This day tour would incur an extra charge, but one Viet Nam veteran had run convoys between Long Binh and Tay Ninh during the war. This was an opportunity for him to go back to some of those places. For everyone else, it was a chance to see some countryside and the temple in Tay Ninh, which was the center of the Cao Dai religious sect.
As we drove toward Tay Ninh, I was struck by the number of small shops along the road. There were many more houses and huts than there were two years ago, and each house had a little business set up in front of it. Some sold gasoline in liter bottles, some were cafes, some looked like the Vietnamese equivalent of a convenience store.
The road was almost unrecognizable to the veteran who had traveled it during the war. It was paved instead of dirt. The area between the road and the tree line, once cleared and desolate, was now covered with rice paddies, farm houses, and villages. Only Nui Ba Den, the Black Virgin Mountain, towering impressively over the surrounding flat lands, still looked the same.
We arrived at the Cao Dai temple in time for the noon religious ceremony. The ritual, observed daily at 6:00 a.m., noon, 6:00 p.m., and midnight, began with the entry of men and women from opposite sides of the temple--men from the right, women from the left. The worshipers were dressed in white. Priests and other dignitaries wore elaborate, colorful ceremonial dresses and hats in red, blue, and yellow.
The most important disciples and priests were gathered at the front of the congregation closest to the altar. Above the altar was suspended the divine eye, the religion's official symbol. Visitors were allowed to view and photograph the ceremony from the balconies which lined both sides of the temple above the main floor. Just as it was in 1992, the ceremony was colorful and impressive.
Heading back toward Cu Chi, we stopped in Trang Bang. Trang Bang is "famous" for the photograph that appeared on the front page of the New York Times of the young girl running naked down the road after a napalm strike.
We had lunch in a local cafe, maintaining a delicate balance between not offending the cooks while simultaneously avoiding the plethora of raw vegetables and other uncooked delicacies placed before us. I thought of my recent visit to Cuba where food stalls and small restaurants were virtually nonexistent, except those created by the state for tourist use. Food in Cuba, in any context, was scant and scarce.
After lunch, we decided to visit the market. We were immediately surrounded by friendly, curious shoppers and sellers, surprised and delighted by our presence. As always, everyone wanted to practice their English. As always, I was embarrassed by the fact that none of us knew enough Vietnamese to even attempt to practice.
When they found out that one of us had been in Trang Bang during the war, there was much talking and smiling. Two women said that as children, they sold Coca-Cola to the American soldiers in the convoys that passed through their village. "Maybe you sold me one," said Jim.
Everyone laughed, and someone snapped a picture of the former Coca-Cola sellers and the former GI sitting and laughing together in the Trang Bang market in a town where napalm once rained down.
I had not been to Cu Chi during the war; but in 1992, after our visit there, I wrote this in my journal: "The Cu Chi tunnels have turned into a tourist attraction, complete with T-shirts, beer and soda, and video presentations. A Vietnamese veteran with an amputated arm did the presentation. It doesn't seem right somehow that this place where so many people died, on both sides, should be a mini-Disneyland with carefully crafted tunnels for the tourists to go into. I couldn't bring myself to go into the tunnels. Turning this battlefield into a semi-amusement park really bothered me. Somebody asked me if I felt that way about Gettysburg, and I guess I don't, but Gettysburg doesn't have the immediacy of Cu Chi."
In 1994, the transformation of the Cu Chi tunnels into an amusement park was virtually complete. The tunnels, already widened to fit western bodies in 1992, now had canopies over the entrances and exits. In one tunnel, cassava and tea were served as snacks by a woman, allegedly a former VC, who had lived and fought there during the war. The one souvenir stand had blossomed into a whole arcade, selling everything from Coke to war souvenirs to the Vietnamese version of Tiger Balm, an ointment manufactured in Hong Kong for treatment of everything from insect bites to lumbago.
The video was now available in multiple languages. The content seemed different, however. While the video in 1992 was mostly in Vietnamese and consisted of grainy newsreel footage, the 1994 video was in the language of your choice. The grainy newsreel quality was retained, but the content seemed very staged -- too many revolutionaries hunkered down in the jungle, weapons in hand, looking up to smile at the camera, while their achievements as killers of Americans were detailed.
The piece de resistance was the firing range, where visitors could fire at targets with replicas of AK-47 rifles. Perhaps it is poetic justice that the Vietnamese have made Cu Chi into what it is today. The irony of it is inescapable. Nevertheless, visiting it was very uncomfortable for some of us who were there during the war, and it is not a place to which I wish to return.
After our visit to Cu Chi, we returned to Saigon, still jet lagged and too exhausted to do much except eat a little dinner at the hotel restaurant and go to sleep.
The next day we checked the progress being made in retrieving our boxes. The group member, working with the Customs people, had spent the previous day at the Customs office and was going back to the airport to collect the boxes that morning. It seemed as if everything would be ready for our first delivery to the Friendship Clinic in Vung Tau the next day.
I had met Mrs. Dao, the Library School director, in 1992. Since then, she and I had corresponded; and I had shipped several boxes of books to her, mostly library science texts, medical books, and journals.
The libraries in Viet Nam, like all other parts of its infrastructure, are in a state of debilitation and decay. In 1992, when I visited the dark and dank library at Ho Chi Minh City University, I was appalled by the moldy wood shelves packed with mildewed, disintegrating books.
Many books were tied with baling wire and thrown in heaps. The reference shelf had a decaying Grolier encyclopedia from the mid-1960s, a 1985 Britannica they said was a gift, and a few other titles-- maybe 100 total, including the multi-volumed encyclopedias. There was no computerization. In 1994 I noticed few changes.
The national library in Cuba, named for Jose Marti, and the library at the University of Havana, on the other hand, had been very different. There, the climate control was haphazard, rather than nonexistent. The metal shelves were not yet covered in rust, and the materials were still in reasonably good condition, only five years out of date, not twenty-five. The deterioration and destruction that characterized the collections in the Vietnamese libraries had not yet taken hold.
Interestingly, despite the close relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union, Cuban libraries did not adopt the Soviet classification system as did the Vietnamese. Instead, the Cubans used the American Dewey Decimal system and Library of Congress Subject Headings. High on their wish list was a set of the Library of Congress Subject Heading volumes in Spanish.
Unlike the library at the University of Ho Chi Minh City, the University of Havana library had begun to computerize using a Novell local area network and software developed locally for entering catalog information for titles in the collection and for specialized data bases. The local area network in the library connected with university and student user groups in and around Havana, and provided Internet access. Interlibrary loan among the institutions was done through telex and electronic mail. Unlike Viet Nam, Cuba also had a well developed network of public and K-12 school libraries.
The differences between the libraries in Viet Nam and Cuba symbolized for me important contrasts between the two countries. Viet Nam's infrastructure was destroyed by war and its inability to obtain loans from development agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and to obtain hard currency to purchase goods and services made it difficult to repair and update that infrastructure.
Cuba, on the other hand, retained the infrastructure that it built while Viet Nam's was being destroyed, but Cuba's current lack of access to hard currency and economic development funds, also, is resulting in an erosion of that infrastructure. The downward spiral has begun, and it will be only a matter of time before Cuba falls victim to the same decay and disintegration that has afflicted Viet Nam.