I had been warned by several other tourists and locals from the area that there was a lot of pick pocketing in Vietnam, to keep an eye on my belongings and a firm grip on my iPhone. I just didn’t suspect it before I cleared customs. It was late, of course, and we had been traveling for something like 26 hours. I didn’t think anything of it when I handed over my visa paperwork, passport, and $60 in cash to the passport control agent. He reviewed it behind a counter that I couldn’t see over and handed it back to me to saying that I needed to go to a different counter for processing. Pretty typical, so I followed his instructions. When I got to the next counter, I no longer had $60, but just one $20 bill. Now I don’t know that he slipped it away behind the counter, or if I dropped it, or if someone had a quick slide of hand and was able to pull it out of my passport, but it was gone. It created a big ordeal for me to get my visa, having to leave customs without a passport to get to an ATM and navigate my way back through. None the less, I made it, and you better believe I kept a tight grip on my iPhone for the rest of the trip.
The next morning, Amelia (my mom), Tony, and I were up early for a tour of Saigon and the Cu Chi tunnels. Our guide, Law (pronounced Lo), met us in the hotel lobby. He was about 4’ 11” and looked like he weighed about 80 pounds. But his personality was bigger than life, and his smile lit up the room. We won the lottery that day by having him guide us around.
I will be completely and utterly honest (and very embarrassed) about my lack of knowledge on the Vietnam War. There are two sides to every story, and then there’s the truth. I still don’t know what the truth is about the Vietnam War, whose fault it was, who won. I know only a handful of people that fought in it, and I don’t know or understand the full tragedy of it. I realize now that I could spend a lifetime learning about it and still not have all of the answers. I do know that millions of human beings lost their lives. I know that there was desperation. I know that it’s still impacting the world today. But none of that is different from any other war. I realize now how much of an impact it has made in our world’s history, and I am vowing to take the time to become educated.
Like so many places I visit, the stories I hear and read about suddenly become very real. And that’s what happened with the Cu Chi tunnels. The Cu Chi tunnels are just outside of Saigon. It is an extensive network of underground tunnels that the Vietnamese used during the war. The tunnels could house up to 60,000 people. That’s the size of a moderate city! However, the most they had at one time was around 10,000 people. I learned that the people could live in the underground tunnels, going 10 to 12 meters below ground, for up to a month without leaving. They created air holes using termite nests on the surface, allowing oxygen into the tunnels. There were parts of the tunnels that were narrower, preventing Westerners who were larger in size from coming through. Amelia and Tony had the opportunity to climb into them. I opted out of crawling when Law advised that it wasn’t uncommon for black scorpions to appear on the walls.
We learned about guerrilla warfare and how the Vietnamese used this to win the war. It was incredibly genius of them. Law explained that they didn’t want to kill Americans, but rather just create enough injury that they could no longer fight. If a soldier was injured, many others would come to their rescue to bring them to safety. That was a few less soldiers on the field fighting, and a few more that got to go home, where they would talk about the brutality of the war in the communities, influencing the politics around it. There is so much more information on the Cu Chi tunnels and guerrilla warfare used in the Vietnam War (American War as they call it locally), and I encourage everyone (myself included) to learn more about them and the power they had.
The saddest thing I experienced that day in Saigon was the War Remnants Museum. I did not know anything about Agent Orange – what it was, what it did, when it was used, how it impacts humans today. I learned that the US dumped thousands of pounds of Agent Orange onto the Vietnam forests. Agent Orange is a powdery substance that kills foliage quickly, allowing soldiers to see their enemies clearly. The US soldiers were given gas masks to fight the effects of breathing in the chemical substance, which you can imagine are quite intense since it has the power to kill an entire forest in just days. The locals, however, were not given such support. Women breathed in the chemicals, not knowing what the long-term effects would be. For years, babies were born with severe, severe birth defects – missing limbs, cognitive disorders, partial brains. We saw photos children, malformed and ill. Many died within minutes or days of their birth. Others were forced to live a lifetime of struggle, in a country that simply doesn’t have the means to provide social support or health care to the severely disabled. One woman had given birth to three children, each different ages, and each with a different disorder. All of this from a chemical that fell from the sky, without them asking or knowing, and impacting their families for decades.
It was an emotionally tolling day. I had no idea that the rest of the week would provide just as much stimulation and thought provoking moments. I was exhausted – the most tired I’ve ever been in my entire life. We had dinner, my first pho. Pho is a rice noodle soup with a broth and vegetables, similar to chicken noodle soup. I didn’t mind it but it was a little bland for my liking. I fell in love with the fried rice in Southeast Asia, and had it almost every day.
We had a flight from Saigon to Hanoi late that night. I rested on a couch in the restaurant we were at, and when I woke up, I didn’t know where I was. I drug myself and my luggage to the airport where I had another emotional experience with the airlines.
We approached the counter to get our boarding passes, and when the woman saw my wheelchair, she refused to let me get on the plane. She wanted me to get into an airline-owned wheelchair so she could take mine. I’ve been told to do this before and it never ends well. The chair often doesn’t make it to its destination, and with language barriers, I simply can’t let them take my wheelchair and mobility from me. After explaining that I needed my wheelchair, she still wouldn’t hand over my boarding pass and passport. She was adamant that I could not navigate the airport on my own. This was my 62nd country, god knows how many flights, and probably my 100th explanation to an airport agent on my capabilities. This paired with complete and utter exhaustion led to a perfect storm.
Tony and Amelia both had been given their passports and boarding passes. I asked her several times for my ticket and she refused, giving absolutely no explanation. Other workers came and chatted with her in their local language, pointing and looking at me. I don’t know what finally caused the group of three or four to finally relinquish my passport to me, but when I got it back, I held it firmly…that is until security gave me the same issues. A man took my passport from me, walked away with it, and finally came back stating that I couldn’t get on the flight. I was so frustrated. He explained that there was another flight leaving at the exact same time that the three of us would go on. I couldn’t understand why. I felt like I had no control and that I was just part of a herd of animals that he was pushing through, trying to get me out of his way. I argued and tried to understand, tried to explain that I was perfectly capable of doing everything I needed to do to get on the airplane.
In the end, what I could understand, and I’m not even sure if it’s true, is that there was a bigger flight that was delayed and would be easier for me to get on. It had a jetway instead of a flight of stairs. Looking back on it, the entire staff was probably trying to help, but the words weren’t in their vocabulary to explain it to me. I got on the flight that night (the bigger one that they forced me onto) outrageously frustrated. I hated that I had to go through this. I just want to be able to board a flight, no questions asked and no assistance needed. I reminded myself that it is unlikely that the staff encounters disabled travelers often. I also reminded myself that the disabled people in Vietnam likely do not have rights. It took me a few days, and some experiences that were painful, but I again walked away from this trip knowing that I am one of the luckiest people on this planet. For my rights. For my experiences. For my job. For the invisible lines I was born between…