It was peaceful the only sounds the birds twittering in the trees and the wind sighing through the coconut palms . A swallow swoops low over the green paddy field to catch an insect. It was hard to imagine that on this very site something horrible had taken place almost 50 years ago.. On the 16th of March 1968 US troops in helicopters landed nearby. Over the course of the next few hours they systematically destroyed the surrounding hamlets and murdered 504 of the inhabitants many of them elderly or children.
Recovering from our bout of sickness we decided to have an easy day, ride just 18 kilometres to visit the site of the Son My massacre or as it is known around the world My Lai. This site really is sobering . The Museum isn’t propagandistic in anyway just using pictures and a few short captions to illustrate the horrors which happened that day. Its gruesome photos show villagers lying in the street body parts and brains by their sides. Outside among the coconut trees the site of the houses is largely unchanged just the foundations of the houses remain with a simple inscription explaining the names and ages of the inhabitants that were killed.
The official narrative from the American side goes that My Lai was an aberration down to a few unstable individuals. However as Nick Turse explained in his book kill everything that moves My Lai wasn’t a one off there were hundreds of other massacres like it which were part of a general operating policy using terror rape murder and torture to terrorize the population . We happen to know about My Lai because an army photographer was present and recorded what went on and so some of the perpetrators and witnesses we’re so concerned by what occurred that day that an official investigation was launched.
The contrast between then and now was so great that it was difficult to imagine the horrors of what occurred that day. It was in a sombre mood that we peddled back to our hotel by the beach at Binh Chau. It was a nice spot right by the beach with a new owner. When we enquired about getting some lunch at the restaurant he told us it wasn’t open yet but that we should sit down and he would fix us something up for free. We had a great meal of fish and rice sitting right on the beach. Fabulous.
As we were sat drinking a refreshing coconut I gave a loving look over to my bicycle and noticed a broken spoke. Oh shit. It was a rear one too so would have to remove the cassette to replace it. I asked around the village but no one was able to fix it. We would have to head back to town in the morning to sort it out.
The next day was the worst day of the trip so far. It wasn’t that bad but just that all the other days have been pretty awesome. First we had to backtrack 13 kilometres to get my spoke fixed . The guy did a great job and it was a bit of a hassle because it was on the rear wheel necessitating the removal of the cassette. And as is usual in central Vietnam he charged about double what I would have paid in Saigon.
Then because we had to backtrack, to save time we took highway 1 the whole way to Tam Ky a distance of 70 km. It was busy dusty lots of trucks lots of roadwork’s lots of horns and very dangerous driving. With extremely high import taxes driving is the preserve of the rich. And as rich people are more selfish and uncaring (don’t take my word for it this is actually backed up by scientific research http://www.democraticunderground.com/10022439425) this is expressed in their driving with little regard for other users especially for poor people on motorbikes or bicycles. They regularly overtake three abreast and weave in and out of the traffic. Then the bus drivers are even worse overtaking with a blaring of horns forcing other drivers to take a voice evasive action to avoid a collision. It’s a dog eat dog world out there and the rules are simple if you’re bigger you have right away and as there’s nothing much smaller than a bicycle you’re at the bottom of the pile constantly being on your guard about the horn behind you. Not surprisingly this mix translates into a lot of crashes. The accident rate is staggering with around 12,000 killed every year and nearly 50,000 injured, and many observers believe those number may be underestimates too. The road surface is pretty terrible in places as well, piles of gravel and dust on the shoulder which you have to negotiate.
My dislike of the Highway was enhanced by my feelings about motor vehicles generally. Cars are evil. Well ok they’re not evil, but they are certainly not a very good idea. For me they are a perfect symbol of why the world is in such a mess. For a start they are killers. Nearly 2 million people a year are killed in road traffic accidents and millions more seriously injured. More than 2% of all deaths are caused by traffic accidents, about the same as are killed by lung cancer or malaria. Yet there is no outrage about the killers in everyone’s driveway. People say that riding a bicycle is dangerous. But its cars (and lorries and buses) that kill people. And they are not even a very efficient way of getting around. The internal combustion engine is only 25 to 30% efficient. When you add in the fact that most of the energy is used to move the vehicle rather than the passenger then less than 10% of the energy in the petrol is actually utilised to move you from A to B all the rest is just wasted.
What I find most depressing though is Vietnams failure to learn from its neighbours and their headlong embrace of the motor vehicle. You just need to look at Bangkok, Jakarta or any Chinese city to see that designing a city for cars makes them very unpleasant for people and still incredibly inconvenient to get around even by car. I’m all in favour of Vietnam developing but Vietnam is currently developing into the late 20th Century rather than the 21st century. Cities all over the world are learning the lessons of the failed transport policies of the last 60 years. They are moving away from cars and focusing on public transport and walking and cycling. The privately owned motor vehicle is just an incredibly inefficient way of getting around. They take up so much room on the road and only transport 1 or 2 people. But then for 95% of the time they are not even being used and take up valuable space for parking. In America there are 3 spaces for every car. That’s literally thousands of hectares in wasted space. And it’s not just from a liveability perspective that the car is a disaster. Motor vehicles are also terrible in terms of climate change. Transport accounts for 13% of global greenhouse gas emissions and the majority of that is produced on roads. If Vietnam wants to have a viable future, then greenhouse gas emissions must move towards zero over the next 50 or so years. That means a radical shift in the transport system across the world.
Many have touted the electric car as a solution, and whilst it does offer the potential for clean transport simply switching wholesale from petrol to electric cars would massively increase the demand for electricity. For the USA for example switching mile for mile would increase the annual electricity demand by almost 30% which is a lot, especially when we are already struggling to meet the existing demand using renewable energy. Then there is the huge amount of energy used to manufacture an electric car – about the same as the energy it will use in its lifetime and all so it can sit unused in someone’s driveway for 90% of the time. In terms of liveability, safety, air and noise pollution, climate change and convenience public transport wins hands down. It’s just a no brainer. So the fact that there are roadwork’s the length of Highway 1 converting the whole of it to a dual carriage way only increased my depression. An investment that if Vietnam is to survive will need to become obsolete pretty dammed soon. Or else later in the century it will be filled with refugees as the rising seas devour their homes.
The ride was also pretty ugly too. Occasionally the view opened up across some green paddy fields to the mountains behind but it was pretty ordinary in comparison to the vistas that we have been experiencing recently. In fact it was so ordinary that I didn’t take a single photo all day. Vietnamese towns are on the whole pretty ugly at least outside the older tree lined centres anyway. The same poorly constructed architecturally uninspiring housing strung out along the road so while each village may I have a tiny population because it is spread out along the road it can stretch for miles . And it being the major highway there’s row upon row of concrete boxes selling overpriced rice or noodles . Not only is it ugly but it also pretty bad from climate change perspective too. The buildings are constructed very cheaply with poor materials and with few design elements made to take into account the climate. No insulation no double glazing no eaves to protect from the sun perhaps the only concession is the high ceilings in the rooms which allows the hot air to rise to the top. The larger houses simply rely on pumping out the air-conditioning to make them habitable. Then because they are so cheap if anyone wants to make some alterations they just get knocked down and a new one built in their places. Which again emits large amounts of greenhouse gases.
It was a relief when we finally reached our destination of Tam Ky. An unassuming little town which I immediately warmed too. The rooms were cheap and we were charged local prices for everything we bought including the local speciality of chicken with rice. Which cost us a dollar at a little street stall and was absolutely delicious.
Next day we were back to highway 1 but I found it much easier. The knowledge that we only had 40 kilometres to survive before talking a detour to explore the Cham ruins at Mỹ Sơn and then heading to Hội An for a couple of days relaxing in Vietnam’s prettiest town.
This was our earliest departure so far. So early we had to rouse the guy from the guest house which is no mean feat given the hours Vietnamese people normally keep. The propaganda was still blaring from loudspeakers outside it had begun at 5 a.m. when we awoke. This area was the stronghold of the Cham civilization which flourished during the 9th and 10th century and was annexed by the Dai Viet in 1832 creating the borders of what is now Vietnam. We encountered the first ruins at the side of the highway just after we left Tam Ky. The caretaker was just sweeping up some leaves when we pulled up for a look, and unlocked the gates to let us in. The red brick temple glowed in the light of the early morning sun and only the sound of the birds accompanied our exploration.
Later we reached the more extensive temple complex at My Son. My Son was the religious center of the civilization. It is a series of Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva. There are over 70 temples at the site but much of it was destroyed by American carpet bombing during the war. It was lunch time and most of the coach loads of tourists had already left so we had the place pretty much to ourselves. There was just a few backpackers who had ridden there on motorbikes. It was hot and we chatted to a couple of young German women who were suffering in the heat. They weren’t too pleased to discover that it would only get hotter as they moved south. March and April being the hottest months before the cooling rains arrive.
It was my second visit and I had a pleasant few hours wandering among the crumbling buildings trying to picture what they must have looked like at their prime. Kim however was less impressed. I think she was expecting something more impressive. To top it off all by the time we had finished the complex restaurant had stopped serving food. We were starving so were forced to dine at the tatty little restaurant just outside the entrance which was a big mistake. Grossly overpriced even after haggling hard and barely edible. Then we still had 35km to cover to reach the former Cham port of Hoi An. It was dark by the time we had arrived, found a hotel and went to explore the delights of the old city.