Bennington, Vermont, USA
In 1995, a total of 10,000 Americans visited Vietnam, a number often surpassed in a single day by those disembarking on St. Thomas. The bulk of these came as members of well-orchestrated tours. They saw Saigon and Hanoi, Hue and Dalat through the windows of air conditioned mini-vans, all the while hearing facts and figures in fluent English.
Forever tinged with the legacy of skepticism and rebellion that swept our generation, the idea of signing up for an hour-by-hour group trip held no appeal. While many share my interest in exploring far-flung places, few seem smitten with the prospect of seeing such locales perched on the saddle of a bicycle. Fortunately, my old friend, C.W. Bennett, likes nothing better than pedalling through unknown territory. So last December, Bennett and I set off from Albany, New York to fly half way round the world. Twenty years after the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, we cleared customs and entered the country that had haunted my dreams and changed our lives; a land where 58,183 Americans died and countless more spilled their blood. My image of " 'Nam" finally became a reality.
If any common thread ties all cycling trips together it must lie in their never ending ability to dish out the unexpected. Our first day on the road, fifty kms. east of Saigon we came upon a snarl of traffic with lines of trucks and cars waiting to proceed. Seeing construction machinery ahead we rode on the shoulder, smugly passing dozens of idling vehicles. The paving equipment thwarting everyone was putting down a fresh coating of what looked like glistening black oil. Rather than dismount and walk I chose to ride on, albeit gingerly so as not to spatter my panniers. The resurfacing went on for half a km. All the while I could not understand why so many people were pushing and struggling their mopeds in the hummocked terrain parallel to the road.
With the resumption of dry macadam I began seeing person after person crouching next to their bicycles or mopeds and picking at the tires. All at once a breeze swirled and I caught a whiff of an unmistakable scent -- hot tar. Stopping to lean my bike against a utility pole, I stared at my wheels.
Over the years I've ridden through clay, sand, wet paint; even a morass of mud and pine needles that clogged the brakes and prevented the wheels from rotating. But never, never had I encountered such a mess. Not only had the knobby tires become imbedded with tar, but the hot goo had collected pebbles and grit which in turn enmeshed even more debris. By that point the mastic had cooled, leaving a band of paving compound clinging to my tires with the adhesive power of epoxy. For the next 45 minutes we squatted like everyone else, prying black death off the tread.
I don't regret the tar fiasco for it led to a situation I'll always remember. We had to reassess our goal for the day due to lost time and opted for Long Thanh, a village small enough not to show up on our map. The main road bissected the town, dirt streets led to houses and fields while rice paddies lay beyond. Without the slightest hope of finding one, we stopped at a one-room grocery and pointed to the Vietnamese word for "hotel" in our phrase book. The proprietor took us out front and motioned to turn at the next corner. Bennett and I felt certain he'd misunderstood but we took a chance. As luck would have it, a spiffy three-story building (the tallest in town), sat two blocks away. Indeed they had rooms, electricity, a restaurant and best of all, running water. Bliss. Though grateful for its presence, we could not understand how a blue-collar, non-touristic village like Long Thanh could support a hotel.
We resolved the mystery minutes later when a man wearing a Braves baseball cap and a Ralph Lauren polo shirt walked to the desk and in reasonably polished English said, "Nice mountain bikes. Whereabouts are you from?" It struck me immediately that his speech had a drawl that resonated, "deep south." It turned out that he'd escaped from Vietnam with his parents in 1977, wound up in Atlanta and had worked for Wrigley since 1980. The hotel represented a joint venture between him and his brother-in-law. For medical reasons his sister could not leave the country in the 70's and a grandmother stayed in Long Thanh to look after the little girl. "Atlanta," as we called him, had returned to his home town for the first time only a week before and still couldn't absorb the culture shock. "At home I drive a Mustang convertible. This morning I rode in my cousin's ox cart."
After settling in the room I ventured downstairs to look for kerosene, hot water, a stiff brush, soap or anything to help get the tar off my tires. Wheels in hand, I found the hotel kitchen and displayed my predicament. A middle-aged woman motioned me into the laundry/pot scouring area and directed two helpers to fill two tubs with suds. While we waited, the woman turned to me and said, "Were you here before?" Her command of English took me aback and the question confused me until I realized she meant the war years. Looking away towards an open window she coughed and with the back of her hand brushed away tears from her cheek.
"Some of them might come back now, " she stammered, "but I know he never will." Between halting sobs she told of "my happy time," a story, I suspect, that belonged to many others like Chi Nguyen. The U.S. had a base near Long Thanh. and she had worked in a local night club as a singer and dancer. Though the creases in her face and slumping shoulders told a tale of post-war physical hardship, I could see a faded elgance that once must have swept young soldiers off their feet. In her thoughts and dreams Chi Nguyen remembers the night she fell madly in love with a GI named (ironically) Skip and he supposedly with her. He stayed in Long Thanh for several months. Chi Nguyen sighed. "We danced and loved all night. And his hair, the color of gold."
After serving his tour and returning to the states "....he wrote me many many letters. I still have the picture of us in front of his tank." His mail came less and less frequently and finally no more. By the late 1970s Chi Nguyen could rarely get correspondence out of the country.
The importance of de-tarring my tires paled as I listened to her memories of dreams that had never come true. "Every night," she said, "when the dark comes into my room, I think of Skip and kiss his picture. But now he could come back for me. He is free to come and I am still here for him. You and your friend are the first Americans to stop in Long Thanh. The others drive past. Can I ask you........to look for Skip when you go back?" She wrote her name and address on a paper scrap and handed it to me. In that moment I understood yet another facet of suffering endured for so many decades by the Vietnamese.
The next evening we reached a coastal fishing village. After a fitful night of tossing and turning and wide awake before dawn, I dressed and walked outside to see Long Hai waking up. In the waning darkness, activity levels rivalled rush hour. Bicycles loaded with firewood weaved past a burro swaying under the weight of baskets filled with potatoes. A woman and her two little girls, each balancing a bale of cilantro on their heads, made their morning delivery to a food stall. A dozen workmen squatted by a construction site, slurping bowls of breakfast noodles and smoking the first cigarette of the day.
All this took place in what I would call pitch dark. Only moped headlight beams and the occasional flame from a cooking fire pierced the blackness. But the people of Long Hai moved about as if the streets had the brilliance of Times square . The experience made me recall passages in The Making of a Quagmire by David Halberstam. He cites countless examples of the Viet Cong besting their enemies using a natural ally -- the night. Shrouds of darkness offered an advantage few westerners can fathom. That ability to move by feel, bat-like, as well as by sight remains today.
In broad daylight, middle-aged white men on bicycles stand out like a stretch limousine cruising the byways of Amish farm country. On the sparsely travelled (we saw four mopeds and three trucks in six hours of riding) dirt road between Binh Chau and Ham Ton we encountered our first example of a phenomenon we'd read about but not experienced -- the staring squad. Thirty kilometers into a blistering morning we came upon a settlement and found a "shop" (only distinguishable from every other hut by its display of empty bottles lined atop a crate).
As we took seats on a plank bench that teetered on the earthen floor, a lull swept over the place. Three women chattering away as they plucked feathers from butchered chickens ceased talking. A few children abandonned their game of tag. Two men stopped splitting and stacking firewood. All began to congregate. Leaving a couple of meters as a buffer zone, the throng swelled. Like a group of kindergarteners gathering to catch their first glimpse of an in-the-flesh hippopotamus, they simply stood and gaped. In the mundane act of drinking a lemon soda and occasionally stretching my neck, I commanded the attention of three dozen people. If I'd started juggling and swallowing flaming swords I couldn't have garnered more interest.
Two decades of closed borders mean that millions of younger Vietnamese living in rural areas have never set eyes on a caucasian, especially one sporting a bristly beard and wearing canvas shorts. Nothing is off limits when it comes to a child's curiosity. While drinking my third bottle of pop I felt a tweak and looked to see a boy of four or five grasping the hair on my forearm and tugging. He turned to look at the kids behind him and spoke. "It's hair and it's growing out of his arm!" he must have said. Hardly realizing what I might unleash, I knelt down and pointed to my beard, prompting the tugger to have a go at my facial crop. Feeling its coarseness he squealed with delight. This emboldened his friends to investigate my body hair -- legs, arms, face. It didn't take much skill to entertain that crowd, just a willingness to part with a few follicles.
If a person needs a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to a town, I call it, "out of the way." If only a mule, mountain bike or hiking boots will get you there, I call the place, "remote." After ten days on the road we found ourselves clattering down a rutted, boulder-strewn path into Gia Bac, a settlement that sits high on the spine of the central highlands and qualifies as remote. Inhabited by Montagnards, these relatives of Thailand's hill tribes speak their own language and their features and skin color bear no resemblance to the Vietnamese. Though life in Gia Bac has more in common with the 18th century than the late 20th, the villagers offered the accomodations they could and led us to the mud-walled school building.
Exhausted, I feel asleep on the dirt floor, remembering nothing until a nightmare involving failing bike brakes on a screeching descent rousted me. The clarity of the night sky set off the room in a shimmering silver, beckoning me outside into the school yard. The crunch of the gravel underfoot sliced the silence like gunshots in a cave. Stillness seemed to exhilirate the stars.
The enveloping peace of the mountains, broken only by the fading trail of a meteorite streaking north, made me think of the many years ruled by war and inhumanity -- tracers in the sky, mortars, shattering land mines, the hacking of machine guns, burning defoliants and the wounded wailing. Feeling a chill I went inside and tried to sleep.
Only occasionally would I sense the ghosts of Vietnam in the late 1960's -- a country under seige. Cycling along the coast or in the mountains, I would feel swept away by people's curiosity, their warmth, their energy and sense of humor. They seem to look to the future with prevailing optimism rather than to the past with bitterness.
Now and then something would remind me of the young men I knew who died in the war. A fifteen-kilometer grade climbs to Dalat. Winded and spent at the final crest, I rode onto the shoulder, leaned my bike against a tree and walked on a foot path into the woods. It led to a knoll in a grove of red pine, pungent with the aroma of a balsam and pitch. In the distance a checkerboard of fields, orchards and garden plots turned the valley into a mosaic of parsely green squares and plowed earth pentagons. The afternoon sun, piercing a break in the clouds, cast a shaft of brilliance on the mountain slopes to the east. From some reason I thought of Kent Potter, a high school friend killed in a helicopter, shot down by enemy fire. No one on the aircraft survived. I've never found his name on the Vietnam war memorial but I do know that 21 was the last birthday he celebrated.
Scars left by the war in Vietnam remain on both sides of the Pacific -- amputees on the streets of Saigon and veterans in the U.S. who carry on their lives, hounded by the demons of battle from whom they can never escape. But many wounds have healed and only understanding will prevent them from opening again.