This is the final installment of the Conversations with the (former) Enemy (Viet Nam) diaries. Here are the links to the previous 4 diaries if readers are interested in going back to read any of them.
- Part 1 - Going Back the first time - 1989
- Part 2 - What was happening in 1968 - Tet and the months that followed
- Part 3 - Dinner with Co Thu and Uncle Bon - 1993
- Part 4 - Life in the countryside 1969 - 1993
This diary is for light reading and intended to demonstrate that enemies might easily have been friends if only they had been left alone to seek their own paths in life.
During the war I never had the opportunity to see Saigon. I first visited in 1989, 14 years after the war had ended. There was a strong attraction to return to the place which had perhaps shaped my life more than anything else. That was, of course, Viet Nam, and Saigon was a good starting place.
A brief note on the name before continuing - Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City on 1 May 1975. The center city is still referred to as Saigon and when I refer to it in this diary no political statement is intended. Please note the postmark on a letter I mailed on 1 October 1995 and from the main post office - See photo below.
In one of his diaries on PTSD, Compound F wrote about:
... the strange desire to want to return to and relive the sources of stress, to sensation-seeking and impulsiveness seen in many returning soldiers and others ...Events fell into place. The trade embargo had just been lifted. An opportunity for an early retirement and a small pension helped make it possible. The "strange desire" was the driving force. There were other motivators, a desire to do something "good", something constructive, to learn more and at long last to make peace with Viet Nam and with myself.
There were American veterans living in Viet Nam years before I arrived. Two of them, brothers, one who had been a recon Marine and the other an Air Force veteran, were both living in Saigon and assured me that they could help me find work teaching English.
Soon I began teaching a group of adult students at a learning center three evenings per week. A Vietnamese friend had loaned a bicycle for transportation. Teaching felt very awkward at first but the students were eager to learn and after I learned how to stimulate the students to participate it became enjoyable and rewarding to see them learning. There was a great demand for English teachers. Soon I had as much work as I could handle. Many classes were in the evenings or on weekends. Pay was less then $5 per hour but there were other rewards.
Before long I purchased a Honda motorbike and returned the bicycle. I rented a fan cooled room on the third floor of a 4-story house in District 3. The house was very narrow and its footprint was small. Each of the floors was one multi-purpose room. The kitchen/dining/guest-receiving room was on the first floor. The landlady and landlord had their living quarters/bedroom on the second floor and their youngest son, still living at home, occupied the floor above my room.
At the time I rented the room I did not know it but both my landlady and landlord had been "the enemy" during the war. She is from Quy Nhon in the South but worked as a nurse in the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi. She was there when the hospital was bombed during the Christmas bombing of 1972. According to Wikipedia "only" 28 doctors, nurses and pharmacists were killed. More than 20,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the Hanoi-Haiphong areas during 11 days of bombing raids. My landlord was from Saigon and had been a non-combatant political cadre.
I never sensed any sign of bitterness or animosity from either of them. On the contrary they treated me as if I were a younger brother, a member of the family. Chi N. would always bring a tall glass of strong Vietnamese coffee to my room every morning and would make fresh limeade after I returned from work on those steamy Saigon afternoons. One afternoon there was an elderly lady chatting with Chị (an apellation meaning older sister) N. when I returned from teaching a class at Cadasa School. N. introduced us. She was her aunt from Quy Nhon. Her aunt stood directly in front of me and spoke softly. I could barely hear her and could not understand what she said and so turned to Chi N. for help. "She told you that American soldiers killed her husband and she never understood why. They were just farmers, but that she has forgiven them".
As the number of my classes grew a steady stream of visitors, most all of them students, came by to chat or to invite me to đi chơi go out somewhere with them. American friends encouraged me to join an English Speaking Club which met every Sunday morning at the Ho Chi Minh City Open University. More friends, more visitors and never a boring moment. One of our Open University excursions was a trip to the large Cao Dai Temple near Tay Ninh.
There were many more adventures. A New Years holiday motorbike trip to My Tho and Cai Be in the Mekong Delta was a first for me. One of my private students, a middle-aged man whose English was excellent, chastised my friends for planning to be absent on election day. Yes, despite everything you've heard, they do have elections.
During the traditional New Year Tet holiday in 1995 schools were out of session for two weeks. I traveled to Da Nang by train to visit and celebrate the holidays with friends there and then returned to Ho Chi Minh City before traveling to Phnom Penh for a first-time look at Cambodia. At that time the situation seemed calm but many people were still carrying weapons, AK-47s and M-16s, even in Phnom Penh. While there I met a former Vietnamese soldier from the North who had stayed on after the Viet incursion into Cambodia which removed the Khmer Rouge from power. The former soldier served as my guide while I was in Phnom Penh. We visited Tuol Sleng the former high school which had served as a torture center for the Khmer Rouge. It is located near the center of Phnom Penh and has now been designated as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Photos of victims, seemingly resigned to their fate, many of them women, children and infants, hang as grim reminders from the walls. The best known killing fields, one of many, is located south of the city near Choeung Ek where there is a small memorial and a map of Cambodia made from skulls of some of the victims.
I have always been curious about the Ho Chi Minh Trail but would not have an opportunity to walk on a leg of it until 4 years later. The area is on the Laos side of the Lao-Viet Nam border near the area of Ban Dong. A branch of The Trail crosses Hwy. 9 near Ban Dong. I was expecting mountainous terrain with thick jungle-like vegetation so it was surprising to see an area of rolling hills, distant ridges and scattered small villages. The area was littered with UXO. It was not safe to travel off of the main roads because of the danger associated with unexploded ordinance from huge 1000 pound bombs to small cluster bombs.
To get some understanding of the bombing in the area one can look at a map of eastern Laos, between the former destroyed town of Sepone and the Viet Nam border at Lao Bao. Scroll all of the way to the right and about half-way down until you see Highway 9. Note the names of the villages, all begin with the word "Ban". Most are either labeled "abandoned" or "destroyed". More than two million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973.
This concludes my diary series "Conversations With the Enemy". The diary could use more work but it's nearing the end of the 15 day editing period so I will go ahead and publish. I hope it was of some interest to those who lived through the period of history that this diary relates to and especially those who have had first hand experience in the region. Thanks very much for reading.