Vietnam vets pedal toward reconciliation Ex-foes, many disabled, begin 1,200-mile journey from Hanoi to Saigon

January 02, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

NINH BINH, Vietnam -- A bunch of middle-aged veterans from Vietnam and the United States, many of them disabled, set out on an improbable journey yesterday to bury a war and test the limits of sinew as well as heart.

They gathered with their bicycles at dawn in the shadow of Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum in Hanoi, the morning misty and charged with the veterans' sense of both sadness and relief, and behind a police escort pedaled off for what was once known as Saigon -- 16 days and 1,200 miles away.

Three of the riders are blind and rode as stokers on the rear seat of tandems.

Seven are partially paralyzed, but their three-wheeled hand cycles -- a low-slung carriage pedaled by hand -- sped along as surely as the standard bikes ridden by vets whose missing leg or legs had been replaced by high-technology artificial limbs.

Along the way to Ninh Binh, the first night's stop 55 miles south of Hanoi, thousands of children lined Highway 1 and shouted all the English words they knew: "Haaallo," "Very good," "OK." Old women in conical hats smiled, showing teeth stained black by betel leaves, and men with wispy white beards flashed thumbs-up greetings.

"I really didn't know how I'd feel coming back to Vietnam," said Dan Jensen, 48, a commercial photographer from Sioux Falls, S.D., who lost his right foot to a land mine in 1971. "But the minute I stepped off the plane, I felt as though I was completing something. It was very emotional. One thing I know for sure: I don't feel any animosity toward these people.

"I didn't mope around after I got injured, but I didn't do any sports, either. I'd try to run and my stump would bleed. Then in 1990 I got this Flex-Foot prosthesis and it changed my life. I can run, swim and, yeah, bike from Hanoi to Saigon. I can be a kid again."

Nguyen Van Bao, at 71 the elder statesman of the ride known as the Vietnam Challenge and a 33-year veteran of the Vietnamese army, pedaled briskly.

Twenty-five years ago, he was guarding a Hanoi power plant that U.S. jets attacked in seemingly endless waves, killing and wounding a score of people.

"Actually, I hated you Americans then. If anyone had said that on New Year's Day in 1998 I'd be bicycling from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City [Saigon] with American veterans, I'd have said they were, well, crazy. But that was then and this is now. This is a new chapter."

Pub Date: 1/02/98

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