Colonel: Marine, what is that button on your body armor?
Private Joker: A peace symbol, sir!
Colonel: What is that you’ve got written on your helmet?
Private Joker: “Born to kill”, sir!
Colonel: You write “Born to kill” on your helmet, and you wear a peace button. What’s that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?
Private Joker: I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir!
Colonel: The what?
Private Joker: The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir!
Colonel: Whose side are you on, son?
(Adapted from Full Metal Jacket)
We left Saigon by bus and traveled in the heat of the afternoon through the Mekong Delta. On the public transport busses we were the only western faces. Tourists tend not to go in this direction and when they do they go by hire car not bus. People were kind friendly and looked after us. To me the words “Mekong Delta” sound like magic. Some other places have the same effect on me, Nairobi Airport, Kampuchea, Peking. The places may have had a name change or be quite dire when you get there but, somewhere in my deep past I heard or read the names and from that moment, wanted to go there. Most of the place names came from encyclopaedias I read as a child. The Mekong Delta was different. It’s name came from the TV news reports and the Sunday Times in the heady days of Harold Evans and Don McCullen. Even so I wanted to go there.
Ben Tre does not seem to have the same layout as many of the Vietnam towns. Its long organic growth seems to have been interrupted and replaced with something more planned. It has many wide streets. it even has a 6 lane road. It has some large government buildings set in expansive grounds. Some western people say that Ben Tre was the place where the “Vietnam” war started when in the 1950’s, a woman general led an uprising against the US backed Saigon regime . Graham Greene was here in 1951 and got a lift back to Saigon with an American from the U.S. aid mission (which French intelligence said was a CIA front) Greene reportedly said that the American lectured him all the long drive back to Saigon on the necessity of finding a ‘third force’ in Vietnam”. Again it is reported that the concept for Greene’s book The Quiet American started on that journey back to Saigon.
There was fierce fighting in Ben Tre in 1986 during the Tet offensive. American Artillery and Jets bombarded the town and more American troops were brought in as the fighting intensified. Much of the town was destroyed. There is a famous quote attributed to those events. On The 7th February 1968 an Associated Press reporter, Peter Arnett, quoted an American Major as saying “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,”
In an article published in the New York Times in 2004 James Pringle said “The death toll was so great that, after a few days, both Vietcong and South Vietnamese troops stopped fighting briefly and, to prevent an epidemic, disposed of dead soldiers and civilians in the river. “You could almost have walked across the water on dead bodies,” a resident told me.”
“We arrived in Ben Tre late afternoon and took Motor bikes to the hotel where we were met by Ken a Kiwi who had been here since the 1990’s. “Hey” he said to all and sundry ” these guys are friends of Jonathan and Jill”
After the travel of the last few weeks it was good to have some stillness and a rest.
It has been glorious. We have cycled through rice fields and coconut plantations, using bike and ferry to get to island homes. We have watched kingfishers on the river under the full heat of the sun and bats over the river by the light of the full moon. We have travelled the river on a small traditional canoe and drunk from coconuts freshly cut from the trees. We have traveled like locals, three up on a small motorbike, have had a traditional full body massage administered by skillful blind masseurs. We have stretched out and slept in hammocks under a heavy thunder sky. Peace and rest was ours.
Trung’s Grandmother was killed by the Americans in 1968.