There we were on a blistering August morning stuck at the Vietnamese border. The Vietnamese border guards in their light green suits flicked through passports at their leisure. They seemed to savour making us stand and wait in the heat while we were exhausted from our overnight bus journey. The tropical heat was overpowering. My own smell had begun to offend me. One by one the passport were approved and people were stamped into the country. My cousin Denis was having trouble. The ink on his visa from the Vietnamese embassy in Laos was smudged. This was a major infraction of the visa regulations it seemed. There was much sucking of teeth. Could he be allowed into the country. Ooh-ooh – they were not sure.
Denis like the rest of us was at the end of his tether. We had slept only a little – and that was poor quality sleep. Bent double in a hot noisy bus as we bounced over the worst pot-holes in Asia. Hungry and dehydrated. We were in no mood for this. He was not anxious – just irritated almost to despair. He did not care if he got through – we did not care so long as we could just throw ourselves down on a bed to sleep.
Per, the Vietnamese-born Dane, argued our case. Per spoke Vietnamese of course and remonstrated with the border guards. I was surprised at the strident tone he took. I thought that in a communist country one could only mollify officialdom and not browbeat them. I hoped Per knew what he was doing.
Hmm… could they let us in. The border guards agonised. That smudged ink was a major issue. It was such a big nono.Well maybe, just maybe they could but it would cost a hefty fine. For fine read bribe. Per managed to beat them down on the amount. Soon a little money changed hands and we were through. The border guards must have had their slanty eyes scanning each page for the slightest error to find some pretext to extort a douceur. Denis had been their unfortunate victim.
We re-boarded our bus – delighted to be on the road again. The bus drove under an archway at the border post. Hurray – we were in Vietnam. The border was in the hills with thick forest sitting on either side of the road. In front of us the road wound and stretched down to the plains. The flat land lay spread out before us. We rumbled along the orange dirt road.
I was exhausted but it was scorching and so I could not sleep. I spoke to a Frenchman. I shall call him Yves. Yves had jet black hair and this colour made his dense stubble even more visible against his very white flesh. His deep voice boomed out impeccable English with an unmistakable Gallic accent. Yves had pouting red lips and brown-rimmed glasses. He was tall and slim. He looked a little Semitic. Yves had been to Vietnam before. He told me about visiting Hanoi and seeing a museum there. He told me the captions on displays mentioned ”French bouchers” – he meant ”butchers” – to describe French troops. There were also ”Japanese facists”. He informed me, ”It was not a vehry objectif museum.” We spoke in French a little. We went through the French and British national anthems. I relished telling him the little known verse of the British one. ”Lord grant that Marshall Wade/ May by thy mighty aid / victory bring/ May he sedition hush/ and like a torrent rush/ rebellious Scots to crush/ God save the Queen.” For crush I learnt ”ecraser”.
I thumbed through Yves’ passport – with his permission. I noticed he was young than me. That surprised me. His facial hair and very low voice were so manly.
I chatted to a German named Alex. Alex had very blond hair and he had a ponytail. Alex’s English was outstanding with only a vestigial accent. He had been to Argentina and mentioned all the graffiti about the Falklands – the Malvinas are ours. I thought of going there soon. I would not back down on my opinion that the Falklands did not belong to Argentina.
After an hour we were down on the plains. Rude wattled houses lined the road. Clumps of trees were beside the roads but mostly we could see rice fields. Peasants worked as they had for millenia – under dried reed hats, stooping over up to their waists in water tending their crops. The odd black buffalo was led by. There were very few vehicles on the road. We were going to Vinh – that was where our ticket was to. The bus was going on to Hue and there was the possibility of paying more and staying on till Hue Edward mentioned this option. I said no. I could not take a moment longer than necessary. Denis and Ruarai agreed. After 17 hours on the road we could not take it any longer.
We came to a roadside restaurant and got off – this was the point of divergence. We went in for a nosh. We were to catch a bus on to Vinh from here. Our ticket was valid for that onward journey. We fed our faces. I am not sure how we paid. We must have changed currency at some point. Vietnamese money is called dong.
Soon a bus came along and it was a local one but it would take us to Vinh. On we hopped with our many bags. It must have been noon. We sat near the front and the leg room was astonishingly generous. A middle-aged Vietnamese bloke took an instant dislike to us. He had a briefcase but was not very formally dressed – black slacks and an undistinguished white shirt. He was demanding we paid more for the ticket. His scowling face did not scare us. After an hour we came into the city of Vinh. It was plain and had no high-rise buildings. There were many corrugated iron roofs. Bicycles outnumbered cars ten to one.
Under some large trees there was a unsurfaced bus park. Our bus stopped there to disgorge the passengers. God were we glad to be off the bus. Odd taxis sat there – motorbike taxis. We got out our Let’s Go guidebook and told the motorcyclists our chosen hotel. We got on the motorbikes behind the bikers and they drove us off to the hotel. It was a sprawling single storey affair. The room was the largest we had stayed in and fortunately there was a bed each. We just hit the hay. I slept like the dead. I have never needed my Zssss more.
A few hours later we awoke. Evening was drawing on. We showered and dressed. We headed out for a tour around this sorry town. If Thailand is the land of smiles Vietnam is the land of Frowns. They have fuck all to smile about – they are communists.
The people were clad in pale green, khaki, beige, powder blue sometimes – colours that were bland and impersonal. It was almost like they all wore uniforms. Many wore solar topee type hats. There were no car taxis around that I saw. I saw many cyclos – these are cycle rickshaws where the passengers sits in front.
The main drag was unpaved – of course – and low-rise banal concrete shops lined either side of it. At one end of it was large shopping mall. It was not the bright and shiny mall with a marble floor that you may have imagined. It had a grainy grey concrete floor with countless small stalls – so some capitalism at least. They sold clothes and nothing else that I could see. No one looked happy. Many of them scowled at us or bared their yellow teeth. My cousin (I accidentally typed brother and then had to delete it) Denis bought a T-shirt. It had an image of Ho Chi Minh on it. I have often had a hankering for such tendentious emblems but have so far desisted from buying them. I thought that this was in questionable taste. Ho Chi Minh was a tyrant who set up a murderous totalitarian state. He presided over many atrocities. Anyone who is a communist is beyond the pale. Ho Chi Minh had a personality cult built up around him and fomented a wars that lasted about 50 years. He brought more suffering to the world than all but a handful of rulers.
I can’t remember anything of not in that gloomy town. We walked back up the main boulevard. We turned left at the main square and saw down that street was the railway station. Thankfully some French words have survived in Vietnamese. The word for station is ‘gar’ no, not ‘gare’ ut ‘gar’. Denis and Ruarai could not face going in to try to buy a ticket. I went in on my own. People hurried in and out. The concourse was unlit and night was falling. People lay on the floor and a few were queueing up. I joined an orderly queue and soon enough I was at the glass window. The woman behind the screen spoke English – so there really is a god! I bought us tickets to Hue.
I went outside and announced to Denis and Ruarai that I had succeeded in getting us tickets. Denis in particular was elated. There was nothing of note in that dreary town. We went off to eat at some typically grotty in roadside restaurant. Vinh is a city that gives drabness a bad name.
Soon it was time for a kip.
Denis’ alarm went off in the middle of the night – so it seemed. We had to get up – our train was departing well before dawn. We packed our junk and in the dark checked out. We were out on the main street. We found cyclos. A bony faced little middle-aged man cycled me and my bags. The cyclo glided silently down the deserted boulevard. Then a couple of youths came up to us. One menacing young man treated me to an evil smile. There was a glint in his eye. He had a bottle in his hand. In sign language he gestured that he wanted a cigarette. I turned up both palms and I opened both hands and moved the left hand to the left and the right hand to the right to indicate that I had no cigarette to give him – which was true. He lifted his bottle up above his shoulder to threaten that he was about to throw it. The cyclo was rolling only very slowly away from him under the weight of my huge rucksack and other bag. I though of shit – now I am for it. He is about to throw the bottle at my head. There is nothing I can do. I put both arms diagonally across my face and dropped my head to my chest. I heard the bottle smash – the youth had thrown it just in front of me – on the ground. I think that was deliberate.
We got to the station and all was blackness. A couple of ragged tramps dozed on the stone floor. All the booths were shut. We walked through the concourse and saw some platforms serried in front of us. There was a train sitting there with lights on in some of the carriages. We climbed up the ladder like things onto the train. This must be the right one. Denis was not convinced. He said he would go and ask someone if this was the right one. I was irritated – where are you going and why? It is this train – it is blatantly this one, I told him. Denis insisted on finding someone and asking. I tut tutted. I was up too early and was yearning to go back to sleep. He returned a minute later – it was the train on the next platform. Thank fuck for his stubbornness! If I had my way we would have stayed on the wrong train to who knows what destination.
We got onto the next train and only a few lights were on. We found our way to our cabin. In we stepped and threw ourselves onto our bunks. We caught up on some sleep as the train started to rattle along the tracks to the south.
OUT OF VINH
When we stirred ourselves we were well out into the countryside. I looked out the stained window and saw the lurid shades of green stretching to the horizon across plains of padi fields crisscrossed with short trees. The cabin was brown formica like stuff. It was reasonably clean. I walked up and down the train. I sat in one of the chair cars. I fell into a conversation with a short middle-aged Vietnamese chap. He was the only affable Vietnamese that I had met apart from Per – and he was a Dane. I shall call this middle-aged Vietnamese bloke Chott. I made up this name because I used it in a story I wrote about 1950s Vietnam when I was 12.
Chott wore dark slacks and a white vest. His thick hair was lined with only the occasional grey follicle. He had a large mole on his right cheek with a surprising number of hair protruding from it. His sallow skin was free from lines. He spoke pretty good English and French. He was me his age – I was very surprised. He was much older than he looked. He was over 60, I forget his exact age. I had him down as mid-40s. He told me he remembered singing La Marseillaise (the French national anthem) at school during the colonial period. He was from North Vietnam and seemed to have no anti-French or anti-American sentiment. He recited to me a French poem. The only line that Chott said that I remember was,”mon amour pour toi reste toujours la meme.” – ”my love for you always stays the same.” He jabbed his right index finger towards my sternum as he delivered this line. This was just for dramatic effect – he was not making a pass at me. He spoke French much better than I do. He spoke from his palate in that tight nasal accent that South-East Asians have.
I wandered back to the cabin that I was sharing with the other two Irish boys. I read In retrospect by Robert McNamara. It had been published not before. McNamara was the US Defence Secretary who served in the mid 1960s when the US became militarily involved in Vietnam. This book is his mea culpa. He believes that the US ought never to have sent troops to Vietnam.
After a few hours we drew into Hue. This is pronounced Hway. It is the ancient imperial capital of Vietnam and sits astride the perfume river. From the station we took a cab to our hotel. The street beside the river was lined with generous shady trees. The buildings seemed cleaner and brighter than anything I had seen since Bangkok. There was a little traffic – enough to suggest prosperity but not so much as to snarl us up. In a jiffy we were checking into a hotel tucked into a side street not far south of the Perfume River. The hotel was run by a middle-aged Vietnamese woman. She was soften spoken and her English was good. Her black hair was tied back in a neat bun. She wore black rimmed glasses and bowed slightly and decorously whenever we asked her anything. I noticed that all the signs in the hotel were in French and English. The place was tranquil and limpid. We dumped our paraphernalia in a comfortable room and headed off to dine and stretch our bronzed legs. It was a sunny day but not roasting.
At a nearby tourist restaurant we dined al fresco. The menu was in French and English. There was a German couple on the next table. Denis started chatting to them. The man wore a red T-shirt and was about 30, gangly, blond and bespectacled. He had a lisp that did nothing to take away from his brilliant English. He seemed to be a serious-minded but likeable sort of chap.
We walked over a bridge to the old city. We saw an enormous Vietnamese flag – it must have been the biggest one in the country. I could see where it had been sewn together. Its pole was buried into the ancient dark grey battlement on the north bank of the river. Why was there such a huge flag here? This was the heart of the ancient independent united Vietnam. in February 1968 the communists launched an enormous attack o Hue. For a couple of days they had the run of the place. They rounded up hundreds of their opponents and shot them all dead without trial. This is one of the major atrocities of the Vietnam conflict. The Hue massacre is much less publicised than the My Lai Massacre despite the My Lai Massacre being of about 300 people when the Hue Massacre was of at least 2 800. This perhaps reflects the anti-American bias of much of the reportage and historical writing about the Vietnam conflict. The Hue Massacre is little known because it showed the communists for the oppressors they were and because it showed the US in a positive light. The US investigated the My Lai Massacre. Captain William Calley who was chiefly responsible for it was sent to prison but let out after a couple of years. He ought to have served life. At least the US did something to make amends. The communists never punished their people for this gross act of mass murder.
Much of what would have been the imperial city had been smashed down by the fighting in 1968. We saw open fields – ponds covered in water lilies, the odd water buffalo bathing. A young Vietnamese girl tended her impassive buffalo. There was so much greenery for what was a city centre. A few dark grey ruins seemed to be all that was left of a once famous capital.
The next day we took a trip on a boat along the perfume river. It was cloudy and the river was also cloudy and choppy. The engine buzzed. The fairly built-up city soon gave way to countryside on either side. The banks rose up steeply from the river. Both sides were densely covered in forest. We came to a small Buddhist temple on the north bank. It was only a few miles west of Hue. There we saw a car. A Buddhist monk burnt himself to death in Saigon in 1962 to protest at the South Vietnamese government. There was a car that he traveled in from Hue to Saigon and the car can be seen to the rear of the burning monk. The car was displayed there at that Buddhist temple which was this monk’s home for some years. I cannot say it made much of an impression on me.
We had a few more hours to explore this agreeable city. There was a goodly number of tourists but it was not overrun by them. In time we made our way to the railway station for an overnight train to Saigon – sorry Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam. Boringly the city and the river have the same name. Once the commies took over South Vietnam they renamed the city of Saigon in honour of Ho Chi Minh who died in 1970 after having set Vietnam well on the course to fratricide, poverty and oppression. In the 1990s the communists in Vietnam tacitly admitted that they had been getting it wrong all along. Communism is a disaster. It is supported only in Havana, Pyongyang and Oxford. Only in those cities do people make a living out of it. Now the dollar triumphs. Bill Clinton re-established diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1993 and declared that relations were normal between the US and Vietnam. Only a few wingnuts in the US still believed that hundreds of missing in action soldiers were still being held hostage in Vietnam. How does one prove a negative? To be fair there was an American who was captured by the Chinese in the Korean conflict who was not released for 20 years. The Rambo films played to this fantasy that hundreds of American were still being held captive in Vietnam in the 1980s.
It was another pleasant choo choo journey. How I love trains. Members of the train crew for no detectable reason who open the sliding door to our cabin and look in. When they saw we were sitting there chatting they would say nothing and slowly close the door and go away. This happened a number of times. It did not affect us at the time. The train made a rhythmic rattling nose and swayed from side to side gently. In time this lulled us to Morpheus.
The next morning we were woken by the sunlight blazing in the window – there was no curtain. I had put my trousers on the floor in my usual way. I had slept in my boxers. I decided to go and buy something from the dining car. I fished around in my wallet. All the money was gone! I had had a wad of cash in there. The day before I had put about 80 pounds worth of dong in there. That is a king’s ransom in Vietnam. What happened? My cousin and Ruarai are above suspicion. It xn only have been the railway staff. They had the opportunity and the motive. Why else had they been opening the door unannounced all through the day? Denis decided to do an experiment. He went outside and opened the sliding door to our cabin very slowly. With the noise of the train rocking from side to side the sound of the door opening was inaudible. They railway staff could very easily have committed the theft in seconds. If I were them I would have divided the loot so as they all had a stake in it – they would all stay silent. If arrested no one would have a suspiciously large sum on them. I shrugged it off. I was good to be philosophical. I could have let it ruin my holiday.
The journey dragged on. Buildings appeared more and more frequently beside the railway line – no more jungle. We seemed to be crawling along at 20 miles an hour. We grew ever more frustrated. The low grey buildings were plain and dispiriting. We saw more railway lines converged as we were coming into what must be the suburbs of Saigon. We had been on the iron horse for a good 14 hours.
Denis and I got into a heated argument about French colonial rule. I strongly defended the civilising mission of France. France had brough medicine, engineering, scientific knowledge, a world knowledge, a modern legal system and so forth to Vietnam. There was religious freedom in Vietnam under French rule and the rights of women were advanced. All these changes could not have been effected without colonial rule.Denis tried the old canard that French rule was exploitative. Sure many people were poor peasants as they had been before and they were no worse off under French rule – they had rather more to aspire to under the system of egalite. He claimed that literacy had gone down under French rule and not up. Vietnam had been a satrapy of China for centuries so had not been independent in a very long time. People had become literate in Chinese and then switched to French so there was a reduction in the number of those who could read possibly. I wonder how accurate the figures were for the 1850s when French rule was established. I pointed out that many Vietnamese volunteered for the French Army and this proved that they supported French rule. Denis said this showed nothing only that they needed jobs. I noted that the vast majority did not join the French Army – there were other jobs.
Ruarai stayed well out of it. He was perplexed and did not even pay attention. Why should we have such strong feelings about something that did not affect us? He was not a bookish type. He had little get up and go. When they first arrived in Thailand they spent some time on the islands in the Gulf of Thailand. They had seen British sluts in string bikinis. Ruarai was keen to languish there. Although he was a fitness fanatic this Ruarai would not have left the airport if Denis had not made him. Ruarai lacked get up and go.
We calmed down and arrived in Saigon. We got a cab to our hotel. It was not a bad one and there was a room for our trio – even a bed each. The hotel was quite down town on a fairly busy street. the hotel was on several floors. Lots of backpackers stayed there.
We dumped our stuff and walked around. There were many tatty old stained buildings. Some new ones had sprung up – gleaming glass buildings that housed multinational corporations. I could not help but take satisfaction at the triumph of capitalism over Marxist dogma. There was a little rubbish scattered across the tarmaced streets. Cyclos slid by and noisy diesel cars crackled around the corners.
That evening we walked into what was pretty much the centre of town. We passed the soaring colonial era cathedral. It was spotless. The boutiques one the main shopping streets could have made me for a moment believe that I was in some French Riviera town. We dined in some pretty decent restaurant.
The next day we went to the old presidential palace. It was fairly wide and tall or so it looked from the outside. A wrought iron fence separated it from the boulevard. There was a large tank sitting on the well-kept lawn to the right of it. Tall and stately trees spread their canopies over most of the lawn. The odd shrivelled yellow leaf lay there – autumn was approaching. We paid our paltry admission charge and in we stepped. We waited by a side gate to the main building for the English-speaking tour. There were only a half-dozen people on our one. There was a bloke from Derry there – I shall call him Dara. Dara was perhaps 10 years older than me. He was average height and trim in build. He had shortish brown hair and just a day’s stubble. He wore a red vest-like T-shirt so beloved of Antipodeans. He was brown after a few months globetrotting through these sunny climes. He told me he was writing up his experiences for the Derry Journal. He heard which university I attended and said that explained my accent. I told him that all sorts of accents are heard there and I had developed my accent years earlier.
A unmemorable Vietnamese person showed us around. I do not recall whether this person was male or not which indicates how forgettable the guide was. I learnt that the French colonial governor’s mansion had been on this self-same site. After independence it was knocked down to make way for the presidential palace. I thought what a shame to unnecessarily raze a historical building – and a bloody waste of money for a poor country. How could they be so profligate when they had far more pressing problems to attend to than constructing a luxurious pile for the president?
The rooms were huge and the decor was very 1960s. It was all open plan and the white curtains seemed like doilies. The furniture looked like what one saw in hotels from that era or in Colombo programmes. There were various receptions rooms. Although it was not horrid I cannot say there was anything beautiful about the place. It was smaller than it seemed from the outside. The ceilings were very high. It was faintly disappointing. The guide told us about Ngo Dinh Diem – the president from 1954 to 1963. He was from a Christian family – very few Vietnamese were Christians. Vietnamese Christians tended to be pro-French and he was no exception. He was an aristocrat and a civil servant. He spent most of his adult life in Belgium and France. He returned to become president. He never married and his sister-in-law acted as his first lady. He wore white suits which marked him out as a yellow Frenchman. He was not a convinced democrat. The police dealt ham fistedly with Buddhist monks who protested against Ngo Dinh Diem’s rule. The US embassy found out that some army officers were plotting to overthrow Diem. They were asked to come to the US embassy. They were given a dressing down. They were offended and felt they had been treated like naughty children. Pointedly the CIA did not tip-off Diem about the conspiracy. If Washington really valued President Diem then they would have informed him so the conspirators could have been dealt with. The military coup was being kept as an option by Washington.
Eventually President Kennedy changed his mind. He had several thousand military advisers in Vietnam including Colin Powell. Several hundred American advisers had been killed. Diem was so unpopular that his overthrow might be no bad thing. Uncle Sam then told the plotters that the United States would not support a coup d’etat but neither would the US oppose it. That seemed like a green light. In November 1963 the military coup went ahead. Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother were captured escaping from the presidential palace by a tunnel. They were both executed without trial. I say executed which sounds like a punishment but I mean to say that they were not killed in combat or shot trying to escape. They were in custody and the decision was made to kill them. It was a shameful thing to do. They could have been imprisoned or exiled. There was no likelihood that people would rise up to restore them to office.
Towards the end of the tour Dara told us he had been reading about how the communists took the palace. That North Vietnamese tank in the garden was the first to smash through the gate. The commander of the palace guard said he was surrendering. The North Vietnamese replied that the commander could not surrender something that he no longer controlled. Dara smiled impishly at that. I got the sense that he sympathised with the communists. A political radical? An Irish republican? I went cool on him.
That evening we met him as arranged in a backpacker bar. Dara suggested smoking some pot with him. I declined. I am not into that but doing so in some place like Vietnam is a very unwise idea. The Vietnamese police probably do not compare favourably to the Royal Ulster Constabulary – but I did not make that point to Dara. Ruarai and Denis did not take up the offer.
I walked around the city on my own a little. I decided to geta cyclo back. I notice that the cyclo cyclist had an extra thumb growing out of his right thumb. I had never seen this before. It must be more common than one realises but I imagine that in developed countries extra digits are surgically removed shortly after birth. A young Vietnamese chap speaking great English asked if he could come along too. I said yes and he sat beside me. He had a dark complexion and a curtains hairstyle. He had a hissing camp voice.
We got to my street. The sum demanded was inordinate. I think I had agreed something different at the beginning. My young companion on the trip took the cyclists side, ”we go to the police if you don’t pay”. His pissy voice whined menacingly. He repeated his threat a couple of times. I ended up giving them enough dong to satsify them – dong being Vietnamese currency.
Next morning was very bright. We went to some travel agency. A middle-aged chubby German bloke sat there. He had short orderly hair and tidy little glasses. He spoke terrific ENglish. There was also a diminutive American with a Southern accent. The little American had hard blonde hair and stoned washed jeans below his white T-shirt. He was affable and clean-shaven. I reflected that he was just the right age to have been a soldier in the Vietnam conflict – maybe that was why he was back. We were booking a trip to the Coo Chin tunnels. We got our ticket.
Outside we quipped about the Southron. We could have asked him if he had ever been to the Coo Chi tunnels and he would have said – not since 1973.
We waited on our street for a bus to come and pick us up. It was filled with Occidental tourists. I sat beside a portly Australian bloke of 50 something. He had thick greying hair and a gentle manner. He told me his ancestors came from Devon in England. It was a little refreshing as most Australians I meet seem to be partly Irish. My mum says the same about white Americans. In Minnesota they whites were of German and Scandinavian ancestry.
I spoke about the Vietnam conflict with my cousin Denis. Denis is a highly intelligent person and very articulate with it. He told me how many of the US servicemen were Irishmen, not Irish-Americans but Irishmen. Those who had a work permit in the US at th time could be drafted even if they were not US citizens. Some of these Irish soldiers who fought for liberty and against Ho Chi Minh’s vicious totalitarian regime came from remote villages in West Cork.
I remember meeting on of these Irishmen in a West Cork fishing village. He seemed younger than his grey hair and had an impressive moustache. He was free with his opinions. He said that the US could have won if only it had kept going. He expressed the horrifying view that it was right for the IRA to murder people whom they alleged to be drug dealers. The IRA were big time drug peddlars themselves – they just did not like competition. I had said these people could be completely innocent and they had no fair trial. He said that the IRA were always sure before they did this. He also defended the mutilation of alleged petty criminals. I was disgusted by this – this was barbaric, like what happened under the Taleban.
Our air-conditioned coached squealed to a halt in the countryside. There were no more telephone poles or street lamps. The village had some gloomy concrete houses with corrugated iron roofs and some wooden buildings.
There were 40 or so of us. A Vietnamese guide lined us up and told us a little about what we were due to see – how the Viet Cong lived and fought in the 1960s. I shall call him Edgar. Edgar was 40 I suppose – fairly tall for a Vietnamese. He was clean-shaven – in fact the only Vietnamese I have ever heard of with facial hair was Ho Chi Minh.
It was a very bright day and Edgar led us along a well-worn but narrow path through the woods. I was right behind him. We rounded a corner and suddenly I heard a sharp little bang. Edgar turned to everyone and told them this was a booby trap bomb – not a real one. He pointed to my feet. There was a metal can by my feet and a string attached to it. I had felt nothing but my leg had pulled the string and detonated the bomb.
Edgar told us how the Vietnamese had been building tunnels for centuries when carrying out guerrilla campaigns against the Chinese and then against the French. When the US military came to assist South Vietnam against the communists the Viet Cong dug tunnels in the forests to hide out in. For years the US military could not figure out how the Viet Cong could be cornered and then disappear. Finally they found about the tunnels. It surprised me that no one in the French military had told the Americans. Some of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam had been anti-French, wouldn’t they have know about the habit of building underground tunnels.
Edgar took us further and demonstrated the many booby traps that the Viet Cong invented. He said that the idea of the booby traps was of course to kill and main the enemy but also to distract them. The American walked slowly through the jungle because they were looking out for booby traps – this gave the Viet Cong more time to prepare ambushes, to retreat and to set up more boob traps. The American at the front of the patrol was particularly distracted looking out for booby traps – he might not notice Viet Cong fighters hiding a few metres away.
He showed us some booby traps. To my mind a bobby trap is something funny – not deadly but booby trap is the only word we have. One was like a directors’ chair shutting on the guy – putting a spike into him. There were vines with metal barbs that swung across the trail at face and chest height, there were mines that jumped up to explode at head height; there were traps that stabbed into the groin. Edgar commented, ”what happen for the men? No marriage, no children.”
There were some tunnels for us to try out. I lowered myself down and was able to film. I crawled a long a little. It was very cramped and uncomfortable – 10 m was long enough for me. There was an Indian young lady just in front of me and I ended up filming her posterior mostly.
There was a longer section of tunnel too. That was too much for me. Denis tried it.
Egdar pointed out how small the tunnel entrances could be. With one foot he brushed aside some fallen leaves – there was a wooden door. We had not noticed it. He lifted up the wooden door in the ground to reveal a tunnel. He said the Viet Cong would climb down into the tunnel and put the door on. Local sympathisers would then cover the door with dead foliage.
He spoke about Viet Cong meetings. They all wore bandanas over their faces in case someone was an informer.
Edgar told me his father had been in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). The ARVN was the South Vietnamese army, pro-American. Edgar had grown up on a base with many Americans and learnt English. His English was not fluent, he could express himself of course but he had a strong accent and fractured grammar. He was a genial sort of bloke. After the fighting was over his father spent years in a re-education camp. In these places ARVN men were worked extremely hard and treated with great brutality. After his release Edgar’s father was granted asylum by Australia. Australia had sent troops to support the US in its attempt to save South Vietnam from communist oppression. This was forward defence by Australia. If the communists took over all of South-East Asia they could easily invade Australia. Australia also had a defence treaty with the US, they were both part of SEATO the South-East Asian Treaty Organisation. The US would help Australia so Australia would help the US. It paid Australia to ensure that the US had a stake in the security of the whole Asia Pacific region.
We took the bus back into Saigon.
That afternoon we visited the American War Crimes Tribunal. It was like my French acquaintance had warned me on the bus in from Laos – he had been talking about the place in Hanoi. The aim of this museum was revealed by the name. The purpose was not to fairly present facts but instead to besmirch the reputation of the United States. I am not saying that every claim that museum made is false. I do think it failed to contextualize, presented things in the most one-sided way and probably invented a good deal. There were some horrid fetid dungeons.
We ran into a black Briton at the museum. He was a tall and well-built chap and I shall call him Harold. Harold spoke slowly and softly. His large teeth created a winning smile. He had a distinct Brummy accent – that is to say he came from Birmingham. In fact he never had to tell us he was British.
On our way home we nipped into a small and secluded Buddhist temple. It was an oasis of calm in that busy city. I took a liking to the turtles in their pond and filmed them closely. We left that shady grove and walked back to our hotel.
The next day it was around to the Cambodian embassy to expedite visas. The building looked like a bouregeois version of a Parisian chauteaux. It sat on a street with many similar buildings.
That afternoon we went to an internet cafe. I was emailing or something. Denis sat beside me and said some words that I shall never forget, ”Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York.” I assumed that it was a horrific accident. My ex-girlfriend Jane had written me and email saying she was watching those planes in the news hitting the buildings in New York City. I was beginning to think that this was not an accident. I looked at some news websites and began to see how many thousands of people were assumed to be killed. I had not at first thought that so many people would be killed.
One of my friends Sonia was in Washington DC. I read about planes crashing in Washington. I wrote to Sonia asking if she was ok. I was also thinking of trying to shag her next term.
I read how Al Qa’eda was the prime suspect in terms of organisations. I had heard of Osama Bin Laden few years earlier. I felt sure it was him and his gang but I did not actually know it then.
I do not remember anything of that evening as such. I saw some flags at half mast outside banks and multinationals. Someone told me some Vietnamese in a bar had applauded the Islamist attack on America. There is still some anti-American sentiment in Vietnam.
The next day a bus pulled up outside our hotel. It was another baking hot day. We piled aboard for the ride to the Cambodian border. I shall tell you the complement of the minibus. Obviously there was the three of us. I shall assign names to the others.
Pete – he was a Briton in his early 20s. He was as tall as me with light brown hair and a serious aspect. He had pale skin and struck me as deeply unimaginative. He was a scowelly sort of person. He was in the Territorial Army (the part-time army) and the less attractive side of the military mindset came out in him. He wore a floppy type hat that cricketers often wear.
Jessica was Pete’s girlfriend. She was just below average height. Jessica was of normal build and had dark brown tied back in a pony tail hair and little glasses. She was from southern England like Pete. I have given her a bland name just like her boyfriend in token of the fact that she was a dullard. She was not a well-informed person. When I mentioned the British Isles she told me she had never been there.
Tracey was tallish and had terribly dyed blonde hair – her dark roots were a disgrace. She was desirable in a sluttish way. She wore a spaghetti spring top and loose cotton trousers that backpackers often wear in South East-Asia.
Thomasina was Tracey’s traveling companion. Both were British, English to be precise. Thomasina was very slim – too slim for my taste with meagre tits. She had dark brown hair. Apart from her skinniness she was good looking. She wore the same sort of outfit at Tracey.
The road from Saigon to the border was good – smooth and a dual carriagewyway. There was little traffic and the road was built up on a cutting well above the padi fields to either side.
We reached the border and after the perfunctories it was bye bye Vietnam.