29 July 2006

166 - Kudos

Let us take a break from oppressive Communist economy and re-visit our American entrepreneurship, or at least an attempt at it...

Somewhere up the chain of command we have a manager who likes to give out kudos or words of couragement. When some client profusely thank one of us for a job well done, the whole group gets to know who's been up to some good. Some people get kudos proportionally more than others. I am all for recognizing good work, but sometimes the outpouring of emotion for the so-called good work is more than it deserves. I don't get much thanks for my work, but one time some guy wrote to a few managers up the ladder of my group for some simple account creation I did for him. It all depends on who you deal with. If you work on a queue that is so long, then some chum whose ticket is taken care of after a long wait will no doubt appreciate the work more. In my role in supporting several projects, the people on the project just take things for granted because I usually carry out the work with too much ease. To be fair, for one task the project manager took us out for drinks and appetizers.

To get the gist of the cartoon, it helps if you know all the monetary symbols - English pound (or livre in French), Japanese yen, European Union euros.

I drew the cartoon one Saturday and the next day saw, for the first time, Kudos the snack bar. Next day in the office, I had to run out to fetch a box and add one bar to the board for better effect. I handed out the rest of the bars and my colleagues gladly gobbled them down.

27 July 2006


In high school, American history class, I learned that during World War II the U.S. government imposed rationing on materials needed for the war, such as rubber and metals. In Vietnam, post-4/30, I don't know what the government tried to do but we had rationing as part of the daily life. With its vast ricefields, South Vietnam was never lacking in rice but under the Communists, rice was among the things that were rationed. No matter what each family wanted, we all were supposed to buy rice from government stores, on certain days of the month. We would queue up at the stores, present our family booklet and get stamped for that month and come home with our loot. Other agricultural products that were previously not used by the South Vietnamese were then thrusted upon us, such as ga.o bo bo, which I have no knowledge of the English equivalent. Supposedly it was rice, just not as good. We started to eat rice mixed with potatoes, and occasionally had noodles, too. Even meat was rationed. I had heard of stories about people trying to sneak meat from the countryside to the cities. Someone actually tied a piece of pork into her body during the trip by bus to the city. The buses themselves would be outfitted with secret compartments to hide favorite passengers' contraband. Of course, with the right amount of bribes any inspections can be avoided.

The rationing situation opened up some economic opportunities for kids. Some families were too busy to go on line to buy the stuff so the neighborhood kids would take up the errands, in exchange for 1 dong or two. A neighbor in the D Block, Mrs. Ty, on the second floor, was widowed and had five or so daughters. The younger ones would run errands for us. At some point, I myself got into the business, but I bought things on behalf of other neighbors. I would keep an ear open for news of things that become available from the government store, like soft drinks, sugar, or rice, and would run to my regular clients. Sometimes they needed the service, other times they didn't. Some days, I would run out buy things for other people while Mrs. Ty's daughter would do the same for our family. One day, I asked my father to let me do the work for us and cut out Mrs. Ty's daughter, so my father told me, "Ba\n tay mi\nh che kho^ng he^/i tro+\i", meaning "Our hands cannot cover the whole sky." He went on to explain that
we were doing OK and that we should let others keep their means of livelihood. I think eventually I went out of that business.

25 July 2006

The Economy Under Communism

The phrase for Communism in Vietnamese is "Co^.ng Sa?n", meaning "combining properties". Supposedly, Communists should live in communes and share properties. Ideally, everyone is equal, no rich, no poor. The Vietnamese Communist government tried to achieve that goal by having a few changes of currency. While I lived in Vietnam, I was aware of only one change of currency (ddo^?i tie^\n), but other Vietnamese have told me that more changes happened after 1979.

On the day of the change of currency, the government issued a new type of paper money. Everyone was supposed to bring in all their monetary possession to some central place in their neighborhood and regardless of how much each bring, the maximum any person would get was 200 units of the new currency. Ideally, after the change everyone would be equal, albeit equally poor. I am sure the government would print any amount of money as they need it themselves.

All of a sudden, much of the old paper money became useless. The coin money was still in use though. We happened to have some uncooked sweet rice (ga.o ne^'p) at home, so my mother made sweet rice and sold them to neighbors and others, in exchange for coins. People who normally threw away spare change then had to scourge around the house looking for the precious coins.

Our next door neighbor, Mr. and Mrs. Kam, were relatively richer than us and had more than the allowed amount, so we helped them converted some of their money to the new currency. Let's say the maximum amount anyone could bring was 1,000, and the Kams had 1,500 while we only had 500. The Kams "gave" us the extra 500 so we would meet the maximum too. I think Mrs. Kam offer to give us some money for the trouble but my mother turned down the offer. The Kams were among those who normally don't bother keeping their spare changes, so for a few days they were penniless. My mother gave them some of the sweet rice.

22 July 2006

Life Under Communism

By now you should know the significance of the date April 30, 1975. Communist takeover, the Fall of Saigon, Vietnamese Liberation Front's tank crashing the gate to the Presidential Palace, helicopter evacuation from the roof of the U.S. Embassy, Ms. Saigon got separated from her lover, you know the drill. I cannot say I witnessed any of these historic events. With my siblings, earlier we were safely tucked away in the countryside, south of Saigon, with our maternal grandparents and other relatives.

I was probably too young to notice the changes in life under Communism. Perhaps my parents did too good a job of providing us life's necessities. I overheard stories of revenge and trickery, but nothing first-hand experience. I didn't even know about the death of Uncle Pha\ until much later. He was tricked by his superiors to fight to the last man, possibly while the superiors went home to change into civilian clothes.

Shortly after Thirtieth of April, the Communist government announced an amnesty program for all the military people of the South. Come for a few days of re-education then you'll be home again, so the announcement promised. We all are brothers, whether we are the victorious Northerner or the defeated Southerner, or so it seemed. The truth is many people never came back from these so-called re-education sessions. Many were probably whisked away to labor camps in the middle of nowhere.

The Communist was good at using fancy words. Instead of "Jail for South Vietnamese Soldiers", we had "ho.c ta^.p ca?i ta.o", meaning "learn to change one's evil way", or "re-education" for short. "Kinh te^' mo+'i" or " new ecomonic zones" were really barren, almost uninhabitable land that city people were forced to move to. Many died while others sneaked back to the big cities to lead homeless lives. Yet the Communists called themselves liberators or "gia?i pho'ng". Maybe to the dwellers of strategic hamlets (a^'p chie^'n lu+o+.c), where farmers and their families were locked up at night, after their days' work. Certainly not to us city slickers, who after 4/30 had to get permits to travel, to go from a free market to rationing, plus frequent change of currency, and more. I'll go into further details about these other aspects of life under Communism in Vietnam post-4/30.

20 July 2006

Fonder Memories From D Block

Lest you think all my memories from D Block of the Nguyen Van Thoai apartment complex were bad ones. I do have other, fonder memories. Like the time I transported my father by bicycle somewhere far from our home. I just finished learning how to bike but never before had my father as a passenger on the backseat of the bicycle. My father was a heavyset when compared to other people in Viet Nam. It was a challenge that I welcomed. We went somewhere far, and I still can vividly recall the instance when some passerby commented, "Why you make your son do so much work?" My father replied with a laughter, "Because he enjoys it." And enjoyed it I did.

I cannot recall how I learn how to bicycle. Certainly it wasn't with training wheels. And no helmets either. I think it was after April 30, 1975 that we started to have a bicycle in the house. Before that, my father had a moped. Maybe after 30th of April (Ba Mu+o+i Tha/ng Tu+), as we would normally call the historic date, gasoline became too expensive, so we used bicycles as an alternative mean of transportation. We even went into the business of selling bicycle parts. Somehow my father knew some supplier, we got a bunch of pieces spread on a tarp or something like that on a sidewalk, and we were in business. Being articulate as he was, my father even made friends with people whose houses we did business in front of.

18 July 2006


Fei and Qaptain were hanging out together around C Block. Fei was a few years younger than Qaptain but they played together sometimes. Somehow Fei's calf had a cut and for some reason he wanted to find a cigarette filter to press against the cut. There were many smokers in Vietnam and many of them were also litterbugs. It didn't take the two boys much time to find a cigarette butt. They were now on the south side of Vinh Vien street, on the north area of the Nguyen Kim apartment building. There was a group of boys, maybe from Nguyen Kim building, who have gathered nearby. On the ground near this group of boys was a cigarette filter. Fei went over and bent down to get it. Qaptain walked past Fei. All of a sudden, fists were thrown and Qaptain found himself with a bloodied nose. Perhaps he and Fei had stumbled into some local gang's territory. Time to run! Qaptain ran fast, possibly didn't even stopped to look at traffic before he crossed Ly Nam De street. He brushed past somebody but didn't pause to apologize. No time for that, had to get away from the attackers and get home...

That's pretty much what happened when I had a bloodied encounter with some thugs on the streets of Cho Lon. Amazingly, Fei came out unscratched. Maybe the thugs only hit scrawny me or whatever. Fei was big for his age, still there were five or six of the thugs. I think starting from that incident, whenever I walk on the street I try to avoid passing groups of young men. Just being a lone walker is enough to provoke the beast in some thugs. The thing that still makes me cringe inside is that I could have been ran over by some cars as I crossed Ly Nam De street. Sure there weren't that many cars in Vietnam at the time, but there were some. The chance was there, I just got lucky that time.

17 July 2006

165 - Jose We Can't See

The lyric of the Star-Spangled Banner has been stuck in my head for a while. Not the whole song, mind you, mostly just the first few lines. Last month, for my son's so-called Moving Assembly, whereby he graduated from kindergarten, I helped him memorize the lyric to the National Anthem. But the first line of the anthem has always been a special one, for the punster in me. I have heard many jokes about "Jose, Can You See?"

A few weeks ago, my company hired a guy named Jose, in TamPa, to replace a position in higher-cost-of-living northeast. I was asked to train him but I happened to be in the midst of a major project rollout so I passed the task to someone else. My colleague Saq showed this Jose guy the rope via SameTime meeting and phone. Jose pinged me a couple of times on SameTime as well, asking this and that.

In my spare time at home, I maintain the group floor plan, which for each person in the group, shows either a photograph or a cartoon that I drew, along with their full Lotus Notes name, phone extension, and which network environments that they specialize in (roughly, anyway). Last weekend, I finally had the time to try to include our friend Jose in the floor plan. I was going to just list his name, with the remark as "TamPa" and his phone number. However, the company phone directory didn't list his phone number. Monday morning, he wasn't on SameTime, so I emailed him. Later in the day, I learned from a Team Lead that NE management was trying to contact him all day, including getting in touch with his consulting company, but to no avail. Tuesday, it was finally learned that he actually already quit the Friday before - supposedly he got a better offer elsewhere and didn't bother give us the two-week notice. (Personally, I find the whole thing about two-week notice just pure B.S. How is it that when a company can fire you at a moment's notice, but you have to give them two weeks?)

"Jose We Can't See, Where Were You On Monday?" That perfectly describes our situation this past Monday!

15 July 2006

164 - Inconvenient Truth

Lest y'all think I'm stuck in a rut and have totally forgotten my cartooning career, here's what I drew last Saturday...

The truth is I haven't seen the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth. With mid-year performance review approaching, I thought I'd gripe about the whole performance thing a bit. I hate all non-techincal aspects of my job, including timesheet, metrics, performance self-evaluation, expense report, etc. Just leave me alone to whip up scripts that can changes x accounts in one-hundredth the amount of time it would take a regular bloke to do manually. Likewise, I hate Windows computing, but it's not much of a choice in corporate America. How people put up with Windows I can never understand. My latest woe with XP is that if I ever go into screen lock with Ctrl + Alt + Del, I cannot get out of it until I press the power button, which of course try to shut the computer down. The only thing I can do is then switch to NetIQ DRA, which always asks if it should save the current setting (that's an annoyance in itself) and select Cancel. What craps!

In Inconvenient Truth, the point is that we all must do something about global warming. Too much heat trapped in the Earth's atmosphere causes more ice becoming water, more severe hurricane, etc. We must drive less, support more responsible farming method, buy local to cut down on transportation, and so on.

Being a self-proclaimed environmentalist, I cannot help sharing some of the things I do everyday that I think help the cause championed by Inconvenient Truth:

- Turn off computer monitor when go to lunch or go home. An extra benefit is that when I control the office PCs via VNC when working from home, I don't have to worry about prying eyes.
- Turn off DSL router at night. I share my DSL connection with my brother via wi-fi, but he sleeps early, the latest is 11pm, so when I turn in for the night at midnight or later, no one needs the router to be on. Thankfully, my interest in Bit Torrent was brief, so there's absolutely no need to keep the thing running all night.
- Do origami to cut down on garbage. My latest creation, The Ring, is a big hit with my nieces and some neighborhood girls. Hopefully, the kids will keep the origami for a while, thereby saving some space in our collective trash heap.
- Print at work as little as possible. I sit just across the aisle from a network printer but I rarely print anything. In my line of work, we create many network accounts based on request forms. The form maybe two or three pages long, but the gist of it can be jotted down on a piece of paper. All I usually need the employee number, and maybe the first and last names. Oh, if it's one of those lengthy Indian names, then I'll try to bring the form on one screen and use another screen for input.
- I work in New Jersey where there is no deposit law for soda cans. There are recycling bins in the office, but I doubt anybody actually do anything with them - they either are treated as garbage bins or even if they are not, I suspect the cleaning people go around with only one collection bin. What I do is I would take home all my empty bottles and cans, either one at a time or let them pile up and bring them back to Brooklyn, NY in one trip. When I put those bottles and cans together with my other recyclables for the City of New York to collect, at least I am sure they have a better chance.

14 July 2006

Phu Tho Incident #2

The second Phu Tho incident happened some time after April 30, 1975. For us Vietnamese Southerners, the date of April 30, 1975 has a special meaning - it was the Fall of Saigon, when the South Vietnam government was no longer and the country was completely run by Communist. I am sure the incident occurred after April 30, 1975 because the incident involved a toy rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Better known as the B-40, the RPG was a common firepower the Viet Cong used against U.S. tanks and such. The real B-40 is shoulder-fired, i.e. one would rest in on one's shoulder and fire the grenade from there. My toy B-40 would fit a miniature G.I. Joe toy better, as in my hands it was more like a pistol. It was completely functional, complete with a detachable grenade that can be launched when the trigger is pulled. But that's all there was, this was 1970s Viet Nam so the toy didn't have electronic sounds or light-emitting diodes like some of today's toys.

Remember Mrs. Kam who joined the search for me when I went MIA from Sung Chin school? Her second child is a boy named Ch and he is my age so we were somewhat good friends back then, or at least we played together a lot. So one day, Ch and I both had a toy B-40 and we were shooting ants in the hallway of our D Block building. No, I doubt if we actually killed any, the impact of the toy grenade wouldn't be powerful enough to maim any ants. The most the toy grenades would do were knock the ants out of formation. After a while Ch was bored and came up with the idea that we should go to Phu Tho Racetrack. To an inner-city boy like me, Phu Tho was like the countryside, somewhat of an exotic place. No buildings, muddy paths, overgrown grasses, etc., an exciting place to be. So off we went for who know how long, but by the time we got home it was dark. My father was waiting for me and gave me a sound beating shortly afterward. Amid all the beating and my wailing, I cannot remember who said what but basically I was told that Phu Tho was a dangerous place to be. Supposedly there were landmines leftover from the war and I could have stepped on them. Honestly, I cannot recall if I was told of the landmines earlier or not. Whatever. The physical pain of course was real, but to make it worse, Ch's parents didn't do anything to him. It seemed unfair at the time, but I suppose different people raise their children differently. I must admit I resort to corporal punishment with my son on some rare occasion, but definitely not as often as it was meted out to me by my parents back then. Again, that was the norm in 1970s Viet Nam, maybe even now. I am sure Phu Tho Incident #2 wasn't the only time I got whipped, but it happened to be a more memorable one.

11 July 2006

Phu' Tho. Racetrack

Phu' Tho. Racetrack. "Phu Tho" is the Vietnamese spelling, if spelled phonetically, it would be somewhat like "Foo Taw". I have two memorable childhood incidents that are related to the Racetrack.

I don't know when the racetrack stopped being a racetrack, but by the late 1970s it was simply a piece of abandoned property. Some areas on its edges would serve as garbage dumps, while other plots inside became someone's vegetable gardens or soccer fields. My father loved watching soccer and normally caught the game at Co^.ng Ho`a Stadium. One day, however, he took me to the so-called racetrack to watch amateur soccer. Next to us there was this drunk with a cigarette in one of his hands. Soon enough, his smoldering cigarette burnt me somewhere on the leg. When my father yelled at him to stay away, the drunk man kept saying, "Tui bie^'t tui dde.p ro^`i!", meaning "I know I'm beautiful!". Of course it didn't make any sense, after all it did come from a drunk. Nevertheless, I found it amusing, and I think my father did, too. We talked about the incident and its meaningless phrase every now and then.

The second Phu Tho incident was more painful, physically and emotionally. Let us save it for a future blog entry...

08 July 2006

Home Sweet Home, Cho Lon

I've been doing some double-checking of my facts and figures about my childhood at Block D of Nguyen Van Thoai Apartment Complex. There are some corrections to note before we continue with the story.

Earlier I outlined a bunch of buildings and refer to the cluster as Nguyen Van Thoai Apartment Complex. My elder brother T. rightly pointed out to me that not all the buildings were part of NVT Apartment Complex. He didn't know about the other buildings, but he was sure of the group southeast of us, as encircled in orange, was the Nguyen Kim Apartment Complex. There, now the folks living there won't feel like they were annexed by the people over at NVT.

Technically, my beloved D Block and surrounding area were part of Cho Lon, not Saigon itself. Cho Lon was like a humongous Chinatown within Saigon, in which everywhere you turn you would encounter Chinese-speaking people. Of course, Saigon is better known than Cho Lon, so "Home Sweet Home, Cho Lon" simply doesn't have a nice ring like "Home Sweet Home, Saigon".

07 July 2006

Phishing on CafePress.com

Thank you for following the Adventure of Young Qaptain Qwerty in D Block, now a word from our sponsor...

I've modified my "Phishing" cartoon of a few weeks ago with hopefully easier-to-read phishing messages and uploaded the new design to CafePress.com. The new design mostly replaced a few apparel with the Roll Call design. As more and more designs are uploaded, the Roll Call design will probably disappear altogether. Gotta cater to the public Internet at large, in joke like that in Roll Call won't get me anywhere. Check out my "store" at http://www.cafepress.com/qaptainqwerty

06 July 2006

Help, I Am Lost!

While living at D Block of Nguyen Van Thoai Apartment Complex, most of my school days were spent at Quang Nha School. However, maybe for one school year, for whatever reason, I attended Sung Chin School, located southwest of my home, as shown in the map. The normal walk to Sung Chin School is shown by the blue arrows. Through the serpentine alley into Le Dai Hanh, make a right at the Viet Cong Grave, left at the T intersection (Thiet Marketplace), turn right at the corner, go past the garbage dump and the popular coconut juice stand across from it, then at one of the many alleyway on the right, turn into Sung Chin School. The school as pointed out in the map is really just my best guess. I simply picked out a building that is much bigger than its neighboring slumlike houses. There are two things I remember most about Sung Chin - its mean principal and my adventure of being lost.

Corporal punishment was the norm of 1970s Viet Nam. Maybe even now, although I do recall reading in the government's newspaper that such practice was discouraged or may even be frowned upon. The principal at Sung Chin was such a practitioner. I think at least once a day we had assembly in the schoolyard to hear the principal's lecture - what the lectures were about I have no recollection at all. What I do remember was the public humiliation and punishment of some unfortunate students who either were caught earlier in the day for some infractions. Also, if any students misbehave during assembly, such as not paying attention or talking, would be brought up to the platform for a sound beating. Each time the subject of the Mean Principal of Sung Chin was brought up, my eldest sister O.P. would tell me the time she witnessed some kid cringed in pain as his open palm was smacked by the principal.

Just a few days after I started attending Sung Chin, I made the wrong turn leaving school. I think I probably got onto the wrong line to during dismissal assembly. Instead of turning left outside the school, the line went right (north). After a longer, also winding, trip through the alley, I ended up on Tran Quoc Toan Avenue (now known as March Second Avenue, probably because March 2nd of some year has a significant to the Vietnamese Communist government). I didn't recognize the area and immediately ran back into the alley but there were many forks in the road. I didn't know which way to go so I went back to the avenue. With tears streaming from my eyes, I walked eastwardly along the avenue hoping I would recognize some street. I still remember seeing truckloads of soldiers traveling against my direction and got the idea of asking for help. A policeman on bicycle passed by and I ran to him for help, but he either didn't hear me or didn't give a hoot simply went on his way. This was 1970s Viet Nam where the telephone was a luxury for governments and some businesses, maybe for the wealthy, too. There was no public phone, not that we had one at home, plus I probably didn't have any money on me. Nope, no cell phone either back then. So I kept walking east along Tran Quoc Toan and at some point a young man, perhaps in his 20s, noticed me. Luckily, I did know where I lived, just not how to get there from Tran Quoc Toan. The man led me by the hand further along TQT Avenue and at the intersection with Le Dai Hanh, at the sight of the Phu Tho Racetrack, I recognized my neighborhood and immediately let go of my savior's hand and ran home! Without saying a word of thank! That's my second regret from my childhood. By the way, the red arrows outline my trip home from being lost.

During my brief disappearnace, my mother searched all over for me, at first on foot, then on cyclo (xich lo, or trishaw, a bicycle with three wheels, pedaled from the back, with the passenger(s) sitting in the front.) People in the neighborhood, including Mrs. Cam, pregnant with her third child, joined the search, too. Luckily, a good soul took me close to home, and I didn't even thank him!

05 July 2006

The Walk To Quang Nha

While living at D Block of NVT Apartment Complex, I spent most of my school days at Quang Nha school. I was there until the fifth grade, but I sort of dropped out of school to leave Viet Nam for the open sea.

My walk to school would start at the alleyway entrance on the D block side. I am surprised to see, according to Google Earth's satellite image, that the houses are so neatly laid out. From what I remember, the path is winding, dark, and is mostly dirt, i.e. not paved. Eventually, I would end up at the alley entrance on the side of Le Dai Hanh Street. I don't recall what I normally had for breakfast before going to school, but maybe since we go home for lunch, on the way back for the afternoon session, I would sometimes stop at the sugar cane juice stand. Popular in Viet Nam back then, there were these juice stands that feature an electrical mill that squeezed the juice out of the sugarcane sticks as they were fed into the mill's two turning cylinders. Adding a slice of durian or orange made the drink extra delicious.

Next I would pass the Viet Cong's Grave, a huge mount of dirt whose outside layer had dried. I do recall seeing incenses and offerings in front of the grave every now and then, although of course we kids were told not to be near so as to avoid having our spirits taken away by the Viet Cong's ghost. BTW, Viet Cong is the Vietnamese equivalent of Vietnamese Communist. Closer to the school, I would pass the yogurt stand, or actually, I think it was more of a cafe, complete with tables and chairs for its patrons. We are talking about non-flavor yogurt, the really sour stuff, none of that fruit-on-the-bottom kind of thing. Yet, it was a novelty then and I loved it. I think they were even served in ice cream glasses.

Across from the yogurt place, there was this small business that I still find fascinating. Nowadays, when you use up all the ink in a ballpoint pen - if you still use a pen to start with - you throw away the whole thing, right? Or if you are the more environmental conscious type, you refill the inside with a new tube. Back in 1970's Viet Nam, there was this cottage industry of refilling pens. You bring over your spent pen, the man would use some kind of needle to remove the ball from the tip of the pen - yup, that's why they call it ballpoint pen, I suppose. Then from the other end he would insert a piece of cottonball and push it along the length of the tube out the other end, to clean the old ink, of course. He may do it a few times to have the tube totally clean, then he would put the ball back on, inject some ink, put everything back together, and voila, you have a shiny new pen! I wonder if such service still exists in today's Viet Nam.

Anyway, cross the big avenue and I would be mere steps from Quang Nha school. Again, to reach the school, I actually had to turn into some alley. Because of the alley's proximity to the school, there were usually many food stalls at the entrance of the alley, offering the students breakfasts or snacks. One of the carts offered a game of chance - you spinned a wheel and depending on where it landed, you could win a glass bottle of soda or the money equivalent.

With the soda cart, I have a regret that I still remember till this day. One of the guys I played with, a neighbor from D Block as a matter of fact, called Quan, one day helped me win a game. I opted for the money and pocketed the whole thing! Later on, an older student in the group told me I should have split the money with Quan. I don't recall thinking much of my goof but I know I do now. Quan and I were both about ten years old, maybe eleven, and expressing our feelings weren't probably not our strong suits, so I cannot tell if I hurt his feelings or not, or at least alienated him as a friend. We still played together after my "cheap" incident, but it's an incident I still remember even now.

04 July 2006

D Block, Nguyen Van Thoai Apartment Complex

Maybe the excitement of the moment caused my memory to be somewhat jumbled, the building I pointed out in the last blog entry isn't really considered THE Nguyen Van Thoai apartment building. While it was indeed my old home, it's really just the D Block of the larger Nguyen Van Thoai apartment complex, as encircled in red in the photo. I am sure of the B Block as it's right behind my block, but beyond that I'm not so sure. How I wish our physical memories be more like computer memory or hard drive - as long as it's not physically removed, it's always there to be retrieved.

Do you notice the black "holes" in the buildings, such as those found in my old D Block? Those are air shafts. Also, somewhat obscured by my overlay text of "Home Sweet Home Saigon", there's a longer strip of black hold near the center of the building. That's because the stairs are in the center of the building and the longer black strip is the open space between the stairs. B Block is somewhat unique because it has apartments on only one side. D Block and others have apartments on both sides, thus the air shafts between the backs of the apartments.

I don't remember much about the other buildings in the complex, but I still have vivid memories of my D Block. Elevators were still a new thing back in 1970s' Viet Nam so our building didn't have one. We lived on the top floor, third floor, and walked up and down day in and out. We did have other creature comforts that were not available to the average people of the time. Tiled floor, cool air (as we were high up above everyone), running water, and electricity. Well, I do know some neighbors couldn't afford tiling and lived with cement floors.

I may draw an outline of my old building some day, but if you've seen the movie Kung Fu Hustle, the Pig Sty Alley building is somewhat similar to my D Block. The part where the hero chops down the henchmen one by one to get to the bad guys' boss, that's what the apartment units are like. There's a common walkway, sort of like a shared balcony. The big difference is that the stairs are inside the building, not exposed like in the movie.

02 July 2006

Home Sweet Home, Saigon

Google Earth finally came to the Mac platform not too long ago and even though I had it installed on my PowerBook, I haven't made much use of it. My son had a little fun with it pretending to fly around and crashing down, I use it occasionally to see places where I may drive to for the first time - I hate driving so anything that helps lessen the pain is a welcome.

Today, I set out to find the islands of Indonesia where I stayed at during my time as a refugee from Viet Nam. In 1979, my parents left Viet Nam with their four children as boat people in search of a better life. It's a story worthwhile another blog entry or two.

Maybe because I zoomed into the wrong area of Indonesia, or maybe there wasn't any data on Indonesia and its thousands of islands, I couldn't find anything. It didn't help that not much was labelled. That's the thing with Google Earth. For the U.S. and other Western countries, plenty of data is available, but when you get to the rest of the world, there isn't that much to glean from.

I decided to travel a little up north and arrived at Ho Chi Minh City, better known to us Southern Vietnamese as Saigon. I searched for my old home but at first couldn't find anything. Map-reading is a skill not everyone is good at, but I'm proud to say that I have a knack for it. In this case, just having the map itself didn't help me locate my old home because, again, nothing is labelled. Luckily, I had a tourist map of Saigon in the room and was able to use that to match up the highlights of the paper map to the Google map. My parents bought the paper map years ago when they last visited Viet Nam as U.S. citizen. Many of the streets were renamed to glorify the Communist Party etc. Luckily, those around my old home were not. I first identified the Phu Tho Racetrack and the Cong Hoa Sports Stadium. I am pretty good with directions and had a hunch that we lived south of the racetrack and west of the stadium, and the Google map confirms so. Using some vague memories of the old neighborhood, I think I've pinpointed the Nguyen Van Thoai Apartment Building on the map. Even though Google maps are three or more years old, nothing seems to change much since I left Viet Nam. Wow, it sure does bring back many childhood memories. My walk to school, being lost and then led home by a good soul, getting a nasty nosebleed by some street thugs, shooting ants in the racetrack with a toy rocket-propelled grenade launcher... More to come in the next few days!