Friday, January 4, 2013

DESTROYED TOWN OF BEN TRE IS REBUILT



Buzzing downtown of Ben Tre. Few cars, many motorbikes.

I’m out for a stroll, wandering through the center of an old river town. Now that I’m out of Saigon, I’m feeling the slower pace of life in the Mekong Delta.

Dried fish and fresh produce await customers in shop doorways. Motorbikes  putter past me on the downtown street. On the next street corner, an older Vietnamese woman in pajamas sells freshly baked loaves French bread. The colonials may be gone, but the Vietnamese still enjoy French pastries.

As compared to other old towns in the Mekong Delta, this provincial hub is more modern. The buildings that surround me have an appearance of urban renewal. For an old provincial capital, it bears a look not very common to Vietnam. I notice that for an old colonial town, there are far fewer French colonial buildings around. That’s because most of them have been destroyed years before.

Various groups of townsfolk greet me as I pass. “Hello! How are you? Where you from?” they ask energetically. I get the idea that I’m something of a rarity here. Few tourists come to this part of the Mekong Delta, and even fewer of them are American. Given the history of this town, I’m not surprised.
Old town cinema. Bullet holes can still be seen on the sign.

I’m in the delta town of Ben Tre, which was well known as a rebel stronghold, even long before the American military arrived in the 1960’s. The new look that it has today, is due to the enormity of war’s destruction.

In 1968 when the Tet Offensive hit South Vietnam, the Viet Cong managed to briefly capture this town. Soon after American forces counter-attacked to take Ben Tre back from the VC. Taking the town by house to house fighting was brutal and difficult, so the American military opted for artillery and aerial attacks. They won the battle and regained the town, but not before much of Ben Tre was destroyed by American firepower.

When the fighting stopped, more than half the town was in ruins. Over 400 VC were killed in the battle, but the civilian death toll was even higher. In the aftermath, many bodies were dumped into the Ben Tre River.

The manager of my hotel is a Ben Tre native, and his father was involved in the fighting. “My father VC (Viet Cong),” he told me. His father had survived the battle, and his son relayed his simpler version of those fateful days. “The VC attack. America bomb. Many, many people die.”

The fighting and destruction in Ben Tre produced the most infamous quote of the entire Vietnam War. After the battle was over, a US Army Major was quoted by Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett as saying, “We had to destroy Ben Tre in order to save it.”
Market destroyed in '68 fighting Photo: P Sharkey

There is little evidence left today of the massive destruction of those days. As I wander around the downtown, most of the buildings are new, but a number of old buildings that survived the fighting still bear scars from the assault. Looking carefully at the buildings that survived the shelling, I can still make out physical evidence of the heavy fighting that took place here decades before. As I walk around town I see one residence has bullet holes around the doorway. Another building has shrapnel marks scattered high across the walls. A tall sign that reads, “Cine Theatre” has eight bullet holes peppered up the façade. Those scars are certainly ugly, but with so much new architecture surrounding these old buildings, the damage isn’t very noticeable. Any major damage done to this neighborhood has already been repaired.

Passing an old government building, I come to the only sign of old fortifications in Ben Tre. Two abandoned, ground level bunkers sit at the corners of a government compound. Still showing pockmarks from gunfire, one bunker had a section of concrete knocked out, probably from a rocket propelled grenade.

Rebuilt market in Ben Tre today

Fortunately these old scars of war are the exception, since most of the buildings in town are from the 1970’s era or later. Much as Berlin rebuilt from the rubble of World War II to become the modern city it is today, Ben Tre has also risen from the ashes.

Arriving at the downtown’s center by the river, I reach Cho Ben Tre, the Ben Tre Market. This was also hit by fighting during the Tet takeover. “The market (was) gone,” the hotel manager told me of that time. “Fire… the buildings, fire.”

I look at the market now, and it appears brand new. It was rebuilt years ago of course, and once again it’s the center of commerce in Ben Tre. A lot of folks are eating at food stalls outside, so I stop in for something to drink. It’s a hot day,  the perfect time for a cold green tea.

Sitting down at an empty table, I’m not unnoticed. At the next table is a group of local ladies in their 30’s and 40’s. They don’t speak English, but from their giggling and curious looks, I can tell that they don’t see many white westerners here in the market. As I'm getting further south away from Saigon, I'm getting deeper into the delta where few foreigners venture. 


The market buzzes with commerce
The ladies motion for me to join them at their table, which I do, though I can tell communication will be difficult. A teenage waitress brings my order of green tea. One of the ladies at the table points to the waitress, then to herself. “She, daughter,” she says. It doesn’t take long before the woman tries to convince me to marry her daughter. Although flattered, I politely decline. One thing that hasn’t changed here in the delta, is that marriage to an American is a quick ticket out of poverty.

Another woman at the table seems to be in her forties. Through the use of hand motions, she informs me she is actually 60. Compared to white westerners, Asians often appear much younger than their age. Asian women seem to age gracefully.

I try speaking to them with a few basic words of English. There is little  comprehension, but lots of laughter. Another lady at the table joins in, and offers me another marriage proposal. “We marry,” she says, pointing to her ring finger. I decline again. More laughter.

I’m surprised at the jovial nature and friendliness of these local women. Most of them were old enough to survive the fighting that occurred here, and the US military once heavily bombed this town. As an American, the last thing I was expecting was marriage proposals, even if only in jest.

I pay my bill, and say farewell as I get up to leave. I receive a chorus of bye-byes from the friendly women, as a two year old approaches the table. Her mother takes her daughter by the hand, trying to get her to say bye-bye to me. The child cringes back in fear from the tall white foreigner. All the ladies laugh. The child is the only one at the whole table that is wary of me.
Memorial to the 1960 Ben Tre uprising

I make my way up Dong Khoi street, and head back to the hotel where I’m staying. Like the Dong Khoi Street in Saigon, this refers to the ‘uprising’ of 1960 here in Ben Tre against the dictator Diem, not a reference to the 1968 battle here with the Americans.

That earlier Viet Cong uprising is memorialized in town in Monument Park, where there are murals and towering Soviet style statues. There is a reference there to ‘fighting Americans’, but most US soldiers here in 1960 were only advisors. Full American combat units didn’t arrive in Vietnam until five years later.

Like the museums in Ho Chi Minh City, there are few people in the memorial park, it doesn’t appear popular at all. My hotel manager explained: “The people forget. The war in the past. Far.” He says his former Viet Cong father feels the same as everyone else. I’m sure his father hasn’t forgotten the war, but given the warm welcomes and friendliness I’ve experienced here, I’m pleased to find that I'm not seeing any bitterness. 

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