I've had a number of folks ask to have the Viet Nam travelogue from our trip in July put together for easier reading. Here 'tis.
Most likely you won't see any postings for a few days - its a long way from south Texas to Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. We leave Sunday, July 6th, and because we cross the International Date Line, it will be Tuesday before we arrive. The 17 hour flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong just kicks my butt!
I have already dealt with the reasons for returning to Viet Nam in A Veteran Returns. This trip is purely for the fun of it. Last March and April, I spent three weeks visiting the University of Da Nang, and traveling to some of the small towns and cities served by that institution. I made new friends, was stimulated intellectually, and grew as a person. I believe much of the reason may have simply been because I was on my own, without being surrounded by a lot of other Americans. I was immersed in the Vietnamese culture.
And I want C to get to know Viet Nam that way too!
We'll do some things neither of us have done before, and some things I did last spring. Here is a brief itinerary:
Don't expect a posting every day - we will be out of "Internet range" some days - but we'll try to keep you current. Hope you stay with us!
Sunday July 6
I certainly hadn’t thought of it before, but this may be the first vacation we’ve taken since our honeymoon 32 years ago. Every other vacation has been with or at family - - - not that such a vacation is so bad - - it’s just that it’s a remarkable thing to have gone so long without being alone together. Its all the more appropriate as we will be in Viet Nam on our anniversary. We met in Viet Nam way back in 1969, and now we’re going back together again.
And this is a bit different than previous trips. A year ago, it was our first trip back. Accompanied by other veterans of the war, it was a “safe” trip – surrounded by other vets who could identify with and understand any angst. We are both so fortunate to be essentially free of any “baggage” from the war, and are now free to enjoy the people and country of Viet Nam. We are both ready to immerse ourselves in the culture and sights.
Our first “adventure” began in a different way and in a different place than we anticipated. We found that getting older has its advantages – we don’t get upset as we did when young – and we had good reason to be upset. You see, as I write this, I am in a hotel room in Dallas. Our flight to Los Angeles was delayed so late that we would have arrived too late to catch our Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong. We found some helpful and some not-so-helpful ticket agents who rebooked us out on an American Airlines flight to Tokyo – but not until 11:50 AM Monday morning. We’ll catch an All Nippon Airlines flight from Tokyo to Saigon, arriving about 12 hours after our original time. The not-so-helpful agents sent our bags on to Los Angeles without us – then told us to send a tracer for them when we got to Saigon. But a helpful agent is trying to get them to Saigon only an hour after we get there. We’ll see.
Ah – but you gotta love the Internet. I had to contact our Vietnamese travel agent as he has to meet us at Ton Son Nhut Airport in Saigon to guide us through Immigration and get our visas. Without him, we don’t get in country. But with the magic of the Internet, and a wireless connection from my hotel room, I was able to send him an email notifying him of our change in plans.
There was a young lady on the shuttle bus to the hotel who spent most of her time on a mobile phone. She seemed not to care that the rest of the passengers heard her – but her tale of woe to the person on the other end was something to behold. My goodness – a missed flight, and she spoke of this being the worst thing that had ever happened to her. To us, her tale brought a wry smile to the face. If indeed this turned out to be the worst crisis of the lady’s life, she would lead a very charmed life – and a boring one too! I couldn’t help but wonder how a young soldier coming home from Iraq might have reacted to her “predicament.” With his freshly pinned on Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and keen memories of blood and death, I doubt he would have reacted the same way she did. More likely, he would be just damned happy to be alive – and sad only that it might be a few hours more before he saw his girl friend and family.
For us, we’re thankful for the undeserved grace given us. We are blessed.
Monday July 7
And we thought yesterday was wild! Having our flight delayed and having to rebook was just the first part of the “adventure.” After breakfast, we went back to airport to check in. We got there early – just to “be sure.” The very pleasant agent asked for our passports, then noticed there were no visas. Oooops – that’s when I realized I had forgotten the required “Letter of Invitation” from the Vietnamese government that would be needed to process our visas when we landed in Saigon. I knew exactly where the letter was – in a manila folder I had set up just for the trip – the same folder C had given me as we were packing, but I had dismissed as “Don’t need that.” Though the agent was sympathetic, and though we should not have been permitted on the airplane at our home airport, we were nonetheless told we needed the letter to get onboard.
That’s when we found what friends are for. After calling C’s brother (got voice mail), and another friend (also voice mail), we finally got in touch with V. Her office is near the house, and she said she’d help. (Worldly traveler as V is, I expect she had a good chuckle at my lack of preparedness.) But, after talking her through the home alarm system, she found the folder and faxed the letter to us at the DFW airport. We would be going to Viet Nam after all.
As they say on late night TV - - “Wait – there’s more.” After getting to the gate and reading the Vietnamese immigration papers, I discovered we were supposed to have passport photos for our visa applications. Of course, we had those - - at home. Grrrr.
There was not a passport photo shop to be found, but we found a concession that rented computer usage. After taking a picture of each other with my digital camera, we tried to tried to size it using the rental computer. I’d like to say it didn’t work well, but in fact, it didn’t work at all. The rental computer kept crashing. So, I fired up my laptop and we resized the pictures to passport size – and had them printed. Time was running short, so we took what we had, paid the rental shop, then hurried off to the gate. Now we await whatever the bureaucracy of Vietnamese Immigration has in store for us.
The twelve hour plus trip was very uneventful – I was asleep when we crossed the International Dateline. I have difficulty grasping time concepts like zones, dates, and all that. I just know that it suddenly became Tuesday.
Landing right on time at Tokyo’s new (and huge) Narita Airport, we found our connecting flight on All Nippon Airways without any problem. We were struck by one thing, though. The ticket agent at the counter really wanted to find our lost luggage. Of course, he had a little trouble understanding why our luggage might be in Los Angeles or Hong Kong, but once he understood that, he took it upon himself to find our luggage. A bit of a refreshing change from the US, eh? Of course he couldn’t find it, but we thanked him for trying.
The six hour flight to Saigon was uneventful. With our body clocks turned upside down, we both slept most of the way. The last vestiges of the SARS outbreak still affect the travel business – I doubt the airplane was ¼ full. C managed to find an entire empty row, and stretched out to sleep. Arrival at Tan Son Nhut: we had an email message stating someone from the travel agency would meet us at the gate and guide us through the visa application procedure. You guessed it – nobody there. But, in a strange twist, the immigration bureaucrats were very helpful, and we were processed through in no time. They didn’t even blink an eye at the pictures we had printed out at the Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport. When we tried to pay for the visas, they told us it had already been paid for, so we know the travel company did in fact make all the arrangements. We spent most of our time at the Lost and Found counter working with an extremely helpful young man who promised to track down our luggage.
An observation. One person was less than helpful during this whole luggage ordeal – the ticketing supervisor at Dallas - Ft. Worth. If she had tried to pull our luggage (as was done for another man in the same predicament), we would have our clean underwear with us here in Saigon. Since that time, we have met two truly courteous people who tried to undo her lack of courtesy - the young man at Narita Airport in Tokyo – the young man at Tan Son Nhut Airport. Even the bureaucrats of a Communist government were kind and helpful. As I had found before, once a Vietnamese discovers you are from Texas, you will be confronted with two concepts: you will be asked if you are a cowboy, and you will be asked if “Bush from Texas.” That means they also want to know if you own a horse. I had the “Texas thing” brought up numerous times during my last trip to Viet Nam. The president of a university even made quick draw motions when he heard I was from Texas, and the other men in the room reacted with raucous laughter. Our helpful young man at Lost Baggage seemed to enjoy talking to a cowboy – even if I didn’t own a horse. He also wanted to know if I was an artist, believing that to be the reason I wore a pony tail – or rooster tail, as he called it.
We were met outside the airport by Mr. Truc, of the travel agency. We’d met him last summer. He brought us to the Rex Hotel, where we are ensconced in a comfortable room. The bodies are tired, but we’re here, safe and sound.
Now – let’s see if our luggage finds us.
Wednesday July 9
Good morning, Viet Nam! After a good night’s sleep, we’re ready to hit the town. Of course, our body clocks awoke us at 5 AM, but that was expected. Breakfast at the roof top restaurant of the Rex, where I eagerly had my fill of pho (pronounced fah), the Vietnamese noodle soup eaten for breakfast by many of the people. I learned to love the stuff last spring.
Then, off to Ann Tours to talk to owner Tony Nong about our itinerary. A few years ago, PBS did a story on Tony, his brother, and their mother. Ann was a secretary at the United States Embassy during the war, and the widowed mother two boys. As Communist troops advanced on Saigon in April, 1975, she used her connections to obtain tickets to the US for her, the two boys, and her parents. Arriving at the airport, she could not find her parents. Leaving the boys in the care of a friend, she returned to the city to find them. Panicking crowds and crazy traffic kept her from returning to the airport on time to make her flight – but the friend put the two boys – both under the age of ten – on the flight. While the boys were in America, she was captured when the city fell. After five years in a “re-education” camp, she supported herself as best she could. In the early 1990s, as policies were liberalized, she founded her own travel agency. That gave her a way to ask people traveling to then US to look for her boys. The day finally came when someone found them. Of course, they were grown adults by this time, but they both flew back to Saigon to see their mother. Tony decided to stay in Viet Nam, and today runs the company his mother founded. Ann Tours was recommended to me by another returning veteran – and we are very happy with the service.
Tony also called with some news – the luggage has been found, and should be here tomorrow morning. We’ll put off buying new clothes, but I will feel better when we actually have the bags in our room. Our electricity converters and some of the chargers for cameras are in the luggage too.
The day was devoted to shopping and eating. We roamed Dong Khoi Street – remembered by veterans who were in Saigon as Tu Do Street. The bars and massage parlors are long gone, replaced by upscale shops selling expensive clothes, watches, art works, and other touristy things. After a great lunch at the Lemongrass Restaurant, our still-out-of-whack bodies needed a nap. More shopping in the afternoon, then a wonderful dinner at Augustin’s – a French restaurant in the area. The meal was excellent – and rich!
Veterans may remember the smell of the cities and towns. Well, the smell is gone. When we were here last summer, C finally figured out why. Its because during the war there were lots of homeless refugees. With no place to go, their refuse went into the streets. The decay and human waste is what created the smell. Today, Saigon is needle clean. While waiting for C as she was shopping, I stood outside and idly watched traffic go by. A big yellow wheeled cart came up. An orange clad worker pushed it along as vendors brought out their boxes of trash, and the worker swept the gutter. She was so thorough, she swept of leaves that had fallen off a tree.
Viet Nam is becoming aware of the need to protect tourists. There are a fair number of unarmed security guards seen on the street. As one of the ubiquitous post-card girls sold some to C, I noticed a guard watching things carefully, arms crossed and threatening if the girl got out of hand.
Time to post this, then get a good night’s sleep. Saigon is its usual busy – and noisy - self outside the window.
Thursday July 10
What a busy day – this will be a long post!
Neither of us slept all that well as our bodies just can’t adjust all that quickly. Finally, at 5:30, the street noise was loud enough to make me say “Enough!”, and get up.
By 7:30, we were ready to go. On the way to the famous (infamous??) Cu Chi Tunnels. For you vets who know something about Cu Chi, it is now actually within the government purview of Ho Chi Minh City, even though it is rural and well west of the city. Part of the old base camp of the 25th Infantry Division is now an Vietnamese Army post. North and west of there, in the area once known as the Iron Triangle, are the Cu Chi Tunnels. Built in the 1940s whilst fighting the French, the tunnels were expanded during the early day of the civil war and the war with the Americans. The members of the National Liberation Front (known to us as the Viet Cong) retreated to the tunnels to use them as bases from which to launch attacks, manufacture crude weapons and booby traps, and as a retreat point to survive South Vietnamese and American attacks. Parts of the tunnels were underneath the 25th Division’s base camp. Most of the large tunnel complex collapsed in 1972 when B-52s dropped heavy bombs designed to penetrate the ground before exploding – what were called “bunker busters” during the recent war in Iraq.
I really didn’t care much for the tour before doing it – but the history-loving side of me won out as I found much of the tour very interesting. The place rather reminds one of “War Land at Disney.” The government has turned it into quite the tourist spot, and a bus load of young Europeans arrived right after us. The tour begins with a propaganda film shot in 1967 by a film crew from Hanoi – which means they had to travel all the way south on the Ho Chi Minh trail from the north. The film is as expected – very clichéd and hokey – not mention one sided. But hey – the victors write the history books, eh? Veterans will get a kick out of the school girl who kills a tank with a rifle grenade launched from the muzzle of her SKS rifle.
There isn’t much of the tunnel complex left, but there are displays of the various parts of it. There is a model of a weapons manufacturing bunker, a kitchen (complete with a demo of how smoke from cooking fires was routed to a remote outlet), and an above ground thatched roof hut used as a training classroom. There is even on old M41tank (used by South Vietnamese forces, not the Americans) rusting away in a clearing. It was destroyed by a mine in 1970. A short section of tunnel connecting the hospital bunker with another bunker has been widened to accommodate middle-aged American girth, but C and I declined to walk through it. Interesting too was how they connected spider holes (as we used to call tem) to the tunnel system.
We declined to buy any souvenirs – and there are lots of them. Interestingly, our guide (who was very knowledgeable about military activities despite the fact he was born in 1965) did not even bother to ask me if I wanted to fire an AK-47 - - for a dollar a round! Guess he had figured I’d already done that before.
The western areas of southern Viet Nam are prime growing areas for rubber trees. We stopped at roadside to photograph one small plantation of new trees. The road was a bit narrow there, and I had recollections of some of the fights we had in “the Michelin.” By the way – all the plantations are owned by the government today.
Then, we were off to Tay Ninh – about another hour and a half drive. Our purpose was to see the noon prayer ceremony of the senior members of the Cao Dai religion at their temple in the Holy See. I had visited it way back in 1969 while serving near Tay Ninh. The temple must be seen to be believed, though we took many photos. Cao Daism began in the 1920s, and is an amalgam of Buddhism and Taoism, with a dash of Christianity thrown in. Among the saints are Victor Hugo (one of the biggies), Joan of Arc, Sun Yet Sen, and Jesus. There are approximately three million adherents around the world – and they just built a new temple in London.
The Cao Dai temple was very shabby back in 1969. Today it is in excellent repair, and community within the Holy See compound seems to be thriving.
Just outside Tay Ninh City sits Nui Ba Den – the Black Virgin Mountain. The surrounding countryside is flat – very flat. Nui Ba Den rises up out of the plains all by itself. There are no accompanying hills – just the mountain. During the war, we Americans had a radio relay station on the top, and we controlled the base, but the Viet Cong held the middle. Our guide drove me quite close, and I took an excellent picture. I did not visit the old Tay Ninh Base Camp, but was told the provincial capital buildings are built on top of the old runways – because there was a solid foundation laid down for them.
As mentioned earlier, Viet Nam is in the process of rapid economic change. Most obvious are the changes to Saigon but prosperity is arriving out in the villages too. The prime rice growing areas show that. You see the occasional tractor working the rice paddies, though the water buffalo is still more common. The wattle and dirt floor huts are all but gone, replaced by small concrete block homes with a motorbike parked outside. Road construction is everywhere. Television antennae are above every home. Yes – there is poverty in Viet Nam, but not the kind of desperate, grinding kind of hopelessness seen in other parts of the world. Viet Nam is on the go, propelled by the energy of its people.
The drive back to Saigon was long – mainly because the air conditioning went on the blink, and we were tired from the prior night’s lack of sleep. Of note was the display of an American Nike anti-aircraft missile on its launcher seen outside an Army camp. Gee, Dick – do you think you might have seen that missile before?
But – the good news was that our luggage finally made it to our hotel room! Clean underwear at last!
So – downstairs to the Internet Café, then back to the room to join C who is already asleep. Tomorrow is the long drive to Da Lat in the mountains.
Friday July 11
Greetings from the piney woods of Da Lat.
Yes – piney woods. There is not a palm tree in sight, and we are at 5,000 feet. Pine trees are as unexpected in Viet Nam as pine trees are in the desert of New Mexico. This gorgeous mountain village was a retreat for French colonial officials escaping the heat of Saigon – and it is still popular with the Saigonese, some of whom are wearing heavy winter jackets up here. There is no air conditioning in our room, nor does there need to be.
Getting here was more than half the fun – it was almost all the fun. Driving northeast out of Saigon on traffic-choked divided highways, we went through Bien Hoa, home of a once giant American air base. It is the capital of Dong Nai Province, and is the industrial heartland of the country. Factories of all sorts – Korean companies, Taiwanese companies, Japanese companies. The area is packed. We saw a sign advertising the Long Binh Techno-Park – yes, the site of Long Binh post where C was stationed way back in 1969. Today, all vestiges of American military presence are gone – replaced by software companies and chip fabs. Bien Hoa airbase is now part of the Vietnamese military, and therefore off limits to foreigners.
Dong Nai Province is the area settled by many Catholics who fled south in 1954 after the Viet Minh victory over the French. Fearing persecution when the country was split into Communist north and “free” south, they continue to dominate the area with many churches – many of which look new. Most likely the money comes from Viet Kieu living overseas. It is interesting to see the depictions of Jesus in paintings and statues - - a very northern European looking Jesus who looks neither Asian nor Semitic.
When the factories and villages began to thin out and we moved into some low hills, we turned north on Route 20. During the war, this area was Long Kanh Province, and one of the last areas of operation of my old 1st Cavalry Division as the troopers patrolled the “rocket belt” in an effort to protect Bien Hoa and Long Binh in 1971-72. We began seeing rubber plantations again, as we had near Cu Chi. One interesting place is a man-made lake created by a hydroelectric damn back in the 1980s. The people being displaced by the reservoir preferred to stay in the area rather than be resettled. They changed from being dirt farmers to cat fish farmers. They built house boats, and today farm the cat fish from the house boats. Above the lake on a small hill is a memorial to the revolutionary victory – one of the many such memorial parks across the country. We took a short break at a roadside café, then were on our way again.
We began to climb into mountains – real honest-to-goodness mountains. I also noticed the façade of prosperity slipping. There were more wattle and dirt floor huts, and fewer motor bikes. We also came into coffee and tea plantations. Viet Nam is the second largest exporter of coffee in the world. We stopped and looked at the coffee trees and beans, and watched some of the tea workers for awhile.
Interesting social phenomenon in the tea fields – something I liked. There were a number of workers weeding the fields with hoes, supervised by three people, one of whom lay in a hammock. The three supervisors were men, while all the workers women. I’ll bet the men made more money too.
We found our guide Truc is an Aggie. His father had been an air traffic controller for the South Vietnamese Army, and thus was sent off to a re-education camp after reunification. The family was resettled to a new town well north of Saigon, and in deep rural area. He and the other students actually had to build their own school house out of wooden frames and thatched roofs. But, he was a good student and passed the entrance exams for university after high school. He was directed to study agricultural management, which meant he was destined to manage a collective farm. But one year after graduation, the government realized collectivization didn’t work, and began doi moi (renovation) Though Truc never used his training, his agricultural knowledge is outstanding.
Lunch at a tourist restaurant in Bao Loc was excellent. I had the sautéed deer meat and a wonderful crab and cauliflower soup. The last miles into Da Lat were on winding, narrow mountain roads. Pine trees – yes pine trees. The town is about as touristy as it comes, but many of the tourists are Vietnamese, not foreigners.
After getting settled in at the Golf 3 Hotel, C got brave and we walked over to the market. No foreigners here – this was the real thing. You want it? They got it! C found some cooking utensils she wanted in one of the vendor stalls – then by pure luck, ran into a local woman named Do. She spoke excellent English, and in exchange for being able to practice the language she’d learned as a young girl, she showed us the market and translated. Fish. Meat. Crafts. Clothes. Household goods. Fresh produce. Motor bike parts You name it, and it was somewhere in that huge building.
But, we had promised to meet Truc at the hotel at 7:30, so we had to leave the market and go eat. Friday night in a tourist town, and the restaurants were packed. We finally gave up and ate at the hotel restaurant, and did okay. But - - we were not prepared for the festival Truc took us to. This was an art festival worthy of any endeavor Santa Fe could put on. It mostly celebrated a wonderful art form – silk embroidery in the style of painting. This is no mere craft – this is a legitimate art form, and shown in a gorgeous setting of traditional Vietnamese homes. Exquisite young girls dressed in beautiful ao dai were ever present to answer questions. Frankly, we were overwhelmed by the art and the festival. No artsy community in America could surpass it. We saw many fortunes worth of excellent works – some mystical, some portraits, some floral, some of nature – even one political artist. All, without exception, were wonderfully executed. However I did get a grin looking at one work stolen right out of New Mexico,. Along with the face of a wolf was the obligatory howling coyote. But, that was the only creative rip-off I saw. The rest were amazingly creative. Can you tell what we thought of the art work? There is a silk embroidery in our future.
But, the night is old, and so am I. Tomorrow, we’ll leave Da Lat late in the morning and drive over to the coast to Nha Trang. Join us.
Saturday July 12
I told you. I told you there was a silk embroidery in our future. We will soon display “Beginning of Winter” in our home. C is anxious to have an open house to show it off. Now all we have to do is get it on the airplane home. It was purchased at the artist’s gallery, just up the hill from our hotel. It was the first thing we did after breakfast and checking out.
Way back in 1969, C had attended a party thrown by a bunch of helicopter pilots who (of course) wanted some women to grace their festivities. They flew her and another nurse up to Da Lat. The party was at the Palace Hotel, a grand old French structure built above the beautiful high mountain lake in the center of town. She remembers it being drab and dreary back then, but today it is polished like a jewel. Its opulence and grandeur are glorious indeed. The manicured lawn slopes down to the water, and an old Citroen sedan sits outside next to the entrance. It looks like it is awaiting a French grand dame to come out.
Another place we visited was a Catholic convent and church. Believe it or not, the sisters maintain what can only be called an English Garden – trim and neat, and well maintained. We went inside the church itself. It had beautiful high ceilings, and a very European feel to it – right down to the light signifying the presence of the Reserve Sacrament. I had a good conversation with our guide about religious freedom. He is obviously not a huge supporter of the Communist government, but just a mite defensive about his homeland. In his opinion, there really is religious freedom in Viet Nam, and in fact religion never went away as the result of state action as it did in Russia after the revolution. Today, he feels there is freedom, as long as the religious groups register with the state, and groups get permission for meetings larger than a thousand people. Knowing there is dissatisfaction with the government approved United Buddhist group, and that there has been documented round-ups of evangelical Christian groups in the mountain ethnic tribes, I let it drop as it didn’t seem appropriate to argue with someone about his own country. I mumbled something about it being okay as such permissions were needed for security.
Da Lat is both a tourist mecca and the hub of fresh vegetable agriculture. Its where fresh lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, and whatever produce Saigon wants is grown. The hillsides are dotted with greenhouses, which look positively eerie at night as they glow against the dark hills. Every hill is terraced and something is being grown. Da Lat has an almost “Santa Fe” quality to it. The weather is great – its cool and comfortable.
During the war, there was an omnipresent rumor to the affect that the reason no battles were fought in and around Da Lat is because both sides used it as a kind of R&R center. That never seemed likely to me, so I asked Truc. He opined Da Lat just wasn’t very important in the military sense. Could be.
One of the vets reading this blog commented on wanting to come to Da Lat if he ever returns to Viet Nam. BC 28 – Da Lat is a great choice. For the rest of you, at the end of each post are the words “View/Add Comment.” Have at it.
On the way out of town, we stopped at a Buddhist pagoda that was a little strange. Some of the scales on the huge dragon were made from old beer bottles! We watched the prayer ceremony for awhile, then began the journey to Nha Trang.
And what a tiresome journey it was. It took a long time to get out of the mountains, and the road was narrow, twisty - - and very, very bumpy. However, we stopped at one overlook (occupied by the every present gaggle of folks plying the tourist busses), and the view was truly spectacular. As we got back on the road, our guide heard me use the word, and said the Vietnamese name for the pass meant spectacular.
Coming out of the mountains west of Phan Rang into Ninh Thuan Province, you are struck with the change in climate. The area is semi-arid – there are even cacti growing here and there. The farms look parched, and the cattle have seriously over-grazed the pasture land. Nothing very lush and tropical here!
Just west of Phan Rang is an ancient set of three towers constructed by the Cham Empire. These Hindu peoples of Indian origin were the dominant society in the area for four centuries, until being conquered by the Vietnamese in the 16th century. About 60,000 Chams still live in the area, but they have been completely assimilated into Vietnamese culture. Bas relief sculpture of Shiva are on the outside of the towers. The government charges a small entrance fee to raise money for the restoration and maintenance of these ancient structures.
We finally got on some good road again we picked up Route 1 northward along the coast. We passed by Cam Ranh , but there is little to see except two freighters in the distance. There is some talk of developing the area for tourism, but the Vietnamese military will keep a presence there in a place known as one of the best deep water ports in the Far East. They are justifiably wary of the Chinese as they have made some incursions onto islands in the South China Sea claimed by Viet Nam.
Finally – Nha Trang. This seaside town is an example of how well Viet Nam can do tourism. Nothing shy about it – this is a tourist town. Tran Phu Boulevard parallels the beaches, and it is chock full of hotels, restaurants, karaoke bars – and diving businesses. Nha Trang is very well known for being a great place to go diving. The waters are clear, there is plenty to see, and the diving businesses (they call themselves clubs) are staffed with expert instructors. There is a decent size ex pat community here, mostly Europeans in the diving and restaurant businesses.
We ate dinner at the Nha Trang Sailing Club. Okay, okay – I had pizza – but it was good pizza. We strolled back to the hotel – and the power went out. That is a common enough occurrence in Viet Nam where most upscale hotels have their own back-up generators. But - - - once the power came back on in a few moments, we discovered that the air conditioning didn’t work. It seems that the back-up generator doesn’t create enough power to run the air conditioners. Finally, about two hours later we had AC again.
Sunday July 13
As my sister K likes to say during our annual ski trips – “This is why we go to those sucky jobs!” Nha Trang is a reason for going to your sucky job. Today was a day of pure vacation – no driving, no places to see, no shopping to do – nothing except enjoying this marvelous beach and diving resort town. We had a leisurely four hours to putt-putt between some of the islands – and we had the boat all to ourselves. One of the islands is a miniature resort, with swimming beaches, little canopied shelters with lounge chairs, parasailing, kayaks, and other diversions. After finding some chairs under an arbor, we went swimming – careful to be sure our delicate white American skin was not exposed to the fierce tropical sun for too long. It was just a great lazy way to spend the day, capped off with a nice lunch of cooked vegetables and steamed clams.
My friend "Rigby Ashes" says he wishes he were here. Well, I wish you were too - and Nha Trang is where you want to be. This is a divers paradise. If the Internet connection weren't so slow here, I would post some pictures - but those may have to wait until we get a speedier connection.
Viet Nam is a noisy country – no two ways about it. I am convinced that if the government required safety inspections for motor vehicles, the horn would be deemed more important than brakes. The streets and roadways are cacophonous. The vehicle with the loudest horn has the right of way. But, the Vietnamese use the horn in a different way than Americans, who tend to use the horn as an expression of anger or warning. Not so here – the horn is used to tell others where you are. See a motorbike coming down a side street? Toot your horn to let them know you’re there. Approaching a slower vehicle? Toot your horn to let them know you’re coming up behind. Its all very civilized – and noisy.
The Vietnamese are an amiable people, and they love to talk. Most of the women have soft, delicate voices, but many of the men can be quite loud – especially when talking on their mobile phones. Just about every city street seems to have a karaoke bar or two, and the music machines are played at high decibel levels. I’ve also noticed many buildings do not have any sound dampening – they are “hard” rooms with hard floors and ceilings. In other words, Viet Nam is a noisy country.
Viet Nam is fast becoming a motorized society. There are heavy trucks all of the cities and on the highways. Only on rare occasion does one see an old American military truck, such as a “deuce and a half” dump truck. More often one sees Russian trucks – newer than the American trucks, but getting long in the tooth. The vast majority of the heavy haulers are Korean – Hyundai and Kia. There are few American style tractor-trailer rigs as the highway infrastructure won’t support such huge machines, but the Korean trucks are still quite large. Most of the large intercity runs are made with modern Korean buses, though there are still a lot of older, non-air conditioned rigs of unknown origin. The economy still doesn’t support many people buying automobiles. I read today in an English language newspaper that the tax on cars is going up next year, so many people are buying now in anticipation of that increase. Sales here are measured in hundreds, not thousands. Toyota seems to sell the most, but one sees Mazdas, and Korean Hyundais and Kias. There are only a few SUVs seen, and almost all of those are Mitsubishi Parejos, with the occasional Ford Escape. (Don’t know where the Fords are made.) There are a large number of mini-vans here as they are used for public transportation. They seem evenly divided between Mercedes-Benz and Toyota.
But, Viet Nam moves on motorbikes, defined as motorcycle-like vehicles with engines smaller than 150cc. Everyone but everyone rides a motorbike, except the very poor, whether in the city or rural village. The best is the Honda Future (even has a front disk brake) which sells for about $2,000 US dollars. But most are the newer Honda Wave and the slightly older Dream II. There is a smattering of Suzukis, and the occasional Korean Daemli, but Honda is the hands down winner of the motorbike derby in Viet Nam. Most are manufactured in Japan, but assembled in Viet Nam. The word “Honda” has become synonymous with motorbike – rather like Kleenex for tissues, Jell-O for gelatin, or Xerox for copiers. Most of the time, there are two riders on a motorbike, though three is not uncommon. The most I have seen was seven.
While eating dinner tonight at a beach side restaurant, I was looking at the beautiful full moon, with the light reflecting off the water of the bay. Funny – it’s the same moon folks at home will be looking at in the US in another twelve hours. Funny how humans can have so much in common, yet work so hard at not getting along.
Monday July 14
Back on the road again. Breakfast had us talking with a young lady from Seattle who was traveling with a companion. She just wanted to see Viet Nam, though admitted being a bit fascinated by the American war.
On the way out of Nha Trang, we passed by a statue in one of the city plazas. It depicted a woman holding a wounded soldier. I couldn’t help make the comparison to the statue next to The Wall depicting three American women with a wounded soldier. Here one sees numerous monuments and memorials to the war dead, often with an inscription saying something like “The nation remembers.” Of course, it is the dead of the revolutionary forces that are memorialized. I have not confirmed it, but I understand that not only are the dead of the defeated south not memorialized, but their graves have been moved to untended cemeteries. If that had happened in the American south after our Civil War, the bitterness would have worse than it was. When put in the context of a culture that holds family and ancestors as the central part of life, such actions must be crushing to the families who no longer have access to their dead ancestors. Most homes in Viet Nam have a small altar where ancestors are venerated. The victors indeed write the history books.
We spent a considerable time at a large Buddhist pagoda. Above the pagoda on a small hill, was a giant Buddha with bas relief sculptures of various monks from that pagoda who had self immolated themselves beginning in 1963 as a protest against the war. I got a quick run-down of Buddhism from our guide, who is not a practicing Buddhist, but rather learned about it because he knew tourists would want to know. Basically there are four major tenets of Buddhism: life is suffering, suffering is caused by desire, suffering can be relieved by the elimination of desire, and the ultimate goal is to eliminate all desire so as to reach Nirvana and never be reincarnated again. There is a long “compare and contrast” blog posting somewhere in that – but not now.
We also stopped at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Nha Trang. Very European granite block structure built in the classic cruciform shape. We took some pictures inside and out – and C finally found the cross she wanted. Her collection includes crosses from many places – and she wanted one from Viet Nam.
The drive from Nha Trang to Qhi Nhon has some absolutely spectacular views. Much of the road is either under construction or being repaired, so the travel is rough in places. But, on a number of occasions, the road is cut into steep cliffs to overlook incredible vistas of the South China Sea. We continually came up on picturesque little fishing villages and white sandy beaches. The water is so very, very green. We ate lunch at a roadside beach near the village of Dai Lanh. The noodles and sea food were excellent, made all the more enjoyable by the ocean breeze and the view of the bay.
Speaking of good food, we decided to go to dinner with Truc (say “Trook”) rather than eat in the hotel restaurant. In America, we would call the restaurant a neighborhood joint. The place only serves fresh seafood – and its fresh enough for you to pick out your lobster on the way to the table. The shrimp were served on top of a bed of fried garlic – and they had been steamed in garlic water too. Yum!! But – the lobster was incredible. The Vietnamese don’t cook lobster to the consistency of rubber as is done in the US. It was absolutely delicious! In keeping with the “neighborhood joint” theme, one just throws the shells and other leavings on the floor! It was a noisy (remember –Viet Nam is noisy), happy family joint. It also may have been our best meal since we have been in Viet Nam.
A number of fellow vets – as well as a friend at church – have asked me if I’ve read the book “Up Country” by Nelson DeMille. It is a fictional mystery novel, but set in Viet Nam. DeMille is a veteran of the war. My non-vet friend asked me how authentic the book’s details are. C is reading the book now, but some great coincidences so far – the night after she read the chapter titled “Cu Chi”, we went to Cu Chi. We were in Nha Trang as she read the chapter on Nha Trang. You guessed it – tomorrow we will be in Bong Son, and tonight’s chapter is Bong Son. I glanced at a page or two, and it mentions LZ English, which was a large 1st Cavalry Division base during the war.
In yesterday’s post, I wrote about the motorizing of Viet Nam. I’ll expand it a little bit to talk about transportation in general.
As written earlier, the motorbike is the main mode of transportation, even in rural areas. The people in Saigon ride the latest Honda Future or Wave, but that is too expensive for rural folk, so you often see older (used) Honda Cubs being ridden. The Cub is no longer made, and has a tiny 50cc engine, but every little village has a repair shop. We would call them “shade tree mechanics” in the US. For the very poor who cannot afford a used Honda Cub, the bicycle is ridden. You see some prodigious loads being carried on a bicycle. Of course, children ride bicycles too, but they ride adult sized bikes – too expensive to buy a machine that will lonely last a short time.
Viet Nam has an intriguing idea. They have something called the Lotus engine. It is a super simple one cylinder engine that can be maintained very easily with simple tools. It is used to power small trucks, boats, tractors – even electrical generators. Is it efficient? No. Is it powerful? No. But it brings basic motor-powered tools to the poor at a good price and at low maintenance costs. As Viet Nam grows, they are being replaced by more efficient and specialized engines, but they’re still quite common outside the cities.
I mentioned heavy trucks yesterday. There are still a lot of old East German trucks on the road. These ugly things are terribly underpowered. With their high center of gravity, they are also accident prone. The Russian trucks are also very underpowered, which means you don’t want to be behind one whilst climbing a hill.
Viet Nam’s train system is still rather basic, but improving. As we ate lunch today, two trains (one freight, one passenger) passed by. I understand there is an express run that runs between Ha Noi and Saigon and takes 36 hours.
And of course, there is Viet Nam Airlines. It flies modern aircraft – mostly Airbus and Boeing – and it just bought brand new Boeing 777 jumbos for non-stop flights to Paris, Tokyo and on other international routes. It is government owned, and still has a reputation for delayed flights on its domestic routes. The new Pacific Airlines should provide it some competition.
Our room overlooks Qhi Nhon beach. The full moon is reflecting on the waters, and lights of the fishing boats glimmer in the distance. The walk back to the hotel from the restaurant was a great way to end the day. Tomorrow off to find some of the places in Binh Dinh Province where Company C, 2nd Battalion 5th Cavalry fought so many battles against Communist forces from 1966 to 1968.
Tuesday July 15
We intentionally set up today for a short drive today between Qui Nhon and Quang Ngai City. I wanted some time to wander around the Bong Son plains area of Binh Dinh Province to see where my comrades of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division fought so many hard battles from 1966 to 1968. In particular I wanted to see the hamlet of Phu Ninh (1) at the base of Hill 82 where nine members of the company were killed on March 11, 1967. Though I have never been there myself, I was quite familiar with the area as I’d read maps and seen many pictures.
We found Phu Ninh (1) with no problem at all. The hill cannot be seen from the hamlet due to the thick trees and vegetation, but a short walk through the back yards of some homes, and across some fields brought us to a good view of the hill, looking south. In my mind’s eye I could see where the initial LZ was located, and I could see a wood line marking the trench Don M details in his article. The pictures I took plainly show the LZ atop the hill where other companies and the remaining platoon of C Company arrived by helicopter to relieve the pressure. I saw the huge boulders Dennis H tells of in his story. It was sobering to realize I was standing on hallowed ground.
We traveled further east towards the ocean on Provincial Route 505 to the village of My Anh. There I took some pictures of a memorial to the Communist soldiers. My guide translated the head stones – all were “Liet Sy” (fallen combatant), but some were “Chien Sy” (fighters, meaning local Viet Cong), some were “Bo Doi” (regular soldiers, meaning North Vietnamese who were killed in the area) , and some “Co So Cach Mang” (supporters, meaning those who transported food, passed communications, or performed other support work for the troops.) It seems that during the war, the locals could not (of course) admit their relatives were Communist, so they were buried as per normal. After reunification in 1975, cemeteries similar to the one in My Anh accepted the remains of Communist combatants at the request of relatives.
I took the opportunity to ask my guide about the rumor I mentioned in yesterday’s posting about the desecration of southern soldier’s graves. He said that while it was true some cemeteries were destroyed, announcements were made in newspapers and on television so that relatives could move the remains of their loved ones. By the greatest of coincidences, C was told by our driver, a former NCO in the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), some more information on the topic. Being older than Truc, and having been a soldier himself with adult memories of those times, Thach said some ARVN cemeteries were converted to memorial cemeteries for the revolutionary dead. Relatives of the dead ARVN soldiers had to move the remains and rebury them elsewhere. In other words, the rumors are only half correct – and families know where their relatives are buried as per the custom of the Vietnamese people. But, obviously – there are no memorials to the fallen soldiers of the vanquished.
Thach is an interesting man. His family moved from Duc Pho to Saigon to escape the war when he was thirteen. When drafted into the ARVN in 1968, he served with an American MACV advisory team (Military Assistance Command – Vietnam) in Pleiku in the Central Highlands. He stayed in the Army and made sergeant, and held that rank when the south fell in 1975. After the war, he spent two years in a “re-education” camp, where he worked and listened, but did not talk.
Then on to Bong Son, and the bridges over the river. Approaching from the south, Truc and I left our minivan and walked across the bridge. There are no reminders of any American presence at all – but there are the remains of two old concrete French bunkers at either end. The French built their bunkers of concrete because they intended to stay. I guess ours were built of PSP and sandbags because we didn’t intend to stay. The current bridge is built alongside the remains of the old one, and the railroad bridge is in place east of the roadway. Route #1 is being rerouted as a bypass, and a new road and bridge are being constructed inland of the current bridge.
While walking across the bridge, we came upon a place where traffic narrowed to one lane for construction. Truc and I watched in amusement as two big buses approached the single lane from opposite directions. Neither seemed to back down and yield, until finally the northbound one moved some barriers, pulled over, and allowed the southbound bus to pass. Truc said there is an old Vietnamese joke about two bus drivers in a similar situation. As neither wanted to be the one yielding the right-of-way, one pulled out a newspaper and began to read it. Seeing this, the other bus driver got out of his vehicle, approached the first, and told the driver “When you are through reading the paper, I will buy it from you.” I figure BJ and J. Bradford will forward the joke to the rest of humanity. (grin)
Back on the road into Quang Ngai Province, and into the town of Duc Pho. My good friend J. Bradford was stationed here at FSB Bronco. As fate would have it, Thach, our driver, and a former NCO in the southern Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) is from Duc Pho. Got a picture of the Post Office for you, J. Bradford.
On the way out of Qui Nhon in the morning, we went through the intersection of QL1 and QL 19, which leads westward to An Khe and the Highlands. Troopers serving with the 1st Cav in the early years will be happy to know the base camp is still there – and is now in use by the Vietnamese military. The bad news is that’s its closed to visitors. We did not visit An Khe – the information was told me by our guide.
Just past the intersection, we saw a field artillery piece being towed. I know absolutely nothing about their artillery, so I can only guess, but it appeared to be 105mm, though the size of the gun seemed smaller than our 105. It was being towed by a normal civilian truck occupied by both soldiers and civilians.
Some observations. If you have a chance to travel to Viet Nam, do yourself a favor and get off the beaten path and into a rural village. You will get a better appreciation for how the country is changing. For instance, they have done a good job of getting electricity out to the most remote villages. That has had a broad impact. Many veterans may remember seeing peasants laboriously moving water from one rice paddy to another by scoop or paddle wheel. You seldom see that now – most farmers have electric pumps. And of course, most homes have a TV antenna poking into the air. There is a motorbike parked in front of most houses, and most houses are now built of concrete block - only a few are old dirt floor huts. A local custom is to prominently display the date of construction on the front of one’s house, and many are only a few years old. Binh Dinh Province is one of the richest agricultural areas in the central part of Viet Nam, and for that reason was important to revolutionary forces during both the war with the French and the Americans. It is thriving now.
I have a new respect for my predecessors in C 2/5 Cav. The terrain in and around Bong Son varies widely, from flat rice paddies, to sand dune villages, to some damned steep mountains. Though rural, it is densely populated. Each of the little hamlets is surrounded by trees and vegetation, making great ambush sites for enemy soldiers. I explained some of the tactical considerations to C, and she took a picture of me standing in front of one bamboo brake that illustrated the problems faced by The Cav. There was a shallow trench, fronted by a bamboo thicket that overlooked an open field – perfect for grazing machine gun fire into approaching American troops. I marveled that anyone could fight in the densely forested mountains – not my idea of a good place to fight a war. You done good, guys!
Truc and I had a conversation about the French. We tried to come up with a list of things the French did that were good for Viet Nam. The list if kinda short! I submitted quoc ngu, the Romanized alphabet in use today that replaced the difficult and restrictive Chinese characters. Truc said there were just two things: good bread and coffee. We agreed rubber was both good and bad – it has since provided an export product that is good for Viet Nam, but it is said that during colonial days that a Vietnamese died for each rubber tree that grew to maturity. My final dig was to blame the French for getting America involved in Viet Nam.
In my recent postings about transportation, I forgot the cyclo – that pedal-powered carriage romanticized in the movies. They are usually seen in the cities, but Saigon is trying to get rid of them. I admit to my own reluctance to ride in one as doing so seems to smack of some kind of neo-colonialism. I have this picture in my head of a big fat westerner being pedaled around by a subservient Asian. I know the Vietnamese use them all the time, and I’ve ridden in them myself. Its just a silliness I’ve allowed to continue.
We had dinner at our hotel – sat outside overlooking the Tra Khuc River – and tried to ignore the karaoke coming from the wedding party in the restaurant. I figure the party goers had to be quite drunk to sing that badly – and even drunker to listen to it. It was worse than the cacophony of truck and bus horns coming from the nearby bridge over the river.
To bed early tonight – the sun and heat saps our strength. Funny - - I don’t remember being so wimpy thirty four years ago.
Wednesday July 16
Sharon Lane was the only U. S. Army nurse killed by hostile action in Viet Nam. An enemy 122 rocket hit her hospital near the town of Chu Lai in 1969. Besides the fact that C was an Army nurse in Viet Nam at the time, she has another connection to Sharon Lane: Sharon was on duty when the rocket hit with a nurse who was present but not injured - that nurse (P) was transferred to C’s 24th Evacuation Hospital and worked with C on the neurosurgery ward. Later, when both returned to the US to the same stateside Army Hospital, P and C shared an apartment for several months.
C speaking: I know Sharon will not be forgotten by any ANC who was in country at the time, or after. I pray P has recovered her life from the rubble of that rocket attack.
1LT Sharon Lane did not die in vain. Two years ago the Sharon Lane Foundation constructed a two story clinic in Chu Lai dedicated to her memory, and bringing health care to the mothers and infants of the area. We stopped, took some pictures, and C talked with the nurse on duty. The clinic sees approximately 10 patients a day, and we met two mothers and their babies. It is on Route 1, just north of the old US military compound.
Then on to Hoi An – a short trip. The best way to describe Hoi An is that is like Santa Fe, New Mexico, or Salem, Massachusetts. On the one hand it is a true Vietnamese village filled with truly old buildings, some dating back two hundred to three hundred years old. The market is almost as wondrous as Da Lat’s – and it is a true working market. On the other hand, it is full of tourists and upscale hotels. There are two kinds of shops – tailor shops and art galleries. The “art galleries” are full of mass-produced, uninspired prints. The tailor shops, however, are a different story. C had two outfits custom made - one of silk, and the other linen. They were made in four hours – at a cost of $80.
Truc took us to an upstairs restaurant next to the river. My goodness – what great food! Fried wontons with a tomato and seafood topping. Eat ‘em like a tostada. We also had “white rose”, a kind of dim sum dumpling. The place was so good, we went back for dinner, and were no disappointed. The food in Viet Nam is so fresh and tasty, and there is far more variety than one would expect.
I called my colleague Le Dzung from the University of Da Nang, and arranged to meet him here in Hoi An for breakfast in the morning. I’m looking forward to seeing my friend again.
Wanna be a millionaire? All you need to do is exchange $100 for Vietnamese currency. You will have about 1,550,000 dong in your pocket. The largest denomination I have seen is a 100,000 dong note, so you will have a large wad. There are no coins, and the smallest note is 200 dong. It takes awhile to get used to the huge numbers. When the check arrives after dinner, it takes awhile before you learn not to gasp at 125,000 VND. That’s about $8.50 US.
Finally, I want to answer a question from Red Leg Doug. This is my third trip back to Viet Nam in the past year. Not once has there been even a little bit of a hint of any bad feelings by the Vietnamese towards Americans or vets. None! There may be a number of reasons - first, over 60% of the population has been born since the war ended. For instance, our guide was 10 when the south fell. They don't remember it, and like our youth, could care less. Secondly, maybe there is a Buddhist thing - and they just "get over it." But, I can say without a doubt, any vet can return here and be welcomed. In fact, there is quite a toursim business catering to returning vets. Hope that helps.
Thursday July 17
Happy anniversary to us! Happy anniversary to us! Happy anniversary to C & D. Happy anniversary to us!
This is the second year in a row we have celebrated our anniversary in Viet Nam. In 1969 I doubt we would have thought we would be celebrating any anniversaries, much less celebrating them in Viet Nam.
The hotel we stayed in last night in Hoi An was once an old French villa. It easily had the largest room we’ve been in since we arrived in Viet Nam – very nice indeed. But, it also had the worst Internet connection. Funny – but the “least nice” hotel we’ve stayed at was in Quang Ngai City the night before we were in Hoi An. It had a great Internet link - I actually had a 50kb connection. Last night, I spent 42 minutes online and read one email, sent one email, and posted my blog.
This morning I renewed my friendship with Mr. Le Dung (say “Lay Dzoong,” but almost drop the z). He is the Vice Director of the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Da Nang. As the Director is the President Emeritus of the university, Dung effectively runs the place. If the University of Da Nang ever gets into Internet-based learning (which is how I make my living), Dung would be my counter-part. When I was here last spring, the two of us became good friends. Fortunately, he is a former English teacher, so we have little problem communicating.
Dung’s family owns one of the oldest homes in Hoi An – over two hundred years old. His elderly parents still live there. His father is in failing health, but his mind is very sharp. He once taught both English and French, and is a renowned scholar in Sino-Vietnamese studies. The home is filled with many antiquities, and recognized by the Ministry of Culture as an important site. As Hoi An is acknowledged by the United Nations Education, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as one of the most culturally significant places in the world, that is saying a lot. We had a personal tour of the house, and I felt privileged to enjoy a long conversation with Dung’s father.
After briefly looking at a small museum of Chinese antiques, we headed back to the hotel to check out. It’s not a long drive to Da Nang – about 30-40 minutes - and we quickly arrived at the Bamboo Green Riverside Hotel right on the Han River. Unfortunately, the street is under construction so one cannot stroll the water front as I did last spring.
It is hotter than the hubs of hell in Viet Nam in the summer – some things never change. After moving to another room when we found the air conditioning in the first room didn’t work, we settled in for a noon-time nap. Like residents in most hot-weather countries, the Vietnamese take it easy during the heat of the day. From noon to two o’clock, many shops close, or at the least the shop keepers take a nap. If a customer needs something, they just ring the bell. It’s a good custom. Considering how early the Vietnamese begin work each day, there is no loss of productive time.
Hunger overcame us, and we went to Christy’s Cool Spot and Restaurant for lunch. Christy’s is a restaurant and bar intentionally designed to be a magnet for expatriates and back packers. The TV has either CNN, the BBC, or HBO playing. One can order a hamburger, or a pizza – or even a New Zealand steak. As the evening progresses, you are liable to see kids from Europe, members of an American MIA recovery team, or even the occasional westerner who now lives in the city. I spent many an evening there last spring. The bartender even remembered me – probably because she doesn’t see too many men with pony tails. (Of course maybe she remembered me for the large number of Tiger beers I drank.)
Then a quick cyclo ride (C’s first) to the university to meet with Dung. He has been having difficulties with the American consulate in obtaining a visa for his trip to visit me next month. I offered to talk to people at the American consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, but I felt as though nobody there seemed to know what was going on. I shall call again tomorrow to see if I’m getting the run-around.
But the day was too nice to be bummed out by American bureaucrats. We decided to walk back to the hotel - about five blocks. As the Post Office is right next door to the hotel, C decided to mail all the post cards she has been writing the past few days. After purchasing the stamps, the clerk asked if she needed any help – and then proceeded to help C put the stamps on the cards – all with a smile on her face. I have trouble imagining any part of American officialdom acting in such a manner.
At 5:30, Dung and his wife Xuan (say zoo en quickly – almost slurred together) picked us up at the hotel on their motorbikes, and we rode over one of the bridges across the river to My Khe beach. Dinner was at an outdoor seafood restaurant on a pier over the sand. The sun was setting as we watched bathers in the water, and we munched on squid, huge shrimp, and fresh water crab. Nguyen Van Long, an English teacher at the university joined us. He had just completed the online faculty development workshop we teach at the University of Texas-Pan American, and much of the conversation centered around web-based learning - - though C managed to show pictures of the grandchildren.
This was C’s first experience riding a motorbike in Viet Nam. When seen from the inside of an auto or bus, the traffic in Viet Nam looks absolutely maniacal. There seems to be total chaos, and anyone dumb enough to get caught in it is doomed to die. But from the seat of a motorbike, it really isn’t so crazy. For one thing, you realize you aren’t really going all that fast. Secondly, there is a certain flow to the traffic – it is somewhat similar to watching a flock of birds fly. Everything seems to move together in tune with some unknown signal.
Another thought about traveling in Viet Nam: No – you cannot drink the water - - anywhere. Even in the nicest hotels in Ho Chi Minh City, you should drink bottled water. Fortunately, it is very easy to find. Don’t eat uncooked veggies either. The Vietnamese love salads, but washing the greens in unsafe water could lead to ingesting little nasties. Eat anything else that you wish – in fact, be explorative and you will be rewarded with some taste treats. I love pho (the noodle soup), and the shrimp are consistently excellent – though huge by our standards. The squid are quite tasty too.
Friday July 18
Before beginning today’s boring recitation of trip details, I thought I might expand on Red Leg Doug’s comments listed below. (By the way – a Red Leg is an artilleryman. Red Leg Doug was an artillery officer attached to my company in charge of directing howitzer fire in battle. Its our little joke as we have the same first name - as I was an Infantry officer, and Infantry’s color is blue, I am Blue Doug and he is Red Leg Doug.)
C and I were just talking about Doug’s comments. I realize an apology is in order. I have already forgotten that most veteran’s heads are in a different place than ours. Because we have been back here before, we have come to terms with our military service in Viet Nam. Our thoughts are about Viet Nam today, except in the purely historical sense of discovering military facts. While I took photos of old battle sites, and I discussed the war with Vietnamese veterans, most of my thoughts don’t deal with the war – they deal with today. Red Leg Doug, and others (J. Bradford? BJ? Dennis? Charlie?) still have many questions to ask and answer about themselves and their past in Viet Nam. My apologies – I seem to have forgotten my manners and overlooked Viet Nam from the viewpoint of a veteran who has not returned.
So - - more about why the Vietnamese don’t seem to hold any grudges against Americans. As I said earlier, there are a number of reasons. First, most of the people are too young to remember much about the war. Secondly, there is an element of Buddhist fatalism that allows them to move on. Third, the Americans were just one of many invaders they have repelled, and we weren’t even here very long.
But, I have another idea. Any angst over the war is expressed in terms of the Vietnamese themselves. The seminal point in time for them is 1975. Every topic is discussed in relation to the reunification of the country on April 30, 1975. If the topic concerns family, the conversation will revolve around whether you are talking about your family before or after 1975. Education? Before or after 1975. Employment? If you were a southerner associated with the “Saigon regime”, you spent years in a re-education camp, and probably could not find a job until after doi moi (renovation) in 1986. Military service? Did you serve the southern forces or the revolutionary forces? Absolutely everything revolves around that date.
Most Americans do not know the war continued for over two years after the last American soldier left. The last US ground combat unit left in August 1972, with only a few support units still in Viet Nam after that date. The last American troops left in March, 1973. The war raged on after we left, and it was two years before “reunification” took place, and that date is far more important to the Vietnamese than American participation. If there are remnants of anger left in Viet Nam about the war, it is between the Vietnamese themselves, not towards Americans.
Interesting story in today’s English language paper “Viet Nam News.” Seems a gentleman in Ha Noi was praised by the government for his work in identifying the remains of soldiers missing in action during the war. He does research of newspapers, letters, and anything else to help his detective work – even documents from American GIs. There are 300,000 Vietnamese MIAs – and don’t forget, I am talking only about missing revolutionary soldiers.
Okay – so enough philosophy, already!
Today did not turn out way I had hoped. My friend Dzung got a phone call from the US consulate and flew to Ho Chi Minh City today to see about his visa. Everything is okay, but his trip to the US will be delayed a week. I went over to the University of Da Nang campus hoping to find Mr. Long, but the students are out for the summer, and the campus deserted. When I went to the Information Resource Center to use a computer (and broadband Internet access), I was disappointed to find I could not access the floppy disk drive. I have been writing this journal on my laptop, then dumping each day’s posting to a floppy so I could compose in my room, and only pay for being online a short time. The computer security weenies are everywhere, eh? Somebody probably brought in a virus, so the reaction was to prevent anyone from using a floppy. So – I used the dial-up connection at the hotel.
This was a lazy day. The travel is wearing us out. After meeting Dr. Tan of the Da Nang health service on some official Vets With a Mission business, we went to Christy’s for lunch, then cruised the market place. It was the usual noisy and crowded Vietnamese marketplace that has a stall for just about everything. There are some interesting smells too – but if you don’t like a smell, walk another ten feet, and you’ll get a different smell.
My cigar is about finished – time to get to bed and be ready to meet Dzung and Xuan for breakfast in the morning.
Saturday July 19
Remember I said Viet Nam is noisy? Yep, sure is.
Dung and Xuan took us to dinner tonight – on a floating restaurant that cruises the river. Saturday night in Da Nang, and one of the local telecommunications companies was having their annual party. The group occupied the entire center table – wives, kids – the whole shebang. And did they ever have fun. Folks, you gotta believe that karaoke, fuelled by lots of beer, makes for a loud evening.
Beer drinking has its own rituals in this country. Each restaurant and bar has “beer girls.” These comely young ladies work for the beer companies, not the bar. Their job is to keep the glasses at a table full of whatever brand of beer the group selects. To keep track of how many beers are consumed, the girls keep a case next to the table. As each bottle is emptied, it is put into the case. They are paid by commission. (The lawyers would love it if such a practice was followed in the US.) Any old excuse is cause for all the men to stand up to make a toast – and drain the glass. One guy got so drunk, he even asked me to sing a song.
Funny, though – I feel no pressure from anyone to drink. When I order a Coke or water, nobody bats an eye.
But the evening really was fun – and the food great. We decided to take the risk and eat uncooked greens tonight. We may pay for it later, but the flavor of the minty greens added much to the meal. The baked fish was excellent – called mu (say moo) in Vietnamese.
Dung and Xuan took us to breakfast this morning too. We rode on the back of their motorbikes to a typical sidewalk stall, and sat in the tiny little plastic chairs made for Asian bodies. In other words, my knees were higher than my butt. The food surprised us – there was nothing seafoody or noodly about it. Served on a hot cast iron platter was an egg (sunny side up) and slivers of beef sizzling in a light oil, and all garnished with onion. Add some delicious fresh French bread, and it was a wonderful way to start the day.
C was curious to know how a westerner might shop in Da Nang. They took us to a “supermarket”, which turned out to be a modern three story air-conditioned building with sections selling everything from furniture, to non-perishable foods, to clothes, to electronic goods – just about anything. There was an outdoor market in the back with fresh produce, meat, and fish – and the place seemed a little cleaner than the other market we went to yesterday.
Then to their home, where we chatted over fresh fruit. Xuan is an excellent hostess and went to great lengths to be sure we were comfortable. Her English is not as good as her husband’s, but obviously better than my Vietnamese.
At noon they took us back to the hotel with the promise to pick us up at four o’clock and take us to the Marble Mountains. These five outcroppings are south of Da Nang on the road to Hoi An. Named for the five Buddhist elements of Metal, Water, Wood, Fire, and Earth, they have many grottos and pagodas - - and many steps to climb to reach them. The mountains used to have large chunks of marble carved out of them which were then sculpted into works of art. The many surrounding shops still do some wondrous work, but the marble is brought in from a quarry near Ha Noi in an effort to save the mountains from being destroyed. During the American war, the local Viet Cong supposedly used the natural grottos in the mountains as a hospital. It was a wonderful tour – though climbing the mountain sure got the heart rate going.
Are any of you tired of spiels about why the Vietnamese don’t hate us? One last thought - - don’t confuse the government with the people. At least in central and southern Viet Nam, the populace tries to pay as little attention to the government as possible. As one party member told me, the government leaders talk like Communists, but they act like capitalists. I guess they feel an occasional anti-American episode is necessary for appearances because they are all old men who fought against us and the French. Maybe they need to convince themselves that the revolutionary fervor still exists.
In an earlier posting, I mentioned that C was reading “Up Country” by Nelson DeMille. He is a vet, and returned here in 1997. That being six years ago, much has changed. If you read it, remember it’s a spy novel, and some of the characters have to be sinister to make the book. In talking with vets who returned years ago, I guess it was common to be followed by the police, but that’s not the case now. As before on my trips, one does not see armed soldiers. Even cops don’t carry guns.
Tomorrow we leave for Saigon, which means our trip is coming to an end. I shall post one last time in Saigon before we leave, but will continue once we get back home with some observations and thoughts.
Good night, Viet Nam.
Sunday July 20
Somehow, I don’t think this is what Uncle Ho had in mind.
Sunday night in Ho Chi Minh City brings out every man, woman, and child. They come out to see and be seen. Two, three, even four people to each motorbike, they are on the street by the tens of thousands. It’s a river of humankind flowing by me, encased in noise. There are so many engines running, you cannot hear the individual motors – just a dull, loud roar - - like a slow freight train going by. On top of that are the honking horns – so numerous you barely hear them. Of course there are the loud public address speakers blaring outside the old French Opera House, plus the karaoke music coming from numerous boom boxes. I don’t think this scene could be reproduced in any other city. If this were New York, the people would be in cars, and there can’t be as many cars on the street as motorbikes. No – this is distinctly Saigon - - and the neon lights, fancy shops, blatant capitalism, and girls in three inch spike heels are definitely not what Uncle Ho had in mind.
The day has been mellow. I met with Nguyen Van Long (English teacher at the University of Da Nang) in the lobby at nine so I could give him a book about the American Civil War. That is his academic area of interest. I ran a couple of my half-baked theories concerning why the Vietnamese don’t dislike Americans, and he agreed with them. Actually, when the topic first came up, he was mildly surprised that Americans would think the Vietnamese don’t like them – but then again, he is only thirty years old. He gave me the email address of a professor going to the US on a Fulbright who will be working on the use of multimedia in higher education. I will be staying in touch with the intelligent Mr. Long.
Dung and Xuan are wonderful people – they actually came to the airport to see us off. Hopefully, it will be only a few weeks before Dung is in Texas.
Not much else to tell. The flight back to Ho Chi Minh was uneventful – we still don’t know how we’ll get the embroidery on the plane – and our last dinner was great. The suitcases are repacked, and we’re out on the rooftop bar at the Rex Hotel enjoying the evening.
This will be the last posting for awhile. Don’t worry - I still have lots of “thoughts and comments” to use in a wrap-up posting or two, but the next two days will be spent in travel and recovery. The jet lag kicks my butt going back home, but I’ll have lots of time flying across the Pacific to write.
Tuesday July 22
Drugs! Better living through chemistry!
Its a wonder what three Benedryl will do to help get to sleep on that long trip back across the Pacific. The flight out of HCMC was just fine - though I admit to a certain sadness at leaving. The trip was great - truly great. The food is great, the scenery better, and the people best. We grumbled a bit last night as the surly desk clerk at the hotel here in LA sent us on a wild goose chase trying to find out room. In Viet Nam someone would have taken us to the room.
I'm glad Red Leg Doug thinks I should be a restaurant critic. The food indeed is great, but I admit we ate a good old 'Merican bacon and cheeseburger last night. Didn't use chopsticks either.
As I said in my last posting, I have lots of other thoughts about Viet Nam, past, present, and even the future. I shall post them soon. Red Leg Doug says he in considering a trip to Viet Nam - I think you should, and I think that when the time is right, most 'Nam vets should go back. Its time for us middle-aged guys to realize that Viet Nam is a country, not a war.
From a hotel near the busy Los Angeles Airport - peace to you, my friends.