Thursday, January 24, 2008

$5.00 Boom-Boom

Yup, the Vietnam war films accurately portray the way you get solicited for sex here. The only difference being that instead of prostitutes propositioning me I am being constantly harassed by cyclo drivers. It is not an exageration to say that anytime past 10:00 p.m. I probably am asked if I want a "five dollar boom-boom" twice a block for the entire duration of my walk. The other night I went for a walk along the Perfume river. I probably covered about 2 km so imagine the number of solicitations I got then! And, just to go on record, NO, I have not accepted any invitations.

Vietnam continues to exceed my expectations. I know that I keep ranting about the natural beauty of this country, but WOW, it is just that incredible. Equally important are the amazing experiences I keep having with citizens of Vietnam. Last night I sat down for my usual dinner of pho at a typical street stall. Seconds after sitting down a middle aged man at the table next to mine asked if I would like to join him for some duck. I was quite surprised at how clear his English was and happily accepted his invitation. He was 55 years old and worked as a safety engineer in Saigon. He was spending three months overseeing the construction of a new building here in Hue, and informed me that he was quite lonely most nights (thus he was incredibly enthusiastic to have a converstaion with me). He has a large family back in Saigon, but will not be seeing them for another two months. Our conversation quickly turned to his English abilities and he informed me that he had worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army during the American War (as it is known to the Vietnamese). Because of his role in aiding the U.S. Army when the war was over he was imprisoned for three years. He was quite willing to talk about his experiences in jail (perhaps due to the entire bottle of Vodka that he consumed during our chat), which left me struggling to find something to say to him. The conditions he described were terrifying, and the routine torture he was subjected to left me shuddering. After discussing this for a while the conversation turned to our families before finally landing on current world events. His English was so good, and his knowledge of American politics, the Iraq War, and the Israeli/Palestine conflict so astounding that I completely lost track of where I was and who it was that I was talking to. Somewhere between chatting about Bush's new plan for peace in the Middle-East and Dennis Kucinich's odds of recieving the Democratic nomination I realized; Hey, I am sitting on the street in the middle of a downpour talking to a 55 year old Vietnamese man (who is REALLY HAMMERED by this point) about world affairs, and not only are we having a coherent conversation he probably knows more about these issues than I do! Crazy! As is becoming par for the course he insisted on buying my dinner, but after a great deal of protest he settled on paying for one of my beers before I headed home. Another unforgetable night in Vietnam.

My Vietnam Experience (as I have taken to calling it) continued today as I toured some of the VC tunnels in the DMZ and Khe Sanh, the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. From my perspective as an American it is quite fascinating to see the manner in which the Vietnamese portray Americans. In the museum at Khe Sanh there are numerous photographs of American soldiers. What is interesting is the captions on these photos. A generic example would be something like this. There is a photo of Americans ducking down as mortars hit their base or firing artillery from a fortified position. The captions read "The look of fear is quite obvious on the faces of the American occupiers as troops from the Liberation Army close in on their position." Captions beneath pictures of South Vietnamese soldiers refer to them as "puppet soldiers of the U.S. Army". The museum is also quick to point out that Americans sustained heavy casualites at Khe Sanh (about 500 Marines were killed before retreating from Khe Sanh), but does not mention anything about the North Vietnamese losing over 10,000 men during the assault.

After visiting Khe Sanh I visited the Voc Minh tunnels where hundreds of villagers and fighters lived for six years during the heavy bombing that took place in the area from 1966-1972. The conditions were utterly shocking. Looking on the map you can see what are listed as family rooms where four to five people lived at any one time during the bombings. Upon arriving on this level of the intricately dug three level system I was shocked to see what was considered a room. Essentially there was enough space for a twin sized bed and that was it. To think that over 300 children were raised in these conditions and that 66 babies were born in these rooms was truly chilling.

I had a lot ot think about on the return journey to Hue, and as I stared out the window thinking about everything I had just seen I suddenly became aware of the obscene number of graves that we were zipping past. This was a three hour journey and during this I time I saw no less than four massive graveyards (I estimate that each had somewhere between 1000 and 3000 graves) including some that were quite clearly of a military nature. I had just spent 8 hours learning about the battles and living conditions during the war, but it was here in these graveyards that the real stories were. Each grave marked the end of a life. The loss of a father. A mother. A husband. A wife. A son. A daughter. A friend. Thousands and thousands of lives lost. Millions and millions of lives forever shattered.

Why do we seem incapable of learning from our past? Why must more men and women lose their lives. The war machine keeps on rolling...

1 comment:

The Publisher said...

Red Clay on My Boots: Encounters with Khe Sanh 1968-2005 by Robert Topmiller, provides a personal account of the battle of Khe Sanh. He chronicles several return trips made in an attemnpt to release his nightmares. Topmiller trained to be a Hospital Corpsman and served with the 26th Marines during the battle of Khe Sanh.