B. Waine Kong
We are now in Nam, some 9,000 miles from Jamaica. Our good ship “The Silver Shadow” has docked at the Harbor of Saigon early morning on Monday, November 1, 2010 after a day and a half crossing the South China Sea from Ko Samui, Thailand. By beloved wife is happy that we are finally on terra firma; Stephanie had a rough time at sea and has either been sea sick or drowsy with Dramamine. All is forgiven and forgotten as we look forward to exploring Vietnam for two days. First, the city was renamed Ho Chi Min City after the conflict in 1975. However, there are still signs with Saigon on hotel buildings and other structures. Stephanie and I decide not to take the organized tours and hang with a business associate living in Ho Chi Min City.
I e-mail Rose, our local contact who has promised to meet us at 9:30 AM on the dock. Rose doesn’t disappoint and is waiting for us as we disembarked. She is extremely gracious as we introduce ourselves as well as our friends Drs. Merton and Barbara Hutchinson who we invited to join us. Merton (Hutch) is a fellow Jamaican who lives in Maryland.
We commandeered a taxi and our first stop is the main post office which was originally built during the French occupation. The structure is significant for its European style and the foyer is crowded with merchants. Stephanie buys some old stamps as well as some stamps to mail the postcards that she has written to family. We also do a bit of shopping. There is a catholic church across the street from the Post Office where a wedding was taking place. Judging by how the bride and groom were dressed up, the wedding could have been a wedding in Kingston or Atlanta. We asked to take their photograph and the bride and groom obligingly posed for us!
After the Post Office, we are off to see a Dao Cao Dai Temple (Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ or just Great Religion or even that highest spiritual place where God reigns). Joan of Arch, William Shakespeare and Victor Hugo are venerated. It is a very colorful edifice. True believers (about 4,000,000 Vietnamese)wear white to attend services, pray unceasingly, honor their ancestors, practice non-violence and are vegetarians. Men and women enter their Temple using different entrances. Like the Masons, they too have the all seeing eye (Holy See) as their symbol. Their goal is to join God in Heaven when they leave this life. They played an important role in the resistance to President Diem’s government in the early days of the conflict during the Kennedy years. President Diem, as you may remember, was assassinated in 1964 by his Generals.
Our next stop is the war museum or the Museum to American Aggression located in what was the Presidential Palace. Captured American helicopters, planes and tanks litter the yard and the interior of the museum is dedicated to the effects of bombing with Agent Orange as well as the painful detail that chronicles the 10,000 day war with the United States. France had lost about 100,000 soldiers before the United States entered the conflict with 500,000 soldiers. The US eventually rotated some 8,000,000 US soldiers during the conflict. The US eventually lost fifty seven thousand (57,000) soldiers with an additional 10,000 returning as amputees.
The totals on the Vietnam side of the ledger are a bit grimmer. Out of a population of seventeen million people, two million died, not including an additional two million who perished from starvation and from treatable medical conditions that could not be treated due to the war. North Viet Nam (The Viet Cong) survived 350,000 bombing raids dropping 8,000,000 tons of bombs (three times the amount used in World War 11). In the process, the United States lost 3,700 planes and 5,000 helicopters and 8,000 pilots.
We stopped for lunch in a very western four star restaurant where they bake rice bread in clay pots. One waiter breaks the clay pot, releasing the bread on one side of the room and tosses it across the room like a Frisbee where it is caught on a plate by another waiter. The food is excellent and as we are joined by a language professor who was invited by our tour guide. He spoke excellent English and was able to clarify several historical facts for us.
The language professor was a colonel in the South Vietnamese army. As it turns out he was trained in the United States but left behind on that fateful day in 1975 when he was not able to be accommodated on one of the last helicopters that left the roof of the American Embassy. He tried to blend into the population but the Americans had kept detailed records of all soldiers in the South Vietnam Army on computers that fell into the hands of the victorious North Vietnam Army. So, he, along with 200,000 military officers was sent to re-education camps for two years. He said they were just prisons. He has made several attempts to migrate to the United States without success. I asked him about the United States and he was ambivalent. “On the one hand, the United States is a great country that never understood Viet Nam. Throughout the history of our country, we have always struggled against superior foreign invaders and repelled them. We also have a history of moving on and not belaboring our struggles. Cambodia, United States, France, Japan and China are now wonderful trading partners and the quality of our lives has never been better.”
Our immediate impression is that the city is a marvel with busy streets and modern building. Motor Cycles and mortar scooters are everywhere. Business seems to be booming and seem very capitalistic.
We then took a five hour tour of the Mekong Delta. On our way, we marvel at the fertile plains with rice, bananas and other fruits and vegetables. We noticed that Mekong is a bustling city as we make out way to the Warf. We rent a boat and a captain who gives us coconut water and deliver us to the other side of the river were locally made products are displayed for sale. Everyone is friendly and we especially enjoyed the five piece band with two female singers. They were actually not bad—I actually felt something. We took longboats rowed by women down one of the canals that emptied back into the river where our other boat was waiting for us. We just imagined American soldiers wading through these canals with their guns above their heads. We made our way back across the river as the sun was setting and got some lovely photographs. Before boarding our bus to return to ho Chi Min City, we saw about 100 ladies doing aerobic dancing to American music at the community center.
On our return, Rose offered massages at a Parlor she is familiar with. After working on five of us for an hour, the charge is $10.00 per person. They asked how much it would cost in the United States and we estimated $100.00 per person.
We got back to the ship at 9:00 pm tired and relaxed in time for dinner and a good night’s sleep.
The next day (Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010) we were taken by bus to a very modern hospital (Benh Vienn Tim Tam Duc Cardiology hospital) in the more developed part of the city that was indistinguishable from Paris. We met the Vietnamese physicians, toured the hospital and listened to presentations by both American and Vietnamese scholars followed by lunch. What were most memorable were the crowded waiting rooms.
On our way back to the ship, we met our wonderful guide (Rose) who took us to the market where we shopped. The prices are very reasonable. Even so, Rose got the prices lowered even more. We get back to the ship just in time for our 4:30 pm departure for Malaysia. In parting, Rose gave us all gifts and wished us Bon Voyage! We are very grateful and a wonderful time was had by all. I can now talk about: “When I was in Nam”.
Bullet Columnist Basil Waine Kong has written several pieces for this journal and especially likes to expound on his favorite subject: his beloved Jamaica. He is a former Atlien (resident of Atlanta GA), and was the CEO of the Association of Black Cardiologists (ABC) for 22 years before his retirement in 2008 to return to Jamaica. This article is reprinted with his permission from his blogsite; Coming in From the Cold… Bob Marley