A Taste of Vietnam

16 Jun 2001
Fly to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam.

On the plane I was actually nervous. It had been a long time since I'd traveled anywhere "difficult," and Vietnam had a very mixed reputation amongst other travelers I'd chatted with. Besides that, isn't it communist? Sadly enough, even after all the time on the road I couldn't shake my American roots and just the word itself had me edgy.

So in a way, it was a bit of a letdown to be whisked through the airport with just the usual amount of fuss, no more, no less, and then all to quickly to find myself on the curb amongst the usual airport banditry, taxi drivers.

Thirty minutes of arguing later I was wishing for a bit more communism and little less capitalism but I finally escaped paying only the pittance of dong listed on the meter and not the US$5 the driver insisted would be, "Better for you, better for me..."

 
A Saigon cafe.
Pham Ngu Lao quickly dispelled any notion that Vietnam was going to be difficult. Wall-to-wall guesthouses, travel agencies and internet cafes, I quickly checked in, logged on, and booked my bus ticket out. With business taken care of I settled into a beach chair at a sidewalk cafe and indulged in an almost forgotten vice, Vietnamese iced coffee!

The coffee is ground practically to soot, and then allowed to slow drip through a filter at your table. In the course of a meal an inch or two of coffee accumulates over a dollop of sweetened condensed milk, this is then stirred together and tossed over ice for desert, absolutely lovely! I've been far too long in the land of Nescafe.

17 Jun 2001
A bit of a wander around the streets of Saigon.

The gloves and mask are for sun protection, not a bank job.

My favorite way to get to know a new city is to just get out and walk. Little did I know that in Vietnam walking is apparently a forbidden activity for tourists, as every single moto driver who passed insisted on stopping and trying to give me a lift somewhere, anywhere, for a price...

I'm not sure what I expected, but this isn't it. In a downpour a shopkeeper invites me in his store just to chat an refresh his English. As the rain drenches the streets we talk of my travels and his family in the states, he mentions the "American War" several times before I realize exactly what he means. When the rain abates he bids me farewell and cautions me against the mercenary tendencies of his countrymen.

Good coffee, good bread, and lots of people wearing jeans and t-shirts with traditional cone-shaped straw hats. My first impressions of Vietnam are of the things I miss and of a surreal swirl of old and new, east and west.

18 Jun 2001
All day bus ride to the coastal town of Nha Trang.

From my guidebook I was expecting a quiet little town with a few bungalows strewn down the beach, instead I find high-rise hotels, dive shops aplenty, and a Ferris wheel. It's time to bin the bogus guidebook.

19-20 Jun 2001
Begin my PADI IDC Staff Instructor course.

The course is a repeat of the IDC I did to gain my initial certification as a scuba instructor. But this time, I audit the course and learn how to score the candidate presentations. It is the first step down the road towards being a course director (instructor trainer), and when finished I'll be able to independently train and certify assistant instructors.

21-27 Jun 2001

Resitting the classroom sessions is an exercise in staying awake, but the water work is fun. Candidates act as students and are assigned "problems" to have in order to evaluate the would-be instructors response. I evaluate these presentations and by the end of the IDC my scores have to be within a certain margin of the course director's.

28 Jun 2001
I get a day off to go diving while the candidates are busy studying.

On jumping in my first thought was, hey! where's all the fish? But as I followed my guide around he began pointing out lots of nudibranchs and eels. It was quite enjoyable and I even ended up spotting some fish species I'd never seen before. The area has clearly been over fished, but the reefs are healthy and the life diverse, a lot of potential for future diving once they get the area protected.

29-30 2001
The instructor candidates have their IE, and I am taking the exam to become a Tec Deep Instructor (PADI/DSAT's new technical diving program). The candidates all passed, but I am still waiting to here how I did. The exam I took has something like a 70% failure rate, but I think I managed to squeak through.

1 Jul 2001
Recover from last nights post-IE celebration and (aptly enough) take a PADI sponsored risk management seminar.

2 Jul 2001
A final farewell stroll through Nha Trang and then an overnight bus back to Saigon.

3 Jul 2001
A visit to the War Crimes Museum.

We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain way.
--Robert McNamara
(From the preface of In Retrospect - The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam)

7,850,00 tons of bombs of all kinds were dropped over Vietnam plus 75,000,000 liters of defoliants (including dioxins) that were sprayed over farmlands, forests, and villages. In comparison, only 2,057,244 tons of bombs were dropped by the US in all of WW II.

In North Vietnam bombs and bullets destroyed or heavily damaged 2,923 school buildings, 1,850 hospitals, 484 churches, and 465 temples.

Nearly 3 million Vietnamese were killed and 4 million others injured while 58,000 American soldiers died.

(Information taken from museum brochure)

I was eight when on April 30, 1975 Saigon fell and the last few Americans scurried across the embassy roof to be evacuated by helicopter. I have no memory of it. My thoughts and feelings about the war were shaped by soporific history classes and the intoxicating but fickle winds of popular culture.

The museum is a collection of captured American arms, tanks, planes, and bombs all cataloged according to their destructive capacity and area of use. It's one thing to read about war, quite a different thing to slap the side of the bomb casing and hear the dull unechoing thud.

In a world teeming with information there is still no better aid to understanding than being in a place. Seeing, smelling, breathing, feeling. The accompanying photo gallery could have been located anywhere, and I'm sure many of the images are familiar to those better connected to the era. But the tear that rolled down my face landed on Vietnamese soil, and at the time that somehow seemed important.

4 Jul 2001
A visit to Cu Chi, a 200km (120mi) network of underground tunnels just an hour from Saigon. During the war Vietnamese guerillas built a virtual underground city here from which to mount an offensive on Saigon.

The US declared Cu Chi a free-fire zone and 50,000 tons of bombs of bombs were dropped but despite this and other concerted attempts to root them out the guerillas continued to operate and gave the Vietnamese an element of surprise in attacking Saigon.

A small section of the tunnels has been cleaned and enlarged to accommodate tourists and there is a large display on booby traps and pitfalls. To the Vietnamese it stands as a proud testament to their long and difficult struggle.

Oddly enough, there were no fireworks.

5 Jul 2001
Bus to Phnom Phen, Cambodia (aka Kampuchea).

This trip has been much more about getting away from Thailand for a bit than seeing Vietnam. I've really only gotten a glimpse and as with all such glimpses, it's raised more questions than it's answered


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