Sunday, July 23, 2006

Ten Years Ago...

[From time to time, I plan to feature some blasts from the past with accompanying photos – a chance to pull out those images that get tucked away in dusty corners and no one would know existed were I not to put them out there.]

Doin' my Ho thang

Making the visit to see Uncle Ho, the shrine for Ho Chi Minh, in Hanoi. He looked kind of green, but damn those were some fine looking guards that I wish I could have taken photos of. (Comment: I am not attracted to Asian men or military officers generically. Well, okay, I really do have a weakness for certain Asian men. But stern, handsome Asian military types send me over the top. Did I ever mention my childhood fantasy of being a prisoner of the Japanese army in WWII? Another time, another post)

Though it was not ten years ago to the day (actually it was in March of 1996), a decade ago I was in the process of leaving Oklahoma to make a new home in California with my beau of the time. And for a month, I made an Asia trip that would prove to be the last one I would do as a solo traveler. (I’d make quite a number after that but leading groups of donors, a very different way to experience the Global South.) My work trip was to Vietnam, and I added on four days in Hong Kong, about two more than I needed. The only thing I really cherished from that stop was touring the teapot museum.

Vietnam, however, was probably my favorite trip ever. I think it was because it was still pretty unusual for someone from the U.S., especially who was not a vet to go there. It was even more unusual to spend all the time in the north and with ethnic minorities in the mountains. I have always had a sweet tooth for forbidden fruit, and loved the chance to felt that I was channeling Hanoi Jane.

Although I did various trip reports and articles for work, I am only now trying to recollect some of the personal memories of the place that are tucked away in various journals, notes and corners of my brain. So these are just snapshot memories – yellowed and fuzzy from the distance of a decade.


I can’t remember the name of the little espresso bar – something like Café 554 – but its walls were covered with photos of Catherine Deneuve and director Régis Wargnier sitting in the very spot where I was having a cappuccino. The owners claimed it was their favorite hangout during the filming of Indochine. It was in the general vicinty of the Hanoi Opera House, a scaled down version of the one in Paris.

Though the colonial heritage of Vietnam in general is not a pleasant one, there are some remnants such as the opera house that they are now beginning to cherish. One of the most flattering things that happened on the trip was the the locals first mistook me for French (I'm sure my great grandmother Cheuvront was up there smiling when when she heard that!), then Canadian and finally shocked to learn that I was American.

The little espresso bar certainly had no memorable ambiance beyond that except I clearly remember the tiny plastic chairs that looked like they were intended for a kindergarten class, and my knees were about two inches above my head. But I can now say I was touched on the ass by one of the gods since I had the privilege of sitting in a chair where Deneuve downed an espresso four years earlier.


I’ve seen a lot of disturbing drunkenness on my trips through the years, but nowhere was it more prevalent and disturbing and co-ed than what I saw in Vietnam. This was a shock partly because I had this image before the trip of stern, humorless party hardliners. Well they proved to be party people of a different sort, and the morning our group arrived at a ministry in the provincial capital of Ha Giang, everyone was shit-face drunk on hard alcohol, some local variation on vodka. And it was about 9:45 a.m. After going through the formality of greetings and conducting business in slurred Kinh, one of the ministers introduced us to our driver who was to take us on a 12-hour ride into the mountains in a Cold War era Russian Jeep. Producing the keys from his pocket he asked us to join him and then rolled down two flights of stairs, laughing and groveling on the floor. We hired an independent, sober driver for our journey.


Among the more disturbing sights throughout the journey were wild animals that were caged as a “treat” for travelers at various stops. I will never forget the tragic expression on the face of a despondent little black bear in a tiny cage at one hotel. He just hung his head, and I wondered if he would still be alive were I to return a few days later. Even more chilling was a pair of monkeys in a cage at a little roadside café somewhere between Ha Giang and Phongsaly. A dominant male would come to the edge of the cage baring his teeth and screaming while masturbating defiantly, rubbing his bloodied crotch against the bars of the cage. He would then run to the back corner and violently hold down his cage-mate of indeterminate sex, while looking back at me, flashing his teeth as he humped the other primate. He would then repeat the process again and agian. Each round taking 30 seconds or less. Whenever I think that I am trapped and have no options, I think of that bear and the monkeys and appreciate my freedoms.


During lunch in a Tay (one of the many ethnic groups of the north) village in Lang Son Province, our group was having lunch with members of the local development committee. Perhaps because they were hosting visitors they were getting very drunk on a local brew, and would then spend the afternoon working the rocky hillside in the sweltering sun. I suspected that this was not something they were doing just as hospitality but as their regular routine. I’d long ago learned it best to claim I was a teetotaler and stuck to bottled water and tea. Midway through the lunch that included included my three coworkers – a German, an Australian and an old-school Bostonian -- and three dozen people from the village, this gentleman on the right, the village vet, began babbling to me in Tay. Someone roughly translated that he wanted to let me know he was very happy I was there, it was an honor to meet me, he’d never met someone like me. He’d obviously had some brew before the lunch. The intensity of his gaze and the way he kept leaning in towards me were familiar behavior, but not mid-day in a remote village in the mountains of former Indochina. I continued to eat my rice and greens, trying to focus on the translation of the presentation being made by one of the women leaders I did my best not to get too concerned about the fact that this guy was now leaning in closer, his hand on my knee. One of my coworkers looked our way, laughed and seemed to act as if this were no more unusual than a group of children staring at travelers from an unfamiliar land. By now this guy had his hand midway up my inner thigh. That’s happened plenty of times in my life, but never during lunch in a room full of nearly 40 people, including the perpetrator’s wife. By now I could hear his intent breathing hitting my like flames, the smell of the local brew on his breath hitting my face like a hot, dank breeze. His hand was advancing uncomfortably upward, and I arched my back nervously, having never had cultural sensitivity training on how to handle this sort of situation. One of my coworkers finally commented, “Why, Gregg, it looks like he’s admiring you like some prized goat.”

Fortunately this advance was cut short as our meeting adjourned, and I managed to keep my distance from this guy as he followed with hungry puppy dog eyes the rest of the afternoon. I never learned if this was unusual behavior, or something that was acceptable since a 6’2” Caucasian was about as alien to him as a Martian. I certainly don’t regret that his admiration never advanced further, but I must admit that it is one drunken flirtation that I will never forget.

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