The endless witness in Vietnam
Special to the Nevada Appeal
“There is a long hard road, it follows far behind me,
It’s so cold I’m about to die,
Chasing a dream around the world,
It’s got me feeling down
Though it use to make me high.
Looking for answers, searching for the truth,
In an ocean of lies.
Trying to find a reason, to make the whole thing right,
can make you old before your time.”
– The Allman Brothers, “Old before My Time”
There is but a single traffic law in Vietnam. One you won’t find in any law books.
It’s a law that states simply “survive.”
Nowhere is this law more apparent then on Highway 1, Vietnam’s main north-south thoroughfare.
An hour cycling on this road is challenging. Two hours, maddening. I rode it 6 hours a day. If your wondering what that’s like, imagine a lobotomized cyclist re-enacting scenes from Bruce Lee’s, “Fist’s of Fury.” That’s what it’s like to cycle-tour Highway 1.
I’d spent a week slogging along this little slice of purgatory. A week of trying to survive within a motorized stampede. It was there I began to recognize a pattern. A pattern best described as a kind of vehicular “survival of the fittest” based on the simple theory that “size matters.”
Knowing this, one could easily determine a vehicle’s level of influence within traffic.
This vehicular influence corresponded as follows:
A car: minimally influential.
A truck: moderately influential.
A bus: master of the universe.
A bicycle: (laughter here).
All these observations seem to support the first law of cycling in Vietnam: “Stay the hell out of the way of buses.” This was not easy. There were thousands of them, all of them operating under the old bumper-sticker adage, “As a matter of fact I do own the whole damn road.”
They were huge and evil, with oversized air horns that poked at your ear drums like sharpened chopsticks.
At the helm were what could easily be described as the most dangerous human beings on earth (had any of them been human). I mean these guys were insane, clenched-teethed madmen, who got their kicks passing on corners, accelerating toward children, or generally sending well-meaning pedestrians diving into nearby rice fields.
Then there were the side lanes, (the place where I rode).
This was no picnic either.
In fact, it was a virtual fiesta of treachery.
A deadly, rolling circus consisting of bicycles, motorcycles, carts, cyclos and motorized tricycles.
Almost all of these motos were loaded with some type of cargo. Dangerous, life-threatening cargo that included: 6-foot sheets of glass, serrated saw blades, 50-gallon tubs of gasoline, 12-foot ladders, or sharpened bamboo fencing. All of it whizzed beneath my nose at more than 40 miles an hour.
But there was something even worse than this. It was called the Vietnamese add-o-lesson male (aged 7-40).
Every day at noon, great groups of boys on bicycles were released from school. As they were, they descended upon me like the flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz.” These boys were big on angst and short on boundaries. What they held in common was the seemingly ceaseless ability to offer up harassment.
Most days, at the very least, I could count on them to shout, swerve, taunt, flick boogers, or throw rocks.
Then came the older boys.
Drunken 20-somethings on motorcycles who’d recently discovered the miracle of alcohol, (or lack thereof). Every day, they hit the streets at 2 p.m., just after they’d drunk themselves into oblivion. These boys were dangerous, and each afternoon I could count on at least a dozen of them pulling up on their motorcycles, only to swerve, yell, weave, or taunt. All of this before they’d rocket off into inebriated stunts at more than 60 miles an hour.
This was not without consequence.
And all of it came to head one afternoon as I pedaled over a small rise. There I came upon a group of on-lookers standing in a circle in the middle of the road.
Surrounding them was a scattering of motorcycle parts that looked as though they’d rained from the sky.
When I finally got a glimpse within the circle, I witnessed two young men, both of them laying on the pavement writhing in pain. One of them had a number of cuts and bruises. The other boy’s leg was freshly torn off just below the knee. My eyes landed momentarily on his grizzled-white shin protruding from the middle of his leg.
“Jesus.” I said cringing, then turned my eyes away. As I did, I spied the boy’s foot, still inside his shoe, some 10 feet away.
They were both drunk.
A few minutes later, as the crowd loaded them into a bus, I shook my head, and pedaled away.
They were two of the lucky ones.
Motorcycle accidents are not just a problem in Vietnam, they’re an epidemic. And during my 278-mile journey south, I would count approximately 250 body outlines on the pavement. Gruesome outlined crash scenes scrawled in white spray paint by the authorities. Hideously, these same authorities never bothered to rinse these crash sites. Time and time again I came upon enormous stains of sun-dried blood, some of them complete with bits of brain tissue, or varying scraps of scalp.
Traffic accidents are now the leading cause of death in Vietnam, recently surpassing the number killed during the war.
For years outside groups have recognized this problem.
The World Health Organization has offered free helmets to the Vietnamese for years.
The problem is, they won’t wear them.
The issue seems to be vanity. Because the majority of this population is so young, and style-conscious, (the average age is 26), they refuse to wear helmets. I’d been told it was because helmets “messed up” their stylish hairdos, or otherwise made them look “uncool.”
If this was true, then I’d been a dork for more than two decades.
Sickened by it all, I left the accident scene that afternoon, and finished my day in the 90-degree heat.
When I finally reached my cheap hotel, I was encrusted with so much salt, I looked like Mr. Pretzel.
The only thing that kept me upright, was the thought of an evening swim in the pristine waters of the adjacent South China Sea.
I dropped off my things then bolted to the beach like a man on a mission. When I arrived, I was hit by a sad reality. For there, along the entire length of sand, was what could only be described as a sea-side landfill.
Limitless litter, stretched as far as the eye could see. There were food wrappers, paper bags, plastic cartons, feminine hygiene products, cardboard, Styrofoam, beer bottles, cans, and much, much more.
“Idiots…” I barked beneath my breath, before pulling off my shirt and diving in. Moving, arm over arm, I made it about 25 yards before I started bumping into a virtual bounty of floating refuse. I began to take stock. There were two entire florescent light bulbs, one floating arm chair, several newspapers, a pair of diapers and one dead chicken.
All of it had me swimming back to shore in revolt.
That’s when the lights went out. I lifted my head out of the water to discover that a black plastic bag had covered my head.
I’d had it. I plucked my tired bones from the garbage-filled sea, grabbed my things, then stormed to a nearby seafood restaurant in search of a plate of fresh fish.
When I got there, I discovered the “fresh fish” tank filled with a half-a-dozen fish floating upside down near the surface. “Maybe they’re just sleeping…” I thought to myself before the waitress handed me a menu.
As I opened it, I was reminded that ordering food in Vietnam was often a mystery. After much experience with this, I’d come to the conclusion that it was easier to eliminate what you didn’t want to eat, then choose what you did.
In this case, I instantly ruled out two items on the menu. These were the “crispity fried snake,” and “tuna salad with old vegetables.”
After deciding on a plate of veggie-fried rice, I lifted my eyes in search of the waitress and instead noticed a large group of men huddled around a TV.
When I craned my neck to get a glimpse of what they were watching, I discovered it to be the World Wrestling Federation finals direct from America (WWF).
“You gotta be kidding me,” I mumbled to myself. “Why would anyone ever watch that dribble?” That’s when a profound truth descended upon me. This was the WWF’s uncanny resemblance to the last six years of U.S. foreign policy. These Vietnamese men weren’t into wrestling, they were getting politically informed.
Depressed with it all, I gulped back my lack-luster meal, then retired to my hotel room where I wanted nothing more than to brush my teeth and go to bed.
When I switched on the bathroom light, I discovered the head of my toothbrush covered in rat droppings.
“What the hell else?” I said turning in disgust, then, “Blam!” I cracked my head squarely on the 6-foot door frame. What came next was an extra-large, grade-A, goose egg.
Cursing at the universe, I crawled into bed, positioned the good side of my head on the pillow, then went to sleep. But this bad day just wouldn’t end. And just short of midnight I awoke to that tell-tale fire in the belly: food poisoning.
Before I knew it, I was up and roaring into the porcelain thron. This was followed by so many rounds of sitting, standing and flushing, that it made the lights flicker.
Needless to say, I spent the next day in a special kind of agony – placing each step like that of a stalking cat – and moving with ninja-like concentration so as to avoid one of those embarrassing under-garment tragedies that was certain to accompany the slightest squeak of flatulence.
Having no choice but to climb on my bike the next day and pray for continence, I pedaled without incident until I reached the sea-side city of Nha Trang.
Nha Trang was a city big on concrete, and short on character. Its only draw being the diving and snorkeling around its nearby islands.
The following day I slipped 12,000 Dong – roughly 8 dollars – into the hands of a sleazy tour operator, before I hopped aboard an impossibly overcrowded boat.
There I took a seat, elbow-to-elbow, with nearly 100 Asian tourists.
“Welcome to your new lives as sea slaves!” the captain seemed to shout in Vietnamese as we departed. “You’ll be whipped and deprived of gruel if you fall short on your paddling.” he seemed to say. When he finally switched to English, I realized he’d been shouting the safety rules. This was a joke.
And as we moved farther and farther out to sea, I began to take notice of the boat’s intricate failings.
Not only was it filled well beyond its capacity, but each nautical detail seemed to tell its own tragic story of neglect and disrepair.
By the time we reached open ocean, and I’d finished planning my swimming routes back to shore, a singular phrase began repeating within my mind. That phrase was “CNN Headline.”
Remarkably the boat reached our destination, and we set anchor just off a small rocky island.
When we did, I stood for a moment and drooled over the edge into the cerulean-blue waters.
“You’ve got one hour to snorkel at this stop!” the slave master bellowed. And with that, I grabbed my gear, raced to the roof, stripped to my suit, and plunged in.
Penetrating the surface with a boom, I arced gracefully through this quiet new world of crystal blue.
Water had always been a place I called home.
And let me state rather clearly, that despite what a handful of religious descendants of monkeys cared to believe, It was this monkey’s belief that he originated from the sea. And should I sprout gills tomorrow, would happily return to it – never to set foot on dry land again.
I snorkeled for hours that afternoon, descending deep beneath the surface, then dove and dove again.
After I’d coaxed my lungs to relax, I began to dive deep. As deep as my breath would take me – 10, 20, 30 – then eventually 40 feet beneath these warm welcoming waters. All the while, shimmering ringlets of light danced atop the coral, illuminating a burst of multicolored fish.
Nha Trang’s reefs are home to approximately 398 species of hard and soft coral, as well as rare species of frogfish, paperfish, devil scorpionfish, dragonettes, flying gunard, cowfish, nudibranches and giant morays, manta rays, large stingrays and some shy turtles – making it one of the richest hard coral dive sites in the world.
But this afternoon, I was happy to just hover over ethereal lumps of brain coral and observe a handful of clown and angel fish as they darted electrically before my eyes.
It was only later I’d discover what trouble this underwater paradise was in.
According to a recent report by the World Conservation Union, Vietnam’s coastal and marine resources “have been severely degraded and overexploited due to dynamite and cyanide fishing practices, in addition to being harvested for aquarium fish in an unsustainable fashion.”
The report also stated that Nha Trang’s reef’s were declining due to a “substantial increase in tourism over the last 10 years: up to 300,000 visitors a year.
This led to “inappropriate anchoring, and the uncontrollable consequences of scuba and snorkeling practices, as well as general waste discharge in and around coral reefs.”
Should this not have been enough, there was something else killing large swaths of coral. Some invisible force, that had baffled marine scientists for years.
Then, in 2002, after a study of Vietnam’s habitat of Scleractinian Corals, the Russian Journal of Marine Biology named a culprit.
The study concluded that, “Samplings of bottom sediments and biological objects suggest that the spectrum and distribution pattern of persistent congeners of PCDD/Fs (dioxins) in bottom sediments are similar to those of the defoliant Agent Orange chemicals used as defoliants during the AmericanÐVietnamese war.
It had been 30 years since the end of combat in Vietnam. Ironically, the conflict still continued to kill. This time it was the coral reefs just below the sea.
My last day in Nha Trang brought a foot tour of the city.
Late in the day I visited the impressive Long Son Pagoda, a Buddhist monastery near the center of town.
I was ambling up a large set of stairs to get a glimpse of an immense lying Buddha, when I came upon a horrendous sight. It was a young beggar boy, with a face pulled straight from a horror film. His eyes were missing and his right arm was gone just below the elbow. “No.” I said, recognizing the source of his injuries. “It was a unexploded bomb” a Vietnamese tour guard verified as she walked by. The boy was another victim of one of the 800,000 UXOs (unexploded ordinance) leftover in the countryside from the war.
The boy was the worst bomb victim I’d see in Vietnam.
Three days after I’d cycled out of Nha Trang, I reached the southern city of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Rolling into its center, it seemed a unique confluence of ancient and modern economies where capitalism met communism. Huge glass-faced store fronts boasted Gucci, Versace, and Louis Vuitton. Beneath them were the poorest of poor peasants pedaling soup, coconuts, hats and rice.
Businessmen drove BMWs and beggars wore rags.
It’s hard to express this contradictory mix of ultra-liberal economics, and ultra-conservative politics. It was like seeing Marx and Lenin cross-dressed.
Before I pedaled out of Vietnam, I had one more place to visit. This was the Vietnam War Remnants Museum. It was a place where the Vietnamese Government told their side of what they called “The Great War For Liberation.” Within its crowded walls were a flood of disorganized and poorly translated stories, timelines, diagrams and photographs. Despite its inadequacies, I was engulfed for more than an hour. In that hour, I gazed upon photos of dead and dying soldiers, victims of Napalm, as well as displays of Vietnamese children that suffered from genetic abnormalities, after their parents had been exposed to Agent Orange.
I was moving along slowly, and handling it all pretty well, until I came upon a solitary photo that stopped me in my tracks. It was a photo that tore at my soul.
It was a poorly printed black and white photo of a pile of children who’d been killed by American forces during the war. As I stood and stared, a voice came from over my shoulder.
“We did not bomb civilian targets.” The American man behind me said as he noticed the picture. His statement seemed conflicted, his voice stretched, as if squirming beneath some unacceptable truth.
I turned with a burning gaze and pushed down the anger that welled from inside.
As I did, I became acutely aware of what people told themselves, and to what depths of denial they had to descend into to justify these acts of war.
This seemed to send me straight into a funk.
The truth was, I was growing weary.
Weary of this journey. Weary of this constant movement. Weary of the isolation, the loneliness, and this life as a perennial stranger.
Moreover, I’d grown weary of this constant witnessing.
The witnessing of poverty, pollution and large-scale environmental degradation.
Most of all, I’d grown weary of witnessing the results of armed conflict, as well as the ideological intolerance and collective fear that fueled a seemingly endless list of cruelties that one man could inflict upon another in the name of war.
I’d reached the saturation point.
All of it seemed to send me inward: to my own delusions, my own fears, and my own pain. The pain of witnessing another type of war. One I’d witnessed when I was young.
It was the war I’d watched between my parents at the end of their 17-year marriage.
This memory surfaces again and again when things go wrong.
Mostly because it signals a turning point in my life. A time that marked the end of my childhood and a tectonic shift in my fledgling sense of well-being.
It also marked the beginning of a new struggle: to heal, to rebuild and to relearn what it was to create healthy relationships. A process that will end, as I take my last breath.
I left the war museum that afternoon carrying too much of this within my mind. I made my way across town into an Internet shop. There I sent out an electronic S.O.S. to my safety net of friends, family and loved ones.
What came next was a virtual flood of kindness and support from around the world.
One of the most poignant messages came from my good friend and fellow photographer Lisa Tolda.
She wrote: “You … are living life my friend. We all have highs, lows, love and despair, but you are living and feeling it all.
“You are making a difference. You are inspiring others. You inspire me. Fly Rick. Fly and be free … At the end of your life you will know that you did the right thing by undertaking this enormous and difficult trip. Soar.
“Love, Lisa J.”
Where in the world is Rick Gunn?
WHERE: Vietnam – Dai Lanh, Nha Trang, Ca Na, Phan Thiet, Saigon (Ho Chi
WHEN: Feb. 15 – March 7, 2007
MILEAGE LOG: 14,302-14,590
ELEVATION: Sea level-400 feet