Tagged : ‘Ho Chi Minh City’
A classic example of classical conditioning I shall present hereinafter:
A 6am this morning, not a minute later, my eyes shot open from my deep sleep. Why you may wonder? Because the other day my landlady—an 80 year old logorrheic murmerer who I shall not defraud any further after this post—fiddled around with the door, opened its knob and stuck her head into my room. “Ok, go,” she said, hardly showing those Viet eyes. If not classical conditioning then some very rudimentary form of associative learning took place because I had been primed earlier by her marauding into my room in the wee hours…terrifyingly ‘topping off’ her Tourette’s-like use of the paired words from the previous day—“Ok Go!”
I was armed with the slipper the noodle vendor offered me from my shoe robbery incident at Xa Loi pagoda. I truly believed that she would become a repeat offender…but she didn’t.
I got dressed and went to grab breakfast at a place called Bobby Brewers on Pham Ngu Lao street. I ordered the American set: 2 eggs, toast, ham. The sausages on my plate was imploded from the inside out and looked like shrapnel. Baked beans were also thrown in for the Aussies who apparently love their baked beans. I got a fruit shake but managed to spill it all over myself—half on my shirt and half on my cargo shorts. I purposely wear travel rags that would allow me to be had by the elements or to be post-stamped by foods marking where I eat on my trips. I’m quite lucky to have the personality that is ‘to practice the art of Zen and I don’t give a f*%@.
Today I know why I was offered birds to be freed at the pagoda yesterday and also why there were fewer motorbikes on the road. I had found out from my Lonely Planet (which will supposedly self-destruct for its bad, bootlegged quality) that it is the Tet holiday in Vietnam.
During Tet, life is to be spared as part of the Buddhist teachings of causality. The motorbikes I suppose were parked because Tet is all about staying indoors with family as well. It is a New Year holiday that marks the advent of spring based on the Chinese calendar and is celebrated by eating with family; by visiting the graves of deceased family members; and by paying homage to ancestors by heading to the temple and offering prayers. However Viet people to my surprise were still hard at work.
After my breakfast I walked around and continued taking photos of street life.
Women were setting up their stalls with their babies pressed to their chests, placing strips of boiled meat into glass cases. Their older daughter-assistants were cutting up lemongrass and onion. Little tables were set up nearby with little’r stools for the tourist-patrons to sit in.
Although I pretty much eat anything, some items look grossly unappetizing and I fear such intestine-looking things like I fear gastroenteritis. Offal-type meats were quite common in my Polish upbringing but in Vietnam they appear too much in “raw form” if that makes any sense at all. They look as though they were recently cut from carrion, boiled, and put in the display window showing organs I hardly am able to identify. This was also the feeling I had when staying in a ger in Mongolia and seeing the wife of a nomad cut out lamb entrails and cook mutton right in front of me. And to add to the effect, it is one thing when a fly gets caught in a glass case full of meat and buzzes out—but when it gets wedged between meat and glass and cannot fly away is when I get turned off instantly.
Some vendors were selling fruits of all kinds, fruits that I had never seen before in my life. For example, there was a fruit that imagistically reminded me of Valentine’s Day merged with a dragon. But when I saw the vendor cut the fruit open, its fleshy interior looked like cookies and cream ice cream (dragonfruit, pitaya). Another fruit looked like a burr but poisonous looking, or, a really bad hair-do dyed red (rambutan, chôm chôm). There was one which looked like a large hanging ball and chain with hard spikes which, I would imagine, if it were to fall on one’s head it certainly would deliver a lethal blow or perhaps twenty or so staples (jackfruit).
Other items sold in the streets were books about the Vietnam War; memoirs of victims; bootlegged Lonely Planets and little knick knacks for souvenirs. The perambulating booksellers had so much inventory strapped to their bodies that they looked like they were converted to moveable storage facilities. One guy’s stack of books tied by a cord was so high in his arms (and yet he managed it so well) that it reminded me of the Caber toss at the Scottish Highland Games.
The names of schools, hospitals and other government buildings are both written in Vietnamese and French, a typical anachronism in a modern day Vietnam once colonized by Francophones. However, I’ve only been here two days and I haven’t heard a single word of French spoken in the streets except for the French tourists aplenty which make me believe in a new wave of post-colonial colonization.
The motorbike cowboys are out in full effect. I spoke with a British guy while buying water and he was telling me how he had his iphone ripped right from his hands while checking his email the other day. When he told me he was standing on the curb with his phone towards traffic my pity was displaced by a judgment of sheer stupidity.
Another girl’s camera was stolen while walking at night with friends. Rather than having the camera strapped across her body with a hand over it, she told me that she just let it dangle off of one shoulder. She was even drunk. Why do some people lack common sense?
I then spoke with another Aussie girl about how careless travellers could be these days, particularly in HCMC which is known as the capital of thievery in South East Asia (hey, shoes stolen at a Buddhist temple over here)—but she then came out doltishly saying, “I don’t really care, my camera is insured.” And then I thought to myself: Is it possible that such an attitude be directly correlated to becoming a victim in third world countries? Does such carelessness make a thief’s life easier?
I would imagine the dialogue between two young Viet kids sounding something like this:
“Hey, dude, you get anything last night on dumb tourist street?” says one kid.
“Heck, yeah, these foreigners have so much wealth that they don’t care for their cameras and phones, they’ll just buy new ones…I got an iphone, a handbag full of credit cards and money. One guy even tried to chase me but I was too fast on my motorbike. You know, Duc, you should get yourself a scooter and start a business with me, we could become partners and soon take over the world.”
Yes, hardware is replaceable but what about those memories stored on the memory card? Wouldn’t she want to escape her mundane reality at some point in the future and occasionally recreate those moments of her vacation in her mind? For example, the moment of her drunk-stupid and hanging off the shoulder of some blonde-spiked Kiwi? Or some hot, short-short wearing Aussie? I guess not.
I could picture a Viet kid quick to change language functions on a camera and format each and every card in order to sell it on the black market…probably back to another tourist for “cheap, cheap! Just for you my friend!”
This entry was posted on Saturday, December 1st, 2012 at 7:09 pm
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After the War Museum, the next landmark I decided to check out was the seven-tiered Xa Loi Pagoda in HCMC’s district three. Built in 1956, it is known for possessing a sacred Buddha relic and for its part in sourcing demonstrations against religious persecution carried out by the Pro-Catholic government in the early 60s. There is also a memorial there for Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk who self-immolated out of protest producing this Pulitzer prize winning photo by Malcolm Browne.
For some reason though, with map in hand and a self-proclaimed spatial orientation comparable to a pigeon’s—I couldn’t find the pagoda. I asked a young boy sweeping the entrance of a restaurant to point me to it but he just lifted his hand like a sick patient and arbitrarily waved to anywhere, not even lifting his eyes from the pile of dust and street refuse he had amassed.
I finally saw the pagoda by accident in the distance after turning onto Ba Huyen Thanh Quan street. I walked through a dense gathering on the sidewalk of vendors selling eggy flavoured and red bean-filled pastries, as well as joss sticks and Buddhist text. Some were also selling Bánh mì, a culinary relic from the days of French colonialism consisting of grilled meat and vegetables stuffed inside a baguette. Before heading into the temple I had to sample a bite.
There was also a school nearby. Hearing the sound of children in urban areas playing always makes me feel at home and so this most human and familiar music weaved itself into the hustle and bustle of a pagoda-generated commerce. Despite business as usual, again, like in many cases before, I suddenly put on that coat of foreign eyes tightly pressed on to my foreign limbs.
Before entering the temple gates, I was offered to set free a few birds for good luck but was not paying attention to the vendor because I was transfixed by the pagoda’s 32 metre bell tower. I strolled into the garden taking photos of the tower and everything else and made my way up the main hall’s stairs. I took off my shoes prior to entering, as is required in shrine halls.
The hall was full of warm hues in places absent of morning shadows. Sunlight beamed at sharp angles through the windows and banners hung from the ceiling bearing the vibrant spectrum of Buddhism’s universal colors. The wide prayer space in front of me lead up to the Gautama Buddha sitting in the lotus position. Near the side walls, forming narrow corridors, there stood a row of pillars less aesthetic in design than practical in purpose.
The hall was completely empty. In the far corner, a monk was sitting at a desk reading a book. After noting the hall’s contemporary décor and the smell of incense permanently infused in the air, I approached the monk and asked for a photo. He agreed with a smile. I then looked up and paused in front of Buddha, admiring His most venerable aura but curious as to why some statues depict Him potbellied and bald while others with long hair in a bun and far less pudgy. The stretched ear lobes appear to be the most preserved feature out of all the depictions I had seen of Him.
After taking a few photos, I backed into a spring blossom tree almost making it fall over. It was about two heads taller than I and its bright yellow flowers complemented Buddha’s gilded exterior most graciously. A few vases of flowers also stood next to it on a table as part of a shrine which was also full of golden trays on pedestals topped with offerings of rice, oranges and money. Beguiled by the newness and the hall’s tranquilizing disposition, I continued standing and entered a meditative, eye-shut trance.
I felt the room suddenly fill me with warmth.
I was fully aware of my surroundings though my thoughts segued into tame and noiseless imaginings. There weren’t warm ceramic tiles under my feet anymore but moist water lilies…sometimes I stood with one foot in the air no higher than a Buddhist sage’s raised foot or maybe even a pink flamingo’s.
I imagined floating down the Mekong River at dusk. It was a precious and personal moment, unwontedly holy to my surprise…then being in a dense forest valley enshrouded by low-lying and vaporous clouds…monkeys howling in the distance and suspicious objects rustling in the bush revealing to be a young tribal boy hunting for salamanders…I was standing near a waterfall in the jungle and feeling a cold, misty spray falling on my cheeks. I was so deep in my thoughts that I even felt mist delicately titillating my left cheek, however, upon opening my eyes, I was disappointed to learn that it was not a natural cascade with its atomized offspring gracing my cheeks, but a monk nurturing the spring blossom with a handheld spray bottle. I moved out of his way; he smiled and said hello. I quickly returned back to reality.
I sat down against a pillar and watched the monk get on his tippy toes trying to reach for the tree’s crown. I noticed a man behind me enter the hall. He knelt down but was there for only a few series of kowtows and suddenly left.
After absorbing as much as I could, I got up and walked to where I took my shoes off but they were not there. I thought that perhaps a monk moved them for he needed to sweep the floor seeing that when not praying, the monks are usually tending to Buddha’s garden and His home like pious, obedient worshippers. I called to the monk who was reading in the corner and gestured that my shoes were not where I put them. He walked over and looked at the empty floor, and again, with that very same languid hand gesture as the boy sweeping the street—which I interpreted as ‘get lost’—he signalled to me that my shoes, in fact, ‘got lost.’ In other words, my shoes were stolen at the entrance of Xa Loi pagoda.
Insensitive to what had happened, he went back to his duties and paid no mind. I began scratching my head – gone? From a place of worship? One of the most prominent pagoda’s in all of Vietnam? Right at Buddha’s doorstep, a religion where the most essential or vital teaching is the lesson about doing good and karma?
At this point I thought two things: 1) It is okay that someone stole from me because for somebody to steal from me at a pagoda, then he or she must really be poor or in a real bad situation in his or her life and 2) this is a sign that I should go back to my room and ensure that my belongings were still there. My cameras and passport were on my person; my money belt was strapped on to me so tightly that I could have probably hung off of a Bodhi tree from its single strap—but my rucksack and other possessions were suddenly—in my mind of course—unsecure in a room with an unstable door and a lock that would befit a diary.
A whirlwind of thoughts left me with nothing but worry and confusion on my first day in Vietnam. But this was not healthy because I suddenly submitted to further thoughts, thoughts of the elderly Viet woman coaxing her grandson to pry open my door and to steal from me; thoughts of being robbed at gun point and having my camera gear taken; or thoughts of being seduced by a Viet girl, drugged, and then also taken for all my things. And so, I quickly rushed back to my room.
There was no other way so I had to walk back in my socks, yes, in the filthy, pestilential, streets of Vietnam. This was more like barefoot because my socks were of a very thin material and, well, had a few holes needing to be darned back to life. Of course I was making a conscious effort to stay away from the gutters, meandering around pools of water from suspicious sources. Moreover, since my arrival, I had also noticed there being food garbage everywhere on the streets, things which plop onto the pavement from eating street meat, perhaps a tourist highly intoxicated at 3am heading to his hotel.
A pair of Swedish tourists wearing ray-bans and checkered shorts looked at me, observed that I was shoeless, and chuckled.
As though he knew exactly what had happened, a man selling noodles from his home threw me a pair of slippers. Appreciating this, I bought a bowl of phở from him to return the kind gesture.
My belongings were in my room—no need to have worried, but again what other emotion would flood your thoughts walking down a Viet street almost shoeless (the slippers the phở vendor threw me were actually a size 8 or 9)? The murmurer was also out of sight so I proceeded to Ben Thanh market. At the market, I bought a pair of fake Nikes for $30. I didn’t want to negotiate so I gave in to the price. I just wanted to put the generously donated slippers aside and to cover my black feet, and, of course, finally appreciate having a pair of shoes once again.
For the rest of the day I walked around the Old Town dropping my eyes down to the feet of Viet men more than usual. I then lounged around in the park near reunification palace and wondered: Which Vietnamese guy could possibly fit into size elevens? A pair of hikers I bought in Beijing, China my last adventure.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 17th, 2012 at 9:00 pm
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