Nha Trang was a city big on concrete, and short on character. It’s only draw being the diving and snorkeling around its nearby islands.
I slipped 12,000 Dong – roughly $8 – into the hands of a sleazy tour operator, before I hopped aboard an impossibly overcrowded boat. There I took a seat, elbow-to-elbow with nearly a hundred Asian tourists.
“Welcome to your new lives as sea slaves!” the captain seemed to shout in Vietnamese as we departed. “You’ll be whipped and deprived of gruel if you fall short on your paddling,” he seemed to say. When he finally switched to English, I realized he’d been shouting the safety rules. This was a joke.
And as we moved farther and farther out to sea, I began to take notice of the boat’s intricate failings. Not only was it filled well beyond its capacity, but each nautical detail seemed to tell its own tragic story of neglect and disrepair.
By the time we reached open ocean, and I’d finished planning my swimming routes back to shore, a singular phrase began repeating within my mind. That phrase was “CNN Headline.”
Remarkably, the boat reached our destination, and we set anchor just-off a small rocky island. When we did, I stood for a moment and drooled over the edge into the cerulean-blue waters.
“You’ve got one hour to snorkel at this stop!” the slave-master bellowed. And with that, I grabbed my gear, raced to the roof, stripped to my suit, and plunged in.
Penetrating the surface with a boom, I arced gracefully through this quiet new world of crystal blue. Water had always been a place I’d called home. And let me state rather clearly, that despite what a handful of religious descendants of monkeys cared to believe, it was this monkey’s belief that he originated from the sea. And should I sprout gills tomorrow, I would happily return to it – never to set-foot on dry land again. I snorkeled for hours that afternoon, descending deep beneath the surface, then dove and dove again.
After I’d coaxed my lungs to relax, I began to dive deep. As deep as my breath would take me – 10, 20, 30 – then eventually 40 feet beneath these warm welcoming waters. All the while, shimmering ringlets of light danced atop the coral, illuminating a burst of multicolored fish.
Nha Trang’s reefs are home to approximately 398 species of hard and soft coral, as well as rare species of frogfish, paperfish, devil scorpionfish, dragonettes, flying gunard, cowfish, nudibranches and giant morays, manta rays, large stingrays and some shy turtles – making it one of the richest hard coral dive sites in the world.
But this afternoon, I was happy to just hover over ethereal lumps of brain coral and observe a handful of Clown and Angel fish as they darted electrically before my eyes.
It was only later I’d discover what trouble this underwater paradise was in.
According to a recent report by the World Conservation Union, Vietnam’s coastal and marine resources “have been severely degraded and overexploited due to dynamite and cyanide fishing practices, in addition to being harvested for aquarium fish in an unsustainable fashion.”
The report also stated that Nha Trang’s reefs were declining due to a “substantial increase in tourism over the last 10 years: up to 300,000 visitors a year. This led to “inappropriate anchoring, and the uncontrollable consequences of scuba and snorkeling practices, as well as general waste discharge in and around coral reefs.”
Should this not have been enough, there was something else killing large swaths of coral. Some invisible force, that had baffled marine scientists for years.
Then, in 2002, after a study of Vietnam’s habitat of Scleractinian Corals, the Russian Journal of Marine Biology named a culprit.
The study concluded that, “Samplings of bottom sediments and biological objects suggest that the spectrum and distribution pattern of persistent congeners of PCDD/Fs (dioxins) in bottom sediments are similar to those of the defoliant Agent Orange chemicals used as defoliants during the AmericanÃVietnamese war.
It had been 30 years since the end of combat in Vietnam. Ironically, the conflict still continued to kill. This time it was the coral reefs just below the sea.
My last day in Nha Trang brought a foot tour of the city. Late in the day I visited the impressive Long Son Pagoda, a Buddhist Monastery near the center of town. I was ambling up a large set of stairs to get a glimpse of an immense lying Buddha, when I came upon a horrendous sight. It was a young beggar boy, with a face pulled straight from a horror film. His eyes were missing and his right arm was gone just below the elbow. “No,” I said, recognizing the source of his injuries.
“It was a unexploded bomb,” a Vietnamese tour guard verified as she walked by. The boy was another victim of one of the 800,000 UXOs (unexploded ordinance) leftover in the countryside from the war. The boy was the worst bomb victim I’d see in Vietnam.
Three days after I’d cycled out of Nha Trang, I reached the southern city of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Rolling into its center, it seemed a unique confluence of ancient and modern economies where Capitalism met Communism. Huge glass-faced store-fronts boasted Gucci, Versace, and Louis Vuitton. Beneath them were the poorest of poor peasants pedaling soup, coconuts, hats and rice. Businessmen drove BMWs, and beggars wore rags.
Before I pedaled out of Vietnam, I had one more place to visit. This was the Vietnam War Remnants Museum. It was a place where the Vietnamese Government told their side of what they called “The Great War For Liberation.” Within its crowded walls were a flood of disorganized and poorly translated stories, timelines, diagrams and photographs. Despite its inadequacies, I was engulfed for over an hour. In that hour, I gazed upon photos of dead and dying soldiers, victims of Napalm, as well as displays of Vietnamese children that suffered from genetic abnormalities, after their parents had been exposed to the defoliant “Agent Orange.”
I was moving along slowly, and handling it all pretty well, until I came upon a solitary photo that stopped me in my tracks. It was a photo that tore at my soul. It was a poorly printed black and white photo of a pile of children who’d been killed by American forces during the war. As I stood and stared, a voice came from over my shoulder.
“We did not bomb civilian targets,” the American man behind me said as he noticed the picture. His statement seemed conflicted, his voice stretched, as if squirming beneath some unacceptable truth. I turned with a burning gaze, and pushed-down the anger that welled from inside.
As I did, I became acutely aware of people told themselves, and to what depths of denial they had to descend into to justify these acts of war. This seemed to send me straight into a funk. The truth was, I was growing weary.
Weary of this journey. Weary of this constant movement. Weary of the isolation, the loneliness, and this life as a perennial stranger. Moreover, I’d grown weary of this constant witnessing.
The witnessing of poverty, pollution, and large-scale environmental degradation. Most of all, I’d grown weary of witnessing the results of armed conflict, as well as the ideological intolerance, and collective fear that fueled a seemingly endless list of cruelties that one man could inflict upon another in the name of war.
I’d reached the saturation point. All of it seemed to send me inwards: to my own delusions, my own fears, and my own pain. The pain of witnessing another type of war. One I’d witnessed when I was young.
It was the war I’d watched between my parents at the end of their a 17-year marriage. This memory surfaced again and again when things went wrong.
Mostly because it signaled a turning point in my life. A time that marked the end of my childhood, and a tectonic shift in my fledgling sense of well being.
It also marked the beginning of a new struggle: to heal, to re-build, and to re-learn what it was to create healthy relationships. A process that will end, as I take my last breath.
I left the war museum that afternoon carrying too much of this within my mind. I made my way across town into an Internet shop. There I sent out an electronic S.O.S. to my safety-net of friends, family, and loved ones.
What came next was a virtual flood of kindness and support from around the world. One of the most poignant messages came from my good friend, and fellow photographer Lisa Tolda.
“You … are living life my friend. We all have highs, lows, love and despair, but you are living and feeling it all.
“You are making a difference. You are inspiring others. You inspire me. Fly Rick. Fly and be free … At the end of your life you will know that you did the right thing by undertaking this enormous and difficult trip. Soar. Love, Lisa J.”