Leaving Vietnam

3 days on a boat in the Mekong Delta and a whirlwind 2 days in Saigon have conspired to keep me from updating, but fear not, we’re back in business here in Cambodia.

Since my last post,
I’ve spent another full day on a motorcycle

Look Ma! No hands!

Look Ma! No hands!

Had a successful encounter with a waterfall

Making friends...with sign language

Making friends…with sign language

Survived a hostel flooding
Narrowly avoided a panic attack in the Cu Chi tunnels

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Spent 3 days in the MEKONG Delta

Walked across the Cambodian border

Finally landed back in a real bed in Phnom Penh

After a successful day biking around Da Lat, I decided that I’d rather spend 8 hours on a motorcycle than 12 on a “sleeper” bus, so I hired Hero Hung again to take me down to Saigon. It was a bit more business than the last trip, with us needing to make some serious time, but I did spend some time in the gorgeous Elephant Falls.

No near drownings to report this time thankfully.

After getting to Saigon, it was obvious that the end of Vietnam was going to be very different than the beginning. Saigon had all the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, but there was a distinctly Western feel to it. There were wide treelined boulevards, and while Notre Dame Cathedral wasn’t rivaling much in Europe, it was beating the pants off of the seats of several American archdiocese.

KFC, Subway, McDonalds and Starbucks were present and plentiful, as were billboards for Heineken and more.

There is a ton of history to be seen in Saigon though, and I got right to it with the War Remembrance Museum.

To call the place gut wrenching really didn’t do it justice. While I haven’t really felt like I’ve been looked at funny as an American in Vietnam, there was definitely a different tone to the War Museum. Downed American aircraft stood next to disabled American tanks, all leading into an open plan museum, the first floor of which was dedicated to the international outcry against the war. Obviously being prior to my lifetime, I’m not sure what tone the protests against the war took either within the US or abroad, but prominently displayed were the letters from Ho to Harry Truman, and that did cause me to hang my head.

The next 3 floors were dedicated to the atrocity that is war. There were large exhibits to the My Lai massacre and others, but the worst was the Agent Orange exhibit. The amount of toxic defoliant that Americans dumped was absolutely astounding. The consequences of that are still being felt today, but for 2 decades after the war, the destruction of fertile land forced Vietnam to import rice until the mid 1990s.

It is now the world’s number two exporter of both rice and coffee.

Even worse was the horrible effects it had on the population, both in terms of immediate and delayed death. Then there were the myriad birth defects that were caused over the next 2 generations of Vietnamese people.

I wondered when we were in the big cities why there seemed to be such a higher prevalence of spina bifida. That is one of the known birth defects caused by exposure to Agent Orange.

Doesn’t matter what side of the political fence a person is on, chemical warfare is as horrific a tactic as humans have ever used on one another. The unintended consequences are far more costly than any strategic gains are worth. In light of chemical weapons being used once again in Syria, I really hope that people take a little time to think about the results of such weapons, and again re-affirm our opposition to chemical warfare of any kind.

Agent Orange also played a role in my history lesson the next day, when I tore off through the jungle to the Cu Chi tunnels.

In response to the aggressive deforestation campaign waged to flush out the Viet Cong, the citizens/fighters of the Cu Chi area dug an impressive network of tunnels in the area connecting with the nearby Mekong River. The Cu Chi tunnel system ran an impressive 150 miles underground, with tunnels reaching as deep as 60 feet.

Seeing these tunnels really put in perspective the lengths that people were willing to go in this war. I cannot imagine spending days underground in tunnels so narrow that I could barely square my shoulders. I’m not normally very claustrophobic, but between the tunnels and the oppressive heat, I was on the verge of a real freak out about 30 meters into the 60 meter stretch that I went through. Took several deep breaths to get me back calm enough to work my way back out.

The traps used by the “rebels” in the Cu Chi area were rudimentary and absolutely vicious. Most were bamboo spike based booby traps and all were unbelievably painful to whomever fell into them. The butchery of war seems endless with the myriad ways that man has come up with to kill his fellow man.

Any country with a history long enough will have dark marks that won’t come off. The stains on the soul of America started with Vietnam. The past can’t be changed, but it can be learned from, and I sincerely hope that those who go into public service in the US take the time to review the failures of past generations. These are mistakes that we can’t afford to replicate generation after generation.

As I write, there are the embers of war being fanned all over SE Asia and indeed the world. From the Sino-Vietnamese conflict brewing, to the military coup in Thailand, and Russia’s annexation of Ukraine, the seeds of outright conflict are finding fertile soil. This is to say nothing of the brutal civil war which has been waged in Syria for nearly 3 years. Any of these conflicts can spiral out of control in a matter of days.

The US has found itself either unable or unwilling to put together a cohesive foreign policy, and this has allowed conflict to spring up in places which have long known peace under the US hegemony.

I hope that my country realizes its responsibility to peace, and finds a way to once again deter the aggression of neighbors before the bombs start falling.

I’ve finally seen a war zone up close and it is all the hell that the bards ever claimed.

Up next, Cambodia!

Unlikeliest of Friends

In the last 6 weeks on the road, I’ve made more than my fair share of friends. One friendship that I will truly treasure as highly as any will be with Man from Hoi An.

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A university student, studying of all things, Banking and Finance, Man was our tour guide with Hoi An Kids, a group which puts Western tourists with local university students to develop student’s English and foster a positive tourism experience within Vietnam.

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Man took us to a local island where we got to see and participate in a variety of traditional local activities, from rice noodle making, boat making, mat weaving and an understanding of a local family temple.

Boat builders in Com Kim

Boat builders in Com Kim

After spending 5 hours sweating and smiling along with us, Man suggested hitting up a bahn mi spot in Hoi An, which to my delighted surprise was once visited by Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations.

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The sandwich really was a symphony on a baguette, with beef, chili, fresh cucumber, fried egg, chili sauce and a host of other lightly pickled vegetables that almost made me cry knowing I’d probably never have another again. He dropped us into another local coffee shop where we talked about the economics of his family’s farm and his ambitions after finishing university.

I asked him if he had any suggestions on how best to get up to Hill 55, a place where my Uncle Denis had fought during the Vietnam War.

Normally, I would’ve been a touch nervous about bringing the war up, but Vietnam is a place that is largely at peace with its past. One of the youngest populations in the world, Vietnam doesn’t bother with the problem of trying to explain away its history. The Vietnamese ethos is firmly in the present, with a solid lean forward.

There is something to be learned from that, both as a nation and as an individual.

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Man said that he’d be more than happy to take me up to Hill 55, and that he’d see me bright and early in the morning. 8 AM rolled around and he was at the gate, smiling as I choked through a cup of delicious Vietnamese coffee.

We took off on his moped, to go grab one for me. We pulled into an alley off the main drag, (ironically only a few doors down from Cafe 43, where we’ve been taking our cooking classes) and he smiled and said, ‘There’s yours.” I jumped on my bike and away we went, about 20 miles outside of Hoi An to the site.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with Vietnamese traffic, let me tell you, this was an adventure. I’m pretty well fearless where motor vehicles are concerned (thank you again Uncle Andrew) but this was just insane.

Imagine an Indianapolis 500 with 200 cars in the field, except with mopeds, cars, touring buses, and bikes. All vehicles go approximately the same speed, no two horns sound alike (though all are constantly being used) and no one has a rear view mirror.

The only rule is to not kill another driver.

I still have yet to see a stop sign since we left Hanoi, and I’ve only seen a handful of stop lights, all of which were treated as flippant suggestions more than the law. There is no such thing as a Vietnamese traffic cop, other than the guy with a scoop shovel who cleans up the inevitable accidents.

I was excited, but my ass still hurts from the constant clenching as I weaved in and out of mopeds carrying families, 16 foot long PVC pipes, 5 100 lb bags of rice, and a massive pile of rice sheaves reminiscent of a certain Monet series.

Then there were the middle of the road cattle drives.

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But we got there, and that’s what’s important.

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Once we got there, Man showed me the still flattened remnants of the old American Marine Bases, while showing me the panoramic geography of the area. Even to a total military novice like myself, it was very obvious to see the military value of such a hill, which is why it has been fought over between the Vietnamese and their various foreign invaders for the past 1100 years.

Once we got to the top of the hill, Man and I talked about his thoughts on the wars. We talked about the long history of Vietnamese occupation. His reverence for “Uncle Ho” was obvious, but so too was his understanding that the past does not dictate the present.

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Only in the past 39 years has Vietnam been a country allowed to operate on its own.

I want to be clear that I’m not about to embark on an American apology tour, a la President Obama 2008. Nor am I about to engage in re-fighting a war which cost both sides entirely too many fathers, brothers and sons.

There is a lesson to be learned from all things if one is willing to stop trying to justify the actions taken, and look at a situation holistically. Too often, we constantly try to paint history to put ourselves in a better light, at the cost of real growth.

The Vietnam War was an absolute tragedy. Americans have for 40 years tried their hardest to ignore it, and in doing so we have failed to learn the lessons it offered.

In 12 years of school, I never once was taught anything about the Vietnam War aside from the fact that it happened. A war that cost nearly 60,000 American lives wasn’t considered important enough to teach to our students from 1993-2005.

That is absolutely criminal. Having lived half of my life in a world shaped by the post 9/11 wars, I find it absolutely asinine that we aren’t teaching our students about a war that so brutally divided a country we still haven’t completely healed.

How can we ask the next generation of leaders to be better than the last if they aren’t expected to consider the historical situations that got us to where we are today?

The lessons offered by the Vietnam War were paid for with the blood of 58,220 men. It is a callous offense to their memories if we don’t learn from it.

Since landing in this country, I have tried to educate myself on the ins and outs of Vietnamese history. Desire for self governance remains the prevailing theme regardless of what I read.

A day many thought would never come

A day many thought would never come

An excerpt of this unanswered letter, from Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman in 1946 was particularly powerful to me.

“These security and freedom can only be guaranteed by our independence from any colonial power, and our free cooperation with all other powers. It is with this firm conviction that we request of the United Sates (sic) as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence.

What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.”

As Man and I stood on that hillside, opposing heirs to a legacy of bloodshed, he looked at me and said.

“I do not hate America, I don’t understand why they fought my people, but that is in the past. The duplicitous Chinese are the enemy of the future, and Vietnam must stand with America against them.”

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As we spoke, there has been diplomatic saber rattling about China’s encroachment upon Vietnam’s maritime rights. I hope that America lives up to its once sterling reputation as “guardians and champions of world justice.”

For all of our diplomatic blunders, we are still the preeminent guarantors of freedom against those nations which would look to subjugate their neighbors.

I hope that we realize the responsibility of that preeminence. The world depends on it.