Friday, June 26, 2009

A Young American in Vietnam

On a bus from Cambodia to Vietnam, I was reading Dispatches by Michael Herr. It's the story of a reporter in Vietnam during the war. I ended up bouncing back and forth between the Vietnam countryside around me and the same place forty years ago, ripped apart by a war between the people here and the people from my home. I was headed to Ho Chi Minh City, which people there still call by it's old name: Saigon. I looked up from the tanks officers and soldiers picking up body parts of 1968 to the swarm of motorcycle drivers filling every street in 2009.

A few days later, I stood in a small boat in the Mekong Delta. The river had narrowed to about seven feet across, and shallow enough for my guide to shut off the motor. We got the boat moving by pushing and pulling on the pandanas trees arching over our heads (often low enough that I had to duck them). It's a beautiful place, but I would hate to fight there. Everything hot, and close, and hidden.

My guide giggled after almost everything he said. Including his account of how he went outside one day and lost his sister and brother to bomb dropped next to their house. He showed me the scar on his forehead from the shrapnel.

But he said something he clearly thought was very important. "The US and Vietnam now" he said looking me in the eye"are like this," he gripped his hands together forcefully. "War was a long time ago. Now we have no problems with America. You come to you Vietnam, you say you from America. You don't say you from Canada. No. It's okay, we, are, like, this." And he clasped his hands together again and giggled.

He was right. People here ask me where I'm from all the time. I tell them the truth. I have yet to receive a single unkind word as a response. Some of them get really excited sometimes. But there's a lot that has happened since the war here.

Here's a piece of advice for travelers. Try this little exercise at least once. Go to a safe small town where you look very different from the local population and just wander the streets. I did this in Ben Tre kind of by accident. I wasn't too impressed with the town at first, it looked and smelled mostly like crusty cement and seemed about as interesting. But the people were another story. I have rarely been anywhere this friendly. There was almost nobody who spoke english, and my Vietnamese was still limited to "hello," "thank you," and "beef soup." But everyone who saw me broke out into a huge smile. Most said hello. Many tried to ask me my name or where I was from, even if they didn't understand the responses. Little kids would follow me for a block down the street, or hide shyly behind their smiling mothers who would try to get them to wave.

I read an account in my guidebook from an American Vietnam war vet who came back here. He was asked if he would recommend the trip to other vets. He said "it satisfied all the needs of my personal history lessons-- and therapy sessions. People there look forward to a future that is far better than their past-- a past that for them, and now me, is old history. Yeah, go for it."

I figure that says it better than I could.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. I admit to bias, but want to say this is beautifully and thoughtfully written. Also wonderful selection of pictures.

    I wish the pho we typically get here would have that large a serving of basil. Given what your pictures reveal of the delta, I'm sure basil can grow more plentifully there.

    As one of those for whom that war era was formative, your pictures have a haunting familiar feel. I would be interested in how others find them. Lv,Anonymom.

  2. A beautiful entry; funny that I was going to say that before seeing your mom used the same words. Amazing pictures as well.

    Also, can I just say that I love your travel writing? In general, not just this entry.

  3. I was fortunate. I only had one school friend killed in Viet Nam, and the Peace Corps kept David out (he had a *very* low draft number). It is strange to see pictures of Viet Nam in color instead of black and white. But they are haunting.

  4. Hola Joel!

    Que linda foto que sacaste, como se llama esa planta? alegro mucho saber que pese a todo les decias a las personas de Vietnam que eras americano, eso demuestra mucho no solo tu patriotismo sino tambien tu valor. Por una parte, eras una gran atraccion para los infantes que te seguian por una cuadra...que hermosos lugares que estas conociendo y que experiencias que estas viviendo...te felicito!...ok. Hablando de Spokane, es una ciudad muy linda, me gusta que el rio pase por la ciudad, ese rio tan caudaloso y los paisajes que tiene a su alrededor...sobre todo los parques...son una inspiracion...Los edificios que aun se mantienen, con cada tipo de detalle, sobre todo el hotel Davenport, me gusta como se ve por fuera...y mas o menos ese tipo de edificios. La gente es muy hospitalaria, hace sentir a sus visitantes bienvenidos y son tan atentos, casi siempre saluidando o sonriendote. :) Claro que extrano mucho a mi familia. Ok,mi tia Sally te manda saludos...le gusto mucho la foto que colocaste tambien.

  5. Anonymom- The basil was mostly my addition, but yes they have huge plates of it if you ask for it in the right place. I had this bowl right on the delta, so it had more than what I've been having since.

    Count C.- Than you! Always looking for constructive criticism too, especially from good writers such as yourself. Email me if anything comes to mind.

    Catherine- Peace Corps? I didn't know that. My dad wad called up but they managed to fight it by getting him working in the Indian Health Service. The rest is history.

    Mary- La planta se llama "pandanas" en ingles. No sé como se llama en español. Me alegro que estás disfrutando Spokane tanto! Pero en mi opinión, entre Spokane y Seattle... bueno, vamos a ver. Claro que tengo mucho orgullo por mi ciudad. Pero también, si, un día, tuviera la oportunidad de visitar Chicago, pienso que le gustaría mucho-- tiene mucho arquitectura parecido a la hotel Davenport, especialmente en mi universidad. Saludos a Jenny y Sally y todos los demás!