomplished, missing the other opponents of the roadway by a matter of millimeters.

There are more Mercedes-Benzes with shiny, high-glossed and high-buffed paint jobs, without a dent or mere scratch, moving around the streets of Bangkok than there are in the entire state of Colorado..... or state of confusion, which ever comes first.

But, back to the theory of Controlled Chaos. This theory I derived after observing traffic in Bangkok for a number of months. If anyone were to attempt to force any rigid controls on Bangkok traffic; if anyone were to attempt to enforce uniform traffic regulations in Bangkok; the entire system would collapse and the country would gridlock from Chiang Rae to Puket and all spaces in between.

I thought that theory was a universal law until I came to Saigon. Now I know that Bangkok has a training ground; a minor league practice arena where the survivors can graduate from as they move into the safety of Bangkok's Controlled Chaos. Saigon is just that place. Saigon is pre-Chaos traffic.


Reports from Saigon - Transportation 2

Saigon traffic is a world unto itself. Several key features separate it from the Bangkok class of traffic. In Bangkok, there are many, many thousands of cars and three or four times as may motorcycles. In Saigon, there are very few cars, just about as many motorcycles, and even more pedal-powered bicycles. One other important feature makes Saigon stand out - not only do lane marking not matter (as is also true in Bangkok), but staying on any particular side of the road for moving in a particular direction is a meaningless concept... totally unreasonable and impractical. You go where you want to go.

We of the developed world seem to perceive roadways as somehow having regulated lanes, specified directional intentions, and the like. This is certainly a matter of debate in regards to Bangkok. It is totally ludicrous in regards to Saigon. Lanes are often nothing more than the result of a road builder's instruction. Direction of travel is nothing more than the result of the courageous few who weave their way into a gaggle of oncoming vehicles to forge a route for others to follow.

One any given roadway, Saigon traffic might easily be comprised of several sets of bi-directional movement. From any random point of left to right: a curb lane moving toward you, two vehicles abreast; a group of cycles to the right of that moving away. Another group moving toward you; a larger group, straddling the center line, moving away; up through the middle of this seemingly uniform force might be one or two cycles moving back against the flow, weaving in and out, creating a line of followers; another group showing solidarity by moving in a uniform direction; but just to the right of that, a line of cycles headed the other direction; and so on until one reaches the opposite curb.

The overall effect and result is hair-raising. Throw in a few large trucks transporting freight, and the pucker factor skyrockets. Multiply that by the countless commuters who either cannot slow down or are on a suicide mission, and you might as well just close your eyes and open the throttle if you want a little adventure. He with the loudest horn wins.

(Note: Despite the possible negative interpretation of this, I am constantly impressed and heartened by the sense of sharing that is shown by Asian drivers. There are relatively few wrecks or collisions or even fender-benders. The other driver expects you to do something crazy, and gladly yields you this right. There is none of the typical American "get-out-of-the-way-you-SOB-This-is-MY-road" mentality that makes driving in America so dangerous.)


Reports from Saigon - Transportation 3

U-Turns are OK. Anytime. Anywhere. You say you're driving an 18-wheeler? No Problem! Just turn 'er around. Oh, yeah, it might take you about an hour on the narrow streets, and you might have to turn right in front of the on-coming traffic. But, I've just discovered another unwritten traffic rule: If it's bigger than you, get out of it's way. If not, don't bother to slow down; you win by default.

The rule for universal U-Turns applies for anybody at anytime, anywhere (on any type of vehicle, including fruit push-carts that also use the middle of the road). Let's say we're riding on a motorbike (like a 120cc Moped, a really big one), and we want to suddenly go the other direction, or turn left, or whatever. And say there's bunches of other motorbikes and bicycles moving in all directions around us. Well, if we want to whip a U-ey, we just up and DO IT! It's the other guy's problem to maneuver around us.

That's one of the reason's there are so many lanes going so many directions on any chosen piece of roadway. Some were forced over by people pulling in front of them. So from that perspective, it's safer to go against the grain. If somebody decides to suddenly go the other direction, then you'll be going along right with them. Conformity is sort of the rule that underlies the surface appearance of non-conformity, I've figured out.

Another rule: The loudest, most unusual horn identifies the driver most committed to not stopping for ANYTHING. Unless, of course, the other thing is bigger than whatever he's driving. There are only two ways to drive in Vietnam..... steer with the horn and play the game; or put on ear muffs and decide that the noise doesn't mean anything. If you do the first, you'll end up stone deaf but will probably survive. If you do the second, you'll have a much more peaceful ride...... for as long as it lasts, which may be a fairly short time.

This is true in the city. It is doubly true on the highways. Drivers honk at everything: All bicycles; all motorbikes; most other vehicles (this is especially true at high speeds, where the majority of these are still on the wrong side of the road!!!); cows and chickens (I guess they figure all creatures, great and small, respect the sound of The HORN). When in doubt, honk at the trees and encroaching jungle along the roadways. Some drivers have developed permanent muscle spasms and end up just honking randomly at nothing. It seems to be a common occupational hazard of driving over here.

If you're able to make sense of this description, you DESERVE to drive around in Saigon and rural Vietnam! Seriously.

You cannot travel from point A to point B without your own personalized bottle of Excedrin. Some buses have special, custom-made, imported horns, powered by high compressed air. Some of those are probably stolen from tug boats are really special. The raspy, trumpet-sounding "aaahhh-OOOO-gaaah" horns are really neat. I think the next step in this evolution will be to get big crowd control speakers and tape some really outrageous sounds. Like maybe Walt Disney's dragons; or shrill screams; or how about machine guns and mortars? That'll get their attention. I know there's an untapped market for the horn business.

The name of the game is Get Their Attention!! Otherwise, I think there'd be an overabundance of dead meat. He with the silent horn is Roadkill.


Reports from Saigon - Transportation 4

Well, I hate to belabor the point. But this transportation stuff is really intriguing. Like, I could be onto some major cultural differences here!

While riding from Saigon to Da Lat and back on a commercial bus service, I discovered even more important information about transportation. In order to get a drivers license, you have to pass the Flinch Test. You know what that is, right? That's where you loose if you flinch or blink or show any sign of hesitation. I think we used to call it "Chicken" in the '50s and '60s. It comes in particularly handy when passing other vehicles (or just wandering into the other lane) on hills, curves, etc.

Passing other vehicles is a different game all together. The commercial buses get more money the more people they cram into the bus. A 25-seat bus with 52 passengers is called profit. Therefore, every bus tries to pass the next bus in order to get to the next bus stop or random passenger standing along the highway.

The bus drivers frantically push, push, push - honk, honk, honk - to get in front of their competitor. Then, if they see someone standing along the road, they stop. Never mind the fact that they come to a dead stop with another bus barreling down the highway about 10 feet behind them. They just stop. The bus behind then passes, with loud blasts of the horn.

Sometimes the roadside passenger is going to where the bus is going, sometimes not. If so, cram them in. If not, it was worth the chance. In either case, the next most important thing is, try to get in front of that other bus again. This game of leap frog continues, amid blaring horns, for hundreds of kilometers.

Some of the best places to find passengers are in the small towns and villages and hamlets and groups of thatched huts that line the roadway. That's because that's where many of the people are, wandering in the streets, shopping at the roadside markets. But that's also where some of the best straight stretches of road are.

Ergo, this is one of the places where buses go the fastest, and honk their horns the longest and loudest. And then they try to stop on a dime if a potential passenger appears. And despite the best, most obvious place to catch a bus ride, it is the most dangerous place for a pedestrian to be. But a good driver knows that a loud horn will clear the way. All you have to do it MISS them. Whether it's by a meter or a millimeter, that's not important. As long as your miss them.

I don't think they worry about all the deaths from heart attacks they cause - on or off the bus. If it's off the bus, it's not their problem. If it's on the bus, I guess one body still counts as one paying fare, until they need the seat, or standing room, or whatever. Then I guess they'd just clear the decks and carry on. I didn't want to test that assumption.

So, I kept my eyes closed for a lot of the trip, just peaking out to discover the reason for being tossed into the aisle or the next passengers lap; or at the sound of multiple horns. Multiple horns? That usually meant we were passing a vehicle that was itself in the process of passing a vehicle. Now, THERE'S a rush! Three abreast having a race, horns a-blaring, running oncoming traffic onto the shoulder or into the ditch.

That makes it sound like the roads in Vietnam are wide. No way! Most of them would fail the U.S. class 4 highway test and would never appear on a U.S. map. So a three-bus, double (triple?) pass is a thing of shear wonderment. Sort of takes your breath away. I swallowed my gum. It's a fine tribute to the professional drivers of Vietnam.

In conclusion, I must report that Vietnamese drivers must be certifiable - as in certifiably crazy. Yes, no longer will I feel badly when somebody (eh, Gene-o?) complains about my bad driving. I'm also a card-carrying, certified crazy. But I'm just in the beginner's class compared to these guys. I am but a humble novice.


4th of July In Saigon

I just returned from the 4th of July celebration in Saigon. It was an interesting experience, celebrating America's birthday in Vietnam.

There were probably 1,000 people in attendance and I managed to make several surprising discoveries:

So, the REAL story of what lies behind incognito Vets remains a mystery. But I intend to find some way of understanding it.

I wore my Angel Fire T-shirt because it has an American flag. I also wore my Naval Forces-Vietnam hat, because it is the only one I had with me. I got the impression that others must have gone out of their way to find some other kind of hat.

Otherwise, it was a good, typical, though out-of-country, 4th of July. American food like hot dogs and potato salad and grilled chicken abounded. In fact, there was more food than the crowd could eat, and all of it provided by the various Saigon sponsors. There were tall, red-white-and-blue Uncle Sam hats. Jumbo the Elephant, Jr. was chained to a tree by DHL. Mazda and IBM and Kodak were busy soft-selling to the crowds.

CocaCola what there in full force, as was Marboro, DHL, and a few others. The Coke Folks put up an ingenious area where you could walk through a cool mist. You got a little wet, but it was cooling all the same. A little bit later, Mother Nature cooled things down considerable with a 30 minute torrential down pour that stopped the show for that half hour. Amazing how many people you can cram into a tent!

There was ice cream, but in exotic fruit flavors. There were platters piled high with deserts like cake and cinnamon rolls. There was beer and soft drinks and drinking water in cases piled high.

There were a lot of Asian faces - probably 50% or more. So that puts the American attendance at about 500, in my estimation. I guess I don't know the Ho Chi Minh City crowd well enough to know if that was a good turn-out or not.

And, there was also the inevitable Saigon rain. But instead of a rained out picnic, everyone just patiently waited for the 30 minute monsoon to pass, and then picked up where they left off.

The kids had an area of their own. The adults drank beer and had tug of wars and milled and sat and ate. But for the rain and the heat and humidity, and the 500 Asian faces in the crowd, I could have been anywhere in Small Town, USA.

Ambassador Peterson was down from Hanoi. There was a five-minute window during which Vet Ron Sleeis grabbed a photo-op with Pete . He spent most of the afternoon dining in a cordoned area with the People's Party bigwigs, then gave a 20 minute speech about the wonderful progress we are making in healing our wounds and strengthening out business ties. Then he disappeared.

[And then, after dark, there were probably the traditional fireworks. At least the events schedule said there was. I wandered on home after the door prize drawing from the $25 tickets and before the dancing started. I'd have done that in the States, too, so nothing unusual there.]