Vietnam Poems

this is a companion piece to my earlier Cosmos Excellent Vietnam Adventures. Here are my Vietnam theme poems for your enjoyment.

plus two poems on Cambodia based on a FB posting by my friend Bill DeFleuri

Cosmos’s Excellent Vietnam Journeys

updated to reflect publication in Kelp Journal October 1, 2019

two vietnam ghost poems

Seeing Ghosts

I walk around the streets
Of old Saigon
Seeing sensing the undead

The ghosts of the war
That haunted life
So many years ago

So many people died
For a war
That never should have been fought
For reasons that are still not clear

A great tragedy unfolded
In a land half away
Around the world

The ghosts smile at me
And then they disappear

Leaving me in the present
Life goes on

Old Ghosts

Old ghosts wandering the streets of old Saigon
Lost spirits of the dead
Died during the endless wars
Ghostly apparitions around every corner

Here was Kilroy
and his gang of soldiers
Over there were the Viet Cong
Waiting to kill them

Saigon is filled with memories like that
Terrible times were had here in Old Saigon
Silently the ghosts parade the city streets
As the tourists drink in the bars

Mastering the Saigon Shuffle

When I first visited Saigon
Learning the Saigon Shuffle
Was difficult

And now 24 years later
It all seems to be coming back

There is an art to crossing the street
Dodging the motor cyclists, the taxis, the private cars
The bikes and other pedestrians and the buses

The art consists of letting the big guys go first
Then walk between the motorcycles and cyclists
Trusting that they will get out of your way

And they being masters of the Saigon shuffle
Always find a way

In my two visits I was struck
By how it all flows together

Without a central authority
And with almost no planning
Lights or cops

Somehow it just is
And somehow it works

And it is still a mystery to me
24 years after first
Encountering the Saigon shuffle

Coffee Lady

Every morning
I have gone out for Vietnamese coffee
At a sidewalk café
Down the ally from our AIRBNB

The owner is a pleasant middle age woman
Who for some reason likes us
She smiles at us
Greets us in Vietnamese
She does not understand English
Or Korean

And I wonder why
Why was there this connection
Between us

It dawned on me
Perhaps in a prior life
She knew an American or two
And I remind her of someone

Or perhaps she is found
Of Korean K drama
And Angela reminds her
Of her favorite K Drama star

Or perhaps it is both
Or another reason entirely

But I moved today
And will miss her

Might go back for a final cup
Of coffee

To say good bye
To my Vietnamese coffee lady

Old Lady in the Alley

There is an old Vietnamese lady
In the neighborhood
Obviously senile

But everyone knows her
And watches over her

To make sure
She stays out of traffic
And out of trouble

She talks to everyone
But no one seems to understand
What she is babbling on about
They smile at her
And she smiles back

Reminds me of the phrase
From the hitchiker’s guide to the galaxy
Mostly harmless

And she for some reason
She likes us
And like my Vietnamese Coffee lady

I wonder why
Why was there this connection
Between us

It dawned on me
Perhaps in a prior life
She knew an American or two
And I remind her of someone

Or perhaps she is found
Of Korean K drama
And Angela reminds her
Of her favorite K Drama star

Or perhaps it is both
Or another reason entirely

But in any event
I look forward
To seeing her smiling face

Every time I walk
Down my ally way

Avoiding the War Due to Two Birthdays

I avoided being drafted
Due to a fluke in my birth certificate
In 1974 the last draft was held
And some people were drafted

But no one went to Vietnam
The war was ending by then
I avoided the draft though
To no effort on my own

My number came up on the draft list
My real birthday was in the zone
But then my mother pointed out
That my legal birthday was different

When I was born at 4 am
The night clerk typed up
My birth certificate
With the wrong date

My father pointed that out
She said
Once I typed it
That is it

His birthday will be
What I typed
Get use to it
My father gave up

And so, 18 years later
That saved me
From the last draft
Never made it to Vietnam

Many years latter
I visited Vietnam
Right after we opened relations

Glad I finally got to see
The country
That so many Americans visited
so many decades ago

Buddha In Vietnam

In Saigon I saw the buddha
Buddha images are everywhere
Temples are scattered about
Here and there and everywhere

Buddha lives on
In the hearts and minds
Of the Vietnamese soul

The communists tried
To get rid of Buddhism
And other religious traditions

But they failed
And Buddhism has come back
Still speaks to the Vietnamese people

A different style
A different vibe
Than Korean Buddhism

But still Buddhist thought
Prevails in the tropical lands
Of the South

Mekong Dreams

Traveling along the Mekong
Back in time

Seeing the river
The people
Imagining life on the river
Imagining the war
The past in the Mekong delta

And the present tourist boom
Yet life goes on
With its own laid back rhythm

As we traversed the river
We were transported back
To an earlier time

Following the ancient rhythms
Of the Mekong Delta

Down and Out in Saigon

Southeast Asia, and Mexico
has always attracted
A certain type of westerner
The down and out
On a down word spiral

Why?
Relatively cheap to live
Lots of part time gigs
Teaching English
Or other things

Booze, drugs, sex
Readily available
And cheap

Places to stay
Dirt cheap
And no one needs
To sleep out doors

Easy to disappear
Into the foreigners backpackers ghettos
And escape
From whatever you are running from

The locals are somewhat tolerant
The police usually look the other way
And there are lots of people
In your shoes

I was surprised to find
That Saigon has become
The latest place
For the down and outer crowd
To gather together

In Bangkok one sees them a lot
In Cambodia as well
In the Philippines
In Nepal

And south of the border
In Mexico as well

In India not so much
In Japan and Korea
Just too damn expensive
And too cold to be outdoors

Back in the day
I used to work
The citizen services gig
And saw lots of the down and outer set

The old song comes to mind
No one remembers you
When you are down and out

And in the States
Being down and out
Means living on the mean streets

As it is very difficult
To live with almost no money

And the various side hustles
Don’t give you much money
Unless you are dealing drugs

And teaching ESL
Is not an option

Food is expensive
Transportation is expensive
Booze and drugs expensive
Rent is prohibitive
Commercial sex is expensive

And no one loves you
If you are down and out
No one knows your name
You are just another homeless bum

Invisible to all
As you try to make do

Much better to be down and out
In Southeast Asia
Than on the mean streets
Of the USA

Ghosts of Chu Chi Tunnel

 

 

Crawling down the tunnels
Of Chu Chi
I could almost imagine
The Viet Kong guerillas

Hiding deep under the tunnels
As the land above is turned
Into a temporary dessert

With the vegetation burned off
By napalm and agent orange

The Viet Kong creep out at night
Stealing onto the bases
Stealing weapons, food, supplies
And occasionally killing soldiers

In their sleep
The US soldiers
Stay on base at night

Terrified of the mosquitos
And of the Viet Kong

the ghosts
Surround me
Telling me their stories
And at last I fled

Through the emergency escape tunnel
Declaring victory
Profoundly shaken up
By the ghosts of the Chu Chi tunnels

Saigon 2019

Motorbike riders waiting at intersection. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Vibrant, vivid, exciting
A city on the move
Becoming a world class city
Yet still with a Saigon swagger

Wandering the streets
Dodging the traffic
Admiring the women
Enjoying the food

Saigon enters my heart
And I know that I will be back
This city is growing on me
Reminds me of Korea back in the 1990’s

One hopes that as it develops
It will not become a carbon copy
Of other big Asian cities
Obliterating its past

In search of a false modern image
I hope it can retain
What makes Saigon Saigon
And not become another Gangnam

Hope it does it with Saigon style
And the people will evolve
The country will emerge
And become what it should be

The Paris of the East
This is my vision
Saigon 2019

Saigon 1995

In 1995
I was one of the first tourists
Allowed in to Vietnam
To freely wander about

Tourism was at its infancy
And Saigon was chaotic
Wild and crazy
Traffic was insane

There were few tourism sites
Few hotels
Few guest houses
And not too many restaurants

The food was good
We saw the war memorial
The re-unification palace
And the big market

But we felt we were being monitored
Beggars were everywhere
There were scams everywhere
And it was not that pleasant an experience

But Saigon grew up
Became a much more tourist friendly place
And these problems we encountered
A thing of the place

Saigon is so much better
So much more developed
That it has captured our soul
And we will be back

Ode to Vietnamese Coffee

Vietnam has the best coffee
In the damn world
Just perfect

Hot as hell
Sweet as heaven

With a kick my ass attitude
To boot

Can’t resist it
Even thought it means
I can’t sleep

Must
Have
My
Damn
Vietnam
Coffee
Right
Now

VC2

In Saigon
One meets
All sorts of strange characters
VCQ

VCQ he called himself
He was filled with stories
From the war
And the revolution afterwards

VC2
Was a young man
In Danang
During the war

15 years old
Recruited into the VC
Infiltrated into the base
Just another street urchin

Stole away at night
Hiding on the big air base
Stealing things
To sell at the black market

Just one of the army
Of street urchins
That became friendly
With the enemy

They called him
VCQ
And the nickname stuck
That is what he called himself

Said that he had become
A VC Seal known as the VCQ
Learned his English
From his black marketing days

He perfect the art
Of wheeling and dealing
As a street urchin
In the mean streets of Danang

After the war
he rose through the ranks
Retired as a general
Became a college professor

Later opened his own business
An interior design business
When Saigon became Saigon
Once again

Wheeling and dealing
Around the world
Always one step ahead
Of the semi-communist authorities

One day he came back with 25 bottles
Of wine
The customs guy said
That is too much

He said but I can’t drink them all
And gave him 5 bottles
Problem solved
And VCQ laughed and laughed

As the wine washed over us
And we became drunk
With his endless stories
From the mouth of VCQ

Just another night
In Saigon
Drinking the Night away
With the VCQ

Future VC

Saigon is filled with interesting characters
Filled with fascinating back stories
One could write hundreds of stories
About the people one encounters

In a nail shop
That caters to mostly Korean visitors
We met a boy of 8 years old
Who was a natural born hustler

He had wonderful English
Wonderful French
And even some Korean
And he wanted to show us around

He spoke English
Without an accent
In an upper class British style
As if he were born to the manor

How and why he learned
English so well
Would be an interesting story

His Mother was also
An interesting character
Been running the store
For five years

Amused it had become the Korean
To Go place
In Saigon
Just one of those mysterious things

They had another shop nearby
A smoothie place
And he offered to guide us there
But were in a hurry

As we left
I thought to myself
Here is a future VCQ
The fascinating character

That had wined and dined us
Late into the night
Beguiling us with his tales
From his time in the VC

Wonder what this future VCQ
Will tell his future friends
About his past life
Living in a beauty saloon?

1. just Another Morning In Phnom Penh

When I was in Phnom Penh 
I stayed 
at the Riverside Hotel
 on 136th Street.

 Across the street 
was Neil’s convenience store .
.oddly named 
since I had yet 
space”>
named Neil..

There was also a slew 
of sleazy as hell Thai style 
girlie bars 
outside of which 

sat  naked pretty young things 
Khmer girls dressed to the proverbial nines

looking for a willing victim
among the male flotsam 
flowing along the naked streets
Just another night in the big city

these  women 
I avoided 
since they represented 
the surest and quickest way
to loose one’s honey
and one’s money
and one’s soul
and dignity

becoming just another
ugly aging foreign male sex tourist
way past his prime
way past his due date

Instead, 
upon exiting the hotel 

I turned right in the mornings.
 At the riverfront 

I made a right 
and walked 
to a different convenience store

 where I purchased 
two containers of strawberry yogurt 
and a bottle of chocolate flavored soymilk.

 After completing the transaction 
I went to an outdoor cafe 
that charged $1.90 
for a large ice coffee 
with sweetened milk.

just like I like it
Vietnamese Style
HCM Style

like Even in the late morning
 there were already 

quite a few foreign male tourists 
drinking cold beer 
in the hot sun .

Some sat..
like schoolboys 
on first dates with young Khmer women 

that they had undoubtedly 
purchased the night before.
..seeking as far as I could tell.
.. to impress the women
 with their bold and masculine characters 

…many of these men 
were older
 and grotesquely misshapen..
.that is..not fit. 

a true nightmarish
vision 
from the depths of hell

playing out 
every morning
and every evening

..After eating the yogurt 
and drinking the ice coffee 
and looking again

at the half naked women
sitting all around me

I paid my bill
 and hailed

 an open tuk tuk.
 The going rate for locals 

for short rides 
was one dollar or 4000 rial. 

The going rate for foreigners 
was double that..

..I always paid the local rate
 of one dollar 
and said thank you in Khmer…

.Akon.

..I quickly left
 giving the driver
 no opportunity 
to haggle over the fare..

..my destination 
each and every day 

was the same…
The Hotel Cambodiana…

a plush expensive hotel 
about two miles 
down the proverbial road..

.there I used the fitness club 
which included a normally
 empty 15 meter pool ,

 a fitness center 
with free weights
 and weight machines .
.treadmills and a sauna.

I began the workout
 each day with a swim of 90.lengths..
that is 1.35.km
 or slightly more 
than three quarters of a mile.

..the pool was embellished 
with six golden statues 
of Ganesh elephant Gods
spouting 
streams of cool water 
from their inanimate trunks.

 I enjoyed swimming 
under those Ganesh

 blessed streams.
enjoying the good luck vibes

 There was a fully stocked bar

 in the pool area. 

After the swim 

I usually took a short break 
in the hotel cafe 
adjacent to the lobby.

 There I ate a delicious 
blueberry muffin

 each day 
at the cost of one dollar.

 One day .

..while enjoying just such a muffin
 I had the good fortune 

to meet a fellow American
 from Iowa City Iowa. 

He was an agricultural scientist
He was of medium height .
.had white hair 
and blue eyes 

..and…..possessed an intelligence 
that impressed me greatly .

..an intellect that
 was so obviously superior 
that it rushed out at you 

from his blue eyes .
..an amicable likeable intellect…
a man you could not help but like..

.we discussed the challenges 
of supplying 
food for a world population 
that would soon exceed nine billion..

.the serious threat 
posed by human induced climate change …

the resultant acidification of ocean waters 
as more greenhouse gases 

were being absorbed by them..
.but he was optimistic 

that solutions 
to these problems could be had..

..this was indeed an impressive 
and unexpected encounter 

Just another morning 

In Cambodia 

Stung Treng Beckons

After lunch I went to the bus station
the town of Stung Treng 

was calling me 
for some reason

always want to go there
wherever that was 
that is

the Cambodian open road
beconing me

The bus fromStung Treng 
to Phnom Penh 
was actually

 a 9.passenger van..
.neither new nor especially old..

.Stung Treng 

is a small dusty town 
near the Laotian border 
in northeast Cambodia. 

The rural areas of Cambodia 
are relatively depopulated 

and automotive malfunctions 
can be a tricky thing to deal 
with when there are no mechanics
 let alone people in a given area..

.I had gone to Stung Treng 
to investigate a possible 
opportunity teaching 
at a small high school 

run by a Presbyterian 
pastor from Korea.

 An old friend of mine 

from my Korea days
decades in the past

My friend was employed there 
and lived on the premises 

with his Korean born wife
In a small apartment 

provided by the school. 

When I arrived in Stung Treng 
there were no taxis 

tuk tuks .
or any form of transport available..

it was a town 
in which you 
were simply deposited.

with no idea 
of where to go 
or how to get there.

..at any rate .
..the job was not available

 until January..
a fact I learned upon arrival.
.

due to shrinking enrollments 
and a lack of funds 
in general..

.I stayed at
the Mekong Hotel..

.which 
consisted of a series 
of small air conditioned bungalows.

..behind the office 

was a very large 
and well-maintained pool..

.which I used 

twice during my brief visit

not the same 
as the Cambodian gym
back in the city

but I made do
and did my morning swims
and exercises 

my friend told me stories
out of school
 about the Korean pastor

 that made Captain Queeg 
seem perfectly normal..

.that he physically
 punished students .

..that he harshly criticized 
Cambodia 
while singing 
the praises of Korea 

and that he had 
used child labor 
to build his school..

..to be fair

 I did meet 
a remarkable individual 
at the Sekong fitness center..

.an astonishing place 
located 

near the middle
 of nowhere 

that contained 
only new exercise equipment…

it was there 
that I met 

Scott Sward 
from Long Beach , California..

a lost missionary 
who had been in Stung Treng 

with his American wife 
for ten years..

..a kind and helpful man .
filled with the grace of God

..it was my impression 
that he brought much good 

to the people of Stung Treng 

although it is doubtful
 that many people 

voluntarily abandoned 
their practice of Buddhism 
to adopt a new set of beliefs..

. Scott gave me a ride 
to the bus station 
at which I purchased 

the ticket for the nine passenger bus 
that would painfully

 make its way back 
to Phnom Penh 

because 
no one had bothered 
to check the level of engine coolant.

..there was none..

.and the engine repeatedly
 overheated 

forcing the driver 
to stop and pour water

 either into the coolant
 receptacle
 or over the engine itself..

..luckily

 I had struck 

up a conversation 

with a cute sweat Khmer female passenger
 that somehow rendered 

the mechanical problems 
less disturbing..

.this conversation 
could have led to other things 

I am sure ..

..but when we arrived .

.I simply went 
my own way 
and she hers…

and I did not 
become another 

Pathetic looser American 
Dude parading the streets
with his recently purchased
lady of the night

such is life
in Cambodia

these days

 

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