Nine days in Hanoi


It’s better than I remembered it from a visit five years ago. People are aggressive and money-hungry compared to Thais, but friendly. What an exciting place!  Street life is a thousand times more dynamic than anywhere in the States. Took a two hour train ride to Ninh Binh to get out in the countryside where they have unusual limestone karst formations. Here are a bunch of pictures from the last few days.

 

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Eight Days in Vietnam


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I just came back from eight days in Vietnam. Like all vacations, I spent more money than I thought I would, even though prices were comparable to those in Thailand, where I live.

What amazed me is how happy a lot of the people seemed to be. The Vietnamese spent an entire generation fighting for the freedom to choose their own form of government, a battle which they eventually won, and now they are justifiably proud of themselves. But they’re also very poor. A lot of people seem unemployed.

The people who approached us on the street to try to sell us something or other weren’t fooling around. In Thailand, nobody seems especially driven or hungry. Here they do.

Vietnamese men and women of my age remember the war years, but most of the people you see on the street are much, much younger. They probably don’t think of the war as anymore than a story told in school or by their grandparents. The dead were buried long ago. True, certain parts of the countryside are still pockmarked with bomb craters and in some remote places landmines and unexploded ordnance are a problem, but essentially the Vietnamese people have moved on. When we arrived at the airport in Saigon we ate at Burger King.

People still ride around on bicycles and wear those canonical hats. Old women wear what look like pajamas in clashing colored patterns. They carry heavy loads on bamboo pole with two baskets or buckets at either end.

At the war museum in Saigon, I saw a video in which they had assembled a group of four pilots, two Vietnamese and two Americans. The interviewer asked the Vietnamese pilots if they had been at a disadvantage. “Yes,” they agreed, “the Americans had much better equipment and there were many more of them. But we were fighting for our country.”

“We were fighting for our country, too.” said one of the American pilots. He looked sad and tired and not terribly happy to be there.

In my present circumstance, it was all I could do not to guffaw out loud. Here I had just come from the museum’s Agent Orange room, where they had plenty of photographs of horribly deformed Vietnamese children on display. They had captured U.S tanks, helicopters, artillery, bombs and planes on display in the museum’s courtyard. Right after I paid my admission charge, a man who had lost his forearms and one eye introduced himself and sold me a book about the little girl who had been photographed running naked down the road, crying after napalm had burned all her clothes off and scarred her for life.

But the guy probably really believed he was defending America, in some way that I find hard to understand from this vantage point. The air force pilot’s comment reminded me of the time I saw the documentary film “Hearts and Minds,” which came to our theater in my Missouri college town. The week before I had been to that same theater to see “Fantasia,” the Disney cartoon that had just been re-released. We were all stoned and agreed that Walt must have been high when he made that film. Our student deferments had allowed us not to fly to Southeast Asia and kill or be killed.

But this week, to watch the documentary about what was going on as far away as one could get from Missouri and still be on the planet, we were stone cold sober. The movie was about as depressing as any you could hope to see. They showed G.I.’s cavorting happily with Saigon prostitutes. We saw Vietnamese families scrambling to hide in tunnels to protect themselves from air raids. In a scene I’ll never forget, a Vietnamese man was showing the camera where his family had been the moment the bomb hit their house. Only he had survived. His wife had been there, his oldest daughter there, and his youngest daughter here, where the kitchen used to be, washing the dishes. Oh look, here’s a scrap of her dress. This was my daughter’s dress! Why don’t you show this to Nixon and tell him about my daughter? Choked by grief, he stared dumbly at the fabric.

Then they cut to a funeral of a Vietnamese soldier where the man’s wife tried to climb on top of his funeral pyre and immolate herself.

They then cut to General William Westmoreland, who laconically informed viewers with a twinkle in his eye “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” A gasp went up from the audience. It was as if somebody had kicked all of us in the gut at the same time.

The problem with evil, is that it often simply resembles stupidity. But there is a difference between a lack of information or intelligence and policies and the actions that kill millions of people. Three million died in Vietnam. Millions died in Korea after we napalmed whole cities and blew up dams, guaranteeing starvation. These things just didn’t happen by accident, or from bad information. They came about through deliberate effort, through the plans and actions of real people.

When the little girl was napalmed and then photographed running down the road, the Press was quick to point out that we hadn’t napalmed her, but the South Vietnamese army had. With napalm and planes we had given them. Now when Saudi Arabia uses white phosphorous on Yemeni civilians, or Israel on the residents of Gaza, we gave it to them. Does that lesson our culpability? Wasn’t me, it was that guy over there.

No Birds Can Be Heard


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Laos is the Paraguay of Southeast Asia.  It’s terribly poor with awful roads and the public transportation system tests the mettle of anyone brave or foolish enough to use it. The bus we rode on from Vientiene to Luang Prabang was proudly marked VIP in letters three feet tall, but the air-conditioning was no match for the temperature outside and it had no bathroom. Most of our time we could not ride busses but rather found ourselves crammed into twelve-passenger minivans, and these had no air conditioning at all.

Mostly mountainous, Laos is thickly forested at least for the time being, which made the lack of birds all the more puzzling.  In my week in Northern Laos, I never heard a bird call or sing.  There simply weren’t any for they had all been eaten long ago.  In order to add poultry to their diet they now raise plenty of chickens and ducks. I saw a man happily herding about twenty ducklings down the highway, laughing while traffic stacked up behind him. Like most of the countries I visit, roosters began crowing before dawn, but there were no bird songs, calls or tweets. I suppose they keep ducks because of the rice paddies.

The people I met in the countryside seemed happy and relaxed.  Lots of young mothers with babies.  Intact, large families, eating meals together with both men and women taking turns holding the baby. Like Northern Thailand, Laos is home to any number of ethnic groups, what we call “hilltribes” in Thailand, living in impoverished villages in houses that looked like chicken coops, but they seemed pretty happy, too.  Children would wave and laugh as we drove by on our rented motor scooter.

In such a tranquil setting, it seems hard to imagine that Laos is the most heavily bombed place on earth. We dropped more explosives on Laos than were dropped by the Allies in all of the Second World War. For eight years we spent about eight billion dollars in dropping explosives onto what we called the “Ho Chi Minh trail.”  We were not at war with Laos (for that matter, we weren’t officially at war with Viet Nam either) but nevertheless we bombed them daily.  Even when truces caused us to pause our bombing of Viet Nam, we continued bombing Laos.  As we drove through one area, I noticed that each farm house had a fish pond nearby.  The little ponds were scattered about randomly.  I imagined hard-working farmers digging these ponds until I realized they were bomb craters!

There is still a lot of unexploded ordinance around, especially cluster bombs, which resulted in shiny little balls that Laotian children have been warned not to play with.  There are even a few five-hundred pound bombs lying in the mud, waiting to detonate when a farmer plows his field or walks through the woods. The mechanics of explosives resist corrosion. Heck, there is unexploded ordinance from the First World War still giving French farmers trouble in fields near Verdun.

When our campaign of fiery persuasion finally ended, Laos became a communist state about the same time Vietnam did, in 1975.  Vietnam has since prospered, but I’m afraid Laos has not been as lucky.  Vietnam has the ocean, but Laos is land-locked and extremely mountainous. The Chinese are encouraging the Laotians to cut down their forests so they can practice monoculture, and to damn their rivers so they can build hydro-electric dams and sell the energy to China, but I’m hoping these measures will meet some resistance.

Out of my eight days in the country, I think we spent 22 hours in travel. I seem to have a knack of picking the worst itinerary possible when planning my trips.  I look at a map and think, “well, it only looks like sixty miles.  Can’t take more than a couple of hours.” Then I find that it takes half a day to go that distance, and inside a hot, crowded mini-van, that half-day is spent lurching from side to side down roads so irregular they defy description.

One such morning our companions were two girls, aged about 14 and 11, who were headed back to their home town because their mother had just died.  She was 35. Even though Laotian is closely related to Thai, I was never able to understand the cause of her death. After a preliminary and obligatory display of sadness, the sisters entertained all of us by shrieking with laughter each time the van bottomed out on an especially deep pothole.

It’s a wonderful thing when people can hold onto joy despite their problems. And it was a joyous moment the afternoon we crossed the border back to Thailand where busses were air-conditioned, the roads paved, and my ATM card started working again.  The next morning at our hotel in Chiang Rai, I heard birds in the tree outside our window welcome the dawn.

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The One That Got Away


When we were traveling in Viet Nam, we came across a statue factory near Danang. There, among the usual quasi-roman and greek nymphs and goddesses, was a life-sized, marble statue of Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese George Washington. When the manager saw me taking a picture of it, she assured me that it could be mine for only five thousand dollars, including shipping. Just think of it! I could have been not only the first kid on my block, but the first person I would have ever known who owned a life-sized marble statue of Uncle Ho! Oh well, if it’s such a good idea, I’m sure it will come around again, as all good ideas and opportunities do.