As I mentioned in the last blog, think of Vietnam and we think of the US / Vietnam war of 1960s/70s. Sweaty jungles and muddy faced soldiers. But I don’t know my history and I also want to look into the war for myself. We watched ‘full metal jacket’ on a YouTube clip (no Vietnam films on Netflix here) from the US perspective but have struggled to find anything from the Vietnamese point of view. Best to try find out for ourselves then.
Sad to leave Hoi An we take a train to Hue, site of some of the worst fighting in the war during the ‘Tet offensive’ and time for us to open the box of ‘Nam stories through a war witness tour. I must admit I did not know what the Tet offensive was. Or indeed almost any other thing about the conflict. We have booked on a Vietnam war site tour with a ‘war witness’ a man called Mr Duy who was not a soldier but lived through the times. He will meet us in the morning so we have half a day to explore Hue (pronounced Huhway).
In one Hue cafe we see how another man has witnessed the changing country – and photographed it. In Mandarin cafe, Mr Cu the photographer who greets us there and talks about his pictures on the walls, has spent his life taking stills of Vietnamese life. They are great. Not to mention the ‘Bun Bo Hue’, amazing local noodle pork dish. I buy a picture of a farmer driving a badling of ducks down a river for my parents wedding anniversary – 40years bless ‘em, they spent guiding our own little Bateson flock on the right path.
We visit Hue Imperial palace but it’s rainy and Helens lost her sunnies and so it feels like a quick whizz round the regal ‘Thai room’ with throne, and ornate ‘mandarin rooms’ with gold leaf pillars and we are back at the hotel early night eager for the tour tomorrow. The gardens were lovely and calm though and belie the violent past here.
The diminutive Mr Duy is amiable and articulate and instantly likable. He picks us up and begins our history lesson right away, telling us about the Tet offensive in Hue as we drive to his own home village of Dong Ha around 45mins north. 16years old during the war, he grew up to be a teacher in Saigon, he aptly taps a map on the wall in his office with a long cane. ‘I am a war witness and there will not be many of us left soon’.
I learn quickly. The original war was between the communist north and capitalist south of Vietnam, divided by the natural border of the Ben Hai river. Ho Chi Minh, leader of NVA (North Vietnamese Army) dreamed of reunification, the US supported the south enough to step into the Vietnam civil officially in 1965.
We are to tour the DMZ, a 10k wide strip of land straddling the river border and stretching from the Laos border in the west to the Vietnamese coast on the east. Supposedly a ‘de-militarized zone’ largely flouted by both sides during the war. Mr Duy points to it on his map.
Strolling out into Dong Ha the town was the site of an American base, an old gravelly aircraft hangar tucked up a side street the only reminder. But Mr Duy remembers the bombs and the soldiers and the Main Street being an airstrip and the American GIs who saved his motorbike for him. He remains balanced and neutral and informative throughout the day, despite perhaps having some good reasons to be bitter.
A short drive and we reach the ‘Rock Pile’ a craggy hilltop outcrop that served as a US observation post and in the misty middle distance; ‘Camp Carroll’, a famous US base the scene of a dramatic unexpected evacuation by a south Vietnamese commander.
At Cam Lo, on Da Krong Bridge there is small monument that states this is the start of the famous Ho Chi Minh trail, and the road leads off one way to ‘Hamburger Hill’ of Nam film fame, and off into the Asha valley the other. The trail was essentially a supply route for the north to the south, bypassing the DMZ by detouring through Laos. In an attempt to halt the flow of supplies and food and troops on this trail the US dropped more bombs in Laos in 1973 than they did anywhere at during the whole of WWII, but even so they could not keep tabs on it. This intricate network of jungle paths is largely attributed to be a winner of the war for the north. With local knowledge and support, the NVA adept in natural surroundings could move freely and effectively. Getting on and making the best. Moving forward.
Up high on a lonely hill we visit Khe San American base which was overrun in a bloody battle in 1968.
Starkly local hawkers sell bullets and buttons and zippos found since in the ground. The place is strange and there are echoes of ghosts in the small trenches and the damp air. A huge B-52 bomber left over sits solemnly and rusted tanks stood quiet and still now rest here too. The view here is immense and we feel quite small and consider the futility of war.
Civilians it seems are always the unwilling victims and though the history lesson is interesting and brilliant as we descend the underground tunnels at Vinh Moch I am a little war weary. It all seems so harsh and pointless and scarily recent. My parents were getting together while these villagers were building a life underground to avoid the bombs. Bombs from the NVA up to 1972, then from the south after, meant he villagers spent 18 hours a day underground to avoid them. It is impressive and another example of the spirit of people here. To get on and to move forward. A vast dim damp network of tunnels in the earth with rooms and storage and even a maternity hospital at one point. Nineteen people were born down here. It’s hard to imagine them as inhabited but they were, and me and Helen have gone quite quiet. It’s hard.
A short drive to our final stop and we reach the river border and the ‘freedom bridge’ built between the north and south to celebrate unification. There is a flag and monument on the north, then the bridge itself, painted half in the colours of the north and half in the south colours; and a sculpture of waiting mothers for soldiers to return on the south bank; of course many never did.
Mr Duy says the country is still recovering and gives examples. He asks in his best teacher tone ‘have we learnt anything from the past?’
Interestingly we are here almost 40years to the day the war ended for good. A war where US backed troops were fighting Chinese and Russian backed armies. And also on the same week that US, UK and French forces voted to take military action in Syria, against another Russian backed army.
My Duy again says the country here is still recovering, indeed at an impromptu stop this is quite telling. In the mass of thin white war graves in the NVA Alpha 3 cemetery there are some solitary headstones of soldiers who have not been identified bearing the inscription ‘chua biet ten’ meaning ‘not yet known’. Grieving families wait in hope for any remains to turn up for the names to be added. For all the moving forward and getting on in Vietnam; here there is a tangible hangover still in the air. Rightly so Mr Duy talks proudly of;
⁃ A government programme to help orphans of the war to join university for free
⁃ A series of US veteran programmes rebuilding rural Vietnamese schools and communities
⁃ A massive cross nation land mine recovery effort between Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam
In the car back I wonder: what will become of the Syrian orphan refugees who remain homeless? Will there be a programme of veterans working in Iraq in 30years time? When will the western business world stop arming foreign militaries? When is it ok to ‘step in’ or not, and what do you do, if you do?
War; what is it good for ?