vietnam1

The war is over.

“Hum, I hear that’s a beautiful country,” people would invariably say. Of course, the first thing that actually pops to mind is that we dropped quite a few bombs and some other really bad stuff from the stem to the stern of this country. Our government whipped up a paranoid fantasy that countries in Asia were going to fall like a cascading row of dominos and we had to put our foot down. And put it down we did. It turned out that this was a wrong headed idea and communism was internally wired to self-destruct as it has done with regularity ever since. My 18 year old son Rowan and I decided to surprise his older brother Tyler when his ship pulled into Saigon on his tour around the world with the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester at Sea Program. On a given week he powwows with Castro, the next he is in the middle of a violent clash with rioting revelers in Rio; then hunkering down with the Bushmen in Africa; Mauritius (where the last of the dodo birds was killed in 1787); India where they don’t chew gum because of no money and then to Singapore where they don’t chew gum because it’s unsightly (and illegal).

We donned coolie hats and as Tyler disembarked, Rowan jumped the unsuspecting lad and tried to sell him a wristwatch. Tyler looked at him with mild disinterest until it dawned on him that we had traveled to the backside of the planet to bring him clean socks.

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Vietnam is not a pretty country. Buzzing swarms of horn blaring motor scooters choke the garbage strangled streets in a civic nightmare where the war is still a vivid memory and you can still see a few legless men and agent orange deformed people begging in the streets. This a country emerging through shear guts and grit from over 30 years of war. Just my kind of place. We drove out to Cuo Chi where 10,000 people lived underground in 240 kilometers of 3 foot high tunnels which eventually evolved into a underground city where people were born, were married and died by the thousands. In the tunnels you had no name, only a number so that if captured you couldn’t inform on your comrades. These tunnels are just large enough to crawl through and when U.S. bombing and tanks failed to root out the Viet Cong, American GI’s called tunnel rats would actually go in after them with flame throwers. This came out badly for both sides.

The area is now a major tourist attraction and people come from all over the world to see the incredible technology which the Viet Cong developed. They made rice wine (actually 100 proof moonshine from primitive stills), they developed special hatches which swelled when wet to keep the tunnels dry and they scavenged unexploded U.S. ordinance remanufacturing it into anti-tank mines. The most vivid displays were of the terrifying tiger traps which came in endless variations. The most common was a pivoting door with a center bar; step on either end and down you went onto sharpened poison-tipped bamboo. Others were simple round holes which had iron-maiden steel spikes that closed into you as you were delivered into eternity. Our guide was chatty, if a tad hostile, and he was with the southern army. He said that the War resembled a very bad Tom and Jerry cartoon, truly one of the most bizarre analogies I have ever heard. The Chinese supported the North Vietnamese war effort and when their relationship soured, their Russian comrades took up the slack. My, how things change. The Vietnamese were originally from China about 2,100 years ago and they had always maintained strong ties even after Vietnam became independent 997 years ago. Then Mao pretty much put the kibosh on the alliance. Mao was by any measure a dictator of unimaginable degeneracy. It is hard to believe that back in the 60’s American students actually carried around Mao’s Little Red Book which was full of quippy little bits of nonsense, which, due to Mao’s lack of erudition, he probably didn’t even write. The Russians and the North Vietnamese got along pretty well until a few more dominos fell and the communists lost their snap-crackle-and-pop in Europe in the late 80’s. In 1991 the Russians stopped returning calls which left Vietnam pretty much out in the cold, cash wise, or in their case out in the humid heat. Now, however, strong alliances have developed with Thailand, Japan, and the United States. So who are the Vietnamese? Their written language is nothing like Chinese. The Latin alphabet was first introduced by an 18th Century Catholic missionary but only became popular in the last 100 years. There are so few words in this phonic based language that many words have the same spelling but have very different meanings. Ma can mean mother, rice or prostitute depending on how you pronounce it.

We stayed at the Rex Hotel which had been the residence of the American generals 30 years earlier. The traffic in Saigon is a living nightmare. For the first couple of days we assumed there were no traffic lights but they actually do have a few tiny ones the size of flashlights which are largely ignored. To cross the wide streets is quite simple. You say goodbye to your friends and loved ones, close your eyes and saunter deliberately across. Don’t look, don’t hesitate. Like windsurfers, they sail around you. It seems that everyone in this country is on the road at the same time and on the same street. We saw impossible things on scooters; 20 foot long steel pipes, a bundle of aluminum cans the size of a Pontiac; a bathtub; a pair of 5 gallon glass bottles of gasoline, but the scariest thing was a huge spike-tipped iron gate which, if it fell, would have shish-ke-bobbed the entire block. If you see a basket of piglets on the back of a scooter they say they have round-trip tickets, but if you see one large hog they say he has a one-way ticket. No one wears a helmet and they make the claim that all the bad drivers have already been killed but this isn’t really true. The hospitals are full of heads unnecessarily smashed into insensibility.

Now Cuba and North Korea look communist. Grey, drab and poverty stricken. But Vietnam is a capitalistic free-for-all. Stereo stores are packed literally cheek by jowl with gigantic pigs turning on spits, sharing a wall with hair salons, coffin shops, and stores selling oversized paintings of Napoleon on his white charger. They just love that little Corsican, maybe because he was 5’2″. Nearly everyone is hawking the same Chinese Rolexes along with Gucci and Nikon knockoffs. Some of these are quite good copies; not the cheap junk you see on the streets of NYC. In fact, they sell copies of nearly everything you can imagine. North Face Himalaya packs, 20 bucks, Honda 125cc’s, $400 (although Honda has cracked down on them recently and the new ones from China are labeled, Honga). You can buy Guess blue jeans with all the correct paper labels. For $2 you can even buy faithfully reproduced Lonely Planet guide books, or Harry Potter DVDs. You can also find real tiger skins, crocodiles and BMW’s.

There are some pretty ritzy parts of town with 20 story marble towers where the rich communists and foreigners live sporting ground floor shops selling Gucci and Hermes; not the knockoffs but the real thing, I think. Who knows, maybe the tower was actually made of Corian.

We left Saigon for Hanoi 800 miles north and the world changed once again. We passed the Hanoi Hilton with its notoriously dreadful room service (since it had actually been a American POW compound). We toured the marketplaces where the chicken is so fresh that it is still walking around. The rows of neatly arranged goose heads contrasted fetchingly with the stacks of Snickers Bars and trays of pig brains. I was quite taken with the fellow carving tombstones which featured an abundance of creative writing and a laminated photograph of the departed. He had a very nice one featuring Britney Spears and if she pegs out on Nov. 3rd, 2002 she won’t have to waste time picking out a stone. It’s crazy stuff like this that makes me the pronoid that I am. A pronoid thinks the world is conspiring behind his back to give him a good time.

I always like the fish sections the best. Some eely looking creatures were so tiny that a thousand would fit in a teaspoon and they are sold in about ten different sizes. Tyler outfitted himself out in a complete traditional Mong outfit for which he paid $7. Later some Mong villagers had a good laugh that he had been so badly skinned because they would have sold him a similar outfit for $4.

There were about 15 of us from the ship together for several days and our mission was to visit the Montagnards, the hill people, who have been living in the uplands for tens of thousands of years. There are some 50 ethnic groups in Vietnam and we stayed in the Thaï village of Mai Chaû which has been turned into their version of a tourist town. There are about 25 thatched buildings, called long houses, kept above the floods, cobras and rats on teak stilts. Rats are a huge problem as the Chinese value the cat so much that they pay high prices for them and cats stay indoors if they want to keep their 9 lives. Some Chinese believe that if you eat enough snake and cat you will gain the benefits of the tiger and the dragon. Our guide had no love left for the Chinese. He said that they eat everything with legs, except the table; everything with wings, except the airplane and everything that swims, except the submarine. In China they have a strict one child rule and this has resulted in a certain amount of infanticide of girl children so the inevitable shortage of marriageable women has resulted in a brisk trade in brides bound for China, much to the displeasure of the Vietnamese. I like the Chinese just fine. It’s all perspective.

Some of the hill tribes aided the Americans during the War and are still held in contempt, but the ethnic Thaïs, which number about a million in a country of 88 million, are considered very smart and they are allowed to go to the universities without taking entrance exams and they often have high government positions. It can be rugged in the north and some regions are so isolated that two living species of never before documented large mammals were discovered in the 1990’s, long after we figured we had found them all.

As with so many places (except Iceland and Tunisia) they have a topsy turvey logic to life. You cannot drive a motorcycle over 125 cc’s without a very special, difficult to obtain license, but they let me drive the passenger train part of the way from Saigon to Hanoi without so much as a library card. You can be arrested for taking a picture of a crashed American warplane but (if you don’t fall on anyone) it isn’t illegal to actually crash a plane.

Of course, these contrasts are what are so captivating about a place. Rowan and I went ice skating in the 90 degree heat, stumbling over the chunky ice to the strains of “We wish you a merry Christmas” blaring from the half blown speakers as we passed crude paintings of green-eyed polar bears and palm trees. We bought cobras (as in the snake) pickled in wine which are available all over town in sizes ranging from little wigglies to 6 foot serpents. We drank avocado frappes and ate bits of food cut up mercifully small enough to prevent precise identification. My favorite food was called Thang Long or dragon fruit. I have never seen it in this country. It has brilliant red rind with a snowy white interior featuring itty-bitty, crunchy black seeds.

On our last night with the villagers our guide announced that we would be honored with a special dinner of roast dog, cat and cobra. Dessert was to be a pudding of congealed of cow dung and water buffalo milk. In the local market I had noticed a good many puppies being sold which I had optimistically assumed were on their way to happy pet-hood. Just before dinner most of our group evaporated prior to discovering it was a perfectly executed April fool’s joke, and it was indeed April 1st. I was sort of looking forward to eating the cobra but was made content with eel. At night in the long house the local folks danced and sang traditional songs in a shy, lovely fashion. We taught them the boogaloo and the limbo.

One thing you can say about the people of this country is that they work as hard as wildcatters on triple time. You don’t see game arcades, movie theaters or people loafing around. They want to modernize and they realize that their uncontrolled growth is crippling their future so they welcome foreigners with the skills to help them develop. It looks like San Francisco in 1849. If I was a young disenfranchised dot com-mer wandering around I would immediately go to this land of opportunity.

vietnam2We went to the American War Remnants Museum (popularly known as the American War Crimes Museum) which was once a French prison (complete with an authentic guillotine). This later became the U.S. embassy. Probably the most memorable photo of that era is of the last helicopter evacuating the personnel from the embassy. The place is now filled with vivid pictures of the war and its aftermath. There are pictures of Mai Lai and GI’s with collections of human heads. This is a museum from the perspective of the victors. Do you recall that we never declared war on this country? In spite of the fact that up to two million people were killed, including 58,000 Americans, we called it a police action. Rodney King look out! Only two Senators, Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution which fully committed us to this war and, make no mistake, it was no “police action.” Driving through the streets of Saigon we passed a pile of U.S. war planes which had been heaped up like a mound of trash, left as a reminder that it was a shooting war of the most virulent nature.

In 1969 I got a letter from the US government telling me that they would like it if I would “Come on down to Vietnam, whoopee we’re all going to die,” as Country Joe McDonald would sing it. I wrote two words, the second of which was ‘you’ and mailed it back. Now, I had the good fortune to have been raised to think for myself and at 18 I could weigh the facts and consequences as they came to me. I realize that everyone didn’t have that opportunity and they were, to their and the world’s regret, duped. I don’t feel smug nor do I think they were stupid. It is all far too tragic for either sentiment.

When Nixon died and he was eulogized as a great president, good at foreign policy, (if you overlooked Southeast Asia) I was truly made sick. Nixon tried to kill me and he did help instigate the deaths of some of my friends. He and his co-conspirators decided that they were going to run our lives as they saw fit and if we didn’t like it we could go to jail, Canada or hell. Some will say that it was Kennedy’s fault and others will pin much of the blame on Johnson but it was Nixon, Kissinger and that comical bumbler, Spiro Agnew (we should have known that anyone named Spiro would be trouble) who were among the baddest of the bad boys in this.

The anti-war movement grew in a similar fashion to the anti-slavery movement in America. It was a common belief in the early United States that it was that OK to keep people as slaves. But culture changes and now slaveholding is rather unpopular in this country. The anti-war movement was ignited by some individuals who thought that even if the communists did take over in Vietnam it was not our business to meddle. However, things develop by inches so we didn’t just drop in half a million men on a given day. We sent in a few hundred advisors who were supposed to tell the South Vietnamese (the ARVIN) how to run a war after the French bungled it. Hey, didn’t the French (in one of the great ironies of all time) come to the aid of the American Revolutionaries in 1779? It is important to remember that in Vietnam it was basically the South against the North with a strip of land called the DMZ in the middle where they intended to more or less cut the place in half with the same sort of success seen in Korea and Germany. The North and the South fought bitterly but the Southern leadership never held the hearts of the people as the North did and (even with our vastly superior firepower) men, women and children in sandals (made of truck tires) kicked the stuffing out of us. We tend to not to like to use women and children when we hit the beaches but they were fighting for their lives whereas we were fighting to stop one Vietnamese from telling another that he couldn’t own more then one water buffalo. We blundered into a bloody quagmire and got out heads handed to us. If you don’t believe me ask the former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He said in 1995, “We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”

Our government entered a war based on misguided policies and then systematically lied to the American people about what was really going on just as the governments of Japan and Germany had done in WWII. But there were two juggernauts which were largely responsible for stopping the war sooner rather than later. One was the press. Yes, that same press everyone complains about. People like to whine about car salesmen and lawyers but we love them when we need them and, believe me, we needed the press. Early in the war there used to be a body count each week given on television of the number of U.S. dead. The numbers got so large that our government suggested to the networks that they refrain from doing this and they complied. But the print media had no such constraint. TV did show the body bags being loaded onto airplanes for the trip home but for some reason they thought it was bad taste to continue to give the actual totals after awhile. But the films of the carnage night after night made it increasing obvious that things were not going well. Much was kept from the press but most of the facts did leak out such as the incursions into neutral Laos and Cambodia, the Mai Li Massacre and the Pentagon Papers.

The other major reason the war ended was because of the popular uprising of the idealistic youth of America. And to these young people we add the ever youthful Dr. Benjamin Spock and eventually many in the government and the U.S. military. I was moved to tears at the museum when I saw the young girls putting flowers into the gun barrels of the national guardsmen who were called out to shut us students up, juxtaposed with pictures of people, my age, being blasted to bits.

I was a junior at Berkeley when the anti-war riots really got rolling. It’s curious that the biggest riot didn’t start over the War but over the seizing of some vacant land by the University of California which had been commandeered as a People’s Park. The Alameda County Sheriffs invaded [huge men in blue jump suits with absolutely no badges or ID’s (imagine American police without ID’s)] and threw everyone out. The deputy sheriffs pulled up these tiny trees that had just been planted and then they imprisoned the park with a chain link fence. Because we were already so keyed over The War and the draft we massed on the Park and immediately pushed the fence over, and then drove the police off with rocks and clubs. The police were startled and confused at first but they soon got it together and started shooting. One man was killed and many others were injured. A good friend of mine had his right hand shot off. From that time forward the riots never stopped until the War did. College campuses ignited all over the country and at Kent State four students were gunned down in anti-war protests. Symbols of domestic imperialism were targeted and many burned draft cards and when the draft cards were gone larger targets were set alight like the Bank of America next to the University of California at Santa Barbara, which was burned to the ground. I know this sounds incredible, but it’s all true.

The students at Berkeley were hopping mad and because the police were actually shooting at us we expected them to come after us all eventually. I know this sounds crazy and we were the radical left, whereas now it’s the radical right who acts like this. At my house we armed ourselves with 12 gauge shotguns and stockpiled ammunition preparing to defend our freedom. When they shoot to kill, ring your neighborhood in razor wire, gas you from helicopters and beat you to the ground with lead filled clubs it leaves a pretty strong impression. How very much like the Boston Massacre when the Red Coats opened fire on civilians in 1770. Remember–everyone in that one was an Englishman. So in Vietnam we evacuated the last of the U.S. personnel from the rooftop of the Embassy in Saigon April 25, 1975, although the war had ended for American troops in 1973. During that time Nixon was evacuated by helicopter from the White House and Kissinger humiliated us further by actually arguing about the shape of the negotiating table where we were to work out our terms of disengagement with the Vietnamese. Will someone explain to me what was left to discuss at that point? We fought, we lost and we left. Years later it was revealed that Nixon had created an enemies list of disloyal Americans. I think I would rather be on that list than on The Wall in Washington, although I fully respect the memory of these who’s names are memorized there. I certainly never supported all anti-war activity. Jane Fonda posing on an antiaircraft gun in Hanoi at the height of the war was as ill-considered as awarding Henry Kissinger the Noble Peace Prize. We were radical but not nuts. The SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) wasn’t tolerated on the Berkeley campus because they were violent lunatics more in common with the Bader-Meinhof Gang than with us hippies.

All of the people who fought in South East Asia on both sides were caught in a political tarantella of napalm, snake filled tunnels and tiger traps which will never actually be untangled. It will simply fade. As we put our ear to the dark woods we hear a terrible gnashing of tooth and claw and in this same forest dwells Man. I am not against smiting my enemies. Far from it. If I caught Bin Laden I would give him a fair trial and then use the shotgun on him I bought in 1969.

So I found myself in front of the War Crimes Museum in Saigon when a bus of ex GI’s pulled up and several men with their wives stepped out. I was staring at the embassy rooftop when I heard them trading stories of which unit they had been with. I heard The Twenty-fourth, The First and so forth. One of the men, a heavyset, florid fellow asked me who I had been with. I hesitated and said, “I was with the people’s army in Berkeley.” The man jumped back as if he has stepped on a snake. His pink face went ashen in the humid heat of the courtyard and his eyes bulged dangerously. He looked to his friend standing next to him then at me and said in a voice seething with malevolence, “I don’t think that’s very funny!”

“I didn’t mean it to be funny.” I said evenly. Just then a fellow stepped over to me and, with tears streaming down his face, put his arms around me and all four of us left the compound together, out into the teaming, churning streets of the New Vietnam. All of us on the same side. At last.

I warned you this didn’t make good breakfast reading.

JAPAN

Rowan and I waved goodbye to Tyler and his shipmates and flew to Tokyo where they are the cleanest, politest people on earth with a sufficient amount of nuttiness to make them very loveable. If I had invented the world I would have invented Japan first. The Japanese laugh a lot and when I bought a single cream puff one young woman made such a big deal of it you would think we saved her child from a burning building. Rowan decided to test their mettle by going into a fancy dessert shop and purchasing an elaborate confectionary called a shu cream. They ritually wrapped it three times and the three clerks bowed and took his money. Rowan ritually removed the layers of packaging and held it to the light admiring in its stunning craftsmanship. This was an affair of kiwi, strawberries and custard on sponge cake about the size of his fist. He then opened wide and rammed the entire thing into his mouth and devouring it in one bite. The clerks were as shocked as if you had high-fived the Emperor and I’m sure they will be discussing this bizarre event for years to come.

japan1We went to Japan to see the wacky stuff and we did. They built a maritime museum five stories tall in the shape of a ship and we were the only ones there. Naturally we went to the Tsukiji, the largest fish market on Earth where single tunafish can sell for 200 grand and the fish look right back at you looking at them. We went next door to the vast fruit and vegetable market to witness thecantaloupe auction. This I find intriguing as they all seem to look exactly alike but the price will vary depending on the precise direction and cut of the little bit of stem on top. We laid out about a billion yen for a nice hotel and jumped the train out to the indoor snow skiing which is just a bit dull. It’s a mammoth warehouse full of snow and a lot of very bad snow boarders crashing down the slope. We also witnessed a troop of robots performing aerobics. Now that makes sense! The cafeteria had some pretty oddball fare. Hold those Tater Tots, I’ll have the delectable sounding-edible wild plant.

The next day we met up with the amazing Yuka. Yuka Kashiwase lived in the Bay Area for many years and went to San Francisco State. She is presently living with her parents who own a very successful Kimono shop. They are a worldly family and have been more places then I have but one place they hadn’t been to was the Western Village north of Tokyo. This joint is a re-creation of one man’s vision of the town pictured in the TV show Gunsmoke and it does actually look like a movie set. They have gunfights in Japanese and a single horse which scares the heck out of the locals. The piece d’resistance is the second largest Mt. Rushmore in the world at 85 feet tall. It houses a gift shop inside and a very odd museum of life sized teddy bears driving cars and having tea parties. It sounds more interesting than it is. I had been booked to call a square dance at the OK Corral but not enough dancers showed up. That was OK by me. I wasn’t being paid anyway and besides I had never done it before as I had claimed so I would have been terrible at it. Not, perhaps as terrible as the fagade of the four very bored Presidents glaring down at the entirely empty amphitheater. The Japanese like corny American stuff but even the six-year olds were gunning for the exits. I was looking for a replica to take home but the only cool things were two briefcases , your pick, coyote or snow leopard, each at $3,500. The Western Village had been part of my quest to visit all the Mt. Rushmores over 6 feet tall in the world, of which I have seen five of the seven I have located so far. (The one in Moscow is my favorite. It’s about 40 feet tall and within it is a haunted house so dangerous as to be really frightening. If you don’t duck when the mechanical monkey swings the coconut hanging from a chain it hits you in the head. It damn near killed the kid behind me).

So we moseyed on down the road as fast as our boot heels would take us to the Tobu World Square at Kinugawa which I read cost a cool billion (dollars). I expected some more cheese but we were absolutely staggered by what we saw. There were 102, 1/25th scale replicas of the great places in the world. There was downtown NYC with its eerie 60 foot tall World Trade Center along with other NY sights. In fact, there was a serious car wreck in front of The Flat Iron Building. The Great Pyramids were nestled between the Eiffel Tower and the Vatican. Tower Bridge of London could be seen from The Great Wall of China and a great many famous Japanese shrines were meticulously constructed. Tens of thousands of real bonsai trees covered the hills and there were over 165,000 miniature spectators peopling these dioramas. After a carefully examination I could see no two people alike. These tiny tourists were taking pictures, yelling at their children, riding camels, gawking at the buildings as we gawked at them and one was running out of a bank with a bag of money, the police in hot pursuit. All the little people wore brilliantly colored clothes of lime green, purple and pink, even though real people generally wear black (except me).

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Yuka took us to the Tashogu temple complex at Nikko. She pointed out that this is the place where they worship Ieyasu Tokugawa and she showed us some small carved wooden monkeys who see, speak and hear no evil (lucky them). These are the original monkeys we are all so familiar with. The magnificence of these temples rival any in the world but are all much smaller as they gracefully include the grounds and forests. The Japanese are not a particularly church going people and they deal with spiritual matters at the close of business. Funerals are the most costly in the world with the average costing over 17 grand and some are ten times that. Folks are Buddhists, generally, (the reverence for peace and serenity) with an overlay of Shintoism (they worship the spirits of animals, rocks and trees) Both practices are gracefully integrated. The fastidious rituals of daily life seem to be the principal spiritual expression for the Japanese.

We also went to pay homage to the mega-Toyota showroom which displays many cars never seen in America. Its main feature is a ten story high vending machine, Press a button and an elevator brings a model car to you. This showroom is part of a vast department store/theme park and we got hooked on a strange video game where you hold onto a dog leash attached to a three-dimensional plastic dog and the video screen allows you take the dog for a walk in the park. Oh boy, that sure is fun! The last day Yuka took us to Houraiya, a restaurant very famous for its pork menu in the Tokoyo neighborhood of Ueno. In fact it sold only pork (tonkatsu) but you could get it cut up (hitokuchi katsu) or not cut (hire katsu). “Do you have anything without Spam?”

They talk about a recession in Japan but it doesn’t show as there are several 80 story buildings being constructed and there is no obvious vacancy. The people are worried about their future though and the homeless are filling the public parks in greater numbers. The Japanese don’t like to bring in foreign workers and they have a very low birth rate. If nothing changes, the population in 100 years will be = of what it is now and the average age will be over 50. In a country with a 1,000 year history that isn’t so very far away.

I was born on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido near Sapporo and my wife, Margaret, was born in Gwelo, Rhodesia (at the time a British colony) in the middle of Africa so our kids are essentially Afro-japanese or Japafricans. We have drawers full of passports.

The Japanese I have met are soulful large hearted people and as long as they keep inviting me to the dance I will keep going.