#35 - Vietnam
Jeff Willner - 7 April 2002
(Hanoi, VIETNAM) – My Dad is Canadian but that didn't
stop him from getting drafted for the Vietnam war when he was attending
college in the US. He went through Basic Training with the rest of his
unit, won his sergeant's stripes and was due to be shipped out in a week
before being called into the Personnel office. 'Hey, you are a Canadian',
they said. 'Yes I've mentioned that quite a few times'. 'Well do you
want to go to Vietnam and fight?'. 'Thanks but no', said Dad, 'but I'd
really rather not.'
Though we were born in the States as Americans my father was careful to
register my brother and I as Canadians as well, and he made sure we registered
our ineligibility with the Draft Board every year while at university.
To be honest I was a bit disappointed. Growing up on a steady diet of Vietnam
movies where Stallone kicked butt and Chuck Norris took no prisoners left
me with the conviction that I would be a deadly good forward scout. After
all, weren't we on the side of right?
Hanging out in Saigon was weird enough, I kept wondering if I was passing
an alley where they had Russian roulette betting matches a' la 'The Deerhunter'.
But visiting the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the American War
Crimes Museum) really shook me up. I expected the propaganda and one sided
slant, but I had never really put together the entire scope of the war.
The Tet Offensive was the beginning of the end for America, much was made
of the hundreds of casualties, but the North Vietnamese lost 500,000 men
in that one action action alone. So many bombs were dropped in neighbouring
Laos (which was being used by the Viet Cong as a supply route) that the
country earned the dubious distinction of being the 'most bombed country
in history' - and it wasn't even officially part of the war. Once known
as the country of a million elephants, foreign journalists dubbed it the
country of a million irrelevants. War, what is it good for?
That is not to say that the army is bad. In the words of a former president,
'Military security is like air, you don't notice it when you have it but
you can't live without it!'. A competent armed forces also functions as
a very effective deterrent that allows progress in political negotiations.
And in the worst case when all else fails a responsible country can oppose
tyrants and challenge bankrupt ideologies directly. But maybe what leaders
lose sight of is that history will judge them by their process not their
vision, by their means not their end. The United States became entangled
in Vietnam with the best of intentions - to slow the spread of communism
and allow the local people to enjoy the fruits of capitalism. But in the
process something very American got lost and the soul of the nation was
torn up. We are a young nation, America, anxious for results and impatient
with process. The war was lost but thirty years later capitalism is all
over Vietnam. So we were right after all. Right idea, wrong execution.
One might argue that hindsight is 20/20, the reasons were more compelling
at time. Maybe. But maybe if we spent as much money and energy demonstrating
the goodwill of America with schools, hospitals, roads, medicine, trained
judges, administrators, scholarships, as we do on a couple of stealth bombers,
foreign nationals might force their own governments to change. Even if
it takes decades, that is a process we could be proud of. Even my Dad would
||Driving in from the Ho Chi Minh City
(Saigon) airport we were swamped in a flood of motor scooters. Mopeds
and motorcycles poured through the streets. Stoplights were only
a suggestion. At intersections the scooter streams tangled briefly
and poured out the other side. The quantity was astonishing. Later
my guide on a tour explained, "In Vietnam you see many scooters
because people get money and want scooter, and before they were $3000
from Japan but now from China they are only $500. But not very good
quality. Sometimes they stop working in the middle of traffic which
is a big problem for the people behind!"
met Kat and Tricia in the Siam Riep airport, we were all flying to
Saigon. Since there were very few foreigners we decided to share
a cab into town and hunt for a good place to stay. They were great
fun and we hung out for a couple of days, walking around the city
and sampling the nightlife.
While strolling through the downtown park we saw these bottled
snakes for the first time. They were completely disgusting. Evidently
the jars are full of rice wine and the snakes are put in to create
a tonic. The more venomous the snake, the more powerful it's
properties. I still can't look at this picture without wincing
- neither can Kat.
The museums are pretty good in Saigon, but the best thing to
do in town is shop. Crowded markets and blocks of shops with
some really cool stuff kept us occupied for hours. Travelling
with a backpack limited my purchases - but I plan to return someday
and fill some hefty suitcases with cool stuff like carved clipper
ship models in full sail, embroidered clothes in funky colors, and
semi precious carved stones.
||Running on a short schedule, I decided
to fly from Saigon to the capitol Hanoi. A more peaceful and laid
back town, Hanoi still has quiet shaded streets lined with aged French
mansions. An altogether more peaceful place to wander. Right in the
center of the old city is a lake, and in the lake an island, and
on the island a cool little temple. This is the bridge to that temple.
after arriving I signed up for a two day tour to visit Halong Bay
- a UNESCO world heritage site to the north east of the city. That
left the afternoon to wander the streets of Hanoi and take in the
sidewalk activities. Later that evening I went to a water puppet
show. A uniquely Vietnamese art, the stage was a pool of water. Puppeteers
sit behind a screen controlling the puppets with long submerged bamboo
rods. It was really impressive.
(translated; Rose) was our guide on the two day trip to Halong Bay.
Though I usually tune out when the guide starts droning on and on,
Nhung's stories were too funny to miss. While touring a cave she
confided in us... "I am new speaking English only 3 years, and
at school we learn about fighting cocks, you understand, cock fighting?
And so my first tour group they ask me about lunar new year and I
say it is time for bringing offerings, money, saffron, and cock.
And my group start to laugh. I was soo nervous. And later when I
am explaining in this cave I say that some people think this rock
looks like a cock - and they laugh again. And so I ask one person
later, why they are laughing because cock is man chicken! But he
explain to me what is the meaning. I was so embarrassed. So that
is why I will tell you that these two islands look like kissing...
Halong Bay was beautiful, hundreds of tiny limestone islands
dotting the water. On our two day cruise we slept overnight on
the boat. That long twilight on the deck as the islands turned
grey and then black, stars overhead, and the quiet lapping of
water on the wooden hull made it an night to remember.
expected a bit more hostility, after all I wasn't traveling with
a Canadian flag sewn on the back of my backpack. But I was impressed
at the friendliness of the Vietnamese and the beauty of the place.
Maybe angst goes to the defeated. They made huge sacrifices to install
a terrible ideology that kept them in poverty for decades, but they
did win the war. Their attitude seems to be 'what the heck, let's
be friends, and would you like to buy some fine embroidered pieces'.
The noodles are great, the coffee is almost without equal (first
nod goes to Ethiopia), and if you have some spare pennies you can
really stay in comfort. So it was quite a good visit after all.