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Posts Tagged ‘traveling in Vietnam’

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Exactly three weeks have passed since the girls (my daughters and my nieces) and I made the journey back from Vietnam. It feels like a dream, those days walking through Saigon and feeling the energy of the city. The beach city of Nha Trang is my new favorite spot, and I’ve been to many wonderful places in the country.

One of the things I noticed about the trip was that I didn’t have much time alone, and yet I was not torn between solitude or not solitude. I relished the hours spent with my family. We traveled together well. We shared a similar sense of adventure.

I would love to share in this blog post a story or two about our trip, but I’m in the middle of writing a print publication essay about exactly that. So I’m at a loss of what to say. Unfortunately, I need to save all my best words for the essay.
 
I can share this screen shot below from the last essay of mine that was published, this in SAGE, a monthly magazine for women that appears as part of the Albuquerque Journal. It came out while we were in Vietnam, which was fun timing since the writing happened to be about one of my previous trips to the country. You might recognize the photo from one of my previous blog posts. It was especially cool that three of my photos got published along with my writing.

The country has become as much a muse for my writing as my art. That’s a recent shift. I wonder, when I sit down and think about it, how many essays about my travels there I have in me. Maybe quite a few.



Let there be Pampering (from SAGE)
Let there be Pampering, by Roma Arellano, screen shot from SAGE, The Albuquerque Journal, July 2010, © 2010 by The Albuquerque Journal.

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Our guide was named Anh. Like Anne, but a long a. Ah. Ah-n. She had the look of a backpacker. At first. When I took in the rucksack and light jacket, I thought maybe she was a trekker who’d landed her dream job. Tour guide on a medium-sized wooden boat, fits about 20 passengers, floating up and down the Mekong Delta.

But first impressions are deceiving. Anh was from Hanoi originally, now living in Can Tho. She wore thick flesh-colored socks with sandals. A face mask and a traditional Vietnamese hat to keep the sun off her skin. In Vietnam, the women want to remain as fair-skinned as possible. Stark contrast to the Norwegians who shared the boat with us. The two women in that group tied silk scarves over their bathing suits and sat in the hot sun until the silk turned dark with sweat and their skin a sort of freckled orange-brown.

My friend Marcia says that eventually, given enough time, we will all evolve to look like one another. Vietnamese women will get lighter; fair-skinned Norwegians will turn a crispy brown. We’ll all go after the universal beauty ideal. Add a KFC on every corner of every city in the world and Wham-o!, we’re all the same.

Until then, I will enjoy our differences. And prawns with attached heads, which we had for lunch. And cuttle fish, passion fruit, rice. Meals on the Bassac II are gourmet. How it turned out to be just me and the girls plus a Norwegian family of four—I don’t understand. This is the best boat ever, the best crew. The captain is the same one who steered the boat the last time I was on it, and both times he masterfully navigated our vessel through narrow passages where barges carrying silt dredged from the bottom of the river came within a foot of boats that are floating fish farms. And us.

As we gawked at other people’s lives, all while eating steak and fish for lunch or sipping Tiger beer, I imagined we were a nuisance on this commercial waterway. The Vietnamese float by with all their worldly possessions contained in boats only slightly larger than canoes. And yet, they are so tolerant, even nice to us as we float by in all our laid-back luxury.

The crew of Bassac II recognized me when I boarded, and I reminded them that I said I’d return and bring my girls next time. Dee was enamored by the boat immediately, the cool of the cabin and its smell of hibiscus and lemongrass. She wandered around the boat as if under a spell, that slow walk from this end of the deck to that one, all the while tracing her hand along the deep brown wooden railings. The place suited her internal clock, slow and content to not do much.

Em explored every corner of the boat she had access to, bouncing a few minutes around the upper deck, then a few more on the deck below. “Mom, I’m going to check out the front of the boat,” she informed before shooting off again. She waited impatiently for hours, unable to just rest, before we finally boarded the canoe and made our way to a village along one of the canals.

Not being from Can Tho, Anh didn’t know the off-the-beaten-path spots where you could find a temple that wasn’t officially on the tour. Nor did she have the same sense of adventure that prompted our last tour guide to stop in at a Cao Dai temple while making our way back to the boat from the village.

But that was fine. Anh was calm and friendly, and she loved the girls. She spent a generous amount of time in the floating market, took us to a cottage factory that produced soy sauce and salt, and let us sit for almost an hour eating exotic fruits while she showed the girls how to make jewelry and animals out of palm leaves.

When I asked her if she liked her job, she smiled, shrugged her shoulders, and then looked out in the distance. “I miss my children,” she said, “when I come overnight for the tours.” Believe me, I wanted to say, I can relate. Instead I looked over at my own girls and said, “Bring them with you one day, Anh—they’ll never forget it.”

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vietnamese children (one)
 
 
                   vietnamese children (two)
 
 
                             vietnamese children (three)
 


Here I am, crouching in front of a temple in Hue, surrounded by children. They squeal, I smile. They tug at me, I hug them. When my guide enters the courtyard and sees me, he marches toward me, beside himself. He pulls me up from the spot where I am, a small child like them. “Watch your purse,” he hisses.

He’s not unkind. He just knows how children can be with tourists. But I’m not afraid. If they take something from me, more power to them. I shouldn’t be such a naive soul, should I?, for letting them dupe me like that. It’s the price I’m willing to pay to be with children, even if they’re not my own.

But the truth is, these kids don’t even try to take my things. They want to test their broken English and throw me some universal signs. Peace, love, all that. At this point on a trip to Vietnam, I need all the peace and love I can get. I notice children everywhere I go. I am beyond homesick.



child monk




Fast forward to today. Em packs Froggy and Meow. Froggy is a frog pillow that presently rests in the space between me and Em. His green warmth at my side assures me as our plane lifts from the tarmac and begins its bumpy ascent. Dee packs no stuffed toys, although this morning she took Merry, the horse she’s had since age three or four, to stay with Jim for the almost three weeks we’ll be gone. We’ll be gone. Me and my girls. Finally. In Vietnam.

This is something I’ve always done with my girls. Not the international travel, but whisking them away, the three of us sans Daddy. I’ve taken them to Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, where we tried unsuccessfully to put up a tent in the wind and ended up walking into the administration office and sheepishly asking for a room. We’ve been to Santa Monica, at the Hotel California, and when we drove into the parking lot from the airport—you won’t believe it!—that Eagles tune was playing on the rental car radio.

We’ve gone to Denver, with my sister and her kids, and also taken a road trip with them to San Francisco via Las Vegas. In Taos, the girls and I stayed in Mabel‘s room at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, and I didn’t tell them that my blog partner had once seen the ghost of Mabel in that very same room.

But those adventures pale in comparison to the three plane rides it will take to get us to Ho Chi Minh City. One of the flights is 13 or 14 hours long. I try not to dwell on it but wonder if I’ll be able not to when I have an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old sitting next to me. Not to mention Froggy.

And this is just the beginning. I can’t wait to see my girls’ reactions when I take them to the crowded colorful market where women tug at your sleeve and say “Madam, Madam!” or when we eat a steaming bowl of rice noodles and chicken for breakfast or morning glory sauteed in garlic for lunch. Will they agree that Vietnamese food is the best in the world?

We’ll float down the Mekong Delta, travel by domestic plane to a beach town I’ve heard about but never been to, stay in a luxury two-bedroom apartment right in the heart of bustling Saigon. All month long as the trip looms closer, I drive them around our hometown and tell them that driving on the streets of Saigon is nothing like Corrales. I want them to feel the chaos, the aliveness of it all. To see how a place half a world away wakes up, eats, lives, go to sleep. Is.

We are on the plane now. Em shows me a photo she just snapped with her cell phone camera of the landscape out the window of our plane, somewhere west of the Grand Canyon. The image on her small screen resembles those photos of Earth as seen from outer space. There’s the curve of the terrain, layers of atmosphere growing from light to dark blue as you move away from the land toward the expansive sky.

This is like us, I think, in the world, high above it all. On our way to places beyond.


safe travels


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halong bay (one)

halong bay (one), view from a grotto, August 2009, photos
in collection © 2009-2010 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.




Once upon a time, soon after the Việt people established their country, invaders came. The Jade Emperor sent Mother Dragon and her Child Dragons down to earth to help the Việt people fight against their enemy. Right at the time invaders’ boats were rushing to the shore, the dragons landed down on earth. The dragons immediately sent out from their mouths a lot of pearls, which then turned into thousands of stone islands emerging in the sea like great walls challenging the invaders’ boats. The fast boats couldn’t manage to stop and crashed into the islands and into each other and broke into pieces.

After the victory, Mother Dragon and Child Dragons believed this country to be so beautiful that they didn’t return Heaven but stayed on earth at the place where the battle had occurred. The location Mother Dragon landed is now called Hạ Long Bay and where Child Dragons descended is now Bái Tử Long. The dragons’ tails waving the water created Long Vĩ (present Trà Cổ peninsula) and formed a fine sand beach over ten kilometers long.

~Legend of Ha Long Bay, adapted from Origin Vietnam website



halong bay (three)


girls in boat (halong bay)


village (halong bay)


halong bay (four)


halong  bay (two)


village by the rocks (halong bay)


boat house (halong bay)





Every time I come to Vietnam, I try to see a part of the country that I don’t know. Last trip, August 2009, I went north to World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay, in the Gulf of Tonkin. The photos speak for themselves.

Tomorrow, Friday, I’ll fly to the Central Highlands, to the ancient citadel of Hue. (I have been to Central Vietnam before, to the city of Da Nang and the ancient village of Hoi An.)

Sometimes I wonder, How did I get so lucky as to come to know this beautiful country and its compassionate people?

I’m curious. Do you believe in luck? Do you ever marvel at your good fortune? Do you curse bad luck? Let me know if you get a chance.

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pig on a scooter

pig on a scooter, pen and marker on graph paper, doodle and
photos © 2009-2010 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.





This is my seventh visit to Vietnam. Seven trips, back and forth across the great expanse. If I added up all the hours spent on just one leg of the trip—San Francisco to Hong Kong and back—it would be 182 hours in the sky. Over one week on just these seven trips.

That’s a lot of time to spend in a vehicle that I liken to an empty toilet paper tube with wings. A lot of time spent sitting, eating, and sleeping in the company of strangers. As someone who doesn’t necessarily enjoy being in such close proximity to people I don’t know who sniffle, snore, and sweat, it is noteworthy, then, that I can muster the mental fortitude to make the slog again and again. The reason I do it, the reason anyone does it, of course, is for what waits on the other side.

My first trip to Vietnam, I wandered the streets of Saigon, lost but unafraid, except perhaps any time I stepped off a curb and into the onslaught of motorbikes, which parted and flowed around me as if I were a boulder in a rushing river. That and my second trip were spent solely in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, which is a sensual feast and assault all at once.

The roads are clogged with motor scooters, and not just one person per scooter but entire families and small businesses transported on two small tires. There are rickshaws, bicycles, small cars, SUVs, tourist vans with sleeping Japanese or Koreans, and the ubiquitous container trucks, what we call semis, reminding us that this place is being rebuilt before our very eyes.

But traffic and congestion you can see in any big city in the world, and Saigon holds not a candle to many of the largest. Still, where else can you witness the harmony of millions of people and their wheels in synchronous motion, as if this is something they’ve practiced all their lives—driving motorbikes loaded down with baskets, glass panes, multigenerational families, televisions—and are now performing in the symphony of daily life.

There is a Zen quality to the way traffic flows in Vietnam. School girls dressed in white Áo Dàis, the traditional attire for women, stroll in pairs down a busy thoroughfare, impervious to the crazy tourist vans and containers that roar by, spewing their black exhaust. I peer at the chatting girls with both fear and admiration. How do they manage to stay so calm when I am reciting Hail Mary’s and praying that I will return home in one piece?

As I have traveled from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, through the center part of the country in Da Nang and Hoi An, then north to Hanoi and Halong Bay, I’ve seen more than I can ever recall. A naked man walking along the cement divider on a narrow and packed two-lane highway. Cows grazing in the grassy medium. Women bent harvesting rice. Raised graves that look like small cottages. Buddhist statues as tall as skyscrapers.

On my morning commute to work, colleagues on the shuttle bus doze off or talk to one another. Not me. I keep my eyes glued to the passing scenery. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen a bus pass so close that I could touch it or the tangle of rivers we seem to always cross, or the row of shops that sell marble statues in the likeness of any spiritual figure—Buddhas, goddesses, Jesus and Mary—I am still drawn in as if seeing it all for the first time.

On my last trip I went in a minivan from Hanoi to Halong Bay. I’m now accustomed to seeing animals transported on the backs of scooters. Chickens in cages or ducks with their bills and legs tied with twine for the trip. But I had never seen an adult pig, five or six hundred pounds of pink jello-y flesh, roped onto a motorbike. As the young man carrying the pig passed our van and I stared with mouth open, he seemed nonchalant, so at ease bumping along the dirt road with his jiggling sow in tow.

There is no way, really, to describe how exotic, how absolutely delectable Vietnam is to my senses. Roads are torn up, rice paddy fields relocated, new business parks and high rises rise overnight. It is a country in transition, moving to claim its place among economic powerhouses. I am in the midst of it, working with government, industry, and education to prepare for what is to come.

On one of my early trips, I walked with two Vietnamese colleagues down an alley near the coffee house where we’d just been. I looked up at the tangle of communications and electrical cables, signs of growth unplanned. Before us motorbikes surged six rows thick, mixed with taxis, cars, and bicycles. I turned to my friend and said, “I hope Vietnam never changes. I hope I can always see this,” and I motioned with my hand at the chaos before us. She looked me in the eye and said, “Ah, Roma, I hope very much that my country does change. I hope we someday have roads to fit the cars, safe roads and infrastructure for all the people who live here.”

It was then that I realized how unfair of me it was to want Vietnam to remain the same, as if it were a curiosity put here for my own pleasure. The people of any country should be able to determine their own destiny. And especially Vietnam, ravaged by war and poverty, a legacy of imperialism.

I’ve come around to embracing the change that is inevitable. These days I simply observe everything I can, take it in as if I were a recorder. Ten years from now, I vow to come back and see how different it is.



stop light (ho chi minh city) waiting to cross (ho chi minh city)
sharing the road (ho chi minh city) in transition (ho chi minh city)
going for a ride (ho chi minh city)

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Me, By Pham Luc, portrait of Roma, 26×36 inches, August 2009, image
© 2009 by Pham Luc, photo © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

 
 
 
 
In a small travel agency that sits just around the corner from the Hanoi Cathedral, I wait as the owner, Tony Pham, fills out paperwork for my weekend tour. It is hot, unbearably hot in August in Hanoi, and in spite of the fan, I mop sweat from my neck.
 
On the wall behind Tony I see a painting of a red horse against a black background. It’s a small painting but it stands out. The horse wears a cinch around its barrel chest and sloping neck. It is regal, a dancing, prancing stallion.
 
“Who painted the horse,” I want to know.

Tony looks up from his papers. “Ah, he is a famous painter, mentor to my painting teacher.”

“You paint?” I interrupt.

“No, not really.”
 
He brushes off my question and points to the artist’s several other paintings hanging in the office. They are bold. Thick black lines contrast with deep, sometimes bright colors. Each piece moves with energy.

Tony tells me he has many more paintings in his home, that he’ll take me to meet the artist.

“Tomorrow afternoon,” he says.

“Tomorrow afternoon,” I repeat, and as I walk through the crowded streets back to my hotel, it dawns on me that Tony is an artist living as a businessman. No wonder his tours are so beautiful and magical.
 
 
 
 

* * *

 
 
 
Pham Luc’s home is built in the typical Vietnamese style. Narrow and tall, like a shoebox turned on its end. The bottom floor is a one-car garage, then three floors of living space above. It is the first Vietnamese home I’ve been in that hasn’t been converted to a restaurant or shop. I have a feeling it’s a lot nicer than most Vietnamese homes, yet it’s also simple. Some furniture and a lot of art. Besides the bed and sitting area, plus a kitchen and bathroom, the rest of the house, it seems, is dedicated to Pham Luc’s paintings. Making them and storing them.
 
Pham Luc is having tea when we arrive. He is a compact man, not so much small as solid, as if he is accustomed to physical labor. His hair is black-black, just a hint of gray at the temples, and he has thick eyebrows and a thick mustache that seem to go together. I have no idea how old he is. Later, when asked to guess, I put him at about 55. I am way off.

A Vietnamese collector of his works is also there, drinking tea with Pham Luc. After introductions, Tony and I walk up the two flights of stairs to rooms filled with paintings. One small room holds nothing but works on framed canvas. Tony flips through them, occasionally pulling out ones he especially admires. A young Vietnamese woman who speaks no English appears at the door. She helps Tony move the paintings around so we can get a better look.

Another room is filled with even bigger pieces, some almost as tall and wide as the walls themselves. These are painted with lacquer on black board. They seem massive and wet, as if dripping still with layers of gold and red and black.

We spend a good amount of time upstairs, looking at the paintings, talking about themes. Pham Luc paints rural scenes, festivals, women and babies, old women, nudes reclining. There is no air-conditioning and by now I am sweating so much that I have used up the tissues I brought with me. Pham Luc’s assistant notices that my face and neck are wet; she leaves and returns with a napkin. Her skin is dry. The Vietnamese, I have concluded, do not sweat.
 
 
 
 

* * *

 
 
 
I could have spent a century in those rooms, looking from one painting to the next, trying to see how they change. If not for the heat, I could have spent forever trying to guess what his emotional state was when he went from yellows, pinks, and lime greens (elated) to browns and grays and navy blue (depressed).

I gather that he paints his moods, that, yes, he has a fundamental style (in fact, the book he gave me of pieces spanning three decades of his work shows as much) but that nothing about him is static.
 
We drink green tea, strong and bitter, and I try to keep up with the men, as if the tea were bourbon. Pham Luc mentions that he does not drink beer, and I get the feeling that it was a decision he was forced to make—beer or art?, art or beer?—at some point in his career.

But hot tea comes in pot-fulls, brought out by the assistant who doesn’t sweat, always in the same small teapot that looks like it’s made of jade.
 
Somewhere along the line, Pham Luc tells me he would like to paint me. Tony translates: “He wants to paint you and give you the painting to take home.” A small photo album is produced, and in it I see images of beaming Westerners standing next to their Pham Luc portraits. It is something he sometimes does, I later learn from watching a CD he sends home with me, in order to delight his visitors.

I’m game. (Isn’t it game, after all, that got me here?) I stay where I’m sitting, still dressed in the black blouse and white linen slacks that I wore to my day’s appointments. I look away from Tony and the collector, towards a flat screen TV and more paintings leaning against walls. The assistant comes in with paints and a large canvas stapled to a wooden easel, which Pham Luc props against a chair. He squats in front of the canvas, paints by his side, and he works quietly and quickly.

I don’t look at what he’s doing, partly for the same reason I hate looking at photos of myself and partly to not break the pose. Every now and then I turn to Tony and the collector so that I can ask them questions. They speak in Vietnamese, but Tony translates.

I learn that there is a Pham Luc Collectors Club, that some collectors have thousands of Pham Luc paintings, that his works are owned by ambassadors and dignitaries and people all over the world, and that he has had exhibitions in France, Italy, The Netherlands, Canada. They tell me he will come to Boston in 2010 and, maybe could I go?

If I stay facing Tony and the collector too long, Pham Luc asks me to turn my head back the other way.
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
My lips are fuller, cheekbones higher. I look French. I look beautiful, and it makes me feel beautiful to know he saw that in me. And for that I immediately love this compact man with the black mustache, and I love Vietnam even more than before, the North especially—erudite, intellectual, lovers of art.

He completed the painting in maybe 30 minutes, although now I can’t be sure. Looking back, time passed and I lost track of time. For example, I have no recollection of him smoking, although I have a photo of his pack of Camel cigarettes, the words SMOKING KILLS in block letters on the front. He must have lit up while I was there, I am sure of it, but I don’t recall being bothered by the smoke.

I do remember that after he finished the portrait and turned the canvas for us to see, we let out a collective gasp. Then Pham Luc walked to us, pointing to his arms and gesturing excitedly. The hair on his forearms stood on end; confused, I looked to Tony for translation.

“It’s good, it’s good,” Tony assured me, “it means the painting is great.”

For the moment, Pham Luc is pure energy.
 
Later, when I ask Tony in the taxi why Pham Luc would give me a painting, even after I pleaded to purchase it instead, he says it is because of the gift that I gave to Pham Luc. “He knows that now, after his visitors are gone, he will be able to paint.”
 
 
 

Pham Luc paints at night, during daytime, when awake at night, or even if he has just recovered between sicknesses and can sit up. The motivation behind his creation is like a karma, a curse of fate. If he can’t paint he will get sick and will be like a flu-infested chicken. Many times I saw him grubby in a mess of colors and lacquer as if haunted.
 
                    ~Dr. Nguyen Si Dung, from Painter Fạm Lực

 
 
 

* * *

 
 
 
It takes an hour, maybe two, for the painting to dry. We continue to sit and talk. At one point I look across to Pham Luc; he is holding a large white envelope close to his face, sketching a doodle of me. When he is done, he shows it to me. Another gift to take home. 

Later still, he walks over to a dresser and picks up a small piece of art done in lacquer on wood. I admire it, hand it back, and then Tony translates. “No, it’s for you.”

Then Pham Luc goes and gets two more and asks me to choose from among the three. They are nudes done in simple black lines on gold leaf. I like them all, but Tony and the collector have a strong opinion that I take one in particular, so I choose it.
 
We talk, drink more tea. Pham Luc gets up and again rummages around the room, notices behind one of the larger paintings a small, colorful portrait of himself on canvas. In the painting, he wears no shirt and holds a cigarette between his fingers. Again, he hands me the painting. A gift.

“Please,” I tell him, “please, it’s too much.”

He says something in Vietnamese, which Tony translates. “You are my friend, and I am his friend, so now you are his friend.”
 
I glance at the beautiful Roma on the large canvas that is still drying, and I marvel at my luck. Yes, luck! Karma, good fortune, call it whatever you want, but here I am sitting, talking, laughing, drinking tea, being painted, being feted with generosity and brilliance. I am a small thing basking in the light of a huge thing. Someone ordinary touched by someone extraordinary.
 
 
 

I am disabled but crazy about Pham Luc’s paintings. Many Vietnamese and foreign friends coming to my home to see my collection were amazed at the creations of Pham Luc. Many asked me why I collected so many paintings. I replied, “Each painting is a support for me to overcome handicap and integrate into life. His paintings give me confidence in life and aspiration to rise up. In my difficult times and in pain, I come to his paintings to seek consolation, sympathy and often find in them peace amidst the storms of life.”
 
                    ~Ngo Quang Tuan, from Painter Fạm Lực

 
 
 

* * *

 
 
 
Pham Luc was born in 1943 in the village of Hue. He was a soldier and painter in Vietnam’s People’s Army, documenting the scenes he saw. From the books and brochures I have about him, I understand he became a major in the army, but always he was a painter. He told me that the reason he is not married—he’s been divorced twice—is that his wives did not understand his need to constantly paint.
 
There is a painting upstairs in one of the rooms, of a woman with a rifle, behind her a water buffalo. The colors are muted but the overall effect is of activism. Pham Luc painted the piece in 1986, and Tony and I found it behind other, more recent works. Before I leave Pham Luc’s home, I ask the assistant to bring it down so that I might look at it again. There are many beautiful paintings here, but always my eyes go back to the woman with the rifle.

I buy the painting from Pham Luc. For a song.
 
 
 

He doesn’t need money. He spends all his money on charities, his children, and buying gold, silver, lacquer and colors. So what does he need? To build his fame? May be, but may be not. In fact, he is already very famous. Many people know him and admire him. Ambassadors in Hanoi buy his paintings and make friends with him. So the answer to his efforts lies in his passion. Because he can’t do otherwise.
 
                     ~Dr. Nguyen Si Dung, from Painter Fạm Lực

 
 
 

* * *

 
 
 

Sòn d âù, (I hope that spelling is correct), 32×24 inches, 1986, image © 1986-2009
by Pham Luc, photo © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

 
 
 
 
I am deeply grateful to Tony Pham and to Pham Luc. The three hours I spent with the two of them that day in early August are among the best memories I have of Vietnam, of travel abroad, and of life experiences, period. In Tony, I found a kindred spirit, an artist inside his heart, and someone whose love of art infuses his daily work. In Pham Luc, I found kindness, happiness, and what it means to give of oneself.
 
 
 

He was born in a poor countryside in a deprived village in the Central region of Vietnam and used to be a soldier fighting in the wars. He lives and paints with qualities of a farmer and Uncle Ho soldier. These qualities have become his humane belongings. No wonder many people sympathize with, love, and are crazy for his art. He is so happy!
 
                    ~An Chuong, from Painter Fạm Lực

 
 
 
 

* * *

 
 
 
 

GALLERY 

 
These are works that I photographed during my visit. They are my favorites among the many that I saw that day. I do not have names, dates, nor sizes for any of the paintings. They all appear to be oil on canvas, and almost all of them are fairly large. They are reprinted here with the artist’s permission.

 
 
 
 
     
 
 
                                     
 
 
   
 
 
                                                           


                    


                            
 
 
 

LINKS




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Vietnam Purple, blooming flower in the jungle of south Vietnam, May
2009, photo © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

 
 
 
We leave on two buses for a hydroelectric plant in south Vietnam, near the forest where later in the day we will tend trees. I wear jeans, a blue t-shirt like everyone else, and a black baseball cap. The bus I am riding is half-full. It winds through narrow roads, and after an hour I start feeling carsick and have to sit up tall so I can see over the high-backed seats out the window.

My company has a strong tradition of volunteerism. In the past year I joined work colleagues from my department in painting the interior of a Peanut Butter & Jelly preschool for low-income kids in the town of Bernalillo and preparing care packages for families supported by Roadrunner Food Bank. On my own I have over the years volunteered in my daughters’ classrooms and in the process earned the schools matching cash grants. But I have never volunteered outside my greater community, much less outside my country.
 
The area we are heading to now was hard hit during the Vietnam War. Vegetation was and continues to be contaminated by Agent Orange. My Vietnamese colleagues earlier in the year planted a type of tree known for its ability to grow quickly. As they grow, the trees pull toxins out of the soil. After 20 years the trees are cut down, taking the toxins with them.

But the trees are planted in the jungle, where vines can choke the saplings. Our job is to tend to the trees, clearing away vines and other invasive plants with hoes, allowing the trees to flourish.

But first we stop at one of the largest hydroelectricity plants in the southern part of the country. We get a tour of the facility and meet up with students from a local high school who will join us for lunch and then for the tree tending in the afternoon.
I’m not one for being fascinated by things like hydroelectricity, not to mention the tour is conducted in Vietnamese, but I honestly enjoy seeing the place. It is located in the lush countryside, about two hours from Saigon, with rivers and a reservoir created by the dam. Especially interesting are black-and-white photos from when the plant was built.
 
 
 
 
 

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Hydroelectric Plant (one through four), old black-and-white photos of the building
of the plant in south Vietnam, photos © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

 
 
 

∞ ∞ ∞





After the tour, the students join us for lunch in a thatched-roofed restaurant where we eat build-your-own spring rolls made with tiny prawns from the reservoir. I have never seen such miniscule shrimp. They lend new meaning to their name.

Soon comes a round of Vietnamese toasting. With arms stretched toward the center of the table, mugs in hand, we count to three and yell, “Yo!” Always the instigator, I urge my table mates to roar the loudest. We definitely succeed.




Youth Volunteers, three students who volunteered with us in the forest (and, man,
did they work!), May 2009, photos © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.





It is steamy by the time we stand ready, hoes in gloved hands. In groups of three, each team begins work on two rows of trees. Even though it often rains in the afternoons this time of year, the yellow-red earth seems bone dry. I let loose on the vines that are choking the first tree on my row. I am, after all, hardy and not afraid of hard labor.

Sun bears down, sweat seeps from under my cap. Whack! Whack! Whack! I stop between chops to drink water.

By the time I am halfway down the row, I am dizzy and queasy. I sweat large amounts of water, and I drink large amounts of water to replace the sweat. But the more water I drink, the more nauseous I get. I squat near the base of the tree I’m working on and tug weakly at the vines. When I reach the end of the row, I sit in a spot of shade and regain my strength.




∞ ∞ ∞





  

Fast Grower, Seeds, Leaf, and Scorpion, scenes from the forest, including scorpion in a bottle, May 2009, photos © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.




∞ ∞ ∞





After all the rows are done, we gather our tools and ourselves on blankets set under the shade of large trees. We gobble down fresh pineapple and papaya spears, peeled pomelo sections, and slices of watermelon. Everyone is laughing and talking. I am delighted to have been a part of the effort yet relieved that the work is over.

I pick up a couple of empty water bottles as we get ready to leave. Someone points to one of the bottles in my hand and I nearly drop it. Inside is a scorpion, caught and trapped by whoever was sharing the blanket with me. This is a different world!

The rain comes as the bus heads down the red dirt road out of the forest. I sit near the front, where I can look out the window. On the TV monitor above me, a beautiful Vietnamese singer croons a sad folk song. Life is not perfect, but this moment is.



Moon Swoon, video of a famous singer performing Vietnamese folk songs, the bus ride back to Saigon, photo © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.


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