Thursday, April 28, 2016

Mui Ne

We took a bus out of Ho Chi Minh City and were happy to leave and get into the open countryside. My basecamp during the war was in the country. As the bus rolled along, I recognized the Vietnam from my past, rice paddies with a background of lush green mountains. Our destination was Mui Ne, a tourist/fishing village 135 miles north of HCM City.

The bus dropped us in the middle of town and we walked up a narrow lane lined with small restaurants and hotels. Our hotel was near the top of the hill. Two gentle soft spoken Vietnamese women checked us in and informed us that the budget room we had booked had been upgraded, for some reason, to a villa.
To get to the villa we walked further up the lane and then up two flights of concrete steps. Our room was perched on top of the hill with an ocean view in the distance. Meals were served by the pool. One of the waiters was a young man from Belgium. He told us he lives in Mui Ne now and that he was hired by the hotel because he spoke English. Mui Ne seemed like a travel destination for young people. Our hotel was filled with tall good looking European women carrying backpacks and traveling in pairs. I didn’t ask him directly, but I assume our young waiter had found himself a little Shangri-la.

We took a taxi to the fishing village section of Mui Ne and spent the day walking around. It was a hot day, but beautiful. We ventured down a lane where the locals lived and down to the beach near the fishing boats. The area was primitive and beautiful and trash and garbage was strewn all around.


We ate in a small restaurant. The women who ran it were very sweet and the balcony dining had a view overlooking the bay. We ordered fried rice and grilled squid, the most delicious food we’d eaten so far. In the middle of our meal a big rat entered one side of the balcony, crossed by our table and exited on the other side. None of the other diners took notice. Katie and I looked at each other, as if to say, what should we do? We were enjoying the food so much, we lifted up our feet up onto the chair rungs and continued eating. A little while later the rat returned and Katie screamed. He passed under our table and out the other side of the balcony where he had originally come from. The two European men sitting at the table next to us looked over and I explained to them that a rat the size of housecat just ran under our table. One of them mumbled something like, “Is that so?” and kept on eating. What can I say? Vietnam is beautiful, the people are sweet, and there are lots of rats and garbage.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The "American War"

When I decided to return to Vietnam after almost fifty years, I’m not sure what I expected to find, but one thing I hoped for was a feeling of connection with my fellow soldiers who lived and died there. Perhaps a sign that our sacrifice had some meaning.

There are three main war attractions advertised for tourists in Ho Chi Minh City. The Cu Chi tunnels, the Reunification Palace (formerly Independence Palace) and the War Remnants Museum. The Cu Chi Tunnels tour was an all day affair and we planned only one day in the city. The brochure advertising the tunnels showed a woman tourist barely able to squeeze down a hole in the ground. During the war I had the opportunity to crawl into a tunnel that had already been cleared of the enemy but I declined. I had no problem passing on it a second time either.  The US soldiers whose job it was to do the clearing, were called “Tunnel Rats”. They had to be small in stature to fit in the holes. I don’t think civilians can appreciate the level of courage some soldiers in war must have on a daily basis and the Tunnel Rats were some of the most courageous.

The Reunification Palace was closed because of some sort of convention that day. So that left the War Remnants Museum. From 1975 until 1995 it was called the “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression”. When Vietnam’s relations with the US normalized, the name was changed to the “War Remnants Museum”, but as I was about to find out, the exhibitions stayed true to the original name.  I would caution my fellow Vietnam Veterans about going to this museum. I felt terrible during and long after our visit there. I did not go to another military attraction for the rest of our two week long trip in Vietnam because of it.

Upon entering the grounds, a deformed man approached us offering to sell us a variety of books. He had no hands and said they were been blown off by an unexploded mine. I tried to give him money, but he said he didn’t accept charity, so I bought a small book for a ridiculously high price.

Sitting on the grounds outside the museum are US military weapons and hardware- planes, tanks, artillery pieces, etc.  Katie took my picture next to a Huey. I flew around in Hueys  a lot during the war. The helicopter pilots and their crews were also some of the bravest men I’d ever met. They put themselves in harm’s way repeatedly to save soldiers’ lives, including mine. The sight and sound of a Huey will always be a positive symbol for me.

The first exhibit was along the side of the museum building. The theme was torture. There were pictures and implements of various ways the French and American soldiers tortured Vietnamese prisoners. There were metal cages, leg and wrist irons and even a guillotine with which, they claim the French used to behead people. In a display case along with other implements of torture, was an US army field telephone. The label next to it said, “A military telephone set transformed into a torture instrument which can discharge electric shocks to the tortured.”

My job for much of my tour in Vietnam was as a POW Interrogator. The field telephone was our primary method to get uncooperative detainees to talk. I didn’t like to torture detainees and part way through my tour I became somewhat of a pacifist. Subsequently, I was not a very effective Interrogator with the hard core prisoners. There is way too much I could write about this, but suffice it to say that seeing the field telephone brought up some deep emotions. But foremost in my thought was, what about all the cruel and inhumane things the VC and NVA did to American and ARVN soldiers, and innocent villagers. I witnessed plenty of cruelty on their part. I guess there is one sided propaganda spun by both sides.  

Inside the museum on the main floor were pictures that chronicled the evolution of the war from the Communists’ perspective. Eisenhower and Kennedy were written about unfavorably and there was a picture of President Johnson looking like the devil himself. The only pictures of American soldiers were those depicting them in acts of violence against the Vietnamese people. There were displays on the effects of agent orange, fire bombing and napalm. I had seen these atrocities first hand 49 years ago and did not want to see them again. I grabbed Katie's hand and moved on. At one point I had to stop, sit down and breathe. I longed to connect with another Veteran. I even stopped and asked a couple of men tourists who looked about my age if they happened to be veterans of the war, but none were.

One section was devoted to pictures of American war protesters.  They were characterized as being rebels for truth, similar to the Communists themselves. Upstairs in a large room were pictures and biographies of western journalists who died covering the War. They too were heroes of the west, dedicated to telling the truth about the war, through their reporting of the war atrocities. And of course the My Lai massacre was highlighted.

As I watched tourists casually taking in the pictures and displays, and reading the propaganda plaques beside each one, I wanted to yell out to them that the only reason the protestors and journalists could speak out or write about the war in this way was because of our American Constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The Communists were misusing these freedoms, which they still deny their own people, to support their one sided interpretation of the war,

My emotions were all over the place. I broke down in tears several times, I became intensely angry at the Communist sons a bitches and by the time we finished wandering around the museum I felt numb and exhausted.

A display case in one of the souvenir shops outside the museum had cigarette lighters with American military unit insignias, years of in-country service and engraved sayings. Sayings like: “We the willing, trained by the unskilled to do an impossible job for the ungrateful” and “You have never lived ‘til you almost died, for those who fight for it, life has a flavor the protected will never know,” and “If you think sex is exciting, try incoming”. I don’t know if these lighters actually belonged to soldiers and sailors, but as I looked at them and read the inscriptions, I felt a deep connection with the guys I served with and all those who participated in the war. The Vietnam “American” War will probably go down in history at best as a big American blunder and at worst as another example of America’s unwarranted aggression in the world. I realized I would not find redemption or whatever I was looking for in the war museums, sites and displays. It would have to be found elsewhere, if at all.



Thursday, April 21, 2016

Ho Chi Minh City

At nine million people and growing, Ho Chi Minh City, still referred to by many as Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam. Katie and I spent only one day and two nights there. After our visit to Chiang Mai and Kuala Lumpur, we knew we did not want to spend too much time in another bustling city. But there were a few sights I wanted to see.
One was Independence Palace, which is now called The Reunification Palace. A brochure said it had been preserved the way it was when Nguyen Van Thieu, the former President of South Vietnam, lived and conducted business there in the '60s and '70s, frozen in time. The other site I wanted to see was The War Remnants museum.
1975 Saigon picture by Hubert Van Es

I was disappointed to find out that the American Embassy had been torn down in 1995. I wanted to see the place where in 1975, as the communists rolled into the city, thousands of Vietnamese scrambled into the compound and up onto the roof, attempting to board American helicopters and be flown to the safety of American ships waiting in the harbor. 

Katie and I arrived in the early evening, hungry.  The hotel desk clerk suggested an open air restaurant about a mile or so away. We had been traveling all day, it was around 6pm and still light out, so we decided to walk, which proved to be no easy matter. For the first half mile, there were no sidewalks. Vietnam does not handle garbage in the same way we handle it in the States. Trash and garbage is thrown into the street along the curb all day long and then sometime in the early morning, a street sweeper person pulling a large garbage pail comes along and sweeps most of it up. So in the evening the amount of garbage along the curb is sizable and right where we were forced to walk.

When we left the hotel I figured it must have been rush hour. Later we discovered that even during non-rush hour times, the sea of vehicles, mostly motor scooters, lessens only slightly. There seems to be two main rules of driving in Southeast Asia, never yield to anyone and toot your horn a lot. The noise was deafening and the streets were so crowded with motor scooters, trucks, buses and cars, that it reminded me of a stream in Ketchikan, Alaska where the salmon ran so thick we could have walked across on their backs.

When Katie and I worked our way to the main street and realized we needed to cross it,
it seemed like an impossibility. There were no street lights to stop the traffic and there was never even a slight break in the flow. We did spot a few crosswalks, but nobody paid the least bit of attention to them. As we stood on the corner, like a couple of dumbstruck possums, looking across the mass of honking swerving vehicles, a young woman motioned for us to follow her lead. Since the traffic was coming from the left, we stayed to her right. She stepped out onto the street, put her left hand up and began slowly to walk across, with us at her side. The traffic magically flowed around us.

We arrived safely on the other side and I yelled “cam ơn”, "thank you", in Vietnamese.
She smiled and went on her way and we continued on to the restaurant. The sidewalks on the main street were often blocked by parked scooters or street vendors, which forced us to step out into the street, taking care not to get sideswiped by passing vehicles.

We discovered the food is cheap, prepared with care, served graciously and is delicious. In my opinion, the best thing to emerge from the many years of French occupation, is the fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisine.

On our return trip to the hotel, the flow of traffic had not lessened in the slightest. When we arrived at the dreaded corner where we had to cross, I took a deep breath, grabbed Katie’s hand and in unison we stepped out into the oncoming traffic. Surprisingly, we were  not instantly killed, so we kept a slow and steady pace, just like the young woman showed us, arriving at the other side unharmed and were able to return to our hotel. In the morning, we would venture out into the vast, sprawling city.                                                                                         





Monday, April 18, 2016

Return to Vietnam

 I used to have nightmares about being back in Vietnam. I’d wake up in a sweat, my heart jumping out of my chest. Frightening thoughts and feelings would haunt me for the rest of the day.
 It’s been almost fifty years since my “tour of duty” in Vietnam and it was time to return. Katie and I spent fifteen days traveling by bus, train and plane from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to Hanoi.  We got back to Singapore just the other night and Peter asked me, “How was your trip?”  I answered, “It was heaven and it was hell”, kind of like the first time.

The country has changed, and yet it hasn’t, the biggest change being, no war. Every moment we were there, I was thankful for that. In 1967-68, I had an intense desire to experience this beautiful country and culture sans war. In the midst of that conflict, my heart opened to the Vietnamese people and as I discovered, it never closed.

It’s strange, all these years the Vietnam War has been foremost in my consciousness, as if it were still going on, but as we traveled around the country, I saw very little evidence that a decade of American presence ever happened. Over sixty percent of the population was born after the war ended. People forty years old and younger are the first generation to experience life without war and foreign domination since the French colonial times, which began in the late 1800s.  

Vietnam is a country on the rise. From the end of the war until 1986, the
government basically stuck to the hardline communist approach concerning their people and economy. In 1986 they adopted the Doi Moi policy, which allowed free enterprise and opened the country to more trade with the rest of the world. Almost immediately the economy took off and Vietnam has been steadily modernizing ever since. In 1994 the trade embargo was lifted by President Clinton.  In 1998 they joined APEC and now have free trade agreements with much of the rest of the world. Vietnam has a literacy rate of 92.8% and this year it is the world’s second largest rice producer. It seems only a matter of time until Vietnam becomes a major economic success. The people are eager and more than ready to enter the modern world and raise their standard of living.

I hate to express this thought, but if America had never gotten involved in the Vietnam struggle to begin with, the country would be farther along in their development. That of course would mean all the suffering and death on both sides need not have happened, which is hard for a veteran to acknowledge.  If I think about it too hard, it makes me feel sick. I should adapt the Vietnamese tendency to not look to the past, but toward the bright future. I hope future generations of Americans learn from the mistakes of our time.
I plan to write more blog posts about our experiences and the various places we visited, but here is a summary of our trip.

We flew into Ho Chi Minh City....

Then we took a sleeper bus to the beach town of Mui Ne.... 

From there we took another sleeper bus to Phan Rang. The bus driver had an inordinate amount of gas and he farted, belched and talked on his cell phone for the entire trip, all the while blowing the horn and weaving in and out of traffic.  


In Phan Rang we stayed in a resort and visited my friend Tuat and his family ....

From Phan Rang we took an all night train(the cockroach express) to Danang....

Then a local bus took us to the ancient city of Hoi An....

From Hoi An we boarded the “bus from hell”(there will be an entire blog post on this bus ride) to Hue....

From Hue we flew to Hanoi and caught a plane back to Singapore.
We are happy to be back in the world of potable water, sidewalks and crosswalks where the traffic actually stops and allows us to cross the street.




Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Weekend in Kuala Lumpur

We needed to transport our grandson, Christopher, to his weekend boy scout camping trip in the mountains outside of Seremban, a town just south of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My wife, Katie, daughter-in-law, Nani, and I decided to take the opportunity to explore Kuala Lumpur, so we booked a hotel for two nights. KL(as they refer to it here) is about a four hour drive from Singapore. After crossing the border into Malaysia we drove into Johor Bahru looking for a coffee shop. We found two across the street from each other. Like at home in Washington, you don’t have to look very hard to find good coffee.  We found a café with a totally open front, like a garage.

We ordered iced kopi with condensed milk. Christopher got apple juice, which was bright green and slightly sour. Beyond the overhanging café roof, the sun shone intensely bright. We were tucked back in the cool shade under fans slowly turning above our heads. Two old men sat at one of the outside tables, talking and drinking strong coffee from tiny cups. A skinny white dog crossed the empty, dust covered street. Our waitress, a round faced pleasant looking young woman wearing a midnight blue hijab(head scarf), counted money at the counter. For a short period of time, I had one of those moments you strive for when traveling, totally peaceful, present, and aware. I intensely appreciated being in these exotic surroundings.

The Malaysian highway is four-lane all the way and in great shape. Beautiful countryside rolled by, hills thick with lush green plants. We passed acre upon acre of palm groves. After dropping Chris at the designated meeting place, we continued on to
Kuala Lumpur. Our recently remodeled hotel was in an old part of the city, located on the corner of two alleyways. It was the nicest building in the surrounding area.
Our freshly painted rooms were on the 7th floor. On the ceilings were drawings of bugs,  our room had dragon flies and Nani’s room had beetles. Even the light fixtures by the beds were bugs, fashioned from tea strainers and wire. These looked like giant mosquitos, an ominous warning of the night ahead.

It was already getting dark, so we stashed our luggage in the rooms and ventured out into the city in search of dinner. We entered a restaurant that served Yemen food. Two women patrons were wearing black niqabs. The evening was hot and humid and they were covered from head to toe, only their eyes were visible. It must have felt like a sauna inside those things. The waiter placed a free standing screen around one couple, so that the wife could eat without anyone seeing her. The other woman had help from a normally dressed friend who held the material away from her mouth for each bite.  I wondered if these two women chose to wear the burqas out of religious conviction or were forced to. I assume it was a requirement for their type of Islamic faith. The food was so-so. 

 After dinner we walked to the Patronas Towers, huge and magnificent, lit
up against the night sky. We didn’t go up into the towers, but walked around in the bottom which is a shopping mall with expensive stores. We returned to the hotel, showered and went to bed. At 11pm we woke soaked with sweat. The air conditioner was off. I called the front desk and was told that the electricity had gone out in the entire hotel and that they were looking into it.

I made the mistake of using my Washington state reasoning and opened the window. The humidity must have been 90%. It was stifling and the sewer system in the alley below us must have been backed up, because the smell was horrid. We took turns standing under the shower to cool off, but the water was warm, so it had a minimal effect.
A flock of wild tropical mosquitos found our open window and came in to torment us. I pulled the curtains to block their buddies, turned on my mini emergency flash light and the mosquito hunt began. Methodically we tracked down and annihilated each and every one of them.  At least this activity kept our minds off how hot and miserable we were.  At 5am, the air conditioner sprung to life. We rejoiced. The night from hell was over.

First thing, after catching a few hours of sleep, I complained to the management and they cut the price of our next night’s stay in half. We spent the day wandering around the city. At a posh mall, we had an excellent Japanese lunch. The entire floor was dedicated to all things Japanese. On the bottom floor the mall was promoting the film “Batman versus Superman”. The Batmobile was on display and there was an arm wrestling contest for young men.  

That evening after stuffing ourselves on chicken wings and beer at the Jalan Alor market, the three of us indulged in a Thai message.
Nani and Katie went for the foot massage and I got the full body treatment. My masseuse was a short chunky Thai woman and she knew her business. She asked me to change into a pair of black pajamas and then returned to begin her regimen of torture.  She walked on my back, and up and down my arms and legs. She sat behind me and I sat between her legs and she pulled me back on top of her  while twisting my arms and shoulders and jabbing me with her elbows, heels and knees. I wanted to scream out in pain. At one point she stopped and asked if I was alright. I think I was whimpering or maybe I was begging her to stop. I didn't realize how much pain was in my body and she found every bit of it. Surprisingly, when she was through torturing me, I felt extremely relaxed.
That night our air conditioner performed beautifully and we slept like babies. Christopher and the boy scouts showed up right on schedule and a few hours later, we were crossing the Strait of Johor, inching our way through customs back to our temporary home to Singapore.