Monday, November 3, 2014

Site Visits

Part of my job is to travel to different team locations and participate in Det 2 site visits. This field activity was no different, and last week I headed out with my boss to visit all of the recovery teams that will be operating in this upcoming 117th Joint Field Activity. One of the more famous cities I visited last week was Dien Bien Phu, where the French were routed by General Giap in 1954. While I didn't get to visit the historical museum there this time, I did get to eat one of the more exotic foods on the Vietnamese menu.

We were invited by our host nation counterparts to dinner at a local restaurant that specialized in, among other food animals, water turtle.  Turtles in Vietnamese are differentiated with two different names.  The tortoise or land turtle is referred to as a 'con rùa',  whereas the terrapin or water turtle is referred to as a 'ba ba'.  We were invited to witness the ba ba's execution before the meal and most of the team shoved their way into the kitchen to view the large turtle that had been selected.  Many stayed to watch as he was hooked under the jaw to pull his head out of the shell, and then unceremoniously decapitated. Though I don't have an issue with eating an animal that was raised to be food, I did opt out on watching the butchering of the turtle.

From the turtle, four dishes were produced for the team from various body parts.  The preparation was different for each part and the presentation was varied as well.  The bile and blood of the creature was poured in separate bottles, mixed with locally produced rice wine (Cuốc Lùi).  There were other assorted dishes presented as side dishes, not from the turtle, to include sweet potato fries and chicken.

While I believe the intention was to bestow honor on the visiting guests, the reality of eating nearly every part of the huge terrapin was not as enjoyable.  On the list of least favorite parts of the turtle, I would rank high the testicles, seconded by the bile rice wine, and thirdly, the soup filled with the grissly part of the shell that makes up the hinging areas (I believe I referred to them as gummy worms from Hades).  The turtle was tough in general and not easy to eat at all and the fries and chicken disappeared quickly.

Though there was much to be desired in the food selection, I did enjoy the company.  I think  we become closer friends with those whom we share turtle testicles.  I only regret I wasn't able to find someone more honorable than myself to do that.

Friday, August 22, 2014

35 Day Vacation

I just returned to Hanoi last night after 35 days of vacation. It is hard to believe everything I crammed into that 35 days, and there is no way I can go into detail about each event in this one blog today, but I would like to run down the big ticket items I enjoyed while home.  

In the past month, I rented a Nissan Xterra that I drove over 4,000 miles from New Orleans to Mobile, Al, to Jacksonville, FL, back to Mobile, and then out to Austin, TX.  We took a four day cruise to the Bahamas, joined my brother and other family members beachside in Pensacola, visited my sister in Austin, visited and chatted with other old friends in the Texas area, and spent a little time in Louisiana.  To top it all off, we had a BBQ with my nephew and brother, and other family members just before returning to Hanoi.

All of that and more, but most importantly, I re-seeded my daughter in Mobile, Alabama where she will attend the University of South Alabama for - hopefully - the next four years. The amount of effort involved in getting resettled back in the U.S., just for my daughter, was not a small feat.  It gave me great insight as to what I will have to do when I finally go back. The costs that we as Americans incur on a daily basis in the form of services - communications, transportation, insurance, etc - is overwhelming to me. 

Leaving my daughter in Mobile as Diep and I headed back to Hanoi was profoundly sad. As excited as I was for her and her future, I had no idea until the day we left how much I would miss her. I felt like I had a hole in my stomach... a feeling I haven't had since Mom passed away.

I have three days at home before I have to go back to work. Things will get frantic then. This is the calm before the storm.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Happy Independence Day

So this is my first day back to work after an honest-to-God three day break.  I know that I should have spent the weekend reflecting on how great it is to be an American, but I really focused more on relaxing since I had been so focused on work for the past couple of months.
U.S. Embassy's 4th of July Celebration at the JW Marriott in Hanoi

The weekend started for me on Thursday night at a business-attire event thrown by the US Embassy.  Though it was a 4th of July celebration, the majority of guests were from the host nation and other nations' officials.  I have never been to this annual event because I am usually on vacation in the U.S. at this time; Megan's late departure for university had me in the pocket this time, though.  I must admit I enjoyed the event much more than I thought I would in part because my suit fit me. I had two suits tailor made about six or eight years ago that I quickly grew out of, but with my recent weight loss I fit in one of them fairly cofortably, resulting in a more comfortable evening. Great food, good conversation and adult beverages rounded out the feel-good event.  Regrettably, Diep couldn't come... I know she would have had a better time than I!

On Friday, I had a couple of the geographic batchelors from the office over to finish off some beer we had left over from a recent office BBQ.  I think we had a good time just sitting by the pool all day and doing nothing. Diep felt sorry for them being away from their families and made us all some spring rolls. That definitely upped the quality of the afternoon.

Saturday and Sunday were unremarkable.  I spent more time by the pool with Diep, but not much else.  Fortunately, on Sunday we got our pool time in early because shortly after we got out and went upstairs one of the kids puked in the pool. Who does that?

Anyway, I thought I would update my long-neglected blog.  That lack of real activity, as you can see, is the biggest indicator of why I haven't been updating.

Happy Birthday America!

Friday, May 9, 2014

I Love You Amazon

When living overseas, you begin to appreciate the most those people who send you care packages and gifts - those things you want the most in a material sense.  With that in mind, one of my best friends here in Vietnam is Amazon, Amazon Dot Com.  Amazon sends me stuff I want all the time, from dried fruit and nuts, to electronics and books.  As a matter of fact, I receive more from Amazon than anyone else in the U.S.  This isn't an indictment of friends and family, however, because we all know I am really the one sending these things to myself - I am sort of my Not-So-Secret Santa.  Nevertheless, of all the services I appreciate on the internet, I would rank Amazon WAY up on the list.

But even with the great service that is Amazon, we have restrictions on what we can send through post to my location.  Those restriction are related to lithium batteries and the restrictions are related directly to the way the batteries are packed.  The guidelines are lengthy and sometimes hard to understand in intent.  I am getting somewhere with this, so hang on.  So, anyway, I wanted an expensive piece of electronic equipment that I felt fell somewhere in the middle on the guidelines and decided to give it a try.  My shipment never made it to my location, and I got an email from the courier service stating the package was returned to sender.  I was disappointed but figured I would get the refund to my CC in a few days and would just wait until my next trip to the U.S. to get the item I wanted.  Anyway, time passed and the order was never refunded.  I began to fret about the hassle of tracking down the returned package and getting my money back. I imagined in my mind the phone calls and lengthy emails... the waking up early to go to work and call during stateside business hours.  Well, none of that happened.

Through the account section of Amazon, I sent a message explaining briefly the situation. In less than 24 hours I got an email stating I would be refunded in the next 2 - 3 days.  While this may sound matter-of-course to anyone in the U.S., for me it is a small miracle exercised by Jesus Christ Himself.  Nowhere in Vietnam would this ever happen.  It is a matter of course to exhaust every ounce of energy to create difficulties for the customer in returning an item and getting a full refund.  Not sure why that is, but in my time here I have learned to accept the statement, "It just is."

But this post isn't about bashing a society or business practice; rather it is about giving a big shout out to Amazon Dot Com: My best friend. Thanks!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Don't Rip Your Dong!

For Americans, and probably most people outside of Vietnam, you usually don't think twice about the condition of the currency you use in your daily transactions.  I am not sure of the specific guidelines, but I know that if you have around two-thirds of a bill the bank will change it for a new one in the U.S.  It seems that these days it helps to have an account with the bank you are trying to exchange the bill from, but in genereal, it is not something we often fret over.

In Vietnam, most currency, and all currency of any real value, is made of polymer or plastic.  The State Bank of Vietnam made the conversion about five years ago, though I don't remember the exact year.  The first problems I read about the polymer dealt with people in rural / farming areas trying to dry out their plastic currency by ironing it. Needless to say,a hot iron and plastic don't mix well together, and people learned quickly not to do that.

Something an expatriate learns quickly, that all Vietnamese people already know, is don't accept Vietnamese money - the Vietnamese Dong - that has been ripped, or torn, even if it has been taped back together.  It is nearly impossible to pass these along after you come into possession of one.  As a matter of fact, you might as well just pocket it and take it back with you to your homeland as a souvenir.

It is almost a game here.  People take every opportunity to pass these off to some other person, like a hot potato.  It seems the easiest way to get rid of one is to pass it off to a taxi driver at night when getting out of the vehicle.  But you better do it fast, because you don't want to get called back on it.  Beware, that taxi driver is playing the same game with you, trying to pass you ripped bills in change in the same manner.  The manner and method of passing on these cursed bills is endless, but one thing is for sure:  It can't be easy to get the bank to trade them in for new bills. If it was, there wouldn't be this "game" going on.

Just another example of TIV - This is Vietnam.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Looking to the Summer

I guess it is no secret that the older you get, the faster times goes by. I don't know why that is, and I know that it doesn't matter how many times it is said, a young person will never believe it. I know I didn't. Of course, I never understood how Granny and Papaw Newell got up at 3:30am when I was a kid.  The idea of getting up that early, at the time, seemed unfathomable. Now, however, I can totally see it.  I must admit that I do not get up that early at the moment, but it wouldn't be hard to do. I get up on my own at 5am, and sometimes earlier.  I start thinking about the things I need to do during the day; and I actually enjoy the me time when I get up before everyone else.

Anyway, that was way off the subject of this post, though somewhat connected.  My point is that Summer may seem to be way off right now, but it is barreling my way rapidly. This Summer is special because we will be taking Megan back to the U.S. to begin her collegiate lifestyle at the University of South Alabama.  I don't get excited about much, but I am happy for her and excited about the whole world that is opening up before her. We will be taking a little extra time this year to get her settled in and have a good vacation in the making, as well.  Though I am sad to see her leave the nest, I think this will be the high point of the rest of her life.

Diep and I will probably start taking more mini-holidays to areas in the region after we get back.  Megan has never been a third wheel, but it will be much easier to just pick up and go without worrying about someone being in school or some other conflict of who finds what interesting, or worth visiting.

In the meantime, I have a whole lot of work ahead of me.  I can't remember the last time I was so busy, though it could just be my failing memory.  Things are generally good right now and I don't see any storms on the horizon

Monday, April 7, 2014

13 Years Ago

Thirteen years ago today, a little over a year before I returned to the MIA mission, a Mi-17 crashed in the Vietnamese central province of Quang Binh killing seven Americans and nine Vietnamese passengers and crew conducting search and recovery advance work for the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting.  I personally knew two of the Americans who were onboard the helicopter and miss their friendship still.

Thirteen years is a long time, but it doesn't seem that long ago since the crash.  Everyone on that helicopter was on a noble mission to search for those missing from the Vietnam War, and though they might not have known their fate that day when they stepped onto the helicopter, I think everyone who takes a ride like that takes at least a second to ponder what lies ahead.  

Below is an article I found online describing the incident.  It was a tragedy I hope never happens again, and I take this time to extend my appreciation for the men, both American and Vietnamese, and their families for their sacrifice that day.


Saturday April 7 11:01 PM ET
16 Die in Vietnam Helicopter Crash 
By DAVID THURBER, Associated Press Writer 

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) - A helicopter carrying a team searching for Americans missing in action from the Vietnam War crashed into a mountain Saturday, killing 16 people, including seven Americans.

The Russian-made MI-17 made unusual swinging movements in the air and slammed into a hillside near Thanh Tranh village in Quang Binh province's Bo Tranh district, about 280 miles south of Hanoi, local officials said.

Vietnamese officials initially reported 20 people were on board the helicopter, but changed the figure to 16 early Sunday, in line information from U.S. officials. Pentagon (news - web sites) spokesman in Washington, Lt. Cmdr. Terry Sutherland, said seven Americans and nine Vietnamese were killed in the crash. There were no survivors.

U.S. officials said the American victims were military service people, but were withholding their names until the next of kin have been notified. The cause of the mid-afternoon crash is being investigated. The sky was hazy at the time.

Local authorities began recovering the bodies early Sunday. U.S. Embassy spokesman David Monk said that U.S. officials were on their way to the site.

Monk said the team was making a preliminary visit to a possible MIA recovery site to determine whether it was worth excavating.

The U.S. military's Pacific Command said in a statement on its website that the team was ``preparing for a recovery operation involving unaccounted for Americans lost during the Vietnam war.''

A spokesman for the command in Honolulu, Lt. Sean Kelly, said the service members killed were all on a mission for Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, a group based in Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii that investigates Americans missing from the Vietnam War.

The task force has searched for remains from the Indochina War in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and southern China since 1992, and in recent years has expanded operations to include World War II and Korean War MIA recovery cases.

President Bush (news - web sites) expressed his condolences on Saturday and urged Americans to ``remember their sacrifice.''

``The families of the service personnel lost in today's tragic accident know better than most the contribution their loved ones made in bringing closure to scores of families across America,'' the president said in a statement issued at the White House.

``Today's loss is a terrible one for our nation,'' Bush said.

There are currently no large-scale MIA excavations under way in Vietnam, but some Americans remain in the country year-round doing advance work for future digs.

Since 1973, the remains of 591 American servicemen formerly listed as unaccounted for have been identified and returned to their families. There are 1,992 Americans still unaccounted for from the war in Southeast Asia, including 1,498 in Vietnam.

The United States spends $5 million to $6 million annually on MIA recovery operations in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Quang Binh province, where the accident occurred, was the southernmost province of North Vietnam during the war, just north of the former demilitarized zone. It contains many military crash sites because it was heavily bombed during the war.

The Joint Task Force-Full Accounting program was set up by then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney (news - web sites) in 1992.

Its teams conduct preliminary investigations of crash sites to determine whether they should be excavated. Based on their findings, sites are prepared for excavation under a schedule agreed upon by the U.S. and Vietnamese governments.

Lt. Col. Franklin Childress, a spokesman for the program, said those killed were the advance team for a 95-member team that was scheduled to leave Hawaii in late April for six separate recovery sites in Vietnam. He said they were members of the military.

The program makes about 10 such deployments per year, each lasting about a month. The terrain is rugged and often littered with debris from the war.

``Every mission is a dangerous mission,'' Childress said. ``It's a very difficult area to operate in.''

No decision has been made yet if that mission will go on as scheduled, Childress said. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a statement that the overall mission to account for the MIAs and recover their remains will continue.

Childress said the helicopter was from the Vietnamese military and the pilot was Vietnamese.

``We've been flying in this type of helicopter for a number of years, and this is the first accident,'' he said.