Monday, May 30, 2016

PTSD Express

As we sat waiting with other passengers to load onto our bus from Hoi An to Hue, a Vietnamese man stood up and began yelling at us, “Come on, let’s go, get on the bus”, as if we weren’t paying attention or were late to arrive. We didn’t realize our bus was parked over to the side of where we were sitting. There were no signs or directions of any kind.  It was one of those sleeper buses that run up and down the few highways of Vietnam.

When you enter these buses, the bus driver hands you a plastic bag for your shoes. You are to place them in the bag and carry them back to your seat. The seats are like recliners, with an enclosed area for your legs. Within the enclosed area is (but not always) a blanket and small leather pillow. Above your midsection is a built in tray to hold snacks and drinks. There are three rows of seats and two levels, like bunk-beds. Katie and I had ridden this type of bus before and we chose the lower seats because they are easier to get in and out of, but are still difficult. The distance between the top seat and bottom seat is small and you have to slide in at an angle one foot at a time to get your legs into the leg area.

Everything in Vietnam seems to be made for small people. I had to buy an XXL tee shirt, which is the largest size at the souvenir stands, and I’m not a very big guy. One washing and this shirt will fit my twelve year old grandson perfectly.

A very tall young man entered the bus. The quick tempered purser directed him to a seat in the back. I watched this lanky northern European tourist attempt to maneuver his long legs into the leg compartment. He couldn’t do it. One of the other passengers who had witnessed his frustrated attempts, directed him to a seat up front where there was no leg compartment. The bus driver and purser had exited the bus and were attempting to cram a motor scooter sideways into the luggage compartment. The relieved young man sank into the open fronted seat with a sigh of relief.

When the cranky purser came back on the bus and saw the man sitting in the front seat, he yelled and frantically gestured, “You go in back.”

“I’m too tall,” he replied, “I don’t fit.”

But the purser kept yelling and gesturing for him to move. This went on for a while, each man repeating the same thing. Finally the tourist said, “You are not listening, I don’t fit.”

The purser got off the bus and talked with the bus driver who immediately came on the bus and began yelling at the man, “You go in back.” But the tourist wouldn’t budge saying, “I’m not going anywhere.”

The bus driver was beside himself. He totally lost his temper and began shouting at the guy to move. The tourist just kept saying, “I’m not moving”. Some of the other passengers tried to explain the situation, but he didn’t understand or wasn’t listening. The driver grabbed the keys, turned off the bus engine, pushed the purser toward the door and they both exited the bus. He slammed the door shut, locking us all in. He sat down on a plastic chair just outside the bus, in defiance.  

It was a standoff between the Scandinavian tourist and the bus driver and the rest of us were unwitting victims of the situation. It was a hot, humid day. The inside of the bus was heating up and it was becoming stuffy. After a few minutes, a passenger needing to use the bathroom, began pounding on the bus door, but the Driver and Purser paid no attention.  I was feeling panicky, a familiar feeling that had visited me from time to time since last being in Vietnam. My heart was racing and I felt claustrophobic. How are we going to get out of here? I imagined myself kicking out a window. I knew the bus driver could not kill all his passengers, that wouldn’t be good for business. But I wasn’t thinking rationally, so I focused on my breath, deep breath in, deep breath out, to help me calm down. The other passengers were now beginning to talk to each other about the situation.

In January 1968, I was awakened in the middle of the night by one of my hooch-mates. “Yeager, get up! We’re being attacked.” The five of us in the hooch all scrambled to pull on our pants and boots. We were used to the sound of explosions in the night, but these were getting closer and there was a strange new noise. It sounded like the whistling bottle rockets we set off on the 4th of July, only bigger and more ominous.  I grabbed my rifle and steel pot. The other guys were huddled at the screen door, looking across the dirt road to the bunker on the other side. Tracer bullets filled the space in between. We didn’t know who was shooting at whom, but the explosions were getting louder and we needed to get our butts over to the bunker, post haste.

Looking over the damage after Tet offensive

One of the guys said, “We’re gonna have to run for it,” and he took off across the road for the bunker. Another guy went and another until it was my turn. I waited for a break in the tracer bullet action and took off. At the entrance to the bunker someone grabbed me and pulled me in. We all made it and spent the rest of the night hunkered down in the bunker, listening to the explosions and hoping we were not being overrun by the enemy.  I kept thinking about how easy it would be for someone to lob a grenade or satchel charge into the bunker and kill us all. We sat huddled in that humid smelly bunker until daylight, not knowing what was going on or what would be the outcome.

This hooch took a direct hit from a rocket
This was one of many experiences I had the last time I was in Vietnam and it seemed to be fueling my current anxiety on the bus. I looked out the bus window at the Bus Driver and he was talking on his cell phone. He hung up and shortly after that a man showed up on a motorbike, apparently the bus company supervisor. He got the keys from the driver and unlocked the bus door. The passenger who had been beating on the door, ran off to the bathroom and the man climbed on the bus and stood in front of the tall tourist.
“You need to go to a seat in the back.” And in broken English he tried to explain why. But the tourist didn’t want to hear his explanations and kept saying.

“OK, I’ll go in back, but you just shush.”

The man continued to explain and the tourist kept saying, “You shush,” but then went to the back and into a seat, with his knees up in his face. The Supervisor left on his motorbike and the Bus Driver and Purser came back on the bus. Now the Driver was late on his run and his frustration and anger were not abated. He started the bus engine, slammed it in gear and stepped on it. I think he was trying to peel out or pop a wheelie, but the bus just shuddered, before starting forward.

 It was a wild ride to Hue. The driver tailgated every car and bullied every motor scooter to the side of the road, all the while laying on the horn. When we finally got to Hue we were all relieved. A woman passenger with a Spanish accent told the bus driver off before exiting the bus. She told him he was a menace on the road and one day he was going to kill someone. A few of the other passengers clapped. Katie and I got off the bus and walked around the parking lot a few times just to get our bearings.





Sunday, May 15, 2016

The "HomeStay" in Hoi Anh

The local bus from Danang south to Hoi Anh took about an hour. Bus drivers in Vietnam have assistants who take care of the passengers, help them on and off the bus and load and unload luggage and packages. On the sleeper buses, the assistants were often pushy and rude, but the assistant on this local bus was a friendly older man who treated the passengers with respect and performed his duties earnestly.

The bus became overcrowded quickly. Katie and I had seats, but others had to stand in the aisle. A woman climbed onto the bus carrying a large basket filled with her products to sell. The assistant helped her on, seating her on a ledge next to the driver. When a seat became available, he made sure she got it, leaving her basket up front under the watchful eye of the bus driver.

We passed by Marble Mountains, a popular tourist site. There are five mountains, each one named after one of the five elements. The area is famous for its stone sculptures and carvings. Each mountain has a cave entrance and many tunnels. During the war there was a Marine Helicopter facility near the mountains. Also, according to William Broyles book “Brothers in Arms”, there was a Viet Cong hospital hidden in the area at the same time.

In Hoi Anh we all got off in an open lot, the end of the line. We were approached by men wanting to take us to our hotel on the backs of motorbikes. The hotel was several miles away at the other end of town and across a bridge, on Cam Nam Island. Katie and I each had a back pack and a purse, a “manly bag” in my case. It didn’t seem wise to hop on the back of these small scooters and try to hang on to our baggage. And besides, if I’m on a motorcycle, I want to be the guy driving, it’s a trust issue.  We declined their offers and walked.
It was a long hot walk. We stopped for lunch and to cool off. Hoi Anh is a beautiful old town. The buildings are rustic and colorful. Right before the bridge going over to Cam Nam Island, we passed through a large open produce and fish “wet” market, bustling with people.   

Our hotel was called Homeland River Home Stay and was not really a hotel. The Home Stay program is worldwide and allows students or tourists to rent rooms in a family’s home with the idea of getting to know the people more intimately and immersing in their culture.  Our Home Stay was three stories tall with many rooms.  The bottom of the building was the lobby and open to the street. The family’s living quarters were behind the lobby with the kitchen in the back.

The family who owned and ran the Home Stay consisted of a husband, wife, son, daughter-in-law and two grandmas.  We stayed there for four nights and only saw the husband a handful of times. Thuy (pronounced Twee) ran the place with the help of her son and his wife, also named Thuy, who was pregnant. Not to confuse the two women, when Katie and I talked to each other about them, we referred to the mother as “Thuy One” and the daughter-in-law as “Thuy Two”. We couldn’t help but wonder if “Thuy Twee” was in the hopper.

The back of the hotel faced the river. A path ran along the river to a bridge and the main part of town. It was about a twenty minute walk. The open air dining area in back of the Home Stay overlooked the river. Thuy One was an excellent cook. Her fried spring rolls were delicious, especially with a glass of Tiger beer. This became our appetizer of choice. I especially liked breakfast, Vietnamese coffee, eggs and/or fried rice and a crusty baguette with butter and jam. In the mornings we watched fishermen paddle by on their boats, and in an open field on the opposite side, locals tended a commune garden and cows grazed. One of the Thuys checked on us periodically and asked if we needed anything more. Any request we made was met with “I can do for you”.

Our first day, we met a couple from Victoria BC. This was their second time at the Home Stay and they had become quite close to the family. They were leaving for home the next morning, after traveling extensively for six months. They encouraged us to take over their room which had a balcony overlooking the river, since our room didn’t have a view or balcony. Thuy didn’t have a problem with the plan, so we moved in the next day. For the next three mornings and evenings, we sat out on the balcony watching the river flow by.
Living at the Home Stay and interacting with this sweet, beautiful family, I frequently thought of a comment Anthony Bourdain uses on his show, “It doesn’t get any better than this”.  


Friday, May 6, 2016


Train Depot
We took the overnight train from Phan Rang-Thap Cham to Danang. I like to call it the "cockroach express", the train car was infested. We were in the regular seats, the uncomfortable kindWe decided not to get a sleeper compartment because they were tiny and you had to share the space with strangers and probably cockroachesThe last time I was in Vietnam I had to battle critters. On guard duty, which I pulled once a week, the bunkers had rats, poisonous centipedes and lots of mosquitoes to deal with. The bathrooms on the train were nasty and got progressively worse as the night went on. 
It was an excruciatingly long night of traveling. For the first couple of hours, when it was still light outside, Katie and I enjoyed watching the countryside roll by. The landscape looked like the Vietnam I remembered, acres of rice paddies with lush green mountains in the background. Missing were the thatched huts and small villages, replaced by substantial concrete houses, paved roads and small shops  
Katie, along with everyone else in our car, eventually fell asleep. That left just me and the cockroaches. Early in the morning, when it was still dark, a group of young men entered the train and came into our car. They were talking
and laughing, not seeming to care that everyone on the train was trying to sleep. They began playing cards in the back of the car and never bothered to lower their voices. When I stood up to stretch my legs, they all became quiet and looked up at me as if I might be some sort of authority who was going to come down on them. I smiled and gave them a friendly wave. They waved back and returned to their boisterous card game. I could not be mad at these young men who were trying to have a little fun. I was happy they were alive. During the war there weren't any young civilian men. They were all fighting and dying, for either the South or the North. After a couple of stops, the young men exited the train and we returned to the steady rhythmic sound of wheels on track. We were relieved to finally arrive in Danang at six am. 
Hotels along the Han river
Even though  my basecamp at LZ Bayonette was only about 60-70 miles south of Danang, I had only been there one time.  I flew out of the Airbase for my five days of R&R in Tai Pei, Taiwan. My flight was filled with American Marines from Khe Sanh. They told me about the conditions there, the almost constant shelling by the North Vietnamese and their having to live and crawl around in the mud. This was a rowdy bunch of guys and they were determined to have a good time in Tai Pei and I can't think of anyone who deserved it more. 
China Beach
Danang is Vietnam's third largest city with around 750,000 people. Our hotel was within walking distance of My Khe beach, the twenty mile long curved stretch of beautiful white sand that we used to call China Beach. Many US soldiers took in-country R&R there, but I don't think they would recognize the area today. Danang is on the way to becoming a premier tourist destination. Large hotels and resorts are popping
A community garden, one of many throughout the city
everywhere, especially near and along the beach. The Han River runs right through the center of town and both sides are being developed for tourists as well 
Dragon bridge across the Han river

If a friend was traveling to Southeast Asia, I would highly recommend a few days in Danang. The city is open and spread out, not nearly as hectic as Ho Chi Minh City or HanoiThe hotels and restaurants are good and the beach and mountains are beautiful. All over Vietnam the people were friendly and gracious and that was true for Danang as well. Also Hoi Anh is only about an hour'bus ride away, and one should not visit Vietnam without going to Hoi Anh, which was our next destination.