From: Jesse Keller
Subject: War Stories
Date: 29 March
In Vietnam, remenants of the war aren't exactly everywhere you look, but it doesn't take much looking to find them. In the backpacker bastion of Pham Ngu Lao, the souvenir shops sell old zippo lighters with insignias of the 101st airborn and model helicopters and B-52s made out of pieces of coke cans. The beggars all have missing limbs, and make it a point to remind you how they got them. The Ho Chi Minh City War Museum proves the point that the winners write the history books. It used to be known as the Museum of American War Crimes.
All of this is not constantly in full view, though. As I said, it takes some looking to find it, and it doesn't make Vietnam an unpleasant place; most of the people are friendly and helpful, but there are moments of discomfort. I occasionally wondered whether it was a good idea to tell people, particularly those over about thirty years old, that I was from America.
I decided, on my second day in Saigon, that instead of flying out of Hanoi, and into Bangkok, as I had originally intended, I wanted to cross overland through Cambodia. This meant I needed a Cambodian visa, so after lunch I began walking the mile or so to the Cambodian Consulate.
An afternoon walk through Saigon is always accompanied by chorusus of "Where you go?" from the multitude of motorcycle drivers that basically constitute Saigon's taxi service, so when a middle-aged man in a grubby button-up shirt and a yellow baseball cap asked me "Where you go," I readied my usual response.
"I go walking," I said.
"Oh, but is very hot!" he said, with a thick accent.
"It's OK, I don't go far." My attempt at ending the conversation.
"Excuse me, where you come from?" A typical question used to pull someone back. I never like to just ignore people, so I responded:
"America," I said, and started to leave again, but the way the man's face lit up at that one word kept my attention.
"Ahhh! America!" The man siezed my hand and shook it vigorously and for the entire time he spoke. "I am very glad to meet you! I _love_ America! America in my heart forever." With that, he released my hand, paused for emphasis, and said, with great pride. "I was America GI." I was, to put it lightly, intrigued.
"You were... an American soldier?" I asked.
"Yes!" he said, beaming. "Empee!" I was confused. He saw this and pointed to his shoulder to clarify. "Em-Pee." MP. He had been a military policeman.
"You were American MP? When?"
"Nineteen sixty-four, sixty-five, sixty-six, sixty-seven, sixty-eight. I GI Vietnamese army. I American MP. Nineteen seventy-five, Communists come, then --" he made a gesture with both hands crossed infront of him. He had been a South Vietnamese soldier from 1964-68, and then was an american MP for the rest of the war, until the communists arrested him in 1975.
"You were in jail?"
"Yes! Fifteen year, I communist jail!" He leaned closer to me, and, in very conspiritorial tones, whispered " I _hate_ communist."
I smiled, and didn't mention that my family is actually quite left wing, and was not exactly in favor of the war.
"Where you go?" he asked. "I take you. Free."
With that, he pulled me onto the back of his Honda Supercub, a little 100cc motorbike which is the most common form of transportation in all of Southeast Asia. He took me to the Cambodian Consulate, waited outside while I applied for my visa, and then took me on a tour for the rest of the day, to the chinese market, and every notable pagoda in the city. He would accept no money, not even when we stopped for gas. All he asked was that I donate 1000 VND, the equivalent of about twelve cents US, at the pagoda.
"Bring good luck you, bring good luck me." When he said this, his eyes had the same look as when he spoke of America and hating Communists, a look which I can only describe a fanatical devotion. He was absolutely convinced that he was speaking the unequivocable truth.
My newfound friend didn't speak a lot of english, but enough to communicate decently well. We were sitting in the courtyard of a pagoda, drinking cokes in the shade of a huge old banyan tree, when he introduced me to a phrase which I would hear him use repeatedly over the next few days. He leaned in, his face overcome with a look of disgust, and whispered: "Fucking communists."
He then threw back his head and laughed uproariously. Between guffaws, he said, as if make sure I knew where he stood "Fucking communists!"
The next day we spent at a temple outside of town, one dedicated to the religion Caodaism, which reveres as its primary saints Sun Yat Sen and Victor Hugo. The trip, which, at three hours each way, was much longer that either of us had guessed, swallowed up our entire day. To unwind that evening, he took me back to his house, a three room appartment where he lived with his mother, his sister, her children, and his older brother.
We had a little bit to eat and a whole lot of Beer Saigon. There was actually a crate of it on the floor, and I remarked that he had bought a lot of beer for the occasion, and that I wanted to repay him.
"It's OK, I sell, buy beer," he said while pointing to his bare wrist. His wrist where, just yesterday he had been wearing a watch. He had pawned his watch to buy beer. It was then I resolved myself to pay him no matter what. He must have seen the look on my face, because he assured me "Is OK, I drive motorbike one month, I buy back." A month of work as a moto-taxi driver and he could afford to buy his watch back.
Several beers later, he began to tell me about his experiences in the war, from watching as shells were lobbed down on the VC, to what he considered the greatest moment of his life.
"I was American MP," he said, his eyes glazing over with beer and fanaticism, "I meet General Whussss-Molan." He drew out the name Westmorland with a kind of reverence unsurpassed by any religous zealot. "I stand at gate, General Whuss-Molan look me," he sat up, straight and dignified, portraying Westmoreland, "hmm. Good." Then he dropped the character of Westmoreland, said "and I --" then, portraying himself, he stood at attention and saluted, his eyes staring straigh ahead. In those eyes, I could see that he was reliving the event inside of his mind, and that it truly was one of the most important moments of his life. He looked straight into my eyes, and said "I love America. America in my heart forever." Then he leaned back, finished his beer and said: "fucking communists."
I don't know whether it was his speech about the general and America, or if it was the beer, probably a little of both, but at that moment, I wholeheartedly agreed with him. "Fucking communists," I said, and shook his hand, tightly, and kept shaking.
The next day we toured more, and drank more beer at night, and the day after that, he took me and my backpack 150 kilometers to the Cambodian border on his motorbike, where I gave him thirty dollars, probably about a month's worth moto-taxi driving, and told him to buy back his watch. Then I shook his hand, shouldered my pack, and headed for Cambodia, thinking "fucking communists."
> Email from Jesse Keller
>> VIETNAM & CAMBODIA
Cambodia: Angkor Wat.
From: Jesse Keller
Subject: Cambodia Bouncing, Jolting, Swerving
Date: Wed, 31 March
After my journey overland from Laos to Vietnam, I considered myself one seriously hardcore bus rider. I had no idea. The six hours between Siem Reap, Cambodia and Poipet on the Thai border make the Savannaket-Lao Bao road seem like an interstate highway.
When I arrived at the bus station at 6:45am, I saw that our bus was actually a full sized extra-cab pickup truck. Inside the cab were five people. In the front seats sat the driver and a big, loud American from Chicago; in the back two Cambodian guys and a Korean were conversing in English. I walked up, handing my Eagle Creek World Journey to one of the three young Cambodian guys in the bed of the pickup. As I took my seat, I thought how lucky I was to get the window. It was a little cramped, but, I thought, six hours in an air-conditioned pickup is a piece of cake. I had heard stories already from people who had done this trip, about the road conditions, the potholes, but I had been through Laos by bus. I was hard core.
Ken, the American with a football player build and a comicbook-hero chin, began to regale us with the story of his adventure along this pothole-ridden stretch of asphalt only a week before. I was still not impressed.
The truck jolted into motion. We were on the road. But only for a minute or two. We stopped in an outlying village to pick up more cargo. Everything, including my World Journey, was unloaded from the bed. I saw among the baggage six large sacks, each big enough to hold Ken. All were dripping water and upon closer inspection, each contained about 150 pounds of small clams. They were separated from our baggage by a thin sheet of plastic. Then I turned my attention on the seven wooden crates that were about to be loaded into the truck.
The crates were brilliantly low-tech constructions made of five sides of wooden slats, a hinged wooden top and a water filled piece of blue plastic tarp hanging into the box. Each of these makeshift aquariums contained eight to ten live catfish. The catfish crates were loaded into the truck, then the shellfish bags, then separated again by the thin plastic sheet my trusty World Journey, followed by the rest of the luggage. My pack was waterproof fabric, but I doubted if it was fish-odor resistant.
And then we were moving again. The road had a few potholes, but which was nothing compared to the terror between Savannaket and Lao Bao. I smirked to myself.
Then we hit the Bad Road. The right side of the vehicle dipped sharply, sending my head smacking against the window, quickly removing my smirk. We lurched to the left, then again to the right, bouncing, jolting and swerving around the bigger potholes, some of which were fifteen feet across and five feet deep. I was later informed that these "potholes" were actually landmine craters.
This wild ride continued, broken only occasionally by short, half-mile stretches of good road, for nearly four hours, when the road almost entirely disappeared. The cratered moonscape of a paved road became a dusty dirt road, which, due to recent rains, was now a swamp. The driver saw this as no reason to slow down. We sped through the foamy grey-green mud, frequently skidding and fishtailing as we swerved to avoid what appeard to be deeper patches of muck. Mud flew everywhere, onto the sides, onto the windshield, and into to the back. I glanced back and saw that my pack had been partially covered with a scrap of plastic in a half-hearted attempt to deflect some of the mud, but was nonetheless getting a pretty serious paint job.
When I turned back, I saw that the windshield was almost completely covered, and for a moment marvelled at how the driver could see where we were going. A minute later, I realized he couldn't, because we went careening into an ocean of loose mud, sank up to our bumper in the front, and began spinning our tires. We were stuck.
Everybody got out, stepping onto a dry rice paddy that was conveniently a few feet from the lefthand door. We gathered dry rice shafts to put under the rear wheels, in a futile attempt to gain some traction. We weren't going anywhere.
Another truck rumbled by us, and for a moment I hoped they would stop to help. The truck was one I had seen stuck about a mile back. Our driver had rocketed by them, splashing mud on the men who were pushing the truck out of the mire. They pointed and laughed as they passed by us.
All of us were starting totake off our shoes, ready to get into the mud and push, when we saw a white Land Rover coming towards us. I saw the emblem of the red cross on the side. 'Deus Ex Machina,' I thought. 'The cavalry has arrived.'
Well, the cavalry had arrived. As the Land Rover pulled closer, I saw a man who looked like a US marine at the wheel, and the word "demining" stenciled on the side. This was a land mine removal operation from the red cross.
The man, who turned out to be Scottish, attatched a rope, and towed us to freedom. We thanked him, and went on our way, letting him get back to the mine fields. Our driver took it a little slower from there on out, but it was still only an hour before we reached reached the border. I grabbed my World Journey, wiped of as much of the dried mud as I could, and headed for Thailand.
>> Cambodia: Stuck in the mud.