Biking Back in Time

My reason for visiting and spending the bulk of my time in Vietnam is two-fold: (1) Vietnamese food is the bomb; (2) my father fought in the Vietnam War. Per usual, I will save the food post for later, once I have eaten my way through the country. 

Saigon and southern Vietnam is an area full of history - museums upon museums about the war, the Unification Palace (South Vietnam's presidential palace back before the war), memories etched into the minds of locals, injuries and defects all around from the use of various poisons and bombs, and the Cu Chi tunnels. I knew this was where I'd get the most regarding the war. 

First, a brief history: The Vietnam War (or in Vietnam, the American War) began after French withdrawal in 1954, and was fought on the American front as an attempt to stop the spread of communism. North Vietnam, a communist country, was supported by China and the Soviet Union; South Vietnam was supported by the U.S., Australia, Thailand and other countries. The North also had additional support from the Viet Cong, a communist front within South Vietnam. As you likely know from history classes, U.S. involvement in the war wavered, escalating in the 1960s. The Tet Offensive, launched in 1968 by the communist side, was a turning point where Americans began to distrust government assurances about the war, and the U.S. began to pull troops. Direct U.S. involvement ended August 15, 1973, and on April 30, 1975 the North captured Saigon, ending the war. 

During the war, the U.S. used various herbicides to remove foliage providing enemy cover; the most common of the herbicides was Agent Orange, which is a combination of herbicides that resulted in a byproduct called TCDD, a classified dioxin considered carcinogenic by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Now for the personal side. My father fought in the Vietnam War during 1969-1970. He was deployed once, and was very likely exposed to Agent Orange. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs considers that veterans who were on land or in inland waterways of Vietnam between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975 to have been exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides. On May 19, 1992 my father passed away from brain cancer at the age of 42. His doctors at Yale said that the tumors had been developing for about 20 years, putting the initial development of the tumors around the time that he was exposed to Agent Orange. 

All of this considered, it was only natural that my interest in Vietnam was high. And my first full day in Saigon did not disappoint. 

Having had such a wonderful time on the Grasshopper bike tour of Angkor Wat, I booked another bike tour with the group, this time to the Cu Chi tunnels, and it happened to be a private tour! 

The day started with my pickup and a boat ride up the Saigon River. As the boat weaved through the water hyacinth, I ate breakfast, drank delicious Vietnamese iced coffee (without the condensed milk), and took in the sights. An hour later and off the boat, I met my guide, Nguyen, and we hopped on our bikes. If the Vietnamese coffee didn't wake me up, the first slap in the face by a banana tree did as we winded through small farm pathways. Before I knew it, we stopped at a rubber plantation and Nguyen was explaining how the farmer's tap the trees every few days to collect the latex, which then gets sent away and is used for everything from tires to balloons. The trees produce latex from when they are about 5 years old until they are 25, at which point they are chopped down and new ones are planted. The farmers make approximately 150 USD per month. As we pedaled side by side along dirt roadways between the carefully and perfectly planted rubber trees, Nguyen and I chatted about everything from what his parents did (they own a coffee shop 400km from Saigon) to the school system in Vietnam to the war. 

I had been a little unsure of whether I should tell locals that my father fought in the war - I didn't know how U.S. involvement in the war was perceived. But, per usual Dana, as we biked along I just blurted it out...and I was glad I did. Nguyen told me that both of his grandfathers had fought for the South and had died in the war. His father was young during the war, but Nguyen said he loved American soldiers - I like to think one of them was my dad.  

Our next stop was at a local market where I was was the only non-Vietnamese person. Nguyen explained that many women come to the market and spend 10 minutes buying what they need, and the rest of the time socializing. (Sometimes my work day is similar). He then purchased coconut and green bean sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf, a common snack in Vietnam. It was delicious 

Our next stop was a rice paper factory. As a big fan of spring rolls, I was excited to see the process of making rice paper. The factory we visited can produce over one ton of rice paper per day, and 80% of what they produce is exported to the U.S. Until recently the entire process was done manually, but now they have machines to mix the rice and tapioca powder, to pour a thin layer on bamboo mats, and to cut out the circular sheets we're used to seeing in the U.S. However, parts of the process still use manual labor, and it's not an easy job. The men and women in the factory work from sunrise to sunset, 7 days a week, with one week off during the Lunar New Year. The men make $150/month; the women make less. 

Back on our bikes after a quick stop for fruit, water, and fresh sugar cane juice, we arrived at the Cu Chi Tunnels. (I very quickly learned that there are two places where you can visit the tunnels - one which is closer to the Saigon River, and the one I was visiting. From speaking with people, the place I went is the place to go). 

From the minute we arrived, I was in awe. We winded through dirt paths in the jungle that I imagine was non-existent in the 60s and 70s from the U.S. herbicides. As we walked, Nguyen explained the history of the tunnels and the war. The tunnels, which are 250km long, were constructed in Cu Chi due to the hard ground, and the location near the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They were dug by hand with the equivalent of a small garden shovel. The tunnels consist of three levels, one at 3 meters underground, one at 7 meters underground, and one at 10 meters underground, and all of the tunnels are connected to the Saigon River as a means of escape if they were gassed. 

Level one consists of square bunkers and kitchens, all easily collapsed by bombs. The kitchens had chimneys that brought smoke far from the tunnels, and meals were only cooked in the early morning to prevent the South and the U.S. from determining tunnel locations. Levels two and three required air holes to the surface, which were cleverly disguised as ant mounds, and these levels had many traps in case enemy soldiers got in.  

As we walked the dirt paths, Nguyen pointed out a small, disguised mound of dirt that had 4 holes in it - each hole for the barrel of a gun. My task was then to find the entrance, and wow was it hard. I pointed to various locations and just got laughs. Then, in a perfectly inconspicuous spot, Nguyen wiped away leaves to reveal the tiniest trap door. And once another guide demoed how to get in, both he and the door were gone again, underground and covered with leaves. Fifteen meters away, he popped out of yet another opening. I cannot imagine having been an American soldier looking for the Viet Cong, and having them literally just disappear right before you.

It was then my turn to try dropping down into a tunnel and exploring. I didn't even attempt to disguise the area, and slowly lowered myself in. It was dark and damp except for a small amount of lighting. But the light was enough for me to see the two bats flying directly at my face! I put my bag up in front of me, hoping for the best...and then they were gone. The tunnels are small - I had to squat and bend at the waist to get through them. (I would not recommend going in them if you're claustrophobic). I opted to take the longest route through them, seeing everything from a kitchen and a meeting room to turns that went off to who knows where, and traps meant to injure but not kill American and South Vietnamese soldiers. All of it made me not at all surprised that the North won the war. The tunnels are simply genius. 

Once we finished exploring the tunnels, I got to try tapioca root, the staple food of the Viet Cong. It was pretty good, but if I had to eat it for every meal for multiple years, I would not be a happy camper. The Viet Cong were unable to eat rice due to the herbicides sprayed, so they relied on the tapioca root since it grew quickly and the roots weren't directly exposed to the sprayed poisons. 

As we ate the tapioca root and then moved onto a delicious lunch (complete with snake wine), Nguyen shared more staggering facts and information about the war. During the war approximately 2 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers died, 1 million Vietnamese civilians died, 300-400,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died, and 58,000 Americans died. These numbers are simply from during the war, and do not account for the 40,000 people (mostly children) who have died since 1973 from unexploded bombs in the ground, or the children who have gotten lost in the tunnel system. It does not account for the birth defects of children born to parents exposed to Agent Orange, or the parents who died due to their exposure. 

As we rode back to Saigon, with Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and Whitney Houston serenading us, it was clear that the effects of the Vietnam War are still being felt - by U.S. Veterans, by many of the Vietnamese, by people, such as myself and my brother, who were not even alive during the war, and by children born with birth defects, or those unable to play in their backyard because of explosives. And I know as I travel up through Vietnam, I will see and feel many of these effects, and I can't help but think my father is by my side through this entire country (and really, always).