Mar 042008

Just in case I didn’t already think Nixon and Kissinger were complete mental bastards: The Nukes of October: Richard Nixon’s Secret Plan to Bring Peace to Vietnam

Nixon decided to try something new: threaten the Soviet Union with a massive nuclear strike and make its leaders think he was crazy enough to go through with it. His hope was that the Soviets would be so frightened of events spinning out of control that they would strong-arm Hanoi, telling the North Vietnamese to start making concessions at the negotiating table or risk losing Soviet military support.

Interesting, a year before and in a political race for the presidency, Nixon intervened to persuade South Vietnam to avoid the talks. This potentially stopped an early peace deal. Nice one, dick.

Codenamed Giant Lance, Nixon’s plan was the culmination of a strategy of premeditated madness he had developed with national security adviser Henry Kissinger. The details of this episode remained secret for 35 years and have never been fully told. Now, thanks to documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, it’s clear that Giant Lance was the leading example of what historians came to call the “madman theory”: Nixon’s notion that faked, finger-on-the-button rage could bring the Soviets to heel.

That’s about the stupidest plan I’ve ever heard of.

Jun 092006

(Mekong photos can be found here)

May 6th, 2006

I didn’t have high hopes for our Mekong Delta tour. It had all the hallmarks of an uncomfortable experience – package tour, arranged through our hotel, and $10 for an entire day & lunch. Luckily I’m just a pessimistic bugger. It was a great experience.

Though there are a lot of tourists in the Mekong, it didn’t seem to be much of an issue for the locals – they all seemed genuinely friendly and happy we were there. After a day of driving around in a boat your face would be sore from smiling, and your arm limp from returning greetings.

Our Mekong Delta tour group was a pretty worldly mix – a Spaniard, Brazilian, Canadian, Pilipino, two Dutch, two Mexicans, two Japanese, and a couple Americans. Just to add to it, our guide spoke with a heavy mix of Vietnamese and New Zealand accents.

We started the tour by visiting coconut candy and puffed rice workshops. Though touristy, they were enjoyable. After watching the coconut press, we sat down for miniature tea with honey. The puffed rice workshop was educational, it was fun to watch the hot black sand puff the rice in a few seconds. It was also interesting to see things that weren’t part of the tour – a mayna bird speaking Vietnamese to his audience of baby chickens or the elaborate altars in the front and back yards.

Next up were the floating markets. We were too late in the day to visit a local’s market, but the wholesale market runs until you empty your boat. They would hang a sample of the merchandise on a pole off the front of the boat to advertise what was for sale; mostly pineapple and root veggies.

After that we cruised over the river to an island delta. We traveled up the narrow body of water, gawking at river business and homes. Eventually we docked and walked to a spot for lunch. Our bellies full of elephant ear fish, we were free to explore the island by bicycle. I was surprised, only a few of us took the bikes out for a ride. It was actually a bit cooler on a bike, the wind felt good.

We took the road all the way to the end – the ferry depot. A group of guys were enjoying the shade, and some beer. They smiled and waved me over. I really wanted to stay and have a drink, but our boat was leaving in a few minutes. “I’m sorry, I have to leave for my boat”. “Oh, ok” one replied, “Picture then!” and motioned me to take a photo. I smiled and obliged. They all waved as we rode our bikes back down the road to the boat. The delta folks are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever seen. After that it was back to the boat, then the bus back to Saigon.

Jun 052006

(Saigon photos can be found here)

May 4, 5, 7-9, 2006

After some fun donating blood (still waiting for Anna to write about that) at the children’s hospital, we were running a bit late. Han the Man got us to the airport in record tuk-tuk time and we had twenty minutes to spare.

Flying over Saigon, I couldn’t really get any sense of how large it was. I’m pretty sure we just flew over the least populated areas. Saigon is huge, and packed full of people. They claim there are two and a half million registered scooters in the city, but 3-4 million commute into the city each day. I wonder how many are unregistered.

To get an idea of how busy this city feels, throw all six million scooters into a busy city core with no freeways. Add a dash of work truck, a pinch of bicycles, and an increasing number of cars. Bake at 90 F under a tropical sun for 12 hours. These days the bandit riders sport masks that help with breathing, more than their skin tone.

If it sounds busy, loud, and a bit oppressive, it is. But Saigon is also fast, exciting, and energizing. One gets the feeling that if you stood still for a moment, you could almost see the city change before your eyes. The speed of change, both economically and culturally, gives the city a bipolar feel. One moment you are wandering through a historic building, the next you are walking by brand new sky scrapers. A woman in conservative traditional dress walks next to a woman in revealing western clothes.

Saigon is a great place to be a tourist. Other than in backpacker area, we found we were much more of a curiosity than a dollar sign. People were very friendly, and we had no shortage of help. If you ever want to talk for a few hours with a young Vietnamese person, just stay still for a few minutes in a park. Everyone here seems to be learning english, and a whole lot of them want to practice their language skills with you: Anna and I talked to two girls in a Saigon park for a few hours.

The next night I was out for some long exposure photography (or as long as I could go in a light filled city anyway). I was at the traffic circle near Ben Thanh Market. It started to rain, so I headed for shelter under a statue of Tran Nguyen Hai. Joining me for shelter were three policemen, though their uniforms always make me think army. The two older ones pretended to be uninterested in me, while looking me over on the sly. The younger one didn’t hesitate. “What country are you from?” Two hours later, I had to excuse myself to walk back to the hotel, as it was after midnight. I love unplanned exchanges.

May 152006

The last spot we traveled to before heading home was Halong Bay, part of the Gulf of Tonkin. A green ocean spotted with tall limestone islands, Halong Bay is an amazing destination. We did a two day tour through Ocean Tours on the Hai Au Star, and loved it. It was the perfect blend of relaxation and activity. I wished we could stay a week. I need photos for more words…

Anna and I are back home from Cambodia and Vietnam. We are tired and dragging from the jetlag, but we both really enjoyed our time in the two countries. Never enough time, as usual. Will probably do some more writing about the two countries, as we didn’t spend much time in net cafes while we were there. Photos should start to come some time later in the week – it takes a while to sort and process them.

May 112006

Only have time for a quick post before the tour bus gets here…

We had wanted to try out Bia Hoi (fresh beer) in Saigon, but didn’t get around to finding a watering hole near our hotel. When went looking for one in Hanoi when we arrived, but they were all closed (11pm). Everything seemed to be closed after ten in Hanoi. Saigon kept going all night. Bia hoi is a light (4% alch) lager (almost a pilsner, but not as bitter) that is brewed and consumed daily. Usually served on the street, the beer is also dirt cheap. Depending on the rate of white-face-tax, you can usually pick up about four pints for a buck, and the food at a bia hoi place is cheap as well.

Yesterday after a long walk we finally managed to get some bia hoi. We stopped in at one busy shop near our hotel, and grabbed some seats on the first floor (second floor). There was a party of some sort finishing up near us, so we made our way through the peanut shells and paper napkins to snag a table. These places don’t seem to be touristed at all, so we had a pretty warm welcome.

We ordered a couple glasses and watched the guys next to us get more and more red faced. I’ve heard some disparaging remarks about the taste of bia hoi, but I found it quite good. Served in a cold glass, the light body is perfectly suited for the weather. I polished off three glasses. A bia hoi spot seems to be the perfect place to take a break. You can sit and relax, or make a toast and a few friends.

PS – The bia hoi staff also seemed to be some of the most deserving of a tip. They were friendly, hard working, and seemed to be on the lower end of the income scale. Most of the staff seemed to live at the joint (they were collecting their laundry and rolling out sleep mats as we left), and were hungry enough to finished off food that guests left behind. Since your bill is probably only a buck, there shouldn’t be any excuse for tight wallets.

May 102006

We arrived in Ha Noi around 10 PM last night. Our singing cabbie with a musical horn provided us with an adrenaline filled drive from the airport. Once the traffic opens up, everyone takes the opportunity to drive as fast as they can, regardless of lanes or the potential for smearing the scooter driver beside them into a wall. There is less traffic here than in Saigon, but the drivers seem a bit crazier. Its like a really fun video game, except no one wears helmets or seatbelts in this version. Good times.

One thing you will also be quick to notice in Vietnam – music. They love saccharine love songs, and lots of singing. A good bit of prime time tv here is game shows where the host, contestants, and some random other people all end up singing at some point. But it isn’t just TV, random people through the day will break into song. Maybe it is just all the practice, but I have to say, most of them are pretty good.

Today we wandered around Hanoi’s old quarter maze. Hanoi’s streets used to be arranged by guild – ie metal workers street. These days it isn’t followed as much, but there are still streets where you find a whole lot of one thing. Need to get your grave stone done? I know where to take you.

Hanoi seems more tourist driven than Saigon, but that’s probably just the old quarter. During your walk you have to fend off fruit cyclos, motos, and fruit vendors. The street vendors in Saigon just sort of eyed us over before getting back to work. Here the buggers cross the street to get to you, slap the fruit on your shoulder and say “Picture!” Then try to sell you a couple bananas for some crazy price. You need to keep your sense of humor.

The moto guys always seem to be precariously perched & lounging on their scooter seat when I see them. I aren’t real motivated, the biggest sales pitch I get is a half assed eyebrow nod and a “moto?”. Though some also do the shifty-eye and then say “maruwanna” in a low voice. I always laugh and say no. The cyclos on the other hand, those guys might follow you for a block before jumping on an easier target. They seem to always in a good mood though, so it can be a fun time.

Tomorrow it is off to Halong Bay for some kayaking & lounging on a junk. Back in Hanoi Friday night, then we fly out on Saturday. I wish we had more time…

May 082006

Rule number one for air travel – check your flight before you leave for the airport. Of course, it helps if the airline actually lists that sort of information on the internet, or has an easy to call hotline. Ours doesn’t. But, thats what your friendly hotel staff should be for, we just weren’t that bright this morning.

Our Vietnam Airlines flight has been “delayed” nine hours – from 9:30 AM to 6:30 PM. The staff said, “no problem, go to your gate and we will feed you lunch and dinner”. Some how passing 9 hours on a chair and eating airport food didn’t sound fun. So we went the taxi voucher route to the Dong Khoi district. I picked the district because I thought 1) we need to use the internet to contact our hotel (and ride) in Hanoi and let them know about the flight change, and 2) we need to pass a lot of time.

Traffic took care of an hour for us. Getting “directions” to an internet cafe ate up another hour, so it is now 11 AM. Still better than sitting in a terminal. Finding a net cafe was particularly hard – usually you can’t swing a cat with out hitting a moto driver, a cyclo, and an internet cafe. But it was complicated by other factors…

I hadn’t had to deal with the “face” aspect of Asia culture too much. Mostly just to keep things light when in negotiations. But today I think I’ve figured out another aspect of “face”. If someone hesitates while giving directions and is a bit vague (general hand sweeps or points), then there might be a good chance that they are making it up. I’m assuming it is seen as better to give a wrong answer, than none at all.

Not knowing that some of the answers might not be so informative, we had a bit of a wild goose chase before we figured out we should only trust some answers. For the Harpers fans:

Saigon’s Index for Internet Cafe directions
(aka the rough statistics for the last hour and a half)

  • Total number of people asked for directions: 21
  • Total number of people that gave directions: 20
  • First person to give a correct answer: 11th person
  • Total number of people that gave correct directions: 3

Good times.

May 082006

Anna here, posting while Chris is nursing a cold. Today I spent some time on my own in Saigon — getting lost and taking cyclos to get back on track. It takes a lot of my energy to strategize how I’m going to cross the street. By the time I get across several streets and a few massive, chaotic traffic circles I end up turned around and heading in the wrong direction. But it’s definitely no problem, still fun.

Today I went to the War Remnants Museum (American War Museum). Chris did not want to go. He wants to focus on Vietnam today, not in the past — which I respect and understand (even envy). That war was over before Chris was born, and Canada wasn’t involved. For me, that war was in my lifetime and I felt some need to display some reverence for the tragic events that my government participated in. After reading about the museum, I had opted to go to the Reunification Palace instead and avoid the disturbing photos. But the palace is under renovation this month — so off to the war museum I went.

I’m not really capable of describing how I felt from this experience, so I’ll just give a brief review of the museum. They had a lot of U.S. military equipment on display. Bombers and helicopters, bombs and tanks and bulldozers and many other weapon and chemical delivery devices, each with a description of what they were used for, how many were in Vietnam and when they arrived, and their effective distance and radius of destruction. Most of the rest of the exhibits were photos, with one wall of paintings by children about war and peace. In school, I learned about what we call the Vietnam war, but it’s a different scale to hear the story told from this side (the American war). Three million Vietnamese killed in that war, and the museum managed to make the point of the individuals — with before and after photos of victims of various massacres, their names and stories. It was impossible not to cry. I don’t understand the motivations for the types of weapons, chemicals and tactics — from this side it really does look like an attempted genocide.

On the up side, I was able to leave that behind when I left the museum. The chaos of the city wouldn’t let me dwell — it swept me back to today.