by John Tsitrian
As we often sang back in the day, we gotta get outta this place. And get outta there we did. The ride south to Hue followed Route 1.
As expected, it turned out to be a set-piece demonstration of the problems that Vietnam will encounter in its drive to the modernization of its rural regions. Though in generally good repair, the two-lane road was clogged with traffic, creating huge bottlenecks in this, the narrowest region of Vietnam, where the distance between the coast of the South China Sea and the Laotian border is 35 miles.
Retired Marine Col. Chuck Meadows at what came to be known as “Meadows Corner," near the Citadel in Hue in 2009. John Tsitrian is across the street. Photos courtesy Chuck Meadows
Moving freight and people from the population hubs of Saigon, Da Nang, and Hue in the south of the country to the big metropolises of Hanoi and Haiphong to the north has got to be a daunting challenge, especially considering that there’s only one rail line adjacent to Route 1. With the free flow of people, goods and services so severely hampered, even a relatively small country like Vietnam is forced into essentially local economic zones without the natural growth that comes from the easy transfer of products and people from one region to another.
For tourists, of course, the upside of a slow-going trip like this is the chance to see day-to-day life in the hamlets along the way, which in Vietnam means seeing hordes of people at outdoor markets, military installations at virtually every ville, farmers tending their rice paddies -- sometimes using human power to pull plows whenever the otherwise ubiquitous water buffaloes aren’t present. The shops are plentiful; the shopkeepers, aggressive.
Our small group ignited a near riot on a hillside road when a group of merchants spotted one of our party buying something, causing a convergence of vendors who were literally smacking us on the arms with merchandise, grabbing at us, tapping us about the arms and shoulders and generally chattering and offering deals on trinkets, postcards, clothing, you name it. We scrambled back into our van and scooted.
At another stop, when I made it clear to a lady that I wasn’t interested in buying anything she coyly offered me a foot massage, which I later learned was local code for services of a more intimate nature. My favorite of these stops was at a live pig market, where farmers brought 35-40 pound piglets in to sell to local families, who would buy the pigs for about 50 cents a pound then take them home to fatten, feeding them rice, mantioc and bananas -- which I found encouraging, considering that during the war all I ever saw the local pigs eat was garbage.
The pigs themselves -- as they did all over Vietnam -- looked like garden-variety pink animals, not those exotic Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs you see in places around the United States, which made me wonder if shrewd marketers aren’t taking advantage of American pig fanciers. Besides pigs, the hamlets are rife with chickens, running around all over the place -- a feature that’s also common in the larger cities.
In fact, it was the absence of chickens that got the attention of my traveling companion Col. Meadows, who in 1968 was the commander of a Marine infantry company near Hue. The Tet Offensive, a huge drive by the North Vietnamese to infiltrate and occupy American and South Vietnamese cities and installations in February of that year, was underway. His G Company of the Fifth Marines was ordered to truck into Hue in response to reports of a local disturbance. Meadows and his men had no idea what to expect, but he tells me that as soon as they crossed a bridge into the city he noticed that the streets were empty of people and -- more tellingly -- of chickens.
Then-Capt. Meadows (in foreground) at "Meadows Corner," Hue, 1968. Two of his men lie dead in the background, where Tsitrian would stand four decades later. Photos courtesy Chuck Meadows
He realized that something serious was developing. Moments later, his company “was shot out of our trucks” by a vicious fusillade of automatic weapons fire. The storied recapture of Hue by the United States Marines had begun. G Company was ordered to advance to the city’s ancient Citadel, moving house by house, street by street -- eventually getting as far as what is now known in Marine Corps circles as “Meadows Corner,” where his company, having lost about a third of its men, was stymied, just blocks away from one of the main entrances to the Citadel. G Company, along with other units of the 5th Marine and other regiments, fought in the streets of Hue for another month before finally routing the enemy.
According to Meadows, the experiences and notations of the fight for Hue have been encoded into Marine Corps fighting manuals and were recently put to use by the Marines who took Fallujah in Iraq.
The beauty of Hue
As to the city of Hue itself, its beauty and historic value remain undiminished, with the Citadel, the site of the Imperial Capital in ancient times, undergoing a thorough and much-needed restoration, much of it funded by the United Nations.
The beauty of the city and its riverfront -- the Perfume is the name of the river -- have turned it into something of a Mecca for international tourists, with many a war-ravaged block now undergoing a complete transformation into a gorgeous and pricey high-rise hotel or business complex. That ancient streets and long-standing buildings and businesses are adjacent to the new developments only makes the city more inviting -- and the tourists are responding.
Same goes for points farther south, mainly Da Nang, where the war’s imprint was huge, considering the size and reach of the U.S. military installations there. The waterfront districts of Da Nang are crowded with high-rise 4- and 5-star hotels, lovely promenades, exotic restaurants, fancy shops, local markets, beautiful beaches -- all the amenities of a world-class resort, which the city has become. I met tourists from numerous European countries and Australia, all of them marveling about the beauty and the value.
I have no doubt that when Air Vietnam begins its non-stop service to California in 2010 that Americans will join the parade. The place is certainly a bargain by comparison to European locales, with a lovely 4-star room available for less than $100, in some cases much less. That comes with a knockout breakfast containing all the traditional American breakfast fare and the wonderful Vietnamese dishes you’d expect, like pho soup (vegetables, rice noodles, broth, some meat) several varieties of fried rice, steamed vegetables, raw tropical fruit, sweet rolls, outstanding coffee -- good and strong, no bitter aftertaste, I mean, delicious -- tea, juices, in short, enough to carry you through most of the day.
Meals in local restaurants are generally between $5-$10, with drinks like beer, water and soda pop running about a buck. Harder liquor will set you back anywhere from $2-$5 a shot.
I tried the locally produced libations and found them too different to suit my tastes. Vietnamese vodka made from rice is sweet, almost more like rice wine. Vietnamese rum -- probably produced from the plentiful sugar cane grown throughout the region -- is tasty but watery. The red wine bottled in Da Lat is thin.
The beer, however, is outstanding. Apparently some joint ventures with European breweries (Carlsberg from Denmark is a partner of Halida Beer in Hanoi) have brought old country techniques into the industry and have created a very palatable array of Vietnamese brands.
As to the values in the local markets, they seem pretty good to me. As you can imagine, there’s plenty of silk merchandise for sale, with custom-tailored men’s shirts readily available for less than $10.
A silk nightie and robe set runs about $10, cashmere and silk scarves are less than $5. Ceramic items like ashtrays and statuettes are generally $5 or less.
Onyx items are plentiful and cheap. An apple that’s the size of, well, an apple, will run $10 or less. There’s plenty of marble at the aptly named Marble Mountain in Da Nang, with beautifully sculpted statues running at less than $1000, including shipping back to the States.
Overall, Vietnam seems like a very affordable place. An Australian gent I met in Hue told me that coming to Vietnam is a much better deal for Australians than going to Bali - and certainly far less risky considering the political tenor of Muslim Indonesia.
There isn’t much in the way of religious or political extremism in Vietnam, where Buddhism and its live and let live philosophy is the prevailing faith and the restraints of a one-party political system have managed to keep anti-social behavior in check. People seem focused on their personal affairs and aspirations and, if not effusively friendly, are social enough.
There certainly seems to be no lingering animosity toward Americans, although my companions who’ve been back to Vietnam numerous times tell me that there are still lingering traces of resentment in the south toward Americans for pulling out as abruptly as they did. Many South Vietnamese thought the American involvement and presence were open-ended enough for them to make life commitments that cost them dearly after the United States pulled out and the North Vietnamese swamped the South a few years later. Those of us old enough to remember the desperation of the “boat people” who escaped Vietnam after the North took over can understand that attitude.
Fear was rampant and retribution swift.
Now, three decades later, the bad taste seems to have gone away, at least in Vietnam. For the United States it’s a different matter, as memories and opinions about that war continue to divide us.
If there’s a consensus, it’s probably that the war in Vietnam was the defining screw-up of my generation. I doubt that we’ll ever get over it, but as the Vietnamese themselves seem to be anxious to reach out to us in friendship, some reciprocation may be the catalyst for better things to come. Making peace with the Vietnamese, united under the government of Hanoi, may be just another way to make peace with ourselves.
John Tsitrian is a Rapid City businessman and writer. He was accompanied on this trip by several veterans of the war in Vietnam and Rapid Citian Paul Jensen, who provided the photos taken during the trip. You can contact Tsitrian at firstname.lastname@example.org. Written for the Rapid City Weekly News.