Currently showing posts tagged Vietnam

  • 80 Year Old Nguyen Lam Gets a Latrine

    An Interview with program beneficiary Mr. Nguyen Lam

    1. Where did you go to defecate before you had a hygienic latrine?

    In the daytime we went to the hill where there are lots of trees, 7500m -1000m away from home. At night we dug holes in the garden.

    2. What are the impacts of not having a hygienic latrine?

    It is a nuisance, especially when you have to defecate at night and when it rains. We had to wear raincoats and often got wet after finishing such a work. The water source in the neighborhood is contaminated. We often have diarrhea. The environment is polluted and smells bad.

    3. What about the effectiveness of the new hygienic latrine?

    We find it very convenient and comfortable to have new hygienic latrine. We don't have to spend much time when we need to defecate, and we don't have to bring any tools to dig holes to bury the feces.
    The environment is cleaner. We have less disease, especially diarrhea and cholera.

    4. Why did the local people take part in the program?

    Local people are quite aware of the health and convenience benefits of having hygienic latrines;
    We work together with everybody in our hamlet to participate in the sanitation activities of the community.

    5. Why was your family chosen to get the subsidy?

    We are one of the poorer families in the commune, so it is difficult for us to pay the full cost of the latrine ourselves; We are in the area where there are a lot of people interested in the program.

    6. If you haven't got the $20 of subsidy, would you have built this hygienic latrine?

    Without this subsidy, it might have taken us a long time to build this latrine or maybe we would not have built it. Our awareness of building hygienic latrine to keep the environment clean in the community is high so when we knew there was $20 of subsidy for anyone who wanted to build hygienic latrine, we decided to take this good chance

    7. What benefits that hygienic latrines bring to your family and community?

    The convenience and comfort. Also, your family will be recognized as an educated family. There will be fewer diseases. Health is better and safer. More families considered as educated families in the commune compared with the previous years. Economy improved because the health of the local people is better. Environment is green, clean and fresher. No pollution, less disease.

    8. Are hygienic latrine activities implemented at the same time as the clean water system?

    Yes, the construction of the clean water system and the hygienic latrines is implemented at the same time for 4 of 8 hamlets in the commune of Tam Anh Nam. The other four hamlets do not yet have any clean water systems. The government is working with the community to prepare a proposal to build clean water systems for these hamlets.

  • Surviving the Streets of Ho Chi Minh City

    My jet-lagged eyes recoil from the light when I step outdoors. My hotel, the Caravelle, is in the center of Ho Chi Minh City. It's hazy, but bright. I see a huge group of motorcycles, ten abreast and I don't know how many deep, waiting with engines running. It must be a race. They take off all at once, zig zagging around the few cars on the street and narrowly missing each other as some go straight and some veer to the left and right. Pedestrians attempt to dart through the buzzing bikes. To my amazement there are no collisions.

    The light bulb over my head illuminates. This isn't a race. It's normal traffic and I, the zombie tourist who can't think straight because I am in a different time zone, must negotiate my way through the sea of motorbikes if I want to get to the traditional market. In fact, I have to cross six or seven streets to get to the market. Will I survive?

    I try several strategies.

    Wait for a clear path across the street. This doesn't work. I wait and a path through the traffic never presents itself. Even when it seems promising, as soon as I step off the curb, the path disappears and I jump back.

    Tail a local. I wait for a person who looks Vietnamese and follow him. I look like a stalker. Then I realize the locals have more nerve than I do. I make it across the street, but I think I'm going to die from fright. This isn't sustainable.

    Don't look any drivers in the eye. Then maybe they'll avoid me. I get halfway across the street, look up, see how much traffic there is and realize this is a very bad idea. I run back to the curb and think of another strategy. Just when I get my wits together, there is a collision. No one is hurt, but the traffic pauses long enough for me to run across the street. The wait-for-a-collision strategy, while successful, isn't one I want to count on.

    I finally find the best strategy. Wait for a family with small children. Moms have an innate sense of what's safe. Drivers hold back a bit for babies and toddlers. I start shadowing families. I smile and say "cute baby" to remove the appearance of stalking.

    I'm back at the hotel sipping a drink from the rooftop bar. I look down on the mass of motorbikes and the haze of river mist and bike pollution. Some bikes have one rider. Many have two. Others carry families of three and four. It's cost effective. Bikes are so maneuverable that the traffic always moves.

  • Investing in Vietnam: An Unhappy Tale

    About 20 minutes outside Ho Chi Minh City I find myself on a highway in the midst of rice fields stretched to the horizon. I'm on my way to the Mekong Delta, another hour or so from here, where I will board a boat. The highway is built up several meters above the land out of necessity. The land is wet and soft, perfect for rice. Not so good for building. Anything concrete requires bringing in sand to compact the earth and build it up around the surrounding wet land.

    I notice a round, concrete structure in the distance—an odd view to see in a sea of rice fields. My guide John (Americanized version of Drang) tells me it is the remnants of Happy Land, whose most famous investor is Joe Jackson. That's right, Michael's Dad.

    I've been here for only two days, but I already know a Happy Land couldn't survive. The Vietnamese people don't have the money for what would have to be a high admission fee. The location, although 20 minutes from HCM City, is not ideal for the Vietnamese either. It's 20 minutes by fast car. I can't imagine putting my family of four on a motor bike and making the trek out here. I don't think the tourists would do it either.

    Joe Jackson pulled out shortly after he learned of the bribery structure in Vietnam. Bribes are roughly one-third the cost of the project, and Joe refused. The project went bankrupt. They managed to bring in the sand to build up the land for the park, forever making those hectares unusable for rice farming. And they managed to build the round concrete Epcot-center-wannabe. But that's it.

    And so goes the unhappy tale of Happy Land.

  • Standing Face to Face With Death

    The tank before me is rusted and punctured by bullet holes. Any part that could be removed is gone. About 40 years ago the tank rolled over a booby trap that destroyed its tread. Unable to move, it became a sitting target. After a battle of unknown length, the Americans inside were killed and their effects taken. Later, villagers stripped what they could of the metal. Then they refashioned the scraps into barbed stakes used for a wide variety of traps that maimed soldiers. I see replicas of traps designed to damage armpits, pierce the chest, tear apart legs, and puncture backs. These are gruesome.

    It's an easy walk on this path. But around me there are signs of past struggles. Bomb craters, trenches for fighting, fake termite mounds used to conceal air vents for underground tunnels, and the tunnels themselves. Up to 250 kilometers I'm told.

    I follow a solider through a tunnel. I duck walk and it's a tight fit. Forty meters later, I emerge, thankful that today's tunnel has lighting and a fan-powered ventilation system. The Vietnamese soldiers and villagers didn't have lighting. Their ventilation system was marginal. The tunnels were narrower, having been widened only recently to allow for tourists to fit through without panicking.

    This photo is a re-creation of a booby trap. After stepping on false ground, the soldier is impaled on underground spikes. (Photo by Glen Gould.)


    I step into an underground room used for surgeries. I visit another used by the blacksmiths who repaired guns, made bombs, and forged barbed stakes. I see the kitchen used to cook meals, the smoke piped 15 meters away to minimize detection.

    The history fascinates and disgusts me. I am fascinated by the cleverness of the villagers who built the underground network, by their resourcefulness of using American G.I. cigarettes and sweaty clothes to confuse the dogs who were sent to sniff out the tunnels, and the way soldier and villager worked together against an army whose help they never asked for.

    I am disgusted by the loss of life on both sides, by the fact that our men were sent into a foreign environment to do something none of us are raised to do, fighting for a cause that was born from a few paranoid politicians.

    I stand here in 2013 wishing that a time machine could be a reality, regretting that a time machine wasn't a reality here in Chu Chi during the Vietnam War.

  • Eating My Way Through Vietnam and Cambodia

    My mouth waters when the waiter sets down a steaming bowl of noodle soup. Bits of fresh vegetables and chicken float in the broth, The wide rice noodles are the perfect texture. I squeeze fresh lime over the soup. The broth is one of the most flavorful I've ever tasted. Tiny red chiles add enough of a bite that my nose runs and eyes water. The chiles are spicy but they don't mask the other flavors.

    It's breakfast. I love that I can eat pho or dim sum or fried rice or some other Asian food early in the morning. Both here and in Vietnam, the breakfast buffets are amazing—cooked-to-order pancakes, waffles, eggs Benedict, omelets, and pho; homemade jams, jellies, nut butters, and pastries; tropical fruits; freshly pressed watermelon, guava, orange, carrot, and green monster juices; smoked mackerel and salmon. Vietnam had a bit more variety and included such things as stir-fried beef, sautéed frogs legs, and sushi.

    One of the best meals I've had so far was close to the Mekong River in Vietnam. I hopped off a boat and took a short walk through the vegetation that ended in a French colonial style house. After a tasty five-vegetable soup, a fried elephant-eared fish arrived at the table. It was propped upright, still smiling, as it if never left the ocean. The server then proceeded to pick off pieces which she added to lettuce and herbs, rolling the whole concoction into a fresh rice roll wrapper.

    When the fish was nothing but a skeleton, a clay pot of Vietnamese pork arrived with a side of rice. I managed to consume most of it before fresh, full cream yogurt and tropical fruits appeared.

    In the USA I eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast, a bowl of soup or a salad for lunch and, on most days, a modest dinner of vegetables and fish or meat. Here I eat only two meals a day, but I'll still probably come home with a few more pounds than I left with. There are so many things to try.

  • Cao Dài Temple: The Great Religion of the Third Period of Revelation and Salvation

    I am in front of a magnificent building in the town of Tây Ninh in southern Vietnam. It is the Holy See of the Cao Dài religion—a relatively new religion that started in 1926 right where I am standing. Like all religions, it began with a hallucination. Its disciples received instructions directly from God to establish Cao Dài.

    I see a mixture of symbols on the outside of the temple—figures representative of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. I see dragons, a flying goose, and even Joan of Arc. There is a giant eye on the outer wall. It reminds me of the one on the US dollar, only colorful.

    The front door is reserved for entry by the religion’s followers. It’s not quite noon; many disciples have already arrived. I walk to the side of the temple, leave my shoes on the street, and enter through the visitor’s door.

    The disciples, all clothed in pure white robes, are seated in the back vestibule—the women on one side and the men on the other. They must wait there until the monks arrive. Then they can enter the main hall and sit in the area reserved for them.

    As a visitor I am allowed to roam the outer aisles of the temple until it’s time to start the service. I am not allowed to walk into the center, nor am I allowed to take photos that include non disciples. Oddly enough, it is perfectly okay to take photos of the disciples and monks both before and during the service.

    The place is colorful. Really colorful. The style of the carvings and the bright colors remind me of a carousel. I see eyes all over—they are the windows to the temple. I see dragons and stars and planets. The altar is so far back in the temple that it’s difficult to make out what it is when I first enter. When I walk closer, I see there a gigantic round planet with an eye painted on it. It is the eye that oversees the universe.

    My guide says it is time for me to go upstairs to view the ceremony. The white-clad disciples file in and sit on the sides. The monks, dressed in primary colors, walk in next. Only a few walk past the midpoint of the temple. No one gets close to the altar. Where you sit is determined by the your level of mastery of the principles. All disciples must adopt ethical principles that include nonviolence, vegetarianism, prayer, and veneration of ancestors. But there are also many scriptures for them to study and learn.

    In the back is a musicians’ loft. Five or six young women (all supposedly virgins) sing while a group of men sit and play traditional instruments. Then it’s silent and everyone sits, adopting a posture of meditation. It’s now very quiet in the temple. My guide says “They are going to stay that way for hours.” I still watch. Once in awhile a gong sounds, the musicians start up, then there is silence again. Sometimes the gong sounds once, sometimes several times in a row. Not knowing the religion, I don’t understand the ritual, but it is beautiful and restful.

    After awhile I leave the disciples to their meditation.

    The Cao Dài followers believe there are 72 planets that have intelligent life. Planet number 1 is closest to heaven and planet 72 is closest to Hell. Earth is number 68. I am thankful that Earth is considered one of the planets with intelligent life, because at times I wonder how intelligent we really are.

    For more information on the practice of Cao Dài, see Its full name is Dai Dao Tam Ky Pho Do, the Great Religion of the Third Period of Revelation and Salvation.