Vietnam is born again while America slogs on brink of disaster
You can’t keep great people down. Vietnamese are spirited from fishermen, farmers to entrepreneurs of all kinds. We nearly destroyed them for fear of communism. We said we were at war on their behalf because dominoes were going to fall. We pushed the dominoes and they fell alright. They collapsed in our lap and we took off. They have rebuilt and welcome us back as tourists. Trouble is, we can’t afford to travel because of our dominoes are falling.
“Spring travel: Old war wounds give way to a new Vietnam
By Kristin Henderson, Sunday, March 27, 3:38 PM
The multi-lane highway out of Hanoi into the north Vietnamese countryside narrows to two lanes before the pavement finally ends. In a cloud of dust, we arrive on the shore of Ha Long Bay. The bay, in the Gulf of Tonkin, looks like a mystic, flooded mountain range. Steep islands, thousands of them, jut up from the turquoise water. We board one of the scores of tourist junks that cruise among them.
The Washington Post Magazine: March 27, 2011
That night, the junk drops anchor in a cove where our only neighbors are a fisherman’s family, living on a pair of houseboats lashed together and heaped with nets. On the junk’s open upper deck beneath the stars, I drift half-asleep beside my husband to the sounds of life aboard the nearby houseboats, echoing across the water.
Later, the crew members of our junk break out the karaoke machine in the dining cabin. They warble to syrupy Vietnamese pop tunes while we passengers clap along. One of us, a Spanish woman, selects a Gloria Gaynor girl-power anthem.
“Come, girls!” she commands.
The girls include an Irish schoolteacher, me and a shy Vietnamese vacationer from Da Nang, whom I pull, protesting, to her feet. But even she can’t resist belting out the disco chorus with us: “And I’ll survive! I will survive! Hey, hey!”
The next morning, as our junk motors out of the cove, I sit at the railing near the only other American on board. Scott’s a Midwestern paramedic, middle-age like me. We enthuse to one another about how deluxe the accommodations are in Vietnam, and how cheap.
“The reason why I chose to come to Vietnam,” Scott says, “was because of the exchange rate. I’ve spent $750 in 10 days, staying in nice hotels.”
“Yeah, and this boat trip,” I say. Two days, a plush little stateroom for two with its own bathroom, all meals, a guide — 100 bucks per person.
Scott and I go on for a while about the friendliness of the Vietnamese people, the general sense that their country is going places. Vietnam has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
I was born in 1962. I grew up with the Vietnam War. Back then, the northern half of the country was the enemy, Hanoi was the enemy capital where American POWs were tortured, and northern sights such as Ha Long Bay were off-limits. So even though I’m not the first American tourist to come here, I’ve been a little uneasy about making this trip. Neither my husband nor I have ever been to Vietnam before.
However, work has taken both of us to Afghanistan. He’s a Navy chaplain, landed in Afghanistan the first time with the Marines, just got back from his latest Afghan deployment with a NATO medical unit, MASH-style. I was in Afghanistan a couple of years ago as a reporter. So we’ve seen firsthand how decades of fighting pockmark a country with the wounds and wreckage of war, physical and emotional.
Enjoying a vacation in what used to be enemy territory may be a small, banal act, but somehow it’s restoring my faith in a larger truth: that war wounds can be healed. There on the junk with the Midwestern paramedic, I admit, “Vietnam gives me hope that maybe one day I might be able to vacation like this in Afghanistan.”
“Why the face?” I ask.
He won’t be pinned down, but he’s clearly skeptical.
I press on. “I mean, Afghanistan was hippie heaven in the ’70s, perfectly safe for backpackers to wander around. Why can’t it be that way again?”
“Yeah but...” He’s still not convinced.
“Not an optimist on Afghanistan, huh?”
Scott shakes his head.
I have to be an optimist. My husband is one deck below us, taking pictures of the passing, dreamy bay. In Afghanistan, one of his collateral duties was taking pictures in the operating room for training and documentation: amputations, brain surgeries, exposed beating hearts. He spent his time over there in the bloody O.R. with NATO doctors, nurses and corpsmen, in the morgue with the soldiers who prepared the American dead to go home, at the bedside of dying Afghan soldiers. He listened to anyone who needed someone to talk to. He himself hasn’t talked about it much in the weeks since coming home. He’s still in the numb phase. The feelings will come later.
In Vietnam, all that pain seems a world away.
We fly south to the ancient town of Hoi An on the South China Sea. For centuries, Hoi An has been miraculously untouched by war. What we call the Vietnam War is called the American War here; from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 to the withdrawal of combat troops in 1973, it lasted nine long years. But before that, the Vietnamese fought the French for a century, and before that, the Chinese for a whole millennium. Yet Hoi An managed to duck it all.
Cars are banned from its narrow old streets. We walk the pungent market, try to guess at mysterious fruits and fishes, watch a woman buy a live chicken and carry it off in a basket. A man on crutches offers a single dog-eared newspaper for sale to each tourist he passes. We wander through shops selling rainbows of silk and lacquer.
A pretty young lacquer box seller says to me, “I wish I have white skin like yours.”
“What?” I exclaim. “My skin is wrinkled and freckled. Your skin is beautiful.” It’s unblemished and smooth and the color of milky tea.
“No, not beautiful.” She shakes her head. “Too brown.”
I think of some of the women I’ve seen here in Vietnam: bundled up against the sun in hats, face masks, jackets and gloves, awe-inspiring in the summer heat. “Well,” I say, “in America, you would be called beautiful.”
“No, my boyfriend tell me, my skin is ugly. My boyfriend is right.”
“Your boyfriend is crazy,” my husband says, and buys a couple of her lacquer boxes. I pick out a couple myself.”