Waddling with the (Former) Enemy

I don’t chase down ‘American War’ sites or often bring it up in conversations here. It’s not out of creating some sort of faux pas, or dodging the reality that the US and Vietnam were in war a few decades ago. I rarely get anything but a bright-eyed response when I tell someone where I’m from: nuoc my (America). But occasionially the war flickers in my path and I follow it a bit.

With a few hours to spare in Cat Ba Island — where I was trying to see what an independent traveler could do there if they DIDN’T go on a package tour (one expat guessed ‘about 1%, maybe less, of travelers come without a tour’) — I rented a motorbike for a few bucks and drove 8km to Dong Quan Y (Hospital Cave) and found myself being introduced to a 60-year-old man in green army uniform with a medal on his chest, Vu Dinh Khoi: ‘A Distinguished War Veteran,’ according to his card he handed me.

Museums and attractions are the best when you stumble onto curators or workers that really love what they do. Last year in Cluj Napoca, Romania, I had a personal tour of the Pharmaceutical Museum by a very entertaining man in an oversized lab coat and large glasses. ‘This is mummy dust… it is used as aphrodisiac…’ he said with long, awkward pauses in his English, for effect I think. ‘Wow,’ I offered, ‘Interesting.’ He shot back, ‘For you… itisinteresting… for me…………. itisnormal.’ He went on to other impliments and tools — in ‘Romania’s fourth oldest pharmacy’! — holding out his hand with impressive stares like a gameshow host tempting contestants with prizes like new cars or trips to Calgary. I mentioned I was from Oklahoma originally, and when I left he — no joke — fist-pumped to me as a farewell gesture… ‘OKLAHOMA!’ It’s safe to say, I loved the museum.

Mr Vu had that quality. Waddling into the dark passageways of the ‘cave hospital’ with his granddaughter trailing along, Mr Vu pointed out many of the 17 rooms that were built into a rocky bluff in central Cat Ba from 1960 to 1965, and served as a bomb-proof hospital throughout the war. He spent several years here himself. ‘This is where 10 doctors slept.’ ‘This is where five officers slept.’ ‘This is where’ — clicking his tongue, and suddenly smiling, ‘we played ping pong.’ In one room he asked me to back against the wall, he moved to the opposite. ‘This is the meeting room, but we also sang here’ and he burst into claps and a peppy propaganda song from the war ‘Vietnam… Ho! Chi! Minh!’ Granddaughter clapped, but leaned to the wall mouth closed.

Leaving the cave on the other side, I asked Mr Vu if I could take a photo. His waddle turned into a sprint. He took the camera from my hands and handed it to his granddaughter and pushed me over to a rock and cradled me like a newborn. I’ve never been hugged more intently by a 60-year-old veteran of a former US enemy. Granddaughter snapped two photos and Mr Vu said ‘Yes, very good, very beautiful.’

They waddled back into the cave together and I to my motorbike where a shirtless guy covered in sweat was waiting to overcharge me for ‘parking’ and to sell me warm bottles of water.

IF YOU GO to Cat Ba Island, you can rent a motorbike from anyone from about $5 or $6 per day. To reach the Hospital Cave, take the road north of town (towards Cat Ba National Park) about 8km. It’s signed (blue and white) to the right side of the road, just past a small village where the shirtless guy lives. Entrance is a whopping 50,000D (about $3.10), but I thought worth it. Mr Vu is likely there during busy times (Friday to Sunday); the cave doesn’t keep regular hours.

About Robert Reid

Robert Reid is a travel writer (Lonely Planet, New York Times, ESPN), travel expert (Today Show, CNN's Headline News), travel videographer (76-Second Travel Show) and travel artist (don't ask).
Tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.