Posts Tagged With: Vietnam

Checking in at the Hanoi Hilton

For a pacifist, I have a strange fascination with military history; always have. I have read numerous books on The Vietnam War and have already visited numerous sites on our trip to Vietnam. My favorite part is seeing the government’s spin and propaganda on the war. I went to one Museum that was propaganda-free; boring. However, that was not the case at the Hanoi Hilton, the propaganda was over the top. It was basically the complete opposite of everything I have read about the conditions and treatment of US prisoners held there.

The Hanoi Hilton

The Hanoi Hilton

The Hanoi Hilton was a sarcastic name given by US pilots to this infamous prison during the war. American pilots shot down were held here, including senator John McCain. It is now a museum; the first part is dedicated to the brutal treatment the Vietnamese suffered under French rule after World War 2. The second part is dedicated to The American War and how well the US prisoners were treated.

Pictures of of pilots gardening, playing basketball, and raising chickens in the prison yard. Pictures of them playing chess, billiards and hanging out, laughing in a large communal dorm room. Displays of items the prisoners had while incarcerated: Winston cigarettes, Vicks cough drops, hand-held fans, winter and summer clothing. They did not show the solitary confinement cells that pilots were held in.

Vietnamese propaganda poster from the war

Vietnamese propaganda poster from the war

Photos of pilots receiving medical care in a hospital, and a list of rules for prisoners including how they had to inform guards in the morning if they didn’t feel well, so they can get immediate treatment. John McCain did not receive any care for days for his serious injuries after being shot down; not until the Vietnamese found out his father was a four star admiral and McCain could be use for propaganda purposes.

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A video showed pilots released after the war, before returning home receiving souvenirs from officials. They looked confused as they accepted these gifts for their time in prison. I chuckled out loud at this, people looked at me like I was crazy. The video did not show the forced confessions of the pilots or how after being shot down the pilots were marched through the streets of Hanoi, being abused by people that lined the streets.

I realize that I have been subjected to my own government’s spin on the war and I have tried to keep a open mind. I also know that North Vietnamese prisoners were treated brutally by both Americans and the South Vietnamese army. Cutting through the propaganda of both countries and coming to the truth is difficult, but one thing is for certain, it was a dirty and ugly war and atrocities were committed by both sides.

Categories: SE Asia - March 2016 | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Ho Chi Minh

We arrive in Hanoi by train at 5am. Cab to the hotel, hotel lobby dark, hotel door locked. We bang on the door and wake up the staff sleeping on the lobby couch.

Our room won’t be ready until noon, so we drop our bags and head to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, as the sun rises.

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Ho Chi Minh is revered by the Vietnamese for unifying the country and fighting for the people against all invaders. He fought the Japanese, the French, the Americans and died just before his country was finally unified. Affectionately known as Bac (uncle) Ho, the Vietnamese make pilgrimages to pay their respects to his embalmed body laying in state.

Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum

We arrive as the flag ceremony is underway. Soldiers march around and the flag is raised as the national anthem is played over loud speakers. We are the only westerners I see. A large group of Vietnamese have gathered for the ceremony, many dressed in their finest clothing. Some wear the colorful knit hats of the villages in the northern hills. Many of the men wear military uniforms from The American War (what Americans call The Vietnam War), with metals hanging from their breasts.

Vietnamese in their finest

Vietnamese in their finest

After the ceremony was over, people mill about waiting for the mausoleum to open. The villagers stare at us and I stare back at them, intrigued with the men in uniform.

The woman were fixated on Helen and her blonde hair. One of the woman finally got up the courage to approach us and gestures to see if she could have a picture with us. We nod yes, and it was on. All the women rush over to have their photos taken with us, beaming and laughing. They have Helen by the arm dragging her from group to group. To say Helen was not feeling well is an understatement; it had been a long train trip the night before, but she was a good sport about it, although a little overwhelmed.

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It wasn’t long before a man in uniform and helmet approaches me, smiling, with hand outstretched. We shake hands as his buddies snap photos. Soon a group of his fellow veterans come over and I put my arms around their shoulders as their families snap away, laughing the whole time. How interesting to have my photo taken with these veterans, 40 years after our countries’ brutal war, in front of Ho Chi Minh’s final resting spot.

My new friend

My new friend

In Ho Chi Minh’s will, he requested to be cremated and his ashes placed on mountains in south, central, and northern Vietnam as a symbol of his life-long dream to unify Vietnam. But his will was not honored after his death. The new government instead went with the Lenin/Mao approach; they embalmed him and put him on display for the masses in a massive Greek-styled mausoleum.

We line up for a hour, go through numerous security checkpoints before we finally enter the mausoleum. No one speaks a word as we shuffle round the glass enclosure in which Ho Chi Minh lays. A shroud covers his body with only his face visible; His skin and his wispy beard are an unnatural color.

Ho Chi Minh is a controversial figure in history. He was reviled by Americans but is adored by the Vietnamese. One man’s revolutionary is another man’s freedom fighter. One thing is for sure, this country has come a long way since those dark days.

The Vietnamese look forward, not backwards, and old foes are now friends.

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Vietnam overnight train

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We were on the overnight train to Hanoi in a sleeper car with four bunks. We had the bottom two beds and drifted off to sleep before anyone joined us. In the middle of the night, the door opened and a couple walked in. I was out of it; I barely opened my eyes and saw a blurry vision of a young woman staring down at me. Only her eyes were visible; She wore a hat and a colorful face mask over her mouth and nose; A bizarre sight in the middle of the night. Almost all Vietnamese women wear these masks for the pollution and to keep the sun off their faces. Opposite to western views of beauty, in Vietnamese culture it is desirable for women to have pale, white skin.

She was freaking me out, at one point she sat down on the foot of my bed, still staring down at me; was I dreaming? Luckily, her husband returned with the conductor, they had the wrong room and they hurried off. Moments later, another young couple with a baby entered. She quickly tossed the baby on the bunk above me and scrambled up after with ease. The husband jumped on the bed above Helen, and despite a few loud cries from the baby, I quickly fell back asleep.

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King and Queen for a night

When Helen said, “I booked us in for a royal dinner at the hotel in Hue, not really sure what it is, but it looks a little crazy”, I was a little worried. When checking in to the hotel and they said, “For the royal dinner, come down fifteen minutes early to get dressed.” I knew it was going to be a little strange.

Procession, not the best choice of shoes

Procession, not the best choice of shoes

We walked into the dressing room and they had robes and huge hats ready for us, “you’re going to be king and queen.” We looked at each other, eyebrows raised, and smiled. We put on our royal outfits and were led through the lobby and dining room behind two flag bearers and drummers banging away. We entered a large room all decked out and were seated at the head table in front of a group of musicians. We ordered drinks as fast as possible, and the seven course dinner began as the band played traditional songs.

The band

The band

We ate, trying not laugh, as course after course arrived. It was excellent Vietnamese cuisine, but way too much. The band wrapped up as we tried to finish dessert. My goofy hat kept sliding over my eyes, I couldn’t wait to take it off.

King and Queen

King and Queen

I knew I was in for something odd, but it was actually great fun and great food. King for a night was all I needed.

Categories: SE Asia - March 2016 | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bingy-bongy

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In the early evening were walking along the narrow streets of Hoi An, Vietnam and heard live music coming from a small square. There was a band with traditional instruments and a woman, finely dressed in red, singing a song in Vietnamese. A small group of locals sat in front, listening intently. It seemed as if she was repeating words and phrases; “bingy bingy bongy bongy”. Slightly odd.

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Then she paused, reached into a small box, pulled out and then held aloft a small bamboo placard. She then went off again, singing the bingy bongy song loudly. People in the crowd excitedly waved tickets; We finally figured it out, it was Vietnamese bingo!

For the past few days now, we have had the bingy-bongy song stuck in our heads.

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Cu Chi tunnels

During the Vietnam war, the Vietcong built enormous underground tunnel systems to hide from American bombs and troops. Not only fighters, but entire villages moved underground. We visited the Cu Chi tunnels, 40 kilometers outside of Saigon.

We wandered along the paths, careful not to step off, due to unexploded ordnance, past B-52 bomb craters, trenches, and secret entrances. The hundreds of kilometers of tunnels were built with simple hand tools and ingenuity. They were multi-level including hospitals, family rooms, kitchens, all deep underground. The complex stretched all over the area including under a nearby US base, where the Vietcong stole their supplies.

Tunnel entrance

Tunnel entrance

We came to a small clearing, our guide brushed away some leaves to reveal a perfectly concealed entrance. I squeezed myself into the tiny entrance, my shoulders barely fitting, and awkwardly dropped the lid above me. I was in complete darkness. The space was enlarged from its original size, but it was still so small I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get out.

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We went underground into tunnels that had also been expanded 30% from the war years. The guide immediately took off and we had to scramble on all fours to keep up, banging heads and elbows. It was hot and claustrophobic; we only traveled a hundred meters and I couldn’t wait to get out. Brave GI’s called tunnel rats used to volunteer to venture into the tunnel alone to rout out the Vietcong. Unimaginable. Brave doesn’t even cover the heroism of these men.

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The ingenuity of the Vietcong was amazing. If the Americans used gas, they had deep rooms the gas couldn’t reach. If the Americans used water to flood them, they could divert it out into the Saigon River. When they brought sniffer dogs, the Vietcong spread stolen GI soap and spread it around secret entrances to confuse them. They even created wore their sandals backwards to hide their real tracks from the enemy and the various medieval traps they created were disturbing.

 

The Vietcong only came out after dark; the Americans owned the day; they owned the night. The hardship and sacrifices they made is something I cannot fathom. They were in it to win it, no matter what it took.

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When we came across a burned-out American tank, pock-marked with bullet holes, it really hits home. This was not a typical tourist attraction. Hundreds of both American and Vietnamese died on the ground you are walking on. They were shot, bombed, burned and buried alive under your feet. This is hallowed ground, a reminder of the hardship and brutality that both sides endured and still have to live with.

On the firing line with a AK-47

On the firing line with a AK-47

 

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Vietnam visa

Vietnam visa

Vietnam visa

We started the process of getting our Vietnam visas online but had to finish it when we landed. A group of at least twenty tourists were sitting on chairs in front of the visa window looking anxious; hmmm this may take some time.

We turned over all our paperwork, passports, and multiple extra passport photos and sat down with the crowd to wait. Oddly, enough you had to pay for the visa with American dollars, not local dong. We had plenty but several people were scrambling for cash as the money exchange was on the other side of customs but you needed a visa to to get through!
As always, Helen had everything we needed; It only took a half hour and we were on our way.

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10 million scooters

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Saigon is the city of ten million scooters; everyone owns one. The streets flow thick with them, like water in a river. They buzz around, beeping their horns in warning. If the street gets too full, they just hop onto the sidewalk and dodge around pedestrians. Traffic laws are either non existent and not enforced, stopping for traffic lights appears entirely optional.

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Entire families ride on one scooter. Mom sits side-saddle with an infant on her lap, a toddler squished between her and Dad, who is driving, with the oldest kid standing in front, between the handle bars. And only the parents have helmets on. Most American parents would have a coronary watching them shoot into heavy traffic.

Crossing the street is a trick. The locals make it look easy, without hesitation or looking, they walk out crossing diagonally, without a care in the world. We often saw tourists paralyzed on the curb unable to cross.

We stand shoulder to shoulder, getting up the nerve to make that first step. There is no break in the stream of scooters, you just have to go for it. If you walk slowly and steady at a consistent speed, the scooters flow around you like water, a two-wheeled version of fluid dynamics. As crazy as it sounds, it’s best not to look at the traffic bearing down on you.

We survived the streets of Saigon and by the time we got to Hanoi we were crossing street like locals; eyes forward.

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