"Wha, What?" my step-father stammered. I clear my throat and begin again. "I'm thinking about going to Vietnam. There is a program that teaches conversational English to Vietnamese children in Cao Lanh, just south of Saigon...
And so it was that I found myself landing at Tan Son Nhat airport this last year. The hangers are still there. The old control tower is no longer used and stands vacant. A new, gleaming control tower now stands to direct the air traffic. We taxi to the end of the runway and I see a large peace sign painted on the last hanger as the plane comes to a stop.
I don't profess to know what it was like during the Vietnam war, I only know the aftermath, when my step-father returned home. I imagine it to be the same in many ways as it was in 1967: the water buffalo work the rice paddies, the women in their conical hats, and motor scooters everywhere, some transporting families of three, some with live ducks or chickens strapped across their gas tanks. In other ways it is very different than 1967: Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City, the North and South have reconciled, and the trade embargo has lifted.
If you were to meet my step-father the first thing you would notice is the jagged scar across his forehead, the slowness. He is a Vietnam veteran and I had long wanted to go to the country that had so profoundly impacted our family --but not as a tourist; as a part of their community.
When the opportunity presented itself through the Global Volunteers Organization to teach conversational English in Cao Lanh, I had been ready to go for half my life. It was the opportunity to live in Vietnam for a month, and visit the Cu Chi area where my step-father was a member of the 25th Infantry Tropical Lightning Division. To visit DaNang, the imperial city of Hue, and on to Hanoi and Halong Bay.
After a night in Saigon, I found myself part of a group of 9 American & Canadian volunteers, trudging our way down Highway 1 towards Cao Lahn in the Mekong Delta. My time was divided between teaching English to medical staff at the local hospital and the Cao Lanh College. In the afternoons I traveled to SaDec, via an ancient ferry across the Mekong river, and taught a "Banking English" class to High School students.
The students were very earnest in their studies and I enjoyed getting to know them. Many asked me why I came to Vietnam. I explained there were many reasons: My step-father had been there during the war, I wanted to visit the county that had so greatly impacted our family, I wanted to develop a sense of cultural understanding, and indirectly I felt it would benefit my step-father in knowing his children could come to Vietnam in peace. Many reasons...
I believe as a result of my candor, I had several conversations with the students about life during the war. More than once I was told: "We were not fighting for communism or against capitalism, we just wanted our independence." In the post office, at the market, in the village shops, I was constantly asked: "Madam, Madam, where are you from?" When I replied "America", one elderly gentleman replied, "You are coming back. It is good." I did not have the impression there was animosity against America, France, or Japan for that matter. In speaking with the students, every family seemed to have been touched by a tragedy, yet outwardly exhibited no ill will towards any nationality.
When I completed my teaching assignment and began touring, I did experience one sign of "malice". At the market in Hao An an elderly woman spat "American!" and made a thumbs down motion. Actually, this was an assumption on her part; I had spoken with no one. I could have been German, British, French... I'm obviously foreign at 5'9 with blond hair.
When visiting the Cu Chi area I collected some soil for my step-father. In 1967 he was in the Iron Triangle until he was wounded and eventually sent home. I placed the soil in a clear glass jar and attached a poem around the lid. The poem is from the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer:
"A knight there was, and he a worthy man,
Who, from the moment that he first began
To ride about the world, loved chivalry,
Truth, honour, freedom and all courtesy.
Full worthy was he in his liege-lord's war,
And therein had he ridden (none more far)
As well in Christendom as heathenesse,
And honoured everywhere for worthiness..."
The first thing my father asked when I returned home was about the Vietnamese children. "The children, did you see the children?" he asked. Our communication towards Vietnam is limited to my teaching experience, which is fine. We discuss what he is comfortable with.
The trip to Vietnam was good for me; sustenance for mind and heart. Vietnam is a country whose land is healing, just as we are; trees and foliage now grow in the Iron Triangle. Mr. Be, at the Cao Lanh College explained to me, "in this lifetime we are farmers, next we will be engineers, and next doctors..." And for my step-father, he went to Vietnam in war; his children can go to Vietnam in peace. As 2000 now dawns, may our children's history know only peace.