A Visit to Vietnam
As a Northwestern student in the early 1970s, I knew all about Vietnam, or at least enough to know that I did not want to go there. Each night the news featured smoky visuals with hunched, weapon-holding soldiers tramping through fields with rocket fire overhead. Helicopters swooped down to pick up the bloodied wounded and dying amidst burning jungle. I could almost smell the stench and feel the horror even though I was thousands of miles away sitting safely in a dorm room.
Yes, Vietnam was not a place I wanted to visit. In fact, being about 20 and prime age for the draft, I would have done or said about anything to avoid going there. Even though I am of the Vietnam generation, albeit toward the younger side, I know only two people who went there during the war. In the end, the draft board never called. I guess I should not be too surprised as statistics now show less than 10 percent of age-relevant males ever served there.
Of the two, one never lived to tell about it. We went to the same high school and we had lunch together occasionally. He was affable, but not a scholar. I only learned about his death several years later at a class reunion, and saddened, found his name on the Vietnam War Memorial. The other is a button-hole relative who flew a Huey helicopter. He showed slides of his experience at a family gathering which made Vietnam seem like a less horrible place. He revealed a beautiful landscape and smiling people. It is he who first gave me a glimpse of this beautiful country.
I have always liked Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, so I decide to take the plunge and visit Vietnam. The questions abound—how will they treat me as an American? Will I be safe? How will I react knowing that 58,000 of my fellow American males died there, let alone the thousands still suffering from memories? Will I feel guilty? I will soon find out.
I land at the Ho Chi Minh Airport in the evening. The new airport terminal sparkled as a smiling, young woman greets me at the information counter. I had just made a hotel reservation on the Internet several hours before so I hand her cash from the adjacent ATM in exchange for a taxi voucher to the hotel. I like that system—no worry about meters and round-about routings in a strange city. But then she says the driver will ask for more money, shattering the ease. I should refuse, she says.
I do not like confrontations particularly when I am not on my own turf. I am placed in a cab with two young Australian women who make me feel more comfortable. They say cheap fares attracted them to Vietnam, and that it is becoming a popular destination. It makes me remember several young American backpackers in the arrivals hall. As we leave the airport, the driver requests parking toll money —I say no—nothing bad happens and he shakes my hand when he delivers me to the hotel.
Although I know the communist north had changed the name Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City (simply HCMC on road signs) it surprises me to hear everyone still refer to the city as Saigon, especially the downtown area where my hotel is located. The narrow street is almost European in nature—-10-story plus buildings that are not even 25 feet wide. The room is modern, complete with flat screen TV and toiletry amenities, including free Internet access and a buffet breakfast (Vietnamese and American dishes). The best part—an all inclusive price of $20, which is also prominently displayed on a banner outside. The city also boasts five star hotels, along with five star price tags—I’ll take the bargain.
The First Challenge—Crossing the Street
Armed with a map and advice from the concierge, I set out to discover Saigon. Surprisingly, I am within walking distance of all major sights. My first impression is the vibrant market economy—no drab shops reminiscent of past communist countries. And no worry about dollar acceptance—it seems to be a currency of choice with shop window displays delineating prices in the currency.
The second impression is the motor bikes—literally thousands of them, and traffic. Advised to simply look at the traffic head on and walk, I slowly cross the multi-laned street, learning that each motor bike will navigate around you. So I do just that, and end up at my first stop, the War Remnants Museum.
When I first walk into the complex, the surrounding yard looks like an American military museum. Tanks and helicopters, apparently left by the Americans, sit everywhere. I am drawn to the Huey, the one I saw in slides so many years ago. It looks small and nimble against the huge Chinook helicopter. It might be fun to fly, but am not sure I would have liked to be in the cockpit during this helicopter’s particular history.
The museum building itself is imposing with a big red star at the top and “peace” written in English and Vietnamese. Inside are three stories of memories—war artifacts, photographs and commentary. While the staging is from a Vietnamese-biased perspective, I do not question the facts as they mirror much of what I already know. Probably the most troubling display focuses on Agent Orange, and how it continues to affect not only the countryside 40 years later, but the lives of children and grandchildren of those exposed to the agent.
Both American and Vietnamese families affected by physical birth defects are pictured. I am proud to see that Kentucky and major American companies sponsor an exhibit detailing photos taken by the 134 journalists who died in the war.
A small replica of a jail exposes the atrocities imposed by the South Vietnamese on their fellow citizens—the breaking of bones, gruesome burning of genitalia and confinement to tiny cages, unfit for even animals. But there is no mention of what may have occurred when the South Vietnamese were the victims. One can only assume that man’s inhumanity to man did not discriminate.
Nearby, I visit Reunification Palace, formerly known as Independence Palace.Built in 1966, it was the headquarters of the South Vietnamese government. I feel as though I am in a time warp—the 60s furnishings make me think of my childhood. The nearby American embassy, remembered for the helicopter evacuation as North Vietnamese troops arrived in the city on April 30, 1975, is now a consulate. The original chancery building was torn down when the Americans re-established relations in 1995, partly to erase bad memories. A new American embassy sits in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital.
Since the French had established Vietnam as a colony, I am not surprised to learn that about 50 percent of the people are Roman Catholics. The grand Notre Dame Cathedral sits proudly next to park land and historic French-style buildings. The Rex Hotel, noted for the daily 5:00 PM press briefing from military brass, still stands. It is said that from its top floor cocktail lounge, GIs partied within earshot of rockets and tracers in the distance…..and were probably happy to be there rather than on the ground.
In the evening as I sit with a beer at a riverfront bar, a man greets me and asks if this is my first tour of duty in Vietnam. Very friendly and eager to talk, I am a bit taken aback with the question. He explains how he had been with the South, and how difficult it was for him after the war, particularly finding meaningful employment. We discover we are exactly the same age. We talk and he seems genuinely happy I am here for a visit.
How lives can be so different but also intertwine. Later that evening I am the target of twenty-something females on motor bikes. I implicitly wonder why I, a middle-aged male, would be so interesting as they slowed, winked, then sped off.
The next day it is out of the city, traversing busy villages, markets and mountains. We visit the colorful, ornate Cao Dai temple, home to a hybrid religion of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity. Robed mid-day prayer participants celebrate God as they march serenely into the temple. The ceremony exudes harmony and peace.
But it is not long before the guide takes us back to memories of war—we are to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels after lunch. He explains that his father had been a freedom fighter, or Viet Cong. What I didn’t know is that I am about to meet him. It is a special day for the family—the death day of their grandmother. Vietnamese celebrate death days, not birthdays, he says, and invites the small tour group to his home for lunch. We drive to the end of a dirt road in the country. I am the only American.
His father not only welcomes me, but good-heartedly teases me with a three-foot long snake, which he gingerly places in the folds of my shirt, delighting at my squirms. Local cuisine and fruit literally picked off the trees above the outdoor dining table are served. Other than an affable young Russian on the tour who jokes that we are supposed to be “enemies”, there is no hint of discomfort for me as an American or for my Vietnamese hosts. The Russian tells me he lives in Siberia, and with further prodding tells me he works with the Internet and computers. I ask no more questions.
Cu Chi Tunnels
After lunch it is off to the tunnels. A labyrinth of underground, connecting passages—250 kilometers in length—is under us, extending to Cambodia. That is where the Viet Cong lived, complete with kitchens, sleeping areas, hospitals and small factories where they turned captured ammunition in to metal spikes. They used the spikes in booby traps, and my stomach turns as I see these. One trap is a large hole in the ground about four feet deep and six feet long embedded with spikes.
The top, a large wooden plank balanced on a fulcrum, covers the hole and is camouflaged with jungle weeds so the unsuspecting soldier will assume it is solid ground. But when encountered with weight, the plank flips down, impaling a soldier on the spikes. The guide says it is designed to injure and slow down advancement. I can only imagine the pain. Even shoes were re-made with soles affixed in the wrong direction, fooling those tracking movements.
But the worst is the holes. One Vietnamese woman claimed she killed 118 Americans by popping out of a ground hole, taking aim and firing at a passing soldier, and then disappearing back in the earth, escaping through tunnels. I see the holes—just about 12 inches in diameter with a removable wooden lid made to blend with the environment.
My heart sinks, eyes tear wondering if this is where my high school friend had died. And even if it wasn’t, so many did. My mind started jumping —how could someone do this? It is so cruel and unfair. Then I think about my grandmother, and what she may have done if foreign soldiers marched through her farm in the rolling hills of southwest Wisconsin. I am confused; do not want to think about this anymore. I want to leave. War must be hell.
The Mekong Delta
If there is a storybook part of Vietnam, it is the Mekong Delta–green watery rice fields, women and men in traditional coned straw hats and the floatingmarkets. Here is where tradition greets the visitor. We board a long, narrow wooden boat and ply our way amongst many vessels selling goods on the Mekong River. Later, a smaller version takes us upstream to see the shops where Vietnamese delicacies are made. This includes everything about rice—from paper to sweets to wine. A man shows us how rice cakes are made. I never knew rice popped just like popcorn.
We continue on bikes until we come to the wine shop. I take as many samples of rice wine as I can reasonably drink without being noticeable. Of note is snake wine. It tastes great until I see a dead, coiled snake in the wine bottle. The winemaker tells me rice is fermented with the snake creating the wine, hence the name. I look away from the bottle and gamely take another swig.
My four days in southern Vietnam only scratches the surface. The country offers many more exploration opportunities—the coastline and its beaches, and historical cities like Hue. The people are warm and welcoming. Any fear is unfounded. And I also come away with a greater appreciation for those we put in harm’s way—our soldiers. While it is heart-breaking to stand on the same terrain where so many suffered, I remember a phrase offered by the philosopher George Santayana,
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I did feel the past, but will visit again to experience the bright future.
Jeff Fulton is free lance writer specializing in travel, business and culture. His stories have been published on USAToday.com/Travel, TrailsTravel.com, Travel.com, eHow.com and others. He lives in Chicago.
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