Tel Aviv Diary - Nov 24-5, 2015 - Karen Alkalay-Gut

December 2, 2015

(written offline)

The night before we left for vietnam I was wondering what I could possibly want in a trip like this. Everyone was on deck admiring the laser light show over Hong Kong and all I could think about was the headlights scraping the sky in Rochester on the look out for commie planes dropping nukes on us. That terrified fear of the other that may well have had a part in our own use of napalm 10-15 years later. It was terribly confusing to me. And then to board a ship for Halong bay where there was no sign on the ship either of Vietnamese or Chinese culture. We went to bed early and watched Robin Williams in Good morning Vietnam before our day at sea. A spa day they called it and I did a bit of spa myself, signing up for acupuncture even as I wondered how accurate an acupuncturist could be in a rocking boat. But the young lady from the south, Viola (Richmond accent I think) seemed to know her trade well and informed me she was using the approach of Dr. Wong. (My first experience of a moment of Chinese on the boat)

Actually nothing seemed real – our Brazilian waitress served us our indian dinner and I just couldn’t bring myself to continue the evening with a Beatles singalong so I went back to my book about the local economy – dragon rising.

At 3 in the morning I woke up in anticipation of the 6 am wakeup call to leave at 7:30 for the bus to Hanoi. Restless unenthusiastic tired and achy from the weather that had changed to a cold dark grey I was not looking forward to the three and a half hour ride. And it fulfilled, even exceeded my expectations. “Oh they are just fixing up the lines:” the guide said when I asked why there was no electricity in the shops along the long ride. Even in the Canon factory. Samsung had no windows as far as I could see. That is when I knew it was going to be a day of scattered bullshit. There was a moment – we were standing by an electric wire configuration that looked like a messy fire hazard when the guide pointed out the loudspeakers above the wire and explained about how the speakers wake every one up at 5 to do exercises and to broadcast very good news – I was sure he couldn’t believe these stories. Later in the evening he explained that he believed in nothing but his own life. His worshipful speech about ho chi minh was something like an old George Washington story we’d learned in second grade. (Remember the picture of the cherry tree?)

Halfway to Hanoi from Halong bay we stopped at the extensive rest rooms. It was a center for handicapped workers and their work. Expensive, beautiful, incredibly vast, the laqeuers, the silk delicate silk embroidery, the clothing, shoes… what a treasure trove.

The first time around.

It was explained to us that these workers were the children of agent Orange victims who had been born with birth defects. And the center was created for them. How cunning to place it with restrooms for busses coming from and going to halong bay. Every handkerchief would purchased would suddenly turn orange in the buyers mind, thousands of miles away. I bought myself a white silk blouse that is probably not meant to be washed, or perhaps even worn, but it looks amazing on me.

Everything cost much more than it would if it were bargained on a street in Hanoi, but everything was honest. I think.

In Hanoi the rain began to take away our attention. We had been told the traffic was terrible, but perhaps because of the rain we discovered that all you had to do was gauge the distance. Everyone is going at the same slow speed and you jump in at the speed. There doesn’t seem to be the same sense of competitiveness we usually in Tel Aviv or New York, none of the hedonistic aggressiveness of Paris, or jittery agitation of Tokyo.

The restaurant took off the edge after the long trip – wild rice – la’ lua’ 6 I didn’t understand everything I was eating so I photographed the menu.

Then we went for a walk through the rainy town. It was a fast walk so we would have time for shopping but I would have preferred a slower walk and no shopping. I don’t like shopping in crowds. But I loved the walk. Each shop on the alley way was a theater in itself, a stage, a life. I would have stopped to learn each story - the two girls sleeping on the sofa in the pedicurist’s shop, the women stirring a pot of soup the size of a small person in the middle of the sidewalk, the young girls washing dishes on the corner of a street in a big basin, a restaurant for 2 people on low stools. Somehow I felt at home there.

But we were walking fast, and wound through the alleys to the puppet theater, where instead of going in we were given fifteen minutes to shop. Then we were taken to Ho Shi Minh’s memorial which for some reason Ezi and Linda and I decided to skip. Instead, the driver forced us out of the bus and sent us for coffee. We discovered a shop across the street from the memorial that turned on its lights for us and made 3 cups of amazing coffee. I had mine with condensed milk and it was wonderful.

Hoi An

The rain, omnipresent in a town that has few roofs, soaked us through and through on our first day. We landed in Danang and skipped the million-population city. Driving through the small towns on the way where the poverty seems to have soaked all the inhabitants, I wished we were back on the ship where we could ignore it all and bathe in luxury. In the morning we couldn’t land because of the weather and I went from disappointment to a quiet joy – it’s too much to deal with. But then suddenly we were being herded ashore and we joined our guide to Hoi An. Not that the sky had cleared.

In any case we brightened up at the sight of a tailor shop Linda had mentioned and decided to get something made. Ezi suddenly refused to have the suit made that I have been dreaming of for years, so I chose a red fabric and at 3:30 agreed to have a suit made. At 6 we came back for a fitting and at 9 it was delivered to our hotel. I’ll never have a chance to wear this but it was an event. An inexpensive and quality event. There was nothing else about the city that struck me. The old ladies selling herbs from their shoulder scales just seemed to me to be a nightmare. Old people who cannot sustain themselves except by brutally hard work do not seem to me to be picturesque. The lack of a medical system, the lack of responsibility for the citizens of a country, the schools of fifty pupils in a class room – all this make me realize how wonderful Israel is. No one here is responsible for anyone. The party rules but doesn’t do anything. Yes there are beautiful lights and smiling faces. But the smiles and the lights are for tourists. The Hoi An hotel where we stayed was super-posh. The bathtub in the middle of the room, something like at the Standard Hotel in New York, enabled one to bathe and watch the dumb tv that seems to be all they have all over the country.

The next day we went to a pottery village and were given the opportunity to make a pot ourselves. I couldn’t even find a way to position myself on the tiny stool and get to the foot-spun potter’s wheel. My pot was the only crooked thing under that straw roof. I bought some tiny sculptures, and thanked the lord I didn’t have to be living in the mud like this. On a sunny day it would have been fun. Mud roads on a flooding day makes it harder to enjoy.

The farm was much more interesting, despite the mud. We saw the family plots of vegetables and fruits and then visited a little cooking school that redeemed the whole trip for me. Starting with making rice flour, we continued with learning how to make the rice skins, filled them with vegetables and ate them. Then we did fried pancakes. It was wonderfully basic and fun.

We ignore the fact that there is no health care in the country and no hospital anywhere near Danang. We ignore the fact that classrooms had 50 kids in them. We ignore the lack of social security, that people even older than us are shouldering scales of durian and plying them on the streets. We return to our ship with our tourist bling and pack our packages away among the dirty laundry.

(more shortly)

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