The real kindness of strangers
We had a very long day ahead of us. Our destination was Kon Tum, a small town in the Central Highlands of Vietnam that was centrally located to a number of significant battles and landing strips used during the Vietnam War. Most don’t visit this area, but I had a personal interest – I had learned the location of my father’s second tour of duty and I could not leave Vietnam without getting as close as I could. What I was expecting I was not sure.
The 10 hour journey was broken up into two segments and after the first leg in a cramped mini-van, we decided to persevere. Another few hours on a bus seemed less stressful than getting into town, finding a guesthouse and then leaving again in the morning. The bus station was like so many we have seen before – several kilometers outside of town, full of touts yelling for your business, with a public toilet that usually gets the “nastiest toilet of the day” prize - and you have to pay for it. Our bus to Kon Tum would leave in an hour which gave us just enough time to eat something – if we skipped it now, we would arrive at 6pm without having eaten all day.
So I got a bit cocky. We were relaxed from 10 days at the beach and that attitude has spilled over into my travel philosophy. The stalls outside the station were our only option and I saw the magic words Pho Bo (the traditional beef soup we love) and figured what could go wrong. For me, the best part of the soup is the plate of fresh lettuce, bean sprouts, mint and chillies that accompanies it. Patrick refrained but I thought I would push the gastrointestinal limits. We’d been on the road for so long, we should be able to deal with anything.
And then, 2 hours later, cramped into the next part of our journey in a full mini-van the pressure began. We stopped at a rest stop, to stretch our legs and when I gently asked the location of the toilet, I was waved to the backyard. There I found a slab of concrete and a well of water. I feared that this was not the place to “let it all out” and without my regular stash of toilet paper I hoped we would make another stop.
What started as uncomfortable increased to extreme abdominal pain, nausea and serious perspiration. There was no toilet in sight and somehow I couldn’t communicate that the Westerner needed to stop on the side of the road because of a gastrointestinal emergency. I clenched Patrick’s hand and just kept praying. After a miserable ride, we arrived in Kon Tum to a severe afternoon rain shower. We had just passed our hotel, or so the map said, and we begged the driver to let us out instead of continue to the station, that was probably on the other side of town. Patrick grabbed the bags, I grabbed my toilet paper stash and ran to the corner stall. “Please, toilet” I implored. She didn’t have one. I grabbed my stomach and made some sort of face that I hoped was translatable. She grabbed my hand, walked me two doors down to a woman’s store. A kind woman of about 60 emerged from the darkened space, they exchanged words, she smiled and quickly led me the most beautiful toilet I have ever seen. It was nothing special, but it was there.
When I walked out, I begged to buy something or pay her and she simply took me in her arms kissed my cheek and held my tummy. She got it. I melted into her. Still raining, we were again helped with finding a cab and then arrived at the Indochine Hotel. Our room looked out over the countryside, over the river, and all was darkened with the turbulence of the afternoon rain showers. And somewhere on this terrain, my dad may have walked.
Man was not joking when he said that he grew up across the street. We had planned to have tea with his parents and it took us less than 2 minutes to get from the airstrip to their home. It was a much bigger home than we had expected - made of stone and furnished with heavy pieces of wood and glass. His father greeted us and his mother poured us some tea. but there was no other interaction. Man cut up a jack fruit - a strange yellow fruit that is eaten throughout Southeast Asia. And with that our morning tour was ended. We drove back to Kon Tum for our lunch break, which was short and uninspiring. This was our first bad meal in Vietnam and we realized that we should have found a more local solution with Man's help. According to him, this was one of the only restaurants in town with an English menu. Nevertheless, we finished our fried noodles and cold beer and were ready to keep going.
The afternoon visit started at one of the indigenous villages, that is barely outside of town. It was extremely interesting to see how integrated the people were, though their language and customs were quite different to the people living closer to town. Man said that he could see a clear difference in their appearance, which was not as clear us. He spoke the dialect and was able to make our visit there more interactive than had we just stumbled in there on our own. The houses were made of an adobe like substance, though we did see the new buildings being erected with wood and stone. We learned that the houses are raised off the ground in order to have living space for the chickens, pigs and livestock, along with a shaded resting space. We visited two villages and in one of them got to see the tall communal house, that is used for town gatherings and special celebrations. (Later when we would leave Kon Tum, these structures could be seen from the road, peaking out over the tree line.)
One of the most interesting sights was a farmer transporting crops from the neighbouring shore. He loaded his cart and then instructed his two cows to make their way through the river. Step by step the cart, the crops and the cows became immersed in the water, until only the tops of everything were showing. They continued this way, across the river until finally they arrived on the other side. I think that Man was confused why we were so interested in this because for him it seemed so normal.
From airstrip to cow feed
Unless you are a history buff, a veteran or simply interested in exploring the road less travelled, you would not really come to Kun Tum. It is in the middle of the Central Highlands and clearly off the tourist path, which makes the large yellow façade of the Indochine Hotel stand out even more like a sore thumb against the rural backdrop of Kon Tum. It is listed as a 4-star hotel and boasts an international standard. And in fact, our room with a view, bathtub and designer details promised a nice stay. On the surface, everything sparkled, or at least shown a bit brighter. From the edge of the bed, while Patrick was putting on his shoes, he looked at the carpet below the wooden case holding the refrigerator and asked "Are those termite mounds of sawdust?" In fact, the wooden furniture in our room had extra visitors. The bathtub had called my name last night and I was disappointed when the hot water ran out shortly after I turned on the water. And as for taking a shower, the pressure was perfect - it was when I closed the shower curtain and saw the layer of mold within the creases that I felt less inspired to get clean. Outside, it promised a pool, and when my eye caught something pool like outside, while we were waiting for the elevator, I laughed as I looked down at an empty whole in the ground, containing a layer of filth and decay. But we were here and we had space to move and I fantastic bed to sleep in. At the large and abundant buffet breakfast we realized most travellers arrived here with tour groups, so we wondered how we would get to Dak To and the other places we wanted to visit.
The one tour agency around the corner from our hotel was nothing like the chaotic agencies that lined the streets of our neighborhood in Saigon. With only one day to explore the surrounding area and very specific wishes, we realized we would need to pay the daily price being offered us. We thought about taking a cab but after one attempt and the realization that few spoke English, the guide inside looked like our only option. One group had left that morning, so he offered his services. We would drive first to Dak To and then explore the villages closer to Kon Tum in the afternoon.
Choosing to come and visit the areas in which my father was stationed during the war was somewhat spontaneous and unplanned. I knew Vietnam would have a significant impact, but I had no real sense of where he had been. Back home, my mom looked through old files and my brother contacted men in his platoon and some how we pieced together the most significant locations. With a little bit of help from Google maps, I actually could locate the camps and airstrips. Serendipitously, the locations were scattered along the route North and around Kon Tum. A 5o minute ride to from Kon Tum to Dak To gave Man, our guide, enough time to paint a clearer picture about the war and the significance of the area here. We visited a memorial dedicated to the Vietnamese army, that depicted the relationship between the soldiers and the indigenous peoples living here. Again, we saw tanks and fighting machines and the whole war felt very near. When we arrived at the airstrip, the nearness was almost too close.
We would have never found the airstrip on our own for it is hidden away from the road and bordered in by the jungle. But when you are standing at one end, there is no doubt that it was a runway of some kind. Only know, the tarmac is covered in a pasty white substance called manioc - a grain that is dried and then fed to cows. It has a repugnant odor - so foul, I found myself walking the area with a plugged nose. And the whole airstrip was covered in this paste, with some mounds coming to mid-calf height. But the cement of the airstrip was still there, with its yellow lines. It was an eerie feeling. Bordering the one side were graves, scattered throughout the dry bush. After the Americans left, the land needed to be used for something, I suppose.
We returned to the car and drove to the next airstrip, longer and more prominent than the first one. Again, manioc was drying and fermenting in the sun, but this time the reality of what this place had been was more evident. Man told us that he had grown up across the street and would often come to the abandoned strip to play - gathering pieces of shrapnel and casings. He would gather these little pieces and then take them into town, where he could exchange them for money or candy. While we were standing here talking, he bent down several times and then handed me little pieces. These were indeed pieces of the war. On the far side of the strip was the area where bunkers would have been. The space was still there, but the ground was all dirt and brush. In the distance was Charlie Hill, the location of a significant battle during the war. Patrick took Man further towards the bunkers, which gave me time to quietly walk down the path. If my dad had fought near Dak To, he would have landed here: everyone did. That sent a chill through my body and the tears that had been brewing since we arrived in Vietnam now had an outlet. I wonder if he were still alive if he would have ever returned to this place - perhaps that is the reason that I had to be here.
The rest of the tour included a visit to a Christian seminary and the old wooden church. At the seminary, a very sweet young woman (who we learned was a nun) let us into the seminary's museum for a look at local artifacts and traditions from the surrounding villages. She was timid at first with her English, but slowly blossomed with curiosity and laughter. It was a sweet unexpected acquaintance. The visit to the old wooden church was interesting in that we learned that the Sunday service is actually done in the dialects of the neighboring village and not Vietnamese. I watched a large group of children outside the gate, preparing to cross the road, each walking in pairs holding hands. I assumed it was a kindergarten, but they entered the church's gate and seconds later I had a munchkin attached to my leg, I wondered if these were children from an orphanage. I knew there were several in this area and Man confirmed that the church had an orphanage in the back. This little one clung to me with all her strength and I somehow could not let go either. Even her runny nose did not persuade me to let go. A few others left the group to say hello, but none as persistent as her. She motioned to the back and so I walked in the direction of the other children's voices. From the upstairs patio came a few joyous peeps when they saw me approaching. I knew I could not stay long, for her sake and mine, so I quickly added her to the group of kids and peeked inside while I had the chance. Each room was delicately arranged with rows of turquoise painted cribs. From what I saw, everything was immaculately cared for, even the children. I walked away realizing how tempted I was to just take a few home with me.
I re-joined Patrick and Man who were sitting where I had left them. "I couldn't help it," I said and the look on Patrick's face told me that he understood exactly what I was saying. The afternoon sky was darkening with the impending rain showers, so we returned to the tour office. On our walk back to the hotel, three young girls on bikes stopped us and one asked what time it was. We answered, she thanked us kindly and as we walked away, realized it was her attempt to practice the English she learned in school - there really were not many opportunities to do that here. Up in our room, we watched as the frist raindrops hit the river. Somehow now, after the visit to Dak To, the view had not changed, but something was different.