Saturday, October 31, 2009

Visiting my grandfather's grave

Today we visited my grandfather’s grave, which is in a cemetery in Phan Ri – about 4 hrs from Saigon.   It was a small cemetery – about 10-12 tombstones and a large placque which had a bunch of Nguyens listed.  I quickly realized this little cemetery actually belongs to our family.  All the Nguyens are buried there, including my great grandfather and great aunt and uncles.

I lit some joss sticks for my grandfather and tried to come up with something noble to say.  I said something silly like “I’ve made it back to Vietnam finally and I hope I will make you proud of me and bring respect and honor the family.”  Five minutes later I stepped in the largest cow patty I’ve ever seen in my life.  So much for bringing honor to the family.

[Photos to come]

Friday, October 23, 2009

Video Update: Day 10 - Kayaking in Halong Bay

How I spent my birthday - Kayaking in Halong Bay!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Video Update: Day 9 - Post Mrs Hue Interview

Post Mrs Hue Interview

Meeting Mrs Hue

Well the day has finally come.  A day I thought could never happen, even in my wildest dreams, and believe me, I’ve had some wild ones.  It all started last year while in the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group, I wrote a play called Red Flamboyant, partially inspired by an article in the NY Times about a woman named Pham Thi Hue, who in her early 20s was infected with AIDS.  She decided to start a support group to help other people living with AIDS.  

In America this would be considered a brave and even noble thing to do.  In Vietnam, where people living with AIDS are still discriminated against and even shunned by their own families, starting an HIV/AIDS support group is like being the only one on the battlefield that yells out “I am Spartacus.”   Well, today I meet Spartacus. 

It was the second day of being in Vietnam that my dad told me my cousin Duc had found Mrs Hue and had made contact with her.  She agreed to meet with us but was trying to pin down a date.  There was a lot of back forth, rescheduling and cancelling tour dates to accommodate Mrs Hue’s busy schedule.  At one point I had kind of given up on meeting her.  It seemed like every time cousin Duc called, he only had more bad news for us.  More setbacks.  We even had to rebook our flight to Haiphong because of a last minute change from Mrs Hue.  It seems meeting Spartacus comes with it’s own challenges.  Finally we settled on Saturday, a day before my birthday. 

We start off with a 6am flight to Haiphong.  At the airport, my dad and me go over notes and interview questions I had prepared the night before.

The plane trip is about two hours.  We land, hop in a taxi and ten minutes later we find ourselves outside her office.  The gates are locked.  No one is there.  Another setback.  Dad tries calling Mrs Hue but can’t get a connection.  I look up at the sign above the locked door and there in Vietnamese, it says “Hai Phong Red Flamboyant.”

The sign gives me some hope.  We made it this far.   Even if we were to turn back now, I’d be happy, just seeing this little gated storefront with the sign above it.  It made everything much more real for me.   Finally my dad is able to reach Mrs Hue and she says she’s on her way.  Gulp.  Really?  She’s really coming?  Crap.  Thankfully my dad is there to translate.  But I really wish I could speak freely with her.   At that moment I yearn for three more months and a Rosetta Stone Vietnamese language pack.

I hear several motorbikes pull up.  A young and tiny Vietnamese woman takes her helmet off and her long hair falls to her shoulders.  I recognize her from the photo in the NY Times article.  It’s her.  It’s Mrs Hue.  She nods at me.  We only make eye contact for a split second.  She’s just as nervous as I am.  There’s another lady with her and some children.  But we’re not introduced, yet.  Mrs Hue unlocks the gate and opens the door.  She leads us in, still not saying anything. 

She leaves us in the main room as she opens up the back office.  We look at all the pictures and signs on the walls.  There’s a bright red banner on the inside that reads the same as the exterior sign.  “Haiphong Red Flamboyant.”  Whereas the exterior sign is subtler, less declamatory, the banner inside is more striking, more...flamboyant. 

Even before introductions are made, she starts describing some of the photos on the wall to us.  “This was so and so…this is when… etc.”  I notice the photo of her and Bill Clinton.  She points to another photo and says “Kofi Annan.” 

Now we’re in the back office.  Some of the kids run through and she tells us they are some of the orphans that the group takes are of.  We’re lead to a small brown leather sofa in one corner.  There’s bottled water waiting for us.  My dad is surprised by this gesture and it impresses him.  We all sit down.  I look at my dad and he just looks at me.  Great.  I usually can’t get him to shut up about anything, and now he chooses to clam up.  So I say to her in my very broken Vietnamese, “Hello Aunt Hue.”  Calling someone an aunt even though they’re not related to you is a sign of respect.  I continue.  Like a tourist, I say “I’m sorry.  I don’t speak much Vietnamese.”  She nods.  “This is my mother and father.  My father will be translating for us.”  She nods.  

We ask her if I can record the meeting.  She says yes.  I’m happy and surprised by this.  I tell my father to start by giving her a synopsis of my play.  As he does this, I look up every now and then at Mrs Hue, who is listening intently to my father.  My father mentions there are four main characters.  One of them is named “Mrs Hue.”  She finally  breaks a smile.  I recognize her smile from her picture in the NY Times.   I start to relax.   My dad tells her the play also explores the Trung Sisters myth and finds parallels between them and the women of Red Flamboyant.  Mrs Hue tells my dad she can see the connection with the Trung Sisters and that in Vietnam, when a woman does something courageous they have a saying: “Xung dang la con chau cua hai ba Trung” which translates into “We are proud siblings of the Trung Sisters.”

I grow more and more impressed with my dad as he’s translating what I’ve written.  Even though I don’t speak much Vietnamese, I can understand most of it, and what he’s saying sounds right.  Even more eloquent than what I’ve written.   I start to get worried when my dad translates the darker stuff of the play, especially the women dying.  Mrs Hue is very still when she hears this.  She has the sweetest face when she smiles.  Otherwise, her focus is as intense as a laser beam.  My dad finishes the synopsis.  Mrs Hue doesn’t hesitate to give her opinions.  I like this.  I like it because she’s just like how I’ve written her in the play.  Sweet and caring but ready and willing to fight for what she believes in.  She tells me I should add more of the struggles of the group and how she doesn’t get any help from the government.   How they’re still discriminated against to this day.   Mrs Hue doesn’t have the benefit of reading the entire play, which I think does address most of her concerns, so I simply nod and say “yes, you’re right.”

I start to ask her some questions.  “Can you tell us a little about yourself, before you started the group?  What did you do for a living?  Did you go to school?  Etc.”  Mrs Hue nods and says she would rather print out an article written about her that answers all of that.  It’s all in Vietnamese, so I’ll have to wait for my dad to translate it for me. 

Next question.  “How big is the group now?”   There are roughly over 200 hundred adults in the group, and another 200 orphans.  Some orphans live with the group, but most live amongst the members and are given a stipend.  The cost of caring for one orphan is about $10 a month.

“How does the group support itself?”  They still get no money from the government.  Most of it is through foreign aid as well as members selling items.  In addition to the group, Mrs Hue runs two businesses.  A clothing business that makes and sells shirts, scarves, socks, etc.   And a boating business where they catch and sell seafood.

Some other notes from the interview: The group will go to houses to pick up the dead.  They are not allowed to bury them in the cemeteries, so most are cremated.  She shows us a picture of a dead woman lying on the bathroom floor.  The family had shunned her and kept her there until she passed.  The group gathers daily, but they usually have a big party every 10th of the month.  We asked what the significance of the 10th was.  She says the group was formed on the 10th day of the month.

I tell her, in my play, the group performs and the Mid Autumn festival.  I ask if she sings.  She says yes, and adds that the group sings songs about AIDS and they even compose their own music.  She says she’ll mail me a CD of the music!  Then she sings for us.  It’s beautiful and I’m overjoyed I’m able to capture the moment on video.  We take several photos together and she puts her arm around me.  My dad poses with her as well.

I ask her if she had any questions for me.  She simply says she wants to read my play.  Once it’s been translated into Vietnamese.  My dad says he will do it.   She tells me I need to learn Vietnamese so we can continue talking to each other.  Rossetta Stone, here I come. 

The visit comes to an end.  We exchange phone numbers and email addresses. I give Mrs Hue a card with a small donation inside.  She calls for a taxi to take us to a bus for Hanoi.  She tells us when she heard someone had written a play about her she very was honored and moved.  We continue to wait in the main room and I ask to see some samples of the t-shirts and other clothing they sell.  I end up buying a few shirts and Mrs Hue gives my mom some bed slippers she made.  Her assistant waits with us.  She's young and smiles a lot as well.  Mrs Hue tells us she's recently widowed.  Her husband killed himself after learning he had given her AIDS.  

The taxi arrives and we get in.  Mrs Hue takes by the arm and leads me to the taxi.  Mrs Hue, her assistant, the orphans, and another family all wave goodbye to us.  It feels like leaving family.

An hour later we’re sitting on the bus bound for Hanoi.  I’m still unwinding from what I consider a miraculous meeting.  My dad’s cell phone rings.  It’s cousin Duc, asking how the meeting went.  My dad tells him it was a success, that he really likes Mrs Hue and impressed with what she’s done. My father swears he will do his part to help out the group and he makes Cousin Duc promise that his company will include the group in their annual donation to charities.  Cousin Duc answers, “Yes Uncle, I will.” 

A few minutes later my dad’s cell phone rings again.  It’s Mrs Hue.  She’s calling to make sure we made it safe to Hanoi.   My father thanks her.  Then he says to me “Mrs Hue likes you very much.  You heard what she said to you as we were leaving, right?”  I didn’t.  I was in a daze.  What did she say?  My dad says she took me by the arm, walked me to the taxi and said, “don’t forget your Aunt Hue, okay?”

No, I will not forget you Aunt Hue.  Not I, nor my parents, nor anyone I come into contact with.  

Video Update: Day 9 - Outside Haiphong Red Flamboyant!

Outside Haiphong Red Flamboyant

Video Update: Day 9 - Landed in Haiphong!

Just got off the plane. Heading to Mrs Hue's office!

Video Update: Day 9 - Flying to Haiphong to meet Mrs Hue

On the airplane flying to Haiphong to meet Mrs Hue.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Where I was born

Here's a quick video of the room where I was born/grew up in...

Day 3 - Retracing our steps in Saigon

Day 3 - Sunday 10/11/09

After my Skype session with the Living Newspaper fundraiser, dad took me to the heart of Saigon.  After getting some tour information from a local tour agency, we walked around and dad pointed out some of the local sights like the Ben Thanh open air market and the Rex Hotel.   Then dad found a bookstore.  Game over.  I think dad could single handedly stimulate the Vietnamese economy with all the books he buys.  Don't get me wrong, I don't mind him buying books, but I'm the one who has to carry them all over Saigon.  It gets dark fairly early here, around 5:30pm.  By the time 6:30pm rolls by, Saigon lights up like Vegas and the number of motorbikes out on the streets seem to multiply ten fold.  As night fell upon us, we made our way to Aunt Mai's house again.  This time something special and unexpected happened.

As we walked by buildings along the Saigon river, dad started pointed out the various places on the path we took when we fled Vietnam in 1975, a day before the war ended.  I couldn't believe my eyes and ears when dad pointed out the old Naval Command Headquarters where he made the last minute decision to take our family out of Vietnam.  "Here is where I left my motorbike" dad said as he pointed to a cement slab on the edge of the Saigon river.  After taking our family from our house to the river via his beloved motorbike, this is was the place where he would ditch it forever to take passage on a boat that would take us out to meet up with the US Seventh fleet that would ultimately lead us to America.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Video Update: Day 2 - Saigon traffic

Saigon traffic at one of the six way circles...

Day 2 - Good morning Saigon!

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Woke up at 5:30am to the sounds of the Saigon streets, filled with exhaust, horns, and street vendors.  Really, it doesn't sound any different from NY.  Maybe louder, if you can believe that.  Went exploring my cousin's house.  It has three floors and lots of balconies, which I absolutely love.  And when I say balcony, I mean a full size balcony, not a little ledge that passes for a balcony in NY.  The bathroom is one big shower unit with a toilet and sink.  The house itself is open air - there are no window screens, so you live with the outside elements, including ants and lizards.  We started off the morning by sitting down with my cousin and having coffee, prepared by their nanny.  Their nanny is a young cambodian girl and upon seeing her for the first time, my instinct was to introduce myself because I had no idea she was the nanny.  She could've been another cousin for all I know.  

During coffee I got some exciting news from my cousin.  He actually made contact with Mrs Hue in Hai Phong and she has agreed to meet with us. We're just waiting for her to confirm which day we can come visit!
Wow, what a full day!  Got connected to the internet today and spent a good portion of my morning uploading photos and blogging.  I want to post regular updates while I'm here to keep my sisters and friends updated and also in case my camera or laptop gets stolen, I'll still have photos stored in the cloud.

Dad and I headed out to meet mom and my aunt and cousins.  They live about 4 miles away from where my Dad and I are staying.  Instead of taking a taxi, we decided to walk it, which I'm happy about as I think it's the best way to get a feel for the city.  What I love about Saigon is they have made use of every alleyway and nook.  Alleys are just as busy as the main streets and there must be at least a dozen stories going on in each of those places.  Alleys have stores and street vendors as well, since motorbikes drive everywhere, there's always a guarantee of steady foot and bike traffic.  Stores are often a combination of commercial/residential.  So you're always guaranteed to find the store owners laying on the floor watching tv while manning their storefront. 

Walking the streets of Saigon comes with  a few obstacles.  First, there are motorbikes EVERYWHERE.  They zig and zap and most streets have no lanes. You can even drive a motorbike against traffic if you really want to.  Traffic lights are rare, so it's every man, woman, and child for themselves when crossing the streets.  Crossing the street is similar to Indiana Jones having faith in himself to walk across the forced perspective bridge inside the canyon of the crescent moon.  As I walked across the street I kept chanting to myself "the penitent man must pass, the penitent must pass."  

The second obstacle is the sidewalks are very narrow and usually taken up by street vendors, so often times you end up sharing the street with the motorbikes.  Actually, you are often sharing the sidewalks with motorbikes as well, as they drive on them to circumvent slow traffic.

The third obstacle is the humidity.  Enough said about that.

Dad and I pretty much stuck out like a sore thumb because we were walking.  You don't see many people walking.  And the ones that do walk more than twenty feet are quickly ambushed by taxi drivers wanting to give you a ride.  

Even though we were an hour and a half late to my aunt's house, what I loved about walking was the people we met on the way.  We had a young boy guide us over the bridge to my aunt's neighborhood.  He sells lottery tickets for a living. He reminded me of Short Round from Temple of Doom.  Sorry for all the Indiana Jones references.  He had a permanent smile on his face.  He just seemed happy to help.  After we parted ways I told my dad I felt guilty we didn't give him some money or buy some lottery tickets from him.  

We made our way into my aunt's neighborhood in the Binh Thanh district.  It is full of broken roads  and all the houses have storefronts.   Every twenty feet there's a Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwhich) vendor or a Internet Cafe where young kids are playing online games.   The place is extremely poor.  There's really no such thing as a clean wall.  Houses are shack-like.  There are little alleyways that lead to shacks behind shacks.  I'm soon realizing nearly every house serves as a storefront for something.  The Vietnamese have truly taken advantage of the new capitalism in the country.    

When we arrived at my Aunt Mai's place, the first thing I was shown was the house where I was born.  It's right next to her place.  I got to look inside the room where we lived.  Nothing much to say about it.  It's pretty much a square room.  

I'm amazed at how close all my relatives live from each other.   Like, most of them are next door neighbors.  Dinner becomes a an informal reunion as cousins and aunts and uncles casually mosey on in for a sit down.  

After greeting each cousin or aunt or uncle that stops by, my parents do the typical "he doesn't speak much Vietnamese."   I think I should just wear a sign on my chest that says "mute" to save my parents from the repetitious excusing of my lack of language skills.  

Around 7pm I get super tired and am ready for bed.  My cousins decide to take us home on their motorbikes.  SWEET.  I put a helmet on, hop on the back of a bike and away we go into the super congested Saigon streets.  It's only my first day in Vietnam and already I feel like I've seen and done a weeks worth of vacationing.  And day two is just right around the corner and it starts off with a 9am Skype session with the Living Newspaper Fundraiser in NY.  They want to Skype me into the party and walk me around on a laptop.  The miracles of modern technology.  Okay, time for bed.  Good night Saigon.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Video Update: Day 1 - The flight part 2

Video update - 5.5 hours into the flight...

Day 1 - The flight part 2

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I envy first class. I usually don't when I'm flying domestically, but this 15hr international flight is pulsating the richter scale of envy.  What I would give for an extra foot or two to put my feet up.  I know I'm preaching to the choir, but sleeping upright just plain sucks.

My fantasy of catching up on all my sleep I lost in the weeks leading up to the trip, still remains a fantasy.  Actually, I've heard you can never catch up on lost sleep.  Once it's gone, it's gone.

At least there's some entertainment on this plane.   And when I say entertainment, I'm not talking about the Sandra Bullock movie their showing on the plane.  I'm talking about the 60yr old dude sitting behind me macking on the two 60yr old women.  He's managed to squeeze himself in between them and are sweet talking them like nobody's business.

It's quite scenic outside the window, as we're flying over Alaska and Siberia.  This is kind of odd in a way because our destination is a tropical humid country, and yet we're flying over snow covered mountains and frozen lakes.

My mom did try to teach me some basic Vietnamese which I failed miserably at.  Greetings are so complicated. There are different ways to greet someone, based on age, gender, and relation to your family.  There are also exceptions, such as a cousin that is younger than me can opt to call me uncle instead, as a sign of respect. I'll post a video update on the next post...

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Day 1 - Vietnam Airlines and Touchdown

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Two words about the Hong Kong airport:  Fancy schmancy.  It's huge.  And quiet.  Not sure if that's because we got there around 9:30pm. It was almost eerie how quiet it was.  

Two words about Vietnam Airlines: Super Classy.  It was like night and day compared to the Chicago/Hong Kong flight.  Where the passengers were extremely rude and loud, the passengers on Vietnam Airlines were quiet and respectful.  The same goes for the flight attendants on Vietnam Airlines.  They had a strange aura about them, you know, the kind of aura that usually only holy people like priests or nuns have.   I definitely felt like I was in a whole other world.  

Touching down at Tan Son Nhat in Saigon felt quite surreal to me.  Even the aircraft's landing gear striking the runway didn't feel real.  What did feel real, almost too real was going through immigration.  My Dad initially didn't want to go on this trip because he's extremely outspoken against the communist party in Vietnam, so he was a little paranoid he'd run into some trouble.  The immigration official was this young kid.  In regular street clothes, he would seem harmless, but something about the green hat and uniform made him seem a little threatening.  The immigration official let  me and my mom pass, after dumping the $5 we stuck in each of our passports onto a pile of other bribe money.  They told my dad to wait as they were processing everything.  There was a slight delay, enough to get my mom upset, but in the end it was just a clerical delay and we got through immigration free and clear.  

As we exited the airport, we were greeted by a mass of people waiting outside.  It's typical for people to gather outside the airport to greet their friends and loved ones.  It's nice.  One feels like a rockstar when one encounters a crowd like that.  I think everyone should have their own cheering section.   It does wonders for the spirit.  Against the cheering and yelling from the crowd, I saw a bunch of people pointing at us.  Could it be?  Yes, cousins I've never seen before (or have no recollection of).  They all came up and hugged us and seemed so happy that we were there.  Mom went to stay at my Aunt Mai's house.  Dad and I went to stay with my Cousin Duc.  And so our long flight ends, and our month in Vietnam begins...

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Video Update: Day 1 - The flight

Video updates:

Day 1 - The flight

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About a week leading up to the trip I was asked by several of my friends and coworkers if I was excited for my trip.  The simple answer was yes.  The more complicated answer was I think I'm excited but I honestly hadn't had any time to think about it much.  With looming deadlines from work and several writing projects  all for some reason due the week I had to leave, I pretty much ran myself ragged and by the time I headed off to the airport I was frankly over-exhausted.

The flight there consisted of three legs.  NY (LGA) to Chicago (O'Hare).  Chicago to Hong Kong.  Hong Kong to Saigon (Than Son Nut).  I met my parents in Chicago and we boarded the plane.  As we were taxiing on the runway, I thought to myself "Wow, I usually have bad luck flying in and out of Chicago.  Luck is on my side today."  Sure enough we ran into a mechanical problem and had to be taken back to the gate.  Grrr....

After a two hour delay we headed back out and finally took off.  Frankly 2 hrs is nothin when you're sending a month in Vietnam.

This was my first international flight and what I noticed the most was how incredibly rude the passengers were.  People getting up out of their seat while the plane was moving, people not stowing their baggage properly, throwing trash in the middle of the aisle, etc.  The flight attendants had to make a dozen announcements about not getting up out of the seats, but they went largely ignored.

Once the flight took off, I relaxed a bit more and the whole trip started to feel more real to me.  It feels strange returning to a place you haven't been in 33 years.  I only have 2-3 memories of Vietnam that I've carried with me in my life, and now I 'm heading back there to create new ones or rediscover old ones.  I'm most nervous about meeting all my relatives.  These are people I've either never met or don't remember from my childhood.

I take a big sigh and in strap in for one hell of a long flight (15 hrs) to Hong Kong.
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