Sunday, November 16, 2014

They Call Me Crazy

There are few times in your life where you meet someone for the first time and they tell you their complete life story with such openness that you feel as if you've known them for much longer than an evening. We've been in Central Vietnam for 5 days now and its been a confusing time. Da Nang was the central base for US forces during the war and many of their bases and tanks are still there. We've visited historical sites such as the DMZ, 17th parallel, the ancient city of Hue, the merchant city of Hoi An, the Marble Mountains, and Vinh Moc tunnels. During all of this time our tour guides have told us a very one sided history. Much of Vietnam today seems like a one sided history. The story of the war is told along the lines of the US caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, divided the country, and destroyed the land. I cannot completely disagree with those statements, but what the new generations of Vietnamese are also told is that it was Communism and Ho Chi Minh that saved the country and reunited the people. The majority of Vietnamese I have met have told me that the war is over and that the country is okay. We shouldn't think about the war, because it is sad and in the past. Last night I heard a very different story. A story I think a lot of Vietnamese Americans on this trip wanted to hear. A few of us went to a burger shop on the beach in Da Nang. Weird right? Who would imagine such a place in Vietnam? We went to the small shop with the intentions of grabbing a quick bite and heading to the beach. Instead we spent four hours hearing the life story of the owner. I am in a country that watches our internet activity and punishes those who criticize the government, so I don't feel comfortable tell you his/her name or his/her shop's name. The owner started their story with his/her relocation as a child. When the VC began to take power, his/her family was kicked out if their home and sent into the mountains, because they were southern. They spent a year in the mountains, living with a mountain tribe. When they returned to Da Nang they found Northerners living in their house. They had to live on the street and work small jobs to make enough money to eat. As the war intensified and the Americans set up base in Da Nang he/she began interacting with the US troops. At the age of 12 he/she became and interpreter for an American doctor. The two would go to villages distributing medicine and taking the very ill to a hospital in Da Nang. His/her stories of that time period are incredible. After the war he/she was sent to prison for a year, like the majority of Southerners who had interaction with US troops. After the war he/she raised 8 adopted children and opened up his/her own restaurant. He/she gives individual tours of Central Vietnam that are completely different than what I've experienced. He/she tells the his/her story of the war from a pro American Vietnamese side. Much of what I've experienced is a lie told to tourists. Every tour I take I have to analyze what I'm being told. This person told me his/her opinions of the government and that in itself is something that rarely happens in Vietnam. Last night was my favorite experience in Vietnam. I've never met a person like who I met last night. He/she is brave, compassionate, and open in a country where these attributes are not supported or taught. Here is one story he/she told me.

"At the age of fourteen I was spending most of my days on the American army compound in Da Nang. It wasn't safe for me to live at home where I would be recruited to fight for the Viet Cong. I would wash clothes and cook food for the GI's. At first I looked up to them as adults, but as I spent more time with them I realized they were children like me. Most of them were eighteen years old. Still kids. When they got scared they would call for their mothers into the night. At this age I still didn't know which side I was on. The way the war was going it seemed as if I would have a pick a side soon. I made good friends with an eighteen year old GI named Charlie in the camp. It was around Christmas time and his parent's had sent him a big package from home. Christmas was a foreign thing to me and I was very interested in the big box filled with red, green, and blue presents. Charlie's parents had sent a box full of presents for all the children in the village that he patrolled every week. Before leaving the base to deliver the gifts to the children, Charlie gave me a small red present filled with candy. The last image I have of Charlie is walking out of the army base holding a huge box of presents. A day passed and Charlie didn't come back to the base. A patrol troop was sent to the village to go look for him. When they got to the village the villagers told the soldiers that they had seen Charlie with the presents, but that they hadn't seen him since. A few days passed and the general of the camp had found a new tunnel that was right outside the village. The soldiers smoked out the tunnel and found 8 VC men. After questioning and probably torturing the men the general found out what had happened to Charlie. The general knew we were good friends so he told me when I ask him about it. During this time more and more VC fighters were going into the villages trying to recruit more fighters. The villagers couldn't resist the VC or they would be killed. Well, it turns out that Charlie had gotten to the village and was able to deliver the presents to the kids. Charlie was invited into a hut of a villager. He was sitting on a chair with a small child on his lap, watching the little guy opening his present. A VC member was standing right behind Charlie and slit his throat while Charlie was distracted with the kid. They tied Charlie to the chair and weighed him down with a large rock and threw him into the river. The general found Charlie the same day he interrogated the VC soldiers. I was heartbroken. I would loose many friends during the war. One week, one month, two months. I never forget them. One thing I admired about the US soldiers is that they never left a man behind. The VC would sometimes use their own men as bait, and hundreds of bodies were never discovered after the war. The day Charlie died I knew I could never support the VC. I don't feel Vietnamese. Not one hundred percent. I'm somethinpg else, I don't know. Crazy. They used to call me that all the time on the army base, because I was so young and so involved. Crazy."
Photo credit: Kelsey Eiland

Before coming to Vietnam I considered myself to be very anti US involvement in the Vietnam war. Now that I'm nearing the end of my journey I feel a bit different. I think a lot of actions of some American soldiers and a lot of US policy was bad during the war. However, I think there were those soldiers who were actually fighting for a better Vietnam and a freer people. The country had been divided long before the Americans arrived. More Vietnamese died after the war than during it, due to famine and incarceration. After the war the people did not have a choice. It was Communism or die. Forty years later Vietnam is a different country. Many more people are educated, there is international economic cooperation, development is booming, and hey, there's even a Burger King 15 minutes from my dorm. However, Vietnam is still a place where you could be killed for criticizing the government, where there is a huge amount of political corruption, and where the concept of freedom is defined by the party. People don't talk about the government here, even in private spaces. At first I thought it was strange, but after  hearing my new friend's story I finally understand why. Fear is like a genetic trait. It can be ingrained into a person's being, passed down generation to generation through stories and memory.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Visitors and Travels

I had the privilege of spending my week with Spence. At 4:30am I jumped the dorm fence to walk to the main gate to catch a ride to the bus station. My ride to the station never came so I hailed a taxi and made it to the station just in time. I really dislike traveling within Vietnam, because I'm a target for getting ripped off. If a foreigner came to Vietnam for the first time with no knowledge of what things actually cos,t they would end up paying quadruple the price. I was approached at the station for a cheaper bus fair if only I followed a man around the corner to his bus. Knowingly I just went inside the station and got on my bus. I reached Saigon's main station and was again rushed by taxi drivers. There are two reputable taxi companies in the South. You have to be sure that their meter works and that the car is clearly marked with the correct labeling. Since I was by myself I made sure to get a small cab rather than the larger cab that was offered to me. I picked up Spence from the airport. His flight was running a bit late so I got a ca phe sua da (iced coffee) and waited with my Spence sign. He arrived energized and a lot harrier than I last saw him. It was great to finally be together. Typically, Spence and I spend a few weeks in between seeing each other because we live 6 hours apart. Two and a half months felt pretty long. To get to our first destination Spence and I had to take a cab to downtown to catch a ferry. The first cab offered us 900,000vnd (45usd) for a ride. We ended up taking a VinaSun cab for 150,000vnd (7.50usd). Like I said, major scam artists here. When we got to the ferry we learned that it had burned down last year. I had tried calling the company earlier in the week. Their phone lines and website were still in service, but I hadn't been able to contact anyone. Luckily for us there was a bus leaving for Vung Tau. The ride took a couple hours and once we arrived it was time for dinner. We had whole fried grouper, morning glory, and rice and a local spot. Vung Tau is the most pristine place I've traveled to thus far in Vietnam. We were welcomed by clear weather and a not so busy atmosphere. Our hotel was right on the beach and it was mostly filled with families visiting from Saigon. The first day we woke up early and decided to hit the religious spots first. We crossed a man made rock bridge that becomes hidden by the afternoon tide to a small pagoda on an island. we hung out there for a bit to enjoy the view and peacefulness of the pagoda. 

Our next location was a walk up about 200 steps to a large statue of Jesus. Funny to think of Jesus being on a Vietnamese island, but there are actually quite a bit of Catholics here. The statue is hallowed out so you can go inside the statue and take pictures on the arms.

We had a great lunch of steamed clams and crab fried rice. After a quick nap and round of card wars we went down to the beach to enjoy the last rays of sun. Spence got to see his first Vietnam sunset, which is something quite special to see. That night we decided to grab various sea food from vendors on the beach. We had some of the best grilled octopus I've ever had, some whole grilled shrimp, and more seafood fried rice. The food was cheaper than Saigon, so we were paying about 5 dollars each for every meal.

Early Monday morning we took a six hour bus ride to Can Tho. At night Spence and some of the people from my program went out for pho. That week Spence came to all of my classes, even the two and a half hour Vietnamese classes. He got the opportunity to try a lot of street food, see the floating market, visit my campus, visit a Khmer pagoda, visit a Chinese pagoda, see Can Tho Ancient House, and be there for me on my birthday. We started to day off with the floating market, pho for breakfast, a seminar on human trafficking, Vietnamese class, dinner of banh xeo, a party with cake, and dancing at the club.

Thursday afternoon we left for Saigon after class. During class we talked about Vietnamese government and the concept of freedom within the lines of the law. People can't really talk about government here and they definitely can't criticize it. I was happy to leave for Saigon afterward, because there are some terrific restaurants  and we went to my favorite one Thursday night. It’s a grill restaurant on a rooftop in district one. We had fried frog, grilled whole shrimp, grilled squid, veggies, and drinks, all for about twelve dollars each (which is quite expensive for Vietnam). On Friday we went sightseeing and went to the war remnants museum (my third time now). Halloween night Spence and I were Wilson and Tom Hanks from castaway (I was Wilson). The street we were staying on Bui Vien, was packed shoulder to shoulder and scooter to scooter. We went to clubs and play a round of pool with another person from my program.  On Saturday we had the whole day to explore Ben Thahn market and haggle with sales people so Spence could find some good gifts. We spent our last night going to a very good Japanese pizza place. I never have cheese, so this was quite a treat! It was sad saying goodbye to Spence on Sunday, but I was still so appreciative and happy for the time we got to spend together. Spence reminded me of how much I miss home.
Until next time,