|This week finds Vietnam in the midst of celebrations. Saturday is the 30th anniversary of the liberation of Saigon - the end of 16 years of civil war and 21 years of division. (The length of the war is debatable, sporadic attacks on the south began a few years earlier; the Americans officially entered the war ten years later, but that is also debatable.)
However, Vietnam is still very much two countries, in soul if not body.
Our first impressions of this country were the result of our second day here, spent with a South Vietnamese veteran who had worked with the US army. As he said himself, "We needed the Americans but we did not like them." It is admittedly a limited viewpoint but this man's story told us more about Vietnam then and now than any book could have.
He was bringing us to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) - where north and south Vietnam faced each other across no-man's land. At the age of 20 he had fought here for a time and was reluctant to return to the site of his brother's death. He confided in us that he only works as a guide in the DMZ when his family needs the money - too many painful memories haunt him. Too many friends died.
You can imagine our disquiet when this 57 year old man actually shed tears in memory of the friends and family he has lost to this war. As his lower lip trembled in the effort to maintain his dignity the tears showed no such restraint, and he looked away in shame. Three decades on his wounds remain fresh.
This man was paid $5,000 a month for the seven years he worked for the US. He paid the Laotian hill tribes a few hundred dollars for information pertaining to the movements of the Viet Cong. The vast supplies of cigarettes, tined food and ice-cream brought into the country by the US provided another source of income with their inflated resale prices, as did the aerial photographs he took from his helicopter reconnaissance missions between Vietnam and Laos. The BBC paid him $2,000 for his shots of war time Vietnam - unbeknown to any of his superiors! All of this money was lodged safely in his bank in Saigon.
Losing the war was never a consideration.
Getting sick, however, was. Malaria was a godsend for the soldiers - it meant at least a month away from the chaos and conflict - and they would deliberately not take preventative medication. Our guide contracted this potentially fatal disease three times - and had the honour of meeting Bob Hope while recuperating aboard a US ship his second time round!
Drink and drugs were another means of diminishing the pain with opium the drug of choice. They simply needed to be crazy - the reality was too harsh to handle without the aid of sense muffling inebriants. The guide gave a wry little laugh as he related the recent fate of Vietnamese drug smugglers who received the death penalty for importing 40 kg of opium from Laos. This would not have lasted long at the Captain Carroll base where each Saturday the soldiers were treated to a live strip show.
Nothing remains of this base now but a single bunker and the tattered remnants of the camouflaged sandbags. A concrete slab warns locals not to dismantle it for the iron reinforcements inside, as has happened to other bunkers. As he spoke of the 200 helicopters filling the sky above us, vague scenes of war movies flittered through my mind. It was here that Captain Carroll met his demise. According to our guide book he was trying to seize a nearby ridge. However, our guide who was actually there says this famed Marine Corps captain was killed while making himself a cup of coffee outside! Our guide was asleep under a tank at the time. He was uncomfortable here - this bunker doesn't officially exist anymore according to the government guides and he was worried that the army would come and, "Make trouble for me."
The area around the base is now a state run rubber and pepper plantation and we were astounded by the freshly dug holes where the locals had been searching for any vestiges of metal. Anything that could be sold. Locals will find unexploded ordinance, saw them open and remove the gun powder - for $2.
The most dramatic reminder of the endurance of the Vietnamese people against the persistent bombardment by the US was our visit to the Vinh Moc tunnels. These tunnels were originally begun by civilians seeking safety from the B52 bombs and 17 babies were born in the underground delivery room. Three stories of hand dug tunnels run for 2.8 km and feature 12 hidden entrances, numerous air holes and even deeper bomb shelters (26 meters under the ground). Only one bomb posed a serious threat to this particular maze of tunnels - the drilling bomb. But only once were they directly hit and the bomb failed to detonate. Ever resourceful the gaping hole was adapted into an air shaft. The openings are supported by wooden beams but once you descend into the tunnels the corridors are simply carved from the cool red earth. Every few meters a room would open to the side where whole families would sleep.
Located on the coast it was not long before the VC began to make use of these tunnels and their convenience to the Con Co Island. Night time supply runs to the island would replenish food and ammunition stores, though 90% of those who attempted such operations would not survive.
It was a strange experience to wander through this warren, the perfect height for little old me but not quite so comfortable for Tony! Neon signs direct you throughout and wax models help to visualize how many people could fit into such confined spaces. Steps lead from one level to another and tiny openings to the side are the entrance to the bomb shelters. Such structures are found throughout the country - some were built by poorly equipped villagers and were unable to survive the onslaught of shells, entire villages died underground. Others were immensely elaborate and ran for hundreds of kilometers. All are equally surreal.
We stopped for lunch on our way back to Hue and our conversation with our guide was a real eye opener for us. He spoke of his disillusionment with the US government. "They would never have left if we had oil." Having been such a wealthy young man he remains bitter that the newly installed Communist government stripped him of all his possessions - his money and his home. If he had realized the war was to end he could have sent his money out of the country but it just never occurred to him.
Following the end of the war and the 'liberation' of Saigon he spent two and a half years in a re-education camp (or prison camp, depending upon your loyalties). Here, while been fed minimally and receiving no medical aid, his job was to clear landmines. Despite the war being over he had many more friends to lose. When he was released he had no money and no home and he decided to flee the country like so many others. Our guide was an attempted boat person - one of thousands who took to the sea in rickety boats in the hope of finding refuge across the water. He didn't get very far. Their boat was shot at and 25 of the 30 passengers arrested. He managed to escape or no doubt he would have returned to the reeducation camp. Even today he has refused jobs as a guide for communist owned restaurants. He fears he would say the wrong thing and his wife would be left without his support.
For nineteen years he worked as a cyclo driver - those who fought on the wrong side were, and are, denied jobs with the state. Even their children pay the price today. He lived in a bamboo hut until last year when his church paid for his small concrete home to be built. He still has no electricity. Only last year, aged 56, did he succeed in buying himself a second hand motorbike. He regrets the fact he cannot support his three children, two of whom work on the building sites in Saigon for $4 a day. He would love to leave the country he fought so desperately to maintain but has resigned himself to his fate. He would dearly love to open a clean, cheap restaurant with his wife but we all knew this was but a dream.
But he faces the future optimistically. He recognizes the gradual change in his governments approach to the outside world and hopes that freedom of movement and discourse will return to his people. After his past and present he has to hope that his children and grandchildren face a brighter future.
Just out of interest, some engravings we have seen on war lighters:
If I had a farm in Vietnam
And my home in hell
I'd sell my farm
And go home instead.
Or my personal favourite. I think it pretty much sums up the war:
We are the unwilling
Led by the unqualified
Doing the unnecessary
For the ungrateful.