Thursday, September 8, 2011

History in the Making

(Written on 5/15/2011 from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

Why is it that the first restaurant I’ve been to in Vietnam (and one that was recommended to me) happens to be a pho chain that also has locations in the state of Oregon.  As soon as I saw that after ordering and closing the menu, it spoiled the authenticity of the meal for me.  Although, it didn’t stop me from slurping down my rice noodles with salad, pork, and shrimp so it couldn’t have been too disheartening.

With every trip I take outside of my hotel, I find myself in awe of something new.  Take for example the gatherings of people every night in the park in front of the hotel – older folks are ballroom dancing under a gazebo, while a group of 10 kids learn a hip hop dance routine, and there is a karate class practicing on the parking lot pavement.
Yesterday, I unfortunately witnessed a young boy “taking care of business” in a Tupperware bin on the side of the freeway, assisted by his father who had pulled over the family motor scooter.  I was shocked, and apparently everybody else on the tourist bus was as well.  But it didn’t seem to faze the locals as a young lady whizzed by on her scooter – decked out in fake Gucci high heels, skinny jeans, a purple blouse, purple scarf, and matching purple crochet helmet cover.  She wasn’t exactly my vision of a “biker chick.”  And although motorcycles and scooters aren’t used for “cool factor” here, I have to believe that by the sheer variety of helmets (which are more like hard baseball caps)…they are in fact a fashion statement.
Helmets aplenty, helmets galore!
Among my unique experiences – one that stands out significantly is my recent trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, an intricate tunnel system where the Viet Cong hid and lived underground during the Vietnam War.  I was lucky enough to fall into a group led by Mr. Binh (pronounced Mr. Bean!), an ex-U.S. Navy serviceman who himself had fought against the Viet Cong.  Originally born Filipino, Mr. Binh entered the U.S. Navy and never returned to the U.S. after the war.  He later told me it was because he hated American food.  Fair enough.
Mr. Binh explaining about the tunnels
Mr. Binh’s stories and firsthand accounts were captivating.  As we walked around the tunnel site, he detailed stories of fighting beside John McCain and John Kerry.  He told us about the tricks and strategies of the Viet Cong that kept them alive and hidden for so many years as they outwitted the Americans.  One example was how the Viet Cong masked their scents – stealing trash from the U.S. base to place over the tunnel air holes so the U.S. dogs wouldn’t pick up any unfamiliar scents when sniffing above ground. 
One of the doors the Viet Cong used to enter the tunnels

Mr. Binh pointing out one of the tunnel air holes
Explaining how the "Asian squat" was a useful technique for the Viet Cong

Squeezing through the tiny tunnels - 12 m deep
I was amazed by the tunnels themselves, but even more fascinated by the man who was sharing the stories.  Towards the close of the tour, 4 new Canadian friends that I met asked me if I’d like to take Mr. Binh to dinner so we could hear more stories.  Back in Ho Chi Minh City, we glugged down refreshing drinks at the restaurant Mr. Binh recommended as he ordered on behalf of the unknowing tourists.  

After Mr. Binh was quite a few Vietnamese 333 beers in (I think he must have downed 5 of them)…his true emotions started surfacing.  In his no longer perfect English, his eyes teared up and his face got red as he expressed the heartbreak he’d experienced.  He shared about the true feelings that accompany him every time he guides people above those tunnels, and the horrible things he’d witnessed happen to comrades who were good men.
Our personal table trash can
My tour ended with an unexpected, eye-opening dinner, and a man who had pledged his loyalty to the U.S. many years ago.  His stories were full of honorable men, and pride in his American status.  It couldn’t have been a bigger contrast to the way the tour began – with an old video from the Viet Cong perspective.  It was showing Viet Cong that were honored and showered with medals and praise for killing Americans.  Young kids were touted for their gun fighting skills and abilities to root out the enemy (the Americans). 
It was shocking to hear the praises that others were given for taking the lives of my own neighbors.  And my heart sank at the thought of celebrating over deaths that others considered tragedies.  But the reality is that since the Vietnam War, this has happened time and time again.
My thought for you today is to consider the two sides to every story.  History is told from different perspectives – and it was clear to me after my tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels that facts can be portrayed as victories and triumphs as easily as they can be portrayed as losses and defeats.  I encourage you to question your sources, and their motivations behind how they tell stories.
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