Tag Archives: vietnam

Riding the Reunification Rails

Why don’t you hate us? How don’t you hate us?

I never could ask.

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Mr Chien was eating chicken off the bone and telling me about My Son: the deep jungle; the tigers that had been there a millennia ago; the construction without mortar. It was a mystery, he told me, a wonder of the world. A thousand years old.

“The VC hid there during the war,” he said. He gestured to the flat plain around us, “all here was a big American base. So the VC go to My Son. They thought no one would bomb a temple.”

I picked up some morning glory and dunked it into the hot pot, watching it wilt in the broth. “Did it protect them?” I asked.

Mr Chien got the last bit of meat on a bone, and threw it to the ground, where a dog was eating our remains. “Oh no,” he said, wiping his fingers, “you bombed it.”

Why don’t you hate us?

But I didn’t have the guts to ask.

**********

Leaving the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh I was shaken. Inside were photographs of the American War, gallery after gallery of tired soldiers, broken bodies, napalmed villages. One room showed only the victims of Agent Orange, generations on – babies with giant foreheads, children with one large finger, women with no hands.

At the entrance to the Requiem Gallery, a collection of photos from American, Japanese, British and Vietnamese – both Nationalist and VC – photojournalists there was a giant plaque on the wall. On it was written, both in Vietnamese and English, the following: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Next to it was a shot of a village, burned to the ground, a woman weeping in the foreground.

I know propaganda when I see it. I know that when the State of Kentucky donated the Requiem photos to Vietnam they probably didn’t mean them to be housed in a gallery named Crimes of Aggression in the American War. I know what happened to American soldiers in the Hanoi Hilton, and why John McCain can’t raise his arms. For that matter, I know that no matter what the museum says, there were men and women – men like Mr Chien – who fought for the South not by force but by choice. It was more complicated than the room entitled “Historical Facts” made clear.

But across from the Declaration of Independence was a six foot segment of cement sewer, theoretically the very segment from which Bob Kerrey and his men dragged screaming, unarmed women in Thanh Phong and killed them. Maybe it was that sewer. Maybe it wasn’t. But whether this was one, there were sewers, there were soldiers, there were shots in the night and  there were villages burned.

Outside the museum the sun was punishingly hot. I felt dizzy, and a little sick. The man who sold me water had no hands, his arms ended just after the elbow. He asked where I was from and I told him. He reached out one arm for me to shake, and I took his elbow in my hand. “Welcome to Vietnam,” he said.

Why don’t you hate us?

I didn’t ask.

*****************

The war isn’t everywhere in Vietnam. The history professors, told a story before we docked. His daughter had lived in Vietnam in the late 90s. When she got home, she would hear his friends tell her about the country they knew from their service, and she would lose patience with them. “You don’t know Vietnam,” she said, “you know a war.”

Vietnam has been conquered again and again, and they have gained independence again and again. They were possessed by the Chinese long before the French. They have had colonial overlords and imperialist partners. But Vietnam has remained.

For most of the time, I forgot about the war entirely. In Hanoi, after a day of visiting temples and drinking thick, sweet coffee on rooftops, I realized that I had left it too late to visit the Hanoi Hilton before I got on the overnight train. I had a beer instead, watched the sunset and caught the 10pm Reunification Express headed South.

In Hoi An, a magical little city of yellow walls and glowing lanterns and rooftop cafes overlooking a river, I took a cooking class. We bought vegetables and beef and shrimp at a market and climbed into a boat. For forty-five minutes we puttered through lush coconut groves, past fishing boats and families eating lunch by the river. At an outdoor kitchen with a cool breeze blowing past we made spring rolls and pancakes and spicy, fragrant pho.

In the afternoon, my belly full, I wandered the streets, visiting temples and communal houses and buying trinkets. The streets were covered in banners for Tet, the New Year (a side note: since most of our decorations are made in SE Asia anyway, they are used locally for New Years celebrations, leading to hundreds of signs, hung over kumquat trees covered in red good luck banners, that say “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!” with pictures of santa and tinsel trim in mid-February). Towards dusk the day cooled and a warm breeze picked up, catching scarves and robes twisting them in the wind. Thousands of lanterns lit up, strings of them were swinging gently over the roads, glowing yellow and red and blue. Blissfully calm, I ducked into a trinket shop to look at marble and inlaid wooden plates. Towards the back was a table with toy planes and cars. I looked closer – they were all made of bullet shells.

Why, God, why don’t you hate us?

*********************

I never found out. I have no answer. I certainly never had the guts to ask.

I live in the South (well, the sort of South) and if I drive an hour or so out from my pinko commie town, I’ll see Confederate flags and banners telling me the South With Rise Again. They are signs of a Civil War, a hundred and fifty years old – and still not forgiven.

But Mr Chien spoke no ill of the VC. He fought for Saigon, but bowed his head in respect at VC graves, and spoke admiringly of their tenacity, digging tunnels under American bases. When he told me a shovel was used for digging fox holes, or that the machine for grinding rice was made of melted down munitions, it was with a detached air, knowing that these facts might be if particular interest to a visiting American. He’s guided vets for years, putting them in touch with schools that might need help, “When they go back to America,” he told me, “they go crazy. They want to do something good for Vietnam.”

The vets on the ship held a seminar a few nights before landing. They talked about their experiences in Vietnam, their memories, their losses and disappointments and wounds. As we travelled up the Saigon river, one of them told me he woke up at five to see a landscape he hadn’t returned to for almost fifty years, since his navy ship pulled away. He spent the morning on the top deck watching the MV Explorer motor deeper and deeper into Vietnam. “I was saying sorry,” he told me.

Myself? I’ve got nothing. Of course I don’t. I’m twenty-nine, dumb and I was there five days.  I spent at least two of those days dedicated solely with determined tenacity to the task of comparative noodle tasting and critical cross-broth analysis, plus a heroic attempt to see how much iced coffee I could consume without having a breakdown.

All I do know is this: there were bombs and shots and grenades and land mines and chemicals rained from the sky. There are men from Hanoi without arms and men from Des Moines without legs. There was a war. And somehow, against all odds, they don’t hate us.

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I don’t often take travel advice from my brother.

Or advice at all, for that matter.

For those who know him, those who have received accounts of walking up train tracks along cliff edges in Peru, or watching his friend stitch up his own leg in Cambodia, this is a pretty self-explanatory survival tactic.

For those who don’t know him, let me just explain something here: my brother is an idiot.

But there is one piece of advice that I picked up from him. It’s not something I remember him telling me directly, at any point, more of just a general guideline that comes across from his journeys. An aphorism for travel:

Just don’t tell mom and dad until after you’ve done it.

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I love traveling alone. I love being able to decide exactly what I want to do that day. I love having no one to answer to if a particular road seems worth walking down for two hours, or if I just decide, on a whim, that I am not actually the least bit interested in an unmissable site or unforgettable museum. I love that if I decide to buy four yards of silk without an particular purpose in mind there is absolutely no one present to remind me to be sensible. There’s a bit in The Dud Avocado (a book that everyone who is young and stupid and abroad should read) where Sally says, ““Frequently, walking down the streets in Paris alone, I’ve suddenly come upon myself in a store window grinning foolishly away at the thought that no one in the world knew where I was at just that moment.”

It’s a feeling anyone who has traveled alone knows well. It is, I promise, pure magic.

But just because I love something doesn’t mean I should be allowed to do it.

Travel, particularly travel on your own, sets up a strange sense of value that’s hard to justify or explain. I will spend $30 on a marble knick knack I don’t want just to get a shop keeper to stop hounding me, but will get stubbornly attached to the idea that a taxi ride just should not be $20. Knowing I’ll be ripped off hardly helps. Buying a zippered bag that I keep close to my body was a waste of money – I can be robbed blind with all my possessions firmly in hand.

On my own, I have a habit of losing more and offending less. If the drink comes with ice, I’ll weigh diarrhea against awkwardness and almost certainly accept it. I’ll buy things I never wanted, pretending politely to be duped by every possible gimmick. It’s not that I don’t know I’m being taken, it’s just that it seems rude to point out a racket while I’m still being swindled. No one likes being called a scam artist. Not even a scam artist.

Within six hours of docking in Vietnam, for instance, I had handed over $40 for a taxi ride that should have cost $6. Which is really exacerbated by the currency – $40 is 800,000 Vietnamese Dong. I handed over almost a million for a taxi. A million! A million of what is hardly relevant here. It was a million, and I was quietly, shyly ashamed.

Maybe that’s what had me so defensive when I got to De Nang two days later. Or maybe it was the look of frank incredulity and mild pity on the face of the Australians who shared my train carriage from Hanoi when I told them how much I paid for the scarf I was wearing. Whatever it was, I was feeling young and naive and stupid. I was an idiot, and I was determined not to be taken advantage of again.

Stepping out of the station into the blinding, bleaching sun, a little sleepy and sore and disoriented from fifteen hours on an uncomfortable train, hungry as a result of a food cart that offered only duck fetus, I was faced with a crowd of touts shouting “taxi!”

I saw a man in a green shirt with the logo of what I knew to be a reputable company. I asked him how much to Hoi An and he told me “by the meter” – which is really the correct answer, all said and done. Yes, I said, but how much would that be? “About 400.” 400,000! That’s nearly half a million. Half. A. Million! Who cares of what!

From behind him I saw a hand shoot up and a voice called out: “is it just you?”

I thought of all the warnings I knew about admitting, publicly, to traveling alone: all the times I’ve worn a fake wedding band, all the “friends” I’ve had waiting for me “at the hotel.’ I took a deep breath.

“Yes!” I told him.

“I’ll do it for 200!”

Sold! Sold to the total stranger with no company!

And, it turns out, no car!

Mr Chien introduced himself and led me to his motor bike.

Now, I have a thing about motorcycles. They kill people, you know. I know people whose entire craniums have been painstakingly restructured because of accidents. I know people with permanent scars from exhaust pipes. Plus, motorcycle taxis are notoriously dangerous for single women. I thought about all of this, all the warnings, all the sensible reasons not to get on the back of a motorcycle with a total stranger who, I realized, had not even asked the name of my hotel yet.

But then I thought this: it’ll save you ten dollars.

There was a girl climbing onto the bike next to mine. She looked so confident. She told me not to worry, and then told me her name was Jane. I was practically raised by a woman named Jane. I got on the bike.

Five minutes later we were roaring down a highway at sixty miles an hour, weaving in and out of trucks, and my ill-fitting helmet kept bouncing on top of my head. Mr Chien still hadn’t, I noted, asked the name of my hotel. I leaned forward and yelled over the wind, “how long to Hoi An?”

“Less than one hour. I can go fast!” Mr Chien yelled back.

Jane may well have practically raised me, I realized, but that doesn’t mean she’s known for making wise decisions. 

__________________

I was thinking about this rule of not telling until after, and the strange advantages of my willingness to be easily sold two days later, when I climbed off the back of Mr Chien’s motorcycle at the 11th century Champa temples of My Son.

Because of course he sold me on a day long motorcycle tour of the area. And of course I said yes.

It turns out Mr Chien is fascinating. Mr Chien is a vet who fought for the Nationalist army, with brothers who fought for the VC, and twenty years experience guiding returning American vets around the country. And when he came for the tour, he even brought a helmet that fit. We wound our way through back country roads, through tiny villages swarming with activity the day before New Years, and spent a few hours eating a lunch of chicken hot pot with fresh herbs in a dusty little roadside bar where Mr Chien held a tiny, girl dressed up for the holiday.

Finally, I hung that well-fitting helmet over the handlebars of Mr Chien’s bike and wandered up the quiet path to My Son. The jungle was thick on either side, and the air was soft and heavy – the wetness blanketing the chatter of men and birds. After ten minutes the path wound past a small store where two women ate noodles surrounded by silk scarves and post cards. Another two minutes on and the jungle parted. On the hill in front of me stood the moss covered ruins of My Son, Hindu temples made of carefully fitted brick with no mortar. To this day, they are like Stone Henge – no one knows, really, how they were built. The temples were ringed by a quiet river, clustered in a few small groups of towers and stones and heaps, with little white and yellow flowers sprouting between the bricks.

There were only a few other tourists meandering in little bands, speaking in hushed tones. I thought of all my friends who told me about the crowds in Angkor. I watched a dozen butterflies take off from a patch of moss on the edge of a temple mound.

After My Son we went to a farm where I made rice paper and saw chickens whose coops were old television sets at the house of an elderly woman who pointed to the wall and spoke quickly in Vietnamese. That shovel, Mr Chien told me, was used to dig foxholes for the Americans. We rode down through paddies (the land, Mr Chien told me, again and again, is remarkably fertile) and had coffee at a road side spot where the son of the family shaved while two women served me coffee, thick and sweet, mixed with condensed milk, and chickens pecked at my feet.

Finally Mr Chien took me to the marble mountains, giant monoliths of cold rock sticking out of the ground like Uluru. I climbed steps carved into the rock – right at the top was a Buddha, 20 feet high, carved of white marble. I climbed more steps and down some and through an arch carved in rock. A door led into the dark. I walked through and the damp, blanket of heat dissolved into a cool cave. A set of stairs led to the left, between four gods painted in red. Down below the cave opened into a cavern four stories high, still and dark. At the top of the cave two holes ringed in foliage let in shafts of light. One landed on a marble statue of a buddha, gender-less, time-less, cool and calm. 

Twenty minutes later (after buying a piece of marble that, lets be honest, no one wanted) Mr Chien dropped me at the airport. My hair was full of dust, me legs were burned by the sun, and no one knew where I was just at that moment.

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