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Coming Home Again
By Dan New
The cab waits outside the gate to the Hoi An hotel an hour before dawn. A light fog vents from the damp streets. I place my bags in the trunk of a tiny car and fold my long limbs into the backseat. For the first time since arriving in Vietnam, I am separated from any help to negotiate the airport where I don't speak the local language. I'm a six-foot-four American in a country of people who see me as a giant and where I can't hide. The cab speeds north to the Danang airport and my flight to Hanoi due to leave in ninety minutes. The driver leaves me at the departure gate. All the signs are unreadable to me, so I trail behind travelers with luggage who seem to be departing until I come to a check-in counter.
I place my boarding pass and passport on the counter for the agent to process in a wordless transaction. With my bags checked, I continue to the assigned gate to board the fifty-five-minute flight to Vietnam's capital. The plane's seats face each other in some areas like railroad seating. I pick a seat across from a frail, elderly couple wrapped in a blanket. The wife sits across from me. She wears elegant jewelry. Her glasses, a stylish shade of crimson, allow her eyes to be seen but provide an intrigue to her story, in my mind. She tends to her husband and looks out the window until we are above the clouds. Then she turns to me and asks in perfect English, "Will you be visiting Hanoi for long?"
"No, I'm connecting to another flight to take me home."
"And where is home?"
"I'm from the United States."
"A long way from home. Why Vietnam?"
"I'm revisiting the country. I was in the war."
"So many years later? I do not mean to be so forward. My husband and I are returning to our home country. We left in 1965 to move to Paris and avoid the bombing."
"This is your first time back?"
"Yes, we moved there. We had our family there. My husband practiced medicine, and I raised our children. My daughter is a doctor in Paris, my son a professor at the university. But now we come home to live out our lives in the place that we've always loved, home."
"I needed to return here to finish my business, my war memories, these spirits that have lived with me all these years, to find peace within myself."
"Have you traveled alone?"
"No, with a group, hoping to settle the past with the present, perhaps to right some wrongs, to find freedom."
"And have they?"
"For some, I'd say yes, but not for all. I've been on this journey since I left here. I never thought it would bring me back, but it feels right, to see the peace, the people, the growth, the happiness, and to witness the damage. It's no longer rolling around in my head. I still have a way to go, but this helped so much, brought so much into focus."
We sit quietly. Then she says, "I think we were meant to ride this last part together. You have brought me some peace even before I have set foot on this soil. It's comforting to know that healing is happening in my land."
I peer out the window, as the plane begins its descent over the Gulf of Tonkin.
"It's a beautiful country, so rich and lush with growth."
"Thank you for coming back and for being here with us today."
Our plane lands and taxies to the terminal. The man wakes up, and they speak French, then switch to Vietnamese. He bows his head as a sign of respect. I bow in return. I follow them up the aisle and down the gangway to the airport's main corridor where we part. I look to the departure listings on the electronic screen and find my flight. Then I head home across eight thousand miles that bridge the 50 years between then and now.
I remember where I've been and, with gratitude, know that I will continue to heal on my road back.
Dan New is a writer and photographer. He is a decorated combat Vietnam Veteran, who served in the US Army from April 1967 to April 1968.