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Published: September 8th 2012
They told me I was goin' down to Vietnam. Up until that moment I had never heard of it before. Had to go look at a globe to see exactly where that was.
-John D. Recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Vietnam.
John D. worked as a ski lift operator in the winter months and ran a fishing boat out of San Diego in the summer. He had a mild manner and a sometimes distant look when he talked about the past at the twelve-step meetings I drove him to a few times a month. He seldom talked about the war at all, but the more he exposed about his life leading up to and following a certain event, the more I was curious about the scars, the rumors, the medal, the moment.... I wanted to know what happened. Like so many other Nam vets his story was one of confusion, frustration, and abandon, mixed with a sense of relief and thankfullness for survival that could last a lifetime. He came from what one might call the lower rungs of society and was asked to do the unimaginbable so regularly, so repeatedly, that by the time he threw himself on a grenade, it seemed like the logical next step in a life building like a symphony and needing a climax on which to hinge. Also similar to many of his comrades in arms, John had nothing but good to say about
Vietnam itself, its beautiful landscape and the wonderful people who live there.
Our generation came of age in a culture that was still trying to make sense of the war in Vietnam; that is, if there was
any sense to make of it. We saw it glorified, demonised, revered, and cannonized along with those who fought and died there. When one walks through the Capital Mall in D.C. and looks at the war memorials, none portray the sense of regret and loss as much as Maya Lin's tribute wall to the fallen of the Vietnam conflict. A large black tombstone, bearing the names of those who were lost far before there prime, with none of the accompanying sense of glory and accomplishment that typifies neighboring monuments on The Mall. If the names of Vietnamese dead were added, the wall would stretch all the way to the Lincoln Memorial.
By the time we came along and waded through our public education, the books had found a way to creatively sum it up in a few pages. There was no real discussion of what happened or why, perhaps because it was all too fresh. Now, nearly 40 years after the
fall of Saigon, it has the same distance in memory that WWII had to us then and the vets are fewer and farther between. Their stories, however, stick with us and the nostalgia that so many have shared for the beauty of the land was contagious enough to convince us to get visas and come on down. We certainly did not have to look it up on the globe. Those reading this who were here when Johnson or Nixon was president might be glad to hear that it is still a beautiful country and the people, because of or in spite of the hostilities of the last half-century, seemed to be branded with a big, hearty smile.
We finished our time in China covered in sweat. Just south of Jianshui the world dropped out from under us and two months of high, cool riding came to an abrupt end. As we descended a crappy road for 1200 meters the languid jungle heat seemed to blast at us from the Red River valley below. We knew that it would get hot down there but we were not prepared for the furnace at the bottom of the hill. We found the
river valley temperatures hovering in the low 40's and the humid air seemed to carry the heat to our core. We stopped for cold drinks and took breaks in the shade but the small breeze we developed from riding became our only solace. Equally discomforting was the thought that the river we were following flowed all the way to Hanoi, a few hundred meters lower and presumably hotter. We spent that last night out on the Chinese road in a puddle of sweat. It was the first time in perhaps a thousand nights in a tent that we were actually too hot to sleep. When the thunder came and then the heavy rain, we did not affix the rain fly, preferring instead to lay there and let the water pool up in the floor of our tent. It gave a new meaning to "bathtub floor" and after a bit of torrential downpour, we cooled off enough to catch a few winks of disgruntled sleep atop our soaking clothes. We reached the border at Hekoe the next day and gladly checked into a room with an air conditioner, taking turns standing in front of the heavenly unit. It would become a
familiar comfort. In all of that heat I pictured my old buddy John, and others like him, decked out in battle dress utilities with a ton of gear. It seemed an unimaginable plight given our rampant discomfort in spandex tights and t-shirts.
The crossing into Vietnam was supposed to be one rife with scrutiny but we walked through in minutes. The Chinese immigrations officials were shocked to see a Xinjiang entry stamp in our passports as they could never imagine going there themselves and probably considered it somehow off limits to foreigners. In truth, we feel lucky to have been allowed to travel independently in Western China. It is doubtful that such opportunities will cointinue to present themselves to foreigners as visa and entry requirements seem to be constantly changing. A storm is brewing there, it seems doubtless, of what type, we can only speculate... As for us though, it was the usual process of strolling right in with our bikes serving as a smoke screen; the customs officers were more keen to give it a ride themselves than actually look things over. Perfect.
On the other side of the river it was immediatly clear that we were
in a new country. The food was different, the attitude made an immediate shift and the coffee was good, good, and good! After a few months of Nescafe, the robusta bean culture of Vietnam was a real relief to two serious coffee addicts. We have been enjoying several ice cold glasses a day, with our usual level of snobbiness, since we entered the country. Of course we have
to drink it cold because it is hot beyond our imagination. Our first experience in Vietnam was a 1200 meter climb back up, up, up to the very touristic village of Sapa in the northern highlands. The reward for this was a cool night or two of good mountain sleep but the climb was the hottest of the trip. We struggled to maintian electrolite levels and began to suffer from mild cramps and somewhat scary chills just before we topped out and cured our ails with big salty bowls of ubiquitous Pho. This soup, along with bananas and coffee has become our mainstay diet. We power it down with copious fluids and ride on. When we can get it, we also enjoy Banh My; lovely, meaty sandwiches on half baguettes that actually
satisfy our hunger.
Sapa was a bit depressing. Whenever we see places where people have left their otherwise sustainable lifestyles to essentially beg from tourists, we are forlorn. In Sapa, women from nearby (or not so nearby) hill tribes come to town by the droves to sell their goods and offer a wide array of services to the multitudes of tourists who flock there to escape the summer heat and catch a glimpse of minorities in their traditional garb. Unfortunately, the draw of tourists has pulled an inordinate number of locals into the town to sell and most of the fabled tribesman one encounters are essentially there to pose for a photo. In that old familiar way, there seem to be as many peddlers as tourists, comitted to serve the fickle tourist industry and all of its whims. Unimpressed, we mounted up and continued up the hill.
After crossing the Tram Ton pass we headed out into the backcountry of the north. The descent off the backside of the mounatains took us into a world far more remote seeming than the actual kilometers might indicate. The topographic relief was big and though the heat was unforgiving, the beauty
was relentless. We rode through green kilometer after green kilometer. From the rice paddies where the White Thai live in stilt houses, up through the tea plantations where the Red Dai groom their trees, into the high forests where the Black Hmong woodcutters keep bees, and then back down again. The country redefines green; we saw coniferous forest juxtaposed with rice at its peak. We also had the chance to see the hill tribes of the north in their traditional roles in a landscape that is as lovely and organized as any painting. Their smiles were unabashed and we felt a greater degree of sincerity in their greetings than we had in the previous months. And so the road continued, from cold drink to hot Pho, to iced coffee and back to cold drink, from rice patty to pine forest to rice patty, all the way to Hanoi's back door.
The legendary Hanoi traffic filled in about twenty kilometers from the city center. We had very distinct goals in the city and would have gladly skipped it had it not been for our morbid desire to look upon the supposed corpse of a communist idealist who died before either
of us were born. The full intensity of Hanoi came on quite quickly and we soon found ourselves caught up in a wave of traffic moving slowly but not gently through the broad streets in oppressive heat. A few kilometers in we stopped for our third session of the the day at a Mia Da stand. These perfect drinks are fresh pressed cane juice with a bit of lime chilled and served in a mug with a crema on top. Up until now we have only experienced these in coastal Tanzania. At this stop we consumed three a piece, they were our fifth of the day and we felt perhaps a half a degree cooler. The streets would be a nightmare for a car and they are
a nightmare for a pedestrian but on two wheels the insanity unfolds nicely and we were able to navigate to our hotel without carnage. We did stroll past the hospital during our two days in Hanoi and checked out the wall of shame where they display photos of massive extremity injuries caused by motorbike accidents. These limbs had been reduced to hamburger (we initially thought they might be landmine or UXO injuries) with
thumbs and toes pealed back to elbows and knees. Severe though these may have been, they were likely primary injuries. We can imagine that in automobile land, these would have often been secondary to more critical chest and head traumas. As intense as it feels, the motorbike mayhem in Hanoi is quite organized chaos and moves along at a pretty mellow crawl.
We headed over to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in the early morning. We did not have to wait long before the cue led us to the door of the massive cement block that contains the holiest of holies for the Vietnamese. As we approached, the cool air eminated from the building like the entrance of a Vegas Casino and we quietly hoped that some incident would unfold and somehow stall us inside the building. Uncle Ho himself is something of a Soviet masterpiece. Until recent years, he made an annual journey to Russia for "upgrades" but now they just roll him across town to the hospital where some pale Igor Ivanovich type works his annual magic. It is a macabre scene and it was hard to believe. Bodies always look like wax under those funeral-home-pink lights
but this one was particularly monochrome. We slowly slinked passed the guards in snow white regalia along with some random sports team in their uniforms and unused running shoes. We revelled in every second spent in the best air conditioning in Vietnam, and then we headed out to face the reality of the morning heat; a direct contrast to the unreality of what we had just witnessed.
Leaving Hanoi, it was just one more day to the blessed ocean, moderator of all temperatures high and low. Somewhere out in the Taklamaken Desert, the idea of jumping in the sea first began to cross our minds. Out on the island of Cat Ba, our dream finally came true. Like contented water buffalo in a mud hole, we sank into the bathwater warm Gulf of Tonkin and swam around like reborn fish. The next day we rented two sea kayaks and paddled through the karst islands of Lan Ha Bay, stopping to swim on our own little beaches and climb a few boulders. Cat Ba is another tourist trap but a few minutes of sweating leaves that far behind and tranquil, idealic spots are everywhere for those willing to seek them
out. None the less, after a few days in pseudo-paradise, it was time to head south again. The road always brings us great joy and in Vietnam we feel particularly at home in a decidedly two-wheeled culture. We are greated warmly wherever we go and this youthful culture is constantly reminding us of how quickly scars heal in the face of change. The heat has backed off closer to the ocean and we are hugging the coast as much as possible now, hunting out as many swims as possible. Our frustrations with the constant attention we recieve are moderated by the sincere curiosity that accompanies it. While many tourists visit Vietnam, few wander from the main sights and many locals have never had the opportunity to chat with a foreigner. While we certainly cannot answer every Hello, or stop at every beckon, we can take the time to share a few smiles and appreciation for the delicious culture we have rolled into at the end of a long journey. It is their land after all, and they've certainly earned it.
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