Friday, April 23, 2004

Me and Mekong

So, since you last left your heroine, she has puddled around Phenom Phen and then the Mekong Delta. This fine evening finds her in Ho Chi Minh City, or the Artist Formerly Known as Saigon.

In Phenom Phen, I went to see the Choeung Ek, more widely known as the Killing Fields, and S21, Pol Pot’s famous torture center. (Coupled with Birkenau, I just need to go to Rwanda for the genocide hat trick.) The Killing Fields and S21 were gruesome. Whatever goes through people’s heads when they are killing children with garden hoes is beyond my comprehension. And for the record, Pol Pot was one crazy evil son of a bitch. With weeks of taking power he rounded up all the artists, academics, and intellectuals in the country and started to kill them. Everyone I know would have been in the first to go. The Killing Fields are now an open space with a tall stupa filled with layers and layers of skulls. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of skulls. Some you could tell how they died, bullet holes or skulls smashed in, some you couldn’t. They were labeled in groups of age and sex; for example, “Girls Aged 10 to 15,” “Infants,” and “Senile Men 60 and Over.” Beyond the stupa you could see the excavations of mass graves, square holes in the earth marked with signs like, “Mass Graves Containing the Bodies of More Than 100 Women and Children, Mostly Naked.” Next to the sign was a pile of broken bones and teeth. S21 actually bothered me even more. It was formerly a French high school complex, eerily similar to the one I taught in while in Africa. The conditions were horrendous: tiny cells and large rooms where hundreds could be chained to the floor. In the rooms now were thousands of pictures of men, women, and children that “worked” there. There was also an exhibit that showed current pictures and snippets of interviews with “Victims and Perpetrators.” Considering that only seven people survived, most of the people featured were perpetrators.

That afternoon I decompressed with some museums and temples and what not, but it sort of put a damper on the city. I even took the next day off from sightseeing.

Then it was off to the Mekong. And, Jesus, I have to stop drinking the night before I leave someplace. I slept through my alarm again and only made it to the bus because one of the guys from the guesthouse banged on my door. I had 10 minutes to shower, dress, pack and to get rid of the half naked Englishman I found in bed with me. I dashed out to the bus and just made it. I was literally still drunk as I had only stopped drinking two hours before. I took the boat over and set up shop on the border. Let me tell you, Vietnam is a different place than Thailand or Cambodia. In the latter two, public displays of extreme emotion are frowned upon: it’s a religious thing. In Vietnam they are playing ball with a whole different Buddha. It is much more like China. Hotter, faster, dirtier and vastly more interesting. And there are no private cars here. Nada. There are a couple of NGO Range Rovers, but all the rest are public transport and motos. Thousands and thousand and maybe millions of motos. Which they drive completely without regard for anyone or anything else. The ride I just took from the bus station trumps by Cotonou wrong-way-round-8-lane-traffic-circle for the scariest ride of my life.

The first day I was in a place called Chau Doc. From there I hired a driver and daytripped to couple nearby villages. We got off to a slow start . The moto blew a tire in the first 30 minutes. The driver dropped me off at a roadside thatched hut to drink tea and watch Chinese movies with the women folk while he went to get it fixed. The movie we watched was set in Imperial China, but was likely made circa 1983, judging by the mullets on the heroes (which is a feat and a half with one of those long que tails), and the feathered bangs and blue eyeshadow on all the heroines. When we got moving again, the first stop was Ba Chuc, another on the Pol Pot’s Greatest Hits list. As if I needed another reason to think he was a Class A motherfucker. Cambodian troops came over the border and massacred over 3,000 people in three weeks in April 1978. A lovely ancient old man was kind enough to mime a disaster inflicted on his country by someone else other than my country. And then we had some tea.

From there I went to Tuc Dup Hill. Tuc Dup Hill is a hill (though it likely was a mountain at one point in time) that the US spent over 2 million dollars trying to capture between 1968 and 1972. And outnumbered the Vietnamese over the years 20 to 3. Anyway, now they let you sit on the 500 kg unexploded bombs and run around the cave structure. My guide was very nice about the whole me being an American thing. He didn’t speak a lick of English and therefore described the scenes basically by pointing to me, making machine gun / airplane bomb run noises, then pointing to him. But, like I said, he was really good-natured about the whole thing.

Back to the guesthouse for my bag, then off to Cân Tho’.

Today I went on a boat trip down the Mekong. We saw some floating markets, which were like regular markets, but with boats to run into each other with. The more interesting part though was just floating through the villages on the river. The river in is the main street. It’s really neat, but again is one of those things that would sound really sappy if I tried to explain it, so I just suggest you see it for yourself, or look at the OBSCENE number of pictures that I took.

After that is was on to HCMC. I employed my new strategy for getting from one place to the other on the way out. I get on the back of a moto and loudly repeat my destination. Either the driver will take me to the bus, the air-conditioned minibus, the regular minibus, or take me there himself. I give up an element of price control, but at least I get there.

As I checked into a hotel, they told me that they had a room with a fan for $7 a night, or a room with A/C, satellite TV, fridge, phone, and hot water for $8 a night. You better believe I sacrificed the dollar. The room is unreal. I haven’t been anywhere with hot water and climate control in weeks. The toilet was even sanitized for my protection! Pure, unadulterated heaven.

Before I conclude this e-mail from afar, I would like to add a new segment to our little time together. “Interesting things strapped interesting places.” As there are no private cars here in Vietnam, everything must be strapped on to the back of moto bikes, or to your person. (RPCVs in the house are familiar with this.) Anyway, yesterday, I saw two gentlemen riding their moto with three 19” TV screen / tubes strapped to each, one on each thigh and one on the back. I would imagine this would be difficult to do, but when you got to move 6 screens, what’s a coupla guys to do?

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