The subject of Vietnam came up often during my sons' high school and college years. Many refugees arrived in Minneapolis, and their restaurants produced smells and flavors that evoked powerful memories of the Mekong Delta. The idea of a trip to Vietnam came up often as the boys embarked on their families and careers. Since I never had traveled north of Saigon during my 1968-1970 tour, there was a lot I wanted to see. Son Tony speaks excellent Chinese, and I hoped I could resurrect my once pretty good Vietnamese.
In July, 2002, we left LAX in the wee hours and arrived a day later in Kunming, China. Kunming is a modern, prosperous Chinese city, and after a day of sighseeing, we boarded the meter gauge train to Vietnam. The French built this railway in the 1920's to connect their Indochina colonies to China's Yunan Province. Sanitation and maintenance were not this train's strong suit, but dinner in the diner was superb and the scenery out of this world. I hung my head out the window all night under a full moon watching the railroad descend about 8,000 feet through spectacular gorges, banana and bamboo groves, sleeping villages and many tunnels and high bridges. It was not to be missed.
At Hekou, we walked across the bridge to the Vietnamese customs station at Lao Cai where we were quickly passed out onto the street. Boys on wheezing "Hongda" motorbikes carried us and our luggage to the railroad station where we hired a van to drive us back up the mountain to Sapa, an old French hill station now becoming a tourist destination. High mountains with the rice terraces of Hmong farmers dominate the landscape. The new Victoria Hotel is an up-scale replay of an old colonial hotel but with a five-star dining room and comfortable rooms. Rented Minsk motorcycles afforded some great touring on back country roads.
The noon train from Lao Cai to Hanoi carried a dozen squeaky clean coaches of the Vietnam Railways plus three cars owned by the Victoria Hotel, a diner with a French chef and two with first class compartments. The railroad winds down the valley of the Red River which really is red, through villages, rice paddies and orchards. On the outskirts of Hanoi, the standard gauge railroad from the China border connection at Lam Son meets the Vietnamese meter gauge system. A large number of Chinese freight cars filled up the interchange yard, and the standard gauge extends directly into a number of Vietnamese industries.
We arrived in Hanoi about dinner time and stayed at some friends' home on West Lake. The architecture and streetscapes are French, people and food are Vietnamese, and the Highway 4 Bar is where foreigners and the Minsk Motorcycle Club of Hanoi hang out. A Minsk is a good if not a great bike, and at 150 cc's, it was the biggest on the street in Vietnam. Occasionally, a young guy with a crew cut would ride by on a 1000 cc Honda, but I suspect these were police. The town looked to be in perfect order, and while the government buildings and monuments are sterile and largely empty, the markets and noodle shops vibrate with commerce. I decided I could live there.
The Citadel at Hue was hard to take. It was built in the 17th Century for Vietnam's emperors following the idea of Beijing's Forbidden City. Only a few of the original 174 pavilions and buildings survived the 1968 Tet Offensive. A French organization has sponsored the rebuilding of 3 particularly beautiful pavilions, working from photographs and the memories of local elders. The United Nations also has sponsored some rebuilding and has designated the Citadel as a world cultural landmark. Large areas of the sprawling compound remain empty or heavily damaged. Well-dressed and well-fed Vietnamese families happily wandered about the grounds taking snapshots and munching ice cream and shrimp snacks. I came upon an especially beautiful bronze temple lion that had guarded a pagoda. It was riddled with bullet holes, and I found myself suddenly overcome and wondering what our war had accomplished.
At Hoi An, the hotel was air-conditioned and spiffy. A dozen young men in the lobby waited for foreign tourists to hire them as tour guides. I hired one young man so I could learn what was happening in the town. Vehicles are not allowed in the town center which now is a Vietnamese national historic landmark. Each night the silk lanterns burn brightly and visitors can take in puppet shadow theater or traditional opera performances. Hoi An is building a sizeable arts and crafts industry based on traditional pottery, art, fabrics and furniture. Local divers have been salvaging the cargos of 16th Century Dutch and Portuguese trading ships sunk on the bar off the mouth of the river. Local artisans replicate these Ming potteries which they sell to tourists. The quality is excellent. The iced coffee is good at the internet cafe's where one can check the e-mail and report in to the family back home.
Our guide took us to his family's pottery shop where we bought some pieces and promptly were invited to lunch with the family. The courses kept coming, and lunch stretched into mid-afternoon. With 15 or so family gathered around the table, neighbors kept dropping in to see who the strangers were. The father and husband told of his 8 years in a 're-education camp' following 1975 and the fact that holding a job has been hard for him. He has kept busy with menial jobs, but he has not been able to continue his career. His son, our guide, spoke of wanting to study economics at Da Nang University and maybe graduate school in Hong Kong. We talked about our families and they were fascinated that not only had I returned to Vietnam but that my two grown sons had also come. They said their life was pretty good and that it would get better in the future. I carried the plastic bag of pottery throughout the rest of our tour and onboard the flight home.
People were always asking why I could speak Vietnamese, and I always answered "because I had been here before." Invariably, they would respond "hoi chien tran, hoi xua," or "back in the war in the ancient time." I learned that a full two-thirds of today's Vietnamese were born after 1975, and that they think of it as their father's war. In those three weeks, I spoke with maybe a couple hundred Vietnamese, only two of whom were hostile or rude. Almost without exception, they were friendly, helpful and interested in us. Almost without exception, they showed no interest in talking about the war. They seemed to think it had nothing to do with them. They were busy making a living and leading their lives. At times, elevant to the scene around me.
In Saigon, the Caravelle Hotel has a massive, new 5-Star addition, and office hi-rises are sprouting along Tu Do Street like mushrooms. You can still sip "ba muoi ba" on the veranda of the Continental and the orchestra still plays evenings on the roof of the Rex. Saigon is still Saigon, except it's a lot cleaner and more prosperous. I had trouble finding my old landmarks in My Tho. Concrete boulevards, well kept public parks and lots of new construction make the old city hard to find. They still serve very good shrimp soup at the Cuu Long Restaurant on the bank of the Mekong, and the ferry still passes the Coconut Island religious community on its way to Ben Tre. The new government tourist hotel is comfortable and cheap with a passable restaurant and internet service. Trung Luong intersection on Highway 4 where "ambush alley" once began is a solid line of strip malls with convenience stores, home improvement marts and bakeries selling baguets and mini-donuts. The old French province headquarters building has been renovated, but the gate guards keep visitors out.
In Thanh Phu Village west of My Tho, the large Buddhist pagoda with its convent of nuns obviously has grown and prospered since 1970. Thanh Phu lies close along the boundary of the former Dong Tam base used by the US 9th and the ARVN 7th Divisions. I had worked with the old village chief to try to stop the flow of sand from the base which blocked the passage of water in Thanh Phu's irrigation canals. He and I also had found a way to change the reconstruction of Highway 4 so that irrigation water could flow north of the new roadway. The nuns ushered the boys and I into their parlor where we were plied with treats and peppered with questions about ourselves and our lives. The 95 year old abbess delivered a sermon on Buddhist precepts which I had a hard time following, but the visit was one never to be forgotten. We never spoke of the war.
In my old district town of Cai Be, 35 miles west of My Tho, it's the same story of progress, prosperity and irrelevance. Our old district compound is handsomely rebuilt and unrecognizable. Where once the 105 mm howitzers pounded NVA infiltration routes nightly with interdicting fire, today there stands the Cai Be Multiplex Cinema with 4 big screens and a choice of Hong Kong or Bollywood action flicks. A huge floating market has sprung up in the creek below the market where shoppers can hop from one junk to another and buy direct. The old market is now closed to vehicles and jammed with shoppers. The Catholic church with its towering spire that can be seen all the way from Tan Son Nhut Airport on a clear day, has been totally refurbished. New paint, windows and roof stand among flower beds and formal gardens. Ong Cha, the pastor, strolled to and fro reading his office, while I recalled for the boys how the VC used to control the churchyard after dark most evenings. Not only are the old side roads that lead out of Cai Be now re-opened, but they're paved and have electric lines hanging from poles. A working pay telephone stands in front of city hall and cell phones are common. The new Cai Be Hotel is handsome and air-conditioned, but for some reason foreign visitors cannot stay there. We had to return to My Tho to spend the night.
At My Thuan, the bottleneck crossing of the main Mekong channel where traffic to the lower Delta once moved by ferry, today there stands a vast, towering suspension bridge tall enough for ocean freighters to pass under. However, you still can order a plate of "chiem" in the truck stops at My Thuan. They are tiny rice paddy birds which are skinned, marinated and roasted whole complete with head, feet and guts still attached. They're not bad if washed down with a couple bottles of "33 Export" ba muoi ba.
It's not the Vietnam we left in 1970; it's a whole new country and a whole new people. The war we fought belongs to the dim past, and today's Vietnamese seem bent on leaving it far behind them. We stood by what once was the muddy track to Cai Nua Village where my friend, Staff Sgt. Phil Knutsen, a fellow Minnesotan, was killed by a land mine. The road is paved and two lanes wide with trucks, buses and motorcycles whizzing past the spot, oblivious to what happened there. I'm so glad that the ugly, violent, dysfunctional Vietnam which lived on in my mind for all those years finally is gone forever, for them and for me. I'm pretty sure Phil would feel the same way.
The ticketing and immigration procedure at Tan Son Nhut took nearly three hours. My older son bears my name. He was right behind me in the passport line, and it took a half hour to persuade the officer and his supervisor that we were no threat to civil order and only wanted to go home. As we taxied for take-off, I remembered August 20, 1970, when the Pan Am 707's wheels went thump and we finally were free of Vietnam. I thought about why our government needs to level with us about its reasons for sending us off to war and what it means to lose one's leg or one's life while defending the United States. But on balance, I felt glad for having seen Vietnam doing so well and for the fact that our wounds do seem to heal over with the passage of years. I also was glad for having learned the lesson that our people rightfully have a role in our nation's foreign policy, and that we should indeed should have a powerful say in whether or not we commit our sons and daughters to military service overseas.