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The International Writers Magazine: Hacktreks in Asia

Viet Nam
• Fred C. Wilson III

I’ve been a fan of the Far East since I was a boy. Having San Francisco as a birth city does that. I took my first date to Chinatown. ‘The World of Suzie Wong’ bolstered my boyhood love for Asian culture either after I saw it in ‘59. I’ve spent 12 consecutive summers in the Orient until money got tight. My Asian-American wife vacations there biannually.


Touring ‘The Nam’ was on my Bucket List though as tourist and not toting an M16 whilst humping some rice paddy. I took my soon-to-be-married stepson along with me for a five day excursion. We left one early afternoon from Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) via Air Vietnam non-stop to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The airport was named after Philippine hero-senator Beniguo ‘Ninoy’ Aqunio whose short life ended in a hail of gunfire in 1982 for his anti-Marcos political views.

The Air Vietnam flight between two world’s one capitalist and nominally Christian the other hard core communistic and atheistic was a quiet ride that lasted little over an hour. Our plane landed at Ton Son Nhat International Airport. I had an eerie feeling when I saw the original American gun emplacements and spray painted peace symbols on concrete jet blast guards. Left there by the departing American troops, this scene will remain forever etched in my brain. There were other telltale signs that Kilroy was indeed here. I was transported back to the bygone days of my younger years.

After we deplaning our flight filed through Vietnamese Customs. The officers were a laid back lot. They were more interested in making time with a fellow soldier, a stunningly attractive woman warrior who was all giggles as she pretended to fight off their advances. She was a Miss Saigon in uniform. They were over her like a swarm of bees near honey. The woman was grinning from ear-to-ear basking in the attention she got. The customs officials quickly waved us through but continued to pester the girl. Once we got our luggage we left the building and headed towards the parking lot. We were met by Mr. Du who and his assistant. They served as our eyes and ears in Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) started out as a small township in the early part of the 17th century. The area was once a swampy marsh surrounded by thick forests. Saigon or Sai Con was named after the Khmer wor Prei Kor or the Kapok Tree. The name Saigon stuck after Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu, an early Vietnamese court official, sent Mr. Nguyen Huu Canh to the current city site to set things up. In 1698 Saigon was incorporated as a city. Because of its strategic location for trade, commerce and the military in time it became the bustling metropolis of over 5,000,000 people we know today. Dubbed by the foreign press as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ Saigon changed hands in 1883 when France, aided by Spain seized city and country from its rightful rulers and that’s where trouble started.

During World War II Saigon and was occupied by Japan. After Japan’s defeat, the British restored the country back to French control. In 1946 Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Vietnam’s independence and war ensued. The war ended in 1954 when Ho Chi Minh’s forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap beat the shit out of France’s finest (Foreign Legion) in the climatic and ultra-bloody battle of Dien Bien Phu. France lost 20,000 men who were either killed or wounded. Most of the defeated Legionnaires died from brutal treatment in communist prison camps. All was quiet despite the split that divided the country in two separate halves; the communist north and nominally democratic south. The city again changed hands in 1975 after it fell to the victorious Reds. Shortly after Saigon’s fall and Reunification, the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the Vietnam’s hero-of-heroes.

The ride through was an experience unique only to Viet Nam; the fast moving traffic of bicycles, mopeds, and motorcycles driven by young guys with their cute girlfriends on back. The few automobiles were largely taxicabs, rental cars for tourists and or public officials. Ordinary folk traveled by bicycle, motorcycles, or simply walked as we did after we settled in our hotel. Rarely ever did we see people dressed in traditional garb.
Bikers Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, like Manila on the other side of the South China Sea, is a ‘young’ city; a city of ‘20 Somethings.’ Both sexes wore casual Western style clothing. The men slacks with short sleeve shorts and sneakers. The women shorts, jean cutoffs, tight jeans, shorts, and slacks. A few older people sported a more traditional garb. The only Ao Dai (traditional floor length dress) made popular from Vietnam War movies were worn by the female staff in our hotel, at an art gallery we visited, and behind the Air Vietnam desk on the day of our departure.

Oscar Saigon Hotel The Oscar Saigon Hotel centrally located was small as hotels went. This gave the place a sense of intimacy that reminded me of those classy hotels I’ve seen in British movies of the 1930’s. Despite its’ smallness the Oscar had a massage parlor, a café, disco, karaoke bar, restaurant, two first floor café-bars which provided ‘entertainment’ of a more intimate nature and a friendly staff; it was a cozy and comfortable place the kind you fantasize about. If I had the money the Oscar would be the kind of place I’d buy in a heartbeat though I can’t see myself living in Vietnam.

This small hotel was ideal; a true home away from home. During our entire stay the only time I felt like a stranger were from some French tourists; talking about a snooty bunch… but that’s another story. There’s a universal rule among hotel staff; politeness. The folks at the Oscar gave ample demonstration of this maxim. We were never at the receiving end of any displays of anti-Americanism common in many countries. Ho Chi Minh City appeared to have gone out of their way to make our stay a very pleasant one.

My step-son and I went for a long walk to ‘check out’ the neighborhood. We stayed within sight of the hotel making doubly sure we wouldn’t get lost. We couldn’t help but notice how clean the place was. I abhor dirt. I wash my hands at least 15 times daily like the star on that TV show Monk. Most of the French colonial styled building appeared old and very lived in. I felt that I wasn’t a stranger as I mingled among the people. I took a lot of shots with my pocket Nikon; rule of thumb; whenever in a foreign country NEVER LOOK LIKE A TOURIST. Being over dressed (loud Hawaiian shirts, colorful baseball caps, micro-mini skirts, tank tops, and the like) would more than likely raise more than a few heads. Like sharks on blood trail anticipating a feeding frenzy, looking like a tourist could sometimes have dire consequences.

Vietnam is a tropical country; it’s hot, especially summers. When we returned I showered and hung up my stuff. I felt like a new man! I felt great! After a brief respite I took out my notebook and logged the day.

The next day was July 5th my wife and I would have been married another year. It’s our custom to attend religious services on birthdays and wedding anniversaries. That day was no different. I called her after breakfast. I didn’t want to wake my stepson as he slept on the next bed. I rose quietly, showered, got dressed, took my camera, and quietly crept out of the room for the darkness outside. It was 5:00AM. Here in Chicago people just don’t go outside at 5 o’clock mornings for fear of getting jacked or mugged. In Ho Chi Minh City the streets was packed with people. There were vendors selling food from curb-side grills, people going to work, old people in the public park across the street doing Tai Chi exercises, and some simply walking.

The church was blocks from the Oscar. I walked past a rickshaw stand. The drivers descended on me in a very friendly way trying to solicit my business and carry me to church. I could never let another human drive me around like I ran the place; to me its’ demeaning; one of the drivers followed me. I politely told him that I prefer walking. He persisted in walking along trading me word-for-word in perfect ‘Chicagoese’ why he wanted my business. He seemed like a nice guy. I ended up paying him something just for the company. Like this guy never shut up. He had an extraordinary sense of humor, spoke street talk faster than I did, and volunteered to pick me up after Mass. I told him I’d ‘say one (prayer) for him’ and politely thanked him.

NotreDame Vietnam Ho Chi Minh City’s Catholic cathedral of Notre Dame is situated in front of a small public square. The park’s center had a large statue of the Blessed Weeping Virgin Mary standing on a marble pedestal. At night the statue was lit up with brightly colored lights. The cathedral was across the street facing the park. Next to the church was a block long religious book store that sold all sorts of religious items that ranged from rosaries, bibles, CD’s, tapes, books, and sacred objects used by the clergy.

The Liturgy started at 5:30 and was sung in it’s entirety by the presiding priest. What was odd about the place was when I greeted one of the nun’s she smiled, quickly turned her head away from me, and nearly bolted from the church as if afraid of even saying ‘hi’ to a fellow Christian. I quickly sensed that the woman wasn’t trying to be rude but scared of something I was unaware of.

Unlike neighboring China, the Vietnamese Church is Vatican affiliated with the pope appointing cardinals, bishops, and priests. The ‘catch’ to the whole scenario is that the communist government reserves the right to approve any appointments the Vatican makes since the government considers the Church a state organization and treats her as such.

According to Catholic World News it took 11 years of negotiations for Rome and Hanoi to agree upon a bishop to replace the late Archbishop Paul Nguyen Van Binh who died in July of 1995 with current Archbishop 64 year old Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man to run the Archdiocese of Ho Chi Minh City! Rome and Hanoi may not like each other they try to work together. It is hoped that in the very near future both church and state will achieve a harmonious relationship.

Ho Chi Minh City is bursting with art galleries of all sizes and styles that cater to the taste of art connoisseurs on a global basis. The short walk back from the church was quite an experience. I’m an artist by avocation and for me to experience so many galleries crammed into the space of a few blocks was an adventure I won’t ever forget; all the stores, art galleries, and public buildings were also open or about to open at the early hour. What nearly brought me to tears was nearly all of the original oils could be purchased for a pittance. The paintings were top quality and were dirt cheap. I have family in several Asian countries. If you’re in the import-export business and wanna’ talk drop me an email. The central city has many large boulevards and public parks. I felt I was back home walking through Grant Park on Chicago’s lakefront sans any fears of getting mugged or shot.

I’m a very talkative person. For 32 years I’ve made my living talking. I was a teacher/adjunct college professor. What really got me was that everyone I talked with spoke standard American English replete with certain accents and slang words that I usually heard back home and they talk fast and LOUD. I assume that the people learned our language during the American phase of the Vietnamese War and taught it to their kids.

About the Vietnamese people… that war nearly destroyed that country, but oddly enough not once did I encounter any flack for being an American… not once. In so-called ‘America friendly’ Thailand I got cursed out, insulted, challenged to fist fight, propositioned and hijacked! In the Philippines I’ve driven through anti-American demonstrations and almost got blown up in Bali. I left that country a month before Islamic militants blew to smithereens the sea side restaurant where my wife regularly breakfasted.

Four blocks from the hotel I passed the Opera House. There was a large sign draped across the front advertising in English and Vietnamese the hit musical ‘Miss Saigon.’ After breakfast the next day I took my early morning stroll where the streets and sidewalks were again alive with people.

At the Thanh Hoa Art Gallery art lovers could purchase original embroidered and silk oil paintings and fancy souvenir table clothes. At the 98 Nguyen Hoe Ngoe Gallery patrons could purchase copies of the old masters and commission in-house artists do paintings and drawing to individual specifications the only requirement that customers do their own modeling if I remember correctly. These and all art works could be purchased at prices so ridiculously low that you could easily come home with hundreds of original oil canvases the only restriction how to transport them to your home. fake artists

There were copies of the old masters; Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Rembrandt, Pollock, and native artists such as Yue Minjun along with beautiful oils of native women in stately brightly colored traditional Ao Dai dresses. Didn’t see any so-called patriotic paintings in the shops we visited. Despite that awful war and the havoc our country and others wreaked upon the Vietnamese people of the country, 99.9% (my ‘guestamation’) of the people we came in contact aforementioned went out of their way to be friendly. After polishing off the morning hours on foot, we went back to the hotel to wait for our tour guides to get their end of the ‘show’ rolling.

Around noon our two guides picked us up from the lobby of the Oscar. Our first stop was the Cu Chi Tunnel Tour about an hours drive from the city and located on a Vietnamese Army base. Ask anybody who’ve fought in Vietnam and they would tell you that the tunnels were vital to the Viet Cong guerrillas as ideal hiding places during combat. They served as communication centers, supply routes, housed hidden hospitals, food storage areas, acted as weapons caches, and living quarters for transient guerrilla soldiers at war with us. The tunnels were so vital to the Viet Cong and to the regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA) that their extensive usage protracted the war forcing the United States into an eventual withdrawal though not without them, the communists, paying a heavy cost in terms of human lives and much needed supplies.

Mr. Du with his assistant drove up to the entrance of the base. Entering the main building he led us down a corridor and into an auditorium that served as a movie theater and orientation center. We took our seats. He gave us a canned but brief communist propaganda lecture on the Vietnamese-American War and the heroic Vietnamese people who served during that conflict after which he played a war video. Naturally the film presented the war from a purely communist perspective. What we saw and heard would send rivulets of hatred and anger through the veins of anyone who fought on the allied side of that war so I won’t go into any dirty details. If you want that information you go there yourself or write me at my email address listed at the end of this article and I’ll tell you all about it. Without the influx of tourists they might have pulled the thing (video) since their government want to better their economic ties with the United States.

The battlefield tour was conducted by uniformed soldiers who lectured as they walked with us explaining and demonstrating the various weapons used during that era, how booby traps were constructed and operated, instructed us how smoke was deflected from underground field kitchens which served to dupe UN soldiers above ground into thinking that the smoke was low level fog, soldiers even posed for group photographs.

We, or would it be more accurate to say my stepson, since I’m rather on the heavy side and couldn’t fit into the tiny man holes, crawled on all fours exploring the tunnels, secret rooms, underground infirmaries, meeting halls, supply rooms, that comprised these underground marvels of simple engineering that were right under the very feet of allied troops. They demonstrated how to fire an AK 47 assault weapon. There were even the remnants of what was left of an allied tank after a rocket destroyed it during a fire-fight. When the long walking tour was over we were directed towards the gift shop in case we wanted to purchase souvenirs of the tour.

The gift shop had a full inventory of books on communist ideology, a souvenir rack stocked with Vietnamese flags, military uniforms, post cards, soft drinks, candy, snack food items all of which could all be purchased at reasonable prices. It was very upscale and as high-tech as any modern museum gift shop here in the States though the items for sale were a lot cheaper price wise.

On a disturbing note there were US military dog tags that sold for a quarter a piece but on sale four for a dollar. These tags were purported to of having been removed from the bodies of dead American soldiers mostly Marines. Out of respect for our fallen service people I ‘ransomed’ some of those shot up tags and brought them back home where I enshrined them at our family altar months before mailing them to the U.S. Marines.

One of the really eerie aspects about the base was what I called the ‘Toys of War’ mini-tour with rooms filled with all sorts of really nasty looking booby traps. There were even mock-ups of these lethal objects with soldiers giving demonstrations as to how these demonic devices worked…very nasty…

Mr. Du our ‘tour guide,’ accompanied by a soldier, I think an officer asked me that since I was of fighting age during that conflict, about my involvement in the war. I told the man the truth that I only ‘fire when fired on’ and that ‘if you don’t bother me I sure as hell won’t bother you’ but I also told him that if he were to show up in my neighborhood dressed as he was (alluding to his green military uniform) that it ‘was on.’ Neither man responded. After touring the base information center our guides and we had lunch at an upscale restaurant. Don’t ask me what we had. All I can remember was that the food was delicious, plentiful, inexpensive, and the beer potent. That was all I wanted to know.

Hours after the tour ended I was sitting on the curb with my stepson sipping bottle after bottle of ice cold Vietnamese beer. The total cost was well under $5 for the two of us. It reminded me of the time I used to live in South Chicago, that wanna’ be blue collar bad ass ethnic enclave near the Indiana state line sitting on my front porch drinking frosty Mexican beer, munching on Heines Fried Chicken or Lem’s Barbeque watching the pretty women parade by. It was an experience that was delicious on all counts.

Market After the beers we walked on. We wanted to see the city close up and imagine ourselves living there. We mingled right in with the people who were going to and from their jobs, taking lunch breaks, hanging out, shopping, or just plain out for a late afternoon walk. We covered plenty of places not mentioned in tour guides. Our walk led us to a variety of interesting places. From the crowded streets of Ho Chi Minh City we purchased junk food at the Ben Thanh Market, offered incense at a Hindu temple, browsed through small mom and pop stores, and went to small factories to see how they made all sorts of some really interesting ‘stuff.’
At the 98 Nguyen Hue Fine Arts Lacquer Ware Factory and Gallery for $20 I bought a triptych made from lacquer that would cost me at least $70 or more had I bought it back home. At the ASIA Special Lacquer Ware proprietors Mr. and Mrs. Tran Thanh Xuan lectured us how their skilled artisans painstakingly fit tiny pieces of egg shells to decorate vases, goblets, and many other types of fine art pieces. All their wonderful and superbly crafted objects of art were sold at give away prices. Vietnam is a shopaholic’s paradise!
laquaware Vietnam

By day three we had developed a ‘feel’ for the city. Mr. Du took us on a tour of the Michelin Rubber Plantation where for the first time I actually saw how rubber in liquid latex form seeps out of trees and into those itty-bitty cups that are attached to the side of each rubber tree to collect the precious sap once they cut the tree to permit it to pour in. Michelin has a sordid history in its dealing with their Vietnamese workers. According to Jim Hensman’s ‘Vietnam 1945 -The Derailed Revolution,’
Companies operated rubber plantations by using mainly forced labor. Workers became to be known as ‘fertilizer for the rubber trees” because the bodies of those who died toiling in inhumane conditions were buried on the plantations.”

In those days there were no such groups as Amnesty International, Inc., workers unions, or Liberation theology to speak up for those poor people like we have now. They lived, they suffered, and they just died and nobody gave a damn.

On the way back to Ho Chi Minh City we made a short stop to visit a ‘typical village family’ which in our case was woman and her small daughter who were making wafer thin tortilla sized rice paper used to wrap dim sum delicacies for home and restaurant use. After that it was a late lunch then back to the hotel.

We had the morning all to ourselves but late that afternoon with lunch over our guides drove us for a tour of the War Remnants Museum. The exhibit dealt with atrocities committed during the French colonial era through the Vietnam War, a call for world peace, and a plea to abolish warfare. We entered the building, signed the guestbook, and took the tour. Basically the exhibits were enlarged photographs featuring the grisly deaths of all those who stood in war’s wake. I don’t recommend this tour for the squeamish and for those with weak stomachs. There were pictures and exhibits depicting the demonic nature of warfare in all its horrifying detail. Aborted and malformed babies in various states of gestation bobbing around in jars of embalming fluid from women who lost their children prematurely during the war from Agent Orange and from other biochemical weapons. There were pictures of mangled and tortured bodies of how the French and South Vietnamese governments use to torture and kill political prisoners and other perceived enemies of the state. The exhibit had bodies of persons tortured in every way imaginable demonstrating the grim reality of the demonic nature of humankind running unchecked by common morality.

Next door there was the Death House replete with a serviceable guillotine with dried blood still on the blade that was once used to decapitate criminals, revolutionaries, and prisoners of conscience. All signs describing each exhibit were printed in bold Vietnamese, French, and English letters. Outside in the courtyard was a display of all sorts of military hardware and ordinance used in the American-Vietnamese War.

Ho Chi Min Museum Leaving those houses of horror our guides took us to the War Remnants Museum of Ho Chi Minh City which had on display dioramas of Vietnam’s past wars with China, the Mongols, its battles with the French, the Japanese occupation, the war with the United States, then China again all showing the ‘home team’ in a good light. The place I enjoyed best was the Fine Arts Museum which was pretty big on ceramics. As an ex-ceramicist I especially enjoyed the many early historical clay pieces on Vietnamese history. Tired mentally, emotionally, as well as physically, we were glad to be back at our hotel where hot showers, a hot meal, and HBO awaited us.

It was our last full day we had time to ourselves. Taking to the streets outside we ran into a group of half-caste orphans who were ‘soliciting’ funds for their orphanage if my memory serves me correctly. All were in clean uniforms and each child carried a permit giving them permission to ask for donations. When I looked at some of these children their faces to hear their stories, I noticed that all of them had strong Western features. Some Caucasian some Black. From their looks I assumed that these poor kids were the abandoned offspring sired by American and allied service personnel during the Vietnamese War. We gave them some money for their troubles then watch them sadly walk away. As a biracial person I know firsthand the rejection suffered at the hands of an uncaring society that sees half-castes as misfits, mutants, inferior, unwanted…societal failures…It’s hard. We moved on.

Our Vietnam sojourn came all too soon. The very last thing we wanted to avoid was getting involved in local politics. Freedoms we sometimes take for granted are next to non-existent in other countries communist states especially. We did our best to practice the ‘zip-the-lip’ policy. We were hiking towards the Saigon River when we were accosted by about 10 to 12 men. These guys followed us. Our backs to the river they surrounded us. They knew we weren’t local boys. They bombarded us with information the average person couldn’t read in history books. They told of their lives as captives in their own country, how they lost their jobs, of fortunes lost once America pulled out and of well-heeled relatives who vanished in ‘reeducation camps.’ One man told us about his family living abroad including a guy who had an uncle living in Chicago. Another man describe the way the communists tortured him and of family and friends murdered outright During the Fall of Saigon; but mostly they described their discontent with the communist system of government and how they wanted escape the tyranny of their Marxists over lords. To our relief these men never displayed anger or hostility towards us but against the communist government. We patiently listened to their complaints but refrained from offering any serious comments for fear of informants mingled among their number. Facing tyranny first hand can be a sobering experience.

Leaving the waterfront with our butts intact we ended our day with a hike through Huynh Thuc Khang Street Market the Vietnamese version of Chicago’s once famous Maxwell Street Market. We took a lot of photographs before returning to the hotel. The long walk was educational but tiring. Once ‘home’ we took a corner table in one of the smaller hotel bars. Having more time than energy we idled way our time eating peanuts and more bottles of icy cold Vietnamese beer. The entire bill $11 USD.

Early the next morning Mr. Du and associate drove us to the airport for the short one hour Air Vietnam flight back to Manila. We thanked them for being such excellent hosts and promised them that if they ever decided to visit Chicago that they would be most welcome to stay with us and that we’ll gladly show them Chicago. We shook hands, exchanged business cards then parted company; they towards their next assignment, my stepson and I towards the airport.

Since we were first arrivals I assumed that we’d be among the first to board the plane. We were wrong. Being part of a package deal that didn’t permit early boarding we had to wait until every one checked in and then and only then were we permitted to re-board. When one person from our group arrived hours late, tempers flared. My stepson and I tried our best to contain our irritability. Some of the others didn’t. Members of our group heaped all sorts of verbal abuse on the young woman in charge of letting us aboard the plane. Though angry I never shouted at her. I was utterly amazed at how that tiny girl stood up to all of the verbal haranguing they gave her. Throughout her ordeal she never batted an eyelid… never rose her voice nor did she display any hostile emotion whereas if I were in a similar situation I would have ‘went totally-off’ and more than likely landed in jail and or have gotten fired from a job. That girl had GUTS!

I was the very first one from our group to arrive at Ton Son Nhut but the very last one to board the plane once we cleared Customs. The flight back was a somber. We arrived an hour or more…late. After we landed we got our stuff, went through Philippine Customs, and boarded our van for home. After fighting through Manila’s horrid traffic we finally arrived home; but later that day we fired our travel agents.

Since normalization flying to Vietnam has never been easier. Either it was a rouse to get business or maybe the Vietnamese people are really all that forgiving wanting to put that awful war behind them and get on with their lives. If you’re serious about visiting Vietnam go now. According to my research there’s no United State Travel Advisory on Vietnam, the country is relatively safe; however use common sense. Enjoy the ‘Pearl of the Orient!’

© Fred C. Wilson III June 2014

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