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lundi 21 juillet 2008


An Impressive Tale in Ho Chi Minh City
Highlight of my Friends, Food and Far East tour of December 2007

A feast in the literal sense, that is Saigon/HoChiMinh City: Food, active people, moving in orderly fashion and innocent interactions. Delicious food wherever you looked. It is said that Vietnamese food is like the best Chinese food cooked by a well trained French chef. I ate only a little at a time because I wanted to eat often!
All through this, my guide was Pham Thi Nga. She is lithesome, enthusiastic, open minded and transparent. She had worked at the national Airlines of Vietnam for three years. I had met her on one of her first international flights from Hanoi to Siem Reap in November of 2003. She has travelled with Vietnam Airlines to Tokyo(her favourite), Seoul, Australia and Europe. She makes friends easily and her life was full of exhilarating interactions for a woman so young. She was the first woman chosen for pilot’s training at Vietnam Airlines, but all her friends and family discouraged her by insisting that it s not a woman’s career. I felt sad she decided to withdraw, for she would have excelled in it, she has the inner strength and personality to go with it. But she would use it in another sphere to excel, I am certain. She is currently an Administrative Assistant at an International company in HoChiMinh City.
Our day in HCMC, accompanied by her father, a good looking gentle man from the North, was a full one, buoyed by succeeding interactions.
I wanted to visit the largest maternity hospital in all of Vietnam (the scenes from le Premier Cri, comes to life here, as I had recently seen the movie in Paris). We drove past the cathedral ( I was told that 1/3 of the colonial budget for Indo Chine was devoted to building this edifice, brown stones from Marseilles, withstanding the time and temperature), walked along the Embassy row, French colonial buildings interspersed with the modern concrete ones.
The first dinner was at Bun Bo Hue, right in the heart of the city. Very attentive staff and the food arrived, so good to have a person who lives there to guide you on this gastronomical tour of this delicious country. Also, Nga was careful to make sure that none of the dishes contain pork or pork fat, thus making ordering food an adventure. The mid morning meal on this first day was at a busy restaurant near the market, where the local population was busy eating, noodles, and various other combinations. Nga ordered and I just ate, with security and delight.
The hospital filled me with a greatest desire to serve, so good to be medically qualified, to be present where I am needed, of course, compatible with my personality and the little talent I have in taking care of people.
Long walk to the Zoo exhausted me through the heat. At the entrance, there were festivities to entertain children, sponsored by some soft drink in tetrapak ( bienvennue, la obesite!). Zoo with some lonely animals ina textured garden setting bearing the french signature. We walked around slowly, escaping the heat in the shadows of the palm trees carefully transplanted from other tropical climes.
A Hippo eyed us suspiciously, the pygmy hippo couldn’t disappear fast enough. The lonely Orang Utan did not answer my queries in his native language, did he think my questions were rudimentary or did he only understand the iban language of the tribes near by. An ostrich was forlornly looking for its disappeared feathers, a sheep heavily clad in his winter coat, snoozing away much to my envy, an outback Cassowry, cockily turned his blue ornamented hood, the elephants playfully took the cane strips offered them by the children.
I was getting tired, worn out, exhausted by the heat. A freshly squeezed cane juice brought back the breeze of life.
The museum saff was on lunch break, so the time was passed looking at the children, obesity beginning to appear with the adoption of preservatives in the food. Ah well they have to live through this sense of development which would include Diabetes in the future. But many many Vietnamese are proud of their food and not willing to give it up, even as an occasional treat, food which are not good for their system.
Well organized archeology of the country told in historic terms, some embellished in the soviet era rhetoric . A good collection of Khmer sculptures, poor Cambodia, so much of its treasures are abroad, some intact and some in state of disrepair, Musee Guimet in Paris. May Andre Malraux be pardoned!
Time for another meal. A welcome one. PHO 24, freshly prepared PHO, a Vietnamese staple. Food in Vietnam is fresh, fragrances of the countryside and made to order. No traiteur orientales here…
The night before I had met a group of young Vietnamese entrepreuners and workers, at a café called AQ Café. I liked the fact that Cafes are catering for the locals rather than trying to score the tourist trade with dubious qualities of food and service. Vietnamese men and women with hope written all over their face, unlike other asian countries, they are firmly rooted in their culture and the atmosphere was electrified with the chatter in Vietnamese with an occasional translation for me. I thoroughly enjoyed watching them, feeling a part of their hope and aspiration and at the same time grateful to be present there with my dear friend Nga, being introduced into her world.
Their resonated through the air to my ears, Quan, Hoang, Duy Anh, Quyen, Thuy, Tung, Hach…
Riding as a pillion passenger through the maze of traffic in HoChiMinh city is a thrilling experience indeed, thanking every moment I don’t have to drive through it but I can see that with a little bit of maneuvering one can learn to drive in HoChiMinh City. Alcohol consumption in large amounts have not arrived in HCMC yet, so there is a secure feeling that the drives of the countless numbe of motorcycles are in control of their vehicles, whereas in Thailand, they blame alcohol for the high number of accidents there on the roads.
Balmy nights, the people who give character to the streets have gone home, leaving an eeriness to the deserted streets in this big city. Riding as a pillion passenger, with wisps of hair and fragrances writing poetry on your face and in your heart. Being grateful for a day and night like this.
Nga represent the new Vietnam, based firmly on the positive values of the old. VN is not changing to fit into the world order by rejecting itself, but incorporating the best of the other society into the strengths and weaknesses of their own society.
Vietnam is a not a violent society. And the freedom and respect accorded to women puts it way ahead of the latin American nations, with the exception of Cuba, possibly Argentina and Chile, where there is socially organized and condoned violence against women. Here is a young woman, who by the sheer determination has gotten ahead in the cut throat competition which has been imported into Vietnam as it integrated itself into the world economy. She likes being Vietnamese but at the same time learns from others, such as her like for Japan and French fineries. She prepared a meal for me and her friend Thuy and her father in her new apartment, which is in the process of owning ( that alone is magnificent in that she is able to do that). All fresh ingredients, bought that morning at the market which is quite close by. I walked around the neat apartment, kept so well with feng shui which is welcoming. It had a better ambience of welcome than the hotel I was staying, eventhough it was a small boutique hotel well designed by a local Vietnamese architect.
A fresh perspective for me into the age old mystery of Vietnam and its people, my undulating respect for Ho Chi Minh, the indefatiguable leader of the Vietnamese people, who brought them dignity and self respect, was strong enough to expel two mighty metropolitan empires, France and USA. What amazes me is that an average Vietnamese does not hold any grudge either against the French nor the American.. A great lesson in humility for me, brought up in the egoistic tradition of the west.
On this tour of Friends, Food and Far East, I wanted to fulfill a desire inside me to see people who rotate through the skies of my imagination and thoughts. The first stop has been HCMC and I wanted to recreate in my mind our last encounter at the CDG airport in Paris and the time before eating at the restaurant serving northeastern Vietnamese cuisine (bordering China). Memory from travel hangs like a mist over the longings one has, never having left it lingers on, but reminds you of the pleasant times.
The lesson I have learned from Nga is this. It is not your aspirations and desires that define you but the clarity with which you look at it and the lack of deviousness to bring about change. She has a heart , exemplifying what Uncle Ho stood for, and from whom Uncle Fidel might have learned a lesson or two. Do good things to other people, and to those are unfortunate, do more without expecting anything in return. Let all of us get ahead together, let us not step on each other on our way up the ladder.
If a young Vietnamese girl can complete her university studies, do well her in her job at Vietnam Airlines, think with clarity to buy a house in her homeland, think positively about her country and her culture, those of us who live elsewhere, whether in countries which are sheer imitations of the west ( such as Singapore) or oppressed societies ( such as Burma) or affluent societies such as Australia or USA, can also do our little bit: honesty, sincerity, compassion and respect. As my American Indian teachers had instructed me, it is only through Love and Respect that you can hope to change anything in this world where so much violence and suffering is inflicted upon so many innocent and undeserving people.
Thus I present to you, a positive picture, a metaphor for change for Asia, to feel good in our hearts, which is connected to Asia in one way or other.
Think yourself as an Asian, my father once told me, not confine yourself within its geographical boundaries. Let all of us get ahead, at the same time be proud of who we are…

This note, needless to say, is dedicated to my good friend, Pham Thi Nga of Vietnam, she belongs to both the North and the South.
Finished writing this, without editing, at 1 pm Miami Time on 6th January 2008