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Frustration In Saigon

It all started in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia.  And the frustration followed us all the way to Saigon, Vietnam.  The South Vietnamese rebel by continuing to call Ho Chi Minh City by its pre-Vietnam War name of Saigon.  After our experiences at the war monuments, we decided to do the same.

Nutty Moto Traffic in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) Fixing Our ASUS Computer in Saigon... Smooth

Our usually reliable ASUS netbook conspired against its thoughtful caretakers and decided the battery had run its natural course by refusing to properly charge.  Having been on the world road for eight months we had come to expect Yohan, our computer, to be by our side.  So when he betrayed us in Cambodia, we felt a bit lost.  Luckily, ASUS had a retail facility in Saigon that overnighted a replacement battery for free, even though our manufacturers warranty had expired.  The small headache was cured, but our frustration was just getting started.

War Remnants Museum - American M41 Tank War Remnants Museum - UH-1H Huey Helicopter

War Remnants Museum - UH-1H Huey Helicopter with Canon To be fair, we had been warned that the War Remnants Museum is full of propaganda against America.  These cautionary tales came from the mouths of travelers residing in every corner of globe.  Even they found the anti-American message unjust.  So we went to see for ourselves, with an open mind.  The grounds surrounding the museum were quite interesting, providing a chance to get up close to American military equipment from the Vietnam War era.  A M41 tank, the iconic UH-1H Huey helicopter complete with canon, and the massive CH-47 Chinook dual rotor helicopter were on display in good condition.  Things turned from interesting to lopsided in a matter of minutes, however.

War Remnants Museum - Ash Next To CH-47 American Chinook Dual Rotor Helicopter - v2 War Remnants Museum - Con Dao Prison - Two Tiger Cages

A motif of the infamous Con Dao Prison was constructed and outfitted with genuine “tiger cages” (small enclosures) and examples of barbed wire units used to punish prisoners.  The communist regime of Vietnam that curates the war museum exemplified the French, South Vietnamese, and American atrocities in painstaking detail.  One would think by the biased display that the North Vietnamese were angelic beings during this period of war.  Great space was dedicated to the My Lai massacre (yes, terrible) but disregarded the fact that the Vietcong used flamethrowers to torch 252 Montagnards (Vietnamese mountain people), for example.  The main museum building made our already boiling blood even hotter.  I think most of us can agree that Agent Orange, the forest defoliant, was used improperly.  The Vietnamese people face debilitating disease, tainted water sources, and contaminated soil still today as a result.  This chemical was heavily featured in the museum along with other destruction caused by American forces.  Menacingly, there is once again not a single mention of injustices perpetrated by the North Vietnamese.  Ash and I could only take so much of the negative message about America before we found the whole museum to be ludicrous.  Had the curators made an attempt to level the playing field, visitors would walk away having had an education.  Rather, most paying customers walk away shaking their heads in disbelief.

War Remnants Museum - Effect of Agent Orange War Remnants Museum - US Imperialsim Propaganda

The following day, still aggravated, we journeyed outside Saigon to the Cu Chi Tunnels.  This historic labyrinth of underground passageways, kitchens, storage areas, and living quarters was utilized by the Vietcong as protection from US bombing and a means of attacking their foe.  We had a hard time exploring the grounds from which many Americans perished.  The tunnels themselves are impressive and it takes immense imagination to envisage living below the surface for months, even giving birth if necessary.  The entrances were disguised so well that Vietcong soldiers could sneak up, fire on enemy troops, and disappear undetected.  Our guide swept dead leaves away from one such entryway and indicated the exit spot a mere twenty feet away.  So you just walk through the tunnel and come out over there, piece of cake. So we thought.  Amongst a group of ten, Ash went in sixth, her arms placed directly over her head in order to fit through the tiny hole in the ground.  Ten minutes passed and I went in last, no sign of Ashley on the other end.  Inside was unlike anything for which we could have prepared.  It was a maze of turns six feet below the surface with absolutely no natural light.  Mix ten terrified tourists armed with a few cell phones providing lights, bats flying into our hair, and just enough space to crawl on your hands and knees.  It was pandemonium for twenty short feet and fifteen long minutes.

Cu Chi Underground Tunnels - Bat Cu Chi Underground Tunnels - So Small, Ash is on Her Butt

Cu Chi Tunnels - Viet Cong Underground System - American B-52 Bomb Crater Glad to be above ground, some underground explorers were shedding tears of fear.  So we moved along to observe B-52 bomb craters, booby traps with iron spikes, and a sorted amount of leftover American ordinance.  The forest path led us to the shooting range where an array of weapons to fire awaited us.  Grenade launcher, American M16 or M60, or a Soviet AK47?  The grenade launcher was going to be way out of our price range… dang it!  At my insistence, we opted for the Soviet semi-automatic rifle.  Ash rattled off two rounds from the AK47 before stepping away too terrified to let loose on the metal target resembling a hog.  I stepped in and fired the remaining eight rounds, one glancing the the pig’s head.  As I was collecting a few spent rounds for souvenirs, which would later result in me being detained in Dubai, UAE, a gentlemen let one hundred rounds loose from the powerful M60.  The noise was deafening.  The Cu Chi Tunnels had been nothing like the War Remnants propaganda BS.  That was until the documentary film began.  One fellow Yank, whose father fought in Vietnam, stepped out after fifteen minutes of sensationalism upon the words referencing American “devils in the sky.”  Ash and I watched the whole film in a dumbfounded stuper.

Cu Chi Tunnels - Viet Cong Underground System - Greg Going Under Cu Chi Tunnels - Shooting Range - Ash Prepping Her AK47

Amazing. Thirty-five years later, the Vietnam government still feels the need to rally support against America by depicting us as hellions in every which way. In contrast, the citizens of Saigon could not have been more accommodating to us.  Frustrating.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) American culture pervades nearly every society in the world.  Entertainment, food, politics, beverage, fashion, music, etc.  For this reason, nearly everyone has an opinion of the United States.  We have heard our fair share of negative comments, some meant to be personally hurtful.  It is like your little sister being insulted.  Sadly, some uninformed international visitors to Saigon took the propaganda as 100% factual and partook in the American bashing, making sure we heard them loud and clear.  Instead of creating a scene and giving them the joy of upsetting us, we simply walked away with a firm bite on our tongues.  Take the higher road, if possible.

Discovering The Mekong Delta

The goodbye was teary yet swift.  Ash and I had a date on a slow boat that would take us down the mighty Mekong River from Cambodia to Vietnam’s patchwork delta.  Our hearts ached as the tuk-tuk puttered away from the Palm Tree Orphanage; a chapter in our lives that shall never end.
River Village Along Mekong Fishing Vessel On Mekong River

Ash Enjoying the Slow Boat The boat resembled a brown stick bug as it approached the rickety dock full of feisty bull ants.  At the Cambodia – Vietnam border crossing, 40% of the passengers were denied entry for failure to present valid passports.  It was evident the Cambodian family left behind at the boundary was looking to immigrate to their slightly more prosperous neighbor.  The wooden vessel’s sun deck offered unadulterated views of riverside shanty towns, families fishing from dugout canoes, and young boys herding famished cattle.  As the sun dipped behind rows of palms, Ash and I took time to absorb the starkly different style of life.

Yem, Whom We Helped Study Englsh Twice Before Her Scholarship Competition to Singapore Homes On Stilts

The river split yet again as the floating craft approached the Mekong Delta town of Chau Doc.  The river city’s shanties reached over the Mekong by leaning on tall wooden stilts.  Ash opted for a quick ride to our hostel on the back of a moto while I crawled along in a cyclo – a carriage towed behind a bicycle.  After settling into our accommodation, which had an ophthalmologist office in its lobby, we practiced English with the proprietor’s daughter who had a scholarship contest the following day to study in Singapore.  A simple Vietnamese dinner was inhaled and we called it a night in preparation for an early morning.  Before exploring the area surrounding Chau Doc the following day, we once again went over Yem’s English for her high stakes competition.  We never found out whether she was headed for Singapore, but she was certainly on the right track being both intellectual and driven.

Our Awesome Tour Guide and Boat Driver - Caman Floating Market on Mekong River - Boats Bartering

Floating Market on Mekong River - What A Swell Purchase We encouraged Yem one more time, then met Caman on the Mekong’s muddy bank for an intimate boat ride including the floating markets, a fish farm, and a Muslim minority village.  The Mekong River in many ways is Southeast Asia’s lifeblood.  It provides food, entertainment, drinking water, and transportation.  So it was no surprise to see that Chau Doc’s community depends on the river for survival.  They go as the river goes.  Caman, wearing an iconic Vietnamese cone hat made from straw to match her grinning face, skillfully maneuvered the small boat amongst the listing flotilla anchored together in the middle of the brown river.  Restaurants, families, and wholesalers all bought fruit and vegetables from this market on hulls that turned up each morning.  The vessels would advertise their offering by placing the items for sale on a stick high above the bow.  True to our tastes, we loaded up on banana and pineapple.

Greg and Caman on Fish Farm - Greg Is A Bit Taller Fish Farm on Mekong River - Fish Curing

Cham Muslim Minority Village - Ash Exhibiting Traditional Garments Moving back up stream, Caman dropped us at a fish farm riding the currents of the Mekong atop wooden pontoons.  Our steps were careful amid the myriad of wooden planks and packing crates.  Lilypads surrounded the hectic scene of thousands of fish fighting for pellets of processed rice byproduct after Ash dumped a healthy helping into the commotion.  As we motored over to the petrol station afloat on the Mekong, the farms cured their fish on wooden planks under the sunny sky.  Moving onto to the Cham Muslim minority village, we crossed a rickety foot bridge where the Mekong would typically rise in the rainy season.  We dawned traditional garb woven by local women and toured their quaint living quarters built on shaky stilts.

Boy on Tip of Boat Cham Muslim Minority Village - Foot Bridge and Old Boat

Sadly, Cham Village, Chau Doc, and the greater Mekong Delta have begun suffering from lower water levels due to dams being constructed in upstream China.  Yet the people and way of life continue.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) “Village tours” are usually poor examples of the real thing.  They are designed to bring in tourist money and our experience in Vietnam fit this model.  However, it can still be interesting and worthwhile if you acknowledge and confront this fact prior to booking.

Cambodia’s Ancient Angkor Wat

Greg and Rob Eating A Tarantula Cambodia’s ace in the hole is magical Angkor Wat located in Siem Reap.  So popular in fact that it is featured on Cambodia’s flag.  Most tourists spend less than two days in challenging Phnom Penh (our base camp at Palm Tree Orphanage for one month) choosing to focus on the ancient ruins instead.  As March 2010 drew to a close and the days with our new family followed suit, Ash and I packed an overnight bag to see what all the rage was about in Cambodia’s northwest.

Angkor Wat Sunrise Over Pond Angkor Wat Sunrise

Angkor Wat Sunrise From Temple The six hour bus ride was uneventful except for my crunchy dining experience of fried tarantulas.  Arriving late in the evening, we hired a tuk-tuk driver for the following day and caught up on rest before our pre-dawn departure.  Ny, father of three young children, pulled into the gravel parking lot at the healthy hour of 5am.  Sleep still in our eyes, we joined the armada of tuk-tuks headed for storied Angkor Wat.  Entering the gate across the stagnate water moat, one felt transported back in time.  Ash camped out beside a pond that would offer a sensational sunrise moment over the towers of Angkor while I purchased milky coffee housed in a filthy drinking vessel.  With lilypads sprouting splendid pink flowers, the small pool of water turned a purplish hue as the sun began to reveal itself.  The daylight basked Angkor in all its majesty and suddenly our sad example of a cup of Joe became a novelty as we looked upon the 12th Century ruins.  In the refreshing morning light, we explored the surrounding stone features that offered unique looks at the Bakan (Angkor Wat’s centerpiece).

View of Angkor Wat from the Bakan Angkor Wat Beer at Angkor Wat

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng Mountain - Prayer Around 7:30am we entered the innermost wall of the Hindu temple, the ancient towers high above us.  Every wall seemingly had an intricate etching of women with headdresses or carvings of miniature warriors.  Each non-restored Buddha statue along the stone corridors displayed the handywork of the Khmer Rouge; their heads having been knocked off.  Even the steep steps worn smooth had elaborate engravings.  Buildings surrounding the Bakan exhibited windows with small pillars and impressive lattice work.  The man hours to quarry the stone, assemble the structures, and etch the details was nearly incomprehensible.

Buddhas Outside Wat Thom Wat Thom Entrance Faces

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng Mountain - Ash Taking It In With Ash borrowing a shawl to cover her bare shoulders, we climbed to the Bakan where we could absorb the incredible size of this ancient site.  It became apparent how Angkor Wat was swallowed by the jungle lurking outside its statuesque walls.  In fact, Angkor was consumed by the hungry forest and was “rediscovered” in the middle of the 19th Century by the French explorer Henri Mouhot.  The temperature was quickly turning from comfortable to warm so we met Ny in a dusty parking lot to continue ruin hopping before the intense heat drove us mad.

Ta Prohm Greg's Chicago Office With Angkor Wat Photos

Ta Prohm Tree A short jaunt up the paved road and we reached the entrance to Wat Thom.  Altogether different from Angkor, Wat Thom features stone faces in its gray facade.  Bridging the parched moat was a rock span complete with a railing of stately Buddhas.  Ashley looked like a miniature figurine next to the massive heads.  Further along was Ta Prohm, made famous by Hollywood’s Tomb Raider.  Incredibly unique, roots from aggressive trees grow over and through the ancient ruins.  The Chicago office I worked in had decorative photos of Ta Prohm in its lobby, as seen in the photo from my last day on the job, August 14, 2009.  By high noon, the sun’s inferno defeated us as we retreated to the shady confines of our Siem Reap hotel.  While Ash napped in the shade, I explored the local markets and watched a Buddhist parade envelope the streets.  Ny arrived ninety minutes before sunset and dropped us at Phnom Bakheng Mountain.  With four Angkor beers in tow, we hiked through the forest leading to the hilltop ruins.  Though the hazy evening stifled a brilliant sunset, it was a splendid closure to a day of exploring Cambodia’s rich history in ruins.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) There must be hundreds of tuk-tuks waiting to chauffeur tourists around Angkor Wat.  Have your accommodation arrange a driver that will fetch you before sunrise and return after sunset.

Enrolling Poun & Sampohan In Rabbit School

We were handed the baton.  Which lap in the contest was unknown nor did it matter.  Ash and I were going to finish this race.

Many volunteers before us had tried in vain to locate a school catering to children with disabilities.  We had been warned about the difficulty and told it was OK if we failed.  But after falling in love with the two children in need of a daily routine, personal attention from trained staff, and simply a chance, we were determined.  It also helped that a former colleague of mine, Anne MaRous, had spent a week at Palm Tree months earlier and had some solid leads to kick start our search.  This was our primary goal during our stay at the orphanage in Phnom Penh’s Daclaw District.

Sampohan Poun and His Duck Sticker

Poun & Sampohan came to Palm Tree by way of the orphanage where Angelina Jolie adopted her son, Maddox.  After this high profile event, America banned adoptions from Cambodia as a result of the consequential black market fetching up to $12,500 per child that incentivized destitute women to have unwanted offspring.  All the children were adopted from this orphanage before being shut down except for three; all of whom had questionable development abilities.  Enter the open arms of Palm Tree Orphanage.  Sophi (enrolled in basic school already), Poun, and Sampohan found a true home where the family of orphans operate as their sincere protectors.  It really is something to see a group of 90+ kids open their wings and insulate their special brethren.

Poun and Ash Poun Playing Air Guitar

Poun Pushing Greg on Swing Rumored to have been found in an alley amongst trash and living with dogs, 8 – 11 year old (hard to pinpoint DOB) Poun became a dear person in our lives.  Ash and I talk frequently about him, even scheming ways to get him to our June 2011 wedding.  Most mornings, Poun would wait quietly near our wooden door for us to emerge.  From that time forward, he was never too far from one of our sides.  He colored, played, and ate like a typical child.  However, just by looking at him it was obvious he was developmentally challenged.  The only word he would utter was “Mike” and I patiently taught him not to hit for fear that as he grew, people would be frightened.  Sampohan (15 – 17 year of age) may or may not be his biological sister, but the two are an unmatched duo.  Quiet and sweet, she bathes Poun and generally looks after him like a mother would.  She did not attend school either on account of her undiagnosed learning disability.

Greg and Hun Touch of Rabbit School Poun's Pipeline Hat

Cambodia has multitudes of problems, not the least being its educational system.  Considering this fact, it should come as no surprise that children with special needs are currently left in the dust.  Palm Tree did all they could by providing them with a support system within a safe home.  Neither Poun or Sampohan had ever sat down with a qualified professional to diagnose their troubles.  While the other children their age went to school, they would aimlessly wander around the confines of Palm Tree.  So our mission was two fold: have them evaluated and find them a proper school.

Poun Learning Poun & Sampohan At Rabbit School

Sampohan At Rabbit School We met people at Mike’s Burger House whom taught English at local schools.  Those leads became dead ends.  While watching monkeys pluck helpless sparrows from the trees at Wat Phnom I met a women who was volunteering at a settlement atop a trash dump.  Her educational connections proved worthless.  We were chasing our tails.  Anne had dug up a promising lead during her short stint in Cambodia, yet we had not heard back regarding emails and a few voice mails.  At last, Hun Touch from the Rabbit School replied to an email and after several lost in translation messages and Skype conversations, a date to meet was set.  Ash and I were exhausted, overheated, and drenched in sweat after roaming the streets of Phnom Phen hunting for Hun Touch’s elusive office.  A second meeting was set after he provided an exact address rather just a general area.  He provided a thorough look into his past experiences, educational background, and his leading role prodding the Cambodian government to provide a framework for children with disabilities.  May he have the wind at his back.  Two hours later, we left mightily impressed with Hun Touch’s mission and passion to give these special kids, who are otherwise forgotten, a fighting chance.

Group Photo With Teachers At Rabbit School Sampohan's Teacher Looks So Genuine

Poun and Ash Say Goodbye During our last week at Palm Tree, Poun and Sampohan visited the Rabbit School to undergo a proper evaluation.  Score!  We urgently awaited their return.  The excitement in their eyes was palpable.  They were going to attend school like the other children.  Their elation made us weep.  Next, we sorted out funding for their daily round trip moto ride to Rabbit School.  They were set to attend school for the first time in their lives after the Khmer New Year.  Score!  It brings tears to our eyes and grins to our faces to write that they have been not only been going to school, but showing signs of development as well for over five months.  The photos seen here are recent shots taken at Rabbit School.

We crossed the finish line, but the race for Poun and Sampohan has only just begun.  And for that, we are thankful.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Determination can do wondrous things.  If you are patient, tireless, and unyielding, goals have a way of being realized.
2) Success in business after a long slog makes you feel good, but succeeding in changing someone’s life is a high like no other.

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