A Stroll with the Amygdala

January 15, 2011 5pm

We are leaving tonight...back to the states...back in time since in Vietnam we are nearly a day ahead. I'm sad because two weeks was just an appetizer of Vietnam and I want the full meal. Speaking of meals since I do lead with my stomach at times, I will miss the food, especially the meals that were cooked by my family here, not only because of the taste, but the interactions that I observed between family members that I've only just met. There were many familiar tastes that reminded me of my mom's cooking, that made me appreciate so much more of the meals that she prepares for us and forces us to eat even when our stomachs are busting through the buttons of our jeans. And my mom; she hangs with her bros and her sistas just like we do.

I've made connections here...connections that I will not soon forget and will be back to enhance. Some of my favorite moments have been with my parents, just strolling around the streets of the city and seeing them so relaxed and carefree with each other, reminiscing about places they've been to, foods they've eaten, and traditions they've experienced themselves.

Of course as you're strolling around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, be prepared to experience the Amygdala hijack that is unavoidable! Even the most cognitive of minds will revert back to the primitive fear and stress state of crossing the streets, as cars and motorbikes barely dodge you, and you see with mouths agape, whole families share a scooter, children sandwiched between parents! But oddly enough there are also times when we step into streams of oncoming traffic, and there is a parting of the seas...and we end up on the other side somehow.

All in all, I will be back. I will miss the people, the food, my family, and even the sensory overload of perpetual action, sounds, and motions unique to Vietnam...tam biet Vietnam.


Holy Gastrointestinal Calamities Batman!

The reason that (at least my portion) of the blog has been silent is that I've been afflicted with some sort of gastrointestinal nightmare with associated fever, rigors, sweats, and nausea. At least flow was unidirectional, if sudden, uncomfortable, and wholly unpleasant. As I was maintaining hydration (using the isotonic Revive from 7UP) and a small ability to eat I refrained from visiting any of the local medical facilities. Physician heal thyself. I'm hoping this is simply a bad bout of viral gastroenteritis and as my symptoms are improving this remains at the top of the differential. We had a sick one coming in, and a sick one coming out, but I'm glad that our sick casualties were to occur so fortuitously to only minimally affect our trip. I did however miss some happy, excellent meals with the in-laws by report. My loyal and loving wife remained at my side throughout this ordeal.


Ho Chi Minh City Museum and the War Remnants Museum

Despite suffering from nausea, Lan was a trooper and went sight seeing with me in Ho Chi Minh City. This was certainly a day of challenging perspectives. The Ho Chi Minh City museum attempts to relate the history, geology, ecology, and economy of Ho Chi Minh City. There were several beautiful ceramic pieces that show the unique style and external influences of each dynasty. It was also interesting to see the state sanctioned historical perspective of the struggle against French colonialism by the communist movement which was subsequently turned into conflict to contain the spread of communism by the US. The version described in the museum is not quite the version I recall from grade school, and I'm fairly sure the truth lies somewhere in between.

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Two Vietnamese beauties look on as I study the moves of a master.


Examples of Vietnamese pottery.


Attending a communist rally.


Model of the Cu Chi tunnels, the largest Viet Cong tunnel complex north of Ho Chi Minh City


The medical kit of a Viet Cong medic.

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American service vehicles were captured by the Viet Cong who taught themselves how to operate them and then painted new colors on them for use toward the end of the war.

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Outside the Ho Chi Minh City museum.


Despite the fact that I'm bigger than this car, private vehicles like this were used to ferry wounded, supplies, and weapons.

From the Ho Chi Minh City museum we walked north toward the Reunification Place, where the Southern Vietnamese surrendered. Unfortunately we didn't get to tour the inside because they were hosting a conference that day.

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The Reunification Palace

The War Remnants Museum is a place of powerful emotion. The outside begins fairly benignly with captured implements of war by land and air. From there we walked through a replica of a prisoner of war museum which related stories of prisoners who were tortured. It showed cells, a real guillotine (with the biography of its last victim), and many photographs of the effects of torture. Some 4000 prisoners are still unaccounted for. While illuminating in highlighting similarities in torture techniques used then and now, e.g. "waterboarding", it is somewhat one-sided. Prisoners of war were tortured by both sides and kept in horrible surroundings.

Inside were different galley exhibits of photographs highlighting various atrocities of the American-Vietnamese conflict. One had the alleged victims of the effects of Agent Orange, a series of photographs of phenotypic deformities. While it is well acknowledged that this had more than herbicidal effects and presumably has carcinogenic and teratogenic effects a series a photos without epidemiologic correlation is shock value not science. Yes deformities are terrible afflictions and yes they could be presumably due to Agent Orange, but simply putting up pictures and slapping the label of Agent Orange victims is not a fair assessment, even if it might be true.

The floors above showed other collections of pictures. There was an exhibit of war correspondents pictures, some of whom were killed in action. War photographs are intensely emotional by their content alone, but there is something even more chilling when the picture is labelled "from the last roll of film shot by..." and the image recorded was minutes before their death.

Another exhibit showed the overall losses of the American-Vietnamese war, the numbers of killing and death. Another gallery showed the ravages of war on the cities and the regrowth that they have gone through today.

In all not the history I was taught and again I'm sure the truth lies between the two versions. War causes people to due inhuman things to one another and neither side is innocent of that. Perhaps we can learn from past mistakes, although more current history does not support that. The idea that one side is evil, or that Americans are always the good guys, might be a little too golden a perspective on our nation.

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Captured air craft outside the War Remnants museum.


The exhibit featuring the prisoner of war prison used both by the South Vietnamese government, the French, and the US. Not a pleasant reminder of the inhumanity of humans during war.


Tiger cages were placed in the hot sun and often filled with offal, then not one but multiple prisoners would be thrust into them as punishment.

Like chocolate, but more real

I'll miss it.

I realized today how little time left we have here in "Bietnam", as my nephew Evan likes to call it. It's extremely bittersweet...I'd say a little more on the bitter side, maybe about 70% cacao. I've had such a wonderful experience here but to know that I'll never get to truly know this country is a bit painful. I know I'll be back someday though, and hopefully explore more places with more Nguyen siblings.

Going to Hue, Da Nang, and our grandfather's village definitely made me appreciate the life that was given to me more and now I'm better able to understand what my parents and grandparents had gone through to give us the life we currently have. My sister asked my dad to retell the tale of how our family came over to the states from Vietnam in the seventies. She said that it would be easier to imagine the story in our heads. There was something about actually being in the country and now being able to picture everything more coherently that made the story a little bit more real this time. Everything is a little more real this time. Because we are here...even if only for a short time. And I will come back someday.


Vietnamese History Museum and Water Puppets

Today we started the day by visiting the Vietnamese Museum of History. It detailed the history of the many peoples and dynasties of Vietnam from the Stone Age until the last of the Vietnamese kings. Each room tried to highlight one dynasty or people of Vietnam and by doing so showed how complex and multicultural this land really is. Vietnam has a unique cultural identity infused with contributions from every society that has ever touched it.

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The Beautiful Young Vietnamese-American Women's Association of the Midwest touring the museum.


A door that is nearly a thousand years old.

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Tablets from Oc Eo civilization

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Posing with some statues. The thin giant seems to support the hypothesis that ancient man was visited by aliens.

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The museum also featured water puppetry. I had never heard of this until I read about it in our guide book and was interested in checking it out. Apparently a traditional performance art form, the puppets are used to tell stories. What is particularly interesting is that the water is used to hide the poles, ropes, and whatever else makes the puppets work. The show was a spectacular wonder inducing series of more and more complex puppets, even for jaded 21st century eyes used to computer graphics. I spent most of the show entranced by the colorful characters and confused by how the puppeteers were accomplishing their performance. I just wish my nephews and young cousins have a chance to see a water puppet show in the future.

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The Jade Emperor Pagoda


Many turtles in the pond adjacent to the Jade Emperor Pagoda


The Tran Hung Dao Temple


Eating a fantastic creme brulle at the Pat' a Chou near the Ben Thanh market after some shopping.

Our last event of the day was dinner with Uncles 4 and 9 and their families at the Mon Hué. Mon Hué has a collection of restaurants throughout Ho Chi Minh City (and allegedly in California) and serves Hué style cuisine. The food was fantastic.

This Little Piggy Went to the Market

Life is not like the movies, nor is it like TV. It was from a notable travel series on TV that I was first introduced to Ben Thanh Market. My impression was that of a peaceful market with wide aisles for carefree strolling, happy, smiling vendors proudly displaying their wares, and motherly cooks tempting passerbys with Vietnamese soul food. Instead, Ben Thanh Market is hectic, humid, claustrophobic, and suffocating. There is no strolling here, you are forcefully carried with the current of harried and determined locals. The extremely narrow aisles promote an unnatural, almost pathological gait. There is no structural demarcation between vendors and products blend seamlessly into one another such that you are constantly experiencing a deja vu. Vendors eye shoppers hungrily ready to pounce on any potential sale. You have suddenly become prey amidst a market full of predators and the pressure to bleed your wallet is overwhelming. And this is rightly so as the competition is fierce and their livelihood is at stake.

The endless sights, sounds, and smells of Ben Thanh Market lead to a perpetual over-stimulation with subsequent sensory overload. With hair standing, ears perked, nostrils flared, mouths drooling, and teary, blood-shot eyes, you search for prized souvenirs. Despite being on an environmentally-induced high, I managed to make a few prudent purchases. There is no need for illicit drug use here, Ben Thanh is market marijuana.


We got to hang in Da Nang

We took a day trip to Da Nang to see Muc's (Lan's mother) home and the home were Uan stayed while going to high school. The two met because they were neighbors. The roadtrip took us from the wet lowlands into the mountainous highlands, seemingly two separate geographies smashed together by accident. The road was winding and pretty treacherous with seemingly depressed tour bus drivers ready to end it all and take out a passel of annoying foreigners by passing haphazardly during the steep mountain crossing. Our driver was a cautious man who loved life and took us at a sedate, comfortable pace to Da Nang.

On our way to Da Nang we stopped at an awesome sea food restaurant called Sao Bien, where we had a multitude of yummy sea critters for lunch. I also got to sample more of my new favorite beer, Huda (Vietnamese brew made possible by Danish technology). We continued our trip to Da Nang and during our visit there we toured the Cham museum. The Cham were a Hindu civilization that ruled southern Vietnam thousands of years ago. I was entirely unaware that an Indian empire had stretched this far, but the evidence is vividly displayed in the form of stone work and artifacts.

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On the two lane road we saw the highlands and lowlands of Vietnam, as well as some water buffalo. The trip back in the night was pretty bad, as we saw two accidents.

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At Sao Bien restaurant we ate fresh sea food: shrimp, crabs, and two kinds of fish soup. It was divine. Uan used to stop here on his way to Da Nang as a student. At that time it was a one lane road over the mountain, so people had to wait to cross. Now we use the tunnel (below). We did not sample the pickled reptiles.

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Uan's old high school.

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While going to high school, Uan stayed with family friends who still live in this home in Da Nang. Muc lived right around the corner.

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Da Nang is a harbor town. This is the new bridge spanning the river.

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At the Cham museum

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Lan poses with an elephant. Fertility was big the Cham, yes those are breasts adorning the column.

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The elephant god on the right is the Cham representation of Ganesh

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Kickin' it Cham style. Definitely the oldest school.


Cham carving of Shiva

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A portable shrine

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Having coffee and coconut down by the river. Yup they just pulled the coconut out of the fridge, pre-cut.