Wednesday, 13 August 2008

From the Delta to the DMZee...

On our last day in Hoi An, we got on a motorbike and headed out to the country to escape the tailored temptations of the city. Most of our best experiences on this trip have been when we have gone it alone, left the tours and tourists behind and discovered places by accident rather than by design. There is a large Catholic population in this area. We stopped for an iced coffee outside the first church of the day. The young teenage girl who served us gingerly took out her English homework at the table next to us. She ended up taking us round the church, explaining all the pictures on the noticeboard and her confidence at speaking English improved with every step. Next, we screeched to a halt outside a house where the loud rhythmic thwack and shunt of the loom was in full swing . It was a rickety contraption and the couple working it looked exhausted and sweaty in the midst of the extreme dust, heat and humidity. So, this was where the cloth for all those wonderful clothes had originated. We felt humbled. The couple were finding it difficult to smile, despite their kind invitation to watch. It was hard work.
Our next church was spectacular, on open air Cathedral majestically perched on the crown of a hill. The panoramic view from the top held a commanding 360 degree sway across the entire valley. The sounds coming from below were a chorus of looms shunting and weaving away, an industrial contest to the usual contributions of the frogs and the cicadas. The Vietnamese are a proud and hard working people. And they know what it is like to graft.

From Hoi An we traveled to the old Imperial city of Hue, famed for its Imperial Palace and its Imperial cuisine. It was also nearly bombed to extinction during the 'American War.' Money is now being pumped in to renovate the ruins of the Imperial Palace. It is a less foreboding place than the Forbidden City in Beijing. Perhaps it is because it is mostly ruins, but you can wonder more freely and closely amongst the buildings and get a closer sense and appreciation of the style and architecture.

Hue is also a stone throw away from the DMZ, the demilitarized zone. Cut across the 17th parallel, this divided Vietnam into 2 distinct regions after the French were defeated and was also the area of some of the most furious and deadly fighting during the 'American War.'
Propaganda in Vietnam is of classic old style vintage. The artists and word smiths responsible for museum exhibits and large public billboards seem to be stuck in a 1960 / 70s airtight bag. The art is about bold blocked colours and large heroic persona. The words celebrate heroic deeds, national unity, strength and sound clunky and out dated in their manipulative rhetoric. Everyone who fought for the Southern Vietnamese army (ARVN) was brain washed, a puppet of the state and wrong. The Northern army (NVA) treated all prisoners respectfully and all war crimes were to be found at the guilty feet of the American and ARVN troops. The version of events is simplistic and in some respects seems to play down the strength of conviction of what most people in the north believed the were fighting for. It is difficult to put your mind in a different place and time to understand but you must. A comment from a an Aussie war veteran in the comments book in the War Remnants museum in Saigon seemed to ring true, that 'not one side came out of the war with any great deal of respect.' The Americans dropped bombs, napalm, chemical weapons indiscriminately and at a massive cost to lives and the environment. Soldiers fighting for the ARVN were not just puppets, as the propaganda tells us. They believed in the high ideals of that word Capitalism and that the arch enemy of Communism must be squashed. When the country was reunified in 1975, hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese fled the country, fearful of the Communist regime. Many of these 'boat people' were confronted with new horrors in the form of sinister Thai pirates waiting for them around the coast or years spent in refugee camps. Vietnam was a starving and forgotten country for much of the 1970s/80s, with only the Russians and Cubans willing to offer a helping hand. But they booted Pol Pot from power in 1979 in Cambodia, and in the same year defeated the Chinese from invading their border. It is sad, it is brutal, it is bloody. There are many versions of the same events. But it is also deeply fascinating.

Our guide across a one day trip of the DMZ was to be a Mr Diem, former translator to General Wesmoreland, the 4 star General and one time Chief of the US forces in Vietnam. After reunification, Mr Diem, like many others from the South was sent to reeducation camp for six years. Since then, his family and others like him have suffered massive discrimination in their opportunities and success in work and education. It was not for us to take sides but to listen. He was bitter, he was proud, he was a Capitalist but in war he had been defeated. We visited strategic sights like Charlie 2 hill and the 17th Parallel. In daytime, both sides blasted the other with their respective propagandist messages, watched carefully by the bully busting troops from India and Canada, making sure no-one was breaking the rules. After dark all the rules were broken. The NVA would secretly ship their weapons and troops across the 17th Parallel and down the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail, whilst the Americans would show off with massive forays of bombing raids and scorching use of chemical warfare (Agent Orange and the like). We saw the Vinh Moc tunnels where the NVA hid away from the enemy in a cramped claustrophobic warren of tunnels. They took 6 years to build and during their use 17 babies were born underground. 16 of them are now apparently high ranking officers in the Vietnamese navy.
When the war finally ended in 1975, the DMZ was a toxic flattened wasteland, battered and bruised with the massive craters from B52 bombs and where the only sign of life underground were the millions of deadly land mines waiting for the unfortunate overground.
Over the years, nature and man has slowly reclaimed the wasteland from the toxins and the land mines. Rubber tree forests are plentiful. But for people like Mr Diem, the scars of war are deep and unforgiving. He is currently in the slow process of applying for American citizenship.
I'm sure an ex NVA soldier's version of events would have been no less passionate or convincing, just different.
He also had a great sense of humour and taught us to toast in style. "Mawt , hau, baa, YO!" Which, roughly translated, means, " 1, 2, 3 HANG ON BABY!" It proved to be the perfect ice breaker with the locals for the rest of our days in Vietnam.
Mr Diem was also not some hardlined warmonger. When we visited the mass graves of the Vietnam War Memorial, he took care to point out how young most of the dead men had been. Of course, the older of us will remember Paul Hardcastle's '19', the number one song chanting the average age of the American soldier fighting in Vietnam (surely one of the strangest ever chart topping singles - did people dance to it in nightclubs? At least I am not old enough to remember that!) Scanning the Vietnamese graves, it felt that their average age was more 18 or 17 years. And many were young girls too. Mr Diem kept reminding us how young he had been then too. And that is really the lasting impression we took away from the DMZ, not as the real life playground and set design for all the Vietnam war films we watched on VHS in our formative years, not as a crucial stand of between the forces of Capitalism and Communism, but as a killing ground of young men and women. Nothing more, nothing less.

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