Return to Vietnam

Then and Now...

mvoorhis@sierrastar.comOctober 29, 2013 

Close your eyes and clear your thoughts. Now — think vacation. What image comes to mind? Is it a hammock strung between two lazily swaying palms on an isolated stretch of beach? Or high humidity, cities bulging with millions along avenues mixed with extreme poverty cramped between BMW dealerships and high-rise hotels?

Vacationers Phil and Catherine Walker of Yosemite Lakes Park were of one-mind. After 50 years, the Walkers returned to what they called home from 1963 to 1965. Vietnam.

"It was a fascinating emotional experience to return as tourists," Catherine explained, "with freedom to travel and visit cities, beaches and rice-growing areas that we were unable to experience when we lived there."

Things were quite different a half-century ago for the Walkers, who taught English as a Second Language through the International Voluntary Services (similar to the Peace Corps).

They weren't even sure where Vietnam was at the time. Nonetheless, they were very excited about traveling outside the U.S. because of the opportunity to expand their cultural awareness, become globally-oriented, and learn about an economy other than American.

They participated in an intensive six-week language course, which taught them basic survival words, just enough so they could get by. It was not an easy language to learn, especially since Vietnamese has six tones, so the same word can have different meanings (the greeting for a married woman is the same word as cow, depending on the tonal inflection).

Assigned to Can Tho, the Walkers immediately experienced culture shock, feeling alone, separated from family and far from home in a strange land, eating strange food, and adjusting to a strange language and different culture.

Because they lived in the southern delta of the country, they experienced just two seasons ... rainy and dry. They had no refrigeration, no clean water and no air conditioning in the 80-90% humidity. The humidity was so high that they had to keep a closet lightbulb on continuously to protect their film from mildew.

They slept under mosquito netting and watched as many a lizard climbed up the walls to hang-out with buddies.

All this, they could accept and endure. More difficult was the toilet, which was nothing more than a porcelain hole in the floor. Jumping into action, Phil immediately purchased a Western-style toilet, which he had to hold tightly between his knees while riding a "cyclo" (bicycle) to get the bulky item home.

"It really was quite a balancing act," Phil recalled. "Vietnamese families typically use cyclos much the same way Americans use pick-up trucks, to transport or haul items. I've seen families with kids piled on a cyclo to get from point A to point B, or a basket on the back holding four pigs."

To re-create a warm (not hot) shower, Phil again thought outside-the-box, using a 50-gallon oil drum, which was heated by the mid-day sun, and periodically filled by the city water system on the roof.

Even though there were nights when they could feel the vibration from bombings and landmines, the Walkers felt relatively safe as long as they remained in town. Any travel outside the city was done by air on American military aircraft. Prior to each flight, they were warned they could experience gunfire during take-off's and landings.

The school setting wasn't much better than the home environment.

"We taught in a 60-year-old school built by the French, with only a blackboard and chalk available," Catherine said. "The students, who ranged from sixth-to-twelfth grades, sat on narrow wooden benches and used pencils to take notes in their notebooks. Now, here we were supposed to be an example of good teaching methods and this was all we had to work with."

The innovative couple took charge, asking friends back home to send magazines, blackboard erasers to replace the rags being used, and board games for their students to practice English.

They also invited the more motivated students to their home for conversational English. They formed an English club, where those with higher-skill levels, had opportunities to improve by playing Monopoly or Scrabble.

Over time, the Walkers developed close friendships with both Vietnamese teachers and students. They were also instrumental in several of their students deciding to study in America.

"We were able to get them scholarships through the American Field Service," Phil commented. "When they returned to Vietnam after their studies, the war was starting to heat-up and anyone who had experiences with Americans or who had studied in America was at-risk for their lives, so they were airlifted out of Saigon."

Following their two-year stint as teachers, the Walkers met with their family in Hawaii for some R&R. They were immediately struck by the imbalance. "We just have so much of everything here," Catherine explained. "We almost resented the wealth, especially since the Vietnamese lived in such poverty and were facing a war."

It wasn't until after the Walkers had left Vietnam, that the country became truly embroiled in war following the Tet Offensive on Jan. 30, 1968.

Nearly 40 years after the war ended in 1975, the Walkers returned to an almost unrecognizable Vietnam in 2013.

Can Tho had grown from a population of about 30,000 to 1.2 million, with luxurious high-rise hotels, hospitals and universities.

The couple stayed in a four-star luxury hotel with gourmet dining and friendly service, and traveled in comfortable air-conditioned vans.

They were free to travel safely throughout the entire country from Ha Noi, the northern political center, beautiful Ha Long Bay with more than 1,600 islands, Da Nang, now a popular beach resort, with Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) as Vietnam's cultural and economic center with a population closing in on nine million.

Still, there were painful reminders of a long-ago, hard-fought war.

"On this trip, we were able to visit Thanh Xuan Peace Village, which offers vocational training to 150 children who are war victims, even today," Phil said. "These children live with damage done by Agent Orange dioxin dropped by American planes."

Typically, the victims of Agent Orange have deformed hands and bodies, some are unable to walk or care for themselves. They participate in rehabilitation programs run by private groups, where they are taught specific skills to work around their handicap.

"It was sobering to learn that four-million Vietnamese have been impacted and that this chemical remains in the soil and ground water, and continues to be genetically passed on — indefinitely apparently," Catherine added.

Since Viet Cong hid in the dense brush, U.S. forces dropped Agent Orange or napalm bombs which cleared an area by causing the leaves to drop off or to burn away.

"We observed the lasting aftermath of man's military industrial obscenities against fellow human beings, consequences of which we have yet to learn. But still, we were treated with friendliness and kindness by everyone, even the victims of Agent Orange," Phil continued.

"We also experienced the artistic, creative industriousness of a culture still coping with extreme poverty and public health challenges," Catherine remarked. "The Vietnamese have the capacity to survive, heal and to eventually flourish."

Being service-minded, the Walkers continue today to serve where there is a need. Phil works as a LCSW/MFT for Cornerstone Counseling in Oakhurst, while Catherine is the organist director for Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church. She has taught ESL to the Hmong in Fresno and the couple have assisted Vietnamese families wishing to resettle in Fresno.

"I believe volunteerism remains important today because it promotes the value of humanitarian efforts around the world," Catherine said. "Meeting specific goals isn't as important as the overall experience. Sometimes you don't need to get paid what you're worth."

Although Vietnam is a Communist country, it embraces relationships with free world countries such as France, Britain, Australia and the U.S. Vietnam receives six million tourists a year.

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