Last in a series from the ruins and rivers of Southeast Asia
My first trip to Vietnam ended in mid-March 2013. I flew out of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City a few weeks shy of 45 years since I was drafted into the US Army during the Vietnam War.
As a soldier, I never made it out of the United States, spending nearly two years based in and around Washington, DC.
But I will never forget 1968.
That year, there were times that I lost hope for my country, which seemed so far away from what most Americans expected us to be.
I remember 1968 as a time of snarling, mean-spirited people, of beatings and killings and despair.
In my world, all around me, people were bleeding and dying for who knew what: The Tet offensive; the killing of Martin Luther King; young black people and their supporters beaten and killed in the South; soldiers and families dying, for reasons not understood, in Vietnam (and we didn’t know about the My Lai massacre until 1969); the killing of Bobby Kennedy; the brutality of the Democratic convention in Chicago.
Saying goodbye to 2013
My year of 2013 was a time of 1968 remembrances.
I didn’t get to Washington, DC, as I have in years past, to touch the names of soldiers I knew, etched on the Vietnam Memorial. These young men often were on my mind, though, especially in moments of silence, such as the two celebratory dinners at two high school class reunions where some of my classmates were missing because of Vietnam.
In the spring of 2013, I read a riveting book about 1968, “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America.” I remember those days with sadness. Several times, I was overcome with emotion, and I stopped reading about 1968 to cry for feelings that had been bottled up inside me for 45 years. I had forgotten the despair I felt about an aimless country that was killing its moral and spiritual leaders.
In the fall this year, I walked around some old towns in Mississippi, which was a war zone of its own in 1968. I met a black man, about my age, who told me that members of his family who escaped Mississippi vow never to come back home.
And finally, after 45 years, I touched Vietnam.
Vietnam touched me, too
I made a friend, Phiem, the Avalon cruise and tour director who was born in 1972, a year before the United States pulled out of the war and three years before North Vietnam tanks rolled into a captured Saigon.
Phiem, who escaped Vietnam by ill-equipped boat as a teenager and lived in Indonesia for four years in a failed attempt to get to the United States, later was welcomed back home by the government.
Now, he is a warm-hearted family man whose life is tethered to Vietnam.
One evening, as we motored on the Mekong, talking about fatherhood and raising children, Phiem asked me if I was proud of my country.
I said, “yes,” and he asked why. I told him that I am not proud of everything my country does, and he is living in a land where we failed his country and my own.
My pride, I said, has to do with the best of what I believe America stands for, its hope and its never-ending internal struggle for justice, dignity, and opportunity for all. I am proud, I said, of all the good people who have come before me, working so hard and giving so much through the centuries to help provide the freedoms that I am so grateful are part of my life.
I told Phiem that probably I would not have expressed pride or hope in America if I had been asked that question in 1968.
He seemed to understand.
David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com. His cruise trends column appears monthly in U.S. newspapers and on other Internet sites. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com.