If we were not in Vietnam, all that part of the world would be enjoying the obscurity it so richly deserves.
John Kenneth Galbraith
About a year ago, I found myself in Vietnam. It was a strange feeling to be there. I’m the son of a Vietnam War Veteran. I’ve got at least 5 Uncles who were in Vietnam or Southeast Asia during the war. I served in the Cold War era Army. We were still singing Vietnam era cadences during Drill and Ceremony and Physical Fitness Training. ‘Nam was the enemy back then. And somewhere in the back of my mind, this country still felt somewhat like the enemy. Intellectually, the war was over. Some 30 odd years gone. Emotionally, I still felt a tug somewhere deep in the inner sanctum of my spirit. It still somewhat felt like a place where the enemy still lurked. As I made my journey down the Mekong towards the border between Cambodia and Vietnam, I couldn’t help but recall stories, half memories of things that Vietnam Vets had said in TV interviews, scenes from movies like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket. In my head, there were “gooks in the wire” and I didn’t quite know what to expect as a lone American trekking through Vietnam.
My worries, such as they were, were all for naught.
I landed at the border control point in a small nameless village off of the Mekong. The border control agensts were worried about three things. Passport. VISA. Border Crossing Tax.
They verify your VISA. Stamp your Passport. You pay the tax. You’re on your way.
The Vietnamese people were fascinated by the American in their midst.
“Where you from?”
Not what I expected. lol
But a pleasant surprise.
The first stop after the border crossing was a town called Chau Doc.
In Chau Doc, I hired a guy to drive me around in a rickshaw. This is an extremely slow way to get around. lol You feel like you could get out and walk faster. Especially since all rickshaw drivers deem it their duty to ask you every question that pops into their head. Your age. Your name. Are you married? Where you’re from? What is Kentucky? Do you have girlfriend? And on and on.
After exchanging money, I wanted to get to an internet cafe. It seems that there are internet cafes in even the smallest towns in Asia. I was driven down a series of side streets and alleyways and finally deposited in front of an open faced building with about 20 computers. There were probably 11 or 12 young boys and girls playing online games.
As I walked into the internet cafe, I glanced next door at a group of older gents who were having a drink. I don’t know if this was someones house or a restaurant or…? No clue. I smiled and said hello. All of the men smiled at me and one said something to me in Vietnamese. I turned around to my rickshaw driver who informed me that they would like to have a drink with me. I’m never one to turn down a drink. (it’d be rude) I accepted. One of the guys handed me a shotglass. We toasted to world peace or the beautiful women of Vietnam…something. lol Who knows. I downed the drink as they all stared at me. They smiled when I finished and then downed their drinks as well. Repeat, Rinse, Finish. I drank a couple of shots with them. Some kind of rice whiskey, I’m sure. Pretty strong. I wanted to spit the first drink back out. Like drinking fire. But I learned in Korea not to make the “HOLY SHIT!” face when imbibing in strong drink with Asian men. It’s a machismo thing. Finally, I begged off. Telling them that I needed to contact home.
I sat down to email home and tell everyone that I was safe (if only for now).
No sooner had I sat down than a pretty little Vietnamese school teacher asks me if her young students could practice their English on me. Well, I was a still little high from the liquor. But I’m never one to turn down a pretty gal. So I was suddenly faced with about 15 beautiful little Vietnamese children. Probably aged 6 to 10. They stood in line patiently and orderly in their school uniforms. Each of them walked up to me. Said Hello. Welcome to Vietnam. Told me their name. And wished me a good day. It was the cutest thing in the world.
After the children had finished, the cute teacher thanked me for my patient assistance and I finally was able to check my email.
The next day, I was off to Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon.
I stayed in Saigon a few days. While there, I took a tour of the Viet Cong tunnels at Cu Chi which is right outside of Saigon. It was an interesting tour. Cu Chi is a sprawling complex of tunnels that runs throughout the country side and at one time supposedly ran all the way back to and through Saigon. I crawled around in some of the tunnels. At some points the tunnels were so small, so tight that I actually got stuck in a few place and had to back out, turn sideways or otherwise contort my body to make it through. I was too big to fit into their entrances and had to go through the ones that had been widened after the war. There was absolutely no way to fit my shoulders through those entrances. I can’t believe that people were/are that thin. lol But I guess if you are subsisting on rice, tapioca and tea for 10 to 25 years with the added stress of combat….thin would be the least of your problems. At least you’re alive. There’s your diet if you want to lose weight. Tea, steamed tapioca, rice and stress so intense that you get post-traumatic stress syndrome. I’ll pass.
Cu Chi was one of the most bombed areas in what was once called South Vietnam. We knew there were tunnels there. We didn’t know the extent. So we bombed the place into a no mans land. Absolutely pummeled it. The craters in this area are immense and numerous. Markers of war’s and America’s brutality. You see signs every so often. US B52 bomb crater. Pictures from the era show a land decimated. Lifeless. Total destruction. Like a moonscape. Nothing but craters and earth torn asunder.
For my part, it was strange touring the tunnels. Everything is from the Vietnamese perspective. The Vietnamese view of how things went down with a healthy does of Uncle Ho philosophy. The tour guides talk of having so many American kills. The Imperialist Americans did this. Blew up this. Bombed that. The picture of the tank that ran over a mine… When I took that photo. The tour guide was saying; “this one got hit so it couldn’t DROS.” DROS is the term used for soldiers who are moving out of theatre to go back to the states from an overseas assignment. All of the representations of the enemy were American soldiers. When I saw people posing on top of that tank for pictures, I felt offended. But even so, I understood. Except the Americans who did so. I couldn’t quite bring myself to pose in such a manner with a symbol of my country and it’s mistaken policy. A symbol of my fallen comrades. Not even after a space of 30 years. It felt like someone pulling at a scab over my heart. There were many mannequins in Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army Uniforms. The tour guide was very proud of his Army’s defeat of the American Imperialist. Very proud of his military. I could identify with that as I’m proud of my comrades in the military–past and present. Each time, he stopped by a group of mannequins posed in various acts, he would say; “Vietnam solder, very beautiful.” It was comical. But awesome to see such pride in the military. And it felt genuine and not arrogant or forced. My tour guide was an ex ARVN soldier. He was very matter of fact about the whole thing. He/They spoke of Americans as we speak of the British at our Rev War battlefield parks. A bit painful to hear my fellow countrymen spoken of in such a fashion. Odd. They didn’t seem to hold a grudge. And they very well could have. A learning experience.
At the end of the tour, there was a firing range. You had a choice between an M60, AK47, M16, .50 Cal of some sort and an M14. I blew off a few rounds on the AK47. You paid about .50 cents a bullet. Locked and Loaded and fired away. Then handed your weapon back to the range dude. Great to be able to shoot a weapon and then just walk away. Not worry about cleaning it and passing weapons inspection as in the old Army days
I can’t help to think as I am walking around that these people went through 25 years of hell and all they wanted was to be left alone. China, France and us.
A few days later, I flew to Hanoi. Walking around Hanoi and visiting their museums, I caught myself thinking about the war. Looking around, wondering how many of those who were walking by me would be combatants. How many would be dead if we were still bombing Hanoi. I met some really nice people up in Hanoi. Yet, I used to think of the Vietnamese as inhuman when I was a young boy and a young soldier.
Everyone in Vietnam was open and welcoming. I was treated warmly everywhere. I had no bad encounters. They seem to harbor no grudge over the events of 30 years ago. Even the old soldiers who will sometimes walk up and tell you that they fought in the war. But not as if bragging, just a matter of fact statement. And then they will say; “America GOOD!” Smile and go about their business. That was amazing to me. It’s the universal saying over here. “America Good!” (While back home, it seems that the press is always telling us “America bad…”)
As in Beijing with Mao, I went to the Ho Chi Minh Mausaleum and saw Uncle Ho in Hanoi. Something disconcerting seeing a petrified Human. They worship Uncle Ho. Especially in the North. You don’t hear much criticism of him. And rightly so, I suppose. He was already a God-like figure prior to the end of World War II. Then he led them out of Colonialism in defeating the French. Threw off “American Imperialism” when we decided to make the mistake of following the French into Indochina. (How we did not figure out that following the French anywhere was a bad idea, I will never know. That should have been intuitive.) The more I know about history and such, the more I wonder about decisions of American Presidents in the post WWII era.
More on Hanoi later…
These are photos from the Cu Chi tunnel complex.
These photos are from Hanoi.
A photo of the old Hanoi Hilton complex. This was originally a French prison. The French Colonial government imprisoned political prisoners here prior to their ignominious defeat and retreat from Indochina. The North Vietnamese turned it into a POW prison for high value prisoners such as pilots and officers. John McCain was imprisoned here as a POW.