• A Soldier and a Child

    Return to Vietnam.

    It wasn’t until I found my way down Trang Thi Steet in Hanoi and then to Hai Ba Trung that I found JD Salinger. He was there in translation in Vietnamese on a street with a sign that read Book Street. I was looking for a bookstore, but that’s another story. First I have to tell this one. I wanted to set this story up by referencing another title, but I couldn’t remember it… until I found JD Salinger in Hanoi. Salinger’s story is called, “For Esme:—With Love and Squalor,” a brilliant story from his book Nine Stories. It’s about a soldier’s chance meeting with a child and the encounter changed his life.

    This story I want to tell is a U.S. soldier-story, too. I’m traveling with a small group on this trip. Three of the men are veterans of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Two of them, Chuck Forsman and Mike Stempe, were in the Information Office at Headquarters, 1st Logistical Command, I Corps in Danang. They were photographers and reporters for the I Corps newspaper and sometimes their work was picked up by Stars and Stripes.

    Not far from their headquarters was an orphanage run by an order of Vietnamese Catholic sisters. It was called Thanh Tam. Mike and Chuck used to go to the orphanage on Sundays. “It was about a half mile from our compound,” Mike said. “It was freedom to us. We got all pumped up. ‘Let’s go see the kids.’”

    Chuck has been back to Viet Nam four times since he was here as a journalist with I Corps . There’s a book of his photography from his visits called Lost in Vietnam, and in the book he describes one small child who he’s never forgotten. He says her body was so frail and her eyes were vacant when she first came to the orphanage. Over the weeks, in hopes of engaging with her, he slipped off his wrist watch with a twistable band and she touched it. She liked the watch and began to look at him and engage with him, and a friendship began.

    Jacket of Chuck Forsman’s book of photographs, Lost in Vietnam. In the book, Chuck includes the story of the young girl he met at the Thanh Tam orphanage in Danang when he worked as a journalist for I Corps Logistical Command.

    On this trip, when we got to Danang we all wanted to go with Mike and Chuck to find the orphanage. Could there be a way to trace the children who had been there so many years ago? When we got there, though, we found that the orphanage was no longer there. But we met Sister Ane Nguyen Thi Tinh of the order that had run it. The building was now a retirement home for sisters of the French order. Sr. Ane welcomed us. We heard a bell sounding, and it was a call to the sisters, not to prayer as I thought but to lunch. We met many of the older nuns at their lunch. And a remarkable thing happened: a sister introduced herself as one of the nuns who worked in the orphanage in 1969 when Mike and Chuck had been in Danang.

    Chuck meets a sister who worked at the orphanage in 1969 when Chuck and Mike often visited on Sundays.
    The sisters greet the returning vets. Chuck is in the back, center. Mike is in the back, right. Le Ly is pictured in front, center. Her foundation has work to support many elders in Viet Nam.

    After the war, Mike Stempe became a teacher and continued to find satisfaction working with children. He taught in Alaska for many years and as a photojournalist created a book of photographs about Alaska.

    This trip we’re all on will be Chuck’s fifth trip to the country. He and Mike have been documenting our journey at every step as if they are seeing the country for the first time.

  • Letters to My Daughter: A Song

    So here’s a broad-brush story. It begins with a song. I hear a lot of stories in Vietnam. Some are in song. Ly Le invites us to her family home in Ky La where she’s prepared a feast. Not only that but she invites two neighbors over to meet us and one woman sings us a song. She is in her 80s and is one of those we meet who remember the American war. Le Ly said her song is famous in the neighborhood as a local tribute to the children from Man Quang School who died in a B52 bombing and whose graves we’ve just come from.

    Le Ly’s neighbor sings a song to remember a soldier’s loss of a little girl who had been his inspiration to fight. The neighbor sings that the soldier had held the child’s small hand and was proud to go and fight for her and his country. But when he returned to the village, the girl had been killed and his heart was broken.

    We also hear a tragic tale of another neighbor. When was 13, she worked for the Viet Cong, passing on information to support their troop movements. She was imprisoned by the southern army, part of the time in a tiger cage, which is just like what it sounds like and held four people. But she said she wasn’t alone. She felt embraced by her family and her country.

    At Le Ly’s family home. In the center between the neighbors who gave their testimony is our beloved guide, Quyen.

    The country proudly welcomes us to the DMZ at the 17th parallel that had divided the country into two nations after the end of French control of Viet Nam.

    The DMZ that divided the country follows Ben Hai River – Song Ben Hai. Here are Ho Chi Minh’s words on this wall at the site. He writes his vision for the country: “The river should be shallow, the mountains should be smaller.”

    Then we come to the village of Vinh Moc, not far after we cross the Hien Luong Bridge over Ben Hai River. (I’m trying to learn the names so I’m giving as many as I can to you.) In Vinh Moc, the country invites tourists into a stunning and also terrifying work of architecture, a complex of underground tunnels. In the tunnels, 600 people could sleep, cook, set up a hospital, and have a birthing room for hundreds of babies born here. The military built the tunnels for people to shelter in when the Americans dropped bombs on this area north of the DMZ. The U.S. was attempting to stop the supply lines to the northern army. This is a rattled photo of our no-nonsense young guide, but I’m including it because is shows my own rattled state of mind as we walked and stooped through the complex. This young woman whose grandparents had used the tunnel marched us through it. The rocks and mud underfoot were damp and slippery. “Mind your head. Mind your feet. Mind everything,” she commanded. But I followed her voice. For me it was hard to take a deep breath. But her voice brought us out.

    This is the guide who lead us out of the tunnel. The Cu Chi tunnels in the south are famous. They were a spiders web of narrow burrows for NVA soldiers to fight from. The tunnels in Vinh Moc were bunkers to hide in. They are on the popular route for tourists and now bring cash to the country.

    Oh, I’m not such a good traveler. We are visiting many tourist sites. Young women work so hard to paddle boats we glide in. A part of me resists and another part of me is in awe that I can see this place. But then something happens that kind of shifts everything, yeah, even above the bullet holes in the buildings in Hue and the abandoned Huey chopper and C-130 we saw at Khe Sanh.

    What we see now is a cave. Here’s the cave story. We travel to a cave at Phong Nha. I’m seeing commerce of all kinds. Tourism is a huge source of pride and success and it’s just coming back since Covid. A boy paddles our river boat up the river, (I think the Son River) to the entrance of the caves. He works with his mom. We motor in and once in the cave, she cuts the motor. It’s silent in there and they pull long paddles through the water. His mom is at the bow of the boat, the boy at the stern. Le Ly gets their story and tells us the the mother and boy are allowed to operate this boat one day a week for the tourists, and other days they farm. She has five children and they are almost making it and hope for more days on the river when more tourists come.

    A boy at the stern paddles the river boat on which we enter the Phong Nha caves.

    Okay, and then I begin to look up and realize we’ve entered a cathedral, a vast natural-born cathedral formed over eons. We are in a place I learn from Lonely Planet that was formed 400 million years ago. It is so fiercely grand and holds the recent past as only a part. Another song the river tells. Just imagine.

  • Letters to My Daughter: We Also Eat

    I’m not one to talk about food since peanut butter on bread is delicious to me. But here is a dish that I truly loved. It’s called cao lau. Maybe I loved it so much because Riko at her restaurant U Cafe Hoi An made me a vegetarian version. It was so good, I ate most of it before I paused to show you before it was gone. Riko is Japanese and has made her home in Hoi An.

    This is a vegetarian version of cao lau. It’s made with flat noodles, scallions, tofu, lime, chilies, in a sauce with crushed peanuts on top.

    Here are more dishes we ate at a cafe on the highway.

    This is jack fruit, okra, rice with morning glories and tofu, with I think a plum chili sauce.
    Here are some of my companions on a boat riding to one of the islands in the Mekong River when we were in the South. You can see we’re drinking delicious coconut milk right from the coconut.
    And street food!

    This is a crispy rice paper cracker that’s delicious by itself. They serve it in restaurants and you can punch it with the heel of your hand to break into to serving-sized pieces and dip it in sauces. You can also get it layered with toppings like here on the street in Hoi An.

  • Man Quang School

    We travel on Highway I. There are baby rice fields with scare crows blowing. Sometimes they are shirts with the arms wide on sticks. Sometimes the shirts or bags are shredded and the scarecrows ripple with streamers. Le Ly tells us a story of a time of filming “Heaven and Earth” when Oliver Stone met Le Ly’s mom who Le Ly calls MamaDu in her book. Oliver asked MamaDu, what is your happiness? She said, she was happy when she worked in the rice fields. She liked being with the earth and the snakes and all the living things.

    One day we come to the home village of Le Ly’s mom. It’s not far off the highway from Danang. I think it’s Saturday which means you, my own daughter, are finishing up work on Friday night. I think. In my group, we are always asking each other, what day is this?

    We walk through this village. We are learning the flora and birds. We learn that people often plant beetle nut in the the front of the house and banana tress in the back garden. They grow morning glories, okra, sweet potatoes. We are a week into the journey and I’m not sleeping and by this morning have been bleary eyed with sleeplessness and easy tears and missing my family and the pace of seeing so many things I needed to be with for a while, and now sorrow in this village of good people working in the gardens as we Americans pass through. Le Ly had told us what why we’ve come to this village. She had told us so much. I knew we were coming to a memorial. And then we did. We’ve come to the upraised tombs of children near their school called Man Quang School. Then we see their tombstones. 45 children were killed in a bomb raid during the American war. We became very quiet. Le Ly led us in burning incense and placing the sticks on the memorial and on the stones.

    Lighting incense.

    Nguyen Than’s stone
    Thai Thi Tinh’s stone

    It feels right to stay silent as we are in this space with the children.

  • Vietnamese Traditional Medicine

    Museum of traditional medicine

    It’s dark in the morning. We have no internet where we’re sleeping. It’s just dark, a little cool, and humid and still. I’ve come to the office of our hotel and yes, I can now write this post to you. I’m thinking of students at Mary and Kara’s English class who know this topic I want to show you pictures about here. Where I write – beside me is a couch. Suddenly I’m aware of snoring and realize someone or many people are sleeping around me. I can’t see them. I have mostly the light of this iPad I’m typing on. I’m in Hoi An, by the South China Sea, which has a new name. Lots of places have new names.

    But the pictures I want to show you are from Saigon where I was introduced by practitioners to traditional medicine.

    Above is our attendant at the FiTo Museum of Traditional Vietnamese medicine. She explains to us that acupuncture was first practiced by the Vietnamese. Someone had discovered the impact of the pressure of stones while walking barefoot across them. Acupressure. The practice was later explored by the Chinese and developed to acupuncture. The young woman guided us through rooms of first monographs describing methods of herbs and dosage for people with different conditions. There is an art form of the mortar and pestle to crush the herbs. We learned the methods of boiling herbs in water and drinking the decoctions. I had read so much about life-saving decoctions of Cambodian people in their travails and deprivation of food.

    One type of mortar and pestle
    Early records of traditional doctors.

    Our attendant gave us drops of a potion to rub between our palms. We then placed our palms where there was pain and it made my skin tingle.

    One room is devoted to illustrations of herbs, stalks, and blossoms used for medicines. Later in our journey around Danang and Hoi An, I see vast green fields of rice and also gardens in the smallest corridors of soil around a house. Here is a garden plot of vegetables and herbs cultivated between large buildings on a crazy, busy urban street.

    I’ve never drunk much green tea but our young attendant leaves us with this prescription: drink green tea is the morning, not at night. It give your body to much energy to drink at night. But in the morning, drink it with honey and cinnamon. Cinnamon has many virtues, she explains.

    The room is coming alive where I write. My fingers on sticky on the keys in the humidity. The person has slipped away from the couch and I didn’t see them go. Two people come to the hotel desk rubbing their eyes. Someone turns on a light. Across the way, I see the huge sea. I’ll show you.