I worked a lot of overtime over the last two years and knew I would have the money to go back to Khánh Hòa back in August of last year. I went online and secured the airline ticket in September to go in March 2016 and then told my boss. He was disconcerted and said well, that was irregular but I reminded him I had done it two years before also. This job of mine is low paid and for me that is an advantage. It provides enough savings that I can go off to Việt Nam for an inordinate amount of time- the company only permits 2 weeks off a year vacation- and still have a job when I get back. The turnover of employees is great because most just stay long enough to get a “real job” that pays more and they are expensive to hire, so if a long time employee who doesn’t call in sick and is always on time takes off and then comes back he still has a job. At my age that is important. I can’t just walk into a place and get hired.
I was cynical about the flight because United Airlines was the cheapest ticket by a large margin and I hate them. United does not even load luggage for a percentage of economy class passengers and the staff is rude and gives the impression that the passengers are just the cross they have to bear in order to get to go to exotic places and wear fancy uniforms. I bought my ticket from UA but none of the flights was UA and the 4 long stages were on All Nippon which, like Asian airlines in general, is excellent and the staff acts like they want you to come back to them and they don’t ship your luggage to Chicago for sale at auction. It turns out that United doesn’t fly to Sài Gòn any more and farms out its fares to ANA. I paid for Motel 6 and got the Hilton.
At TSN, my vicarious family was all waiting at the gate on the street for me and the taxi drivers were nonplussed. Foreigners with backpacks and ragged suitcases don’t have local people waiting for them!
This time I did what I advise as the first thing for old soldiers to do who ask me what to do when they go back to see the country where they were soldiers so long ago. My host, Thông, and I went on a tour. I always wanted to take a look at the Delta region. The pictures I have seen and what I heard from soldiers who had been there was fascinating and made it seem a bit like southern Louisiana.
We joined a domestic tour group, all Vietnamese with a Vietnamese speaking tour guide. The tour took us first to Mỹ Tho then to Trà Vinh thence to Bạc Liêu, Cà Mau, up to Bạch Gia then back to Sóc Trang and Bến Tre where it ended and we returned to Sài Gòn. We saw the fabled floating markets which are now mostly sustained by the tourist trade. I was interested in the watercraft- the little boats and the river freighters.The smaller boats up to even 10 to 12 meter in length all seem to be propelled by a type of long stemmed outboard motor I have not seen before. The freighters when loaded have their decks awash and their open holds are surrounded by high coamings which, along with the upturned tips of the bows, and the cabins are all that protrude above the water. The small boats with the stand-up oars are rare now, replaced by those efficient looking outboard motors. I was really interested in the water traffic, the freighters and the small working boats. My young adult years were spent on the water, mostly on seagoing fishing boats and my father was career navy so watercraft have always been my special interest.
At about nine o’clock while we were going back to the dock the foreign tours appeared on the water. The locals, and I guess I was a local on this tour, are all up and out on the water well before dawn. The foreigners don’t get out until after 8. Back home we all that “burning daylight” i.e. wasting much of a morning.
I loved the small boat tour on the canals with the trees and bamboo arching overhead and hiding parts from view from the air.
I was privileged to be able to converse with the woman who paddled our boat because the tour guide insisted on placing the foreigner in the bow right behind her. She was 20 years old and supporting her family, her parents and two siblings with the work. I left her a substantial tip when we debarked.
The zoo and the fancy restaurants were kind of a waste of time though de rigueur for a tour group. I enjoyed the night market in Bến Tre though it, like the floating market, seems mostly oriented to the tourists. Thông and I enjoyed talking to the sellers.
Back in Sài Gòn we spent the night at Thông’s oldest daughter Ly and her husband Giang’s apartment. It is one of a row of nice two room units with a large back yard bordered by a high bank and a tree lined water channel. Access is by a lockable gate that only the residents have keys for. Back home only the affluent can afford to live in gated communities. The keys are different from what I am used to and can’t be copied by any of the key copiers that ply their trade on the streets.
Ly is pregnant with twins. Her sister Nguyệt, my protégé of 13 years has one on board. Both are due in May.
Kim Anh, their mother is in a constant flutter and will be down from Cam Đức along with Ly’s husband Giang’s mother from Vũng Tàu to help out for a couple of months.
I convinced a reluctant Thông to fly with me on Vietjet to Cam Ranh instead of taking the bus. I used to like the buses back when they were regular buses with low back seats. The trip was a social occasion then with everyone talking together and sharing food. Now the intercity buses are almost all sleepers and the passenger is isolated in a cocoon that is quite the wrong shape for my size 12 (30cm) feet and they are kept much too cold. I avoid them now. Thông is afraid of flying. I didn’t like to fly after I left the Air Force and swore I wouldn’t fly again. That changed when I wanted to go back to Việt Nam. The train doesn’t go there. I pointed out Bãi Dài to him as we approached Cam Ranh and he looked but his voice got squeaky.
Back in Căm Đức I resumed my old habit of walking daily in different directions on different streets and out into the countryside. That is my preferred sort of tourism. I walk and I stop to talk whenever someone calls out to me. People are curious about the foreigner, and now I have the status of Cam Đức’s own American and I talk to strangers and to old acquaintances, drink tea or coffee or rice wine with them. I love it.
I passed Easter Week in the Xitô (the French Citeau order) monastery. Two years ago one of the thầy (brothers) gave me a wooden cross on a cord and said I have to wear it always which I mean to do.
With the political system back home deteriorating rapidly and no credible prospect of improvement I am thinking seriously about settling in Cam Đức permanently. Thông and Kim Anh have already picked out my building lot which is, coincidentally, right next to them. I have ten acres in Florida that I can sell for enough to build a house with air conditioning for my wife. I just have to convince her that it is time to go. She is averse to leaving her hometown and is afraid she can’t get the necessary medicines for her diabetes there. She can, I know now, and she would love it once there. She is a retiring-this-year primary school teacher and has tutored Chinese exchange students in English. Were she to come with me to Cam Đức I would make sure the whole town knows of her talents and we would be flooded with requests for tutoring in English. She is not happy with the idea of retirement and wants to continue teaching. Working for the government, that is not possible. She retires when the rules say it is time. She knows the future on this side looks pretty grim. My daughter Lilith, the one who has been to Việt Nam with me, and her husband are solidifying their connections to Peru where they have a way in because their oldest child, now four, was born there and is a citizen. They are learning Spanish and planning to maybe go back down there.
One way or another I will go permanently to Cam Đức. If I don’t make it while alive, I have made arrangements for Lilith to take my ashes there. I mean for them to go into the garden at Hời Ấm Thừa Sai, the convent that used to take in throw away children, disabled kids whose families could not support them so they would be left on the streets of the cities. There are far fewer of those now with the ever rising general prosperity and now the kids there are mostly retarded or autistic with a number of them being day students whose families take them home in the evening. In a roundabout sort of way I was the agent of the convent’s acquisition of support from a group of wealthy widows in Mobile, Alabama, when the place was physically falling apart and the sisters were starting to look for alternatives for the children and contemplating transferring themselves to the convent in Nha Trang. The disposal of the ashes actually depends on Kim Anh and she wants them to go to Xitô where the chủ thầy has already said there is a place. I am healthy, though, and It seems that these alternatives are some years off still.