Friday, June 17, 2005


It was Slim Jim who took us to the tunnels. His real name was Thong, Thong the tour guide, but everyone called him Slim Jim, because he ate like a bird, smoked like chimney, and drank like a fish. That’s what he said. He said lots of funny things, strange things, the things that learners of a foreign language love to say. He freely admitted that he learned much of his English from an Aussie slang book somebody gave him. “I’m as busy as a one-legged man in an ass kicking contest!” he said. Or: “I’m sorry to tell you that the air conditioner is no longer active, as it is FUBAR.” Then, later, in an aside to one of the Aussie ladies: “Do you know what FUBAR means? ‘Fucked Up Beyond All Reocognition’!” He laughed, turned around, flashed me a grin. (I knew what it meant because I watched TANGO AND CASH a long time ago.) Earlier we had chatted outside of the Cao Dai temple, whose worshippers combine Daoism, Buddhism and Catholicism into their own religious hybrid, one that features three saints whom they worship: a Vietnamese, a Chinese, and, no shit, Victor ‘Les Miserables’ Hugo. “When I was young, we were so hard done by,” he told me, referring to his life in the South. “Do you know that phrase – ‘hard done by’? I learned it from Elton John! ‘It’s No Sacrifice.’ Good song." Slim Jim began to softly sing the words. In the background, I could hear the worshippers chanting, humming, praying to their Gods. Praying to Victor Hugo.

The Vietcon tunnels at Cu Chi are located near Black Lady mountain, which served as the stopping point for the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam war. The town of Cu Chi sits between Saigon and the mountain; it was an ideal place for the Vietcong to wait, and hide, and attack. They were from the North, the Vietcong were, and they were Communist, trying to overtake the democratic South; the tunnels were dug so that the soldiers could hide underground and withstand the daily onslaught of the American bombs.

On this day, this rainy day, there were no bombs -- only Canadians and Filipinos and Poles and Brits and Chinese and Aussies.

The tunnels were designed for protection. Americans could bomb and bomb and bomb some more, but the Vietcong could hide, underground, in their own, elaborate network of twists and turns.

We were allowed to crawl through a portion of the tunnels. They had been widened a bit for Westerners; they had been readjusted for the tourist dollar. Before we did this we watched in awe as Slim Jim, who leds into the middle of the forest, introduced one of the workers. The ground looked like ground does: brown and leaf-covered and ordinary. Slim Jim kicked aside some dirt, revealing a secret hole. The worker, clad in a military style uniform, cheerfully lowered himself into a whole that looked, from my vantage point, no bigger than a postage stamp. Moments later, behind my back, there he was! Another hole in the ground, and up he came, smiling, alive. The rain began to fall. The air was hot. I thought: I am standing in a jungle in Vietnam.

Then we were all given the chance to crawl 120 metres through a tunnel dug by the Vietcong before I was born.

I used to run track – the 800 and the 1500 and the 3000 metre races; I’m currently (half-heartedly) training for a marathon. 120 metres? Pleeeease. Not. A. Problem.

Note to self: The next time you are told that you are going to crawl through a hole in the ground in former Vietcong territory, you pray to Buddha, God, Victor Hugo, George Burns, whoever. You pray hard, and you pray long.

Because let me tell you. I don’t give a shit if this tunnel has been widened for western dopes like me – 120 metres, on your hands and knees, in three-quarters darkness, in a space no bigger than a matchbox (it seemed) is enough to make a grown man cry. I didn’t cry, but man. I didn’t have a panic attack, but Jesus.

It was one of those moments in life. Impossible to describe. At various points I have been a reader and a runner, a writer and a teacher, a student and a hockey player. We all live various lives within our real lives; we all have moments in time that resonate.

This was one of those moments. At a certain point – five years from now, ten years from – I will be at a desk. I will be paying a bill. I will be changing lanes. And I will remember that moment – crawling through a VC tunnel in the jungles of Vietnam, as the rain fell, as the sweat dripped down my chin. I will remember the darkness. The narrowness. I will remember coming to the end, emerging into the rainy afternoon. I will remember how grateful I felt, how happy. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as happy as I did in that moment.

Vietnam has a way of doing that to you.

Or to me, anyways.

A short trip, only three days, mostly spent in and around Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), but invigorating nevertheless.

Coming by bus from Cambodia. Waiting for a ferry in a small Cambodian town. Watching a little girl knock on my window as we wait, her tiny hand clutching the wrist of her blind father. Begging for food. I go out and give her an apple. I ignore the others begging for help. I watch Britney Spears on the television in the bus watch the six previous ‘making of’ videos she has made. I hand my passport over to the guard at the border, and I’m slightly shocked to discover that I have not left Cambodia since last September. I watch as the day-laborers walk their bikes between the Cambodian and Vietnamese border. Once over the border, I instantly notice the guard rails, the electric power lines, the small, subtle signs of modernity that are completely absent from Cambodia. I listen to the Aussies in the tour van make fun of Kiwis. I spot numerous ‘My Dung’ signs along the highway. (Slim Jim: “It means ‘beautiful’! In Vietnam, the best name for a beauty shop! But if I were to have a restaurant named ‘My Dung’, no foreigners would come! Would you? Ha! Ha! Ha!”) I see the bright, pastel color buildings, crammed together, almost reminiscent of Japan, or old Pez dispensers. I visit the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, and realize once again that history is written by the winners. I read about the ‘imperialist American aggressors’ and then allow my eyes to wander to the window, where I can see, just across the street, the familiar blue and white logo of FORD motors. I surmise that Colonel Sanders lookes a lot like Ho Chi Minh. I spot at least three elderly Vietnamese who sport Ho Chi Minh style beards, reminding me of my North Korean student here in Cambodia who fashioned his hair in the same style as his Dear Leader, Kim Jong. I am reminded of Phnom Penh, of Japan, real places filled with real people, and this makes me glad, to not have everything simply seem like a movie I once watched. I buy a book about Vietnam written a professor from my old university, read it on the bus back to Phnom Penh, and decide that he is full of shit. I finish reading THE CORRECTIONS in my hotel room, come across a clever little bit about a character’s college roommate, and I suddenly recall my own university roommate, Nathan, and how he transferred from my school at the end of first-year, and how I saw him at a restaurant in Toronto the night before I left for Japan. I wander the streets of Saigon and remember Martin Sheen’s words at the beginning of APOCALYPSE NOW: “Saigon – shit.” I wonder how the Cao Dai people came to worship Victor Hugo. I admire the red and yellow and blue robes they wore, each symbolizing a different religion. I realize that I am engaged and comfortable in the real world, in its political machinery, its people and ideas, and yet can still be ill at ease, one on one. I crawl through a Vietcong tunnel as rain falls on the dirt above my head, and I feel grateful to be there, in that place, me, that kid, who once wanted to see PLATOON in the theatres but had to wait for video instead.


A Canadian kid was killed in an international school in Siem Reap the other day, as you may have seen on the news. A hostage situation gone awry. A group of Cambodians taking a group of rich people hostage. They asked for money – a thousand dollars – and other various weapons, and a van, and perhaps something else. I don’t have all the details. I don’t need all the details. A three year old is dead. Everything else is window dressing.

It’s easy -- living here, working here -- to become superior. To feel superior. Even the amount of money that the hostage takers asked for – one thousand dollars – sounds ridiculous to us. One thousand dollars! Reminds me of the first Austin Powers movie, when Dr.Evil, just revived from thirty years of suspended animation, demands ONE…MILLION…DOLLARS for his scheme, not realizing that that isn’t much money.

Bullshit. One million dollars is an insane amount of money. I saw on the net today that a lottery winner in the States, who won over a hundred million dollars, has decided that he wants to be a billionaire, so that he can "take care of his family, give back what I've received." Right. And one hundred fucking million dollars won't allow you to take care of your family, or give you that kind of security. We in the west have lost all perspective. In Cambodia, one thousand dollars is an insane amount of money. Maybe five years, ten years salary for a lot of people.

Word is that the hostage takers simply wanted some money from some people who had some.

People wonder what leads to crime. To murder. To vengeance. And after living here for two years, I can say, with true conviction, that it does not involve video games, or violent movies, or animated cartoons.

Poverty leads to crime. Living in villages that have no electricity and where the death rate for children is so high that babies die by the week leads to crime.

I’m not justifying what happened. A murdered kid needs no justification. It is what it is, and I hope who did it is punished for years and years and years.

The thing is, you can see it here. You can feel it. When people have nothing, absolutely nothing, they have nothing to lose. You can’t lose what you haven’t got. Criminals here who steal motorbikes are often caught by other moto-drivers. These moto-drivers stomp these criminals to death. Happens all the time. Every week. And yet the thieves take their chances. Why? Because they have nothing to lose.

All this: besides the point. A three year old Canadian kid is dead in Cambodia, and I feel horrible about it, and I know most Cambodians feel horrible about it. This is not supposed to happen, not here, not in a country is, in all honesty, usually quite hospitable to foreigners. Cambodia is a country filled with the nicest people on earth, but the only time it has made headlines in the last twenty years has been when something bad happens to the people, or when the people make something bad happen to others.

The country deserves better. The people deserve better. That three year old Canadian deserves a life. And I’m left. Left wondering why working in this country has given me the opportunity to become bigger than myself, while others, Cambodian and Canadian, have only become smaller, finite, gone.


Muktuk said...

I really enjoyed the Vietnam story.

Great thoughts yet again.

All I can think is, it must all by cyclical, somehow, some way.

Anonymous said...

Man, your perspective on the killing of the Canadian boy in Cambodia blew me away.
Thank you for writing that.

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