At 21, Bill became a translator and advisor for the US marines from 1966-1973. He worked for the Americans, he was very clear about that. If you ask if he was part of the southern Vietnamese army, he yells, NO! American only! His boss was American, his fellow marines were Americans, but he is vietnamese. He didn't say so, but I have a feeling his real name is something quite different, but those Americans couldn't pronounce it so they started calling him Bill. He's quite proud of his past, and considers himself an American citizen. However, I could sense some underlying bitterness towards America as well. When the war ended, the south had surrendered, the American marines packed up their stuff and took off in helicopters, leaving a complete mess of the surrounding region, and leaving Bill. As he watched his fellow marines fly to freedom, he was imprisoned for several months. After being release, he wrote the US embassy in Saigon for five years, asking for a visa to move to the states, and never heard back.
Bill pulled up on a motorcycle sporting a huge American flag and a smile. He took me to all the major sites in Hue- which honestly weren't very impressive. Not Hue's, fault, the Americans had heavily bombed the city, and its famous imperial citadel-where the Viet Cong hid out. Bill showed me local farming village where an older woman demonstrated how rice was made. I also went to an artist studio and was taught how to paint- like in Cuba, and other communist countries, art here is a way to disguise political opinions. I ended the day sipping beer with Bill and his friends. I was glad to ride on the back of his bike, because in this crazy Vietnamese traffic, you'd be stupid to rent a bike on your own.
So the next day I rented a bike on my own and followed Bill and another girl to the DMZ, which is about a three hour ride outside of Hue, on highway one, what tourists call the "death highway". I quickly discovered why, as semi trucks passed each other taking up both lanes of a bridge while bikers squeeze to the side. When a truck passed me coming so close it brushed my elbow, I decided once again, this was a terrible idea. The DMZ, or demilitarized zone, was the dividing line between the north and south during the war, at the "17th parrallel". No combat was to take place here, (although the Americans dropped three thousands bombs there). Military leaders could meet and have negotiations here, families could reconnect in this area safely. As we walked around the 17th parrallel bridge, Bill explained that even today it is still dangerous to speak positively about the south, twenty dissidents were imprisoned recently, and as he explains this he looks over his shoulder. Around the DMZ are the Vinh Moc Tunnels, a complex that stretches about 2,000 meters long and 30 meters deep, with seven entrances and three different levels, all underground. Five hundred Vietnamese soldiers lived in these tunnels with their families, children were born here and an entire village thrived underground. The tunnels were a fascinating aspect of the war to explore, and as an American, I found it really important to see first hand the impact of our wars.