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Page 14
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Returning to Vietnam in 2002

By John Poole

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A number of people asked me how I felt about going back to Vietnam after a 32-year interval. Most of the time I responded that I had a mix of feelings ranging from gratitude for awakening my humanitarian instincts to awkwardness about something unknown.

When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), I noticed quonset huts and other military reminders near the airport. But the next day I was in Nha Trang, staying in a hotel across the street from the beach and feeling mostly like a tourist. For this trip, "tourist" would come closest to my basis for being there. There was no spot on the visa card for "making amends and healing" as a basis for visiting, and I was not on a mission. The latter is characteristic of my traveling to other countries. I'm ostensibly out to confront injustice and align myself with the oppressed.

Being a tourist helped me to relax and enjoy meeting people. Quite a few Vietnamese people spoke enough English to allow me the opportunities to communicate with them. There were moments during conversations in which I apologized for what we did during the war. Their natural way of understanding felt very forgiving, and I didn't have to be in a formal setting for it to be official; it happened spontaneously.

From Nha Trang we went to Hoi An, a little south of Da Nang. Hoi An has a number of tourist places, as well as tailor shops. But it was renting bicycles and riding a few miles to the beach that helped me feel a little more immersed in Vietnamese culture. All manner of vehicles ride in a lane and pass each other. The most striking sight in the street are the women who drive motor scooters. They wear hats, masks to protect nose and mouth, and long opera gloves to protect their arms. But what is most striking is their posture. Maybe the best attempt to describe it would be statuesque. They are as erect as any people I've ever observed.

It was at a restaurant in Hoi An, where I had my first Buddha experience. (I had not imagined that my belly would lead to a number of warm encounters.) The waitress put her hand on my belly and said, "Happy Buddha, smiling Buddha." Ninety-nine per cent of the Vietnamese people I observed were thin, so a belly stands out much more prominently there.

On the way from Hoi An to Hue we stopped to tour Marble Mountain in Da Nang. We were fortunate enough to have a guide who, in addition to speaking English, was very knowledgeable and had a sense of humor. He showed us a picture of his father with U.S. Army personnel. His father was a language instructor for the U.S. Army. One of the caves within the mountain was used as a clinic during the war. Incoming mortars widened the openings at the top of the mountain.

Hue City proved to be very laid-back. It was also where we had our only experience with rain. There are a number of tourist sites in Hue. I visited a small area of the Citadel. We stayed in the tourist section of the city, sort of a "Backpackers' Row."

The last stop was Ho Chi Minh City. I visited both the Museum of the Revolution and the War Remnants Museum. To me, the latter was significantly better. Both the French and the U.S. invasions were featured in photos and material exhibits. A newer exhibit featured drawings of hopes for peace and reconciliation by young children.

The toughest part of the trip was hitting the profound jet lag on returning to the States. It took two weeks to begin to feel in the flow of the pace here. My first sharing about the trip happened on the flight from San Francisco to Chicago with someone who had been stationed in Da Nang as a corpsman in 1970. He said that he would never go back. This made me realize that when deciding whether to return to Vietnam, it depends on who you are and what your experience was. I was very grateful for the opportunity to go back, and I would do it again.


John Poole is a member of VVAW's Chicago chapter.

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