Sunday, March 5, 2006
Thanh Armagost is amazing and I've decided to ask her to be my Condoleeza once I become rich and famous. She's the Vietnamese lady who, as well as being a member of the Friends of Danang, was responsible for organizing this entire trip. Every bit of it: the flights, the cars, the translators, hotels, tour buses, bottles of cold water, fresh fruit, mini baguettes, you name it. She never missed a trick. When you hit the hotel lobby in the morning, you heard thirty-five people yelling her name. And she never screamed back. Now here she was riding heard on us like a bunch of wayward Girl Scouts, rolling our carts into the parking lot.
Somehow, she'd also found time to have a group at the airport with a giant banner that said Welcome Friends of Danang and WQED Multimedia.” There were beautiful flowers and baseball caps and lots of hugs. After nearly 40 hours of being gross on a plane, it made us all feel special.
Traffic in Ho Chi Minh city is like nothing you've ever seen (unless you grew up in Rome or Mexico City). Hundreds of daredevils on tiny scooters and motorbikes. It's completely normal to see whole families -- mom, dad, toddler and a basket of live ducks --- all on one scooter. And sprinkled among them, beautiful girls in their ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress, worn with silk pants. Patiently pedaling Pee Wee Herman bikes through the horrendous traffic. Chris, Boone and Perry were overwhelmed when we finally reach the Majestic Hotel. While Boone and Perry hit the comfy chairs, Chris is out front with his camera taping the scene. The Majestic was built in 1925 and was once owned by the French back when Colonialism was all the rage. Chris says the last time he saw Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), the front was covered in concrete grenade screens to protect the visiting big wigs. The only thing covering the front now were some showy palms and another welcome banner.
I don't have a lot of time to get into how grand the hotel is or its carved wooden furniture and gorgeous marble concierge desk. ‘Cuz we've gotta check the gear to make sure its working, wash our faces, and grab some tape and hit the city. We want to get fresh impressions of the guys as they see it again (for the first time). So we're off and running before you can say “How about a beer?”
Ho Chi Minh City is full of surprises. Not the least of which are all the American and European businesses. Right in front of us is a Kentucky Fried chicken, we pass an AC Nielsen office building, a Carrier air conditioner store. Weird. Our next stop was the War Remnants Museum, an exhibit space dedicated to preserving the history of governments (and their weaponry) that had sought to dominate the Vietnamese people. In the main courtyard was a spooky display of American weaponry from the Vietnam conflict.
Though it seems odd to us, the Vietnamese people call the conflict “The American War.” The Museum's courtyard was filled with Fighter jets (two F-12s, with machine guns still mounted), a helicopter, a tank and a whole yard full of bombs and missiles. It was all very spooky. To step out of an air-conditioned van and see the open hatch of a helicopter with a machine gun poking at you is a very unsettling feeling, even if it has been a tourist attraction for the last 30 years. As creepy as the old napalm and Agent Orange canisters were, they couldn't compare to the sprung shrapnel grenades designed to lodge boomerangs of metal deep into human flesh.
Inside the museum space was even tougher. There were floor-to-ceiling gritty black and white posters of children eaten alive by phosphorous bombs and napalm. Tiny little kids with hanks of skin hanging off them, who didn't look so much in pain as completely shocked. They just didn't seem to understand why there was nothing where their hands and feet used to be. As hard as I found it all to take in, it must have been even tougher on Chris and the boys. They didn't stay inside very long.
After a driving tour of the city, we got back to the Majestic just as dusk was falling. Thanh had arranged a cyclo tour of the city for us before dinner, which was not exactly the calming evening I had in mind. Cyclos are little seats with canopies mounted on a bicycle frame with a skinny fella sitting behind pedaling the whole contraption. Now, I've been on the backs of motorcycles in thunderstorms, in bad neighborhoods, across the Golden Gate Bridge and through the Donner Pass. But none of those adventures can compare to the tooth grinding fear of that cyclo ride. At any given time, any cyclist or auto driver could have smushed me like a bug. And I hadn't even had a chance to unpack.