Visit to the Cu Chi area outside Saigon.

I forgot to mention something about the bus trip to Vietnam. On the way there a bunch of people on the bus all suddenly tried to look out the right side window. When I asked what happened someone explained in broken English and with sign language that we had just hit or knocked over a motorbike rider. I don’t know which and I don’t know how badly he was injured, if at all, I was on the left hand seating of the bus, so i didn’t see anything. But no one, including the driver, seemed to have any interest in stopping to see what happened to him.

Anyway, back to Vietnam. On Saturday I went to the Cu Chi area outside of Saigon. This used to be a stronghold of sympathisers with North Vietnam during the war. They showed us some of the tunnels the VC used to hide in, and the spear traps they used to snag American or South Vietnamese soldiers. You’d step on a piece of ground, which would turn out to be a trap door or rotating board on a hinge, and as you fell through you be impaled on metal spikes. Bloody nasty stuff, since your screams would then tell everybody where your company/platoon was.

On Sunday 5th I went to the former South Vietnamese Presidential Palace. Those readers who are old enough will remember the film clip of the North Vietnamese tank crashing through its front gate on the day Saigon fell to the North.

On the bus on the way back on Sunday afternoon, I saw my first actual fatality on the roadside. A motor cycle driver had been hit by something, he had been pulled from the road and his corpse was lying face up, with its feet pointed towards the road. There was some vehicle there with a flashing red light, and a crowd of 40-50 standing around gawping. Our bus just continued on. 

Getting back here, I’ve started my first regular teaching work with a  local uni, only eight hours a week at first, but I expect that will grow.

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A Short Trip to Vietnam (part 1)

Thursday 2 Sept 2010.
I’m having a four day holiday I Vietnam, specifically Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC as I should call it.) It’s cleaner and greener than Phnom Penh. There seem to be more park space around the Ben Thanh market area where I’ staying. I’ve booked a room for $17 a night right opposite where the bus pick-up is. It has hot water, aircon, and a mini fridge. I’ll go on a couple of one day trips tomorrow and the day after.
On the night before I left, Wednesday night, someone tried to enter my room, but I had the latch on the door. I woke up at the noise. When I went to investigate, one of the staff told me one of the other guest just got confused about his room. Not likely I suspected. About 15 minutes later there was yelling and screaming. Someone head entered a room of a couple on the third floor: The room didn’t have a chain on the door. A guest decided to check out pay his bill and jump on his motorbike at 3 am. No one tried to stop him. He left his girlfriend behind in the room, but he fitted the description of the guy entering the third floor room. When the owner finally appeared she agreed to get chains on all the rooms.
The next day on the way here to Vietnam there was a commotion on the bus, and people stared out the window. Apparently the bus driver has either knocked someone off his bike, or a motorbike rider had gone over trying to avoid us, I don’t know which. But the bus driver didn’t slowdown, and nobody suggested he did. The other passengers appeared to be Vietnamese or Cambodian and I couldn’t communicate “shouldn’t we slow down?” I don’t know if anybody would have paid any attention if I did. As a thirty-something woman said to me a couple of weeks ago. “You have to look out for yourself on these roads because nobody else is looking out for you.”
The odd thing is the next day a guy came up to me in a park in HCMC park and said, “You were on the bus yesterday.” When we talked about it turned out he did have OK English. He said he heard something hit side of the bus, but couldn’t see what happened to the motorcycle rider. I guess the moral of this story is either have a big vehicle, or go really slowly and give everybody a wide birth like I do on my bicycle.
The scenery here is not much different from Cambodia, although I noticed that almost every building had a Vietnamese flag out the front. Patriotism? Compulsion? I don’t know.
In the area around Ben Thanh market, there are lots of “tourist security” people in bright green uniforms: I don’t know whether they are real police or private security guards or what. I found the exchange rate confusing. It’s really 2,000 dong to the dollar, but in an ATM I attempted to withdraw $100, and discovered later I’d only withdrawn $10. It will probably cost me another $10 in fees and things by the time it gets back to Australia.
I didn’t get much chance to see anything except the market and the revolutionary museum by the time things closed up tonight.

Friday 3 August 2010

On Friday (today) I went to a few museums, one of which was the “War Remnants Museum.”
(Nice neutral title that.) Some parts of this museum don’t make nice viewing. There I saw a photo of a US soldier holding up part of a corpse: the head, a shoulder, some of the torso and one leg were together and he was holding that all up by the leg. The rest was in a mess by the ground. There was also a group of American soldiers sitting around some beheaded Vietnamese corpses. Now before any body jumps to any conclusions, yes I’m sure the North Vietnamese behaved in a similar way with enemy bodies, and did things I could only guess at. And they probably won’t put those photos on display in their own museum. These photos just happened to be taken of Americans by Americans and ended up in Vietnamese hands after the war, so they ended up in the Vietnamese museum.  I don’t know why people take these kinds of photos, or let themselves be photographed holding up part of a corpse to display for the camera. But I’ve never been in combat so maybe I just don’t and won’t ever ‘get it.’ The museum, obvioulsy is designed to show the war from the victorious (North) Vietnamese side’s point of view.

I went to a water puppet show which I’d highly recommend to anyone coming to Saigon/ HCMC. The puppets float on water with a backdrop of the exterior of a house behind them and the puppeteers are controlling the puppets from behind the backdrop using wires that go under the water. You never see the controlling strings or wires like you do in western puppet shows.
You can tell Vietnam is better off economically than Cambodia, just from the lesser amount of rubbish, broken cement and left over masonry on the roads and sidewalks. There are almost no tuk tuks, and there are motor bikes every where.

People told me Vietnamese book sellers, cyclo drivers etc were much more aggressive here than in Cambodia, but that hasn’t been true. I’ve just said “no thanks ” or shook my head, made no eye contact and kept walking staring at the pavement 40 feet a head of me. No body has really hassled me.

Tomorrow I’m gong on a trip through the country side and to have a look at the tunnel systems the Vietnamese used during the war to hide and smuggle arms.

Some blunt questions from Cambodians

30 August 2010

Cambodians can be direct (although, yes, so can other people.)

On my recent trip in the countryside, a twenty six year old female passenger asked me about my marital status (divorced) and if I was thinking of finding a new wife in Cambodia. I replied (quite honestly) that I just hadn’t thought about it. On reflection the answer should have been a straight no, because i think that cross cultural marriages can have their problems and I haven’t thought about what would be involved in one. I came here to teach English, not to get a new younger wife.
The lady in question commented on the number of western men who come to Cambodia for this purpose. I didn’t know if I was being sounded out, or if she were sounding me out for an older friend of hers that I had met. Normally in Australia I might only discuss that subject with someone I’ve known for a time, or someone I had met on a dating site, where the assumption is that you’re looking for some kind of partnership or you wouldn’t be there.

I’ve also had a couple of  Cambodians tickle me on the tummy while telling me I look overweight. They did It in a humorous way, but it takes a bit of getting used to – people I’d only met two or three times did this. I noticed when I was in Seam Reap, people standing quite close to me a couple of times held my upper arm upper arm in what was meant to be a friendly way when talking to me. They seemed to do it when they were earnestly trying to convincing me of something.

On a better note, I’ve been offered some evening work at a large university here, starting about the 15th. This leaves time for me to fit a trip to Vietnam into the last part of this week.

And I’ll be able to fit a trip back home in November without disrupting their teaching schedule. They have strange term dates here: exactly 60 teaching days per term, so if there’s a public holiday (they have about twenty a year here) the term just gets extended and the next one starts late, so they don’t on the same days each year.

In the meantime, I’ve joined in the exercises classes that are held in the park opposite the royal palace each late afternoon. (I don’t know what they do when it starts raining- I  haven’t been there when that’s happened so far.)

A Drive in the Country

24 August 2010

I went for a drive in the country side over the weekend with some Cambodian acquaintances. There were rice fields full of light bright green crops, white, pink and purple lotus flowers, geese ducks, dogs and cows wandering everywhere, including on a national highway. The only animals that seemed always to be on a leash were the water buffalo. The drivers here constantly honk their horns to let motorbike rides bicycle riders and kids on the side of the road know they are here.
The Cambodians stuff vans full to the brim and beyond. One van was so full the back hatch door was up and half a motorbike was poking out. And it had a guy sitting on it. In another van about a meter of flooring material was poking out the open rear door and there was a guy sitting on that.
Unfortunately one dog was standing in the middle of the road staring into space. Our driver honked, it didn’t move and he hit it. I instinctively looked out the right window to see if we’d killed it. It took a few seconds to realise we could still hear yelping, and since we were still moving, the dog must be under the car. We were dragging it along. The driver stopped, reversed, the dog ran out, with a visibly raw patch on its rump,  and ran away. Everybody laughed. I felt quite shocked. I guess in rural Cambodia there’s no point in doing a door knock to find whose dog it is, or offer to pay the vet bill, because there are probably no vets.

Another strange thing about this place: with a population of 14 million, there are 40 – yes – 40 psychiatrists. 30 of them live in the capital, Phnom Penh, which has 2 million people. So the other 12 million have ten psychiatrists between them. This in a county where 10 per cent of the population show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder! It’s a strange place. For more on this read:

http://www1.voanews.com/khmer-english/news/Mental-Health-Crisis-Strains-Cambodia-91069979.html

Bike riding in Phnom Penh: driving on the wrong side of the road makes sense.

I’ve discovered that Phnom Penh traffic isn’t as dangerous as it looks. All you have to do is ride very slowly and if in doubt stop. I managed to get quite a distance today to deliver a job application to an American School. I also discovered that this habit of driving on the wrong side of the road but keeping to the very edge is quite handy. If you want to turn left from a right hand lane into another right hand lane on the far side of the road, but the traffic is too dense, you just turn left into the wrong side of the road, and go very slowly so that people have a chance to avoid you. It seems to work, since everyone expects people to do it. I’ve noticed that the police are pulling people over and fining them for driving motor bikes without a helmet. So the law is beginning to be enforced.

I also went to the central market on the north edge of the business district and bought myself some shoes for $16 and some business shirts each for $8.

A French organisation has offered me some work leading discussions in English and doing some editing of publications to check the correct English. I should meet them in the next couple of days.

Getting around by bike in Phnom Penh

Wed 11 August

I noticed for the first time today that my tuktuk driver wears a helmet (to comply with the law), but it’s just a thin plastic helmet of the type that office fire wardens might have. It has no padding or anything protective about it. It looks like a toy helmet.

Sat 14 August.

I went out with the Hash House Harriers, a running / walking club. They meet near the railway station in the north of the town centre. the staion looks deserted and i’m not sure if it is actually in use. We went to the country side, I think north of Phnom Penh. Afterwards we went to a restaurant, as they usually do. Nice food, nice conversation. The next run is in Siem Reap.

16 August.

I moved into a new hotel: Spring guest house. Even though I inspected the room first I failed to notice it doesn’t have a fridge. That means I can’t store fresh milk for the mornings. I got adventurous and bought myself a bicycle. One of the hash people helped me. I feel a bit unsafe riding around the streets here since the traffic is chaotic and a lot of people don’t seem to give hand signals. I ‘m not sure what the road rules are about giving way and no one else seems sure either, or at least not able to explain them to me. One of the tuktuk drivers from the school says he can take me home for two dollars a day, so that saves me the trouble of haggling out on the main street with a new driver every day.

17 November

I discovered I can buy small cartons of long life milk –without added sugar- at the Lucky Supermarket (a big one near the intersections of Sihanouk Blvd. and Monivong Blvd., two of the biggest streets in town.) Negotiating them on a bicycle was a bit difficult, but I got there and back without killing myself.

First week in Phnom Penh: school, cops and submachine guns

Friday 6 August 2010

I arrived in Phnom Penh. The airport has a fixed tuktuk fare from the airport to the city of $7, so that saves the hassle of negotiating (haggling) with a driver when you don’t know the right fare. I had forgotten this since my last trip in April.

Because of the greater traffic congestion here, many main roads have concrete barriers down the centre of the road to stop people swapping and driving on the driving on the wrong side of the road as they do in Siem Reap. The hotel is quite comfortable. I went for a walk round to familiarise myself with the main streets nearby, bought some soap and shampoo, but didn’t find a place that sold shaving cream or dental floss.

 The hotel serves breakfast for two dollars. It includes toast, cereal, watermelon, banana and juice tea or coffee. 

I had an interesting conversation with a western film-maker. He is making a documentary about the destruction of the forests in Asia and how it’s affecting orang-utans. He said sometimes animal rescue organisations will find orang-utans which are being held as domestic pets, and the animal has copied human habits to the point where the animal has learned to smoke cigarettes, drink beer, and use the remote on the TV to change channels. I had heard of the destruction of forest causing these creatures to become endangered but I didn’t realise people kept them as pets and let them learn human habits like this. I was actually quite shocked.

On Sunday (8th)

 I went out with the Hash House Harriers for a walk in the country side outside Phnom Penh. They were a nice group of people. Apparently there is one of these groups in Seam Reap, but I was never aware of it when I was there. Afterwards we had a multiple course dinner in a restaurant for $4 each.

 Monday 9th.

I went to my new school. The tuk tuk driver got lost going to the school.  I met Lisa, a volunteer who is an Australian Goodwill Ambassador, Sokouhn, one of the teachers, Sokien, the guard, and Boray, the school administrator. Everyone seemed very nice and friendly.

Tuesday 10th

I went out this morning and met three of my pupils. We were up on the second floor balcony studying some newspaper articles. Their English is good: they could read and discuss newspaper articles about election violence in the Philippines and deportation of asylum seekers. There was a lot of noise outside our building.   The girls went over to the edge of the balcony and I followed them just in time to see a couple of police motor bikes speed past (which is not easy on a dirt road with potholes filled by broken bricks and masonry). One of the cops had a sub machinegun on his back. The girls could hear the locals in the street saying the police were chasing two thieves on a motor bike. The cops had fired three shots into the air. Then there was silence for a few minutes. Then the sound of motor bikes again. The cops came back, and on one motor bike they had a cop at the front, a guy in hand cuffs behind him and a cop sitting behind him, i.e., three guys on one bike. (This is quite common here to have three or four people (which usually include a kid or two) on one bike. The kids could hear the locals saying the cops got one guy but the one with the bike got away.  So that provided an instant essay in which they could practice past tense verbs + ing (were studying, were riding, and were shooting. But next time I’ll stay away from the edge of the balcony if I hear banging noises: as someone reminded me today, “what goes up (bullets) must come down.”

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