My earliest memory of the Vietnam war remains starkly vivid. I was at my best friend Murphy’s house eating luke warm Campbell’s Tomato Soup for lunch. We spent the morning playing Mystery Date and arguing whether the Prom date or the Beach date was better. Typical day in the late 60’s for a couple of young kids. As we sat eating, Murphy’s mom looked out the window and suddenly starting screaming. She slumped onto the floor shaking and crying. I was completely confused and ran to Murphy’s older sister who was now also crying. “Why are you crying? What’s wrong?” She silently pointed out the window. Two young Marine officers in formal uniform were walking up the driveway. Bill, Murphy’s older brother, was dead.
Almost 50 years later, I’m thinking of Bill as I step off the plane in Ho Chi Minh City – Saigon.
Eleven million people. Seven million scooters. Skyscrapers mixed with traditional vendors selling bahn mi sandwiches wearing iconic Vietnamese nón lá or leaf hats. Rich and poor. New and old. A city that is prospering from an evolving form of Communism which allows for some private business along side government operated entities. While only an hour flight from Bangkok, it feels quite different. More English. Less hierarchy. More assertive and straight forward. More serious. Scratch just a little and you will find a complex people who have lived a history of sacrifice and resiliency.
Take Tiger. A tour operator for the last 16 years, he is our guide as we cycle 25 miles on rural roads outside of Saigon to the Cu Chi Tunnels (tunnels used and expanded by the Northern-allied Viet Cong) toward the Cambodian border. He explains to us that while the Americans called it the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese called it the American Invasion, and the South Vietnamese called it the Civil War. His family was a “black” family – sympathetic to the South. His mother had been a Catholic nun, but left the nunnery to become a lawyer. When Saigon fell in 1975, theIr family home had been raided and they were forced to flee into central Vietnam. All of his extended family decided to leave Vietnam and became “boat people”. The lucky ones ended up in the US and Canada – the rest died en route. For a fleeting moment, his eyes harden as he tells the story.
We park our bikes in front of a random war memorial – pad locked shut and overgrown with weeds. We cross the street for a sugarcane drink called nước mía. Sitting down to rest and visit, a bunch of kids crowd around to stare and smile at us. Our friend Tim who is especially out-going, starts “talking” with the kids and taking goofy pictures. Tiger talks and laughs and points out the family members running the business. Mom and Dad are cooking. Children are playing while Grandma is casually keeping an eye on things. We are the event on this lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon. Returning to our bikes, Tiger points to the memorial and says “Many Viet Cong were killed in this spot. The families that still live here, they lost their fathers and mothers.” I glance back at the family we just met.
We cycle into a huge Rubber Tree forest. Tiger motions for us to park and shows us how rubber is drained from the trees much like Maple syrup. We learn that the rubber trade with China has tailed off because of the recent land dispute over islands in the Vietnam Sea – or South China Sea depending on who you talk to. As he peddles ahead, he calls back, “Ask your American soldier friends if they remember the Michelin Forest”. In the quiet darkness of the forest, it’s hard to imagine a battle here.
We stop at the Viet Cong War cemetery. Like all war cemeteries it’s laid out with perfect symmetry and identical headstones. Unlike others I have been to, it not only includes men, but woman and children. Tiger talks about other groups he has led. American Veterans that come back to Vietnam with a personal history. Before each tour, he finds out the story of each man. He says, “sometimes you must be quiet and let them remember. I always tell them that the woman and children were part of the Viet Cong Army. That in the game of war that the leaders created, they were the pawns that had to choose to kill or be killed. They need to know this.”
We arrive at the tunnels. Tiger reminds us that this is a memorial for the Viet Cong. We are going to see history from the perspective of the North. Our tunnel guide’s grandfather had been a VC soldier. He and his family had lived in these tunnels. It was the only safe place to be in the midst of a war, where agent orange had defoliated the landscape in an attempt to uncover the hideouts. But these were scrappy people. Men, women and children participated in the war. The tunnels, no wider than 2 feet in some spots, are a network that spans for miles. Offices, hospitals and living quarters were hidden under the earth and protected by bombs and boobie traps on the surface. Our guide maneuvered through the network of tunnels like an agile cat. Our Western bodies struggled to simply fit. But down we went. Hands and knees. Cleaned up for tourists, we didn’t have to endure mud, snakes, rats, human waste or tear gas. The story here of survival is raw and real. Old tires made into shoes. Traps made from bamboo. Landmines made from undetonated US bombshells. These people were survivors. They were able to endure the impossible.
We crawl out of the tunnels – three points of a triangle. The North, the South, the West. We laugh and talk, enjoying the walk back to our bikes along a lush and green jungle path. The moment is lovely and pure. The memory of war woven into the history of each of our lives. Forgiveness and healing. The moment is peace.