Peace Corps Writers
Christmas on the Mekong
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Christmas on the Mekong
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     Next to the market was a docking area for water taxis. I bargained over the price before boarding a motorized wooden canoe and setting out for Rach Dua Island, a neutral zone twenty-five-minutes across the muddy waters of the Mekong.
     The water taxi approached the downstream tip of the island, a triangular sand bar covered with bamboo scaffolding supporting a city-block-sized expanse of deck. A small crowded village occupied the deck and spread upstream to the place where the land rose well above the river level and the jungle began. The boat slipped in among dozens of others tied up at the main dock, and I disembarked.
     Climbing spidery bamboo stairs, I entered a busy plaza lined with teahouses, shops, and restaurants and sat down under a thatched pavilion that had a commanding view of the scene and ordered a cup of tea.
     At the next table two GVN soldiers in uniform, but without weapons, were talking earnestly with their girlfriends. In fact, at many of the nearby cafes there were small groups of soldiers drinking tea and playing cards. Tom had alerted me to look out for other men in black “pajamas” sure to be sitting at shops around the plaza. These were all Viet Cong, and in the plaza I saw a number of them, young men and women. This whole island, Tom had said, with the exception of the elevated plaza and village, was VC-controlled, and the Viet Cong soldiers simply walked into the village from the jungle whenever they wanted to relax.
     I had hardly had time to process the absurdity of mortal enemies and their dates casually drinking tea at adjacent tables when the boom of a large brass gong and the sound of drums captured everyone’s attention. A procession of chanting, orange-robed monks entered the plaza out of a passage emerging from a warren of thatched bungalows. The chanters congregated at the edge of the deck in front of a room-sized alcove. A green crescent and some Arabic writing hung on the five-meter high bamboo backdrop. The monks paused for a recitation and some rituals, not visible in detail from my angle. After a few minutes, the monks resumed the chanting and moved to the right to another alcove.
     Here, the backdrop included a cross and other Christian symbols. Arrayed around the plaza were four more alcoves, each with different set of religious symbols. The group proceeded noisily to the Buddhist shrine, the Hindu shrine, the Jewish shrine, and one more whose identity I could not decipher. After about fifteen minutes, the column of monks disappeared into the passageway of arrival. In the relative quiet after the monks’ departure, occasional civilians approached a preferred alcove and stood piously for a few minutes.
     Having difficulty absorbing the incongruity of the oddly ecumenical symbolism and ritual, I thought to myself that these young men didn’t really know what they believed, but given the chaos all around them, they were covering all bets. Because of their youth, most of the monks would have been in one army or the other if they hadn’t chosen this vocation. I couldn’t dismiss my idea that a sense of personal safety and sanctuary was the dominating reason for their piety, but clearly, the GVN and VC armies were more accepting of the sincerity of the monks’ spiritual motivation. Both sides respected the neutrality of this unique island monastery and the persons of the pious monks.
     Walking to the water-taxi dock, I considered crossing the plaza to offer up a prayer of my own but was confused as to which shrine promised the greatest efficacy. In the end, I simply descended the spindly stairs to the boat and headed back to My Tho.

ON CHRISTMAS MORNING, Tom asked if I wanted to take a helicopter ride, since the holiday was a truce day. The truce was something more formal than a gentleman’s agreement, and it meant that for one day neither side would shoot at the other. Also, an informal codicil to this agreement was that neither side would take tactical advantage of the truce to do things that they would not be able to do when the combatants were shooting at each other.
     I accepted Tom’s invitation and he took me over to the helipad, where I met the crew of the Huey — a pilot, a co-pilot and a pair of gunners. The guns were dismounted because this was a truce day, but the gunners went along for the ride.
     The curiously named Major Justice, the youthful officer in charge, had the task of visiting the soldiers in a couple of outposts 20 miles northwest of My Tho. These small towns were war zones and the soldiers lived in bunkers landscaped with sandbags. During the day, life for the soldiers and villagers went on more or less normally, but at night the battle resumed.
     We lifted off from My Tho and ascended to a couple thousand feet. The scene immediately below was untouched by the war: dikes were well tended, the rice paddies unmarked by shell craters. And the farmhouses nestled in the tree-lined edges of the fields, protected from the harsh tropical sun..
     Farther away from My Tho we came closer to the war. I could see pockmarks of artillery shell craters in the fields, and the farmhouses in this area were out on the dikes, suffering the full force of the sun, but safe from the artillery gunners who fired at the Viet Cong suspected of hiding in the trees.

  
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