Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Angel Fire, Quang Tri move closer

DONG HA, Vietnam — The Village of Angel Fire, N.M., and Quang Tri, Vietnam, have moved closer to a Sister City relationship.

Earlier this month, the Angel Fire Village Council approved a resolution to approach Quang Tri about becoming a Sister City.

Jack Swickard hands Sister City forms to Nguyen Chi
Dung, head of the Quang Tri People's Committee in
Dong Ha, Vietnam. Between them is U.S. Rep. Steve
Pearce. Joe Yue of Hobbs is on the far left.
To help promote the Sister City relationship, the village asked me to present the resolution to officials in Quang Tri. I am a member of the David Westphall Veterans Foundation board of directors, the organization that supports the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park at Angel Fire.

In mid-February I was traveling through Vietnam with U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce and Joe Yue, owner of the Pacific Rim Restaurant in Hobbs.

Pearce was an Air Force C-130 pilot in Vietnam during 1971-73. I was an Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1967-68.

We carried a copy of the resolution; background on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; a description of how Dr. Victor Westphall built the Vietnam Veterans Memorial after his son, David Westphall, a U.S. Marine lieutenant, was killed in Quang Tri Province in 1968 during the Vietnam War; and Sister City application forms.

A friend of mine, Police Col. Duc Sat Nguyen, and Pearce’s office helped arrange a meeting in Dong Ha, capital of Quang Tri Province, with the province People's Committee.

Pearce and I addressed the committee about the importance Angel Fire and the Westphall Committee place on establishing a close relationship with Quang Tri. We described how Dr. Westphall traveled to Quang Tri Province after the Vietnam War to promote the healing of war wounds, and how he carried soil from the Angel Fire Memorial to Quang Tri and then brought back soil from Quang Tri to scatter at the Memorial.

Nguyen Chi Dung, the People’s Committee head, told us he is favorable to establishing the Sister City relationship with Angel Fire.

He also described after-effects of the war, such as a shortage of trees in the province 37 years after the war ended, people still being killed or severely injured by mines and other explosives from the war, and children with birth defects from defoliants used during the war.

When we met with U.S. Ambassador David Shear in Hanoi before traveling to Quang Tri, Pearce and the ambassador discussed defoliant sites to be cleaned by the United States. The congressman said he would work to have the Quang Tri site included in the cleanup.

Additionally, Pearce said an approach to working on other after-effects could involve private citizens and businesses.

After the meeting, several members of the People’s Committee told us they like the idea of establishing the Sister City relationship with Angel Fire and will work with other members to bring it to fruition.

Hoang Nam, deputy director of the Department of Foreign Affairs in the province, will work with me on completing the applications.

Ngo Xuan Hien with simple mine detector.
After arriving in Dong Hoa earlier, we were given a tour of the Project RENEW (Restoring the Environment and Neutralizing the Effects of the War) visitor center by Nguyen Thanh Phu, the center's assistant manager, and Ngo Xuan Hien, development director and public affairs officer.

Phu and Hien told how children and their parents are educated about explosives still being found in rice fields and along roads, as well as job training for people who have suffered loss of limbs as a result of exploding mines and bombs.

They said U.S. organizations have been in the forefront in helping with education and training.

 Pearce said, “The devastating effects of the war were most visible in Quang Tri Province, which is a province on the 17th Parallel that once divided North and South Vietnam. The effects moved me to do what I can professionally and personally to help rebuild and renew the province.

“The hospitality of the people we met with officially and unofficially were proud and resilient people who need help,” the congressman said. “I felt they were very open and honest with us and eager for friendship with the United States and Americans.

“I believe the Sister City designation will become a platform for the growing friendship with people who once were at war,” Pearce said.

“I was impressed Ambassador Shear brought up the Sister City request by Angel Fire,” the congressman said.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Relaxing in Hanoi

HANOI, Vietnam — I spent yesterday adjusting to the pace of life in Vietnam's capital city.

My friend Dinh Ngoc Truc came by the hotel at 7 a.m. and took me on a morning walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, the lake in Hanoi's city center. We had a lot of company during our exercise walk, joining a throng of morning walkers. But that's not all.

One group on a set of steps leading to the water's edge was practicing Tai Chi, the graceful, slow-motion exercise. In another area on the edge of the lake couples were dancing under a canopy of trees. Across from the park, nets had been set up and people were playing badminton on a wedge of land between two streets.

Couples dance at Hoan Kiem Lake.
Truc said the exercisers would finish at 8 a.m. and the park would revert to its normal routine: Tourists and locals meandering along the banks, some stopping at a coffee and pastry kiosk that has been lakeside since French colonial days.

Hoan Kiem Lake and the adjacent Old Quarter are popular sites for tourists to visit in Hanoi. The Old Quarter is made up of narrow streets crammed with people. At mealtimes, small, plastic chairs and tables fill the sidewalks between motorcycle parking spaces and storefronts. If you're walking by, plan to walk into the street.

Streets in the Old Quarter begin with "Hang," Vietnamese for "commodity," Truc explained. And commodities are plentiful. One street specializes in eyeglasses and sunglasses. Another has block after block of silk stores. Boutique hotels, coffee shops, and restaurants are interspersed.

Everywhere are street merchants: Teen-age boys watch your shoes, looking for scuffed leather that makes you a mark for their shoeshine pitch. Young women from the country carry baskets of fresh fruit on wooden sticks balanced on their shoulders. Old women with plastic bags full of embroidered T-shirts and military green baseball caps sporting a red star.

After our walk, Truc ands I slipped down a side street and entered a pho restaurant filled with people who had stopped on their way to work. Truc told me most people in Hanoi will go to a restaurant and buy a bowl of pho, the traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, rather than eat breakfast at home. We sat at a table with three other people. It was near the screened-in kitchen, so Truc could place our orders directly with the cooks. A short time later a waitress delivered large bowls of beef pho. Following Truc's lead, I added cilantro and sliced chiles to the pho. Truc tossed a deep-fried pastry into each bowl.

Truc and the other diners deftly ate the rice noodle with chopsticks and a spoon. It was clear I needed more practice with my chopsticks, so I relied heavily on the spoon. Unfortunately, this sets up a noodle-slurping scenario that leaves pho residue on the front of your shirt. I didn't want to change shirts this early in the day, so I twisted some noodle around my chopsticks and grabbed them with my mouth before they untangled from the sticks. I decided to concentrate on the broth and strips of beef, leaving the remaining noodles in the bowl.

Truc and I then walked to a coffee shop near the Water Puppet Theater. I drank hot "milk coffee;" Truc had his on ice. Vietnamese coffee is brewed strong. It has a chocolatey flavor. Condensed milk is added for milk coffee. There is no need to add sugar to sweeten the brew.

We returned to the hotel, made arrangements for our upcoming trip south to Dong Hoi Quang Tri, Hue, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and then climbed aboard Truc's motorcycle. Our friend, Police Col. Hung, was expecting us for lunch at a restaurant near the Opera House.

Hung is a man of excellent taste and lunch or dinner with him is always a treat. A meal can last hours, and usually includes something I have never before eaten. It's always tasty. It was Hung who introduced me to spring rolls made from pig ears and small salt crabs you pop whole into your mouth.

After lunch, Truc and I rode to the Air Force Museum. Unfortunately, it was closed on Friday.

Next, we headed to a massage parlor. There two extremely strong, young women began popping fingers, twisting arms and legs, forcing joints and limbs to bend farther than I thought possible, pushing their thumbs deep into muscles, tying hot rocks to the bottom of my feet, then arranging others on my spine. And these were just the preliminaries to a walk up and down my legs and back. It was a pretty painful couple of hours, but I'd have it done again in a flash.

After a large lunch, we rode to Indira Gandhi Lake, named after the late prime minister of India, where Truc normally walks for exercise. There we were joined by one of his friends and neighbors, walking around the lake three times in 36 minutes.

The three of us went to an outdoor cafe and had tea before Truc and I headed to another restaurant for dinner with other friends in the National Police. When we arrived, the tables were laden with fresh vegetables, lamb, various sauces, chicken, and a green, sticky rice cake filled with cooked pork. We drank multiple toasts of U.S. whisky. Then we ate more. Just when I thought the meal was coming to an end, the waiters brought out a table cooker and a large pan with a fish in it.

The meal continued. The fish and the broth were delicious and light, so I did not have the sensation of being stuffed.

After we said our goodbyes, I hopped on the back of Truc's motorcycle and rode back to the hotel. The temperature in Hanoi was in the low 50s, so I could appreciate the light jacket I brought with me.

Later today, Truc and I will visit the Air Force Museum, then go to his home where he and his wife are hosting me for dinner.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Return to Hanoi and friends

HANOI, Vietnam — It was pleasant to return to Hanoi. My friend Dinh Ngoc Truc was waiting for me at baggage claims in the airport.

Because of my late arrival, the streets of Hanoi were relatively clear of bicycles, motorcycles, cars and trucks on the 45-minute drive to the Old Quarter.

The hotel where I am staying, the Maison d'Hanoi in the Hoan Kiem District, was familiar. My wife Renee and I stayed in the hotel several years ago. When you step out the front door onto Hang Trong Street, you are immediately in the foot and street traffic of the Old Quarter.

It's difficult to believe Hanoi was the enemy capital when I flew helicopters for the U.S. Army in 1967-68.

But it was 44 years ago when I left South Vietnam for home just after the Tet Offensive of 1968.

The changes are staggering. They shouldn't be, but they are. I have to remind myself coming back to Vietnam 44 years after I left the war in Southeast Asia behind is like visiting Germany or Japan in 1989 — 44 years after World War II ended in Europe and the Pacific.

On my walk through the Old Quarter this morning, I stopped in the Highlands Coffee Shop around the corner. Highlands Coffee is Vietnam's Starbucks. It's where affluent, young Vietnamese spend time. There is a free WiFi connection. The shops are well furnished. The menu and signs are printed in English, as well as in Vietnamese.

There are some differences. A waiter or waitress serves your drink. This morning I had an "icy latte." But I could have had a beer or a glass of wine. Hot food is available. The special advertised on the table placard was Italian pasta with shrimp. I have found Italian restaurants, Vespa motorbikes, and Italian clothing are popular in Hanoi.

The Highlands Coffee Shop I visited today was inside a bank building. Others are outdoors. Friends in Vietnam police took Renee and me to one next to the Opera House after dinner one night. There is another adjacent to the Military Museum on Dien Bien Phu Boulevard. Across the street is Lenin Park, with a towering statue of the Bolshevik Revolution leader. Down the boulevard several blocks is the entrance to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Presidential Residence, and the House on Stilts, the home Uncle Ho preferred over the executive mansion.

Coffee shops, in general, are popular in Hanoi. This afternoon Truc's son, Thinh, and his friend and neighbor, Trang, picked me up at the hotel and gave me a walking tour of the Old Quarter. At the end of our walk, Thinh took us to the rooftop garden at the Avalon Restaurant. The view of Hoan Kiem Lake was spectacular. Thinh told me the Avalon is a popular place for young people to go for coffee.

During our walk, we visited the Cho Dong Xuan market, the largest covered market in Hanoi. The market originally was built in the 1889 by the French. In 1994, nearly fire destroyed the market. It was rebuilt in its present form. Thinh and Trang told me the market is popular with tourists. In the market you can buy items ranging from fruit to custom-tailored suits.

As we neared the hotel, Trang stopped at a street peddler and bought a bag of white, peeled vegetables. "Do you have these in the United States?" she asked. I bit into one. It tasted like a sweet jicama, which is popular in Mexico and my home state of New Mexico. Trang said the vegetable is called "ma thay" in Hanoi. I ate about a dozen.

Later, I looked up the vegetable. It is a water chestnut, known as "cu ma tay" in northern Vietnam. In the southern part of the country, it is known as "cu nang."