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Journey to Vietnam

Leaving Jakarta, Indonesia, by plane we flew to Vietnam by way of Bangkok. It was easy enough but the wait in Bangkok airport was long and tedious after a few hours layover. The airport had the usual duty-free shops which really didn't give you a lower price unless you like to drink and smoke. Me, I just find the nearest smoking lounge which can be any thing from a spacious lounge to a small unventilated room which upon entering, one need not smoke as there is enough smoke in the room to kill a horse. Out of habit I lit up and enjoyed a brief camaraderie with the people in the room.

Very few Asian women were in the room. I asked an Asian man why this was and he seemed to think smoking for women was an unladylike thing to do in Asia. In one of the better smoking lounges at the airport there were brushed aluminum ashtray stands with circular bowls filled with sand. Every now and then a woman would come in and strain the sand removing the cigarette butts and smooth out the sand and imprint the letters BIA into the sand. This puzzled me as I immediately thought, "What is the Bureau of Indian Affairs doing here?" Later on, still puzzled, I was looking out this huge window at the airplanes taking off and landing when I happen to look up and see Bangkok International Airport. Well, no shit, I thought. That was easy enough — too easy.

We finally boarded the plane to Ho Chi Minh City and again the Asian stewardesses were incredibly beautiful. We enjoyed a fine meal and were soon landing at Ho Chi Minh City International Airport. Customs was brief and normal as we had previously obtained our visas in San Francisco without much trouble. I noticed a customs declaration poster on the wall that said: No children's stories having negative effects on personality development. ... I'm sure the Vietnamese were thinking of G.I. Joe and Barbie.

The travel book, The Lonely Planet travel book, pointed out District 1 as being the place in Ho Chi Minh City with cheap hotels. This district is also known as the "backpack district," being full of foreigners carrying, well, backpacks. We exchanged some American money for Vietnamese money called Dong. Then we made hotel and taxi reservations at the airport and we were off — at about 2 in the morning.

As we exited the airport there was a huge crowd of people all in white robes standing around this open space which we had to walk through while all of them looked at us curiously and in expectation. Apparently they were waiting for people who were coming back from a pilgrimage to Mecca, a Hajj, which every good Muslim is supposed to take once in his lifetime. We handed the taxi driver the reservation. Upon looking at it, he whined a little bit about it being a long way to go and asked if there would be a tip. I assured him there would be a tip and not to worry. His English was OK, and we are able to talk fairly well considering I don't know any Vietnamese.

The first thing I noticed was that the streets were clean which is a far cry from the streets in Indonesia, which is a whole other story. We passed a rather large nightclub which was packed with motor scooters and people on the sidewalk. In fact there were so many people out on the streets we started thinking this place is really jumping. The weather being warm, people tend to stay out late. I asked the driver if I could smoke a cigarette and he said, Yes. I showed him my rolling tobacco and said it came from Denmark. He proceeded to tell me about a man from Denmark who wrote children's stories and how his parents read those stories to him as a child and now he reads them to his children. When I mentioned Hans Christian Andersen his face lit up and we had a bond from then on. We both went on about how wonderful and charming these stories are.

We finally arrived at our hotel. Not knowing how much to tip we just pulled out a 50,000-dong note and gave it to him. Again his face lit up as it apparently was too much to tip a cabby. We were not paying too much attention to the value of the dongs yet.

The hotel was very elegant with a large lobby, elevators, and a restaurant on the top floor with a tremendous view of Ho Chi Minh City. The hotel was about ten stories which is rather tall as most of the buildings were anywhere from two to seven stories tall and no more than 15 feet wide and about 50 feet long, all made out of concrete. So if you bang your head against a wall in your room it can really hurt. We immediately went to sleep as we were exhausted from our trip.

Waking up the next afternoon, we walked around. The streets were filled with people, many of whom were foreigners. Each block is honeycombed with narrow alleys turning every which way. You literally walk past or even through people's living rooms and kitchens. It is very easy to get confused and never find your way back out to the street. We generally stuck to the streets unless we knew our way for certain on a particular route through the block. The streets were kept clean by people who sweep the streets with brooms and long handle pans to collect and the sweepings. Garbage is put out in the gutters and collected and thrown into hand pulled carts. We found a nice restaurant with seating facing out onto the street. This restaurant served Italian food. What little Vietnamese food we had eaten we did not find too appetizing. But as our stay progressed we found this incredible Vietnamese soup — but more about that later.

Every morning we would go out and find an outdoor cafe — everything is outdoors here, the weather being so warm. We drank tea and watched the parade of people go by. We met a man named Colin from New Zealand who teaches English in Vietnam. He said anybody from an English-speaking country can teach English provided you speak it well. He made $1200-$1300 a month which is quite good. He had a three-story apartment which he pays $500 a month for and is able to put money aside each month after expenses. He has about 15 students and says his female students keep hitting on him — from what I've seen of Vietnamese women that's not bad, although he seemed to be weary of it. I don't like to generalize, but all the Vietnamese women I saw were beautiful and not a gram of fat on any of them, even after two or three kids. My friend Jorge was in love with everyone of them, but being married and with a kid, he behaved himself.

After tea, two rickshaw drivers scooped us up and took us to the American War Museum which is a must-see for any foreign visitor to Vietnam. On the way to the museum the streets were filled with little motorcycles moving in huge herds from one intersection to the next. I think this is a recent phenomenon as I saw on a postcard of Ho Chi Minh City for sale that all the people are riding bicycles. Plus, the motorbikes are all new looking. The people riding them were young and, in their 20s, which makes me think that Vietnam must have had a baby boom after the war.

After about a 20 minute ride we were deposited in front of the Museum which is surrounded by a wall about ten feet tall with a large gate which was open. We paid our fee to get in and were immediately confronted with piles and piles of defused bombs that were left over from the war with America. You wouldn't believe all the sizes and shapes of bombs that were dropped on tiny Vietnam. More bombs — five million according to estimates, were dropped on Vietnam than in all of World War Two including in America, in England, Russia, Germany, France, and Japan combined. It amazes me that anyone is left alive in Vietnam. Many captured artillery guns, tanks, and a shot up helicopter filled the grounds of the museum.

I heard languages from all around the world at the Museum, everyone was in a somber mood to say the least. In one room there were photographs of both Vietnamese and American soldiers and the horrors of war were were featured in each one of them. Captions for the photographs were in four languages — Vietnamese, English, French and Spanish. Another room contained an exhibit showing protests around the world against the war in Vietnam. Another room showed the effects of Agent Orange on the land and the people of Vietnam. One photo showed the B-52 bombers dropping Agent Orange over huge swaths of the countryside. It still amazes me that anyone survived — to this day it still affects the Vietnamese people.

There were two jars of formaldehyde, one with a baby with a head the size of a soccer ball, the other had a baby with two heads. Tears welled up in my eyes many times over what we did to this country. One photograph showed a woman with four small children whose husband had just stepped on a land mine and was killed. This happened in 1979. The government of Vietnam sent a representative to see her and present gifts and money to her to perhaps ease her pain. The children seemed happy to receive these gifts, but the mother, who was looking straight into the camera, had a look of sorrow and anger on her face. I stared at the photograph for a long time and will never forget her eyes. I wanted to go out into the courtyard of the museum, sit down in the middle of it, douse myself with gasoline, and well...

Here I was, an American, whose country waged a cruel and savage war on the people of Vietnam. Over three million were killed. And yet I felt perfectly safe being here. Unlike Germany and Japan where we sunk billions of dollars to rebuild their countries after defeat, we haven't given Vietnam one fucking dime, although a McDonald's has opened up in Ho Chi Minh City this year. But I don't quite think the Vietnamese had that in mind as far as any assistance in rebuilding their country goes.

But, didn't Vietnam win the war? Is that why we don't help them rebuild? They paid a huge price for that victory and for the first time in a long time Vietnam is unified with no foreign power occupying it. After centuries of foreign rule, starting with the Chinese, then the Mongols, Tibetans, Chinese again, French, Japanese, French again, and finally the Americans, on April 30th, 1975, Vietnam was unified. Finally. The North beating the South, just like in this country's civil war.

My friend and I left the museum after a few hours. Upon looking out the gate we saw that our two rickshaw drivers were there waiting for us all this time. We had no idea they would do that — perhaps they told us they would but we didn't understand. They leaped up as we walked out and pedaled us back to our hotel through the busy motorbike traffic.

After paying the rickshaw drivers we went to the Italian restaurant again — we really liked their food. We had something to eat while looking at the street life passing before us. Boys on bicycles with rattles made of flattened beer bottle caps passed by a lot.

We found out that they can take you to a massage parlor and line you up with a girl or boy if you prefer. Beautiful girls, dressed to kill, cruised by on motorbikes giving us long glances. I was approached many times and asked if I wanted a girl and when I said, No, they'd asked if I wanted a boy. When I still said, No, they would look at me in a strange way like, "What's with this guy?" I was truly not interested and just wanted to feel the pulse of city life in Ho Chi Minh City.

The next day Jorge and I rented a couple of motorbikes and man was that thrilling to be part of this swirling mass of motorbikes on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City! We were surrounded by thousands and thousands people on motorbikes. The bikes are very simple to operate. We threaded our way through traffic not knowing where we were going and we became part of an homogenous mass of moving objects. When stopped at a traffic light — there were some, not many though — we would be surrounded and tightly packed together with thousands of idling motorbikes waiting for a green light. When the light changed we all moved forward as one, inches away from the bikes next to us and out and down the street we went, vying for a little advantage here or an opening there in order to pass and get ahead of the bike it in front of you. Some intersections were roundabouts, so there would be hundreds of motorbikes coming at you from all directions. With the use of the brake and the throttle, which were operated with the right hand, you could meld with the oncoming traffic and slide through. It was thrilling! People were constantly using their air horns and so did I. But after a while I felt I didn't need to and stopped altogether which worked out fine for me. We rode on and on, not knowing where we were going but enjoying ourselves immensely.

We came to a river on the outskirts of the City where surprisingly there was hardly anybody around. We parked our motorbikes and smoked a joint while overlooking the river. Yes, one can buy the green stuff in Vietnam, not like other parts of Southeast Asia where it can be a capital crime or life in prison. It was relaxing to stand by the slow-moving river, watching boats go by the likes of which we had never seen before — sampans, I suppose.

Refreshed, we jumped back onto our bikes and took off for the city, only to get hopelessly lost and, worse still, separated. If you've ever driven in an Asian city, you'd know that maps and street signs are of no use. To even find the street sign is a challenge and to be able to read or make any sense out of it is impossible. I drove alone for about 20 minutes when, all the sudden, I saw Jorge who stood out from the rest of the herd as I'm sure I did, being foreign. Boy, were we happy to see each other — we could at least share being lost together. He had stopped at a small cellphone shop to asked directions and with the map that I had of Ho Chi Minh City, maybe we had a chance to make it back to our hotel before it got dark, which was rapidly approaching.

The guy in the shop could not make out on the map just where we were and he did not speak English. And we, of course, didn't speak Vietnamese. Finally, after 20 minutes, the Vietnamese guy jumped onto his motorbike and motioned for us to follow him. He led us through the city to our hotel. Upon arriving we wanted to thank him but he just kept on going after signaling to us to stop. Who was that masked man? Even with the map we would have never found our way back without help. Well, maybe eventually we would have, but it would have taken hours as the streets change their names as they go along and the street signs are very hard to find and not always there. It would have taken some super navigating on our part to get back to the hotel. As it was, we were home. We took showers, and went out to dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant.

By this time we had changed hotels, to one that was a little cheaper. We found one located down an alley in the same block as the one we were in. It was smaller, but just as comfortable. It was run by a Vietnamese woman who was married to a Swiss man who would appear every now and then looking like he just got out of bed — and he probably did. She appeared to be frustrated with the marriage and with him, as if she resented being taken for granted and dominated by him. Apparently he arrived in Vietnam with a lot of money and married her so he could buy property in Vietnam. They slept in separate rooms and she said she was looking for a man — at 51 years old she was quite fetching, I must say. She said he went out at night looking for boys. When I suggested to her in sign language that she should get a divorce, she replied that it was pretty much out of the question. But maybe it put an idea in her mind.

The hotel ran smoothly and we enjoyed our stay there.

The next day we rented a couple of motorbikes plus drivers, and headed for the Cu Chi Tunnels, located about 120 kilometers north of Ho Chi Minh City. The famous Cu Chi tunnels were dug for the purpose of fighting during the war. The ride out to the tunnels was fabulous as we gradually made our way out of the city and came into open country with rice fields as far as the eye could see. It is quite a farming system — villages scattered here and there. The countryside was very flat and open with canals running alongside the road for irrigation.

After an hour and a half we arrived at the tunnels and immediately went into a roadside restaurant and had some cold drinks since it was hot as usual in Vietnam. We bought our tickets and proceeded to walk across the road to the tunnels where we were met by our guide and introduced to the other people in our tour group — a man from Thailand and a man from India and Jorge and I have and our guide. The parking lot was big enough for tour buses so our group was quite small and intimate.

We walked along a path surrounded by trees and bamboo and came upon a low-lying roof which upon entering along the side went down some dirt steps and into an underground room which served as a kitchen during the war. There was a woodstove with a stovepipe that ran along the ground in a shallow trench covered by leaves and twigs, away from the kitchen — the smoke was allowed to exit so it would not be detected by an enemy. A table, sink, cooking utensils and food storage boxes completed the kitchen. Rice was the main food cooked there along with vegetables. There were underground hospitals, classrooms and storage areas, all connected by underground tunnels as well as a series of trenches topside. When bombs were being dropped, everybody jumped down into a tunnel and stayed there until the bombing stopped. The trenches were used for combat and if the Vietnamese were being overrun the soldiers would dive down into the tunnels connecting the trenches and work their way through the tunnels to another more advantageous trench so they could pop out and continue fighting. In some cases behind enemy lines.

The Americans suffered heavy casualties trying to clear out these tunnels and ended up carpet bombing the whole area. The devastation must have been ferocious, for as I looked out into the jungle I started to notice these craters, hundreds of them if you looked hard, half covered with trees no more than 4 inches in diameter, and bamboo. Another problem the Americans had was fitting into the tunnels as they were dug for much smaller people. The way the North Vietnamese soldiers would appear out of nowhere spooked many an American soldier. Also, the pitfall traps were everywhere, built so ingeniously that if a soldier fell into one his leg might have to be amputated in order to free him. Some of these devices were diabolical in design. One was made of two side-rotating drums with spikes protruding from the side with barbed hooks. Another, when stepped on, forced four barbed spikes into the leg, one going right up into the foot with four spikes slicing the leg as it went down into the pit. There was an underground factory with a forge and anvil for making the spikes which were fashioned out of shrapnel from American bombs. Also, bombs that did not explode or were captured were cut in half using a hacksaw. The powder and and detonators removed, and made into landmines which could be detonated from a distance whenever a tank or troop carrier drove over them.

The Americans were essentially supplying the North Vietnamese with weapons. In fact, for a dollar a bullet we could have fired some of these captured weapons on a firing range located on the grounds.

One section of tunnel was opened in order to allow tourists to crawl through. It was made larger for easy access, but I still had to crawl on my hands and knees to get through. The Vietnamese in the original smaller tunnels could walk quickly through on their feet. These tunnels went down as far as 25 feet, and if you were claustrophobic it would have been frightening. Oil lamps were carried by each soldier to illuminate the tunnels, however when we went through we had an electric lights every 10 to 12 feet. Still, I couldn't wait to get to the end and up and out of the tunnel.

On one part of the tour our guide asked us to search the ground and find an opening to a tunnel. After looking for a while and not finding one, he pointed out a 16 inch-square block of wood and, upon removing it, there was an opening down to a tunnel. He asked if someone would like to go into the hole and put the cover on behind you. So I did. When in the hole if you lift the cover up over your head you can sink down into the hole and cover the opening above you at the same time. The tunnel was dark and quiet going off in two directions away from me. All I could take was about five or ten seconds of the confined space and I rose out of the hole into the sunlight. These openings were for quickly disappearing when the enemy came.

Next we came upon a blown up American tank disabled over 30 years ago. Our guide encouraged us to climb to the top of the tank and be photographed, which we did. Jorge and I felt troubled when climbing onto the tank knowing that American soldiers were killed when the tank was blown up. The tour ended at the souvenir stands and we bought some things and headed back to Ho Chi Minh City.

On the way back we stopped at a rubber plantation where there were hundreds and hundreds of rubber trees all in rows. The trees were not as big as I thought they might be, only about 10 inches thick at the most. Diagonal cuts were made into the trees and a small bowl hung at the bottom of the cut to catch the latex which was milky white and very elastic. We continued on our way and past cemeteries with hundreds of concrete headstones which had a red five-point star on them meaning they were Vietnamese soldiers killed in the American war.

In the city our guide wanted to stop at a restaurant that specialized in a particular wonderful noodle soup. We sat at a table which was lowered with short chairs. All the Vietnamese restaurants, except the ones that cater to tourists, had short tables and chairs, some of them seemed to be kid sized. The soup came in large bowls with all manner of things to add to it — breadsticks, long green leaves from some plant, etc., all were set out on the table. I heartily enjoyed this soup and all the things available to add to it.

Back at the hotel we went to our rooms and took showers and had a much needed nap before going out to dinner.

The next day the hotel owner and a friend of hers took us on their motorbikes to Chinatown — boy was that place packed. I have never seen such street life as this. The streets were just overflowing with people and goods. There are not very many cars in Vietnam, only motorbikes. So it is possible for this thriving street life to exist. The side streets were so overflowing that there was just enough room for two single files of motorbikes to pass through. It was incredible. We stopped at a 13 story building which had aisles and aisles of things to sell. One aisle for fabric went as far as the eye could see. Another had pots and pans. One was for toys. And on and on. Just a narrow walkway down each aisle, barely enough room for one person to pass through, making the place quite challenging. One section on the ground floor had all manner of food laid out at your feet in flat woven trays and baskets. Most of the food, except for rice, I did not recognize. This place certainly had plenty of everything, I must say. We sat down at one of the many small food counters and ate what the women ordered for us which was quite tasty, whatever it was — I don't know. After buying a few items, shirts and wooden spoons and forks, we headed back to the hotel.

We stopped off at a park which used to be a cemetery, but all the graves had been removed and replaced and it was made into a park. It was a nice respite from the bewildering traffic to walk peacefully around this lovely park with its flowers, lawns and magnificent trees. Back at the hotel we showered — we always had to have a shower as we were constantly sweating — and rested, then went out for dinner again.

The next day we were leaving on the night train for Hanoi.

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