Bat Caves and Viet Nam – More than Just a War Log
I want you to guard against those who demand that you die just to prove something. It is not that I advise you to respect your life more than anything else, but not to die uselessly for the need of others… for you still have many years ahead of you. Many years of joy and happiness to experience. Who else but you can experience your life?
― Bao Ninh, author of Sorrow of War
We toast with Huda and Su Tu Trang (White Lion) beer. I am with Brits, a Canadian and two Vietnamese biologists. We are in Central Vietnam near the Laos border, in a park now called Pu Mat.
There are nine of us in this camp. We are on a transect to record biological wonder and caches for this part of Vietnamese. I am also here on a bat transect biodiversity blitz.
I ended up getting hired on (no pay, but that’s part and parcel the earth sciences and ecology world – MS and PhD students paying their own way to research, living on the cheap) because of skills sets.
Not that I am special, but I have the scuba diving, survival school, journalist, and motorcycle mechanical attributes that make for a good team member. Photographer, and a big knapsack of proverbial ecology and environmental activism in my background. Rough travel pedigree. And more.
At age 36, I am the oldest one in the camp. Twenty-three is the youngest. I am digging up much to help build our latrine.
Oh, and my amateur reptile and herpetology fun as a youth and into adulthood puts me to the top of the list of blokes who will look at, measure, catalogue all the cool snakes we run into.
At the latrine I get to study one great specimen, with my jury-rigged bamboo snake hook.
The mythological Malayan pit viper was referred to as a 3-step snake. The veterans from the Viet Nam War talked about supposedly dying only 3 steps after being bitten. Not true, but our base camp is nowhere within days of a hospital or medical care, other than our own first responder training.
The bites from this snake can be extremely unpleasant (severe pain, swelling & tissue necrosis), the chance of death is minimal if treated. We are in no man’s land, so to speak. Everything is jungle primed, and we use iodine to disinfect our drinking water. We all got various gut aliments out here, including giardia.
A panga or machete cut while working here is a dangerous thing. We use pangas
We hike through village after village – some just a few homes (on stilts, bamboo, thatched and others dirt floors, all open to mother nature’s breezes, and many barely illuminated at night with homemade soda pop can lanterns).
We encounter some of the amazing people who are considered members of the country’s ethnic tribes. Many of the local ethnic groups residing in mountain areas are known collectively in the West Montagnard or Degar. The largest ethnic groups are Kinh (85.7%), Tay (1.9%), Tai Ethnic (1.8%), Mường (1.5%), Khmer Krom (1.5%), Hmong (1.2%), Nùng (1.1%), Hoa (1%_, with all others comprising the remaining 4.3%.
For me, although the bats, reptiles, birds, trees, mammals are amazing, it’s the people I gravitate to, as always. I’ve spent time in the Copper Canyon with Tarahumara, and times in other parts of Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua with other indigenous ethnic groups. My own early teen days included friends with the White River Apache band and Navajo brothers and sisters.
This is the Frontier — Society for Environmental Exploration, with marching orders from the Vietnamese government, Bird Life International, Audubon Society, and World Wildlife Federation. This group is out of England – London – and it is a non-profit that helps science projects by finding support teams to help real science get done.
As I said, I’m 36, the exact same age my professional US Army soldier father was in 1969 when he was mucking about under orders with his crypto high-level clearance and signal corps encampments.
Bronze star, purple hearts and then a total of 31 years in the US military – the exact opposite of everything I stood for. In Vietnam, he was shot in the shoulder about two inches from his heart.
The slug sliced through the Huey (UH-1) aluminum shrouding and the helicopter pilot lost half his skull from another slug.
I have an old beat-up Chinese carbine at home in Oregon that is the same weapon that pierced the Huey and my old man’s chest cavity. I have his two purple hearts and the actual slug that was removed from his body in Japan after he was air-lifted from where he had been shot.
They sent him back after recuperation. He was 100 percent medical disabled (meaning he got more on his retirement package) because of the wound, arthritis and lack of strength in the arm and shoulder.
(The irony is some 25 years later I was asocial worker for a non-profit in Portland working with mostly disabled veterans in a homeless center for vets and their families. Most of my clients were disabled in boot camp or in training. Those in the Middle East Wars were hit with PTSD and again, training exercise injuries. My job was to help them write and attend disability claims, many times rejected not once but twice before a third board hearing got these homeless vets something).
My old man’s helicopter went down, and then, the reinforcements with Air Calvary came in and set up a new LZ and got the surviving army guys out of harm’s way. He was the CW4 who carried the communication codes and a thermite grenade to use in case of enemy capture.
Fast forward 25 years.
I am here in Viet Nam working with science teams, and it’s 1994 and Clinton just normalized relations with Vietnam.
I am the lone American, or Yank in the parlance of the Brits. We are men and women, and many of my compatriots are constantly asking me questions right and left about America’s war with Viet Nam, the pulse of this society in 1994, approaching the 20th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. Scientists like their beer and rice wine whiskey, so there are a lot of loud and passionate talks after a hard day’s hiking.
Even inside these bat caves, while waiting for the rush hour of returning bats, we drink and argue. I find the Brits more defensive of the war effort by US and its allies than most of my colleagues back home. I am a Marxist and anti-imperialist, so I am like some new species to these Brits.
I love many things about my Irish and Scots roots, and spent time in the UK, but in the end, most Brits are arrogant, patriarchy, patronizing, and, well, rather shallow when it comes to the things I have learned in deserts, on reefs, and in myriad of Latin American countries.
They can’t fathom a Che Guevara supporter like myself having a few weapons back home. I won’t go on about my spin on the Anglo Saxon here, but I have written about that side of the pond a lot.
I’m a deep socialist and ecosocialist, so I easily notice how the Brits come at things much differently than a socialist and wobbly as I consider myself. Even though they are cool, existing somewhat on the edge, living in mud and doing biodiversity studies, they have colonized minds from a half a millennia being an empire. They are naturally arrogant, patronizing, and they believe the hubris of their nation as a land of good. They are also quick to quip about how the Vietnamese we work with being backward or too disconnected to the Western concept of ecology.
In fact, repeatedly they talk about how the word ecology is not in the language of the Vietnamese. Which is of course not true on so many levels, but when it comes to the natural and jungle world, yes, the Vietnamese go into areas to trap, kill and butcher things to eat. This is not a Marks and Spencer and Safeway land.
Vietnamese starved under so many invasions, so many wars, so much austerity and broken economic systems. Anything to stay alive. Including eating deep fried bats. Which I have tasted in Hanoi.
The Brits have leveled their island and Ireland’s as well, I remind them. There are no original natural ecosystems in England. The fox hunt is big. The fact that England imports everything including their own vaunted tea and coffee, well, we are sometimes hiking through villages that have had jungle cleared so tea can be grown. I run into coffee plantations.
So, for every high tea and coffee klatch in the UK, there are real world consequences thousands of miles away. Wood for homes, cement for foundations, and on and on, the British Empire does not stand on its own.
It’s not that the Brits are daft, because I am with well-traveled blokes, and many are working on post master’s science degrees. However, I have always been in a world of night and day around academics, albeit some ecologists who are living it rough and tumble with me in the middle of jungle.
Our base camp is all self-made, and there are no tents (I am the only one who has a small alpine tent) and we dig our latrine and make our lean to’s and we cut word for our fires where we boil water to soften up our rice while we throw in tins of tuna and bamboo shoots gathered in the forest.
I know US and multinational military bivouacs and encampments since I was in the Army and around it many years as a teacher and with friends in “the service.” We have no phone service, no gas-flame cookers, no nothing. This is roughing it. Even hippies I once hung out with in Guatemala and Mexico had a shit load more amenities in their Jesus and God encampments than we do.
We have two laptops for which to type up reports and a small generator that gives us that capability and runs two 60 watt light bulbs, though we mostly use Chinese made kerosene hurricane lamps.
I know how my dad lived in Viet Nam. They had Army-Navy football games flown in on reels of tape. Castle Rock burgers. Blue bunny ice cream. Stereos and cameras and all sorts of generators and a load of mess halls and they even hired local workers to do their laundry, cooking and latrine cleaning.
Only deep long-range sappers and special ops went into the fold of jungle and mountains, and even they had communication equipment for home base logistics.
Hanoi is amazing, and we are here for orientation, language classes, getting a look at the general lay of the land, and working on finding supplies and learning the tools and parameters we are going to use for the biological survey.
We get briefed by WWF Audubon, Bird Life International and a few other international outfits. Some agencies want us to look for pygmy rhino scat and others want to see if we find any Indochinese tiger scat. However, our basic job is to get into primary rainforest and conduct basic transect stuff, and get as much of the BioBlitz done in a few months.
There is time to explore the city, and I end up hanging out with Viet, who is actually, a PhD in biology who lives in Hanoi and speaks some English. He is amazing and kind, helping me get shots – I have my Nikons with me and plenty of 35mm film. He is amazed at how intrusive I am, but notices my aplomb and sleuth manner of getting photos. The things I want shot – in marketplaces, close-ups of hands, odd angles, and the like – he assist me in finding.
I am not doing a travel log postcard thing, and eventually, Viet gets my artistic and photojournalistic bent quickly.
I have a motorcycle I rent, and I drive it with Viet on the back as he directs me to Buddhist monasteries, farms, food production plants, rice fields, and any number of places he thinks I would get some decent shots of.
We drink strong green tea, get up early, get on a bicycle, drive through Hanoi and find a place to eat croissants, drink strong coffee. Sometimes we eat pho for breakfast. Viet knows I am a vegetarian, and he knows I will not refuse home-cooked food from family or anyone. He also knows I am not afraid to sip anyone’s rice wine or whisky — sometimes home-brewed concoctions with added delicacies like green sniper heads, centipedes and any number of botanical fauna put in each family’s batch.
A year later, when I returned to El Paso as an English teacher and journalist, I’ve hosted photo shows of my trips to Viet Nam, through the jungle and into the cities wherein I spent time. I have helped to host big conferences to bring the Viet Nam War into perspective in relationship to the people and the country the US and dozens of other countries invaded.
Sure, I helped spearhead Viet Nam War themes film series, landing historians on campuses to talk about the war from a geopolitical point of view. I’ve helped spearhead playwrights, Vietnamese artists (including friend and former student Thomas Vu), other artists and my own photographic art in group shows. I have organized nurses who were in Viet Nam and others, like soldiers and officers, to give symposia.
Still, over the years it’s difficult to really engage Americans around the lies of this country, the murdering in that country, the entire rotten episodes of US invading and deploying bioweapons, napalm and all manner of bombs and machine-gun fire into that country.
Even my own adventures in the jungle and primary rainforest and elfin forest, well, most Americans then (in the 1990’s) and now, 2020, have little bandwidth for this sort of stuff. You know, this isn’t Steve Irwin kinda gimmicks, but I certainly have been in some pretty interesting and challenging ecologies.
Just going from base-camp high into primary forest to resupply with rice, food, beer, cigarettes and the like, it was 26 river crossings, on Russian motorcycles, Minsks. Breakdowns, mud slews, raging waters and leeches sticking to unmentionable parts of the bodies and on our eyes.
Cobras and vipers. Fifteen-mile hikes into the forest to conduct surveys. Gibbons tossing their feces at us from high above the canopy. Butterflies by the dozens of species. Birds and civets.
I remember one time looking at the heavens and the setting sky light, leaning on a tree. I thought it was a breadfruit tree or something of the sort. Darker and darker the air got and I jerked, coughing a couple of times on hot green tea.
Then what I thought were fruit pods exploded above me with unfurled wings.
More than 20 flying foxes,, AKA fruit bats, took off in the dusk after my pulmonary spasms.
Shit like that happened daily. In Vie Nam.
Trekking into small villages looking for limestone mountain tops. Asking families if they had any idea about where caves were. Hikes where the people offer food and rice whiskey, and we exchange cigarettes and tins of tuna.
We end up on some bat cave hike looped from all the sit downs and toasts the villagers demanded. With their home brew. Their moonshine.
They want to know what this scraggly band of white men and women with a few Vietnamese scientists from Hanoi are doing way out in the middle of nowhere near the Laos border.
“We are here to study your country’s wildlife. We are here to help your government understand what you already know – this is an important part of Viet Nam to know and to preserve.”
Variations on a theme. Dr. Viet is there and he helps with the translation. He helps to explain what ecology is not only as a scientific field but as a concept.
I am in a place – spiritual, emotional, intellectual – my old man could only dream of.
He is already dead and buried. Age 58, from sudden coronary death.
I know what he would say to me upon my return from Viet Nam. I know how he would react to all the activism I undertake for years all tied to the history of his war with the country, our war with Viet Nam, and my own travel to the place where our own people wanted to bomb back to the Stone Age.
“Holy moly, Paul, you are doing things I could only dream of. I know you didn’t agree with what I was doing in the army, but, no matter what, the sins of the father at least are being washed away by his son. Up there with the bats. There in the rice paddies. On China Beach. It is like a dream I could never have.”
Upcoming: Part Two – “Deep Country, Bats, the Riot of Life in Viet Nam’s Cities”
NOTE: This is non-fiction, but if you purchase and read my short story collection, you might be able to see germination and the genesis of how some writers create fiction. There are 17 stories and a hell of a big preface. Here: Wide Open Eyes — Surfacing from Vietnam
Support writers during a time of lock-down and no public appearances and book signings and talks allowed. Thanks, Paul Kirk Haeder!