In-depth
Back to Vietnam
  • | Tacoma Weekly | January 21, 2010 09:13 AM

Vietnam is a much different place for Rich Baker now than when he was there the first time.

Photo by Truong Vu. INCREDIBLE JOURNEY. Rich Baker, right, speaks with a former North Vietnamese soldier he encounters.

Baker served in the United States Army from 1966-69. He did a tour of duty in Vietnam from 1966-67 with the Fourth Infantry, based out of Fort Lewis.

Baker did not want to go into combat, so he volunteered for the Army to be a musician in a military band. He figured that would be a way to serve without going to war.

How wrong he was.

“Two weeks after basic training I was on a ship headed over there. We arrived and they handed us guns,” he recalled.

Baker was wounded twice. The experience of war had “a very devastating effect,” he remarked. Like many soldiers who went through combat, Baker developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), something he has struggled with for more than 40 years. He made many visits to Veterans Administration psychiatric wards. “I had a lot of emotional upheaval.”

Baker was a teacher at Curtis High School in University Place for many years. The psychological torment hit a peak one day when he brought a handgun to school. He was having flashbacks that day, seeing rice paddies on the drive to Curtis. His grip on reality frayed by his disorder, Baker was planning to shoot the principal. Two female students walked by him while he sat in his car with the gun. They waved and said hello.

“That snapped me out of it,” Baker recalled. He put away the gun, went inside and taught his classes. The next day he went to the district superintendent, quit his job and went to a hospital.

Baker had deep feelings of regret about the impact of the war on the small nation in Southeast Asia. The amount of bombs dropped on Vietnam was four times that used in all of World War II. An estimated three million Vietnamese died during the war, many of them women and children.

“Along with the illness comes the memories of devastating that country,” Baker said. “We were brutal with the place. We killed thousands of innocents and leveled the land. As a result, we remember it that way, as a country that will never get back on its feet.”

Last year a doctor treating Baker suggested he visit Vietnam as a way of dealing with his psychological issues.

Last September he went to Hanoi with his 34-year-old son, Rick. “My wife did not want me going there by myself,” Baker said.

Going to Vietnam had a profound impact on Baker, this time in a positive way.

“I fell in love with the place. The people are so marvelous.”

Baker was taking seven medications for PTSD at the time. He quit using all of them.

SNAP TO IT

He decided that a lot of other people would be interested in visiting Vietnam, so he started a motorcycle tourism business called Jungle Snaps. For the past five months he has split his time between his home here and a hotel room in Hanoi. He plans trips for tourists, usually of 14 days duration, although they can be shorter. A minimum of two people is needed to schedule a trip. Most of his customers have been from England and Australia. All the American customers have been women. “They are far more adventurous than the men,” Baker said with a laugh. In June he will lead a group of female teachers from University Place School District. “They want to hop on cycles and head to the hills.”

Australians and Europeans are ideal customers because of the amount of vacation time they get, Baker explained. Australians, for example, get six weeks of vacation each year. He recently had two men from Norway on a tour. “They said it is ridiculous how little vacation time Americans get. They wonder how we ever have time to enjoy life.”

His customers begin their visit in Hanoi, where they stay in a hotel near an area popular with tourists. Baker said it is the city’s French Quarter and resembles Paris in many ways. They spend a few days there, recovering from jet lag and sightseeing in the big city.

Then they rent motorcycles then head out to the countryside. They go no more than 100 miles in a day. Not long after they leave Hanoi, the main road turns into a wide, muddy trail. Sometimes it takes five hours to travel 50 or 60 miles, depending on the road and weather conditions.

“This is my way of putting some money into their country.”

A FRIENDLY, WELCOMING CULTURE

Baker made a trip with his son. Dad used an old motorcycle made in Belarus, a model that was commonly used in communist countries. His son rented a modern Honda model, thinking it would be more reliable.

His son’s cycle was constantly breaking down. In two instances they stopped at mechanic shops. A local mechanic worked on the motorcycle for more than an hour. When they finished, the Bakers tried to pay the bill and were told there was no charge.

During one of these times they went in a small store, where the shopkeeper brought them soup and tea. She refused to accept their money.

Since Baker and his son do not speak Vietnamese, they could not figure out why the locals did not want their money. Baker ended up meeting a local man who speaks English, who he ended up hiring as an interpreter.

“He said that is the way his people are. If you are in trouble, they do not want to add to your trouble by charging you money.”

In another village where the motorcycle broke down, a man motioned them to his home, a small shack with a concrete floor and a few wooden stools. He was fixing lunch for himself, his wife and baby and shared the meal with the Americans.

“They believe every human being is born with happiness,” Baker said. There are no murders and the nation is nearly crime free. “I have never heard a kid cry anytime I have been there.”

FREE ENTERPRISE

“You will never be to a freer place in your life,” Baker said in describing Vietnam. To start a business he simply had to fill out a form.

Government regulations on business are minimal. Businesses are taxed on the width of their building, rather than square footage. Thus, many stores and shops are about 10 feet wide.

Traffic laws? “At first it seems like there are none,” Baker said. “You take your life in your hands by crossing the street. No one pays attention to red lights.” He discovered the unwritten rules. Luckily most motorists are on motorcycles, which makes it easier to swerve around pedestrians.

IMPACT OF WAR

Baker wondered what kind of hard feelings remain toward Americans because of the war. He noted that more than 50 percent of Vietnam’s population is under the age of 26. “Many of the people have no memory of the war.”

The older people do. Baker met a former North Vietnamese soldier at a Buddhist monastery outside Hanoi. “He had one leg and he was my age, so I knew damn well how he lost his leg.”

They communicated through Baker’s interpreter. “There was no animosity. We embraced and shared a drink. They do not dwell on the past, they simply let it go.” The man insisted on posing for a photograph with Baker.

The Vietnam War had a searing impact on America, from veterans who served in the war to civilians who lived through the profound political and social changes that resulted from it. “That is confusing to them. It has not affected them in that way. It is hard for them to understand how so many American lives have been destroyed since the war.”

How does Baker feel now? “Like a changed man,” he answered. While his wife and children have been a positive and important part of his life, the war had caused a vacuum that was not filled until recently. “I am truly happy for the first time in 40 years. A great weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. I feel alive again.” Baker has been walking and working out. He has lost 20 pounds.

Could other Vietnam War veterans undergo a similar transformation? Baker knows many, and most have said over the years that they would never go back to Vietnam. Baker hopes some will go on one of his tours. “I think it would be good for them. I went and it changed my life.”

For more information visit http://www.junglesnaps.com.



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