Vietnam Reflections - March 2007
      by Gail Carr Feldman, PhD

The meeting I just attended in Thailand and Viet Nam was one of those profound life experiences I have to write about now before the memories slip into the arteriosclerotic areas of my brain, like lost socks from the clothes dryer.

The conference was ' Creativity and Madness,” Psychological Studies of Art and Artists, put on by the American Institute of Medical Education out of LA. I’ve traveled to Greece with this group and spoke there, given three talks for them in Santa Fe, the most recent one on Frida Kahlo; also traveled to Australia and New Zealand with this group, and this time spoke in Viet Nam (Hue) about the psychology of resilience, featuring sculptor, Michael Naranjo, a Santa Clara Indian who grew up on the Taos Pueblo. He was blinded by a hand grenade on Christmas day of l968 in the Mekong Delta. He was nineteen. I think he’s one of those miraculous beings who refused to be ' disabled,” to hear that he couldn’t do his art, who loves life, who ' see' everything with his fingers and his senses, and forgets he's blind ' until I run into a wall.'

The paper was well-received and I was invited to give it next year in Santa Fe, and Dr. Barry Panter will include it as a chapter in the 2nd ed. of the book, Creativity and Madness, with photos of some of the sculptures. So that was a trip bonus, a little coconut cream on the sticky rice that became my new favorite dessert.

I have to thank Sandy Buffet for encouraging me to start the trip at the beach in Phuket, in southern Thailand. Five days at the White Beach Resort on the Andaman Sea was heaven. This resort is like the Napili Kai Beach Club on Maui compared to all the big hotels along the Kaanapali coast. It’s secluded, intimate, has its own bay and the most beautiful blue tiled swimming pool I’ve ever seen with eight sculpture elephants sitting cross-legged spewing fountains of water into the pool. Far to the north by the airport is a humongous Marriott Resort with ten miles of beach with signs saying it's too dangerous to swim there. Corky, my travel buddy, and I had lunch there one day just to check it out, and couldn’t imagine staying there with the hoards from all over the world. Thanks, Sandy. The beach is the best way to recover from jet lag. Only three decisions every day: should we lie on the beach, by the pool, or should we eat…again?

The conference began at the Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok. This is a 5 star deluxe hotel that sits on the Chao Phraya River (the River of Kings). One of its restaurants, the Salathip, is too beautiful to really describe- temple-style all wood and glass. The river is full of commerce and colorful wooden water taxis and tourist boats. We had a great trip one morning on paddleboats through canals to the oldest parts of a floating market. They have little sweet bananas in this part of the world that I ate every morning. One of the docs on the trip said, ' I've died and gone to fruit heaven.” He was right- fruit I’d never even seen in Indonesia. Although Dragon Fruit may have been there- like a white Kiwi on the inside. Corky noticed that I love to be pampered, so she photographed me by the pool eating off an elegant tray and began calling me the Queen of Sheba. ' It's good to be the Queen.”

Another day we went to the Royal Grand Palace, which is one of the wonders of the world, an example of the ancient Siamese Court, thirty-four buildings, many gold temples, a smaller version of Angor Wat, and the revered Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the most precious image of Lord Buddha carved from a single piece of jade. On this trip I truly got why the fan was invented. I bought one for a few ' Bats' ( In Viet Nam it's Dongs) from a vendor when I realized I was pouring sweat and ready to faint. On one of our bathroom stops, Toby, a new friend from Seattle, said, ' I have nothing to pee. I'm sweating all the water I drink.” In spite of the heat, which actually got worse in Viet Nam, everything was too fascinating to make any complaints about small stuff, like the weather.

Since Bangkok is the sex (perversions) capitol of the world, we had to do something… tame, so we went to a cabaret show performed by transsexuals and transvestites. They must do their sex changes early because these were some of the most gorgeous Asian women you could imagine- wearing practically nothing. It was an elegant show, highlighting the history (starting in the U.S. in the ‘30’s ) of risqué performances, then moving to France, Japan and South America. It was perfect for an international crowd and one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

One of the talks in Bangkok was on Yul Brenner. What a fascinating character: His father was Russian, his mother Mongolian. The grandfather abandoned the family and moved to Japan, where he developed a thriving shipping business; father left when he was four and moved to China. His mother took him and his sister to Paris, and when he was fourteen and in lots of trouble, she took him to a psychiatrist, which prompted him to run away and live with a band of gypsies and play guitar. Then he joined a circus where he developed some enemies (probably jealous because he could seduce every woman who ever met him) who let him fall to the ground off the highwire instead of into the net. He broke 49 bones and became addicted to opium. He eventually went to Switzerland to live with an aunt and overcome his addiction, then moved to NYC and worked with the Chekov company. (The King and I was his very first film role and he won the Oscar for it.) In 1942 the War Dept offered him a job in Intelligence because he spoke so many languages (and because he could lie so well he said he had a PhD from the Sorbonne and was always changing his age and the facts of his early life.) So he was a spy. He was an accomplished photographer, and later in his life worked with the UN helping refugees, and also adopted several Vietnamese orphans.

While Bangkok was a beautiful lark, arriving in Ho Chi Minh City (before 1975 known as Saigon), was a bit sobering. I think I’d have to call it guilt. It only lasted a day and then dissolved into amazement at the resilience of the Vietnamese people. While there’s still poverty and lack of medical care, there’s no comparison to Laos,I was told by a teacher there, where the annual income is two to three hundred dollars a year and there’s nearly total illiteracy. In Viet Nam, a grade school education is required and in the cities more is available at high schools and colleges. In the countryside and the fishing villages, however, the kids’ labor is necessary and there are no schools available.

The most astounding thing about this city of over 6 million is the traffic of about 4 million motor scooters. I was told by several people before the trip that the biggest danger to me in Vietnam would be in crossing the streets. It’s true- unimaginable until you see streets clogged with scooters, everyone honking, weaving in and out, going up on the sidewalks to avoid the congestion and then zipping back into traffic. There are no rules, so that even if a light turns red, half the scooters might stop and the rest keep going. And if one side stops, they keep coming from the other direction, so that pedestrians are totally at their mercy- and skill to quickly avoid someone in their path.

Education is venerated because of the influence of Confucius. I had good conversations with my guide, ' Tom Hanks', about Confucius at the Museum of Literature in Hanoi. (They all give themselves nick-names as it would be impossible to remember or pronounce their real names.) The tour guides are young, smart, and very well educated in the history and culture of both of our countries. They seem to have no biases or bad feelings toward the Americans- they’re simply well-versed in the policies and attitudes on both sides. Just a note about Confucius for those of you who may not know: 500 years BCE he traveled around China trying to teach ethics to government officials. Needless to say, he failed miserably in that arena, but the behavioral ideals and values he taught became the foundation for education in Asia for the next two thousand years. He, not Jesus, was the first to teach the Golden Rule, ' Do unto others…,” and he, not Aristotle, was also the first to teach balance, or ' nothing in excess.”

There were three docs on the trip who were in Viet Nam during the war. For them this was a pilgrimage. Their talks on the evolution of acute and posttraumatic stress disorders and co-morbid complexities were excellent, but it was the personal sharing during small group discussions that broke your heart. One, a psychiatrist, worked tirelessly and kept going up the chain of command to get the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder recognized as a reason to get a soldier out of the field and sent back home. These were the guys who were so unstable they were stoned and violent all the time, and sometimes killed their commanders or anyone who pissed them off. (Strangely enough, we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on the anniversary date of the My Lai massacre; and we hit Hue during their three day Festival celebrating the defeat and exit of the U.S. A few of us even went to the Citadel, a huge walled area with parks and staged performances and magnificent electrified dragons and phoenix birds and didn’t even know what we were participating in until the next day.)

Chris DiMaio was a field-surgeon during the war, and the carnage he saw on a daily basis was hard to hear about. I didn't want to see in my mind what he had seen. That experience left him with such traumatic stress he was completely paranoid for some time after he returned to California. He kept guns and knives nearby, and when someone would come to his front door, he'd go out the back and come around to see who was there. He had no idea this was abnormal behavior until his friends told him. He became active in Veterans groups and in Vet Center support groups. He changed his specialty from surgery to psychiatry after the war and recently retired from his psychiatric practice and plans to travel a lot with his partner, Andrew, a delightful man with whom he's had a committed relationship for nearly twenty-six years. But there were very brief times when he seemed just "not quite there" that made me think he's never completely recovered from the war, or wonder whether anyone could.

We spent an entire day visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels, where, not only the Viet Cong guerrillas hid out during the day, but also entire villages of people. There were cooking areas, sewing rooms, hospitals, and munitions making rooms. Those of us who were small enough could go into the tunnels for a short distance. Those of us who would have a panic attack, like me, stayed out. I felt less wimpy because one of the young women who’s a mountain climber couldn’t go in either. But there were large, dug-out actual-size models of the rooms and activities that took place underground. When the Vietnamese people foiled the attempts of the army’s German Shepards to find the entry holes by putting pepper around them to cover human smells, the Air Force began to see (with infra-red scopes) the trails through the grasses made at night to the fields. We then began the massive de-foliation that apparently turned the entire area to dirt and dust so we could more accurately bomb the tunnel entrances. The trees we walked through to the tunnel openings have grown back since then.

I kept being amazed at the persistence of the Vietnamese people to have a unified country. They were occupied by the Chinese, then the French, then the U.S. (Of course, historically they did their share of stealing-part of southern Vietnam used to belong to Cambodia.) Our group pretty much agreed, even those few who had been in favor of the war, that it was a good thing we lost. If we had won, the country would have remained divided at the DMZ and become another Korea. They now have their own country and even though we call it communist, there’s a lot of capitalist growth, large companies moving there, and the government is somewhat adaptable. e.g. in turning land over to the farmers. Viet Nam is now the second exporter of rice after Thailand.

One of the talks in Hue was on Pham Xuan An, a South Vietnamese journalist. He worked for Reuters for four years, then was on the Masthead of Time Magazine for eleven years. He was uniformly liked by everyone who knew him and honest in his reporting. As it turned out, he was a spy for the Viet Cong and smuggled intelligence reports in film canisters inside fish or rice cakes through the Cu Chi tunnels. He was completely dedicated to the reunification of his country and Ho Chi Minh named him Hero of the People’s Armed Forces at the end of the war. If you’re interested, you can google him and read the Washington Post article of Sept 21 last year when he died at 79. Also there’s a book coming out called, ' The Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xan An…”

Hue is on The Perfume River, so we had a cruise to the Thien Mu Pagoda, the oldest place for religious worship in Hue. The tower there is one of the most famous structures in Vietnam, and I believe it was there in that compound of monks where we saw the room of the monk who set fire to himself- that famous photo that was burned in the minds of all of us who watched and read the news during the war.

One young guide, ' Nam,” seemed very excited about a ' new” religion in Vietnam (I found it was begun in 1928) called, Cao-Di. (sounded like Kow Di). It means, ' High Palace,” and is a blend of all the world’s religions including Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism. They believe that the spiritual teachers of these faiths were all the same Soul, and that there is only one God and One People. Sounds good to me.

Our last stop was Hanoi. The capitol of Vietnam has over three million people, and, again, millions of motor scooters. In spite of my terror of crossing the streets (I had to be surrounded by confident friends each time), I was captivated by this city. It is beautiful, tree-filled, a French Quarter with tiny cobbled streets only wide enough for bicycles and pedicabs, a lake like Central Park in New York with an ancient ' Turtle Temple” in the middle. A red arching bridge at one end takes you to an actual temple for worship and there, encased in glass is the biggest turtle I’ve ever seen, supposedly 500 years old, who lived in that lake.

Needless to say, the shopping for silks, especially is unavoidable. I saw a gold silk gown that was so gorgeous that even though I have no place to wear such a thing, when I was told the price was $35 I had no choice. The three layers of fabric would cost far more than that in the U.S. It was also lovely to be staying at the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, another deluxe hotel built in the French colonial style in l901. (One thing I loved about the hotels in Asia is that every morning they leave you a fresh packaged toothbrush with a tiny toothpaste.)

The highlight of going to Hanoi is that one has to take a day or two and get up to Halong Bay. This place has twice been recognized as a world natural heritage spot. It is a huge area of the Gulf of Tonkin with clear emerald waters and nearly two thousand limestone islets rising up green against the blue sky. We visited two caves with stalagmites and stalactites, shapes and colors simply awesome. Someone asked about how such mountains of limestone occurred geographically and the explanation was that a dragon once descended from the sky to protect the local people from invasion and it grew to like the spot so it stayed- got comfy in the water, I guess. It was so completely peaceful and ethereal on the water that Corky wouldn’t come down for lunch. She just kept photographing. I, however, went down the creaky, wooden steps and had the five course seafood extravaganza.

When we staggered off the bus that day with only an hour or so to get ready for our farewell dinner, I saw a small antique shop across the street from the hotel and had a pull to go there. Corky found a way through the traffic and in the back corner of the shop, covered with dust was a bronze bust of a Mong woman that I just had to have. I was told she was made in the 1930's. We settled on the price and the man wrapped her in bubble-wrap and I had to empty my backpack and leave my books and some other things behind so I could carry that thing on my back from Hanoi to Hong Kong, and then to Taipei, and then all the way to LAX, where they told me it was a ' bludgeoning item.' Even though I insisted it was a piece of art, the surly security agent said, ' I don't care what it is, you're not taking it on this airplane.'   So I had to go check it and almost missed my plane, but Corky said, ' You have to suffer for art,' so that's what I did.

I love my Mong woman, not only because she’s beautiful, but because the Mong people came out of Tibet, and when they reached Vietnam, they changed their name to this word that means ' Free.'

So that’s the story of my trip. The only sad thing was that my camera was pickpocketed out of my bag on a street in Hanoi, with all 300 of my photos. But… since Corky took about 3000 with her big Nikon, one day I'll have lots of photos to show.

Thanks to all who had the interest and patience to read this.
April 7, 2007

One last thing: A talk was given on Abbie Hoffman and I love one of his declarations: It should be mandatory for humans to eat what they kill. That would be the end of war.