The Return Trip 2000 – 9
What were we looking for on this return to Vietnam? It's hard to say. Our reasons may be as different as the five individuals we are. To see this strange and foreign place at peace rather than at war - sure that was part of it. To learn something about the people that we never really had the opportunity to come to know back them - yeah, that too. To see if they are better or worse off than they were. All of those things, but the return was probably as much about us as it was about them. In a way a try at finding what was lost here.
Struggling through the oppressive heat and humidity of Saigon, Cu Chi and Tay Ninh was even harder than I remembered. How did we ever do it? Being 22 instead of 54 was surely a help. But still, it was more oppressively hot than I remembered. There weren't any bugs though. A strong argument in favor of checking into a three star hotel instead of stretching out in a pineapple patch or rice paddy. And the roads are better. Another convincing argument, if we ever needed one, for keeping armored personnel carriers and tanks off the Interstates. But the improved roadways don't mean lower travel times. The population explosion has seen to that. Typical of many parts of the developing world the hope of jobs has brought people by the hundreds of thousands to the cities. As we noted in one of the updates Highway 1 between Saigon and the Mekong Delta is nearly wall to wall people. And so it is between Saigon and Cu Chi. And houses and shops line the roads wall to wall crowding the traffic so badly that sometimes only one out of four lanes is usable. There were some stretches of road in the mountains around Dalat with open countryside and the area near Tay Ninh was a lot the way we remembered it once you got away from the main road and the town itself. But with the explosive population growth it seems like that won't last for long.
Cramming 77 million people into an area smaller than California is quite a feat. They have a ways to go. Electricity seems to be everywhere but sufficient sewer capacity is not - especially around the cities. So some of the houses look better than they did 30 years ago - solid brick and mortar structures instead of grass thatched hootches - but the quality of life looks worse. None of us recalls a lot of litter during the war. Now it is everwhere. It is so bad that it seems there must be a national campaign to cover the entire landscape with plastic bags until the soil itself is tinged light blue. Maybe that's what comes with greater prosperity. In the old days even something as trifling as a plastic bag was a prized possession that was used over and over again, never finding its way into the rubbish heap. Now they are cheap and plentiful and are strewn across the landscape everywhere you look.
And TV. Everybody has a TV. Even those remaining grass hootches have a TV antenna sprouting out of them. Still no real basic services like hospitals, ambulances and fire protection. A fact that was driven home today when one of the Cyclo drivers we've befriended had an eplipetic seizure. No calling 911. Got epilepsy? Learn to live with it. It's not that people are insensitive. Far from it. As the seizure came on him this morning his buddies rushed to his side to hold him. It was partly to keep him from hurting himself but also a demonstration of true compassion as they stroked his hair and comforted him through the worst of the spasms. Maybe the authorities can start thinking about a health care system now.
There are some encouraging signs though -- like the orphanage we visited. A real grass roots project that, fortunately, gets foreign support. A neat and tidy place with enough staff to make a difference in the lives of the children in their care. They do so well in fact that five "graduates" of the orphanage have gone on to college and technical careers. Not a bad track record.
So that's a thumbnail impression of them. What about us?
Rick Everett probably said it best. He said we had come full circle. That coming back and seeing the few places we still had access to and could remember seemed to be like closing a chapter of our lives. We all seemed to agree that the trip had left us feeling different, more resolved. That there was no longer a sense of unfinished business in the backs of our minds. The emotions are still there, sure. Strong ones. They'll always be there. But seeing the landscape again and seeing the changes that have taken place has reinforced the sense that the war is long past. The Vietnam we left is hardly here anymore and with each passing year more and more of it disappears. More than anything else this trip has reminded us all that for us Vietnam wasn't just a place. It was also a time and that time is gone.
We've enjoyed the trip back. Better travelling companions would be very hard to find. I hope you've enjoyed coming along with us.
My largest fear of returning to Vietnam (other than the long flight) was the hatred that would be demonstrated by the Vietnamese toward Americans. I was anticipating the animosity and resentment of our presence. I found just the opposite to be true. I was always treated with respect and given the utmost courtesy. The thing that amazed me the most was the honesty of the people. With the exchange rate the way it was, we Americans could have been easily taken advantage of. When something was left behind, they would immediately come after us to return it.
I found that although there were emotional moments, like Hoc Mon, Tay Ninh, & Nui Ba Dinh, there were also tender moments like the orphanage, and our interaction with the Vietnamese people. It appears that they are actually better off today than 30 some years ago. They are able to go to most places at will if they desire and appear to be at peace.
Although I always stated that I thought Viet Nam was a beautiful country, I had seen only a part of it and that part was probably the least attractive of all. As we traveled north to Da Lat and Nha Trang, we saw the really gorgeous parts. These areas are the parts that make you have a desire for a return trip, again. I will admit though, that upon yet another return trip, I would prefer to stay north.
I would like to say that although I had contemplated a return trip for many years, without the Manchus making it possible and Willy making it happen, I might never have made the trip. The five of us covered a time span in Vietnam from 1966-1970. We five Manchus, from a fraternity, stronger than any found on any college campus, came together from different walks of life and different parts of the country to become brothers. We came the first time as soldiers. This time we came back as Manchus, and departed as friends for life
Once again I have to thank Bob "Willy" Dixson for making this all happen.
If your going to Nam be sure to take these guys with you, Willy will plan you an excellant time and worry about your entire trip just like your mother, but he'll let you do things your mother wouldn't. Then there's LJ with his odd sense of humor, he can get more out of people he can't communicate with him , to shed some light on what your seeing and where your at then anyone can. Of course with Larry Ward theres no question left unasked nor any chance you'll go hungry. His noble attempts to organize us were futile to say the least. thanks Larry I gained 10 pounds because of your dietary demands. Of course then theres Rick who's still in awe over how Vietnamese know how to relax. I think the 4 of us can assure you if anyone knows how to relax it's Rick. The most layed back person i've ever met. He could usually be found at the rear of our formation talking with anyone around young old or in between and always smiling and saying "I'm fine". All in all a great group of guys to travel with and a trip I would reccommend to anyone who likes to travel. you'll never see more beautiful scenery or more smiling faces than you'll see in vietnam.
I guess what I have to say may be disputable guys, but the bad memories are in your mind not in vietnam. I saw everything I saw 30 years ago again, the rice paddies, thatched huts, wrinkled up little old people (no beetlenut), beautiful happy kids, and had absolutely no bad feelings. As a tourist I felt very welcome and very safe anywhere and at all times.
Besides here I had to fix my own coffee and my wife refuses to iron my underware and put them on a hanger.
As I think about the trip back to Vietnam after 32 years. I know that it was something that I had to do. First of all I know that the time was right and that the people I went with were the right ones. We had a good group of guys and we all had the time we were there before in common and were all there for our own reasons. I would like to thank each one of them for making the trip as good as it was.Willy thanks for all the planning of the trip if it was not for you we would not have seen all that we did and the trip would not have been as good as it was. Larry James thanks to you and your way with words you made the trip a picture for us. Larry Ward thanks to you we were able to see the people side of it all and because of your thoughtfulness of giving something back to the children. Terry Thompson thanks for just being the great person you are and helping us to see the fun side of the trip.
Now for want the trip meant to me. It was a time that I could put all my thoughts of the past too rest and see that things are good for the people of Vietnam. ( if communism is ever good). Also that the country is a very beautiful place and we got to see a lot of it. I guess that the places that meant the most to me were Cu Chi and Tay Ninh. At Cu Chi after the tunnels we went to a temple that is a memorial for the Vietnamese soldiers that died in all of there wars. If you walk out on the back of the temple it looks out on the area that was known as the Iron Triangle. As I stood there and looked out over that big area the thought was in my mind that I had walked in that area before. It was good and helped to put the past to rest. Now for the Tay Ninh area we went to the Black Virgin Mountain and that was great to see. I guess that of all the things you remember the most it is that mountain. But now they have a cable car that you can take half way up. We got on the cable car and on the trip up and down you are alone with your thoughts and a view of the land and again I know that I had been there before. There are so many more things I could say about the trip because It was one of the best I was ever on.
To share this trip with the guys I went with and to share it with other Manuchus makes it that much better. I guess that the thing I miss the most is the cold towel that they give you about every time you went to eat. I think that is great. ( Larry J. why don't you see if you can get that done at the reunion.)
My last thought here goes back to what my dad always told me "Time takes care of everything" Time has healed the hurt of war on a small country like Vietnam. The land shows very few scars of war. The people all seem very happy and live there lives as they best know how. We Americans are able to talk about and go on with our lives. As for me time has helped.