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John’s Journal

Viet Nam Trip – May 19-June 7, 2007


I didn’t serve in the Viet Nam war. During the period 1962-1971, I was involved with thousands of other engineers in the US-USSR race to the moon, and so I received a "critical skills" deferment that I was happy to have. During this period, the US role in Viet Nam escalated from being military and political advisors to South Viet Nam’s government to waging full scale war on the Viet Cong and North Viet Nam; it snuck up on all of us. I felt guilty about enjoying the excitement of participating in the Apollo program while men I knew who were not engineers had to serve in the war and then endure the general public scorn when they returned.

A few years back, I became involved in a project that was directed at developing the technology to detect and locate land mines – whether for troop movement support or for humanitarian cleanup reasons. This led me to becoming aware of the thousands of land mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) that still exist throughout the old battlefields of the world, and that these devices annually kill and maim thousands of innocent people, many who are children.

Two years ago I became involved in a New York spiritual training program that includes choosing and pursuing a project to give back to society through what is referred to as a "compassionate encounter with suffering." During one of our meetings I described the global land mine problem and my interest in pursuing some part of the need to remove these mines. Another participant, Jerry Roback, served in the Viet Nam war and has wanted to return there to do "some good." Jerry suggested that we team up and pursue such a project in Viet Nam. I readily agreed, as this was also a way I could assuage that old guilt as well as have some kind of an adventure. This led us to connect with Lt. Col. Paul Mather, (USAF, retired) who was with Jerry in Viet Nam, and who is well connected in Washington DC.

Together, the three of us spent several months making important contacts and planning our fact finding trip to Viet Nam. The question we planned to address was: "How can we best help with the clean up of landmines / UXO and other humanitarian work that would help heal the wounds left by the Viet Nam war?"

The following is my journal describing our daily experiences during this trip.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

I’m in the Milbrae, CA Travel Lodge – nothing fancy but close to airport. Sue is chattering with one of her buddies in the background. She is cooler than I am about getting ready to travel even though I have traveled extensively over the years. But I’ve never been to Asia so this is a first and I’m anxious about something. I’m thinking that I want to start this journal with something profound, but the immediacy of gearing up for the flight to Hong Kong has me in a not-profound state. I didn’t sleep well last night but am going on adrenaline as we wait for the shuttle to SFO.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

We just crossed the international dateline so we’re in the next day. We’re following what looks like a great circle route that has taken us up past the Aleutian Islands, and then down past Sea of Okhotsk, heading to cross Japan at Sapporo, then over Tokyo, and down coast of China to Hong Kong. The big electronic map in the front of our section makes for interesting following along on our route. We’re about 7 hours into our 14 hour flight.

I watch five movies on the flight to stay awake –

"Freedom Writers" – about a freshman English teacher in Long Beach who challenges and wins over an integrated class of black, Latino, Cambodian, and white kids who hate each other, are in gangs, and have all experienced death in the ghettos. This is a moving film about believing in oneself and not accepting the clan hatreds.

"The Pursuit of Happiness" – about a homeless man and his son in San Francisco. He works to become a stockbroker, and lots of travails unfold as he clings to his dream and somehow gets by. It’s a true story about believing in oneself and another tear jerker.

"Music and Lyrics" – light hearted romance with Hugh Grant. It has a message about being true to oneself and saying it how it is.

"Catch and Release" – romance comedy

"Letters from Iwo Jima" – Clint Eastwood film about Japanese side of the famous WWII battle. This is another sobering mood setter that is an excellent film and sets the tone for our cause – cleaning up after a war.

Somehow these seem really appropriate to what we’re doing – finding the truth within with acceptance and compassion for our fellow man.

I can’t watch movies all the time or watch the big map, so I tune into the classic music channel – they are playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy now – glorious, glorious. My cup runneth over.

I’ve also started Joseph Jastrab’s book "Sacred Manhood. Sacred Earth." Our journey is as much an inner journey as an external one, and this book sets the tone perfectly for where I am now – transitioning to the next chapter in a very full life.

Monday, May 21, 2007

We arrived in Hong Kong about 6:30 pm local time and were in our hotel about 8:30 p.m. I was really tired having been mostly awake for 25 or so hours. I declined having a beer with Jerry and Paul and elected to go right to sleep.

We are staying in the Salisbury (YMCA) hotel in Kowloon; it is very nice. I was expecting something more like a Hotel 6 or a youth hostel. For some reason we were all upgraded in our rooms so I’m in this suite looking out with a nice view onto the city and harbor. I slept well, wake up around 5 a.m. and feel raring to go. I need to go out and grab some Chinese soil – it symbolizes for me really being in Asia for first time.

I will meet the guys for breakfast in 30 minutes. I remember to take my dysentery and malaria prevention pills – pill taking needs to be a morning and night ritual. The water here seems like it should be OK since this hotel is so nice and the city I’m seeing outside seems so modern.

After breakfast of normal American food, we go for a walk in the neighborhood and get some pictures of Kowloon and across the harbor of Hong Kong. There is still a low ceiling so we can’t see the tops of the tall buildings across the harbor or the mountains behind them. Hong Kong/Kowloon is a very modern, upscale city with Gucci, Prada, Versace, Starbucks, etc. The streets are busy. The weather is mild but muggy – not unpleasant.

Around noon we leave for the airport that is upscale relative to many other airport terminals. We take a short 2 hour flight on Vietnam Airways to Hanoi. On the way we have a spaghetti and meat sauce dinner – not remarkable. As we arrive the sky clears. Hanoi is sunny and we immediately feel the heat of a tropical country. Humidity is not bad though according to Paul. We are met by Mr. Bui Van Nghi (Viet Nam Union of Friendship Organizations – VUFO) and Mr. Phan Van Hung (rep of Global Spectrum – our trip organizer) and they have a driver lined up to take us to the Quoc Hoa hotel in old town Hanoi. We get instructions on how to dress tomorrow – coat and tie are expected in the official meetings – we hope that we can dispense with both when we get into the meetings.

Mr. Nghi quizzes me on the trip to our hotel about who the Republican presidential candidate will be. He wants to know if it will be McCain or Giuliani. He briefly mentions Clinton and Obama, but McCain is especially interesting to him. He mentions that they have just had their national elections and now they are waiting for the votes to be counted so that they will know who will run the national assembly. I ask him "How many parties run for national election in Viet Nam?" and then quickly realize what a stupid question that is. Mr. Nhgi assures me that anyone can run for office whether they are members of the party or not. We continue talking and he tells me of his several visits to the US (Florida, N. Carolina, Illinois, Missouri, and California) including New York and West Point. I wonder what he looks for at West Point.

We get settled in knowing that tomorrow we go to work. We decide to not eat supper since lunch was late, and so go out for a walk into "teeming" old Ha Noi. The scene is unlike any I’ve experienced. Here, the narrow sidewalks are used for shop business so you walk on the streets and compete for space with thousands of motor-scooters aiming at you, knowing that when they get there you will have moved. It assaults the senses – the heat, humidity, masses of humanity, food odors, stuff for sale, street noises. The smell of gasoline fumes is heavy with the humidity. This will make for interesting filming tomorrow. We’re tired so we don’t walk too far, although Jerry considers buying a book from a street peddler that he thinks I should read. We stand out as different so that the peddlers all try to get us interested. One guy wants to know if we want a pretty lady. We opt to go back to our hotel for a cold beer before bed. The air conditioned, fume free air is pleasant. Beer choices are Ha Noi, Tiger, and Heinekin. Tiger beer is refreshing. Sleep comes easily.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Good morning, Viet Nam!!! Today our meetings are with (a) Col. Ta Hung, Director of the Department of External Relations of the Veterans Association of Vietnam (VAV); (b) Vietnam Friendship Village (for victims of Agent Orange), (c) Mr Vu Xuan Hong, Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations (VUFO) President (Mr. Nghi’s boss); (d) meeting with the press; (e) dinner reception hosted by Tom Leckinger, of Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. Why are they calling a press conference? TBD.

Mr. Nghi meets us with a driver and we go to the meeting of VAV. The meeting with Col. Hung is in a very formal room with two long rows of chairs facing each other and two chairs at the head position. Behind the head position there is the big gold bust of Ho Chi Minh and flower bouquets are in front. I was appointed head of our delegation so I sat at the head chair next to Col. Hung. Mr. Nghi is the interpreter. Col. Hung gives a spiel about the work of VAV working with other veterans groups including five from America – VFW, VVMF, and VVAF among them. His group is the sponsor and owner of the "friendship village" that we are to see next. His spiel is long, and my response is short – we’re happy and appreciative to be there. He pins special lapel pins on us and I give him and his men Vietnam-USA flag pins that Paul had made – good choice. Throughout all of this there is a special photographer taking pictures. He willingly takes some pictures on my camera and I’m delighted – who will believe me sitting up front with "Uncle Ho" behind me if this wasn’t captured on film.

After the meeting, we go to the VN Friendship Village, and have another introductory speech by the head guy, again with me sitting in the front position. I think inside that Paul ought to be in that position as he is the true veteran and more directly relates to working with "former enemies."

After that we go to several classrooms of kids of veterans malformed or stunted in some way by effects of Agent Orange. This is very touching. The kids are learning what they can and gaining some skills that they can use later to earn some income – e.g. embroidery, silk flower making, graphic art. I get some great video of our interactions. Jerry is in his element interacting with the kids. We buy some examples of their crafts to take with us.

Later we go to their mess hall and meet several veterans who are all there to get some kind of medical attention. They are generally a bronzed, wirery bunch from working in the fields. They are very friendly and happy to welcome their "former enemies" to see them. They are a beautiful people.

We meet an Australian man who is there for three months teaching the kids English. His wife is there to teach organic gardening with the goal of making the facility self sustaining food wise. He asks what we are doing and I tell him of our cleanup of the landmines intent. He immediately responds that that is a very needed worthy goal. I think that working at this facility for three months is something that Sue and I could do.

We go back to the hotel for lunch and are the only ones in the hotel restaurant. Our lunch is too big, and we have to leave half of it.

In the afternoon, we meet with Mr. Vu Hong, VUFO President. Again, I’m in the leadership seat at the head of the room. Mr. Hong is also a member of the VN National Assembly. He is very smooth – a natural diplomat, and he tells us of all the progress VN has made in evolving their country, how the decision making is done, how they once were opposed and fought by 5 of the 6 permanent members of the UN Security Council, and still they prevailed. He is a promoter of increased friendship and cooperation with the US. I couldn’t help but greatly like this guy.

We meet with Mr. Chuck Searcy after that. He works for Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) and has been here in Hanoi over 10 years. He and Mr. Nghi are to take us to the reception. Before that, we go to the top of the Sofitel Hotel to look over the city at sunset. It is spectacular and I get some good pictures. It is hard to visualize that we used to bomb this city and think of these gentle people as our enemy.

Then we go to Tom Leckinger’s house for the reception. There are about 30 people there when we arrive including many from the VN Ministry of Defense. I’m introduced as a "NASA rocket scientist." I met a bunch of people and told them what we’re up to. After this very full day, my brain is dead, so I don’t have a lot of names. But two women stand out – both working for VVAF on landmines and Agent Orange problems. But we will meet many of these folks again tomorrow and later in the week.

I try to get the computer downstairs to let me contact aol.com, but don’t get the connection and no one is there who can help me. I’ll try the cyber café first thing in the morning.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

I’m up at 6:00 having not slept very well – too much rich food and wine at the reception last night, I guess. I fiddle with the shower to get the water temperature right – maybe a cold shower will clear the cobwebs.

I go about 3 blocks to a cyber café, and the internet connection works. I’m happy to get off the first round of this journal. I send the previous days’ notes and hope that they arrive OK. This is good to know that email works here, after failing in our hotel.

Today, we have meetings with (a) Director of the Americas Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; (b) Major Dowd, Vice-Commander of Joint POW/MIA Command; (c) Chuck Searcy of VVMF for lunch; (d) Sen. Col. Cahn of BOMICEN (VN branch of military with unexploded ordnance (UXO)/land mine clean up responsibility) to learn about the problem and neutralization of landmines/UXO in VN; and (e) Col. Chakwin, commander of US Defense Attaché in Ha Noi. By the way, we were meeting with Senior Colonels yesterday – Paul thinks these guys are equivalent to Brigadier Generals, in our scheme.

On the way back to my room I pick up the local Ha Noi paper. Holy cow, our picture is in there with a title "Burying the Hatchet!" The byline is the "A delegation from the ….. led by Dr. Mather Roback Sorensen meets here with Vu Xuan Hong,…." The picture shows the three of us interacting with Mr. Hong, the VUFO president. I got a good loud belly laugh out of that and the folks in the lobby wondered what had come over me.

This was another fire hose day in terms of information.

At the first meeting with Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Hung, tells us that the US hasn’t treated VN right, and US-VN friendship is not served by a bunch of VN ex-patriots in Orange County having their Representative, Ms. Chavez, causing them problems in the US Congress. He said that the typical VN citizen wants basic things to serve basic needs – a good education for their children, economic stability, and an adequate health care system. They are a poor country trying to get ahead. They are not at this time looking to have two or more political parties fight over issues (i.e. democracy) and not get anything done like us in the US. They do not have "civil rights issues", and the ex-pats are not right in claiming that they do. He pointed to "democracies" with multiple parties in Singapore and Philippines having very unstable situations whereas VN is progressing just fine with a single party and focus on education, economic stability, etc. that is what the people want. He said they continue to evolve and that maybe someday they’ll have our kind of democracy, but frankly they don’t understand our government and how our parties that continue to oppose each other on most issues don’t accomplish much given the resources we have to work with. This is provoking to think about.

After our meeting, we go by Ho Chi Minh’s tomb to take some pictures. This is in the neighborhood of their capitol buildings and it stirred me to ask Mr. Nghi questions about their system – what is the relationship between the Communist Party structure and the National Assembly? What is the split in duties between President and Prime Minister? Who is over whom in the power structure? How does one rise to the top in the Communist party? Mr. Nghi tries to explain, but it is not that simple that a five minute explanation can cover.

We then go to the US DOD office for MIA remains recovery, the organization where Paul used to work. This is an effort of genuine dedication – trying to track down the bones, etc. of fallen soldiers based on records of plane crashes, cannon battle locations, etc. The MIA remains, when identified from dental and DNA records, are returned for proper burial in the US with full military honors, and this is important to the families involved. There are about 1800 unaccounted for MIA’s from the Vietnam War, 8,000 from the Korean War, and 80,000 from World War II, and the hunt goes on, only limited by normal DOD funding priorities. This visit was added to our schedule to honor and pay our respect to this effort and to what Paul has given to the US in it being the central focus of his Air Force career.

Next, we have lunch with Chuck Searcy of VVMF at one of his favorite VN restaurants. Chuck came to work in VN with the intent of staying here two years, and it is now going on twelve years. He tells us funny stories about trying to learn Vietnamese. He once told a group of Viet people during the period when he was taking language lessons that "he was not a good student, but he had a good teacher." Except that instead of using the VN word meaning "teacher" he used the word meaning "penis." He said it gave him a reputation of being sexy!

After lunch we go to visit BOMICEN which is the VN Army "Technology Center for Bomb and Mine Disposal." We get a viewgraph and film presentation about their landmine / UXO cleanup activities. It costs $1200/hectare to locate and clean up a bombed field. At that rate, they estimate that it would cost $250,000,000 just to clean up Quang Tri Province alone, or several billion dollars to clean up the country. I wonder if Bill Gates would put up that kind of money. After the presentation, we exchange lapel pins, etc. Then we go to their bomb museum and see some of the bombs and mines they have been pulling out of the ground. One of them weighs 5 tons. There is a scale model of a hospital that we bombed including replication of the damage of bombing, (The message – "you bastards even bombed innocent people in our hospitals") and several pictures on the wall showing the horrors of the war – maimed people including the famous picture of the naked girl running away from a napalm attack. We take some more pictures from the museum. This certainly is a motivator to help these guys with their cleanup work.

Next, we go to the US Embassy to meet with Col Chakwin, our military attaché there, and Mr. Nathan Sage who is a science, technology, and health officer with the embassy. We talk about a sweep of things that we can do to help including landmine/UXO cleanup, Agent Orange remediation, infrastructure building, help with simple agriculture, help with street kids, etc. Col. Chakwin says we can do more good working on the Agent Orange problem than on the UXO problem. Mr. Sage wants to know how much money we have to spend. I reply that we want to start with a small project that we can succeed with, and then grow it from there. The financial sources that we will work with want to see measurable success before putting large amounts of money into any expanded humanitarian work.

When Col. Chakwin asks if we have any questions, I give him the following:

John Stevens of the State Dept. says that the VN government wants to focus on cleaning up the northern part of VN before taking care of the south. Is this true? Col. Chakwin says NO, that is ex-pat propaganda that Mr. Stevens hasn’t sorted out. The criterion is to start with three central provinces and spread out in both directions from there.

The two NGOs – VVMF and VFA who are both doing UXO surveys are telling us that their individual way to conducting the survey is the better one and the other outfit is doing it wrong. Who is right? Col. Chakwin says both are good surveys, the NGOs compete for the same dollars, and this talk is one of the outcomes. He says that the umbrella organization that we talked to earlier is trying to get a more coordinated set of projects from all of the NGOs involved.

There was a lot of information transferred in this meeting and we get the idea that whatever we do we can get good support from our embassy. I like these guys, and it is noted that they speak a lot faster than the other organization people we have talked to. It conveys a different energy level.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

This is our travel to Hue day. I get up early to try the internet again, and get a message back that my Word document didn’t get through from yesterday. I can’t read my memory stick from the internet café computer, but try to send documents back again. The guy running the facility doesn’t know how to help me. Our trip to Hue lasts about an hour, and we fly out over the Gulf of Tonkin – famous for the incident that led to escalation of the war. I think of Hue, too, as the city that the VC and North VN army occupied for a period after the Tet offensive. This will be interesting.

We’re in a different type of hotel this time. There are lots of wood carvings and heavy Chinese art, or from some Asian origin. It also has a casino. Obviously this place was built not long ago and caters to foreign tourists. It is much hotter here than in Ha Noi. We’re taking the afternoon off, and then will rendezvous at 5:00 before having dinner.

Friday, May 25, 2007

We had an interesting dinner last night, with Jerry, Paul, Chuck Searcy, Richard Joynes (a Brit who is starting some kind of bamboo business – he says he is "between wives and between jobs") and I going to a restaurant in Hue’s Citadel. This is a couple of miles away, it’s hot, and the streets are crowded with the motorbike hoards. So instead of walking, we go by way of vehicles that sound like "sit low" (cyclo), which is constructed like a backwards tricycle. The passenger sits in a low slung bucket seat between the two front wheels and the driver sits above and behind and pedals to propel us forward. This is pleasant in the evening warmth, but it’s a little hairy as the motorbikes zoom around or toward us. I wonder if these guys ever race these cyclos and get the impression that they do.

On our way to the Citadel we cross a large bridge over the Perfume River designed by Gustaf Eiffel; it is a classic Hue landmark. Eiffel designed and built bridges and buildings throughout Vietnam, including the famous post office in Saigon that we will see later.

The restaurant we have dinner at is well known in Hue for the way it serves food – in the shapes of various animals. The owner has known Chuck for over a decade, so they are good friends. She served the North Viet Nam army during the war as a nurse at a hospital in Ha Noi, and remembers the horror as they continued to operate on a patient while the B-52’s dropped their bombs – not convenient to head for a bomb shelter. What nightmares these people must live with.

Chuck has good command of the Vietnamese language and has epicurean tastes, so we are in good hands when it comes to ordering food. During the course of the evening we eat dishes that look like storks, turtles, dragons, etc. and experience tastes that are new and unusual.

Earlier in the day, I hear that Northern Vietnamese like to eat dog meat and this trait is gradually spreading southward. I hear of the occasion where a group of Catholics from one particular village from the north migrated southward during the war to set up a new village (X__) outside of Saigon; they were being persecuted in the north and wanted to escape that harassment. But in the south they and their new village quickly gained the reputation "There are no dogs that bark in X___." I do not want to eat dog meat and hope that I am not.

Chuck and Richard are bachelors, and so part of the conversation that evening is about the personalities of Vietnamese women – typical man talk. The conclusion: Even though the women are demur, quiet, soft, elegant and very helpful/willing to please, they are very strong and tough as nails. Paul pipes in: "I have to reveal something about myself. I’m married to one." He concurs with the assessment.

Earlier in the day, Chuck told us about attending a revolutionary victory celebration in Saigon, where there was a parade of the various soldiers and leaders of the war effort. One group in the parade was the "long hair battalion", which is a group of women who took command and ran certain villages for the Viet Cong while their men were off fighting. These women had a reputation of being very tough and respected, and the US and ARVN soldiers knew to not attack or mess with these villages. The long hair battalion got the greatest cheers and accolades during the parade celebration.

The restaurant is surrounded by a garden with many bonsai bushes and trees. After our meal, the lady owner invites us to go see a particular bush that only blooms for a few days every 35 years. We’re in luck – it has just begun to bloom, and so we take turns smelling the blossoms – very delicate sweet smell. She says this will bring us very good luck. (I wonder how a plant evolves to blossom only every 35 years and if this means that it grows for many more years than the average plant. Is she pulling our legs?) There are ponds throughout the garden with frogs that croak with sounds like dogs barking – at least she says they are frogs. Hmmm.

This morning we decide to go see Nguyen Tu Duc’s tomb. Tu Duc was the last major emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, and his "tomb" is really a large park-garden with lotus ponds, pagoda’s, temples, and woods. In it, his first wife, minor wives (concubines), and foster son all have their special place. These kinds of places add to the exotic, mysterious nature of Viet Nam.

Today is our first day when we see the non-government organizations (NGOs) working on some aspect of unexploded ordinance (UXO) cleanup. They are having a quarterly coordination meeting in our hotel so we will see how well they cooperate, and start to sort out what they each do.

There are about 25 folks at the meeting representing the NGOs, the UN (UNICEF), and the provincial governments. Apparently, each of them do their own thing, and haven’t been cooperating very well – duplication of efforts, gaps in what gets done, misunderstandings, that sort of thing. They realize that they could get much more done, and use their donors’ funding more effectively if they can get organized to work together. They split into three groups focusing on education of local people to avoid risking deadly accidents, accident victim assistance, and UXO/landmine detection and clearance. Paul, Jerry, and I each attend a different group. I attend the detection and clearance group discussion. Afterwards there are reports from each group, and several ideas are presented. This was a good opportunity for us to get acquainted with several of the people to let them know of our interest and to get a little deeper in the reality of working here.

After the meeting, three British guys (Mark, Rudy, and Clint) from Mine Advisory Group (MAG) say they want to talk with me in more detail. Rudy is the boss, and he wants to size me up. MAG is the NGO that is specifically detecting, locating, removing, and disposing of the UXO in the three central provinces where we are, and I want to see in detail how they do the entire operation. We are going to spend next Tuesday with MAG out in the field. MAG has three UXO cleanup projects on-going in Quang Binh province north of Hue. This also gives me a chance to check these guys out before Tuesday.

I tell them we’re looking for a relatively small project to get started – something that has measurable results that US donors can relate to and be willing to fund. If this smaller project is successful, subsequent projects can be bigger. They describe the politics they have to work with – the VN government wants the NGOs to focus on clearing or checking on specific fields where a resort or factory can be built (and in so doing, ignoring the people with the biggest threat from the UXO – those people living in poverty). MAG wants to focus on clearing villages or areas where the underprivileged live and where the most good can be gained – not in the coastal flatlands but in the mountains to the west along the Laos border. There is much to this story, but basically these village people are denied use of the forests from which they once made their livings. Now, many of them live by collecting and selling scrap metal – including unexploded bombs – highly dangerous. The idea is that we and MAG could work together to clear a swath of villages of UXO, and then provide the education and micro credits/loans to give these people so they could train for and start alternate, better jobs. There is a very powerful "woman’s union" in VN that would support and benefit from such a project.

I’m intrigued. I ask Rudy to prepare a one or two page description of such a project, what would be needed to clear a certain number of districts, etc. Then I can take this, and working with them, find the interested US philanthropists who can supply the funding. Rudy wants to know how much money we could raise. I said I don’t know, but the donors I’m aware of are interested in spending considerable amounts if the results can show significant benefits. Saving hundreds of lives and giving these people a chance to learn new ways of making a living beyond collecting and selling scrap metal seems significant to me. MAG can employ a team of 20 de-miners/UXO cleanup folks going for a year for $240,000, which also feeds the local economy. That may be too high as a reachable first project goal.

I’m feeling energized, and look forward to being out in the country observing MAG and their teams work next Tuesday. We’ll meet Mark for dinner Monday night in Dong Hoi, and we’ll plan our day then – they start at 6 a.m. and work until 3 p.m., partly to miss some of the day’s heat. (By the way, we’ve had only sunny sky since we’ve been here. The rainy season is late, and Viet Nam is in a severe draught along with the rest of the world.)

After my meeting, I rendezvous with Jerry, Paul and Richard on top of the 20 story Imperial Hotel. It offers us a stunningly beautiful view of Hue, the river, the countryside, and the mountains to the west. It is amazing to think that this was a major battlefield only 40 years ago.

Richard then takes us to a restaurant where he knows the owner – a lady friend who has children named Euro, Dollar, Rupple, Peso, and the like. Richard tries to warn us there is a lot of graft and corruption that goes with doing business in VN, and we need to be aware of what it will take to get something done – a little reality check. But there is an Eric Clapton video singing in the background, and Jerry joins in, crooning to us, we drink some good beer that quells the heat, and will worry about the graft and corruption another day.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

This is our last morning in Hue, although we’ll pass through later on our way to Saigon. Today we drive north to Dong Ha where Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund project RENEW, MAG and Peace Trees all work. "Mr. Chuck", who is RENEW co-manager, will travel with us, so it will give us a chance to learn more about this central part of VN, the people, and how he works with them.

I go out to take several pictures of a sculpture garden about a quarter of a mile from the hotel. There is a lot of good sculpture in Hue – mostly carved out of grey granite, sandstone, or marble. This garden is the result of an artist contest, and each work is unique and striking in its own way – these artists are good. I later learn that there is a bi-annual sculpture fair or contest, and the next one will be in 2008 – maybe an event to include in a return trip.

I poke around in a silk clothing shop near where we ate dinner last night. It is very hot, and I come back wringing wet with sweat. It reminds me that Viet Nam is having a bad draught like several other places around the globe. The Mekong and Red Rivers are both at very low levels and it is affecting the hydro-electric production. There are rolling brown-outs just as we have had in California in the past. We were interrupted several times during our meeting yesterday by the power being cut. This is exacerbated by the new industry buildings and tourist hotels all requiring air conditioning. It is also complicated because these major rivers begin in China, and the Chinese pull their water out first – maybe another of many reasons why the Vietnamese don’t like the Chinese.

On our drive north to Dong Ha we stop by the ruins of an old Catholic church that has been preserved as a relic of the war. Its remaining concrete walls are pocked with bullet holes and effects of rocket blasts. Paul points to one blast with a center crater and a star burst of deep etches coming out from the crater. It is the result of an American rocket with exploding shrapnel that he is familiar with. This church was used by the North Vietnamese as a bunker, and no one could have possibly lived through this attack. Outside there is a sign that lauds the brave soldiers that fought here in 1972 for 81 days against the "American and southern army enemy". This is gripping.

Chuck says that the villages of Dong Ha and Quang Tri were essentially leveled during the war meaning that every structure standing looked like this church. I’m told that Dong Ha is around 60,000 people, not what we think of as a "village". I wonder where the people fled to as the battle raged, and how many of them actually survived. There are mass war casualty graves consisting of row upon row of small white grave stones throughout this land, and we will see one up close tomorrow.

Every building here is fairly new, made of concrete blocks, covered with a thin layer of concrete, and then painted in a variety of bright colors. Roofs are typically red tile, tin or fiber-glass. Some buildings have ornate facades of unknown origin, but they tend to be small and blocky in shape with little imagination, as they were erected in a hurry.

The two-lane Highway 1 we travel is in good shape – reported to be a significant contrast from 15 years ago when it was interrupted by potholes, dirt stretches that became quagmires during the rainy season, and detours around bomb craters.

The countryside from Hue to Dong Ha is covered with scrub brush which has grown to cover a land laid barren by bombs and dioxin. Richard thinks he can introduce bamboo as a cash crop in this land.

Humor at dinner: Paul orders a noodle dish that doesn’t come. On Paul’s behalf, Jerry asks the waiter in Vietnamese to please bring Paul his noodles. Soon after, the waiter brings Paul a box of matches. The noodles never show up, so I share my pork dish with Paul.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

This day Jerry, Paul, "Mr. Chuck" and I go with a guide and driver to see three historical war sites – the Khe Sahn battlefield, the cemetery on the DMZ that is VN’s equivalent to our Arlington National Cemetery, and the Vinh Moc tunnels. This is our day to experience the history of the war in central VN around the DMZ. Khe Sahn was a North Vietnamese battle diversion that set up their Tet offensive. To get to it we drive west on highway 9 that has been made into a prime road between Laos and the beach. We leave the flat farmland and go into some rugged, craggy low mountains covered in jungle foliage. With the tropical heat, the siege at Khe Sahn was surely the living (and dying) hell it has been described as. We can barely imagine what it would be like just hiking, let alone fighting, in this rugged jungle covered country and stifling heat.

On the way to Khe Sahn, we see a different, much poorer mountain people. They live off of the land, mainly, raising cattle, water buffalo, goats, pigs, chickens, and crops of coffee, corn, black pepper, bananas, and cashews. Concrete buildings are replaced by wooden shacks with thatched or tin roofs. They do not have broad fields to work, but small patches of ground on steep mountain sides. Various billboards and signs along the roadside are used for education. One urges women to breast feed their babies.

We intersect the Ho Chi Minh trail which is now evolved into a major inland north-south highway. It has markers indicating where the brave North Vietnam and Viet Cong soldiers passed. There is a bridge that Fidel Castro funded with great fanfare. We pass landmarks that I’m not familiar with – the "rockpile", Camp Carrol, Firebase Alpha. I note to read up on this battle. There is a stream of US vets who served here, who come back to see and experience these places again. At Khe Sahn there is a battlefield museum with piles of bombs, old helicopters, a tank, a cannon, and a building with pictures and battlefield maps from the siege. The descriptions on the objects and pictures are in both Vietnamese and English, and they have a propaganda slant to them – about victors and losers. We all hated that damn war, but I don’t like anyone calling us losers – an issue to work on.

So that we can say we did it, we drive up to the Laotian border. We don’t have Laos visas, so we stop short. Vietnam is building a large shopping mall/entertainment complex at this border crossing point, and has dreams that it will become another Dubai or Las Vegas. The road that goes west from here is planned to connect Vietnam with Laos, Thailand, and Burma. Laotians come through here on their way to the VN beach, and we’re told that there is an active contraband smuggling trade conducted here.

Then we go to the national cemetery. As expected there are rows and rows of small white headstones with inscriptions saying where and when the soldier was born, when and where he/she died, and his/her rank. Some fought against the French, some the Americans, some the Chinese. I get the same sobering feeling that comes with viewing the graves at Arlington. These men and women gave their lives for their country as ours did in our many wars. But there were no winners in the Vietnam-American war. Are there ever winners in a war?

Later we go to the caves that are next to an ocean beach north of Dong Ha. Here about 400 local people lived underground within a web of tunnels that go down to 27 m and run 7 km in length – for over six years. We go through a section of the tunnels and I have to stoop continually, as the ceiling is 5 ft or less high; they are about 3 ft wide. There are small side rooms approximately 3 ft wide by 6 or 8 ft deep where a family would live. Not much privacy here. They had two wells and four toilets in the web. They had a hospital room where wounded soldiers are treated and women give birth. A picture shows a bunch of kids that were born and raised here; it was the only home they knew for years. They did whatever it took to stay alive with nowhere else to flee. On the surface, reconstructed bomb shelters and trenches indicate how the people would get around when trying to work their fields or interact with the passing soldiers. There are bomb craters everywhere, and this is just incredible.

We go out for a very good dinner in a local restaurant in Dong Ha, but I am very inner tonight, and don’t say much. I am sobered, and want to be alone with my thoughts. I think about why I came here, and wonder what I must do to respond.

Monday, May 28, 2007 (Memorial Day)

Today we are guests of Chuck Searcy, co-leader Mr. Nam, Mr. Hung, and their Project RENEW staff. They begin by giving us a viewgraph presentation and a short video describing their project. These are very informative and well done; we get copies so that we can show them back home. There are 700,000+ people in the Quang Tri province, and 1.2% of them have been killed or injured by UXO. The biggest losses are to children finding and playing with these strange objects, metal scrap collectors, and farmers working their fields. Over 80% of the affected people live in poverty with incomes of less than $2000/year. 6% of the population sees a landmine /UXO object of some variety every day. Over the last 10 years, about 150,000 UXO objects have been cleared at a cost of around $10M; this represents about 55% of the land area, but clearance has mainly been on the surface – there’s a long way to go in this province alone. Most of the other provinces have not been touched in terms of cleanup. Project RENEW is focused on two of the ten districts within the province. Their goal is to spread their project to all ten districts in the next five years. We get a copy of their game plan for that period. In fact, we are inundated with information that I won’t try to capture here.

Project RENEW is unique in that Chuck insists that the project be managed and populated by Vietnamese. Chuck acts strictly as an advisor and interface to the Washington DC VVMF office and visitors like us. All the other NGO’s working in the area keep the project management in the hands of the non-Vietnamese personnel (MAG, who we will visit tomorrow works in this way). Project RENEW works the whole problem: accident prevention via education, victim medical and financial assistance, UXO location and removal, and fund raising/donor relations. They are moving into a fifth area – community socio-economic development. In the latter area they have started two types of new businesses in which people hurt by UXO can participate – mushroom farming and "animal husbandry". The former is a growth industry for Vietnam. The latter consists of giving the family a sow or cow. After two litters of pigs or two calves are born, the sow or cow gets passed onto another needy family, and this gets the family started with a pig or cattle herd.

Later we visit a farmer whose hand was blown off along with stomach wounds. He was provided with two sows. The first had 14 pigs; the second is due in three weeks. He and his wife are extremely proud of their pigs, and they seem very happy.

An unusual event happened during this visit. The farmer casually mentions as we are about to leave that he found a UXO in his yard 10 days ago; he hasn’t had time to do anything about it. He has moved it to an old dry well, and he shows it to us. It is a live "M79 grenade" shell that is lying in the hot sun. Chuck and his staff guy are mortified – this could blow at any moment! They tell us to clear out, and they call in to report it so that it will get removed and detonated. I tiptoe over to grab a picture – this is strangely ironic, and it underlines the theme of our visit.

During the day, we also spend some time with two other NGO’s that RENEW works with – Peace Trees and Kids First. Peace Trees has done some landmine clearance, education of children, and reforestation. Kids First is funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies (you have heard of them on public television), and they have created a large facility that is dedicated to provide humanitarian assistance to help the injured and poor young people learn new business and occupation skills as well as provide needed industry to Vietnam – wheel chair and prosthesis manufacturing, clothing sewing, running a hotel, running a restaurant, etc. One guy working at Kids First has a grant from American Little League to start four baseball teams (T ball) in Dong Ha. Vietnam wants to learn the sport so they can compete equally in Asian games. Dong Ha would be the first city to have the sport.

Another visit during the day was to the province leader of the Dept. of Foreign Affairs (DOFA). He has to approve all mine action (the general term for land mine/UXO clearance, victim assistance, etc.) activity, and this is a courtesy call. He is kind of formal and stuffy and he lets us know his authority regarding mine action activity. It’s OK though; he gives us each gifts of rice wine and local pepper as we leave.

We have learned a ton today, and we all like Chuck Searcy immensely. Chuck says it costs $500 to buy and supply two cows for one of their needy families. I want to do that for starters as it appeals to my roots.

Tomorrow we have another busy day with the MAG guys in Quang Binh province. We travel north to Dong Hoi, and along the way see the rice harvest going in full swing. This is a beautiful site and I want to take pictures when we travel back to Hue.

We also see a terrible motor scooter accident right after it happened. There is a dead guy and his mangled scooter in the middle of the road, with a small crowd gathered around. We’re told this happens daily. Although there are traffic rules, no one obeys them, and the roads are a free for all. I’m glad we don’t have to drive.

We meet Mark Russell of MAG for dinner and get a preview of tomorrow. It will be quite a day.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Today, we spend our time with Mark Russell and his team from the Mine Advisory Group (MAG), a British NGO that does humanitarian landmine and UXO cleanup in 17 countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. They have a branch called MAG America that Paul and I interacted with in Washington DC, and which led to our making contact here. MAG focuses on detecting, locating and disposing of UXO/landmines in Viet Nam rather than the other aspects of the problem – victim assistance, UXO awareness education, etc. This work is a complement to what we saw yesterday with Project RENEW in Quang Tri Province. We are in the Quang Binh Province that is just north of the Quang Tri Province. Quang Binh also has the China Sea to the east and mountains/Laos to the west.

Mark is a tough guy, was in the British Royal Navy for 25 years as an explosives expert and diver including anti-terrorist response tasks, fought in both the Falklands and First Gulf wars, runs for 45 minutes every morning and boxes during lunch hour. He is 45, was recently married to a Vietnamese woman, and they are expecting their first child in October. He was recently promoted to operations manager of MAG’s Viet Nam work so he is gung ho to do his best, as well as very much looking forward to being a father. He is a very good host and shows us the works. He really wants to know our questions and answer them fully. We could not have asked for a better day in experiencing the process of UXO cleanup.

Mark shows us the province map with 7 districts; it has red pins on villages where they have worked, white pins on villages where they plan to work, and yellow pins where his 4 teams are working now. (He also manages five teams in Quang Tri province.) Each team is about 15 people, and their job is to do door to door surveys to find out where UXO has been seen, go to where it has been reported, detect it with "pulse induction magnetic detectors", dig it out or expose it (very carefully), pack explosives around it and blow it up. If it is too near an inhabited area or infrastructure that could be damaged by the explosion, it is moved to where it can be safely blown up. Each team has a medic person, to respond in case of accident – these do happen, but it hasn’t for Mark.

We get a good overview education on the science of UXO detection and disposal. The problem is exacerbated by the facts that the soil is rich in iron and there is a lot of other scrap metal also lying around. Over half the detections are false alarms, and they have to dig out the Coke cans to be sure. They could use some more sophisticated detection equipment that can distinguish between a cluster bomb and a Coke can, which I understand exists and will inquire about when back in Washington.

We have four different experiences during the day: (a) demonstration of how the detection equipment works; (b) presentation of previously located UXO that has been marked as dangerous with surrounding sand bags; (c) demonstration of how house-to-house surveys are done; and (d) disposal. We go out in the field to do this. The first place is a young pine forest that is planted in an area that was wiped barren by bombs. There must have been a SAM or anti-aircraft site here that made the area a bombing target. Someone discovered the mini-(cluster) bombs while attempting to plant a young tree. We see several mini-bombs and a mortar shell that have since been found.

The next place is a small field with some kind of vegetables. The farmer hacked out the mini-bomb while hoeing, and placed it at the side of the field!

After some more of that, we experience how they conduct their surveys. Paul goes with the two surveyors to the first house, and the lady says she doesn’t know of any UXO. Then Jerry goes with the surveyors to the second house, and the young man there thinks that a third neighbor knows where some bombs are. So they go to that house, and sure enough, the lady there takes us to some bramble bushes in an old crater that she says have bombs. Mark gets out his machete, hacks away, and there they are – two BLU26 cluster bombs dropped by our USAF some 40 years ago. Mark decides that these have to be eliminated immediately. So the team clears the bushes, places sand bags around the bombs, places a stick of explosive with them, runs a long fuse wire from the explosive back to a safe place, and get ready to send the electronic signal to ignite the explosive. Then the team goes throughout the neighborhood clearing everyone away via bull horns. They set up blockades in the nearby roads keeping traffic away. Of course, by now, the whole neighborhood knows something is up, the dogs are all howling, and the excitement mounts. Then, just like in the movies, the countdown begins, 3 – 2 – 1 – click – BOOOOM. The explosion cracks through the air, and although the dense foliage hides the plume, we see the smoke and later smell the powder. We have to pinch ourselves to realize we are really experiencing this.

We next go back to another site that has two bomb locations ready to be detonated. They are both wired and tied to the same fuse wire. Mark asks me if I’d like to trigger the explosive. I’m feeling like when I was a kid blowing up tin cans with firecrackers. What an experience – blowing up bombs in Viet Nam! I told Mark when I met with him and the two other MAG managers last week that we want to see how they do their work in its full detail. I never dreamed that we would actually get to participate like we did today.

Tonight, Jerry, Paul and I discuss what we would like to do and how we should go about it when we get back to the States. We liked what we saw, learned, and sensed at both RENEW and MAG – they are a balance; the feminine and the masculine, and they both have their place. We want to help both of them by first raising funds to help them in their work. We also think that several friends back home would want to experience this as we have. I could go home right now and feel that this mission has been accomplished – but we have another week of adventure to go.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Today is a casual travel day back to Hue. Tomorrow morning we catch a flight to Ho Chi Minh City and then drive to Binh Phuoc.

On our drive, we stop again in Dong Ha to visit Clear Path International (CPI), an NGO with headquarters on Bainbridge Island, WA. It is near where Jerry lives, and he has been in previous brief contact with them. CPI has a small, five-person staff in Viet Nam, and their single purpose here is to provide accident survivor assistance to victims or families of those hurt or killed by UXO. This includes paying funeral costs, medical costs, purchase of prosthesis equipment, learning how to function with loss of limb, etc.

The CPI work is mainly focused in Quang Tri province, but they are assisting in 13 of the other provinces including Binh Phuoc. They are unique in VN as no other NGO has this purpose. The young woman in charge, Tran Toan, gives us a presentation that summarizes their work and shows us her victim assistance budget. It is about $90,000/year of which our State Department provides less than $10,000. (To get this money, our State Department insists that their name and the American flag be displayed on all CPI literature, presentations, etc.) Most of CPI funding comes from individual donors. They are only limited in what they can do by the size of their budget. They can add an additional staff person, including benefits, for about $8,000/year.

I ask Ms. Tran if she has ever been to the US. She replies "Oh yes, many times – but only in my dreams." She has never been to the US. She is very likable and conveys competence, and I think her presence and presentation would go a long way to raise a lot more money. I think CPI is missing a good marketing bet here. Again, we are impressed that such small amounts of money can do so much good over here.

We have lunch in the same noodle shop that Chuck took us to two days ago. The two ladies in charge recognize us and are happy to have us back. The lunches here are really dinners of delicious local food. It is hard not to overeat. Jerry does the ordering as he seems to have a decent command of the language. However, when they ask if he wants to order more, he moves his hand sideways and says something like "do" intending to mean "enough". The women go into giggly laughter, and we wonder what is funny. It turns out that Jerry meant to say "daw" which means "enough" rather than "do" which in the local dialect or slang is some form of "to make love." When we catch on, we join in with bawdy belly laughs, and Jerry is not sure whether he should laugh too, be embarrassed or both. It’s a good thing that Jerry is such a good sport.

We pick up Mr. Hung at the RENEW office. He will be our interpreter for the rest of our trip. Hung studied English for four years in a Ha Noi university, and works by interpreting for people like us and translating technical documents written in English into the equivalent Vietnamese. He is currently working on a manual about UXO detection or removal for RENEW. He takes along a laptop computer so that he can continue translating when we don’t need his services. While at the RENEW office I find out more about their program for buying cows, water buffalo, pigs, chickens, ducks, goats or fish (to start a fish farm) for disadvantaged families who would like to farm. Supposedly you can fund these purchases on-line from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund RENEW web site. We tell the RENEW guys we will investigate and respond when we get back to the US.

Then we go to the Hotel Saigon Morin, an old colonial hotel from the days of the French. It is a very pleasant hotel with the elaborate décor of a by-gone era.

After dinner, Paul and I go for a swim in a just-right temperature pool under a full moon, a perfect way to end a hot muggy day. In the background there is a local music group playing string instruments, drums, and wooden flutes and they are accompanied by Vietnamese singers. Off on the horizon there is a tropical lightning storm rumbling. This is bliss.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Today we get up early to fly from Hue to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and then drive north to Bien Phuoc province. The flight is only an hour, and this is followed by a four hour drive to the village of Dong Xoai, the provincial capital. Around here, the primary crop seems to be rubber trees – the source of French colonial wealth before World War II and up until they were defeated and essentially evicted in 1954.

Tomorrow morning we will meet the local official in charge of interacting with people like us interested in doing some good. We’re not sure what that really means. From now on, we’re flying blind, going on faith that if there is a right project here, we’ll find it.

Again, Bien Phuoc is the area where Paul and Jerry both served during the war. Jerry is especially pulled to return here to a place he considers as "home." He has an inner mission that involves some healing from the war as well as a desire to help rebuild this area. Paul doesn’t have those sentiments, but is curious about how where they served has evolved. The last time (in 1972) that Paul saw the nearby village of An Loc where they lived, it had been bombed and bombarded to rubble with both sides claiming victory.

We had another fun lunch. Jerry and Mr. Hung discovered that they are both Beetles fans, love to sing, have good musical talent, and so Paul, I and our driver enjoyed them singing together the old familiar favorites. I joined in on "Yellow Submarine."

I wish I could describe to you what we are eating – it is so different with unusual flavors I haven’t experienced before. This noon we had a local fish called "snake eye" fresh from the restaurant tank, both wild and domestic pork fixed with different spices, cooked red pumpkin leaf, bitter melon soup, rice, several sauces for dipping including the ever present nuoc mam (fermented fish juice and red peppers), and Saigon beer. Time for a nap.

Our hotel is barren, and I think we’re the only guests. I discover that I don’t have sheets, a shower curtain, soap, shampoo, bottled water, or a table to work on. There are strange bugs flying around, and I see something darting behind the curtain. It’s a lizard going after the bugs. In fact, there are lots of lizards crawling the walls, and they make a chirping sound to let you know that they are there. When I look I find lizards everywhere – we’re staying in a lizard den! Paul and Jerry aren’t worried about the lizards though, as it was always like this, so I guess I won’t worry either. I try to nap, the chirping gets louder, and I start feeling itchy. I get up to get my bug sheet out to climb into. I still itch. Screw it. I’ll take a nap some other day. I spend the afternoon reading Jastrab’s "Sacred Manhood, Sacred Earth," which calms me down and sets the stage for some good contemplation time about these whirlwind experiences.

Friday, June 01, 2007

This morning we visit the folks at the People’s Committee of Binh Phuoc Province who are all Communist provincial government officials. There are about 14 of them including Director of Labor & Social Affairs, Director of Veterans Affairs, Head of Provincial Military Office, Director of Trade, Director of Farmers Union, etc. The press is also there – again, we might be a story. We meet in a very elegant building with marble floors, dark mahogany woodwork, and brightly painted walls. This and the surrounding government buildings are very new and in contrast to the crowded shops, markets, and homes that make up the rest of the city. The room we meet in has the same structure as we saw in the government buildings of Ha Noi – opposing massive arm chairs in a long room, low tables between them with elaborate flower arrangements, and the bust of Ho Chi Minh looking down on us. There are two head chairs like at our previous meetings, but because the head leaders of the Committee are busy doing something else, the head chair is not filled. I prefer sitting across the room as peers, anyway, as these pecking order formalities go against my grain.

The important need they express is taking care of the many poor people. This province has 850,000 people, and many have migrated from elsewhere to the re-built villages in hopes of finding work. We’re not sure who they are referring to, and they’re not sure who we are – three free lance guys that represent no specific group who say they’re looking for how to do some good. We later discover that this area is a major enterprise zone where the government is encouraging industrial investment and encouraging immigration by offering jobs.

In our questioning of what the needs are, the Committee members emphasize the need to help the victims of Agent Orange. I expect they got this message from Ha Noi. The man in charge of that department passes around several case files showing pictures of mostly children and some veterans that are all deformed in some way. He reports that there are more than 5000 cases of people needing help. Some of these children look like they suffer from Down’s syndrome. When we ask how we can best help this cause, the reply is that the most important thing that we can do is to speak up and urge our government to take responsibility for the Agent Orange atrocity. Jerry replies that we think the important thing we all need to do is respond to the need and not be concerned about whose fault it is. (This is the current position of our Ambassador to VN, and it makes sense to us. All birth defects are included in these cases so it is difficult to know why a defect really happened.)

We get minimal response when asking about landmine/UXO problems. Their response is that the VN Army "takes care of that."

Paul asks about vocational training needs, and they reply that they currently have one training center which is maxed out, they need more centers, and more teachers. Maybe a good project to support would be to fund the building of an additional vocational training center.

We ask if there are NGO’s working in the province. The answer is no; they may see two or three NGO delegations a year. We ask if they have a survey of the various war victims or other people with needs. They first say no, but then produce a written summary of something that we’ll have Hung translate for us. They want to know what our plans are for the next three days. When we tell them we’re going to An Loc and out in the country where Jerry and Paul served to poke around, they decide to send a Mr. Duc with us – to keep us out of trouble we think.

Paul makes a strong suggestion that they fix their web site so that it has an English version that works. Before our trip Paul tried repeatedly to get more information on whom to see here, without success. We think they need to "crank up their marketing" if they want humanitarian help from the rest of the world. The contrast between here and Quang Tri is significant in that regard. The meeting ends cordially, with Mr. Duc joining us, and with agreement that we’ll come back on Monday with further questions and a chance for further dialog.

After our meeting Duc leads us to a local shop where a woman cares for a 30 year old man born very mentally handicapped – an Agent Orange victim. They sit us in a line so we can observe the poor man who jumps around the room squealing and scratching his crotch, reminding me of a monkey. At one point he points to a photograph that we are told is a portrait of his father who was a soldier. This is very uncomfortable – like being a spectator at a circus freak show. I think this is laying on a guilt trip. Jerry says that this isn’t right – the man needs to be helped and taught, not stared at. We are glad when we’re asked if we have seen enough and can leave. Mr. Duc asks if we would like to see more victims, and we decline.

We go to lunch at a restaurant that smells like a barbeque joint. We have "goat hot pot" that is again delicious, but we’re all bothered inside.

After lunch Mr. Duc takes us to see a Buddhist pagoda built with funds provided by the local Buddhist people. It is a beautiful ornate building, and there are several workers tearing down structures from the previous day – the celebration of Buddha’s birthday. The master nun joins us and tells us that there was a feast, dances, and other celebration activities with 1000 people in attendance. We’re sorry we missed it. She shows us around telling us a little about how they are organized, and introduces us to a novice nun (a former boat person) who just recently arrived from Vancouver, Canada, and who has been at this pagoda for only two weeks. The young novice is happy to meet some English speakers, and she says she will go to a university in HCM City for four years to study Buddhism and work as the master nun directs her. She explains that this temple feeds hundreds of poor people every day with rice donated by the farmers and unused vegetables donated by the restaurants. The aura of the pagoda and the two nuns convey a serenity that we didn’t get from the People’s Committee, and this calms our troubled thoughts. This pagoda does good work with the people of need, too, and we add that to the possibility list. Later Duc takes us into a rubber plantation to see the local (man made) lake. We get lost on a one-way dirt road that turns into a path that is impassible so that our driver Mr. Hai has to back out a good distance; he is good at driving the van. We finally find the lake that is undeveloped and not particularly picturesque but it is the best that they have to offer us in terms of sites to see. We take some pictures to honor their efforts.

The heat gets to us, so we retire for the day to our air conditioned rooms. I collect my laundry, check email at the receptionist desk, try to snooze, try to read but can’t get comfortable, so write the above as I wait for supper time. I’m feeling a need for some exercise, but will have to wait until it cools.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Today we drive to An Loc. This is the anticipated emotional high point for Jerry and Paul as this was their war zone. For those of you who don’t know, in 1969-70 Paul and Jerry were assigned as advisors and helpers to the local VN military and populace as members of a 20-person military cadre in An Loc. There was also a 1000 member air cavalry brigade at a fire base near An Loc, so there was some serious shooting going on. This was before the big battle of An Loc that happened in 1972. Col Paul Mather was then a USAF Captain, and Jerry worked as a civilian for the US State Department. Paul’s job was as information officer and Jerry’s job was to help refugees.

I will not attempt to tell these guy’s stories because I cannot do them justice, but only say that I am in tremendous awe regarding the Vietnam experiences that they had, the service they provided to our country and to the local people, and the traumas that they had to go through. I hope that you get to meet both of them and hear them relate their stories directly. Part of Paul’s story is a beautiful romance that in my mind would make a great movie. Just a short story: Jerry was a hippy renegade back then and was adept at befriending the local people of the An Loc vicinity. He rode the dirt roads of the area on a Vespa motor scooter with his dog Shithead draped over the handlebars. Everyone knew and loved Jerry and Shithead. In this capacity, Jerry collected information that saved hundreds of lives. One day Jerry was getting his hair cut when the barber started getting edgy, finally stopped, and said he should leave because there was going to be a rocket attack. Jerry left, relayed the message to his cadre as they were unknowingly in the middle of a briefing about "security is currently excellent." Because of this timely warning, the cadre all got into the bunker/bomb shelter before the rocket attack came.

Binh Phuoc and An Loc are in the middle of industrial revolution, and this seems like an entrepreneur’s dream. There are opportunities to invest everywhere. We passed a Korean steel and aluminum plant that I hope we can check out tomorrow. The road from HCM City to here will someday be a four-lane highway, with several sections already completed, and in some places there are rows of street lights and streets that will be stately boulevards. The factories and government buildings are all new and impressive. The rest of the homes, shops and markets were thrown up in a hurry after the war, are what you would imagine in a third world country, but still have the small village Vietnamese charm. It is unknown if that charm will be someday replaced by a totally modern city.

Paul and Jerry are completely amazed at how this place has changed. Again, the last time Paul flew over, it looked like the "surface of the moon" from the craters and rubble. As we drive around town we find only two buildings from before the war, and they have large holes from bombardment that have been patched and are lived in. Paul spent years in VN helping to locate MIA soldier remains, so he knows the geography well. He is able to point out where the various buildings, barracks, ammo dumps, runway, etc. once were. Both men are in sober, reflective moods.

One of the sites we stop at is a mass grave for over 3000 unknown VN soldiers and civilians that were caught in the battle and siege of An Loc. The inscription says they all died from imperialist US bombs – this is not a two-sided point of view. If you recall, this is the place where it was said that we "had to destroy the village to save it." This weighs heavy on each of our hearts.

On a lighter side, the guest house where we stay is pretty primitive but part of our grand adventure. I draw the short straw so I get the room with no hot water, and the shower is a hose. There is a drain in the bathroom floor that water from the hose and sink both go directly into. There are two beds without sheets, but the room has air conditioning – life is good. There is no other furniture so I sit on one bed with my computer on the other. Several of the rooms have pictures of nude women in seductive poses – we think that this may also be a bordello.

I intend to interview Paul and Jerry tomorrow using the camcorder. I’ll ask them to describe how they got here, what were the experiences that they most remember from back then, and what are the thoughts and feelings that they are having being back.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

After breakfast we spend some time driving around the An Loc area so Paul and Jerry can see the sites where they had lived and worked. They can only imagine where their old buildings and bunkers were as even the terrain has been changed in places, and so this experience seems sort of anti-climatic. I ask them if they are disappointed. The answer they both give is "No. I’m just really surprised at how this has changed and grown. Actually, it is a good thing that most everything from the war is gone and the people here are beginning to prosper." It is time to drop those demons of war from long ago.

We pass one of the old mansions from the colonial days when the French lived here to run the rubber plantations. Paul used to go there to have coffee with the head guy. Paul says the French rubber plantation owners lived like kings with tens of house servants, essentially slave labor to work the plantation, and an opulent lifestyle. Paul asks that we stop to take a look, and when we do, he takes out his camera to take a picture. This causes an immediate ruckus because the mansion is on the grounds and in front of a VN military complex. Paul is not allowed to take a picture by both Mr. Duc and Mr. Hai. The message is that taking any kind of pictures of military installations is strictly taboo in VN. OK!

We stop in the middle of a rubber tree forest to see how the workers gather latex from the rubber trees, and we get a demo of how a tree is tapped – like what is done for maple syrup. During the sap running season today’s plantation workers do their jobs every day from 4 am to 2 pm. (that’s a 70 hour week). I understand this is over a period of four months. They are each paid by how much latex they gather each day; it is weighed at the end of the day. This is very much a market economy – not a traditional communist setup where everyone would get paid the same. When the season is over, the workers find something else to do until the next season.

We also stop to see the large Korean industrial complex that is being built along the main highway. This complex is going to be manufacturing many things – e.g. stainless steel products, furniture, tires, and livestock feed. The complex will include homes for the workers, recreation areas, green belt land, warehouses, stores, etc., and it is laid out in several phases that will go up in the next five years. I am fascinated by the investments and new industries that are popping up throughout the country. The Viet Nam paper reported today that VN’s domestic output grew over 10% in just the first 5 months of 2007. Paul is convinced that Viet Nam will be the new Asian Tiger.

By some strange coincidence, our interpreter Mr. Hung’s father lives near An Loc. He is one of the many who migrated here to work in the rubber plantations after the war, is now retired, and owns some rubber plantation land that provides him his pension. He was a member of the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN of South Viet Nam) but deserted before the war ended and so did not have to go to the communist re-education camps. We haven’t figured it out yet, but we think that Hung is his illegitimate son who was conceived when families were torn apart during the war. His mother lives in Quang Tri near his older three half sisters. His father lives in this area with his step mother (called "great mother"), three half sisters and three half brothers. Both families are on friendly terms and this situation is just accepted between them, so Hung is happy for that. Hung is the only one in the families with a college education. His father can barely read and write. We predict that Hung will be very successful in whatever he ends up doing.

Hung invites us to come to dinner at his father’s home, we readily accept, and this turns out to be the great delight of the day.

We are treated to a feast "Vietnamese style" as a group of twelve men sitting cross legged on the floor of Hung’s father’s living room in a circle around the food. This includes the three of us, Hung, his father, his three half brothers, his brother-in-law, his father’s cousin, Mr. Duc, and Mr. Hai. The family women come and go in the background and keep the food and drink replenished. Hung says they enjoy watching the men making fools of themselves.

These guys like their beer, and every few minutes someone makes a toast to something, we clink glasses, gulp some brew, laugh, and eat some food. Hung’s brother keeps our glasses full. Pretty soon we’re all laughing most of the time as each man has a favorite joke to tell or a favorite toast. I discover that Hung’s father and I are the same age so we drink to that.

I have brought along a dozen New York Yankees baseball caps to give away as house gifts so I ask Hung if his father would like one. "Yes, of course." So Hung’s father picks out a bright red cap (not Yankee colors, but it doesn’t matter) and is beaming with joy to wear it. Later, as we are ready to go, Hung’s father has the three of us pose with him and Hung’s great mother (in front of a wilderness mural they had painted on the side of their house). We’re all very moved by this and the wonderful friendly meal we have shared.

Jerry and Paul decide they don’t have anything more to see or do in An Loc, so we go back to Dong Xoai for the night. They are pooped, so we decide to postpone the interviews until a later time. A nice rain shower comes that freshens and cools the air, as we finish our day.

Monday, June 4, 2007

This morning we go back to the People’s committee to talk further about what would be a meaningful project to conduct here. We meet with two people – the woman from the foreign affairs office and the agent orange man. They want to know how much money we have to spend. We answer that we don’t know what we can raise, but were advised to start with a small project and be successful, and then more will come. We say, as we did in Quang Tri that we don’t know what "small" is so we need a range of projects we can go back to the US to discuss and pick from. Together, we identify several Binh Phuoc projects as possibilities: (a) build a new vocational education school and pay for training and hiring the teachers; (b) expand on the facilities of the existing hospitals; (c) develop a home care capability for those with disabilities; and (d) start a micro loan project including providing livestock, such as is done in Quang Tri.

The first step is for us to write a letter to the People’s committee expressing interest in working jointly on a project. This will trigger approval and assignment of the point of contact here. Then we’ll need to do some iteration with them to discuss and zero in on the project details. This of course means we need to find interested humanitarian investors. But here is the amazing thing: I ran into a retired Marine Colonel in Hue who was over here working on building a grade school through an NGO called "East Meets West" out of Oakland, CA. He told me they can build a 10-room school plus 2-room library for only $60,000. I don’t know what that all includes, but this just isn’t big bucks.

We have collected several possible humanitarian project ideas in Quang Tri, Quang Binh, and Binh Phuoc provinces. We can’t support or do them all, so will have to describe them with some detail and find out what will appeal to those who might want to get involved. For sure there will be return travel to this beautiful country of beautiful people as part of the deal.

After our meeting, we head back to the pagoda to talk to the head nun again, but she isn’t there. So we say good bye to Mr. Duc (wearing his blue Yankees cap) and head back to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon.

Arriving in Saigon is reverse culture shock for us after being mostly in the country and villages for two weeks. Saigon at 6 million people is rapidly becoming a big world city with all the noise, smells, and familiar brands you can imagine – Gucci, Pepsi, Honda, Hilton, Motorola, Sony, Black & Decker. Starbuck’s hasn’t yet arrived but I my guess is that they will be here, too, when we return; they will have to buy their coffee from Viet Nam, though.

We say good bye to our driver, Mr. Hai, with his grey Yankees cap and infectious smile. He has been masterful in weaving us through the mass of motor bikes and avoiding the pot holes, so we give him a good tip.

We have two days in Saigon before returning home. Paul spent over two years here, knows the city well, and he will be our guide.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Paul leads us on a walking tour of the city center where we see the Eiffel designed post office and an old Catholic cathedral, peek into some of the bigger hotels, plunge ourselves into the teeming open air market where we find some suitable souvenirs to purchase, and observe the trading bustle of the Saigon River harbor. One of the shops sells propaganda posters from the war. I buy one that has a portrait of Ho Chi Minh with a caption that translates from one of his famous teachings: "Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom." Isn’t that what our USA forefathers were saying 200 years earlier?

At lunch, we start to talk about how we’re going to organize an approach to continuing this project when back home, but the setting isn’t right. And I’m aware that I’m missing the country and the little boy riding his water buffalo that we left behind. Usually, I enjoy the energy of a big city, but I find this abrupt change in atmosphere harsh and jarring.

I do get Paul and Jerry to slow down so that I can video interview them on what their experiences have been returning to their old battleground of An Loc. This pause and reflection seems to ground us.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

This is our last day in Viet Nam. I’m ready to be back in California to taste a hamburger again, plant some flowers, and hike some Sierra trails.

Today, we will do some wrap up things like write letters to the Buddhist nun and the Binh Phuoc People’s Committee, write the last minute postcards that have been neglected, and do our final packing for the long trip home. Jerry and Hung are writing a song that will be in both English and Vietnamese – it will be poignant. We will say goodbye to Hung, and promise that we’ll stay in touch. Jerry has already telephoned Chuck Searcy, and promised that we’ll make sure that we buy him some more cows. Paul and Jerry will also interview me about how I got into this amazing adventure. Today is Jerry’s birthday, so we’ll celebrate that in some to-be-determined way.

We have gained so much together on this trip – both in answering the question "What can we do to help?" and in our individual personal growth. Southeast Asia is still an exotic mystery to me, but it now is a comfortable mystery. We know more detail now in terms of possible project choices, people to work with, and how to proceed. I have also gained greater respect for our military and civil service men and women who served in Viet Nam, and a new admiration for the Vietnamese people who I previously thought of as "the enemy."

So let me close by saying this to you who have followed this journal. I greatly appreciate your attention, and I very much wish that you too can have similar experiences to those I’ve tried to capture here. I think it would change you, as it is changing me, for the better.

And finally, with tears of joy and gratitude, until we meet again:

Good night, Viet Nam!