Motorbike Nation by Peter Kauffner

Vietnam has no room left for walking around.  It is a nation on a motorcycle, or sometimes a bicycle or pedicab.  Yes, there are sidewalks.  But in the Vietnamese view, a sidewalk is for parking your motorcycle on, eating on while sitting on a low plastic stool, and selling wares – almost anything except walking, at least judging from the stench that arises after a few days without rain.

A whole family can ride on a motorcycle, daddy drives while in the back mommy carries junior, who is somehow able to sleep soundly despite the roar and honking of rush hour traffic.  No one wears a helmet and few are without the scars of an accident.

Motorbikes are not just for getting from one place to another either.  You wouldn’t want to leave your bike unattended, because then it might get stolen.  Most Vietnamese pay someone to watch their motorcycle when they park it, but others save money by sitting on it all day long.  There are groups of motorcycle taxi drivers who even eat and sleep on their vehicles while waiting for fares.

On Saturday evening in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, men drive their dates to the waterfront and park.  In open areas of the city, you can see rows of couples sitting on their bikes while talking or necking.   This is a perhaps as much privacy as these couples ever get as it is common for a one bedroom apartment to have twelve residents.

There is no real reason to walk around in Ho Chi Minh.  The car taxi fare for a short distance is about a dollar and no tip is expected.   I was once charged a mere $18 for a ride out to the suburbs, yet managed to feel outraged and ripped off.   But as a former New Yorker, I like to walk around all the same.

This raises the ire of the motorcycle taxi drivers, who shout “Motorbike! Motorbike!”  or  “Motorbike you!” at me every few minutes.  Meanwhile, I struggle for the nearest Vietnamese equivalent to, “No, I prefer not to ride in your deathmobile today.”  Actually, to call these people “motorcycle taxi drivers” is to glorify this behavior since it is often just a guy with a motorcycle who happens to be driving by.

One driver got pretty steamed at me, came up and said, “Every day, I see you walk around.  You just want to save money!  It’s not good! Not good!”

So when I was planning my trip to the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong, it was with some trepidation that I realized that getting there would require a lengthy bike ride. Of course, I could have rented a car, but I figured that would attract unwanted attention.

Thanh Phong gained considerable notoriety in April 2001 when former Senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) confessed to having committed “an atrocity” when he led a commando raid on the village during the Vietnam War.  I wanted to find out what effect this ruckus had on today’s residents.

Kerrey’s U.S. Navy SEAL team killed up to twenty-seven villagers in the raid, which occurred on February 25, 1969.  One victim was an old man and the rest were women and children.  Kerrey claims that his team fired only in response to enemy fire, but this claim is disputed by a member his own team as well as by Pham Tri Lanh and Bui Thi Luom, both survivors of the massacre.   Kerrey received the Bronze Star for his conduct that night.  He is now president of the New School University in New York.

Just so that I don’t keep you in suspense any longer, I will now address the common questions people ask about Vietnam.  No, I don’t encounter much anti-Americanism.  My students at Vietnam National University talk about former North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh as if he is a god, but they don’t express much in the way of political opinion beyond that.   When I asked why she liked Ho, one student responded, “He could speak six languages and drove out the French.” (Apparently, this is a version of Ho’s life redacted to avoid offending the American teacher.)

As far as current government policy goes, everyone seems to be a happy camper.  They may not have a choice, however.   Several people I talked to seemed frightened when I asked them political questions and told me that the police arrested people who discussed such issues.

Yes, Vietnamese still wear pajamas in public, even in the cities.  Nowadays, it is almost always women who wear them and most have abandoned traditional black in favor of brighter colors.  In addition, conical straw hats are still common, especially in the countryside.  The hats prevent tanning, which Vietnamese associate with manual labor.

Finally, the traditional dress, called an ao dai, really is gorgeous.  The high school girls wear a blindingly white, gossamer ao dai as a uniform. (To keep it clean, they have to wash it by hand every day.)  Shop clerks and bank tellers wear less revealing ao dais of various colors.  Otherwise, you don’t see the dress all that often nowadays.

Thanh Phong is only 75 miles from Ho Chi Minh, but the village is far from major roads and in a remote part the undeveloped Mekong Delta region.  To get there, I first took a two-hour bus ride to the city of Mytho, which is located on the edge of the delta.   I had heard horror stories about Vietnamese buses and was pleasantly surprised to find that the national bus company now has used buses recently purchased from South Korea.

Mytho offers a wide selection of boat rides to tourists seeking views of delta.   Did I mention the boat rides?  There are as many people selling boat rides in Mytho as there are real estate salesmen in Orlando.

I went to the several travel agencies and finally found one that connected me with Sang, a driver who spoke some English.  The trip from Mytho to Thanh Phong takes three hours and requires using three ferries.

We took an off road through banana and coconut groves, lush forests, and villages that time forgot.  Children guided farm animals by the side of the dirt road, which later narrowed to single lane bicycle and motorcycle path.  Huts made of bamboo, board, and thatch lined the path.

Those villages won’t be forgotten for long.   The whole of southern Bentre Province, which includes Thanh Phong, is a hive of construction work.  Brand-new buildings dot the landscape while workers with heavy equipment build new bridges.

Getting back to the main road confirmed my suspicion of Vietnamese motorcycles.  A bike in the oncoming lane veered into our lane, attempting an impossible pass.   With a family of four bearing down on us, I flinched in a futile attempt to use Sang as a steering device and – WHAM  — the foot rest of the oncoming vehicle whacked my foot as it passed.  Sang moved over to the right and stopped while the other driver continued his grand prix racing practice.

“He is really crazy,” Sang said as I got off and hobbled around.  I checked my foot and it looked OK, although by that evening my middle toe had turned blue.  After a minute or two I got back on and we continued toward Thanh Phong.

After the third ferry, the road turns to dirt with deep ruts.  The forest disappears and there are paddies and thatch huts on both sides of the road.  A sign marks the border of Thanh Phong commune.

This commune was formed by merging the original of village of Thanh Phong with five nearby villages, creating a town of two to four thousand residents.

The first family we met in Thanh Phong commune invited us into their house and served us tea.  Eleven villagers gathered around, laughing and smiling as Sang translated my questions.  Nguyen Van Ri, the head of the household, explained that he had, “only seven children.”

Ri, 45, was once a woodcutter, but now earns his living by raising shrimp and fish.  A year earlier, the family had moved into a newly built modern house, which cost them about $13,000.   Before they moved to the new home, they had only a battery-powered radio.  Now they have a television.  But unlike every television I saw in Ho Chi Minh and Mytho, this one was turned off.

One older woman said she had been burned by napalm as a child during the war.  The others said they were too young to remember anything from that time.

However, they did remember the reporters who came to Thanh Phong at the time of the revelations concerning Kerrey.

“A lot of foreign reporters came to Thanh Phong,” Ri said.  “Most of them were African.”

No one in the family knew who Kerrey was or even who Lanh was, although she is a celebrity in Vietnam and I wrote out her name for them.

The villagers are certainly very friendly people and without grudges.  When I showed interest in one of the daughters, her mother laughed and said, “No, take this one” and offered me her eldest daughter.  I declined the offer.

After taking our leave, we proceeded passed some graves, more paddies, and the commune’s volleyball court to arrive at the center of town.  This is was Thanh Phong village proper, judging from an old U.S. Army map I consulted later.  (Modern maps for sale in Vietnam have very little detail – can’t give away military secrets.)

In 1969, the village had about one hundred residents who lived in four or five communal huts strung out along the shoreline.  Behind that, there was only forest.  On my visit, I saw family huts, several storefronts, a restaurant, a police station, a primary school, and a post office, all of which looked like they were built years ago.  Only a few patches of forest remained near the shore.

At the time Kerrey made his confession, Thanh Phong’s residents were described in press reports as the poorest of the poor.  The village is now in the grip of feverish development, with earth moving tractors and new houses all over town.   There is even a brand new church and freshly built monuments to commemorate the commune’s role in the war.

These monuments do not relate to Kerrey’s raid, but rather to Thanh Phong’s status as a center for seaborne gun running.  A plaque describes the commune as the southern terminus of a “Ho Chi Minh Seaway” by which the Vietcong rebels in South Vietnam received weapons from North Vietnam.  I find no suggestion in historical literature that the commune played a major role in weapons smuggling.

We finally stopped at a café, or perhaps I should say a counter with some plastic stools on the dirt in front of it.  Villagers began to gather around as soon as we sat down.  These still lived in thatch huts.  They raised shrimp and did manual labor, earning about $1 a day, they said.

“People move here, but they are rich people,” said one.  “They come here to do business.  The villagers here are still poor.”

Those who fought with the Vietcong have either died or retired and gone to Ho Chi Minh, they told me.  They themselves are too poor to move, they said.

The villagers who were at the café when I first arrived had no memories of the war and knew nothing about the controversy surrounding the village.   But later a woman came by and showed me an old scar.

“In 1972, I was burned by napalm,” she said.  “Five people died and two were injured.”

At this point, the interview was cut short when several policemen arrived and directed us to follow them to the station, which turned out to be across the road and just behind some trees.  The police chief told me he didn’t want me talking to people or taking pictures.

Although the monuments and the write-up about Thanh Phong in literature put out by the provincial tourist office suggest that the commune is being prepared for tourism, the local police do not seem to be on board as of yet.

“Tell him I talked to the Bentre tourist office before I came,” I said to Sang.  “I told them I would come here and talk to people.  No one told me that there would be any problem.”

The chief was unimpressed.  “He says that if you want to talk to people, you need to get permission from the police before you come,” Sang told me.

After about an hour, the police gave me back my passport.  I figured it was time to leave, got up and walked out.  But then the police took Sang’s identity card and told us we had to wait for an officer from Bentre City to come and interview me.

In the meantime, I teased the children who stood outside the office, gawking at the exotic beast that had suddenly arrived in their village.  I also entertained Thanh Phong’s finest with the wonders of digital photography.

When the officer from Bentre arrived, he began by talking to me in Vietnamese, apparently trying to trick me into answering in Vietnamese in the manner of an interrogator in a spy thriller.  However, as I have cleverly neglected to learn the language, I managed to remain one step ahead.

From the officer’s questions, I gathered that his primary concern was that I might have been talking about politics with the villagers.  I told him I that I was interested in writing only about the daily life of the local people and he seemed satisfied.  He then asked to see my pictures and listen to the tape I made.

“You should always travel with a guide,” the officer warned.  “It is not safe.  Many people hate Americans.”

After spending a total of six hours at the station, I was finally released.  The delay meant I would have to do something I worried about a lot more then meeting people who hated Americans: biking across the delta after sunset.

The now invisible ruts tossed me around like I was on a roller coaster ride. When we got to the paved road, the ride became even less comfortable.  The private homes we passed were unlit, presumably not wired for electricity.  Rural stretches were as dark as caves and I worried irrationally about whether Sang could see the traffic.

As we approached a turn, flames leaped up from a spot straight ahead of us, creating a spectacular fiery show.  It was a motorcycle wreck by the side of the road.  The driver was attempting to put out the fire with a small bowel of water.  He had apparently taken the turn at too high a speed.   By the time I got the Bentre and checked into a hotel, I was exhausted from worry.  Bentre, the provincial capital, played a cameo role in the Tet offensive as the town the U.S. Army had to “destroy in order to save.”

The next day I went to the tourist office, but now they wouldn’t tell me anything and just referred all my questions to the “people’s committee” (provincial government).   When I arrived at the people’s committee building, I noticed that it is also police headquarters.  Since I really didn’t want to deal with the police anymore, I took the bus back to Ho Chi Minh.

For Kerrey, Thanh Phong is a memory that haunts him. But I will remember the beautiful countryside and the hospitality of warm and inquisitive villagers.  It is still a poor place where most residents live in thatch huts without electricity, yet people seem happy to be with their families and in their hometown.  It is also a town in a hurry to join to the twenty-first century, where modern buildings and conveniences sprout like mushrooms.