Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Death of Gore-Tex

In 1954 the French military commander in Vietnam, General Henri Navarre, sent 12 battalions of elite French soldiers to block the Viet Minh army from attacking the then capitol of Laos, Luang Prabang. The French occupied the area surrounding the town of Dien Bien Phu. With this strategic position and a serious of intricately ringed defenses the French were confident that they could stop any Viet Minh force that came through the valley. However, the French had relied heavily on the assurances from Artillery Commander Pirot that the Viet Minh would not be able to get artillery into the high mountains surrounding the area. For the French this was the beginning of the end. Under the command of General Vo Nguyen Giap (who would later command the Viet Minh forces against the U.S. Army during the American War) 33 battalions of infantry and six battalions of artillery, which were transported in against all odds by thousands of porters, took up positions around the French encampment. When the 105mm cannons of the Viet Minh finally opened up on the French position Artillery Commander Pirot drew his service weapon and promptly shot himself in the head. He knew that, with the backing of artillery, the French did not stand a chance against the Vietn Minh forces. Over the next 57 days the fighting was relentless. The French dropped supplies and an additional six battlions of paratroopers to reinforce the position, but as the weather worsened and the artillery continued to rian down from the hillsides the French began to run out of supplies and suffered heavy casualties. Eventually, despite the fact that these were some of the worlds most elite soldiers, the French were forced to surrender, thus marking the end of French rule in Indochina. During the battle over 3000 French soldiers were killed and an additional 10,000 were wounded. Viet Minh casualties were estimated at over 25,000.

The events of Dien Bien Phu were on my mind yesterday as I trekked thru the rain soaked mountains surrounding Sa Pa (about 180 km east of Dien Bien Phu). I still find it hard to believe that there has been so much death and destruction in this area. How could such a beautiful country, with such a diverse population, suffer so much in it's recent history. The signs of war have disappeared from the Sa Pa area, but as I walked down the impossibly muddy paths with rain constantly hammering down on me I was reminded of the fierce determintation of the Vietnamese and why they have continuously defeated some o the worlds best armies (the Chinese, French, and Americans). I passed several men and women wearing knee boots and planstic ponchos carrying back breaking loads of firewood out of the forest and down to their villages. Like the Viet Minh forces who transported the 105 mm cannons into the hills around Dien Bien Phu these men and women labored relentlessly in the cold, wet conditions. I stood watching them struggle under the loads of firewood, cacooned in my Gore-Tex and feeling utterly spoiled. That was two hours into my hike...

Four hours into the hike the rain, which, like the Viet Minh forces at Dien Bien Phu, had been hammering at my defensive layers of Gore-Tex, finally broke through my defenses. As I reached my hotel I was soaked from head to toe. My thermometer read about 6C but given the fact that I was wearing several layers of warm synthetic clothing and was still absolutely freezing I decided it could not be an warmer than 1 or 2 C and with the humidity it felt like about negative 10. I reached my hotel and started a fire for Pat (an Aussie travel buddy that I recently met) and myself. We stripped off our soaking clothes and laid them in front of the fire, praying they would dry soon. For the next three hours we lay in our beds shivering and wishing we had either a bottle of whisky or a joint to take our minds off the frigid conditions. Unfortunately, we had neither, and simply resigned ourselves to waiting for the clothes to dry. This never happened but after three hours we dressed in our damp clothing, and made our way to the closest restraunt for some food and a bit of warmth. After dining on a cheeseburger (my first in ages) we made our way to the local pub where we spent two hours shivering but still trying to drink beer, while playing pool with a couple of Vietnamese guys, who clearly have devoted their lives to pool because they were fucking good!

So that was the death of Gore-Tex. Even my expensive clothing could not protect me from the rain, which, like its Viet Minh brothers, attacked relentlessly all day and all night. To be fronzen and wet is a terrible combination. I am out of here. Next stop... somewhere else cold and wet. Shit. The entire north is socked in, and, despite the fact that this is the dry season, I have not had a dry day since Hoi An two weeks ago. warming sucks. I have loved Vietnam, but Jesus! I cannot wait to flee to a warmer climate on Feb. 9th. First stop Thailand. Then on the 14th I am off to the Phillipines, which will be a welcome respite from the frigid conditions of northern Vietnam. Nine days and counting...

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