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Dalat… with the sistahs.

May 8, 2007

April 27, 2007

The first time I went to Dalat I was in a van full of nuns. We started driving from their convent in Ho Chi Minh City early in the morning and filled every seat in that thing. With all our luggage and food for the trip we were packed pretty tightly. On the road we had a breakfast of soft cheese and baguettes. Parisian style bread is one of the nicer legacies from the French occupation and you can find it all over Ho Chi Minh City (the new name for Saigon). That, and clean ice, which is great considering the heat in southern Vietnam. Iced jasmine tea and incredibly delicious fruit shakes keep the body cool and the tongue happy. I have at least two a day. Every day. We made several stops along the way, mostly for more food. The sisters have several friends who operate farms and orchards and I had four different types of fruit that day that I had never seen. I don’t remember the names, except for one. Jack fruit. A jack fruit is a huge thing, about the size of a bloated football. It’s got a thick green skin with little points all over it and it grows in clusters, hanging like bizarre growths from the armpits of the jack fruit tree. Inside are chewy melon colored segments that are sort of like not very juicy mango. Tasty, if a little odd.

We were heading to Dalat to visit one of the five schools for blind children that the sisters operate. If you want to know love let a three year old blind kid who can’t speak English crawl into your lap and decide he wants to move in. This little one wanted to touch everything and when he found my camera hanging from my neck he wouldn’t let go of it, caressing and clutching every surface, “seeing” it with his fingers. Later in the day it took me quite a while to get all the grimy jack fruit out of all the nooks and crannies.

At one point in the drive the sisters started singing. Lovely, sweet, harmonious voices lilting through the rumbling vehicle. The singing turned into chanting which I surmised were prayers. Not understanding a word of Vietnamese I could still feel the devotion and the love they were expressing. I felt warm and accepted in their company. Completely comfortable and very well cared for. We stopped for lunch and feasted on tangy soup, grilled chicken, savory BBQ fish and piles of steaming rice. Before lunch arrived there were small bowls of Spanish peanuts, the kind with the red skin left on. The sisters would meticulously peel the skins off and let them fall to the floor, creating a swirling little forest of red.

My reason for being on that bus was an invitation I had received from Sister Thoa. She is a friend of a friend of mine at work and I had contacted her to see about visiting the school that’s located in HCMC. She was very happy to show me around and I spent an entire afternoon at the school that day. I got to see how blind kids learn to write in brail and heard them play music. I got a tour of some of the software they use on the computer that reads text for them and can also read commands and messages. The kids can become quite proficient on the computer because they perceive it differently from sighted people and are able to memorize commands and keystrokes much faster. Many of the kids are able to go to regular high school after a few years with Sister Thoa and the teachers there. Some are disabled in other ways but might still be able to learn a craft or skill. Some go on to massage school as blind masseurs are quite in demand. The ones with multiple disabilities will have to go to other schools or institutions when they reach a certain age.

The absolute highlight of my day there, and one of the highlights of the last few years of my life, was that I got to sit in on a music class. There were two girls playing the Koto, the Japanese stringed instrument where one hand does the plucking and the other bends the notes. One boy on keyboard and another girl on a beautiful instrument with one string, the name of which I could not understand but translated into something having to do with the moon. There was a wall with mandolins hanging all over it and when I mentioned that I played, that was all they needed to hear. I was in. The teacher sang the song to me and I eventually picked it up. A sweet Vietnamese melody that the kids had become quite good at. Playing in that little impromptu ensemble was sweeter than I can describe. To communicate musically with those blind children was as intimate as if I had touched their souls. It transcended everything; sight or no sight, Vietnamese or English, young or old… nothing mattered but that song. We made music and it felt like a moment of heaven on earth. We were all happy little musicians when we finally got it right.

The nuns and volunteers who run these schools are made of pure love. They give and give from a seemingly endless supply of kindness and patience. The schools are very modest and don’t get any support from the government or the church at large, instead relying on donations and income from selling the crafts the students make. The kids live onsite and the parents don’t have to pay for their children to attend the school.

When we arrived in Dalat we visited the second school of the day. I was invited to join them for dinner and again we feasted. This time it was a soup that was cooked on a small propane burner in the center of our table. A boiling pot of broth, fresh seafood, raw greens, all mixed on the spot and ladled out fresh and yummy over rice noodles.

I had neglected to read in my guidebook that Dalat is considerably cooler than Saigon. I had only sandals and thin pants with no jacket or hat. It was a tad uncomfortable. I stayed in a nice hotel and then next day took a walk to the lake in the center of town. As I was walking to the market before catching my bus back to Saigon a young man stopped on his motorbike and started talking to me. This has been a common occurrence throughout my trip. People are just that friendly. Often they want to sell you something, like a ride on the motorbike, but just as often they’re simply curious as to what a bald white man is doing in their town. Hinh was the young man’s name and we quickly started talking about the war. His father had worked for the Americans during the war and was upset when we left the country to be overtaken by the communists. He spent two years in prison and another two years in a “re-education” camp. Since he had been working for the Americans he was lucky to still be alive. He was still alive and is doing well.

Hinh belongs to a loose knit group of moto-guides called the Easy Riders. They are almost legendary as guides, taking folks for day trips or often for much longer journeys. Next Monday, Hinh will pick me up in Hoi An and we’ll head into the Central Highlands for a few days to see the Ho Chi Minh Trail and visit some small ethnic minority villages in the hills. He’ll then drop me at a beach town and I’ll make my way up north.

So, tonight is my last night in Saigon. I arrived here on the ninth of April and have totally fallen in love with this city. Vietnam is exploding. Since following the example of China and moving towards Capitalism, their potentially overheating economy is going nuts, projected to grow by nearly 8% this year. Blah blah… but what that means is that things are changing quickly and everyone is aware of it. Hinh mentioned to me in our brief talk that he’s very excited about Vietnam joining the World Trade Organization. I cautioned that this might have as much negative impact as positive.

This city buzzes with motorbikes and at rush hour they converge at intersections in teaming masses of chaos. You can see everything on a motorbike, from families of five to merchants transporting goods. If it’s not on a motorbike it’s on a bicycle, or a cart. If it’s not on wheels, it’s being carried by a woman on two baskets suspended by a pole on her shoulder. Yeah, like you’ve seen in the movies, complete with the conical straw hat. The piont is, everything is moving.

So much of life happens on the street here. Small stands or carts with all types of food being cooked on the sidewalk with a handful of plastic chairs setup for patrons. Folks do their work on the sidewalk, they cook dinner, raise their kids, eat, talk, laugh, argue, and if it’s hot enough, pull out a lounge chair and sleep on the sidewalk.

Things I’ve seen sold from bicycles, carts or carried by hand: stacks of books and videos that must weigh 35lbs., taller than the seller and held together with a strip of material; dried fish hanging from a rack on the back of a bicycle with a small platform and tiny coal oven for heating the sauce; old men with lottery tickets; cigarettes, sunglasses, lighters, toys, fingernail clippers and other items for personal grooming; kids with flowers, kids with packages of gum, mothers with babies selling sugar-free Dentyne; women with two small baskets, one with a small charcoal oven and the other with batter and molds for making fresh waffles; a man on a bike with a loudspeaker playing a recording of a woman’s voice saying the same thing over and over, apparently advertising the large box of baguettes on the back; and… get this… corn. CORN Y’ALL! Corn hanging from a small rack over a little table that contains a small charcoal grill on which to grill said corn, all on a bicycle!

Did you get that? Grilled corn. On a bike! Rolling right up to you with all it’s grilled yummy goodness. Can life get any better than that?!! I say no. No, it cannot.

I have been so warmly received here, especially when folks find out I’m American. I’m a bit surprised by that. Not one note of animosity or resentment. Not a sneer or frown or bad word coming my way. Just warm handshakes, big smiles and welcome to Vietnam. The Vietnamese people have seen so many foreigners invade their country that they’re very happy to have it back and fiercely intent on remaining independant. They don’t live in the past and they just want to get on with the business of living their lives and growing their country. The dynamism is infectious.

And it’s so easy to travel here. Surprisingly so. Vietnam is an easier country to travel in than the United States . Well, actually most countries are better suited for foreign travel than the US, so that’s not really saying much. Let me try again. Vietnam is as easy to travel in as any country I’ve ever visited. So… if you’re thinking of heading out of the country for a vacation, come to Vietnam. The people are awesome, the scenery is beautiful, and the food will leave you smiling and begging for more.

Oh… the second time I will visit Dalat? At the end of this motorbike trip.

This is my first post in a long time and there’s an awful lot I’ve left out; Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia. Some of the most intense experiences of my life. They’ll have to wait for later posts.

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6 Comments
  1. Katie permalink

    This sistah is so happy that you are continuing to have such meaningful experiences. Your account of playing music with the blind children at the nuns’ school is beautiful … just beautiful. It seems as though your heart is being ripped wide open with gratitude, for the goodness of humanity that you see reflected in the people you are meeting on this trip. And for that, this sistah says, “Amen.”

  2. Michele Kirk permalink

    I second that “Amen” Katie. Jeff, I can feel how touched you were by your experience of playing music with the children. Your writing brings this experience to life beautifully. I can imagine you having the physical response that you so often have when something really moves you to your core, when your body caves in a bit as if it were melting, and you make that certain noise, … half groan, half sigh … as if to say, “Oh no … take it back … it’s too much … it’s just too sweet and good and right, and I don’t know if I can take it”

    Soak it all in, Jeff.

    And travel on.

    Love,

    Me

  3. Michele permalink

    Wow! I feel the hugeness of your heart and how powerfully these experiences are moving you. Thanks for bringing them to me. Just consider another trip in a few years with some impish company. So much beauty that you see.

  4. Rich Di Grazia permalink

    Dear Jeff,

    I am so happy for you. Your experiences in Asia are beautiful, and I think that is so, because you bring a loving heart to them.

    Be well,

    Rich

  5. Dear Jeff,
    You had an awesome experience with the sistahs and their blind children in Vietnam! I was deeply moved by reading your article. I am so happy and proud of your experience in my dear homeland.
    Take care,

    Thuan

  6. Anon permalink

    Where are you? Why such a loud deafening silence?

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