“If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.” ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh, Being Peace
The TSA agent, an older, quiet gentlemen working the intake of the x-ray machine line, looked odd at the two sport parachutes that we were placing on the conveyor belt.
“Where you guys off to jump,” he casually inquired. Not being friends with the TSA (although they are just doing their jobs), I’m not known to make small-talk. This time, however, I was happy to be flying.
“Vietnam,” came my response, with a big knowing grin.
“Really?” “Yeah, really. We’re going to be part of the first sport parachute skydivers ever in Vietnam.”
A knowing and somewhat sarcastic “uhmh” was mumbled back in disbelief. “I’ve got a jump over in Vietnam, but of course back then, they were shooting at us….” Sure enough, this gent, in an oddly unlikely connection, was part of the Army’s 173rd Airborne Combat Brigade Team, and in 1967, when I was just over a year old, the 173rd conducted the only combat parachute jump of the Vietnam War.
So started my and “Psycho Bob’s” excellent adventure into Vietnam. I had been jumping for just about two years, and had probably not even 150 jumps. Psycho had been jumping significantly longer, and was of the perfect, fearless, adventuresome mindset to travel to such an out-of-the-way corner of the planet to partake in cheating death in the skies and under canopy.
Bob, a Navy veteran, was an air traffic controller in Pensacola, and, as his nickname might imply, is a stand-out icon in both the community and the skydiving world. About 6’3″ and 240 pounds (then), with spiked bleached hair, driving a 1974 Ford Bronco painted with zebra stripes, Psycho was the definition of gregarious. A shit-eating grin that at once welcomed all within eye-shot combined with an infectious laugh and warm smile, Psycho was always one to make instant friends while saying – and behaving – in the zannious of ways.
I was still active duty, and when I first came across this opportunity to travel to and jump in Vietnam, I thought there was no chance the Navy would ever let me go. A quick check of the foreign clearance guide (the DoD bible on overseas travel requirements), and it turned out that if I traveled there on leave, nothing special was required at all. Like nothing. Very strange for a de facto communist country with strained relations with the US! So, after mailing our passports to the Vietnamese consultant in Washington DC with US-cash-money, weeks later we got our papers pack with the required entry Visa. We would soon be on our way to what remains a very obscure – and fearful corner of Asia for most Americans.
My first impression of landing at Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Hanoi prior to the war) airport was that there were manned anti-aircraft guns scattered throughout the airfield. Talk about a lingering culture of fear. The flight arrangements Bob and I mad required us to stay a night on arrival in Vietnam before continuing on to our ultimate destination there, and unfortunately Bob missed his international connecting flight in the states, which left us both alone and (mostly) unafraid. I jumped in a taxi and asked for a cheap hotel (no reservations), and after traveling for what seemed miles, I was delivered to exactly that. No frills, not much English, and not much of a room. I am not one to subscribe to the all-oppressive American sense and culture of fear, and although I was on alert, I was still okay. It ended up being a relatively quiet, and uneventful night. Bob, arriving much later that night and with no way to contact me, had a much difference experience.
As Bob was leaving the terminal looking to find a Taxi, he found himself in a darkened area of the parking lot where he quickly got the sense that he was going to be rolled. Bob, having traveled the world with the Navy and after living in the Philippines for 7 years had developed a keen sense of such awareness. Finding the first well-marked limo-taxi he could, he clamored in, startling the unexpecting driver. Psycho I’m sure was beaming his signature grin, telling the man to drive, while the chauffeur was barking for him to leave and get out. Bob, not one to take “no” for an answer, still smiling, motioned to drive on, saying again and again it was okay. Finally, the driver gives into to Psycho’s steady insistence, and drives while making a phone call. Bob, just happy to be off and away from the dark lots of the nearly silent and closed airport, continued to reassure the driver. Finally, the driver says something like “you 514?” Psycho, thinking that the number refers to a room number, agrees eagerly and whole-heartily, becoming even more emphatic that they hurry their journey to the safety of a hotel room. The driver asked at least two more times, and Bob happily dismissed the inquiry with an exhausted wave of his hand, having been traveling now for over 24 hours.
Turns out that this particular limo was for a high-end hotel in downtown on the Saigon river, and that “514” didn’t equate to a room number or reservation at all, but to the price of an available suite, now committed just for him! Bob, ever the optimist, says at least his trip started in lustful luxury!
In the morning we continued on to a city called Nha Trang for the actual skydiving event. Nha Trang, and it’s nearby airport Cam Ranh Bay were both the site of fairly sizable US bases during the Vietnam War, and amazingly enough, scattered all over the airfield still remained the hulks, parts, and degrading debris of our past presence there of 35 years ago. We were picked up and transported to our island resort hotel, the 5-star resort VinPearl, quite nice but quite out-of-the-way. This area of Vietnam has been built up as a beach resort town for international travels, mostly Soviets, who still mostly make up the “white” people who come and stay, and which almost all the Vietnamese we met considered our heritage. Needless to say, Psycho Bob makes for a terrific Russian…when he wants to play one. Think of “I will crush you…” of Rambo fame.
The skydiving was, well, not nearly as expected. The levels of corruption in Vietnam are far worse than anything I experienced in the Caribbean or elsewhere in Asia, and it seemed with almost every passing hour the authorities there continued to break contracts and agreements, only to cancel flights, reduce the passengers per load, scrap additional aircraft, and demand more money. We were expecting something like 15-20 jumps from a whole slew of aircraft (for a hefty pre-paid price), including a once-in-a-lifetime jump from a Russian jet transport. What we wound up with was about five jumps, all from an Mi-8 Russian helicopter, which, while exceedingly expensive on a per jump basis, were still experiences of a lifetime that only a very few people in the world will ever share with me.
The people in Vietnam are hard to adequately describe. In a group, like those that would turn out to watch us land on the beach, there are very few smiles. There were an ever-present mix of military and police security forces, all with very serious faces. The airport we used was a military airfield, and while not ringed with a fence as we would have in the West, it was ringed with reinforced fighting positions and bunkers, each manned with a young man armed with an assault rifle. The old terminal building where we were housed had numerous guards in ratty army uniforms, complete with Ho Chi Min sandals made from old tires (no joke). When I approached one with a smile and my camera, he raised his rifle with one arm, and with the other crossed the killing machine to make an “X,” the international symbol for no…or in this case, more likely, “I’ll shoot you if you try.” Sorry, no photos of me with the guards.
There were exceptions. Psycho and I would wave from our bus to all the “Check Point Charlies” along the airport’s boundary, and by the end of the week, we had most of them eagerly waving back. I hope they weren’t punished for that! And, in the spectators that would gather to watch us land on the beach each day, Psycho and I adopted an old woman who was selling drinks and snacks. We called her “Mom,” and after two or three days of us seeking her out to buy our snacks, she would then seek us out and smile big upon sighting us, even offering hugs at the end of our stay. And, of course, children and children the world over, and they were the easiest with which to relate. I think every child, with dreams of flight, looks at parachutists with fun, excitements, awe and respect.
Paranoia and stupidity both abound there though, an organic by-product of any socialist or communist community. For instance, the authorities there were so worried about us spying at the airport (the only real conclusion I can reach) that they not only wanted all of us to land in a very small circle on the concrete airport apron (all landing together is never guaranteed, and landing on pavement is…well…not preferred), they also expected us all to fly in the same cylinder formed by projecting that circle up into the air. After trying to explain that such a requirement was both physically and aerodynamically impossible, besides being very unsafe for everyone involved, the whole skydiving event was moved off the airfield and over to the nearby beach. While beach jumps are always fabulous, this was a narrow beach line with a trafficked road and hundreds of spectators, and every landing turned out to be with 15 knots of crosswind, making for some interesting reunions with mother earth. The Vietnamese did “attempt” to supply a safety boat; however, the safety swimmers could barely swim with life vests out to their inflatable 2-man raft, without an engine, but proudly flying the red cross international safety flag! Yikes….
Paranoia and process filled the Vietnamese staff working our event. We, as a group, had the expected “handlers” we wound up have, who were actually quite friendly and engaging, and who all spoke excellent English. However, in order for us to skydive, here’s what had to go down. So, when we skydive we wear a skydiving rig, which has two parachutes (main and reserve) and a harness, which consists of a LOT of metal parts – the parts that actually hold the harness together and firmly attack it to the skydiver. Additionally, most of us wear crash helmets with even more metal parts, and more often than not, we have one, two, or even three metal cameras attached to those helmets (or hands, shoes, or some other mounting point on our bodies). For some reason, the Vietnamese authorities would not allow a small POS camera (like a Sony Cybershot or Nikon Coolpix), or any other type of handheld camera outside of the terminal building. However, the huge digital still and video cameras on all our helmets were somehow, someway “okay.” Our passports were taken in order for us to get on the jump aircraft; that way we wouldn’t paraglide and check out all their military secrets Rambo-style, only to be whisked away by the CIA to a safe house for debriefing. We had to walk through a metal detector dressed with our complete skydiving rig (see the discussion about metal above). Yes, it would alarm for EVERYONE, EVERY TIME. So, they would pull each of us out of line and give us the magnetic wand…which would…you guessed it…sing like a stuck pig for EVERYONE, EVERY TIME. And then we would be allowed to board the helicopter, all the while taking pictures of the ramp, the airport, the aircraft and each other. Made absolutely no sense, but hey, the process was followed and completed, which seemed to be more important than the intent. Whatever.
Perhaps the funniest part of our trip was one afternoon when Psycho and I were out in town on our own since jumping that day had been cancelled. I had to cross the street to get some cash from an ATM, and after conducting my business of just a few minutes duration, I turned and looked up from counting my money to see Psycho standing on the other side of the road, a big shit-eating grin filling his face, wearing one of those conical peasant hats that make that part of the world so iconic. Cracking up myself, I cross the street and demanded to know where he go it…so I could get one too!
Well, now we are both off, walking down the street with our woven straw hats on, held securely in place by lacy purple and blue chin straps (this should’ve been our sign). Almost immediately, the shop keepers were all coming out, laughing and pointing. Some would pull us into their shop, pose us, and snap pictures with their cell phones. “Wow Bob, these people love us here!” I joked. It turns out that much later that day one shop keep took pity and finally told us that in Vietnam, only their women wear such hats! That was a great afternoon of finally connecting in a relatively closed culture that can be so weary. My hat, BTW, was hand-carried back home and delivered to my Brother-in-Law in Tallahassee, a 2-year Veteran of the war in Vietnam, and it remains there on his hat rack to this day.
Meeting up with two friends who happened to be traveling through Thailand at the time and who decided to take a detour over and come see us in Vietnam, we decided to rent mopeds and go for a ride. Now, listen to me closely: this, BY FAR, was much more dangerous than the jumps we did there, and perhaps is one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever done in my life! Riding on mopeds in a densely urban Vietnamese city in the rain without maps was seriously off the charts. It wasn’t so much the lack of traction on the roads, the unkempt condition of the bikes, or even getting lost out in the country. It was riding in rush-hour city traffic, a chaos that I simply will not be able to adequately describe here. In most 2nd and 3rd world Asian countries traffic and traffic laws can be quite haphazard. However, in Vietnam, there is a complete lack of rule of law when it comes to the road. Driving the wrong way, using sidewalks, and ignoring red lights, stop signs and any and all markings on the road…. In fact, when Bob and I hired a guide in Ho Chi Min city at the end of our trip, we all needed to cross a major road with something like 8 lanes of traffic. It was absolutely insane, and Bob and I saw simply no way to cross. When we asked our guide how we were going to cross, he simply replied, “Body language. Stay very close to me.” As he started across the street, with us in frightened tow, he casually put his hand down by his side that facing into traffic and flicked his wrist as if he had a magic wand that would protect us from the oncoming onslaught! It worked. We made it across, and back the other way later that afternoon!
In hindsight, the potentially most damming thing I did there was actually done in complete innocence. Waiting for long periods between skydiving loads can get very boring. Just outside the terminal door to the tarmac was an old Soviet-style truck, with a few guys sitting around playing crash crew. For whatever reason, I decided to go check the truck out (it was really cool looking!), and see if I could communicate with the military guys manning the machine. Turned out they didn’t speak any English at all, but after getting out our respective military ID cards, I think they at least got the idea that we all were serving our respective countries. They offered me a paper I couldn’t read, and after a few more attempts at niceties, I came back into the terminal building, where one of our handlers was waiting. He was smiling at me upon my return, and stopped me quite casually.
“It is good think it is not three or five years ago,” he states matter of factly.
“Oh, why is that?”
“Then you would have been arrested and taken to prison for going out there….”
“Well, good thing then!” I meagerly respond, realizing just how potentially foolish that excursion may have been….
Vietnam is a surprising place to visit. It’s by no means open the way most Americans think of vacation, but neither is it closed or closed-off to the West. I have a good friend, a die-hard, card-carrying member of the Republican party, who was downright mad at me for traveling there. I tried to explain to him that holding a grudge against Vietnam in 2008 would be like an American refusing to travel to Germany or Italy in 1980. It just makes no sense to hold grudges and keep a bogus war going for no good reason other than maybe we lost…. I told him when I saw him after our trip that Vietnam was doing okay, and he asked me to justify that statement.
I simply responded that for me to be able to freely walk down the street, hop on the internet at an open and uncensored internet café, and then to cross the street and use my American VISA card in an ATM to get Vietnamese money, the country is doing pretty okay. What I also learned is that the very reason we couldn’t win in Vietnam is that there is very little way to defeat an idea, other than threatening to obliterate an entire race and culture of people, like was the case for Japan in World War II. In every shop, in every home was a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, revered in Vietnam as their version of George Washington. And after visiting their national “War Remnants Museum,” where I expected to see a good dose of false propaganda but failed to find any at all, I came to realize that we Americans were simply another in a long line of colonial powers trying to exert their will over a foreign people…and that foreign people just wanted self-rule. Whether you agree with this conclusion or note, there is something here that is directly analogous to what is happening throughout the Middle East. At some point, perhaps, we will starting learning the hard lessons of history.
My friend ended up scoffing at my remarks. Either he didn’t hear what he wanted to hear, or he was offended at my Che Guevara t-shirt and green communist hat complete with a Vietnamese red and yellow star! Either way, we all – including the Vietnamese – could use a little more humor in our lives, and a lot more compassion and empathy for our fellow-man. Those are the things in the end that make the world go ’round, and those are the most basic kinds of peace work in which we all can engage.
Have you been to Vietnam? What’s your favorite story while traveling there? I’d like to hear if others have had similar experiences!