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VIETNAM – LAND OF NINE DRAGONS, by Lorne Resnick

It throbbed powerfully and I tried not to laugh. It started off as a faint itch in the back of my mouth, perhaps from munching down on a potato chip to hard. It got worse and worse and by the next day I was standing in the receiving ward of Cho Ray Hospital, downtown Saigon. My tooth had distressingly picked new years eve to act up and of course new years day in Saigon most expatriate clinics were closed due to the Holidays. My tooth was starting to feel like the rhythm section of a conga band and I was left with one choice, the local hospital. A place which would not normally be on the main list of sights to see in a country of such beauty.

I followed a cardboard sign that someone had scrawled “foreigners” on with thick black magic marker. After meeting with 3 different doctors, two of which had informed me they were in training and want to “practice” on me I was finally given a prescription for what I was hoping would be something that would in someway relate to my affliction. The only other patient in the small and dingy “foreigners” room was a Frenchman who good humoridly explained to me that he had just dislocated his shoulder by falling off his moped after a night of celebrating the New Year. Apparently, from his jolly demeanor, he was still anesthetized from his generous consumption of alcohol and had yet to feel any discomfort from his tumble.

The waiting room was packed with gurneys upon which lay several trashing moaning figures covered in white sheets. I was standing in the receiving area surveying the situation, clutching my prescription and wondering what to do next. There was an old cleaning woman pushing her mop across the dingy gray tiles and as she reached one of the gurneys her mop struck one of the machines attached to the body that lay on it. Immediately the man, as I found out when the sheet flipped off him, began violently thrashing about and the machine started making a high pitched BEEP BEEP BEEP sound. After vainly trying to put the plug back in the machine herself, the cleaning woman was roughly pushed aside by several doctors who successfully succeed in re-starting the machine and all was back to “normal”. While extreme pain does not usually make me laugh, the surreality of the situation pushed me over the edge. It was a scene straight out of the best of Monty Python.

Surprisingly enough, the doctors seemed to have gotten my wild gesticulations and mumbled descriptions of my ailment correct and the pills I finally procured did the trick in less than a day.

Vietnam. The name brings a myriad of powerfully ominous images to mind, even for people too young to remember the actual events of one of the most ignominious periods in American history. Countless reminders in the form of Major Motion pictures, TV dramas, college courses and books have served to captivate audiences around the world. However, most of this has served to examine the actual war and not the Vietnam of today. A country of lush dramatic landscapes, warm hospitable people and a rich culture. A country at peace, which is trying to grow and progress, as an influx of new capitol and investment floods into it.

As I walked the streets of Ho Chi Minh City (locals still prefer it’s pre-1975 name of Saigon) images flashed through my mind: dense jungles exploding with napalm, protesters burning draft cards, horrible atrocities of war, the flowing rivers of the famous Mekong Delta, farmers wearing conical shaped hats crouched in bright green rice fields. What I didn’t expect to see was Salvador Dali and Vincent Van Gogh. But that’s is exactly what I was looking at. Saigon (and nowhere else in Vietnam that I saw) was dotted with small shops populated by industrious worker churning out remarkably accurate copies of the most famous paintings in history. Row after row they were seating on small stools holding photographs of the paintings they were working on. Perhaps you would like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers hanging in your home? That would set you back the princely sum of $30. Dali’s Persistence of Memory? Why travel to the museum of Modern art in New York. I can now enjoy his wonderfully floppy watches in the privacy of my own home for substantially less than I would pay for the original. Apparently the Vietnamese have wasted no time in putting their considerable talents to work taking advantage of the ever-burgeoning tourist industry.

Traveling from the lush verdant swamp lands and paddy fields of the Mekong Delta in the south to the astounding grottoes and rock formations that rise dramatically out of the Gulf of Tokin in the North I could see why it has been said that Vietnam is one of the world’s most beautiful countries.

Ho Chi Minh City, perched above the Mekong Delta, is a city wildly racing toward the new millenium. Fuelled by the ending of the US trade embargo in 1994, it has become a mad blend of the old and new. Five star hotels and gleaming new pubs are sprouting up next to bustling street markets and run down deserted buildings. It is a city that exists in a continuous explosion of sight and sound that is improbably invigorating.

The jackhammers and bulldozers roar. The traffic thunders by in an insane mixture of everything from brand new foreign cars to cyclo drivers laden with so many live ducks that they look like some new mythical species about to take flight. The cyclos, 3 wheeled rickshaws comprising of a 2 person seat attached to the front end of a bicycle, are a cheap, easy way to get around and not for the faint of heart. The cyclo drivers appear to have mastered some magical form of weaving through traffic streams so dense it is like trying to thread a needle with a basketball. Traffic lights that flash red offer only decorative purposes. I would often gap in wonder as my cyclo dodged and danced through a seemingly impenetrable wall of traffic.

Street children in ragged clothes continually roam the tourist areas peddling T-shirts, post cards, cigarette lighters with Harley Davidson logos embossed on them, chewing gum and a myriad of souvenirs. Occasionally while sitting in a café I would feel small powerful hands slide around my shoulders and dig in. Turning around I would be greeted with a bright smiling young face that would invariably trot out a well learned string of words: “Hello how are you I am fine, massage?”

One of the charms of Ho Chi Minh City is sitting back and letting the chaos wash over you while realizing that the wide open landscapes and pristine beaches are never too far away. There is no shortage of organizations to help you to get to any part of the country. Or, you can choose to rent out your own transportation – Vietnam style. At first I was surprised to find out that the only way to rent a car was with an accompanying driver. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The roads in the countryside, frequently no more than two dirt lanes, were long continuous lines of vehicles all trying to pass each other while not colliding with the oncoming traffic. It seemed like some video game gone berserk and made the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City seem like a walk in the park. Our driver, Fu, handled it all with casual nonchalance while keeping up a running commentary on the sights as the emerald green countryside flashed by.

Touring the Mekong Delta was like stepping back in time – or into any one of a dozen Hollywood war movies. Pancake flat and stretching from Ho Chi Minh City, southward to the Gulf of Thailand, the Delta is beautiful lush agricultural wonderland. To witness these lands being harvested by conical hatted farmers or spot traditional rowboats whose oarsman and women stand up to labor against their scissor oars, is to see one of Vietnams most enduring icons.

The region is known to the Vietnamese as Cuu Long, “Nine Dragons”, a reference to the nine branches of the powerful Mekong River which traverse the plains. While it covers only a small fraction of Vietnam’s land mass it supplies close to 40% of its annual food harvest. A great deal of this produce is transported via the Delta’s vast network or waterways and tributaries. The preferred method of transportation is of course the rowboat. Cruising down the Mekong, among enormous floating markets buzzing with everyday commerce, is truly a unique experience. The markets here are swarming with every kind of edible morsel you could imagine and a few you wouldn’t. Including one lady, whose wares I decided to pass on, presiding over a stall consisting solely of rows and rows of bottled snakes.

Transportation within the country is fairly easy and inexpensive and the flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi cruised over unspoiled beaches, stunning lagoons, the central highlands spotted with waterfalls and soaring mountains covered in rainforests.

While still experiencing a similar economic growth to that of Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi is very much like an older gentler brother. Vietnam’s capitol for almost a thousand years, some have called Hanoi the Paris of the Orient. It is a city dotted with lakes were lovers sit quietly and watch the sun set, shaded tree lined avenues, parks that are lined with people of all ages practicing the ancient art of tai chi in the cool pre dawn air. Hanoi boasts hundred of pagodas and temples that hail from the original 11th century city. However, one of the most striking and strange sights in the city is Ho Chi Minh himself. Like Lenin, Stalin and Mao, Ho Chi Minh’s final resting-place is in a glass casket housed in an architectural monument that has become one of the main attractions of Hanoi. There are many rules enforced in the visiting of “Uncle Ho”, as he was affectionately known. People wearing shorts or tank tops will not be admitted, nothing (including bags and cameras) may be taken into the mausoleum, people must remain respectful at all times, you cannot wear a hat inside and you cannot put your hands into your pockets. An honor guard of extremely serious looking young men, complete with rifles, escorts each group of visitors inside. Once inside the soldiers do not let anyone linger and the group is marched around the casket quickly and then out of the room. It was a bit sad and eerie to see him lying there hands folded neatly over his chest, finger nails long and polished, the wisps of gray hair from his chin falling gently onto his gray tunic and a (understandably) puffy look about him. It made me glad to get out of the dark hushed space and back into the bright sunshine.

Hanoi is a good jumping of point for Vietnam’s premier natural attraction – Halong Bay. With it’s 2,000 islands rising out of clear emerald waters, Halong Bay (meaning dragon descending) resembles an old Chinese silk painting with ancient junks sailing around the razor sharp ridges and cliffs of limestone jutting out of the sea. The local market had the cliffs as a very impressive backdrop to the usual commerce. Here I watched a local barber perform an intricate procedure on one of his clients. Using long thin metal rods and a miner’s lamp securely fastened to his head to light his way, the barber proceeded to extract enormous nuggets of wax from his client’s ear. After about 15 minutes of enthusiastic digging and probing he put away his tools, brushed the remaining bits of wax off his clients shoulder, and gave me an inquiring smile as if to ask if I was next. I politely declined and wondered about the potential market here for Q-tips.

Vietnam’s last gift for me was another white-knuckled car ride 3 hours south of Hanoi. I thought I had run out of superlatives for this magnificent country and found it almost impossible to believe that anything could top the majestic site of Halong Bay. But Hoa Lu, the site of the tenth-century capitol of an early independent Vietnamese kingdom, stopped me in my tracks. It had the similar rock formations of Halong Bay only this time they were jutting out of the rice paddies. Woman balanced on the back of small fragile boats elegantly poling along the canals, farmers knee deep in the rice fields working the land, while rows of vast cliffs faded off into the haze of the early morning sun. Once again it seemed as if I was witnessing a Chinese silk painting come to life. Simply breathtaking. And all around a pure quite silence filled the air where you could almost hear the faint goings on of kings who held court here. A fitting last memory of a wondrous and unforgettable land.

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