Some years ago I undertook a two week hunger strike to protest American involvement in Vietnam. More accurately, my fast was to protest my own involvement in Vietnam — if I could weigh less than 125 pounds at my draft physical, I might get a medical deferment. In the end, I didn’t get the deferment, despite dropping 25 pounds, but I didn’t go to Nam either, since our birth year turned out to be lucky. Our vacation to Southeast Asia, with Cheryl’s sister Madelyn and her two sons Tom and Jack, thus had historical resonance. The map of south Vietnam is inscribed in memory along with the face of Walter Cronkheit, and we were in Saigon. Officially Ho Chi Minh City, but the locals generally go with Saigon, easier and better sounding. Our American involvement in Vietnam began on Xmas eve, and it seemed that the six million residents all hopped on their motorcycles and swarmed the streets.
Crossing the street in Saigon is fording a stream, step by step as the flow parts around you. You cross in two stages, since gaps in both directions at once are a cosmic impossibility, and more than once I had to turn sideways and inhale to let a bus by. The streets are about as loud as in China, but many horns have built in echoes, BEEPBeepbeep, fading away as if in a forlorn canyon. Or perhaps a thousand forlorn canyons.
Our first day took us into the heart of the American war, as it is known in Vietnam. We began with a tour of the Cu Chi tunnel system, 250 km of crawl space connecting subterranean kitchens, dormitories, hospitals, weapons workshops, and more, covering territory as close as 5 km from the main American base. From these dark, hot crawls freedom fighters could pop up like gophers, fire a weapon, and disappear beneath a lid of leaves impossible to see. In that way, vast territory belonged to the freedom fighters at night, and to the American aggressors by day. Not that you’d want it. The jungle (a temperate forest, really) is riddled with B-52 bomb craters, every few hundred feet, each about twenty feet wide and ten feet deep, and equally riddled with truly diabolical booby traps, like the swinging platform that drops you onto a bed of bamboo spikes, or the clamping jaws, or the swinging door trap, all armed with iron spikes. Each of them sprang with the weight of the unfortunate soldier who stepped upon it, and all swung back to invisible readiness after each spiking.
The Cu Chi outdoor park/museum included numerous mannequin tableaux, displays of captured American tanks and unexploded bombs, and the opportunity to crawl through the tunnels themselves, hot, tight, and dark. Then we moved on to the firing range, where tourists could buy rounds of live ammunition and fire them off, from the relatively cheap AK-47 to the M-16 and on up to some very angry and deafening machine guns, favored by the Australian tourists (men of a certain age). We each fired off a round of AK-47, which was deafening enough. This was maybe the most surreal moment of the day, American and other foreigners clamoring around the (North) Vietnamese troops to buy ammo for the weapons that fought this war, now transfigured into a tourist theme park.
Our visit ended with a documentary film, made back then with the grainy B/W jitters of a classic newsreel, celebrating the brave fighters of Cu Chi village, who fought on after their village was razed, farm girls who earned the glorious “medal for killing Americans” and boys with the ribbon for destroying American tanks.
Then after an outdoor lunch we visited the War History Museum, which documented just one war. American warplanes in perfect condition filled the yard and the exhibits began with a large illustration devoted to the My Lai massacre, and carried on through a stomach churning parade of American atrocities, of which the Agent Orange birth mutations are the most horrific. The Vietnamese, as far as we could tell, take great pride in their victory. Our guide said that if they hadn’t won, South Vietnam would be an American state and he’d be speaking English only. We heard many times that the Vietnamese are a very forgiving people, that they like Americans and that anyway most are too young to remember the war. After the tenth repetition of this mantra, you begin to wonder. Nonetheless, the people we met (in this tourist economy) were certainly friendly, even when dollars were not involved.
I felt shame and sadness. Of course, the history from this side of the street omits mention of the South Vietnamese soldiers who fought with the Americans, and the official alliance between the two countries. Nonetheless, at this distance the rationale for the carnage seems faintly ridiculous. And (although this is obvious) the actual carnage goes far beyond the most graphic Hollywood version, as I can testify after wincing my dutiful way through all the Vietnam movies of the last thirty years. Leaders and peoples should not be insulated from the knowledge of the reality of warfare.
Following this first day, we began a meander up the Mekong river, still the agrarian heart of Vietnam. Sometimes we bounced along in a van, but often we went by boats of various sizes, always pleasant. On land Vietnam is hot and humid, but on the water balmy and Hawaiian. Only on water can you see the economic system. Big farms ship their produce downstream, parking boats in flotillas to form huge floating markets. Each seller hangs an example of the family produce from a bamboo pole on their boat. The retailers snake their smaller motorboats among the sellers, stocking up on the fresh fruit and produce sold in every town. We had many happy helpings of pineapple, papaya, dragonfruit, jackfruit, and watermelon. Presumably the other produce is as good.
The Mekong voyage continued with a five hour speed boat run from Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Once again, the first stop was political. Just as Vietnam won the American war, Cambodian civil war ended with the ascent of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. His fighters were greeted with joy, but within three hours he ordered the total evacuation of all the cities, beginning the horror that was the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea. Most genocides involve a pretext of group differences, but not this one, a self-devouring of a totalitarian, paranoid state. Two to three million were murdered, 30% of the population at the time, in the killing fields that dot the landscape. We went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a school that had been converted into a prison, “security office 21.”
The average stay in the prison was a few months, but after that the killing fields always followed. Only seven people survived S-21. Both of our guides had lost most of their families in the killing. The Tuol Sleng pamphlet concludes with these words:
Keeping the memory of the atrocities committed on Cambodian soil alive is the key to build a new strong and just state.
Furthermore, making the crimes of the inhuman regime of the Khmer Rouge public plays a crucial role in preventing a new Pol Pot from emerging in the lands of Angkor or anywhere on Earth.
Finally in 1979 Vietnam occupied Cambodia, ending the Khmer Rouge. After considerable diplomacy, in 1993 a parliamentary democracy with a ceremonial monarch was established. Now the population has exploded, mostly on the farms, and the main industry is tourism.
We continued up river and into the past, the heart of the Khmer empire, which from the 9th to the 15th Centuries was second only to China in size, including virtually all of the current countries of SE Asia. The Khmer rulers built stunning religious cities in the jungles of Angkor. Angkor Wat is the best known, one of the “seven wonders of the world.” Five beehive towers arise from successive platforms reached by colossal steep staircases. The main structure is enclosed in a wall several thousand feet long, inside a moat flanked by statues of gods and demons.
Angkor Wat was one of six temple complexes that we visited over two days. Each was different, and falls on my short list of infinite buildings — structures that show more and endless detail no matter how you peer at them. Bayan was magnificently and intricately carved at every scale, including a thousand yard frieze depicting every warrior, monkeys and crocodiles included, in an epic victory over the kingdom of Sri Lanka. Another temple has been left with the encroaching jungle in place, jumbled columns and chambers locked in giant banyan roots — nature and human works mixed up by undiscovered centuries. Another temple sat high on a hill overlooking the unbroken green (and Angkor Wat). We went up to watch the sunset, commuting up and down by elephant. The elephants seemed to us to be healthy and contented. Their drivers sat bareback on their animal’s head, with their feet propped on the elephant’s ears. We rode in a swaying wooden copula.
Then we retraced our steps (by plane) and are currently approaching Guanzhou on the way to Beijing and Tianjin. It was a great trip, obviously. It casts a reflection on life in China. China is poor, but SE Asia is poorer — the dilemmas of the relatively rich tourist are apparent on every street. China is also somehow more uniform than the haphazard charm of megavillages like Saigon and Phnom Penh. It was certainly nice to be on a tour with local guides, and we found everyone we encountered, even the tuc-tuc (motorized rickshaw) drivers, to have good English skills. But tourism and living are as different as dragonfruit and papaya. The tourist looks for spectacle, material pleasure, and exotic charm. The resident temporary expat wants to identify with the local culture, which requires a depth of knowledge far beyond my five month short course (so far). It’s work, but work of a different kind, the warm effort of building a world in common with the taxi drivers in their turquoise cabs, the students on their bicycles, the fruit sellers, the migrant workers, the eager boyfriends and girlfriends, the harried professors and the proud parents. I wonder if there’s a word in Chinese to express this kind of work — I’ll have to ask around.