Monday, February 9, 2009

Afterword

Six separate flights,including flying over the North Pole twice, about 36 hours in the air, three different airlines, four different Asian cities, about 18,000 total miles, all to go back to a country that was in total chaos when I left there in October of 1970.

I never imagined that I would want to or could ever go back. A wedding invitation, finding Kim Long Orphanage again, an invitation from the sisters at Kim Long and the urging of my family to go back and for my younger daughter to join me in my journey were all indicators that I needed to do this. After reading the orphanage posting, if anyone is interested in donating to Kim Long, please contact me via a comment and leave your e mail. I plan on sending any collected donations on a quarterly basis. Past donations have been used to buy a washer and a stove -- or cooker -- as I was told. I have collected donations from friends, Veterans groups and families; no amount will be refused.


I feel that I had left no ghosts behind in Vietnam, although it did take time to readjust to "the World" again. I had no special closure to make. I had always talked about my experiences, the good times, the bad, the close calls and not knowing if the bullets that left my M-16, my grenade launcher or M-60 ever hit or killed anybody. I wrote about my experiences in a book, a play and my poetry. Ultimately, the rediscovering of Kim Long Orphanage was the most important factor in going back. My daughter's enthusiasm over the trip was a close second.

I found this wonderful place in early 1970 when our company clerk asked me to take a ride to drop off some laundry from the guys in our company (HQ 501st Signal, 101st Airborne Division, Camp Eagle).

I have never forgotten it. I never talked about it until the day I was asked, by my great-nephew, A J, some questions for a Veteran’s project he was doing. He asked me what the best thing I remembered about Vietnam and I told him about the orphanage. His mother, Terry looked at me in astonishment and said that I had never told her – or anyone else – that particular story. So, A J, thanks for that question. It made me realize how important those trips to Kim Long were and how much they did mean to me.


Will I return again? I sure hope so. If I hit the lottery, definitely. If I find the funds, possibly. I will continue to raise funds for Kim Long through friends, families and Veterans groups and I will continue to communicate with the good sisters of Kim Long and Trang, who was our interpreter during our visit.

I hope someday that Vietnam is a free country and with that free speech to be able to create and access blogs like these. (Since my return home, I have discovered that my Vietnamese friends have been able to access this blog) I hope, also, that the children of Kim Long find happiness and the families that they truly need, although they appeared so well adjusted and are a family in themselves. The Sisters of Kim Long and their teachers and staff have done a wonderful job. The experience has been heartwarming for both of us and very special, as well. The words of this blog cannot fully explain the feeling we had after our day at Kim Long (See January 19th entry), but the pictures do help in showing what we experienced.


When I left for Vietnam, there was one name on the Memorial in Philadelphia's Fishtown section – Charles Glenn III . Charlie was only 20 years old when he died. He was shot to death by a sniper in Da Nang, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam, on July 7, 1967. He was the first from my Fishtown neighborhood to die in the war and a monument in his honor was erected at Wildey and Marlborough Streets. The Corporal Charles J. Glenn 3rd Memorial also includes the names of 10 other young men from the Fishtown-Kensington-Port Richmond neighborhoods who died or were missing in action in Vietnam. Dedicated in 1967, it was either the first or one of the first memorials to Vietnam Veterans in the United States.




The other names include:
Bill Sessions
Ed Secrest
Joe Kull
Joe Monaghan
Harry Seedes
Ron Briggs
Butch McCuen
Lawrence Reichert
John Jolley
Albert Wall

-------------------------------
I would also like to salute members of my class of 1966 -- Northeast Catholic High School in Philadelphia who also gave the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam. A heartfelt thank you to Brother Harry Schneider, OSFS and Mr. Walter Johnson, my former German teacher in my Sophomore and Junior year for gathering this information for me.

Lawrence Anthony Branigan
Anthony J. Metzger
Joseph T. Monoghan
Thomas F. Nilan
George Joseph Reed
Joseph Francis Schimpf
Patrick James Thiroway



I salute them all and appreciate their service and sacrifice. I was lucky enough to return home safely and fortunate enough to be able to go back.


For all my readers, thanks for sharing our experience. Please feel free to leave a comment on any of the posts.

In May of 2009, I was asked to write and article about Charlie for the Fishtown Star. The link has been removed-- see the text after the link below...
Here is the link: http://www.philly.com/community/pa/philadelphia/star/Remembering_the_day_Vietnam_came_home.html?viewAll=y


I will never forget my reaction to the news we received while hanging out at Allen and Shackamaxon Street on that warm July evening. The War in Vietnam had taken one of our own Fishtown boys – Charlie Glenn. I can’t remember all of us that were there out that night, but I know we were sitting on Be-Bop Brannigan’s step when his Mom came out and gave us the news.

The War had meant little to us until that moment. None of us knew what to say. We were all stunned by the news. Charlie would be coming home, but he would be in a pine box.


Many more of us went to Vietnam in subsequent years. Some of us volunteered, others were drafted. Many of us came home to our Fishtown neighborhood, but some did not. Ten more names were added to the original Charles Glenn Memorial. The Memorial was erected in record time all with private donations. I believe that it may have been the first memorial dedicated to a Vietnam Veteran in the United States.

Although Charlie was a year older than me and a year ahead of me in school , he was still a friend. I remember him as a kind and caring individual who always watched out for you. I can truly say that he was an inspiration to me. He has been in my thoughts since his death, but mostly around Memorial Day. His memory has helped me in some of my writings. Initially, in a poem that is posted at http://thewall-usa.com/literary/bobstara.html --“Away in a Bunker” was written in his memory.

I also wrote a passage in a play that I co-wrote about the “Wall” in Washington -- http://www.columbus.k12.nc.us/wchstheatre/etchings.htm In that play, one of the characters visits the Wall every year on Charlie’s birthday and talks about his Mom and Dad and how much they miss him

“Chuck” is also one the main characters is a book that I authored – Chapter One -- The Story of Vic Charles” is a “fictional” account of my experiences in Vietnam.

Charlie’s sacrifice for his country and the sacrifices of almost 58,000 other men and women who lost their lives in Vietnam can never be forgotten.



Bob

Going Home

Sunday January 25th 2009

The phone in our room rang at 5 AM on Sunday Morning (4PM Saturday in the US. Mary Ellen had called even before our hotel wake up call.

It took a few minutes to get out of bed, but we were in a cab by 6:20 AM and on our way back home. We learned our lesson from our inbound ride and took a metered taxi which, even with all of our luggage, was less expensive by about 90 Hong Kong Dollars from the inbound ride.



We approached the ticket desk, hoping for another upgrade, but to our dismay, in disappointment, none was available this time. So, it would be coach all the way , or as Cathay Pacific calls it – Economy class.

Before boarding and after clearing security and emigration, we had breakfast. I also bought a few more little souvenirs and Stacy bought some drinks to take on the plane. Unfortunately, they did another bag check after the gate and on the way to the plane and the drinks were confiscated, even though they were purchased after security checks.

We boarded and sat in our aisle seats. One consolation was that there was no one sitting next to either of us so we could stretch a bit. But, it would still be difficult to sleep even with larger seats that had wings
on the head area
to rest against. We weren’t treated as well as business class, but it still wasn’t too bad.

We took off at 10 AM Hong Kong time. Thanks to the International Date Line, we would arrive about noon at JFK airport in New York. Fourteen hours and 30 minutes in the air, 2 meals, one snack, some wine, lots of water and less than two hours sleep before landing back on American soil.
Baggage claim took forever as bags passed us several times before ours appeared. Customs was a breeze and no worries about catching a cab. Mary Ellen was so very kind to pick us up, saving another car rental and a drive home in my tired state. First we dropped Stacy off at her apartment, unloading her baggage and her treasures. Then it was off to Doylestown where a roast beef dinner would be waiting.

Six separate flights, about 36 hours in the air, four cities, all with H (Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Hue, Hanoi and Hong Kong) about 18,000 miles and a two hour ride from New York to Pennsylvania.
Home. My faithful dog, Bailey, hardly greeted me. It was as if I had just taken out the trash and returned. Thanks Bailey.

Saturday in Hong Kong

Saturday January 25th

Our last full day of vacation. We would tour the island today. First we had breakfast at the hotel -- just eggs - no dim sum, no exotic fruit or juices – boring.

It was cold outside – 13 degrees Celsius, the coldest since we left on the 14th. We had to wear winter coats. This was a real bummer after the last week and a half of warm temperatures.

We walked back to grab the Big Bus tour and decided to do a full loop and then decide where to get off for the best site seeing or shopping. We chose to get off in Soho . The name is derived from its location South of Hollywood Road . Hollywood road is more of an antiques paradise than anything else.

Lots of shopping, but not a lot of buying, so we just walked around, did window and people shopping. So we decided to get back to the hotel and do some shopping at the Lots of shopping, but not a lot of buying, so we just walked around, did window and people shopping. So we decided to get back to the hotel and do some shopping at the Pacific Place Mall .

After an hour or so at the mall and no purchases, we went back to prepare for our trip on the Peak Tram . This was an amazing ride up the side of a mountain at almost a forty-five degree angle at times. The views on the way up and up at the top were amazing.

Of course, there were gift shops as we got off the tram but they were different from a lot we had already seen. I was able to buy several things including some real nice tea cups.

The extra admission to the Sky Terrace was worth every penny. It gave amazing views of the island below. We were up above every building and could see for miles, I just wish we had gone up earlier in the daylight.

We had drinks first and then dinner later at Café Deco . The menu had mostly Chinese food and I had on of the best Asian influenced meal ever. Grilled grouper rolled around enoki mushrooms in a Swiss cheese sauce. After two days in Hong Kong and seven in Vietnam, it will be difficult to top a lot of the food we experienced in China town or any other restaurant.

So, the night was over, we took the tram back down the mountain and headed back to the hotel in a Toyota taxi that, like all the taxis in Hong Kong, reminded me of the old Checker cabs.



We paid the taxi driver and gave him a larger tip than usual. Surprisingly, he told us that we had given him too large of a tip. I smiled and said “Happy New Year”.
So it was time to pack for out trip home.

We would be getting up around 5 A.M to get a taxi to the airport .
We had set up wake up calls at the front desk and Mary Ellen would call to ensure we were awake. Good Night, Hong Kong.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Hong Kong Kowloon Touring Friday January 23rd

We were up early this cool Friday morning. We were no longer in tropical Vietnam so the 60s felt cold. Both of us wearing jackets, we headed out to a Dim Sum Restaurant recommended by the Concierge. Unfortunately when we arrived, no one spoke English. We sat and stared at the menu for a while while the waitress came over a few times to take our order. We now know how a non-English speaking foreigner feels in America. We called the waitress over and just pointed to a few things that looked good on the menu – it had pictures too – and hoped that we made the right choices. We were served tea, as well, as we waited for our order. I still cannot tell you what we ate that morning but it was good. We paid our check and headed out for a walk in Hong Kong.

Our destination today was Kowloon via the Star Ferry . But first we did a little walking. We came across a garden in the middle of this busy city, Chater Gardens . We walked a bit further and came across Avenue of the Stars. Like the Hollywood walk, it is a tribute to Chinese film stars like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.

We finally made it to the ferry entrance and saw a booth for a tour bus. We talked to the salesperson for a bit and decided that it would be the best way to see most of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. So we bought a ticket for the Big Bus . The ticket was good for twenty four hours and included Star Ferry and Peak Tram tickets. So, we went down the ramp and boarded the Star Ferry, also seen on the Amazing Race. Regular tickets were only 2.20 HKD, about 30 cents.


The views from the ferry were amazing.
It was a short trip to Kowloon and we walked for a bit before stopping to eat at a place called Eat Together . It is probably the most inexpensive chain restaurant in Hong Kong and you actually eat together. If someone is sitting at a table alone, you will be seated with them. We sat with a young girl who didn’t even acknowledge our presence. I ordered Won Ton Soup and it was probably the best I have ever had. Another woman sat down with us and she was a bit more conversational. When she saw that we were having problems with our chopsticks, something that had not been a problem, she asked the waitress for forks. It brought a smile to her face when we thanked her for her help.

So, we then got on the Big Bus and did a little touring while listening to the recorded program with earphones. We got off near the Ladies Market . We shopped for a bit, got back on the bus and headed for the Museum of Art and Culture where we picked up a few nice gifts.

We then headed to Peninsula Hotel. Marty had recommended this place to us and had even given me a Visa Card for my birthday to buy a few drinks. The views were amazing from the top floor bar Felix. We had two drinks each, Stacy had wine, I had martinis and with that we spent almost the entire amount on the gift card.


We headed back to the ferry for our trip back to the hotel to plan our last full day in Hong Kong. We were exhausted from the long day of walking and touring so after a few hundred yards on the walkway, we caught a cab and headed for the Marriott.

We were hungry for western food so we went to a restaurant in the Pacific Place Mall, the Union American Bar & Grill . Here is the description from the website: It truly is the state of the union when a restaurant offers great American regional "must-haves" including BBQ ribs, but also creative modern dishes such as thin-crust flat breads. Union Bar and Grill is a great place for quick mid-shopping bites, lunch with the family, a relaxing dinner, and social gatherings after office hours. The feel is pure American nostalgia, with red brick walls, rich oak wood detailing and warm, glowing custom light features. Comfortable thick padded seats help guests sink into a cozy, warm dining experience. Expect high value and quality as UNION is owned and operated by the Dan Ryan's restaurant group!

I had a half rack of ribs with cole slaw and french fries, you can't get much more American than that. I also had a Tsing Tao beer on draft to complete my goal of having a local beer in each of the cities visited. Stacy had a not so good salad with Ahi tuna and her typical glass of wine. After all of the great Asian food we had eaten, this was a treat -- for me at least.

So after a long day of shopping, walking, touring and eating, it was time to rest our weary bones. Good Night Hong Kong.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Leaving Vietnam - Last Day in Hanoi

Thursday January 22nd 2009

The first time that I was here in Vietnam, I could not wait to get out and go home. It was a different time, a different feeling, a different circumstance. In fact, one of the theme songs of those serving in Vietnam was We Gotta Get Out Of This Place. I don’t want to go home now, not yet, it was too soon. I wanted to Stay just a little bit longer.

So, after a week in Vietnam, we would be leaving today. It was not enough time. We saw so much, but, there is so much more to see, DaNang and China Beach, the Cu Chi Tunnels, Nha Trang and Vung Tau. Before we were to leave, we would be visiting the Hao Lo Prison.

Hao Lo was used as a Prisoner of War Camp during the Vietnam War. The Hoa Lo (Prison) POW Camp is located in downtown Hanoi. The first prisoner was incarcerated there in 1964 when Lieutentant Commander E. Alvarez of the U.S. Navy was captured. All known U.S. POWs captured in North Vietnam were moved into Hoa Lo in November and December 1970, after the Son Tay rescue attempt. Probably the most reknowned prisoner of Hao Lo was Senator John McCain, who spent about five years there. The prison was nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton”.

There was very little dedicated to the “American” War at the prison. One room held the flight suit worn by Senator McCain when his plane was shot down and he was captured. Seeing the uniform was a bit eerie. I had seen it during an episode of the Amazing Race but to be standing there next to it, well the feelings cannot be explained. To be standing where so many of our men were held, tortured and died was extremely emotional. To some they are heroes, to others they were less than that, but luckily, as Americans, we can express whatever view we believe in. Emotion has been a large part of this trip but this visit to Hao Lo was an unexplainable feeling of sadness, as well as, a bit of hatred. Being in a Communist country, one cannot fully express feelings or say exactly what is on your mind. So, I kept my feelings to myself and toured the last areas of the prison before leaving.

The other room displayed artifacts and text about the American participation in the bombing and destruction of North Vietnam. It was originally built by the French in 1905 to incarcerate local prisoners and it was called Maisson Centrale. Only part of the prison exists today, a good part of the land was used to develop a high rise building. Much of the historical references were to the Vietnamese political prisoners that were held under the French occupation.
We walked out of there in silence and proceeded back to the busy streets of Hanoi. We took a cab back to an area of shopping near the Old Quarter but in a more upscale area.

Stacy had her best shopping day in this area of Hanoi. A new bag, silk scarves, neat chopsticks, all in a great part of Hanoi.

We found a quaint restaurant – La --which was run by an Australian owner. Before we went in we were looking at the menu and a mother and her newly adopted Vietnamese baby was standing outside and we asked about the place and she recommended it. The other half of her family was already inside. Her recommendation was right on, the food was great.
I met a guy sitting at the bar who was from Kansas City. He had come to Vietnam, nine years previously, to help rebuild the infrastructure. He met a Vietnamese girl, got married and settled there. But, he longs to return to the states and may be doing so before his son is ready for school.

Before leaving La, I saw a great shirt I wanted to buy. It had a “Trailer Trash Music” label on it, but there were none in my size.

So, we returned to the Hanoi Hilton Opera Hotel to prepare for our trip to the airport. The hotel offered limo service in a BMW 530i, so we treated ourselves to a luxury ride after all of those small taxis the past seven days, this was a treat. The driver maneuvered his way through the crowded Vietnam streets a bit more gingerly than the taxi drivers had. And yes, there is street repair and construction in Vietnam, too. We received looks from those passing by, but, as Westerners, we received the same looks in a little Toyota taxi, as well.

There were other parents with adoptees waiting at the airport for the flight to Hong Kong. One mother was traveling from Hanoi to Hong Kong to San Francisco and finally South Carolina with her new baby.

It was good-bye to Vietnam as our Dragon Air flight left the ground and headed for Hong Kong. We would take many memories with us and would leave behind many new friends. Our two plus hour flight arrived 10:50 PM local time, it was 9:50 in Hanoi. We grabbed a van to the hotel, about a 45 minute ride and 480 Hong Kong Dollars later – or about $70 US.


Thanks to my son-in-law, Jon, we were able to stay for free at one of the better hotels in Hong Kong – the J W Marriott .
We had a corner room with great views. It was very late, so no exploring this night. We would welcome sleep, after Stacy had photographed the room, of course, and get up early and begin exploring in the morning.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Off to Hanoi




Wednesday January 21st 2009

It was time to leave the calm of Hue and head to Hanoi. One more great breakfast at the La Residence and it would be off to the Phu Bai Airport - a short taxi ride away.

As we headed back to Phu Bai, this time in daylight, the roadside was much more familiar than when we arrived. Rice paddies on both sides, the familiar tombs and the many water buffalo doing their jobs in the fields and paddies. Again, so much had changed, yet so much had remained the same. The once two lane road was now a four lane highway. The poverty still remained but the fear of being shot at was gone. The people were seemingly at peace and have forgiven or forgotten the role of Americans in their country some forty years before.

I was about to leave Hue, the memories of Camp Eagle, of riding to and from Phu Bai to pick up supplies or new soldiers arriving in country to take them to their duty station at the 501st. I was going to the North, to what had once been enemy territory, I was going to Hanoi.

The flight to Hanoi via Vietnam Airlines would only be less than an hour but the seats were cramped. AS we took off, I could see the rice paddies below, the same rice paddies I had photographed, on my last visit, from a helicopter on its way to a firebase or other destination to deliver its cargo.

The coast was visible from the plane. It was a warm day, as three inches of snow was falling back at home. Although it was warm, the beaches were empty. 75 degrees was too cold for the locals to be lying in the sun at the beach.
We arrived in Hanoi. The airport – Noi Bai -- was a definite upgrade from Phu Bai. The airport is about 28 miles from the Hanoi Hilton Opera where we would spend one night. It was kind of ironic that I would be staying at a Hilton Hotel in Hanoi, knowing that the Hao Lo POW prison was given the moniker of the “Hanoi Hilton” during the war.

Upon arrival and after checking in, we proceeded to go to the Old Quarter. We found it difficult to follow the map until we discovered that A majority of the street names in this part of the city start with Hang, meaning merchandise or shop. The streets were named for their product sold there. For example, silversmiths occupy Hang Bac Street. Han Gai Street have vendors with silk clothing either ready-made or tailored. Hang Ma displays shiny paper products, such as gift wrappings and wedding decorations.

We did a lot of looking but not much buying on this first day in Hanoi. Hanoi seemed to be much more developed than Saigon but the old quarter seemed to be an anachronism for the rest of the city. Being the capital, I would assume that more effort would be spent in making Hanoi the new pearl of the country. It had progressed but still had a long way to go.

We stopped for appetizers in a small café in the Old Quarter. This was a mistake, for me anyway. Although Stacy’s food was good, mine tasted like it had been cooked in motor oil. I could not get rid of that awful taste for hours. Even a Hanoi beer could not help. Although Carlsberg beer was making inroads in Hanoi, I wanted to continue my quest of sampling a local beer in each city visited. So I used my Hanoi Premium beer to try and rid my mouth of the awful taste of the oily appetizer.

It was now dark as we headed out of the Old Quarter in search of a taxi. On the way, we came across a Bia Hoi Bar. WE had to go in since seeing an episode about Bia Hoi on the Travel Channel. It was an amazing place. There were westerners sitting on plastic stools outside the place but we wanted to experience the inside of the heavily crowded place. It must have been happy hour because all those inside looked as if they had just left work, still dressed in business attire. A small television grabbed the attention of all as Vietnam was playing China in some sort of Football (we call it soccer) tournament. We ordered two fresh Bia Hoi and quietly chanted “Mot, hai ba, Yo” and clinked glasses. We were the only non-Vietnamese in the place.


We paid our bill of 40,000 VND for the two beers – about $2.30 and proceeded to leave. As we approached the door, the Vietnamese team scored a goal to tie the game and the whole place erupted. It was a definitely unique moment and experience. Where was Anthony Bourdain when you needed him.

We went back to the hotel to grab a light dinner and as we entered the lobby saw an end of year party going on. The sign told the story – HP (Hewlett Packard) end of year party. The New Year was approaching so companies were celebrating. I guess the economy must be better in Vietnam

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Another Day in Hue

We had our buffet breakfast at La Residence again and as usual, it was great. We sat out on the patio on this warm "winter" morning. A perfect omelette, dim sum, exotic fruits and juices. We were getting spoiled. The view of the river and Citadel could be seen from where we sat.


We left the hotel and headed back to the bridge we had crossed so many times before to go to the market in Hue. We decided to walk since it was only about 20 minutes away, or so said the desk clerk. He said it would take him about 25, but since we Americans had longer legs, we would get there quicker. We passed several cyclo drivers, who wanted, once again to give us the full hour tour, but we again declined. There was only room for one comfortable in that seat so it was out of the question to squeeze uncomfortably, just to ride. A taxi would have been just as inexpensive and much more comfortable. But, since it was such a nice morning, we decided to walk.

We passed many shops and riverside cafes, Hue was much more sane than Saigon, even though the traffic was heavy, it was no where near the controlled chaos that we had experienced in Saigon.

We crossed the bridge, the second of two vehicular bridges that crossed the Perfume River and made a right this time. Dong Ba Market in Old Hue is near the position where the Dong Ba Canal merges with the Perfume River. It is newer and has more upscale stores than does the market in Saigon. There is a supermarket, an electronic store and jewelry stores and gift shops. We were able to pick up a few more items to carry home.

We crossed the street to visit the shops that lined the area across from Dong Ba. The shops were similar to those on the Saigon streets but not as jammed or as crowded. There also seemed to be more Westerners in Hue than Saigon. We shopped for a bit and found nothing new so we hailed a taxi to go back to La residence to spend a few hours at the pool. Stacy had set up an appointment for massages at the Spa. I chose the had and neck massage which was supposed to relieve insomnia, we will see.

It was not as warm as it had been, only about 85 today. The pool was cool but bearable. The Vietnamese girl who came out to take our drink orders probably thought we were crazy, swimming in a pool when the temperature was only in the low 80s.

Drinks and appetizers again for a ridiculously low price. The prices were higher at the hotel than they were at the outside places but were still much less expensive than the states.

2PM, now time for our massages. I was led into a room with lockers and shower where I was to get ready to be pampered. Since I never had this experience before, everything was new. After a shower, I was led to a room where I lay on my stomach face down staring into a gold fish bowl. I guess this is supposed to be more relaxing than staring at a rug or tile floor. OI was asked if I wanted a medium or hard massage. I thought I would go for the whole nine yards and for the most part it was OK but at times, I wish I asked for gentle. After a half hour of this, I was again escorted back to the locker area to get dressed. Would I do it again? Probably!


That evening we went into town to what was classified as a local hot spot. The DMZ Bar was a two level bar and restaurant near Little Italy. It didn’t look as good as it did on the website but, because of its name, I had to go there.


We ordered two Huda (Hue) beers to start. Unlike some of the beer in Saigon, these bottles were chilled, no ice needed. We ordered appetizers and another round of drinks. I ordered a traditional Vietnamese vodka instead – Kai – instead of a beer and we ordered spring rolls.


On the walls at the bar, there was a place to write some witticisms.
Many had written before me so I wanted to be a bit original. As I started to write, Stacy was photographing me. I wrote, “ I have been to the real DMZ, 1969-70” and I signed it Bob with a Star. Although, it wasn’t exactly true, I had been close enough to the real DMZ to feel OK about writing this.

We called for the bill – something Stacy liked about Asia. At no time was a check ever brought to a table unless the customer asked for it. It was so nice not to have a waiter or waitress plop a check in front of you and say, “I’ll take that when you’re ready”. In Vietnam, it was the patron who was ready for the bill, not the server. Anyway, we got the bill. In Vietnam a service charge of ten percent is added to all checks. Our bill for 4 drinks and appetizers and service charge was about 95,000 Vietnam Dong or $5.47. I could get used to this. I bought a DMZ t-shirt before we left for $2.00.

We roamed the shops again and I came across a stash of Zippo lighters. Vietnam War Zippos are popular with collectors of military memorabilia. My problem with buying these engraved lighters is that they were either lost by, stolen from or taken from a dead soldier. It was also possible that they may have been reproductions, but the ones I bought seemed old and worn. I searched for one with the 101st Airborne insignia, but had no luck. So, I bought one just to have it. I also bought another for a young girl at home whose dad was a Vietnam Veteran. Her mother had asked me to bring home some trinket from Vietnam for her. Her dad was a flier in the war and was shot down in the South China Sea, but never captured. She lost her dad last year and I thought this symbol may be a fitting gift for her. It still upset me a bit to buy them but it was another thing I just had to do. I got a bit emotional as I handed over the equivalent of about six dollars for the two items. Eyes welled and heart raced but I was OK after a few minutes.

We found a little restaurant on a side street with an interesting menu so we went in and sat down. We were immediately accosted by two children selling Vietnamese art cards. We said no a few times but they persisted. The restaurant owners did not seem to care that their patrons were being bothered. So we gave the little ones a couple of dollars and they handed me four cards and left.

Their network must have been waiting because more children came in trying to sell more cards. “No Mamma, No Papa, please help”, they repeated. We finally just ignored them and they went away.

Dinner was great. I had seafood, again. We paid the bill and again hailed a taxi to return to our hotel to watch the Inauguration of President Barak Obama. Obama was already very popular in Asia. This was evident in the newspaper stories and many t-shirts displayed in the stores of the city.

Our Day at Kim Long Orphanage


Monday January 19th 2009

With gifts in hand, we entered the lobby of La Residence Hotel and Spa and asked the doorman to hail us a cab. He asked where we were going and not knowing that Kim Long was also a street name he seemed confused. I said “Kim Long Orphanage” please and still got a confused look. But, when I put down my bag and he saw the two huge bags of candy, he said “Oh – Kim Long !” I guess that we are not the only visitors bearing gifts that visit this Hue Orphanage.

We entered the taxi and the driver drove through the gate of the hotel and proceeded to make a left, no signal, no yield, he just went out into oncoming traffic of scooters, motorbikes and other cars and taxis. It is amazing that we never witnessed one accident of any kind while driving around in the many taxis that we did. We saw hundreds of close calls, but never a hit. I am really going to miss this chaos.

We crossed the bridge and made a left past all of the sights that we had just visited earlier this morning. The Citadel on our right still flew its flag as tourists entered its gates to view the inside of the former Imperial City. Just a mile or so further down the road, we came to Number 42. I was back, after 38 years and 3 months. It was all so very familiar. We made a right into the courtyard and the taxi stopped. Two girls who were sitting on the porch ran away, probably to find Sister Chantal to tell us we had arrived.

After paying the driver, we began to walk towards the first building in the complex. We were greeted by a young Vietnamese girl, dressed in black. He name was Trang and she was the girl who Christian had told us about. Christian, who lives in Belgium has been a part of Kim Long since he first found it in 2004. It is because of Christian that I found Kim Long again. Trang, who is learning with Christian’s help greeted us and escorted us to a room with heavy wooden furniture and tables.

Trang had left us to go and summon Sister Chantal. The good Sister arrived and greeted us with a smile, the same smile seen on the Kim Long website. We were quickly served glasses of the sister’s wine, something I had been told about by a previous visitor, a nurse who had served nearby in Phu Bai around the same time I did. We were also offered a glass with a gelatin like substance in it.

After a few minutes, Sister Xavier entered the room. She was 91 years old and she was at Kim Long in 1970 when I used to visit. Although, we didn’t remember each other, it did not matter. Sister Xavier greeted us with the same cheer and smile that Sister Chantal did.


We chatted for a while. I gave Sister Chantal the gift of candy that I carried from the states and also about 40 pens that Christian had told me that they were always in need of. I also handed her an envelope with donations from friends and family.

Several other nuns of the fourteen religious who serve at Kim Long, including Sister Linh, joined us while we talked. They are all Vietnamese and speak little English but they are all dedicated to their mission.

I had carried my new IPod with me and started showing pictures to the sisters. I started with the family portrait showing Mary Ellen, Stacy and Mary Anne at Mary Ellen and Jon’s wedding. I then showed a picture of me in 1970 at Camp Eagle. Sister Xavier looked at it and uttered, “Ooh La La.” We all laughed. She is the happiest person I have ever met, always smiling.

We then started our tour of Kim Long. Starting at Son Ca I, where we entered, Trang and Sister Chantal guided us to the many classrooms. It was nap time for some of the rooms, so we captured pictures of the children sleeping or pretending to sleep. In some classrooms, we were greeted with smiles and treated to a song, either in Vietnamese or the French song – “Frère Jacques".

In one classroom, it was nap time but right in the middle of the room was a little one sitting on a plastic bucket, a makeshift toilet. It was a very cute scene.

Every classroom was spotless. All had ceramic tile floors and each had a place outside for the children to keep their shoes and book bags. Since this was a cold winter for Hue -- 70 was cold – there were many coats and gloves outside the rooms as well. Since all of the children are not orphans, the children who attended the school on a daily basis, were prepared for the potentially cool weather that the evening may bring. The population of the school with these outside children grows to about 400 during the day from the regular orphan population of about 90.

We went to another room to find an assistant changing the diaper of a one year old. Lin had come to the orphanage at the age of one day. When the diaper was on, she was handed to Stacy who walked the rest of the tour with her. Lin was expressionless, it was somewhat sad to see this beautiful child and no smile.

Sister Xavier had now joined us on the tour – laughing at each comment any of us would make -- but as we moved on, she lagged behind and Trang and Sister Chantal did not seem to feel obligated to wait for her.

During the tour, we met Christian’s sponsored Godchild who was as cute as any of the others. We would certainly meet up with her later in the day.

We continued our tour up to the third floor to see the new chapel. Sister Chantal knelt in silence for a minute or so and then returned to us. We chatted for a few minutes and went to leave the chapel. As we did, Sister Xavier appeared. I have no idea how she climbed those stairs, 28 steps on each flight, but she was there. She was not out of breath, she was amazing. She met us with her smiling face and pointed to several areas in the courtyard down stairs and the Perfume River across the rooftops. Although I could not understand her, I seemed to know what she was saying.

We started down the stairs and Sister Xavier started to follow. As we entered the second floor, Sister X was just getting to the second step from the top. No one seemed to care or give any attention to her as she slowly descended the polished marble steps. She disappeared from view but only a few minutes after we had arrived in the room we first arrived in, she appeared – still laughing, talking and never losing the smile on her face.

We were now going to move on to the newer section of the orphanage – Son Ca II. But before we left, I was about to meet two very special people. On one of my visits to Kim Long in 1970, I took a random picture of two boys playing in the garden. I had sent this picture to Christian who shared it with Sisters Chantal and Xavier. The day before we arrived at Kim Long, the orphanage was celebrating its 120th Anniversary. At that celebration were the two boys, now men, who were in that picture. In terms of randomness and coincidence, who could have ever imagined that after almost 39 years, I would be meeting these two men. It was an awesome reunion that no one could ever realize.

Tu and Lân and I spoke for a few minutes with the help of Trang. I had my picture taken with them and then they were gone. I was to later find out that I would meet the daughters of these two men. Their teenage girls were also students at Kim Long.

With the reunion accomplished, we were off to Son Ca II. We had to traverse small alleys and narrow streets to get there. We passed many small homes and business and out of some came young children, anxious to say hello to the two Westerners passing by. On the way, we met a friend of Sister Chantal who was tending to his garden. He invited us in to show us the altars and tombs that he was preparing for the Tet Celebration. The Vietnamese New Year was less than a week away and the many preparations for it could be witnessed all over the country.

The new orphanage’s entrance is about a five minute walk from Son Ca I, the former orphanage. The new complex is actually built on the former cemetery of the orphanage. We had to get there via a small street perpendicular to the Perfume River. We finally arrived at Son Ca II where we saw a huge courtyard with trees and fountains. It had several buildings and was immaculately clean. It housed more class rooms, vegetable gardens and a kitchen and dining areas.

One of the classrooms that we visited was a special needs class. The children here had all types of disabilities. There was a 22-year old Down Syndrome girl who was very high functioning, another younger Down Syndrome girl and a boy with Cornelius DeLange Syndrome. There were also several others and they were all so happy to see us. We talked with them, played a little and they all wanted to sit with us. They all seemed so well adjusted and well behaved, but this had been true for all of the children we met this day. We spent about 30 minutes with them before moving on.

We headed back to Son Ca I, it was almost time for school to let out and the transient children would be picked up by their parents.

It was snack time and Sister Chantal was distributing cookies to the children. Again, there was no chaos or ruckus of any kind as each child received their treat.




I was pushed into taking about five children on a cyclo ride.
This bike with a huge seat on the front - sort of a rickshaw – held the children as I whisked around the courtyard a few times. It was a real treat for them.

Stacy had a little girl latched on to her – Mai Ahn


who was extremely cute. Stacy said she had a few Angelina Jolie moments that day and now understood why it is so difficult to leave any of them behind.


I had my own little girl who sat with me – Christian’s Godchild, Anh Xuan.
She had taken a cookie from Sister Chantal and found me standing close by. She came over to me and took my hand and led me to a place across the courtyard and sat with me. It was as if she didn’t want to share me with anyone. She, as well as Stacy’s little one, joined us that evening for the special performance given by the girls of Kim Long and sat on our laps all night.

Later, the children – all the permanent residents - filed into the dining room where they all had their assigned seats. The little ones sat on lower chairs and tables, while the older ones sat on bar height type tables and chairs. The special needs children also joined in. There was no chaos, no noise, no misbehavior as Sister Chantal led them in prayer. They then sang a short song that we did not recognize, in Vietnamese.

The staff, both nuns and lay people, served the children a meal of rice and shredded meat. It is amazing how much energy these workers have. I learned later that their day starts at 4 AM and sometimes does not end until after 10 PM. It is truly a labor of love for all of them.

After dinner was done, the children were led back to their respective bed rooms to prepare for the show that some of them would be performing in that evening.

We then headed back to the area that we first entered earlier this afternoon where we met Sister Julienne Loan. Sister Julienne took over the responsibility of the orphanage in 2007. She is supported by Sister Chantal who guides her in this tough task. Sister Julienne replaced Sister Marie Kim who is currently in charge of a school for poor children in Tuy Hoa, in the South of Vietnam.

Sister Julienne repeated the thanks for the gifts we had brought and also for the previous donation sent in 2008.

We spoke for a long time about previous visits of the O’Neills and others who had also given large donations to Kim Long. When I mentioned the O’Neills, she smiled.
Sister Chantal then read from a script that Christian had prepared for her telling us that although this is the first time we meet, we Are already friends. She told us that when the good sisters returned to Kim Long in 1991, the place was surrounded by barbed wire and it was simply just a slum of hen houses and dirty stables. With the help of God and many others, everything and more has been rebuilt. She spoke of the war and Sister Xavier’s longevity at Kim Long. She thanked us for the Washer and stove the first donation had bought and she told us that we would always have a place at Kim Long.

We then were taken to the dining room where we were sat and started with a bit more of the home made wine and then a can of Saigon 333 (ba ba ba) Beer. Sister Lihn then brought the first course of Pho ( a great Vietnamese soup with vegetables and noodles). She then brought in a platter full of a great fried chicken (breaded with panco) and a whole fish. Everything was cooked to perfection. The company and conversation was great. We felt very special as we were served by the staff; it was something we did not expect.

After dinner we were lead to the courtyard where the children were waiting. We sat in 2 padded chairs while the others all had wooden or steel chairs. We felt like royalty.

Trang read to us, again from a script that Christian had prepared,.
She addressed Stacy and I telling us what a great honor it was to have us at Kim Long and to me to return after all of these years. She told me that because I had sent a picture of the church to Christian (called Bac Ki, by the staff and children) back in May of 2008, that verified Kim Long was the orphanage I had known, she had renamed the church as “Bob’s Church”. She was happy that the church was the link in my return.


The church had been returned to Kim Long by the government just a few short weeks ago. Sister Chantal continued, telling us that it will be necessary to build a wall around the church soon to bring it back to Son Ca I.

She thanked us for our previous gifts and new gifts and asked me to take thanks back to all who contributed. She felt that we would leave a piece of our heart in Kim Long, and I know we have. She told us that she and the staff would never forget us and we would always remain as one of their best friends. She ended with another thank you and sadness that Bac Ki could not be here with us today. She invited us to come back at any time and we would always be welcome.


Trang then introduced the first act and each subsequent performance. There was singing and dancing and all was done rather well. All of the outfits worn by the children were made by the older girls in their seamstress class. Some were very ornately decorated and many were silk.

Our companions for the evening were Anh Xuan and Mai Anh. They sat with us through the entire show, holding our hands, snuggling, just sharing their love. When the show was over it was difficult to let them go. It was difficult to say good-bye to all the children.

We returned to the reception room where we were given gifts by the good sisters. Two bottles of home made wine and 4 bags of Vietnamese coffee. A taxi was summoned and we were soon to end our visit of more than seven heart-warming hours. It all went too quickly and it was definitely not enough time to spend at this great place. Sisters Julienne, Xavier and Chantal said good-bye to us in the traditional European manner of a kiss on both cheeks. We then got into our taxi as Sister Chantal gave directions to the driver and we were off.

This day was one of the most rewarding days I have ever spent anywhere. I am, and will be, eternally grateful that I had Stacy there to share it with me. It will take something great to top this day. I don’t think that I have ever felt as good about anything I have ever done in a charitable way that I did today. I felt pretty good the day I first wired money to the orphanage, but it will be difficult to top today’s experience.

I am absolutely positive that neither Stacy or I will ever forget our day at Kim Long. We rode back to the La residence just talking about what had occurred today. The memories will always remain with us.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Hue - January 19th Morning

The day had finally arrived that I had been preparing for since I booked this trip in September. I would be visiting Kim Long Orphanage in the afternoon.

We still had the morning to do some sightseeing. Since I was the first one up, I went out to our deck to see Hue in the daylight. As I tripped on the table on the way out, I noticed a couple taking pictures next door. I struck up a conversation with them and found that he was an ex-IBMer physician from White Plains, NY and they were touring China, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam and just happened to pick Hue as a stopover point. Good Choice.

I walked to the end of the deck and I could see the Citadel as clear as day. It flew the Vietnam flag with the one red star unlike the flag it flew in 1970 with a 50 star field. There were coconuts on the palm trees and the breeze was warm and mild.

After breakfast on the patio, we hailed a cab and headed for the Citadel. It was a bit tough at first to walk the same path as I did in 1970, I felt the same rush and heart pounding that I did when we landed in Saigon. But, having my daughter with me to share that moment made it much easier to take. A lot has changed, but a lot had remained the same. Having Stacy with me to re-live this moment was pretty amazing. I wish that I could have had both daughters with me.


After touring the inside of the walled city, we went into the throne room. I was not happy that pictures were not permitted because I wanted to take the same picture that I shot in 1970 of the golden throne. But, because we were prohibited from doing so, that made my original that more valuable to me.

Of course we found the gift shop where I bought an incense burner and some post cards. We went to a second shop on the opposite end of the complex and I found an amazing chess set. It was hand carved from soapstone, a metamorphic rock, largely composed of the mineral talc and rich in magnesium. Stacy convinced me to buy it but it was too heavy and my bags would be overweight on an in-country flight. So, we decided to pass on it, although I knew I would be sorry if I left it behind.

After about an hour and a half of touring, we left. It was a hot day and we needed to get back to get ready to go to the orphanage. We were being pestered by cyclo drivers to ride with them and tour the city or take us to our hotel but we had learned, very well, to say “No” to these guys and they finally left us alone, especially since I told one that we needed a ride to Phu Bai, about 10 miles away. This really got them to leave us alone.

We passed a small shop on our way to the bridge that had luggage. Stacy convinced me to buy another carry-on so that I could go back to the store and buy the chess set. So, we walked back to the Citadel and since I didn’t want to pay another admission, I convinced the guard to let me pass since I would only be going to the gift shop. After a few minutes, she let me by and I was off to get my chess set. It will look real good in my study. After I got back to the hotel, I checked the value on Google and found that I got a real bargain at $60.00 since it was on some gift sites for $345.00.


We then grabbed a cab, walking through all the cyclo drivers and headed back to La Residence. It was easier to show a cab driver your room key with the hotel name, then try to explain where you wanted to go.

It was still so very hot as we arrived and prepared for my reunion with Kim Long.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Leaving Saigon

We were up early on this beautiful Sunday morning. I decided to walk down to the river while Stacy was getting ready for breakfast. I ventured out alone for the first time since we arrived and I attracted all kinds of guys on bikes trying to sell me a massage at a local parlor. Knowing the real reason behind their kind offers, I did my best to ignore the others and move on to the river to take a few pictures. It was another warm day and after my little tour, I returned to the hotel.

We had breakfast and then walked around for a couple of hours getting last minute gifts at another hotel. I found some great Wine holders that I was told were hand carved and decorated.

Feeling a bit hungry after our walk, we headed into a Pho 24 restaurant. Pho 24 appears to be a chain, since we saw several throughout Ho Chi Minh City. This one had the best Pho yet. For about 15,000 Vietnam Dong or about 85 cents we had a large bowl of Pho filled with noodles chicken and vegetables.


It was now time to bid farewell to Saigon and head for the airport. The doorman hailed a taxi for us and we were off. Upon arrival, it was the most chaotic scene I have experienced in an airport. The check-in line was a single one and long. As we approached the entrance to our line, the attendant told us that we could not check in until 4PM and it was just 2:30. There was no way we could ever get into that line at 4 and make it on the flight. So, we sat a while and then I went over to customer service. Lucky for us that I did, since I found that we were in the wrong line. Our line was on the other side of the airport and there were only about nine people in it. The line moved slowly but we would be checked in way before our time to leave. As we approached the desk, we presented our passports and had our luggage weighed. We were under the limit again, thank goodness. Vietnam Airlines has a lower weight limit than international flights and with all of the souvenirs we bought and the 5 pounds of candy I had for the orphanage, I thought that we would definitely over weight.

The flight to Hue was a short one, about an hour. The airport was in Phu Bai, about a 20 minute ride from Hue. I had been to Phu Bai many times while serving in Vietnam and landing there was very familiar. Again, I had an increased heartbeat and a bit of a rush when I landed but it didn’t last long. I was coming back to Hue to relive the good memories and not think about any ghosts that may have been left behind.

When we finally arrived, we had to get on a shuttle to get to the terminal. The luggage area was noisy and the belt carrying the baggage was squeaky and slow.

The sun had set so I would not be able to see any of the familiar places that I knew as we traveled from Phu Bai to Hue along a road I had driven many times before. Traffic was no where near what it was in Saigon, but it was still heavy as we approached the center of Hue. I noticed a gas station near the center of town that looked very familiar. I believe it may have been the one that was an Esso in 1970 and now bore a BP sign.


When we arrived at the hotel we were greeted warmly. The La Residence was the former Governor’s Guest House. It had been captured by the NVA during Tet in 1968 but was retaken by the US a few days later.

Our luggage was gathered as we were steered towards the bar area while our documents were being reviewed. We were greeted with welcome drinks from the bar and received a full briefing from the desk clerk about the hotel and surrounding area.


When we arrived at our room, we were in awe. This relatively inexpensive hotel would have been a 5 star plus resort in the US. The floors were hardwood and tile; there was a French influence throughout. Our deck extended about 30 feet and at the end of it were palm trees. The Perfume River and the Citadel could be seen directly from the deck.


After Stacy had taken a few pictures of the place, we went to dinner. We were greeted by our waitress – Tram – who spoke relatively good English. We had a traditional Vietnamese dinner that was again, inexpensive and excellent. I had traditional Dalat wine and a crème brulee dessert.

We did not go outside of the hotel grounds that evening, we wanted to explore during daylight hours, first. The hotel also provided a business center at no extra cost. I used it to check e mail but could not access this blog. I later found out that blogs are blocked in Vietnam, so I would need to wait until I returned home before updating the blog. So, I would have to take great notes to make sure I did not miss anything.

We retired for the evening. In the morning we would do some touring and then it would be off to Kim Long Orphanage, the main reason for my return to Vietnam.

The Wedding Celebration - Saturday January 17th


We arrived at 6:15 after a thrilling cab ride that included a U-turn in heavy traffic. There must have been 200 cars and bikes coming at us and our driver just pulled into their path and made his turn. So we arrived safely at our destination and walked through the courtyard to meet the bride and groom.

An wore a white gown tonight, different from her red gown from the ceremony. Brides can have up to five different outfits during the two days of celebration.

Once again, we were seated at the groom’s table, a real honor for a non-family member. Doug’s friends, Anna, Erin and Dwayne joined us along with Hai. An advantage of sitting at this table is that you are served rather than having to serve yourself.

As we sat down, the men were all given a warm beer with a glass. The glass was filled with a large ice cube to chill the brew. Women were given water or soda. It was not until later that, after I acquired a beer for Stacy, the women were served beer, if they wanted it.

Bao Anh and Phuong Vo arrived, late, as they had told us , at about 7PM. Bao Anh came to our table and gave Stacy a gift – earrings.

Music was being played, the same 4 or 5 songs over and over, but I don’t think anyone noticed. But, at 7, the entertainment began. There was a stage with a huge banner for Doug and An, announcing their marriage and also a champagne pyramid, ice swans and a wedding cake. I found it sort of unusual that we did not partake in the champagne or cake.

On stage, a Spanish dance and song performance took place, followed by a violinist playing “Ave Maria”. A parade of the bridesmaids and groomsmen followed and then the bride and groom. They all went to the stage and were met with a shower of pyrotechnics.

After the bridal party arrived on stage, families of the bride and groom followed and spoke to the room, in Vietnamese, of course, so I have no idea what was said.
At one point, Dwayne – Doug’s friend, was handed the microphone, by Hai, after all of the tributes and all he said was “Dwayne”. I don’t think he had any idea what was said before either.

After that, food was served. It was similar to the feast we shared yesterday after the ceremony – Chicken, fish, other seafood and a small pig. And again, the feast ended with soup.

During the meal, we were visited by many of An’s family. Her aunt, her parents and her sister all came to talk with us and thank us for coming so far to be at the wedding. It was an experience that I am happy to have attended.

I also spoke extensively with Hai and hoped that he would consider my offer of staying in touch so that we could discuss our roles during the “American” War as is called in Vietnam.

All throughout the hall, you could hear the very popular drinking chant of “một hai ba Dzo" or One, two, three, Cheers” This chant can be heard in Bia Hoi bars daily, all over Vietnam.


Before all of the food was even served, many were leaving. It was unlike any other wedding reception that I ever attended. The place was empty as our table stood up to leave. Almost everyone had gathered outside and Doug and An took their place to say good night to those leaving.

We bid farewell to the bride and groom. I thanked An for her invitation and headed out to find a taxi to take us back to the Palace Hotel. We walked around a bit, taking in the decorations for Tet, before we headed to our room to prepare for our flight to Hue.

Saigon was an experience. I never made it here while I served during the war. It is definitely a city that I would like to have spent more time in. It was nice to meet the three friends I have been working with and talking two over the past two years.

We would still have a few hours in the morning to explore a bit more. Our first city on our schedule was definitely a winner.

Saturday in Saigon -- January 17th 2009


The day started with a buffet breakfast at the Palace Hotel that we were unable to have the day before. This place had a great spread – anything from omelettes to dim sum and amazing exotic and tropical fruits and juices. It was definitely a two trip buffet.

Bao Anh joined us afterwards and we headed to the Ben Thanh Market for some shopping. Ben Thanh market is one of Saigon's most famous landmarks. Before we went, I was given the gift of a bottle of Dalat wine from Bao Anh.

The market was a huge place with narrow aisles and hundreds of vendors. I made the first purchase of the day – a pair of sunglasses that, according to Bao Anh, I did not bargain hard enough for. So, she would now be the official bargainer for the rest of the day. She was not happy with my bargaining technique. Hey, I got a Versace genuine plastic glass case with my purchase.

We stayed in the market about two hours or so. Stacy bargained pretty well for her purchases. I listened to Bao Anh and walked away for a vendor who was selling bamboo bowls. The vendor followed me to the next stand where I was looking at similar bowls and took my offer.

I had to buy some t-shirts, one that said Good Morning Vietnam and another that had the Saigon 333 beer symbol. Then, I heard my name being called. 8000 miles from home, who would I know. Well, it turned out to be Doug’s friends. They were out for a little touristy stuff, as well. I also picked up some bamboo serving bowls that I had seen on line for a lot more before I left. I definitely bargained well for these. At the direction of Bao Anh, I walked away to another vendor and was followed and given my price. Thanks, Bao Anh!

Bao Anh then led us to a real Saigon hot spot for lunch. This place Quan An Ngon was very popular and very crowded. Again, another inexpensive lunch of 3 entrees, drinks and tip for about $11.00

Back to the hotel to prepare for the wedding party. In Vietnam, you cannot be early for a wedding. Although the invitation said 5 PM, only family shows up early, other guests come as late as 7. All this time the bride and groom stand at the entrance and greet those who are arriving.

Friday, January 30, 2009

January 16th Afternoon and Evening



After returning from the ceremony, we returned to the Palace Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. Traversing the streets and traffic reminded me of the video game “Frogger” only ten times more intense. Getting across any street was an adventure since you had to look both ways even on a one way street and sometimes even on the sidewalk where and occasional motor bike would whiz by.

Our hotel was right across from an area being prepared for Tet – Asian New Year – and it would have been a great spot to be in about 9 more nights. The area being decorated for the event was a “Times Square” corporation or so the sign said so.

After a small snack, we headed out to the Reunification Palace. On the way we were “accosted” by a vendor who had previously assisted us in crossing two busy streets. He “forced” us to buy a coconut drink from him but for the price and coldness of the drink, it was well worth it on this hot day. This building was once the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War and also the site of the official handover of power during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. It was then known as Independence Palace, and an NVA (North Vietnamese Army) tank crashed through its gates. These tanks still remain on display in the courtyard today. There are many meeting rooms in the palace and the Conference Hall in the main room is still being used for important national events.

We left the palace and headed back to the hotel. We detoured to a quaint Italian restaurant where we had ice cream and drinks. It is still hard getting used to paying so little for so much. Two dishes of ice cream with 3 scoops each and 2 soft drinks for less than $7.00 including tip.

Back at the hotel, the phone rang and it was my IBM friend – Bao Anh. She had been trying to contact me since we landed in Saigon. I had sent her a text message but it was never received. But, luckily we got together and met. We went to the Rex Hotel rooftop bar with Bao Anh’s friend Phuong Vo and enjoyed the views of Saigon.

It was nice to finally meet someone who I have been corresponding with for the past 18 months. We returned to the Palace Hotel, made plans for the next day and said good night. It would be nice to have a local with us as we would head to the Ben Thanh Market, a Ho Chi Minh City landmark.

Friday January 16th -- The Wedding Ceremony

We woke up early and I could hear Robin Williams in my head shouting "Good Morning, Vietnam." Although I have met the real Adrian Kronauer who coined that phrase and actually heard him say it as well, it was the voice of Robin Williams from the movie that stuck in my brain.


We traveled by cab to the groom’s (Doug’s) hotel where we would board a minibus and go to An’s home for the ceremony. Upon arriving, we found that Doug’s friends from Colorado just recently arrived after spending the night at the Hong Kong airport because their flight to Saigon had been delayed due to snow in Chicago.

We boarded the bus and rode for what seemed like a very long time when the bus made a U-turn and headed back in the direction from where we came. Here, it is common practice that the groom cannot arrive at the place of the ceremony before the appropriate time, 9:30 AM in this case. When the van finally arrived, out of the vans came a procession of covered trays borne by relatives. Each tray was significant. According to superstition you've need to have six or nine trays, never 7 or 8 which are unlucky numbers. The trays may contain: wine, fruit, traditional cake, tea and meat, western style cake, trau cau (leaves with fruit to be offered to the ancestors), and most importantly jewelry for the bride’s dowry.

We all joined the rest of family and close friends in the outside area. We sat at tables seated on little red stools, like we had seen on shows like “Three Sheets to the Wind” and “Anthony Bourdain” on the travel channel. Only close family were allowed to sit at the table inside where the ceremony would be held.

Surprisingly, we and Doug’s friends were invited inside to be a part of the ceremony. We sat at a long table across from relatives of the bride. An’s 92 year old grandmother sat directly across from me. Doug’s Vietnam substitute father – Hai – represented his parents.

The ceremony began with the groom offering gifts to the family of the bride, including cash and jewelry. The elder of An’s family spoke (in Vietnamese) of all the gifts and accepted them from the groom. The ceremony would begin. Unlike western culture where a priest, minister, or rabbi oversees the ceremony, the proceedings are controlled entirely by the bride and groom who practice ancestor veneration. Buddhist monks do not attend weddings.

Doug then offered gifts of jewelry to An. He had to place earrings on her and a necklace, as well. All during the ceremony, the two took direction from the family and the photographers, it seemed a bit chaotic, but controlled.

As the ceremony ended, others came to offer gifts, including the parents and gave a short speech, in Vietnamese, of course.

We then proceeded to the outside area where we once again sat on the small, red plastic stools. I sat next to Hai – Doug’s adopted Vietnam father – and after speaking for a while found that he had served in the South Vietnam military during the war. We continued to share stories throughout the meal.

We were served Saigon 333 ( ba ba ba) beer and a large piece of ice was placed in each of our glasses. We were familiar with this seeing it, again, on the Travel Channel. And then came the food.

The meal started with chicken, head, feet and all. The next course was fish, whole fish that fell off the bone, very tender, very good. This was followed by a vegetable dish. The next dish was the hit of the day -- live prawns, cooked right at the table. One of the servers lifted the lid to see if the prawns were done. One of these large creatures jumped out of the pot, right at Stacy. It landed on the table right in front of her. I don’t remember, but there may have been a shriek. Here is that infamous prawn -->






An’s father immediately came to the table to see what the problem was. We laughed about it later. The last course was soup. All was good, very good.

We prepared to leave but not before a lot of pictures. We had pictures with the bride, groom, bride and groom, bride’s family, groom’s adopted family.

We loaded back on the bus and the bride and groom left in a sedan in front of us. The photographers, once again led the departure. While riding on a motor bike, the photographer stood up while travelling about 30 mph and turned around so that he could film the bride and groom riding behind him. This went on all the way to the hotel.

Once back to the hotel, we bid good-bye until the reception party the next day. This ceremony and following meal was like nothing I have ever experienced before. But, more experiences were to come tomorrow at the reception. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The flight to Vietnam

January 13th and 14th 2009

The day before and first day

I traveled to New York in the late afternoon to avoid any delays in the morning. After checking in, I took the rental back to the airport so all I had to do was grab the shuttle to the airport -- great planning

Spent an hour or so and met a Merchant Marine who also served during Vietnam. We talked a lot, discussed the war and politics and before I left, he handed me his card and asked for an update on the trip.

Wednesday January 14th

After 5 hours of sleep, it was off to the airport to meet my daughter. I am still grateful that she decided to join me on this trip. It would have been very dull and lonely without her.

The check-in line for Economy at the Cathay Pacific area was a bit long, even at this early hour, but it was so worth it. We were surprisingly upgraded to Business Class – what a great way to start our trip.

I had flown first class once on a trip to Arizona, but for a flight of 15 plus hours, this upgrade was more than welcome. It also included access to the Business Class Lounge, so we took advantage of that, as well, and enjoyed some coffee and free internet.

We boarded early and found a seat that turned into a bed, walls for privacy and a medium size TV screen. Before the economy class boarded, we were served a great Mango drink. This is really the life.

We lifted off around 930 or so and after a few hours of flight, took advantage of the bed feature and took a short nap. Still 12 hours from our connector city of Hong Kong, we could see that we were near Godthab on the GPS. We were nearing the North Pole, the top of the world. The outside temperature was minus 77 degrees and we still had over 6000 miles to travel.

Looking at the outside camera, I could see where darkness met the light. It would be dark when we reached the North Pole – what a bummer. Negative 79 degrees as we approached the top of the world.

We crossed the International Date Line and it is now Thursday at 5 AM. The GPS shows that we will be entering daylight soon. We are above the Arctic Ocean as we near the upper part of the continent of Asia.

With seven hours to go, it is time for lunch, or so the menu says. Roasted duck appetizer with an entrée of Prawns and conch with French wine of course. I could grow to like this business class flying.

I wake up after a nap with 846 miles to go; it is 11:14 PM at home on Wednesday.
We land in Hong Kong around 2 PM and head to the next gate - at the other end of the airport of course – for our connecting flight to Saigon – Ho Chi Minh City. No business class, just tight economy for our two hour flight.

As we finally land in Vietnam, my heart races and tension mounts. I didn’t think this would happen since I have left no ghosts behind in Vietnam and was looking forward to meeting people I have talked with over the past two years and attend a wedding. The feeling soon passed and I was fine as we left the aircraft.

After customs and immigration - another rush as the uniform of the agent reminded me of a North Vietnamese Army officer from the war – we were off to a taxi. We were pleasantly intercepted by An and Doug, the bride and groom who rode with us to the hotel – Palace Hotel in Saigon – to ensure we made it OK. Although I had never met these two, I had been working with An for two years and talking with Doug for about six months – we talked like old friends.

Once we were safely at the Palace Hotel , An and Doug left us. The wedding was tomorrow so they had a lot to do.

We checked into what would be a 3 or 4 star hotel at home and went up to the top floor bar to get a great view of the city. Drinks, appetizers and tip for about $18.00, I am going to like this country.

We went for a walk and as a newcomer to Saigon; it was difficult at first to cross the street. Few stop lights, no yields as cars and motor bikes sped by. To add to the confusion, people were getting ready for Tet (New Year’s Day) and traffic was even worse than usual. We did finally find a way to cross and we explored the city for a bit before retiring. It had been a 30 hour run from the time we got up the previous morning, so it was off to bed. It would be up at 6 AM to prepare to go to the first part of the wedding, the ceremony at the home of the bride.