Five Weeks in Vietnam A Vietnam Travel Log
By Marea Rose Jenness
A Vietnam Adoption Travel Log.
Several friends called last night to wish me well. It makes me happy to know that I will be bringing Daniel home to such a wonderful circle of family and friends. I sent a posting to the Adoptive Parents of Vietnam group inquiring if anyone else would be in Vietnam at the same time I will be. I got four responses! The internet continues to amaze me! So, now I have shopping trips in HCMC and a trip to Halong Bay planned with new friends who are also adopting from Vietnam. I also received confirmation from the Director of the HCMC Language School for Foreigners that I could take classes for a week for 4-5 hours a day to learn some essential Vietnamese.
All the precious papers to get Daniel's passport and visa are in my backpack. I tried to get everything else in one suitcase. I succeeded, but neither I nor Doug could lift it. (100 diapers and a laptop computer add up along with clothes for two) So, I relented and am taking two suitcases.
Spring Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The city lights look beautiful out the window. Tall trees mask the first five or six stories of the tall buildings. I'm staying in the heart of old-Saigon and can see the Notre Dame Cathedral a few blocks away. Even with the air conditioning on (it is till sweltering outside), I can hear car horns. Honking your horn here is a normal part of driving - apparently it is how you communicate that you are a car coming up behind motorbikes in your lane and have no intention of slowing down or swerving to avoid running them over. With nerves of steel, the people on motorbikes rarely give more than a few centimeters.
The picture of Daniel is a powerful charm - it stops everyone that I show it to and blesses their day. It is a joy to me to share a glimpse of my happiness as a gift with complete strangers. It had the same effect on me for days until every pixel of his photograph was burned into my brain. I can see it now, down to the smallest details, with my eyes wide open.
The baggage claim area at the airport in HCMC was quite a scene. The conveyor belt was short and people were packed around it four and five deep with their luggage carts. Even though I was twice their size, little old ladies kept elbowing me to the back. My desire to appear polite far out-weighed my pushing and shoving skills. The first time that I saw one of my bags go by, I resigned myself to letting it go round and round until the crowd thinned. The second time, I tried saying, "Excuse me please, could I get through to get my bag?" Instantly several young men turned around, asked me which one, and retrieved it for me. It worked on the second bag, too, and I was on my way. They didn't even open my bags at customs. Although, I did have to go back to the end of the line once and fill out the name of my hotel, which I had neglected to do the first time that I tried to get my passport stamped.
This is a place where you need your street smarts. Last night, a little girl selling postcards was appalled by the way that I handled my wallet. I was paying her for three sets of her cards and in a state of sleep deprivation pulled all my cash out of the neck wallet that I had under my clothes and fumbled to give her the correct amount. "Don't show all your money!" she hissed. Glancing around at the other people seated on short stools at one-table sidewalk cafes, she said, "They will take it from you!"
The strangest thing to me is that no one else walks here during the day. The sidewalks aren't even set up for it. The tree planters often extend the whole width of the sidewalk, forcing you to either walk through them hugging a tree or to step out into the street. It isn't unusual to run into half blocks worth of sidewalk roped off and guarded as motorbike parking lots. I walked the half mile between the Saigon Vietnamese Language School for Foreigners three times yesterday. The cyclo drivers were sure that I was making some kind of mistake and kept circling me asking if I didn't want a ride. Young men with motorbike taxis kept signaling to me that they were available. Passing taxis honked.
Then again, the heat is staggering - over 90 degrees and with humidity in the 90's as well. I sweat so much walking that I arrive places with my ponytail dripping. What is odd to me, though, is that in the one big city that I am familiar with, New York City, everyone walks everywhere. A highly developed code of no-eye-contact keeps people separate. I tried it on the cyclo drivers and they looked hurt. So, I would smile and they would relax and smile back and not persist in hassling me with offers for a ride. Definitely, a different tempo to life then I am accustomed to.
My husband always teases me about the joy I take in giving and receiving gifts. The people of Vietnam practice it as an high art form. Today, when I gave my tutor a souvenir pen from the Science Museum of Minnesota and a postcard showing a fall scene in Minnesota, she was overwhelmed and I was deeply gratified. I'm beginning to see what motivates Westerners to make their homes here. There is an authenticity to human relations that I experience only briefly with my closest friends in the United States.
It is interesting how social relations in Vietnam are based on family relations. My tutor calls me "older sister" to express both esteem and the fact that we are two women, close in age, who are not strangers. When misfortune strikes a family and the children are taken in by relatives, they often are "re-numbered" - going from perhaps "eldest sister" to "third sister" or wherever they fit in to the chronological hierarchy of their new family. I'm sure that in the tribal past of my own family, we also shared kinship designations. Occasionally, my cousins and I will address each other as "cousin" as a sign of affection, or call a woman-friend, "sister". But not often. It is an everyday occurrence here - casually extending "family" status to one another.
Of course, it must also have it's own devastating logic. For example, there is no place in this society for a single mother raising her child without a father's name. Many of the babies in orphanages come there as a result of this heartbreaking reality. And yet, one of the most striking things about sensitivity in this country is that it is not just practiced by women - a function of the non-assertiveness that comes along with second-class status. Men, too, except gifts with grace. In thinking about it, I'm just beginning to see the surface of social contradictions as they are played out in this country.
This morning, we went to the War Remnants Museum - formerly known as the Museum of American Atrocities... It was sad to see the rooms of munitions and the huge U.S. tanks and to read the facts and figures about the enormous resources spent trying to crush the liberation movement in Vietnam.
When you look at the pictures of the faces of the young Vietnamese combatants, you can see that their movement was unstoppable. I was surprised to see pictures of demonstrations opposing the U.S.- backed regime in the South by people in the South - huge demonstrations in Saigon against the U.S. war effort. The most impressive exhibit was of pictures and posters from around the world of protests against the war. On every continent and in dozens of countries, there were movements in solidarity with the Vietnamese people. I had learned about the movement in the United States and had known that their were protests in other countries, but had never fully appreciated their breadth.
After a lunch break, we went to the Ben Thanh market to shop. The idea had been for me to practice numbers in Vietnamese, but since all I could do was croak and point, my tutor did most of the talking. I bought lots of presents to bring home.
I woke up haunted by my own terror at the "Seismic" bomb used by the United States against people on the ground in this country and by an image half-seen across a room of an infant deformed by agent orange. Memories of the chill that went through me when I saw the name of my grandparent's village in Poland inscribed on the wall of the Holocaust Museum came again.
My highest priority today is to establish my own connection to the Internet - somehow publishing these words on my website where those accompanying me on this adoption journey can read them and join me on reflecting about them will help ease my isolation. More than an American whose country inflicted such horrors more than a generation ago on their country, I feel separated from the people on the street here by my relative wealth. Of course, being twice the size of most everyone else here is a factor, too
Images of Cholan - the Chinese district, tumble through my mind. Half naked children squatting by a filthy canal gutting huge carp; spirals of incense made to burn two months sending clouds of incense through the open roofs of ancient pagodas; a woman pointing out the strange site of myself to her child; cages filled with finches - five for a dollar - to release inside pagodas to carry prayers to the Gods; a cyclo driver carrying three dozen live ducks tied together.
And more images of the long cyclo ride back to my hotel - two suckling pigs newly spitted over a charcoal fire; windows filled with 1950's style evening gowns; my driver jumping down from his seat to pull me to safety out of a traffic jam; a small dog covered in grease from the floor of a sidewalk motorcycle repair shop that is his home. I felt today, for the first time in Vietnam, that I had truly voyaged to an entirely new world.
Tomorrow, I am going on a boat ride through the Mekong Delta. This hiatus in my language classes has put a quick end to the boredom I was beginning to feel cooped up in my hotel room. The surprise on the faces of two women when I wrote "toi em be" - my baby - out for them as an explanation for why I was buying fifty crimson and gold announcement cards from them made the time that I have spent learning the language worth it in an instant. That and being able to thank people properly.
I was surprised by how interesting the sight seeing boat trip to the Upper Mekong Delta was. It took three hours by bus to get to the Mekong River, then we transferred to a narrow boat and motored through a floating marketplace. I learned that you could tell which boats were selling watermelons because they had watermelon vines growing on tall poles.
We stepped off at a small village and visited a home/factory where they were making puffed rice cakes. I've purchased them several times in the United States and would never have guessed the almost stone-age conditions in which they were produced. We also went to a home/factory where women were making rice paper for spring rolls.
I had to use a bathroom and was quite proud of myself when I figured out how to use the facilities. I checked three times to make sure that it was a bathroom first, and then puzzled it out. The floor sloped slightly and there was a hole in the wall. A dipper sat in a trough of water. Necessity is also the mother of new experiences.
Strangely, we saw very few birds. In three hours on the river, I counted two egrets and one white kingfisher(?). I was expecting flocks of sea gulls. In the city, there aren't any pigeons or crows, either. I think they may have been hunted out of existence. I have seen many pretty Minah birds in cages. One heron flew over our bus on the return trip. I've been told that when I go to the Central Highlands, I will see more wildlife.
We stopped at an outdoor restaurant by the river for lunch in Vinh Long. They had beautiful deep-fried elephant-ear fish set out for us and noodles and herbs to make our own spring rolls. After lunch, there were bicycles that we could borrow. I rode one ancient model a few blocks in the hundred degree weather and returned to the relative comfort of the shade trees at the restaurant.
I stopped to admire a baby that a young woman was fanning in a hammock. I explained (in Vietnamese!) that I was adopting a baby in two weeks. Without warning, the young woman handed me the baby. I began to rock the child and to sing the one lullaby that came to mind - Down in the Valley, and to fan the little girl. She soon fell asleep in my arms. Family members from all over gathered to view the scene. It was very sweet. When the child woke up from a short nap, her mother took her from me. As she wasn't wearing diapers - just cotton shorts, I think her mother was in tune with the babies digestive system and knew it was a good time to relieve me of her.
Europa Hotel, Dalat, Vietnam
The six-hour bus ride to Dalat was somewhat torturous. The driver continuously honked his horn and swerved around bicyclists and passed trucks on blind corners. He had to turn the air conditioning off to have enough power to get over the mountain pass halfway here. I had the worst seat, too. Scrunched between four other people on the elevated last seat in the bus. I had an attack of vertigo and had to take some medicine.
Anyway, the last part of the drive here was beautiful - through rubber plantations at first and then as we climbed higher through coffee and tea plantations. The soil is exceptionally rich here and we passed all kinds of orchards and fields of greens. As we neared Dalat - at about 4000 feet above sea level, we entered a forest of tall pines.
The city is built around a lake and the weather is temperate year round. I was delighted to feel a cool breeze this evening. The city was a summer get-away for French colonialists and has a Riviera feel to it. It is also a center of the Cham culture - and the streets are filled with people from various ethnic minorities selling hand-woven silk goods. I bought a gorgeous bed spread for about $10.
The food is exceptional. Tonight I feasted on barbecued shrimp with lemon dipping sauce served on a bed of fresh watercress. As an aperitif, I sampled a glass of homemade strawberry wine and had wonderful homemade yogurt for dessert. Then it was on to an outdoor coffee house overlooking the lake for cappuccino.
I enjoyed a pleasant walk around Lake Xuan Huong early this morning. The air was cool and the morning glories growing by the side of the road were a spectacular blue color. I'm getting used to Vietnamese giggling and pointing at an American woman walking as they speed by on their motorbikes. At first, I thought it was my clothes, or my hat - but then I realized that it is the totality of myself that elicits this response. I smile and wave cheerfully in reply.
On the far side of the lake, I stopped off at the Dalat Flower Garden and spent a peaceful few hours photographing orchids and buying watercolor pictures painted on silk.
There are people in bad shape in this country - legless veterans begging in the marketplace. But they really are isolated figures. My overall impression of the people that I have met so far is of youth who sense a great potential for improving their lives if they work hard enough.
It's not easy to get a sense of how people feel about the government. Most are pleasantly surprised when I convey the sentiment that I support the right of the people of Vietnam to self-determination. I think most of the young people that I've spoken with are glad that the government doesn't interfere in their lives any more than it does. The really bad memories that people have are of the forced agrarian reform and isolation of the decade between the end of the war - 1975 and the launching of the political reform movement known as Doi Moi in 1985.
The period of the war is seen by most to be ancient history - but the victory of the Vietnamese people has a profound impact on their consciousness. They are by far the most self-confident people that I have ever met.
Opportunity is the name of the game here - the new highway being built with a loan from the World Bank that will ease transportation between Ho Chi Minh City and points south. The UNESCO project to drill thousands of deep wells in the Mekong Delta to provide safe drinking water. The young man I purchased hand-woven silk scarves from last night who explained that he sells his mother's handiwork at night on the street, but studies computer science during the day.
The sense that things are improving is very strong here. It's different than countries that I've visited in Central America where tourism is the main money-maker, and people feel like the best parts of their country are for foreigners and that they don't stand a chance of ever living the same life style as the tourists. There are big factories here and huge agriculture export businesses. Tourism by Westerners is kind of a side-event in the economy.
Perhaps, the reason that people laugh at my walking is that only the poorest of the poor walk here - old women balancing baskets of bananas on a pole on their shoulder on their way to market. Every laborer and school girl has some kind of bicycle and most have motorbikes.
Yasaka-Saigon Hotel, Nha Trang, Vietnam
Despite the noise and heat and swerving to narrowly miss pedestrians, the bus ride was worth it for the breath-taking views of the mountain forest, and then the agriculture fields in the plains. They grow an amazing variety of crops here - we passed fields of tobacco, rice, mangos, papayas, and even ponds filled with lotus!
The people use the wide shoulders of the road for drying rice and have racks of tobacco drying in their front yards. The roads are in excellent shape here. They are all made by hand. I've seen road crews of women arranging the first layer of stones by hand so that they are relatively smooth and then filling in the cracks with sand. Another crew, this time of men, comes along and makes a fire under a 50 gallon drum of tar and when it is liquefied, spreads it out with long poles.
With each passing day, I become more comfortable with the people, language and culture of this country and enjoy myself more. I find myself sharing more laughter and more serious conversations with the people that I encounter.
Today was Easter Sunday and I was the only tourist interested in taking the sight seeing trip that I had signed up for. It was a great experience. My guide, Thau, spoke English very well and was delighted to work on my Vietnamese pronunciation with me. We quickly became friends. First we went to a Lat village. The Lat people are one of the 52 ethnic minorities in Vietnam. We visited a traditional long house where an extended family lives. One of the women was making breakfast over a charcoal brazier on the floor. An older man, the family patriarch, spoke some English, but perfect French. At last, a use for those years spent laboring over French verbs! While sitting on a stool about five inches off the ground and demonstrating traditional Lat musical instruments, the patriarch held forth as though we were in a Paris cafe.
We moved on to view terraced rice fields. It is the height of the dry season, now. So they won't flood the fields and start a new rice crop for another month when the rainy season starts. The soil here is incredibly rich. We passed miles of fields with lush vegetables growing.
A stop at the local natural history museum was a bit odd, but interesting. There were big rooms filled with displays of poorly stuffed, but very exotic birds and animals. I had no idea there were so many animals with sharp teeth in the world!
We went on to a beautiful waterfall high in the mountains. My forty-plus-year-old knees are a little sore from the half mile staircase through the forest down to the falls and then back up, but it was worth it. We saw beautiful flowering vines and very tall pine trees. The trees were filled with birds - little ones that looked like kinglets, but had yellow breasts, and something that looked like a very bright blue blue-jay. The next stop was a Zen Buddhist monastery built overlooking a lake. By a statue of Kuan Yin, my guide showed me an extraordinary vine - it had bright blue flowers shaped like a tiger's claws that hung in bunches like grapes.
To the astonishment of my driver and guide, I proposed that I treat the three of us to lunch. We feasted for about $7 at a restaurant in my guide's neighborhood. All his buddies came by to talk and to pose for pictures with me. We had roasted rabbit with lime-pepper sauce, fresh black mushrooms sautéed with onions, and incredible fried catfish with a ginger-chili dipping sauce. They thought my Japanese-style method of handling my chop sticks was pretty strange, but impressed that it worked. I learned to use them as a child from a friend who was Japanese.
Yasaka Saigon Hotel, Nha Trang, Vietnam
I just had the most extraordinary massage! When I went into the massage room, I noticed two handgrips hanging from a rod in the ceiling and I wondered what kind of adventure I was in for. It turns out that they are for the tiny woman who gave me the massage to balance herself while she jumped on my back! Wow, it felt great - kind of a combination of Swedish massage, shiatsu and a chiropractic adjustment. I feel about two inches taller.
Vietnam Airlines Flight 266 between Nha Trang and Hanoi, Vietnam
A week from tomorrow, I'll be a mother!
A young woman selling steamed crabs talked to me on the beach in Nha Trang. She picked out two beautiful crabs for me and I ate them with lime pepper-sauce sitting on a little plastic chair that she provided. I had just had a wonderful lunch, but she charmed me by making friends with me before trying to sell me anything. Her friends gathered round while I ate and she introduced us. I had bargained her down to 10,000 Dong for the crab, but then she decided it wasn't plump enough and through in another one. She kept trying to get me to try something that looked like a marine centipede, but I wasn't that adventurous. With the bottle of 7-up that I drank, my bill came to 23,000 dong - a little less than $2. I gave her a 50,000 dong note (about $3.50) and told her to keep it. I got another hug in return and left happy.
Thuy Nga Hotel, Hanoi, Vietnam
This is an enchanting city to arrive in at night. It is alive with lights and color and people. I had a delicious French dinner at my hotel and then went to an ice cream café and had the BEST ice cream that I've ever had. This city may well prove to be my favorite - it's like Paris, except the people are really friendly and the weather is nice.
I spent this morning going to art galleries and bookstores. The art here is very impressive. I saw some beautiful modern art painted within the last few years. This would be a great place to be an artist right now.
I don't know what combination of travel, food, and fatigue triggered it, but I've got a pretty bad relapse of vertigo. Luckily, I have the medicine with me to survive it. It makes me sleep a lot, but I'm comfortable, except when it wears off.
The Ninth Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party is taking place in Hanoi. Delegates from all over the country are in town and the city is all decked out. I visited a photography exhibit at Communist Party headquarters yesterday and young men were busily rushing out with more red banners to hang off of light-posts. The main streets twinkle at night with strings of red lights. They are hung with gold lights in the shape of either the star on the Vietnamese flag or a hammer and sickle. Many little stores are flying Vietnamese flags, too. Small children run around with red helium balloons.
I'm listening to the morning news in Vietnamese on my radio and it's concluding with a song about Ho Chi Minh. Every night at 5:00 PM loudspeakers carry news about the congress and play patriotic songs in the streets. The first time that it happened, I thought it was a parade and rushed to the window to see it. But all I saw was rush hour.
Traffic is a little more organized here than in Ho Chi Minh City. There are traffic police on most corners and cross-walks and traffic lights. I've learned, though, that a green pedestrian crossing light doesn't mean that it's safe - it means look out for traffic turning left. The best way to cross a street is to wait for a lull and then walk into traffic and dodge one motorbike at a time. That way you can look into their eyes and get a sense of who is going to swerve to miss you and who is in to big a hurry to deviate from their course.
Bach Dang Hotel, Danang, Vietnam
Danang is not city with the honesty of Hanoi, nor is it a city as friendly as Ho Chi Minh City. It's more like Chicago.
The receptionist that I had made my reservation with a few days ago had cheerfully agreed to have a car meet me at the airport. When I had wrestled my luggage off the carousel and made my way to the airport entrance, I didn't see anyone waiting for me. Instead a young man looked at me questioningly and seemed to be saying "Jenness?" I nodded in relief and let him take the cart with my baggage and followed him. The next thing I knew my luggage was in the trunk of a taxi and I was in the back seat. The driver actually laughed when I asked if he was from the hotel. I looked back towards the airport entrance. He laughed again and assured me, "There's no one waiting for you." I asked how much to the Bach Dang Hotel and he said "seven dollars". As this is an outrageous price in this country, I countered with "five". He shook his head and said "seven". I realized, as did he, that I didn't have much bargaining power with my luggage in his trunk and no other way to my hotel. So, I nodded my agreement. When we arrived at the hotel after about a five-minute ride, the driver gleefully changed the $5 bill that I had given him (along with two ones) into Vietnamese Dong as the front desk. I asked the receptionist about the car that was to have met me, but she ignored me, and handed me my key and invited me to the breakfast included in the room rate in the morning. There's a computer workstation for connecting to the Internet in the lobby, but she said that it doesn't work.
A restaurant across the street built on a little pier in the river looked better, so I tried it. They seated me outside. There are mosquitoes here, but they are lame versions of their hardy Minnesota cousins. They are tiny and actually go away when you wave them off.
Bamboo Green Hotel 2, Danang, Vietnam
In the morning, I retrieved my other luggage. I'm pretty friendly, and I couldn't get a smile out of the staff at the first hotel, let alone any help. Anyway, for the same price and a few blocks away, I have a tastefully decorated room, a firm mattress, and a staff that is as friendly as I am.
To celebrate, I went to the market this morning and bought a dozen long stem roses, some orchids and two dozen daisies to decorate my room for Thanh Minh's arrival. I also bought two candles in the shape of lotus and a big purple fan - all for under five dollars! Then I explained to the lady selling plastic buckets that I wanted one for "toi em be" (my baby) - she ducked behind her stall and came out with an oval shaped plastic baby bathtub which she parted with for one dollar. With a little bit more pantomime, I explained to the ladies selling tea pots that I wanted an electric one. One woman vanished into the depths of her stall and came out with an electric kettle that would have fit in perfectly in my grandmother's kitchen. I spent almost $10 for it, but now I can sterilize nibbles and other baby paraphernalia.
The staff was so excited when I returned with my purchases and explained why I was celebrating that they insisted on carrying my purchases upstairs, finding me vases for the flowers and going out to buy me an adapter so I could turn the Chinese grounded plug on the teapot into a Vietnamese ungrounded one.
Outside the Cham Museum a very pleasant English speaking cyclo driver talked me into a tour of the city. (It wasn't hard - it really is the best way to see a city, here.) The first stop was a tailor shop where, of course, I ordered a custom-made Ao Dai in beautiful silk. It will be ready tomorrow. You can see the glow if you look at the picture of my fitting. The next stop was the big central market. It was great going through with the cyclo driver as my guide. He is much better at bargaining than I am. We got a half-kilo of rich Vietnamese coffee for about $6. Plus, he introduced me to people so that I could take pictures - something that I'm shy to do when I am on my own.
I had lunch at a wonderful restaurant just down the block - chicken with preserved lemons. I pulled out my note cards from my Vietnamese class to get a little practice in and was instantly surrounded by the wait staff who wanted to coach me out of my "southern" accent and teach me a proper "Danang" accent. We practiced through the salad and then I showed them my little photo album starting with the picture of Thanh Minh. They were totally fascinated with the pictures from St. Paul. People came out of the kitchen to see them, as did all the hostesses. I explained pictures as I ate lunch and we all had a great time. I promised to bring the baby with me tomorrow when I come to eat.
Bamboo Green Two Hotel, Danang, Vietnam
I have a new picture of Thanh Minh and saw his newborn picture briefly. In all the storm of events this evening, the most significant event was reading about his abandonment. It wounded my heart. They have a description of each piece of clothing he was wearing. He had been left outside the Social Services Center with a bottle and three diapers, but had cried himself hoarse. The only notes are that he had a severed umbilical cord and did not appear deformed. He weighed 3.3 kilograms.
That story alone is enough for me to welcome him into my life - whether I'd been planning on adopting or not!
Yesterday I learned something more about my evolving relationship with Daniel as his mother. At first I was dismayed when I took him back from someone he'd been playing with and he immediately began to wail. It turns out he was hungry. Apparently other people are fine for flirting with - giggling and cooing and working your way into all their soft spots, but his mother is who Daniel goes to to get problems solved.
When we were going out to dinner last night, four or five women were gathered at the front desk taking a break. They must be between tour groups, because we are some of the only people staying here right now and the staff has a lot of time on their hands. The receptionist reached out her hands for Daniel and said, "We watch him, you go and have dinner." All right! I got in a stop at an Internet café and an ice cream cone (fresh coconut!) on the way back from dinner, too!
Of course, the manager of the restaurant was disappointed. She had stopped me in the street the other day and begged me to come to dinner and bring the baby. But, I got to genuinely relax and enjoy preserved eggs! I'd been wondering what those things were at the market mixed in with the other kinds of eggs(duck, quail, chicken). They are covered with a thick layer of rice paste and rolled in rice bran. They didn't taste bad, either - actually sort of sweet. The restaurant manager thought it was great that I ate half of one. It was sliced into wedges and served with delicious ramps, shredded carrots and tiny dried shrimp. I can imagine the reactions of many Americans to being served an egg with a black yolk whose shell had turned to a brown jelly. I definitely, sniffed before I put it in my mouth - but it turned out to be a delicacy for me, too. So were the pork chops, rice and stir-fried vegetables that I tore into. I hadn't spent more than ten minutes eating in three days, and it turns out that I was hungry!
The woman that I had talked to earlier had ventured out into a market for the first time on a sightseeing trip and described the experience as "horrible". She felt "mobbed" by the crowds admiring an American woman with a Vietnamese baby. Different strokes for different folks! I love the feeling of living in a village! Danang has over half a million people, but the small city center is like a village of several thousand. When I walk down the street, I always see someone that I know - and I've been here less than a week!
The one aspect of baby care where I don't acquiesce to the Vietnamese culture is in letting the baby put things in his mouth. I figure that along with his skin, it's one of his main sensory organs right now and he needs to be stimulated. Plus, he's starting to teeth. He likes to put both forefingers in his mouth and massage his gums. A church bell is ringing that would wake the dead - it's 4:30 in the morning - and it is the communal alarm clock. Daniel doesn't even twitch in his sleep. Anyway, people are always lecturing the baby in Vietnamese, "You aren't two months old, anymore, get your fingers out of your mouth!" I reply, that it's okay; we let babies do that in America. They shake their heads, but leave him be.
His development is proceeding by leaps and bounds. They told me at the orphanage that he was too young to play with toys. They didn't tell him, though - and in three days he's gone from not being able to grasp his toys, to aiming and grasping the part of the toy that he wants (to stick in his mouth, of course).
I watched him learn to roll over, yesterday afternoon. It was pretty hard the first few times, but within an hour, he had it down and was flopping from his back to his front to his back again with ease and delight. I put him in the crawl position and you could almost hear his mind click. He started to move his arms and knees. It won't be long before he figures out how to hold his butt up in the air and he'll be unstoppable.
Maybe, I can fall back asleep for another hour by Daniel's side. He likes to wake me up. Yesterday morning he did it by gently inserting a forefinger in my mouth. When I opened my eyes like a human jack-in-the-box, he laughed and laughed.
I'm dripping with sweat, but the baby is happy - so the air conditioning stays off. Daniel has a cold and I unknowingly put him into respiratory distress by laying him down in the bedroom with the air conditioning on. He woke up wheezing and gasping, but relaxed as soon as I brought him into the warmer room and gurgled when I walked him in the sweltering hallway. The first few times that I tried bringing him back into the bedroom, even with the air off, he protested loudly. He likes to cuddle up close under my chin - the same way that my cockatiel once did. He butts his head and squirms until he is right up under my chin, then he nestles in and falls asleep.
We spent about an hour at the Danang nursery - a small building among rice fields and banana plants, talking with the four women who had been the babies' caretakers. One woman explained to me - He'll cry when he doesn't like something - just fix the problem, give him a bottle and he'll be fine. He's bright and strong and inquisitive. His hair is the color of mine - dark brown with red highlights.
Like other children in this society, he's willing to let anyone hold him and take care of him. I was just another person, until he woke up from his first nap and we played. Now we are enchanted with each other. He smiles across a room at me and reaches for me. When I take him when he is fussing, he settles right down and finds his place under my chin.
When people see him and I say that he is a boy, they reach over and check his diaper to see if it's true. I saw some hostesses at a nearby restaurant who insisted on playing with Daniel while I ate, actually open up his pants to see for themselves. It's quite natural here. People take the baby and disappear with him all the time - to show him to people in the kitchen, to introduce him to friends, etc. They always bring him back happy. I like this way of doing things. The babies feel safe with everyone and everyone is delighted to play with them.
Daniel is in a deep sleep in the next room. His breathing is somewhat labored, but nothing like the gasping, choking, terrified wheezing of 18 hours ago.
Yesterday morning he woke up the most charming baby imaginable. We played and played, chortling through his first bath with me as clumsy as I was. He spent breakfast in the arms of admiring French tourists while I ate. We stepped outside to buy some bottled water, and the woman at the stall and a cyclo driver who came over to chat, both grasped his feet and pointed out to me that he had a high fever. They debated the expense of Doctors and advised me to make him some ginger tea, but went on to say that I might feel more comfortable taking him to a doctor.
Back in my room, he went into respiratory distress. I never knew that I could move with such fierce determination and focus. I called the front desk to say that my baby needed to go to a doctor. The woman who answered said all right, I'll call one for you and they will come here. I was dumbstruck. I gave Daniel baby Motrin to bring his fever down and baby Sudafed for his breathing. Fifteen minutes later I went downstairs with all my money and the bottle of Cephalexin that I had brought with me from the U.S. to go in search of medical assistance.
The receptionist told me to take a seat in the lobby and she'd get a doctor. I had never heard anyone shout in Vietnamese on the telephone. Five minutes later, two doctors were in the lobby sitting with me examining the baby. By then, Thanh Minh's fever had broken and he was smiling. The older doctor, a woman, asked me in English, "What makes you think that your baby is sick?" I told her about his symptoms. She took his temperature, which was back within the normal range. Taking a stethoscope out of her purse, she listened to his chest and began to look serious. After spending more time carefully listening to his back, she put away her stethoscope, consulted with the other doctor in Vietnamese, and told me, "Your baby has a bronchial pneumonia."
They examined the bottle of Cephalexin and agreed that it was a good choice for an antibiotic. She wrote out prescriptions for more medicine to reduce his fever and stop his wheezing in case I ran out of the tiny bottles that I had brought along. She gave me her card - Dr. Huynh Thi Phuong - Vice Chief of Pediatric Department, Danang General Hospital. I expressed my immense gratitude, saying that in the U.S. the baby and I would have been in the waiting room of an urgent care facility. She replied, "We consider this our duty." After saying that I should feel free to call her if Thanh Minh's condition didn't improve, the doctors started to leave. I fumbled for my wallet, asking how much I owed them. She waved her hand dismissively, "This is an opportunity for us to do some charity work."
We are bonded now. We breathe at the same time. I had his nighttime bottle ready at 2:00 AM before he woke up and demanded it. He sucked it down like a little mild drinking machine and promptly fell back asleep on my shoulder - all in about 5 minutes, a process that would have taken an hour just a day ago.
After our trial by fire, we are mother and child now, forever. I hear his tiny little coughs while he sleeps and perk up like I've seen wild animal mothers do when their babies' call. There seems to be this reserve of energy within me that I never knew I had. I can go from fast asleep to an efficient bottle preparer in no time.
I just learned another important aspect of feeding a hungry baby who is crying - you put the nipple in his mouth, but you don't tip the bottle so that it starts to flow, until he starts to suck. This is much better than drowning the child by tipping the bottle right away - which had been my technique until now (with very poor results).
I'm going to the market before I leave to get a big box of chocolates for the staff - I know they are delighted to help me with the baby, but I want them to know how delighted I am with their assistance. The great part of it is that they aren't condescending at all - in fact they really appreciate how hard I am trying and how much I love the baby and they are cheering me on. Now that it's clear that Thanh Minh feels most attached to me, they reinforce it - saying, look baby, there's your mother!
It will help a lot to be home, though - where it's easier to grab a bite to eat or to use the dishwasher for baby bottles instead of sterilizing them with a thermos of boiling water in the sink, and not having to be super-careful to not let tap water touch anything.
New World Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The last two weeks have been an intense drive to jump through all the hoops to get the baby's Vietnamese passport and United States Visa. But it is done, now. His passport is in my travel folder and his visa will be delivered this afternoon. Only one more hoop to jump through - clearing immigration in San Francisco.
Back in Minnesota, we have to go through the follow-up home study and re-adopt - but we can do that at a relaxed pace. This has been a real forced march - five families with six children being herded through the bureaucratic mazes of two governments. It was hardest on Thanh Minh - he is so aware of his world that waiting three hours in the heat for a three-minute consular interview at the United States Consulate is pure hell - so he wails in rage. My sentiments, too, although being more used to the ways of the world, I suffer with less volume.
I want to take the time, now, to write down my memories of meeting Thanh Minh at the orphanage and the Giving and Receiving Ceremony. I didn't have time earlier because of the over-riding concern of the baby's illness.
The morning of April 23, two couples and two women traveling alone piled into a mini-van. We were laden with gifts for the orphanage, supplies for our babies, and a huge amount of anxiety. I haven't felt such a combination of anticipation, excitement, awkwardness, and fear since I prepared for my first junior high school dance. I can still remember tying white ribbons in my hair and dreaming of the boys that I wanted to dance with and dreading that it would all be a disaster.
Carrying us and our expectations, the minivan moved through the city suburbs and out into the countryside. We passed mango trees and banana plants and fields of young rice. Women labored in the paddies, bent over transplanting rice seedlings by hand, protected from the sun by conical bamboo hats. For the other Americans, this was their first view of the Vietnamese countryside, having just arrived the night before.
The minivan turned onto a steep dirt road and had to shift into low gear and drive carefully around potholes. One of the ever-present red banners with white lettering was stretched over the orphanage gate. We took the turn and the road leveled off. We were on a small plateau in the mountains surrounded by rice paddies and tropical trees. On our left we passed a long narrow building where older children and elderly people stood out on the veranda to watch us pass and to return our waves.
May 6, 2001 New World Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
When the van stopped we were ushered out and into a small room decorated with a large picture of Ho Chi Minh, the flags of Vietnam and the Vietnamese Communist Party and a banner. The Director of the Orphanage welcomed us. We shyly presented gifts to them, left the gifts that we had brought for the other children and the caretakers on the table to be distributed later and nervously drank a few sips of the bottled water set out for us on the table.
Then with our facilitator and translator leading the way, we crossed the road to the nursery. It was also a small building, very clean, with a linoleum floor. Like most other buildings in Vietnam, it was fully open to the outdoors with only three walls. Mosquito netting for the platform beds was pulled back and fastened out of the way. A wide porch ran the length of the building and sheltered the entrance from the sun. A dog that was obviously nursing puppies wandered over. We all took off our shoes before entering.
There were several young women holding babies and another rocking a few more babies in bamboo cradles. I sat down next to the woman holding Thanh Minh and admired him. She was obviously enraptured with him - kissing his cheeks and eliciting smiles and giggles. I could tell that she was really going to miss him. After a few minutes, I asked to hold him and she passed him over.
His hair was pulled back from his face into two little horns secured with rubber bands. I flush, two weeks later, remembering the intense pleasure of touching his hands and feet for the first time and kissing his soft cheeks. I took him outside after awhile so that we could sit together on the porch and get a little privacy. He seemed quite content to lie in my arms. Looking back, I am sure that he would have preferred to sit and look out at the world then to be cradled like a newborn, but he cut me a lot of slack at first. I glowed with joy.
I could see that other caretakers wanted to say goodbye to him, so I went back inside and passed him to them for more cuddles and admonishments to be good. One older caretaker warned me - he cries loud, but just give him what he wants and a bottle and he will be fine. They showed us the jar of formula that they had been using, so that we could get the same kind.
Two little boys came up to look at us - and posed for pictures for me. They seemed very shy. A girl about 5 or 6 years old wandered by, crying. The caretakers said that she was getting over an illness. One of the baby girls had a cough.
Back at the hotel, I showed the hotel staff my beautiful baby and went upstairs - the translator said that he would go and buy formula for me. I waited nervously for him - sure that the baby must be hungry. I don't have many memories of our first hours together - it was a time of such heightened sensory awareness for me that it seems difficult to put it into words. I remember feeding the baby and giving him a bath and dressing him while he was asleep for the Giving and Receiving Ceremony.
Around three in the afternoon, the mini-van came back for me - filled with clean babies and anxious new parents. We went to the Danang City Hall. I could tell the baby was wilting in the sun, and found a little bit of shade to stand in with him. People were lined up in front of different windows, getting licenses and other municipal-type chores done. We must have been quite a sight! People returned my smile, though, and many reached out to touch the baby.
The conference room table was set with beautiful fruits and bottles of water. A sign proclaimed our names and the date of the Giving and Receiving Ceremony. Several representatives of the Danang People's Committee came in and took seats at the table. I remember having to sign seven copies of the adoption document. Then each new family was called forward to receive their baby and adoption decree. An older man who was the head of the delegation from the People's Committee gave a short speech welcoming us. Then, he invited each of us to say something. I was sitting right next to him and decided to dive in, especially since several of the other parents looked speechless.
I said, "On behalf of my family, I would like to thank the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the People's Committee of Danang for honoring us by allowing us to adopt this child." Holding up Thanh Minh's wrist, I showed everyone the scarlet ribbon that I had tied on to hold a small gold ring. I explained, "This ring belonged to my father when he was a baby, and then it was mine, and now it is Thanh Minh's. We promise to raise him with love as a part of our family and teach him to be proud of his country and his culture."
I could tell that the Vietnamese were really delighted with the gift of my family heirloom to the baby. The man who had spoken first thanked me for doing such a great honor to the child. He said that he hoped that we would provide a good future for these precious children and that the adoptions would improve relations between our two countries.
Then it was time to go and we said our goodbyes and left with our new children. I walked out of the building a different person than I had walked in - filled with a deep sense of responsibility and of happiness.
Tonight, as I prepare to leave Vietnam, I feel sad because I will miss the vitality and warmth of the people, the city lights, and the beauty of the countryside. In five weeks, it has become a part of who I am - with all its contradictions.
St. Paul, Minnesota
Daniel is sweetly sleeping upstairs next to his father. Bright-eyed with jet lag and still living in the oppostite time zone, I'm down in my study. The last few days at home with my new baby have been wonderful. The first night that I rocked him to sleep out on our deck watching the sunset and listening to the birds call, I thought that I would burst with happiness. Each day brings new wonders. Sunday is Mother's Day - it feels like preparing to taste forbidden fruit as we decide on where the three of us should go to brunch! We have given each other the gift of new lives.