Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Tet offensive

As the sun went down in Cambodia, we saw something strange. Everyone was burning paper in the streets and setting up shrines. As we have learned before things on fire in Cambodia is not that strange, but than we found out it was money. What the hell are they do burning money, when all they do is hassle tourist for it, was my first thought, but than we realized it was Chinese new year. What I didn't realize is that as we boarded our bus, that it was Tet in Vietnam at the same time. Tet has a rather grim connotation for my parent generation, but I was excited to see what Vietnam was like in there week long celebration. As we crossed the border into Vietnam, it was obvious that the Vienamese were doing better for themselves than the Cambodians. We checked out of Cambodia in a shack with smelly guards sitting around waiting for someone to bride them to expedite the border process. When we reached the Vietnam side we entered under a giant glass building with a monument guarded by fit men in the worst shade of green uniforms I have seen. Thet actually x-rayed our bags and were efficient about moving us through line. As we reboarded another bus we sped down perfect roads that were lined with red flags every 10 ft. Each flag had a star or sickle in the middle of it, and was proudly displayed by almost every resident. It was finely sinking in that we were in a communist country for the first time. The buildings were semi-modern and the traffic flowing. Vietnam was has the best infastructor of all the places we have been thus far. The traffic is light and most of the shops closed because of the holiday, but I am still rather excited to be in Vietnam. As we enter Saigon (Ho Chi Min City), I am impressed at how clean and orderly everything is, as compared to rest of the places we have visited. I imagined a country still trying get themselves back together after the American war and harsh embargos, but they're doing just fine. The backpacker area we stayed in was all done up for the holiday, and just as we were checking in to our hotel, a giant street show started, with dragons, and small Asian men climbing up 3 story polls and doing all sorts of crazy acrobatics. It was the perfect first impression. The food however was not. The local cuisine began to have its way with me and severely limited my future plans for the next three days. Before the unscheduled bathroom stops began to interrupt me, we went out to see the nightlife. We went down to the main drag of Saigon, and walked into a street carnival with a sea of Asians all posing for pictures around fake scenery. I attempted to get into as many pictures as I could, but soon realized I didn't need to put in any effort. Plenty of people were taking pictures of Christine and I anyway. We decided it was time to hit the bars, and went to the most popular chain in Vietnam, Apocalapse Now. The place was packed, and after fighting to get our first beer, we realized we would be better off having soon drinks somewhere else first, and come back later, more socially lubricated for the madness. We found an empty blues bar that was happy to stay open a little later to accommodate us. They believed Christine to be a movie star, and after a few more beers I tried to play along. I claimed myself to be an interpretive dancer, which isn't that far off really, and we were working in the area. The waitress wanted to show us the town the next day, and take Christine shopping. We never did contact her, which is too bad, because I think we could have been local celebs for a while. We did have our moments of greatness upon return to apocalypse Now. I think I began to believe my previous stories, and tried to act upon them as best as possible. The club was packed with posh young Asians and a few westerners, but I don't think any of them were expecting to see Christine and I try to reenact the Napoleon dynamite Finale. I dug deep to pull out moves the Vietnamese would be stunned by, and imitated for years to come, but as the heat and booze got to me, Christine and I retreated to the quitter dance floor. The lights came up shortly after, and we went home proud that we had defended our national pride against the tet offensive of the Asian youths. The next day, I got a bit ill from the local cuisine, and only toured the local area of Saigon. Much of the city was closed, as it would remain for the next few days of tet, but we managed to see a few dragon street shows, and sneak in some shopping. I was hurting badly the next day, but rallied to go to the cui chi tunnels, and the dangai temple (some cult in Se Asia). The temple was the craziest religious structure I have ever seen, but was fitting for the equally mad religion it housed. The religion takes most of its beliefs from Taoism, Buddhism, and Christianity, while also not neglecting some elements of every other religion as well. This all makes perfect sense when you see the temple murals picturing Jesus, Buddha, and Lao tse all cuddling on mountain tops...I didn't even know they were friends, but I should have know. The pillars of the temple are covered in dayglow dragons, and more small mirrors than a disco. The elder monks are dressed in Blue (Christian), red (Taoism), and Yellow ( Buddhism), while the other monks all wear white. The songs they sing are catchy, and supported by a youth choir in the top balcony. The band needed a little work with their percussions, but the I never did get to see the climax, because an unscheduled bathroom stop interrupted my viewing pleasure. After the temples, we went to the cui chi tunnels, which were the tunnels that helped the Vietcong armies to move supplies and eventually beat the greatest army in the world (ours). They showed a film upon arrival that showed the great vietcong warriors celebrating their great American killing heros, and hailing their triumph of defeating the American scum. I was bit moved by the film, but soon realized it was actually my bowels that were moved, but in the end my mind agreed with my body about what the verdict on both account was. After inspecting the some of the other facilities, we proceeded to see other torture devises the vietcong used against the evil Americans. I must interject at this point, that I was not as amused at the tour as some of the local people in our group, who were smirking and laughing at times. I kept my composure, and managed to only push one person the whole day. Christine almost started another us-Vietnamese dispute with some jack-ass who would spot every 5 ft in the tunnels, which are built for midget and smell like me after a phish show, and take a picture of nothing. Christine claustrophobia got the better of her, and she began to start shoving him out of the tunnel, until he was clear of the exit. When we got to the surface it turned out to be the same person I had shoved before for crawling on my back. We teased him for a while before we realized he didn't know what we were saying, so we just left and got back on the bus. My stomach held out until we got back to Saigon. The next day we went shopping around town, so Christine could bask in the glory of the capitalistic side on the communist nation. For such an egalitarian government, they are bastards when it comes to bartering. What happened to not exploiting your fellow man, especially in a communist nation. That night we went out for drinks, and met one of the greatest characters I have ever met. He was jamming out to sweet home Alabama, and noticed me doing some interpretive dancing upon entering the bar. He belted out a yell as he starred me straight in the eyes, and I knew he was going to be someone I had to meet. I got Christine a drink, and excused myself to go meet the man in the Hawaiian shirt near the door. He was an officer in the navy from Alaska, and I dare not say more for fear he might find this email someday, but He invited us to join him, and bought us some drinks. It started slowly, a few obscure details of his life in the military, but than it started to get heavier and heavier. He was a spook in the intelligence world, and has done opps all over the world. He also has worked with organized crime as a protector among other tasks. He descibed the intricate details of his own operations, which just were injured due to his captain finding a large (Real large) quantity of cocaine in the hold of the ship. After testing me again and again with small questions, he proposed a deal that he was willing to pay me 50,000 just to listen. He even flashed some cash, just to reassure. I thought the whole thing smelled of meadow muffins, but he was really sounded serious. He didn't strike me as mad, and he said everything with a hint of arrogance. He claimed most of the SE Asia illegal operations were still run by old vets from the war, mostly CIA or special opps. The man became increasingly irate over something he saw, but I didn't know what. It turned out that some moto driver was wearing a 1st airborne US military cap. The man told us that there is a gang of them from Vietnam who wear the caps as a giant fuck you to the USA, and look to start trouble with people, in order to rob them. The guy in the cap was taughting our new friend, because he knew he had money. Our friend started to act, but a local pro soccer player stopped him and got him to leave the bar. The man told us he was not supposed to leave the ship, because of his little contraband issue with the captain, but he paid the night guard to let him out for a few hours.Just when I thought the for sure the whole thing was just him telling stories to amuse himself, and too far fetched for any one man. The Military police came and collected him to take him back to the ship. Im still not real sure, but I wonder what would have been if I agreed to his meeting. I wish I made all this up, but Christine was right there the whole time, and heard most of it. I don;t think my experience in Saigon was the same as my father or his friends, but the city still has a timeless quality of military men going a-wall for some crazy Saigon nights. P.S. sorry this took so long (8 Weeks), but it has been crazy over here. I won't finish the whole trip with pics unitl I get home, but I'll try harder