Saturday, April 24, 2004

Just A Quiet Day in Saigon

I know this is unprecedented, but as I have hours to kill before my 11 pm night train to Nha Trang (and the beach), I will send my second e-mail trip update in as many days. And this one contains a great story about stripping naked and paying a Vietnamese woman to beat me. (That sounds promising!!) But that just happened. In the interests of chronology, I will start with the morning . . . .

This morning I went with a tour group to the Cu Chi Tunnels outside of Saigon. The Cu Chi tunnels were part of a network of 250 kms that the Viet Cong used to beat us in the war, and are a fun day trip if you don’t mind looking at medals labeled “#1 American Killer” or “Best American Tank Destroyer.” Slightly uncomfortable at points, but everyone is pretty good natured about the fact that they vanquished the American imperialists and my money is as green as anyone else’s. On the way out to the tunnels, our very nice Vietnamese guide (whose brother was killed in the war) talked a blue streak. Bad jokes, non-sequitor stories, you name it. The only time he shut up is when a dump truck ran us partly off the road and we took out some woven palm screens drying on the roadside. Right before we arrived at the tunnels, he had, for a change, a relevant piece of information to share. “Well, you see, I do not want to tell you, but I am not licensed guide. I point you in right direction then, if you need me, I hiding in the washroom.” Terrific. Luckily he stuck us with someone fairly knowledgeable and we made it through. The tour consisted of looking at various parts of the complex, kitchens, field hospitals, etc, as well as the indigenous weaponry (bamboo spike pits and such). They showed us a spider hole and let us try to squeeze down it. I was cursed by the million things in my pockets at any given time, and the bane of most Western Women’s existence, hips. We did get to crawl 100 meters through one of the tunnels though. The word un-frigging-comfortable comes to mind. Now, as you all know, I am pretty short, but even I was reduced to crawling on my hands and knees at one point. And good Christ it was hot. These things were just a maze of tunnels and war rooms and bedrooms and such. It was really like being in an anthill.

After fun-with-tunnels, I decided to continue with my Americans-as-the-Capitalist-Aggressor theme and went to the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the American War Crimes Museum. It was as impartial as one can expect a victor’s museum to be (hell, we have the Enola Gay in the Smithsonian), but some of those pictures are pretty damning. Particularly of the My Lai massacre. In the same way I can’t understand Pol Pot killing babies, American GIs doing the same is even harder. You can tell that the museum was recently revamped to not offend American tourists (even the blood-soaked imperialist Yankee dollar is convertible…), and now it says things like, “Not to lay blame on any one country, but to prevent this tragedy from ever re-occurring.” But still, you don’t want to open your mouth for fear someone will recognize your accent. Some of the labeling on the exhibits though was still a bit suspect. There were American machine guns with captions that read something along the lines of, “This semi-automatic weapon became standard issue, and was largely used to suppress anti-war demonstrations and torture suspected members of the Viet Cong.” They neglect to mention “shoot back.”

In order to keep from having to commit ritual hari-kari, I spent the rest of the afternoon at the Reunification Palace (and listened to them kick around the French for a while), then I went to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, which was bizarrely surrounded by pools of copulating turtles of all varieties.

So now, with a few hours to kill before my train, I decided to treat myself to nems for dinner and a massage. There is a school for blind students that teaches them how to give massages so they will have a way to earn a living. I thought, well, I can get a massage and still help the poor blind third world masses. Everyone loves sustainable development, where is the bad? So I go in and buy my ticket from the only sighted person in the whole compound (the guy taking the money), and get sent to the ladies side. I go into the curtained off cubicle and take off my clothes. Now I had been warned that this is a no-nonsense hard massage, and that I should take my bra off or they were going to yell at me. So I am lying on this table with a towel on, dreaming of the gentle meditations that Helen Keller would soon be rubbing into my back, when my masseuse walks in. Generally, one imagines blind people as walking slowing with a stick, or gingerly feeling their way around. Not this chick. She just walked headlong into things and bounced. Just smacked into the wall at one point. (Must be a cultural thing, huh?) Anyway, I am a little disconcerted but whatever. She starts rubbing my back and I relax a bit.

Then she starts beating the holy living hell out of me. Pinching, slapping and pounding on my back. I can’t complain because she doesn’t speak English. It feels like boulders are raining down on my back. Then she takes a break to check the tensile strength of my rib cage. Then back to boulder rain. She moves down my legs to by feet. OH! CHRIST! I know from the museum today that the Geneva Conventions prohibits beating on the souls of the feet! Oh Jeez, you are trying to tear out my Achilles Tendon! Then she walks around the table, taking out a perfectly innocent chair on the way, and begins to beat around the face and head. First she takes my head and PLANTS it into the pillow, WWF style. Then the noogies start. She has me turn over and goes into a routine that varies between drilling a hole in my forehead, and violent-child-patting-the-dog. Then back to boulder rain again. After 45 minutes or so of this violence, she lets me go, with a happy chirp of the word “finished.”

Now I am killing time in this internet cafe until my train to the beach, where I will relax and get no more massages.

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