NOTE: I’ve tried to be responsive to those who have requested “fewer words, more pictures”, but fair warning: this one kind of got away from me.
On the evening of December 1, 1969, some bureaucrat in Washington pulled birthdays out of a jar and decided the collective fate of hundreds of thousands of young men, including me. This was the first Draft Lottery for military induction for the Vietnam War, and as college seniors about to graduate my classmates and I were the most vulnerable. It had been reported that people with birthdays picked in the first 120 were certain to be called up, and those in the second 120 were on the fence; if you were number 240 to 366 you would be safe. (That proved to be accurate, as 195 was the last number called to induction.)
It was difficult to breathe as they started announcing birthdays. My fraternity brother Bob Hepler was number 10, and somewhere he found some fatigues and a toy machine gun and spent the rest of the night ambushing people in the hallway. I made it to 120, a big milestone, and then 200, then into the “safe zone” with 240, and then 300. And finally: “Number 301, June third.” Most of my closest friends were similarly fortunate, but it was impossible to celebrate knowing that fate had been far less kind to so many others.
A thousand times I’ve wondered why I was so lucky. A thousand times I’ve asked myself what I would have done if I’d been number 1 or 3 instead of 301. It gives me chills to think about what might have happened if not for being so outrageously lucky the night they pulled our lives out of a jar.
So now I find myself with a travel itinerary that includes Saigon, the Mekong River, Da Nang, Hanoi, place names that bring back horrific images, not to mention quite a bit of guilt. I know Vietnam has changed dramatically in the past 30 years, but it’s hard to think of it in any other context but that war. I’m curious about how I will feel by the time I leave.
We flew into Saigon from Cambodia at night and realized on the bus ride from the airport that it has become a vibrant, modern city. (Since 1976 it has officially been known as Ho Chi Minh City, but if you don’t mind I’ll stick with the name that is less political, more familiar and easier to type). The roads were wide and smooth, the skyline gleaming with glass and colorful lights.
In April of 1975 Saigon had fallen to the National Liberation Front of North Vietnam, marking the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the unification of Vietnam into the communist republic that it is today. The fall of Saigon was punctuated by one of the largest helicopter evacuations in history, as remaining American civilians and military personnel were airlifted off the roof of the American Embassy, the sad culmination of a futile war we couldn’t win.
Our first morning we got into a boat on the Mekong River, passed by the floating fish farms, entered a narrow tributary and headed to an island where natives lived and made coconut candy and sold fruits and bottles of liquor with scorpions and small cobras inside. And you thought the worm in a bottle of tequila was disgusting!
As we motored our way up the tight passage at low tide, with barely enough room for another boat to pass and thick jungle on either side, it was impossible to shake images of young soldiers slogging through booby-trapped rice paddies, or scenes from films; Martin Sheen and his crew of hopped up river cowboys heading into the heart of darkness in Apocalypse Now. It was unsettling. But the people we visited were happy, they played music for us and sang, gave us tea and fruit, and it seemed genuine.
That night I took a cab to the Caravelle Hotel and a rooftop bar called Saigon Saigon, where the journalists and photographers used to hang out during the war. Other than the cynicism that soaked into the dry wall I’m sure nothing remains from that era; the bar is modern and neon-lit, and the 270-degree view is of beautiful hotels and high-rise office buildings and condominiums. I sat on the patio enjoying the scene and trying to imagine what it was like with all these correspondents sitting around bitching about being spoon-fed their stories. I ran into some friends from the tour and we had a few drinks and listened to a terrific band from Cuba, which we assumed was part of some communist cultural exchange program.
The most compelling segment of our southern Vietnam portion of the trip was a visit to the Cuchi tunnel complex, about 50 kilometers northwest of Saigon. It is a 180-mile system of tunnels that were originally constructed in
1948 and used to fight the French, and since they were made of solid sandstone, requiring no timber support, they were still functional 15 years later. Because they were close to the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail they were easy to supply, and they were ideal for the Vietnamese “hit and run away” style of fighting, according to our guide. This was an area that the American GI’s sardonically called the “Happy Triangle”; of the 58,000 American soldiers killed in Vietnam, 11,000 were killed here.
Before touring the complex we watched an old and poorly made film that was shockingly anti-American. “The poisonous bombs of America destroy the peaceful beauty of village life,” said the narrator at one point. “Like a crazy batch of devils they fired into schools, pots and pans.” The film referred to the communist “liberators” as American Killer Heroes. It was disturbing on many levels, not the least of which is that this is clearly how people around here feel, to this day.
The Viet Cong slept in the well-hidden tunnels by day and at night, when the Americans were back in Saigon “partying” (so said our guide), the VC would get to work expanding the tunnel complex, installing their booby traps, building their weapons. We saw the secret tunnel openings, a board maybe 10” by 15” that was
undetectable when covered by leaves. We saw many examples of bobby traps using spikes made of steel or bamboo. Within the cave system were kitchens with ventilation, clothing depots, and weapons-making areas.
We crawled through 60 meters of tunnel, very uncomfortable and claustrophobic, but this was a sanctuary for the enemy in this area for many years. We began to see clearly why this had been such a challenging opponent to confront. I hadn’t realized that Vietnam had had such a prolonged and difficult war with France, and how that had served as preparation to fight the Americans. They had it down to a science.
In that fascinating complex of hidden tunnels and booby traps, there were lessons all around us.
My time in Cambodia and Vietnam was part of an organized tour with a company called SmarTours. It is the only multi-day tour I’ve done so far; I have one more scheduled in Mexico, touring the Mayan ruins. The tour itself was a mixed bag … we stayed in excellent hotels and covered a lot of ground, but the forced shopping opportunities got old in a hurry. But what makes or breaks a tour like this is the people, and we had a terrific group of very nice people and very experienced travelers; if Cambodia and Vietnam have moved to the top of your list, you have probably been a lot of places! So it was fun getting to know these folks (all American and Canadian) and learning about their past trips and favorite spots. I look forward to staying in contact with many of them.
We spent several days in the coastal central part of Vietnam, flying into Da Nang and taking a bus to Hoi An, and there was universal agreement that we would liked to have stayed there longer. There is not much to say about it historically, other than it was originally populated by Chinese who came to escape from politics and stayed to set up businesses. Fifteen years ago it was dead but now it is starting to boom.
It’s a very peaceful place on a nice river and a short ride from the sea and excellent beaches. There were great shops, good restaurants, cooking classes, bike rides, silkworm demonstrations, inexpensive silk tailoring, a fascinating central market and Japanese bridges, and our excellent hotel was a short walk from all of this. Three of us had a wonderful dinner at an Italian Restaurant called “Good Morning Vietnam”. Hoi An was very comfortable and livable, a place to return to.
The currency in Vietnam is the dong. And it’s very small; one U.S. dollar equals more than 20,000 Vietnamese dong. If you want to purchase anything of real value, boy, you sure need a lot of dong.
We heard this city’s name often during the war and with good reason; it was home to a major air force base that at one point averaged more than 2,500 air traffic operations daily, more than any other airport in the world. One of the women on our tour was a flight attendant who made many trips into Da Nang to evacuate wounded soldiers.
Today it’s a thriving port city on the South China Sea, the commercial and cultural hub of central Vietnam. We drove around a bit and had lunch at a restaurant overlooking China Beach, originally My Khe Beach but renamed by American and Australian soldiers. There was a TV series for a few years about a hospital there that prepared the wounded for evacuation. After lunch we walked on the beach and saw many unusual, round, one-man fishing boats made of bamboo, and tried to converse with a fisherman who was mending his nets in one of them. It was a pleasant interlude before heading off to …
Hue’ (hway) was another familiar name. In the Tet Offensive of 1968 it was damaged severely by American bombing and traumatized by a brutal massacre committed by communist troops. Many of the historical buildings that were destroyed are just now being restored. We had a wonderful guide in central Vietnam, a young mother of two named Ha (“every time you laugh you say my name”), and as a native of Hue’ with many family members impacted by the war, she had particularly vivid descriptions.
“In 1968, no one knew who to trust. People just disappeared. There was so much killing and bombing it was easy to kill someone you didn’t like. Many were scared and escaped to the north. People couldn’t find their family members, their brothers, their husbands. They put all the dead into big graves, and the fortune tellers, the people who communicate with ghosts, they couldn’t find a specific person with so many souls crowded together.”
The main attraction in Hue’ is the massive complex that includes the Citadel, Imperial Palace and Forbidden City. The city had been the capital of the country from 1802 to 1945 and this is where the royal family had lived, but it suffered during a war with the French in 1947 and in 1968 was a Viet Cong stronghold and was heavily bombed. Little by little it is being restored, but there is a long Hue’ to go.
Ha Long Bay
We headed north, taking a flight from Hue’ to Hanoi and a bus to our hotel on the coast. In the morning we took a four-hour boat trip to Vietnam’s premier attraction, its Angkor Wat: Ha Long Bay.
Ha Long (“descending dragon”) Bay is a series of more than 3000 islands and limestone rocks cropping up from the Gulf of Tonkin near the port city of Haiphong. Millions of years of tectonic activity created underwater mountains that ultimately surfaced. It reminded some of our world travelers of the Galapagos, and others of Antarctica. We had a lousy weather day in terms of seeing great distances, but the mist and light rain did create an atmosphere that somehow seemed appropriate.
The rocky coastline of the islands contains many caves and grottos, and we visited one that was only discovered in 1993. They call it “Heaven’s Palace”, and it was huge and surprisingly spectacular. We anchored out after that and had a wonderful fish lunch, and then headed for our final stop on the tour.
Hanoi is very different from Saigon and not as appealing at first, but it kind of grows on you. Whereas Saigon is new and shiny, Hanoi is more ancient and gritty. In some areas there is a substantial European flavor from the days of French occupation, particularly with some of the larger government buildings. People seem to live on the street here, sitting in small plastic chairs, cooking on their street grills, buying food from the impossibly tiny women who carry the Asian scales of justice on their shoulders filled with vegetables and rice and cans of cola and beer.
There are nine million residents of Hanoi, and 6.5 million motorbikes, an infestation greater than anywhere I’ve seen in Africa, India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia or southern Vietnam. The sidewalks are often impassable because of all the motorbikes parked there, and they must comprise 90% of the vehicles on the street. They drive up over the curb, cut across lanes of traffic, use their maneuverability to creative advantage at every turn. At some intersections there are no signals of any kind so they just proceed toward each other with awareness and weave a tapestry of traffic.
We had a very odd experience visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. It is clearly a major shrine for Vietnamese people and there was a long line to get in. There are a lot of rules: shoulders covered, no hat, no talking. As I entered the room where he lays I was walking with my hands respectfully clasped behind my back, and a guard hissed at me and indicated that I had to hold my hands at my sides. I was channeling my inner John McEnroe (“you can’t be serious!”) but I complied instead. It was a pretty good you’re-now-in-a-communist-country moment.
“Ho”, as we were fond of calling him, was looking pretty good. It turns out he wanted to be cremated but the Politburo boys at the Kremlin know a promotional opportunity when they see one and had him embalmed with the same process they used on Lenin. Ho is on display every morning from eight to eleven, and then he goes back to the freezer. Each year he gets a two-month vacation back in Russia for re-embalming, a spa treatment I’m sure none of us can afford.
In the northern part of Vietnam people do eat dog. I’m a big “when in Rome” guy so I made a reservation at the acclaimed Restaurant de Chien (the French influence remains in Hanoi), and to get a flavor for different breeds I ordered the “ngot nuang”, the Pooch Sampler. The grilled Schnauzer with sauerkraut was a casual appetizer that would enliven any tailgate party. The Poodle au Poivre was cooked to perfection, but the hollandaise sauce was a bit on the rich side. I caught a nice little buzz from the poppyseed seasoning on the ground Afghan hound. But my favorite, unquestionably, was the Chihuahua enchilada, so zesty with just a hint of jalapeno.
We saw other things in Hanoi, including a charming and unusual water puppet show, but nothing was as impactful for all of us as a visit to the Hoa Lo prison, known during the war as the Hanoi Hilton.
For many years this prison was used by the French to incarcerate Vietnamese resistors to French occupation, and then the Vietnamese used it to imprison American pilots who were shot down in the 60s and early 70s. Once again, it was odd and uncomfortable being on the other side of the propaganda, but also enlightening.
We call it the Vietnam War, but here they call it the American War. Their effort was called the “Anti-U.S. Resistance”. The videos on exhibit in the prison emphasized the American bombing of schools and hospitals, of civilians. The displays lost credibility when they showed how well the American prisoners were treated despite; there were videos and photos of the pilots playing volleyball, eating well, getting medical treatment (included was a photo of John McCain), enjoying Christmas celebrations and packages from home. We knew this was all a long way from the truth.
But there is also no denying that almost 60,000 young Americans died needlessly, and that the lives of hundreds of thousands who returned were contorted irrevocably. And there is no denying that more than one million Vietnamese soldiers were killed, north and south, not to mention between two and three million Vietnamese civilians, and that the chemicals used will impact generations yet to come.
And for what? To prevent the spread of communism? Vietnam is a communist country today, albeit a hybrid that allows its citizens to open businesses and be entrepreneurial. And how many of the surrounding countries has communism spread to? None. True communism in the form that spawned McCarthyism, the progenitor of this war, cannot succeed, nor can any religion or ideology that sucks the spirit out of its people by stifling creativity and free expression.
So I leave Vietnam no longer feeling guilty about having a high lottery number. I do leave with a much clearer sense of how misguided we were, how impossible it was to accomplish anything but mass devastation. I leave feeling angry that the country I love so much could be responsible for a calamity of such magnitude … and that we haven’t seemed to learn from it! If I feel guilty about anything now, it’s that I didn’t protest loudly enough at the time.
But in our hotel bar in Hanoi the most sensible approach was articulated by a veteran of the war from Australia, in Vietnam with five of his fellow vets for the first time in forty years. “Everything here is so much different now, mate,” he said. “We’ve all learned that it is finally time to put that chapter behind us.”