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.
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.
|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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