The Vietnamese Version


This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, December 15, 2004 was originally posted on December 19, 2004.

DAY 424:  When I was fifteen, one year short of being able to get a legal work permit, friend and Blogreader wheat and I made some cash to buy music cassettes (yes, I said “cassettes”) by working off the books at a local family-run chicken take-out place that, because of its crappy location, didn’t get much business.  To suffice for the lack of customers, the Filipino-American owners of the place made a living by setting up food vending stalls at just about every summer street fair in the metropolitan New York City area.  Wheat and I went from fair to fair every weekend that summer of 1990, to grill up chicken parts and pork shish-kabobs under questionably sanitary conditions that would make Upton Sinclair turn in his grave. 

The job paid us though, so I could get that latest tape from Information Society (yes, I said “Information Society”), which is why we dealt with it:  riding in cargo vans on top of grills, booth equipment and spoiling pork pieces, and dealing with pushy bosses.  It was especially an experience when we’d work the New York Gay Pride Parade and get approached by male customers flirting, “Hey boy, you sure have a lot of meat on that stick!”

You may be at your computer thinking, What does this have to do with Vietnam, Erik?  Why?  What’s the significance?  I don’t know!!!  (This is best thought in the voice of Pee-Wee Herman.)

With wheat and me were an illegal but hard-working Mexican guy named Manuel, and a young couple of Vietnamese immigrants, Faye and Hong.  All of us hated the way we were treated — think sweatshop meets the barbecue — but we were all trapped in the situation of not being able to get real work.  Faye and Hong, the most hardworking of all of us, secretly bashed our suppressors with the intrinsic resilience found in the Vietnamese people.  Eventually there was a hidden rebellion in the ranks from us — one of the Filipino bosses actually mistook me for one of the illegal Mexicans(!) — and ultimately the chicken place went out of business.  And we couldn’t have done it without Faye and Hong.

A year later, wheat and I got jobs at the local frozen yogurt store where we earned money to finally buy CDs.

THE VIETNAMESE ARE A STRONG BREED, a people that has been shoved and pushed down many times in history, from the Chinese to the French to the Americans.  They fought back every time and won, pushing out the Chinese in the 15th century, defeating the French in the first Indochina War, and outwitting the Americans in the second.  This was reiterated to me as I went on a full-day tour of the Demilitarized Zone, more commonly referred to as the DMZ.  DMZ tours were offered by every one of the dozen or so tour operators in Hue, none of them (to my dismay) named “Run DMZ Tours.”

In accordance with the Geneva Conference of 1954, Vietnam was split in two at the 17th parallel and two political states were formed:  the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (a.k.a. North Vietnam) and the Republic of Vietnam (a.k.a. South Vietnam).  The area around the 17th parallel was the DMZ, a place of violence and bloodshed during The American War in Vietnam.

AFTER A TWO-HOUR BUS RIDE that started at six in the morning, my group arrived in Dong Ha, the main town in the DMZ, a town much like any other generic Vietnamese one — at first glance one wouldn’t think there had been much violence there.  We had breakfast and picked up our guide for the day, a Vietnamese woman named Thach who spoke to us on the bus’ mic as we head up Route 9 farther west into the DMZ. 

“You probably know about the war from films and movies,” she said, “but here you will get the Vietnamese version.”  Although she was a well-informed guide, she was a pretty fast talker, probably rushing through the content she spewed out everyday to another batch of tourists.  As far as the “Vietnamese version,” she was pretty neutral when mentioning the bare facts in history — the separation of Vietnam in 1954, the proposed general elections that never came to be in 1956, the rise of Ho Chi Minh, the arrival of the Americans in 1965, the US air raids, the VietCong in the south and the Ho Chi Minh trail, etc. — but then she concluded on a slant.

“[The Vietnamese had their own problems to work out, and the Americans entered a war that wasn’t theirs.  The worst part of the arrival of the Americans is that they brought weapons like Agent Orange and napalm,]” she said to the best of my memory in her rapid lecture.  She continued by saying that the Americans came to “free the people” — Gee, where have I heard that before? — when in actuality they entered the war for their own interests, to “stop the spread of Communism in Asia.”  Communism was a very bad bad thing to Americans in those days and they fought against it at all costs — whatever it takes.  (Gee, that sounds familiar too…)

“And you are from…?” Thach the guide asked me at a photo stop of the famous Rockpile the Americans used as an “unassailable helicopter landing pad until it was stormed by Viet Minh commandos” (says Let’s Go).  She pegged me for some sort of Asian.

“Uh, American,” I said bashfully.  “I think I’m the only American on the bus.”  She wasn’t phased and was happy that I was the only one asking questions amidst a group that didn’t seem to care what was being said on the mic.

We continued along Route 9, the former US supply route that went to the Lao border.  Driving through the rolling green hills, it was hard to imagine such a place of beauty was such a violent battlefield.  It was harder to imagine how soldiers dealt with it; the terrain made it almost impossible to know where a bullet might have come from.

We crossed the Quang Tri River via the Daikong Bridge, the local tribute and symbol of the nearby Ho Chi Minh trail, which aided the north to outwit US and South Vietnamese forces.  The trail was not one trail, but a network of secret passageways for supplies and sneak attacks, a lot of it created with the help of local hill tribe people who were also against the imperialist Americans.  The resilient local hill people helped North Vietnam soldiers by identifying existing trails, guiding them in the dark and expanding the trail network — some even pledged allegiance to Ho Chi Minh by adopting the surname “Ho.”

We stopped at one of the ethnic minority villages, Bru Van Kieu, which one tourist in the group described as “like the villages in northern Thailand.”  Sure it appeared that way, but the history was much different; I mean, these people made Vietnamese food, not Thai food.  Afterwards we head back on Route 9 to Khe Sanh Combat Base, site of the famous 75-day battle in which American and South Vietnamese troops under the command of General William Westmoreland, concentrated all their forces and fought to defend the base and nearby Ta Con airstrip.  After all was said and done, it became clear that the battle at Khe Sanh was merely a diversion; during its siege, other northern troops and VCs used the Ho Chi Minh trail to capture the unattended US bases.

Nowadays the only “attacks” at Khe Sanh come from vendors trying to sell vintage VC pins and American dog tags.  The only shooting comes from cameras, some from guys hiding in the bushes, soldier-style, for that perfect angleTanks, a bunker (picture above), helicopters and an air transport are still present, but only in an expository manner.  Nearby is a museum with photos showing the fight of Khe Sanh, also with the slant towards North Vietnam.

BOY, YOU SURE HAVE A LOT OF MEAT ON THAT PLATE, I thought in a completely straight way when the waitress brought over a pork fried rice at lunch time.  It was the meal of Tristan, an Australian student in Canberra on holiday with his friend Byron.

“So what did you think of Khe Sanh?” Byron asked me, curious to hear an American perspective.

“It was okay,” I said, still not fixated on the amount of meat on the plate in front of me.  “It was just sort of there.”

“Amazing to see the photos of American soldiers look all terrified with the attack.”

“I think enough Americans know that Vietnam was a mistake and just accept it.”

NORTHBOUND ON HIGHWAY ONE we drove, to the former official separation of the north and south, the Ben Hai River along the 17th parallel.  Bridging the two sides was a bridge (duh), the Hien Luong Bridge, one of the first targets of US air raids.  A new bridge has replaced the old one, which was reconstructed for historical preservation purposes. 

We drove another 15 km. towards the shore on the northern side of the DMZ, to a place Let’s Go called “the DMZ’s most interesting sight,” the Vinh Moc tunnels.  The Vinh Moc tunnels were a series of tunnels on three levels, like an ant colony but super-sized, where the local tribespeople lived under cover during the constant dropping of bombs by American forces.  A true example of Vietnamese resilience, this engineering marvel had air vents and a self-sustaining well.  People could live inside without seeing daylight for up to ten days.  There were cave rooms set aside as family rooms, maternity wards, storage and kitchens — a complete village, just underground.  I’m sure if audio cassettes were invented, they would have had that too, or at least an 8-track deck. 

The claustrophobic tunnel network (which reminded me of the mining tunnels in Bolivia) was created out of sheer necessity to survive.  As the nearby museum pointed out, during the US air raids, there was only one concern:  To be or not to be.  The Vietnamese chose the former as they always have.

Nowadays the Vinh Moc tunnels exist as a tourist attraction, a place where tourists like myself could visit and see how the people survived.  Bombs are no longer a threat, so much in fact that a couple of toddlers with squeaky shoes simply played around the remnants of them

LIFE GOES ON IN THE DMZ.  Vietnamese culture is alive and well, resilient as the people who created it — I experienced this during the traditional music show I saw that night in a restaurant back in Hue.  No matter what the future holds for Vietnam, I’m sure they will prevail, so that one day in the future, they can tell their version of the tale.  Meanwhile, I’ll be moving on from CDs and MP3s.

Next entry: The Dow Jones Industrial Average Is Down A Quarter Of A Point

Previous entry: Temporary Ceasefire

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Comments for “The Vietnamese Version”


    More to come from HCMC!  (I’m still behind… and you thought YOU were?)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/18  at  05:25 PM

  • Thanks for the new entries!  I am all caught up now….Hope you are feeling much better! Great pic’s

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/19  at  03:27 AM

  • whoa…Information Society?  Cassette Tapes?


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/19  at  06:19 PM

  • ok it wasn’t just information society, you can add bobby brown, as well as escape club!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/19  at  10:02 PM

  • Information Society?? Do you have to be a pre ‘81er to get that?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/20  at  09:03 PM

  • TDOT:  Dude, you don’t know “Information Society?”  Wow…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/21  at  02:17 AM

  • I think they just did a Bands Reunited with Information Society on VH1.  See more info here

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/22  at  02:10 AM

  • I heard Erasure is putting out a new CD. Any takers?

    Nice to get the other perspective, also yours—not biased at all. It all looks so beautiful, recovered from the destruction.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/28  at  06:37 PM

  • Same ol’ Noelle, just in a different place.
    I love Escape Club - don’t knock it!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/29  at  11:11 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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The Dow Jones Industrial Average Is Down A Quarter Of A Point

Previous entry:
Temporary Ceasefire


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