Tet, the Year of the SnakeBy Clarice Feldman
On our trip along the coast of the South China Sea, we reached Danang, where US Marine battalions landed in 1965, inaugurating full scale ground combat in Viet Nam. Except for the government's efforts to keep the war alive in the minds of the citizens, there seems to be no visible animosity to Americans we could see. Efforts are underway here to expand the port facilities which had been heavily damaged in the war.
The principal occupations , fishing and rice farming, are risky and not very remunerative. They are also boring to young people who are flocking to cities, even as unemployment remains high (one estimate is about 15% which is high in a country where 70% of the population are self-employed fishermen and farmers). To ease pressure on Hanoi and Hoi Chi Minh City (Saigon, as it still is largely known to Vietnamese), the government would like to expand Danang.
In Viet Nam, Tet, the lunar New Year is an important three day holiday. (Among the Chinese communities it is celebrated for 10 days.) It's the Year of the Snake, under the Chinese lunar calendar which still guides such things. Tet was going to begin tomorrow and thousands of people on motorbikes, their heads covered with the mandatory helmets are shopping for holiday supplies. Street stands are full of flowers, especially marigolds as yellow is considered an auspicious color.
Many newly built houses line the route. They are concrete and narrow, reaching 3 or 4 stories high This form of construction is the consequence of very high land prices. One square meter in town costs $3-4,000. Land is cheaper near the sea as residents (with good warrant) fear destruction from typhoons.
Still, there remains a very large former US air base, surrounded by metal fencing and full of rusting Quonset huts, which the government has not made available for development.
To house the poor, the government has constructed some grim looking multi-story apartment blocks, which -- sans elevators as they are -- must be difficult to live in. Many fishing boats ply the sea, but tourism is clearly the major source of revenue. Farmers in this area grow mostly rice, chicken, tobacco and sweet potatoes. Snakes and rats (especially rats that live in coconut palms) are real culinary delicacies, but the government is trying to scotch the killing of snakes as the demand for them has stripped the fields of the rodents' natural predator and too much of the rice crop is being consumed by mice.
Liver cancer is rife here probably because rice wine is still so cheap -- about $1 for two liters of it.
Sanitation everywhere in this part of the world is primitive. Here's a not atypical shot of a man washing a plucked chicken in a filthy drainage ditch.
And a roadside stand selling butchered meat.
Signs of an improving economy, however, are hard to miss even in the face of such practices.
CHAM Museum (Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient)
Eighty-six percent of the Vietnamese are Kinh who occupy the cities and plains; but there are 53 cultural minorities scattered throughout the country's border areas. Among them are the Cham people who once constructed a very important and extensive civilization in this area. (Cham still live in Vietnam but no longer in the Danang area.) Cham people originated in Indonesia and Cambodia and settled here in the fourth century. They now constitute an ethnic minority of about 110,000.
Interestingly, because it is so unusual especially in Asia, Cham culture is matriarchal. Ancient Cham were Hindu. They created 7 temples out of sandstone here. Sandstone is easy to carve but fast eroding so that it is unusual to find Cham sculptures which retain a great deal of detail. In about the 14th century they lost control of central Vet Nam and they were largely forgotten until the 1900's when Henri Parmentier, a French archeologist, began digging through the ruins. The French government built the Chum Museum in1936 to house his finds in lovely open pavillions,
Outside of this Museum pedicabs wait to take tourists for a spin. This practice continues in Saigon where we take a spin in one. As you can see, behind the pedicab area there is a large roller coaster-the river waterfront here is a large park and recreation area.
Many of the sculptures in this museum are very striking representations of Hindu deities.
Here is one of a goddess, fitting for a matriarchal culture.
Our next stop is the colorful Han market.
Open markets like this are common in this area, though in Saigon there are now some supermarkets. The bulk of food purchases in this area of the world are made daily in places like this.
Dried foods, particularly different kinds of fish, vegetables and rice products, are particularly important in such hot climates with such limited access to refrigeration.
Our ship's head chef joins us here to add to his supply of produce and to pick up some special condiments for locally inspired dishes.
The streets outside the central market are also filled with produce stands and shoppers making their holiday feast purchases.
Less appetizing in the Han market than the local produce are the stands hawking meat and fish which lack refrigeration and protection from insects. Making our way around a corner of the market, we see a niche where women are getting pedicures and massages as shoppers, their bags loaded with food, wend their way around them.
Traditional crafts play a significant role, still though one wonders how much longer this labor-intensive work will retain a market position. We visit one such place, an embroidery studio where fine strands of colored silk are stitched into fine pictures, some of which by some sort of magic create different views on the front and back sides and no stray threads or knots are visible.
By this time of the afternoon traffic in Danang has really picked up. It travels in all directions. There are no traffic lights and no rules about which side of the street drivers must use. Nor are there any pedestrian crosswalks; pedestrians just step into the street, try to catch divers' attention and walk on through, and traffic (if you are lucky) just parts like a stream to allow passage.
Just outside Danang are the Marble Mountains, a series of 5 limestone hills full of caves and studded with pagodas and temples, including Quan Am pagoda, the oldest in the city. Pagodas are places of worship. Temples are the grounds in which the pagodas are built. In these grounds are housed the clerics, schools and other ancillary structures. Orphaned children are brought to temples like these to be raised as nuns and monks after they complete their education.
Nearby is a marble carvers village of 3,000 people in which there is a marble carver in each household:
The work is fine though the subject matter is unoriginal. Marble shops -- especially the larger ones -- will handle shipping, which is critical as all but the smallest sculptures are exceedingly heavy.
Different guides gave different explanations for how this gorgeous 25-mile beach came to be called "China Beach".
One said it was because ancient porcelain had been found washed up here. Another said it was because when during the war, U.S. servicemen took R & R here, residents would hawk porcelain on the sands.
Whatever the origin of the name, the beach is lovely and relatively empty. From time to time you can see odd round bamboo fishing boats near shore and Monkey Mountain is visible from the beach. Fancy restaurants and hotels -- some very luxurious and expensive line the beach road,
There are reports that with new found prosperity has come family dissolutions in numbers not heard of before, and heroin from the "Golden Triangle" seems to have taken hold among the young.
There really are no safety nets here. Government workers do get pensions but they are limited in the number of children they may have. If I recall correctly, they may have one. Others can have as many children as they wish but the youngest son in each family is responsible for the care of his elderly parents and traditionally lives with them, providing for all their needs, including medical expenses.
There remains some discrimination against families of those who served in the Southern armies and government. If those troops and officials survived, they often spent time in reeducation camps and were not eligible for employment upon release -- burdening their families with their upkeep. Their children were ineligible for military college and their grandchildren (40 years after) are still forbidden to marry police officers.
I don't know the exact percentage of internet users in Vietnam. Internet service and computers are expensive but there are internet cafes. I was given different figures on this -- from 25% to 40 or 50%. The government can and does deny access to certain news sites and after the Arab Spring it seems social networking is monitored and occluded. Still there are ways for savvy folks to get around that, and, in any event, increased travel and tourism and the limitations on internal spy capacity as compared to those in the old communist regimes, means more young people have more knowledge of the outside world.
Tourism, by the way, is not limited to foreigners. Although a large number of Vietnamese -- I heard a figure as high as 60% -- who tried to escape during the northern takeover died at sea, many survived. They have been allowed back. The older ones to die and be buried in the family tombs, the younger ones to reestablish their roots. And expat investment is not unusual. Some old family estates, now turned into commercial enterprises are kept afloat by money from families living abroad.
Not far from Danang is Hoi An, which like Belgium's Bruges, was once an active trading center that became a living museum when the port its commerce depended on silted over. The city was largely constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries and Japanese, Chinese, Dutch and Indian traders established homes and trading emporia here. The town's buildings are largely as they were when Hoi An was an active commercial center.
Here are a couple of typical buildings in Hoi An:
Nearby is a silk production operation where the silk worms are fed until they form cocoons. The cocoons are boiled and the silk spun . (The workers eat the boiled worms, saying they are delicious and very good for the complexion.)
In the evening a troupe of singers and dangers highlighting some of the many ethnic groups in the country perform for us.
FOLLOW US ON