June 23, 2009
A longstanding joke between Jed and I is about the weather. I like to know what the temperature is. Jed does not. He says if you want to know what it’s like outside, go outside. I'm not sure I can embrace his meteorological fatalism.
I’ve tried to glean the weather from the daily newspaper. Here’s a random sample weather report for Saturday June 7:
• The North: The first one or two days and the last one or two days will be partly cloudy with rain in some places. Sunny days. The other days will be cloudy with scattered rain and thunderstorm.
• The Centre: Partly cloudy with rain in some places. From 8-20th cloudy with scattered rain and thunderstorm in the northern part of the Centre.
• The Central Highlands and South: Partly cloudy with scattered rain and thunderstorms during the afternoon and evening.
As you can see, the newspaper is no help either. The internet is not much better because it reports Saigon’s weather as “highs 33 – 36°C / lows 25 – 28°C” pretty much every single day.
I made Jed buy me a thermometer when we lived in Victoria, but he won't do it here. He says I should just bring a bunch of scarves, a hat and an umbrella “anyway” no matter where we go. I understand this is what old women do, along with purses full of Scotch mints and linty tissue. I know I'm not ready for that. Maybe I'll just stick my head out the door.
A prominent lawyer was arrested a couple of weeks ago. His name is Le Cong Dinh and he lives in Saigon.
When the police arrived at his house one Saturday morning, he was charged with “colluding with domestic and foreign reactionaries to sabotage the Vietnamese State.” The arrest followed a lengthy investigation into his activities, summed up by the Department of Security as “conspir[ing] against the State by joining hands with other reactionary elements.” Some of Dinh’s “joining hands” include defending land-rights and pro-democracy activists, and one of two anti-corruption journalists jailed last October for exposing one of this country’s biggest ever government corruption scandals.
A friend of ours who is close to the story said Dinh must have really pissed off someone in Hanoi for this to happen. A document found on the lawyer’s computer is allegedly a rewritten, pro-democracy constitution given to the lawyer to read, said our friend. It had not been written by the lawyer.
Nonetheless, shortly after arriving in prison, Dinh “confessed” to his crimes. His handwritten statement says he broke the law by joining the pro-democracy group Viet Tan to challenge the State. He also says Viet Tan is a “terrorist organization” despite the group’s record of non-violence. Sentencing has not been announced.
I’d like to be able to tell you how Viet Nam ranks with Human Rights Watch or Transparency International, but at the time of this writing those sites are blocked. Unsurprisingly, so is Viet Tan’s.
I had to make due with this report from the US Department of State, which the Vietnamese government furiously contests.
Dinh was charged under Article 88 of the Viet Nam Criminal Code which activists complain is too ambiguous and serves as a "catch-all" for a soup pot of national security offences. Treason is one of them. It's a capital offence and carries a maximum penalty of death by firing squad.
June 19, 2009
Pham Ba Duy and his “Air-filtering Machine” took second place in the Children’s Idea Contest last year.
Photo copyright VNS/VNA Photo
There’s a regional contest underway, sponsored by Honda, asking elementary school children to draw pictures of their dreams about life. The organizers—natch—look for "movement and action" in the winning pictures so the contestants can go on to build 3D models of their dreams. And possibly come work for Honda later on, but that’s another story.
Nonetheless, this article appeared to drum up entries for this year. I couldn’t find any more information on the charming Mr. Pham Ba Duy (above), but his picture made me melt. What a joy to behold during a Sunday morning coffee.
Last year’s winner, a sixth-grader from Japan, dreamt of a machine that “absorbed all human anger, worry and fatigue,” reported the Sunday Viet Nam News. His device makes “drugs that boost love, happiness and satisfaction." In his speech to the judges, the inventor also wished that “all the quarrels, fights and wars in the world would disappear.” People simply blow their anger and sadness into a plastic tube inserted in his machine. Then they're dispensed “love tablets” to heal their hurt and troubles.
Love tablets, hey? That kid will be president of the world, I tell you. Can’t wait for this year’s winners to be announced. I will likely need a hanky.
June 17, 2009
Artwork copyright Jesus Gallardo
The small sign in the coffee shop asked, “In which country did weapons of war cause the most civilian casualties in 2008?”
I got the answer wrong, too.
It’s not Iraq or Afghanistan. It's Viet Nam. More civilians died here last year, as a direct result of exposure to a chemical called Agent Orange than in all other theatres of war combined, claims a local children’s charity. It was their sign I was staring at. Dioxin, found in Agent Orange, is the most toxic substance known to man.
In March the US Supreme Court sparked international outrage by refusing to review a lawsuit filed by victims of Agent Orange. Two months later, the International People’s Tribunal of Conscience in Paris ruled that the use of dioxin by the US military was indeed a war crime. (The tribunal also said the US was guilty of “ecocide.”)
I decided it was time for Jed and me to go and see Saigon’s war archive.
The War Remnants Museum is just over from the Reunification Palace. Opened shortly after the 1975 Fall of Saigon (locally referred to as the Liberation of Saigon), the museum’s pavilions are a grisly collection of weapons, propaganda and artifacts. It is also testament to the “aftermaths” of war.
It's one of these aftermaths that continues to blight Viet Nam, says the Viet Nam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA). They claim that during 1961-1971 the US army sprayed or dumped 80 million litres of toxic chemicals—mainly Agent Orange—to defoliate jungles. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs says nearly five million Vietnamese were exposed to the herbicide, resulting in 400,000 deaths and disabilities; another 500,000 children were born with birth defects. Today there are three million Agent Orange victims in Viet Nam. The poison is linked to a raft of congenital diseases and cancers.
On a bright morning, three decades after the war ended, Jed and I move through the misshapen human wreckage quietly begging by the museum’s entry gate. These men, women and children can be seen on every street in the city. They are the ghosts of the American War—stumps where arms and legs should be, twisted faces, bodies crippled by Agent Orange. The guards half-heartedly shoo them away. Past the gate, the front courtyard is haphazardly littered with the hollow triumph of captured American weaponry: a Skyraider attack bomber, Huey helicopter, tanks and much unexploded ordnance.
The museum is crowded, teeming with mostly young, tanned, gap-year backpackers born a decade or more after the war. However, I grew up with images of that war; they are deeply embedded in my psyche. I am confident—smug even—that what awaits us inside will shock these visitors more than any schlocky slasher movie can. Think the Son My massacre, My Lai massacre or Nick Ut’s image of the napalm-scorched children running down a road.
The galleries are hushed and sombre and the pictures graphic: death, torture and suffering. Photographs from the Tu Du Maternity Hospital show hideously malformed foetuses floating in formaldehyde in glass jars—another aftermath of Agent Orange. In the third pavilion, I find myself inadvertently trailing behind two women from the United States, their accented voices unnaturally loud in the silent hall. They agree it was necessary to wage war in Southeast Asia to halt the spread of Communism.
“But where did they get all these photographs?” the older woman asked her middle-aged companion, her voice rising in frustration. I could empathize; the exhibitions are overwhelming.
“Well,” replied her companion, “I reckon it was the government.” She pointed up to another picture. “They musta come over here too, besides our boys.”
“Well," spluttered the first woman, "I just don’t believe it." She's not alone. President Nixon was a doubter too. He was convinced Ut’s photo, which won a Pulitzer, had been faked.
Possibly the two women hadn’t made it to the “Requiem” display yet. Its gallery contains images taken by photojournalists who died or went missing in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos between 1945 and 1975. Some photos were literally the last one taken before the reporter stepped on a landmine or was hit by gunfire. I am unsteady on my feet before the haunting photo of last rites being administered to photojournalist Dickey Chapelle moments after she was hit by shrapnel.
Given that the museum used to be called “The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government” (the reference to South Vietnam before 1975), it’s unsurprising the museum’s tone is so one-sided. This lack of political balance is helped somewhat in the last gallery. It depicts international anti-war demonstrations and testimonials from US servicemen who became conscientious objectors and spoke out against the war.
But there’s still precious little “truth” here. There are no Viet Cong atrocities displayed; the US continues to deny any chemical wrongdoing in Viet Nam and the Vietnamese government itself tends to ignore internal demands from Agent Orange victims for housing, education or compensation.
So the beggars will be outside the museum gates tomorrow.
Touring the museum, revulsion sweeps through me. Back outside in the sunny courtyard, the tourists chatter and laugh. It’s not them blinking back tears. It’s me.
 Disabled and Disadvantaged Children’s Charity pamphlet, Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam.
June 16, 2009
Two pictures; how many
Exactly one day before the 34th Anniversary of the Liberation of Saigon, “Asian champion Truong Thanh Hang won gold for Viet Nam at the Thailand Open Track and Field Championship in Bangkok” reported Viet Nam News.
It's an exciting win on an international stage for an evolving, rapidly modernizing nation. Yet, while Hang was born after the American War ended, I was struck by how her photo reminded me of one from Viet Nam’s past.
This is Associated Press photographer Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc. On June 8, 1972, the South Vietnamese Air Force napalmed her village, Trang Bang in Tay Ninh Province in southeastern Viet Nam. She is crying, “Nóng quá! Nóng quá! Too hot! Too hot!”
Twenty-one-year-old Ut saw strips flapping on the girl’s shoulders as she ran past. He thought they were what remained of her shirt, but it was actually her flesh. Ut took Kim Phuc to the hospital.
Despite the substantial advances Viet Nam has made, the war continues to seep from the deeply furrowed faces of the elderly, to the poverty caused by ongoing issues with underdevelopment, landmines and Agent Orange poisoning, to the winners and mostly losers in the hierarchy of finding work. There remains a palpable North-South divide exacerbated by cronyism, corruption and short-sighted economic planning, such as in education reforms or the environment.
This photo remains one of my strongest childhood memories as the horror of the Vietnam War flickered in the background on my parents' black and white TV. They wouldn't tell me why the little girl was crying.
Last night the police raided a bar on
Like a wave flowing down the street, a message had been telegraphed to the shop and restaurant and bar owners. People were talking excitedly and pointing back up the street, swiftly moving chairs and tables and motorbikes off the sidewalks. It was a crackdown on unlicensed patios and illegally parked vehicles. Anh said a nearby hotel is right next to the police station and when the hotel “hears” news, it thoughtfully sends a runner out into the streets. (We speculated how much this service cost the local businesses.) Sure enough, just a few moments later, cops on motorbikes came roaring by and stopped across the street.
But we were puzzled. Flanking each side of where the officers stopped were two crowded Vietnamese beer joints, their respective parties spilling out on to the sidewalk. The Navy Café, in the middle, is owned by a truculent Frenchman, explained Anh—without taking her eyes off the street—who doesn’t talk to any of the Vietnamese living and working in the area. This might explain why the raucous Vietnamese bars were ignored and Navy Café’s furniture was rounded up. The Frenchman stuck his camera into the impassive face of every cop on the property, while the ticket writers scribbled away. The flash popped and popped, and the onlookers clapped and cheered. You pay a fine to get your furniture back, said Anh, usually about VND100,000 (US$5.60). Not so much, but the raids and confiscations do happen regularly.
This might explain what happened next.
Mr. Navy Café put aside his camera and started smashing his chairs and tables on the sidewalk, hammering the busted arms and legs against the side of the police pickup that had rolled up to collect evidence.
When all the patio furniture was smashed and hurtled into the back of the idling truck, he walked back into his café and didn’t come out again. Anh burst out laughing.
“We pay the police. He won't,” she said, “so he loses much furniture.”
June 10, 2009
A few years ago when we moved to the Canadian city of
The landlords were super picky too: no bicycles or barbecues or balloons (!) on the balcony of your apartment; no feeding the birds or squirrels; no shaking out your rugs or mops and definitely no wind chimes. And not only was smoking prohibited on your balcony, forget about lighting up anywhere in, on or even around the building’s property and perimeter. The list of the forbidden was endless.
Now we’re renting in
- Everyone smokes. Everywhere. All the time. Period.
- “Furnished” can mean anything from one bed for an entire three-bedroom house, right through to every room in the house crammed with heavy lacquered furnishings. Any remaining floor space will be occupied by giant footstools. The house might come with a malfunctioning aquarium with a rotting fish corpse in it or it might come with a cornucopia of the world's religious deities for landlords wanting to hedge their bets.
- However, under no circumstances assume you’ll get a refrigerator.
- Gas will be delivered to your home, no problem, for your little two-burner cooker in the kitchen. But you will have to bribe the delivery guy to actually bring the tank inside.
- This may explain why so many people just eat out.
- It’s not rude to inquire about a home’s propensity to flood. In fact, you’re practically socially obliged. Feel free to swap increasingly competitive stories of the high-water marks you’ve seen in other living rooms.
- Scooters, motorcycles and bicycles are to be parked in the living room and used as extra seating.
- Landlords will make you pay an “administrative fee” when you move in (usually US$50, in crisp, new, unmarked bills only, please). Rest assured this is extortion and there is nothing you can do about it.
- When the landlord comes to collect the monthly rent at the agreed-upon time of 10 a.m., you can be certain he will arrive two hours early and lean on the doorbell until someone answers. He will do this every month. Practice the ol’ pillow-on-your-head routine before you leave your home country.
- In apartments and hotels, children prefer to ride their bicycles in the hallways and only after 11 p.m.
- When you first move in you will congratulate yourself on the relative quietness of where you live—cunning you—but what you won’t realize is that the silence was only due to a brief city-wide brick shortage. You are in fact surrounded by a Buddhist-like karmic wheel of reincarnation: residential construction has been going on in your neighbourhood for years and it will continue for years, lifetimes even.
- This construction begins at 6 a.m.—on the dot—seven days a week. There is only one tool on site. It is a woefully small, but ridiculously high-pitched angle grinder that is used as a cutter, hammer and saw. But this shouldn’t cause alarm as you have likely perfected the pillow-on-the-head trick by now.
- Lastly, your home will have the landlord’s Christmas and New Year’s decorations up—all year.
I’ve decided if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. It’s just easier keeping Jed’s muddy bike in the living room and using it as a coat stand and minibar. The defective fish tank contains a couple of only-half-dead fish and besides, it was too giant and heavy to move from where it blocks space in the living room. We’ve realized the manufacturer’s true intent with its design. It’s actually an open-air cupboard that holds helmets, plastic bags, mosquito coils, dirty dishes, magazines and the landlord’s growing pile of mail. But there is one thing I can't decide. Which jewel-tone foil banner to leave up—the emerald Happy St. Patrick’s Day or the fuchsia Happy Easter?
June 5, 2009
Outdoor living and other wheeled feats
Every city has its communal “living room,” a place where people congregate and live their lives in public. Havana has its oceanfront Malecon, Portland its red-bricked Pioneer Square and in St. Gallen, Switzerland, a carpeted stadtlounge (city lounge).
In Saigon it’s scooters. Eschewing the cramped, multifamily quarters of tiny apartments, astride 100 cc motorbikes is where the denizens of the city really live.
People groom one another, change the baby, do their homework, eat dinner, do the dishes and apply makeup on their parked scooters. The bikes are multipurpose and multigenerational. They serve as chairs, tables, cribs and even loungers for those needing a quick snooze. Lovers make out on the wide, padded seat or argue across the bike, slapping the seat to emphasize the righteousness of their point. Small children sit cross-legged on the seat to play a game similar to patty-cake, singing at the top of their lungs. A skipping rope is tied to one for kids to jump or a tarpaulin hitched to another so one can drink coffee unmolested in the rain.
Saigoners’ dexterity with their motorbikes is not limited to the teeming sidewalks. While making and taking cellphone calls, drinking a juice and eating lunch, drivers transport livestock, furniture and computers stacked six high in back and two in front between the driver’s legs. Bags of goldfish, caged puppies, half an acre of coconuts and rods of rebar are transported just as easily as bananas, door frames and refrigerators. Cigarettes are lit and passed back and forth between the occupants of two motorbikes driving side-by-side, shouted conversations maintained for blocks.
The law allows for two adults and one child per scooter, but this is ignored outright. (In fact, spotting “five-to-a-bike” is one of our favourite drinking games.) Babies are fed, burped, dressed and napped while in transit, sandwiched between its parents and often, other siblings, facing either frontward or backwards depending on the activity underway.
All of this is unsurprising in a city of nearly eight million with estimates of four million scooters on the road. The 3-wheel cyclo and the 2-wheel bicycle are rapidly disappearing—too slow, too old—in favour of urban modernization, independence and the chic of a motorbike. What few buses there are play no part in any self-respecting city dweller's vocabulary. (People's jaws drop when we tell them we regularly take the bus.) As wages slowly increase, transportation critics also fret about the growing popularity of cars in these narrow colonial streets. There's talk of a commuter rail line, but it would only link one district to downtown. There is no subway, but the government promises one in a decade. By then the city’s population will be 13 million and not a single tunnel has been dug yet.