Fragments

 ".......all roads lead to where I stand. "
 

I am calling this section "Fragments" because it's  a place for me to verbalize the fragmented thoughts and experiences that come with returning to Vietnam. I don't know where it's going to go and I doubt there will be any continuity. It's just going to be what strikes me at the moment.  I am only going to do this when the mood strikes or when I feel like I have something to say so I am making no promises about regular updates. Comments are always welcome. You can email me at billinnam@gmail.com .

Prelude

I arrived in Vietnam the first time in 1969. I was nineteen years old, had one year of college under my belt, and had no real awareness of world politics. I just knew the US was involved in a struggle to stop the spread of communism and I was of the age that I could be a part of it. I was also curious. I joined The Marine Corps in the summer of '68 and went through my basic training in California. Since I had only signed up for a two-year hitch, my going to Vietnam was almost guaranteed.

Upon arriving in Vietnam, I was assigned as a machine gunner with Delta Company, First Battalion, Third Regiment, Third Marine Division. Their headquarters was at Dong Ha, a small town about 10 miles south of the DMZ. Though this was our home base, I actually saw very little of Dong Ha. Most of my time in country was spent in the mountains along the DMZ. Those were hard times. I saw more than enough action to satisfy my curiosity. I was lucky. I was never hurt and was in Vietnam at the time Nixon began to pull us out of there so my tour was cut short. I only had to spend a little over seven months in country but that was enough.

Forty years ago I would have told you that you were crazy if you said I'd be living in Vietnam someday. When I left there in 1969, I never wanted to see it again. Twenty years passed before I began to get back in touch with my experience there. But Vietnam, like a fragment of steel buried beneath the skin, has a way of surfacing when you least expect it. I found that my thoughts would center around the war more often. It became like the monster under the bed, something that couldn't be ignored forever. In 1994, I came back to face the beast but found the beast was no longer here. It was a positive experience for me, positive but as difficult to explain as my first time in Vietnam. Since then, I have returned many times leading small groups of vets back to the places they served and each time has been a different experience but all of them good. I came over with my son in September of 2007 and while here, I decided to look for work in Vietnam. I found a job teaching English but I had to get certified as a TEFL instructor first. I made the big leap and flew over on April 26, 2008 with a one-way ticket and a new job waiting for me. I teach English at AVIEC, (Am-Viet International English Center) , a private school in Da Nang. I've only been here nearly five months now but at times it seems like a life time.


Da Nang

     

Located on the coast about half way between Saigon and Hanoi, Da Nang is definitely a city on the move. With the country's forth largest population of nearly two million people and its location on the coast with a deep sea port and an international airport, Da Nang is primed and ready to play a major role in the future of Vietnam. Between the time I was here in '94 and now, it has emerged from a dirty little town to a thriving city complete with high rise hotels and a beautiful river walk and it's continuing to develop at a fast pace.

 

One of the key sites in Da Nang is the Han River which separates the main part of the city from the coast. The river is always a hub of activity and the new walk way on both sides of the river has become a popular gathering place for the locals after work.

Then of course there is always the beach to go to. The local people go there and enjoy the many sidewalk Quans, or restaurants that line the beach. I do this often because it's very close to where I live and I don't think I will ever grow tired of sitting in the cool sea breeze, eating fresh sea food, and sucking on a lukewarm beer. This can all be done for less than five bucks and that's with a couple of beers.

I like Da Nang. I like the size of the city, I like the location, but most of all, I like the people. People have been genuinely kind and friendly to me. If it weren't for the language barrier, I am sure I would have some very nice friends around me. It kind of puts you in a bubble though when you can't communicate your thoughts and needs. I find I spend the majority of my free time alone and can go almost all day without saying a word. I am glad I like myself and it really isn't a problem for me, at least not yet. I do have several people who I do get together with in spite of not being able to talk to each other and there are several Vietnamese I know who speak English, at least a little. It is interesting how many things can be shared without speaking. But it is so much better when Anh is here to translate for me. I am trying to learn Vietnamese but it is not a simple language to learn, especially when your hearing is as bad as mine. It's all about tones. At least I can order a beer.

I have been able to find a great little house in a new part of the city of Da Nang. The area where I am living  is called the Hanh Son District and use to be part of the Marine base known as Freedom Hill.  It's on the east side of the Han River and within walking distance of My Khe Beach (pronounced "Me Kay"), or what we called China Beach. It's a relatively quiet area with homes ranging from the very basic to the luxurious and there is new development going on all around me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In fact, I am having a house built over here right now. It's next door to the house I am renting which makes it easy to keep an eye on the construction. Not that that does me much good, though. Even though I have built houses before, I have never seen them built like they to it here. There is no wood, only concrete and brick. And the biggest piece of equipment I have seen is a wheel barrow. It is interesting to watch, scary but interesting. Check out my blog at www.billinnam.blogspot.com to see some shots of my new house in progress.

Yes, Vietnam is emerging from the dark days that followed the war. After years of struggling to rebuild itself, the fruits of that effort are finally starting to  blossom. The economy over here is skyrocketing, perhaps too fast. People now are able to buy luxury items like big TV's, computers, even cars. Next to China, Vietnam's economy is the fastest growing in Asia. But this is coming with a price. Inflation is now at 27% and the cost of everything is going up fast. Also, many of the traditional values and life styles are inevitably fading with this new found prosperity. Families that once lived together for generations are now living in different cities. People are leaving the countryside and flocking to the cities. Water buffalo have been replaced by tractors and straw hats for ball caps.

Ride From Hoi An
I drove my motor bike to Hoi An last evening to pick up Anh who was leading a tour through there. Her ninety-five year old mother had come to Da Nang from Saigon to look at the family house one last time and Anh wanted to be there. It was after dark by the time we started the twenty mile drive back to the city so I let Anh drive. She knew the road and the way to her house better than I did. Driving in the daytime is frightening enough but when you multiply that by the darkness factor, it's something I avoid when possible. Twenty miles is nothing when traveling in The States. I have driven that far many times just to have dinner. But it seems much further in Vietnam. The roads are dark even though street lamps are in place. They save energy by not turning them on.

About half way between Hoi An and Da Nang, along a thinly populated stretch of road, I saw something in the road ahead. As we got close, I could see that it was a motorbike laying in the middle of the road. Next to it, a young man lay sprawled out unconscious. The bike ahead of us passed by the scene with hardly slowing down. When Anh drove by I asked if she wasn't going to stop. Her reply was the people in the area would help him soon. They probably knew him and could be of more help than we could. Looking behind, I noticed the bike following us also drove past without stopping.

Ba Nguyen
Ba Nguyen is ninety five years old and her health is fading. She lived all of her life in Da Nang, raising ten children of her own and taking care of her husband's nineteen younger brothers and sisters. One can only imagine what her life must have been. She lived through much of the French colonial period and raised a young family during the American War. She now lives in Saigon with one of her daughters but wanted to see the family house in Da Nang one last time before she dies. I had the pleasure of meeting Ba Nguyen last night. She's old and frail, barely standing four feet tall and weighing less than 80 pounds, but in spite of the stroke she suffered in February, her eyes are still bright and her mind is sharp.

I have to admit it was awkward for me. I didn't know what to expect. I knew about her stroke and that she was beginning to have complications as a result of the medications she was on. I wasn't expecting to find the sweet, witty woman I found. Since she could not speak English she looked at Anh when we were introduced and said, " I don't know what to do, we cannot speak to each other." But there was a smile in her face and warmth in her voice. I wish I could have spoken with her. It was very enlightening to watch three sisters and a brother chatting with their mother in the family home again. There was a lot of laughter and obviously caring moments. I didn't need to understand the words.

Funeral
The eerie sound of a one-string dan bo fills the evening air, signaling the passing of someone in the community. It's a unique sound, almost like a blend of a bagpipe and Jimmie Hendrix warming up for The Star Spangled Banner. A deep, muffled drum beats out a rhythm in it's own time yet the two instruments create a discordant harmony that is so appropriate for such a solemn occasion. The sweet smell of incense drifts through the neighborhood as family members, dressed in white, gather around food laden tables in the street to pay their respects. This has been going on for three days now and will most likely continue for several days to come. 

Swallow House
There is a building across the road from my house that was recently erected. It stands five stories high, about four meters wide and thirteen meters deep. It's an unpainted concrete structure that has only small windows on the back side making it look much like a grain silo that you would see in the Midwest. Though someone obviously lives on the ground floor, the rest of the building appears to be vacant and unfinished. I thought it strange and couldn't figure out why someone would build such a place. It's too big for a family house and too small for a hotel. I was informed it is a swallow house; a house for swallows to build their nests so they can be harvested and sold. Each morning and evening tens, if not hundreds, of swallows swoop through the sky around the house, creating a delightful dance of sight and sound for the neighborhood. I guess bird's nests for soup bring big dollars in this part of the world. I've heard as much as $800.00 USD per pound.