January, 2010

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Monday Jan 18 My Tho in the Mekong Delta

Monday, January 18th, 2010

We bought a 3 day tour for $ 42.00 each that provides today’s tour to My Tho with a visit to a lacquer ware handcraft center, where the artist are practically all agent orange victims.
On arrival in My Tho we were ferried to three different islands in the river. I had actually done the same tour in 2006. Once more I let the pictures do the talking.
We are staying over night in Can Tho and will take a river boat to the Cambodian border at Chau Doc, overnight there and then continue by boat on the Mekong to Pnomh Penh.
The 42 dollars includes the transportation to Phnom Penh, the sight seeing and two night hotel and lunches.
There are several branches here of the Mekong and it is an extremely busy waterway. The rice and fish bowl of Vietnam.

Sunday Jan 17 Church and Temples

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

It was a mad house at the airport when I went to pick up Iris, Friday evening. I was to call the taxi driver, I had come in with from Saigon, when I had met up with Iris. But how do you tell someone who does not speak a word of English where he is to pick you up? But we managed somehow in the end. Saturday we wandered through the nearby Central Market. A great place to find inexpensive gifts and souvenirs and practice your bargaining skills. We shared a Bun Bo Hue, noodle soup, for lunch. Bought fresh Logans. Poked around in the antique stores section. Iris has the same interests as I have. She likes to engage locals and total strangers and exchange experiences and learn new ones.  We had a hot pot at my new Vietnam-American repatriate friend, Mike, ‘s restaurant, for dinner. This morning we attended 9.30 a.m. English service at the Cathedral O.L. of Saigon. We rented bikes for the day. Showed her the Post Office. Then did my sixties routine at Givral, the “Milk Bar”, to have my coffee and Creme Caramelle. Iris engaged a western gentleman at Givral to answer a question she had. She had correctly guessed that he’d be a “local”. Turned out Charles Johnson was a Tennessean who has worked here with charitable organizations since 1994. He is 9 days my junior. He works with support groups for victims of Agent Orange, HIV infections and leprosy. I showed Iris, rue Catinat and the river front.  We changed from our church clothes and went exploring the “off road” areas of Saigon and Cholon, on the bicycle. It reminded me of the the first two months in Saigon in 1961. John David Dirstine, another draftee, from Spokane, Washington and I would spend our free time exploring these same areas, while the rest of the company would be playing peanuckle in the mess on base or spending time in the bars and brothels. If I did not know any better I’d figured Iris grew up on a bicycle in Amsterdam. It is rare to see a westerner brave the Saigon traffic on a bicycle. We visited a number of Buddhist temples, including Thien Hoa, I reported on last Friday. The pictures below were taken in the Puoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda. It was built in 1902. The Horse is the sacred horse of Quan Cong. I am not sure of the significance of the two Phoenix statues. But it intrigues me. Coincidentally my former wife, Mattie, was born under the sign of the Horse and her given name is Fung Mei, which means beautiful Phoenix. Three men were having a Lieu Moi (rice alcohol)party and invited us for a “Yo”!  In this part of town they seldom see Occidentals and we were constantly greeted with a “Hello”! by the children and some adults. Coming back down the Bridge out of Cholon we discovered a lively looking restaurant/beer hall. Iris called it the “Hooters” of Vietnam. Attractive waitresses in mini skirts.  We spent the princely sum of $ 5.50 for 3 beers and an order of Cha Gio and had a blast with the waitresses, the Miller girls and the neighboring tables.

Friday Jan 15. Sightseeing in Saigon

Friday, January 15th, 2010

I arrived here exactly two weeks ago but with all that I have seen and experienced it feels like more than a month ago that I left San Francisco. And the real exploration takes off tomorrow for a one month trip through Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I switched hotels once again. I liked where I stayed in the $20 room but this one for $18 is better and has better WiFi reception. My camera battery charger gave the spirit and I replaced it with a better version for $ 15.00; I looked at a larger zoom lens. Eight times stronger than the 28 to 200 mm I have now. This would be especially useful on the water, to pull in birds, whales etc. The costs is less here than in the Sates. It will only raise your subscriptions by $ 5.00 a month. I am tempted.

The next stop was at the Historical Museum in the Zoological and Botanical garden. This museum was built in 1927. It tells a very complete story about the history of Vietnam from prehistoric times onward. The Mongol invasion, wars with the Chinese, Thais and civil wars with different region’s war lords. The Cham (Hindhu) periodfrom 600 to 1100 B.C., of which descendants still remain in Vietnam. I stopped for my $ 1.00 Bun Cha Gio at the Cercle Sportif. I had my 1962 membership card printed out and I just could not help my self and show it to everyone around the pool. Andre was there again. What a character. He has a joke repertoire in French that had me cracked up for an hour.

Never before have I ever wished for a dentist appointment to last longer. I have been crowned and have no reason anylonger to look forward to have these gentle Asian ladies poke around in my mouth. 

Second sightseeing destination was the Thien Hau Temple a fair distance, to the West, from the center of Saigon. With the bicycle it was no challenge. As a matter of fact a bicycle is faster than a taxi because they just keep getting bogged down in traffic. This temple was built by Taoist Buddhist Chinese immigrants from Fujien/Canton in 1760.  There are many Thien Hau temples built by immigrants from S.E. China in coastal towns in Vietnam and elsewhere, there is one on Nobb Hill in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles China Town. Lady Lam Tuc Mac. According to the “Polity Chronicle of the Great Qing”, Lam Tuc Mac was the Goddess of Sea. She was born on March 23 (lunar year) and was the sixth daughter of Lam Nguyen, a native of Fujian province. This particular temple has some exceptional fine wall friezes depicting, for example, a dragon dance. The birthday of Lady Lam Tuc Mac  is March 23rd. The day that I return from Saigon to San Francisco.

It’s getting time to head towards the air port to meet Iris, my travel companion for the coming month.

Thursday Jan 14 A visit to the Saigon Art Museum

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

I moved to a different hotel. A few doors down. My room was never cleaned in the 4 days I stayed at the Lien Ha hotel. In 2006 I tried to find the spot back  where I had a picture taken on a bridge leading into Cholon in 1961. Today I made an other attempt with a new lead, but did not find it. The bridge is gone. Cholon is now just another part of Saigon. Gone is the special atmosphere, smells and hustle and bustle of a China Town.

I spent a couple hours at the Saigon Art Museum. It is in an interesting 3 story building of the early 20th century combining French Mediterranean style and Asian architecture. The majority of the paintings were done right after and during the reunification war, a few of the liberation from the French. Thus a very similar experience as last Tuesday in the War Remnants Museum. Paintings instead of photographs.  I was not allowed to photograph the paintings but just the building, which had a special atmosphere to it. There were just a handful of visitors. It is Friday morning in the meantime, because I could not get an internet connection last night. The dentist will make an other attempt to install the new crown this afternoon. She was having problems last Wednesday getting it to fit and in the end the crown developed a crack in it. And then Iris will arrive at Tan Son Nhut this evening.

Jan. 13 Rediscovering Saigon. Cercle Sportif.

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Last night I had dinner in one of the few spots that remind me of the Saigon of the sixties. Tall towering Genuine Mahogany trees lining the boulevard and colonial buildings in a park like setting. It was a restaurant of an athletic club. With tennis courts. It reminded me of the Cercle Sportif. When I was here in 2006 I did not even bother to ask anyone if any remnants of the “Cercle Sportif” still existed. I figured that this decadent vestige of the Colonialist would have been one of the first to be torn down. But guess what? It still stands and I was looking at it last night. I rode the bike there this morning and found the swimming pool where I had played hooky in 1961 while being a man without a country, or at least without a passport, in the services of the U.S.Army. (read the story at www.cometosea.us/albums/log-Vietnam.htm  and see the pictures of that period at http://cometosea.us/albums/albums/Circumnavigation%20Slideshow/Vietnam.pdf)                                                   The pool, as the pictures attest, has not changed. The signs went from French to Vietnamese. The place looks a little run down but the water and the setting is still just as inviting. The daily admission to the pool is 12,000 dong or about 75 dollar cents. The restaurant prices are better than I have found in the  back alleys of Saigon. A bowl of Bun Cha Gio ( noodle soup with Vietnamese Spring Rolls) 18,000 or just under a dollar. Many good emotions prompted this visit. I talked to a visitor sitting by the pool, Andre, a tourist from Geneve. Turns 77 this January 24. He had worked as a driver at the American Embassy in Geneve, great stories, Bush Sr., Mitterand, etc. had been his passengers. We have three ex wives in common (not the same wives). 

I went for my 2 p.m. dentist appointment but the adjusting of the crown took longer tha planned and I’ll go back at 7 p.m. The dentist was nice enough to remove the stitches from my foot operation. I had time to go to the War Remnant Museum. This is not my idea of a vacation to be reminded of the hour of U.S. shame. But if I press the issue with my children to be aware of what the Nazis did to their grandmother than I should be able to take a refresher course as well that cruelty and stupidity is not reserved to a particular nationality or race. 

Tuesday 12 Jan

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Yesterday, around 5 p.m. I walked into a dental clinic. I was back at 6.30 p.m. for a much overdue cleaning and x-rays, $ 70. To-day I had the front tooth made look as it was before the hatch fell shut on my head on the way out of Beaufort, N.C., the day before Thanksgiving 2008. On that same trip to the Virgin Islands I lost part of a crown. What was left of it was removed today and a temporary put in. Tomorrow I get the new crown. Another $ 500 for the entire operation. This lab has the fanciest equipment I have ever seen, including the USA.  This is probably only reserved to a few of the wealthy locals and ex-pats, but it is a whole lot less than I would have paid at home and the female dentist did a fabulous job. No anesthesia and no pain. More than I can say for my teeth cleaning experiences in the US. This is a working vacation. This evening I had an excellent haircut and shampoo $5.50. Pampered by  a horde of gorgeous young ladies. Tomorrow I must find someone better skilled and equipped than my attempts to pull the stitches from my healing foot operation. Walking has become a lot less painful.

I worked some more on the travel plans for the month here with Iris. Here is what I have come up with so far: Bus south to Can Tho in the Mekong delta. Bus or boat to the Camodian border town of Chau Doc, boat ride to Pnomh Penh, bus to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Bus to Vientiane and Luang Prabang back to Vientiane. Bus to Vinh (North Central Vietnam Coast) train south to Hue, if time permits to Danang and Hoi An, fly to Hanoi make trips from Hanoi to Halong Bay, Sapa etc. Return to Saigon from Hanoi on Feb 11. The schedule will be loose and if we hear of a particular sidetrip/diversion we’ll be able to fit it in. I’m excited. Many of these places have been on my wish list for the last 50 years.

My Quebecois friends recommended seeing a store, very appropriately, called “Dogma”. They have a great assortment of the 1960/1975 communist war propaganda posters and sell T-Shirts, shoulder bags , etc. with the same prints and slogans. They would not allow me to photograph, so, I had to buy at least one poster. Makes great gifts for my veteran friends.  

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Jan 11 Summary of the Cambodia Mission visit

Monday, January 11th, 2010

This is to expand on the short reports in the last 5 days of the time spent with the 5 women, 3 men and our parish priest from St. Nicholas Church in Gig Harbor.  If you wondered why our priest remains nameless, just read up on the news about the challenges that are imposed by a few totalitarian regimes on a number of courageous Christian men and women and the risks they face. Just for the heck Google why my access to Facebook is banned in the country I am visiting…. It is a moral dilemma for me and many. What to do? Should we take our business elsewhere? Personally, I feel that we have done more to help the muted votes by bringing trade and tourism and that eventually the walls will implode, like they did in Berlin, on the wretched old guard. 

I had always been somewhat reluctant to get excited about individual projects when we are asked to make an annual donation to Peter’s Pence, the central world wide mission effort of the Catholic Church.  But in these 4 days I saw what a few dedicated individuals can accomplish with a minimum overhead to help so many. Father “X”, born in Vietnam, spent several years as a missionary to serve a vast area along the Mekong River of ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia. Most of these are economic migrants who came here during the French colonization. Some stayed behind from the Vietnamese Communists incursion into Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge in 1979. They live in villages of anywhere from 15 to 250 families. I noticed little intermarriage with their Cambodian neighbors and the Vietnamese hang on to their language and customs. They receive fewer of the Cambodian government benefits than their ethnic Cambodian countrymen.  Their main sustenance is fishing from the Mekong and farming. The mighty Mekong gives and it takes.  

The first day, Wednesday, we visited Chompa, 240 families mostly Catholics. Father celebrated mass here and ceremonial gifts in the form of blankets, from St. Nicholas, were distributed to the village and to a number of village elders from surrounding communities. The story (or is it a legend?) is that a wooden statue was found washed up on the Mekong bank here by a Cambodian and he figured that this would bring good luck to the area but he could not identify the image so he asked local Catholic Vietnamese to help him. They recognized it as a statue of St. Francis. (See the below photos) and the Cambodians then invited the Vietnamese to settle on the spot.  Next stop was Ta Hien, 60 families, where we met father Tinh. Father Tinh, was my age and I could speak French with him, a delightful encounter. Thursday, January 7 we crossed the river to visit a village on an island in the Mekong. This settlement had a lot more land and was growing lush vegetable and fruit crops. Living appeared easy as far as what the land and river can provide. There was no electricity. T.V.’s, fans and lights were powered by car batteries. In the afternoon the group visited the nuns of the order of the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s order) in Pnom Penh. These sisters care for women and children suffering from HIV infections.  

Friday we visited three villages. We started at Koh Thieu (= sprouting grass). Our leader celebrated mass here in the still roofless new church being built. A Christian Brothers priest, Le Dinh Phuong, complete in his long black cassock, was the Holy Name (Giu Se ?) church priest. Next was To Muy Mot a village within 5 miles from the Vietnamese border. The last visit of the day was across the river to Been Phuan. This was similar to the island community we visited the previous day since it was also much on it’s own without road access and electricity. This village was predominantly Buddhist with only a couple Catholic families. Everyone received the same gifts from St. Nicholas church. I had an emotional encounter with one of the Catholic elders of the village, when he learned that I had served in the US army in Vietnam he told me that he had joined the Viet Cong as a 14 year old in 1968 and had later also fought the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. He volunteers many hours as a liaison for his people with the local Cambodian government. We parted, as brothers, with a warm embrace. The last day, Saturday, we visited one village more to the N.E. of Pnom Penh. We crossed the Mekong by ferry, soon to be replaced by a brand new bridge under construction. It was a long drive over a particularly dusty and potholed road to Ho Pruk Poth. Forty seven families most of them Catholic.  Fr. X celebrated mass here. All of the previous hosts had treated us well, but this last stop received our highest rating. They outdid themselves in the choice of delicacies set in front of us for our lunch. A nice cool breeze blew up from the river and the view was spectacular.

I am still digesting the whole experience and the pictures tell you much of the gratitude and love we encountered everywhere. I stand in awe for the efforts and results of this one man’s mission and also for Ba Ghi, father X’s point woman here. She is my heroine. Ghi came to Cambodia from Vietnam to search, in vain, for her missing husband. Her talents to have our days organized, transport and feed us and have these hundreds of children and adults get their individual ceremonial gifts from St. Nicholas in the form of clothing, uniforms, blankets, mosquito netting, fresh bank notes, etc. just blew my mind.

My wish and prayer is that this effort will continue to grow and be supported by our parish and others. I have many more photos than the few I am showing on this blog. I’d like to do a promotional benefit slide show of this visit and of the beauty of Indo China for the parish and the Gig Harbor community and possibly combine it with a slide show of my sailing adventures, this April. For those wishing to make a donation you can mail a check to:

St.Nicholas Church, 3510 Rosedale Street, Gig Harbor, Wa. 98335.  With reference: Cambodia. There is an excellent brochure available showing the aims, budget and results of the program that I can have mailed to you.  

Sunday Jan 10 Back in Saigon

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Our parish priest presided at the Saturday 5 p.m. English speakers mass in Pnom Penh. I was not watching the time and at the last minute remembered that I had to pick up my recharged lap top batter before the shop closed. I missed mass. Next I had to turn in my rented bicycle and then had dinner by my self. My companions from St. Nicholas church left at 7 a.m. for Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat. I got up early to see them off and have my $1.25 breakfast routine, pork noodle soup with a good cup of coffee. First a funeral processed along the river side boulevard in front of the hotel and next a wedding reception was taking place at 6.30 a.m. across from my breakfast spot. 

I returned to the same neighborhood in the Bui Vien area of Saigon but a slightly better hotel room, $15.00 a night. My first matter of business was to book a flight for Iris and I from Hanoi close to her February 15 return date. I booked for the evening of the 11th at $59.00 one way. The distance is just over the distance from Seattle to San Francisco. That’s less than the cost of gasoline for two people. I was told that most flights in that period would be oversold because of the Lunar New Year, February 14, holiday. And if I had not been successful we would have had to reverse our marching orders, to start in Hanoi and this way we should be able to see the preparations for the Tet festivities in Hanoi, which is supposed to be a better viewing spectacle than Saigon. I plan to spend the next four days having the stitches removed from my foot operation. It is continuing to heal well. And I want to have some dental work done.

Tomorrow I will write a summary of the entire 5 day Cambodia visit now that I have my laptop charger back again. 

Saturday Jan 9 The 8th and last mission village visit.

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

Today we visited just one village, HoPruk Poth; also on the Mekong but more to the N.E. of Pnom Penh. It was a rough drive over potholed dirt roads. We had to cross the Mekong on a rickity car ferry. It was about half a mile across but not a single horse shoe bouy, life vest, or raft. This village definitely out did the previous 8 villages in their organization and in the preparation and presentation of our lunch. Our St. Nicholas priest and our 9 men church group celebrated mass with them in their tiny church. We were back by 2 p.m. and I managed to tour the Royal Palace grounds with the major temple sights. I expect to see more of Cambodia, including Angkor Wat, on my return with my friend Iris, in the next weeks.

I managed to recharge my battery once more but it goes down fast. I promise a more generous report from Saigon. I arrive there Sunday afternoon.  

January 7 and 8 more visits to St.Nicholas’ Mission territory along the Mekong

Friday, January 8th, 2010

I manged to get my laptop on a charger for an nour yesterday but quickly running back dow, so, I’ll keep it short sand will give a more detailed report of this very interesting and rewarding project from Saigon. I bus back from Pnom Penh to HCM City this Sunday.