Archive for the 'Vietnam' Category

June 11th 2008

Posted under Vietnam

Arriving in Sapa, after the unpleasantness of Hanoi, was like a breath of fresh air. The endeavor to reach this secluded mountain town involved an overnight train (which was actually quite comfortable) and an hour-long ascent by minibus. Sapa is a colorful town, nestled in the mountains of northwestern Vietnam very near the Chinese border. The town overlooks a lush valley of green and gold with stunning rice terraces cascading down the hills. Tribespeople from the surrounding farming villages come to Sapa to buy, sell and trade. The Black H’mong and the Red Dzao are among the most prevalent villagers on the streets of Sapa, distinguishable by their clothing, peddling brightly colored embroidery, silver jewelry, and other handicrafts. Though most of them have no formal education and are illiterate, they are curious and engaging with tourists. Many of the younger girls speak functional English. The village women are strikingly short in stature, many topping off around four feet, making them seem doll-like in their traditional clothes. We found them sweet and endearing with a few of the older women who got ornery in their native language when we weren’t buying what they were selling. It was cute.

We had arrived on a Saturday, excited to observe an interesting local tradition called the Love Market. Supposedly, when young men and women from the surrounding villages reach marriageable age, they come to the Saturday Love Market for an evening of traditional dancing. Apparently it’s the ethnic minority equivalent of speed dating. If a pair decides that they like each other, they marry after a very brief courtship. As it turns out, the tradition continues in other parts of this remote region, however, the Sapa Love Market caters more to tourists now than to actual matchmaking. We peered over a crowd of tourists encircling young villagers as they performed the dances but the event lacked the authenticity that we had hoped for and we soon returned to the colorful stalls of the market.

Sapa is known for its many opportunities to trek among the dazzling contoured valley and indigenous villages. From the city, we found one of the trailheads and started down into the valley. The views were truly amazing with mountains and fields covering the entire spectrum of green, cool white mist rising and falling over the peaks, and sunlight dancing off the glassy surfaces of the waterlogged rice paddies. We watched farmers planting seedlings and a group of young Black H’mong girls preparing to work in the fields. Cows and water buffaloes grazed the fields and two very pregnant sows provided a snorting roadblock. Every turn on the path opened up a new breathtaking view.

When we reached the beginning of the long, steep ascent back to Sapa, some local men were waiting to whisk us up the winding hill road on the back of their motorbikes for a small fee. Now that’s my kind of trekking! We were back in town by early afternoon with hours of daylight remaining. We were still feeling energetic and awestruck by the valley so we decided to rent a motorbike for the rest of the afternoon. This was an easy task since we had not been able to enter or exit our hotel without at least three offers for motorbike rentals. I think the village men must leave their wives to do the heavy work while they sit around with their friends and ask “Motorbike? Motorbike?” as tourists walk by. In any case, after a quick exchange of dong, we were on our way.

Aaron had read about a scenic mountain road leading to the highest mountain pass in Vietnam, Tram Ton Pass and, after a quick stop for petrol, we headed in what we thought was the right direction. Sapa was a small town and we had a map – we should have been able to find our way with no problem – but the roads were poorly marked and the locals spoke little English. After a series of wrong turns, things became a bit heated. The driver scolded the passenger for singing instead of navigating which prompted the passenger to politely remind the driver that bad attitudes are contagious. A few more wrong turns followed before we finally found our way.

May is the beginning of the rainy season in Vietnam. For Sapa, that meant a light shower in the early morning and another in the afternoon. It was great for the rice but made the winding, unsealed mountain roads a challenge. We ascended slowly and carefully until we reached a section of saturated dirt road, resulting in inches-deep muck. Initially thinking the road impassable, we stopped to make a careful assessment. After watching two locals on motorbikes cruise through what looked like the most treacherous stretch, we decided to go for it too. It was a muddy mess but soon improved to wet gravel. We continued on, pulling out our poncho when the mist thickened to drizzle, and took in the valley landscape. The more we distanced ourselves from Sapa, the more clearly surprised the locals were to see two tourists braving the rainy muck on a motorbike. We were reassured that we weren’t the first gringo pioneers to cross their path when a young boy and girl guiding a herd of water buffalo called out to us for money.

We reached Tram Ton Pass, shrouded in a fog so thick that we could only see about ten feet in front of us. If there was a climactic view from the top, the fog obscured it completely. We decided to turn around and head back to Sapa.

Aaron has been riding motorcycles for over ten years – he is a careful, conservative rider. We have rented motorbikes in countries around the world because we enjoy the freedom they provide in exploring islands and small cities. I always ride on the back because I like to hold onto my husband, feel the wind in my face, and take in the scenery. I was doing exactly that as we made our way back down the wet gravel roads. We eventually reached the muddy stretch of road that we had initially deemed impassable on the way up. “This is where it gets mucky again,” Aaron said.

Suddenly, without any warning at all, the front tire of the motorbike slid in the mud, diminishing Aaron’s ability to control it. Engrossed in the scenery, I didn’t realize what was happening until we were falling, in slow motion, on our left side. We hit the ground with a thud, landing in a puddle of mud. We had been going slowly so the impact was minor but I felt the outside of my left kneecap hit the ground first. It hurt, but not badly. Instinctively, I crawled in the mud away from the bike and turned to see Aaron’s leg trapped under it. I screamed in panic but he assured me that he was okay and immediately moved to lift the bike off his leg. It took us a few minutes to get over the initial shock and determine that we were both okay. I had broken the fall with my hand, which had a few small cuts. Aaron had landed on his hip and had some bloody scrapes on his left arm. I must have been in a mild state of shock because when Aaron asked me if we should get back on the bike, it seemed like an utterly preposterous notion. It occurred to me then that we had to get back on the bike. No one was going to drive along this remote mountain road in his Ford pickup and offer us a lift.

Never have I been so happy to relinquish a motorbike as I was that afternoon in Sapa. Our clothes and shoes were caked with mud and all we wanted was a hot shower and a hot meal. The excitement of the wipeout had wiped us out.

We were both a little sore when we woke the next morning but thankful for surviving the fall relatively unscathed. It could have been worse. We were scheduled to depart that evening on the overnight train back to Hanoi and decided to take it easy all day. Our most ambitious endeavor was walking fifteen minutes up the road for a late breakfast at a French café called Baguette & Chocolat. It was worth the walk for a proper cappuccino.

As we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at a table by the window, a Black H’mong woman tried to sell me handicrafts through the glass for at least five minutes before finally giving up. Later, we watched as an old man herded a half-dozen water buffaloes up the road. It is moments like these that reaffirm why we love to travel: to see things that we would never see in our former suburban bubble; to learn about people’s lives in faraway places – to witness their struggles and their joy; for the education of a lifetime. One day soon, we will return to some semblance of a normal life. While the details of our adventures will eventually fade from our memory, the overall experience has already changed us in immeasurable ways.

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June 9th 2008

Posted under Vietnam

Upon returning to Hanoi from our peaceful cruise on Halong Bay, we had a day-and-a-half to putter around the city before departing once again for Sapa. Our budget hotel was a tall, narrow building in the Old Quarter – a maze of noisy, congested lanes. We spent one full day exploring the area and quickly determined that to be sufficient.

Lacking the modern charm of its rival Ho Chi Minh City in the south, Hanoi’s streets were nonetheless bustling with industry and activity. The streets were crowded with honking, swerving motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrian traffic. The wide sidewalks were obstructed by parked vehicles, shop displays oozing out of narrow storefronts, hundreds of sidewalk vendors and sidewalk cafes with child-size plastic patio furniture at every turn. The streets were dirty and broken, though repair work seemed to be constantly under way. Deafening construction noise, particularly the shrill sawing of metal polluted the air. We passed through dizzying, colorful markets and a wide beautiful lake area in the center of town which provided a break from the maze of madness. Aside of the lake, there seemed to be no escape from the rattle and hum of the city. Our most interesting hour was spent sitting at one of the corner cafes with the kiddie chairs, drinking strong Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk, and watching the activity in the busy intersection. There were hardly any street lights in Hanoi so the hordes of traffic – moped, auto and pedestrian – wove carefully through the clusters of crossing vehicles, somehow managing to avoid collisions. We noticed a complete lack of road rage among the drivers. When two vehicles nearly collided, no rude words were exchanged. The two simply backed up and carried on.

Hanoi was certainly not one of our favorite cities. It was not a city that you could casually walk around. There was plenty to see but we had to be constantly on guard against vehicles of all kinds, coming at us from every direction. We were happy to depart for Sapa, where we hope to find peace, quiet and fresh air.

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June 8th 2008
Halong Bay

Posted under Vietnam

We flew from Siem Reap to Vietnam’s capital city of Hanoi in the north, arriving late in the evening and departing early the next morning on a three day trip to Halong Bay. During our scenic three-hour bus ride to Halong City on the northeastern coast, we were entertained by some clever and interesting uses of motorbikes, which are often the sole source of transportation. As mentioned in earlier posts, ducks are an integral part of rice cultivation, eating pests and leaving fertilizer as they waddle through the sopping paddies. From the confines of our minibus, we spotted someone carrying at least two hundred live ducks on a moped. The ducks were tightly packed into two topless crates attached to both sides of the bike, their heads sticking up curiously and quacking all the way. The spillover ducks seemed to be standing on the back of the seat, though they must have been fastened down somehow. Soon we came upon a similar setup of live chickens, only the chickens were tied together by their feet and hanging upside down from a wooden stick. It seemed rather cruel, actually, but I couldn’t help staring until they were out of sight. Aaron’s favorite moped sighting of the day involved a farmer with a gigantic live pig, strapped perpendicularly on the seat, on its back with its little pig hooves flailing in the air. We broke into hysterics over that one and just as we began to settle down, another identical pig setup cruised by. In America we take our big trucks for granted. The Vietnamese endeavor to accomplish similar tasks of transport with inferior equipment, relying on their creativity to get the job done. We have the utmost respect for their determination and ingenuity and thank them for keeping our long bus rides entertaining with such feats of bug-eyed hilarity.

We reached Halong City in pleasant spirits and boarded our junk, a traditional Chinese wooden boat, for the first phase of our adventure. We sat down to a relaxing, family-style lunch as the ship cruised into the bay and began getting acquainted with our shipmates. The sky was thick with hazy mist, which partially obscured the magnificent rock formations jutting out of the emerald water in all directions. After lunch, we settled into our surprisingly comfortable cabins with A/C, private bath and hot water. We cruised around for several hours, admiring many of the bay’s more than two thousand limestone islands from the comfort of our sun deck.

We docked briefly at one island to explore an enormous cave full of stalactites and stalagmites, illuminated with dim, colorful lights to intensify the incredible formations. It was the most amazing cave that I had ever seen; created by thousands of years of ocean waves eroding the island from the inside. The cave was so large that we spent almost an hour inside, exploring its mystical hollows. We exited onto a terrace with an elevated view of ships on the bay that lit up each person’s face as he first beheld it.

Back on the boat, the rest of the day invited total relaxation. Some people went kayaking while the less ambitious of us lounged on the sun deck and basked in the picturesque tranquility of Halong Bay. It was a wonderfully lazy afternoon. Dinner was served around seven, followed by a raucous evening of karaoke. I must clarify, for the record, that I am not a fan of karaoke. While my mother has the voice of an angel, my tone-deaf attempts at singing anything over and above childish ditties incite cringing unpleasantness. There is a reason that karaoke is always set up in alcoholic venues and, having foregone the alcoholic offerings at dinner, I was adamantly against participating in karaoke, and against karaoke altogether, if the truth be told. But my attitude softened when my little ham serenaded me with “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”; the other guys on the ship joined in for the refrain which made everyone laugh. It was downhill from there.

Early the next morning, about half of us boarded a smaller boat to continue the journey while others, who had only booked the one-night adventure, sailed back to port. Our excursion for the second day was a visit to one of the sparsely inhabited islands in the bay. Our small boat docked near a stall with bicycles and motorbikes, on which we could ride around the island for a couple of hours. Aaron and I chose bicycles, each with a basket and a bell, and off we went. Some of our group chose motorbikes and others opted to walk so we were on our own. The road was hilly and winding, eventually opening up to a stunning green valley in the middle of the island. We coasted through fields of rice with grazing water buffaloes and paddy-hat-wearing fieldworkers. A tiny village of simple farmers straddled the road and we waved to the villagers as we passed slowly. There were many baby animals, including puppies, kittens, piglets and chicks. Little boys lazed in a hammock on the front porch of their simple house. The adults walked and rode old bicycles to and fro, attending to their daily tasks. The experience was very authentic and beautiful. The people had clearly seen enough tourists so as not to be shocked by two bell-ringing pale faces cruising through but not enough to take us for walking dollar signs.

Riding leisurely, we eventually reached a small shaded café, where our friends were waiting with refreshments. We stopped to rest a while, cracking open a couple of lukewarm sodas (ice is at a premium in places like this). A family of chickens pecked around outside the café while inside, our guide, Huy, offered us a free sample of Vietnamese moonshine. A popular spirit among locals and daring tourists alike, this Vietnamese specialty, called ruon ran is actually rice wine with a pickled snake marinating in it. This particularly nasty brew, served in a large plastic jar, contained a snake, gecko and a baby bird. It is believed to increase virility in men and cure everything from night blindness to impotence. “Who wants to try?” Huy asked with a mischievous grin, as he removed the lid to give us a closer look at the trifecta of foulness inside.

The two Aussies and the Kiwi in our group took little convincing. Aaron teetered for about five seconds, as we continued to inspect the contents, and then not only acquiesced but pressured me to succumb as well. Of course, I wasn’t having any part of it. “Hell no! My body is a shrine. I’m very discriminating about what goes into it,” I snapped, which immediately conjured up flashbacks of all the bad things that I have allowed into my shrine in the past. There was a time in my life when my insatiable appetite for experience dominated over my judgment – when I would probably have been the first to down the snake wine – but those days are long gone. I had the time of my life but now enjoy my current status as living proof that there is rest for the wicked.

Without further delay, Huy poured one cup of snake wine in turn for each of the takers who winced at the thought before pouring it quickly down the hatch. Aaron said that it wasn’t bad – it tasted like saké. One of the Aussie’s reported a bird-like aftertaste, the mere thought of which made me nauseous. Everyone lived to tell the tale.

After our rather exciting rest at the café, we took a very brief and mildly pleasant walk into a dense, green national park and then hopped back onto our bikes and headed for the dock. The ride was food for the spirit as we pedaled along, oblivious to time and worldly cares, stopping for photos of the landscape and ringing our bells for the village kiddos. We were happy and light, smiling into the drizzle that broke the heat of the afternoon sun. About a kilometer from the dock, my front tire went flat, probably from all of the potholes on the unsealed road, but it did not deflate my high as my darling husband, ever the gentleman, insisted on walking my bike while I rode the last stretch on his.

Lunch was waiting for us on the boat and, as we dined, the boat cruised toward Cat Ba Island, where we would spend our second night in a hotel. We checked into our room, which was quite luxurious by our standards, and collapsed onto the bed. I flipped on the television, quickly found the movie channels, and refused to leave the room, even for dinner. There was supposedly a nice beach on the island and others from our group met for drinks after dinner but I had fallen victim to the curse of comfort. It sounds backwards, I realize, but we have discussed often throughout our travels how accommodation that is too luxurious and inclusive can be a hindrance to one’s experience. When we are too comfortable in our room, we tend to hibernate inside instead of exploring the culture and landscapes beyond the confines of our hotel. We actually prefer rooms that are just uncomfortable enough to keep us out all day.

Early the next morning, we departed for Halong City, savoring our last hours on the junk. Our Halong Bay cruise was like a mini-vacation. The gentle rocking of the boat lulled us into a happy, contemplative daze as we stared across some of Vietnam’s most spectacular scenery. The excursions were interesting and required minimal physical or mental effort. The meals were all included and we were allotted plenty of free time to socialize or laze about and retreat into our solitary thoughts. We didn’t have a single worry and that, my friends, is what a good vacation makes.

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June 5th 2008
Mighty Mekong

Posted under Vietnam

The Mekong River begins in the highlands of Tibet, where the melting snows run down the mountains and flow 4,500 km through China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to the South China Sea. Its delta is one of the world’s largest, producing more than enough rice to feed all of Vietnam as well as fruit, coconut, sugarcane and abundant fish. Indigenous villages of farmers and fisherman are woven into the densely populated network of canals and rivulets. The Mekong River is the lifeblood of this fertile and industrious region.

We took a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City to cruise the Mighty Mekong and absorb some of the local village culture. Much to our dismay, we stepped out of our hotel that morning to find a large tour bus – the exact kind of bus that we see in every tourist area and thank God that we’re not on it. A group of that size ensures a lot of time getting herded around like cattle and waiting for people to get organized. It is usually the least desirable option. However, it was 7am and the money had been collected so we climbed onto the bus with the other cattle and kept our disgruntled “moos” to a minimum.

Throughout the day, we endured a succession of tourist sideshows such as a local music performance, a horse cart ride, a coconut candy shop run by indigenous people, and the usual handicraft stalls, for the privilege of floating the Mekong. It was definitely worth it! We cruised slowly along on wooden motorboats with shaded, open-air seating to take advantage of the gentle breeze on the river.

The Mekong is wide and murky; it is notoriously silt-laden and the shape of the land is constantly changing due to the large silt deposits. Boats are everywhere: fishing vessels varying in size from wooden rowboats to commercial shrimp boats; cargo barges propelled by tug boats; tourist cruisers; and family-owned houseboats. Women in narrow wooden boats, resembling gondolas, navigate the waterways, transporting people and goods between land and large boats, floating villages or fish farms. Dilapidated industrial buildings and residential shacks line the riverbanks and some fishermen have even constructed their homes on floating platforms in the middle of the river.


The highlight of our cruise was floating through one of the thousands of narrow canals fed by the Mekong. As we glided through the opaque brown artery, barely wide enough for two boats to pass, the banks were obscured by lush water coconut plants shooting up from the water. In small clearings amid the greenery, we spotted individual wooden boats – the main mode of transportation for the local villagers – and small houses built on bamboo stilts to avoid rising flood waters. Young children waved and then squealed and ran away at the sight of our tour boat, indicating that tourism has yet to completely alter the authenticity of the experience.

Despite the sideshows, some of which were quite enjoyable, the Mekong trip was a day well spent. Several other members of our tour group stayed on to delve deeper into the delta for another night or two. We opted to head back to Ho Chi Minh City, thankful for the pleasurable day of cruising and culture, but ready to defect from the herd.

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June 3rd 2008
American War in Vietnam

Posted under Vietnam

I must backtrack now to talk about the fragments of Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding areas that we managed to take in amid the chaos of the Chinese visa ordeal. We toured the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace; visited the famous Cu Chi war tunnels and a government-sponsored workshop employing victims of Agent Orange. In order to better comprehend the significance of these war-related sights, a brief history of Vietnam is necessary. The facts and figures interspersed in the following narrative are cited to Lonely Planet Vietnam, August 2007.

While the American War in Vietnam remains one of the most significant and controversial military endeavors in American history, it is perceived by the Vietnamese as the expulsion of another in a long line of foreign invaders over thousands of years. Vietnam’s geographical location along the sea trading route between China and India made it a valuable conquest. As such, the Chinese dominated Vietnam from around the 2nd century B.C. through the early 10th century A.D. until the Vietnamese capitalized on the fall of the Tang dynasty in China and fought successfully for independence. Two centuries later, Mongol warrior Kublai Khan seized control of China and made a play for Vietnam but his soldiers were defeated by the Vietnamese resistance. The Chinese returned again in the early 15th century and seized control of Vietnam for what would be an oppressive and bloody but short-lived occupation.

The 17th and 18th centuries brought the rise of the powerful Vietnamese Trinh Lords who ruled the north and the Nguyen Lords who ruled the south. Both groups wrestled for control of Vietnam, supported respectively by the Dutch and Portuguese traders who undoubtedly had their own interests. The Nguyens emerged victorious. Under the Nguyen emperors, Vietnam seized large areas of neighboring Cambodia and Laos, facing down the Thai army in the process.

The French arrived militarily in 1847, initiating what would be four decades of French colonization and near-slave labor of Vietnamese citizens. Opposition to the French simmered throughout the country. The frustrations of the oppressed were harnessed most successfully by a communist faction led by revered patriot Ho Chi Minh. Ho formed a group called the Viet Minh, which lobbied for an independent Vietnam. Ironically, Ho did receive some aid from the U.S. around this time.

World War II brought the fall of France to Nazi Germany and the arrival of Japanese troops in Vietnam but as both the French and Japanese struggled to maintain a foothold, the Viet Minh gained control of much of the country, especially the north. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared independence for Vietnam and appealed to U.S. president Truman for support, a request that was never answered.

The French fought to regain control, resulting in the eight-year Franco-Viet Minh War that, despite significant U.S. aid to the French, brought the end of French colonization in Vietnam. After the French left, North and South Vietnam remained divided. The communist Viet Minh, later called Viet Cong, ruled in the north while an anti-communist Catholic leader, named Ngo Dinh Diem, ruled the south. As the communist north rallied to control the south, the Diem government quickly faltered and Vietnam seemed poised to fall to communism.

In 1950, American soldiers began to arrive in Vietnam under the guise of preventing the spread of communism and U.S. forces would remain there for the next 25 years. The American War in Vietnam has been documented in countless books, movies and television shows, often with a primary focus on the battlefields. Before my arrival in Vietnam, my only knowledge of the events of the Vietnam War came from Hollywood and vagaries from my secondary studies. I knew nothing of Vietnam before or after the American War. I have often heard the Iraq war compared to the Vietnam War and I was eager to learn more about the past in order to help me make sense of the present.

The following sites are described not in the order in which we viewed them but rather in the order that most logically supports the chronology of events in the war.

Cu Chi Tunnels

“In total, 3.14 million Americans (including 7200 women) served in the US armed forces in Vietnam during the war. Officially, 58,183 Americans were killed in action or are listed as missing in action (MIA). Pentagon figures indicate that by 1972, 3689 fixed-wing aircraft and 4857 helicopters had been lost and 15 tonnes of ammunition had been expended. The direct cost of the war was officially put at US$165 billion, though its real cost to the economy was double that or more.” (Lonely Planet Vietnam August 2007)

How could a heavily outnumbered, outgunned, out-financed militia comprised of half a broken nation survive against a colossal force of American military power? The answer, in my opinion, is a combination of ingenuity, home court advantage and raw determination.

Pre-war photographs of the village of Cu Chi show lush vegetation, including dense mangrove forest and fruit-bearing trees. An antiquated (and very biased) film strip at the beginning of our tour of Cu Chi portrayed simple peasants living in peace until the evil Americans began their unprovoked, unadulterated killing spree of innocent Vietnamese men, women and children. About eighty-percent of the Vietnamese population were farmers living in rural villages. The villages played a very strategic role in the war by providing the Viet Cong with food, shelter, medicine and weaponry. In an attempt to flush out the Viet Cong guerrillas hiding out in the villages, American forces often employed the use of heavy artillery and napalm, which resulted in numerous civilian casualties. Surviving family members of those fallen villagers later joined the Viet Cong. The film focused on the transition of these simple peasants to valiant fighters and idolized demure, ruthless female soldiers who became heroines for the number of American lives they took. The film strip was like something that might have been shown to schoolchildren to instill national pride – it was fascinating to see it from the Vietnamese perspective.

The elaborate network of Cu Chi war tunnels was dug over a period of about 25 years that began in the late 1940s and originally used in the resistance of the French. The brilliantly designed tunnel system comprised more than 250km of narrow, maze-like tunnels spanning from Saigon to the Cambodian border, even penetrating the perimeter of the US military base at Dong Du. A model of the tunnels showed a system three stories deep with layers of tiny dugouts connected by passageways as narrow as seventy inches in diameter – just wide enough for a petite Vietnamese body to shuffle through on his or her stomach. The system included dugouts designated for shooting, storage, weapons production, medical treatment, command centers, and cooking. The makeshift underground kitchens contained exhaust systems specially designed to release smoke from the stoves in gradual, inconspicuous streams so as to avoid sending smoke signals to American fighter aircraft overhead. The network was also used as a communication system among fighter groups. The tunnels were instrumental for the Viet Cong because they could launch an attack against the enemy and then disappear without a trace.

After a brief introduction, we were led to the tunnels for a closer look. We walked through an unimposing forest with scattered exhibits and remnants of war, including an abandoned American tank, several B-52 bomb craters, a display of Viet Cong booby traps, and startlingly lifelike mannequins donning the black pajamas and checkered bandanas of the Viet Cong soldiers. The tunnel entrances were amazingly camouflaged tiny wooden doors in the ground, obscured by leaves and dirt. We were allowed to slip down into one of the entrances which had been slightly enlarged for tourists. Aaron went first and just barely made it down, his hips pressing against the sides of the opening. I made it in with no problem but immediately noticed how little room there was to maneuver.

As our guide led us to another site, he paused to point out very discreet air holes for the tunnels, hidden in the surrounding landscape. Even if you knew what to look for, you likely would have missed the carefully disguised signs of life underground. We reached another tunnel entrance which had been enlarged even further at the opening and we were given the option to follow a guide through a short stretch of the Cu Chi tunnels. Everyone in our group hesitated at the thought of entering the narrow confines of the underground arteries. Aaron and I are both moderately claustrophobic. Crawling through dark, confined spaces is exactly the sort of activity we try to avoid. Aaron debated for about three seconds and decided to pass. There was a Malaysian family with three young children on the tour with us; one of the little girls was shaken and whining with fright, causing a minor scene at the tunnel entrance, but the other two kids seemed to want to go in. I don’t know what invisible force propelled me but when the young male guide, followed by a six-foot tall American woman disappeared inside the entrance, I instinctively crawled in next. The three Malaysian children entered behind me, followed by their mother and several others who were indistinguishable in the dark.

The first wave of claustrophobic panic hit me while the dim light of the tunnel entrance was still visible. I had changed my mind. I wanted out! I turned to look behind me and saw at least six people crammed into the tunnel with more coming in. I had no choice but to continue. The guide led the way with a small flashlight, moving gradually through but stopping every five seconds or so to wait for the female American bottleneck that followed. It really wasn’t her fault. She was just too tall to manage the expedient duck-walking posture without hitting the ceiling and losing her balance. To complicate matters, the bottleneck had neglected to leave her large backpack above ground, which hindered her movements even more and created a full eclipse of any guiding light from the flashlight. This did not help my situation.

Behind me, the chubby Malaysian boy was whimpering that he was scared. Behind him, his two younger sisters were crying. Behind them, their mother was in the midst of a claustrophobic panic attack. The bottleneck stopped in front of me to scold the chubby Malaysian boy for whining. This did not help my situation.

The air inside the now cramped tunnel was hot, damp and stale. Where were the air holes? With all of the people inside, it felt more like a box than a tunnel. I could die in here. I could suffocate and pass away. The journey seemed endless, though it couldn’t have lasted more than ten minutes. Ten torturous minutes. I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel until the bottleneck was already halfway out. The children’s collective whimpering had escalated to mild panic. I turned around at the enlarged exit and spirited the three children up the ladder to freedom. The poor little boy was sweaty and shaking. When the kids were climbing safely toward the light, I noticed their terror-stricken mother frozen in place, paralyzed by panic, hands grasping the walls on either side of the tunnel. She could see the light but she couldn’t move. I asked her if she was okay and when she didn’t answer after a few seconds, I climbed up the ladder, trusting that the people behind her in the tunnel would push her out eventually. She approached me a few minutes later and thanked me for helping with her children. She was still flushed and hyperventilating.

I found Aaron near the exit and he reported that he had also crawled through a section of the tunnels, circumventing the masses through a shortcut to a different exit. We excitedly exchanged the details of our experience and collectively determined that spending any extended period of time in those tunnels would have been Hell on Earth! The sensation inside was what I imagine it would feel like to be buried alive. Aaron estimated that we were about six meters below the ground level and, according to the model we had seen earlier, that was not even the deepest level. The tunnels were brilliantly conceived and crucial to the Viet Cong strategy but the practicality of a community living day-to-day like moles for an extended period of time is simply inconceivable, even after seeing the tunnels with my own eyes.

Near the end of the war, in the late 1960s, American B-52s indiscriminately bombed the entire Cu Chi area, destroying most of the tunnels. Napalm bombs were dropped, decimating hectares of the once-luxuriant forest that had nourished generations of villagers. Of the approximately 16,000 Viet Cong guerrillas who inhabited the tunnels during the war, less than one-third survived.

Today, the mangrove forest is finally beginning to thrive again. There is a quiet calm in the land once ravaged by gunfire and bombs. The tunnels are a popular stop on the tourist trail. To me, they symbolize the triumph of the underdog and the desperate will of human beings to survive.

War Remnants Museum

Formerly the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, the War Remnants Museum is divided into eight principal thematic exhibitions:

1. Historical truths: photos and documents regarding the causes, origins and processes of aggressive wars

2. Requiem: a collection of photos taken by 134 war reporters (from 11 nationalities) killed during the Vietnam War

3. Vestiges of war crimes and aftermaths (in military, economic, cultural and social fields; consequences on men, nature and environment

4. Imprisonment system: showing typical detention camps and prisons as well as physical and psychological torture methods used to interrogate and exterminate prisoners

5. Photo collections of two Japanese reporters

6. International support for the Vietnamese people in their resistance war

7. Children’s painting collection entitled “War and Peace”, created by artists between the approximate ages of eight and fifteen

8. U.S. state-of-the-art weaponry used in the Vietnam War

The old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” particularly holds true in comprehending the atrocities of war. The soldiers who fight in wars are fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, sisters and brothers. In struggling to uphold my belief in the inherent goodness of man, I must maintain a certain degree of naïveté. I must convince myself that the horrific acts of men at war are perpetuated by fear, ignorance, temporary insanity, and a necessity to preserve one’s own existence rather than hate and pure cruelty. The War Remnants Museum is full of evidence to the latter. Photographs of women and young children wading across chest-deep rivers to escape American bombs; prisoners of war, rightly terrified, being led by men with guns; hectares of once-fruitful forest and agricultural lands decimated by toxic chemicals; victims of Agent Orange and their deformed offspring; hospital photos of bomb victims with missing limbs, melted flesh, shrapnel wounds and no medicine for pain; trenches full of brutally massacred men, women and children; torture apparatus and photos of torture victims; a sea of corpses, some literally torn to pieces by an exploded landmine. The images swim through my mind.

One particular photo in the “Requiem” is branded in my memory. A young Vietnamese man stands behind his very pregnant wife, his arms wrapped tightly around her beautiful belly. There may have been children and other people cowering in the background. What struck me was the agony on the face of the woman – I could almost hear her screams, pleading for the life of her unborn child. The caption of the photo, taken by one of the fallen reporters, said that American soldiers were rounding up all of those villagers – including women, children, and infants – to murder them. The photographer screamed, “Hold it!” The soldiers paused. The reporter snapped the photo, then turned and ran. As he ran, he heard the gunshots behind him. He never looked back.

Throughout our travels, we have seen many exhibits documenting similar atrocities in human history – the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, the Atomic Bomb Museum in Hiroshima. I almost feel as though I should be somewhat de-sensitized to the images of human suffering. I am not. I choked back tears as I walked through the various exhibits, each containing graphic evidence of man’s depravity and, when I reached the photos of the children, I let the tears fall.

Agent Orange

Agent Orange was a chemical toxin intended to kill en masse. It was a weapon of mass destruction, unable to differentiate between soldier and civilian or between man and child. The weapon was experimental when it was dropped on Vietnam. Of those who survived Agent Orange, many were burned and sickened; many died later of diseases from exposure. The chemical destroyed the forest and the farmland and nothing would grow again for many years. The land that had sustained generations of rural villagers was dead. Even worse, Agent Orange went on to affect the next generation – my generation. Children born years later to Agent Orange victims came into the world terribly deformed and handicapped, unable to ever care for themselves. Some women gave birth to two or three such children. It did not matter which parent had been exposed. My heart weeps for those families.

The Vietnamese government, with international help, has strived through the years to create opportunities for victims of Agent Orange to earn a living and contribute to society. The government has set up handicraft workshops where Agent Orange victims whose handicaps are restricted to their lower bodies can create art in a work environment where they can sit down all day. On one of our organized tours in southern Vietnam, our minibus stopped at what appeared to be the usual tourist handicraft mart. We sighed and rolled our eyes in exasperation until the guide announced that this was a workshop and gallery of Agent Orange victims. After our heartbreaking experience at the War Remnants Museum on the previous day, we were excited to see evidence of recovery. The young workers – all about my age or younger – sat at low tables or on specialized stools, worked their crafts and greeted us as we walked through the rows of work tables. They all seemed content and the work conditions pleasant. We made a brief sweep of the attached gallery – a warehouse-sized display of paintings, furniture, vases, lacquerware, kitchen accessories and jewelry among other things. The gallery was fully staffed by Agent Orange victims who humbly aided the tourists in completing their purchases. The work was impressive and we purchased a small token to show our support.

I wondered later how much was really known by the American government about the long-term effects of Agent Orange. Assuming they were fully aware of the consequences, would it have made a difference? Excluding isolated acts of terrorism, no American alive today has ever experienced war on his home soil. The more I travel to places like Vietnam, the more thankful I become for that fact and the more prayerful I become for my generation and the next. I cannot fathom a war zone in the midst of the safe, sterile, insulated place that I call home. I cannot begin to understand the specifics involved in making war – the pressure of making critical decisions that determine the value of innocent human lives and shape the future of the world. I am wholeheartedly grateful for the safe, healthy, comfortable, free life that I have been granted as an American citizen so it is difficult for me to criticize the people who laid the foundation for that quality of life. I am humbled before the brave souls who have made unimaginable and, sometimes the ultimate, sacrifice to protect my freedom. Despite my level of education and the boundlessness of the American free press, I have failed to comprehend the enormous price of that freedom. It is only now that I begin to see what horrific sins have been committed throughout history in the name of liberty; or with the intent of suppressing rival political or religious ideas; or simply out of greed and barbarity. But the transgressions of others are not for me to judge.

I still think about the “War and Peace” paintings in the War Remnants Museum, created by children of war. The images of war, colored by tiny innocent hands in the cartoon-like figures of youth, expressed sadness, desperation, pain, loss and a more vivid understanding of war than should ever be possessed by a child. Conversely, the vibrant images of peace awakened a sense of childlike hope in me. I wanted to imagine the possibility of a truly peaceful world but my adult experiences tell me that world peace is a childish dream. In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, the author – a World War II POW and witness to the US bombing of Dresden – argues that peace on earth is a dream that will never come true, that mankind will continue to fight wars as it has done since the beginning of time. The best thing an individual can do is to focus on the good things and happy moments in life and try to create as many of them as possible. For lack of a better alternative, I am inclined to agree. The same sentiment was captured in a poem, written by my dear friend, Meridyth Andresen. It was written when we were in junior high or high school – I can’t remember which – so you’ll forgive me if I have misplaced a word or two in the years since then:


War is now too childish
It’s almost like a game;
Presidents playing checkers
And leaving the world in shame.

There’s too much to be lost
And not much to be won.
I don’t see how this game of checkers
Could profit anyone.

But what is there for me to do
And others who feel the same
But quietly stand aside and pray
And simply watch the game.

Reunification Palace

Fast forward now to the end of the American War in Vietnam. Television broadcasting of bloody battles and stories of the slaughtering of Vietnamese civilians as well as a rising American death toll had made the war increasingly unpopular among Americans. In early 1968, the Viet Cong launched simultaneous attacks, called the Tet Offensive, on many South Vietnamese cities and villages, including Saigon. Catching the Americans by surprise, the Viet Cong even pushed as far as the courtyard of the US embassy. The US and South Vietnamese forces responded with massive firepower into the cities that crushed the Viet Cong but also resulted in heavy civilian casualties. Americans at home watched the footage and witnessed the bloodshed. Still, the fighting ensued for several more years.

In January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed by the US, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the Viet Cong, which called for a ceasefire. At that point, the war had not been clearly won by either side. It was simply ending, at least for the Americans, who withdrew all military personnel. Throughout the war, the South Vietnamese had relied extensively on US forces, but now they were fighting alone. In April 1975, just hours after the last Americans were evacuated by helicopter from Saigon, the North Vietnamese tanks broke through the gates of Saigon’s Independence Palace (later renamed the Reunification Palace) and wrested control of the capital, immediately declaring its new name as Ho Chi Minh City. Ho had died in September 1969 and never saw his dream of a unified and independent Vietnam realized. He has been immortalized throughout Vietnam as a proud patriot.

We toured the Reunification Palace, once a major political venue with its banquet halls, receiving rooms for foreign political figures, meeting rooms and suites. We saw the rooftop helipad from which the last of the American troops were evacuated from Vietnam and the gate that was bulldozed by the Viet Cong tanks. Most fascinating were the basement rooms of the palace, which served as command rooms during the war. The rooms have been left exactly was they were during the war, with wall-sized hand drawn maps of Vietnam, telephone rooms and radio rooms with their original equipment, and war time living quarters for the president. The narrow, cement halls and boxy cells resembled a bomb shelter. The equipment was antiquated – this war was commanded without computers. The hand drawn diagrams reminded me of my grandfather’s home office. As an engineer and inventor, his desk was always full of papers with figures and calculations, drawn meticulously straight using a pencil and ruler. The American War in Vietnam began with my grandfather’s generation and ended with my father’s. The Iraq War with its numerous parallels to the Vietnam War plagues both my father’s generation and mine.

In the absence of American resistance, Vietnam had fallen to the communists. In the years that followed, communism wreaked havoc on an already war-ravaged economy. More than a hundred thousand Vietnamese fled the country, seeking refuge in France, Australia and the US. Many people tied to the old regime in the South were imprisoned. Tense relations continued between North and South. To complicate matters, the civil war in Cambodia drew Vietnam over its western border to occupy the troubled nation and fight the Khmer Rouge, which caused further stress on Vietnam’s already diminished resources and incited China to enter a 17-day war with Vietnam.

Today, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam shows tangible signs of promise. The economy is growing at 8% per year and international investment is at an all-time high. Citizens from rural villages are flocking to the cities to earn a better living and the city streets are filled with people desperate to work. The Vietnamese government remains communist but the economy is distinctly capitalist, a conflict that will be interesting to follow in years to come.

Having completed our very hands-on crash course in Vietnam 101, we see the value in studying the events of our history, understanding the travesty of war, and striving to avoid the repetition of past transgressions. Perhaps if more of us – and I stand at the front line of the guilty – made the effort to educate ourselves regarding our own warring history, we would not so easily allow our politicians to lead us into war like lambs to the slaughter. In all honesty, I have never made it my business to care about world events before embarking on this amazing journey. I lived in my happy little suburban bubble; I drank Starbucks, went shopping on a whim, spent time with friends and felt sympathy for the victims of the Iraq War when I saw the news stories of that desert battle zone so far removed from my reality. I realize now that my ignorance is as much a travesty as war itself. From my experiences around the world, I have come to develop an insatiable hunger for knowledge; a new sense of human responsibility to learn and to care. In this lifetime, I may be convinced that war is a necessary action but I hope to have the wisdom to decide for myself.

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