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War, huh, what is it good for?

Paddy dreaming, a Vietnamese Christmas and how to help a returning vet see the light.
When I last wrote to you all from Vietnam I had just discovered the joys of travelling through the small towns and villages by motorbike, and to be honest my remaining time in Vietnam offered much of the same.

While gate-crashing breakfast at this Vietnamese monastery, we discovered how the teenage novices keep themselves occupied during the day: hackey sack. Chastity vows suck. Enlarge »
Walking, cycling or driving through rural areas of Vietnam is one of the nation's simplest but most enjoyable experiences. In fact I think if the true soul of Vietnam is to be found anywhere, it's in the rice paddies and villages that seem to crop up on every spare piece of land. As you pass kilometres of women wading knee deep in rice paddies set amidst the palms and thick vegetation of the Vietnamese countryside, you can't help but imagine that somebody has simply thrown a shimmering, emerald green patchwork blanket over the entire country. Kids ride buffalo to and from the fields, men struggle to steer ploughing engines on the road, and the smell of garlic and mint wafts out of homes and street-side food stalls.

The day after I wrote the last post, I decided to ignore the weather and visit the ancient ruins of My Son with Josef, a Slovakian lifeguard in his mid-30s who, despite my repeated warnings and confessions of motorbike ignorance, insisted that he hop on the back of my bike so that we could halve the cost of travelling the sixty kilometres from Hoi An to the ruins. This was only my third day behind the reins of a bike and the last thing I needed was the death of recently befriended East European to plague my already overburdened conscience should the worst occur. But the lure of splitting the cost proved too great and after a wobbly start we were soon roaring through the Vietnamese countryside.

...the last thing I needed was the death of recently befriended East European to plague my already overburdened conscience...
The temple ruins at My Son were impressive, but more so for the juxtaposition (I had to use that word eventually) of two important phases of Vietnam's history. The ruins, you see, had made an effective Viet Cong base during the Vietnam war and evidence of sniper fights and botched US raids can still be seen today by the bullet markings on ancient Sanskrit tablets and the reduction of more than one temple to rubble by US bombers. This had a bigger effect on me than I envisioned and my curiosity in the War, which I hadn't really thought about until that moment, was piqued. I even decided to give the southern Vietnam a miss and instead loiter around the middle of the country, exploring the old Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that once separated the communist north and US backed south during the height of the Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese call it, the 'American War').

I bid farewell to the lifeguard with a vow to take him up on his offer to visit his homeland and partake in 'Vodka, vodka, and women' and retraced my steps north. On my way, though, I spent three days in Hue, a historical town full of mausoleums, temples and 'forbidden cities'. Predictably the government insists on charging 55,000 dong for entry into each of these sights for foreigners -- locals pay one-fifth of that, of course -- so my exploration of the city was limited to cruising around the perimeter of the Citadel, playing hackey-sack with some young monks at a local monastery and sticking my camera through the entrance gates at countless mausoleums. Unfortunately the weather was not being co-operative.

The rain and cold I'd encountered in Hoi An had followed me up to Hue and showed no signs of abating. In fact, most of my time in Hue was spent sitting restlessly inside a cafe run by the insane Thu (I'm still trying to figure out what she meant by giving me a 'big banana discount') and her self-styled DJ brother Ming, playing countless games of Jenga and eating big bowls of vegetable noodle soup.

When Christmas Eve caught me by surprise I was little undecided what to do. It certainly didn't feel like Christmas, but I felt obligated to do something to celebrate the Festive Season. As it turned out, I ended up crashing the party of a nearby hotel with two Irish guys named Alan and Matt (they're motorbike stunt drivers back home) and drank and ate copious quantities of free champagne, beer and food while trying to convince an American that I was from Albuquerque.

Abandoned US Army tanks guarding the now deserted Khe Sanh combat base. Barnesy, you'd be proud. Enlarge »
Eventually I figured that no amount of praying would change this weather and I'd have to continue with my planned route. I took a quick bus up to Dong Ha, a small town that sits just south of the DMZ and was razed by US bombers during the war. There was only one other foreigner in town, an American veteran named John. He'd served in and around the DMZ during the war and had come back to Dong Ha to face the demons that still haunted him over thirty years later. My plans to cruise the battlefields in the area by myself on a motorbike were doused by the still inclement weather, so I bit the bullet and joined a tour bus with John. The most interesting sight of the day was the Vinh Moc tunnels which were used by the Viet Cong as living quarters and a supply route during times of intense US bombing raids. Amazingly, the 2km network of tunnels, split over three levels, and complete with meeting room, kitchen and infirmary have been left untouched and visitors (accompanied by a guide) can see what life would have been like for the hundreds of Vietnamese who lived here for over seven years.

It was an eerie experience. The tunnels are only about 1.6 meters high and about 1.3 meters wide. The rain seeping through the clay walls and ceiling meant that walking through was a slippery and muddy experience. The only thing that stopped us from becoming completely lost were the dim 20 watt light bulbs that government had installed every 10 meters or so. John and I had split from the main group as we explored an enclave of residential caves and air- ventilation shafts. How could people spend their entire lives down here? I'd have gone crazy within days. I walked into a residential 'hole', trying to gauge how many people could have squeezed in �

� and then everything went dark.

The unreliable electricity supply to the tunnels had been cut off and with it went the lights. I froze for a second, realising that when you're 15 meters underground with no light, pitch darkness is bound to follow. Oh well, I figured, no need to get nervous. We'd just wait until the electricity supply was restored and then find our way out like two calm, rational adults.

But that plan, of course, would have required the presence of two calm, rational adults. John, you see, took this opportunity to muster together the finest strands of his poetic and complex command of the English language in order to express his true feelings on the situation.

"Oh fuck," he said. "Relax," I assured him, "the lights will come back on in a second." "No," he replied with a noticeably anxious tone seeping through his mid-western drawl, "you don't understand. I'm claustrophobic. Very fucking claustrophobic."

Having kindly informed me of his mental state, I suppose John felt comfortable enough to proceed freaking out before my eyes (which of course made no difference because I couldn't see a thing). The panting, shaking and "I'm going to die, I have to get out of here" mutterings that filled the next two minutes and seemed to increase in both frequency and pitch with each second left us with no choice, we'd have to try and find our way out despite the darkness before John lost it entirely.

With the former medal-earning soldier nothing more than a blubbering mess by my side, I figured it was pretty much up to me. I strained to listen for the tour group in the tunnels somewhere, but heard nothing but John's wheezing breath. We'd split from the group a long time ago and there was little chance of finding them again within the Vinh Moc labyrinth. So instead I tried to mentally retrace our steps and orientate myself, hoping that if we headed east we'd eventually end up at one of the beach exits.

I remember ... pausing for a moment to reflect on the turn of events that had led me to be half a world away from home, lost in a pitch black underground maze of tunnels, coated in mud and racing against the clock to find my way out before a crazed Vietnam vet lost his tenuous grasp on sanity beside me.
After I helped John to his feet, we began a slow waddle / crawl through the tunnels of Vinh Moc, suddenly appreciative of what it means to be totally blind. Without any light to guide us, I had to grope along the muddy clay walls to feel for forks in the tunnels or any familiar object that might have given me an indication as to our location. I can't recall how long we stumbled around in total darkness for, though I'd swear it was for hours. Nor can I recall the number of times we slipped and fell over into the muddy pools of water by our feet, only to scramble back up and struggle on. I do, however remember John's incessant mumblings ("What have I done?" / "I'm going to die." / "What did I do to these people?") and pausing for a moment to reflect on the turn of events that had led me to be half a world away from home, lost in a pitch black underground maze of tunnels, coated in mud and racing against the clock to find my way out before a crazed Vietnam vet lost his tenuous grasp on sanity beside me.

What I remember most fondly of all however, is the sight of the brown tunnel walls. "Brown?" I remember asking myself, "if I can see brown, then there must be light!" Sprinting ahead of John I raced around a bend in the tunnel and was momentarily blinded by the pure, white daylight that greeted me. I'd never been so happy to see a rainy sky.

I skipped joyfully back to John, who had fallen into a puddle and hadn't bothered to get up again, and began to lead him out with his arm around my shoulder for support. As we rounded the final turn, John shielded his eyes from the light and muttered something unintelligible under his breath while I took the opportunity to take one last glance back at the gaping black entrance of the tunnel�

... and to see the lights come back on.

We relocated the tour group, who hadn't even noticed we'd disappeared, about five minutes later as they walked back to the bus. As it turns out, the electricity had failed for a total of twenty minutes and it had taken a little longer than usual to get the generator up and running again.

While John and I clambered back on the bus under the disapproving glare of the driver, who was probably only thinking of the cleanup he'd have to do after the two muddiest men he'd ever seen had left his bus, I finally asked John a question that had been nagging for an answer.

"John, if you knew you were claustrophobic, why the Hell did you go into the tunnels in the first place?"

"I thought I'd be OK", came the meek reply from a man who had now abdicated any remaining rights to macho bravado, "and besides, I'd already paid for the ticket."



On my last day in Vietnam I packed up and headed off once again, this time hitching a lift on the back of a motorbike to Khe Sanh, a town made famous by a certain Cold Chisel song that has a tendency to be played around closing time in pubs across Australia, much to the teary delight of drunken yobs who clutch at each other and slur "I love you man!" at the tops of their voices.

For those of you not up with Vietnam War history, Khe Sanh was the most controversial of the war's battles. Up until 1968 the combat base was one of the most remote US outposts in Vietnam that had little strategic value. But when US intelligence detected the gathering of thousands of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops around the base, the government suspected the NVA were preparing for their final, definitive offensive against the south. President Johnson ordered that the base be held at all costs and, after a two-month battle which saw thousands of US and NVA casualties, it was.

At the end of it all however, it became apparent that Khe Sanh had just been a diversion from the nearby Tet Offensive and that countless lives had been lost just to maintain hold on a base that was of no real use. Finally, the US abandoned Khe Sanh only a few months after it had lost so many lives to save it.

I passed through this village while hitching from Khe Sanh combat base to the Vietnamese - Lao border. This villager posed happily with her grandchildren, then stuck out her hand demanded 15,000 dong (about AUS $2). After some minutes we finally settled on a beneficially agreeable price: a koala bear toy I had in my backpack for he granddaughter. Judging by their blank looks, most of them were pro Enlarge »
All that remains now of Khe Sanh is an airstrip, a few abandoned tanks and helicopters and a bunker or two. Nothing else to show for the people that died trying to take, and defend, this meaningless piece of land. And it's exactly that kind of pointless warfare that dominated my rudimentary tour of the Vietnam War's notable sites: in this war, as all wars, too many people had died needless deaths in pointless battles for little or no reason. And as I watched a young Vietnamese boy try and sell 'authentic' dog tags of an unkown US soldier to an elderly, Nikon-touting US tourist on all that remains of Khe Sanh's air strip, all I could ask myself was (and to borrow a famous quote), "Why can't we all just learn to get along?"

But it was time to move on. Leaving the combat base, I hitched another short ride from Khe Sanh to the Vietnamese border town of Lao Bao -- a rather simple process that involved waving my last 5,000 dong note (AUS $0.60) in the air until somebody stopped -- and then walked four kilometres through the rarely used border checkpoints before finally stepping into yet another unknown country: Laos.

Ready or not, here I come.

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