Monday, October 15, 2012


Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Mention these countries to Americans, and most immediately think of unending war, and communist rebels. Forbidding jungles, and mysterious mountains.

Ancient Cham ruins in Vietnam. This former Viet Cong hideout was heavily damaged from war's destruction.

When I first told friends that I was going to live in Southeast Asia and travel extensively through these countries, their first reaction was between shock and surprise. Then came the inevitable questions.

“Isn’t it dangerous?”

“Don’t the people there still hate us?”

The questions were understandable, since these were the lands from America’s longest 20th century war, the first war America didn’t win. The cold war quagmire spread across Vietnam’s borders to include Laos and Cambodia. Faraway places that Americans had never heard of before the conflict, became infamous: Saigon and Khe Sanh. Hanoi, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Phnom Penh, and the Mekong River.

As news reports on the conflict flooded the media, military acronyms became part of the American public lingo. The NVA, and the ARVN. The USMC, and the VC. The M-16, and the AK-47. The B-52 became so famous, it’s now also known as an alcoholic shot, even at bars within Vietnam today.

Then there were the people on opposing sides that made history: Ho Chi Minh versus Lyndon B. Johnson. General Giap versus General Westmoreland. The Khmer Rouge versus everybody. 
A great deal of US made war materials remains in Vietnam today.
The wars of that region dominated western newswires for years. Communist movements across the region defied the will of four US presidents, and withstood the wrath of the world’s most powerful military.

Casualties of the war were high. More than 58,000 American servicemen died in Southeast Asia during those violent years, but that’s only the beginning of the grim numbers. In Laos, casualties from all sides left more than 150,000 dead, and that’s the lowest number for the region. In Vietnam, a total of more than 2,000,000 were killed. In Cambodia, with the wars and the communist genocide that followed, more than 2,400,000 people lost their lives. As always, civilians caught in the middle suffered the most.

Then finally, after decades of fighting, and so much bloodshed, the guns went silent.

Or did they? When American troops left the region, the TV news cameras left with them. Some wars there continued out of the global spotlight for decades. There are a couple of remote places in the region that still see conflict today, while hidden leftovers from the wars continue to kill and maim unsuspecting civilians in all three countries.

Far from Southeast Asia, the legacy of the Vietnam war continues to affect the current American political scene. Three recent American presidential elections have featured politicians who were Vietnam War veterans: Al Gore, John Kerry and John McCain. All three of those candidates lost their elections.

Soviet built tank used by the North Vietnamese Army during the war, sits today on the grounds of the former Presidential Palace

American war veterans who fought there decades ago, would hardly recognize these countries now. The coming of the 21st century has brought enormous change to this region. But there continues to be a great lack of first hand knowledge in the western world, of what life is like there in Southeast Asia, now and today.

As I made my way around Southeast Asia, I traveled under the radar. If I had applied for an official journalist’s visa for Vietnam and Laos, I would have been restricted as to where and when I could go, and who I could interview. I also would have had to wade my way through a great deal of additional propaganda and bureaucracy. Since I went to these countries on my own, and wrote about what I honestly saw and heard, I fully expect to be banned from future entry to some of these countries. Regrettably, they may never give me another visa. If I had gone the official route, I could have interviewed higher profile politicians, but their stories have already been told. I preferred to talk to the regular people I encountered on my own, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that most people I met were far from ‘regular’. Their stories were new, inspiring and often amazing. These former soldiers and survivors had great to stories to tell, and they helped inspire this blog.

As I traveled around these former war zones, I used translators, or guides, or used guides as translators. Few of the people whose stories I tell here knew I was writing a blog. If they knew, many would never have spoken with me at all. Much of the local populace fear speaking to foreign journalists, and with good reason. Several Vietnamese bloggers recently received long prison sentences The press in Vietnam and Laos are government controlled. Although Cambodia is supposed to have a free press, the government often represses local journalists and citizens for speaking out. Some of the names have been changed. 
Stained glass window in Vietnam museum depicts the war years
As I was departing for Southeast Asia, I wondered, whatever happened to those war torn countries? What legacy has America left behind? What are the people like that live there? Will I encounter problems and prejudice because I’m American?

In writing this blog, I went to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to find out. The answers to all those questions were surprising, illuminating, and fascinating.

This is your invitation, to join me on that journey of historical discovery.

Your visa is approved, and your seat on the jet is waiting.

It’s the final boarding call.

It’s time to go to Vietnam.


  1. I am glad you had a blast in Vietnam. Beautiful photos! I cycled the full length of Vietnam this summer and I have so many good memories from Saigon and Ninh Binh. Keep it up!

    P.S. Why are you using Have you though of switching it into a self-hosted Wordpress.

    Get back to me at!

    Bon voyage!

    1. Thanks for your comment Agness. You cycled the whole length of Vietnam? Impressive! It certainly is a beautiful country.