Indochine Part VIII: The Cham Ruins and Mr. Van

Today it was temple time once more.  We ditched the Australians (they were more into having spa treatments today)…and there was an American-Irish-Swiss delegation to the Cham ruins in My Son.

The Cham, an ethnic minority in Vietnam, used to have a thriving civilization.  We visited a series of Hindu temples they had built from the 4th to the 13th centuries.  Most of these temples had held up quite well…until the Americans bombed the crap out of the area in 1968.  Besides the ruins we saw some enormous bomb craters and were warned not to stray from the path as just a few years ago, a child was killed by a landmine in the area.

Our tour guide, Mr. Van, was one of the best we’ve had this entire trip.  The man knows his history, Vietnamese, Cham, American and otherwise backwards forwards and upside down.  I was especially impressed how he could keep all his dates straight, but still give a lively presentation of the facts.  That can be a difficult balance.  A lot of the ruins were very linga happy…lingas are in the shape of a phallis.  There was one we were encouraged to rub for good luck….ahem… After the tour we were treated to some traditional Cham dancing.  I’m guessing they had a pretty big Indian influence as I was surprised to recognize a lot of the arm movements from belly dancing class.

On the drive to and from the temple site, Mr. Van first told us the history of the Vietnam War.  (Everytime somebody does this I silently add in the part “And then Nixon and Anna Chennault sabotaged the 1968 peace negotiations and the war extended another 5 years.”)  One thing that was news to me is I didn’t realize the extent how how much conflict the Vietnamese had after the Americans left.  For one, I knew the Khmer Rouge had invaded, but I didn’t realize it was a steady problem from 1976-1979.  Also hadn’t realized that after THAT they got a lot of hassle from the Chinese.

But the more fascinating tale we heard today was Mr. Van’s life story.  He’s a year older than my father.  So while Mr. Van was telling his story, the parallel story in my head was what my father was doing at the same time.

Mr. Van’s first encounter with an American soldier was when he was a teenager.  He was surprised that the soldier spoke Vietnamese really well.  He was delighted when the soldier gave him chocolate and chewing gum.  (Yes that is how the capitalists seduce you….with chocolate….)  Mr. Van figured if he asked the American to teach him English, he might get MORE chocolate.  This sounded like a good deal.

After quite a few English lessons, including more formal English lessons in college, he got hired by the American military as an interpreter. 

By March 30, 1975 (Happy Birthday Mom) things were going to hell in a handbasket.  Mr. Van had a couple of opportunities to flee the country but….and this is a part of the story that was unclear…his family was not along with him either time.  His American boss did what he could….and then left $2000 behind for Mr. Van.  So rather than abandon his family, Mr. Van spent 3 years in a re-education camp, and was then forced to work as a farmer.

He’s had a long and winding career path since then.  In the 90’s, for a while he tried doing business with the Chinese.  Then he was hired as an interpreter in Da Nang during one of the resort construction projects.  For the past 7 years he has been working as a tour guide and is content.  Although one of my travel companions teased him “I bet you have another career change in you yet!”   As an American, usually the stories I hear from this era end with “And then I escaped to Thailand and then the U.S.”  One of the more fascinating aspects of being in this part of the world is hearing from the people who stayed behind.

After a leisurely lunch….I took advantage that Hoi An is knock-off central….am getting two copies of my glasses made….one regular one in sunglasses form….for about a tenth of what I’d pay in the U.S.  Not sure what the quality will be but figured for that price it was worth the risk.  So if I suddenly post pictures on facebook looking a little more like Tina Fey, you know why.


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