Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Good Morning, Vietnam!

What else should one call a post about their tour of the Demilitarized Zone and other sites from the American War? But since the tour started with a 6:00 a.m. pickup at our hotel, “good morning” is appropriate. We booked this tour through the hotel and had no real idea how big it would be. As it turns out, it was an ideal size—14 people in a minibus rather than twice that or more in a full-size bus. And our guide turned out to be a real treasure; most of the 12 hours the tour took was riding from site to site in the bus, and the guide made that time most worthwhile. His day job is as an accountant, but he doubles as a tour guide to practice his English in hopes of one day getting a job with an international business. I’m not sure how much of his wit and wisdom will make its way into this post; if I decide there’s not enough, I may have to do a separate one. I filled many, many pages of a pocket notebook with information he shared.

But back to the tour itself. The first stop was at a place called the Rockpile, a US base situated atop the mountain shown below. The only access to the base was by helicopter. The US used the base to direct artillery to targets across the DMZ and into Laos, but abandoned it in 1968. The scenery around the Rockpile is pretty stunning. Here’s a look to the left, and another to the right. After the Rockpile, we stopped at a site called the “Ethnic Minority Village.” This was the part of the tour that made me most uncomfortable. The “ethnic minority” was clearly of Laotian ancestry, and the guide was not too complimentary about them in his remarks as we approached the village. He talked about how they could not get along in regular society, had more children than the preferred one or two, and lived in poverty. I know that I’ve mentioned before not wanting to be intrusive in my photography, watching people, etc., and this was the most intrusive I have felt here. The minibus stopped, the fourteen of us (fifteen if you include the guide) got out, and we all walked around the village photographing the houses; the children; the pigs, chickens, and dogs; the scenery; in other words, everything. The houses are built on stilts so that the animals can live underneath. If you’re thinking that you’re seeing satellite dishes in that last photo, you’re right. Many of the houses had them. It was hard to tell, though, if they were actually used since in many cases there was some sort of container upside down and over the receiving part of the dish.

I must say that I the village had a tremendous view, though most of the people from the tour didn’t make it far enough into the village to see it. There was a school building in the village, though the guide said that the children would not attend it. Alert: Side story coming. You know how every tour has some people you just can’t believe, the ones you end up laughing at after the tour is over? We had three on our tour. Two were a married couple, community college teachers from some place in Massachusetts. They said they were on sabbatical, which they described as “five months of traveling wherever we want to and then writing about it.” They’d spent a month in India, were in the middle of a month in Vietnam, and were heading to a month in the south of China. The other person was from California and appeared to be some sort of web designer who worked part-time as he was travelling around Asia. I consider myself to be on the liberal or left side of the political continuum, but these folks made me look like a veritable right-winger. In the photo below, the married couple are the ones talking to the kids, and the web designer is the guy with the yellow sleeves. (The person he’s talking to is our guide.) In this photo, the woman is trying to explain to the children (in English) why they should go to school. Why would she use English? Well, according to one of the sons, these people said that they knew the kids had learned some English because they had heard them use the word “money.” And I must admit that I felt uncomfortable taking a photo of just the children, but the husband didn’t. I assume that the tour company compensates the villagers for the daily intrusion into their lives, but I honestly don’t know. It was not something I felt comfortable asking the guide.

After the Ethnic Minority Village, we stopped in Khe Sanh. The North Vietnamese attacked Khe Sanh in January 1968 and effectively put it under siege for some 70-odd days, keeping the US from directing its total attention to the Tet Offensive. There’s actually not much to see at Khe Sanh. The airstrip that was there is now used as the airport. There is a museum with a couple of exhibits. There are some military vehicles, though the guidebooks say that these were actually brought from other places to put on exhibit here because the US destroyed or took with them everything that had been there. There is a sign only an editor can love, and, finally, there is what may well be the world’s largest poinsettia. It is at least the largest poinsettia that I have seen. We also took advantage of the opportunity to have yet another possible Christmas card photo taken. One thing that made the stop at Khe Sanh a bit more interesting was that the three people I mentioned before used it as the opportunity to try to get the guide to say that there were Vietnamese people today against the current government. Given that these three people had been very outspoken on the way there about how bad the war had been and how they had worked against it at the time, one would think that they would at least in theory agree with the government that resulted from the war’s ending. If they didn’t want the Communists to assume control, then perhaps they should have wanted the war to continue. It was sort of fun to watch them keep trying, and keep failing, to trick him into saying something it was quite clear he was not going to say.

On the way from Khe Sanh back to Dong Ha for lunch, we stopped at Dakrong Bridge, which really reminded me of the neat bridge in Boston. Dakrong Bridge was built by the Cuban government in 1973, after the US had left the area, and served as part of the Ho Chi Minh trail.

The drive back to Dong Ha also served as naptime for younger son. Lunch was made noteworthy by the cover of the restaurant’s menu. I do not know why there is a menorah and Star of David on the menu. It is the only sign of Judaism that I have seen in Vietnam. (Hoi An was the first place that I saw any sign of Islam, two women wearing hijab.)

One thing you see a lot of along the roads of Vietnam is cemeteries. This one was particularly eye-catching. We drove for a while along the beach, which looked much more appealing than the very touristy beaches we’d seen in Da Nang the day before. The Vinh Moc tunnels were hands down the highlight of the tour. I had heard about the tunnels in South Vietnam used by the Viet Cong, but I had not heard about the Vinh Moc tunnels until researching our stay here. The Vinh Moc tunnels were dug by North Vietnamese villagers seeing to escape American bombs. It took 250 people two years to dig more than 2 kilometers of tunnels which then housed some 600 villagers for about two years. Today, some of the tunnels have been restored, and visiting them is a very moving experience, and not one for the claustrophobic. In fact, as we were approaching the entrance to the tunnel the woman from Massachusetts was leaving, saying she had quickly realized she was could not handle the visit. A family of four was assigned a room about the size of a single bed. The tunnels did have ventilation shafts, most of which had some sort of cover to keep rain out. To give an idea of the height of the passages, here are shots of the four of us in the passages. Older son is the tallest at 5’11’’ while I’m the shortest at 5’5”. You might notice that there are no supports in the tunnels. There was some shoring at the entrance, but once you get in, the dirt is very similar to the red clay we have at home. In other words, it’s pretty darn solid, which only adds to one’s respect that people dug these by hand. The shirt I wore was off-white silk, and it did come out somewhat stained. I did manage to get everything washed out, though it took a bit of scrubbing.

Around the tunnels, you can also see the type of trenches used by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. As I said, seeing the tunnels gave me a real respect for the Vietnamese people. I think my exact thought was, “There’s no way to win a frickin’ war against people who will dig these and live here for several years.” I said I didn’t think many Americans had it in them to do something like that, but the husband reminded me that you don’t know what you might be capable of if someone has invaded your homeland.

Having typed that, this seems a good place to insert a related story. The other UVa professor teaching now is here without his family. Because he teaches late in the afternoon, after which the students are done for the day, he often goes out with his students after class. He reported that they had told him that they had recently completed a compulsory five weeks of military service. He asked them what they had done, and they said they had learned how to use AK47s and C-4 explosive. He asked what use this was, and they told him very seriously that this is what they needed to know in case their country was ever invaded again. Interesting to think about.

Since it will take a while later to get the photos added to this post, I think I’ll hold off on guide stories for now. I shall have to remember later to post the folktale he told, what he shared about education in Vietnam, and his comments about gender roles here.


LeAnne said...

This is such fun being the vicarious traveler with you - thank you! And tell younger son that somehow I'm not surprised that he was not claustrophobic entering the tunnels :)

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to hear your guide stories. Your photos are stunning and are starting to give me a taste of the country. Thanks for posting as often as you do!

Karen said...

Enjoy checking in every other day to hear of your newly posted adventures! Sorry to hear about the "sick" computer, but am glad you have a back up computer if needed.

Debi said...

It's so easy to take our lives here for granted. Thanks for the beautiful post...a nudge to remember how enormous some of our blessings are.

Anonymous said...

Blaine looks like he has put on weight as well as years since Rosetown. Kelly

VA said...

When taking photos of people, since you are not using polaroid, could you give them photos of you all?

Cemeteries remind me of those in New Orleans.

Somehow I doubt US had time to destroy ALL its "stuff".

Good for Cuba! They did something useful

Just paused to look up meaning of Viet Cong. "The People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF), more popularly known as the Viet Cong (VC), was the military arm of the National Liberation Front (NLF)."