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Published: June 24th 2010
Happy Father's Day
“Don’t worry about it” The words of the hostel front desk clerk in response to our question as to whether or not they frequently lose power. This is what we thought of upon awaking to a hot and stuffy room at 6am. The sun rises early here, around 5am, and it never really cools down that much at night. Most likely because of the humidity. It didn’t really matter much on this particular morning since we had to be ready by 6:15 in the lobby for our tour bus to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
We had visited the DMZ between North and South Korea and learned so much more about the conflict than we had ever learned in school. Its not that we weren’t familiar with the Vietnam war, yet we both did not cover this war in great depth in high school, and I focused on South American and Middle Eastern Politics in College. So there was much for us to learn and we were pretty excited about what that may be. It is completely different and vastly superior to learn by traveling than to simply read a book or watch a film.
Khe Sanh Combat Museum
major battle in war late 1960s
As we waited outside for the tour company to pick us up we were approached by a man on a moto bike. Come on buddy its way to early to be solicited at this hour. Too our surprise he was from the tour company and told us we needed to go to the street for ride. Our hostel sat on a rather small street which was more or less an alley way, so there was no way that a bus could venture down the road to pick us up. It is however no problem for the moto bikes which is the prime mode of transportation within Vietnam.
Not surprisingly the “AC bus” that was to transport us to the DMZ was a mere van. The reason that we were thinking a bus would transport us was because that was what was illustrated in the tour office literature. Got us again Vietnam; score home team 36 times - visitors 1 time (our one victory was when we got a free cab ride in Hanoi) The vans in Asia are a little different in that they have folding fourth person seats at the end of the benches to accommodate additional
passengers. When these are down there is no way for someone to exit the vehicle. The tour was scheduled to last from 6:30 am and return at 5:30 pm. It would be a full day and Elyse and I had to ride on the rickety and extremely uncomfortable folding type seats all day.
There was a woman sitting in the front seat and she had tried to make small talk with the driver. She quickly gave up when it was clear that he spoke zero English. So much for the English tour guide. It was a few hours later when we pulled into a parking lot of a restaurant so that we could eat breakfast. The van’s air conditioner was not really pumping out the cool air as effectively as everyone wanted so the group was a little frustrated. A nice breakfast and break in an air conditioned environment was much needed. A man approached us and welcomed us to the restaurant and offered us seats at tables outside. His name was Tam and he was our English speaking guide. We were told that we had 30 minutes to eat and go to the bathroom if we needed.
I ordered my breakfast which is the standard two fried eggs and Baggett here in Vietnam. This is a result of the French which colonized this area from 1858 -1954. They left when Japan forced them out during the Pacific War. They tried to return as a colonial presence but was unsuccessful. According to the guide the French ruled with an iron fist and was not kind to the locals. The one positive that I have found is that Vietnam had good bread, pastries, Catholicism, and excellent coffee. I headed into the bathroom or water closet as its called in Asia. I was a little confused since there was only one sign but it appeared to be only the men’s room. After taking care of my business I investigated to find that there was indeed a separate woman’s room, yet they had to walk through the men’s portion to get to their area. A well thought out floor plan.
After breakfast I got into the front seat and sat in the middle next to the older woman whom resided in South Africa. I was much more comfortable than the bucket seat in back, and best of yet I could
actually feel the cool air. I didn’t really feel bad or view that I had abandoned Elyse in the back since we weren’t sitting next to each other in the first place. I was happy about the seat change.
The guide sat in the folding seat I had vacated and was saying something and holding up some maps, none of which I could understand or see. I turned around in my seat and the facial expressions of the group summed up the mood in the van, hot and for the most part uninterested in what the Tam was saying. It took too much energy to try and decipher what the hell he was saying. I caught a glimpse of one of the maps and it was of the quality that gave the sense it was constructed from color pencils on some employees lunch hour.
Our first stop was Rock Pile as we pulled over to an unmarked part of the highway. No parking lot or sings to signify anything of importance. It was an location that the US used as a helicopter landing pad and small base atop of a steep hill or mini mountain that stretched about
800 feet high or so into the air. It provided a good view for the troops of the surrounding areas and Viet Com’s movements in the valley. The photo shown a barren landscape and a large helicopter perched on the pad. The vegetation had removed with the assistance of Agent Orange and slash and burn techniques by the US Military. The vegetation had since grown back and there was no indication that a landing pad had every been built atop of the mountain top.
The next stop was Dakrong Bridge. We all piled out of the van and headed towards the bridge. Once again no sign or parking lot, or anything that signified something of importance. Who really knows what was said by Tam about the bridge, I sure as hell didn’t hear much. Bla bla bla, Ho Chi Minh Trail? What? We all walked across the bridge and came across an unimpressive monument of some sort. It was hot and thank God Elyse and I had our umbrellas’ to beat back the unrelenting sun. It was still hot and we sweated profusely but it was a significant relief to be under some shade. Now back to the van.
Apparently the people in the back felt no AC and opted to have the windows open. Elyse said that it was like a blow dryer coming straight in the van. The driver turned off the AC so now we were all miserable. Thanks a lot you bastards in the back! It was 45 minutes later that we arrived at Khe Sanh Air Base (pronounced kay sawn) Finally a museum where I could read information on my own. We all entered the small non-air-conditioned and no lights building. On the wall was a display model of the area. It too looked like some sixth grader had constructed the thing. The museum wasn’t really anything more that pictures of the US troops fleeing the scene during the battle of Khe Sanh, with captions that read “The brave Vietnamese soldiers overrunning the frightened and defeated US enemies. Outside the peddlers appeared and circled us like vultures. They were trying to sell Dog Tags that they had found around the area. The problem was that some of them didn’t look more than a few weeks old and thus discredited all of their goods as phonies. We weren’t really interested anyways as Elyse‘s father
has his own back in IL from his time in Vietnam.
There was one character worth mentioning other than Tam. A New Zealand guy who worked in Australia and seemed to be very knowledgeable about the war. He carried with him a stuffed Kiwi Bird and told everyone about the story of how it was traveling with him though out SE Asia. He said that he was a member of some motorcycle club in which the Kiwi was its symbol. Nothing like the Hell’s Angles or anything like that, just a bunch of middle aged guys touring around wherever I would imagine. He had this Japanese women, whom everyone assumed was his travel companion, hold his stuffed Kiwi so that he could take pictures of the thing. He would then take the photos with him to the big club meeting in Germany and show everyone where he had been. Impressed the other club riders would ask what it was like to tour around SE Asia on his motorcycle? At that time he would have to concede that he had taken busses everywhere. Seeing the expressions on their faces a fleeting attempt too sound cool he would blurt out that
he had rented a scoter on one day. The other members would then see the guy for who he really was; a grown man that carried around a child’s toy and took pictures of it to impress other grown men. And for this supreme act of douche-baggery the other members would rally together and have his membership permanently pulled.
Anyhow he was the type of guy that would ask questions to the guide for questions he clearly had the answers. The guide made some remarks then the guy would ramble on for some time to add to what Tam had stated. Elyse had the misfortune of sitting next to him on the 2 ½ hour ride back in to town. She later complained to me the instant we disembarked from the van that he had not stopped talking to her the entire trip home. No matter how disinterested she portrayed herself, even staring out the window for five minutes straight, did not dissuade the guy from talking to her. The best part was when he left the bus and the Japanese woman remained which clearly signified they were not travel companions at all. I give the woman a lot
of credit for he latched on to her like a leech the entire tour.
After the “museum” we got back in the van and headed for lunch. It was at the same place where we had breakfast. Not great but not that bad either. At least the prices were reasonable. Tam announced that we were now headed to the highlight of the tour, I thought to myself, back to our hotel? It was about noon and I felt that we had seen nothing. We had spent a majority of the time riding in the van and only an hour at most at the places of interest. About an hour later we arrived at the Vihn Moc Tunnels.
I must admit that I did find this to be rather cool, yet there was not much in terms of literature that we could read at this location. I grew weary of Tam’s propaganda. From him we learned that the reason all the citizens fled the North after the US left Vietnam was because a CIA conspiracy that announced the Virgin Mary was leaving the North. Huh? It clearly had nothing to due with the fact that a brutal dictator whom
wished to crush any group or person that posed any possibility of descent to his new government. Tam would also not acknowledge any part of Russia’s role in the war. Even though there is an equal distribution of Russian and Vietnamese flags on all the government buildings and lining the streets.
As for the Southern Vietnamese troops their fate was only to spend a day or two at most in rehabilitation camps before being released so that they could become productive members of the new government. Camps that Tam lead us to believe were a walk in the park. I suppose that one or two days could roughly translate into decades. I had a pretty good suspicion that you had to get government approval in order to become a tour guide in Vietnam. The thing about the histories of wars and politics is that they are always written by the victor.
The tunnels were cool but clearly not worth the hellish day it took to get there. We boarded the van and made our way back to town. Getting out of the van really was the highlight of the trip. Thus far not having the best of luck
with tours in Vietnam; at least this only cost us 8USD excluding lunch.
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