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Thiên Trang

TT seated 2007Bùi Thị Thiên Trang and I have had an odd relationship over the last dozen years. I responded to her posts on Xanga back when it was my preferred spot for writing and interaction.  She was a student at the University in HCM majoring in English and was quite good with it. She did, however write with some archaisms and some clich́es that jarred. I took it upon myself to correct solecisms and suggest better ways of saying things. We argued, sometimes vehemently, but she saw where her education was somewhat dated in places and modified her writing and showed me some things, too.   Trang supported her education and her parents by tutoring the progeny of the wealthier folks in HCM in English and she worked part time for Cleverlearn, an American English teaching company.

In 2007 I wrote to her that I was coming back to Việt Nam with my daughter, Lilith, who, at 26 was the same age as Trang. She said she wanted to meet me and arranged for us to do that at a restaurant  with her parents.

Trang’s father had been an ARVN fighter pilot in the war and looked like a 1950s Hollywood version of fighter pilot, quite a handsome man in a Clark Gable sort of way. Her mother was pleasant but left the conversation to her husband. Trang and Lilith got on well.

Trang had graduated and was working full time for Cleverlearn and was starting to take on the tension of her approach to work. I didn’t see it then but in hindsight I recognized it later.  She was totally focused on her work.

In 2011 I went back again and Trang insisted she had to meet me again. She was totally buried in her work at Cleverlearn and making time was difficult. She finally asked me to meet her for lunch when I had returned to HCM at the end of my trip. I took Nguyet with me so that she could meet a successful business woman. Cleverlearn had been failing and the American woman who had the franchise for Việt Nam wanted to close it down. Trang interested some men with assets to buy the franchise with Trang as the nominal CEO. The parent company was reluctant to let her keep the company name but she talked them into it.

When Nguyệt and I met with her she was showing the signs of long term tension. She was spending her annual vacations in the hospital. It was apparent that she was the whole company. She is the sort of person who can’t delegate tasks and was doing everything herself including all the details that should have been given to subordinates. She was headed for burnout and maybe an early heart attack. I was very concerned and I told her she should meditate. She is Buddhist and knows about such things. I said if she was unsure, to go to a pagoda and seek help from the tu sĩ- the master. She protested that she had not time to meditate. I answered that when one has no time for it then it is the time that one absolutely must meditate. She didn’t say anything  and I left it at that.

In 2014 we met again. She said again she had no time but to come to the company building and she would try to make time.  When I  got word to her that I was there she abruptly left the meeting she was presiding at and flew down the stairs to meet me. She said we should go around the corner to a small café there.

Trang looked physically healthy but her eyes still looked harassed. I asked her if she meditated. She said she determined to do that after I had left the last time and had kept up at least half an hour a day since. She took her vacations  in Singapore and  California. But she felt like she was up against a wall. She wanted to quit and perhaps go back to the University to teach. Her partners, the money men,  were telling her that if she quit she would be a failure and would never do anything successfully again. She worried that it was true.  I had looked at the map that was on the wall in the Cleverlearn building and had seen that there were now 6 locations around the country instead of the one failing S̀ai Ǵon operation of 7 years before. There were  notices on the wall about partnerships with universities in England and the USA.  She was already a business success and I told her that.  She, in her hands on everything approach had accomplished all that. The backers were passive and did not pay her much at all. She had the salary of a clerk while she built a highly profitable company for her backers. When Nguyệt and I rose to leave she hugged me and said she knew I would come back because she knew she would come up against that wall again and that is when I would appear.

This year I met her for dinner at her house in a nice neighborhood in Thủ Đức where she had prepared a formal dinner for me, Nguyệt and several visiting internet friends from Australia, California, and Taiwan. She has a  freestanding house now that she shares with her parents and her younger sister. Her parents actually prepared the dinner. Her father has not changed visibly since 2007. I was gratified at the deserved affluence. She had, indeed, quit Cleverlearn and had gone to work for a Korean English teaching company that recognized her talents and pays her accordingly.They provide her with assistants to take on the repetitive tasks and the details. I guess they don’t want an early burnout for such a valuable asset.  There are no walls around Thiên Trang now.

The Australian and the California lass were typical children of wealth who  travel about and do a term or a year at the University in London then wander a bit and pass another term  at the Sorbonne or in Madrid. Jenna was taking a few months to work for Trang’s company before heading for London for a term at Oxford. The two Taiwanese were less affluent and worked for what they had. They saved their money sufficiently to travel for a year and would graduate as engineers.

I felt very good. I watched Thiên Trang go from hard working  student to CEO and then to some affluence and  perhaps I have  helped along the way. She  thinks so.  She said once I  always show up when she needs a lifeline. It does seem to be that way. I don’t tell her what she should do to change her situation. I have helped her to  see that things are not as they seem, that the walls  that confront her are illusion.

I  think she is past all that now.

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2016

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. our tour groupThe 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.work boat 2

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.

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Ly, Nguyệt, and Hải, Nguyệt’s husband. Thông is reaching for the quả mịt

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.barge loadforbidden shotgravel loadgreen hullold friends

 

 


Up the Coast to Nha Trang

Đi du lịch ở lại Nha Trang

Ông Thông mời Ông Mỹ đi du lịch đến Nha Trang thăm Ông Bụt trên thành phố. Tượng nó được nổi tiếng vào khắp thế giới mà Ông Mỹ chưa gặp Cả hai bạn lên xe máy đi dọc theo đường mới theo bờ biển hiện nay đầu tiên gần Cam Đức lên Nha Trang. Người ta được xem bờ biển và nuí đẹp ở bên đường nó. Có nhiều thuyền đánh cá và nhiều nơi nghỉ mát ở bờ biển đang xây dựng.My host in Cam Đức determined to introduce me to the Buddha that dominates Nha Trang and we went there on his scooter along the new tourist oriented coast road that, when finished,  is to extend from the airport at Cam Ranh to Nha Trang.

Ông Thông làm ở lại một nơi nghỉ mát đang xây dựng ở bên bờ biển. Nó là một người bảo vệ.  Ông Mỹ cũng làm bảo vệ ở lại một nơi nghỉ mát xây dựng 35 năm  rồi.

Ông Thông is a Security Guard at this under-construction  beach resort south of Nha Trang. I am a Security Guard  in Florida at a beach resort.

Ông Mỹ ngồi sau Ông
Thông vào xe máy

Đến Nha Trang thì Ông Thông đưa Ông Mỹ lên núi đi thăm Ông Bụt.

Ông Mỹ mua cái quạt
rất trông trí công phú.
I bought an ornate and
very beautiful folding fan
from this lady.

A Security Guard in uniform. Ông Thông has a similar uniform in his job and gave me one which I wore to work on one shift.

Ông Thông insisted that one of us be in each of the pictures we took. How else would people know we had actually been there? I generally neglect to get pictures of myself. I didn’t go there to see me.


Tháp Hoa Sen
Lotus Tower

Sau khi thăm Ông Bụt thì Ông Mỹ hỏi Ông Thông đi du lịch thăm những tháp Cham là Po Nagar chưa. Ông Thông chưa bao giờ gặp Po Nagar vì vậy Ông Mỹ mời Ông ấy cũng đi lên núi Cham. Ông Mỹ cũng làm hướng dẫn cho bạn. Ông Mỹ từng đi du lịch thăm Po Nagar hay lần rồi.

Then I asked Thông if he had ever seen the Cham towers. He said he had not. I had been there twice before so I got the opportunity to act as tour guide for him and we went to Po Nagar.

There has been a lot of reconstruction since I was last here four years ago. All the smooth bricks are the work of the Ministry of Tourism. I am glad they did it. The towers were deteriorating. I could see the progression of it between 2003 and 2007.

Po Nagar is the major tourist destination inNha Trang. These towers are up to a thousand years old and were built by  a Hindu culture that flourished in this area before being subsumed by the Vietnamese migration south.

The acts are also new additions since I was last here. There is “traditional” music and ritual dance that may or may not represent practices of a past era.

The idols and “priests” inside the towers are also new. Four years ago there was just a platform inside and there were always supplicants , usually women pleading to get pregnant or to have a boy child. The western tourists stumbled on them in the dark while they flashed their cameras. The supplicants never reacted and were so intent they did not show any sign when  western feet came down on a their backs. There are no worshipers now.


European tourists


Nguyệt’s house

With time getting short I wanted to see Nguyệt’s accommodations in Sài Gòn. After all I am paying the rent. I knew it was a hole and did not worry about that much because I had lived in holes in my own college career but was unprepared for the true extent of the holeness of the hole. The neighborhood is not too bad as student ghettos go. The street is a bit narrow  and two motorbikes make navigation tricky.
 

The street where she lives.

On the street where she lives.

Nguyệt was living there with her older sister  and her brother and a couple of cousins,  all students.  Lý, her  sister,  also has a job and is the only other support for the household besides the stipend from me.

The whole place measures out to about two hundred square feet on two floors. Downstairs is the living room, kitchen, and benjo- that would be bathroom in your house or my house but here it is just a rickety toilet behind a curtain in a tiny space with almost no room for the user’s legs.

Benjo on the right

There is no shower and water is from a tap on the end of a pipe that sticks up through the benjo floor. Bathing was taken care of in facilities at the university for the two girls and their cousins who are university students. Little brother Thương, who is going to a trade school, had to wash out of a bowl.

The ground floor is where the girls sleep and they must share it with four motorbikes and a bicycle.  At night vehicles must be sequestered inside or they will disappear. The boys sleep upstairs and risk their  physical integrity

The Staircase

the staircase

every time they ascend. There is no rail around the access hole in the floor above.

There is a window

The kitchen is a simple shelf with the ubiquitous two burner gas hotplate on it and a water bottle on a stand. There are no cabinets. Everything must be stored beneath and food preparation was mostly on the floor. At least the floors are tile and are washed thoroughly before time for dinner.  Food storage is nil. There is no refrigeration but for the most part refrigeration is rare in Việt Nam yet. The kitchenCooking at Nguyệt's houseThe day’s food is bought at market each morning and is fresh. Stored food is things pickled and preserved in big jars.

There is one window upstairs and the doorway downstairs for light. Inside there is one electric outlet on each floor that sometimes is live. “Hết điện” – outage- occurs often.

The beds are straw mats that are rolled up against the wall in the daytime.   Sleeping on mats on the floor or on a Vietnamese bed, which is a sleeping platform with no mattress, is much better than with a mattress when there is no A/C and it is 100+ degrees Fahrenheit. A thick soft mattress is an excellent insulator and is miserable in hot weather.

I am glad I got to see Nguyệt’s house finally. I wish I had seen it sooner but, of course, I was half a world away until a month before.  Hearing about it is not nearly so impressive as seeing it up close. Nguyệt has been living there for two years, Lý for five.  I knew immediately on seeing the place that it had to change.