On April 28th the Olympic Torch Relay came through Ho Chi Minh City. It was the last stop before the flame headed on to Hong Kong, and China.
I only learned about it that morning at breakfast. Tom, another American teacher who stays at our base of operations, told us about it at breakfast. He said it was supposed to start at 12 at the opera house downtown. We did a search on Google to see if if we could find out what the route was. We weren’t successful, as the route was being kept secret, in order to avoid protests. Now before you go thinking that it it was the government here over reacting, well, other countries, namely South Korea, have done the same thing for the same reason. Tom said that in San Francisco, where he was from, it was the nudists protesting, because they think that the Olympics should be held in the original way, in the nude! It just goes to show you that everyone has a bone to pick nowadays.
I had nothing else to do that day, so I decided to scope things out. It was too hot for our 8 month old girl to go out, so her and mommy stayed back while daddy roamed around looking for the secret route. It was also too hot for daddy to go lugging around a 12+ kilo baby in a sling carrier for multiple kilometers. Plus it is very hard to be secretive and unobtrusive carrying around such a cute baby!
So I decided to covertly walk the perimeter around the opera house, and see what I could see. I knew that any police and security people standing around would be a dead give away as to the “secret” route. Also, that they might be on the alert for those of us trying to gather intelligence on such a well guarded secret. Caution was of the essence.
What I saw was a few disinterested workers setting up chairs and the podium in front of the opera house. Everything was being done out in the open, which puzzled me. Wasn’t this supposed to be done away from the eyes of possible troublemakers? In any case, It was obvious that the relay wasn’t going to start at 12, or any time close to that. Or if it was, that the opera house was being used as a decoy starting point, and that it was actually starting somewhere else, far, far away. So I widened my search area.
What I found was a few bored police and security people wearing helmets and vests, and carrying batons, lounging around, talking, smoking, sleeping, or doing some combination of the above. I was quite amazed by the talented individual who was able to do all at once. If I knew Vietnamese, I would have found his supervisor and recommended him for a medal.
After a few minutes, I had a pretty good idea where the “secret” route was going, but no idea when it was going to start.
That was when I had a brilliant idea. Strange things like this do happen to me every now and then. I went to the tourist information center on Le Loi next to the park, and conspiratorially asked them what time the torch relay started.
“6:30”, the pretty young girl behind the counter answered.
Non-plussed, I headed back to our base of operations, afraid that my plan might have been given away by the pretty, yet naive young woman’s indiscretion.
At around 18:00, I started out again from my base of operations. The other staye dbehind, as the baby was still asleep. Plus, as previously stated, having the baby along would only draw unnecessary attention to the operation, now know as “Operation Torch”.
I headed out to what I judged would be the prime spot along the secret route, making sure that I wasn’t being followed by one of the old ladies wearing conical hats bearing baskets of fruit on a bamboo pole.
As I approached my target area, suddenly a huge group of Chinese wearing “Beijing 2008” Olympic T-shirts crossed Le Loi in front of me. They were waving Chinese and Olympic flags, wearing stickers on their faces, and chanting. Obviously their intelligence people had been out in force, and knew exactly where the torch was going. So I did the only logical thing, and followed them.
They were traveling in the roped off section of Pasteur St. normally reserved for motorbikes and pedestrians. The ropes were being held by the uniformed security people. When they saw me following the Chinese agents, I was quickly apprehended and ushered under the ropes. Who knows, maybe we were being herded to interrogation. While I was with the group, I was quickly accosted by a group of attractive Chinese female students, who thanked me for marching with them, and asked me where I was from. Now that’s my kind of interrogation! One of their group’s English wasn’t too good, so I was trying to figure out if she was giving me some sort of sign/countersign signal, or if she was speaking in code. Finally I decided it was just that her English wasn’t very good. Later, it turned out her Chinese wasn’t very good either, mainly because she was Vietnamese. Possibly she was a mole that gave the Chinese agents their information on the route.
So we went up Pasteur toward the cathedral, until we were forced to stop by the security people. Then my primary concern was to find the proper place to take surveillance shots of the torch relay. That meant either getting in front of the crowd, or standing behind some very short people. I managed to do both, as I got a spot in front, and the security people doing crowd control were just tall enough that I could rest my elbows on their heads if I felt like it.
So I had the perfect spot- clear view, well lighted, and with at least two easy exits. I was all set. The only thing left was the waiting.
There were a few false alarms, such as a random motor biker breaking through the barriers and taking a shortcut through the secret route, to the enthusiastic cheers of the Chinese contingent.
Finally, though, the big moment arrived. The sirens blared, a group of vehicles came in site, and there was a dim flicker of light approaching. In the lead was what looked like a recently used cattle truck crammed as full as possible with media types armed with every type of recording device known to man. Then came the proud bearer of the Olympic flame- an overweight guy with glasses who looked like the only exercise he ever got was running to the refrigerator, or curling the remote to the TV. Not exactly the most awe inspiring site, true. But then, he stopped, and the flame was passed to someone who seemed a lot more fit to carry the flame, if you get my drift.
Meanwhile, I was running around trying to take my surveillance photos. I only had the 16 MB card that came with the camera, since my 1 GB card was full. I thought I had it set up so that I could take 26 shots, but somehow when I turned it off to save the batteries, it reset itself from the fine setting to superfine, leaving me with only 11 shots. I didn’t know this until it wouldn’t let me take any more shots. So I had to run alongside the cattle truck with the media types, deleting the test pictures I took along the way, trying not to run into the people running alongside and in front of me, or any other obstacles. Try to do that and still get halfway decent pictures. The result is what you see here.