There is no denying that travelers can feel the tug of history when they travel. I have unknowingly felt it several times, only to realize later what it was. In Munch, Germany in 1973, I felt intimidated for some unknown reason. As it turned out, I was on a street where Hitler had given a famous speech, and where many buildings stood that were part of the Third Reich. In 1994, I stood on the pier in Famagusta, Cyprus and took my time amid the fact that I was holding up my taxi and others I was traveling with. I lingered for some unknown reason. I learned only when I got home, that was the dock where the ship The Exodus was turned back and all on board faced certain death. In Cove, Ireland in 2010, I stood where many immigrant ships departed including the Titanic, and tears streamed down my cheeks. This became all the more personal for me, when I later realized my paternal grandmother likely left from those very docks since she had attained an Irish surname, quite a departure for a Russian refugee. I thought all my grandparents had departed for the New World from Russia via Liverpool, but she was the only one I could not locate on Ancestry.com. My ancestry had located me.
Both the victor and the vanquished leave their emotional scars on a country, and the weeping that a traveler senses can be profound if their antennae are tuned. On a recent trip to Vietnam with Overseas Adventure Travel, I really “felt” what it was like to be in Vietnam. In unexpected places, the sadness and crying of history poured out, and at times screamed at me.
I felt history’s mournful tears as I met kind and wonderful Vietnamese people, who had only heard about the war, and when I heard firsthand about how the former soldiers from the South had to be sent to reeducation camps once the North won. I wondered at how the people could still be so kind to us. To some we had been the enemy, to others, their salvation (or not, since we had to leave many behind to face cruelty). However, I began to experience firsthand sights that drove this home even further. Being in the pouring rain to see the ancient ruins of My Song outside Nha Trang was more illuminating and instructive than I imagined it could be. There were big craters in the earth from all the carpet bombing that the US had done in the 1960s. As we were shown the craters, now covered over with four decades of jungle growth, a torrential downpour started and I was ill equipped for the rain. My trip leader suggested that I run into the ruins for cover, which I gladly did, stepping over the harsh and uneven terrain in the soggy mud to get there, trying desperately not to slip. Then I was told this was where the Viet Cong hid to ambush Americans. I sat in the interior of one of the ruins thinking, “Really? Our guys slogged through all this mud, rain and high humidity only to get ambushed? And we persisted? What on earth were we thinking? Were our sacrifices worth it?” And of course the harsh memory haunted me decades later that our military was informing the Pentagon that we would never win this war, the terrain was too harsh; we didn’t understand the culture, the jungle, their home turf. No, I realized, we did not. Our guys just wanted to do a job to serve their country and come back home. The Vietnamese just wanted to defend what was theirs.
Amid the beautiful flowers of Da Lat, the beautiful town of Hoi An that remains untouched by historical events, and the Miami- style beauty of China Beach, stood a newly rebuilt Da Nang. Rebuilt because it had been leveled. As we made our way to Saigon and finally the Cu Chi tunnels, more tears from history emerged. These were American tears. The women helped devise horrible boobie traps to capture Americans, boobie traps that looked like torture devices. No human being can feel good knowing they would be doing this to another human being. And no human being returns whole after the experience of being in one of them. Afterwards, we met former North Vietnamese colonels, formerly known as the Viet Cong. These men had once been our enemy. In a strange twist of fate, this encounter became very personal as they explained how they next fought for the Cambodians after the Americans left Vietnam in 1975. They looked at me strangely as I explained through our guide that I had a Cambodian cousin through marriage who had fled Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime and had been air lifted to safety out of a Thai refugee camp. They did not mention it, nor did I fully grasp the complexity of their involvement at the time, but I later learned these men worked to support the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia during one of the cruelest genocides in the 20th century. One that killed my cousin’s father and divided her entire family as they fled to various countries for safety. And there we were, having lunch together.
Overseas Adventure Travel specializes in Learning and Discovery, and this trip was surely on the high end of that tourism philosophy. Amidst the surprises and sadness, the fantastic food and the delightful cultural revelations, there was an immense feeling of pride to be an American. So many Americans returned to Vietnam years later, and some I met on independent travel there return yearly to help educate the more needy parts of the nation. Many speak fluent Vietnamese, have married the women they met, and feel invested in the country. Others in 1975 defied military orders and helped thousands depart the newly reconstituted Vietnam, creating the scramble of air lifts from the American Embassy and CIA offices that were captured by the photo journalists of the day.
After all the death and destruction brought on between the North and South over the fight for Communism, only three million of 90 million people are Communist today. Many struggle in an emerging capitalist country where they are allowed to make a living with their own businesses. I had more than a few God Bless America moments when I heard what life what like for those who were not accepted formally into the Communist party, and the advantages they did not have that we take for granted daily in America. The rest of my gratitude was reserved upon discovering the difference in living standards as they struggle to thrive in a new Vietnam. One woman I met said simply, “I want your life.”
Yet the takeaway from these feelings was also an abundant sense of pride for the country we live in, no matter how imperfect, regardless of how we felt about the war or our own divided politics today. Just as the North and South were divided in Vietnam, Americans are still divided today about the role we played and how important it was (or was not). We have a unique ability as travelers; the privilege and honor of seeing the world through the lens of others, with a Louvre of color (to quote the late Saul Bellow) and a palette of understanding heretofore unimaginable. I arrived home with much more than the ten pairs of bamboo chopsticks I purchased as a donation in a small village. I returned home rich with yet another sense of history and culture, but also sympathetic and compassionate towards Vietnam’s tears of history. This unexpected souvenir gnawed away at me like a prized possession in a foriegn marketplace, awaiting my purchase. And I am all the richer for it.