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.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Updates will be coming !

We have returned and have so much to tell. I was not able to make any updates to my blog while in Vietnam because blog type sites were blocked. I am working on my notes and will be updating shortly.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Kim Long Orphanage Update

The orphanage at Kim Long will be celebrating their 120th Anniversary on Sunday January 18th. Many former orphans who resided at Kim Long will be returning for a reunion.

I had previously sent a picture of two orphans from my visit in 1970. I thought it to be a long shot, but I asked Christian, the secretary and webmaster for the website, to circulate the photo and see if anyone could identify the two children in the picture. I received a call this morning and was told, that the two children had been identified and some 40 years later, I will meet them again when I return to Kim Long on the 19th. They both have children of their own and reside not far from Hue.

It is stories such as these that warm the heart. A random picture taken at a random time in a part of the world that has memories for all who have been there. Some memories are good, some are not so good, but some never leave us and to be able to go back and reunite with this small memory of two children in a garden on a sunny Sunday afternoon shows that sometimes the stars do line up perfectly.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Back to Vietnam -- With my Daughter

After 38 years and much contemplation, I am taking a journey to a place that I never thought that I would want to return. When I left Vietnam in 1970, I left behind many memories, some bad, some good. I came home to a world that was in turmoil because the war had gone on for much too long. I put the experience of Vietnam out of my mind for a very long time. But, in 1992, when I started writing about my experiences, the memories of a very important place were resurrected.

Each Sunday, someone from my company (501st Signal Battalion -- 101st Airborne Division) would take laundry to an orphanage in Hue, which is a city in the central part of Vietnam, near Phu Bai. On one of those Sundays, I was invited to go along. That experience and the many return visits to Kim Long, left an indelible impression on me that has never disappeared. When I finally made contact with the orphanage in May of 2008, I knew I had to return. An invitation to a workmate's wedding in Ho Chi Mihn City made the need to go back a reality.

So, I, along with my younger daughter, Stacy, will be returning to Vietnam in the middle of January. I am thrilled and honored to have my daughter join me on this trip. To have her return to a place that I experienced good and bad times in a time of an unpopular war, is very important and satisfying to me.

We will visit Ho Chi Mihn City, the former Saigon to attend the wedding of An and Doug. We will meet another girl who works in an IBM office in Saigon -- Bao Anh and her friend Phuong Vo. We have been communicating for about two years now.

We will then fly to Hue to visit Kim Long orphanage where I will be reunited with a nun -- Sister Xavier, who was at Kim Long in the 1970s and is now 91. I doubt that she will remember me. We will meet Sister Chantal, who has rebuilt Kim Long and most importantly, we will meet the children of Kim Long. Although they are not the same children that I left, they are still children in need of love and attention. They still suffer from the effects of Agent Orange, the defoliant used during the war to clear triple canopy jungle vegetation. Please take a look at their new website to see how far they have come:

In Hue, we will also visit the Citadel, the sight of a very fierce Tet offensive in 1968. The remnants of that battle still remain.

After Hue, we will visit Hanoi. This will be my first time ever in the old North Vietnam. We will visit the old POW camp that once held John McCain -- known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton. Ironically, we will be staying at the Hilton Hanoi Opera House Hotel.

After 7 days in Vietnam, we will travel to Hong Kong to spend a few nights before returning home. I will do my best to update the blog daily and will write the full story when I return home.