My First Week in Vietnam

Cute kid

May 3, 2011: Preparations and Arrival
We had a very chaotic week of preparations before departure. Kivu (who used to go by Daddy) was in New York for the world premiere of his film Grey Matter at the Tribeca Film Festival. It went great. One of his actors won best actor, and Kivu got a special mention for directing.

In the meantime, we were having a horrible time getting his visas. I had started working on attaining the proper visas months back, but we had last minute issues regardless of advance planning. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation and carelessness at both embassies, not to mention double-talk and rules that change depending on who you ask and when. It turns out that Cambodia and Vietnam aren’t so enthusiastic about letting Africans in. By some miracle we attained his Vietnamese visa from the consulate in NYC two days before our scheduled departure, and for Cambodia we got a little help from Muoy, the principle of a school there who agreed to sponsor him. His Cambodian visa is not good for re-entry though, and to make a long story short, it looked as if we were going to have to change our plans to accommodate the situation, and first be in Cambodia for a few weeks, just after landing in Vietnam, then go to Vietnam and depart the region from there. (I know this is confusing, but giving more details will only make it worse.) Anyhow, we were glad to at least have his visas…

Then catastrophe struck… Kivu had to return to Rwanda the day before our scheduled departure to address an urgent personal matter. I arrived in Vietnam last night, and with a little luck, Kivu might be able to catch up later. I will continue to conduct Parade of One activities, performing on the street and for community groups, though the film-making aspect may be lacking.

Moving along, I arrived after an ass-backwards journey through Qatar and Bangkok, quite tired and jet-lagged, checked-in to my hotel, then met up with some people who aim to assist my operations here. Many thanks to Peter, Glen, Steve, Anita, and others for making the time to have dinner and drinks on my first night here. We started planning my first street performance, which should happen tomorrow in a park near my hotel.

May 4, 2011: My first street performance in Saigon

my first street performance in Saigon

Playing in the park in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City

This morning, I awoke really early, despite having been up quite late, had some noodle soup for breakfast, and strolled around a bit. Saigon is a busy and bustling city, a stark contrast from the quite rural Kigali where the Parade of One project began. People are on motorbikes everywhere, and one can only wonder how much worse the traffic would be if they drove cars instead. Crossing the street requires a lot of caution. You have to do it one step at a time, being sure not to make any sudden moves, so that the motorbike drivers can predict how they will swerve around you.

At around 5 PM, I met up with Glen in the park near my hotel. Glen is an American musician, geographer, and dog-trainer. Like me, he was born in Delaware, though I just met him in Ho Chi Minh City. He brought his 3 purebred dogs and we did a collaboration, in which I played sax and the dogs did tricks. It is fairly uncommon for people to keep dogs as pets here, and even more unusual to see them play frisbee. We produced quite a carnival atmosphere with the music and dog tricks. A large crowd formed, and they applauded a lot. Unlike Rwanda, no one asked why I was playing on the street. It seems the Vietnamese can be a little more shy, and I’m curious to know how or if the project will initiate conversations, and what types of conversations those will be. I guess I’ll have to wait and see!

A couple of nice young journalists also met me at the park for the performance, and I gave one of my most jet-lagged interviews to date. I guess I’ll have to wait and see how it turns out, because I hardly remember what I said! I was also met by Jodie, who is helping to organize events with orphans and community groups. She very kindly recruited a volunteer, a young man named Hieu (pronounced almost like Huey,) to assist me with whatever comes up in the project. Some Vietnamese people prefer to use English names when interacting with Westerners, like Jodie and Anita.

A Delawarean Carnival in Saigon

Carnival of the Delawareans in Saigon

May 5th, 2011: Another Street Performance in Saigon and a Presentation at the English Club

Today, I went to a shaded area of the park in mid-afternoon, as people tend to stay out of the sun at this time. I walked around to scan the space before I started playing, and was approached by two groups of university students. The first one was conducting a survey about the hospitality industry in Vietnam, and the second was conducting a survey about how and why people feel attached to their favorite sports teams. I was fairly amused by both groups. A few minutes later, I walked by a young couple sitting on a bench, and they initiated conversation, probably to practice English. Clearly, I had stumbled upon a place where Vietnamese go to talk to foreigners. I explained that I was there to play music in public spaces, and sat down on the bench and took my sax out to show them. Sure enough, a whole bunch of young people gathered around. Unlike Rwanda, Vietnamese don’t try to get as close as possible to me when I’m playing. They prefer to keep a reasonable distance, and I could even see people sitting down to watch and listen from the other end of the park, some of them taking photos. A few people asked me the name of the instrument, but generally they didn’t ask very many questions. Overall, it was a relaxing and low-key little performance in the park.

In the evening, I was invited to give a presentation at the English club. The English club is an initiative of Jodie’s. Jodie was born in Vietnam, lived in the US for a while, then moved back to Vietnam, and has been involved in a variety of charitable and educational causes. She realized that, in school, the Vietnamese students weren’t really learning to speak English of any practical use, so she organizes regular meetings at a cafe where Vietnamese students and others who are interested can converse with expat volunteers. Each meeting has a theme, and tonight’s theme was “Doing Things Differently.” She figured that it was a good subject for conversation, since I’d be performing and presenting about the Parade of One project. She explained to me that one way in which my activities are relevant in Vietnam, is that I am doing something nonconformist, and Vietnamese people are generally afraid to be different and take risks. They don’t follow their imaginations enough.

I gave a presentation that I’ve done now many times, in which I play sax and clarinet, show slides from the Parade of One project’s operations in Rwanda, and take questions from the audience. I consider it “edutainment.” There is a dark little history lesson about the Rwandan genocide and the culture there, some humorous anecdotes about how my street performances were received, and of course, some music.

Afterwards, we broke into small groups to discuss the subject of “doing things differently,” and I was a group leader. My peers had many questions for me about how long I’ve been playing, why I chose the saxophone, etc. One interesting subject that came up was whether or not my music is directly related to my emotions in the moment. In other words, if I am feeling sad, do I play sad music. The answer is no. Sometimes, maybe I’m sad, but when I start improvising something happy comes out, then that in turn can make me feel happy. I think the subject of improvisation can be very closely connected to “doing things differently.” When we improvise, the outcome of our musical process will always be different. It’s impossible to play the same exact thing twice. One of the people in my group said, “In order to get something you haven’t already got, you have to do something you haven’t already done.” Another young woman said she planned to do things differently by getting a masters degree.

May 6th, 2011

In the morning, I had a meeting at a school called the Vietnamese Australian School, where the curriculum is half in English and half in Vietnamese. Steve, an English teacher there, told them about me, and they wanted to discuss the possibility of me giving the Parade of One edutaining slide-show/performance thing for their students. Again, I was told that the relevance of this to Vietnamese youth was in the example it sets for socially responsible nonconformist behavior. We’re not sure if my schedule and theirs will gel, but it may be that I’ll be visiting their students at some point.

In the afternoon, Hieu met me and escorted me to another park to perform in. On the way there, we passed an elementary school that was just letting out, so I took out my horn and started playing. The kids basically went nuts. Unlike the grown-up Vietnamese, they crowded very close around me. (Kids are the same everywhere.) They were clapping, jumping around, and some of them tried to put their ears as close as possible to the saxophone and jumped back when it got too loud. When I stopped playing, one of them asked why I was doing this. I told him that it was fun to watch the antics people like him when I played music. It was the honest truth, and also the first time someone in Vietnam asked why I was playing on the street.

The kids just beginning to swarm around me...

Hieu and I continued onward to the park which is near a handful of universities. I started playing, and at first I just noticed a few people tapping their foot or bobbing their heads. Eventually, people started approaching and getting closer, and when I paused between songs, they would ask me a question or two. Then, more and more came, and one girl very kindly bought me a coconut drink, though she didn’t seem to have much to say. After I packed up my horn, a handful of other young people appeared, and I noticed one girl periodically flashing smiles at me, before she approached me and told me that her friend texted her to tell her to come the park, but then when she got there I was already done playing, so would I please play just another song. Her name is An. I took out my horn again, and played a little more. She then became the second person in Vietnam to ask why I was playing on the street there. I told her about the Parade of One project, and she was very interested and asked some good questions. She wanted to know what the difference was between the reaction of people to my street performances in Rwanda and Vietnam. I told her that in Rwanda, people crowded around right away and always asked a ton of questions, whereas in Vietnam people approached me more slowly and cautiously (except for the children who always go nuts everywhere.) Hieu and I told her about some events we were planning, and I think I’ll probably see her around again. She also told me that her sister recently traveled to Cambodia, where I’m going next, and that she’d get advice for me. She also wanted to know if I had any problems about America, and if people there care about family or just material things.

Now, I’m wondering what would happen if I played in that park all day one time. Would more and more people gradually become more comfortable approaching me over the course of a few or several hours? It might be interesting to try…

I have no idea how many Vietnamese people's Facebook pages will contain photos like this by the time I leave Vietnam.

May 7th, 2011

Today, Trung, one of the more advanced English speakers from the English club, joined me to visit the War Remnants Museum. Her father worked in communications during the American/Vietnamese War, but didn’t see combat. The museum is dedicated to preserving the evidence and memory of US war crimes in Southeast Asia. Outside the building, there are many US aircraft and tanks that didn’t leave Vietnam with the troops. The first floor exhibition contains images from the massive, worldwide opposition against the US intervention. Governments and the general public from Scandinavia all the way to South America and the Middle East showed solidarity with the Vietnamese plight. Of course, there were also images from the opposition in the US, though I was a little disappointed that there was nothing about Martin Luther King or Daniel Ellsberg. There were mostly just images of mass protests. I wonder if this is because there’s less emphasis on the individual in Vietnamese culture.

When you get upstairs, the museum gets seriously ugly. There is one room about the general toll on Vietnamese civilian life, from the recklessness and ruthlessness of the aerial bombing to the madness of soldiers on the ground in instances such as the My Lai massacre. The worst though, is the exhibition on Agent Orange. I had read about this chemical weapon, but had never been exposed to so many images of its effect. People who are exposed to Agent Orange have many miscarriages, and when they do have children, the birth defects are devastating. The impact can be mental illness, physical deformity or both. There was one photo of a girl who had to be kept in a cage, because she was so demented that she would chew and gnaw on anything within reach (as in glass, knives, etc.) The physical deformities were horrid to see. I was particularly moved by a letter that one victim had written to Obama in 2009. She explained how inspired she was by his election and his speeches about everyone’s aspirations being within their reach. She had dreamed of being a doctor, but when she applied to medical school, she was rejected. They said that she couldn’t be a doctor, because she only has one hand and no feet. She asked Obama to do something for the victims of Agent Orange, so that they could have some hope in following their dreams. She said that he could prove his words true, by helping people who’s ambitions were stifled by the US use of chemical weapons in Vietnam.

There was also a small part of the Agent Orange exhibition, explaining the impact of the chemical on US soldiers who were exposed. In fact, our use of this weapon hurt us too, and many veterans and their families suffer from the symptoms. Since my father was drafted into service in Vietnam, it is just luck that I myself am not a photo on a wall somewhere as an example of how horrible chemical weapons are.

Moving along, I’m wondering if the Vietnamese have any museum about what life was like for their own soldiers in the war. There were many examples at the War Remnants Museum of the types of weapons the US used and their strategies in the conflict, but nothing about what weapons and strategies the Vietnamese used. I understand and agree that the US crimes in Vietnam are well-worth a museum all to themselves, but I’m wondering how Vietnamese and foreigners can access other aspects of the story. I’m reading a great novel The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese veteran, but I’ve heard that it was banned in Vietnam when it was first published. I don’t really see what the book’s harm is though. It is a very poetic story of loss, survival, loneliness, and cruelty, but I suppose the government prefers stories about national pride.

After the War Remants Museum, I met up with Hieu and we went to another park where he suggested I should play. It was quite an event. A crowd formed, as usual keeping their Vietnamese sense of distance, and I was spontaneously joined by a beatboxer and several breakdancers. I jammed for about an hour, when the rain came and disrupted our fun. Unfortunately both Hieu and I forgot our cameras. There would have been some great photos though. When the rain started, we ran for a little outdoor cafe that had umbrellas over the tables, and some people who’d been watching me play bought me a coke. One guy was quite fun. He was learning English from watching American TV shows like Family Feud and pro wrestling. He thought he was learning too much trash-talk though, from the wrestling shows, so he needed to find some nicer things to learn from. One example he provided was, “You’re the one who’s talkin’ trash, but I’m the one who’s kickin’ ass!”

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