Sept 17, 2009
As a mapper for this mod, I'm frequently looking at photos and maps of Vietnam, but I never imagined I would actually see the place in person. When three weeks opened up at the end of my summer vacation, I thought to go abroad and there was only one place that had my attention. One week later, I find myself stepping off an aircraft and into the humid, tropical heat of Vietnam.
I've decided to stay in southern Vietnam. I'm currently at Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon.) I had heard that the people in the south are more intimate, but the extent of that really took my by surprise. On my first day alone I shared beers with a shop owner after his shop had closed, received a free book for coming back to pay a man I accidentally short changed, was invited to play a snooker type of game with three balls and no pockets after merely peering into the bar that it was being played in. Oh, and I got a 6 hour tour of the city from an unemployed man who struck up a conversation with me in the park. Ho Chi Minh is nice.
Working on the mod has given me an appetite to learn about the war. Fortunately, my hotel was a short motorbike-taxi ride from the "war remnants museum". I headed out first thing on the first day I was here.
Outside the museum are about a dozen American military vehicles. Jets, tanks, APCs, a Huey, artilliary... I admit I felt like a kid in a toy store. This was exciting stuff. Only when you get up to the front of a 12 foot high Patton tank do you realize what a monster vehicle it is. And the skyraider, which in the mod is a tiny cheap little plane? I'll let this photo speak for itself.
Inside the museum the significance of the war slowly sinks in; this is a different world to the war toys outside, looking instead at the reality of war in your front garden, in your house, effecting your family. It's not a side of war that is frequently seen in Hollywood. Photos only too vividly describe the brutality and cruelty experienced. The army's progress yardstick being 'body count' and an attitude in ranks of "If it's dead, it's VC" lead to some of the worst civilian massacres of the 20th century. One photo showed a group of children and an elderly man cowering behind a Vietnamese woman. It was captioned by the photographer "I told the men not to shoot and took this picture. When I turned away I heard gunshots and in the corner of my eye, bodies fell". Another exhibit showed the enduring suffering of people exposed to the Dioxin in Agent Orange, still effecting them and their offspring now, 40 years on.
I'm not naive, I know that this is a strictly one sided view. The North Vietnamese Army are always "the liberators", the southern government the "puppet regime" and there were no photos of the conditions endured by American POWs. But despite only showing one side of the coin, there are vital lessons shown that every person should feel duty bound to educate themselves about. War is a phenomenal evil, to unleash it can itself be an act of evil. For me, it was only seeing it second hand that makes me understand that. The war in '69 has real similarities and relevance to the wars we fight today - understanding such a well documented war will help you understand what is going on today.
Stepping out into the sunlight, I didn't feel that the vehicles around me were cool any more. However, I had a new found respect for the American veterans and Vietnamese people that had to go through hell for a political error.
Sept 19, 2009 - Noon
I've been thinking about it since I wrote it that it was too negative, and being without the internet for a while (at an internet cafe now) it's been eating at me to write a disclaimer of sorts.
Basically that the museum experience was utterly emotionally draining. Stuff I write from now on should be more upbeat.
I visited the Cu Chi tunnels where the VC were prolific. I'm going to do a write up now before I forget. I saw an absolutely INCREDIBLE educational film in black and white while I was there, every minute of it an untouched window into the mindset and life of the VC. sadly I couldn't buy it, but I could do a 500 word piece on the film alone.
In 4 days I've taken about 500 pictures. One of the problems of being on your own is that stuff that you could fill your time with, like chat, competitions with mates... just normal stuff isn't there. I think I'll be doing the whole of vietnam in these 3 weeks now, because I'm getting through sites at a blistering pace.
Sept 19, 2009 - Evening
Heading north from Ho Chi Minh on my third day, I took two busses towards Cu Chi and the Cu Chi tunnels where the Viet Cong were GDGSGG . My experience of Vietnam thus far has been great. The intimacy remains, but I notice that the poor will have no qualms with befriending you for a long period or outright lying to you if they think they can get money out of it.
For instance, crossing a road without lights in the local fashion of "keep going and the mopeds will go around you" (note: ratio of pedestrians to cars to mopeds is 1:1:20), I had the following conversation:
"Hey, where are you from?"
"England! And yourself?"
"I'm Vietnamese. You know you are not meant to cross unless the lights tell you to." [there were no lights, and having been there for days with various guides I know how to cross]
"Oh, my mistake.
"You have to pay 100 Dollars, or there is a three day prison sentence, you know. You need to pay my friend now or there is a three day prison sentence."
"I'll believe it when I see a uniform."
Later, after almost being conned into believing that there were no bus' to Cu Chi and that I would have to take a motorcycle taxi, coincidentally by one such taxi driver, I made my way to the Cu Chi tunnels. The VC here created 250 km of underground tunnels in the area from which they fought the Americans. Tunnels would often have an entire house with a kitchen, war room and sleeping areas underground. Some VC would live underground for months at a time, with corridors as small as 50cm x 50cm and one entrance I saw about the size of a manila envelope.
One of the things that sat heavily in my mind after the war remnants museum visit was the thought: "How does a USA born 1960's GI, obviously not brought up on the heavy metal or graphic violence of today, become a savage indiscriminate killer of civilians?" There was a gap in my knowledge, a missing link. Having seen the VC lifestyle at Cu Chi, I have a theory. The Vietnam War was unlike any war before it. When battling the VC, there were not two armies in different uniforms fighting from obvious front lines. From the incredible introductory video at the tunnels:
By night, the VC hunted americans, by day hid in tunnels or resumed work in the fields...
This is a terrifying and unseen enemy. The threat and witnessed effect caused by thousands of traps and mines would have a profound impact on any man. I was sharply aware while crossing a field to photograph destroyed vehicles that if any unexploded ordinance decided it didn't like being unexploded, my footballing career was over. When one man in a squad is victim, every other man is a witness.
There was also definitely a blurring of the lines of who was civilian and who was a combatant. Children lay mines and women fought and wrought weapons alongside the men. Apparently entire villages prescribed to be VC. Presumably the work in the village continued as normal between fights. How do you deal with a man you know knows the enemy position? If you don't find out, your men will die. How do you deal with a farmer you know is an informant? This blurring of boundaries, coupled with the fear and aggression that builds up in troops fighting an unfair fight against an enemy they cannot see, is what I believe lead to the US brutality.
I'm anti-communist, but when I find myself siding with the US I am quick to remember that the US are the invaders here, trying to impose their beliefs on a country. From a modern vietnamese perspective, the US were 'the bad guys'. I'm impartial.
By the way, the Vietnamese are certainly not all bad. A fantastic guy guided and chatted with me all day, and even spontaneously followed my bus back to town with his motorcycle to take me to a hotel. Yet he refused my money. To him, we were simply friends.
Sept 23, 2009
Been in hospital for a couple of days. Strong recurring fever.
Lesson learned: don't go near rice vodka
Sept 25, 2009
It's been pretty rough, I spent an entire day in bed yesterday. I don't have much energy and finding a place to get on the internet is sometimes tough, so I haven't been able to do any more interesting writing about vietnam. I'm sure I'll get over it soon.
At this point, all correspondence from Will stopped. We didn't know what to think, he was sick and apparently getting worse, his daily logs had been getting shorter and less frequent. After being in the hospital with his final message ending with, "I'm sure I'll get over it soon." we feared the worst. Dead in the jungle? We could only guess. A few weeks later we found out he was alive...
April 5, 2011
The Final week in Vietnam - A Retrospective
As you can tell, those are all the messages I sent back to the team.
If you only read the last entry, as the team did, it seems like I died. I'm told opinions on this issue from amongst my closest friends and family ranged from “meh” to “who was he again?”
Well, I thought it was about time I rounded off the issue with a final look back; 18 months hence. Yes - in this last text I'll describe what happened as reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.
So I went to hospital and was in and out of hospitals for a couple of days, then decidedly in hospital for about a week. The first time I got ill, I had a fever, high internal temperature and was hallucinating.
This meant distances all seemed to be warping, some objects loomed at you large, others (like doors, toilets...) couldn't be found. I dragged myself to the front desk of the cheap hotel I was staying in, and hours later a man was found that could deal with me. I had been in the lobby waiting, eyes rolled back and shivering. Some advert for the hotel!
The guy sent to look after me put a helmet into my hands and helped me onto the back of a motorbike. We whizzed off to find a hospital. I fought to keep a grip on consciousness so that I could, at the very least, weakly hold on.
The next thing I remember, I'm staring up at a ceiling fan; there's a thick needle going into my arm leading to a drip. This tells me two things: The hospital I'm at is too poor to afford air conditioning, AND uses old, thick reusable needles that you disinfect between patients instead of the modern disposable type. A doctor is shaking my arm and asking me to sign something. I look at the clip board floating in front of me, it's a lot of text and it's in Vietnamese...
The thing about my fever was that a simple saline drip given to me in the hospitals would get me back on my feet for a couple of hours. This just happened to be enough time to get one thoroughly lost and isolated in a city or a jungle.
The poor hospital I was at gave me this drip and as usual, I recovered. Again, while walking through Ho Chi Minh city (formerly Saigon) I came down with the fever. I staggered to an internet cafe, which are plentiful, and found the number for the hotel I had been staying at when I first got ill. Frankly, I didn't have many people I could turn to that could help me. I contacted the man from the hotel that had helped me before, and he came down to pick me up. At the time I did not think much of it, but looking back it was a great favour he did for me, and something that I never was able to pay him back for. In my experiences, this was very typical of the Vietnamese to drop what they were doing and help out; to give more than the minimum assistance that society would expect of them.
The man that helped me (I don't know anything about him) got me to a good hospital where I stayed for a week, piling up £20,000 of hospital costs ($32,000). Thank goodness for health insurance. And that was that, I got better. I only found out after I got back to the UK that what I had was Dengue Fever, mostly comonly spread by mosquitos.
I still had about six days left to fill, but after the illness my outlook on how to travel really changed and I was not sure if I wanted to fill those days at all. See – when I first arrived, it was my intention to ‘do' north and south Vietnam, and possibly move onto some other countries such as neighbouring Cambodia. I'd visit the area, see the inspiring sites and move on. In my plans and travels, meeting the people was only incidental. I wasn't getting anything out of it. Perhaps I was just maxed out on the inspiring or strange sights. At the time though, it felt a bit more fundamental. Seeing sights actually seemed quite empty and meaningless.
A couple of days after getting out of hospital, I had spent all day trekking to a huge temple. It was crammed with colour and things to look at, you had to obey a list of rules just to be around the place (such as taking your shoes off in certain areas, not crossing some invisible boundaries) and it had monks. It had it all. If you were looking for just one worldly Vietnamese site to visit, this was the one.
Yet as I walked around I couldn't help but ask myself questions. Am I having fun? (No.) Ok... so are you getting any sort of life experience out of it? (More than something I could see on the history channel? I'm not sure.) So what am I doing here?
From now on I wanted to change that, and that meant a different method of operation.
Instead of cramming my days with sites, I wanted to see what Vietnamese life was like. So I hung out. I met people, English, American and Vietnamese. In Saigon centre during the day I played the popular game of like hacky sack (called “keepy uppy” in Britian), where you use a shuttlecock like the sort used in badminton rather than a ball. I took many a motorcycle ride with Vietnamese friends I'd made, and drove a borrowed motorcycle myself for an evening.
While passing what looked like a garage with no front wall, I looked in and saw some tough looking guys playing a game like pool. In this game there are no table pockets, instead there are three balls and you try to knock your ball off the neutral one into the opponent's ball to score a point. The tough guys went and invited me in for a drink and a game. I got taken on nights out on the town and to seafood restaurants, saw a wedding, cycled around the coast for 8 hours, played football on the beach.
And from now on, that's the way I will travel. Slowly. Meandering. Yet actually experiencing the place.
Vietnam was a beautiful place. The people had energy and generosity in abundance. It didn't seem to bear any societal scars of the war – in fact I've never been to a place so positive. What I took from this wasn't so much a lesson on staying positive, or bouncing back from adversity. It's more personal than that. I now want to travel. I intend to do it right, I want to get to know the people and the place I'm in.
- Will Taylor