Yeah, I’ve been to ‘Nam

My view of Vietnam has changed quite a bit since my first two posts and I will write a bit more about it when I make it to Cambodia and have a bit more to compare it with. I’ll say this, at least: It really does help to sit around and do a whole lot of nothing if you want to get an honest feel for the country and the people.

So what have I been up to? Well, as I mentioned, my mom and step dad arrived a few days ago and we headed for a little beach city called Vung Tao where we met up with Rick’s (my stepfather) friend, Terry. He’s an American vet who decided to settle down in Vietnam of all places. So we spent a few days riding around the town on our rented motorcycles and catching up. As always ends up happening, we debated a lot about a lot of things. After 6 months of weekly Economist readings, though, my stepfather has lost his ability to school me on Economic theory and usually considers the argument won when he gets frustrated and tells me that I’m wrong because 1) I just don’t know anything, although he can’t explain why, 2) I’m too young or have no life experience and therefore can’t comment, or 3) the argument is pointless anyway and doesn’t warrant talking about further because it won’t change anything. It’s funny stuff. I wonder if one day he will admit that I’m right about something.

So we waited around a few days and eventually headed back to Ho Chi Mihn to pick up Cherrie (my aunt). We spent a day in Ho Chi Mihn and then headed back to Vung Tao where we relaxed for a day before renting a van and heading to the area my grandfather was killed in Vietnam. He was in the same battalion as Terry (Rick’s friend) and Terry was able to get the story of his death (for which he received a purple heart) from the commander and actually found a woman who lived nearby who saw the whole thing go down. My grandfather and his squad were going out to make a delivery one day and no one except him took their guns. They ended up getting ambushed and he fended off the VC while the others escaped in a ditch and made it back to camp. By the time reinforcements arrived, he was shot dead. They were able to hunt down the VC later that night and kill them.

We walked down the road he was killed on – indeed, past the very spot. It was strangely peaceful and you can’t help but notice the fact that the “jungles” of Vietnam are nothing more than dense forest. The scent of burning Eucalyptus fills the air and the occasional dog barks at you from behind the safety of a dilapidated wood fence. Old women sat in their doorless houses and watched us as we walked by. Terry filled the silence with stories about what my grandfather would have been doing from day to day, how many people were on the base, where the VC was and what they did. In a place so peaceful, it’s not inconceivable that his squad would have left their guns behind that day. I suppose you get a bit complacent after a while with nothing happening and especially being so close to a huge military base. Had he not been smart enough to have taken his gun that day, however, four other families (and not just my mother’s) would have grown up without fathers.

I split up from the family yesterday and headed back to Ho Chi Mihn. They were spending a whole lot of time doing nothing more than sitting around (after all, they were on vacation) and I decided to head back to town and continue on with my trip. When I got back, I ran into Sam, an Australian I met before I left for Vung Tau and he had just returned from a trip to the Mekong Delta. We chatted for a while, found a place to stay and grabbed some dinner.

From there, my friend Leiu gave me a ride on her motorbike to my mom’s hotel so I could get some stuff I had stored in her bag that she had left behind and we went out and had coffee at a really nice bar with live Spanish music. I didn’t get much sleep and was up pretty early as I was planning on heading to the Cu Chi Tunnels – a series of tunnels that the VC had dug in the forest and were able to hide and transport arms from Cambodia within. It was a 2 hour bus trip there (during which time I ended up debating US foreign policy with a Dutch couple…ahhh, gotta love the Dutch…) and then exploring the intricacies of the Cu Chi complex with my tour group.

After watching a propaganda video (“The US Bombers came into the peaceful town of Cu Chi and dropped their deadly bombs. They killed the joyful people of Cu Chi. They killed the children. They killed the chickens and the ducks. The dropped their bombs on the pots and pans, the beautiful streams. Why??”), we headed down into the caves. What an experience…we squatted through caves sometimes even requiring us to crawl through passage ways and into underground rooms. Bats hung over our heads and flapped us in the face. Spiders crawled on our shirts. One girl said a rat hit her hand as she was crawling. At one point, I felt and intense stinging on my leg. I could have sworn it was a bat sucking my blood but it turned out to be a live wire just sticking out from a wall. I touched it and it sent another 110 volts surging through my body. It was insulated so I’m sure that’s what prevented me from frying. Seeing as it is nearly impossible to pass through without hitting it, I would imagine that someone should probably look into fixing that. Anyway, the guide hauled ass through the tunnels and left us in the dark, trying to decide where to go. We were drenched in sweat and people started freaking out. A girl behind me was nearly hysterical and her husband tried to calm her down. The guy in front of me yelled at the people ahead to keep moving and not stop.

But wouldn’t you know it? We eventually emerged on the other side, alive and well – although with muddy knees and soaked shirt. I had 6 or 7 tiny spiders clinging to my shirt which left dark green smear marks on me as I tried to brush them off but instead squished them.

Then we headed to the shooting range where people fired AK-47’s and M-16’s for 10 bucks for ten rounds. I watched and covered my ears. They had lots of random animals in cages around too, like a monkey and a 350 pound snake. We eventually all piled back into the bus and headed home.

And so here I am. I head to the Mekong Delta tomorrow and I will eventually head to Cambodia within a few days. Let’s hope everything goes well.

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