I wrote this for my Facebook friends about two years ago. It’s very long, so I’ve divided it into seven chapters that I’ll spread out over seven days. With so many people isolating during the C-19 event, I thought it might relieve some of the boredom. (Hopefully it doesn’t add to your boredom!)
I’ve changed names and descriptions of some people to protect their identities.
Vietnam, 1993 - Part 1
A couple of Sundays ago I went with my sister’s family to her church in Perry, a small town in central Iowa. We arrived early for the pre-service coffee and pastries (one of my favorite church functions). A guy named Richard introduced himself, we shook hands, and he began telling me about himself. I suppose he sensed a camaraderie between us because we both have white hair, although his hair is much thicker than mine even though he’s in his 70’s. He’s an energetic man who likes to talk, and his stories were fascinating to listen to.
Richard is a Vietnam veteran. I told him I’d driven through Vietnam in 1993, and I asked where he was stationed. He asked me if I’d seen the Mel Gibson movie, ’We Were Soldiers’ and he said, “That was us. We were the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment.” I was a bit awed. Richard had survived one of the worst battles of the Vietnam War.
The Battle of Ia Drang Valley was the first major engagement between U.S. forces and the North Vietnamese Regular Army. The top brass had seriously underestimated the number of NVRA troops and their location, and the U.S. troops soon found themselves surrounded by 4000 war-hardened enemy combatants. The NVRA quickly attacked. The American troops began running out of ammunition on the first day of the battle, and had to resort to hand-to-hand combat. Reinforcements and ammunition were rushed by helicopter into the chaotic war zone, and the American troops somehow miraculously defeated the much larger NVRA force.
So I’ve been thinking about my trip to Vietnam. My Vietnamese friend, Mai, was returning home to visit the family she had to leave behind when she was evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the American Embassy during the fall of Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the Communist Party). Mai asked me and another co-worker, Barbara, to accompany her, because she was concerned the Government might detain her.
We arrived at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, collected our luggage and walked outside. There was a tall wrought-iron fence alongside the walkway, which separated us from the thousands of Vietnamese people pressed up against the fence, searching for long-lost relatives returning to their homeland for the 25th anniversary of the Tet Offensive. There were literally thousands of people, every one of them very thin, with thick, black hair, staring into every face in hopes of identifying family members they hadn’t seen in almost two decades.
At the end of the walkway, we had to slowly weave our way through that sea of bodies. A woman in front of me suddenly let out an anguished scream, forced to her knees by the crush. I stopped next to her, shielding her from the crowd, and giving her some space to struggle back to her feet. She looked up at me startled; Americans were a rare sight in Vietnam, and at a mere 6-feet-tall I was a head taller than nearly everyone else in the country. From ground level, I probably appeared to be a giant.
Mai spotted a sign with her name on it, and was reunited with her brother, Tam, whom she hadn’t seen since she was 12 years old. Tam, not knowing the exact day or time of our arrival, had spent two days at the airport with his sign, meeting every flight.
After checking into a small hotel in the city, we all boarded pedicabs (a combination of rickshaw and bicycle). Being the most densely populated country in Southeast Asia, the streets are crowded with pedestrians, bicycles, pedicabs, and small Honda scooters, all moving and merging and turning in a continuous flow of movement. Scooters carrying entire families: Mom, Dad, little brother and sister, weave in and out of the stream as though on a Sunday afternoon drive. Pedicabs burdened with impossible loads of firewood or furniture or vegetables are driven by men whose rail-thin legs belie the strength needed to pedal through the dense traffic. There appeared to be only two traffic rules: the biggest vehicle has the right-of-way, and whoever gets there first wins!
One of our first stops was at a large hospital that was probably built during the last years of the French Colonial Era: a very austere building with peeling paint on the walls, and rooms without doors (no privacy!). We were there to deliver a bottle of extra-strength Excedrin to a young man, a distant relative of Mai, who had been struck by a van while driving his scooter.
When we arrived, the man’s wife and infant daughter were sitting silently next to his bed. He was lying on a small, uncomfortable-looking cot, with both of his arms in bulky casts, and one leg in traction to alleviate pressure on the dislocated discs in his back. The Excedrin was a welcome sight to them, as pain medication was a luxury in the financially-strapped hospitals of Vietnam in 1993, even for someone in as bad of shape as he was. Food was another luxury: relatives and friends of the patients were expected to bring food from home, or the hapless patient was fed a meager diet consisting mostly of plain rice.
We were told that due to the lack of facilities at the hospital, the surgeons were considering amputating his damaged limbs. Indeed, throughout our travels in Vietnam, we saw many men on crutches, with missing feet or legs or arms, holding out cups, consigned to a lifetime of begging. These were ordinary men, who in the States would be back to work in a couple of months; in 1990’s Vietnam, a minor traffic accident could result in lifelong poverty.
Fortunately, for his sake and our own peace of mind, we learned before leaving the country that the doctors felt confident they could save all of his limbs. I still wonder though, what would’ve happened if we Americans hadn’t shown up at the hospital that day? Would the doctors have felt compelled to save face, and put more effort into properly treating their patient? Or would he have become another broken man on the streets of Saigon?
To be continued....