The Game Part 1

 

We got the recommendation for the guest house in Saigon from a traveller we met in Cambodia: a small, family run place that wasn´t far from the centre of that frenetic city, yet in a quiet back street which was closed off to traffic. We were, at the risk of understatement, sceptical: we had stayed before in Saigon and the traffic was appalling –  especially the tens of thousands of ubiquitous Honda motor bikes, a seething metallic mass which totally dominated the streetscape.  

We wrote the directions to the hotel on a scrap of paper. Arriving in Saigon late one afternoon, we walked out there, the noise of the Hondas filling the air. Then we reached it. It was hard to credit, it was like an oasis in a desert: before us, on either side of a long street, were rows of two story, attached houses with sloping tiled roofs and French louvred windows – they were obviously built during the colonial era.

The street had been blocked off at either end with a high iron railing with a gate. People walked and rode bikes. There were no Hondas!  And there were more surprises on the way…..

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War Junk Part 1

(Originally written in 2003 in Laos/recently revised)

I met Harry in a basic ‘restaurant’ in what was then the small town Xan Neuau in the east of Laos, close to the Vietnamese border. He was a big man with short blond hair parted in the middle, blue eyes, and a square jaw. He was a little overweight but certainly not fat.

He was sitting on his own at a rickety wooden table near the open front of a local bar/restaurant sipping a beer and gazing at the traffic: bikes, buffalo pulled carts, a few motor bikes, the occasional motor car.

It was near sunset and the jungle covered mountains on the horizon had turned a deep green, almost black.

I sat down at his table because I didn’t have a choice. The other tables, further back inside, were occupied by locals. We started chatting.

Little did I know that I was going to be there for much of the night, listening to one of the most disturbing stories I had ever heard from any human being.

 

As two foreigners – Australians – alone in a far flung town, it was natural that the first thing we did was swap stories about where we had been and where we were going. He had come over the border that day from North Vietnam. I was headed in that direction after staying a few days on the Plain of Jars.

Harry and I were travelling in Indochina at a time when the region was opening up to tourism. In the 1960’s, the U.S. had gone to war to stop the advance of communism in Indochina – Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It had lost that war and the communists, backed by China and Russia, had won. For almost 3 decades, the entire region was hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world.

In 2003, tourists needed a visa and obtaining it was a long winded process and there was a strict time limit on how long one could stay (often depending on where one applied for a visa).

Harry and I discussed the ins and outs of applying for a visa at the Vietnamese border. During our conversation, I found out that Harry was an Vietnam veteran. Done two tours of duty. Not a conscript.

The man had been a professional soldier committed to the anti-communist war.

Later in the night, I discovered that there had been more than duty involved…..

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