Before leaving Los Angeles I cracked a joke saying that I was ordering a handle-bar mounted napalm launcher for my cycling trip in Vietnam and I chuckled as I talked about ?gooks? and scenes from Apocalypse Now. As I struggled up the pass to Dalat today I deeply regretted those careless comments. Perhaps my failure to scale the toughest hill I?ve tried to cycle up (5,210? of vertical climbing inside 20 miles) was divine retribution for my careless and unnecessary comments.
Certainly there are moments when you cycle along a dusty road between the rice paddies and watch pitifully simple houses glide past that you think of the fear young GI?s must have felt as they walked here 30 years ago waiting for an ambush from ?Charlie.? As you look up the valleys and see the rugged green hills you can practically hear the sound of chopper blades and you expect Norman Greenbaum?s ?Spirit In The Sky? to kick in and set your heart racing.
But nothing prepares you for the happy smiling faces of the people of Vietnam. As you cycle past, lycra-clad and helmeted looking like a visitor from another planet – and believe me most Americans are from another planet when compared to Nha Trang or Ninh San – you are constantly waved and smiled at. Children appear from shacks and behind trees giggling and yelling ?Hello, hello!? When you reply or wave back they scrunch up their faces and laugh with glee. By rights after decades of war and misery you?d think the vast majority of people in this country would despise anyone looking vaguely French or American i.e. me. But they don?t. How can they be so welcoming to us when we dropped more ordinance than in WW2 onto their little nation which is about the size of New Mexico? And who thought we could win a war here anyway? Why didn?t they fly LBJ in and give him the one hour cyclo tour I had the other day? Any man in his right mind would instantly have realised that our ideals and values are not necessarily suited to other countries and cultures – especially this one. More importantly he might have realised that a war here was simply unwinable.
This trip is teaching me a lot about colonialism and the missionary spirit that sent Europeans over vast distances to educate the ?savages? in the errors of their ways. I?m starting to feel strongly that might is not always right. The European soldiers, merchants and land grabbers of the last millennium, whether they were British, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch or Belgian did more harm than good in Asia and Africa. Arguments that the British left their justice system and the French their culture look suspiciously like straw-clutching justifications for centuries of exploitation, cruelty and subjugation.
As I struggle up today?s hill (both real and imagined) and finally reach the plateau that leads me to Dalat every smiling face, every unusual custom, every peculiar clothing choice I experience tells me that diversity is good and surprising and stimulating. We may not approve of their politics or their traffic sense or their plumbing and personal hygiene but that just makes them different – not better or worse.