Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hoi An

Hoi An – Day 1

Anyway, when we rolled into our five star hotel, the Palm Garden, on the beach in Hoi An, we felt like we had finally arrived. This place was gorgeous, with a gigantic, many environments pool with water at least body temperature. The grounds were beautiful, with sculpture and antique fishing boats used as planter boxes littered tastefully all around. Hoi An is famous for the silk clothing that can be custom made in 24 hours. After Joe dropped us off in old town and we finished dinner, I went across the street just to see what kinds of clothing all the talk was about. The young woman there said a wool gabardine suit, 2 piece, would be $70 US and a silk suit would be $85. Joe was returning soon and I did not think the prices would be any better, so I had her measure me. I picked out some “silk”, silk blend, fabric, and said I would be back for an initial fitting the next day. This was just the closest of many fabric shops. I might have gotten a better fit/fabric etc., if I had shopped a little, but…..

Hoi An – Day 2

Next day the plan was to bike back toward Da Nang, to visit the famous Marble Mountain. This is a large limestone karst, with caves, which has been used as a religious site for centuries. I was soaking wet from the heat of the ride, and there were many tourists already there when we arrived. At the foot of the mountain are dozens of marble statuary shops where they sculpt marble, no longer dug out of Marble Mountain. We climbed the tall carved steps up to the series of caverns which are now temples for various beautiful, ancient statues of Buddha in his various forms. Incense was burning, offerings were made, people were praying, and two French girls were rappelling down one of the faces onto one of the central areas where all this other activity was taking place.

We then took the van to look for Freedom Hill. I told them, as I recalled, it should have been a pretty straight shot inland from the air base, maybe 10km. We worked our way west, gaining altitude, and found a Vietnamese army base on one side of the road, a military cemetery on the other, and a huge digging (just for dirt) operation northeast of the cemetery. We asked around, and people were saying that indeed there had been a large American base up there. Looking down, I could see the lay of the land, some flat areas of rice that had not succumbed to urban sprawl that looked very familiar, down to a small, colorful pagoda that looked like one I had seen back then. As I said previously, Da Nang and Freedom Hill were not as meaningful to me as Bastogne, so I was not too disappointed that we could not find the exact spot where I used to sit and pick ticks off of the unfortunate dogs that wandered around the neighborhood of hootches.
As we descended back into town, we stopped for another hotpot and a few beers before heading back to the life of luxury. We told Joe that we were too full to eat another seven course meal that night, so not to bother coming back to pick us up for dinner.

Da Nang

Sunday, April 5 - Reentry

I could see light through my eyelids this morning, wiggle my toes, and feel a pulse in my carotid arteries, so I knew I had survived. I felt like shit when I came home in July, 1972, but that was from a lousy diet, bad habits, and no exercise. That was less intense but lasted longer (six months or so) than this. I think I'm turning the corner, but since leaving Taipei on the second leg of the journey home, I have felt the struggle for Hamburger Hill being reenacted in my gut. Traveler's Diarrhea? Uncle Ho's Revenge? I don't know...I have not had diarrhea, just stomach cramps and fists of gas grinding right at the bottom of my sternum. With the stomach stuff, I didn't want coffee, so I had caffeine withdrawal headaches, and coupled with a biological clock a date line out of synch, it has been a lousy four days. Like I said, I think, with the help of Cipro, green tea, very little food, and some TLC, I'm about to normalize, so I need to finish the description of the last few days of the trip.

When the little road south out of Hue merged with Highway One, Joe had us load the bikes onto the van. Not only was there a lot of traffic and no shoulder, but we were headed up toward the Hai Van pass, a series of three steep climbs overlooking the South China Sea to the east and agriculture to the west. We were glad we weren't climbing this. I know a lot of people have done it and written about it, we saw one western woman pedaling up, but trucks, cars, and motorbikes were having a difficult time making the grade. At the very top of the third and highest point is a rest stop where travelers are surrounded by pearl and trinket hawkers. The stuff looked nice, and the women selling it told us, "You buy from me and I will never forget you," so John and I dropped a wad of dong up there. The prices are low, and the quality is not bad, so it is very difficult to say no. We took the bikes out of the van and rode down the 5-7km descent into Da Nang. John passed a tourist bus on a blind curve, so I did not see him until we hit the flats. That end of Da Nang and the suburbs leading into the city are somewhat barren and littered, not very attractive. We stopped for lunch at small cafe and had the first of several table top sterno cooker seafood hotpots. They brought out the fish, squid, scallops, oysters, and vegetables to dump into the broth once it reached temperature, but John, thinking the plate of oysters was there for the eating, sampled a couple. I told him that's how I contracted Hepatitis in Vera Cruz, in '74, and he said, "Oh, shit," and then Joe did start adding the oysters into the hot broth. I told John to wait 12 hours or so, and if his stool turned white and his urine turned bright orange, he would know. Luckily, these oysters were clean. We put the bikes back into the van and continued south on the coastal road. We were heading for Hoi An, the ancient town that acted as the primary seaport for Vietnam before the 1800s. Along the way, we passed the remnants of the old American air base, with hardened, bunker-like hangars for F4s and helicopters, still there. I told Joe that I very much would like to see if we could scout the hills above Da Nang to look for remnants of what was called Freedom Hill, the large base where hundreds of thousands of GIs mustered out, before heading home from the Da Nang air base.

Freedom Hill is where I spent the last four months of my tour in 1972. When A Battery stood down in late January, 1972, we packed up the guns and vacated Bastogne, heading south to Da Nang. In Da Nang, while the guns were decommissioned (turned over to the ARVN) and the clerical work was done to determine who stayed and who went home, we hung out on China Beach for a week or so, not doing much but partying and a little swimming. Back then, the beach was littered with concertina barbed wire which you had to navigate through to get to the water. My orders came through to report to HQ & HQ company of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. They put me at a radio in a control center, surrounded by starched uniforms, big brass, spit and polish. I was to take reports from the field and compile records of what was being reported, body counts, wounded, various actions. After living underground and in the mud of Bastogne and Barbara for four and one-half months, with no brass, no protocol, no bullshit, just a job to do, I did not fit in to the clean and orderly environment and political correctness of that post. I'd had all the radio communications with forward observers, reports of damage and death and destruction I needed. I asked my CO for a reassignment. He made me the company mail man. Behind the command post (his office) was a little room where mail was sorted and handed out once a day. This gave me access to a jeep and three-quarter ton truck which I had to drive to the other side of the hill to pick up mail, and to the air base to deliver bags of outgoing mail. So many of the intended recipients of this mail were gone or reassigned, that it was a difficult job. More than 70% of the in-coming mail had to be returned, there were no records of where to forward anything. On Freedom Hill we lived in a sprawling field of half-plywood, half-screen, tin-roofed hootches, with a decaying, cockroach infested sandbagged bunker between every two shacks. We had hootch maids who did laundry, shined boots, cleaned up. It was a very boring four months.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Coming Home...April 1, 2009

We fly out of Tan Son Nhat (Saigon airport) in a few hours...second time I've lifted off in a wide-body from this airport.
Saigon is a bustling, but from what I've seen, somewhat more orderly than Hanoi, metropolis. More western looking dress, fewer Ho Chi Minh pith helmets, fewer political banners. It seems like it would be a fun place to spend a few days..but the air is worse than Hanoi or Da Nang. More people, more buses and motorbikes, worse air. We found a place in Frommer's where we ate last night. A set menu for $12 US, included spring rolls and four other appetizers, before the hot pot sterno cooker was put on the table. The waiter slowly added shrimp, squid, fish fillet, vegetables, mushrooms, and finally beef (for just a few seconds, for it to change colors) which we added to the bowls of noodles in front of us. It was all delicious, and due to the flight from Da Nang, we had missed lunch, so I ate heartily. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a local place for a massage. We took off our shoes and put clothes in lockers, donned the house baggy shorts and tee shirts downstairs, and followed the hostess upstairs. This was a big room, lined with massage tables with all but the last two filled with mostly Vietnamese men with girls walking on their legs and backs, or bending their bodies in ways I had not seen done before. We greeted the young women who were to work on us, and lay down on the table on our backs with our feet in individual tubs of warm water. They worked on the feet for a few minutes and then wrapped them tightly, individually in towels, and moved to the head of the table (reclining chair). They then applied thin slices of raw cucumber to cover the face, while they giggled about our facial hair, pulling it, commenting to each other in Vietnamese. Then they moved back to the feet for more foot massage, then applied oil to the calf and worked the calf for quite a while. They turned us over on our stomachs and applied hot, hot, rock packs to the bottoms of our feet (too hot for comfort), and worked the calves and thighs some more. Then they used hot rocks dipped in oil to massage the back, all the time slapping and clicking their fingers as they chopped the muscle. Then they climbed up and started applying knees with full body weight to the gluteus maximus, hamstring, and standing and walking on the legs and back. They lined hot rocks up the spine and covered us with a towel while they went back to the feet. Finally, there was torso twisting, arm bending, neck cracking, and scalp massage. You get the idea....a great massage for 180.000 Dong (less than $10 US, for 80 minutes of pure pleasure/therapy).

But I need to fill in a few gaps from the last few days.

After our search for FSB Barbara, we got back to Hue for a shower and another great meal. After dinner we went to the top of our hotel and watched lightning and the lightshow of the Eiffel bridge changing colors. Very nice temperature, after the steaming, dripping of the bike ride through the hills.

The next morning we did the Forbidden City, a citadel which (not the first Nguyen emperor, but the first head of what they call the Nguyen dynasty) built in 1802. It is a huge collection of temples and living spaces, with three levels (layers of walls) through which to enter. The first entry area was for commoners, the second for mandarins only, and the third for royalty only. This citadel was the royal residence until Bao Dai abdicated (I think to Ho Chi Minh, after WWII). The stories of the Nguyen emperors are stories of hundreds of concubines, hundreds of children, young princes taking the throne and not living long, puppets to the French, etc. The walls of the Forbidden City are pock marked with scars from the fighting with the French and the Tet offensive of 1968.

After that we bicycled several miles out of town, past several royal burial sites, to visit one of the most famous, the tomb of Minh Mang, the second of the Nguyen dynasty). This place was at least 140 acres of gardens, lakes, bridges, temples, etc. Joe said the actual burial site is kept secret, to avoid looters digging up the corpse and the jewelry that adorns it.

We walked back to the entrance area, where lots of hawkers are out selling water, trinkets, or just panhandling, the first time I had seen that in three weeks.

We loaded the bikes into the van that had followed us out, and boarded a dragon boat, a standard tourist attraction in Hue, these motorized shallow draft boats with a carved and brightly painted dragon’s head protruding from the bow. The trip down the Perfume (Hu’o’ng) River was leisurely, passing many mom and pop sand dredgers, pumping up sand from the bottom, screening it until their boats were ready to sink, before heading back to the place that bought it. On the dragon boat you are a captive audience, and the captain’s wife had her way with us, as Joe napped, selling us silk scarves, bamboo book marks, etc. She had a good day.

Another evening in Hue, drinking a couple of Tigers on the roof top, before getting up early for a long ride to Da Nang the next day.

We left at 6:30, driving a few miles out of town before mounting the Treks. We followed a spit of land that separated the South China Sea from the outlet of the Perfume. This was one lane, little traffic, and lots of greenery and Buddhist cemeteries. We passed a stone cutter shop which was mass producing gravestones for unknown soldiers, VC, killed during the war. Joe said the local officials got a percentage of what the government paid for these tombstones, and he thought sometimes the numbers might be inflated. We lunched at a young couple’s home/cafĂ© and spoke a little English with their primary school aged children. After about 50km, the little road we were on merged with Highway One, and we loaded the bikes into the van.