Southeast Asia Thoughts: Saigon, Cu Chi Tunnels, and the Reminders of War

Saigon, Vietnam, 2018

Since 1975 and the reunification of the country, the official name of Saigon is Ho Chi Minh city. For the locals, they use this as a way of separating the natives from those who came later.

If you refer to the city as Ho Chi Minh city, you are not native. As one travels through the country, the distinct cultural differences from the Mekong Delta to Hoi An to Hue and north are subtle but evident. The majority of the Vietnamese still have an intimate connection to the land and a self-sustaining lifestyle. From the fish traps on the Mekong to the rice paddies, much of their food is grown or caught.

What they don’t use, they sell. Every city, town, or small village has a night market. There are few grocery type stores, their food is bought daily if they cannot grow or catch what they need.

One has to stand in the middle of night market to appreciate it. The ones in the bigger cities are a spectacle. Try to imagine an open-air market, in some cases several city blocks wide, with every manner of familiar and unfamiliar vegetable, live and soon-not-to-be-live fowl, flopping fish, flying fish scales, rising and falling meat cleavers, displaced pig’s snouts, or feet, or some once functioning organ, roiling pots of soup, set to the soundtrack of animated negotiations over price and quality. All permeated with an aroma of coppery blood saturated with garlic and fish sauce, orchids and jasmine, sweat and motorcycle exhaust.  The walkways are slick with a mixture of melted ice, blood, oil, and who knows what else that makes dodging the motorbikes, who cruise through like an armored version of a pedestrian, a challenge.

And that’s just the food area. There are vendors selling everything. All of it genuine fakes with the occasional real thing that “fell off the truck.”

In the bigger cities, a more cosmopolitan world is taking hold. Foreign investment–Chinese, Japanese and South Korean-is altering Vietnamese society with fewer and fewer of the next generation following in their ancestors’ footsteps into the fields.

There is a price to pay for this capitalism within a Socialist government. Those who benefit most from the economic boom are the police, military, and government officials.; their hands out in exchange for favorable access to land, security, and business development.

The local traffic cops stake out prime areas for enforcing traffic using the “pay-on-the-spot” fine collection method. I use the term “traffic enforcement” as a joke, no one follows traffic laws so if you are stopped they consider it a nuisance road toll, pay the fine, and speed off. Usually the wrong way at a rotary.

The more “successful” cops are rewarded with prime posts to enhance their ability to “pay-it-forward” to the commanders.

Socialism indeed.

Corruption is rampant. As we drive by the more ostentatious houses, we are cautiously told the official positions of the owners. The socialist government imposes effective, albeit subtle, control over the general population. Much of their life, from required registration of cell phones with the owner’s picture on file to blocked sites on the internet, is controlled by the government.

The Vietnamese are circumspect in their criticism of officials, but they get the point across. Those in the south, below the old demilitarized zone (DMZ) have more experience with a free capitalist economy, and many openly express their wish that the Americans had never left.

For most, they are free to live their lives as they like while toeing the official line in the public view.

One of the most profoundly striking aspects of Viet Nam (despite our penchant for writing Vietnam, Viet Nam is the proper name) is the attitude toward the “American War.” Now I am not talking about the official government position but that of the everyday Vietnamese.

They take great pride in the reunification of the country. The Vietnamese see Ho Chi Minh as a national hero is the same light as we view Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson. The declaration of independence made by Ho Chi Minh on September 2, 1945, is modeled on our own of 1776.

Yet they harbor no ill-feelings over our time there. There are differences, of course, between the north and south. In the south, they would have preferred us to stick to the original commitment made after World War II and let the Vietnamese determine their own course. In the north, they are a bit less embracing of the newly evolved capitalism driven by tourism and outside investment but see their victory in the south as their manifest destiny.

To the Vietnamese, we are their British.

We tried to prevent self-determination, and they fought to win it. But in this predominantly Buddhist country, the people do not cling to the past. The war is over, and now we can live and let live.

There is another difference between the north, near Hanoi, and the south, near Saigon, that underscores the benefit of an “open” society.

In Hanoi, the streets are dark and dank. People gather in sidewalks, alleyways, and various other locations to cook and eat meals. We think it is a combination of limited space and the heat inside their apartments.  The long-term effect of communism in the north contrasts dramatically with the more vibrant Saigon and the south.

Cu Chi tunnels and the American War

We had the opportunity to tour the Cu Chi tunnels. To say it was troubling is an understatement.

We were warned that the story is told from the perspective of the Viet Cong and their victory over the South. During our visit, a busload of former Viet Cong and NVA military veterans visited the area. A Vietnamese version of the honor flight.

It was difficult to hear the recounting of valor in battle where the soldiers were awarded medals called American Killer Heroes. But such is the fact that victors write history. While the point is often made that the North Vietnamese Army or the Viet Cong never defeated American forces on the battlefield, as a North Vietnamese army officer once said, “that is true and it is also irrelevant.”

Displayed was the shell of a US Army M-48 tank. All of the salvageable pieces were stripped away. Some of the tourists chose to climb on for a picture op. I declined. While I can understand the point of view of those Vietnamese who fought here and destroyed that tank, I chose to honor the memory of the young Americans who likely died there.

It is this failure to recall the horrors and cost of war that drives us to repeat this mistake over and over.

For many Americans, the mention of Vietnam invokes memories of war and the protests against it. Body bags, casualty lists, draft dodgers, and war heroes. The loyalties of the shattered bodies in a body bag or on a battlefield are as irrelevant as who won. 

The dead neither celebrate victory nor rest in defeat. Often the worst casualties of war are those who survive.

War is always the consequences of human frailties. No matter how we justify the need to end it with force, the start of it is always a failure of reason.

There is little nobility on a casualty-strewn battlefield. Severed limbs and shortened lives are not the best of humanity.

One cannot measure past decisions with the standards of the present, but you can use them to illustrate why we failed. And, more importantly, how we need learn from it.

The way to convince young men and women to kill the enemy-often other young men and women themselves-is to dehumanize them.

Turn them into demons and devils beneath human considerations.

To name them gooks, slopes, and chinks.

These are the faces of a gook

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An 88-year-old woman, once the secretary to a military commander during the war, she rides her bike a mile each day to care for a centuries-old temple

 

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Combat is a mutual experience where each side demonizes the enemy and tries to kill them. Ideologies are irrelevant to bullets and bombs, and heroes are defined by the victors. It’s easy to kill an epithet, hard to kill a smiling boy named Nguyen, or John, or Le, or Joe.

What I have taken away from all these travels in Southeast Asia is that our misplaced focus on surface differences deters us from seeking commonality. Sitting in a restaurant in Saigon, Bangkok, Siem Reap, Hue, or Hanoi, looking out at the street, it appeared like many of the cities and towns of America as long as you focused on the shared human activity; taking kids to school, carrying home groceries, sipping beer with friends, kids playing in a park. If all you see are differences, you’ve missed the opportunity to see yourself in those very same people.

We are shaped by the geography of our birth yet still share the commonality of our humanity.

Our time in Viet Nam was a lost opportunity. Not caused by those who fought there, but by intolerance, hatred, and insensitivity of those there and in the US whose actions sent us on a collision course.

If anything, we should learn we don’t need to send B-52s or machine guns to free a people. Send tourists with fistfuls of dollars. Let countries and people make their own choices, then wave the flag of the entrepreneur.

Victory is certain.

Until you stand in the Viet Nam of  2018 you can never see how deep the tragedy of the Viet Nam of 1964-1975 really was.

Go there, you will not regret it.

Southeast Asia Thoughts: Laos

Flying from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos on a ATR-72 (70 passenger plane) is a bit different than the typical American domestic flight.While the aircraft was modern and airworthy, trying to understand the announcements (even the English version) was a challenge.  

On a positive note, the unidentifiable baloney-like sandwich with mayo (I think) was delicious.  At least I thought so.

Driving from the airport, built by the Chinese to accommodate their workers building a railway bridge over the Mekong river,  one is thrust into a different albeit similar culture to Thailand.  Laos is less developed, having suffered greatly during the American War in Vietnam, not to mention previous and subsequent wars with neighboring countries. The primary source of income is agriculture, rice and corn, and fishing the Mekong for the giant catfish (200 kilos.)

The resort we stayed at was lovely.  Laos has not yet fully embraced tourism, but the signs are there. Our resort was a pleasant change from the crowds and noise of Chiang Mai. One of the highlights for me was the scalding cold shower. After spending sufficient time, you leaned the rhythm to the water temperature. Pleasantly warm, scalding, freezing, scalding, and back to pleasant, repeated at various intervals.  I pictured two frazzled Lao workers on the roof fervently pouring alternating barrels of hot and cold water into pipe as someone called up the number of people taking showers.

But if that is the worst of what we dealt with in Laos, it is better than what most Lao people bear in their life.

Laos is a communist country, now officially known as LPDR the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, run by an “elected” government from the single party, coincidently known as the LPDR. Formerly a monarchy, the Lao heir to the throne of the disposed King disappeared into one of the Communist re-education camps along the Mekong, known as the Lao Hanoi Hilton after the infamous original in Hanoi during the war. Until not that long ago, it still was a camp. Now it is a sign of better things to come as it serves as a tourist attraction.

The locals, while acknowledging the official name of the country and ruling party, say it stands for  Lao People Don’t Rush. 

And indeed they do not. Not only do they not rush, they seem oblivious to things like oncoming traffic or pedestrians. 

The roads are crowded with scooters and motorcycles often ridden by two, three, or more people. It is not uncommon to see what is likely an entire family, including infants, riding a single 50 cc scooter.  They dodge in and out of traffic, mostly ignored by the car and truck drivers.   

One of the highlights was a side trip we organized to Kuang Si Park.  In the park there is the most beautiful waterfall and a sanctuary center for the moon bear; an endangered species hunted and imprisoned for of all things, bear bile. One consistent thing among endangered species is they are usually endangered to satisfy the self-centered aphrodisiac fantasies and failings of the human male.  For this I wish to offer my apologies on behalf of the rational males of my species.

Like the Thai, the Lao are a friendly, smiling people. Curious but polite, their Buddhist heritage ingrained in their deference to others. 

Without further adieu, I give you Laos.

Lao Mountains

 

Snake whiskey still

 

Water buffalo on the Mekong

 

Notice the contrast of old and new. A Chanting Buddhist Monk next to a scannable code for information

 

Southeast Asia Thoughts: Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, the capital, is known by the locals as Krungthep. They claim it translates to City of Angels, I think it translates into “permanent traffic jam.” A 5 mile ride takes an hour, mostly jammed in with other cars intermixed with occasional short bursts of reckless speed. 

If driving were an Olympic sport, drivers from Bangkok would be banned for life. Motorbike drivers would be considered assassins. They make Boston rush hour drivers look like a 3 year-old on their first tricycle. Every road has six lanes, some marked, some just assumed by the driver’s mood at that moment.  

They may run all in the same direction, sometimes divided with little logic into opposite directions, or used as one sees an opportunity to gain ground toward their destination. Motorbikes do not follow rules. They seek their own path, weaving in and out of traffic, sometimes alongside of you , sometimes on either side in both directions. Sometimes using sidewalks and marketplaces as shortcuts.

Pedestrians are legal targets. Not only do they not have the right of way, they’re considered a nuisance, like a pothole, avoided if possible, run over when necessary.  Yielding to anything-oncoming traffic, ambulances, cops, or red lights-is a sign of weakness.

Bangkok is a huge city, 10 million people. They all seem to go to work at the same time. Our first day we wandered around on the sky train and subway (at rush hour which is an experience in itself) ending up a a huge open air market. Everything from vegetables, to freshly cut meat, to live fish and chickens waiting to die (which they do right in front of you assisted by cleaver-wielding Thai market vendors.) 

It was so interesting we went back for more pictures.

All in all an interesting experience.

Now on to Ayutthaya, the old Thai (Siam) capital and world heritage site 90 kilometers north on our Thailand tour.Next.jpg

Another Journey…

We have stayed in one place for almost a month, so it’s time to head out again. Starting early Tuesday (1:50 a.m.) we board a plane from Boston to Hong Kong and on to Bangkok, Thailand.

Cathay PacificWe’ll spend the next 27 days touring four very unfamiliar cultures in some exotic landscapes of some countries with familiar names; Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

While I am looking forward to all four, it is Vietnam that intrigues me the most. Growing up in the sixties, Vietnam was a significant part of the nightly news. Images of helicopters, women and children fleeing the fighting, and the dead and the wounded flooded the screens. But they did not convey the reality. It was America’s first TV war.

Some of the Vietnamese were the enemy, some were allies, and some were trapped between the two. Our innocence and naiveté a cushion to the reality of war and our reasons for being there. As we grew older from 1965 to 1973, that innocence was shattered.

By the fortunes of birth this is my first trip to Vietnam. Had I arrived just three or four years earlier, my anticipation of traveling there might be different.

It will be another opportunity to experience an entirely different culture that, given all I’ve read about the people of Southeast Asia, will also reaffirm my belief we are all the same.

I shall endeavor to write about our adventures, post pictures, and let you come with us as we travel around.

 

 

Plane Drunk

First, a disclosure. This is in no way a condemnation of the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Truth be told, I have always adhered to the Winston Churchill philosophy, “I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me.”

Yet with that said, why is it that adult human beings often act like clothed deranged monkeys when consuming alcohol? In particular, those who do so while waiting out a delay in their flights by slamming down as many overpriced, oversized, overgenerous airport drinks.

Just the other day, we returned from a trip to Aruba. Delayed leaving Aruba, on arrival in Orlando we learned our connecting flight had been cancelled. Disheartening, yes. Annoying, perhaps. Catastrophic, hardly.

Southwest efficiently moved us to a later flight. This left a 3-hour block of time before boarding. Most people read, some went to get something to eat. Some grumbled and complained (a pointless exercise in futility.)

And one idiot who decided he’d see how much he could drink before the flight.

He was easy to pick out once the flight was announced. Acting like everyone’s friend, extremely proud of his A-list status with Southwest, baseball hat on backwards like a five-year old which was at least 45 years in his past.

Shows the operations agent a boarding pass for the cancelled flight and is very indignant that an A-lister has to demean himself by getting his own updated boarding pass. Now at this point, the ops agent should have stopped him from boarding, but he didn’t. He probably just hoped the joy of boarding would be enough to satisfy this A-list moron.

Wrong.

Once on board after asserting his right to board with the A group, he tossed his carryon in the overhead bin (clearly too big to fit) and assumed his precious aisle seat, five or six rows back.

He was in A-list nirvana. Then, one of the flight crew tried to reposition the bag. Oh, the insult. Oh, the trauma. How dare they touch his bag. Don’t they know he’s a A-lister?
An argument ensues.

A rational voice says. “Hey, why don’t you shut up?”

A-list takes offense. “Who said that?”

“I did,” replies rational voice.

Brief scuffle ensues. A-list does not prevail.

Police arrive. A-list leaves much to the amusement of the other 174 normal human beings.

Why do people act like such fools?

It finally dawned on me. He was born an A-lister.  The a**hole list!  I hope he enjoyed his extended stay in Orlando. There weren’t any other flights to Providence that night. I only wish he could see the smiles of all of us still aboard the plane as we took off.

Or better yet, watched from an Orlando jail cell.

Sleeping in Hell

If there is someone you truly dislike, wish for them a night in an airport during a blizzard, Baltimore, Chicago, or any large airport preferably.

The noises at night, snoring, crying, screaming, laughing, or complaining, coupled with the cleaning crews locking ALL restrooms (no changing of the plan regardless of the conditions), testing alarms, and leaving EVERY light on, make for an unforgettable experience.

Then there are the children.

I feel the pain of anyone traveling with small children, compound that with being stuck with them, overnight, bleak hope of getting out anytime soon, and they probably wish infertility was their biggest concern.

I have a solution, ban them. NO kids allowed to travel. Let them drive so the parents, grandparents, keepers can enjoy their hell privately. Just kidding, but maybe adult-only airport terminals might work!

As I write this, we are in the middle of what looks like (at a minimum) a 26 hour layover (yes 26, twenty-six, not 2.6) in Baltimore. Layover is too nice a term, involuntary incarceration is more accurate.

Parts were amusing, the aviation experts (who’s sum total of aviation experience came from riding in the back of planes, not flying them) sounding off about how the conditions aren’t that bad, I remember the old days when airlines flew in much worse than this, blah, blah, blah.

Or, the ones who come off a plane brought back to the gate after sitting for an hour and a half on the tarmac (along with 50 other flights), cheerfully calling for hotel reservations, then screaming because (lo and behold) every hotel from here to DC is sold out.

Or, the ones screaming at the Customer Service Agents that, despite the fight cancellation being outside the airline’s control, they MUST provide a room (see above).Having been on the other side of that counter for Southwest Airlines, I can tell you the agents want you on the plane and gone more than you do!

But we adapted. We’ve slept in mice-infested, smoke smelling, freezing shelters on the Appalachian Trail filled with hikers that haven’t showered in five days…

Oh, how I miss that luxury…anything is better than this.

If Dante needs a Tenth Ring of Hell, add a night in an Airport terminal.

Random thoughts and Oversells

Airline oversells

Every airline in the world routinely oversells their flights. For those of you that have never heard of the concept, airlines sell 140 seats for a plane that holds 137.

Why you may ask?

Because people often don’t show up for flights and the airlines want to fill all the seats.

Hmmm.

Can you imagine this in other businesses……

Can I take your order sir?

Yes I’ll have three cheeseburgers to go

That will be 9 dollars

Here you go

Thank you, your order will be right up

Here you go, sir

But there’s only two?

I know, but we sold more hamburgers than we have available, I will be happy to give you a voucher for a future hamburger plus some additional money for the inconvenience.

But I am hungry now!

Well, you’ll be even hungrier then sir, thank you for your order.

****************

Hi, I am enrolled in your college but I haven’t received my course list.

Ah, well we enrolled more people than we have room for but I’ll be happy to give you a spot in our next class.

But I want to be educated now

I realize that, but since people often don’t show up for class we have to do this.

Sorry, see you next class.

***********

Hi, I am here to pick up my new car

Ah, sorry sir we sold more cars than we have available. I will be happy to put you on the top of the list for the next available car

But I need the car now.

I apologize sir, but we have no more available at the moment, we will be happy to get you the next available one.

Will that be today?

I doubt it sir

********************

I have the feeling this has never happened to a member of Congress.

Travel Stresses

I love to travel. I am, so to speak, in the business. As a consequence of my employment I get to hear a lot about things that bother people.

Delays, mostly.

The rare, thank goodness, cancellation.

Obnoxious behavior on the part of other passengers.

But I find most of that stuff to be very minor and of little LASTING concern.

What should really bother people about traveling? One of mankind’s most evil inventions, automatic toilets.

They flush at the most inopportune moment. Either causing things to appear as if I failed to allow myself enough time to get there in the first place or becoming an unwanted and unexpected Bidet.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Bidet, imagine a sudden geyser of high pressure water being shot up from the toilet bowl.

Now I am genuinely concerned about this.

Aside from the general concerns of having my butt sprayed by water splashing around a toilet bowl that may not have been cleaned since, let me check the list posted by the exit, ah yes, 1965, I am more concerned that they are not really automatic but under the control of some airport employee.

At first I suspected Bathroom attendants assisted by Skycaps.

I assumed if they were stiffed on tips they alerted some bathroom attendant to look for the cheap bastard entering a bathroom and exact revenge. Think about it, skycaps work for tips mostly. Bathroom attendants are almost invisible to the traveling public. They are often treated like a class of slave Lincoln didn’t include in the Emancipation Proclamation,

Why would anyone do that job?

I thought about it. Perhaps this is why.

On your breaks, you get to control the Auto Squirter!

Complete with Disney style digital photo of the reaction.

But then I realized, this had all the earmarks of a Federal Program.

Perhaps, Homeland Security had received information about explosive coated butts.

It is not that much of a stretch, we’ve had the sneaker bomber, the underwear bomber. Isn’t the “commando” bomber the next logical step?

How would they detect this? If one unexamined ass or perhaps “smaller object” gets by, the terrorists win.

What to do? Of course, create a new, secret bureaucracy within a bureaucracy.

Which resulted in the TSA forming a Clandestine Division known as FATASS (Federal Automatic Toilet Analysis & Squirting Service).

They initiate FATASS Plan #1 or #2 as appropriate. I would suspect Federal Automatic Toilet Analysis & Squirting Service usage being a component of the Presidential Daily Briefing.

This also explains why, whenever I see an employee shuttle with TSA employees on board, they seem to number in the thousands. Yet inside, there are five handling the security lines.

I used to wonder what the other ones were doing.

No more.

Now I know. Now I am reassured. TSA has a difficult job. I also now know that within that job they have some really tough specific assignments.

We’ve all heard the unfortunate jokes about what TSA stands for,

Thousands Standing Around

Too Stupid for Arby’s

Well now we should all rest assured, that like the hidden messages in the Bible, the Koran, the grilled cheese for sale on Ebay, the Transportation Security Administration has its own hidden message.

To Serve & Assist, no

To Save America, no

To Stop Armageddon, no

TSA, say it proud but silently. They are the other Silent Service.

To Squirt Asses.

I can sleep at night, free of fear, free of Cling Ons.

I probably shouldn’t travel for awhile.