From the September 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
My "tour of duty" produced harrowing tales with which to wow the folks back home.
Vietnam is getting to be like Woodstock. It seems as if every other guy of a certain age, particularly politicians, now claims he was there. Men who did whatever it took to avoid the war—getting married, having kids, going to college, joining the National Guard, sneaking into Canada, putting on a dress—are now being caught doing a rewrite of history, starting with the phrase, "You know, back when I was in 'Nam...." Not being a political candidate myself, however, I can state up front: "I was not in Vietnam."
But recently, with so many of my contemporaries breaking out the war stories, I've felt there was a big hole in my experiences resume. That's why I'm now "in country," surrounded by North Vietnamese and trapped in a firefight. At least that's how I plan to characterize my lunch in Hanoi the next time my buddies back home open a few beers to play a round of "Can you top this?"
In truth, the firefight is a pepper-eating contest with my guide, Tri Nguyen Van, and I'm going down in flames. Sweat's pouring off my face; my eyes are watering; my mouth is burning; and I'm trying to convince the waiter, "Yes, I really want five more bottles of water." Tri, laughing, orders another bowl of chili peppers. Doing lunch the local way in this capital city of more than six million—that is, squatting on tiny stools around little sidewalk tables that could serve as kindergarten furniture—I am indeed "surrounded by North Vietnamese."
We're having bowls of bun cha, a specialty of the north mixing pieces of grilled pork with rice noodles in a hot broth seasoned with chilies and garlic sauce. You add veggies from a plate overflowing with leafy greens, bean sprouts, mint, and pickled green papaya. The dish is cheap, fast, and pervasive. All it needs is an extra 500 empty calories to be the Hanoi equivalent of the Whopper. I do briefly worry that something in my lunch besides hot peppers will figure into my harrowing Vietnam survival tale when I get home. Those raw veggies, prepared on the street, unwashed by bottled water, violate a main rule of dysentery-free travel. And this is only day one. Fortunately, even after ten days of throwing caution to the wind, the only downside of my eating everything, everywhere, is a slight weight gain.
Leaving Hanoi and heading south through the smaller cities, I'm struck by the number of bicycles and motorbikes, and I mean almost literally struck. Crossing any street is a game of two-wheeler roulette, in which the pedestrian is constantly darting, dodging, and left wondering: "Where are the traffic lights?" But now I can use this line back home: "Yeah, when I was in 'Nam, we took a lot of incoming" (adding, under my breath, "bicycles"). "But I was lucky and never got hit."
The bicycle is of course the primary form of mechanized transport in many parts of the world—and not just for hauling people. In places like Vietnam, the bicycle also serves as pickup truck.
Some local businesses are built around the ownership of a single bike. Recyclers, for example, pedal around town buying empty cans, bottles, and boxes from stores, then haul the lot to a recycling yard to sell for a small profit. I talk with a 42-year-old lady stacking flattened cardboard five feet high on the back of her bicycle. She's been doing this work for 20 years and makes about three dollars a day—enough to live on in a country where the average income is just over a thousand dollars a year.
The bicycle can serve as mobile produce market, carrying fruits and vegetables, or traveling garden center, loaded down with huge plants and small trees. Whatever the commodity, people will pile it on a bike so high as to defy the laws of gravity. The next step up the transportation ladder is the motorbike, which tops the bicycle in the "How high can you stack it?" competition. Whatever you can pile on a bike, the rule of thumb seems to be, you can double it on a motorbike.
And if that wasn't dangerous enough, the riders often talk on their cell phones while weaving through traffic. I'm amazed there isn't a wreck at every intersection.
To complete my tour of duty in 'Nam, I head out into the Mekong Delta to overnight with a rural family on An Binh Island. Upon arrival at the Ba Linh home, I realize this is not an original idea. Three large guest rooms attached to the family compound will house, besides me, a couple from England and a family from New Zealand. About 2,000 tourists a year stay here, seeking the same day-in-the-life adventure. I'd expected to be sent into the rice paddies with a scythe to harvest grain for dinner. Instead, we're led into the kitchen, given rice paper, and invited to help make spring rolls. The day is more an Iron Chef than World's Toughest Jobs experience.
While dinner is cooked over an open wood fire, Truong, one of the Ba Linh sons, gives a tour of the compound, filling us in on the family history. The father, who turned the farm into a bed-and-breakfast, died seven months earlier at the age of 79. His room has been transformed into a memorial with Buddhist statues, flowers, candles, and incense. On the wall are his army medals and framed pictures of him in his military uniform. Because we're in the south, I assume Ba Linh served in the South Vietnamese Army, so I ask: "Does the current Communist government mind this display of your father's fight against them?" "Oh, no!" Truong corrects me. "He was with the Viet Cong, fighting for the north."
"Let me get this straight," I say. "Your father, who fought to kick the Americans out of Vietnam, started a business inviting us to come back and stay in his home?"
Truong laughs and tells me his father always said to American guests: "We were fighting to be an independent country, and we got that. That was then, this is now, and I welcome you as a friend."
I don't know why it's taken me so long to come to Vietnam. But given this Southeast Asian country's importance to our own history and the impact it's had on so many American lives, maybe travel here should be a higher priority. The Vietnamese couldn't be happier to see us. And if nothing else, back home, when the guys are sitting around telling war stories, I can finally join in and truthfully say: "When I was in 'Nam...." I just don't have to mention that it was last month.
Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on radio.