On New Year’s Eve, 2013, I was across from Bến Thành Market in Ho Chi Minh City. (Yes, I am wearing my NPR Planet Money Animal Spirits t-shirt.) Now that I am back in the United States, and I have gotten back into the swing of normal life, saying, I was in Ho Chi Minh City, I was in Vietnam; it seems a bit surreal. For as long as I can remember, my father spoke of Vietnam, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Bien Hoa, and Long Binh. My father had served in the army during the early 1970s in these areas. Stories of his time during the war proliferated my childhood. I was now in Vietnam, I was now in Saigon. I was now flashing a peace sign to the camera held by my sister – around midnight – while motorbikes zoomed and weaved through traffic behind me – on New Years Eve. My sister may have said something poignant, like, dude, we’re in fucking Vietnam. Indeed we were.
In a way, I had been thinking & dreaming of this trip for a very long time. Not in the literal sense – I had not been thinking or dreaming of having a shaggy beard, nor I had not been dreaming of a wearing a shirt with a squirrel holding a martini on the front while flashing a peace sign at midnight near the city center of Ho Chi Mihn. Instead, I had been wanting to see the region of the world that had had a profound and lasting impact on my father; albeit, it was now forty-plus years since he was in this country. A lot had happened to the country in the interim, but there was always an ever-present nod, tacit and otherwise, to the war where ever we ventured.
Earlier in the day, or it may have even been the previous day, we visited parts of the Cu Chi tunnels. These are the tunnels that the Viet Cong (small bit of trivia we learned; the term Charlie for referring to Viet Cong came from use of the NATO phonetic alphabet – Victor Charlie for VC) used during much of the war. The area we visited had been reconditioned into a tourist attraction. More surreality. For a small fee, you can enter this tourist area, watch a VHS copy of a 1968 propaganda video, wander the grounds – seeing bomb craters, maybe drop into one of the tunnel entrances, pass through a widened and heightened tunnel. And if you wanted, and felt touristy enough, you could, for a nominal fee, let off a few rounds with a Vietnam-war-era weapon. I picked the venerable United States Machine Gun, Caliber 7.62 mm, M60. _It seemed asinine and crazy to plunk down 400,000 dong (a little under $19) and then you got shoot an automatic weapon. An older Vietnamese man helped with the weapon. He looked about my dad’s age. A thought flashed across my mind, _I wonder what side he was on?
After the tunnels and guns of Cu Chi and the night lights of New Year’s Eve in Saigon, we headed to Can Tho and the Mekong delta region.