in vietnam 2006

First time ever into this country.  40usd for a visa is the most i’ve ever paid anywhere, but just glad to get it.

After the Cambodian system-less exit process, the Vietnamese process seems quite logical.  The first officials ask for money, even saying “money” to me, but i protest quietly that i have already paid $40 for a visa….  After about a minute, they wave me on, and i get ripped off about 50cents with another official, and then i’m in.

You would think that border towns would be bustling with activity, but perhaps because of past wars, there is nothing in sight.  Many motorbike touts are telling me “10 dollars”, and i’m replying “3”.  One of them stays with me, and finally, cursing under his breath it seemed, he took me to his taxi company.  I wait under a low, metal roof for around 20 – 30 minutes watching the women work at stripping the sugar cane, and the men laze around in hammocks, or smoke absent-headedly.

The other 3 riders insist i take the front seat, so after a small protest, i hop in.  It is a nice car, and we whiz past super-green rice and corn fields.  It is probably over 2km to the first town, so it’s a good thing i didn’t carry thru with my initial idea of walking to find a cheaper taxi.  2km doesn’t sound like much, but with a backpack, and no shade in a blazing sun, it probably would’ve raisined me.

The other 3 in the car seem quite rich – the first one is let out at his lacquerware factory, the second at his 4-5 story mansion (retired from the US), and the one that talks to me the most has lived many years in America working at Boeing etc., and i guess in his late 30’s, early 40’s, is basically retired, day-trading stocks here.  He tells me a lot about Vietnam, and it is very interesting to hear how it has changed, and how things work now.

I’m let out at the mission, but being Sunday, my friend is not there.  The caretaker points to the church across the intersection, so i go over there to a cacaphony of noise – there is a small village of workers at the construction site of a new church.  A new church in Vietnam?  Yes, it is quite a wonder, sponsored largely by Vietnamese SDAs in America.  The road in front is being widened, causing a need to rebuild the church.

My friend is out, so i go up to the top floor terrace, where you can get a good view, and a nice breeze full of soot to boot 🙂  Like a good travelling missionary, i take a nap for about 30 minutes, and awake refreshed enough to walk around and find an internet cafe. 

I meet my friend for the first time!  I’m so happy!  He was very cooperative in getting the Vietnamese Great Controversy to fruition, and has been pretty good about communicating too.   After talking with him a while, i’m amazed that he has time for me his his thots at all,  as he is super busy, being the de-facto junior lynchpin of all the SDA work in this whole country.  Yet he is humble, and willing to share and be shared with too.  If you are reading this Brother, i want you to know that my heart burned with love in Jesus Christ for you.  I’ve rarely met someone grounded so deeply in the truth, who believes in following the truth no matter what, who is also working within the church for its advancement in harmony and love and truth.  If there were 144,000 like this one…….

There is a Valentine’s party for the young people for which i have no interest in, plus being hungry, i go down the street and get some noodles.  I say something about being vegetarian in English, and it doesn’t seem to be understood, so i point to noodles and vegetables, and show my 12,000 dong, all i carried with me (around 75cents).  Then the young lady replies in perfect English, and i sit down and eat.  Later i find out that i was charged double, a common practice among the Vietnamese whom have the idea of “soak the rich”.  Hey, it isn’t called “Socialist Republic of Vietnam” for nothing – ha!

I can’t stay with my church friends, so i find a little hotel down the way.  At lunch, when i changed money, the guy said 10 dollars, but when i go at nite, the granny in charge has tacked on 2 more dollars.  I say “no, it was 10 earlier today”, and type in the 160,00 figure into the calculator.  She confers with a young girl, and show me to my room – large bed, tv, toilet/shower air-con etc., quite old, but very sleepable.  Cambodia’s dust in now in the sewer system (river?) of Saigon.  I go to sleepyland praising God for getting me here safely, praying for guidance, and in thinking about the history this old building has seen, and the tales it could tell if concrete could talk.

Saigon is the old name for the city, and still the name of choice for most situations and company names it looks like.  Ho Chi Minh is used in official occasions, but doesn’t roll off tongues easily.  Perhaps the South still has a bit of a complex against the North like in America?  But this city is bustling!  It is the noisest city i’ve ever been to, with perhaps more motorbikes in total than any other city in the world.  It is an awesome thing to see, an alive, moving mass of motorbike salmon.  To outsiders there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the traffic flow, but after a few days you can pick it up.  Almost nobody wears a helmet, so i can imagine there are quite a few hospital cases each day from these little monsters (means of transportation).  Actually, some of them are quite nice, but some of them sound like chainsaws or worse, and most all of them are carrying a minimum of 2 human cargos, with many carrying 3 or 4, and the most i saw – 7.  Maybe a circus act could do better.

I walk to the church complex eating pineapple and bread and peanuts.  This is the first itme in my life to walk around eating pineapple, like most people do icecream or something like that.  My friend spends all morning with me, telling me amazing stories (all true!) about God’s work in this country, joys, fears, hopes, obstacles, dreams, plans etc.  What an inspiring, invigorating talk session!  Sure wish i could record it, as i’m sure many of God’s children would be impressed to do more for God when they listen to it, but perhaps that should wait for a later time.

In Vietnam there are 7 SDA churches, and 7 SDA pastors.  There were 70 churches in 1975, and the North left every church where at least one member stayed.  It is a heart-rending story, almost a modern-day version of Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednigo.  There are also only 7 vegetarian SDAs in this country, and fortunately my friend is one of them, so we go to a veggie shop for lunch, and have a feast for 2 for around 1.50usd.  In the afternoon we talk about the original 1858 Great Controversy, and this is the first time that i’ve been able to show almost everything about the “hard” parts at a first sitting.  My friend knows and believes this book, and knows the Bible better than i do, so it is a real pleasure not having to explain the history of the SDA church and everything to get him up to speed. If anything, his Bible knowledge, and some of his SOP knowledge, is above and beyind mine.  Here’s a true shepherd of the flock 🙂

$10 a nite will eat me up quick, so he takes me on his bike down to the “backpacker foreigner” area.  Yes, we pass a couple of high rise hotels where the rich foreigners and govt. people stay, but i’m not in that crowd.  The deciding factor for my abode is the Japanese writing on the door, and the word “dormitory”.  $3/nite.  I get the top bunk in a room with 7 other people, over half Japanese.  No one talks to me in Japanese, so when i start speaking 2 days later to those who are left (and the new ones), there is a bit of a stir.  haha.  Have i ever mentioned i love Japan?  One thing i forgot tho, they like to smoke.

The dorm experience is my first one since Europe i guess around 1991.  This room is much smaller, hotter, and noisier, but much more interesting too – ha!  A Norweigian comes in one day after me, very mellow, very quiet, and we don’t talk much at first, but after 3 or 4 days, it’s like we’ve been friends forever.

My friend is busy on the 14th, and i don:t want to take all his time anyway, so i do the tourist thing today.  Nobody will sell me just one orange – it’s one kilo or nothing.  A woman has a stash at her juice stand, and i point to one and ask how much.  A man crouching nearby wags his head sideways, so i go search, unsuccesfully elsewhere.  Everywhere i go rickshaw (“cyclo”, not many left) and motorbike drivers and a few other call out to me every few seconds.  I want to ignore them, ar tell them to leave me alone, but instead, smile and shake my head sideways.  I learn later than any eye contact is basically half a contract to them, so i learn not to match eyes, and just ignore or shake my head.  Not what i like to do, but otherwise you cannot hardly move outside your room in this town.  Many of the cyclo drivers especially seem to be South-side soldiers etc. who have basically been defranchised, and are living very marginal lives.  Homeless in Japan have it much better.

The architecture from the French is really nice.  The yellow/brown colors, greenish/blue colors, very peaceful and pleasant.  The history museum is in a nice building, but the exhibits are pretty lame – something like you might see in any town of 20-50,000 in thr rural southern part of America.  Basically it is just a recapitulation of the Viets fighting the “aggressors” – the Chinese.  There is a short thing on fighting for independence from France, som statues from Cambodia, some old pics of Saigon, and that’s it.  I find out later there is an entire museum devoted to the fighting with the Americans, with actual tanks etc. displayed.  Not interested for some reason – ouch – we lost!!  I have quite mixed feeling about what my country did then – perhaps we stopped Vietnam from becoming all lilke North Korea.  But then again, maybe we should have never been there in the first place, and just let them have it to themselves.  Only God knows.  It is nice tho to see that there is no open animosity towards Americans in Saigon anyway, with many of the people lining up outside the US consulate every day just like you see in many other countries.

I walk back the 4km or so to my dorm, stopping and taking pics along the way.  The market has a sign with the only Vietnamese i know, outside of the church anyway – “com chay”.  Means vegetables and rice.  For 7,000dong, it’s a good buy.  Before i eat, i give thanks to God as always, and when i start to eat the young girl sitting 3 seats away asks “Are you a Christian?”  I’m taken aback, and after verifying her English, answer “Yes”.  She is studying in Korea to be a pastor for her evangelical church, and is just home for vacation.  Her mother is the pastor of her church!  We talk a bit, and when she asks what church i go to on Sundays, i reply that i go on Saturdays, and i’m Seventh-day Adventist.  She and her mother huddle a bit, and there is little conversation remaining.  I’m struck later how this is the first time when legally i might have had some problems for witnessing for Jesus.  Hope and pray that God will watch over these two, and the churches they are leading, and they will remember this encounter when the Sunday Laws are enforced. 

The market is very crowded, and definitely worth a look if you go to Saigon, altho it is a bit touristy.  The rat running underfoot sure looked healthy, enough to make me forget to buy something sweet to end the meal (it didn’t faze me as much as it did the Japanese ladies closer to the beast – hehe).

It is hot everywhere, 33 and even 34 inside my room at times.  It gets down below 30 at nite, and with the ceiling fan, can sleep decently well i guess.  Showering 3 times a day helps a lot too 🙂

I eat breakfast in the park most every day.  People come up and talk to me, giving me a chance to witness, but also making making it difficult to eat too – ha!  Some of these people live in this park, and they seem a bit mentalled.  I offer to share some bread and raisins, but they aren’t interested.  They might be eating better than me actually – ha!  But i’ll take fresh fruit (banana, apple, mango, milk, papaya), bread, pnut butter, raisins etc. over rice and vegetables any morning.  Twice a day for vegetables is plenty.  Actually, i find myself eating fruit for breakfast AND supper here  Guess it’s the body’s natural way to beat the heat.  Yes, i know 34 is not dying-hot, but it’s not super-happy either.  30 days, and 24 nites – wheeee, that would be like heaven.  Hmmm, wonder what temperature heaven is?

The assistant pastor at the Chinese church accepts the GC book, and says she may be interested in translating it.  I sure hope so!

I eat supper on the dark terrace of the church complex, and out of the shadows come 2 men.  Thinking they are church people, i offer them an apple each, which they eagerly take.  They aren’t interested in the bread tho.  I hand them a knife, and they happily peel and eat.  One man makes a motion that he wants me to give him money.  Eh?, this isn’t normal Christian behavior.  When the other man does it a few moments later, and offers a cigarette, i get the idea that these aren’t church people, and leave for lower climes.  I find out later that they are just construction workers who were taking a break up there.  Hope they enjoyed the apples and pnuts!

Wednesday evening i go to my first Vietnamese worship service.  Of course it’s all in Vietnamese, and i just sit in back and pick up a few points from my friend who says it’s about the Lord’s Prayer.  It sounds very straight.  When i go to the various countries i like to listen to the native tongue a bit, even if i don’t understand anything.  I don’t wish to cause extra work for anyone, or a distraction for anyone either.  Truthfully, Vietnamese is not a beautiful language by any stretch of the imagination.  Many times it sounds like they are arguing, even when not, and the sound is just grating.  The text is a romanized one with diacritics, so you can make out some sounds of the words making it seem not so terribly foreign like Chinese or Hindi or Arabic.

I finally realize that it is tiring to eat at a new place every meal, wonder where to get water, sleep at a new place every nite, and always be wondering what will happen next.  There is much to be said for a monotonous, boring, daily routine, that gives you freedom from care and thinking about mundane things like how to live.  So even here i get into kind of a rhythm – wake up around 7.  Get up around 8.  Shave and wipe down body.  Find some food and go to the park to eat.  Walk around a bit, usually to an internet cafe for a 30minute quickie.  Go back to the room, or else have some object in mind and accomplish that outside.  Write in the room or do something with the computer or talk with the others or most often – have my friend come pick me up and take me to the church complex.  Walk over to the big market for lunch where the main greeter lady already shouts out “Com Chay!” just by seeing my face – haha (veggies and rice).  Come back and take a shower.  Write up some emails or postcards or just try to stay cool.  Walk around awhile at nite looking for someone pushing something tasty that you have seen from the dorm balcony (never with any luck tho).  Go to the internet cafe for the main deal – one whole hour in a room with other foreigners but no air-con, or the one around the corner with no foreigners and has air-con – but with around 20 people in a normal-sized bedroom space, mostly young people preening for their boy/girl chat partner.  Walk home, take a shower, read Bible and talk to others, wipe body off one last time, say prayers, and go to sleep. 

Around 90% of the time spent in the dorm is in or on the bed, i’m fortunate to be next to the window, so i get a nice breeze, but also all the smokers gasping from the balcony, and the horrendous noise coming from everywhere. haha.  Good thing i brought an eye mask, and earplugs.  Don’t know how to compensate for the whole bed shaking when the person below, or i, decide we must move a muscle.  The turnover rate was high, with me being dean of the dorm by day 4.  That didn’t keep me from getting yelled out by the caretaker when i sat on a different bed to use the computer – you see, there was only one outlet, and my cord is only about 3m long, so it wouldn’t reach my bed.  Sure glad i wasn’t next to the bathroom, and listening to all the bodily noises and smells emanating from there!  I will wonder if my praying before retiring had any impression on anyone…..

My passport is fulll-stamped up.  There may be space for 2 more little chops like you usually get when you don’t need a visa, but i’m living on the edge.  Someone tells me there is a US consulate in Saigon, which surprises me, and around 10:40 Thursday morning i slip into an internet cafe to check the map info.  4 Le Duan Blvd.  OK, now for open-times… Waaaaah!  It closes at 11:30 on Thursdays, and doesn’t reopen for normal stuff until Monday!!  I seek a motorbike, and wonder why it is hard to find when you need it, when it is such a nuisance most of them.  The guy doesn’t like my offer, but no doubt it is 50% more than the normal Vietnamese price, and takes me to the place i saw the other day where people were lined up outside some building.  Looks quite similar to other malfunctioning countries, where people with some ambition, or those just looking for a free ride, want to go to America.  I get in around 11:10, and the guard keeping my computer and camera at the security desk asks me how much the camera cost.  I reply nicely, but am amazed thinking how this would never, ever happen in Japan (yeah, i know, i’m not in japan anymore).  20 minutes later i come out with 24 beautiful blank pages, freely done.  It felt really good being on a little part of US territory for a few minutes, and seeing things done mostly right for a change, with the little paper garbage, and many notices to take warning  attending many American places (to avoid legal reprecussions i guess).  Yes, i will make sure not to flush anything except toilet paper, and to wash my hands before leaving, and to turn off the light.  Haven’t come across any signs like this for the last 4 months – good to see – ha!

The 4km walk home in the sun is broken up by a couple of stops in markets, one air-conditioned where i find some olives – yummy.  The Singapore tourist center is really nicely done.  The lady at the lunch place calls out “Com Chay!” before i can even open my mouth to tell her i’d rather have “Mi Chay” (veggies and noodles).  Funny that it seems like every time i eat here they put more on my plate – haha.  Maybe my imagination.  I do notice that they don’t make any fuss over me like the do those drinking or eating course meals, but then i’m not flashing 100,000 dong notes either – only 7,000 again today 🙂

Some Japanese roommate has left a tiny packet of laundry detergent, and i happily wash my clothes – just about all of them.  This is the first time in a week i’ve had powder, so the clothes get really clean.  A blanket wrapped around me keeps me from getting naked while my clothes dry.  Every day here there is a nice breeze from around 3pm-5pm.  It gets quite strong at times. If my pants fly off somewhere, i’m in real trouble!

Friday the 17th is going to be a great day – wrong.  The Chinese assistant pastor is very agreeable to translating the Chinese 1858 Great Controversy, so i’m ecstatic.  My friend takes me to his girl friend’s house, and the lunch is quite nice, the dog licks me fiercely, and we finish with durian – yummmmmm – utoh… Too much.  My stomach is paining me.  The durian stays with me for around 3 hours before deciding to see the outside world again.  This is my first taste of durian coming up, and while not being too bad, i’d rather not have this experience.  No supper tonite, as i buy some grape juice and ask for a raw egg.  Raw egg and grape juice really help take the poisons out, but i guess i drink it a bit too early, as it comes up during the nite.  The worst thing, really making me feel even more terrible, is that the hilite of my week everywhere i am is Sabbath – i like to meet the Brothers and Sisters, encourage them, see how they are in their walk with Jesus and their knowledge level etc.  But i can’t move this Sabbath.  After the durian is all gone, i wait several more hours, then go out in the evening for a bowl of hot noodles with some lettuce (?!) on top.  This is soooooooothing.  First food i’ve taken in for over 30 hours 🙂  While still in Japan i had bot some powder sports drink, and had very wisely put in a pack in my backpack for this Cambodia-Vietnam trip – whew! did that ever help replenish small things leaving my cells for lower places!  That’s a word to the wise, and don’t let the name (Pocari Sweat) turn you off – haha.  (unn, yes i know the best word to the wise is don’t eat too much durian, but these things happen).

Sunday passes uneventfully with much of the day spent talking to the dormmate from Norway.  Monday is spent changing one letter on the Tagalog cover and spine artwork, and about 5 places on the Georgian cover as they responded to my request to show where they have abbreviated the 10 commandments.  I really love doing this artwork and seeing the various languages.  Guess God gave me this ability, as i know some people get turned off of anything that isn’t recognizable to them.  My friend tells me a lot about the church here, and how things are going.  They really need our prayers!

Tuesday the 22nd is my last full day here, and things go like clockwork.  I had walked around the other day looking for USB speakers for my friend, so he can show the GC anime, and whatever else he has a use for them.  But nothing could be found.  I’m thinking how to mail from Bangkok, what to do, and the first shop i go in today has just what i’m looking for, at 13.8usd.  It’s interesting the prices in the computer shops are in usd, but most of the dealing is in vnd.  My friend comes, and we hook them up, and while they demo fine, we can’t make them work in Windows Media Player.  After lunch at his GF’s house, we spend about one more hour before finding that WMP has separate settings, hey, these things sound really nice!!  Smiles all around 🙂  We go take a look at the Risograph machine that prints the young folks’ papers and stuff, and i hear some really interesting, inspiring stories about Spicer College in India.  I will certainly miss you friend (already do).  You are probably the youngest person i’ve ever seen to be this deeply grounded in the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy!  Keep strong!  You are in my prayers – please remember me.  I hope to come back some day, and see you and the church in Vietnam super strong and growing, with many spreading the 3 Angels’ Messages.

Feb.22 finds me on the bus at 8:45.  This bus to Phnom Penh is $4, and not bad at all.  It’s interesting that the whole city looks different, with an entirely different feel, when riding high in an air-conditioned behemoth.  I’ve lost my watch, the one given me 9 years ago when i first left Japan.  Sorry R and M-san.  That sure was a good timepiece, recording the seconds very faithfully except for the time when the battery ran out (yes, only once in 9 years!), and when i dropped it causing the battery to fall out – sorry.  The girl next to me is from Switzerland, the normal backpacker-hippy type you see in many places with the tatoos and bangles etc.  Not everyone, but many of these kind of people have no clue what Western Civilization is based on, as they have rejected Christianity.  While dissing especially America, they like to enjoy the conveniences of technology, nearly 100% produced by that WC they love to hate.  We see a sign extolling the greatness of Ho Chi Minh, and i make a remark about him, and she says George Bush tries to be the same.  I say “no” politely, and she is a bit more quiet the rest of the way, until she realizes she left her traveller’s checks at her hotel.  Too bad she has to waste a day at a border hotel while the bus guide will bring them to her tomorrow.

The border crossing is mostly uneventful.  One side has you line up, and makes you wait for a long time while they seemingly do nothing, while the other side basically has no system at all.  We already know which is which, don’t we?

I have a nice chat with a young man from Australia who is interested in Japan.  He talks a bit with the German couple who is working for a NGO in PP working with agriculture.  The lady says the big problem in Cambodia is with how the land is distributed, and then this man and they agree that it is a world-wide thing, “even in the US”.  I politely disagree.  Why is it so easy for some to think people and ways of doing things is the same all over the world, when these same people are complaining about the border process, showing that they know it is better in other places?!

Thank you Vietnam for the wonderful experiences i had there.  Your bustling city of Saigon is a bit too much for me, but there sure are lots of nice places there.  My Vietnamese friend made it all worthwhile, and i was very much encouraged about the continuing work in this country.  God bless you all, and keep your eyes on Jesus!

NOTE: This post was written February 23, 2006

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